Archive | December 2012

Thanks, adulation and round-up

There was wine, there was humour, there were books. FICTAVIA has grown into a nice little blog with its pool of lovely followers (hi guys!) and more views for my grumpy rambling than I thought I could get or was worth.

This year has been a bit difficult for me, as I finished education and have started to try and find a job. Fictavia started off as a small project to save me going completely crazy. It’s grown an impressive amount in four months.

I’ve also been lucky enough to be taken on as a reviewer and features writer over at FOR BOOKS’ SAKE. Two more articles from me are due early in the new year – I’ll post the links when they’re ready. And  I got to write a guest post for one of my favourite blogs, THESE LITTLE WORDS

In the new year, there will be more book reviews. There will also be more humour posts and other miscellanea, as I move from a simple books blog to a more varied presentation of who I am and what I think.

Basically, starting this blog has saved a tiny bit of my sanity and opened up some opportunities for me, and that wouldn’t have happened if people weren’t reading my posts or tweets. So – I’d like to extend a big thank you to all who read my posts. You’re all great.

Link – my thoughts on The Glass Delusion by Abi Curtis

Recently I was kindly asked by Lizzie of These Little Words to write a guest post on one of my favourite books of 2012. I chose The Glass Delusion by Abi Curtis, and you can read the post here.

The link has also been added to my Elsewhere on the web tab, which can be found here.

Girl in White, Sue Hubbard

After a struggle, I finally finished Girl in White by Sue Hubbard (Cinnamon Press). Art critic Hubbard branches out into books to explore the life of German Modernist artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. Modersohn-Becker died a short time after giving birth to daughter Mathilde, whose curiosity is the impetus for this novel.

Unfortunately, Hubbard is too good at her day job. The prose is stretched thinly over solid facts, and the mixture does not work, instead creating a stilted structure. The writing style is rather old-fashioned, using a storytelling/reporting style in order to relate a lot of information in a short space of time. This makes the prose rather dull. It would have been more interesting if the action being described was to unfold first-hand for the reader to witness properly.

Sometimes the dialogue reads as stilted and very non-naturalistic. Often, Hubbard falls back on simplistic telling instead of showing, not bothering to explore concepts properly. Sometimes the writing is downright lazy. A castle is “like something out of Sleeping Beauty”; a bed is “like something out of Heidi”. Hubbard should have used her own words to communicate her own meaning, instead of borrowing images.

The clumsy wording continues throughout. Sometimes, phrases are awkwardly put: “a cheekbone pressed against an unshaven cheek” is possibly meant to refer to the cheekbone inside the skin. The structure of the sentence would suit the cheekbone of another pressing against an unshaven man – but that makes very little sense too. Another example is “[Paula] handed him a rose. But he turned away without taking it”. How can you hand something if the recipient doesn’t take it? “Offered” would work better.

Occasionally, there are fleeting moments of charm – such as when Paula gets to grips with the English phrase “learning the ropes”. However, the choice to constantly switch from moving, fully-characterised moments to other, inconsequential passages leaves the reader no time to process or connect with the events or characters. Too often there is irritating painting talk: both Paula and Hubbard come across as obsessed with painting but not necessarily in a good way.

Not all of the characters are fully formed or particularly tangible. Paula’s father is an exception, but even this is sometimes inconsistent. The narrative would be much more interesting if it focused on far fewer relationships and concentrated on building them up, instead of featuring a huge cast of brief appearances.

Overall, Girl in White reads like a first draft. It’s trying to portray a family affected by war (something Sue Eckstein does much better in Interpreters); it’s also an attempt to evoke connections through works of art, except it cannot stand up to the subtle charm of Orange Prize winner Téa Obreht and her debut The Tiger’s Wife. I didn’t hate this book – I just felt indifferent.


Nudity! Goths! Lace ruffs! Book characters I had a crush on.

At the risk of undermining all my credibility (if I have any), I’ve decided to share with you three embarrassing facts from my early reading life.

So I present to you the three characters from literature that I had a crush on. Intellectual, no? The point is, I got that much more into reading because of three pretend males. Don’t act like that’s weird.

3. Hamlet, Hamlet

OK, so this one is sort of cheating. Sometimes we like things because we associate them with other things we like. Sounds simplistic? It is. It’s exactly the same as liking the song that you associate with a significant other. (Never do that, by the way – it will ruin future playlisting activities once you’ve broken up.)

Hamlet landed bang smack in the middle of a very big Formative Years crossroads:

– Hamlet wore a lot of black. I wore a lot of black. It’s like Shakespeare GOT ME. (Or at least, outed me as a narcissist.)

– I was just thinking that I wrote splendid goth prose when along came “’Tis now the very witching time of night.” William, you terribly violent man!

– I had A-level English lessons with my best friend, so whenever we read Horatio and Hamlet, we got the friendship. You know? You know. So it was very special.

– My A-level English teacher was excellent. She sounded a bit like Joanna Scanlan, which was nice, because it meant she was calming to be around.

– All three of us had huge crushes on David Tennant. (One time, best friend and I changed the teacher’s PC background to a naked Tennant photo, right before she was going to do a presentation via projector. The reaction was awesome. Our classmates were either amused or mentally scarred; the three of us went very giggly. Anyway anyway anyway.) This was 2008, when That Production of Hamlet was about to go on. Best friend and I saw it (it ruled), and my love of the play, and Hamlet himself, increased.

You see what a potent cocktail I was drinking of that year? It was great.

(It’s also why I am totally behind “celebrity Shakespeare” – if it gets younger people to enjoy it, good.)

"I'll do anything just KEEP THE TEENAGE GIRLS AWAY FROM ME."

“I’ll do anything just KEEP THE TEENAGE GIRLS AWAY FROM ME.”

Any nudity aside (hahaHA! I only included it in my title to make you read!), Hamlet as a character is pretty much a moping girl’s dream. He’s a sensitive, intelligent young man. And even if he is completely irritating – no teenage girl realises that they or their peers are getting on everyone’s nerves, so that’s all right.

I went on to maintain my interest in the play – it got me a First for the first essay I ever wrote at university. I credit my inner 18-year-old.

2. Severus Snape, the Harry Potter series

I almost started reading the books at the wrong point (the horror!). The only reason I picked up Prisoner of Azkaban was because the thing on the cover was part horse, and I was one of those eleven-year-olds.

Luckily I was stopped and sent away with the correct book. Then Snape happened. It is made quite clear in the first book that he is a sexually unviable, savagely clever man. Turns out, this is exactly what I wanted. I didn’t get any hormone-related insanity until I was about 19, when I spent a whole summer arguing with my mum, and then it was done. Point is, I didn’t care about my burgeoning sexuality. I didn’t even have one. I was a young sapiosexual.

My bonding continued when more and more of his backstory matched mine (more narcissism!) – bullied at school, written off as being antisocial, poor people management skills. I haven’t yet joined an evil cult and started to kill people. But if I do I’ll probably switch back to the Good Side, because that’s what Snape did, and I’m like Snape, right?

In a reverse of what happened with Hamlet, my crush intensified once I saw Alan Rickman in costume. I did develop a parallel obsession with Alan Rickman. I mean, obviously.

He's so angry. It's hot.

He’s so angry. It’s hot.

1. Captain Hook, Peter Pan

I’ve always liked villains. Nothing happened to make me like them; I always have preferred them to heroes. It’s not even like an “Errr look at me I must be so detached and depraved” thing: I just really like villains. Anti-heroes, too, come to think of it.

What’s J. M. Barrie’s pirate captain, then? Obviously, he’s both at the same time, it all depends on whose side you’re on as you read. This makes him completely fascinating.

I asked on my Twitter yesterday if anyone had a crush on a Disney character as a child. I got back sensible answers like Aladdin and Eric. Three-year-old me instead chose to love the animated Hook. I can’t work out why. I think it was probably the hair. Maybe the clothes, too. Oh, and now I think of it, the voice.

So a few years later, I read Peter Pan. I hated it. I wrote in my reading diary that there was “too much description” and that I “don’t want to hear about each individual Lost Boy”. What I was really getting at was that there was far too little Hook for my liking.

When I re-read, I realised what a wealth of information there was about him. Did you know, for example, that he finds wild flowers beautiful? Or that he’s tormented by his strict Eton upbringing? Do you remember the bit where his eyes get red dots in them just before he kills? If you haven’t read the book, do it now. Barrie’s lonely grownup is a beautifully formed character – rife with sadness and anger. There’s something inhuman there too. He’s fascinating. (To see him done right on film, watch Jason Isaacs’s portrayal in the 2003 version.)

That sound you can hear is a million young women salivating.

That sound you can hear is a million young women salivating.

Barrie drops a tantalising hint that Hook is of noble blood. He consciously dresses like Charles II. Charlie’s descendent Prince William has disappointed on the abundant hair front. Not Hook. Do you know any villains who could carry off long ringlets? You do now. Hook also wears lace ruffs. LACE RUFFS. How does a bad guy do this without being terribly camp? (Hint: not by being played by Dustin Hoffman, although that is a very entertaining film.)

There’s also the fact that my primary school best friend nicknamed me Hook because of my long curly hair.

What you can conclude from this article is that I’m a massive narcissist who likes to see elements of myself in the books I read, and that I really like bad guys. I hope you feel enlightened.

The Marlowe Papers, Ros Barber

It’s been going around for a fair while. What if Shakespeare wasn’t – well, Shakespeare? If you didn’t know about the Shakespeare authorship debate before The Hollow Crown era of BBC this summer, you probably didn’t escape the media ripples from Derek Jacobi’s clumsy namedrop of the Oxfordian theory; maybe you were one of the people who was entertained and/or mortified by Anonymous (which I am told is a good laugh).

In The Marlowe Papers, early modern scholar Ros Barber explores my favourite Shakespeare-wasn’t-Shakespeare theory. What if Christopher Marlowe – author of The Jew of Malta and the bloke played by Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love – didn’t die in a Deptford tavern brawl? What if he just hid away and carried on writing?

Published by Sceptre; hardback £12.80

The Marlowe Papers is “a novel written in verse”. Don’t let that put you off. In fact, this should encourage you to read it. Echoing the rhythm and metre of early modern stage plays, the epic poem is beautifully constructed. Barber is a gifted poet: each line can be savoured. Her word choice might get lost in prose; in poetry, her skill gets propelled to the forefront.

What about the story? Barber concocts an alternate future for Marlowe by sending him abroad and embroiling him in all manner of adventure. Sometimes, it’s laugh out loud funny. Sometimes it’s very moving. Clever nods and references give the story a realistic grounding. The people Marlowe meets, loves and hates get to take the form of characters we know as Barrabas, Jaques, Prince Hal and more. Furthermore, Barber convincingly writes the process by which Marlowe is a slave to his creative brain: several times he answers question with a silver tongue, and is met with snide rebuttal. But he just can’t help it, and you really believe that.

Thematically, the poem repeats animal imagery – fish being caught to mirror court intrigue, for example – without being trite. My favourite theme is language and arousal: there is a beautiful passage in which Marlowe and the “dark lady” of the sonnets reach orgasm by speaking Marlowe’s forbidden name. I won’t give it all away – you must immerse yourself in Barber’s spell to get the proper effect. Other lines, like “London seduced me. Beckoned me her way / and spread herself beneath me, for a play” effectively capture the heady pull of city life and its possibilities.

Barber’s poetic skill extends to the way she guides her narrative with a steady hand. She manages to build and maintain tension where necessary, to dissipate it naturally and without interrupting the excellent overall flow. If it helps, The Marlowe Papers is just over 400 pages long; I read it in the best part of two days.

The book is two things at once. It is a scholarly work, informed by meticulous research and an obvious love of the subject at hand. There is a generous glossary and index should you find yourself wanting to investigate the characters further – but the work is never obscured by academia, and Barber herself writes that the notes are not necessary to understanding the meaning. It is also a stirring, emotional epic. It is lovingly written; in turn, I ended up loving Marlowe himself, as well as some of his supporting cast (the well-presented Henry Wriothesley in particular).

The Marlowe Papers, with its beautifully presented cover and typesetting, would make an ideal gift for anyone interested in Shakespeare’s canon. But it is also a great example of poetry written well – give it to any poetry fans in your life, too. Finally, it is a unique piece of literature – you must read it to experience it fully, and the effort is worth it.

I’ve handed out a flurry of five-star reviews recently, but please believe me when I say that The Marlowe Papers merits the accolade.



Hel Gurney

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