Archive | May 2010

Jarka Ruus

As I’m working my way through my enormous pile of unread books, which is not getting any smaller as I keep adding to it, not that I have some sort of addiction to buying books, I’m reading books that are in a series where I haven’t read the first one. The first of these is Jarka Ruus by Terry Brooks. It’s the first in the High Druid of Shannara trilogy which is part of the larger Shannara cycle and I’ve not read any of the others.

Still, the large amounts of exposition in the book mean that doesn’t matter too much. The plot, loosely, is that a very powerful sorceress is trapped in a shadow world of extreme evil and her teenaged nephew and his sidekicks have to rescue her. Not a complex plot, but well handled it could have been very good. As it was, I found myself unhappy with the trope that small boy rescues grown woman as a coming of age rite of passage. The sorceress, Grianne, is supposed to be the most fearsome magic user in the world and yet her part in the story seems mostly to be standing around waiting.

I didn’t find the dialogue convincing; it felt too contemporary, too familiarly colloquial. The characterisation was a bit ropey and the characters didn’t really seem to have any depth to them Overall, I didn’t enjoy this and I don’t think I’ll be picking up any more.

Does lots of sex scenes mean bad books?

I was reading ‘The “Tyranny of Sex” in the Saudi Novel over at MuslimahMediaWatch today and it got me thinking about sex and writing, or more specifically, writing sex scenes. While the MuslimahMediaWatch article is more focussed on reflecting on Saudi society, this caught my eye:

It was government cultural head Mahmoud Al-Watan who complained of “the
tyranny of sex in the Saudi novel,” saying it falls to those without talent to
slap some sex on to the page and “call it a novel”

Which got me thinking about Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins and the bonkbuster novels of the eighties that I devoured. Now, I’m not going to argue that these books were great literature – that would be too contrarian even for me – but I do think they occupied an important place at an important time.
Most of us don’t have that many sexual partners according to my highly unscientific analysis of all the people I’ve ever known that have told me anything about their sex lives. Either you are sexually adventurous (caveat: this includes all varieties of motivation, postive or negative) or you tend to have had roughly the same number of partners as you’ve had relationships, and
for most people that number seems to be between five and fifteen.
My point is that most of us don’t learn about sex by doing it with lots of different people. For me, reading glamourous, sexy novels as a teenager was exciting and a large part of that was reading the sex scenes. Proper erotica just seemed too daunting: too hard to get hold of, and harder to defend if someone were to question your choice of reading material. So Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins et al were a window on to the adult world of sex without the danger of getting into something you couldn’t handle.
It gave us an idea of what good sex could be like. Despite raunch culture and the ever-present sexual objectification of women, there is still an undercurrent of socialisation that insists women don’t and shouldn’t enjoy sex; that sex is really for men. Bonkbusters can be an antidote to this where they show women enjoying sex. They showed us how amazing it could be how good it could feel. Having had sex of varying qualities, I don’t think these depictions of sex were unattainable or fantastic. Sex can be as fun, exciting and fulfilling as the novels. And maybe more men should read them…
Storytelling is the way we share our interpretations of the world we live in. If Saudi novelists are writing about sex that’s because it’s vital to life and maybe it’s a little bit because it is reflecting how their society is changing.
The quote above rolls out the stereotypical connection between bad writing and lots of sex scenes. While it may be true that much erotica is poorly written, and it may be true that a thin plot can be padded out with sex scenes (not that I’ve ever done that myself, you understand), it is undeniably true that writing sex scenes is difficult. The Bad Sex in Fiction Award annually proves that all sorts of writers – the good, the bad and the indifferent – flounder when it comes to describing sex on the page. There is a lot of potential for getting it wrong.
There are also lots of writers getting it right. There are stories which have moments when having sex is absolutely the thing that your characters would do, and showing it to your reader demonstrates something about their relationship that is important. I can think of a number of books I’ve read recently in which the sex scenes were great. So, no, lots of sex scenes doesn’t equal bad writing.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Back to the classics. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy is probably one of the most famous stories of english literature. The story follows the eponymous heroine as she is coming of age. She is seduced and ruined by one man, rejected by another when she discloses her shame and then further manipulated by the first until she kills him.

This was a great book, a classic that firmly deserves to be there. For a novel of it’s age, the authorial voice is muted and much more of the characters is to the fore. Characterisation is subtle and effective. The hard struggle of life of someone in Tess’ position is made clear without labouring the point.

Naturally, the pivotal event in the first third of the book largely happens off-scene and leads to the question – is it rape? It is never described as such but I can’t help feeling that that’s because rape is defined as ‘violent stranger-danger’ and what happens to Tess is more like acquaintance rape. According to Wikipedia, as the event happens off-stage it leaves the reader to decide whether she was raped or seduced. To me this sounds like ‘either she was violently raped or she willingly (enthusiastically) participated’. My reading of the story was that she was pressurised and manipulated; her class, poverty and social conditioning were used against her to wear her down – plus, she’s asleep when Alec d’Urberville starts on her. Throughout the book Tess is painfully conscious of how she is being manipulated but unable to find a way through it.

Later in the book, when Tess has been abandoned by Angel Clare, Alec d’Urberville’s behaviour becomes abusive. He targets her and holds her responsible for his actions. Her very existence is the thing that he claims compels him to act and Hardy neatly describes a consummate piece of victim-blaming.

This is a fantastic book with many levels and written with great intelligence and empathy. Highly recommended!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I bought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson on the strength of the marketing, the fact that I saw everyone reading it and loads of people said it was good. Normally, I ignore that sort of mass trend but something about this book made me buy it despite its popularity.

It was good, although perhaps not as good as I’d been told. In fairness, it is a thriller and is very much better than much of the genre – but I don’t think a novel should be judged only by the relative standards of its genre. The story is of a journalist hired to investigate a forty year old unsolved murder and in doing so uncovers a serial killer going quietly about his business.

The elements of writing were largely well handled; characterisation and dialogue were definitely a cut above the norm of the genre although I doubt they would stand out in broader comparisons. Plotting was also good. The sense of place was strong and all senses were brought to bear in creating the novel’s world. Sweden seems more real to me now.

Where it fell down a bit was in pacing. This is not a roller-coaster ride filled with thrills and spills. For the first half of the book, which is over 500 pages so that’s for a good 250 pages, I was waiting for it to get going. There was a lot of exposition in the first half, delivered to the reader in short but frequent info-dumps. The authorial voice interfered a little at the start as well making the info-dumps read in a slightly different tone.

Once past the mid-way hump, the pace picks up, there’s a lot more action and it builds up into an excellent ending. This is the first of a trilogy and I will happily pick up the second and third books.