Friday, 29 May 2009

update: May 2009

# of books read in May: 9 (wow, I've been busy!!)

Cumulative total: 23

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
5. Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
6. The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)
7. The Comedy of Errors (William Shakespeare)
8. The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)
9. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko)
10. A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)
11. The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)
12. Le CV de Dieu (Jean-Louis Fournier)
13. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)
14. The Music of Silence (Andrea Bocelli)
15. Love (Toni Morrison)
16. Class: The Secret Diary of a Teacher in Turmoil (Jane Beaton)
17. The Wives of Bath (Susan Swan)
18. The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)
19. The Queen and I (Sue Townsend)
20. Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden)
21. Daisy Miller (Henry James)
22. The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton Ellis)
23. Gods Behaving Badly (Marie Phillips)

Average number of books per month: 4.6

% by male authors: 56%
% by female authors: 44%

Gods Behaving Badly (Marie Phillips)

--The blurb--
"Being a Greek god is not all it once was. Yes, the twelve gods of Olympus are alive and well in the twenty-first century, but they are crammed together in a London townhouse-and none too happy about it. And they've had to get day jobs: Artemis as a dog-walker, Apollo as a TV psychic, Aphrodite as a phone sex operator, Dionysus as a DJ. Even more disturbingly, their powers are waning, and even turning mortals into trees--a favorite pastime of Apollo's--is sapping their vital reserves of strength. Soon, what begins as a minor squabble between Aphrodite and Apollo escalates into an epic battle of wills. Two perplexed humans, Alice and Neil, who are caught in the crossfire, must fear not only for their own lives, but for the survival of humankind. Nothing less than a true act of heroism is needed-but can these two decidedly ordinary people replicate the feats of the mythical heroes and save the world?"

--The review--
The popularity of Classics and classical studies has waned during my lifetime, with fewer and fewer people choosing to take it up at GCSE, A Level, and at university, and with even fewer of these opting for the ancient languages. Leaving Latin and Ancient Greek out of it, it is a little difficult to understand why this is, given the popularity of modern history courses. Are courses centred around the ancient world considered too hard, too useless, not well-known enough, or simply too boring?

The usefulness of classical studies is not immediately obvious, but given that it bears the roots of modern politics in particular, certain practical applications become clear, especially when one considers such political documentaries as "The Power of Nightmares", wherein director Adam Curtis refers to Plato, and such political texts as Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies. Too hard? Surely no harder (or in fact more boring) than modern history. Not well-known enough I can perhaps accept. Thankfully, however, several modern authors have come to the fore during my lifetime (and indeed outside it) to say yay for classics. This not only stretches to established names as Margaret Atwood and Michael Longley, but also to the less famed, such as Diane Redmond, Terry Deary (who both write brilliantly on the classics for children) and (for adults this time) Marie Phillips.

Phillips brings us in Gods Behaving Badly at least one God-awful grammatical error ("Did it used to be blue?" - I'm still cringing now), but also a heart-warming, funny, and fantastically original and imaginative tale to bring adults back from the brink of traumatic memories of Latin and Ancient Greek lessons gone wrong. The gods are shown as they should be: not as they often are in the Judeo-Christian vein (i.e., perfect!), but as the ancient gods were always portrayed to be (flawed, human-like creatures who not only often make mistakes but even more often delight in sadistically using mankind as its general plaything). Phillips has also clearly done her research and updated the gods' roles very aptly (of course Aphrodite, the ancient goddess of love and sex, should be working on a sex chat hotline! Why on Olympus did nobody think of it before?!), and created nice contrasts in the human characters of Alice and Neil. As well as allowing us to laugh as the gods try to claw back their powers despite the unbelieving general public (who have since turned to the neon gods of money, shopping and TV), Phillips also allows us a real 'awwww' moment in the tender, human, and awkward love story blossoming between the two humans.

As in Sue Townsend's The Queen and I, the vivid description of the rundown council house in which the fallen-from-grace now live adds both to the general setting and to the level of humour. Plot-wise it is well-executed, and while it ends happily, the reader feels in no way let down. The tuning of the characters is very fine; there is plenty of differentiation, enough characters to allow for variety but not enough to confuse, and expression of personality is theatrically (yet somehow still realistically) fulfilled. The ancient theological hierarchy is made accessible and I believe would serve as an excellent hook for those who are classical world virgins.

Undoubtedly a feel-good read (surely what we all need in the midst of a recession), this is feel-good fiction with substance and intelligent humour, which ought to allow Phillips to make her mark with this solid debut.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton Ellis)

-The blurb--
"In "The Rules of Attraction", Bret Easton Ellis trains his incisive gaze on the kids at self-consciously bohemian Camden College, a small, affluent liberal-arts college in New England at the height of the Reagan 80s. He treats their sexual posturings and agonies with a mixture of acrid hilarity and compassion while exposing the moral vacuum at the centre of their lives. Racing from Thirsty Thursday Happy Hours to Dressed To Get Screwed parties to drinks at The Edge of the World, this is a poignant take on the death of romance."

--The review--
The growing popularity in the UK of TV programme Skins perhaps indicates how far young people's perceptions of social interaction, and particularly relationships and romance, are shifting and have shifted. However, the writers of Skins were not the first to go there, for before them was Bret Easton Ellis, whose novel The Rules of Attraction was released in 1987 (and subsequently made into a film in 2002). He too portrays a colder, more ruthless face to teenage relationships, dispensing with the lovey dovey and focusing instead on what some might deem an unrealistic version of university life, comprising little other than sex, drugs, and changing degree courses.

And yet I liked it more than Skins; I liked it more than Alan Hollinghurst's Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty, which, to be honest, was more of the same (go to a some coke...have some some more coke...oh, wait, there's another party over there...); and this definitely appealed to me more than Ellis' arguably most famous work, American Psycho (which, given its gratuitous displays of violence, I am unlikely to ever read, seeing as even the merest hint of blood on Casualty makes me reach for a bucket). What gave the novel its compelling aspect was not initially clear; it was difficult to relate to the two-dimensional characters and at times I couldn't help feeling that I was, in fact, just reading a script for an episode of that show.

However, at some point something changed; read it less literally and as more of a satire, and the purpose of the novel becomes much more apparent. There are some really human, tender moments (I preferred the characters at these moments to when they're just randomly sleeping around), there are some killer one-liners that make the novel really acerbic and funny, and the novel is cleverly cyclical, being structured in such a way that the novel's beginning sentence follows on almost seamlessly from its final line. Equally clever is how the novel's title is shown to us, without it actually being explicitly mentioned: Ellis arguably uses the novel to state that there are in fact no rules of attraction at all.

While this wasn't the best novel I've ever read in terms of subject matter, it paints a snapshot of time culturally as well as satirising human relationships in a really skilful way, and has served as an initial hook onto Ellis' writing style (which, admittedly, does take a little getting used to). Next up for me, perhaps, will be Glamorama, which should at least have the advantage of dealing with a world with which I am slightly more familiar. Ellis is an unusual writer who deserves to be known for more than just American Psycho; described as being a writer who is sympathetic to the fate of his own 'lost generation' in a way that only Fitzgerald was about his, the sequel to Less Than Zero, due out next year, is surely justly awaited by his devotees.

Other works by Bret Easton Ellis
Imperial Bedrooms (sequel to Less Than Zero; due May 2010)
Lunar Park (2005)
Glamorama (1998)
The Informers (a collection of linked short stories; 1994)
American Psycho (1991)
Less Than Zero (1985)

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Daisy Miller (Henry James)

--The blurb--
"Travelling in Europe with her family, Daisy Miller, an exquisitely beautiful young American woman, presents her fellow-countryman Winterbourne with a dilemma he cannot resolve. Is she deliberately flouting social convention in the outspoken way she talks and acts, or is she simply ignorant of those conventions? When she strikes up an intimate friendship with an urbane young Italian, her flat refusal to observe the codes of respectable behaviour leave her perilously exposed. In Daisy Miller James created his first great portrait of the enigmatic and dangerously independent American woman, a figure who would come to dominate his later masterpieces."

--The review--
The Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw jostle, albeit for very different reasons, not only for the crown of James' greatest work but perhaps even one of Britain's greatest (or American, depending on how you see the nationality of this fairly international author). While Daisy Miller is a delicate little novel, generally concise and with some nice areas of description, I think that James' formerly mentioned works can continue to breathe easily in the hierarchy of James' oeuvre and in that of the literary canon.

The setting of the story is perfectly pleasant, but the characters are insipid and lacking any real substance (this covers the entire cast, from Winterbourne and his frail aunt to the eponymous Daisy and her irritating brother Randolph). Daisy only served to remind me of another very silly Daisy (the 1926 creation of F Scott Fitzgerald, Daisy Buchanan, who appears in The Great Gatsby), and while I can see how the frivolity of Daisy's personality may have inspired the character of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, James just doesn't take it far enough, while Margaret Mitchell does.

Weaknesses in the novella stretch right through to its weak ending; as is the case in many other instances of poorly-crafted fiction, the characters, their backgrounds and their relationships with other characters were simply not built up enough for readers to care about the 'shock' ending and demise of Daisy. It may therefore be a better idea for readers of James' work, whether newcomer or seasoned fan, to proceed with his other well-known works, which are well-crafted enough to get under your skin and stay there.

Other works by Henry James
The Wings of the Dove (1902)
The Turn of the Screw (1898)
What Maisie Knew (1897)
The Bostonians (1886)
The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Washington Square (1880)
The Europeans (1878)

James published 23 novels (2 posthumously) and 24 short stories, as well as travel writings, memoirs, plays, biography, and visual and literary arts criticism; the above list is a short selection of his most well-known titles.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden)

--The blurb--
"Dublin, Midsummer: While absent in New York, the celebrated actor Molly Fox has loaned her house to a playwright friend, who is struggling to write a new work. Over the course of this, the longest day of the year, the playwright reflects upon her own life, Molly's, and that of their mutual friend Andrew, whom she has known since university. Why does Molly never celebrate her own birthday, which falls upon this day? What does it mean to be a playwright or an actor? How have their relationships evolved over the course of many years? Molly Fox's Birthday calls into question the ideas that we hold about who we are; and shows how the past informs the present in ways we might never have imagined."
blurb from

--The review--
It can sometimes feel as if the days of true literary fiction are long past: while there are plenty of authors on the contemporary scene writing novels that are funny, sad, political, or just plain silly, they can often lack the certain elegance and timelessness that comes with many modern literary fiction books (think AS Byatt or Iris Murdoch for the kind of eloquence I mean). While the Booker list can bring up a few good reference points each year, it also drops some mighty clangers (even leaving aside the fact that pinpointing and spotlighting literary fiction is perhaps not its specific intent); plus, to use the Booker as a reference point in this way feels a little populist. What about the authors who (for whatever reason) don't make the cut?

Deirdre Madden is, perhaps, one of these authors. Despite writing prominently about Ireland (to the point of being shortlisted for the Orange Prize one year, and winning the Somerset Maugham Award), she didn't even manage to sneak onto the reading list for the Irish Literature module I took at university (and she would have been a welcome relief from Synge, I can tell you). It is an undeserved omission, and Molly Fox's Birthday proved a welcome inauguration into her oeuvre. While mildly artificial at times in terms of the novel's construction, the minimalism of the cast, the composite set of Molly Fox's house, and the parallel patchwork of dialogue between friends and the lone voice of thoughts of Molly Fox's playwright friend (whose name we never find out, and who narrates the entire story almost singlehandedly) is for the most part very naturally crafted. Dialogue and thoughts and scenes and events are woven together well, and the juxtaposition of the usually vibrant Molly with her elusiveness in this novel pervades the entire atmosphere. We know so little about each character and yet we know so much; Madden's writing is a prime example of showing, rather than telling, with characterisation largely constructed through dialogue, thoughts, movements and details.

Madden's work (or at least as far as I can tell from this virginal experience) also exemplifies what the newly-appointed Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, calls "using simple words in a complicated way". Madden's vocabulary is largely extremely accessible, and yet she uses it dextrously in order to create complex characters, scenes and back stories. In addition to this, however, she also throws in a few fancier words from time to time ('reliquary', anyone?), demonstrating how good writers can truly reach people without compromising on the richness of the language in which they write.

All of these aspects make reading Madden's work a haunting and eloquent experience that stays with you long-term; while no writer is perfect, her work is something for other writers to aspire to, and for readers to not delay the experience of.

Other works by Deirdre Madden
Hidden Symptoms (1986)
The Birds of the Innocent Wood (1988)
Remembering Light and Stone (1993)
Nothing is Black (1994)
One by One in the Darkness (1996)
Authenticity (2002)
Snake's Elbows (2005)
Thanks for Telling Me, Emily (2007)

The Queen and I (Sue Townsend)

--The blurb--
"The Monarchy Has Been Dismantled; When a Republican party wins the General Election, their first act in power is to strip the royal family of their assets and titles and send them to live on a housing estate in the Midlands. Exchanging Buckingham Palace for a two-bedroomed semi in Hell Close (as the locals dub it), caviar for boiled eggs, servants for a social worker named Trish, the Queen and her family learn what it means to be poor among the great unwashed. But is their breeding sufficient to allow them to rise above their changed circumstance or deep down are they really just like everyone else?"

--The review--
The ordinary and the extraordinary collide in Sue Townsend's 1992 novel as the Royal Family are ejected from their regal home and moved into council housing on a Midlands estate. The juxtaposition of the country's ex-rulers with the cast of chavdom is naturally amusing in itself, and yet it is not pejorative: even if we, as readers, are so very far away from the classes of people that are depicted, the jibes are good-natured rather than malicious and the focus is on ways in which the novel's characters are alike, not on ways in which they are different. However, the Royal Family's integration is also realistic: rather than fusing the two sub-cultures immediately, the development of how the Royals settle in and adapt to their surroundings is realistically crafted and layered. While the characters are dated, this is easily compensated for by the fact that so many of the situations and settings in which they find themselves are so scarily relevant today.

Townsend also writes very wittily, and given that this is arguably funnier than the Adrian Mole series, everyone should take a look for this alone (regardless of whether or not Adrian Mole is your sort of thing). Perhaps more importantly, The Queen and I is not just an amusingly-written and skilfully-crafted class commentary but is also enjoyable and satisfying as a story for its own sake (you don't have to be interested in the monarchy or politics; from this vantage point, the Royal Family becomes very accessible). However, I wouldn't recommend reading the book's final page - it serves only as a complete cop-out and while I won't say how, I will say that if one of my GCSE students ended a story this way it would be sent back with lots of red pen on it (as one Amazon reviewer put it: "Dude, where's my ending?!"). Nevertheless, The Queen and I is a lesser-known Townsend work that is definitely worth reading. With perhaps the exception of some of the later Adrian Mole instalments, Townsend has proved herself continually to be a solid, reliable writer who can deliver high-quality works that people enjoy reading. Let's just hope that when I get to the sequel to The Queen and I, Queen Camilla, which was released in 2006, it will not only adhere to the high quality standards that Townsend has led us to expect thus far, but also that its ending will be far less bathetic.

Other works by Sue Townsend
the Adrian Mole series, 1982 onwards
Rebuilding Coventry (1988)
Ghost Children (1997)
Number Ten (2002)
Queen Camilla (2006)

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)

--The blurb--
"For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, maintaining a kingdom while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war was not a simple business. Already aggrieved that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep over a hundred lustful, greedy and bloodthirsty suitors at bay… And then, when Odysseus finally returns and slaughters the murderous suitors, he brutally hangs Penelope's twelve beloved maids. What were his motives? And what was Penelope really up to? Critically acclaimed when it was first published as part of Canongate's Myth series, and following a very successful adaptation by the RSC, this new edition of The Penelopiad sees Margaret Atwood give Penelope a modern and witty voice to tell her side of the story, and set the record straight for good."
from; book also available as part of the Myths Boxset along with works by Jeanette Winterson and Karen Armstrong, with an introduction by Philip Pullman

--The review--
Bringing Classics into the public eye can be a tricky business. Putting aside the fact that when you say 'classics' many think you are referring to literary classics such as Austen and Dickens (rather than to ancient writers who relied heavily on chills, spills and general filth), people often only know about things like the Oedipus complex because of Freud and others, ancient plays are now rarely performed despite several decent translations being available, and given the original languages in which these works were written, people often think 'Latin? Greek? No way' and promptly make off to another part of the bookshop.

This is why the Myths series is what you might call A Good Thing - it carries on the previously encouraging work of poets like Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley by bringing classical legends to the masses in a language that doesn't seem quite as offputting as Ancient Greek. Atwood is no stranger to presenting the stories of women who defect from the norm, so was arguably well-placed to present the story of Penelope, the long-suffering wife of the wayward Odysseus. Speaking from the kingdom of the dead, Penelope wanders fields of asphodel while recounting her husband's time away. The characters were all well-drawn and in many cases made to seem more real and human than in Homer's original (this is particularly true of the maids).

Overall the novella is highly representative of Atwood's general standard of work, although chapter 22 was a little weak and I was just waiting for Penelope to smack Odysseus over the head with a frying pan (or at least a kitchen implement of some sort) and shout, "Where the hell have you been for the past 20 years, you ****ing *******?" (Sadly, it never happened.) However, the novella is short, makes for a light yet sophisticated read, and has easily digestible chapters, which augurs well for the accessibility of the rest of the Myths series.

*The full list of works available in the Myths series, of which The Penelopiad is a part, can be found here.

Other works by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood (due 2009)
Oryx & Crake (2003)
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Alias Grace (1996)
The Robber Bride (1993)
Cat's Eye (1988)
The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
Bodily Harm (1981)
Life Before Man (1979)
Lady Oracle (1976)
Surfacing (1972)
The Edible Woman (1969)

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Wives of Bath (Susan Swan)

--The blurb--
"Mouse and Paulie, reluctant 14-year-old inmates of Bath Ladies College, are confronted by difficult questions. Why can't girls have muscles? Why don't boys cry? Gradually their secret life becomes a dangerous quest for the one small, vital thing that makes boys different from girls."

--The review--
This offering from the undeservedly little-known Susan Swan promises to deal with questions and conundrums relating to gender, which it explores intriguingly. As a bit of a gender specialist myself (my undergraduate dissertation talked about the representation of gender on the stage, and my postgraduate thesis took on grammatical gender in French), I unsurprisingly fell for this hook, line and sinker, not expecting to get a rollicking crime novel into the bargain. At the novel's centre is the sinister Paulie and her shy sidekick, Mouse Bradford. Without giving too much away, it somehow feels wrong to refer to 'her' sidekick, which in itself indicates that Swan addressed the notion of gender confusion successfully.

The narrative arc not only takes an intensive look at Paulie and Mouse's personalities, but also brings in a few other touching elements in the form of characters Tory, Miss Vaughan, and Mrs Peddie, though other characters, such as Mouse's father Morley, are a little underdeveloped (albeit perhaps intentionally). The nature of the crime committed by Paulie is revealed slowly and tantalisingly in juxtaposition with the various disturbing revelations about her psyche. Also starkly illustrated is the attitude towards gender confusion at the novel's time period (the 1960s) and how it differs from how transgendered people would be treated today - instead of being sent for rehabilitation and normalisation, the transgendered would receive appropriate counselling and medical treatment and operations. This element gives the novel the same appeal as Amanda Whittington's Be My Baby, which holds up a similar contrast in terms of how people are treated.

As well as the plot playing out fabulously, the settings were richly laid, with one being able to picture perfectly every piece of scenery, from the dank dormitories and the school grounds by night to the landscapes of Mouse's country residence. Extra details, such as Swan's power of disturbing description and the parallel sub-plot of the presidency of John F Kennedy (and Mouse's admiration of him). The only weakness present in The Wives of Bath is perhaps inherent in the novel's title: the connection was only made briefly at the novel's beginning and end and the complexity of the link made it even more necessary to have it taking a more central role in terms of having a more consistent background thread throughout the narrative.

While this book didn't incite in me any desire to see the film adaptation of it (Lost and Delirious), on the grounds that as usual it appears that the director has taken too many liberties with it, it did inspire a wish to read more of Susan Swan's work, and a hope that soon she will be better known outside of Canada.

Other works by Susan Swan
What Casanova Told Me (2004)
The Last of the Golden Girls (1989)
The Biggest Modern Woman In The World (1983)

Class: The Secret Diary of a Teacher in Turmoil (Jane Beaton)

--The blurb--
"It's about love lives...

Maggie has been dating Stan for years - safe, comfortable and about as exciting as soggy toast. Can their relationship survive? Especially when Maggie meets David McDonald, her opposite number at the boys boarding school over the hill. Every single girl in the school has a crush on him, but not Maggie ...yet.

It's about school lives...

Two girls. Same form. Simone Kardashian has won a scholarship and is determined to make her parents proud. Fliss Prosser is furious at being so far from home and her friends. As Simone tries desperately to fit in, Fliss tries desperately to get out.

It's about private lives...

Veronica Deveral knows how to manage a school. Routine and discipline are fundamental to her role. But Veronica has a secret that could ruin her career."

--The review--
Would, or do, Scots really say that things 'suck'? In this novel they do, and I'm not sure I really took to it. However, the characters present in the novel are generally its greatest strength - they are vividly painted, not homogeneous, and very human and realistic indeed. There is also, arguably, just the right number of characters for the novel to be suitably both intense and manageable. In a revealing and pertinent title, Jane Beaton addresses class struggle alongside the traditional schooltime tribulations in Class.

While the plot also has its charms, there are also some weaknesses - the end is too abrupt, for instance, and there is definitely a little plagiarism afoot too (methinks the author has been reading a little too much Malory Towers, right down to the headmistress' opening speech to the newbies and the setting of the West Country seaside mansion with its four towers). The Veronica Deveral thread was also a little weak - it wasn't consistently given enough attention throughout the story, so that by the time its denouement was revealed, you didn't actually care enough about the character or the problem. Something else that could have been built up more and had promise was the relationship between Maggie and Simone, subsidiary as it was intended to be. The mystery element, though, was at least relatively taut, keeping the reader guessing until its resolution, and the burgeoning relationship between Maggie and David was well played-out - it is perhaps worth reading the rest of the series (next instalment 2010) for this part of the storyline alone, even if one already suspects that they know how it will end.

Stylistically the novel was too self-consciously old-fashioned in places, which didn't play as well as the modern style that Beaton adopts from the beginning (with lots of name-dropping of brands, such as Topshop, which didn't annoy me as much as it usually does). The old-fashioned elements of style that started to creep in during the novel's second half weakened the notion of the novel as a tale of a modern girls' boarding school, and also highlighted the generally sloppy wrapping up of ideas at the end. There were also some shocking mistakes in my proof copy (e.g. 'pour over' instead of 'pore over' prep) which I hope were resolved in the final edition. The first part of the title - Class - is also an excellent choice given the general demographic of boarding schools and the situations of the characters, but is let down by the subtitle (The Secret Diary of a Teacher in Turmoil), which is not only unnecessary but also inaccurate (given that it is not written in a diary style, but in the third person, and switches frequently between the points of view of different characters).

I am in agreement with one of the Amazon reviewers that this constitutes a fun, nice, lightweight read. However, I do hope that in the next book of the series, we will see a little more of Jane Beaton's personality in the setting and events and a little less of Enid Blyton's.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Love (Toni Morrison)

--The blurb--
"Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison's spellbinding novel is a Faulknerian symphony of passion and hatred, power and perversity, color and class that spans three generations of black women in a fading beach town. In life, Bill Cosey enjoyed the affections of many women, who would do almost anything to gain his favor. In death his hold on them may be even stronger. Wife, daughter, granddaughter, employee, mistress: as Morrison's protagonists stake their furious claim on Cosey's memory and estate, using everything from intrigue to outright violence, she creates a work that is shrewd, funny, erotic, and heartwrenching."

--The review--
Toni Morrison is often cited as a defining voice of both her generation and her race, most frequently through her more famous works, Beloved and The Bluest Eye. And yet she, among other black authors such as Mildred D Taylor (author of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) and James Baldwin (Go Tell It On The Mountain) are often passed over by readers before university age in favour of white authors such as Harper Lee and JD Salinger. But why? The novels by the latter authors can certainly compete in terms of angst and in terms of facing controversial issues. But do they compete in subtlety and complexity too?

Having never read any Toni Morrison before now (yes, even as a student studying English at university she passed me by, due to a combination of her not appearing in any of my modules, me having to plough through various other delights for Classics - multiple readings of Homer, anyone? - and me constantly dashing around various extra-curricular diversions), I am perhaps not qualified to comment on her work as a whole (yet), but Love, while not her best-known work (written in 2003, it is one of her most recent), certainly seems a fine start. It also heartens me that Toni Morrison's books have sensible gaps between them - this not only allows personal and critical evolution as an author, and for us as readers, but also reassures us that the work will be of high quality (I'd rather have 10 excellent books than 20 dross, wouldn't you? These writers who seem to have a new book out every five minutes often quite displease me). The reader is confronted by a web of knotted family ties - the hotel is run by Heed (Bill Cosey's widow) and Christine (Cosey's granddaughter), and we also have input from his daughter-in-law May; the resort's receptionist, Vida; his ex-lover, Celestial; his ex-cook L (she narrates the story; we never find out what 'L' stands for); and a new employee, Junior, who only arrives after Cosey's death. Cosey is a mythical figure, portrayed as God-like by all these different women in all their different ways.

Despite all the different inputs from the above characters, it is difficult to get to know Bill Cosey - he is just a name on a pedestal, and multiple readings are, to my mind, required in order to get to know him better (although this is arguably the case with all the characters). Morrison weaves the story deftly and incrementally, letting everything rise in a delightful crescendo so that all the main details are only really revealed at the end. It not only deals with the many faces of love but also with these very real women, from their jealousy and happiness to their sexual promiscuity. The story is short but intense: Bill Cosey dies 25 years before the story takes place, and yet the female characters all speak of him in a more immediate sense, as if he had died only very recently.

The chapters are of a manageable length and imaginatively titled, providing a thoughtful framework to the plot and characters. Equally, the characters were quite well sketched, allowing easy visualisation of the 'main characters' in particular (though people's opinions will differ as to who these are; Heed, Christine and Junior came most easily to me). Bill Cosey had more of a gloss, as mentioned, and it was more difficult to visualise him well. The recommendation of multiple reads serves not only on this level but will also allow for a greater familiarity with the plot - you need to concentrate on the rises and falls of Love's plot in order to appreciate the full richness of Morrison's narrative arc (the split narrative device in itself, which I've been told is a common theme of Morrison's novels, takes some getting used to).

Love, it seems, is therefore a good one to turn to if you're looking for something more unusual from an established literary canon. Arguably, in tentative response to the question posed at the start of this review, this is why such authors and such works can be occasionally overlooked: people can fear the unknown, and these books offer a walk through the hitherto unexplored.

Other works by Toni Morrison
A Mercy (2008)
Paradise (1999)
Jazz (1992)
Beloved (1987)
Tar Baby (1981)
Song of Solomon (1977)
Sula (1974)
The Bluest Eye (1970)