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Beatitude by Larry Closs

Besides all the circumstantial similarities, I thought that Jay actually looked a little like Kerouac, the Kerouac who stared from the black-and-white photographs on the covers of his various books. Same dark hair. Same strong handsome face. Some sad soulful eyes. But there was something that went beyond the physical resemblance. Something that sprang from somewhere inside, something sensed but not seen. A tenderness.

I was very flattered to be asked by Lori from TNBBC to take part in this book tour. For one it feels good to support indie writing, but also the main subject matter of Beatitude happens to concern the ‘Beat’ poets, which is a period I do have a certain fascination with. Particularly now, as the novelty and estrangement of the Beats has faded, so their reassessment in present-day is proving to be quite interesting. Already I’ve reviewed two contrasting examples of this here on the site – Huncke by Rick Mullin and Sideways: Travels With Kafka, Hunter S. and Kerouac by Patrick O’Neill

Author Larry Closs has larger ambitions beyond simply reassessing these works. His character Harry Charity is described at one point in the book as being someone who thinks too much and indeed the story of Beatitude itself charts not only his fascination with the life of Jack Kerouac – the meaning behind his writing, the people in his life, even the kinds of typewriters he used to furiously pound out his intensely personal vision – but how he allows this near-obsession to become intertwined with his own feelings for someone he loves dearly. He pores over footnotes from the biographies of his literary heroes just as avidly as he does the stolen moments he shares with the kindly Jay. The opening scene of Harry and Jay witnessing the unveiling of a preserved work of Kerouac is comparable to pilgrims visiting a shrine. If both men share this strong devotion to the writing of Kerouac, is it not possible that this passion could translate into love for one another?

Harry works as an editor for a successful New York magazine, lives in his Upper West Side apartment with his cat Flannery and in the wake of successive occasions of heartbreak refuses to socialize with colleagues and friends. Life alone is manageable. Then he meets a new member of the design team, Jay, and following an awkward promise to join him at a party – much to the surprise of the other co-workers in the office – Harry finds himself falling for his new found friend. Their shared interest in Kerouac encourages his feelings and the two fall into an easy pattern of reminiscing about the Beats, exchanging trivia and discussing their own artistic ambitions. When Jay’s relationship with his girlfriend hits a bump, Harry dares to hope that something more lies behind the couple’s problems.

The marginalization of the Beats and their descriptions of fluid sexuality in a time when discussions of sex acts themselves were taboo – cf the Howl obscenity trial – was no doubt an aspect of their notoriety. But Harry at one point advances another theory as to what made the Beats special, arguing in a clever title-drop moment that ‘beatitude’ is what Kerouac thought was the real meaning behind the word used to describe him and his peers. “To be Beat was to be in love with life, to exist in a state of beatitude, to exist in a state of unconditional bliss.” While he knows this information, applying its wisdom to his own life takes Harry much longer. His infatuation with Jay is soon paralleled with a previous doomed love affair, revealing why Harry is so emotionally wounded when we first meet him. As he slowly but surely warms to life once more, discovering the means to not only express his feelings but his thoughts in an artistic fashion, Beatitude becomes a richer and more hopeful story about moving on.

Intimate and moving, and with its 90’s setting presenting the tail-end of the Beat generation’s presence on the public stage, Larry Closs has written an intriguing fable about people can sometimes become confused by the intensity of their passions.

Please continue to the next stage of this blog tour to Mandy of Mandythebookworm’s Blog to read Larry Closs’ article Two Roads Diverged: How the Beats did and didn’t inspire Beatitude.

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For indeed I am the sort of charlatan they seek to discredit. I am not what they say I am, but my deceptions are harmless and, I do believe, helpful at a time of personal loss.

I am a very nervous sleeper and sadly in our new abode the sound of passing vehicles – not to mention overhead flights – causes our little unit to wobble somewhat. Every time I jolt awake. This, as you can imagine, is quite annoying. But then I made the mistake of joking that any other creaks and steps could be the sounds of our own personal poltergeist. My beloved other half immediately freaked. See personally I cannot really see any reason to fear the ‘other side’, psychic phenomena, ectoplasmic stains, or indeed fallen angels. I lie awake at night terrified about home invasions and a piece of satellite falling from space and impacting on my roof…but the supernatural? Completely uninterested in it.

Magic as such is something I have difficulty with, because it seems like so much empty spectacle. There is a necessity to believe in order to be halfway impressed to begin with. In The Prestige Christopher Priest attempts to straddle that borderline,  that fudging of spectacle and the occult.

The rivalry between two late 19th century magicians comes to consume both their lives, a dual obsession that spurs them into more audacious feats. The Prestige presents the respective accounts of this contest from the points of view of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. This is not merely competitiveness, with both parties going out of their way to sabotage their rival’s acts. As they are both practiced in exploiting the gullibility of their patrons, whether it be through stage magic or séances for the dead, they know the weak-spots of each other’s craft, the key moment to stage and accuse the performer of being a fraud.

Then Borden’s act ‘The Transported Man’, involving him appearing in two places on stage mere moments apart, drives Angier to even more outrageous efforts. Borden has not employed any trickery that the other magician recognizes. He has somehow managed to achieve genuine magic. In his attempts to top the ‘Transported Man’, Angier travels to America and returns with a revolutionary new act ‘In A Flash’. Having consulted with the genius scientific recluse Nikola Tesla, Angier seemingly has confounding the laws of physics itself. Both men become so consumed by thoughts of revenge, that their intentions soon border on murderous.

The story is bookended by their descendents attempting to discover the reasons behind this intense rivalry, which has actually survived their deaths – assuming that the diaries left by Angier and Borden actually do present an accurate picture of events.

This is the second book by Priest that I have read. The first, The Inverted World, rested on a central idea that was quite interested, but the book overall felt strained. The Roshomon approach of The Prestige should create a sense of mystery, but once Borden’s secret – hinted at by suggestive choices in language during his diary – becomes clear, the book feels like it is frustratingly delaying the moment of the reveal.

Priest’s writing imitates the suspense and suggestiveness of the magician’s performance, but the characters are so deluded by their mutual hatred that their insistent company becomes wearying. The shared love of a woman named Olivia comes to seem spurious – is she just a beard for their homoerotic fascination for one another?

There is an interesting moment when Angier describes his impressions of Tesla “when I had seen his lecture in London he had all the appearance of a member of my own profession, taking the same delight in surprising and mystifying the audience, yet, unlike a magician, being more than willing, anxious even, to reveal and share his secrets.” Of course that was Tesla’s tragedy, that he did not guard his insights jealously enough.

The historical asides of this book are momentarily interesting, but for the most part The Prestige feels overlong and wearying with its venom and spite.

The Prestige

The elders had always maintained, without even the slightest wavering on the matter, that we Survivors were the only ones of our kind. But they had taken it so much further than that, insisting that there were no other supernatural creatues in this world, nor had there ever been. Recently, in late night discussions with Lizzie and Sarah, elders with whom I felt close, they had told a few of us tales of how the outside world believed in creatures that God did not create. They had given us some aging copies of literature that a select few from my generation – Noah, Benjamin, and me – were allowed to read. We each got one book that, in turn, we’d end up sharing with each other. Until then, we had only ever read the Bible. Noah received a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Benjamin got a copy of Beowulf, and I got a tattered, gold-lined compilation of Hesiod works including Theogony and Works and Days.

Some months ago I first encounted Amanda Havard over Twitter. She is one of an exciting new generation of writers who fully embrace the potential on blogging and online tools for the purposes of book promotion. It is an exciting development in contemporary writing. I was very happy when Amanda offered me the opportunity to read her novel – an offer I would never have received without the agency of Twitter and my own blogging project.

The story opens with a group of children exiled in the wilderness during the time of the Salem witch trials. Miraculously the majority of the minors survive the outdoor extremes – and take ‘The Survivors’ as their name and the definition of who and what they are.

Then the narrative jumps forward in time several centuries to the present day. We meet Sadie, a Survivor who is travelling to her friend’s wedding. It is quickly revealed that she is an unusual member of the community that has survived in isolation since their exile from the human world. For one – she has left. The Survivors have based themselves rigidly on religious precepts taken from the Bible, searching for a divine explanation for their own supernatural abilities. In addition to long life, each of the colony has certain powers. Sadie is considered undeveloped because her own skills have not evidenced themselves as readily. This outsider status informed her inquisitiveness and her consequent leaving of the colony and everything she has ever known to explain the outside world.

But are the Survivors really alone in this world, or is there more to their mysterious status as as society of immortals?

What I enjoyed the most about this book was how Havard demonstrates how Sadie has acclimatised herself to modern life after centuries of isolated existence. It is quite telling that a story that begins with the Salem witch trials is preceded by a musical quote from Coldplay. Sadie even has a Twitter account (I was tempted to investigate whether it existed or not). The character’s online activities reflect the author’s own online engagement strategy – somewhat meta that. While Sadie has lived a sheltered – obsessively so – life behind the walls of the Survivors’ colony, Havard establishes that she has managed remarkably to cope with the vagaries of the outside world. She is a true Survivor.

The influence of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer is evident here. Personally though I much prefer this work, because its breadth of reference is broader. Yes there is the requisite love triangle of Paranormal Romance, but it is informed by a central character who is legitimately conflicted. She has left behind everything she knows because of simple curiousity and as a narrative motivator, I find that quite a bold choice as opposed to random chance, or the disaffection of Bella Swan.

Also, that title font with the stand-out scarlet ‘S’ is just a delightful stylistic choice.

This is an entertaining and intriguing start to a new Paranormal Romance franchise. I look forward to the next entry in the series.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

 

The advance of regret can be so gradual that it is impossible to say, ‘Yesterday I was happy, today I am not.’ At no one moment did Lilia realize that her marriage was a failure; yet during the summer and autumn she became as unhappy as it was possible for her nature to be. She had no unkind treatment, and few unkind words, from her husband. He simply left her alone.

As an introduction to the writing of E. M. Forster I do not think I could have done better. After all, this novel marked his own debut and as such, here the reader witnesses his first attempts to construct a subtle and gripping narrative of social mores. However, for the majority of the book I was confused. Was Forster satirising these English toffs abroad, or did he in fact approve of their condescending snobbery? It was only after the book’s conclusion that I realized just what Forster had achieved – a genuine work of compassion, unrestrained in its perspective on human weakness.

When recently widowed, yet worryingly vivacious, Lilia Herriton agrees to travel to Italy to go on an extended tour of the sites, the in-laws breathe a sigh of relief. The attentions of certain suitors of the young woman raised the spectre of a scandal, which they could not abide, and they trust in the efforts of her companion Caroline Abbott to be a champerone in her travels. The Herritons calm is disrupted when a letter is received from Lilia informing the family that she had made a new match with a native of the Italian town of Monteriano. The youngest Herriton son Philip is sent to recover the family’s honour only to discover that it is too late. Lilia has already married Signor Gino Carella.

The news could not be worse. Not only has the young widow and mother left her child behind in England, with no apparent interest in returning, she has chosen to marry the wastrel son of the town dentist. Philip is humiliated by the encounter with the couple, his plan to pay off the Italian foundering when Gino realizes staying with Lilia is far more profitable. He also blames himself for the entire situation. After all, had he not been the one to first sing the praises of the Italian countryside and the mercurial character of its people? Had he not encouraged Lilia to go on her tour, filling her head with ideas of high culture and art – romance, the thing he yearns for the most?

Philip leaves Italy disenchanted, embracing the cynicism of his mother, while Lilia is left to her domestic life with Gino which soon begins to lose its charms. By finally defeating her upper-class and superior in-laws has she only managed to strand herself in a country estranged from everything she knows?

At one point Caroline Abbott accuses Philip of been unable to take a stance on anything – he insists on sharing everyone’s point of view. It is a critical moment in this book as it reflects Forster’s own stance on human nature, weak, fallen, lovable, hateful and doomed all at once. Apparently the narrative itself was inspired by a disastrous trip across Europe that the young man shared with his mother, with much moaning and complaining about migraines and bad food. That privileged perspective on Europe, the site of many an upper-class aristo’s ‘tour’, persists but there remains a genuine sympathy for these characters, enriching the material throughout. Gino in particular seems to be the archetypal spoiled brat, using a callow rich woman for her wealth, but Forster shows that the boy-man has his own charms and needs. Lilia is tragic in her desire to still live up to the standards of the Herritons even after she has finally escaped from them, while Philip’s wish to be an aesthete, indulging himself in high-falluting talk about civilization and Old Europe comes undone when confronted with the pain of real life.

This is a wonderfully judged and subtle work, a remarkable achievement for a first novel.

There are some cheeks that serve no purpose other than taking up space on a face. Sometimes cheeks are just palettes for makeup experiments. Often, cheeks are just things that ache, making it difficult to give pretend-smiles. But then, there are other cheeks. Cheeks that are put on the face on a human being to illuminate the mind-blowing concept of having cheeks. That must be pulled. She had such cheeks. And they asked to be pulled.

I must confess I have been prevaricating over reviewing this book for some time. I was actually intimidated by the prospect of reviewing a book that is only nine pages long. A book of short stories at that. It was only due to the efforts of Irish author Oran Ryan from Seven Towers books that I was convinced to sit down, shut up and read Inklings (Facebook fan page here).

Aparna Warrier‘s stories are examples of flash fiction, brief and to the point. The style really puts Polonius’ line about brevity being the soul of wit to the test. Of the selection of stories contained in Inklings, there are examples of romance, magic realism, even a poem of sorts based on the repetition of two words, ‘violence’ and ‘money’.

This is what intimidated me. How could I even begin to review something like this? As it happens, Warrier was an excellent guide to this style of writing, capturing my interest quickly and delivering a series of well-paced short narratives that still feel complete despite the length. Taking our Time opens the collection, describing a romantic infatuation with a sting in the tail. The reversal in the final line inverts the meaning of the entire piece. Immediately I began to see the advantages of flash fiction. Intoxicated by the Impossibility illustrates the insomnia-inducing extremes of obsession, followed by Who wrote The Rules? an unusual interrogation on the nature of society itself. So What? presents philosophical absurdity, while Oil on Canvas sets about explaining the capacity of art to compliment memory.

The longest story here Always, a whole page and a half long, is a seemingly simple story about a child bring a worm to show and tell in school. However, Warrier perfectly captures the lonely vulnerability of schoolroom isolation, young Priyanka finding a place among the other classmates thanks to ‘Greenie’. It is a telling preview of what the author is more capable of with a longer form.

Of course my favourite story of the bunch is The Revolt of the Coconut Trees magic realism by way of The Day of the Triffids. What I have always loved about John Wyndham’s novel is that it opens with such a funny line, proceeding to describe the invasion of earth by vegetable alien life-forms with a grim black humour. Warrier’s effort is more of an ecological fable, but also has a similar sense of humour.

Overall this is a surprisingly effective collection and a fascinating introduction to flash fiction.

My thanks to the author for my review copy.

The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, driving in for another chomp.

‘I say!’ said Alexia to the vampire. ‘We have not even been introduced!’

Certain books tell you all you need to know about them very quickly. The above exchange occurs on the second page of Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel.  Immediately I knew what to expect from this novel. Quite reassuring really.

Alexia Tarabotti suffers from an indelicate social standing. She is both twenty-five years old and unmarried. What is more, to add to her near-outcast status, she is half-Italian and considered far too bookish for a lady hoping to wed in late-nineteenth century London. What is less well known about Alexia though is that she also lacks a soul, a quality which defines her in the files of Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry as a preternatural, an extremely rare condition that allows her to literally ‘defang’ vampires and werewolves at a touch.

For her though this is simply yet another questionable trait inherited from her deceased father. Her mother, Mrs. Loontwill, has since made a more respectable match and guided two further daughters into society, whose pale skin and chatter contrasting sharply with their half-sister.

Then Alexia is forced to dispatch a vampire attacker at a ball! The indignity of it all. BUR agents and werewolves Lord Maccon and his beta Professor Lyall interview Alexia at the scene. She reveals that she noticed the vampire was unaware of any of the proper social conventions for a member of the undead class to observe, plus his fashion sense was dreadful, indicating that someone is transforming humans outside of the London vampire set, known as hives. Maccon and Alexia exchange barbed comments, both having reached a highly negative opinion of the other. However, over the next few days as our parasol-sporting heroine discovers more about the conspiracy behind her attack, it is Lord Maccon who continues to come to her aid, even rescuing her from a monstrous figure with wax-like skin and an eerie grin. Could the Lord Earl of Woolsey’s feelings for her extend beyond his outward shows of irritation? Has she finally made a suitable match for a husband? And where are all these uncouth vampires coming from?

This book is an absolute delight. Mixing Wodehousian banter and innuendo with the social climbing drama of a Jane Austen novel and then serving up a heady melange that includes many different varieties of supernatural beastie, Gail Carriger has produced a masterful debut. In a sense this book is a natural successor to the mash-up phase of the past few years, which has begun to endure something of a backlash.

Here the paranormal romance features a courtship that raises a hearty chuckle, the monsters of the gothic novel restrained by societal convention to hilarious effect. Lord Maccon is not only an alpha male, he is an alpha werewolf male and Scottish to boot, which leads to no end of mockery by Alexia, herself considered too headstrong and fixed in her ideas by her contemporaries. The banter between them is sustained beautifully, with the rueful Professor Lyall acting as an occasional agent of Cupid.

Of course any work of escapism deserves a worthy central plot and Carriger fashions up a terrific yarn involving religious intolerance of the undead and twisted science. Overall this is a great package, with lots of clever little touches accessorising the main story in a fitting manner.

I am happily converted and am eager to gobble down the rest of the series. Madame Carriger, I doff my hat to you.

I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a house-wife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.

The next day, we were married.

I found myself in the unusual position of being scolded by this book’s introduction, written by Helen Simpson. “The Bloody Chamber is often wrongly described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist. In fact, these are new stories, not re-tellings.” Well shut my mouth! I have been going around for years saying, oh, I really want to read this book by Angela Carter. It’s like a feminist retelling of fairy tales. Sounds amazing.

Apparently I was wrong.

Well I am happy to take those lumps, but I might argue that bringing to the fore the sexuality of these heroines in Carter’s fairy tales is feminist insofar as it presents their sexuality as relevant to the text.

Consider the title story, which opens with a young woman travelling to meet her fiancé, with due attention paid to the ‘pounding’ of her heart and the ‘thrusting’ pistons of the train bearing her ‘away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.’ The story continues in this elegiac style, risking accusations of being overwritten, but Carter is obviously having wicked fun with this tale of a woman who discovers her new husband carries a dark secret. The Bloody Chamber flirts with the divide between sex and death, the marital consummation equated with ritual murder, the narrator unquestioningly pulled this way and that as if by tidal forces between her mother and her husband.

The following stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride both address the same source material, a recurring technique within this collection, namely Beauty and the Beast. The first story appeals to the high romance of the tale, especially in its numeroues retellings. The second riffs on a cruder sense of humour and explores the venality of ‘Belle’s’ father in losing his daughter to the Beast, not to mention her own knowing mockery of his intentions towards her.

The Company of Wolves, most famously adapted by Neil Jordan, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, the last story in this collection, are all riffs on different aspects of the Little Red Riding Hood story. A similar separation, as with the previous stories depicting different aspects of Belle, is attempted here. The young heroine appears either as an innocent, a woman who uses the desire of the wolf to survive, or a more lupine creature herself.

Puss-in-Boots is transformed into a bawdy farce about a young lover and his feline valet. ‘So all went right as ninepence and you never saw such boon companions as Puss and his master; until the man must needs go fall in love.’ A rich vein of cynicism is explored in this story, with romance simply another scam, another challenge for the wicked pair.

My favourite of the bunch has to be The Lady of the House of Love. This is an extremely funny take on the traditional vampire myth, with a lonely undead Countess feeding on young men who pass through the abandoned village beneath her castle. Until one day, a cyclist on leave from the war arrives to drink from the fountain and is directed by the castle’s maid to visit. Instead of being seduced by the grandeur and ostentation of the abode, he sees nothing but mould and decaying furniture. Completely devoid of imagination he is immune to the charms of the vampire. I learned on the weekend that this young hero was apparently based on an artist neighbour of Carter’s. Quite the poison pen she had.

Deliciously wicked and very funny.



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