Crush by Richard Siken

41prd9tiqel-_sy344_bo1204203200_I haven’t been able to read anything since I finished this collection of poetry. As soon as I finished I just wanted to go back and read it all over again.

In her introduction Louise Gluck quotes Emliy Dickenson, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”  This is a bold quotation to use but I thoroughly agree with it.  I never expected Crush to excite me this much when I picked it up on a whim but I’m so very glad I did.

Richard Siken was the winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize in 2004 and Crush is an intimate and devastating account of queerness, violence and romance.  I didn’t know poetry could be written like this, Siken writes long breathless lines that are effortless to read yet can hit you like a punch in the gut and speed towards the margins like a car falling downhill.

           The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head underwater

because he is trying to kill you,

                    and you deserve it, you do, and you know this,

                                        and you are ready to die in this swimming pool

          because you wanted to touch his hands and lips and this means

                                                                                your life is over anyway.

Siken is so emotive that sometimes I would read a poem on my commute and then stare gormlessly out the window unable to handle the rush.

and you know that a boy who likes boys is a dead boy, unless

                                                  he keeps his mouth shut, which is what you

                                                                                                              didn’t do,

There are a whole range of poems in this collection, the one thing they have in common is the ability to drown the reader, to drag them under into Siken’s universe. This is a beautiful train crash and heartbreak of a book. I have never enjoyed being made to experience despair, claustrophobia and desperation so much. Not only can Siken emote like a master but he also is an artist with language itself, using it to paint beautiful fiery images in the air.

Chemical names, bird names, names of fire

and flight and snow, baby names, paint names,

delicate names like bones in the body,

Rumplestiltskin names that are always changing,

names that no one’s ever able to figure out.

 

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

summer-queen-uk-2I was craving an easier read after the last book so I picked up The Summer Queen from my library. It is the first of a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages. All I knew about her, despite her infamous reputation, was the story of when she offered her husband’s mistress, Rosamund, a choice between death by dagger or death by poison. I don’t know yet whether this is true or not.

The story opens with 13 year old Eleanor and her marriage to Prince Louis of France after her father dies in 1137. This book focuses mostly on the result of that marriage, Eleanor’s role as Duchess of Aquitaine and Queen of France and the long journey of the Crusades.  Chadwick doesn’t descend to the levels of Islamaphobia and racism that Lainez did but I am getting tired of the trappings of Orientalism that come from involving the crusades and perhaps should have read up on Eleanor before I started this book.

I got off onto a bad start with this book because I found Chadwick’s decision to name her protagonist “Alienor” to respect a historical figure a bit affected. If this were a historical biography I would have had more patience but it is after all a work of fiction and I found the decision extremely unnecessary. However I soon got caught up in the plot and raced through this book in three days. I found the language enjoyable and sensory, Chadwick has the talent of immersing the reader deep in the past, but occasionly the writing is verging on the overblown.

Alienor straightened in the saddle. The realisation that she was Duchess of Aquitaine was stirring within her, like a dragon awakening and stretching sleek, sinuous muscles. “I do not fear them,” she said.

The breakdown of the marriage between Eleanor and Louis was cleverly and emotively done and I found myself emotionally immersed in it. It signals not just court intrigue, scandal and personal danger to Eleanor but the shifting of a dynasty. I will certainly be reading the next book, The Winter Crown, which focuses on the Plantagenet’s in England and the children Eleanor has there, a family tree I am more familiar with- admittedly largely because of the Disney film Robin Hood.

The Summer Queen took hold of my imagination, kept me turning the pages and was a wonderful introduction to Eleanor of Aquitaine but it didn’t quite manage to capture my heart.

The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Láinez

thewanderingunicornEl Unicorno or The Wandering Unicorn is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read. It was written by the Argentinean author Manuel Mujica Láinez in 1964 and translated by Mary Sitton into English. The only copy I could get was a battered Berkley edition from 1984 so I don’t think it has recently been reprinted.

The story begins with the infamous medieval romance about Melusine the fairy, who marries Raimondin of Lusignan until their marriage disintegrates when he sees her half serpent body in the bath and she is compelled to go screaming around one of the many castles she has built. The tale then follows Melusine watching her family branching out across Medieval France and across to Palestine during the crusades.

I haven’t seen mythology this rich and archaic since I studied Arthurian literature at university. Fairies, unicorn horns, heraldic banners, knight’s templar, Jerusalem and angels living like monks in castle towers.

“From my retreat in the church tower I could see across to his cell and watch him pacing up and down, reading his devotions by the feeble light of a taper; but though we were neighbours, and the only non-human inhabitants of  Lusignan, we never exchanged a word.”

The main thread of this story is Melusine falling in love with her very distant descendant, Aoil, who has no personality to speak of. Melusine’s endless resentment and jealousy of other women bored me to tears and I found her stalking of a fifteen year old boy and lusting after him deeply disturbing especially when he was in the bath or sleeping. The only character I could have liked was Aoil’s half sister (who has some peculiar issues herself) but I strangely found her the only one I could feel empathy with

This is not a story to read in big sections; it takes concentration. Mainez goes off into tangents about the history of everything. The dry humour and lushness of imagination saved this from being tedious but authors like Susanne Clarke in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell managed to do this with more success. The story definitely picks up halfway through and I didn’t have to force myself to read anymore especially when there is an utterly briliant twist I did not see coming.

Since this story follows the medieval tradition of the crusades there is a lot of Orientalism, Islamaphobia, anti-blackness and general western superiority. There are some people who would excuse this with being “a thing of its time” but it is never fun to read about. Nevertheless this is a very odd yet beautiful book and like Jorge Luis Borges said in his introduction: “a glowing dream of the past

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

9780857207586There is a whole shelf of my bookshelf full of Philippa Gregory books. I’ve been reading them since I first picked up The Other Boleyn Girl over a decade ago. That said, I haven’t been too enthusiastic about her latest books and couldn’t even remember what most of them were about after just finishing them. They all seemed to run in together with characters and expressions I had read before.

I am happy to say that (despite the glaring historical inaccuracy on the first page that even I couldn’t overlook) this was a very enjoyable read. It was not the kind of book I’d re-read over and over again but it kept me hooked for two days. I read it well into the night and found it hard to put down.

The King’s Curse is part of The Cousins War series but I think it’s very much a transitional book between the Plantagenet and Tudor works. It tells the story of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, and the struggles she faces as one of the last Plantagenet heirs in a rising Tudor dynasty. At the story’s opening her cousin Elizabeth of York is married to Henry VII, her little brother, the White Rose, has been marched out of the tower to his execution to stop “half of England turning out just for that haunting flicker of white embroidery” and she has been married off into obscurity to Sir Richard Pole:

“I don’t dare shrug him off. He is my husband, I dare not offend him. He is my only refuge. I am buried in him, my name hidden in his. I am cut off from my title as sharply as if my name had been beheaded and rolled away into a basket.”

This book covers the same ground as A Constant Princess and The Other Boleyn Girl and yet I was gripped from start to finish. By using Margaret Pole we see the Tudor Court from an entirely different perspective; as something new, and volatile even compared to the War of the Roses. Gregory still has the remarkable talent of bringing events and people into vivid colour. While this book isn’t one of her greats it revived my enthusiasm for her work and she still sits at the top as my favourite historical novelist.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

s-l300This is a perfect book for the hot weather, Bonjour Tristesse especially takes place on the Riviera on a summer holiday and the betrayals, affairs and rising tension take place in the summering heat.

This edition consists of two stories; Bonjour Tristesse is the story of the young girl Cecile on holiday with her father and his various girlfriends and A Certain Smile, a novella, the tale of a young woman who, bored by her lover, starts an affair with a married man.

Part of the reason this work became an overnight bestseller in the 50s is because of the young age Sagan was when she wrote it. She was only eighteen when it was published and her coming of age story is coloured with the influence of Sartre and Camus. It shows a level of sophistication that is incredible. The themes of existentialism are interwoven into the threads of this story, the way Cecile lies around in the sand, smokes, and manipulates with an air of nonchalance and bemoans her lack of authenticity.

Sagan’s writing style (translated by Heather Lloyd) is cool and elegant:

 “A Strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.” 

Did that sounds pretentious? It is pretentious. This is very much a novel written by a teenager and while I admired her stylish and atmospheric way of illustrating a story I also couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Its major shortcoming is that it tries and fails to hit the true emotional mark and so becomes very much style over substance.

 

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

51Le7099+QLThe concept of this book was too interesting for me to pass up. The protagonist, 17 year old Jazz, is the son of the most infamous serial killer in modern America. His father was arrested four years ago and put away with multiple life sentences but the shadow of him still hangs over Jazz and the town. And then when a mutilated body turns up, Jazz realises there’s another serial killer on the loose.

Jazz is a satisfyingly interesting character. He is charming, charismatic and manipulative and unfortunately for him so was his dad. I like the way Lyga didn’t pull any punches with Jazz’s upbringing. He knows far too much about murder from the criminals’ point of view and is both arrogant about his knowledge and worried he’ll start killing people too. The two people keeping him connected to “normality” are and his girlfriend Connie and his best friend Howie, a haemophilic.

“You were right,” he told Howie.

“Um I was?”

“Yeah.”

“Score for me. Beauty. But what was I right about?”

“She’s a she. Not an it. She’s always been a she.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“Don’t ever let me call her an it again,” Jazz told him. “Actually, don’t ever let me call anyone an it, ok?”

Despite being an expert I like the fact that Jazz does not always reach the conclusion faster than the police force, who understandably aren’t too keen on having a teenager “helping” them with the investigation whoever his dad may be. I also liked the relationship between him and the detective who finally caught his dad.

I raced through this book in under two days. It was very readable and, however strange to say about a serial killer book, fun to read. As usual I ended up suspecting everyone to be the serial killer and it ended up being someone I never even thought of. This is the first in a planned trilogy.