intense sensations

Archive for the ‘Informative’ Category

Trials of LifeTrials of Life by Junying Kirk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I spent a good while reading this book and returned to it many times to re-read passages and think about what I’d read. It stirred up many emotions because the situations were very authentic and reminded me a lot of my own life.

Although it’s a novel and the events are fictionalised, it has the feel of a documentary. There is a fly-on-the-wall realism about it, giving us slices of the characters’ lives. As the title suggests, these lives do not run smoothly. There are upsets and problems.

Conflict is necessary in a novel. It is exciting to see characters bumping up against obstacles and each other. It shows us what they are made of. And it is exhilarating to see them winning through.

But because of the documentary style of this novel, you have a sense that not all the conflicts will end happily. In life conflicts can be messy. There often are no real solutions to a problem. People go on annoying us. Bad people persist in their bad behaviour. We get distressed and traumatised and have nervous breakdowns as a result.

In Trials of Life, the situations are all too real and I felt real anger and real frustration in response to what was happening on the page. There are scenes and characters that I recognise only too well. Scenes such as when Dick Appleton is boasting of how he gave his Chinese minders the slip in Xian.  He managed, he says, to spend the night in the sleazy part of the city where he saw teahouses packed with prostitutes. Naturally, the Chinese officials would not have wanted that.

But there is a certain way foreigners talk about the Chinese government that makes a Chinese person grind their teeth in frustration. There is a shallowness and arrogance to them in the face of which you are completely helpless. You have no choice but to let them persist in their ignorance while letting them believe that they are superior and you are the stupid one.

Chinese people are not hoodwinked by their government. We know that China is not perfect. But foreigners often believe that they know what goes on in China far better than we do because they are not ‘brainwashed’. They are experts by virtue of being outsiders.

Being reminded of this is in dialogue that is all too authentic stirred up very real emotions in me. But Dick Appleton, I should stress, is a particularly villainous character. He is not your typical foreigner. He is rotten to the core.

A large part of the book is focused on an employment tribunal and the events leading up to it. We learn in bitter detail what kind of a man Dick is and what Pearl suffers at his hands. I know how hard this must have been to go through because I faced a similar situation in my own career when I was forced to quit my job. But I have to give credit to Pearl and to the author of this book, Junying Kirk. Pearl challenges Dick. She faces her demons and Junying faced hers, I am sure, in writing this book.

It is a stirring story that must draw on very personal experiences. It is free from artifice. Sincerity is in every line. It succeeds in documenting with great accuracy the trials and also the triumphs of an academic life split across two very different continents. Anyone who reads it can’t fail to be moved. And it will, I hope, allow English-speaking readers to get a better grasp of what it means to be Chinese.

Instructions for a HeatwaveInstructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I started reviewing books publicly I wrote most of my reviews in under ten minutes. That’s because I wrote without compunction. I just wrote what I thought without worrying about the writers’ feelings.

Then at some point I learned that people were reading my reviews and I slowed down and started to give them more thought. One of the writers in an anthology I reviewed wrote a heart-wrenching public reply that made me almost stop writing altogether. The only positive thing I took from it was that he seemed to think I’d had some sort of privileged education in an English public school.

Then I made a partly subconscious decision to write only glowing reviews.

I have written a string of glowing reviews recently. Quite a short string, because I have been lazy and I’ve been sleeping a lot. But a string nevertheless.

So I hope Maggie O’Farrell will forgive me if I emerge from my lethargic stupor to break with habit and pour cold water on her Instructions for a Heatwave.

There is little of practical value here. I am in London, 10 or 12 days into the hottest summer for decades and I’m not feeling any empathy with Maggie’s London heatwave of 1976.

She is writing in the present tense, which is a good trick if you can pull it off, because it makes time seem to stand still and immerses us in the moment. But I’m not immersed because this is one of those very thin stories that relies on flashbacks and asides to eke out the novel’s length. And its suspense comes from not telling us things we really ought to be told. Like why Gretta’s husband has left her.

I can’t believe it’s because she bakes bread in the middle of a heatwave.

As I said, you will not find sound advice here on how to survive the summer heat in one of the most polluted cities on the planet.

My advice is to stay indoors with a good air con unit, keep the windows closed so insects don’t get in, wear linen and extend yourself languorously on a cool leather sofa within reach of a tall stack of paperback erotic novels.

I’ll be recommending some soon.

In the meantime, drink plenty of liquids, move slowly and try not to think too much.

Trust me, I’m an expert in how to survive hot weather. I’m from China.

If you think it’s hard getting your thriller or paranormal romance reviewed, you should try being an erotic novelist.

I sent my latest work to a reviewer and she was very sniffy about it. “That’s not respectable fiction,” she said. “That’s porn.”

I was not prepared to take that lying down. “I’ve put my heart and soul into that story,” I told her. “Give me one reason why it’s not a legitimate piece of art.”

“Take the opening,” she said. “Three scantily-clad women on a beach are being long-lensed by a pervert. That’s a classic voyeur story.”

Encouraged by her use of the word classic, I said, “He’s not a pervert. What man wouldn’t ogle three near-naked beauties given the chance?”

“All right,” she said, “then there’s the bit where the woman is in the pool and she’s thinking about masturbating instead of going shopping with her friends.”

“Inner conflict,” I said. “All women have to juggle their lives. This is a universal problem. You can hardly call that porn.”

“OK, what she thinks about in the pool might not be porn but that shower scene! That is most definitely porn with a capital P, O, R and N!”

“Character development,” I explained. “The man watching her is a catalyst for change and when she strips off her bikini, she is, if you like, shedding her skin and showing that she is ready to move forward in her life.”

She wasn’t even listening. “And I hardly dare even mention that sizzling sex action on the bed,” she said.

“It’s a metaphor!” I told her. I was getting exasperated now. “It’s a metaphor for empowerment.”

“Did you have to depict everything in such photo-realistic detail?”

“That’s where the artistry lies,” I explained patiently. There is no telling some people. “Besides, I was enjoying myself. Is that so wrong?”

So don’t ask me how to get your book reviewed. Most reviewers are simply on a different planet.

The unreviewed version of My Russian Spy is available now from all good ebook retailers.

'Salem's Lot‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When asked which of his novels he thought would last Stephen King said The Shining, The Stand and Salem’s Lot. The ‘S’ novels.

I think they’ll all last because Stephen King has the knack of getting inside people’s lives and putting them on the page.

Stephen King reminds me a lot of Dickens without being as good. While Dickens can skewer a character in a single phrase, Stephen King recreates them with layer upon layer of trivial details. You might not like his characters but you can see them in your mind’s eye and in that respect they are real.

Another thing Stephen King does well is to vary the rhythm and syntax of his sentences, which means his prose is relatively free from noticeable mannerisms and you can read it for a long time without getting tired. This is the mark of a writer who has read and written a lot. It’s something the reader appreciates only subconsciously. Although his books are long, they are very readable. He doesn’t talk down to his audience. Some of the passages in this books are quite poetic and his vocabulary is very rich. But his sentences are elegantly constructed and the details he notices and presents are very pertinent.

It took me a while to appreciate how deeply literate Stephen King is. I am not a big fan of his but I admire his craftsmanship and I always find his books pleasurable to read. I have been drawn to his books more and more recently, since I have begun to write for publication. I think all writers can learn a lot from him, not so much from his book On Writing as from the novels themselves.

If I were being totally fair, I suppose I should give this 5 stars. But since he is not quite as good as Dickens and this is probably not his best book, I’ll give it only 3. Sorry, SK, but I don’t think you need a leg up from me.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits

One of the best things about sex is the anticipation. So to whet your appetite for treats to come, I’d like to tell you what I’ve been reading.

1. The Empty City by Berit Ellingsen. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!

2. Conmergence by Tara Maya. Tantalising when she flashes and a rare delight when she lingers longer.

3. The Panama Laugh by Thomas Roche. An express train of a novel.

4. Rashomon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Terribly impressive.

5. The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming. Dark, dingy and dirty.

6. Asking For Trouble by Kristina Lloyd. Darker. Dingier. Dirtier. Damn good.

If I go quiet for a few days it will be because I am being deeply self-indulgent.


Books by Vanessa Wu

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