Book Review: Paying For It – Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly – 2013)

The subtitle for Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s graphic novel is ‘a comic-strip memoir about being a john’, which it is.  But it is also much more than this.  It’s a psychological study of attitudes towards sex-workers and people who pay for sex.  It’s a deeply contemplative argument for decriminalising prostitution , a call to reassess the value of ‘possessive monogamy’ in traditional relationships and an insight into the lives of prostitutes.  It is also very funny in places.

Chester Brown shows how his relationship came to an end when his girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else.  The new boyfriend eventually moves in and Brown seem remarkably unperturbed by this turn of events.  It is this attitude of non-possessiveness that sets Brown apart, an attitude he wishes more people would cultivate.

Brown takes the decision to pay for sex and we follow his experiences in very graphic detail.  The is one of the most revealing and honest autobiographical books I have read.  Sometimes it is painfully honest and I think it is incredibly courageous for Chester Brown to share this with the world.  Most of us could not be this honest, even with ourselves.

Throughout the book we see Chester’s discussions and conversations with his ex-girlfriend, his brother and his fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth (looking suspiciously like Clark Kent in his trademark vintage clothing and hat).  As you would imagine, Chester meets a variety of responses including disapproval, concern and mockery.  We see Chester justifying his actions and arguing in a Socratic way, which often undermines prejudices and persuades his friends to alter their views.

The artwork is quite minimalistic and static.  One thing that struck me was how little expression is given to the faces of the people depicted.  We have to determine what they are feeling by their words alone.  For the most part Chester’s face is a mask.

Most pages have small equal-sized frames in 2 columns by 4 rows. For me, they were a little small and I wondered if the may have been bigger in the hardback (my copy is the paperback edition).

Almost the last quarter of the book is taken up with handwritten appendices and notes, which are very interesting in themselves.  In the appendices, Chester largely reviews the prejudices and arguments against prostitution together with his own thoughts, opinion and rebuttals of commonly held views.  It’s thought-provoking and well argued.

Whilst reading the book, I did think about the impact on marriage and children.  Chester deals with both of these subjects briefly in appendix 18, but not satisfactorily to my mind.  He views marriage as an ‘evil institution’ and suggests that if the institution of marriage did not exist then ‘new social and legal structures will arise.’  He posits a ‘child-raising contract’ as a substitute for marriage that parents may be willing to enter.  In some ways, this made me think of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ where sexual relationships are constantly changing (and the drugs are free!).

Chester is realistic enough to see that his views on marriage, child-rearing and possessive monogamy are only likely to change at a speed commensurate with continental drift, but I think even that may be wishful thinking in the case of marriage and family life.  However, Chester has thought about this subject in more depth than I ever have and so may have further arguments that could sway my opinion.

This is a serious, revealing, funny and profound book.  Strongly recommended.

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Book Review: Books -Charlie Hill (Tindal Street Press – 2013)

This is Charlie Hill’s second novel and is a very funny satire on books, booksellers and undeserving bestselling authors of male confessional novels.

Our hero, Richard Anger, is a bookselling anti-hero who runs ‘Back Street Books’ in Harborne, Birmingham.  Richard is frustrated, bitter and funny.  I found myself laughing from a very early stage in the book.  Richard tries to cultivate a ‘bad and dangerous’ persona but few people seem to buy into it, seeing him more as ‘unkempt and malodorous’.  Richard rails against mediocre writers.  I’m sure many would sympathise but it raises the question of who judges good and bad books.  One man’s pot-boiler is another man’s best-seller.

On a short holiday to Corfu, Richard meets a photographer in a tavern called Lauren Furrows.  By coincidence, Lauren lives in Birmingham as well and is a Professor of Neurology at the University of Birmingham.  Whilst Richard is attempting to make Lauren interested in his obvious ‘bad boy’ credentials, another customer in the bar who is reading a book suddenly topples over and dies.  The cause of death is later identified as Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome (SNAPS).

Charlie Hill’s previous book was set in Moseley in Birmingham.  Other suburbs of Birmingham get a shout-out in this novel including Selly Oak, Kings Heath and Digbeth.  I was delighted to see Sutton Coldfield get a mention.

Back in Birmingham, Lauren takes an interest in the cause of SNAPS and believes it may have been triggered by the deceased’s choice of reading material.  She calls on Richard to assist her given his knowledge of books.  The book that was being read at the time of death was by star writer Gary Sayles, a vain hack whose editor and agent attempt to limit him to two clichés per page on his latest novel.  If Sayles books are the cause of SNAPS, then the release of his latest blockbuster could cause a massacre.

In counterpoint to Richard, Lauren’s emotions are carefully managed.  She presents an analytic, dry persona to the world.  One of my favourite passages in the book came in a description of Lauren’s painful memories of her time at university:

in her third year, in an attempt to find a belief system and an individual to assuage the hurt and guilt, she had turned to the East.  His name was Melvin and he was a t’ai chi instructor from just outside Norwich.”

We learn that Melvin left Lauren for another girl who was better at t’ai chi.

It is Charlie Hill’s poetic use of language together with a very droll turn of phrase that really delighted me in this book.

Gary Sayles is clearly unaware of the potentially disastrous effects that his books are having on mortality rates.  Meanwhile his is targeted by Pippa and Zeke, a couple of postmodernists who want Gary Sayles as their next project.  Pippa and Zeke specialise in big, shocking, ironic nothingnesses to which there is no meaning save what the critics give it.  To ingratiate themselves with Gary, Pippa and Zeke pose as Mike and Susan, Gary Sayles’ biggest fans, and put in train plans for a nationwide book reading tour for the launch of Gary’s latest masterpiece.

Meanwhile, Richard and Lauren realise they must do something to stop people dying from reading bad literature but what can they do in the face of committed Sayles fans and general disbelief in the link between SNAPS and reading?

This is a really great read. Charlie Hill is a very talented writer and his books deserve a wider audience.  Read this book, you won’t regret it (unless you drop dead reading it, but then you’d probably be past caring anyway.)

Book Review: The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins (Doubleday – 2015)

This is the first reading choice of a new book club I have joined (coffee and cakes are also involved, its positively decadent!).  We haven’t discussed it yet but I’m pretty sure that none of the other members read my blog so it should be safe for me to review it.

The girl on the train is Rachel, a woman whose life has clearly hit the buffers and who numbs herself with drink.  She gets the same train every day, morning and evening, and passes her old house which holds painful memories for her.  She also regularly sees another couple in a nearby house and imagines their perfect life, calling them Jess and Jason.  We’re clearly meant to pity Rachel.  I found her pitiful but had little sympathy (does that make me hard-nosed?)  As Rachel herself says “how shaming it is to be pitied.”

We learn that Rachel’s former husband Tom and his new family (wife Anna and baby Evie) and still live at the house she passes twice a day.  Rachel is clearly unable to let go and move on.

The mythical ideal couple, Jess and Jason, turn out to be a husband and wife called Megan and Scott.  Whilst Rachel seems jealous of the perfect life she has imagined for the couple, Megan is unhappy and wants to escape her life; to do something else or be another person.

After an alcoholic binge, Rachel decides to go to her old address.  She wakes up bruised and bloody and with no memories of what happened.  On the same night, Megan goes missing.

Can Rachel piece together any memory of what happened on that night and can she trust her recollections, was the marriage that she misses so much really as good as she remembered?  Why was she covered in blood herself?

As a thriller, this book was ok.   Few of the characters were particularly likeable and so I didn’t really care what happened to them or how their particular dilemmas were resolved.  The ‘suspense’ in the book is meant to be generated by Rachel’s memory loss, without which the story could be wrapped up within about 50 pages.  Whilst regaining fragments of her memory, Rachel also conveniently recounts episodes from her married life, which if revealed earlier in the book would again allow matters to come to a swift conclusion.  Would someone obsessed by a former marriage, to the point of being emotionally crippled by it for years, suddenly start to wonder if it was as good as they remembered?  I think not, but there’s obviously not many book sales in a thriller where a reliable witness comes forward and solves the mystery.

This has been a very popular book and a film is to be made of it.  Whilst I thought it was reasonable, I wouldn’t try to persuade a friend to read it.

Book Review : Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Quirk Books -2011)

Here’s a puzzle.  How did a book formerly owned by Cumbria Council Libraries end up in a charity shop in Birmingham?  However, I’m glad that it made this journey (presumably aided) as it’s given me the opportunity to read and review it.  

This is the first novel by Ransom Riggs and I think it would fit in the ‘Young Adult and above’ category, if such a thing existed.  It’s a book that contains a number of quirky monochrome prints of odd looking children doing strange things or people seen in silhouette.  Riggs is a fan of vintage prints and has taken examples from the collections of many of his friends plus his own collection to illustrate this book.  Do the photos illustrate characters already created by Riggs or did the photos give him the ideas for characters?  It’s a question I will ask him if the opportunity arises one day.

The story revolves around Florida teenager Jake and his Grandfather, Grandpa Portman.  Grandpa Portman has told Jake bizarre tales of his early life in a Welsh children’s home during World War II and the friends he had there with special powers or gifts, hence ‘Peculiar Children’.  Jake loved the storries when he was young but as he gets older he, quite reasonably, begins to believe that his Grandpa made up the stories to entertain him as a child.

One day, Jake finds Grandpa severely wounded.  Grandpa gives Jake a cryptic message about going to the island on which the children’s home stood.  Not surprisingly, Jake is given psychiatric care due to this trauma.

The book captures well the awkwardness of teenage years and deals compassionately with mental health issues.  It is also quite funny.  Jake’s observations of family life are deadpan and very amusing.  At a family get together he describes his Uncle Bobby 

“pulling people into corners for conspiratorial chats, as if plotting a mob hit rather than complimenting his hostess on her guacamole,”

Another of my favourite remarks of Jake is a description of his rather snobby mother;

“I did love her, of course, but mostly just because loving your mom is mandatory, not because she was someone I think I’d like very much if I met her walking down the street.  Which she wouldn’t be, anyway; walking is for poor people.”

Jake makes it to thee Welsh island on which his Granpa spent time during the War and the there follows some peculiar twists concerning time-travel and the rift between the ‘peculiars’ that see their gift as the next stage of human evolution (like Magneto and his follower in the X-Men movies) and the remainder who hope to live a peaceful life with the non-gifted.

Whilst reading the book, I did the very strange thing of accepting the overall premise of the story but questioning specific parts that may be seen as inconsequential in the general scheme of things.  We are told that Miss Peregrine’s home for Peculiar Children was bombed by the Germans during the war.  I wondered why the Germans would go to the trouble of flying across the industrial heartlands of Britain to bomb a small Welsh island on which there were few people and scant infrastructure or industry.  Jake meets some Welsh lads who, in response to a comment Jake makes that he things is insincere, says “I thought you were taking a piss mate.”  The correct expression would be ‘taking the piss’, meaning ‘to make fun of’.  Riggs uses the incorrect expression twice but gets it right on the third attempt.  

The relationship between Jake and his well meaning but essentially aimless father is juxtaposed nicely with Jakes relationship with Grandpa Portman, whom he loves dearly despite, or because of, his idiosyncracies and his ability to endure.  

After a slowish build-up, the pace of the book becomes faster towards the end and the threads are woven together at the end in a way that will allow a sequel to follow without much difficulty.  I sometimes wish that writers would concentrate on a book that feels like a whole story on its own rather than the first part of a longer series but perhaps I should just get real.

This is a reasonably entertaining book and a promising first novel.