Red August by H. L. Brooks

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On the cusp of womanhood, August Archer wakes up from powerful erotic dreams of werewolves to find her real life is even stranger, more violent, and more passionate than she ever could have dreamed in this modern-day telling of the Red Riding Hood story.

Hlbrooks.com

An adult retelling of beloved fairytale Little Red Riding Hood by author H. L. Brooks. Like the classic, there is a young girl named (August) Red, a grandmother living in a questionable, foliage bound residence, some pretty terrible parenting and of course the dangerous wolf with big eyes, big ears, big teeth and in this case, a rather large something else…

Unlike the story we all know and love, Red August contains a beast which is not entirely human nor entirely wolf, an errant mother who is definitely hiding something and an apothecary lady who deals in some rather unsavoury substances.

This is certainly a tale for the grown ups and not one that I would snuggle down to with my nephew and/ or niece of a Sunday eve. In other words there’s LOTS of sex in it. I don’t see this as a bad thing (so long as it’s true to the character, you can write whatever the heck you like my friend), but some people can be put off by this kind of fiction. If that’s you, Brooks has written a very interesting blog post explaining why there is quite a bit of sex in this book which you can read here.

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I enjoyed the way that Brooks played with the well known story, bending the rules a little so that we could see alternate angles, and introducing us to characters and their backstories to enrich the experience.

My favourite element of the book is the setting. The deep dark woods with the flowing stream, which encompasses Grandma’s quaint if generously proportioned home. Then there are the occasional references to the family’s homeland, Scotland, which wasn’t explored nearly enough for me.

Like all good books, Red August is awash with mystery and intrigue. As we slowly unravel the family secrets, and learn more about Red’s past, her current situation does make more sense but I wanted more. I sometimes felt a little out of touch with what was happening, but I guess that’s how Red must have felt among her family for a little while.

For a writer, an amazing part of the storytelling process is to share an important message that transcends the superficial storyline and reaches readers on a personal level. Bearing this in mind, I think Brooks has missed a trick in this book. (Dear author, please do forgive me for the next paragraph if I’ve interpreted this wrong. I feel inclined to tell you here that I am on a very tight schedule what with me being very busy and important with work and studying. Also, last night my cat decided that I was not looking nearly fancy enough for slumber and so he rolled himself out into a furry wrap and donned my chest, stretching from shoulder to shoulder, and proceeded to purr with volumes to rival the deepest thunder, between the hours of 3am and 6am making me a very sleepy human today.)

What I mean by that is I feel that the author sometimes glosses over some of the heavier subjects. Allow me to illustrate. Towards the beginning of the book, following an intense bout of bullying, August is sexually assaulted in a most brutal manner by a boy from her new school. This whole episode is soon forgotten however when the rest of the story kicks in. There is no mention of this violent, sexually explicit experience later on, even in relation to August’s many sexual fantasies and later on in her intimate encounters with Faolon.

Whether this is to demonstrate August’s resilience to the mental effects of the attack (an attribute worthy of her new found family history?) or whether the whole incident is an example of unnecessary background information on the author’s part, I haven’t quite worked out yet. I’m inclined to go with the latter. The boy who attacked August is left out of the book altogether, once he has been ruthlessly dealt with. There is already so much going on in the book that this episode serves little purpose but to paint August as an unfeeling robot, which of course we know she isn’t. It could also be construed as a way to show August’s protective relationship with her mother (as she shields her mother from hearing about her attack) but their relationship is shown in various other ways anyway.

Either way, it adds a certain darkness to the story.

I enjoyed the whole concept of the Red August. You guys know I bloody love a fairytale with a modern twist.

I look forward to the next instalment of the Red August series, which I believe is due out in 2016!

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Thanks Heather for sending me a copy of Red August to read and review.

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Celebrating the Freedom to Read in Banned Books Week – “Lolita” review

Banned Books Week is a time to celebrate the banned books of the world. According to the Banned Books Week website, this is what Banned Books Week is all about:

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

What a brilliant idea. Joining in with the festivities, I scanned through a list of banned tomes. I eventually plumbed for one that has been described as controversial, a masterpiece, as a classic and as one that has polarized opinions. It’s Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955.

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Poet and pervert, Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed by twelve-year-old Lolita and seeks to possess her, first carnally and then artistically, out of love, ‘to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets’. Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? Or is he all of these? Humbert Humbert’s seduction is one of many dimensions in Nabokov’s dizzying masterpiece, which is suffused with a savage humour and rich, elaborate verbal textures.

Martin Amis, Observer 

Written in America in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Lolita was rejected by several publishers before finally reaching print in 1955 across the pond in France. When considering the subject matter and the time that it was written, this is perhaps understandable. I suspect it would suffer a similar reaction today.

Along with the controversial themes within this story, there is a streak of comedy, which necessitates the prefix of ‘dark’.  There are several comical scenes and interactions woven into the book’s disturbing events. This is all tied in with Humbert’s personality. Child molesting and severe manipulation aside, Humbert is quite the wit. I get the feeling that had our protagonist been of a less sordid persuasion, he would have endeared himself very well to the reader. But, just as his relationship with Lolita, his relationship with the reader is one of lulling them into a false sense of security before revealing his true colours, by which time it is too late. (Cue horrific evil laugh emanating from Humbert. Horrible, creepy man.)

Humbert has been interpreted as an “unreliable narrator” by most readers but I’m not sure that he deserves this accolade. True, he is the sole narrator; he is on trial for murder; he has interfered quite heavily with a child and he has manipulated those around him all his life.  All of these things do not inspire confidence. There is no precedence for his reliability but this is a man who is sitting in prison, looking back over his life, trying to make sense of it. Who could be a more reliable narrator of his own life than Humbert himself? Even through his descriptions of past events, the reader can easily determine the tone and the implications of his actions on those around him. So in terms of narrating, despite his (many) faults, Humbert is as reliable a chap as any in my view.

I think what makes this book even more chilling is Nabokov’s flamboyant use of language. Once you get past the fact that you’re witnessing the ugly inner workings of a paedophile’s brain, you realise that the language is contrastingly quite beautiful. For me, this realization did not materialize until the second part. That first half was a real struggle, let me tell you. I even considered giving up. But no book has beaten me yet!

Plot wise, the first section drags a little. There doesn’t seem to be much going on apart from Humbert’s ogling of “nymphets” (prepubescent girls between the ages of 9 and 14. Yep. Pretty grim.) and a distinct wallowing in self-indulgence and narcissism. It is worth pushing through this, skim read here if you must, to get to the latter stages of the story. It doesn’t get any less disturbing but we do learn a lot more about Humbert’s state of mind as well as the fate of Lolita.

I’ve always been intrigued by books that are banned, especially those that are marginalized by specific cultural groups or countries, for example Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses being banned in India and the consequent drama around that. As horrific as that surely was for Rushdie, it does give him a certain attractive edge as a writer. Imagine writing something that creates such a strong impact. Amazing.

But why ban books? What are the parameters in which these books are judged?  Are we protecting people from certain themes? If so why is this, when we are exposed to them in real life and in the media anyway? And who gets to ban books and what is their angle? Is it political? Is it personal taste? Is it because their mum wouldn’t like it therefore no one should read it? Grow up people. We are all very capable of choosing what we would like to read. Stop this censoring madness. Banning something is not going to stop people wanting it.

Have you read Lolita or any other “banned books” recently? What did you think? Here’s a shortlist of banned books for you to peruse. (As if The Perks of Being a Wallflower is on there?!!)

 

 

Flowers for Algernon

I don’t ordinarily make New Years Resolutions, not at the traditional time anyway.  This year I made a silly promise to myself at around the second week of 2014, that I would bulk up my portfolio by writing 50 short stories in 2014.  I know.  So far, I have a measly two, neither of which I will be sharing with you because they are just too unutterably sad.  Not in subject matter. Just really sad. Honestly, they are awful.  Anyhoo, while I am failing as a short story writer, I feel I am becoming quite the connoisseur of the short story reading.

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My latest short story read is “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.   I honestly feel that if someone told me this had been written last Wednesday, I would believe it.  It was actually written in 1958 and published as a short story in 1959 (followed by the novel in 1966).  Keyes set the story 7 years ahead in 1965.  He could have set it 107 years ahead in 2065 and it would have been just as believable.  What I’m trying to convolutedly say, is that “Flowers for Algernon” is a timeless classic and everyone should read it.  It raises fascinating debates about how we define intelligence and questions how important and useful intelligence really is when it comes to a person’s happiness.

The most obvious feature of this piece is the use of language.  Keyes very cleverly manipulates language to mirror Charlie’s progress as his intelligence grows and diminishes.  I find this particularly fascinating for the following reasons:

During the day time, I work in Educational Psychology, so this story got my brain ticking from a professional point of view as well as from my own bruce eye view (see what I did there).  I’m not a psychologist by the way – I just work with those brain meddlers every day and so I kind of know a little bit about psychology (or lots if my boss is reading this. I know all the things and am really good at stuff. Please don’t sack me).  So, from an educational psychology point of view, the use of language to track Charlie’s progress on the IQ ladder (or “progris” as Charlie would say) is a useful tool but not wholly reliable.  A person’s ability to spell and to use grammar correctly can, among other writing conventions, give an indication as to the individual’s attainments in literacy, but it does not necessarily reflect their underlying abilities or their “IQ”.  Dyslexic people for example, can often be identified as such by their difficulties with using language in the written form, but this does not directly correlate with their intelligence.  I wonder what would have happened had Charlie’s progress been measured by some means other than writing – art, singing, algebra, astronomy, team sports, hula hooping.  Of course, the story would then have to be told from someone else’s point of view, removing the whole essence of the story and it wouldn’t be half as engaging.

But what is “IQ” and how are we supposed to measure it?  In the story, it seems that not even the doctors can agree on this.   In progress report 11, Charlie is gaining in confidence; the treatment from the “operashun” and the night time TV seems to be working as can be seen in his improving writing.  Additionally, he is starting to question things:

“I’m not sure what an I.Q. is, Dr. Nemur said it was something
that measured how intelligent you were–like a scale in the drug-
store weighs pounds. But Dr. Strauss had a big argument with him
and said an I.Q. didn’t weigh intelligence at all. He said an I.Q.
showed how much intelligence you could get, like the numbers on
the outside of a measuring cup. You still had to fill the cup up with
stuff.
Then when I asked Burt, who gives me my intelligence tests
and works with Algernon, he said that both of them were wrong
(only I had to promise not to tell them he said so). Burt says that the
I.Q. measures a lot of different things including some of the things
you learned already, and it really isn’t any good at all.”

Ever the underdog enthusiast, I all but loudly applauded Charlie as his intellect overtakes even that of his “creators”.  Had Charlie not been so disheartened by the cold reception of the doctors, I would have been thoroughly overjoyed.  In the entry titled May’15, Charlie tells us:

“Contrary to my earlier impressions of him, I realize that Dr.
Nemur is not at all a genius. He has a very good mind, but it
struggles tinder the spectre of self-doubt. He wants people to take
him for a genius. Therefore, it is important for him to feel that his
work is accepted by the world….

Dr. Nemur appears to be uncomfortable around me. Sometimes
when I try to talk to him, he just looks at me strangely and turns
away. I was angry at first when Dr. Strauss told me I was giving Dr.
Nemur an inferiority complex. I thought he was mocking me and
I’m oversensitive at being made fun of.”

The way Charlie understands IQ/ intelligence is the most unique of all the characters. He experiences first hand a whole range of IQ levels, from 68 to over 200.  While he embraces his growing IQ and learns many things including multiple languages and complex scientific theories, the most illuminating new information is with regards to human relationships.   The realisation that his peers see him as a play thing is very hurtful for Charlie.  This initial realisation is compounded further in the entry titled “May 20” during the scene in the café where everyone laughs at the “new dishwasher”:

“I felt sick inside as I looked at his dull, vacuous smile, the wide,
bright eyes of a child, uncertain but eager to please. They were
laughing at him because he was mentally retarded.
And I had been laughing at him too.”

This moment marks a painfully important point in Charlie’s journey.  He is both versions of himself; the old and the new.  One is confused yet blissfully unaware, the other is painfully frustrated and furiously ashamed.

“I’d hidden the picture of the old Charlie Gordon from myself
because now that I was intelligent it was something that had to be
pushed out of my mind. But today in looking at that boy, for the first
time I saw what I had been. I was just like him!”

This scene highlights an important question – is it more important to be happy or to have intelligence? I’m not going to attempt to answer this as I have no idea, wise though I am.  That’s one for you to turn over in your brains.

Communication is another key theme in this story.  At the opposing ends of the IQ spectrum, Charlie struggles to communicate effectively with people.  When his IQ is 68, he is unable to understand what people mean.  When his IQ is over 200, people are unable to understand what Charlie means.  He can’t win, poor chap.   Happily, though briefly, there is a level midpoint somewhere in between.  In the entry dated April 28,  Charlie has “dinner and a long talk” with Miss Kinnian.  This dinner is pivotal for two reasons:  Miss Kinnian praises Charlie’s progress and predicts his future success.  Charlie realises that he loves Miss Kinnian for the first time.

A very distressing theme from the reader’s point of view, is that even though Charlie has been on this epic intellectual journey, all he has left of it are broken fragments.  He knows that he was smart and that now he is “dumb agen” but all the important bits in between are gone.  Its as though he has early onset Alzheimers.  Throughout, no matter which state of intelligence Charlie is inhabiting, he retains his personality.  He is interested in and concerned about Algernon throughout.  Even at the end of the story, when his intelligence has all but receded, he is still thoughtful, requesting that flowers be put on Algernon’s grave when he can inevitably no longer perform this task.

I hope someone would have been thoughtful enough to bring flowers for Charlie.  Probably Miss Kinnian.  She was a good ‘un.

AB

* image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowers_for_Algernon