29 August 2013

Guest Writer Lisa Barstow On Controversial Novel Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Readers and book-lovers will no doubt have heard about the controversial new book Tampa, by Alissa Nutting.  I won't be reading it based on the plot, however it gives me great pleasure to introduce guest writer Lisa Barstow who will share her perspective on this provocative book with Carpe Librum readers.

Tampa by author Alissa Nutting
Many books generate controversy, or feature sexual content, but Alissa Nutting's novel Tampa has managed to eclipse even the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey, both in terms of the amount of explicit material and the level of media coverage that is has generated.

What's It All About?
Tampa by Alissa Nutting book coverThe reason Tampa has been so controversial is that it focuses on the relationship between a 26-year-old teacher and her 14-year-old pupil. Over the course of the novel, the main character, Celeste Price, targets a boy in her English class, Jack, and begins a relationship with him that is described in excruciatingly explicit detail. It is clear from the outset that Celeste's intentions are far from educational, when she begins her new job at a school in Tampa, Florida. To the community, she appears to be an attractive, happily married woman, just the sort of person who can be trusted to teach their children, but in reality, Celeste is a manipulative, obsessive predator who became a teacher just in order to gain access to teenage boys. Every action she takes in the book is driven by her desires, or by the need to present a respectable face to the community. Towards the end of the book, Celeste's relationship with Jack is exposed, leading to much shock and confusion in the community, but most of the book focuses on the relationship itself, and the majority of this relationship is about sex. Nutting writes explicitly about Celeste's sexual fantasies, which she seems to have constantly, when she is not actually having sex with Jack, or with the adult partners she finds so repulsive.

The Inspiration
Nutting was inspired by the real life case of a teacher in Florida, a woman with whom she had been at school, and who was later convicted of sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy. The disparity between the media coverage of that case and the responses to similar situations in which the perpetrator was a male teacher was truly shocking, and questioning why there is this division in the perceptions of male and female sexuality is surely a worthwhile venture. 

Literary Aspirations
The subject matter of this novel has invited many comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, but though Tampa appears at first glance to be a reversal of the gender roles in Lolita, the two books actually have very little in common beyond this. Nabokov's protagonist is far more eloquent, and his mind goes beyond an obsession with sex. His eloquence is a warning to the reader of the danger of falling for the words of a smooth talker. The flat, uninspiring language of Nutting's Celeste might be seen as a similar warning, this time of the banality of crime, but it leaves little for the reader beyond the sexual imagery. Celeste is clearly a sociopath who is incapable of caring about the consequences of her actions, but this means that none of the characters we are introduced to from her perspective can be fully formed. Jack, in particular, remains a bland and superficial character, but Nutting does not spend much time on exploring any of her character's psychologies. It is the response of the community to the revelation of her true nature that is important. It is just a pity that the author didn't skip to this part of the book rather than forcing her readers to endure all of Celeste's longings and seductions.

Given the plot-line at the centre of this novel, it is hardly surprising that Tampa has generated a lot of controversy, with some bookshops refusing to stock it. It is the quantity of explicit sexual content that has been particularly controversial, and it is also what makes this book a poor substitute for Lolita. The quality of the writing is nowhere near Nabokov's work. Tampa verges on the pornographic rather than the literary. It does not contribute anything to the understanding of what good writing is and what it can do to help us deal with important issues. The focus on detailed descriptions of Celeste's sex life and fantasies prevents sufficient development of the characters or exploration of the double standard that applies to male and female sexuality and abuse. The problem with this book is not that it deals with a controversial topic, but rather that it relies on this controversy too much. The graphic level of detail also makes it appear that the intention is not to critique media coverage of these types of cases, but rather to use the way the media responds to them to fuel its own publicity and boost sales. This is a book that is trying to shock us, not to make us think.
The media reviews of this book prepared me to expect a certain level of explicit content, but I found that the focus on the main character's fantasies and desires was still more pervasive than I thought it would be. It appears that Celeste cares about nothing else. I found it somewhat unbelievable that such an obsessive personality would have been able to graduate college let alone hold down a job. Celeste is a horrific character, but having an unlikeable protagonist is no reason not to like a book. The problem, for me, was not that Celeste was a nasty person, but rather than I could not believe in her as person at all.

The central idea in the book, that female predators are often treated differently than male ones, seems interesting enough to produce a challenging and important book, but Tampa is not that book. Unfortunately, the author has spent too much time trying to titillate readers and court controversy, and not enough on exploring the issues. A better challenge to Lolita might be Emily Maguire's Taming the Beast, which is told from the perspective of the female student who has been seduced by her male teacher, and does not shy away from the long lasting consequences of this abuse.

Rating = * (and only because I think this is an issue that is worth exploring)

Thank you so much for your insights Lisa, and for being a guest writer on Carpe Librum.  If you enjoyed this article, have read the book or have an opinion on the controversy, please leave a comment below.
13 August 2013

Review: The Age of Desire, A Novel of Edith Wharton by Jennie Fields

The Age of Desire, A Novel of Edith Wharton by Jennie Fields book cover
About The Age of Desire, by Jennie Fields

For fans of The Paris Wife, a sparkling glimpse into the life of Edith Wharton and the scandalous love affair that threatened her closest friendship.

They say that behind every great man is a great woman. Behind Edith Wharton, there was Anna Bahlmann, her governess turned literary secretary and confidante. At the age of forty-five, despite her growing fame, Edith remains unfulfilled in a lonely, sexless marriage. Against all the rules of Gilded Age society, she falls in love with Morton Fullerton, a dashing young journalist. But their scandalous affair threatens everything in Edith's life, especially her abiding ties to Anna.

At a moment of regained popularity for Wharton, Jennie Fields brilliantly interweaves Wharton's real letters and diary entries with her fascinating, untold love story. Told through the points of view of both Edith and Anna, The Age of Desire transports readers to the golden days of Wharton's turn-of-the century world and like the recent bestseller The Chaperone‹ effortlessly re-creates the life of an unforgettable woman.

My Review for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
I picked up The Age of Desire having never read a single line by Edith Wharton, and I'm happy to say it didn't hamper my enjoyment of the novel whatsoever. Primarily The Age of Desire is Edith's life story, in combination with sections narrated by her secretary and ex-governess Anna.

I thoroughly enjoyed the author's depiction of salons in France, journeys by motor and talk of seasons and crossings (to America). Edith's salons and social engagements were full of wit and intellect, and her friendship with Henry James was warming and generous.

I found myself constantly shaking my head in pity though when I read about Edith's relationship with her husband and it truly broke my heart. I was also shocked that Edith was such a successful writer having no knowledge or experience of an orgasm until she was in her mid 40s. Her yearning for love and desire for Morton was understandable to me, as was her husband's reaction and her attempted maintenance of it.

The end came as a shock to me, and I couldn't help but wonder if author Jennie Fields had been writing this as a fictional novel, whether she would have selected a different ending. The Age of Desire was a fabulous read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It has also inspired me to check out some of Edith Wharton's work in the future.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

10 August 2013

Carpe Librum now reviews for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

I'm pleased to announce that Carpe Librum has become an official book blogger for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

This means that from time to time I'll be participating in virtual book tours hosted by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, which will involve posting reviews, interviews, guest posts and giveaways for different books.

This will bring more internet traffic to my site, access to bestselling authors and more giveaways and interesting posts. I'm hoping readers will benefit from these book tours and enjoy the associated posts in the future.

My first book tour is The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, and my review will be published on 12th August.

Check it out and stay tuned!

08 August 2013

Review: Cemetery Girl by David Bell

Cemetery Girl by David Bell book cover
Cemetery Girl opens with Caitlin's father Tom explaining that his daugher disappeared four years ago at the tender age of twelve.  He goes on to recount a day when she was just six, and lied directly to his face, without so much as a twitch or expression of guilt.  

Tom wonders about the circumstances of Caitlin's disappearance six years later and wonders if she could have run away.  Tom's wife Abby believes her daughter is dead and makes arrangements to hold a memorial in her memory.  Their daughter's disappearance has devastated their marriage, with Abby seeking solace in her church.

It is at this time, that Caitlin is found dirty and dishevelled, walking beside a deserted road and taken swiftly to hospital.

The majority of Cemetery Girl is around Caitlin's return and Tom trying to find out where she's been for the past 4 years.  The reaction of her parents couldn't be more different and as a reader it made for interesting reading.

What made this book even more fascinating for me was the recent case in America of Ariel Castro's abduction of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.  In finding out about Caitlin, I was also thinking of these three women in real life and searching for answers.

Unfortunately I found that while the pace and suspense was great throughout the novel, the ending was somewhat of a let down for me.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!
04 August 2013

Review of Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages by Vanitha Sankaran

A Novel of the Middle Ages by Vanitha Sankaran book cover
Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages by Vanitha Sankaran is set in 1320 in a small town in France. The main character is Auda, an albino girl thought to be a devil child from the moment she was born.

Auda is mute but can read and write having been raised by a papermaker. It's rare for women to read let alone write during this period, and Auda's striking features put her very existence in danger when the Inquisition comes to town.

If you love paper at all, you'll revel in this book as the plot follows the early creation of paper using rags. The subsequent use of paper by the wealthy and the avoidance by the Church was fascinating to me and I couldn't get enough.

Interweaved between these historical facts is Auda's story as a mute albino woman who doesn't want to marry and her efforts to survive and prosper in France during the 1300s.

The novel also includes a short history of paper-making at the end, including a recipe for making paper.

Watermark is an exciting read, laced with fear, danger and a love for paper, stories and verse.  Perfect!

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!
02 August 2013

Feature in the Pittsburgh Examiner: 10 Questions with Historical Fiction Blogger Tracey Allen

I'm so excited today, because a few days ago I was interviewed for the Pittsburgh Examiner!!!  An article called 10 Questions with Historical Fiction Blogger: Tracey Allen was published today and I'm over the moon!

I enjoyed answering questions from Kayla Posney about historical fiction, including: my favourite historical fiction novels, the castle I'd most like to live in, and who I'd invite to dinner from history (that was a hard one).

(UPDATE: Unfortunately this interview is no longer available online).

Carpe Librum!
Screen shot of my interview with the Pittsburgh Examiner today