Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, narrated by Romola Garai

hot milkHot Milk is the story of Sofia and her mother, Rose. Rose has a condition which may or may not be psychosomatic and is unable to walk (except when she isn’t). Sofia, with her hard-to-pronounce Greek name and her absent Greek father, her high level of education and low level of employability, has walked away from her own life to do the co-dependant’s dance around her mother. But her own behaviour is less than predictable.

There are so many things to love about Hot Milk. First, the setting. I spent some time in Almeria and the story perfectly captures the strange, remote quality of the place, the extreme landscape and the unlikeliness of a resort in such a harsh climate, the international cocktail of outsiders who wash up there, who are so different but just in being there, become somehow the same.

Like the shimmering heat of Almeria, there is a languid surface to the story which belies the simmering of ideas and themes. This is a story about individuals, about mother and daughter, about the spiky Sofia who will neither conform nor rebel but is always disrupting her own dreams. It is also about the unravelling of Europe. It deconstructs what we are sure about, shows us that the world we think is fixed is in flux. Spain and Greece, once at the heart of Mediterranean civilisations, are now on the periphery. It poses playful questions about the body politic and the willingness or otherwise to take your medicine.

This is a clever book, cool, ironic, provocative (and the narrator of the audiobook captures this tone perfectly). Whenever I think about it, I see something new.

View Hot Milk on Goodreads

not the end kate vane cover 2017

Enjoyed this? If you’d like a different perspective on the seaside, my novel Not the End is 99p/99c on Kindle this week.

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth narrated by Michael Maloney

morality play barry unsworthNicholas Barber is a fourteenth-century cleric who has left his position in Lincoln Cathedral through youthful restlessness. He is therefore a fugitive, and a hungry one, when he happens upon a group of players and they allow him to join them. Their journey takes them through a town where a woman is about to be hung for murder. They decide to perform a play about her crime but somehow the story refuses to fit the form.

There is so much packed into this beautifully crafted short novel. It is alive with the sights and sounds and smells (especially the smells) of the period and has all the archetypes of the Medieval hierarchy. However, it is an order under strain, where the conflict between the individual and the role that is assigned to them is about to come to the boil.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the dramatisation of the murder by the players. The writing is impressive because we see everything from Nicholas’ point of view as he performs, but we also get a vivid sense of what the audience sees. This is enhanced in the audiobook by the excellent narrator. He distinguishes not just the individual characters, but between their ‘real’ and their theatrical voices, as they move between artifice and realism.

As the players perform the play their understanding of the murder changes. They are not only learning the truth, they are creating it. In telling a story of their own devising, rather than the officially sanctioned account, they are questioning the very basis of their society, even though they know there will be consequences.

Morality Play is a book that stays with you, with its intricate drawing together of the visceral honesty of theatre and the role-playing that we call real life.

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The Butterfly Effect by Jon Ronson

the butterfly effect jon ronsonThe Butterfly Effect is an original Audible documentary by Jon Ronson. He explores how technology has changed the porn industry and by extension all of us. He begins by interviewing the man who used technology to create what became PornHub, a YouTube-style platform for porn. This discursive approach takes in, among other things, porn stars in the San Fernando Valley, the death of an Italian priest, and a Norwegian stamp collector.

Ronson is a sensitive interviewer, letting people tell their own story. He’s also a great storyteller and each episode has intriguing hooks, twists and a teaser ending so you have to keep listening. I’m almost afraid of giving spoilers, but certain things particularly stayed with me.

In Montreal, the data analysts who worked behind the scenes at PornHub were almost oblivious (or in denial) of what they were working on. They just focused on the task. Meanwhile, a whole generation of women lost work in porn because of the search categories that they created in response to the way people access porn. Women under 20 get work in the ‘babysitter’ and ‘cheerleader’ categories, women over 30 get the ‘milf’ roles, but between those ages they are unemployable. (There’s an interesting analogy here with Amazon’s book categories, where discoverability is increasingly driven by genre.)

In another episode, Ronson is on a porn set during the making of a movie. There is an orgy scene and many of the male performers are watching porn on their phones so they can get an erection. It seems watching someone have sex with a porn star is more arousing than the imminent prospect of actually doing it. The analogy here hardly needs stating.

Ronson doesn’t take a position on porn per se but he considers the way in which people ignore the human consequences of porn and the way in which they simultaneously are excited by it and despise the people who work in it. Porn stars report being spotted in the street and facing hostility from the very people who have recognised them.

At one point Ronson sets up an interview which is somehow both poignant and deeply ironic. An old-school San Fernando porn director whose income has dropped dramatically because of piracy challenges PornHub’s founder. The director expresses exasperation at his lack of empathy as free illegal downloads drain away his livelihood, but he asks no such questions about the effect on people of the films he makes.

This documentary is thought provoking and fascinating and I listened to it in one sitting. The stories it tells are sometimes dark, often strange and occasionally moving.

The Butterfly Effect is available as an audiobook and as a podcast.
View The Butterfly Effect on Goodreads