Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Busy Bee

Here is Buzzy Bee, possibly the best toy in the world. I like it so much because I am doing my best to impersonate it at the moment. The upside of having no internet at home (Belgacom and I have had words again, but it isn't doing me much good) and finally having sofas and chairs in the living room is that I have started reading again, and have polished off three interesting books over the past few days.

1 In Defence of Atheism, by Michel Onfray.

I'd never previously heard of Onfray until his book was reviewed in the English papers - it's the first of his many books to be translated into English, I now discover, and I think I might try the French version. The translation made the book come over as very French (umm, Spymaster's Lady Joanna Bourne might want to take a look) but was of course in impeccable English. Onfray and his translator made some wonderful coinages - my favourite was 'seraphic poultry' for angels - and overall this was engaging but not fully persuasive. It's an attack on the three big monotheisms and sometime glorious rhetoric gets in the way of a genuine engagement with the issue. But it is sending me off to all sorts of other writers like Lucretius. If a book makes me read another book, it gets good reviews from me.

2 Shopping in the Renaissance, by Evelyn Welch.

Criminal to have a book as interesting and well-illustrated as this with some holy cow type copy fouls. I don't know what the Yale editors were thinking - but ultimately, it doesn't really harm Welch's fascinating study of shopping between 1300 and 1650, complete with some lovely paintings and objects. Incredibly useful and absorbing... if you like that kind of thing. Which I do, it was the kind of book that makes research a pleasure and once again, sent me off to consult other works, which is always a good thing (see above).

3 Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon

Of course I don't spend all my days reading seriously knotty explorations of the Judaeo-Christian ethic and thorough, detailed accounts of how to visit a Venetian apothecary. It was with delight that I picked up Gentlemen of the Road, Chabon's 10th century adventure novel set in the Caucasus. Now this is how to write history and adventure! The language is ornate in a deliberate homage to Dumas and Anthony Hope and Scott type swashbucklers, the characters are quirky and interesting, and the backdrop feels real, even though I am sure that Chabon must have some anachronisms in there. One of his characters, Zelikman, is from a family of Regensburg physicians and has some very sophisticated medical ways about him, and I do wonder about some of his remedies and potions... But my WSD is unchallenged. What do I know about Khazars and 10th century medics? I'm prepared to buy anything that Chabon offers because his world is solid and sure, not a scrap of wallpaper, not even behind a radiator. Anyway, without giving away the plot, it's a terrific read, very easy and fun and witty.

But as I was cruising the net this morning, I came across an interesting take on writing - someone who judges writers for their skies, and he had found 14 references to skies in Chabon's oeuvre that he loved and bunged them up there.

He had a point, this reviewer. As he says, ever since Homer's wine-dark seas and skies, the far horizons are an apt enough way of testing the mettle of a writer. It makes me a little nervous, so I'm going to go back and check. To be honest, though, how important is the sky? Metaphorically of course it has resonance, but in day to day life, how much do we actually notice it? Not so much, I'm willing to bet. There are mornings when every sense is heightened and you do notice, and this morning, I walked from the staffroom up the stairs to my room with a lightening of heart because for the first time in some days of this drab Belgian winter, the sun was shining and the sky was streaked with an optimistic squished soft fruit colour and the great lumpen grayness was dispelled, all before 8:30am. I felt like a mole emerging when I opened the door to my room. Normally it's a question of sighing and opening all the blinds as much as possible so that any faint ray of light penetrates the stygian gloom, but this morning, the children came wincing and squinting into class and there are shadows in the playground.

Now it is back to the grim and earnest. There's a joyous essay on equity and efficiency in schools to finish off for next week (1400 words and counting, if you know the musical You're A good Man Charlie Brown, I feel like all the childen doing their book report on Peter Rabbit), some serious thinking to be done about the Dakar Education for All policy commitments (free, compulsory universal primary education by 2015, now, where did I put that medicine to cure snorts of cynical derision), another few hundred words of The Apprentice and parent's night tonight. Whoopee.

Monday, January 14, 2008

An Accomplished Woman

In the words of the wonderful Etta James, At last, my love has come along, My lonely days are overAnd life is like a song, Oh, yeah.

For the first time in months, I've found a wonderful historical romance that is a complete DIK (desert island keeper). I read An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan twice this weekend, and I'm looking forward to wrapping up my final read this evening.

Jude Morgan is the pseudonym of a writer called Tim Wilson who I've been following since he write a series of detective novels starting with The Complaint of the Dove, featuring a tutor, a rather shabby, down-at-heel gentleman called Robert Fairfax. I loved them, and then Hannah March morphed a few years ago into Jude Morgan, who wrote Passion, a very interesting take on the experiences of Mary Shelley, Augusta Leigh and Fanny Brawne, the women in Shelley, Byron and Keats's lives. Morgan also wrote a romance called Indiscretion which was good, but not fabulous. And now, for me, he's totally hit pay-dirt with An Accomplished Woman.

It may be the plethora of Austen adaptations floating about at the moment and other costume capers like Cranford and Lark Rise to Candleford, but AAW just totally tapped into that world for me, and was a blissful read. While the situations/plot are famililar from Austen and Heyer (hints of Emma, Persuasion, The Black Sheep and Bath Tangle), the characters and voice are very richly Morgan's own, and the book is delightfully wry and droll and just plain funny - especially the Romantic young poet, Mr Beck, whose extract from his own longer poem published in his journal, The Interlocuter, is a complete LOL parody of high-flown Wordsworthian blank verse.

I found the heroine very likeable, she's someone I'd happily have as a friend. She is not a 'nice' woman, but she does her very best to behave with decency, honesty and integrity, and I found the way her story and backstory unfolded to be very compelling, and the hero is just right for her. She makes mistakes, she misreads situations, but she has good intentions and she stands up for herself in the face of intolerable bullying. The hero is very well-drawn also, and their final reconciliation is totally satisfying. (I'm not giving anything away here - this is a romance, the HEA is a given).

So what made this so different to The Spymaster's Lady? Well, TSL is just Grand Guignol, where AAW is set in a rich, vivid and entirely plausible world. There are no grand adventures, no plots, no conspiracies, no evil rapists. But there are wonderful gargoyle characters, like the beastly Mrs Vawser and the appalling Mrs Allardyce who are the essence of true evil, in their way, much more succesfully than any nasty potential torturing pervert. The whole book is character driven and all the tangles and untangling arise out of well-constructed, believable characters who behave not predictably but authentically. Jude Morgan is a beautiful writer - the novel is wonderfully well-crafted and he captures an authentically early 19th century mode of speech and letter-writing which is never laboured or forced, but also flows rather more easily for the scatty modern mind than Austen. And in this novel, he is really beginning to engage with the moral issues that enrich Austen's world as well.

I can't recommend this novel too highly. Go and get it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Spymaster's Lady - Spoilers abound

Now, this novel has had rave reviews on various romance websites, so I thought that I would give it a go and was pleasantly entertained all of yesterday afternoon. It's a page-turning historical, conforming to various of the genre's conventions and stretching my Willing Suspension of Disbelief (WSD) further than a primary school kid pinging his neighbour's knicker elastic. I read it pretty much in one sitting and very much enjoyed it. But....

There's always a but. It's me. I just don't enjoy romances like I used to. And the things that stop me enjoying them are associated with the genre.

What have we here....
  • Napoleonic War setting - hmmm, been there before.
  • Spies - definitely been there before.
  • Virgin heroine - implausibly so - see below.
  • Prison-break opening.
  • Action-packed road adventure/chase scenario - good for structuring and pace.
  • Hot de-virginising sex in a bathtub ending in total post-coital rapture for heroine to the point of unconsciousness....
  • Happy Ever After for heroine despite... well the full spoilerishness comes below.

The plot is so totally utterly implausible that you have to accept and buy into it without question and the pace is essential to that.

  1. Blind heroine successfully coshes slimy rape-intent guard, frees 2 manacled prisoners and takes them with her in her escape from the evil villain's lair. Oh, and evil villain, despite being master-spy of France, does not realise that he has an essential Head of Section of the British Secret Service (which did not then exist, but that's a minor technicality) in his cellar..
  2. The only woman in the book apart from a bit part at the end is our heroine. Our hero has 4 pals, all of whom are sweet dudes, but all other men are evil and/or weak, wicked, lust-iniflamed and intent on having our heroine. But she is a sweet virgin at the grand old age of 19 even though she has spent the last 10 years hanging with various armies all over Europe, spying for the French, and we all know that armies are full of other men.
  3. Our blind heroine recovers her sight very suddenly and quite perfectly with no fuzzy episodes or fading in and out, just one minute, all darkness, next all light. Now, I know no blind people personally, but I have read enough to realise that blindness is not all dark...Yeah, I know, pickypickypicky.
  4. Our heroine then spends some days walking to London with our hero, with whom she has fallen in love when she was blind, but never seen, and she doesn't realise it is him. This produces some great sexual tension because he doesn't dare touch her in case she suddenly can tell by his sizzling touch that he is her grand passion, but it seems very unlikely.
  5. Scummy Lustful Villain Number 1 (hereafter referred to as SLV1) hops around southern England with up to 20 Froggy pals wielding pistols and knives in broad daylight and no one seems to notice, let alone call them on disturbing the peace often and variously.
  6. SLV1 then launches an extraordinary attack on the London headquarters of the British Secret Service (which didn't actually exist) in full daylight with an arsenal of weaponry that delivers firepower equivalent to several machine guns and a rocket propelled grenade launcher, although fortuitously, none of the people inside (including hero, heroine and their mates) are injured much beyond a scratch on the cheek from flying glass.
  7. Cod-French. I live and work in a Francophone environment. The one thing in the book that really prevented it from winning me over was the bastardised version of English with a French accent and occasional syntactical inversions. We spent much of the book in deep third perspective of the heroine and it was like living through a female version of Inspector Clouseau. Tintin and Dorothy Dunnett are the great exemplars for me - characters should speak naturally in the language that is being used - exclamations of Sapristi and Tonnerre de Brest should be kept to the French version of Tintin. But our author uses pidgin Franglais to emphasise the Frenchness of our heroine in a way that served only to distract. Otherwise, by and large, the settings were wallpaper. The London sections in particular struck me as being set in a Disneyfied place where a Cor-Blimey Dick Van Dyke might well be poised to hop into position for a quick chim chim cheree soon as you like guvnor.


You could argue that the heroine's Frenchness must be emphasised to magnify the impact of the final total implausibility that our heroine turns out to be the grand-daughter of the Head of the British Secret Service, a Welshman (snort, snigger snigger) who has sent his daughter and son-in-law to France 20 years previously to spy for him on the French Revolution. Oh, and they never told their daughter that she was not spying for France, no, she was spying for Britain. Huzzah, she was on the good guys' side all the time. Well, her father couldn't have told her, he died when she was four, but her mother dies about 6 weeks before the action kicks in, and just let it slip her mind...

Somehow, I could tell this one was coming. But I didn't like it when it came.

Here lies the problem for me with Romancelandia. I love love stories. But I want to believe the whole world in which it takes place and although the conflicts and adventures pile up in this novel, I could not believe in this bizarro world, especially when delivered through a thin layering of fake French.

Give me Dorothy Dunnett any day.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


I think it is probably illegal or immoral not to update your blog on 1/1 of whatever year it may be turning into, so just in case the weblice come knocking on my door, here's a quickie:

On NY Day, always check your resolutions from the previous year. It will if nothing else, give you a good laugh.

Here's the one that had me ROTFLOL.

"Practise the piano for 10 mins every day"


Now, this is my NY resolution for 2008:

Take every opportunity offered to check out JJ Feild.

There, that should be an easy one to keep all the way through 2008.

HNY, y'all.