Sunday, August 24, 2008

Two terrific reads...and a stinker...

This was the first of two children's books that have been August highlights for me. Fly by Night features a brave heroine who makes mistakes and leads a very exciting life in a world that is influenced by Jonson and Pope - a world where books are dangerous and a printing press is a weapon as fearsome as a dirty bomb, and where heroes and villains are very hard to distinguish. It is clever, exciting and subtle. Frances Hardinge is writing a sequel, and I'll be queuing up to get it.

The second one is E.L. Konigsburg's The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, an unwieldy title for a very wieldy book. The story is complex, compelling and poignant. I loved Konigsburg's Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler when I first came upon it, but I think MEHW may be her masterpiece. It is a book for adults as well as children, as it deals with the Holocaust, and the fate of the old person no longer quite able to care for themselves as well as the nature of identity and friendship and all sorts of other rich notions. Konigsburg has a very engaging voice, a little remote and formal, very matter of fact and clear as well. It would go well with two other WW2 books for the YA market that also stand up to re-reading, Aidan Chambers' Postcards from No Man's Land and Mal Peet's Tamar. I would heartily recommend it.

And now for the stinker...

Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas has received accolades aplenty from many review sites and blogs, and she, along with Joanna Bourne (Spymaster series), is being hailed as the next big thing/saviour of the historical romance. Which was what got me onto Amazon.

Sigh sigh sigh.

How do I hate this book, let me count the ways...

First of all, it made me feel like Spock. The emotional responses of these puny humans seemed to me entirely illogical, captain.

The main characters are called Camden and Gigi. Or hereafter, Crazed-for-sex and Gasping-for-humiliation. First of all, Crazed is totally in physical thrall to Gasping. But he is almost betrothed to another and he will not break his pledge. So Gasping forges a letter from Another saying that she was on the point of marrying Someone else. Crazed reads the letter, goes 'phew, now I can marry Gasping and shag her senseless'. BTW, I'm not kidding about the shagging. Sherry Thomas was clearly channelling Bridget Jones because the shag word comes up frequently. Too frequently. It's not an anachronism, but it isn't a word I associate with romance or the Belle Epoque era in which the book is set. Once she could have massaged past me, but repetition was jarring.

Back to the odd plot. Crazed discovers that the letter was forged, so he goes through with the wedding, has a rapturous shagathonic wedding night and then deserts her. This is the point at which she demonstrates her key characteristic, because she chases after him to Paris (where he is studying engineering at the Ecole Superieure) and keeps flinging herself in his path wearing little but scraps of lace. No hint that her behaviour raised any eyebrows. He resists her over and over and hires an actress to pose as his mistress because he is no longer quite so Crazed now that he's had his night of nookie.

Five years later, he sees her in Copenhagen. He's there with his current squeeze, but he catches a glimpse of her, she's on a boat and she goes all white-faced and Gaspy, and his heartstrings are tugged and he chases after her but only after buying the most vulgar ruby necklace he can find, which leaves her time to decamp so he heads back to New York where he has made his fortune. Oh, and btw, he, unbeknownst to her, despite her amazing financial acumen, has raised a whole load of loans using her name as security so that he can make as much money as she already has because heaven forfend that a woman have more financial clout than her husband. When Gasping discovers this chicanery, she's like, 'whatever'. If that had been me, I'd have had his testicles in a test-tube. And, if he wanted her back, why didn't he just go to London, where she lived and would sooner or later turn up and wait for her there? It's on the way between Copenhagen and NY, after all.

Ten years later, she finally gets round to demanding a divorce. So he comes back and says, I'll give you the divorce if you give me an heir. Spock alert spock alert.

Now, if he cooperated over the divorce business right away, he could get himself another hot mamma like Gasping and do the baby thing without further complications. And while we are talking post 1880s, surely Crazed and Gasping would have demonstrated quite a bit of complicity which courts did not look on kindly especially when deployed by divorcing couples.

Anyway, of course she accepts his weird conditions and they shag three times, and for various reasons which seem to have something to do with contraception, after the third time, he gives up and goes back to NY, and then sends her the ruby necklace (keep up, the one that meant he missed her when they were in Copenhagen) and demands that she return her engagement ring which was a modest sapphire number. So she takes this as an invitation, follows him to NY, turns up at a soiree in his home, insults his taste and then heads for his bed where he finds her starkers as soon as he'd got rid of all the guests. And they are reconciled.

So to start with, plot and characters are leaky, like the Titanic after that little brush with the iceberg.

Then there's the language. This was a rave point for reviewers, but here's a sample: "overhead, thick clouds hung like giant wads of soiled linen, gray with stains of pus yellow". There's a lot of that sort of description. I quite like a touch of pathetic fallacy, but this was like being clubbed by the Pathetic Fallacy ogre. Then a touch of historical background: "Perhaps the agricultural depression that had cut many a large estate's income by half had something to do with it. The aristocracy was in a pinch." Eh?

There's more, but basically, the language seemed to me at best unnoticeable, at worst, clunky and sometimes bizarre.

Theoretically, the book is set during the Belle Epoque, but apart from the occasional namechecking of Impressionist artists and Oscar Wilde, you'd hardly know it wasn't any old time when people wore long frou-frou skirts.

And finally, there's the structure, which is flashbacks and forwards and then interwoven here a fribble plot featuring Gasping's mother and the neighbouring duke who she'd always had a bit of a thing for. I skipped most of that because Crazed and Gasping were quite sufficient in terms of testing my limits of willing suspension of disbelief to utter destruction. But the to-and-fro structure highlighted that neither Crazed nor Gasping seemed to have matured remotely in the ten intervening years.

My absolutely final gripe with Sherry Thomas is this comment she made in a Q&A session: "England is always a good setting for a romance because, as a friend of mine once analyzed, England is an indubitably masculine place, which provides a perfect contrasting backdrop to a story about romantic love."

England - the masculine place where women like Boudicca and Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth Fry, George Eliot and Jane Austen have scarcely impinged on the national consciousness at all...I'm not even touching that 'perfect contrasting backdrop' but the term backdrop tells you all you need to know about Thomas's grasp of English culture and history.

Anyway, I put the book down and felt as though I'd swallowed a mouthful of cobwebs. Luckily, this morning I picked up Anne Gracie's A Perfect Rake and about 70 pages in, am feeling 'phew, there are still good, fun, frothy romances out there.' I feel in safe hands. There's a strong flavour of Heyer's Frederica about a couple of the opening situations, which is promising given that Frederica is one of Heyer's best ever books.

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