Monday, 7 November 2011

In which Scarlett O’Hara attempts to win back Rhett Butler. Because Scarlett learning her lesson at the end of Gone With the Wind by being denied her soulmate is just too gloomy.

Alexandra Ripley
(Pan Books, 1991)

Perhaps the most annoying element of this brick of a book is the “so it is” portrayal of the Irish. The romanticisation of the Deep South in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 original can be excused as nostalgia for a long-vanished age. I’m not sure even that justifies its reactionary views, but at least Mitchell packed in the action, and had a stunning set piece at its mid-point.

Scarlett lacks such a background, and crosses the Atlantic in search of an equivalent. Scarlett herself promptly forgot the lesson she learnt in the fog in Atlanta, and goes after Rhett just as she went after Ashley. The portrayal of Ireland in the 1870s is just a bundle of laughable clichés, covering every possible stereotype of the Irish. And it shows a political naivety by treating the fight for an independent Ireland – a fight that was still killing people in 1991 when she wrote this book – as equivalent to Mitchell’s romanticised Deep South.

I liked it as a bodice-ripper, but it left an uncomfortable impression.

Jamaica Inn

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

There are times when, faced with the need to read, a girl reaches for familiar comforts. Jamaica Inn is mine. Before we get to the review, I’ll explain our history.

As a kid, I thought Jamaica Inn would be about pirates. It’s a logical guess by someone who watched a lot of Errol Flynn movies as a kid. I pulled my mum’s copy off the shelf, discovered it involved a girl in Cornwall and put it back in disgust. Half a decade later, I took it back down, tried again and fell utterly for Daphne du Maurier’s fiction. That copy is the one I still have. The paper is so thin you can see the text on the other side. The blue fabric covers are faded to lilac by the sun. There are a mountain of printers’ errors, possibly due to it having been printed in 1947.

There is no other physical book that is so comforting to me. Which is strange, as the story is discomforting.

Jamaica Inn
Daphne du Maurier
(Virago Modern Classics, 2003 [my edition, Victor Gollancz 1947])

After Mary Yellan’s widowed mother dies in 1820, Mary follows through on her promise to sell the family farm and to go live with her lively Aunt Patience. Patience has married the landlord of Jamaica Inn, Joss Merlyn, and Mary will help them run the coaching house high on Bodmin Moor. Except no stagecoaches stop at Jamaica, and the waggons that come by night carry a dreadful cargo.

The story is in some ways a standard romance. Despite his bad family and open life of crime, upright church-going Mary falls for Jem Merlyn (her uncle’s younger brother). There’s a supporting cast of squires and pedlars, along with the albino vicar of Alternun.

What makes the novel stand out, though, is the descriptions.

They would be born of strange stock who slept with this earth for a pillow, beneath this black sky.

There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, an age when man did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hills. And there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.

The book hums with a love of Cornwall: the stark high moors, the soft greens of the south coast valleys, the crash of surf on the northern cliffs. This is what brings me back to the novel again and again. The vividness of the description includes the vicar’s paintings, infused with an alien green light, and the brittle, brutal wildness of a tor in winter.

There are also great character touches. Though Mary Yellan curses that she is a woman and thus cannot fight her uncle physically or her attraction to his brother mentally, she is strong and independant. She takes action when she can, she holds her own against the villains. She faints only when she has endured dreadful events. For a historical romance heroine, written in the 1930s, she’s tough and modern.

The vicar of Alternun isn’t a jovial churchman, he doesn’t provide a warm sanctuary for Mary. Even the terrifying Joss Merlyn isn’t one dimensional: when drunk he is haunted by the people he’s killed.

Jamaica Inn is the best kind of romantic novel: it isn’t comfortable or sweet. It’s tough and beautiful, and is much a romance about the sublime landscape as it is human relationships.

Years back, going over the A30 (the prosaic name for the high moor road) we passed the real Jamaica Inn. It was on the other side of the road to the way I’d always pictured it. Despite having seen it for real, I still picture it the way du Maurier described it.


Monday, 22 November 2010

Ages ago, Carrie and I discussed potential blockbusters we could write. What about one like Footballers Wives but about the Tour de France? The hotels, the podium girls, the lads, the scandals, le ventoux. Eventually, we dismissed this as an insane idea that would never sell.

Had we done any research, rather than discuss the idea idly, we’d have discovered it’d already been done.

Freya North
(Arrow Books, 2000)

Catriona (Cat) McCabe is a budding cycling journalist nursing a broken heart. She gets a gig as the Guardian correspondent covering the Tour de France, spending three weeks in the travelling village that is the greatest of the Grand Tours. In the process she makes friends in the press corp and on the teams, and finds a new romance.

I’ve said before that I enjoy romance novels. Sadly, I don’t enjoy this sort of bonkbuster.

There are some good elements. The Tour is a great hook for a novel, offering drama, surprises and people on the very edge. Each chapter is a day of the ride, so you get a sense of the structure of the Tour. I actually liked a section from the point of view of the fictional sprinter, Luca Jones, as he wins his first ever stage. And I’m amused that Catriona appears to have been named so her nickname of Cat mimics the Cat 4, Cat 3 etc climbs of the Tour.

But the prose.

The tenses are all over the place, skipping from third person present tense by one character to third person past tense from another within the same paragraph. There’s an authorial voice that uses first person singular and/or plural (always in italics) and has conversations with the characters so that they are answering questions instead of having internal monologues. I’m a believer in the idea that you can break the rules of written English for dramatic effect. But Cat doesn’t make it clear if North is deliberately doing this or is just rather sloppy.

Worst still are the supposed race report articles Cat submits to the Guardian. Here’s the opening sentence of an actual race report by the Guardian this year:

After more than 2,000 miles of racing over the past three weeks, exhaustion finally caught up with Andy Schleck today.

There’s a who (Andy Schleck), a what (he was exhausted) and a why (2,000 miles in three weeks). You’ll read on to find out the details.

Here’s one of Cat’s:

Against the shimmer of lavender fields and the stab of cypress trees, amidst the rustic stone buildings tiled in terracotta, under the gaze of the inky mountains of the Vaucluse, the Tour de France found itself in the midst of a Cézanne painting.

As all the journalists I’ve trained with would tell you, that 43 word sentence would be cut. It’s very poetic but poetry comes after the who, what, where, when, how and why of reporting. The opening para needs to contain some key fact other than Provence is rather pretty. And opening sentences tend towards 20 words.

It’s not that North didn’t do her research: the acknowledgements thank David Millar (Scottish rider, once dirty now clean) and Alasdair Fotheringham (one of the two Fotheringham brothers who are regarded as great cycling writers). She loves the Tour, it’s clear, but this is not a great cycling novel.

And let’s not even wonder how Django McCabe came to be named…

These Old Shades

Monday, 5 July 2010

Within the pulp shelf of the to be read bookcase, there is a wide range of genre fiction. Science fiction, of course, and detective fiction as well. Those are the respectable pulp genres. There’s also romance, which is a genre looked down on far too much. I’m not saying it’s all good, just that if you’re going to read pulp genre fiction, romance is as good as any other. It has narrative formulas and prose clichés just as much as any other genre. Anyway, I’m not going to defend it further: that’s what the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books site is for.

These Old Shades
Georgette Heyer
(Mandarin 1993 – link above goes to the 2004 Arrow edition)

The Duke of Avon, who is nicknamed Satanus, buys a red-haired street urchin, Léon, on a whim. He’s planning revenge on an old rival and the boy will serve his purposes. There’s just one problem: Léon turns out to be Léonie.

Other Heyer’s I’ve read have been Georgian: this is instead set in pre-Revolutionary France. There’s an awful lot of gold lace and courtly frou-frous getting between the reader and the story. La Pompadour fleetingly appears.

The larger problem, however, is that this is a romance told primarily from the point of view of the alpha male hero. Who is twenty years older than the putative heroine. She hangs on his every word and adores him from the start. Because this novel was written in 1926, there is no slashy subtext – the Duke of Avon does not worry about being attracted to his manservant. It just doesn’t satisfy in the way a modern cross-dressing historical romance would.

The novel is also prone to far too much ‘tell’. The events of twenty years before are told to us, more than once, when a novel in two parts might have made more sense and provided us with sympathy for the Duke of Avon. A kidnap/chase section is told from multiple points of view but those views don’t provide new information about the events.

Ultimately, having found a couple of other Heyers – notably The Reluctant Widow and Cousin Kate – entertainingly dashing, These Old Shades was a chore to finish. It’s noticeable that there’s some twenty years between this and the ones I enjoyed.

Their Finest Hour and a Half

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Their Finest Hour and a Half
Lissa Evans
(Black Swan, 2010)

Film was a precious commodity during World War Two. Not so much the films that were playing at the picture houses as there were plenty of Hollywood imports to give the audience an escape, but the actual stuff to film on. It was, like so much else, rationed out. So Laurence Olivier gets colour stock to make his unsubtle patriotic Henry V but the infinitely more cinematic Powell and Pressburger worked in shadowy black and white for many of their wartime films like A Canterbury Tale*. Their Finest Hour and a Half is set in 1940-41 and follows four seperate people as they are slowly drawn in to making a propagandist film about Dunkirk for the Ministry of Information.

Catrin is a Valleys girl who ran away to London with a socio-realist painter, one of the (fictional?) Paddington group. She’s a copywriter on adverts who is drafted in to write “women’s dialogue” at the MOI, eventually scripting a fictionalised account of two female twins rescuing soldiers from the French beaches. It’s hard not to feel this is the character the author expects the audience to identify most strongly with. She’s more modern than Edith Beadmore, a costumier at Madame Tussards; more worldly than Arthur Frith, the military adviser to the film who tries not to remember the real rescue; more compassionate than Ambrose Hilliard, a former leading man struggling to accept the world sees him more as a character actor now.

This is an undemanding read, one that whizzed by in a couple of nights. The Blitz is something that causes changes: two near misses makes Edith move to the seaside where she encounters the film crew (and a subsequent bomb triggers another change in her life). But it’s not the focus of the book and the closest it comes to showing the horror of it – the pyschological as opposed to the physical damage and social upheaval it caused – is when Ambrose is asked to identify the body of a friend. There are great details, such as people not wanting to bother with the shelters and the bureaucracy involved in doing something as simple as travelling to the coast.

The details of making a film under wartime conditions works well, although the description of Catlin’s first visit to the MOI seemed to be straight out of Brazil (an impression probably increased by the description of Senate House). I seem to be reading a few books with Soho as a setting at the moment, and this novel did conjure up those familiar side-streets.

It’s ideal for reading whilst travelling, or if you want something fast and surprisingly light. It’s romantic, without romanticising the period or becoming too sentimental.

* that’s one reason why they go delirious once they get to work with colour, producing films that use it as part of the narrative and theme (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus). I’m digressing because I love P&P so much…

Love and Time Travel

Thursday, 20 October 2005

After a recent long look at the dreaded pile, I mentally instructed myself to not bring any more books into the house (discounting research books because, yes, I am starting to work again after the fallow summer). I even mentioned it in Annie’s ’7 things’ meme and since I have made some headway with one thing listed there, I decided to be strict.

At which point someone lent me The Lady and the Unicorn and The Virgin Blue by Tracey Chevalier. This was my own fault for telling anyone who cared how much I enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring (see several previous posts). On the plus side, I did also get two books off the mountain and read them as well: Longtitude by Dava Sorbel and The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The former was found in a charity shop but had been on my ‘ought to read one day’ list whilst the latter was in a 3 for 2 with Going Postal and The Lambs of London. Running through the books are themes of craftsmanship and/or time, so it seems like my recent reading has at least been compiling ideas. So…the books…

The Lady and the Unicorn
by Tracey Chevalier
fiction | C20th | historical
Multiple narrators in two worlds which run in parallel. Some characters cross from one to another, most notably the painter Nicolas des Innocents, but also the middleman Léon Le Vieux. The interweaving of the narrators and perspectives clearly mimicking the tapestries about which the novel revolves. Unfortunately, for me the voices of the different narrators were not distinct enough. Whilst the language they used varied according to their social position, gender etc, the tone seemed more constant throughout. Did it create a field of colour containing characters restricted by circumstances? Yes, but it didn’t engage me with them.

by Dava Sorbel
non-fiction | C20th | historical
In contrast, the recounting of a family’s attempt to master longtitude in bitter competition to the Royal Astronomer and others, captures the emotions. It’s the classic underdog story, obviously, which automatically puts the reader on the side of the Harrisons, but Sorbel explains the logistics and mechanics of creating time so simply that you marvel at the story. The way in which time became delineated and contains is something which fascinates me: I love the way in which time in Britain was unified by the railways and that, until then, everyone ran on their own time according to their longtitude.

The Time Traveller’s Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
fiction | C21st
This is one of those books that everyone appears to be reading, so I read it. The plot is very neatly fractured and then reconstructed. The whole grandfather paradox element is given very short shrift: the protagonist tells his wife that he has tried and concluded that the multiverse theory of time travel doesn’t work. All of which is fine and it is enjoyable to see a SF conceit being used well in contemporary fiction: quite why people treat SF as contemptible whilst reading and watching a lot of popular fiction (written, televisual and cinematic) based on SF premises is beyond me. However, the main problem I had with The Time Traveller’s Wife is that I am not fond on contemporary American fiction. The clipped straightforward sentences with their lack of rhythm do not engage me with the story. The denoument of the novel should contain pathos, a sadness about the inevitability of the protagonists to change events, which should make me care. For me, it didn’t. Technically, this is a good book but that excellence is in the narrative and the structure, not the prose itself.

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