Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Not Unworthy Copy of the Real Thing

Reaching even farther back into my backlog reading agenda, we find Clare Darcy's A Regency Trio.  This book was given to me by Sarah Sp., to keep because I had recommended Clare Darcy to her and she *hated* the book.  In my defense, I had read about 9 pages of one book when I did the recommending (and made that clear to her), and shortly afterwards, I realized I may have been in a bit of a hurry.  I actually found these books at the Howard Country Library, where I went once or twice when I was working in Columbia, MD (so that would be January-July last year) - the name Darcy of course jumped out at me, and these books appear to be early imitators of Georgette Heyer, and thus worth a very definite try.  Unfortunately, I found the books terribly written - the dialogue unutterably bad, the plots ridiculous and anachronisms unbounding.  But since this is, of course, my favorite genre, I was not averse to taking Regency Trio, a three-in-one of her books, from Sarah Sp.  I did take it, I think last year some time, but of course wasn't in the biggest rush to read it.  S.b. didn't think it was that terrible though, and a.b.g enjoyed it, so I certainly did plan to read it at some point.  That point finally came this past week, when I finished all my library books and my borrowed book as well.

I was planning on waiting till I had finished all three books and then reviewing them all together, since I assume they will all be much the same, but, fortunately or unfortunately, I just took out two new books from the library and I need to move this one down my priority list.  I read the first one, so the first one will be the one reviewed now.  S.b. is of the opinion that this one is inferior to the other two, but I will have to leave that up in the air for now.  Meanwhile, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by Cecily, or a  Lady of Quality.  Like I said, I found the writing (dialogue especially) terrible and extremely anachronistic in the two Clare Darcy books I read previously.  This one though, while it was painfully obviously a Georgette Heyer imitation, was very well done copy.  Each plot twist and each character had its exact counterpart in some Heyer novel, and many of the very sentences had their roots in my favorite Heyers, but overall the tone of the writing was so similar I'm not sure I could have differentiated easily.  (I pointed this out to abg, and she said she thought that her later books were better written, which is a plausible explanation).

The great deficiencies remaining are those of characterization and plot (such small nitpicks, those :)) The characters are mostly completely one-sided - likeable, but completely cliche and difficult to force out of their proscribed patterns of behavior.  The plot then becomes determined by those patterns, and thus less interesting (and less fun too).  What am I saying? Cecily is nice, but a bit of a nitwit - her escapades start out as Heyer-like, but they just go on beyond that, so that by the time she runs off to the theatre we are just like ergh! what is your problem? And Mr. Ranleigh is of course supremely cool, but so supremely cool it doesn't feel at all like he can unbend to be humbled by his love for Cecily - okay you know what I'm saying - those super cool ones are sometimes no fun at all when they're in love - that just takes away their coolness! GH handles it well, but we're not all GH.

I was reading some blog on Clare Darcy that made that very point - we're not all GH, so Clare Darcy needs to be judged on her own merits.  I'd say that's downright impossible, since her books are so much a copy of the great Gorgette's as to be almost an homage.  But of course, it is somewhat true since I do not in general judge books by whether they are as good as Georgette Heyer - that standard is rather a little too high.  And I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed Cecily.  Okay, maybe not thoroughly, but enough so that I was eager to keep on reading, at least for almost all of the book.  At one point, it got a *little* too long, and like I said, the characters were not quite totally likeable at all times in their appointed roles, but overall, I completely enjoyed the book.  I really didn't find it cringeworthy at all, all the more surprising, since I found the other two to be quite so.  Maybe I've gotten less critical, especially since Sarah Sp. *hated* these three, but whatever the reason, I am looking forward to getting back to the other two when I finish up my more pressing engagement :)

Verdict: 3.5/5

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Serious Study of Serious Study

Remember way back when, I reviewed Allegra Goodman's latest, The Cookbook Collector? I heard about it on Austenprose, but was laughed at when I asked Sarah Sp. and Chava if they had heard of her.  Apparently, I was a little late to the party celebrating this great author.  Since Sarah Sp. owned her other books, I borrowed them from her… and, of course, promptly abandoned them to more pressing materials.  Everyone said Intuition was the best one, but Sarah Sp. told me to save it for last, and that was the original plan.  But however many months later, when S.b. read Intuition and bothered me to read it too, I thought it was time to abandon that careful formulation and at least get the best one read.

So, having exhausted my supply of library books, I looked forward to reading the Allegra Goodman that was the Allegra Goodman to read.  S.b. hadn't loved it, so I knew it wasn't incredible, but I liked Cookbook Collector well enough, and this one was supposed to be far superior.  CC was mildly romantic, so that should mean a substantial romance in this one, right? When I read the jacket flap, I couldn't really see a romance off-hand.  The book seemed pretty serious, tackling the not especially grave subject of academic life, but apparently delving into the discomfort arising from exposure of its dirty underbelly.  Or something like that anyway.

The truth is, though academic life isn't September 11 or the dot-com bubble, it's not a subject that lends itself to the lightest of tones.  First of all, I don't know if there exists a more competitive and tense atmosphere than that of post docs and professors fighting for recognition.  Personally, I never could get up enough ambition to stomach the constant pressure of a life in research.  So it's not suprising I wouldn't enjoy reading about it.  And besides that, there's my not so secret pang of regret at not going for that right to be a Dr :) So even more than for most people I'd say, the academic life holds less allure and more anxiety for me. 

So it's not to say the book wasn't well crafted.  It was exceeding so, with all the characters well developed, the plot moving along at a sedate but steady pace, the writing a pleasure without too much pedantry… but what a serious book! Not that CC didn't have elements of seriousness (and actually was quite serious in tone) but I thought this one was the fun one! The one everybody loved! I understand why Chava loved it, I'd say it's right up her alley - well thought out, interesting territory, and not too happy go lucky :) But I thought Allegra Goodman was my kind of writer, or at least had some of that in her.  I couldn't find a squigeon of fun, of light-heartedness, of simple pleasure here.

The characters, especially the main ones, were deliberately unlikeable.  Even the more sympathetic ones had their, not minor, faults.  The themes, at least, I would say were unobjectionable - it wasn't like the book was a doomsday prophecy or anything, the right values  - family, honesty, loyalty - were squarely championed.  But on the subject of doomsday, the ending was actually much the same as CC - in that it was disappointing.  She just doesn't like to give us what we want, does that Allegra? No one ends up in a particularly good place (I'd say Marion is the only one  who maybe ends up better off) though mostly they end up more enlightened about themselves.  But I guess that's the point of the book.  Academia is a long, hard road,  and the most one could hope for is acceptance of the way forward.  And I guess the same could be said for me and Intuition - at the end of the day, the trek wasn't bad, and I can't say I regretted it at the end, though I don't know what I got out of it :)

Verdict: 3/5

Friday, August 19, 2011

Good Romance Hits Home

A few things I've done recently - attended several ballets, did research on traveling to South America, and went to Borders for the going out of business sale.   All that equals what, next on my reading list? Eva Ibbotson's A Company of Swans (you weren't supposed to get that, don't worry).  Other than The Morning Gift, which I of course already own, it was the only Eva Ibbotson (only adult one, didn't check for kids ones) Borders had, so it was the one I bought (Sarah Basya asked me why and I said it was my second favorite, but then she reminded me of The Reluctant Heiress so really it's my third I think, ahead of A Countess Below Stairs and A Song For Summer).  I've read it at least twice before, but not for a while (at least as long as I've had this blog for sure :)) and I haven't read it since I went to see Giselle and Swan Lake, both of which feature heavily.  And as an added POI, my South American research findings included a map of Brazil's destinations, one of which was Manaus, the central setting of the book and a place I have never heard of otherwise.  In short, I was on the eager side to read it, so it came up first after all the mandatory (library :)) reads.

As Sarah Basya pointed out, this book is not *that* good, none of Eva Ibbotson's other books compare to The Morning Gift.  But that's like saying not all ice cream is Haagen Dasz; it's still one of my favorite foods :) Eva Ibbotson is truly a woman after my heart, creating stories that are purely and totally about the romance, and about the romance of good old fashioned girls and rich gentlemen.  They've got an artsy element too, but as books always have to have another element, I'm not complaining.  Ballet is interesting and so is Brazil.  And Harriet herself actually mostly doesn't have that annoying Ruth-like quality of "loveable" whimsicality that bothers Huvi and S.b. so much.  So why isn't this one as good as The Morning Gift?  Well, I guess that's not a fair question - The Morning Gift is so good because it's one of those indefinably good books - you forget how much and why you like it until you read it.

But I think I forgot how much I liked this one too.  I was happy to read it, but I wasn't ecstatic to have bought it.  When I picked it up though, I didn't want to put it down.  It was kind of funny because I was reading it last Shabbos and I was strangely eager to come back home - it took me a while to figure out that I was eager to get back to the book.  Of course, it was full of all the maudlin expression typical of Eva Ibbotson but I probably just wasn't in the mood to care.  Rom really liked Harriet, Harriet liked Rom too, and the obstacles keeping them apart felt totally legitimate.  The pathos was exquisite, also in true Eva Ibbotson style - Harriet's life is really pathetic and Rom does a good job taking her away from it all :) Harriet herself is a bit of an idiot, but I didn't find it too annoying.

So either I was preconditioned to like this book or it really is quite good.  Against the first, we have that I was *not* overly excited about it and against the second, that I did *not* love it the first few times  I read it.  But that's not true, I did like it, I just had reservations.  So I guess I just was preconditioned to ignore my reservations :) Makes sense because with my reading list as of late, fluff is appreciated all the more.  Oh that there were more authors who just understood good romance.

Verdict: 4.5/5

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Familiarity Breeds Content(ness)

Series... the written equivalent to television.  It's not a perfect analogy of course, but they both, after a while, mostly hold my interest because I'm attached to the characters.  I'm not a plot fanatic in the first place, but when it's the same people over and over, I start to care about even the less likeable/entertaining ones.  And of course, that's what series writers depend on - the plot can be the same, slightly altered, or different but less spectacular, we probably aren't paying much attention.  Why the philosophical meandering, you ask? I have just (or not just, last Shabbos and I already have another review besides this) finished Gail Carriger's *4th* Parasol Protectorate novel, Heartless - 4th in asterisks because I reviewed all three previous ones on this blog, all in the past year (well, almost, I just checked and the first one was reviewed last July).  I waited quite a while for this, since for some reason the NYPL waited a full month! to order it (I find the NYPL to be greatly inferior to BCPL, despite my early excitement).  And by the time I got it, I had just finished Winter's Tale, so I was certainly ready for some good, predictable fluff.

Now we're holding by #4 in the series, so one thing that cannot be expected is good romance.  I mean, some angst maybe, but it's not mandatory - if I'm reading it, I'm hooked enough to get by without it (probably, anyway :)) The hook here has become increasingly comedy - very little romance, a setting removed from the actual historical one I would find more interesting, and a lot of danger and fighting not holding much attraction for me.  The comedy isn't bad though - there might have been a few lol moments, and, throughout, all drama, pathos, suspense, frenzied action were handled with a light touch.  Here and there, I could tell she (Ms. Carriger) was getting a little too pleased with her clever turns of phrase, but the writing was mostly just tongue-in-cheek enough. In any case, in accordance with my opening tangent, the book didn't even need to be that funny.  Alexia, Lord Maccon, Lord Akeldama, Professor Lyall, Madam Lefoux, etc. are funny because they are familiar.  You know how friends amuse you simply by being themselves? Okay, maybe I don't feel *that* much affection for them.  But with the book itself striving for the lightest of tones, it helps that the characters are utterly predictable, utterly themselves, and we know nothing too suprising is going to jump out of the box.  And since I wasn't looking for surprises, getting what I expected was good.

Don't get me wrong, there were some "revelations" - about which, seriously,  Professor Lyall too? But whatever, I guess he was due for a little fleshing out.  And at least he remains his ever-capable self.  Madame Lefoux, on the other hand, emerges a little tarnished, and Biffy, we already know, had his powers stripped by the previous book.  Lord Akeldama is mostly holding steady, Floote's going strong, Alexia herself has her moments, and so does Lord Maccon.  I have to say, I sound very lackluster about it all - that's partially due to my current tired state, for sure.  I enjoyed the book well enough, and it's not like I enjoyed any of them that much.  This one was up to par in terms of comic content, and, more importantly, comic tone (not taking itself seriously).  That's really all there is to say, I don't know why I just wandered off in all directions for the past three paragraphs.

Verdict: 3/5

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Too Much Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing

Swinging right back into it, I'm ready for another review - what can I say, it's easier when the books come from the YA section :) Actually, I didn't realize this was a YA book - I got it out because it's written by Austenblog, which is the Austen website I used to read before Austenprose.  Austenblog is a lot of fun, mostly because it's full of interesting Janeite news, but also because the "editrix" is often funny and usually expresses sentiments with which  I concur wholeheartedly (regarding public opinion on Austen and such).  So even though The Jane Austen Handbook is just a collection of facts about Regency England, I was happy to give it a retry (maybe I shouldn't say just, but it's not like there's any story there, or any narrative at all).

Really, it's not like I wouldn't be interested in a book about nineteenth century English life of the upper classes.  I don't know if I've ever read one, which is surprising, since there is more than one available.  But what? It's not like I don't know quite a lot already... and it'd have to be quite a scholarly tome indeed to catch my interest. Or if not scholarly, than certainly not aimed at the lowest common denominator.  Who exactly is that lowest common denominator though? Why, young adults of course :) The handbook to all things Austen does not go much deeper than explaing that whist is similar to bridge and that an entail means the female line can't inherit.  There are little details here and there I didn't know, but overall, it's pretty much nothing new to me.

Besides that, the overall tone is kind of weirdly teeny-boppery.  Like it purports to be a how-to and most of the language if vaguely reminiscent of the 19th century, but then these little things clearly marked at the modern audience break out.  And by modern audience, I do not mean myself :) That being said, it was a short little book with occasional interesting tidbits.  It wasn't really painful, but I have to say it was less interesting than it could have been.  I guess I need to wait for the Jane Austen Handbook NOT for Dummies...

Verdict: 2.5/5

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing (wow!!!! go me and shakespeare :))

Agghh!!! It's August!!!!! There are a few reasons for me to panic about that, but as promised, I did finish that substantial item on my bibliogenda, and am now ready with a review.  This one was quite a while in the waiting even before I started the book about a month ago (was it that much? Almost, at least).  I really enjoyed Mark Helprin's Freddy and Frederica, I remember laughing out loud more than once (which is surprising for a book that looks like some fairly literary goods).  So I assumed he was one of those "good" authors whose books are actually enjoyable, and I chose Winter's Tale, which seems to be his masterpiece, as my next of his reads.  I got it from Pikesville, returned it six weeks later, got it out from Towson, returned it six weeks later, put it on reserve at the NYPL, let the hold expire, got it out from the NYPL, returned it two weeks later... maybe that wasn't exactly the sequence, but this book is over 700 pages long and there were always holds on it in NY.  It just wasn't happening.  But, you know, fifth time's the charm, and maybe it helps that it's summer, but I was finally able to keep the book out for more than two weeks - which gave me time to actually finish it!

From the beginning, this book was... well, not Freddy and Frederica, that's for sure.  Maybe I was supposed to take that one seriously, but I don't think so, and I certainly didn't - the whole book was a magnificently composed farce, but with a redeeming ending.  Winter's Tale isn't farcical at all - at least, it doesn't seem to be.  It takes itself all too seriously.  At first, I withheld judgement - there was pronouncement after high flown conceit after dramatic foreshadowing, but I figured maybe this was one book that had a right to comport itself in such a grand fashion.  After all, wasn't it supposed to be an epic tale? And at the beginning of the second section, it seemed like my faith was not misplaced - the prose seemed a little less florid, the events a little more everyday, the characters just slightly more sympathetic. That lasted... well, not too long.  Most of the rest of the book alternated back and forth between moments I found myself caring, and passages I was just like, whaa?  The plot made some progress, but for every new development, there were three high flowing descriptions of the city, or of nature, or of some mystical force, or who knows what.

I got less and less patient with the non-story part of the book, but I still held out hope that the ending would be spectacular, rewarding me for slogging through.  There was definitely some potential for it - there was an almost Dickensian complexity of relationship among the characters (like that? :)) and there was a setting of events going a hundred years back.  But to counterbalance that, instead of seeking to tangle things up as much as possible so that we could be stand back and admire as the knot came undone, the book advances more by "magical" elements than anything else.  You wouldn't think I'd be so bothered by the lack of self empowerment in this book, but if felt like the author was some omnipotent being throwing plot twists at his hapless creations.  Now of course that's exactly what was happening, but can you let us forget that for a second? Instead, we are continually reminded that what we are reading is an epic tale, a tale of great scale and grand power, and how do we know that? Because we are told that, flat out pretty much.

And when we finally slog through that momentous build up, here's the shocking part - NO twist.  Or almost no one anyway - we knew Peter Lake would be important, we knew the city of justice would be revealed, we knew the dead would be brought back to life.  What we didn't know was *how*.  And guess what *how* was? It just happened! Peter Lake killed himself, Abigail came back to life, and the city was filled with light.  Huh? Where did that come from? Well the author's head, that's for sure.  It's possible he wanted to write a description of the Messianic era, that's really what it reminded me of more than anything else (or more like a pagan/Christian rendering of one).  But, putting aside that it's not like we can ever know or even imagine what that era will be like, it really doesn't make for very compelling reading.

I actually have an impressively literary explanation for why I didn't like this book.  One of the important elements of narrative literature (thanks yet again, Mrs. Janney!) is conflict.  It can be man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself... but it's got to be man vs. something.  In the 700+ of this book,  I really couldn't find a central conflict.  So despite the impressive build up to the final "Golden Age" of the ending, the plot just had no footing.

And what about the writing itself? I suppose it was good, if you go for that sort of thing (condescending or what? :)) I mean full beyond of extended metaphors and descriptions of nature, man, time, elements, whatever you want.  Paeans to New York, which were mildly interesting, since I do like New York.  But all of it just seemed like someone trying to make things sound more significant than they actually are.  Trying, and, at least in my book, not succeeding.  Occasionally, there was an impressive turn of phrase, but for the most part, this is the writing parodied by the Bulwer Lytton Content (look it up, and then the Little Lytton Contest - it's even funnier).

I was so confused by how ungood this book was, I went and read the Wikipedia entry.  I found out that 1) it's not considered that amazing and 2) Mark Helprin is really full of himself and more than a little unusual (and that's not because he's a Republican :)) So I guess I just had the wrong impression of the book's place in the American fiction canon.... but it didn't live up to my expectations after Freddy and Frederica either.  Oh well... a month wasted (not really of course, I don't usually regret reading things :))

Verdict: 2/5

PS - we do go back far, me and this book :)