Sunday, 26 August 2012

Swiss wine and cheese reviews part 1: A Dark Anatomy and The Colour

Last week my boyfriend and I went to Switzerland, where we shocked our bodies by alternatively pounding up and down large alps and eating our bodyweight in Gruyere. We also visited the chateau where Byron wrote one of his tragic poems; went to a St Bernard dog museum (complete with real dogs, all lying lazily upside-down with their eye-folds drooping); and (in my case) read a lot of books.

First was A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake, a trashy historical murder mystery that reminded me why I'm usually cautious about reading trashy historical murder mysteries.

I’ve said before that there are several different ways to make your historical novel seem properly historical. You can either go ploughing through actual accounts from your chosen period and come up with scrupulous background detail about roofing materials and recipes; or you can read a lot of contemporary literature to make sure your characters sound right; or (and funnily enough, this is often the most successful method if you’re trying to write a crowd-pleaser) you can sit down and brainstorm vague popular concepts about your period and then make sure you name-check every single one of them. For example, if you’re writing about the middle ages, at least three of your characters must die of the plague; if it’s Victorian you must feature a fat cruel overseer whipping poor people and screaming “TO THE WORKHOUSE!” and if your story is set in Pompeii you must have someone turn to his friend and say, “Goodness, hasn’t the mountain been quiet recently?”

Different as they are, all of those methods nevertheless rest on the basic understanding that History is not just some vanished place where all the people had bad teeth and ate a lot of radishes. As every historical novelist should know, 1540 is not the same as 1640 which is not the same as 1740, just like China is not the same as Japan which is not the same as Korea. 

I wish someone had explained this to Robin Blake before he sat down to write A Dark Anatomy. I very much suspect that Blake (who does grave discredit to the noble first name that he and I share) saw C. J. Sansom’s sales figures and decided that he wanted a piece of that action. Obviously, he couldn’t set his own historical detective series in Tudor England, so he slammed his hand down on the number section of his keyboard, got ?17!40* and went with it. 

I am making this up, of course, but it would certainly explain the bewildering contents of A Dark Anatomy. I tried so hard to make the outfits, speech patterns and background detail chime in any way with what I know about the eighteenth century, but it just did not happen. There were no stomachers or tricornes. There was no political humour, or, in fact, humour of any kind. There was vague acknowledgement that British people occasionally travelled overseas, but no mention of them bringing back anything other than improbable wives – no sugar, for example, or silk, or tea. Even the poor old Enlightenment, which was sort of the defining idea of the entire century, got barely a look-in. The microscope, for example, gets a single mention (in the same sentence as molly-houses: Blake pretty much uses up his entire fund of historical detail in that one paragraph). I might be wrong – Blake might be perfectly evoking 1740s Preston, which I admit I know nothing specifically about – but none of it seems right, and when you’re writing cheap, fun historical fiction, seeming right is almost more important than being right.

Allegedly, the whole plot takes place in and around an eighteenth-century country house, and yet the characters talk and behave as though they’ve been shot through a worm-hole from (heavily stereotyped) 1540. There’s a hilariously mud-encrusted and motley cast of halfwit peasants and flatulent local officials who all stagger around praying randomly and screaming about werewolves like medieval idiots. Even local doctor Fidelis, who admittedly does have new-fangled notions about ice keeping meat fresh, is bewilderingly ready to believe that the devil might be hanging out round the back of the privy. At least coroner Cragg is reassuringly bad at detecting things. The notion that there might be MORE THAN ONE POTENTIAL MURDERER, i.e. MULTIPLE SUSPECTS, is so shocking that it blows his mind for about five chapters. He barely comes back from it in time to solve the murder.

The plot’s cookie-cutter: when Squire Brockletower’s wife Dolores is found nastily slain in some woodland, it is up to Cragg and Fidelis to work out whodunit. Blah blah blah, etcetera. There’s exactly the proscribed number of shock discoveries and suspicious characters who all turn out to be innocent, and if you’ve ever read a historical murder mystery, you’ll have essentially read this one. It’s nothing more than an ugly and fundamentally awkward serving of History Stew, written by someone who doesn’t understand how to use the material he’s been given. 

Trash, and not the good kind.

2 stars.

After A Dark Anatomy, Rose Tremain’s The Colour was a total delight. A book by someone who knows how to use words! Where the characters do not speak like Ye Olde Knocke-Offe Shoppe cut-price human beings! Where a historical period is well-imagined and made to seem interestingly different from both our own and any other! I kept turning to my boyfriend and exclaiming, “Did you know books could still be GOOD?”, and he would reply, “Yes dear,” which I knew meant that he was very happy for me.

The Colour - on the 1001 Books list, by the way, and deservedly so - is all about the New Zealand gold rush of the late nineteenth century (hence the title: in this book, gold is always referred to as the colour, which can be a bit puzzling at first if you inadvertently picture blue, or pink). Awful human being Joseph Blackstone has dragged his aged mother Lillian and reluctant new wife Harriet (who is reluctant about being a wife, not about going to New Zealand) halfway around the world to start a farm in the wilderness. When he finds a tiny bit of gold in the creek near his house, though, he loses his mind and decides that he has to have ALL THE GOLD, otherwise his life will be worthless. So he abandons Lillian and Harriet (who is way too good for him in every way possible) and goes to seek his fortune in the goldfields across the mountains. 

Of course, he doesn’t find any more gold. He ends up a horrible beardy skeleton, scrabbling around in the bottom of muddy pits and weeping (which is no more than he deserves). The farm, meanwhile, goes to pot, and Harriet is forced to go trekking awesomely across the New Zealand landscape, slowly realising as she does so that her husband is awful and she would be so much better off without him.

It’s a great plot, nicely and intelligently written, and Harriet is a wonderful main character. Admittedly, the book wastes time on a puzzling sub-plot, in which a white child and his Maori nurse slowly and mystically fade away because of something magical and Spirit-Worldy. I suppose it's all very tragic and romantic, but reading it I just wanted them to stop messing about, get up and have a sandwich. I don’t think I’m a very Spirit World kind of person.

Concentrate on the Harriet part, though, and The Colour is great, clever and fun, with a satisfactory strand of commonsense morality underneath it: don’t go chasing after gold, because you will end up losing everything and feeling really stupid. I approve of that message, and I thoroughly approve of the world Tremain has so carefully and imaginatively constructed. After I win the lottery, my next holiday will be in New Zealand.

4 stars.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

More moving reviews: Beautiful for Ever and Sea of Poppies

The move progresses. I would not say it was done. That would be far too optimistic, and not take into account the extra mattress and bed frame currently reposing in our hallway. This upsets me so much that if someone, at this precise moment, were to ask me which I would prefer, mattress removal or world peace, I would have to really struggle with myself for a long time and I STILL can't guarantee I'd come out for world peace at the end of it.

The good(?) thing is, though, that I now live in a town with a large population of second-hand bookshops. I keep seeing signs that say things like ALL BOOKS 75P, and then my brain short-circuits with delight and I come back to myself five minutes later clutching three history books and the complete works of C. J. Sansom. I also keep nearly buying a complete set of the Forsyte Saga books, even though I know perfectly well that I WILL NEVER READ THE WHOLE OF THE FORSYTE SAGA (except that I might! I could! I could do that instead of getting a job! I COULD JUST SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE READING AND THAT WOULD BE MARVELLOUS). These are the dilemmas in my life right now.

Anyway. I have read two books. If I'm perfectly honest, neither of them lit up my mind with joy, but they were both extremely comforting in that neither of them were about furniture at all.

Shall we?

First up is Helen Rappaport's Beautiful for Ever. It's the history of Madame Rachel, Victorian quack cosmetician extraordinaire, who rose from the depths of a London slum to become beautician, moneylender and (maybe) pimp to the rich and famous. Madame Rachel was practicising at a time when make-up was frowned upon, and women had no control over their own incomes (if you happen to be a woman, look up the 1882 Married Women's Property Act and bless every one of your lucky stars that it exists), but despite those apparent hindrances she cheerfully managed to become extremely rich. She tricked, coerced and blackmailed her way through several fortunes, and then she got spectacularly done for fraud by a particularly aggrieved customer.

It's an extraordinarily fun story, and one that we're lucky to be able to read at all - according to Rappaport, it had been largely forgotten about before she came across a newspaper mention of the trial hearing and began her investigations. All the same, though, I feel like Madame Rachel might deserve a better narrator. Rappaport is neither an exceptional story-teller or a particularly rigorous academic. She has a slightly lackluster and unimaginative writing style, and what she's got to say feels incomplete and a bit off. Loose ends are left hanging, the thread of the story is dropped and picked up again at random and she leaves out explanations that would have been fascinating.

We never hear, for example, exactly how Rachel carried out her beauty treatments, or what the day-to-day life in her shop was like. Rappaport hints that it might have been used as a brothel, and then doesn't really elaborate. Come on! When you're writing the history of a scandal, there needs to be some scandal. That's why your readers have bought the book. They want to hear juicy things about the Marquis of Gosh and Lord Ooh's daughter frolicking in a canopied bed while people peer at them through the keyhole. I got the sense that those stories might have been there, but for some reason Rappaport decided not to elaborate - and without that her tale falls flat.

Given its material, this book could have been a whole lot better than it was - but it wasn't, and on the basis of what I actually read I have to give it

2.5 stars.

Next, we have Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. It was nominated for the Booker the year that White Tiger won, and I still hear people complaining that Sea of Poppies should have taken it. To which I say: no. No, it should not, because Sea of Poppies is not a particularly great book.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy it. I totally did. It's a big fat comfortable story, with an interesting setting (India in 1838, with the Opium Wars about to kick off) and lots of exciting and slightly awful things happening in it. All the characters start off in unpleasant circumstances, and then more unpleasant events occur, but they are the sort of unpleasant events that leave you knowing in your heart that Everything Will Be OK and everyone will evenually rise through adversity to happiness and riches and lots of attractive babies.

Sea of Poppies could be described as epic in that it's very long (it's the first volume in a proposed trilogy; the second book, River of Smoke, came out last year and the third is presumably gestating) and full of stuff. But unlike fat tomes by, say, Tolstoy or A. S. Byatt, its contents don't stand up particularly well to careful examination. Ghosh's writing is perfectly good, but there are no fireworks of verbal wonder, and if you wipe away all the unpleasant attempts at 'gritty realism' from the book's plot (attempted sexual abuse with a horse; bloody whippings; the consumption of animal dung), you're left with a story that's pretty much all about gooey wish-fulfillment romance.

Appropriately enough, many of the characters have distinct Mary Sue tendencies. Granted, the book is all about people whose life in India is so nasty that they are forced to emigrate to Mauritius, but I found myself marvelling at just how special every one of the characters turned out to be. Several of them have astonishingly coloured eyes, one has prophetic visions, and there is even a free-spirited white girl who just wants to wear saris and learn science. If I was playing Stereotype Bingo she would be a full card all on her own.

But that really doesn't matter. In Sea of Poppies, characters are just there to hang plot on, and it's the plot that keeps you going. I read it so fast that you could have used my eye movements to produce energy, because even though I logically knew that Paulette was going to get on the boat (I kept looking up from my reading to yell SHE IS TOTALLY GOING TO GET ON THE BOAT at my boyfriend) I had to make absolutely sure she did it. I was skim reading so hard that by the end I think I actually saw three words a page, but that was pretty much all I needed (spoiler: she gets on the boat. In other news, the Pope is still Catholic).

Sea of Poppies is pretty much enjoyable highbrow trash, a blockbuster novel for people who like to think of themselves as serious, educated readers but still want a good bit of forbidden love on a boat. And who can blame them? We all like a bit of forbidden love, especially when it is aquatic.

All the same, though, in terms of what the book actually is vs. what was promised to me, I've got to give this

2.5 stars.

Friday, 3 August 2012

A special mid-moving review: Nancy Mitford's The Sun King

Dramatic recreation of my present mood
I am the child of an academic, which is like being an army brat but with books instead of fighting in that when I was a fledgeling my parents moved house a lot. According to my mother my response to each move was to lie down on my bed and have a hysterical crying fit until she just picked me up and put me in the car.

The moral of this story is: I WISH THERE WAS STILL SOMEONE WILLING TO PICK ME UP AND PUT ME IN THE CAR. I am currently suffering through the thirteenth (this is a conservative estimate) move of my life, and my first as a fully lone adult, and I am deeply not enjoying the experience. I keep discovering new, unpleasant facts, like: when you are a grown-up, cardboard boxes are not providentially spawned by your parents for your use! You have to go out and forage for your OWN boxes, which may lead you to mistakenly assume that the Staples website measures in centimetres instead of millimetres and then come home to find out that you are now the proud owner of twenty moving boxes FOR ANTS.

Also, it has been borne upon me that you should not ever move during an Olympic Games, unless you are MAD or STUPID. On Monday I ended up running in random circles around London Bridge Station, dragging a suitcase and an enormous bag of comedy hats, while twenty panicked crowd-control officials chased after me shouting NO! STOP! YOU CAN'T GO THAT WAY!

It is all really awful, is what I am saying. I wish I was enormously rich and sedentary, just like... (get ready for this segue)... Louis XIV of France, who just happens to be the subject of the book I have been reading!

Yes, I am still reading books. Some may wonder how I have the time, but let me tell you, it is the only thing keeping me from just gnawing off my hand out of sheer desperate insanity.

You probably also think that when I say have been reading a book about Louis XIV, this means that it was a very serious historical tome. Hahaha, no. The book in question is Nancy Mitford's The Sun King, and it bears about as much relation to historical fact as Captain Jack Sparrow does to your average Somalian pirate.

Nancy Mitford was a very clever woman who made a huge success out of pretending to be an idiot. All of her novels are the last word in calculated frothy foolishness, and I am delighted to say that her non-fiction is exactly the same. The Sun King is a 'life' of Louis XIV that is 5% historical fact and 95% naughty gossip about people worshipping the devil and hiding babies and being rude to each other on staircases. It's a version of history that's all personality and anecdote rather than who fought who when, and as a consequence I've never come across a history book that seems so much like a society novel. It's all extremely amusing and nice.

Mitford's writing is full of deliciously cutting apparent non-sequiturs and wicked hints that leave you dying for a real explanation. My favourite passage is a description of Louis' brother Monsieur's second wife Elizabeth, who was
a great Teutonic tomboy; delicate little Monsieur seemed to be his wife's wife. When he first saw her he told his friends, despairingly, that he would never be able to manage. However, by dint of hanging holy medals in a certain place, rather impeding any pleasure Madame might have felt, he did manage and they had three children. After that, by mutual consent, they slept in separate beds.
Let me be honest with you: I have been trying to work out the precise location of those medals all week. The whole thing is totally foolish and wonderful and completely what I need right now, in my hour of stress. I want GOLD FURNITURE and AFFAIRS and SECRET POISONERS and SEXY NUNS and people who can just click their fingers and get their servants to convey all their belongings from one of their residences to the next. And luckily for me, The Sun King has it all. It's the ideal moving house antidote, and I give it a frothy

3.5 stars.

And now I need to go. Excuse me for the short review, but I have a busy schedule involving wrapping up  half-empty bottles of sauce in bits of old newspaper while I finish off a bag of gone-off pumpkin seeds and some slightly suspicious dried apricots.

Wish me luck, and I'll see you (metaphorically) in the new flat. Meanwhile, if you have any servants to spare, please send them over.