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Recent reading June 28, 2004

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Stuff from old blogs.
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Nick Hornby, How to Be Good

I read High Fidelity when it first came out in paperback. Picked it up at the airport, read it on the plane and kept reading while standing in line for admission to Toronto Trek 1996. I raved about it to friends. Being a music fanatic with some less than perfect relationships in my past, I could really relate to the main character. And the book was so damn funny. So I tracked down and read Fever Pitch, Hornby’s memoir about growing up an Arsenal fan, despite my lack of interest in sports, and enjoyed it, too. I also liked the screenplay (and, when I finally got a chance to see it, the movie) based on Fever Pitch. I liked the High Fidelity movie, too, Americanized though it was. About a Boy… well. It was readable, funny at times, but it lacked something the other books had. About a Boy was a step towards more mainstream fiction and mundane concerns. The fannish element Hornby captured so well earlier was not as much a part of the book. And this time around, it’s gone completely.

This is Hornby as middle-aged philosopher going on about life, love, marriage, religion, and anything else of interest to people in a midlife crisis or writers striving for greater significance. And oh, was it tiresome. First problem is that DJ Goodnews seems to have some kind of real, authentic healing powers… but the significance of that revelation is dropped quickly and completely. Instead, the book becomes some kind of diatribe that first mocks liberals for not really doing enough to change the world, and then shows a couple of characters’ attempts at being really, honestly good and promoting change as being almost a disaster. And yet the characters are always playing against Hornby’s stacked deck. It was a frustrating read. I’m hoping Hornby’s next novel can be a return to form. Even if it’s perceived as a lightweight comic novel.

Georgette Heyer, Beauvallet

There’s a lively and interesting books conference over at the Well, one of my fave online hangouts. If not for the Well, I might not have discovered, among others, Patrick O’Brian. And I suspect some of the O’Brian fans are among the people who have praised Heyer over the last few years. Like O’Brian, Heyer set most of her best-known books in the era of the Napoleonic wars, and like O’Brian, she was influenced by Jane Austen. Unlike O’Brian she wrote romances and mysteries, and many of her books became the cornerstone of the literary genre known as the Regency romance. I’m not a romance reader, but several dozen Well users can’t be wrong.

As it happens, my first Heyer was not a Regency. Instead, it’s a swashbuckler set in Elizabethan times. Yes, there’s a romance, between the dashing English privateer Beauvallet and a lovely Spanish woman, complicated more than a little by the ongoing hostilities between the two countries. But more than romance, it’s an almost over-the-top old-fashioned adventure story. In some alternate universe somewhere, Warner Bros. followed up on the pairing of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood with a film version of Beauvallet. And in another alternate universe, a more bawdy version was no doubt made in the 1970s, modeled on the Salkinds’ Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers. Beauvallet is a long way from Austen or O’Brian in any number of ways, and rereading the discussions on the Well I’ve learned it isn’t especially well-regarded by Heyer fans. But it was a fun enough read.

Ashley Gardner, The Hanover Square Affair

And speaking of the Regency era… no small part of my interest in that era comes from the fact that it overlaps with the Napoleonic wars, and I’m a fan of not only Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin but also C.S. Forester’s Hornblower and Cornwell’s Sharpe. (I’ve also read one of Mallinson’s Hervey novels, but will have to read more before I can decide whether I’m a fan or not.) Gardner, a writer of Regency romances under her real name, has begun a series of historical mysteries featuring a former cavalry captain who fought in the Peninsular War and now finds himself in London, alone and unemployed. So, naturally, he becomes entangled in a mystery. There are kidnappings, murders, escapes, sinister crime lords, convenient rich friends, a lot of London fog, and the occasional break for mooning over lost loves and lost friends. It’s all rather formulaic, and the dialogue sometimes sounds rather anachronistic, but it was, by the end, diverting enough that I bought the second book in the series.

Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy

For my second Heyer, I read one of her Regencies, and one highly regarded by her fans on the Well. It seemed to get off to a slow start, but once Sophy herself was properly introduced, the pace quickened, the complications ensued, and I found myself laughing out loud at times. The title character, raised by her father at a number of diplomatic postings around Europe and decidedly not a proper young lady, finds herself staying in London with her cousins, two of him are engaged to be married to people who are clearly not right for them, and Sophy starts interfering in everyone’s romantic entanglements. And, of course, becomes entangled herself. By the end, there are at least four couples whose lives have been turned upside-down over the course of the book, and it was hard at times to suspend disbelief. Sophy’s plans could so easily have fallen apart a dozen times… and even when they almost do, things still work out for the best. Imagine an almost slapstick version of Jane Austen’s Emma and you’re getting there. Lightweight, frothy, but darned entertaining, if you can overlook the portrayal of one minor character who makes Shylock look like a remarkably sympathetic character by comparison.

Charles Stross, The Atrocity Archives

I haven’t actually finished this one yet. It’s two stories in one book, one previously published, one new, both featuring the same narrator/protagonist and set in the same universe. And what a universe it is. Stross says in his introduction that his influences on these stories were HP Lovecraft, Neal Stephenson, and Len Deighton. It shows. It’s cyberpunk espionage in a 21st century version of Lovecraft’s world. Imagine hackers working for a secret government agency and fighting demons from outside our universe, and you’ve got the general idea, but that tells you nothing of the amount of thought Stross has put into adapting real world physics to allow for the likes of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones to exist and enter our universe. It tells you nothing of how funny the book can be, how mindblowing it can be, how many pop culture references go flying by… it’s really an original. And it makes me wonder what kind of Doctor Who story Stross could tell, if he was interested in doing so. At any rate I’ll be picking up whatever else I can find by him.