Shipwrecks, Piles of Books, Psychics and Beverages

>> Thursday, July 24, 2008

TITLE: Beau Crusoe
AUTHOR: Carla Kelly

It's strange how one quite peripheral element can pretty much ruin an otherwise lovely book. This was what happened with Beau Crusoe.

When it came to the hero and heroine and their relationship, it was wonderful. James Trevenen and Susannah Park are two wounded characters. A former sailor, James spent years in a deserted island after a shipwreck. The circumstances of the shipwreck itself were just horrific, and James is still haunted by them, as well as by the years and years he had to spend alone. Susannah's past is less dramatic, but also painful. She eloped with her father's secretary, which resulted in her being ostracised by the ton. She didn't care when she was married, but now she's a penniless widow and has had to go back to her parents' home, and she's not allowed to forget for even a minute the social ruin her inconsiderate actions brought about.

Susannah and James are brought together when her godfather asks her to accompany James, the winner of a scientific prize (through an essay on crabs written while stuck on his island), while he's in London. The godfather also asks James to do him a couple of favours, small stuff like marrying Susannah and doing something about her bitter sister and her father's aggressive birds, and all the while taking those requests as a joke, James ends up doing just that.

These two are perfect examples of why I love Carla Kelly's characters. They're genuinely good people, brave and caring, two vulnerable, wounded characters healing each other. They're people who have a sense of humour and can laugh about their flaws, and who really do deserve each other. I very much enjoyed their growing closeness.

Or rather, I would have settled down and enjoyed it if it hadn't been for Lady Audley. When James was rescued, Lady Audley was in the same ship as him travelling home, and they pretty much spent the entire trip having vigorous sex (which is described in detail, many, many times). James broke it off with the woman soon thereafter, and she, being a bitter slag, is determined to make him pay for it.

Oh, the book would have been so much better if Kelly had just cut out the Lady Audley character completely! It's not Lady Audley herself that I objected to (in fact, I had a sneaking sympathy for her, especially at the beginning), but the way she was demonised and had so much abuse heaped on her head. Foul, disgusting, a whore, overactive genitals, blah, blah, blah. CK just couldn't stop calling her names and made her a pathetic laughingstock. It just made me uncomfortable, because much of the abuse was motivated by behaviour James had no right to condemn, and by simply being an older woman (and not that much older, at that!) with a sexual appetite. She did do some awful, vengeful stuff nearer the end, but in the first half, I just couldn't see what was so disgusting about her. This element of the book offended me, and the worst thing was that it wasn't an isolated bit I could ignore. Oh, no, Lady Audley is mentioned almost as much as Susannah. *sigh*

MY GRADE: I'm conflicted. My instinct is to give it a C+, but the Susannah / James relationship is much better than that. So I'll be generous and go for a B-.

TITLE: The Complete Polysyllabic Spree
AUTHOR: Nick Hornby

TCPS is a series of columns Hornby wrote for the Believer magazine. They're basically about his reading life: what he read that month, how he liked it, what he bought and why. It was interesting, even if many of the books I've never even heard about. Hornby's voice is great, and he perfectly conveyed his love of reading in his column, and I got a long list of recs. It actually felt a bit like reading a blog, one of those many reading journals I blog-hop around :-)

The only thing I wasn't very convinced about was how he wasn't allowed (by the magazine's rules) to say anything bad about books written by contemporary writers. Hornby says he likes the idea, but then he had trouble with it when he read a book he didn't like. So his solution was to read only books he thought he'd like. Well, duh. Problem is, sometimes you think you'll like a book, actively WANT to like it (because the plot appeals to you, or because the writing is so beautiful), but still dislike it. It happens, and it's ridiculous that he had to resort to hiding the identity of book in question when this happens. Some of those sections when he was talking about "unnamed literary fiction book" were a bit annoying.

I did like the intro, though, especially his emphasis on the importance of people reading what they enjoy. He says, and I completely agree, people should stop treating reading as a chore, and should not choose books based on what they think they ought to read. Reading fiction should be for pleasure!

Oh, BTW, I had to laugh when one month he listed 12 books as bought and then felt the need to explain that "ludicrous" number. Heh, I don't think most people reading this will be too scandalised by that!


TITLE: Sizzle and Burn
AUTHOR: Jayne Ann Krentz

This is the latest contemporary entry in JAK's Arcane Society series, which alternates contemps under this name and historicals under her Amanda Quick pseudonym. I felt about Sizzle and Burn pretty much as I did about the previous JAK in the series, White Lies: tedious suspense (that whole thing about the founder's formula is nowhere near as interesting as the author thinks it is), but decent romance.

The plot? Nothing remarkable. Raine Tallentyre can psychically "hear" voices when she touches objects, a talent which has allowed her to help the police solve many cold cases before. Entering the house of her recently deceased aunt, her talents lead her to discover the latest victim of a local serial killer, fortunately still alive. This episode brings her in contact with Zack Jones, a private investigator, who's in town for a completely different reason. He's part of a PI agency that works for the Arcane Society, and he's after an organisation which is, in turn, after the founder's formula.

Zack has psychic abilities very similar to Raine's (he sees stuff when he touches objects, rather than hear, as Raine does). Raine has been used to hiding her abilities (actually, the last time she told a man about them, it was a guy she fancied, who then immediately broke things off with her), so finding someone like Zack is a novelty.

I quite liked the romance. It was a bit too fast, but there's chemistry between Zack and Raine, and they did feel right together. They fit, and not just because of their talents, though those did add another dimension. However, the relationship was badly overwhelmed by all the other boring stuff going on around them. There were way too many plot threads here, none of them well done.

MY GRADE: A B-. Clearly I'm feeling generous today, but however bad the suspense, JAK's voice just comforts me.

TITLE: A History of the World in Six Glasses
AUTHOR: Tom Standage

As the title suggests, this book tracks the history of the world through six drinks that, in turn, shaped and reflected the periods in which they came to prominence.

It took me a while to get into it, because the first two chapters, on beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt and Wine in Greece and Rome weren't as interesting as I'd hoped for. What's more, the author failed to really convince me of anything more than the fact that beer and wine were important to these people in this particular period. No more than that. Shaped the history of the period, reflected it? I had my doubts.

But then the chapter on spirits in the Colonial period started, and wow, now we were talking! Not only was it fascinating, but here, at last, the author made a real case for what he'd set out to show. His arguments and evidence were neat and elegant: reading the passage where he finally closed the triangle between spirits, sugar and slavery gave me the same pleasurable "a-ha!" feeling I get when reading a particularly perfect mathematical proof. And there were plenty of little details that made me pause and think. Like the link between spirits and the British command of the seas in the 19th century: British sailors had started being given rations of spirits to drink, and their rum was cut with water and had lime and sugar added to it (it was called "grog" a kind of early mojito). And due to this daily dose of Vitamin C, British sailors had less scurvy and were thus much healthier than the sailors of other countries, like France. Neat, huh?

The spirits chapter was my favourite, but the ones that came after it were also great stuff. The last two were very enjoyable, even if they were nothing really new and didn't surprise me much. I think we're all aware of the importance of tea in the history of the British Empire (although, I must correct myself: I would never have guessed that in the early 18th century practically no one in Britain drank tea, as it was very much an exotic, luxury item!), and we've all been spectators to (at least the latter stages of) the links between Coca-Cola and the Rise of America. Coffee in the Age of Reason was a bit more novel to me, especially the huge role of coffeehouses in Britain in terms of the spread of information and in encouraging political, cultural and scientific debate. The author calls them the Internet of the Age of Reason, and he does have a point.

All in all, a book I'd recommend. Just read the first two chapters knowing there's much more interesting material to come.



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