Tuesday, 6 October 2009

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

I don’t know what happened to my posts today after so much help from Damian but thanks to him and to John for his message. And I’m so pleased that Hilary Mantel has won the Booker.
Please accept my apologies everyone!

LUXURY by Jessica Ruston Headline pbk £6.99
Have you ever looked at the ‘holiday reading’ lists in the posher papers and thought: pull the other one? You know the kind of thing - politicians claiming they’re going to be engrossed in the latest volume of military history, or media stars claiming they’re going to risk sunscreen all over the latest literary biography? I mistrust them. I think they’re the grown-up equivalent of leaving copies of Dostoevsky and Sartre lying about in your room when you’re a student: books that are designed to impress: to show what a cultured person you are.
Real holiday books, real sun-lounger lit, is something else. We can sneer all we like at Dan Brown and some of us would rather stick pins in our eyes than read anything by Katie Price but there is a middle way. There’s lots out there which isn’t ‘litterachure’ as one Sassie I know calls it, but which nevertheless satisfies our taste for gripping stories, over the top characters, and above all, a kind of life we’ll never know ourselves. In the Eighties and maybe even before that, the genre was known as BLOCKBUSTERS. The video stores adopted the name.
Typically, Blockbusters were fat. They had gold and/or embossed lettering on the cover. They featured characters who were madly glamorous but nevertheless unhappy. There were tons of clothes, jewels, descriptions etc and later on, lots of sex. At that point, the genre mutated into BONKBUSTERS. They were deliciously addictive. Reading one was rather like scoffing too many éclairs. They didn’t do you any good at all, but they could be hugely enjoyable. I say that as someone who has spent far too many hours on the sofa, relishing things like SCRUPLES by Judith Krantz, LACE by Shirley Conran and later on lots of books by Jilly Cooper.
Now here comes Jessica Ruston (who is the daughter of Susan Hill but couldn’t be more different as a writer) to bring their delights back to a market packed with chick lit (not the same thing) and hen lit (even more different) and even lad lit (as chick lit but with men so even more dissimilar). It is also a market in which genres such as thrillers, detective stories and fantasy far outsell what I call ‘ordinary novels’.
Luxury is a story about a man who owns an empire of hotels. He is also the figurehead of a TV reality show a la The Apprentice which is huge on both sides of the Atlantic. His dream of a resort (the eponymouse Luxury) on a tropical island that makes the Maldives look so-so and how he achieves his ambition is one plot strand. But there are others: he has a wife, a deadly rival, children, a lover, a best friend, assistants etc and every one of them comes to life in these pages. Each one has his or her own agenda and things brew up stormy and tragic and funny and quite rauchy, too, as blackmail and revenge come into play and as in all good fiction, people get what they deserve. The last line is terrific and does that thing I envy so much: gives a new perspective to the whole novel in the final few words. There are twists and turns and ups and downs and everything you need to keep you glued. It also has (and others may not appreciate this as much as I do) lots and lots of descriptions of hotel rooms, dresses, jewels, shoes and the trappings of wealth. Smashing fun all round and just the thing to pack on a long flight or for a train journey. Oscar Wilde had Gwendolen reading her own diary on the train, because she liked something sensational. She’d have adored LUXURY. I believe the author is well into writing another book and I, for one, will be eager to read it.

THE PALE ASSASSIN by Patricia Elliott
(Hodder pbk.£6.99 Book one in the PIMPERNELLES series.)

From A Tale of Two Cities to the present day, the French Revolution has always inspired novelists. It’s a very dramatic period of history. There is blood-letting a-plenty, lots of knotty politics to get your teeth into and thrilling stories of death, escape, terror and romance. Also, the towering figure of Madame Guillotine, that uniquely picturesque and hideous form of death penalty, dominates every narrative about these times. That ghastly shadow falls over everything.
Patricia Elliott is to be commended for taking this material and giving us a truthful, well-written and exciting story of the time through the story of a young woman of unusual bravery and good sense. She’s an aristocrat, Eugénie de Boncoeur and the story of what happens to her and to her brother, Armand; how they escape the clutches of those who seek to capture and kill them; how Eugénie in particular seeks to elude a nasty villain called Le Fantome, and makes her daring escape to England in the face of many dangers is one that young readers of historical fiction will love.
This book is based on good research. There really was a plot to rescue Louis XIV from the guillotine, for example, and all the details are surely accurate, but the work that must have gone into this novel isn’t as important as the characters and the non-stop action. We feel we’re inhabiting the streets of Paris, a convent, a dressmaker’s shop, the inns en route to the coast, the English boat Charlotte and sharing in all the adventures as though we were really there. Eugénie is a an engaging heroine, the baddies are deliciously bad, and her brother and the various young men in her life (and yes, even in the midst of the French Revolution, there is always time for a little romance) are interesting characters. We can look forward now to what happens next. The story ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger ...let us hope it’s not too long before Part Two appears.

CUPID'S ARROW by Isabelle Merlin
Random House Australia pbk. (no price)

Isabelle Merlin, according to her author biog at the front of this book, grew up loving the fairy tales told to her by her French grandmother, but this excellent lady would not recognize the hi-tech side of her granddaughter's talents. Merlin has a website and it's right up front (http://isabelle.merlin.googlepages.com)on the first page of the book for all her young readers to click on. They can then find out about this breezy, exciting, interesting and altogether delightful writer. At the end of the book, after we've been through more thrills and spills than you can shake a stick at, you will find a reference to two sites of interest to anyone who wants to follow up on the more scholarly side of what they've been reading about.
This is typical of Merlin. She mixes a truly exciting and romantic adventure story, with elements this time of the Tarot, fairytales, archetypical villains and the trappings of a fairytale (dark forests, mythical beasts, spooky omens, sinister archers, recurring dreams, wicked women of one kind and another) with the things we know from modern thrillers: serial killers, the internet and police activities across continents.

The heroine, Fleur, (the names here are important. The town in France is called Avallon) comes from Australia to Bellerive Manor, where her adventures begin. We are never in any doubt that things will pan out well in the end. It's the kind of book where you are safe, through every hair-raising scrape and the reassurance this gives the reader allows Merlin to ratchet up the action and the tension. We have a handsome hero. We have a first person narrative that is chirpy without being irritating, and we have a thriller. What more could you ask for? Tremendous fun for everyone and I do hope that Random House UK might import this lovely Aussie writer so that our teenagers can also enjoy her work. Meanwhile, go to your computers and search her out online. Lovers of Arthurian legends who are also looking for romance need look no further.

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