I feel like I’ve been complaining about books a lot lately, so here are some thoughts on recent happy reading:
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
This novel won the Booker Prize, so there are plenty of reviews out there. I liked Rohan Maitzen’s comments on its “over the shoulder” point of view and dearth of exposition, unusual in historical fiction; these were elements I admired too. My friend and office-mate is writing a dissertation on the Lisle family’s letters and they are (minor, off-stage) characters in the novel; this connection added to my enjoyment of Mantel’s novel, giving me a feel for the way in which every relationship for the people surrounding Henry’s court, even family ones, was political. That’s very evident in the novel.
Genre romance is denigrated by some (and loved by others) partly because you know how it will end. Well, the ending(s) of Wolf Hall are known too, at least by anyone with some awareness of British history. We know Thomas Cromwell will succeed in bringing about Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn; he will best Thomas More; his interest in Jane Seymour can only be read as a hopeful ending if you don’t know what happens next. And yet, I found Mantel’s novel suspenseful. As in a good romance, the interest lies in how we get to the ending and in the character development along the way.
Joanna Chambers, The Lady’s Secret
One of the first romance-reader blogs I found was Tumperkin’s Isn’t It Romance? Since I enjoyed her reflections on the genre, I was delighted to hear that she was publishing a novel as Joanna Chambers (from Carina). This debut from an e-press was the opposite of my recent experience with an established, best-selling author from a major New York publisher. That book felt half-hearted and repetitive, this one was a fresh take on the cross-dressing heroine trope and thoughtfully developed themes of disguise and concealment. The heroine, disguised as a man, becomes the hero’s valet, and recognizes that he too is “in disguise,” his fashionable clothes a kind of protective armor. The heroine’s theatre background thus felt thematically integrated and not just code for “unconventional/willing to get it on” (in a nice intertextual moment, the novel opens with a discussion of casting Twelfth Night).
Chambers touches lightly the hierarchy of below-stairs life, on the odd, one-sided intimacy between servant and master, and on the effect of the class difference between them when they become lovers. For me, those were the most interesting aspects of the novel (more than the stolen inheritance/evil villain plot) and I wished they were more fully developed. The ending was rather hastily wrapped up, too. Some books feel padded. This one, I thought, could have gone from good (definitely worth reading) to really good with another 50 pages or so. I look forward to seeing what Chambers will do next.
Jill Sorenson, Stranded With Her Ex
This is the second Harlequin Intrigue by Sorenson I’ve read recently, and while I didn’t think it was quite as good as Tempted by His Target (oh, Harlequin, your titles . . . they embarrass), I really enjoyed it. It made me think more about “purpleness” and how exaggerated events and emotions in romance work as a kind of shorthand. Intrigues are short (55-60,000 words) and there’s no way to squeeze both romance and suspense plots into that space without dramatic shortcuts.
Stranded has hints of a Gothic or a locked-room mystery: a small group of researchers is isolated on the Farallon Islands, sharing a Victorian light-keeper’s house rumoured to be haunted. (Once again, Sorenson writes an unusual romance setting really evocatively). Weird things happen, and they begin to wonder if one of their number is dangerous. The hero and heroine divorced a year before the events of the novel, in the aftermath of an accident in which they lost their baby (well, that’s how they think of it; Daniela was 8 months pregnant). Although the heroine’s retreat into despair and panic drove them apart, they still love each other, and the dramatic events of a few days on the islands bring them back together. To her credit, Sorenson doesn’t pretend that these issues are easily resolved: the heroine has worked hard on her mental health in the year they were apart, and the epilogue mentions the therapy they’ve continued with after their reunion. In the main storyline, though, things happen fast. The hint of Gothic helped me take the story as more emotionally true than literally true.
The documentary film-maker with them on the island remarks on how the camera loves Daniela’s big eyes, saying, “You remind me of a silent film star. Very expressive.” That struck me as a good metaphor for how the book works. Silent films are a kind of transition from the heightened actions of the stage (think of how someone in stage make-up looks right from a distance, unnatural and overdone close up) to the more “natural” style of acting allowed by the close-up of a film camera. To a modern eye, the facial expressions of silent film can seem comically exaggerated (and the storylines overly melodramatic), but they were a language their original audience understood. So, for instance, when Sean risks a swim in shark-infested waters to save Daniela from drifting out to sea, I took it as symbolic of his continued commitment to her rather than seeing him as implausibly super-heroic.
Stranded moves rapidly between set-piece scenes: from dramatic rescue to emotional confrontation to hot sex to shark encounters. Sorenson writes heart-stopping action scenes; while the romance didn’t work as well for me here as in Tempted (it was less clear to me why these two loved each other), I still enjoyed it. She’s become a go-to author for a fast, engrossing escape of a book.