Starting the year with several enjoyable books gives me hope for happy reading in 2012.
Ellen Kushner, Swordspoint (audiobook produced by Neil Gaiman Presents)
Though I’ve enjoyed some romantic suspense with joint male and female narrators, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about an audiobook with a full cast and sound effects; it seems awfully far from the experience of reading a book. Turns out, I loved it. Most of the book is narrated by Kushner herself (as an NPR host, she has the skills, unlike some writers), and only a handful of key scenes are dramatized. In a quieter novel, that might be distracting, but it worked well for a book subtitled “a melodrama of manners.”
Perhaps inspired by that subtitle, Gaiman describes Swordspoint as “if Jane Austen wrote fantasy,” but I think the Goodreads reviewers who compared it to Dangerous Liaisons are closer to the mark. This book is all sexual and political (or both) power games and a lot of fun.
Cecilia Grant, A Lady Awakened
The widow in this novel isn’t actually notorious, though she gets up to some pretty surprising things. But the book is getting a lot of buzz. I don’t usually read books right when they’re released, but it seems that everyone I know in Romancelandia is reading and talking about this one, so I couldn’t wait. I figure most people who wander by here will already know about A Lady Awakened, so I’m not going to discuss it in detail; if you want more, here’s a rave review from Jane of Dear Author and an opposing view from Meoskop at It’s My Genre, Baby. The Dear Author review has a great, spoilerific discussion in the comments; I pretty much agree with what Janine had to say there, though I found Robin/Janet’s comments astute as well. (And, while I liked the book a lot more than Meoskop, whose aggrieved live-tweeting was hilarious, I think her criticisms are right on the mark).
I loved the first third of the book, which seemed really unusual for a romance. The sex was bad! Martha didn’t admire Theo’s beautiful manly form! Learning about land management started them on the path to love! I liked the middle third okay, but found the end implausible, both in the solution reached and in how quickly everything wrapped up. I was really engrossed at first, but then things began niggling at me. That may have been me more than the book: I had such high expectations, given all the praise it was getting, and the discussions of it on Twitter became a kind of distracting noise in the background (do I agree with X, or Y?). Would ignoring Twitter have changed things? I’m not sure.
Even though aspects of the book disappointed me, a lot felt fresh and different. The history was mostly good, though some interactions between the hero and heroine and their servants and tenants felt off to me (e.g. I doubt they’d think of or address female servants as “ladies”). The writing was very good, too, though an e-reader crash lost my bookmarks so I lack examples. I look forward to more from Grant, whose debut book this is.
Marina Endicott, The Little Shadows
I read and enjoyed Endicott’s previous novel, Good to a Fault, but what really inspired me to read this one was an article in the Globe and Mail describing it as “a counter-narrative to the dominant man’s-eye view of the Wild West.” Sold! Set just before and during World War I (sold again!), The Little Shadows tells the story of three sisters, Aurora, Clover, and Bella Avery, and their quest to become vaudeville stars.
Endicott structures the novel as a vaudeville show, with sections labelled Act One, Finale, and so on. This turned out to be a bit risky. As the novel (which seems very well-researched but wears its information lightly) explains, the opener is a “dumb act,” something requiring little attention as late-comers find their seats and people finish conversations with neighbors. The book, too, started very slowly and didn’t initially compel my attention.
Chapters are broken into short segments, and the narrative point of view shifts frequently, mostly among the three sisters but also to other characters. Endicott handles this well (it isn’t head-hopping), but it did take me quite a bit of time to warm up to the characters. Maybe that’s because I’m used to the deep third-person point of view of romance, and this felt more distanced. There is not a lot of plot at first, either, and I wondered if the novel was going to be slow and episodic.
By the end, however, I was completely hooked. It is episodic, but the cumulative effect of those episodes is powerful, and I loved the Finale (this was the opposite of my reading experience with Grant’s book). The impact lingers, too; I’m still thinking about it days later and admiring it even more in retrospect. The novel’s themes are those of the West: survival, endurance, making a place for yourself in the world. It’s just that it takes place in cities (well, sort of), hotels, and theatres rather than homesteads, mountains, or wagon trails. There are grim moments, certainly, but happy ones too, and a hopeful ending. The descriptions of the vaudeville acts are brilliant and made me wish I could take in a show.
This is also, of course, a book about art and what it means to be an artist. The Avery sisters know that they are not “real singers” and are merely competent dancers. They don’t expect ever to be artists. But they do aspire to affect audiences. They are good at creating illusions–at seeming more beautiful and talented than they are. They sometimes need those protective illusions to help them bear their lives, too. Near the novel’s end, Clover wonders what the point of vaudeville is, in the face of the war’s disasters. Another character, a wounded soldier, replies, “Perfecting it. Making it–realer, or less real. . . . We are only pointing at the moon, but it is the moon.”
Moments like these are why I read fiction. The idea that art saves us in some way, that it points us to what’s real and true and beautiful, even when it is itself imperfect, isn’t new. It reminded me, in fact, of one of my favorite Browning poems, “Andrea del Sarto,” in which the artist muses, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?” A work of art can take such worn-out truisms and make them fresh again, remind us of why they are true. By the time we get to that remark about pointing at the moon, it’s been earned. It doesn’t feel at all like a cliché. I’m really, really glad I didn’t leave Endicott’s show in the slow first act, but gave her artistes a chance to show what they could do.