I’m tired of writing ranty blog posts, though sometimes it seems like I have to stick my fingers in my ears and go la-la-la in order to avoid the impulse. So I will take a page from the Jennifer Weiner playbook and sprinkle fairy dust over books I’ve enjoyed reading/listening to lately.
I enjoyed Jackie Barbosa’s novella Hot Under the Collar. I posted a longer than usual review on Goodreads because Jackie kindly sent me a copy. To that, I’d add: this story appealed to me very personally because of the vicar hero. My dad went to (Episcopal) seminary when I was a teen. He had some mighty cute 20-something classmates. Ever since (and maybe also from reading Barbara Pym in my formative years) I’ve had a vicar thing. I hope my dad’s not reading this! Walter, the hero of Hot Under the Collar, reminded me of one of those guys; he’s a charming playboy who grows up to be a good pastor. I said in my review that it’s almost like inspirational romance for liberal Christians. Walter isn’t dogmatic or pious, but he is concerned with questions of forgiveness, redemption and judgment (or not). The church is important in many of the characters’ lives, and that’s something mainstream romance seldom shows.
The novella’s heroine, Artemisia Finch, is built on the same basic DNA as Cecilia Grant’s in A Gentleman Undone: both fell in love as very young women with men who wouldn’t or couldn’t marry them; both had resulting pregnancies that left them unable to conceive (and childless); both became courtesans/prostitutes. And yet these characters and their books are utterly different. When I’m feeling cranky about romance rules and formulas, it’s good to be confronted with two writers doing such divergent things with the same basic material. I enjoyed each on its own terms.
I thought the romance in Hot Under the Collar kind of took a back seat to Walter’s relationship with the inhabitants of Grange-Over-Sands (I didn’t mind that, because I’m feeling a bit burned out on romance right now). The romance is resolved through Walter’s engagement with the community of his parishioners and his pastoral care for their problems. Often romance couples seem isolated from other people. Here, that isolation from the community–particularly Artemisia’s–was a problem to be solved. That made it a bit like Farahad Zama’s Marriage Bureau for Rich People, a book I discovered in the Dear Author thread on South Asian romance. A lot of Goodreads reviews describe this as “Alexander McCall Smith in India with a hint of Jane Austen” and that’s pretty spot on, though there’s no mystery plot. There is a slightly Pride and Prejudice-esque romance thread that becomes more prominent near the end of the book, but it’s also quite episodic, as Mr. Ali and his assistant Aruna help people find the right matches. Their clients are both Hindu and Muslim, and a picture of the complex, diverse community emerges through Aruna and the Alis’ interactions with these people, and with their neighbors and servant, and the Alis’ son’s involvement in protests against an economic development project that would displace farmers. The product description at Amazon includes the phrase “shamefully delightful.” WTF? I felt no shame in my delight. Oops, rant creeping in! La-la-la. It is gentle, sweet and a lot of fun, light but still addressing some serious themes (community, family, the conflict between tradition and modernity).
I can tell I’m stressed out and tired because I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks (my daughter finally finished school yesterday, and my husband has been out of town all week; I need a vacation, or at least to sleep in for a couple of days). When I can’t concentrate on reading I play mah-jong on my iPod while listening to a story. Lately, I’ve been re-listening to old comfort favorites. Almost all of my exposure to Jayne Anne Krentz and her various pseudonyms has been via audio. I don’t think I’ve ever loved one of her books, but I always, always enjoy them, even the ones I think are not very good. I just like her voice (this is true for me with Jackie Barbosa as well, actually). This week it’s been Ravished and Deception, probably the Amanda Quick historicals I like the best. I have the same problem with these books that I do with Shakespeare comedies: I can never remember which title goes with which story. I think of them as “the fossil one” and “the not-really-a-pirate one.” Entertaining background to whatever dull housework I’m doing, and comforting companions to doze off to when I’m having trouble falling asleep alone.
I’m also two books in to Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain on audio. I read these books over and over as a child, but unlike some other childhood favorites, haven’t re-read them since. They’re classic high fantasy based in Welsh myth, and they hold up well. Yes, they’re sometimes blatantly didactic, but that works for me in stories of ordinary, flawed people learning to be heroes. I love the way the rag-tag band is referred to as “companions.” Together, they accomplish things they never could alone. This part of the author’s note to The Book of Three (read by Alexander himself) made me cry:
The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy. Such things never happen in real life. Or do they? Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we believe we can do. Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.
That meant more to me at 44 than it ever could have at 10. I want an “Assistant Pig-Keeper” sign for my office door.
I read and listened to some things I didn’t like as much too. But hey, fairy dust, la-la-la!