Since I find it hard to write about audiobooks in detail, I’m reverting to round-up format to report on my recent listening.
Jayne Ann Krentz Fest
I’ve talked before about how Jayne Ann Krentz/Jayne Castle is an audio auto-buy for me, even though I don’t think her books are that great. (I have some of her older Amanda Quick historicals, too, but I don’t like the narrator for the new ones). Something about her polished voice, light/cozy mystery plots, and goofy paranormal and futuristic worlds works as undemanding comfort reading, even though (or because) every book is a jigsaw of familiar pieces from previous work assembled in a slightly new way.
Recently I used a couple of Audible credits to pick up her latest contemporary romantic suspense, Trust No One, and a classic I’d read and enjoyed before, Trust Me (hang on, Jayne, you seem to be contradicting yourself). And though the new book is a stand-alone, I also re-listened to her previous contemporary release, River Road. They were all exactly what I expected, which was just what I wanted from them. I think her new books are something of a return to form–the contemporaries have more energy than her most recent Arcane (psychic-paranormal) or Harmony (futuristic) books, which have gotten tired (and super-complicated with trilogies crossing her three pen-names and time periods).
[I checked her website to see what’s coming up next and found it’s a futuristic Harmony book with a character named Coppersmith, which annoys me, because she seems to have dropped the contemporary Dark Legacy series about the Coppersmith family, and I really liked Copper Beach and wanted a third book. This paragraph is in brackets because it shows how obsessed I have become with her wacky complex worlds, and probably no-one else reading this will care but I can’t help myself.]
Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice
I had only the vaguest sense of what this book was about before I listened, and I really enjoyed the book and resulting surprises. It reminded me a little bit of both Mary Stewart and Helen MacInnes–not the subject matter, so much, but the time period, the evocation of “exotic” settings; the straightforward story-telling; the unpretentious writing style (“midcentury middlebrow”?); the vivid character development; the deeply-felt but not explicit romance.
The frame narrative from the solicitor Noel Strachan became a rather strained device (surely the heroine wouldn’t have written him so much about her private life) but I liked his wry, self-deprecating voice. The novel moves from Strachan’s account of how he tracks Jean Paget down to give her a legacy from her uncle to her story of her time as a prisoner of war in Malaya to her new life in Australia. I think what I enjoyed the most was the way the characters just got on with hard work in difficult times (Jean survives the war by working in the rice paddies in a Malayan village). In Australia, entrepreneurial Jean brings a vibrant community into being by creating businesses that draw people to her small Outback town, or give them a reason to stay. I found the details of her business development fascinating, kind of in the same way I enjoy the descriptions of the characters’ work in a Nora Roberts novel. Wikipedia suggests that “the dignity of work” is a common theme of Shute’s books, and it’s certainly true here.
If the emphasis on Getting On With It seems typical of its time, so, unfortunately, do the racist attitudes and slurs in the book, particularly once it moves to Australia. Yet the views of the Malay people and even Jean’s Japanese captors are more nuanced and complex than those slurs would suggest. Jean respects the Malay villagers, and she goes back to build a well for the village women in return for the help they gave her because she understands just what a difference the well will make in their lives, having shared those lives. The Japanese commanders can be brutal–or simply indifferent to the fate of British women and children–but the ordinary soldiers who guard the British party on their difficult marches are sympathetically portrayed and help care for the children. It was jarring, then, that the Aboriginal Australians among whom Jean settles are portrayed in more stereotypically racist ways and there’s an unquestioning acceptance of segregation.
I’d love other suggestions for mid-20th century authors/books, since I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve been reading lately so much.
Jo Walton, Ha’Penny
I really enjoyed Farthing, the first book in Walton’s trilogy mashing up alternate history and Golden Age mystery. This second book didn’t work nearly as well for me, though. Partly it was that I missed the subtle touches that added depth to her alternate world (in which Britain has made peace with Hitler), like the way she reversed the class valences of China and Indian tea. Ha’Penny felt more thinly imagined to me. My favorite parts were those where actress Viola Lark talks about preparing to play Hamlet in a gender-swapped production of Shakespeare’s play.
But I don’t think this book is weaker than the first in any objective way. Rather, the premise is not interesting enough to me to stretch to more than one book. I’m not sure my view of that premise changed because I talked about Farthing with people who didn’t like it as much as I did, or because a second book exposed its limitations. But why is “Hitler wins” such a popular subject for alternate history? It seems awfully obvious where we go from there: the Free World slides into totalitarianism and is a much shittier place for Jews and gay people, blah blah blah. I can, of course, see why such a premise seems timely these days, but it also seems predictable and unsubtle, as did Ha’Penny.
I also felt increasingly impatient with the point of view from which Walton tells her stories and the holes in the world that are, perhaps, a result. Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard isn’t so bad: his superiors have discovered he’s gay and blackmailed him into covering up a crime; now he’s being asked to lead The Watch, a new British equivalent of the Gestapo. Carmichael’s dilemma–he wants to quit and move to a place where he can be free, but if he stays maybe he can work within the system to make things a little better–is interesting but underdeveloped.
Both novels also have a female character who shares narrating duties (Carmichael’s sections are third person). And they are naive aristocrats. Viola’s family of sisters is based on the Mitfords–one’s a communist, one married Himmler, one’s a duchess. I found myself thinking, “Haven’t we heard enough from the Mitfords over the years? How about a truly alternate point of view?” I’m not sure what’s gained by the innocent/ignorant perspective on totalitarianism.
Finally, I kept thinking about another group for whom things would be shitty if Hitler won: people of color. What happened to the Empire? Aside from the white bits (Canada, New Zealand) to which people imagine escaping and one off-hand reference to “an Indian law student” with a bit part in Hamlet, Walton’s book gives us no clue. In real life, of course, the period after WWII was one of decolonization, but also use of former colonies being used as pawns in the Cold War. Where’s our alternate historical take on that? (Seriously, if you know of one, please tell me).