Reading Break: In My Earbuds

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).



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16 Responses to Reading Break: In My Earbuds

  1. lawless says:

    I see that Shute emigrated from England to Australia. His connection with Australia (he never became a citizen) may explain why he’s more racist about Aboriginal Australians than Malays or Japanese. Australia was (and to some extent still is) incredibly racist in this regard.

    “Predictable and unsubtle” is how I feel about Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. (Also that it’s highly implausible.) It sounds like Walton’s books may be the equivalent as applied to gay people and Jews. Nor did the Nazis stop at those groups, either.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I wondered whether living in Australia when he wrote it colored his views–sometimes people have the most disdain for those who are close at hand. I still found it surprising that the enemy soldiers seemed more fully human than the Aboriginal Australians (I am trying not to use the slurs he does) working on the cattle station. It’s not just the casual slurs, it’s that they seem cardboard and we don’t really learn about them as characters, whereas several of the Malay villagers and Japanese soldiers, even though they are minor characters, come across as fully rounded people.

      I feel the same way about Handmaid’s Tale, so yes, that’s a perfect comparison for me–all too neatly pointed.

      • lawless says:

        It may also be that as an emigrant from England, he reflexively adopted prevailing attitudes without any thought. I’ve seen that happen with South Asian Indians who emigrate to the US vis-a-vis attitudes toward African-Americans, for example. (Of course, there the matter is complicated by skin color; South Asian Indians who are dark-skinned don’t wish to be mistaken for African-Americans.)

        I’m glad to know we feel the same way about A Handmaid’s Tale, especially since it’s not the first such such issue on which we agree.

  2. sonomalass says:

    I’m sorry to hear that the second Walton book disappointed you. I haven’t read it yet, but I will have do — four years of dissertation research on actresses as Hamlet puts it right in my wheelhouse.

  3. Barb in Maryland says:

    Fellow JAK fan here, so I share your disgruntlement over the lack of Emma Coppersmith’s story. And she remains an auto-read for me(in all her guises). because she continues to delivery what I enjoy. Her last Amanda Quick was a straight romantic suspense Victorian (no Arcane), and was pretty good.
    I haven’t read A Town Like Alice in a long time, so I had forgotten the racist bits. When I get a yen for the story I drag out my VHS of the Bryan Brown/ Helen Morse mini-series. (Why, oh why is there no really good DVD of this? Why???).
    I just so disliked the premise of Walton’s alternative WWII that I didn’t even try any of the books.

    I love your round-up posts. It’s always interesting to see what you’ve been reading.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for the kind words! (And good to know I’m not alone in my Coppersmith woes). Maybe I will try some of her recent Quick books in print, then. I definitely enjoyed the classic ones I tried, I just don’t like Anne Flosnik as a narrator so I had to struggle past that to enjoy them.

      I’m always curious about what people are reading. I love the Book Riot “what we’re reading right now” feature for that reason.

  4. Sunita says:

    Mid-century middlebrow! That’s perfect. I’ve got a couple of Nevil Shute books in the TBR courtesy of my mother, and I was planning to read either this one or reread The Far Country for the PopSugar challenge. The racism and classism of the 20thC books can be difficult, not only to read but then to talk about today, because some people find those aspects really hard to read while others take them in stride as part of the package in deciding to read the books in the first place. For me, sometimes attitudes don’t spoil the books while in other cases books become almost unreadable, and I haven’t figured out what tips a book or author from one to the other. For the period, I always recommend Angela Thirkell (with caveats about her classism and political attitudes), and if you haven’t read Elizabeth Bowen, she’s an old favorite of mine (higher quality than middlebrow, for sure).

    Your point about the absence of colonialism in the Walton is a good one. I remember thinking that when I read the first book. I can’t offhand think of alt historical books set in that period that incorporate colonialism well, or at all, really.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wish Thirkell were easier to get hold of! But I think my library has at least a few.

      I got to count Town Like Alice for the PopSugar challenge; I was thinking I wouldn’t read a book turned into a movie. Bonus!

  5. KeiraSoleore says:

    I’m a fan of the old Amanda Quick books. They were one of the earliest historical I read that like the Garwoods have stayed with me.

    I love this: “I think what I enjoyed the most was the way the characters just got on with hard work in difficult times ” Yes, I can’t stand character who whinge on about their sad situations for pages on end and end up navel gazing more than looking outward to the future. You endure. You get on.

    The “dignity of work” gets short-shrift in romance. More than likely, the h/h are languishing at each others’ feet. In historicals, I really like seeing the peer getting on with their vast estate businesses. Gives more of a semblance of a life being lived, rather than suspended in a bell jar (or should I say petri-dish? :))

    • KeiraSoleore says:

      “They were among the earliest historicals…” Grammar!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really enjoy historicals where we see people at work! Aristocrats who actually manage their estates or engage in politics. I’d love to see more middle-class characters at work, too. I don’t love Nora Roberts, but the research she puts into her characters’ work is always interesting to me. I feel I learn something. I like to see characters who care about what they do.

  6. Sadly, Nevil Shute’s views would reflect the attitudes of white Australia at the time (there was even a White Australia Policy for immigration until 1966). Indigenous Australians could not vote, were not counted in the census and had few rights. This link gives a pretty good overview

    Another middlebrow mid-century Australian fiction suggestion would be They’re a weird mob by Nino Culotta (pseudonym for John O’Grady). And yes, there is a romance of sorts in this book.

  7. kaetrin says:

    A Town Like Alice is definitely full of racism. I’d like to say things have moved on since 1950 when it was written but I’m not sure that they have all that much. Indigenous Australians are still treated poorly, have a lower life expectancy and represent 35% of all children taken from their parents by authorities.

    I have read the book (a very long time ago) but my favourite version of the story was the mini series with Helen Morse and Bryan Brown. The romance! I had all the feels about their romance and I felt so sorry for Noel Strachan (Gordon Jackson), who loved Jean but for whom Jean could not return the feeling. (But I wanted Joe and Jean together no matter what, Sorry Noel).

    Here is a clip which shows the main players but be warned there are racist slurs (Japanese and Indigenous Australians) aplenty even in only 3 minutes of airtime. Joe’s nickname for Jean is a horrible racist slur which is totally unacceptable now. As much as I loved the miniseries way back when I’m not sure I could get past it now. Even the clip was confronting.

  8. Liz Mc2 says:

    Thank you both for your comments from an Australian perspective. I had assumed these attitudes were common but it’s good to have a bit more context. The casual slurs are hard to read/hear, but it isn’t as if the casual acceptance of segregation and a racial hierarchy would really be better without them.

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