Tuesday, April 6, 2010

TBR Tuesday -- Three for the Post of One

I read three books from the TBR bench over the weekend; I guess that's the upside of having a nasty cold: time to read.

First up: The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeild.  Published in 1949, it's the story of an English family who move to California for six months to "cure" the father's depression so he can get back to writing.  There are three children: Rachel, 12, who's a gifted ballerina, Tim, 8, who's a gifted pianist, and Jane, 10, who's plain and not gifted at anything except being a brat.  Through the miraculous coincidences found only in fiction, Jane is cast as Mary in a film version of The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett's story of three children healing each other as they rehabilitate a garden.  It's typecasting, of course -- Jane is a foul-tempered little English girl, as Mary was at the beginning of Burnett's book.

Well, guess what.  Jane isn't magically rehabilitated by her stint as a movie star, and she leaves California pretty much as "black-doggish" as when she arrived.

Oops -- was that a spoiler?  Sorry.  Actually, I suspect that would be a selling point for a lot of readers, as the book depicts children a bit more realistically than a lot of sunny happy books might.  But my problem with it as a story arc was that Jane's presented as bright and precocious.  In fact, her moods are often an intelligent response to the absurdities of adult rules.  So how come no one bothers to explain to her what's expected of her and why?  I kept thinking that would actually help Jane to know why people didn't like her, but almost all the adults stand around wringing their hands at her moods and sulks.  Is that just a reflection of the child-rearing principles of the day, or was Streatfeild (one is meant to imagine Jane is based the author herself) so bound and determined to not rehabilitate Jane that she overlooked Jane's own powers of self-evolution?

I enjoyed The Painted Garden, but almost certainly not as much as other readers have and will continue to do.  So, I highly recommend it not because it suited me, but actually because it didn't so much, and I'm weird.  (I think I'll send it to my 10-year-old cousin and see what she thinks.)

TBR Book Number Two:  The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt.  I read How to Beguile a Beast a while back and loved it so much I bought all her other books.  The Raven Prince is the first of her "Prince" trilogy.  (She weaves a fairy tale into each story.  It makes her happy, and she writes lovely books, so I begrudge her nothing.  I hope the Brothers Grimm continue to inspire her for years to come...)

The widow heroine, Anna Wren, needs work, and the local irascible earl needs a secretary, so she gets the job.  First detail I loved: when the salary is announced, it's three pounds per month.  Okay, I'm pretty sure it would have been paid in four quarterly installments, but maybe I'm wrong about that.  What is great is that this is a rational sum of money for 1760.  I looked it up on my Parliamentary Cheat Sheet and three pounds in 1760 had the purchasing power of £323 in 1998.  Not a huge amount, but you can see how it would have paid a few bills at the local shops.  Good going, Ms. Hoyt.

And here's a bit I liked:  A scullery maid at the earl's estate, upon meeting Mrs. Wren and learning she's to be the latest in a long series of secretaries, volunteers about the earl, "Gives me the chilly trembles, he does, when he shouts."  What a wonderful term.  I really don't care if she made it up (kudos for her imagination) or read it in a book from or about the period (kudos for her research skills); it made me smile.  (It also allowed me to forgive Hoyt for -- twice! -- referring to the hero's eyes as "obsidian."  As anyone who's tried to pair up a black blazer and black slacks purchased separately knows, there's black and then there's black.  But brown eyes so dark they look black?  Yeah, I don't think that color needs a special name.)

The rest of the book is fairly conventional for a novel of this genre.  They're attracted to each other, they have hot hot sex (very well written hot hot sex, by the way) under contrived circumstances that allow the hero to "not know" with whom he was having hot hot sex for several chapters, and there are Villains and Problems to be gotten rid of.  About the Villains and Problems -- they were so contrived and stupid that I just skipped over them.  D'you suppose writers as good as Elizabeth Hoyt write lovely romances that don't need contrived and stupid Villains and Problems, but then editors say, "We need more Conflict.  We need more Suspense.  Please add Villains and Problems," and the writer dutifully does so?  One thing's for sure, I don't expect Ms. Hoyt to admit it if it were the case.

Finally, I just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  (The book is not nearly as twee as the title would suggest -- although whether that is a recommendation or a warning, I don't know.)  I'm not going to say a lot about the book's plot (single writer gets a letter from someone who bought a book she'd once owned and that leads to her researching the German occupation of the Channel Islands, and specifically Guernsey, then visiting and . . . it has a happy ending), but I do want to comment on two things.

First, this book reminded me a lot of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, which although not fictional, has very much the same book-loving feel.  They'd make a great two-book assignment for a book club, I think.  I read 84 Charing Cross Road in the 1980s when it was a big sensation. (For any young `uns out there, it's the real life correspondence between a bookseller in London and a writer in New York about books and various sundry matters.  It is also, in the vernacular, freaking awesome!)  It made a huge impression on me (although I can't now tell you what that impression was) and I was even moved to write a letter to Helene Hanff.  She wrote back, mostly to chastise me for writing in care of her publisher when her actual address was on most of the letters in the book.  (Well, excuse me.)  I know that a lot of authors think how great it is to get fan mail from readers, but my personal experience writing to authors has not inspired me to think it a very smart thing to do.  It's too easy, for me at least, to overly identify with the author and want to Know Her.  I don't blame authors who don't write back -- it's a very fragile barrier between authors and their fans, and I suspect it's a good thing to keep it intact.

The other book GL&PPPS made me think of is the series of short pieces Dorothy Sayers wrote about Lord and Lady Peter Wimsey and their lives during WWII, which will be in Lord Peter, a collection.  As an American (and one whose only exposure to WWII is from the stories my parents told), the experience of the British during that war is fascinating, and chilling.  The stories of the German occupation of the Channel Islands are fascinating, but not always easy to read.

Second thing.  What is it about epistolary novels?  They make me bawl my eyes out!  Seriously, it's like the taps are turn on full bore.  What's up with that? Whatever this phenomenon is about, it's had a huge effect on my reading choices.

On some occasion during my stay in Albany, NY (1983-1992), I went to the library and took out an epistolary novel.  I can remember only a few things about it: it was a hardcover, contemporary fiction, epistolary, and it made me feel so acutely that I just stayed away from "straight" fiction after that.  (I've made a decent effort to figure out what book I'm talking about, but no joy.  It wasn't very famous, clearly.)  Thrillers, mysteries, romances -- all genre fiction was safe.  But I really did not enjoy having my emotions plucked that vigorously.  Oh, I remember one more thing: it had an unhappy ending.  But for that book, I might be reading oh, A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance instead of (or in addition to) The Raven Prince.  Can't say I mind how things worked out, though.

So, about GL&PPPS -- keep a tissue or three handy if you plan on reading it.  Maybe you won't cry, but better to be prepared.


  1. Ooh, I haven't read THE PAINTED GARDEN! *off to purchase*

  2. I thought GL&PPPS was a sweet read. My only quibble was Elizabeth's perfection, but then we only see her through the eyes of others and they focus on her good points exclusively.

  3. "this book reminded me a lot of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road"

    Me too. I find 84 Charing Cross more interesting, but as SarahT says, GL&PPPS is sweet.


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