Posted April 2, 2007on:
March was a decent month for books. I did appreciate Artemisia and would recommend it but I wasn’t enthralled, I’m not enthused. That may be why it’s taking me a while to figure out how to start my post on it. The Open Curtain by Evenson is in the same boat: whatever clicked for other bloggers did not do so for me and while I had a good time with it I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.
Ysabel by Kay was a general disappointment. For his first book in which the story takes place in an entirely contemporary setting, he decide to straddle the line between the lyrical prose he used for his “high fantasy” and the more stripped style from Last Light; the result was boring. There is some shifting into the present tense when writing the thoughts of the three figures from the past that reappear in present day Provence. Kay did this to enforce the idea that, whenever these characters reincarnate they live intensely in the “now”; and I suppose this did set up a nice contrast for readers who could not look at the three–Marius a Roman, Cadell the Celt and the mysterious Ysabel–without considering and trying to figure out their historical past. But I don’t know how affective this technique was because whenever the three are together their dialogue is layered, is entangled with their shared personal histories, the subtext inescapable. I don’t know that writing their thoughts in the present tense can overwhelm that or offer anything substantial to ponder.
Also, nothing happened. There’s this kid, Ned, who’s in Provence with his famous photographer Dad for his latest project. Ned stumbles upon this dancer chick who just happens to be a history nerd and can sprout conveniently necessary information to move this plot along, and then they stumble on the stranger in the Cathedral, Marius. Since Ned’s not particularly keen on school he needs to have something to get this plot going because history, anthropology, all that good stuff plays a major role–so he gets weird super powers. That would be fine, part and parcel of the whole thing really, if he could do anything exciting with these powers.
But he can’t. The coolest moment in the whole novel is when, in a tense night-time confrontation with Cadell and a druid in which his friend is attacked, Ned manages to slice off the horns of the intimidating Celt. Yes, horns as Cadell, a shape-shifter, was in the form of Cernunnous. Slices it off with laser beams that shot out of his hands. (Pardon me for making it sound intentionally ridiculous, it really was a good action moment.) This is all a tease though–the most we get before and after this is Ned being able to sense the re-incarnated time travellers and his estranged aunt and husband who happen to share similar powers. Oh and if he happens to walk through any areas where a battle once occurred he gets really sick.
No one else does anything interesting! It’s basically folks walking around with maps and cell phones, discussing and discovering bits of Provence history, and occasionally beating off spirit wolves with sticks.
All right, no action, but what about the characters, Kay is known for his emotionally staggering stories that hold you by the throat. Well…there is the conflict between Ned’s mother, currently working with Doctors Without Borders in Darfur, and her sister, Kim. They haven’t spoken to each other in years and what brings them together is Ned’s revelations about himself and reality–the same things that separated them when it happened to Kim. Then we have Marius, Ysabel and Cadell caught in a love triangle that has lasted through millenia. Each time they die, then are born again, then the two guys have to battle to the death, in different ways, to see who gets the girl. She is the air they breathe, blah blah blah, love, kiss, smooch what have you.
The thing is we never learn all that much about them and their past. The mystery is intriguing and it’s great trying to figure out exactly who they are, but that was ten times more interesting than their romance.
Sadly this novel, according to Kay, is his best-selling novel to date. Wtf? Marly asked on a previous post which books of his I would recommend. From what I’ve read I would say try Tigana and The Last Light of the Sun first. The Fionavar Tapestry in his most conventional work, but the way he incorporated the idea of myths and how the reappear in different ways among different peoples and how we respond to it, I found very engaging, and raised it above the usual fare. If anyone has read his Sarantine Mosaic and The Lions of Al-Rassan feel free to mention something about it in the comments.
I also read Lisa Kleypas’ Sugar Daddy, her first hard cover and contemporary romance. I opened the book with no expectations as to how she would write the novel and finished it pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed her heroine, Liberty. It’s less a genre romance and more a simple coming-of-age story of a half-mexican girl named Liberty who, after her father died, was raised in a trailer-park by a single white mother in Texas. It was written in the first person, a first for Kleypas, and I was won over by Liberty who, for a romance heroine, seemed so blessedly normal. She isn’t a mathematical genius restricted by her circumstances, destined to become a Rhodes scholar. She ends up working at a hair salon, as this is what she’s really good at; it’s not a job that she’s doing in lieu of some other brighter dream like becoming a writer, or some fantastic painter or whatever else writers usually come up with.
The portrayal of her mother was quite good as well. Around the time Liberty is sixteen, the mother becomes pregnant again, unexpectedly. It’s clear that she’s not enthused about this development and this does not change much after the baby is born. Liberty, on the other hand, is thrilled and immediately takes to her new sister, taking on much of the parenting role. Her mother never seems to shake off the depression. Kleypas never depicts this in a judgemental fashion, which for a romance is somewhat unconventional. For a genre that claims to be by women, for women, many of the books convey decidedly retro ideas about femininity. Heroines are always virgins, or inexperienced, and if they had experience it was all bad and orgasms might as well be unicorns. (The men can be man whores, it just makes them hotter when their libido is yoked by their One True Love and they can’t get it up for any one else any more.) These women must love children, must want children, and if they don’t they are terrible persons.
Kleypas is guilty of one or two these herself, and others, but in her stories they manage to work as natural developments in the story, rather than artificially forced ideas of the kind of women it’s assumed we prefer to read about. Liberty’s sexual experience before her One True Love are nothing to talk about, but the first occurred as a teenager and what with having to take of her sister she does not have much time for an exciting much less an active love life as she gets older. The romantic plot of the story, once it develops, is a little implausible but Kleypas is excellent at selling the fantasy and I bought it. It was worth the hard cover price.
I’m looking forward to April. I’ve got two McCarthy’s: The Road and Blood Meridian. For those who were waiting for the paperback it’s out now just in time for Oprah along with a decent re-stock of his back list (thank you Oprah!). I’ve been eyeing another John McGahern and I’ve finally started Cendrars’ Moravagine.