Sunday, July 31, 2011

Vision in White by Nora Roberts

Vision in White by Nora Roberts, 2009

Then she laid her pocket-warmed hands on his cheeks, brushed her lips to his in a light, friendly, close to sisterly kiss.

He blanked. He moved before he thought, acted before he checked. He took her shoulders, pulled her in--pressed her back to the door as he took the simple brush of lips into the long and the dark.

What he'd imagined at seventeen plunged into reality at thirty. The taste of her, the
feel. That moment of lips and tongue, and the heat rising in her blood. In the quiet of snowfall, that elemental hush, the sound of her breath sighing out broke in his mind like thunder.

A storm gathering.
--- (page 53)

I think I've mentioned on this blog my general lack of interest in the romance genre. It's just always seemed like a bit of a waste of time to me. Boy meets girl (or pirate meets duchess, or cowboy meets heiress), boy and girl go through small relationship crisis, boy and girl make babies into the sunset. Snooze. There aren't a lot of romance writers who have a reputation for sparkling prose or great characters, either. As a whole, I've always looked at romance novels as a cut above your average picture book in terms of quality and maturity.

But since I'm nothing if not curious, I figured a book by Nora Roberts would be worth a shot (being stuck at a weekend at the beach with literally no other choices may have contributed, too). Roberts is one of the few romance writers that has a reputation for being a little more than a one-dimensional bodice-ripper. Her "In Death" series is quite highly acclaimed by crime fans and even her conventional romances have not been poorly received by critics. So I went in to Vision in White with a slightly open mind, but still fully ready to scoff, eye-roll and snort.

I was actually surprised. Even though it's still very much a "romance," Vision is also disarmingly sweet, surprisingly sexy and even, dare I say it, a little bit smart. The air of maudlin, fantasy-wish-fulfillment that I expected is mostly--okay, somewhat--missing; there's a level of maturity and nuance present that I definitely didn't expect.

Mackensie "Mac" Elliot grew up with an absent father and a self-absorbed mother, giving her a deathly fear of romantic commitment. Despite her own personal struggles with love, she is a photographer in the wedding planning firm she runs with her friends (they all live together on a Connecticut estate, in a piece of ridiculous but mildly enchanting fantasy). When she bumps into soft-spoken English teacher Carter Maguire, Mac falls head over heels, even though her first instinct is to head for the hills. And yep, you can probably guess what happens next.

There's no real plot, per se. This is a story about basically good people who love and support each other and want each other to be happy (with one notable exception). There is almost no real conflict or major drama. It is the story of a smooth and successful courtship, and it makes no apologies for itself. If you want plot, find something else.

What makes something this fundamentally silly work is Roberts' writing, which is surprisingly good: lean, funny, fast, with strong dialogue. The dialogue is seriously quite good, sharp, natural and even witty. The characters all have their own distinctive patterns; no mush-mouthed automatons here, which is honestly what I was waiting for.

Characterization is the key to making a novel like Vision succeed, and Roberts gives us two appealing, well-rounded protagonists in Mac and Carter. Their interactions are a skillful blend of lifelike and impossibly romantic. Realistic enough to be believable and relatable, overblown enough to be an exciting escape. Even though there are the requisite passionate kisses, smoldering looks and steamy sex scenes, I was impressed at the actual amount of content in Mac and Carter's relationship. Roberts works hard to establish a real, mature connection between the pair that extends beyond dewy glances and sexual tension.

The book is without a doubt an engine that drives the two of them together, and by definition it's contrived. I'm not letting Roberts off the hook for some notably overdone passages of drama (the "butterfly picture" motif is a recurring annoyance). The supporting characters don't exactly jump off the page-- and Carter's coworker Bob doesn't speak or act like any human being I've ever encountered. And there's not much going on under the surface of the story, either.

But Vision in White works. Roberts does what she does well; she's somehow convincing. She's not trying to write a novel with something important or unusual to say, she's not trying to create enduring characters. She's trying to bewitch her readers into believing--if only for an instant--in fate, true love, happily ever after, and all that good stuff. She's an accomplished enough writer to pull it off, too.

NEXT UP: John le Carré's classic spy novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin, 2005

"We are the ironborn, and once we were conquerors. Our writ ran everywhere the sound of the waves was heard. My brother would have you be content with the cold and dismal north, my niece with even less. . . but I shall give you Lannisport. Highgarden. The Arbor. Oldtown. The riverlands and the Reach, the kingswood and the rainwood, Dorne and the marches, the Mountains of the Moon and the Vale of Arryn, Tarth and the Stepstones. I say we take it all! I say, we take Westeros." He glanced at the priest. "All for the greater glory of the Drowned God, to be sure."

For half a heartbeat even Aeron was swept away by the boldness of his words. The priest had dreamed the same dream, when first he'd seen the red comet in the sky.
We shall sweep over the green lands with fire and sword, root out the seven gods of the septons and the white trees of the northmen. . .

"Crow's Eye," Asha called, "did you leave your wits at Asshai? If we cannot hold the north--and we cannot--how can we win the whole of the Seven Kingdoms?"

"Why, it has been done before. Did Balon teach his girl so little of the ways of war? Victarion, our brother's daughter has never heard of Aegon the Conqueror, it would seem."

"Aegon?" Victarion has crossed his arms against his armored chest. "What has the Conqueror to do with this?"

"I know as much of war as you do, Crow's Eye," Asha said. "Aegon Targaryen conquered Westeros with

"And so shall we," Euron Greyjoy promised. "That horn you heard I found amongst the smoking ruins that were Valyria, where no man has dared to walk but me. You heard its call, and felt its power. It is a dragon horn, bound with bands of red gold and Valyrian steel graven with enchantments. The dragonlords old sounded such horns, before the Doom devoured them. With this horn, ironmen, I can bind
dragons to my will."

Asha laughed aloud. "A horn to bind goats to your will would be of more use, Crow's Eye. There are no more dragons."

"Again, girl, you are wrong. There are three, and I know where to find them. Surely that is worth a driftwood crown."
--- (pages 395-396)

Even before I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire, I knew that the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, was largely seen as a disappointment by fans, inciting frustration and even anger among those who adored Game, Clash and Storm. A few have even described Feast as Martin's "jump the shark" moment. Feast only has half of the usual cast of characters, with such favorites as Jon, Tyrion and Dany relegated to the next installment. As a result, the novel definitely suffers from a much-reduced pace and a notable lack of the kind of direction that the previous books had.

There's no doubt, though, that Feast is, quite literally, a feast for readers. The dynamism of previous installments is missing, but there is world-building and character development galore. Martin reaches into the corners of his world and gives us a more eclectic look at the story, from the perspectives of scheming queens, ironmen, Dornish princesses and wandering knights. Those invested in the tale of the Stark family will be disappointed, but for those who are willing to wade through a certain amount of filler, there's a rich bounty of rewards.

Between the decimation of Stannis's forces on the Blackwater and the (sniff) death of Robb Stark, the war in Westeros seems to be coming to a close. Tommen is king of a scorched and decimated land, overrun with bandits and still struggling to find lasting peace. Westeros is still a powder keg ready to blow, even without outright war.

In this troubled and uncertain new world, Brienne hunts for the Stark girls, Cersei struggles to maintain control of her kingdom (and her sanity), Jaime tries to find a new place for himself, Arya finds a new life in Braavos, Sansa faces constant deception and intrigue in the Eyrie and Samwell leaves the Wall on a clandestine mission, as an explosive power struggle threatens to erupt in Dorne and the ironmen unite to conquer Westeros--and to find a far-off dragon queen.

Feast is an unusual mixture, a bit of a dumping ground for Martin's extraneous characters and plot threads. The three characters who have provided the base for the saga--Jon, Dany and Tyrion--are only referred to or, in Jon's case, seen briefly. It's up to the smaller figures to carry the novel, particularly Cersei and Brienne, who get the most prominent roles.

I was pretty impressed with Cersei's storyline overall (Martin does a great job of making Cersei unbalanced, nasty, childish. . . and just a tiny bit understandable), but it's definitely overlong and a tad galumphing in comparison to the book's other narrative threads. For instance, Arya and Sansa only get a couple of chapters apiece and Samwell, Jaime, the ironmen and the Dornishmen get pretty truncated stories, too.

The pace is slower, no question, the plot less dynamic. What Feast does very well is filling in the missing pieces of the Westeros puzzle, exploring nooks and crannies that we haven't seen in detail before: Braavos, Dorne, Oldtown, the Iron Islands. Martin has a rare gift for creating intricate, interesting cultures, each with its own customs and unique perspective. Feast is like a colorful patchwork quilt of nations, groups, organizations and individuals, each with their own agenda, sometimes obvious, sometimes shadowy. Nobody tells a story like this better than Martin.

There are some truly glorious bits of character development in Feast: Jaime's increasing disillusionment with Cersei, Sam's growing courage and confidence, the contentious relationship between Euron and Victarion Greyjoy, Arys Oakheart's romance with Arianne Martell. Martin's patented mixture of the sweepingly epic with the intimately personal continues to work wonders for him. His writing is, as always, damn good, no matter what he's depicting. It's easy to forget just how good he is because his narrative is so engrossing.

His editor, however, seems to be on break. Martin's struggles with editing the book are practically literary legend by now, and the book definitely shows the labor that went into it. There are too many dropped or inconsequential plotlines and, like A Clash of Kings, way too much name-dropping. It is literally impossible to keep track of everyone's name, house and allegiances without the appendix in the back. I also got a bit weary of Martin's tendency (which is particularly pronounced in Feast) to head off on interludes that seem unconnected to the larger story, such as Brienne's trek to Crackclaw Point or Arianne's long imprisonment in the Sunspear.

George R. R. Martin at his worst is still better than most writers at their best. Feast may be the weakest novel in the series so far, yet it's still terrific, layered with romance and intrigue and war and character growth. It doesn't come close to the dizzying heights of A Storm of Swords, but it's a good book in its own right. Its status as a placeholder in the series definitely contributes to the feeling that it's a prelude to greatness rather than greatness itself.

NEXT UP: Vision in White, by Nora Roberts. Yep, that's right. A romance novel.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry

The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry, 1990

He realized with a shock he did not know how old he was. He still had not looked at himself in the glass. Why not? Was he afraid of it? What did it matter how a man looked? And yet he was trembling.

He swallowed hard and picked up the oil lamp from the desk. He walked slowly into te bedroom and put the lamp on the dresser. There must be a glass here, at least big enough to shave himself.

It was on a swivel; that was why he had not noticed it before, his eye had been on the silver brush. He set the lamp down and slowly tipped the glass.

The face he saw was dark and very strong, broad, slightly aquiline nose, wide mouth, rather thin upper lip, lower lip fuller, with an old scar just below it, eyes intense luminous gray in the flickering light. It was a powerful face, but not an easy one. If there was humor it would be harsh, of wit rather than laughter. He could have been anything between thirty-five and forty-five.

He picked up the lamp and walked back to the main room, finding the way blindly, his inner eye still seeing the face that had stared back at him from the dim glass. It was not that it displeased him especially, but it was the face of a stranger, and not one easy to know.
--- (pages 16-17)

I am an avowed Anglophile. I especially love the Victorian period, with its carriages, hoopskirts gasogene lamps and social regimentation. There's just something appealing about the period, and something that seems to breed good stories.

The fact that The Face of a Stranger is set in richly detailed Victorian England was one of the main reasons I was interested in it in the first place, and Anne Perry doesn't disappoint in her depiction. She has the Diana Gabaldon-esque gift that gives her descriptions that sense of tactile sensation. She manages to both communicate information about period technology, dress and behavior to the modern reader, while also keeping her characters matter-of-fact about it.

Overall, it's an enjoyable murder mystery, too. Face is the first installment in a series revolving around amnesiac William Monk and his adventures as a police detective in London (yes, I know, I read a lot of series fiction). Perry is the reigning queen of the historical mystery genre and has quite an impressive number of ardent fans. She was also famously tried and convicted of manslaughter as a teenager, a fact that I find utterly fascinating considering the fact that she now writes about murders for a living.

When William Monk wakes up in a London hospital after a carriage crash, he is a blank slate. Like a nineteenth-century Jason Bourne, he has no memory of his former life and no identity, except from what he can glean for the reactions of others.

Concealing his condition from everyone, he resumes work as a detective (even though he doesn't remember any of his old contacts or skills) and is assigned to the well-publicized murder of a well-to-do Crimean War hero who was beaten to death in his lodgings. Monk attempts to track down the killer, while also trying to put together the pieces of his past. Since this is a mystery novel, we know from the start that the two investigations will intertwine, and sure enough, they do.

Perry is a pretty good writer, a tendency towards overwrought emotional description aside, but she does make some notable mistakes from the get-go. For instance, the amnesiac angle is really not that compelling, especially at the beginning of the novel. Monk's decision to tell no one the truth feels like a plot device and not a very skillfully deployed one at that. Furthermore, introducing a main character with no real characteristics except his lack of characteristics is not a great way to kick off a multi-book series.

Admittedly, the memory-loss story does enable a great twist near the end of the novel, and it becomes a more intriguing element as it goes on; it just seems like an odd device to base your main character around. Crimean War nurse Hester Latterly, who has several chapters to herself, seems like a more charismatic and interesting character than Monk. She seems like a more logical choice for a protagonist, but I digress.

The main question of who killed Joscelin Grey is nicely dealt with, with Perry employing a classic whodunit structure with lots of clues and misdirection. The pace is not exactly fast, but the upper-class comedy-of-manners segments are surprisingly effective. Monk's forays into the lower classes of society are a little less impressive, marked as they are with pages of galumphing Cockney slang. There's no innovative reivention of the detective-fiction wheel here, but Perry navigates the conventions of the genre with relative ease.

I also enjoyed Perry's use of an important, but little-known, historical event (the Crimean War) to support the plot. Historical information is unobtrusively laced throughout the narrative, adding extra emotional depth to a story that lacks it.

Did I like Face enough to continue on with the series? While I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to find out what happens next to William Monk, I definitely enjoyed the book enough to try the next one (the fact that I own the next two novels in the series doesnt hurt either). Perry definitely writes a good mystery with an arresting setting and a satisfying resolution. What she needs to work on is her protagonist, who needs to grow into something more than just a blank slate.

NEXT UP: A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin.