Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March


Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts, 2010

Honestly, when I read Vision in White, the first book of the Bride Quartet, I did not expect to enjoy it much. As anyone who follows this blog can tell, I read a lot of different genres, but romance has never been one of my favorites. I actually love fictional romances, and I'm definitely not immune to mushy-gushy stuff (hey, I'm a chick, give me a break). But romance as a genre just doesn't appeal to me all that much. In a romance novel, any conflict keeping the couple apart is typically just an engine designed to create drama until the end of the book, when everything works out perfectly. This is a pretty boring and predictable set-up for an entire genre, but Nora Roberts side-steps this problem by simply avoiding melodramatic conflicts.

Seriously. Neither Vision in White nor Bed of Roses has much conflict. There are no silly devices keeping the characters apart, just internal issues, such as trouble with commitment, or a desire to keep a friendship alive. The lack of melodrama is what makes these books so enjoyable: there's a just-hanging-out atmosphere. There are long stretches where nothing much happens at all. No purple prose, no sense of urgency, just characters that you like living their lives and falling in love. There's a genuine fairy-tale quality to the Quartet that's hard to nail down; the characters are round and three-dimensional, but their world is subtly and enchantingly idealized.

Bed of Roses centers again around the Vows wedding company, and the four best friends who run it together. Emma, the voluptuous and kindly florist, is our heroine this time around. She falls hard for Jack Cooke, a local architect and a longtime friend of the Quartet. Jack feels the same way, and after some initial hesitance, their relationship begins. The only true obstacle is Emma's romantic nature and Jack's unwillingness to settle down. I don't want to spoil anything, but this doesn't prove to be much of an obstacle in the long run.

Bed, like Vision, is a straightforward tale of courtship with a classic happily-ever-after ending. There's next to no plot as such, just a lot of conversations and encounters between the main characters, with a sprinkling of some very sexy sex scenes. While there is a fairly major dramatic crisis near the end of the book to serve as a climax, it's been built up to so neatly that it doesn't feel shoehorned into the story (the fact that it's a slightly clunky crisis is another matter entirely).

The two lead characters carry the majority of the novel, and they're both well-drawn, if not especially complicated. I preferred Mac and Carter from Vision to be honest: Mac's smart-ass spunk and Carter's geeky-but-sexy routine is just more inherently interesting to me. That said, Jack is a pretty great leading man, both a wisecracking guy's guy and a surprisingly sensitive and attentive boyfriend. Emma's fine, too, but she is my least favorite of the four main characters. Her mixture of sweetness and sensuality gets a little boring after a while; she lacks the edge that the other three have. Still, the relationship between the two is definitely strong enough to hold your interest, and complex enough to warrant the focus.

Contrary to clich├ęs about romance novels, Roberts is really a pretty good author. Her dialogue flows well, even if it's sometimes just a bit tone-deaf, and her prose has a pleasing snap to it. Not the greatest writing ever, but more than adequate for the story. Bed of Roses is not anything show-stopping, but it's not supposed to be. It's intended to be a light, fun read, and it is definitely both of those things. It's sweet and good-hearted, and executed with tons of wit and charm. I, for one, am looking forward to Book Three (Del/Laurel forever, am I right?).



And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, 1939

I've always loved Agatha Christie novels. They are, in many ways, the template for the mystery novel as we know it. Christie was very much a pulp writer, and the tropes she employed (locked-room murder, multiple suspects, multiple ending twists) were far from new; it was the way she combined those tropes together, and her devilishly ingenious plotting, that makes her such a classic author.

As a whole, I much prefer her Poirot novels to her standalones (Miss Marple is pretty awesome, too). Christie's big draw is not her characterization; she basically cycles through the same ten or eleven character types, giving them different names each time. Poirot is a long way from the most complex literary detective of all time, but at least he's got entertaining and consistent idiosyncrasies to enjoy. Christie's standalone mysteries, on the other hand, tend to be populated by boring cyphers. Needless to say, her non-Poirot novels tend to be the least acclaimed and the least well-known of her books. Except for And Then There Were None.

The novel has one of the most famous and enduring premises in the history of the mystery genre. Ten strangers are separately invited to a mysterious island off the rockbound coast of northern England. All the guests have checkered pasts that they think are hidden, but at dinner, a disembodied voice accuses them each of murder. And then, one by one, they begin to die. Stranded by a storm and haunted by a creepy nursery rhyme, the guests are forced to hunt for the murderer, before the count goes down to zero.

Because I have no desire to rip into one of my favorite authors, I'll put this upfront: Agatha Christie is a bad writer in a lot of respects. Her prose is pure dime-novel pulp, skeletal, unimaginative and punctuated with more italics, ellipses and exclamation points than a comic book (seriously, those ellipses are absolutely out of control). Even at the time the book was written, her style was criticized; from a modern perspective, it's downright cheesy. Her dialogue is often laughable, and always painfully on-the-nose. Her characters don't act like people, they act like, well. . . characters in an Agatha Christie novel. Their stiff-upper-lip reactions to all of the gruesome killings happening around them provides the novel with a great deal of unintentional comedy. These people are, by and large, classic Christie stereotypes: the young doctor, the nasty old crone, the emotionless butler, the bluff ex-military man, and so on. There's a tiny bit of depth to one or two of them, but for the most part they're just there to be suspects and victims.

Okay. All that said, this is a great mystery. It's absorbing, completely baffling and surprisingly terrifying in places. The concept has been aped countless times (perhaps most famously in the board game Clue), and there's a simple reason why: it's just a really excellent concept. It's the mystery-on-a-train idea taken up to eleven. In places, the novel almost feels more like a work of psychological horror than a true murder mystery. It's to Christie's credit that this works as well as it does. Her many failings as an author aside, she nails the skin-crawling terror of knowing that someone sitting next to you is a dangerous psychopath. She shifts suspicion between the characters so constantly, and so artfully, that the reader is left feeling as confused and claustrophobic as any of the victims. There are some segments in the middle of the novel which are shockingly tense and weirdly uncomfortable. The sensation of quiet dread and mounting hopelessness is palpable, and genuinely unsettling.

You'd think, with a premise as seemingly simplistic as this one, that the murderer would become fairly obvious, or that at least the killer's motive would start to dawn on you. Nope. Not at all. All remains entirely murky until the epilogue, which is a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand plotting. Christie is so good at hiding clues in plain sight and leading readers down false trails that even an experienced Christie reader like me was taken almost totally by surprise (although I did have a theory that proved to be correct). What's perhaps most incredible is that the solution isn't convoluted or impenetrably complicated. It's actually quite simple and straightforward - if you can spot it. Christie seems to be trying to tie together some thematic threads about guilt and justice towards the end. An admirable attempt, but, like most of Christie's attempts at high-mindedness, it really doesn't work. That final twist, however, works just fine. Whatever her other faults, nobody is as good at bamboozling readers as Agatha Christie, and ATTWN is one of her most perplexing and terrifying mysteries. This one is a spine-tingling classic for a reason. 


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