Monday, 10 November 2008

Misery memoirs

I was in a bookshop at the weekend and was horrified to spot a whole bay of books labelled "Tragic Life Stories". Who on earth would make a bee-line for this section? Catharsis is one thing, but surely this is verging on voyeurism. Of course you might find one of these books interesting and might even want to bear witness to the author's suffering by reading it. It's the fact that there seems to be a whole industry based on people's harrowing childhood experiences that is disturbing.

Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult came as quite a revelation to me. I had heard of her but had always put off reading her books, simply because the covers made me think of those misery memoir books and I thought that was what they would be like inside. Shallow, moi? But of course!

However on Sunday I was at home looking for something to read and came across Jodi Picoult's Vanishing Acts. (It must have belonged to my daughter, aka the Rock Chick). Well thank goodness the Rock Chick had left it there. It really was involving, and beautifully written too. There were upsetting scenes but they were important to the story. It wasn't just a "woman's book" either. I can't say too much without giving away the story, but I do recommend this. Worth reading, and worth going to buy as well!

Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts has been recommended to me as an author, so I bought her novel Angel Falls on Saturday. It started off excellently, gradually revealing what had brought the heroine to this point in her life. I thought it could have been wound up a bit earlier though, because I started to lose interest in her predicament. I would read some more Nora Roberts but I wouldn't go out of my way to get the books. Johnson thought that a particular sight was "Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see". In a similar vein I feel that Nora Roberts is "worth reading"... of course her next novel may well prove me wrong. I'm very willing to be convinced!

Boy Meets Girl by Ali Smith

I didn't really like the look of this ... anything without conventional punctuation is going to have that effect on me! The story was interesting in the way details about the characters were gradually revealed, and there were some very funny as well as touching moments. Overall however I felt the author's message was too obtrusive. I like a novel to be firstly plot. If any deeper meanings are revealed then all the better. However I don't like the message to come first and then the plot to be devised around it, as seemingly happened here.

Agatha Raisin and the Fairies of Fryfam

I've finished the last of my borrowed Agatha Raisins, and that started me wondering just what it is I like about them. I don't think it's the mysteries particularly. They are not really intriguing enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, desperately turning pages to find out whodunnit. Much of the enjoyment of the Agathas is the humour, and that is based on character. Agatha gets to say all those things you wanted to yourself, but never dared to, and she is hilarious as she punctures pomposity, hypocrisy or simply speaks out about poor service. Ironically Agatha can be pompous and hypocritical herself, and it's funny to watch her get herself into awkward situations. She is basically good-natured though, despite all her intentions to the contrary, so at the same time as laughing, you are cringing with her and hoping she can get out of her latest scrape.

The characterisation is consistent throughout, from Mrs Bloxby's real goodness, to Charles's tight grip on his wallet, to the all-round awfulness of the Boggles. (Bring back the Boggles by the way! They haven't featured enough recently!) However, the characterisation is not static. M C Beaton can still surprise us with new details, such as Charles's addiction to Star Trek on Sky Television (naturally he watches Agatha's, presumably being far too tight to pay for it himself).

An added bonus to the stories is that although each one can be read individually, other story lines are developed across the whole series. (I think this is what is meant by that dreadful phrase, story arc).

Finally, I think there is a basic humanity to the characters, murderers excepted (and thankfully they always come to a satisfyingly-bad end).