Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Random books: All British for Christmas week

Oops. I was going to post a version of this on Christmas eve, but life got in the way. I hope everyone spent Christmas (or the holiday season) the way they wanted to spend it, with the people they wanted to be with.

Books! More specifically, British books!

The Atheist's Guide to Christmas by Ariane Sherine
Genre: nonfiction

We read this collection for one of my book clubs. Many (if not most) of the comedians, philosophers, scientists, and authors who wrote chapters for it are English. Some entries are stellar, some I just skipped because I was falling asleep. As one would expect with any semi-random group, the authors are split about half and half between those who enjoy Christmas and those who don't.

My favorite chapter is "How To Escape From Christmas" by Andrew Mueller. People trying to opt out of Christmas dinners/shopping/decorating/craziness are usually either dismissed as Scrooges or immediately invited to the house of everyone with an extra chair, which means instead of guiltlessly sitting by the fire at home, you now have to delicately make your excuses, or lie to your thoughtful friends.

I LOVE Mueller's suggestion for getting out of this predictable discomfort - get on a plane late on December 24th that will be refueling in some conveniently non-Christian spot, and arrive in Australia on December 26th for beaches and sunshine. I think I'll try this next year.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: historical fiction/suspense

This one's going to take a while. And while it still has the big issue I can't ignore (solving everything using clues not mentioned before), it turns out Sherlock isn't boring at all. I'm really entertained by the character-in-print in a way I'm not by the popular-culture version of him.

For one thing, he doesn't instantly know everything. He doesn't know the earth orbits the sun, for instance, because the information is of absolutely no use to him. And once Watson told him, he resolved to instantly forget it, because "Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones." (A Study In Scarlet, Page 21). Specialization, folks. Sherlock said it first-ish.

I must admit I'm slogging through a WTF section right now about the misdeeds of a particular Mormon sect. But I'm hoping it'll eventually make its way back to 19th century London.

Unraveled by Courtney Milan
Genre: historical romance

Courtney Milan is my favorite romance author (I believe she's American; her characters are English, hence the inclusion in this post). I don't say that lightly, because the Romance genre is teeming with great writers who are routinely dismissed because they are often women who write about romance (men who write romance but call it something else, like Nicholas Sparks, get glowing reviews, accolades, and movies based on their books). Milan is not only an expert in Georgian/Regency/Victorian-era English law and law court decisions (and is (or was once) a lawyer in her day job), but she writes the most intriguing characters working through gut-twisting situations.

For instance! Unraveled is part of a series about three brothers. Their deranged mother abused them relentlessly. They couldn't go to anyone for help because their mother was the respected widow of the local lord, and very charitable, besides. She let their sister die because it was "God's will". She named them each for Bible verses. Not Biblical characters. VERSES. Of course they all go by shortened versions - Ash, Smite, and Mark.

When Ash takes off for India to make his fortune, their mother tries to kill Smite by starving him in the flooded cellar. Mark rescues him, and they run off, surviving on the streets of Bristol before their brother comes back and finds them. Ash is rich now, and determined to give his younger brothers everything he wanted and didn't have - an education at Eton, big houses, power. But Smite and Mark have now formed a bond that seems to exclude Ash, no matter what he tries. This is all backstory, but just think of what a skillful writer could do with characters with this sort of psychological damage.

Ash's story is Unveiled. He's set himself a mission to destroy the wealthy distant relation who refused to help them when they were in need. His love interest? The daughter of that family, who is equally determined to save her family from social and financial destruction.

Mark's story is Unclaimed. Mark is a sincere, funny, likeable guy who writes a hugely popular book on chastity. His love interest? A courtesan who's been hired by a political rival to take him down.

Smite's story is Unraveled. He is a dedicated magistrate. His love interest is a runner for the local crime boss.

Which brings me back to what I think is the oddest criticism made of romance novels. I don't hear complaints of fantasy for being stories where the hero always fulfills the quest. No one criticizes the police or detectives in suspense thrillers for always catching the bad guy. Why is the idea that two people are going to end up together at the end of the story so unpalatable? The question in genre stories is almost never If. It's How. And Courtney Milan is a master at the how. LOVE these books. Fiction doesn't get any better than this.

Kate: the Making of a Princess by Claudia Joseph
Genre: biography

Thirty pages in I was a little worried, because all I'd gotten was a detailed account of all her relatives who had suffered horrifying deaths in 19th century coal mines. But I'm in the WWII era now. It's a fascinating part of British history that's sobering and humanizing to me, because I tend to think of Britain as historically wreaking havoc on the rest of the world.

And that's last week's post!


  1. I also enjoyed reading the guide this holiday and found the segment explaining how the name Christmas has as much to do with Christ as Thor has to do with Thursday.

    I have always been a bit squeamish saying "Merry Christmas" especially when the listener knew I wasn't Christian (I'm basically anti-christian). This commentary really helps to lighten up and put the holiday in perspective. No need to feel guilty enjoying the holiday!

  2. What I liked most about the guide was the wide range of views from people who are often assumed to hate Christmas. Maybe all they want is a little less of the "enforced singing, organized sanctimony, and bake sales" (Chapter 23 by Hermione Eyre). But some of them REALLY loved it!