Sunday, January 11, 2009

Several Books by Jennifer Crusie

Can we talk about chick lit? What about chick lit lite?

I stumbled on Jennifer Crusie because was having a sale, and one of her books was available on audio for super cheap. "Welcome to Temptation" which sounds rife with possibilities. Her two heroines are a pair of video making sisters, hired by a B list (or C list, or lower) actress to make a promotional video of her return to her home town of Temptation (North Carolina, I think--generic Southern state may be substituted at no extra charge). There is a hunky town mayor, an equally hunky sheriff, missing/embezzled money, and a body or two. There is a lovely but deteriorating house the heroines are trying to renovate, a reluctantly ex husband, and an inappropriately pornographic version of the video played on cable access which was actually required viewing by the town's students--until somebody realized just how pornographic the video was.

It was fun, there was some snappy dialogue, at least three happily ever afters, and no filmy residue on skin or tongue. So, I picked up another one. "Agnes and the Hitman" had a lovely but deteriorating home that the heroine was determined to renovate, a slimy fiance, quite a few bodies, a bad boy turned good, and a mystery. Subsequently, I read "Crazy for You," which involves a woman with a slimy boyfriend, a bad boy turned good, a lovely but deteriorating house which the heroine is determined to renovate, and a dog. No mystery and no dead bodies, but a cute conceit in which the heroine decides to do one selfish thing and have a dog--which sets off a chain of other changes in her life and everyone around her as well.

"Getting Rid of Bradley" involves a creepy ex-husband, a bad boy turned good, a lovely but deteriorating house, embezzled money, scary threats to the heroine's life which were not meant to be fatal until the end, and (here's where this one breaks the pattern--okay, not really) THREE dogs, with a fourth one added at the end for good measure.

"The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes" is a collaborative book, written by Crusie and two other romance authors, starring three sisters with psychic powers they can't control, living in an obscure Southern town in a lovely but deteriorating house, at least one bad boy gone good, two dead bodies, an evil aunt, a 29-ish virgin, and three happily ever afters.

"Fast Women" stars a woman whose husband walked out on her, leaving her a ghost in her own life, until she gets a job with a bad boy who is actually good, her slimy ex, an apartment in a duplex that is lovely but not deteriorating, hush money paid in diamonds and a Porsche, and quite a few bodies, mostly inside basement freezers.

Are you seeing some repeating elements? Me too. This is what makes this "genre fiction." There is a little bit of character arc for one, sometimes two characters, lots of plot, very little description or any sort of trauma caused by traumatic events, and a couple of sex scenes. While ostensibly contemporaneous stories, there is quite a lot that is very retro. The women, for example, are nearly virginal, if not actually so. Several have only had just the one man--either Mr. Wrong, or Mr. Right, or have been celibate for years before the story opens. They tend to fall for "bad boys" who aren't really as bad as they look. Despite insisting on living their own lives as independent women, they mostly just move from one (wrong) man to another (right) one, with very little indication that they really are independent. You could hardly be any more gender stereotypical if you were Barbara Cartland.

And yet, I've clearly been devouring these as if they were potato chips. What is it that is so appealing about them? The experience is not unlike reading Agatha Christie novels--sure, the books are littered with corpses, but nobody really is too bothered by them. And they mostly deserved it. There is some chaos, but it all is comfortably reordered and resolved by the end and we (the readers) can feel that the social order is always going to win out over disorder. The good guys win, and get the girl, and the lovely but deteriorating house, and a happily ever after, while the bad guys go to bad ends.

Can I recommend them? Not really--would you actually recommend Twinkies? Same thing. Junk food literature, to be consumed quickly and forgotten, but enjoyable while they last.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Dead Man's Folly, by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie novels are kind of like potato chips--it's nearly impossible to stop at one.

This was also an audiobook, narrated by David Suchet, who has played Poirot in a number of BBC series. A truly great audio narrator is able to the opposite sex without falling into camp or parody, and Suchet does AMAZING women's voices. Truly a joy to listen to, and now I'm hungry for more.

Christie's novels seem to exist in a mythical, unchanging England. There are references to "the War" and the "difficulty of finding good servants," --the only thing that guarantees it is more recent that 1850 is that there are trains and buses. Otherwise, Christie seems to write about an Eternal England like Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse. Dead Man's Folly makes glancing references to WWII, and there is a youth hostel with numerous visiting foreigners, but otherwise, there is nothing to distinguish this as 1956 rather than 1923.

So, imagine how odd it is to Google this novel and find comtemporary reviews! I've never thought about the 1956 Michiko Kakutani actually reviewing Agatha Christie--if I'd thought about this at all, I kind of thought of these books as just spontaneously appearing on bookshelves and in libraries. I never thought of them as being released, and then reviewed, as if a review of an Agatha Christie book would ever change your mind about whether to read it or not.

Sure, a reviewer probably needs to point out that Christie's characters are rather two-dimentional, but is character development the point? People are moved around like puzzle pieces? Of course they are! This is an Agatha Christie novel! If we wanted realism, we'd read John Updike or something.

So, what happens in this book? The Old Country Manor had to be sold to pay the exhorbitant death duties, and was purchased by New Money rich man from The City, and his exotically beautiful and mentally limited wife. The new gentry are holding a Garden Fete, and have hired Ariadne Oliver (Christie's self-parody of a mystery writer) to stage a "murder hunt"--she constructed a mystery, and created clues for participants to try to solve to find the "body," played by a local 14 year old. Mrs. Oliver is unsettled, however, feeling that she has been pushed into making some decisions that weren't really her ideas, and she fears something horrible is going to happen. So she calls her old friend Hercule Poirot to come out and figure out what is going to happen and prevent it if possible.

Poirot arrives, meets all the participants, and surprise! The "body" turns up actually dead, and the Beautiful and Mentally Limited Wife disappears. The police can't understand why this nobody of a girl has been killed, and the mysterious disappearance of the Wife seems to be linked somehow. Of course, it takes Poirot to figure out the solution. Of course, for the practiced reader of mysteries, some of the elements are clear. The Wife disappears after putting in an appearance in a vivid pink dress, dripping with diamonds, in 4 inch heels, heavy makeup and a huge black coolie hat. Hard to miss, right? That's the point--take off all the obvious furnishings, and who knows what she looks like?

There is a scene where Mr. New Money is yelling at someone out the window, then turns back in saying "what did you say, dear?" Do you think his wife is really inside at that moment? I don't! So I know I've read this book before--sometime in the last 30 years--but who can remember exactly what happens in a Christie novel, am I right? But who wants to remember? It's like potato chips--sure, you've had them before, but that doesn't mean you won't eat them again at the first opportunity.

(See what I did there? Returned to the theme from the first paragraph! That's literary merit, that is!)

So, in a departure from my usual reviews here, I'm not going to say what the solution is--because I'm going to want to listen to this book again. Definitely an audio book worth owning, since it's re-usable.