Thursday, September 26, 2013

Georgette Heyer, my author addiction

The other day, I read a Guardian post about how readers sometimes become addicted to authors. Georgette Heyer was mentioned and I immediately realised I’d been an addict too. Heyer (1902-1974), an English author of over thirty Regency romances and as many historical novels and detective stories, has definitely been, not merely one of my favourite authors, but my addiction too.

The addiction built slowly. When I first discovered her books, I could only read books in my own language and just four or five of her Regency romances had been translated to it. I read them so many times I practically knew them by heart, but I didn’t consider myself addicted, or Heyer as a favourite author. Once I began reading books in English, I found a couple of more of her books, but that was all my local library had.

This was before Internet, I should mention, specifically before online bookstores. My addiction was unleashed after I discovered them, or – actually – after Amazon was founded. I became an Amazon customer solely in order to buy all Heyer’s Regency novels. Well, I meant to buy only one or two that sounded the best, but … well, addiction.

It took me a while to buy all of them. I was studying at the time and didn’t really have that much money. The books were out of print and were being issued anew so I had to wait for them to show up on Amazon catalogues. The books shipped from the US to Europe, an excruciating four to eight weeks wait for each book. And every single book was worth it.

I’ve tried to analyse many times what makes Heyer’s Regency romances so great. They have the spirit of Austen with more modern sentiments. Her heroines are more likely to go against the society’s dictates than in novels written in earlier times, but with such finesse that they dont feel analogous. Her heroes are dashing, often rogues who are redeemed during the course of the novel, but not solely. She has a couple of particularly delightful young heroes, like Freddy Standen in Cotillion (1953), who are good-natured and somewhat clueless. Equally, she has heroines who are silly and not always likeable. She regards all of them with an amused but beginning smile that allows the reader to smile understandingly with her and root even for the silliest of them.

Her books are full of historical details, too, that offer endless information without being dull. To this day, most of my knowledge about Regency England comes from her books – and I have a degree in English history. She made all the details in her books seem perfectly plausible and, what’s more important, alive – something most modern authors of Regency romances fail at.

I have my favourites among her books, those that I have read more often than others – and I’ve read them all more than once. They’re too numerous to bring up in detail here, however. There simply isn’t a weak book among them. Even the dullest, either The Toll-Gate (1954) or April Lady (1957), are good and worth reading again.

The book I’ve reread most often is perhaps Regency Buck (1935), a story of brother and sister who travel to London to force their reluctant guardian to bring them into society – a theme of many of her books. It has everything that is perfect in her Regency novels, a beautiful heroine, a dashing, slightly roguish hero, a lot of society nonsense and a mystery to boot.

Another great book is the aforementioned Cotillion, a delightful book I often read simply to feel good. Venetia (1958), The Grand Sophy (1950) and Devil’s Cub (1932) are among the top ten too, as are Arabella (1949), Lady of Quality (1972) and The Convenient Marriage (1934) – a book that has a heroine who stammers, only one example of many among Heyer’s heroines who aren’t utterly perfect and thereby lifeless.

My addiction subsided eventually. I had all the books that I wanted – I have never been interested in her detective stories – and had read them many times over. I haven’t stopped loving her books, though. She is still my go-to author, the one I pick up when I have nothing to read. It doesn’t matter which book I choose, or whether I read all of it or just parts, I’m guaranteed a wonderful time. I’m even considering buying all the books I already have as e-books. Partly because the Arrow imprints I bought in the 90s were such poor quality that the pages fell off after only one reading. Mostly, however, so that I would always have her books with me.

Do you have a favourite Heyer book, or hero or heroine? Please, share in comments.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

My favourite Verne

Jules Verne came up on Twitter today, where the question of who first wrote about the moon travel was brought up. I had to take a look, too, and learned that humans have always been fascinated with the moon travel. It was seen as rather difficult to reach, however, and most of the earlier moon travelling required divine or demonic help, or was achieved only in a dream.

The first books featuring man-made technical innovations that might have made the travelling possible weren’t published until the 19th century. Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) was generally regarded one of the first such books, although Poe had an earlier story (1835) where the moon travel was attempted with a balloon.

Oddly enough, this post is not about From the Earth to the Moon. I’m not sure I’ve even read it. It simply made me remember my favourite Verne, which heads in the other direction entirely. I like – probably unfashionably – Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) the best. I read it quite a few times growing up. Although, if I recall correctly, I tended to skip the beginning on later readings, and start straight from where the professor and his team descend into the volcano.

Jules Verne: Journey to the Center of the Earth
The story is simple. Professor Lidenbrock, a German, discovers a runic message in an old manuscript that, when decoded, reveals a passage to the centre of the earth from a volcano in Iceland. The Professor immediately sets out on an expedition with his reluctant nephew Axel and a native guide. After all kinds of amazing events, they emerge back on the surface through a volcano in Italy.

It’s an adventure story, plain and simple, at least once the actual expedition starts. The party encounters fascinating natural phenomena as well as prehistoric monsters; even what they suspect is an early human. They barely escape with their lives on many occasions. It’s an exciting and entertaining book that kept me on edge the entire time.

I had some trouble dating the book, however. I can’t remember what it was, exactly, that made me constantly wonder when it was that the events in the book took place. It felt much more modern than what I imagined things would have been on Verne’s time. A sign of good science fiction, perhaps?

I’ve read some other books of Verne’s, and have seen numerous movies and TV series based on them. Around the World in Eighty Days came close to being equally entertaining, although mostly in visual form – I was especially fond of an animated series for children where each character was an animal – but I haven’t read the book more than once. Other books, like Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, I found positively dull. To my amazement, there isnt a proper filmatisation of my favourite Verne, although there have been a couple of attempts, the latest 3D monstrosity from 2008; for those who prefer their books in a movie form, there is a 1999 movie on YouTube in its entirety.

I think that Journey to the Center of the Earth appealed to the budding historian in me. It had old manuscripts, cryptic messages, and mystically preserved prehistoric life. It all seemed like it could actually be possible. Is there anything more intriguing than that? There isnt for me.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lure of the forbidden

The Guardian is asking its readers to send pictures of banned books they may have on their shelves. So far, not that many books have been shared, mostly – I would assume – because modern civilisations seldom ban books these days. Most of the books shared are older classics. I have nothing to contribute either, although I’m fairly sure some – or most – of the paranormal romances on my shelves are held offensive in more conservative parts of the world.

One forbidden book sent to the Guardian is The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. The book was published in 1988 and was translated fairly fast to my language too. By the time it was available in my local library, it was already a sensation. And I simply had to read it.

The problem was that I wasn’t entirely sure why the book was so controversial. At fourteen, I didn’t follow the discussion that closely; I only knew that the book had elements that upset people. So I was very reluctant to borrow the book, lest the nice ladies at my local library would judge me. Maybe they would even forbid me from borrowing it outright.

One day, I was browsing the returns shelf and there it was: the book that intrigued me so. I scarcely dared to pick it up and made sure no one saw what book I was holding; the cover alone, though discreet, seemed naughty. And then – I slipped it into my bag.

It was before electronic cataloguing and security systems so I actually managed to get away with the book without incidents. I was in a state of panic the whole time I was in the library, absolutely certain that my horrible deed had been discovered. I wasn’t about to steal the book; I intended to borrow it without checking it out, but that wouldn’t have made a difference if I had been caught. Added to that would have been the shame of being discovered with that book. At home I locked into my room so that my family wouldnt surprise me. Then I set out to read.

After all the brouhaha surrounding the book and all the trouble I went through to acquire it, I expected an exceptional treat. Turned out, I was very disappointed with the book. There was nothing that struck me as controversial and I wasn’t very taken with the story either. In the end, I didn’t even finish it. To this day, I don’t know if the good bits would have been on the part that I didn’t read, or if I was simply too young to understand it. However, I haven’t been so curious to find out that I would have picked the book again.

After about a month of clandestinely holding the book, I returned it to the library – with as much trepidation as I had taken it. I even put it on its correct place on the shelf. For a long time, I felt ashamed every time the book was mentioned – and it was mentioned often. The shame passed eventually, but the disappointment remained. The promised excitement of forbidden wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. I haven’t been lured in since.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The blue castles of romance

Some romances are so romantic that I read them over again, even though I know the plot – and the gratifying happy ending – by heart. A favourite of mine among these has always been The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery (1926).

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Unlike her more famous books, like Anne of Green Gables, The Blue Castle is written for a grown-up audience. The heroine Valancy Stirling is twenty-nine, plain, and a spinster, much to the unhappiness of her (very unlikeable) family. She is unhappy without knowing what to do with her life, and she wouldn’t be given any leeway to change her life even if she did know. She only has her books and her daydreams.

At the beginning of the book, Valancy is given only a year to live, which makes her realise she’s never really lived. Liberated by the impending death, she takes the charge of her life, much to the horror of her relatives. She moves away from home to take care of a dying friend, ostracised by the society because she has borne an illegitimate child.

She also strikes a friendship with Barney Snaith, an odd, recluse man the whole town is convinced is a criminal. When Valancy’s friend dies, unwilling to return home, Valancy proposes to Barney, telling him she only has less than a year left herself and that she would want to live a little before she dies. He agrees and brings her to his home, the blue castle of the title, an old house in a remote island.

The romance between Barney and Valancy is sweet, a friendship turned to love with misunderstandings keeping the pair apart. There are plenty of hidden or mistaken identities, and letters lost and misplaced. And the romance is achieved without a kiss exchanged. Quite a lot is needed before the two can have their happily ever after, which being one of the sweetest endings I won’t give away. Read the book yourselves.

For years, I simply went to the library whenever I wanted to read the book and borrowed it. It was out of print and, anyway, old books like that don’t show up on bookstores all that often. But then I stumbled on it in a second-hand bookshop and I immediately bought it. Finally the happy owner of The Blue Castle, you’d think I’d read it at least once a year ever since, but I have to confess that owning it has been enough. I haven’t read it since. Maybe I’ll pick it up again one of these days. Perhaps you will too?

Here is the proposal scene:

“There is something you can do for me,” she said, evenly and distinctly. “Will you marry me?”

For a moment Barney was silent. There was no particular expression on his face. Then he gave an odd laugh. “Come, now! I knew luck was just waiting around the corner for me. All the signs have been pointing that way today….But why—why?”

“For two reasons.” Valancy was still a little breathless, but she looked Barney straight in the eyes while all the dead Stirlings revolved rapidly in their graves and the living ones did nothing because they did not know that Valancy was at that moment proposing lawful marriage to the notorious Barney Snaith. “The first reason is, I—I”—Valancy tried to say “I love you” but could not. She had to take refuge in pretended flippancy. “I’m crazy about you. The second is—this.” She handed him Dr. Trent’s letter.

Barney opened it with the air of a man thankful to find some safe, sane thing to do. As he read it, his face changed. He understood...”