Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monday Classic: Camilla, or A Picture of Youth

Author: Fanny Burney
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1796

As per usual, when I deign to review a bestseller, it's a bestseller from a previous century. Ah well.

Camilla is my least favorite Burney novel.* Why am I reviewing it, you might ask? For one, it's the first one I saw when I thought it might be fun to review a Burney novel and glanced up at my bulging shelves of 18th century doom. For another, I frequently irritate people who bother to listen to me in person about these things (Hi, Mom!!) with rants about my least favorite fictional "hero" of all time, Edgar Stick-Up-The-Ass Mandlebert, and figured I might as well finalize my rant for posterity.**

While Camilla is the titular heroine of the novel, the book also relates the upbringing and romantic adventures of her sisters, Eugenia and Lavinia, and her cousin Indiana. Edgar is Camilla's father's ward, and he grows up with the girls and the three sisters' brother, Lionel.

There are many more names of this sort. I will spare you. All of the main characters, named or unnamed here, are upper-class English ladies and gentlemen of their period; if you don't already know all that entails, go look it up and then come back.

The first part of the book deals with these characters' early youth, during which it's established that Indiana is gorgeous and has the personality of a custard, Camilla is naive but not stupid, Lavinia is utterly forgettable in all respects, and Eugenia is . . . well, let's just use this snappy quote from Wikipedia to sum up her lot in life:

Eugenia is disfigured [by smallpox] but survives, only to suffer a tragic see-saw accident which leaves her further maimed and crippled.***

Because she's too shy -- for, I think, perfectly legitimate reasons -- to venture out in public much, Eugenia spends her time in reading and study, becoming quite the learned scholar. She also happens to be the only truly appealing one out of the whole brood. Her main function in the novel is to induce guilt in others; she almost never does this on purpose, though, being too kind and pleasant for that, which creates a dysfunctional family dynamic with which almost everyone with a family will be familiar.

Camilla herself isn't so bad; the family as a whole is the dullest passel of sermonizing morons that you could ever hope to find, but she, toward the middle of the story, finds a few friends of her own who are the sort of witty, sophisticated, wig-sporting drunkards who gave the 18th century a good name. Unfortunately, she's hampered in her efforts to get a life by dear, beloved Edgar.

Ah, Edgar. He unites all the qualities a young lady swoons over in one misogynistic, self-righteous, egocentric, lecturing, self-satisfied, priggish package, all tied up with a ribbon made from his unjustified sense of entitlement. Presumed to be as good as engaged to the lovely Indiana -- because of his own shallow taste in women and poor judgment, I might add -- he moans about it until he's able to dump her and pursue Camilla instead. But horrors! Camilla too proves unworthy of the ultimate gift from God, Edgar's love, when she is kissed -- only once, and entirely against her will -- by another man. Edgar flees this scene of female iniquity, cast down into a pit of despair because one he had almost thought pure enough to receive the fire of his holy loins (but only in matrimony, of course, don't think for one second he's actually red-blooded or anything) should, through being physically weaker than some jerk who got her alone for a second, allow herself to be so filthified. When she could have had HIM!

To Camilla's credit, she finds his reaction just a touch over the top, and he eventually has to grovel a bit to get her back.

To her eternal discredit, he gets her back.

Typically for novels of this period, the bare bones of the story (four girls get married) are filled out with melodrama galore, beginning with the smallpox infection/tragic see-saw referenced above and ending with an elopement, and including a forced marriage, gambling addiction, a debtor's prison, and a crazy but well-meaning uncle in there somewhere for seasoning.

There are many fascinating observations one could make about the way Camilla illuminates the social order, conventions, and manners of its time. As all of those observations have already been made in detail by prosy Ph.D. candidates, let us just take all of the feminist academic claptrap as read and move on to the interesting part: what should have happened in the end of the story if Burney had had me to nag her.

If she had, "Frances," I would have said, "Fanny is a silly name. I shan't address you by it, although I regret to inform you that posterity will remember you that way. Camilla should ditch that ass Edgar and let him run off with Dr. Marchmont, his dreadful woman-hating tutor. The two of them are actually soulmates, and in another time would wear matching starched pajamas to bed together at night while being closeted investment bankers by day."

Please picture Fanny Burney taking copious notes. "In addition, Frances," I would have added, "The tragic see-saw was a stroke of bloody genius, don't let anyone tell you differently, but Eugenia deserves better than to be the second choice of a crazy poetry loon. However, he's good looking, so I suppose I'll let that pass. Remove Lavinia entirely, as she serves no purpose but to marry her uncle's old friend's intolerably pudding-faced and pudding-brained son and to pad your word count."

And lastly, I would have told her that Camilla really ought to have married the man who pulled her aside and kissed her (rakish, foppish jerk though he is throughout much of the book), because a) he actually seemed to like her, unlike perfect prissy-pants Edgar and b) he stuck around and helped her obnoxious brother while Edgar ran off to bitch -- endlessly! -- about how much he hated all those nasty gross women, leaving Camilla in the lurch when she needed a friend the most.

In a slightly more feminist-theory vein, since it seems I can't help myself, Camilla, like Evelina, contains several female characters who are explicitly portrayed as significantly more intelligent, witty, and knowledgeable than the men around them. (It's hard not to think Burney put a bit of herself into the slightly older, brilliant female secondary characters who populate her novels, this one included.) The fact that these women are not often considered praiseworthy by the other characters is interesting mainly because sarcastic, intelligent women generally haven't been appreciated much anywhere or at any time. Feminists would say that's because help, help, we're being oppressed; I'd say that it's because no one, male or female, likes being mocked by someone smarter than they are; and Fanny Burney would probably say, just live like a decent human being and to hell with anyone who thinks you're strange. That's one of the many reasons she's one of my favorite writers.

She's also a favorite writer of mine because she's a damn good writer. As the book's subtitle A Picture of Youth would suggest, Camilla offers realistic, funny, and often pathetic portrayals of every weakness and error that youth is prone to. I first read Camilla when I was too young to realize how stupid young people are, but it's grown on me since then.

I did say that Camilla is my least favorite Burney novel. Even so, and despite Edgar and his perfectly ironed underwear****, I still prefer it to most other books. Four stars.

* If anyone cares, Cecilia, Evelina, Camilla. These can be easily distinguished from other first-name-named novels of the same period, such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, by the fact that the heroines aren't threatened with rape quite as often. I'm fairly sure Camilla has only one rape, which ends, unusually for the genre, in marriage. As I recall, Pamela is one long and tedious attempted rape broken up with a few passages of moralizing, while Clarissa actually includes at least one completed rape, and also a nifty brothel.

** This in no way excuses anyone I know from listening to this rant again, in person, at any time of my choosing. (Sorry, Mom.)

*** You really have no choice but to love a novel that includes a tragic see-saw accident.

**** I can only assume.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 2006

Enough with the decent, enjoyable books I've been reviewing lately. Bring on the hopelessly muddled garbage!

Today's useless trash is Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, a fantasy novel that has all the crystal clarity of Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, the fast-paced action of Robert's Rules of Order, and appealing characters right out of Teen Beat magazine.

As anyone who pays attention to fantasy publishing already knows, the late Robert Jordan's family and editors chose Sanderson to finish Jordan's ponderous, creaking edifice: The Wheel of Time series. I applaud their judgment. I can't imagine anyone whose skills make him more suitable to pick up the torch and finish Jordan's epically mediocre, incoherent, minor-character-plagued tour de force.*

Mistborn scores over The Eye of the World, the first book in The Wheel of Time series, in two important ways: first, it is not a The Fellowship of the Ring rewrite, and second, it introduces only a mercifully limited trilogy plus one extra book, rather than Jordan's ever-extending monstrosity. It scores significantly below almost everything else ever written, however.

While most of the characters in this book are so featureless as to be interchangeable, I suppose I'm obligated to say a word or two about the main protagonists. Vin is your typical fantasy-novel waif, skinny and starved, poor and downtrodden, please-sir-I-want-some-more only with extra plucky kick-ass-babe on top. She's also the only final true eternal hope of all mankind and whatever too, natch.

Magic in this world is based on the magicians consuming solutions of suspended metal particles, which they then "burn" to produce various parlor tricks. Most allomancers can only burn one metal, but there are a few who can burn all of them; Vin's one of the latter.** The book's other somewhat original idea is that many years before, the heroes of old failed in their quest to unseat the lord who ruled over them, Sauron the White Witch Shai'tan the Goa'uld System Lord Ra the imaginatively named Lord Ruler. Along with a wacky crew of metal-burners and other crazy kids, Vin sets out to free her people from the chains of oppression, overthrow the ultimate evil of the world, and presumably get everyone a coupon for a free sandwich from Subway. Along the way, she falls for some douchey lord. Predictable "oh, you're an aristocrat, and I'm an ash-covered urchin with no bust," "I'm a lord, and while I feast, the people suffer, oh I'm so evil" angst ensues.

All of this may sound pleasantly familiar to anyone who's ever walked through a bookstore or watched a Lifetime original movie, so allow me to get to Sanderson's unique talents, if I may. First, there's his gift for non-stop action and intricate spy plotting. The plan to defeat the Lord Ruler resembles nothing more than a marketing committee meeting without a Powerpoint presentation to keep it on track, and it goes a little something like this:

Four to eight paragraphs of the assembled plotters saying "Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?"

Six to ten paragraphs of "We need to overthrow the Lord Ruler." (Chorus of agreement from the assembled plotters.)

Eight to twelve paragraphs of "The city guard is going to make that difficult." (Chorus.)

Nine to eleven paragraphs of "Our master plan, Pinky: we will distract the city guard." (Chorus.)

Assorted number of pages of "That's a good plan, Brain!"

Two to three pages of "So to sum up, we're going to distract the city guard and overthrow the Lord Ruler." (Chorus: Turkey sandwiches for all!!!!!)

Rinse, repeat.

Eventually, this brilliant plot goes into action, along with whatever part of the nervous system causes uncontrollable yawning.

Sanderson's second claim to literary glory is his gift for phrasing. Consider this gem, from page 416***:

Vin followed, following him as he rushed up a nearby hill.

Usually I'm all in favor of authors eschewing thesaurus abuse in favor of simple language. Apparently, there's an exception to every rule.

Mistborn: one and a half stars.

* With all respect to Robert Jordan, may he rest in peace. The man might not have been able to write noticeably, but he sure could type.

** Surprise.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Deed of Paksenarrion

Author: Elizabeth Moon
Genre: Fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 1988-1989

As the person who shares living accommodations with me and five or six thousand of my closest printed friends can attest, I almost never get rid of a book. For example, there's a pile of potential discards by my desk. It's been there for, oh, two years or so, and it includes such gems as Tad Williams's Stone of Farewell, the second, please note, in a crappy fantasy series whose first book I neither own nor recall reading. It came from a thrift store, the cover's bent in half, and I think it has mold on it.

Apparently, it's only going to leave the house when it's pried from my cold, dead, ink-stained fingers.

With that context firmly in place, the one and only reason I haven't flung The Deed of Paksenarrion out of the window, drowned it in a vat of potassium hydroxide*, or taken it to Half-Price Books and then used the resulting nine cents to buy myself a much-needed aspirin, is that I haven't reviewed it yet.

Tomorrow, D of P, prepare to meet your richly deserved fate: sent in disgrace and ignominy to the nearest used book store, there to stew in your own fetid juices until some other poor fool staggers along and reads you.

To be fair, I might not be made quite so indignant by this book were it not, in fact, a trilogy printed in one massive omnibus volume precisely the size and shape of a lump of rotten eggs squished into the precise size and shape of a large trade paperback. Comprising 1024 pages of tiny print, the book could easily hold an in-depth look at something fascinating: individual monographs on each and every one of Barack Obama's hallowed nose hairs, for example, or perhaps an analysis of all urine samples taken in Minnesota since 1952. Alas, such opportunities were wasted, and we're stuck with Sheepfarmer's Daughter**, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold.

It will surprise no one familiar with this trilogy to learn that their primary inspiration was the Dungeons & Dragons paladin character class. For those of you who spent your high school years*** not sitting in your mom's basement covered in cookie crumbs, beer spills, and shame, paladins are the knight in shining armor type characters, who derive their power as warriors and magic-users from their pure and noble virtues. Paksenarrion, through the course of these three masterworks of reimagining a pen and paper role-playing game's suckiest character class****, develops from an ugly, dull, strong, stupid, boring, virtuous sheepfarmer's daughter into an ugly, dull, etc. etc. Warrior of Good, and three cheers for character development, right?

It's been a while since I read this, nor would I inflict any details of the profoundly unmemorable first two books on my gentle readers even if I could. So let's just skip ahead. Quick warning to my easily grossed out readers (Hi, Mom!!): this book is an example of the ewwww trend in fantasy I mumble about on occasion.

In the third book, Oath of Delivering My Manuscript on Time, Paksenarrion has offered yon loyal troth or whatever to some hot young king who treats her like furniture. I think this was supposed to be a clever post-feminist reversal of the classic Medieval trope of a pure knight and his platonic courtly-love relationship with a beautiful lady in whose name he sallies forth and kills ogres and whatnot. Honestly, I found the whole relationship between the two utterly embarrassing and sad.

On the other hand, if Paksenarrion's deeds had been limited to yon ogre-slaying, you know, that would have been cool. There are a few good gender-bending chicks in this sort of story; I'm particularly fond of "The Girl Who Pretended To Be a Boy" (out of Andrew Lang's The Violet Fairy Book). Most recently, there's George R.R. Martin's character Brienne of Tarth, who's marginally less stupid, although just as much a cliché, as his others.

But no. Paksenarrion goes along, taking names and kicking ass, and for some reason staying in love with yon  pretty-boy, and then for no actual reason at all -- I mean NONE, guys, it's completely unnecessary -- she lets herself get captured by a bunch of orcs.

Who then gang-rape her for most of the rest of the book. Yep. That's her deed, right there. Getting raped by orcs. For a long time. Many, many pages, so many pages that I wondered how Elizabeth Moon had the stamina to type so many scenes of orc-rape*****. Hell, I started to wonder how the orcs had that much stamina.

That's the deed. That's IT. And then, no longer virginal****** but proud to have . . . honest to God, I really don't know what, or whom, all that orc-rape was in service of. She escapes, and the king's like, "Dude, sorry you were gang-raped by filthy monsters and stuff when you really didn't need to be . . . how about a nice shiny medal, 'cause I'm going to marry this hot virgin who's never been raped by an orc?" And she's like, "WOW! I wuvs you 4evah!" And the audience is like, "What the bloody hell just happened?"

Half a star.

* No chemical critiques, please, that's just what I happen to have in the garage.

** Nope, not going where you think it's going. Wish it had.

*** And, ahem, perhaps many other years too, but we won't go there . . .

**** OK, dude, fine, rangers suck marginally more. But only a little, and only because they can't use plate armor and still have all their abilities.

***** I also had the impression that the orc-rape wasn't supposed to be titillating. Not that orcs raping people is necessarily my cup of tea, but if it was meant to be exciting, then I guess I could get behind that, so to speak. Moon seems to have intended a holy martyrdom sort of experience rather than a boom-chicka-wow-wow kind of experience, and so I was doubly baffled. Truly, I didn't understand the purpose of the orc-rape; as far as I could tell, it didn't actually accomplish . . . anything, even a brief flicker of guilty pleasure for the less respectable sort of reader.

****** Understatement of the century.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Chauffeur and the Chaperon

Author: C.N. and A.M. Williamson
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1906

It's rare that a book lets me down as abruptly as this one did about a quarter of the way through. It starts out very promisingly, beginning with two upper-class English girls who unexpectedly inherit a boat and decide to blow their cash on hand on an irresponsible and slightly improper houseboat jaunt through Holland. Given that this is set in contemporary 1906, the girls really shouldn't just go by themselves, but they throw all caution to the winds and run off from England to an equally civilized place inhabited by equally stuffy upper-class (but Dutch) people, decency be damned!

They quickly meet some appropriately rich and charming love interests, one of whom disguises himself as a boat tour guide, and the other of whom hires an elderly chaperon so that he can go with them (the chaperon's actually a beautiful young woman in disguise, of course -- I figured this out so quickly that I don't think it's much of a spoiler), and there's another guy along for the ride.

Unfortunately, what was a sprightly, charming, Wodehousian farce in the making quickly turned into a well-written but jaw-droppingly detailed travelogue of Holland. Now, I'm all for a good travel narrative. I like the kind in which some red-nosed old looney-tunes waxes nostalgic about the accommodating charms of the maidens of Phlegmenstein-Schnützel, where lager flows like the mighty Rhine all evening and sour vomit gushes like the frolicsome Danube come morning. This is not one of those.

No, The Chauffeur and the Chaperon is the kind that's all about hats. Specifically, Dutch hats, bonnets, helmets, and any other type of headgear you can think of. The husband and wife author team, C.N. and A.M. Williamson, also offer a few digressions into the always fascinating minutiae of Dutch doors, doorknobs, walls, windows, window frames, shutters, floors, cookware, dishware, flatware, shoes, ducks, bridges, so many miserable canals, roofs, food, and in short, any material object that can be catalogued by two obsessive-compulsives with no pity or mercy of any kind.

To be fair, an avid student of turn-of-the-century Dutch culture would find this book an inspiring, nay, even orgasmic read. For those of us with lives and stuff like that, it's the literary equivalent of having all your teeth kicked in by an extremely boring Williams-Sonoma clerk in wooden shoes.

I will grant that the descriptions held my interest at first. They're beautifully written; no complaints there. But then you turn the page, and you're like, dude, more fucking hats? And then you start to wonder if maybe just nuking the place would solve this rampant hats-and-canals problem, and then you start flipping through looking for the actual story. Which does reappear, and it's fun when it does . . . which is why I can't pan this book.

The part that's a novel earned a solid three and a half stars. The travelogue part gets four stars for detail and one for its unhealthy hat fetish. I'm going to go with three stars overall; it's easy to turn pages as quickly as necessary.

For the other person in the known universe, besides the Indiscriminate Reader, who might actually enjoy reading weird Edwardian social comedies (Hi, Mom!!), The Chauffeur and the Chaperon and others by the same authors are available for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Room with a View

Author: E.M. Forster
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1908

I've been trying my best to get through The Longest Journey, according to my edition's introduction E.M. Forster's favorite among his own novels. So far, despite the objectively small word count, the title's proving to be an understatement. If my experience is any indication, it's subjectively the equivalent of taking the Greyhound from Rio de Janeiro to Miami, with a brief stop in Vladivostok along the way.

This, therefore, isn't a review of The Longest Journey; look for one of those in about the year 2379, at this rate.

The same introduction describes A Room with a View as Forster's "most optimistic" work, which I think is literary-critic code for "low body count."* It's certainly my favorite among Forster's novels, his opinion be damned. Made more famous by the truly lovely 1985 Merchant-Ivory film**, A Room with a View follows the romance of Lucy Honeychurch, an upper-middle-class English girl, and George Emerson, a solidly upper-lower-class young Englishman. They meet in Italy, where they're staying at the same hotel. George and his father offer to trade rooms with Lucy and her chaperone, since the ladies are terribly upset that their rooms have no view of the picturesque surroundings. After some comically protracted dithering, the chaperone agrees; she does insist, however, on taking the young man's room herself for the sake of propriety, even though it's the better one.

This is the kind of satire at which Forster excels, and the overall lightheartedness of the novel keeps his attitude from becoming too caustic, as it does in most of his other works. Lucy and George return to England, end up living in the same neighborhood by a series of more or less realistic accidents, and are forced to choose between their natural feelings and the expectations of their parents and acquaintances. It is all So Very, Very English, Old Chap.

The great downfall of Forster's works -- present in this one, too, although the charm and atmosphere of A Room with a View far outweigh its faults -- is, paradoxically, the same as his greatest critical asset. All of his novels explore tension between the natural and the artificial, between truth and the fictions about themselves that people try to present to the world, and between feeling and reason. Social mores vs. philosophical morals in twelve rounds, ding! Forster had a keen eye and a pen that could slice diamond; he's the malicious man's P.G. Wodehouse, if you will. There's endless material for more or less mind-numbing Ph.D. theses in Forster's works.

I'm sure that among those many long papers there's at least one that discusses the flipside of this: Forster himself was such a product of the same environment that generated his targets that he often doesn't realize it when he is, himself, being a bit of a stuffy prat. Natural, honest emotion is something for which to strive, and yet one can't really be like that, you know, there must be some standards, Forster seems to say. That the tension present in his works was also present in the author is unsurprising, and it definitely contributes to the interest of the novels. It also creates a certain chaos within them. One's never quite sure what Forster's message is, because I don't think he ever got it straight in his own mind.

This book almost deserves five stars, but there's something just a little off-putting about Forster's style that holds me back. Observant readers may have noticed that I'm a sucker for authors who seem to like their protagonists, and Forster, at best, reaches a sort of indulgent contempt. Four stars, and highly recommended to anyone who likes books with vicars and butlers in them.

* Both The Longest Journey and Howards End are non-stop death from beginning to end. However, lest any readers get their hopes up, please note that none of these deaths involve any excitement or action of any kind. Rather, one gets the impression that now and then a character keels over from sheer Britishness and/or a lack of proper tea service.

** The movie has amazing scenery: Julian Sands takes off his clothes, and there's also some good shots of the Italian countryside.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Juliet, Naked

Author: Nick Hornby
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 2009

While reading a Nick Hornby novel, one will never be moved to ask, "But is it ART?" I mean that as high praise, and I think Hornby himself might take it that way. If you have to ask if something's art or not, that means that it's either boring, pretentious, or ugly -- and it also means it's certainly not art.

Whatever other qualities Juliet, Naked may possess, artistic or otherwise, there is one thing that it is: a good novel. Whether or not that makes it art, I will leave to other people* to decide, but it certainly makes the book a standout in a dreary wasteland of witty, wise, warm, wonderful explorations of what it means to gently and lovingly probe the depths of humanity's journey towards something philosophically trite. Did I say that out loud? I meant, of course, that being a good novel makes Juliet, Naked stand out amidst other contemporary literature.

A brief digression, gentle readers. It has recently come to my attention that the subtitle "A Novel," originally appended to book titles in order to tip off potential buyers that the book might actually be fun to read**, now means "This Book Is Not a Novel, and in Fact You Will Deeply Regret Buying It; You Really Ought to Get the One with the Shirtless Man on the Cover If You Want to Enjoy Yourself." None of Hornby's novels have "A Novel" on the cover, because he's a rational man with a well-earned confidence in his own abilities and the mental faculties of his readers. He trusts us to figure out on our own that his novels are novels. The increasingly hysterical protests of his less-talented colleagues, as they beg us to pretend they even know what a novel is, fall a little flat in the face of Hornby's ability to, you know, actually write one. "A Novel," in short, functions a bit like the "Don't Panic" on the front of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. You might not have had any doubts before, but now . . . either the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal is coming your way, or you're holding something written by Jonathan Safran Foer. Either way, your day just went to crap.

I won't pretend that the content of Juliet, Naked is particularly groundbreaking, or that the plot is unpredictably original. The book opens with Annie and Duncan, fortyish Brit academics who've been together for an uneventful fifteen years, touring the United States by following in the footsteps of Tucker Crowe, a reclusive ex-rock star with whom Duncan is unhealthily obsessed. Because running the Tucker Crowe fan site and listening to all of his music over and over again constitutes the majority of Duncan's life, Annie has taken an interest over the years, even going with him on his bizarre fan-boy vacation.

When they get home, a new release of acoustic demo tracks recorded as a prelude to Crowe's most famous album is in the mailbox, and Annie and Duncan's different reactions to the new CD kick the story into motion. They both post reviews on Duncan's website; Annie hates the tracks, and Duncan loves them. Guess who gets an email from Tucker Crowe praising their review?

The story follows along fairly predictably from there. Or at least, the bare bones of the plot are what you might expect them to be. But Hornby's characters fill up the spaces in between, and his sense of humor and affection for the people he's invented make this novel more than the sum of its parts.

Juliet, Naked isn't Hornby's funniest book (that's High Fidelity, hands down), but it's still often hilarious, because Hornby can't help but see the humor in the way people can't stop messing up their own lives. It's not his best book, either. But it does display something that's increasingly rare in books these days, whether or not they're "A Novel": a sense that the author genuinely likes other people, foibles and all. He doesn't try to elevate his characters to the point that Mother Teresa begins to look like a puppy-kicking bitch in comparison, and he doesn't patronize them for having normal lives, and he doesn't condemn them for perfectly normal flaws. He just presents us with recognizable friends and neighbors, albeit friends and neighbors with pithier-than-usual mental monologues.

Nick Hornby's previous works have set a high bar, and Juliet, Naked doesn't quite measure up to some of them. Nevertheless, it gets three and three quarters stars. It may or may not be ART, but it won't make you wish you'd gone with The Highlander's Blushing Virginal Kidnap Victim instead.

* And by other people, I mean wankers.

** Before the first English novels were published, all books in this language were either the Bible, precepts for a virtuous life written by fat Shropshire vicars with bad teeth, or Latin verbs. There were no exceptions. It took some time to convince the public at large to give reading a try once novels were invented, and clear labeling helped the publishing industry get over the hump.