The Vivid, the Gothic, the Spiderporcine: Thief of Shadows

Winter Makepeace: what a name. I would object on the grounds of generic overexuberance (let's not forget that his sisters go by the similarly abstemious names Temperance and Silence, and one of them ran off with a semi-reformed ne'er-do-well named Lazarus), if I hadn't just come across three separate, apparently devout ancestors named "Love" (each after her grandmother) in my genealogical explorations.  Three Loves amidst a sea of Margarets.  That's my kind of naming.

In this fourth in Elizabeth Hoyt's Maiden Lane series, the ascetic Winter Makepeace, overseer of a foundling's home in down-at-the-heels St. Giles, is by night the Thief of Shadows, a super-hero avant la lettre called the Ghost of St. Giles, who wanders the streets defending the disenfranchised and forgotten.  Quite early in the novel he finds himself at the tender mercies of Lady Isabel Beckinhall, who is working very hard to convince the world of how scintillating her surface is, and how very little lies beneath it.  The romance that unfolds after she rescues the Ghost from a rampaging mob, all without ever removing his mask is nice enough - the lovers are likable, and the skepticism about the rapaciousness of an aristocratic economy is welcome in a historical romance - but nothing feels particularly wrenching or revelatory. Isabel in particular never really gets off the ground for me as a character: although she's kind and realistically self-questioning, her various characteristics don't ultimately congeal into a coherent personality.  Winter's does to a greater extent, because he is the more unusual persona, but the problems which lend conflict to the romance (having to do with his self-denying tendency to devote himself fully to any task he takes up, whether it be superheroic scurrying about on rooftops, running a children's home, or caring for a family) are all too easily solved when love (sweet clarifying love) helpfully reshuffles his priorities.  I wish that unusual characters like Winter would maintain their distinctiveness (in his case, his chilly austerity) when and after they fall in love, rather than thawing into a rather generic heroic suaveness and confidence.  My favorite scenes with both Winter and Isabel were those in which they were uncertain: it's their prickliness that drew me in, not how polished and dashing they could be.

The gothic genre (to which this book only lightly belongs) has developed a reputation for drawing its personalities in broad, bravura strokes, but I'm not sure a really skillful evocation of the genre should  should mean half-hearted characterization as much as it means dynamic environmental tension.  These characters were psychologized (and likable) but they weren't vivid.  And in the gothic mode, everything should be vivid.

Stray notes:

  • The editor in me feels honor-bound to point out that there are some infelicities (as they say) in the writing here: sporadic and awkward archaisms, unnecessary interjections of "telling," etc.  It's fairly rare, but I'd like to have seen these ironed out.  Know that this also isn't a piece of decorous realism: if you are seeking a painstaking evocation of historical social mores, go elsewhere.  Hoyt's more interested in building a warm affection between her characters (which she does deftly in all of her novels that I've read), and they routinely find themselves in situations that defy the period's standards of social decency. 
  • Speaking of which, there's one scene of rather explicit banter about how hard Winter and Isabel like their mattresses - all par for the course, except that they are having this conversation over the head of Isabel's young ward, who finally asks why they are speaking of riding their mattresses when they should be sleeping in them.  Honestly, now, I thought, thinning my lips schoolmarmishly: there's a time and a place, people. Innuendo is decreasingly sexy as you add children to its audience. Am I approaching withered old stick status, or is this icky?
  • For a time, it seemed like the plot was settling into a too-familiar, "Will she guess his secret identity?  Will she be torn between attraction to two men who are in fact the same person? What does it mean to be jealous of yourself?" territory, but Hoyt blessedly avoids getting too tangled in this (because her heroine isn't an idiot).  It's possible that in this section, I may have found myself repeatedly humming the "Spiderpig" theme. I admit nothing. 
  • A whole crowd of hurrahs (and some spoilers, for the wary) for a novel which contains both an unashamedly untouched hero and a portrayal of infertility that doesn't end with love as the magical cure. More like this, please.

Thief of Shadows (2012)
Elizabeth Hoyt 

[Note: This was my first experiment with reviewing a book from NetGalley, and I'm torn about how to negotiate the ethics (and legalities) of indicating the source of books I've received from publishers/authors rather than from libraries/purchase. I'd like just to be able to tag them as galleys, but tags in my blog template are only searchable, not always visible. In future, I'll mark these books as "Galley," "ARC," or "Publisher-provided" in the ratings section of a post, and do my utmost to ensure that the free nature of the text doesn't affect my the nature or tone of my reviews.]

Saturday, Septemeber 15, 2012

Lost Spirits and Formal Sporrans: The Angels' Share (AFF)

And the Atlantic Film Festival begins, with this frolic of a fairy tale about whisky and redemption, a sort of SIDEWAYS that, in place of neurotic, pretentious, SoCal yuppie wine geeks, gives us scarred, working-class, Glaswegian ex-cons. Which, to me, makes it about a million times more charming.

It's not a deep film, and it's a resolutely sentimental one, but it left me in an awfully good mood.  Ken Loach draws his main characters with his wonted decency and detail, although tangential characters sometimes descend into the sort of caricature that left me with the uneasy feeling that if the film had been set in London instead of Glasgow, it might have starred Hugh Grant.  (One character is so profoundly foolish that even his companions can't quite believe it.)  A large portion of the film dances at the edge of neorealist inaudibility, or perhaps muttered incomprehensibility, and to be honest these were my favorite sections: this film could do with a bit more muddiness, a bit more obscurity in its moral message.  I loved The Angels' Share best when it seemed not to care what we thought, or whether we were even keeping up.

What saves it from utter didacticism as a tale of the last big score that allows a fundamentally decent man to escape the trap of criminality and violence is the performance of Paul Brannigan as handsome, scarred Robbie (and, needless to say, the way Loach patiently frames that performance).  Robbie's just been told by a judge that he's had his last chance, and only gotten it because of the stabilizing influence of a girlfriend who's just about to make him a father for the first time: when next he finds himself in trouble, he's going to prison, and probably for some time.  Brannigan's Robbie is fiercely smart and mutely shameful; he discovers an unusual perceptiveness to the nuances of whiskey, a drink he never cared for before, but despairs of ever getting a legitimate job when the violence of his past is written in sharp cuts on his face.  In every scene, his eyes show his ambition warring with his despair and regret, like a doppler map of coming weather.  I was half in love with him myself by the film's end.  (Wait, am I not supposed to admit that?)

The film's title, like everything else about it, is both squirmingly earnest and defiantly evocative.  The angels' share is the percentage of spirit that evaporates every year from the stored whiskey: it represents what is lost, but also what is offered up.  It is the spirit of generosity and the poetics of pragmatism, and it emerges as a social metaphor for those who've been written off.  I found myself warming to the title the more I thought about it, even in its final, most literal invocation.

"Everything about this film screams Nova Scotia," said the festival programmer to us as we took our seats, "It's set in Glasgow; it's about people turning their lives around; and, you know, stealing booze."

Sure enough, when our Dogsberrying group of misfits make their way to the Highlands in kilts, and "I'm gonna be (500 miles)" started up, a not insignificant portion of the audience (including me, and not just because I was expecting the Doctor to show up) sang along in clear, broad Scottish accents.

On the other hand, this is the sort of film which rousingly plays the Proclaimers as kilted Glaswegians seek out legendary whiskey in the Highlands. You've been forewarned.

 The Angels' Share
dir. Ken Loach (2012)


Here, share in my good mood:

And now, a personal tangent:

At the film, I had a revelation. When D  moves to Nova Scotia, I'm getting him a kilt to celebrate. My mom and I agree that he will rock it. (And the best part: it will be a major victory in his ongoing war on pants.) Now I just had to find out what my mother's family tartan is.

There followed this series of manic midnight messages to D in Hawai'i, who was having an unusually frantic day on set and probably did not appreciate a thousand questions about how he would look in a skirt: 

"Ugh: apparently we are lumped in with the MacLennans, a clan with a singularly hideous tartan (What's that whirring, thumping sound? Is it my ancestors spinning in their collective Presbyterian graves in Glasgow and Northern Ireland?)."

["Hmmm," wrote my sister-in-law after examining the MacLennan tartan, "not sure who decided that green, teal and red should all go together."

"Ancient clan warriors," I replied, "who'd been up all night drinking and painting themselves with woad. Never trust the color-sense of a woad-covered man."

"I'm tied down to it," I went on to the unresponsive D, "but I don't think you should be. I think instead I'm going to get you a plaid from one of the clans represented by characters in the Scottish play. Unless you indicate a favorite, I'm leaning towards MacDuff. (Although I really think you would look best in MacDonald. But we can't totally throw signification and association out the window and declare your allegiance to a Haligonian bridge, for God's sake. That way lies madness.)"


"Do you prefer your sporran in muskrat, badger, or leather? Or shall we go the full Canadian with beaver? Too on the nose (so to speak) for a crotch accessory?"
[No answer from D.  Odd. Clearly he needs some local context.]
"This wins the prize for Canadian non-story of the summer. It honestly reads like an Onion article:

The Halifax artist donned a kilt last October and has since decided that he prefers it over pants.

“You don’t feel so confined or something,” says King, 40.

Pants for men in the Western world seem to be pretty much the norm in modern times, but for most of history, it wasn’t. Even Romans thought pants were for barbarians.... He wants to wear the kilt “because it is a more authentic type of clothing or something and has a history to it.”"


"Do I detect an ominous silence from D?" my mother interjects, "I mean, you can lead a man to a kilt, but ..."

And he doesn't even know yet that this kilt (even without the [everyday] sporran, the socks, the matching tartan things that hold up your socks, the dress sporran, the ceremonial knife, and the Jacobite jacket) is going to cost as much as a mortgage payment. Shhh. No one tell him.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Doe (A Deer, A Female Deer) vs. Me (A Name I Call Myself)

Look, this is what it means to live by yourself in the middle of nowhere: I just had a prolonged conversation with a deer and her two fawns.


"Oh, look: the deer are back! Aren't they beautiful?" [Snap pictures and message them to D. Text this commentary: "My new friends!" Then: "Why is this deer looking at me like he is about to make everyone I've ever loved disappear?.... Seriously, I just looked up after spending several minutes painstakingly typing that, and he was still staring. Hadn't moved a muscle."] "Wait, are they eating my lilies?" [Open window.] "Hey! You! Don't eat those."


[Look up suddenly, like they are all three thinking about making everyone I've ever loved disappear.]


"That's right. Step away from the lilies. It's the better part of valor."




"OK, think it over. You'll come to the right decision in the end."

DEER, in an obviously scathing commentary on our hierarchy of power: 

[Duck heads and begin to eat again.]


"Don't make me come out there."




"I'm coming out there. You're gonna wish I hadn't." [Storm out the door. Pull up short when I see...]


[Stare at me even more intensely. Stomp in a show of territorial assertion.]


[Stomp in a manner that should have been highly deer-eloquent, but in a human just seems petulant.]


[Stare at me in perplexity. Look at each other like a couple at a dinner party seeing their friends begin to have an embarrassingly public fight.]


"Don't you give each other that look. I'm not crazy. (I do wish I were filming this, though. I think these deer are condescending to me.)" [Point off into forest.] "It's been nice, but I think you'd better be on your way."

DEER, after a pregnant moment: 

[Disdainfully turn and make their way into the woods in a leisurely single file that says nothing so much as "I'm not leaving because you've won this argument, I'm leaving because I'm bored."]

I'm just sayin': if Calico-Colored Guinea Pig shows up, I'm staying inside the house:


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Taking the bit between the teeth

Well, that was a false start.  But I remain undeterred. There's so much to blog about - our trip to the former leper (Hansen's disease) colony on Moloka'i and the heart-grinding reading I did while there;  Satyajit Ray's Chekhovian Music Room and the Fellini-tinged, pharaonic wonder of Cairo Station, the weeklong visit from my Dorothy Parker-esque grandmother, my wrangle with Spinoza - and the term's just beginning this week.  So... what better time to blog up a storm?

Happy Labor Day, all.  May your labors be fruitful and fair, and your three-day weekends be giddy and hedonistic.

Monday, September 4, 2012