måndag 26 juni 2017

Vinick for President

If Doctor Who, with its whip-smart dialogue, likeable characters, engaging portrayal of different kinds of relationships (friendships, romances, family dynamics etc.) and (mostly) well-written ponderings on various themes can serve as an antidote to villain pining, then surely the same can be said for The West Wing, which also contains these ingredients? Sadly not. However, that’s no reason not to watch and re-watch this excellent series. If you’re a villain-lover like me, just be sure to have something a little less high-minded to break off with now and again. The West Wing is strictly superego fare, and a villain-free zone.

In a way, I respect The West Wing for having made this choice. Many political dramas concentrate on cynicism and wheeler-dealing, but they are also rather crude. I never got properly into the original, British version of House of Cards, and nothing I’ve read about the American version has made me very keen to give it a go. The Ruthless Politician so often ends up as just a hate figure for morally minded writers to tut-tut over. There’s no depth to this trope – if you’re looking for a convincing depiction of ambition and power-hunger, something to make you think “Yeah, I’d have done that too, and that, and… whoa, maybe not that, but I can see how you could end up that way”, you’ll have to look elsewhere than political drama. Perhaps it’s because we tend to see our political opponents as either fools or knaves, rather than as people who want the best for their country and humanity at large as much as we do, even if they are totally wrong about everything. And knaves, even really shallow ones, make better television than fools.

The West Wing does occasionally belittle the heroes’ opponents, but at least they’re not portrayed as plotting the end of civilisation in dark cellars. Yes, the political arguments are often weighted in favour of the West Wing team, but at least the opposition gets a hearing and some clever lines. Intelligent, articulate and funny Republican characters such as Ainsley Hayes do a good job of balancing out the pro-Democrat bias. Those involved in the political game come across as well-meaning men and women who are doing their best to make sure the country is governed as well as possible according to their lights. I think this might be a great deal closer to the truth than, say, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (admittedly comedy rather than drama), enjoyable though they are.

Yes, there were times when The West Wing risked becoming a little too smug – the episode where Will recycled eat-the-rich arguments which had been comprehensively panned by Sam in the early days of the series was a memorable low point. But then it rallied with season six and seven, and the presidential race between Democrat candidate Matt Santos and Republican candidate Arnie Vinick.

Much has been said about Jed Bartlet as the idealised American President par excellence, and yes, he’s not bad. But Arnie, wow – he’s the great presidential candidate that never was in my book. Hats off to the series makers for pitting their own favourite Matt Santos – highly moral but still humorous, brainy and sympathetically played by Jimmy Smits – against such a strong contender from the opposite team. The respectable, decent, sensible Vinick avoids taking cheap pot-shots at his opponents, argues convincingly and passionately for his ideas and occasionally makes courageous political decisions in his campaign that make you gasp for awe. Oh, and did I mention he’s played by Alan Alda? Honestly, who wouldn’t vote for this guy?

Admittedly, the balance created by having strong presidential candidates for each party is partly illusory because they are both pretty near the middle of the American political spectrum (as far as I’m able to judge from my ignorant, European viewpoint). But personally, I have no problem with this. Also, it’s a great deal more even-handed than earlier election battles where Bartlet stood against a fairly slow-witted Republican whom he could easily defeat in any verbal slanging-match – while simultaneously sounding as if he was far above such things as verbal slanging matches.

Arnie has my vote – at least my superego’s. My id wouldn’t mind a bit more of a whiff from the dark cellar.

tisdag 13 juni 2017

Just what the Doctor ordered

The good old remedy against villain pining, tried and tested during my Downton period, thankfully still works. Pity that there's such as limited dose of it available. But with the first part of Doctor Who series ten, containing six episodes, I did get two whole evenings' worth of TV watching without wistful thoughts about unattainable episodes of  Once Upon a Time season six (out on DVD in August, if I'm lucky). And hey, at least the present Doctor is a brainy being with special powers and nearly unlimited lifespan played excellently by a distinguished-looking Scottish actor and... argh, brave, moral and heroic. Not the same at all, then. Ah well, moving on.

I must admit to the cynical reaction "well, someone's earning some British Council funding" when I read that the Doctor's new companion Bill (a girl) was to be black and lesbian. (Not that Doctor Who creators need any financial incentive to be right-on, and it's perfectly possible they're not taking any of the BC's buck for "portraying minorities in a positive way".) However, the cheerful, inquisitive Bill proved to be a fully-rounded character, not an exercise in box-ticking, and may in my opinion be the best companion since Donna. I found Amy vaguely irritating at times, especially the nonchalant way she treated the supposed love of her life Rory, and Clara was hard to pin down - an intelligent control freak, yes, but otherwise a little too like Amy in her young Tardis babe-ness. It's not that I disliked them, but they didn't win me over the way Donna and Martha did. Bill seems warmer, and her crush on a mysterious girl in the first episode did not feel tacked on for effect, merely sweet. Once again - as in the Capaldi Doctor-Clara pairing - I'm relieved that there's no flirty Tardis banter on the menu. Bill's the Doctor's favourite pupil and surrogate granddaughter rolled into one, and it's a relationship that shows promise. I'm less sure about the inclusion of Nardole, the comic relief from the Christmas special The Husbands of River Song. True, they've beefed up the part, but he still doesn't feel entirely necessary to the setup.

Given the Doctor's aforementioned bent towards heroism and morality, not to mention the various script-writers' more or less well-guided attempts to Tell Us Something Meaningful, it's strange that I have as much patience with Doctor Who as I do and consider it one of my favourite shows. There are irritants in this series as in all the others. I'm getting fed up with the respect-for-artificial-life argument which gets another airing in the episode Smile - are we never to be free of bloody work, if not only clones but also robots are out of the question as unpaid workforce? And would even Karl Marx be able to make sense of the clumsy criticism of vaguely defined "capitalism" in Oxygen? But even if the Doctor's claim in Thin Ice that he's never had the time for "the luxury of outrage" is patently untrue, at least he and the series as a whole don't spend too much time on it. The adventures move on and the wisecracks keep on coming. Moreover, and I think crucially, the Doctor doesn't see himself as a hero. He always carries a fair amount of self-doubt with him, fuelled by the fact that trouble turns up wherever he goes. Even if he's "mucking in" and trying to solve every crisis he finds himself in, is it possible that he's creating more problems than he's solving? In series eight, the Doctor asked Clara "Am I a good man"? The answer is yes, of course, but the fact that he asks himself the question and never takes his own goodness for granted may have quite a lot to do with it. And he does have reasons for self-doubt - as we are reminded in Thin Ice, this is a man/time lord with so many lives on his conscience he's long since stopped counting them.

Part two of series ten won't be available on DVD until the end of July (still earlier than Once), but I'm greatly looking forward to it - especially as we're promised more of Missy and a glimpse of her previous incarnation. Maybe it will finally be explained in which circumstances that particular regeneration took place, and how much loopiness was passed on to the time lady "upgrade". This series is Capaldi's - and show runner Steven Moffat's - last hurrah, and I intend to make the most of it.

onsdag 31 maj 2017

Hercule returns, but did he need to?

We're back to the theme of character-pinching. Sophie Hannah - an acclaimed crime writer in her own right - has to this date penned two new Hercule Poirot mysteries, with the approval of the Christie estate. I'm ashamed to admit I have no idea who the Christie estate are, but they needn't feel they've sold out: Hannah's crime stories are high-quality page turners and suitably whodunnity. I was left wondering, though, if the link to Agatha Christie and specifically Poirot was strictly necessary. One thing is clear: if these books - The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket - hadn't been marketed as Poirot mysteries, I probably wouldn't have read them. Hannah's other novels appear to belong to a scarier crime tradition - the psychological thriller - than Christie, and I would not have thought of looking for old-style whodunnits among her work.

Something of a psychological thriller feel does seep into these new Poirot novels, but not so much as to keep one awake at night. They're not quite classic Christie crimes, being more focused on making the crime or crimes themselves bewildering conundrums. In the first book, the detectives have to figure out how the murders could have been committed at all; in the second, the big poser is who would kill a dying man. I must admit I found the solution to the murders, with regard to motive especially, less satisfying than in Christie. Christie is often underestimated when it comes to characterisation: her characters have a believability which makes the reader swallow one surprising reveal after the other without feeling hoodwinked (there are exceptions: I do think the solution of Sparkling Cyanide was a cheat both psychologically and regarding how the murder was done). In Hannah's Poirot novels, the murder motives are a little strange and twisted. Christie's murderers have a moral blindness in common, and the motive is often something prosaic like downright greed, but the murders tend to make sense in their callous way: there's seldom anything weird about them. Though there are exceptions here as well. You can say that Hannah's mysteries have more in common with A Tragedy in Three Acts than, for instance, Five Little Pigs. However much or little they resemble Christie, they're certainly a good read.

What of Hercule, then? Hannah's treatment of the iconic Poirot is pleasingly subtle. The egg-shaped head, green eyes, little grey cells and French-isms are given an airing (yes, I know, Poirot is Belgian, but he speaks French) but take a back seat compared to his detective skills. As in Christie, when it comes to explaining the crime at the end, Poirot is suddenly capable of flawless English. His deductions are convincingly brilliant. But as his mannerisms don't play much of a part anyway, I was left wondering why these particular crimes had to be solved by this particular detective.

The question why Poirot is really needed is highlighted by the fact that the sidekick Hannah has invented for him - Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool - is both likeable and competent. Christie herself favoured the idea of a decicedly dense sidekick for her detective, based on her rather ungenerous interpretation of Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Hence poor Hastings, who is never allowed to be right about anything. I prefer Hannah's approach here. It's easier to identify with a character who isn't supposed to be a complete dunce, and as the narrator of the novels Catchpool becomes the reader's point of reference. He is a little Eeyoreish - the fact that he is firmly in the closet, which is why a well-intentioned attempt on Poirot's part to fix him up with a girl falls flat, doesn't exactly help in that regard. But the hang-dogginess suits him, and you trust his psychological insight and common sense (for the most part, anyway).

Why, then, couldn't Catchpool solve these crimes singlehandedly? Why bring Poirot into the story at all? I would say that if Poirot adds anything, it's that little extra dose of brilliance. Catchpool is intelligent, but a bit of a plodder, maybe because he doesn't have the self-confidence to trust his grey matter the way Poirot does. Then, as I've mentioned, the presence of Poirot labels the mysteries as the kind of crime novels a Christie fan will like, and that is admittedly helpful. I like Hannah's understated Poirot, and if she writes any more Poirot-Catchpool mysteries I will certainly read them. If, in time, she lets Catchpool solve a crime all by himself, I'll read that novel too.                    

torsdag 18 maj 2017

A novel about a touching friendship. Oh, and some schoolgirls

Even though I cheated and read the novel in Swedish - a Swedish paperback was available for borrowing - I'm still a bit chuffed that I managed to make my way through all 500-plus pages of Tana French's The Secret Place in comparatively short time. It was, admittedly, not that difficult a read. The setting itself lends glamour - St Kilda's, a high-class Irish boarding school for girls.

As many Swedish book bloggers have testified, crime stories (or any stories, really) set in a school or university environment have a charm of their own which is hard to describe. (Swedish-speakers may want to check out this "If you liked The Secret History you'll love..." list, for instance.) Though some books in this genre are steeped in academe, others are decidedly not, and the school/university setting merely serves as a backdrop. Yet, it adds instant atmosphere. I'm slightly puzzled about my own fondness for academy yarns: yes, I can see the appeal of university, but school? It's not as if I'd ever want to go back to my own school days. A crucial aspect of these mostly-crime-novels, though, is that the school or university in question is always tradition-heavy and upmarket: not to put too fine a point on it, posh. So we get seemingly idyllic, leafy surroundings while being sternly told that these surroundings hide all kinds of sinister goings-on. It's a classic having-your-cake-and-eating-it scenario: while we are to draw the conclusion that we shouldn't judge an institution by its pretty façade, we wouldn't really want to do without the pretty façade in question in the story being told.

The Secret Place goes easy on the academe: The Likeness, also by French, was closer to The Secret History formula than this tale of moderately study-motivated teenagers. Still, there are points in common between The Likeness and The Secret Place, especially the theme of a close-knit group of friends where a threat to or perceived betrayal of the friendship eventually triggers a murder. This time, it's four girls in their early teens who share an especially intense bond. A year after a teenage boy, who was rumoured to be interested in one of the girls, was killed on St Kilda's premises, another member of the gang - the self-possessed Holly - brings a photo she has found on the school notice board where the pupils are encouraged to unload their secrets to the police. The photo shows the murdered boy and bears the inscription "I know who killed him". There are two separate mysteries, then: who killed the boy, Chris Harper, and who put the photo on the notice board? Holly's set, as well as a rivalling gang of girls led by the school bitch, are in the frame.

Though the schoolgirls are well-described, I found myself, surprisingly, more caught up in another plot thread: that of the two coppers on the case. Holly makes contact with a policeman working in the Cold Cases unit with whom she's had dealings before when she was a child witness: the unapologetically social-climbing Stephen Moran. Stephen brings the new evidence to the inspector in charge of the Chris Harper case, Antoinette Conway (who is only ever called Conway), hoping this will be his way to get a foot in the door of the Murder Squad. Conway lets him work on the case as second-in-command on sufferance, on the clear understanding that one misstep will land him right back to Cold Cases. First, I wanted Stephen not to let Conway down so he could continue working on the case (as one of the teenage protagonists might phrase it: well, duh). Then I wanted him not to let her down, full stop. In spite of reluctance from both sides, a rapport grows between them - Stephen, who's dreamt of a classy, cultured male working partner who could help him forget his own social insecurities, is surprised at how well he gels with a chippy female inspector from a similar modest background. Stephen is the narrator of half of the story - the other half, describing what really happened the months leading up to Chris Harper's death, is sandwiched in in alternating chapters - and I found myself looking forward to the cop bits, and hoping that Stephen's ambition wouldn't lead him astray and tempt him to leave what is obviously his ideal work mate in the lurch. I suspect that we're not necessarily supposed to want the cops to uncover the murderer, seeing as the culprit is most likely a mere girl who was only fifteen at the time of the killing. Well, tough. I was all in favour of Stephen and Conway getting their chit; careers and a potentially beautiful friendship are at stake here.

It's not as if the schoolgirl part is uninteresting, and I for one was convinced by the girls' teenage mind set. If I ever brave another Tana French novel, however, it will probably be in hope of seeing more of the Conway-Moran duo.

torsdag 11 maj 2017

Eurovision: Ballads, ballads everywhere, and scarcely a tune to hum

Here we go, then. I confess I haven't really been able to fire up my usual interest in Eurovision - neither the Swedish heats nor the European competition - this time around. I hope that it's a passing thing and not a sign I'm getting too old to enjoy what used to be a sure-fire mood lifter for the winter and spring months, when there's usually precious little else happening on the TV front. Perhaps one reason for my comparative lack of interest is the songs themselves: there are few really bad ones, but on the other hand there are few that really make an impression. Swedish TV scrapped its traditional panel programme reviewing of the Eurovision songs this year, which meant I had to catch up on them on Youtube. I started out optimistically, but after about the tenth competent but unmemorable power ballad I began to feel bored. Call me old-fashioned, but a good pop tune in my view really should have a hummable chorus. I still know the tune of the chorus of "Rise Like a Phoenix", which goes to show there was more to Conchita than that beard.

Still, I've managed to find a few contenders I quite liked the sound of. Caveat one: some of these I have not heard live yet, and they may sound better on video. Caveat two: 42 songs are a lot: I may have missed some really obvious star number in the power ballad flood.

United Kingdom: Maybe it's because this was the first Eurovision song I heard (excepting the serviceable but bland Swedish one), maybe it's my britophilia, maybe it's the just-about-applicable-to-villain-situation message ("I'll never give up on you" - attagirl). Anyway, I believe this is my favourite among the ballads. I know it's too late to ease diplomatic relations by giving the UK points - unlike last year - and the bewildering half-rhymes would be more understandable from a country where English is not the first language. Nevertheless, this is a good tune. Let's cut the limeys some slack this year.

The Netherlands: Speaking of pep talks, here are three babes in the wood (enchanted?) singing a tremendously supportive song. If the girls manage to sing in harmony as well live as they do on video (update: they did) this should be worth listening to.

France: Gosh, it's a beautiful language, isn't it? I can forgive a little English in the chorus. Moreover, the video was shot in Paris, and made me dance around a bit. Much depends on how well the singer does live, but if she delivers, this is a sweet swinger of a song.

Cyprus: Finally, a hummable chorus! The song is written by a Swedish Eurovision pro, and it shows. The number may not be as polished as Russian Sergey's "You're the Only One" last year, which was in the same genre, but it will serve.

Switzerland and Estonia are two maybes: in Switzerland's case, though I did get tired of the number before the video was through, it was professionally done and sung, plus I was intrigued as to where Apollo - the name of the song - fitted into the whole thing. Ever since I got Apollo (Apollon?) as the Greek god I most resembled on a Facebook test, I've had a particular sympathy for the Olympos straight guy. Not everyone can be Hermes-like and mischievous. In Estonia's case, we get a duet - which makes for a nice change - a classic Eurovision sound and references, albeit somewhat confusing, to Romeo and Juliet. But again, the song outstays its welcome somewhat.

So there we are: not that bad, when you come to think of it. I have no idea who could win this year, and it may very well be none of the above. The boy from Australia (yes, they're back) is a real looker and sings well, but let's be honest: the song is a snooze. Then again, I didn't see last year's winner coming, either.  

onsdag 26 april 2017

No capes!

It's funny, considering my many ultra-nerdy interests, that few things leave me as stone cold as superheroes. Occasionally I wonder whether I may be a little hard on this genre out of sheer ignorance. Look at all the articulate geeks on Youtube whose theories on Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and yes, even Harry Potter I'm happy to get into. They're intelligent, and at the same time genuinely interested in who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman. Am I missing something?

It is just possible: after all, when I grew up, superhero fare was a far cry from the high-budget CGI-ed blockbusters of today. I think I saw two of the Superman films, plus some episodes of the old Batman TV series which even Caped Crusader fans consider a joke. It's only reasonable to assume that more thought went into recent superhero films than the one where Superman goes back in time one day by reversing the turning of Planet Earth (even as a kid, I thought that a bit rum). At least a slice of those multi-million budgets must have gone into scripts and storyboarding, especially considering all the fans out there who will be only too adept at finding holes in the plot. And if it's possible to make fairy-tale characters complex (which it is), then it should be possible to add complexity to just about anything, including superheroes, right?

Yes, maybe, but I still can't bring myself to give this genre another try. Perhaps the concept of a heightened version of the brawny hero with boy-scout morals who sticks it to the baddies, receives adulation from the crowds, sees the world in black and white - because in his case it is - and never has to bother his thick head about nuances, or about anything really, is just too appalling for a lover of brainy villains to ever get behind, no matter how much thought or money they throw at it. Heroes are, for the most part, a pain. Superheroes are a superpain. Then it's just so silly. Secret identity? Those outfits? Edna in The Incredibles (one of my least favourite Pixar films for a reason) strongly advises her superhero clients not to wear capes, which invariably get in the way and suck you into aeroplane engines etc. ("no capes!"). Hey, why not scrap the whole ridiculous gym one-piece look while you're at it?

Given my superhero scepticism, I wasn't too thrilled to learn that Doctor Who would be flirting with the genre in the 2016 Christmas special The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Still, as it's the only new Who available to us poor Swedes at the moment while the Brits are enjoying a brand new series, I eventually and reluctantly invested in the DVD. It turns out that it's quite nice: they can say what they like, Steven Moffat knows how to turn out a zingy script, and Peter Capaldi is as always a superb Doctor. What puzzled me, though, is that Moffat doesn't seem to know much more about superheroes than I do. The story's protagonist Grant, who is accidentally turned into a superhero by the Doctor then enjoined not to use his powers (give it up, already! Special powers will always out), bears a marked resemblance to the old-style Superman of my childhood days. He can fly. He has superstrength. His everyday persona wears glasses as a camouflage and yearns for a female reporter, who has a bit of a thing for the superhero (called The Ghost) and doesn't twig that he and her supportive male nanny are one and the same person. There's also some rather lame jokes about X-ray vision. If even I can pick up on these references, then they're pretty darn obvious, and also somewhat long in the tooth. I just don't quite get why Moffat wanted to do a superhero story in the first place if he's not more into the genre than this. Having said that, the romance between Grant and the female reporter Lucy is sweet, especially when she acknowledges that it's Grant the nanny she truly loves, not the glamorous Ghost. The enemy aliens are acting under the cover of a Big Scary Corporation, which is in no way unoriginal but makes for some pleasingly eerie ultra-modern office set pieces, and there's a bit of a twist at the beginning concerning who the mastermind behind the alien plot is, or rather who it isn't. A doubtful line or two from the Doctor which displays a rather simplistic view of world politics is set off by other lines that work better ("It's a good plan. I like it. Why doesn't our side ever have plans like this?" he says approvingly about the evil alien plot).

The Doctor is always the Doctor, or at least I hope so. I'm not looking forward to the end of the Moffat era - The Doctor Who episodes penned by his successor Chris Chibnall are not among my favourites - and it saddens me no end that we're to lose Capaldi as well after series ten. To be fair, though, three series are about the average for a Doctor actor, so he's not jumping ship indecently early. All Doctors I've seen since I started watching the series back in Eccleston's day have been great, so in this instance one just has to trust the casting director.

Superheroes, though. What do those bright female reporters actually see in them?

onsdag 12 april 2017

Page-turners and making a formula work

I have previously whined - here, for instance - when encountering popular fiction that didn't manage to make something of even the most promising page-turning recipes. In view of this, it's only fair to note when I have had the good luck to come across two novels in a row which actually pull off the tried-and-trusted popular formulas they're making use of. When I say they use formulas, I don't mean they're formulaic in the negative sense of the word; rather that you will probably have encountered novels with a similar set-up, but it doesn't matter one jot. One reason plots like these are used so often they sometimes form a whole genre of their own is that they can work extremely well, but only in the hands of authors who know how to handle them.

To start with the slightly more prestigious one, I had a good time with Carol Goodman's The Night Villa. It's not the first novel by Goodman that I've read and enjoyed; you could almost say that you can't put a Goodman down. However, her books have proved strangely blog-resistant, which does not have to be a bad thing at all. If I'd felt terribly annoyed with several aspects of one or several of her books, I could have filled a post about them in no time. As it is, what can I say? It's good, solid, atmospheric, well-written entertainment, often with an added pinch of learning worn lightly.

Goodman's speciality is the surprisingly tricky genre of the past-and-present mystery/romance. What distinguishes this genre is that there are two plots, one which takes place in the present day, and one in the past, either within living memory or in historical times. In the past, there are mostly one or several mysteries to be discovered by the protagonists in the present-day plot, who meanwhile have their own problems - often of a romantic nature - to deal with as well. The two-plots-in-one structure might seem the perfect vehicle for historical tales, but as a matter of fact I often find myself more interested in the modern-day plot when reading novels like these. Goodman's books are no exception. Maybe it's because her modern-day heroines (it's always a she, and I can't say I miss a masculine outlook) are so likeably flawed, while the female protagonist in the past story tends to be someone the modern heroine finds altogether admirable and wants to champion - which in contrary readers like myself prompts the reaction "hang on, she's not as great as all that". The heroine in the past often has a female enemy - there's a distinct "women beware women" feel, especially as the modern-day heroine usually runs into at least one female character who is spectacularly rude to her for little reason - but it has happened more than once that I've sort of seen the female enemy's point. But this doesn't matter much as the attractive settings with an academic and/or cultural flavour and the well-crafted prose suck you in.

In The Night Villa, most of the plot takes place around an excavation in Italy, where scrolls have come to light which tell a story about the goings-on at the eponymous villa at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. Characters from the academic world - check. Classical myths playing a part in the story - check. Likeable, flustered heroine with a problematic past - check. Historical female character in need of championing (Iusta, a roman freedwoman unjustly hauled back into slavery by her former mistress) - check. Some whodunnit elements and more than one potential love interest for the heroine - check. Goodman readers will recognise many of the ingredients, but also appreciate the way they're used here. It's not my favourite of her books - I think that would be Arcadia Falls - but it's definitely a good read.

The plot used by Lauren Willig in The Other Daughter is even more familiar: it's the "impostor in high society" story with shades of Cinderella. In the 1920s, Rachel Woodley returns from a governessing post in France to the English village where she grew up, only to learn that her mother has already died of influenza. Matters are made worse when Rachel discovers that far from being dead as she thought, her long-lost father is very much alive. Moreover, he turns out to be an earl who married an heiress and produced two children, among them another daughter, who have enjoyed every privilege which Rachel has had to do without. With the help of the well-born gossip columnist Simon Montford, Rachel passes herself off as a Bright Young Thing in order to get closer to her father and his family and then to... well, she doesn't know exactly.

The best-handled part of the story is the convincing way in which Rachel's feelings towards her parents are described: she wants to hate her father badly but can't quite manage it. It's also reliably enjoyable to see her playing at being a rakish society girl while trying to suppress her no-nonsense governess instincts. But while it's a welcome variation of the formula that her father's family is not hateful (with the exception of his wife) and that Rachel never really comes close to wreaking any revenge on them, it does raise the question what the real purpose with her charade is. The plot is set up as The Count of Monte Christo light, but when it turns out that Simon's motives aren't that dastardly either, I did feel a little cheated. Still, it saved me from feeling guilty about not being too keen on Simon. Here's a man who manages to smuggle a penniless girl into high(ish) society, provides her with the werewithal in terms of frocks and such, is once referred to as her "evil genius" and talks about them having a "business arrangement" (and the synonym of that would be... a deal!). I ought to approve, right? But I was always hard on aristocratic lounge-lizards, and Simon's drawling so-called witticisms and brushings-off of invisible specks of dust got my goat. And then it turns out he doesn't have some immensely clever master plan, so I'm off the hook - I don't have to like him after all.

So there you are, two lightish reads which I had no trouble getting through in spite of a lack of fanciable villains. Is it spoilerish to say that last bit? If so, consider that I might just be too picky. I'm not saying there aren't any villains at all...