Monday, August 6, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #2

With the abundance of regular review sites on the web, the Apprentice Writer takes a different approach: sorting books into cyberpiles of 'funny', 'not', and 'comedy keepers'. Be forewarned: Apprentice Writer is hard to please.


CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK Elizabeth Peters
HISTORICAL SUSPENSE

Premise
Determined British spinster travels to Egypt and becomes embroiled in archaeological mystery.


What Works
Everything. This book is a total delight; from the exotic setting, to the heroine (busybody and know-it-all Amelia Peabody), to the hero (hot-tempered Egyptologist Radcliffe Emerson, Amelia's equal in brains and stubbornness), to the secondary characters (damsel-with-a-past Evelyn and Emerson's younger brother Walter), to the mystery development and resolution. The clash between fusty Victorian era social etiquette and the non-stop action, not to mention how various parties pursue one another romantically, is delicious.

What Doesn't
The only quibble AW can come up with is that this book is so excellent that the follow-up adventures of Amelia and Co. (of which there are quite a few) may not always manage to reach as high on the performance bar as the original. But it isn't fair to hold that against this gem of a story.

Overall
Of the many bullseyes this book hits, the one that may be the most remarkable is in how deftly the author avoids the trap that many another author with settings in different countries falls into: making implied (and sometimes, overt) statements of the relative superiority/inferiority of the different cultures or religions involved in the plot. How many novels divide heros and villains strictly along ethnic lines? How many stories involve abusive treatment that is acceptable when confined to one group, yet outrageous when extended to another? The first time AW actually flung a book against the wall was when the supposed hero in a bodice-ripper whose title is long forgotten worked himself into a rage because the villain raped his mother. Obviously, it wasn't hard to understand that he would find the act itself upsetting. The problem was that he focussed on how she traced her lineage back to Spanish royalty, and wasn't merely a Mexican peasant - the implication being that raping peasants and/or Mexicans is less of a crime than raping artistocrats and/or Spaniards.
By having heros and villains distributed among Brits and Egyptians, Christians and Muslims, women and men, Peters' novels make the useful general point that it is wise to judge individuals according to their own characters and capacities rather than tired old generalizations, and the comedy writing point that you can get quite a bit of mileage out of characters acting counter to pre-conceived notions.

But does it make you laugh? YES, YES, YES!!!

For the comedy-starved, this Crocodile is a banquet. Dive right in and enjoy, knowing that the feast continues with many more Amelia/Emerson stories to come in this wonderful series.

4 comments:

Christine d'Abo said...

Oh I haven't heard of this one! I'll have to check it out the next time I'm at the book store. Great review!

M. said...

hi christine,
it's a classic, been around for quite a few years now - i don't even know if it's still in print. but definitely worth tracking down!

Wylie Kinson said...

I love a book that makes me laugh. Thanks for the recommend!
And I'd love for you to list some authors that generally tickle your funny bone.
Have you read any Christopher Moore or Bill Bryson?

M. said...

hi wylie,
no, i haven't! i'll put them on my tbr list right away.
i'm hoping to post 1-2 reviews per week here - i'm aiming to alternate one oldie-but-goodie and one new-to-me book each time.
all recommendations for what is funny (and reviewable) greatly accepted!