Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Two Julie Cohen novels

 Continuing my reposts of reviews of favourite novels from the past three years...


Julie Cohen’s novel is published as part of the Little Black Dress imprint for Romantic fiction and that could be enough to put many people off. It was off-putting to me, too, until I read the blurb and dipped into it and saw what was going on. This book follows all the Romance rules and regulations, but it does it all with such panache and wit. There’s a full cast of wonderfully enjoyable characters here and we get to know and care about them all. It is set in a very recognisable world of London house-shares and comfortable friendships. It also gives us a fantastic insight into the world of comics artists, writers and fandom. There’s something extremely touching about these adventures of the tomboyish Fil and her bunch of hapless male friends.
The book begins with them in the midst of a weekend-long X Files-watching marathon and ultimately making a pact never to split their tribe by falling in love with anyone outside of it. The mechanics of their friendships are so well-observed, as are the details of their particular forms of geekiness. I loved it when an outsider asks, ‘How many Star Trek DVDs do you have, then?’ and are answered with a blandly unperturbed, ‘All of them’. This is a gang of friends with the fan-collector-gene (as it’s known) in overdrive.
Everything changes with the advent of Dan – the hot american film director whose grandfather invented Fil’s long-running and hotly-protected strip, Girl from Mars. It first seems that Dan – complicated and grief-racked as he is – is simply dabbling in comics writing and Fil and others are resentful of him. There are further complications to do with unrequited love, secret passions and misread signs and the novel bumps along quite merrily though some stock Romantic territory – but here’s the main thing: every single secondary character is wonderfully drawn. Even very peripheral figures, such as Fil’s bewilderedly intellectual parents are beautifully pencilled in (I loved the picture of her mother sitting with a pile of comic books, slowly being sucked into the narrative and trying to analyse her pleasure as she goes). The playing-out of the dynamic between Fil and Dan through the medium of comic strip writing is brilliantly done. They communicate with each other through the work itself, and revisions to the cliffhangery storyline, as their collaboration becomes richer and more resonant, and they inhabit the same tension-filled workroom inside the comics company building.
I love the fact that these are characters who absolutely believe in comics and in the power of even the seemingly trashiest of science fiction tropes and ideas to communicate vital and complex ideas. At some points in this romance, it’s as much about the romance of making up stories about the Girl Girl from Mars and falling in love wit your work, as it is the sloppy stuff. The sloppy stuff itself is very well and sexily done, however. The relationships at the heart of the book are handled tenderly and wittily. And the happiness is not without its repercussions and its negative effects on the lives of others close to the lovers. I won’t give anything away plotwise – but there’s some extremely tense and dramatic stuff in the later chapters.
So! There I am – reading Romance novels in the Little Black Dress range! I really do roam quite happily across the genres, don’t I? I enjoy books that zigzag through genres – and it seems, looking at her other titles, that Julie Cohen likes to bring in supernatural or sf ideas, here and there. I’ll definitely be reading more of her.
I think, also, that I’ll read anything in any genre, so long as it’s a book that *means it*, and has heart and a bit of gumption and style. And takes some risks with its generic boundaries.
Made me wonder, though – all over again. Where’s all the gay male Romance novels with a hint of the supernatural or the spacey…?  Shouldn’t there be a UK imprint for them..?


This novel has Gothic touches of the overt kind, in that when its eponymous heroine is forced to go and stay in her dead uncle’s Highgate flat, it’s a dank and spooky dump shared with scary-looking neighbours. It’s a gothic novel also in the sense that we’re on the edge of our seat throughout, shouting at the heroine to look out, watch out, don’t do that… look behind you! Even in the daylight, Nina Jones keeps walking into horrible danger.
First of all it’s from sexy celebrity chefs – her boss, Edmund, and his rival, the Spaniard Juan. Escaping from what seems like a futile situation with Edmund, Nina sells up everything and puts all she has into opening a doomed restaurant in Spain with Juan – who we just know is flakey right from the start. Somehow though, I never lost patience with Nina, even when she was doing outrageously daft things. Daft things such as, when everything hits the fan, pretending to her family and best friend that everything’s fine. She goes to the huge effort of pretending that she’s living in spain when she’s moved back to london and living in her uncle’s mausoleum. The psychology of all the characters really works – we know why they’re behaving like this.
It’s a novel that takes her from the bright, superficial world of celebs and swanky restaurants, all the way into the bosom of a new, sometimes rather odd, family. The set-up in the Temple of Gloom is marvellous, and I loved all the characters there. It’s a place where our heroine finds out a few home truths and learns some proper values from characters like the outrageous, ancient Evangeline. There’s a sequence when they all decamp to the uncle’s funeral and it’s wonderfully funny.
Like the Julie Cohen novel i read last year – ‘Girl from Mars’ – this is again, too complex, too distinct, too funny to be just a romance novel. In a run-of-the-mill romance novel it’s all about the two main characters falling in love and that’s it – but in the Julie Cohens i’ve read so far, it’s also the reader who gets to fall in love — with *all* the characters.

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