There's lots of things I'm proud of about myself but the amount of reading I do isn't one of them. It contrasts a fair bit with how things were when I was a child - I devoured books back then. Admittedly that was in the age of media poverty (a subject I could have sworn I've written about before).

Anyway, when I travel I like to read (so these days that's about twice a year...) and a better option fell through. A friend let me have a book that she'd finished in the recent past that had disappointed her in its lack of Christmas content. Apparently the name "A Christmas Cracker" and the snowy scene depicted on the cover were somewhat misleading...

Yep, that's actual glitter on there.
I accepted it mostly to be polite but I figured I'd give it a go in transit if I felt like reading. I might have been able to finish it if I hadn't put it down so many times amidst cries of "Oh come on!" and "Who talks like that?!"

Having never read anything by Trisha Ashley before I didn't know what to expect and was rather suspicious of the jacket comment "Trisha at her best". Mmmhmm.

Amusingly I'm the one that reads chick-lit whereas Jenny's preference is for gruesome murders and crime. Anyway, let's get into what I thought of the book and what sort of thing led to that opinion.

We'll start off with the general first act of the narrative, why not?

Tabitha (37), our plucky heroine, is convicted of fraud and sent to prison for a brief stint following a spot of undercover TV journalism. Her "friend" (who we'll get to shortly) perjures herself and this testimony somehow counts or something. It's pretty quickly glossed over how this stuff works (not that it'd make for scintillating reading, admittedly) but it's done in such a way as to feel utterly implausible. Tabitha is, of course, mostly innocent. Innocent enough that it feels incredibly unlikely that she'd receive any punishment at all, let alone a conviction.

So that's our rather spongey bedrock...

A character is introduced who descends like a big dollop of deus ex machina to give Tabitha a, sigh, fresh start. Said patron is wealthy, slightly eccentric (in the happy-clappy way, not the air baths way), and proceeds to remove material concerns of any kind from the list of Tabitha's concerns. Apparently our heroine is exactly who she's been looking for to be her PA. Prior to this Tabitha's CV seems to have consisted of warehouse work and a lengthy stint of care work prior to the death of her mother. Such an obvious good fit. I'm sure a good heart and a laughably sheltered personality will lend itself perfectly to the refurbishment and relaunch of a niche manufacturing concern.

Of course this being this book it does. Nothing presents any difficulties and the rework of the Christmas cracker factory goes off without a hitch over the course of the book. Without exaggeration there is not a single wrinkle in the plan.

  • They pitch to a prestigious shop and a chapter later they've got an order. 
  • They apply for planning permission and get it with no strings attached. 
  • None of the staff have any issues with their work area being made visible to the visiting public.
You get the idea. That aspect of the narrative was one of the most interesting and could have provided some fun character development and personal growth. Perhaps Tabitha could have learnt that she could surprise herself and feel satisfied in her ability to come up with clever solutions. Yeah, no, that'd be too interesting.

Relationships, people, and the cat

This being the kind of book it is the story is mostly a backdrop for the relationships we're supposed to enjoy reading about. Loveable characters that make us wish they existed. I think that's the general idea anyway.

As mentioned above I put this book down many times in utter exasperation.

This mostly stemmed from how utterly unrealistic the majority of the characters were. I think it's safe to say that I've met a lot of people. Tabitha's saviour, the energetic oldy Mercy Marwood, is a fairly plausible character based on my own experiences. I've met enough people that she seems like a composite of a few of them, I can totally buy that. I particularly liked the touch that she wears trainers with light-up elements on the heels, it made me smile.

Similarly the god-daughter character, Liz from Malawi, seemed fairly real too. Yep, fine, fine.

That's pretty much where it stops. The rest of the main cast are at best ridiculous caricatures and at worst cardboard.

Now, let's be clear here, at the time of writing I'm 31. The characters are supposed to be ~37, not 50+. I have no problem at all with older characters, older people, or anything in between. Lady Cecilia from Elizabeth Moon's Serrano Legacy is a personal favourite! However when that author writes a younger character there's a noticeable difference and similarly characters in their 40s are different again. They come to life and feel human.

If this book is anything to go by Trisha has very little grasp of what a woman in her 30s in 2015 behaves like. It might have been better to set this in the 1980s or something (which would probably have been delightful, if I'm honest). Choosing to set it in the present day results in strangely jarring turns of phrase on occasion:
And the background electronic tape created by one of Arlene's sons sounded wonderfully atmospheric.

We're talking about something to be played in the Christmas cracker factory shop to convey a suitable atmosphere. An "electronic tape"? Really?

That's supposed to be Tabitha's thoughts, I should add, not some sort of objective narrator.

Lacey surveyed the draped and crowned bed and then remarked, "It looks like the set from a bad porn film."
"I'll have to take your word for that. I haven't seen any kind of porn film," I said, glad that Mercy had sent me up to her room, rather than take her herself!

Call me outlandish but that doesn't gel with my experiences of women in their 30s at all. Perhaps it would be true in 2005 but these days I'm afraid that seemed unlikely (coupled with a weirdly sanctimonious attitude from someone who'd previously been living with their fiancé...).

Lacey is unpleasant throughout the entire narrative. The same is true of Tabitha's "friend" and her ex-fiancé. I'm not talking "often a bit of a dick". No. If they're talking they're being horrid. I think Lacey has a single positive comment in the entire 435 pages.

Having antagonists is good, it's how lots of us experience our lives. Except the people I've hated the most throughout my life weren't like that. I hated them because at times they did or said things that I found reprehensible. They didn't eat, sleep, and breathe malice. It's almost as if they were humans with lives, moods, and thoughts of their own.

Two dimensional antagonists are hard to get much mileage out of. If they're present we know exactly how they're going to behave. If that's the case why even bother writing lines for them to say? Oh, a phone call from Kate? I can't imagine what the content of the next passage will be!

Randal


Our male lead, Randal, is not quite as two-dimensional, but there's very little character development until the last quarter of the book. Seriously. He spends the majority of the book appearing, disapproving of Tabitha, having a tough time with his fiancé (Lacey), before vanishing for a bit.

Arguably the most poorly written parts of the book are written from his perspective. He only gets a handful of chapters to himself (rarely more than a few pages long) but they stand out. You see, dear reader, our author has not observed men in their 30s. Either that or she wasn't making any attempt to empathise with them. That makes it sound like he's portrayed in a poor light but that's not the issue - it's much more fundamental than that. He doesn't read like a man. When he's thinking, when he's talking to a friend, or whatever, he doesn't act like a man. That is to say the way he reacts to situations and assesses things doesn't feel in any way real. I find it hard to believe any normal, 37 year old British man in 2015 would use the term "...I'd been cross about her not telling me she was bringing...".

Cross? Is the inside of an Enid Blyton book?

Let's clarify something here - I'm not sure what Randal's upbringing resembled but it seems based on the narrative that it mirrored my own fairly well. Boys at boarding school do not get "cross". They get "pissed off", "annoyed", "peeved", or any number of other (worse) terms. When they become men this doesn't go away. Earning a salary doesn't transform their vocabulary to that of a 1950s matron.

If we pretend that Randal is a real heterosexual man in the year 2015 with a job that pays improbably well then the question becomes - okay, but what does Lacey see in him? She's supposed to be 27, astonishingly gorgeous, and an utter nightmare. Apparently he is a "safe option" for her. Mmmhmm. Okay. So what does Randal see in this narcissistic piece of work? She doesn't seem to care about him in the slightest and there appears to be no chemistry between them either. What does he get out of this..?

More to the point, why is he engaged to her? Dating her, perhaps, for the sake of argument, fine. But what would make him pull the trigger, so to speak? He's not written as someone shocked that she's interested in him and wanting to keep things going, for example.

Yeah, that's a question without an answer. It does rather model the major flaw with the relationships that occur throughout the book though. They feel as real as a crayon scribble.

I was supposed to mention the cat, Pyewacket, wasn't I?

The author apparently thinks we've not met cats before and want to read about him being a cat. He's a cat. He does cat stuff. This is seemingly of endless interest to the author for whatever reason. Like an actual cat he's just sort of there. He doesn't take an active role in the events of the book for the most part but it's rare for more than a few pages to go by without him getting a mention. Make of that what you will.

Right, let's come to a conclusion. Well, in a moment. First I've got to mention technology and 2015.

It seems that the author's idea of technology is from roughly 2006 with a few later touches. Phone charms are mentioned as cracker charms in new cracker designs they're introducing. Uh huh. Is it even possible to attach a phone charm to a smartphone?

Characters are constantly turning their phones off. There's no signal at the house where Tabitha ends up so her phone is usually off. If it's a dumbphone it'd have a ridiculous battery life and if it's a smartphone then why would she turn it off? What does she keep her calendar on (she's a PA, remember?)? What about music? Or all the beauty that she sees around her that she later makes art of - a camera might be handy for that, I would have thought...

Yeah, stuff like that stands out because technology is so ubiquitous in this day and age. My mother was 71 in 2015. Do you know which phone she had then? A Samsung Galaxy S5. I know this because I received it as a hand-me-down some time later. Of my friends only one held onto a dumbphone - which he got rid of years ago at this point. A basic android handset wasn't anything implausible, especially considering the character had a job before her conviction.

My general point is that a smartphone is a given and smartphones aren't just phones. They stay on.

There was also a mention of internet cafés in Vietnam and spotty internet access there. I can't say I've checked but I would be utterly shocked if they weren't everywhere by 2010, let alone 2015.

Conclusion

This all boils down to the fact that the characters, situations, and world of A Christmas Cracker struggle to stay plausible from chapter to chapter. There's the occasional passage where the author's spark can be seen and characters come to life and actually talk to each other. When they appear it's refreshing and fun. Unfortunately there's only about four of those at most in the entire damned book.

Other things: 
  • If Emma doesn't love Desmond anymore why does it take a physical altercation before she actually goes ahead with the divorce she's been talking about for half the bloody novel?
  • Emma's son, Marco, is seven and a half. Do you know what age Mr. Potato Head is aimed at? Come on.
  • Men generally court characters at least a little before proposing, even in an Austen novel, especially if their previous fiancé was problematic. It is rather the done thing.
  • Stop rehashing the events of the book. We read those chapters already. You don't need yet another character explaining what's going on to another in a clunky exposition dump. It's not a complicated plot, get on with the narrative.
  • The Quaker thing is kind of weird and the book is a bit preachy at times, in a between-the-lines kind of way.
  • There's about thirty pages of the book set at Christmas. Methinks the cover art was telling a bit of a whopper...
I could probably think of more things like that but it's getting late. I'm glad I read the book as it makes me feel a bit better about my own writing. I could probably rework the book into something else as finishing a first draft is a mammoth task in and of itself. It wasn't created without skill but if I was handed this to give notes on you can see there'd be quite a lot of red ink on the manuscript!

I'd give the book 2.5/5. It's coherent. The English countryside rubbish is saccharine and twee to the point of ridicule but there's a happy ending. On the last page and not before. Fin.

0 responses to "Did you have help?"

Leave a Reply