The Cultural Gutter

beyond good and bad, there is awesome

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

For the Win!

Chris Szego
Posted September 3, 2009

smmer.JPGCover blurbs can be tricky things. Some authors see them as good publicity
tools, and who’s to say they’re wrong? After all, it puts their name on books not their own, right there for eager readers to find. Others see them as favours to pay back to writers who have helped them, or forward to writers they’d like to see succeed. Sometimes they backfire: if I try a book based on an author’s recommendation and hate it, it’s a double blow. Not only to do I not like the book in my hand, but my opinion of the blurbing author’s taste has been seriously tarnished.

Of course, the corollary is true as well. If an author I like recommends a book I like, I’ve scored twice. Confirmation that my own taste isn’t suspect, plus a brand-new author to enjoy. Such was the case with The Duke of Shadows, by Meredith Duran.

Though I’ll admit it wasn’t only the seven word blurb* by historical author Liz Carlyle that made me pick the novel up. I was also curious about the little thought balloon in the upper right corner. ‘Gather.com contest winner’ it said. I’d never heard of the site, or the contest. The idea coupled with Carlyle’s blurb made me read the back cover. Which led me to read the first pages. Which
made me buy the book, which turned me into a serious fan of Meredith Duran.

Hey, look: marketing works!

At least, it does when applied to a book with as much depth and appeal as Duran’s debut novel. The
Duke of Shadows
was an excellent introduction to an extraordinary new author. Her contest win was only the beginning of career that will likely be filled with all the honours the field can bestow.

The Gather.com First Chapters Romance Writing Competition is very much as it describes itself. Sponsored by publisher Simon & Schuster and national bookseller Borders, the contest had entrants post the first chapter of their complete-but-unpublished novel on Gather.com. Site readers then had the task of winnowing down the entries. Twenty-five semi-finalists were chosen, who then posted second chapters. Of those, the site readers selected five finalists. A panel of pre-selected judges chose Duran as the Grand Prize winner. That prize was a publishing contract from Simon & Schuster, complete with five thousand dollar advance, plus guaranteed promotion in
Borders’ bookstores.

(Incidentally, the judges were so taken with the talent displayed in the contest that they awarded a second prize to Starr Toth for her book Trust Me. She also got a publishing contract, with a slightly smaller
advance.)

duke 250.jpgThe story is, in essence, quite simple. It begins in 1857, in Delhi, when Emmeline Martin meets the titular Duke of Auburn, Julian Sinclair. They are intrigued by one another, then are forced to flee together as the city erupts into violence. They fall in love, are separated by war, and reunite in London several years later. But Duran’s assured hands, this simple story is anything but.

For one thing, Duran doesn’t skimp on the difficult details. Emmeline arrived in Dehli under less than ideal circumstances, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Rescued by common sailors, she was delivered into a community that feels she should have had the decency to drown rather than endure a stain on her reputation. That tightly knit snobbish society personifies every one of the worst aspects of British colonialism: the stultifying adherence to rules and rituals so far out of context as to be nonsensical; the abysmal ignorance of anything outside of their own expectations; the unthinking and vicious racism. For his part, Sinclair is desperately trying to awaken his compatriots to the dangerous consequences of their behavior. But since he bears Indian blood himself, his warnings are dismissed at best as cowardice, at worst as treason.

The two outsiders are drawn to one another. But of course, Sinclair is right about the rising native outrage. Rebellion erupts. And here again, Duran doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff of history. She’s not afraid to get blood on the page. Julian and Emmeline don’t face a nameless, formless rebellion: they flee bayonet attacks, beheadings, civilians hacked to pieces. The violence isn’t gratuitous, it’s earned. It happened, and Duran’s characters are our witnesses. And the damage stays happened, it stays with them. Both are changed by their experiences, haunted for years. Which makes their eventual reunion that much more powerful.

Duke came out in April of 2008. Since then, Duran has had two more books hit the shelves. The two, Bound by Your Touch and Written on Your Skin were linked to one another, and came out a mere month apart (a sign, by the way, that your publisher is deeply invested in your success). Though the plots of each are quite different, they share the same attention to detail, the complex characterization, and the evocative
language of Duran’s first novel. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.

*for anyone wondering, the blurb from Liz Carlyle (herself an NYT bestselling author) was “A luscious delight… romance at its finest.”

~~~

Chris Szego wishes more first novels were this good.

Comments

Leave a Reply





  • Support The Gutter

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    At New York Magazine, David Wallace-Wells writes about bees, colony collapse disorder and beekeeper Dave Hackenberg. “It’s been a long decade for bees. We’ve been panicking about them nonstop since 2006, when beekeeper Dave Hackenberg inspected 2,400 hives wintering in Florida and found 400 of them abandoned — totally empty. American beekeepers had experienced dramatic die-offs before, as recently as the previous winter in California and in regular bouts with a deadly bug called the varroa mite since the 1980s. But those die-offs would at least produce bodies pathologists could study. Here, the bees had just disappeared. In the U.K., they called it Mary Celeste syndrome, after the merchant ship discovered off the Azores in 1872 with not a single passenger aboard. The bees hadn’t even scrawled CROATOAN in honey on the door on their way out of the hive.”

    ~

    Andrew Nette has a pair of interesting pieces on pulp you might be interested in. First, he writes about “the New Pulp” and a bit about Fifty Shades of Gray in “Fifty Shades of Pulp.” Then he writes about pulp and literacy and furthering social advancement in “Pulp and Circumstance.”  “Most people view pulp as either exploitative lowbrow culture or highly collectable retro artefact. Yet pulp has a secret history which Rabinowitz’s book uncovers. Her central thesis is that cheap, mass-produced pulp novels not only provided entertainment and cheap titillating thrills, but also brought modernism to the American people, democratising reading and, in the process, furthering culture and social enlightenment.”

    ~

    The Projection Booth interviews actor Ed Asner.

    ~

    Transcript from BAFTA’s tribute to director Johnnie To, “Johnnie To: A Life In Pictures.” It’s a great interview with To about his films and process. “Like when I made The Mission I didn’t have a script. It was 1999 and I didn’t have any money so we went to Taiwan and they gave us very little money to hurry up and make a film, so without any script we just started making it. And after 19 days we made the film.” (Thanks to the Heroic Sisterhood!)

    ~

    A gallery of sweet geeky art from Native American artist, Jeffrey Veregge. “My origins are not supernatural, nor have they been enhanced by radioactive spiders. I am simply a Native American artist and writer whose creative mantra in best summed up with a word from my tribe’s own language as: ‘taʔčaʔx̣ʷéʔtəŋ,’ which means ‘get into trouble.'”

    ~

    John Reppion continues his series on English magic and Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell. Next up, “Away With The Fairies.”

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: