Serious Comedy and Extending Those Boundaries of Genre Fiction – ‘No Place Like Home’ by Anne R Allen


No Place Like Home

I was musing in an earlier post about the potential difficulties faced by authors who wish to extend the boundaries of genre fiction. While I thought it a good idea to bring these possible stumbling blocks out into the open, I’d like to stress that while they’re real enough, I’d be dismayed if I gave the impression that I thought that extending the possibilities of what can be gained from an apparently light, enjoyable read doesn’t often lead to an outstandingly worthwhile result, because from much that I’ve seen it does.

The attempt and the creativity alone surely make possibly lower sales than might have been gained from a purely market oriented work and some critical misunderstanding a price worth paying.

I think this is true especially of a work that strives to address serious social issues in the guise of fun. In fact, at the time that I was writing that post I was also reading just such a work.

Interestingly, this book, Anne R Allen’s ‘No Place Like Home’, is difficult for me to classify, so it’s a challenge to genre boundaries on that basis alone!  Probably if I’d ever worked in the trade I’d find it easier; it’s certainly a mystery and comedy, to some extent a spoof, and possibly might be that thing called ‘chick lit’. What it certainly is a book that makes you laugh while raising the issue of a serious social problem – homelessness.

This is done so smoothly and subtly that the reader never feels that s/he is being forced along into acknowledging this or that premise, or that the characters have been created solely to undergo these experiences or as mouthpieces for the author’s own views.

The story is in fact part of the Camilla Randall comic mystery series, although it can be read as a ‘stand alone’ novel. Camilla, the former US society girl and columnist fallen on hard times, is a fully developed character, taking her former ‘Manners Guru’ etiquette into the most incongruous settings, and bringing too her Phoenix like optimism about love, which has only been temporarily doused by her previous failed marriage and love affairs. Now poor Camilla has the threat of homelessness hanging over her head once again.  She’s experienced the real thing before, once being reduced to living in a sort of shanty town like shack in the warehouse of a printing and publishing firm in Lincolnshire, UK.

For the second woman who encounters the horrors of losing everything, Doria Sharkov, the fantastically rich editor of the Home decorating magazine, its a novel experience. Her husband’s sudden and mysterious death in a house fire reveals his financial chicanery and his treachery towards Doria herself and just about all their former friends. Suddenly, Doria is a fugitive wanted for murder, her assets frozen, penniless, jobless and with nowhere to stay. I was delighted by the resourcefulness which she demonstrates when faced with this series of disasters.

Another intriguing aspect of this book is that it’s written from a perspective I’ve never encountered before – in a dual combination of the first and third person I’ve come across dual first person narration – in fact, that’s what I’m using in the work-in-agonisingly-slow-progress – but never this approach. I found it worked surprisingly well. I soon got used to the novelty.

Written without a trace of sentimentality and an underlying tough realism that belies the wonderfully over-the-top nature of some of the characters – ie, our old friend Marvin otherwise known as ‘Mistress Nightshade’ the cross dressing domina – the humour in this is necessarily dark – it would be an insult to the homeless if it wasn’t – but there’s any number of laugh out loud lines in it. Here’s a few followed by my review.

‘If Doria had a guardian angel, he seemed to be sleeping on the job.’
‘Nobody understands the importance of being non-judgemental like people who sell high-end products.’
‘But I was not going to be taken in my adorable. I’d been there before. More than once.’
‘Now the FBI keeps files on what sort of handbags people carry? ‘One nation: under surveillance.’ That’s what Harry always used to say..”
‘Doria realized that she’d tried to get a free cigarette from a homeless person. Right after losing her best friend’s car. Things could have been going better.’

I liked a lot of things about this book, but maybe the thing I liked most was that it was written from a viewpoint I’ve never come across before – a combination of first and third.
This is the third in the ‘Camilla Randall’ series. The previous ones have always been written in the first person, but this one branches out. Startled at first, I found it a brilliant innovation.
The second thing I liked most about this book was that it’s comedy about a dark enough topic – homelessness – and it succeeds without ever descending into tasteless insensitivity, or tipping over into sentimentality.
Now I’ll get on my soapbox: homelessness in any affluent country is a disgrace (it’s a disgrace to everyone anywhere, but it’s worse in countries where there is massive consumerism). It’s also a complex problem; sometimes the homeless have drink and drug problems; some have alarming problems with madness and/or violence; however, most homeless people are just unlucky, but often seen as a group of drunken, drug crazed layabouts: many are women, and they all tend to be ashamed of the stigma that hounds them.
All right, sermon over; now on to more about this book, which deals with all of the issues I’ve mentioned above with a consummate ease that never grates or labours the point.
There are two female leads in this book. The first, Camilla Randall, the former debutante and society columnist who, partly due to the machinations of her ex husband and her late mother’s unlucky sixth marriage, has fallen on hard times, followers of the series will know from before. The second, Doria Sharkov is a super rich owner/editor of a home decorating magazine whose husband’s financial chicanery is suddenly revealed by his sudden death as their luxurious home is razed. Suddenly Doria is on the run, wanted for murder.
It all begins for Camilla when she finds herself attracted to a visitor who starts using her bookshop, one Ronzo, or Ronson V Zolek. Wiry, fair haired, incongruous in a suit and ill matched tie, and involved with rock music, but touchingly concerned about the disappearance of the itinerant Tom the Tooth, he’s courteous and beguiling.
Camilla is even prepared to put aside her recent experience with a certain other fair-haired, winsomely charming man with rock connections (Peter Sherwood of Sherwood Ltd) and fall for Ronzo, as he seems so starry eyed about her. Still, he’s far too enigmatic for comfort; at times she’ s prepared to believe he’s a Mafiosa, though some say he works for a law firm…
There are the usual excellent supporting cast of vivid characters such as Marvin (whom followers of the series will have met before) the courageous but unscrupulous cross dresser, Camilla’s close friend Plantagenet Smith and his lover Silas. There’s also a whole new cast including the guitar playing, laid back Joe, who’s working to improve the lot of the people at his camp, who cadges five dollars from Doria and who reminds her of someone in her past.
I thought this was the best story in the series yet and recommend it.

‘No Place Like Home’ by Anne R Allen can be bought at

http://annerallen.blogspot.com/p/books-by-anne-r-allen.html

and on Amzon.com at

http://www.amazon.com/No-Place-Like-Home-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B00AHRWA0Y

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