It’s a Joan Aiken novel – what did you expect?

Smile of the Stranger

Nowadays everyone is a reviewer, but are they all on the same page?

Joan Aiken was lucky enough to be regularly reviewed in newspapers and book supplements as her books came out, but she would have been astonished to see the numbers of readers who now like to post and share their thoughts on book sites like Goodreads, or leave reviews on Amazon, and the wild variety of tastes and opinions they  seem to offer on their reading of the same novel!

It has to be said that Joan Aiken loved a good plot, and often got completely carried away  finding herself with many too many loose ends to tie up, let alone characters to dispose of in various ghoulish or gruesome ways…  Romance, it has to be said,  was not her forte; she believed her writing for children should have a positive outcome, and have, if not a classically happy ending, then at least one that offered hope to young readers who had followed heart in mouth the adventures of her heroes and heroines.

But with her adult novels, whether Gothic period adventure or modern murder mystery, the outcome was never predictable…and there wasn’t always a romantic outcome for these adult heroes and heroines. As one reviewer pointed out, ‘With Joan Aiken a good death can count as a happy ending.’ Heroines were as likely to come to grief as find a man, but they would have a lot of useful experience along the way…

Much seems to depend on the expectation of the reader, and here, often the cover design or publisher’s blurb can do more harm than good. When Joan Aiken’s novels appeared in their garish 1970’s ‘airport’ paperback covers they often showed scenes wildly removed from their actual content – girls ran from castles in their nighties while brooding villains looked on, when the girl in the novel in question was in fact described as a duffel-coat and jeans wearing gap toothed urchin – a kind of grown up Dido Twite perhaps? These ‘Gothic Romance’ covers have now given rise to a whole genre in themselves, and have their own fascinating backstory!

But when novels are misrepresented in their presentation or description, then howls of rage and disappointment regularly pop up:

“It’s been marketed as a romance, which it isn’t. The “romance” in it is a one night stand followed by years of not communicating…”

Quite so, very sad.

But another reader of the same story finds that:

“Aiken’s gift was that she understood human nature, and here it is in all its glory, in this book. Every part of it. The relationships are real, and complicated, and untidy, like all relationships.”

Yet another finds:

“The characters were godless intellectuals trying to answer life’s great questions without the benefit of any useful tools.”

or alternatively that the novel offers:

“A psychological drama, love story, comedy, tragedy, cold war commentary, family drama, and is entirely brilliant and moving.”

So, Dear Reader, I share your rage and disappointment if you feel you were sold a pup, but if you want a thoughtful and slightly off beat view of the world, the benefit of Joan Aiken’s wide reading of all kinds of literary genres and wicked ear for dialogue, plus her generous dollops of years of interesting journeys and life experience, as opposed to a chocolate box full of make believe, then I would heartily recommend giving her a go.

But don’t blame her for the blurb, dip in – which you can now easily do online – and you might find that far from being: ‘a waste of time’  ‘with no shooting’ this one might turn out to be for you – ‘The loveliest book in the English Language!’

And I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t the one shown on the cover above…that one is wonderfully romantic!


Find some of Joan Aiken’s Period novels here

and intriguing ‘Modern’ mysteries here

Lots more coming to EBooks soon