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Travelling makes you stoop to new lows in a number of different ways – sleeping on corrugated iron, using toilet facilities that don't facilitate anything, or bitterly arguing over price differences that equate to a pittance, to name but three – but one of the things that really hurts is being forced to read trash. In countries where waiting is an essential part of travel – Africa being a prime example – it's important to have a good book to while away the hours, but if English isn't an official language of the country you're visiting, finding a book that you can actually read can be a real challenge.
The most obvious source of books in English is other travellers, but even then you have to bump into travellers whose primary language is English and who also happen to have a book they'd like to swap. Unfortunately this kind of exchange requires a bit of forward planning; to increase the chances of getting your hands on a decent tome, you need to carry two books – one to read and the other to swap – but they're so heavy most people only carry the one, so they'll only start looking for a trade once they've finished the book they're reading. This all conspires to reduce the English-language book trade to a trickle in French-speaking countries like Senegal and Mali.
You may be lucky enough to stumble across a hotel that has a collection of books left behind by other travellers, and if you're really lucky there may be one or two novels in English. I arrived in Bamako ready to part with Martin Amis' Money, which I'd got from Chris, and there, on the shelves of the mission catholique, I spotted the spine of a book in English. It was the first English book I'd seen since the Gambia, and I leaped at the chance. Out went Money and in came The Stanislaski Brothers by '#1 New York Times best-selling author' Nora Roberts.
Of course it was only later, when I pulled out my new book, that I realised I'd picked up a romance novel – or, to be accurate, two romance novels in one handy package. I read the blurb on the back and realised I was about to enter a world I'd hitherto only laughed at: 'Mikhail Stanislaski's work-hardened hands aren't what wealthy ice princess Sydney Hayward is accustomed to,' it warbled, 'till the classy beauty discovers this earthy stranger's rare talent for Luring a Lady...' I couldn't bring myself to read the blurb for the second book, Convincing Alex, but I noticed it contained the phrases 'headstrong Bess McNee' and 'sexy detective', which was enough for me.
It got better. The last few pages of the book were given over to a biography of Nora Roberts – according to the Los Angeles Daily News she is a 'word artist, painting her story and characters with vitality and verve', and 'with over 100 million copies of her books in print world-wide and 14 titles on the New York Times best-seller list in 1999 alone, [she] is truly a publishing phenomenon' – but the most entertaining part was the section selling other books available in the same series. Check out these synopses:
A struggling waitress discovers she is really a rich heiress, and must enter a powerful new world of wealth and privilege on the arm of a handsome stranger...
(Honor's Promise by Sharon Sala)
Ornery cowboy Faron Whitelaw is caught off-guard when breathtakingly beautiful Belinda Prescott proves to be more than a gold digger!
(The Cowboy and the Princess by Joan Johnston)
A beauty queen whose dreams have been dashed in a tragic twist of fate seeks shelter for her wounded spirit in the arms of a rough-edged cowboy...
(Always a Lady by Sharon Sala)
Fantastic stuff! I knew these kinds of books existed – Mills and Boon is a brand name that everyone has heard of, even if they haven't read any of them – but I didn't realise just how atrocious they were. I couldn't wait to get stuck into the book itself; I could already picture the hot-blooded Mikhail melting the heart of the ice princess Sydney, and I hadn't even got past the sales talk at the back of the book.
Feel the Romance!
The problem with me and romantic novels is that I'm not female, turning 40, overweight or single, which would appear to knock me out of the target audience for Nora Roberts' publishing phenomenon. To enjoy The Stanislaski Brothers requires one to drop all pretensions to literature, and to regress to pre-pubescent ideals of romanticism that bear little relation to reality. Bizarrely, I found this a rather easy state of mind to slip into in Africa, perhaps because playing the Waiting Game makes the brain go soggy enough round the edges to make practically anything entertaining. The Stanislaski Brothers is one of the worst books I've ever read, but I loved it, and I genuinely can't work out why.
I have a sneaking suspicion that I liked it because it was so bad, it was entertaining. I found myself folding down corners of pages that contained particularly corny lines, so I could turn back every now and then and have a good laugh. I came across wonderfully sweeping statements like this:
His hair flowed over the collar, so black, so untamed no woman alive could help but fantasize about letting her fingers dive in.
Marvellous! I love the delightfully patronising tone, and there's more, much more as things between Mikhail and Sydney start hotting up:
On an oath, he tore his mouth from hers and buried it against her throat... Whatever slippery grip he had on control, he clamped tight now, fighting to catch his breath and hold on to his sanity.
'Damn me to hell or take me to heaven,' he muttered. 'But do it now.'
But even the corniness of the entire theme behind the book – beautiful businesswoman is seduced by swarthy Ukrainian sculptor – pales into insignificance compared to the following four words, which Nora uses to paint a word story of the second time Mikhail and Sydney get it together in the bedroom. Here it is; it's sheer poetry:
He filled. She surrounded.
Isn't it fantastic? Any author who can make sex sound like a tree-planting ceremony is all right by me, so bless you Nora. I haven't enjoyed a book so much in ages...