Friday, October 24, 2008

The Volga Ruby . . .

. . . a novel by Peter Jobes

Peter Jobes is a software engineer who wrote this book in 27 days for National Novel Writing Month last year. I saw an introduction to the book on Violet's blog, and decided to buy it. That was a bit of an adventure in itself. Amazon (US) didn't have it listed. Amazon (UK) had it listed, but it was not available. I finally ordered a copy on LULU.

In 1907, James Fitzhugh, a British officer of the 13th Hussars, is serving with the British Ambassador in St. Petersburg at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. A treaty between Russia and Great Britain is being negotiated to offset the power of the Triple Alliance among Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. While visiting Natasha, the sister of a Russian schoolmate from his days at Eton, Futzhugh learns that Natasha's stepfather, Count Berovsky, appears to be in league with a group of discontents bent on revenge for the ill-fated 1905 Russian Revolution. How will an outsider, with little proof and no real authority, derail this intrigue? To find out, you have to read the book. No spoilers here.

The good: The book is a quick read. The setting is exotic, and the storyline is interesting - a version of the "stranger in a strange land" plot. The author cleverly sets up the story with a link to an event more than 200 years earlier, and neatly returns to that link at the end of the story with a resolution that I never saw coming.

The superimposition of fictional characters over a particularly historic time always makes a good story. This was a time of change, danger, and international intrigue over most of Europe. It's an excellent setting.

The not so good: Character development is spotty. When I read a book, my reading translates to a movie in my head. I can visualize people, places and events. I could see Fitzhugh and St. Petersburg in my "movie." The other characters just didn't show up. I couldn't form a picture.

The really not so good: Grammar, syntax, word usage and sentence construct.

Jobes has a disconcerting habit of stringing sentences, fragments and phrases together with comma after comma after comma - and not in a Faulkner-eske manner. I had to stop many, many times and re-read sentences just to understand the context.

Particularly distracting was the continuing use of statements like "Had the duel went much further . . ." That jarred me out of the storyline every time. I don't understand the splitting of compound words such as step father, guard rail, crew men, head ache. Is this common usage in the UK?

Finally, the language is a bit too modern for the era. Speech was much more formal in 1907. I doubt that high society at the time spoke in contractions - I've, he'd, you're. Can you imagine a Russion nobleman using a phrase like "Mother would likely lose it?"

Maybe I'm too picky, but I am a voracious reader. Errors and anomolies break my concentration like commercials on television. Jobes has talent. With character development and serious review by a good editor, The Volga Ruby could have been a great 400 page book. There was simply too much of a story to tell in 210 pages.

Historical notes:
Those of you who studied history or English literature in school should recognize the 13th Hussars from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem. Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward . . .

Also, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the original Boy Scout was a colonel in the 13th.