Friday, February 27, 2009

In America, books are bad for you

I blogged a while back on the unsuspected hazards that might lurk in books, and the seemingly draconian regulations posted in library books in days of yore to deal with them.

Alas, it seems that the poor souls who drafted those regulations missed a trick: they did not consider the possibility that children's books might be actively dangerous in themselves, not just because of the dreadful germs they might have encountered. In America, any children's book published before 1985 is now considered an active menace to children, and may not be sold. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) is now in force, and has imposed very tight limits on the amount of lead any article bought for a child may contain. Books produced before 1985 may have had lead used in their printing inks, and hence the prohibition. Note the may there - some have lead, some haven't, so the law has helpfully produced a way round to stop you throwing away books you can actually sell. You pay for the book to be lead tested - and this is apparently not cheap.

There is an exemption for books which might be thought of as collectible, and so read by adults and not children, but all over America thrift stores and libraries are tarping off pre-1985 books, or throwing out the illicit child poisoners. If they don't, they risk a $100,000 dollar fine and maybe even imprisonment.

It seems absolutely mad, doesn't it? The nanny state gone completely stark, raving bonkers. The CPSIA was apparently sparked by the Chinese toy scandals: which I can entirely see - no one wants illegal lead in toys, but books? Surely you're more at risk from a vicious paper cut from a book than lead poisoning.

And if it's illegal to expose a child to lead in a pre-1985 book, I do wonder what this means for books people actually have in their houses now. Perhaps the children of bookdealers who work from home will be whisked off to safety until their homes can be de-contaminated.

So, here I sit, in what American legislators would probably consider a toxic fug, surrounded by piles of lethal literature. No wonder the dog's just insisted on going outside. Read more about the law here, here, and here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer is best know for her Regency romances where her combination of historical detail and witty characterisation won her many fans. She also wrote twelve detective stories; Footsteps in the Dark is the first of these.

Footsteps in the Dark is a very readable and enjoyable volume if you are Heyer fan or otherwise know what to expect. Three siblings inherit an old house, The Priory. Peter, Margaret and Celia together with Celia's barrister husband and an aunt move into the building with the idea of a long vacation. However, things don't go as planned. Things, instead, literally go bump in the night: monk-like ghosts flit around the garden and someone is found dead. Is the explanation supernatural or criminal? Well, no prizes for guessing.

If you start this book expecting cutting edge plot or gritty realism you'll be sorely disappointed. What we have here is escapism criminology. The plot is a little thin, so what keeps you reading, as always with Heyer, is the characterisation, the witty asides, the flashes of realism in relationships. The majority of the book is laden with every cliche from secret passages to bits reminiscent of Mrs Radcliffe's much parodied Mysteries of Udolpho. In fact, so busy with such fussy fancy is the plot that one almost expects Scooby and Shaggy to appear looking for a snack in the castle kitchens. Instead we have unflappable Aunt Lilian who bears a strong resemblance to some of Bertie Wooster's aunts.

This was Heyer's very first detective novel and it shows, but provided you are prepared for all the pseudo-medieval fixtures and fittings, it is still a great duvet read. By the time Heyer wrote her next crime work her husband was a barrister and her plots had improved. So, if you've read this and didn't like her work, do try another as it is not typical. I think my favourite is Detection Unlimited.

This review is crossed posted at the Georgette Heyer Challenge. You might also find the article Georgette Heyer - Queen of Mystery and Suspense by Margaret Rogers of Hessay Books interesting. It is one of the collector's guides listed in the bar on the left.

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