Monday, May 2, 2011

Grace Hammer by Sara Stockbridge

I had the privilege of attending a reading with the lovely Sara Stockbridge of her new book, Grace Hammer, while in a London bar the summer of last year. It was only when I Googled her after returning to the States did I discover how famous she is. Turns out she was a famed actress and fashion model, as well as the muse of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, and now she has “acclaimed author” to add to her resume.

Personally, though, I found Grace Hammer to be an entertaining but less than substantial read. While the mystery and suspense keep the pages turning, it lacks meat on its bones, as well as depth and dimension.

Grace Hammer takes place in the cutthroat underground of Victorian England, populated by bandits, harlots and conspirators. The title character and her four children make a living as thieves, picking the pockets of rich strangers. Grace is a plucky woman who is likened to a magpie, a bird with a fancy for shiny items that it robs from humans to store in its nest. While we’re expected to believe she is a seasoned and cunning thief, she has an implausible weakness for worthless men (hence her four children of different fathers), and despite the fact that she has a vengeful thug on her tail, makes no effort to conceal her identity around town, thereby making herself vulnerable. After one too many less than sensible endeavors, I gave up believing she was the female Sherlock Holmes.

If there’s one thing Grace’s children inherited for her, it’s their lack of dimension. Charlie is the eldest brother who dotes on his younger siblings. Billy and Jake are street-smart looters who know their way around London’s underground. Daisy is the innocent little blonde, blue-eyed girl who loves stuffed animals and pretty dresses. Incredibly, despite being lower-class and lacking education, they are healthy, handsome and well-read; in short, they are ideal, thereby as bland and soulless as Twilight vampires.

One can easily tell from Stockbridge’s writing style that she is a Charles Dickens fan, and she has his strengths as well as his weaknesses. While Dickens is an eloquent writer who never fails to entertain, his books are populated by stock characters, such as Oliver Twist, the quintessential innocent child, not unlike Daisy Hammer; and Fagin, the villainous thief who embodies a child’s nightmare, not unlike Stockbridge’s villains, the greedy Mr. Blunt and the witchlike Emmeline Spragg, who, judging from the descriptions, seems to bear a striking resemblance to Snow White’s evil stepmother in disguise.

Well, there you have her.

The most compelling thing about Grace Hammer is the writing style, which fluidly carries the web of deceit and betrayal woven around our vapid but nonetheless enjoyable heroine. The entertainment factor is not lacking, so I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a fun period piece, though ye be warned of an anticlimactic ending.

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