28 July 2007

Book Quizzes!

I stumbled across these two quizzes at Bookfoolery and Babble:

Which Author’s Fiction are You?

Flannery O'Connor wrote your book. Not much escapes your notice.
Take this quiz!

Interesting ... since I’ve never read anything by Flannery O’Connor and am the most absent-minded person I know!

You’re Alice's Adventures in Wonderland!
by Lewis Carroll
After stumbling down the wrong turn in life, you’ve had your mind opened to a number of strange and curious things. As life grows curiouser and curiouser, you have to ask yourself what’s real and what’s the picture of illusion. Little is coming to your aid in discerning fantasy from fact, but the line between them is so blurry that it’s starting not to matter. Be careful around rabbit holes and those who smile to much, and just avoid hat shops altogether.
Take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.

Hmm ... looks like I need to pay closer attention to the neighbourhood cats; if any grin at me I’ll start worrying!

The Blogging Tips Meme

I’ve been tagged twice - that I know of - for this meme, so thought I’d better dredge up some of my dubious blogging wisdom to share! Since I read Chris’s post first, I’ve used her list; I also got tagged by Wendy at Caribousmom.

-Start Copy-

It’s very simple. When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

Just think- if 10 people start this, the 10 people pass it onto another 10 people, you have 100 links already!

1. Look, read, and learn. **-http://www.neonscent.com/

2. Be EXCELLENT to each other. **-http://www.bushmackel.com/

3. Don’t let money change ya! *-http://www.therandomforest.info/

4. Always reply to your comments. ******-http://chattiekat.com/

5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. ***-http://chipsquips.com/

6. Don’t give up - persistence is fertile. **- http://www.velcro-city.co.uk/

7. Give link credit where credit is due. *****-http://www.sfsignal.com/

8. Pictures say a thousand words and can usually add to any post.**-http://scifichick.com/

9. Visit all the bloggers that leave comments for you – it’s nice to know who is reading! **-http://stephaniesbooks.blogspot.com/

10. Make a blogger template unique: change the background colour, or add a background picture to your header. *-http://chris-book-a-rama.blogspot.com/

11. Always check for typos. You never know when a spelling/grammar/punctuation fanatic - like me! - might be reading. -http://coversgirl.blogspot.com/

-End Copy-

My ten tagged people:

Booklogged at A Reader’s Journal
Dancin’ Fool at In the Pink
Danielle at A Work in Progress
Heather at The Library Ladder
Kirsten at Nose in a Book
Lesley at A Life in Books
Marg at ReadingAdventures
RhiGirl at Slipping in the Rain
Sarah at Book Buff in Oz
SarahintheSkyWith at Wannabe Inkling

Book Review: The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary Prudence (‘Tuppence’) Cowley and Tommy Beresford are two young friends down on their luck after the end of the Great War has left each of them out of a job. Signally failing to live up to her real name, Tuppence suggests the formation of Young Adventurers, Inc., and the placement of an ad offering themselves to go anywhere, do anything, for sufficient money and thrills. Afterward she gets only a few blocks from the cafe before being accosted by the mysterious Mr Whittington, who looks set to make her an offer she can’t refuse. But her choice of alias produces a most unusual effect; he becomes quite keen to buy her off and the next day, both he and his Esthonia Glassware Co. have vanished.

Tommy and Tuppence decide to switch their attention to learning more about the real Jane Finn, and why her name should so alarm Whittington. Their request for information receives two answers; one from Jane’s tycoon cousin Julius P. Hersheimmer, the other from the Intelligence man who calls himself Mr Carter. He hires the pair himself, in the hope that they might succeed where others failed. For there are revolutionaries at work in Britain, planning an overthrow of the government, and Carter suspects they will gain the support of the populace by producing a draft treaty made during the war - a treaty that, although scrapped, will make the government look very bad indeed. The sole copy was to have been brought to England aboard the Lusitania; and it was thought that, as the ship was sinking, it was passed to Jane by the courier in the belief that a woman would have a better chance of reaching shore. That assumption proved correct; but as soon as she reached England Jane vanished, and the treaty with her. Aided by Julius, and by Sir James Peel Edgerton, K.C., the Young Adventurers plunge headlong into all the excitement - and more than the danger - they dreamed of.

Tommy and Tuppence are among my favourite Christie creations, and it was fun to return to their first appearance (and that of the faithful Albert). It worked quite well as a re-read, although I did remember what had become of Jane Finn and I made an early deduction as to the identity of the seemingly invisible Mr. Brown. Or perhaps it was more of a recollection; there was more than one candidate for the rôle of leader of the revolutionaries, and the (first-time) reader gets neatly suspended between the two; there’s clues against each. And my brain can’t be that brilliant because I overlooked the full significance of the piece of evidence which clinched it.

The two amateur detectives work well together, with Tuppence providing energy (though not as much as the perpetually hustling Julius) and flashes of ingenuity, and Tommy the solid common sense. There were several other characters I liked a lot, but I can’t really say who without spoilers. The villains were plausible and the good guys and bad guys took turns outsmarting each other; they were well-matched. But there was one aspect I was somewhat ambivalent about: the precise nature of the treaty is kept vague. It’s something that would have been advantageous five years ago, but would now turn popular sentiment against its makers ... and that’s really all you find out. This approach meant no belief-stretching scenarios - you get to imagine what you like - but it does make it a little hard to see the urgency that it creates.

Rating: B+

26 July 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Best Moustache-Twirling

Who’s the worst fictional villain you can think of? As in, the one you hate the most, find the most evil, are happiest to see defeated? Not the cardboard, two-dimensional variety, but the most deliciously-written, most entertaining, best villain? Not necessarily the most “evil,” so much as the best-conceived on the part of the author…oh, you know what I mean!
Oooh ... I really wish The Silence of the Lambs wasn’t still buried in my TBR box – Hannibal’d be a shoo-in!

Of the books that I have actually read, the first bad guy that springs to mind is Captain Jonathan Randall from Diana Gabaldon’s Cross Stitch. He really does make your skin crawl, all the more so because his twisted mind is hidden behind a charming and seemingly sane façade. I have got to get around to reading the rest of the series, in the hopes of seeing him meet a sticky and well-deserved end.

Other good villains (okay, it’s an oxymoron, but you know what I mean) that spring to mind are Gilbert Osmond from Portrait of a Lady and Sir Percival Glyde from The Woman in White. The former is a cold man who crushes Isobel and Pansy’s chances of happiness; while the latter will do almost anything to hide his usurpation of another’s inheritance.

And if you’re talking villains in the plural, Pale Moon Rider by Marsha Canham features a wonderfully evil triumvirate. Each despises the others, but can’t cut them loose because the others know where the bodies are buried - in one case, literally. And neither has any compunction about using the heroine and her little brother to further their schemes.

Next month I’ll dig into my TBR box and meet Hannibal....

22 July 2007

The Post-Mystery Mysteries and Sundry Other News

I got through quite a few books over the holidays, and a lot of those were mysteries. And they raised some interesting questions. Not just who and how and why but: how do you review a mystery without revealing anything crucial to the plot? And should series of mystery novels which aren’t really sequential be shelved in alphabetical or chronological order? The latter question is largely inconsequential, but solving the first was hard. When a mystery only has 200-odd pages, there’s not a lot you can say without hinting at the identity of the corpse/s or the killer, or contributing to the process of elimination by mentioning characters in such a way as to show that they’re not the corpse or the killer. But it does make for an interesting writing challenge.

For the most part, these holidays have exemplified a saying I came across in a book recently and now can’t remember where: “If not for bad luck, she’d have no luck at all”. It really hasn’t been my fortnight-and-a-half. (Though it could have been worse; that stubborn cold could have struck during exams.) I’ve managed to hit a personal best - er, worst - in library fines and now owe the BCC $7.80; and am now crossing my fingers that they’ll have another amnesty where fines are waived in exchange for a can of food to donate to charity. It started on the day I had planned to take The Looking-Glass Wars back. My mother and I decided to hit Toowong together, and on reaching the station were told by the stationmaster that he had no idea when the next inbound train would be arriving or how far it would go when it did. Apparently - and unbelievably - a construction worker further up the line had dropped a piece of concrete onto the overhead wires. So we were obliged to retreat and try again the next day (when the train was on time but occupied by a loudly and volubly whingeing Pom). Also apparently and unbelievably, I assumed either that The Blue Room and Skylight Confessions weren’t due back that day, or they’d been renewed. BIG mistake; they were, and they hadn’t. But by the time I realised this I was laid up with the aforementioned cold and not up to doing anything more strenuous than turning the next page. When I finally did manage to make the trip to the city, I walked to the station to get the nine-thirty train and ended up turning round and walking straight back home. It is never a good sign when you see a train stopped across the level crossing and all three emergency services in attendance. I felt sorry for the passengers who were stranded in the suburban middle of nowhere for an hour and a half, and sorrier for the train driver and the people who had to clean up the mess. I did manage to get to the city - and for free - when the couple of ancient charter buses finally departed at ten-thirty, and then spent the return journey being plagued with questions about the morning’s incident by a pair of brats. Almost worth it, though, to give their harried father forty minutes of peace. But judging by yesterday’s expedition to the Gold Coast, the public transport hoodoo is over. I actually managed to get a seat on the so-called ‘Bombay Express’; a proper seat, too, not the luggage rack like last time. And the bus back to the station showed up early for perhaps the first time ever.

Even without Queensland Rail, winter holidays aren’t fun because they always bring a birthday with them. I’m not a fan of birthdays; just another reminder of how much time has passed in which I’ve achieved precisely zero. Plus the realisation of just how few people have remembered. I’m trying to look on the bright side: not getting a card from my grandmother means not having to look at proof that in twenty-three years she still hasn’t bothered learning to spell my name. I did, to my delight, discover that I am predictable enough to receive the latest Stephanie Plum; by the time my mother and I had both read it the house had heard more laughter in three days that it normally would in three weeks.

Now on to the good news. All the wishes of good luck I received before my exams must have worked, because I got straight High Distinctions, with my lowest mark 88% and my highest a whopping 99%. (Don’t ask me how I pulled that one off, because I have absolutely no idea.) And I am at last noticing an appreciable dent in the level of books in my TBR box.

My first class is tomorrow morning, so I’ve come up with a little wish list for the semester:

- Another set of straight HDs.
- Graduation in an academic gown that doesn’t make me look like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. (Mental note to self: go to Lincraft and get some double-sided tape.)
- A job at the end of it. And not one of the killing-time-behind-the-checkout-at-Woolies variety.
- No more overdue books!
- Complete and utter ignorance of all things related to the seventh Harry Potter.
- Library availability of the first Harry Potter.
- No more near-freezing nights; at least not before the mornings when I have to catch a train at quarter to seven.
- No breakdowns, suicides, accidents or power outages on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday mornings or Thursday afternoons. (Delays on the way home I can live with.)
- Punctual completion of all reading challenge books, a perenially up-to-date blog, and an (almost) empty TBR box. Well, empty until the next Bookfest, that is.
I’d better get busy reading Swift, or that last will be shot in a week!

Book Review: The Queen's Man by Sharon Penman

The Queen’s Man After a fight with his adoptive father (actually his biological father, but he forgot to mention that bit) Justin de Quincey storms out of Chester and decides to seek his fortune in London. En route, he saves a groom from likely death at the hands of the bandits who stabbed his master. With his last words, Gervase FitzRandolph entrusts to Justin a letter for the queen concerning the fate of her missing son, King Richard. After reading the letter, Eleanor is left in a quandary. For FitzRandolph to have been the victim of random violence would be one thing, assassination another. And words which Justin overheard on the Alresford Road suggest a targeted killing by men in search of the letter. The moves she should make to keep her other son, John, from gaining power will depend on whether or not this was the case, and she employs Justin to find out.

Although he is young, and clueless as to the ways of investigating murder, Justin is in need of money and agrees. He travels to Winchester and discovers plenty of people with motive - starting with the dead man’s family. Unable to draw any satisfactory conclusions, he turns his attention to the killers, and with the help of under-sheriff Luke de Marston takes the search to London. Ensconced in down-at-heel Gracechurch Street, the two men match wits with a ruthless villain who believes in knifing first and asking questions later, while Justin tries to untangle the web of Court allegiances to work out who is the spy that John has set to watch him. And somewhere out there is the person who ordered the murder.

I really wanted to like this book. And after a slow start, I eventually did - mostly. It worked best when the investigation was in full flight and there were plenty of other characters around; they helped to detract from the fact that the main character was less interesting than the secondary ones. I particularly liked Luke, and wily London tavern manager Nell, who helped snare the bad guys. The historical setting was well-described, and it was easy to forget that a politically-sensitive crime was being investigated by someone only a couple of years older than Nancy Drew. (Well, it was the Middle Ages.) His attempts to rid himself of the aptly-named Shadow, a puppy who decides to adopt him, provide some humorous touches. And when the action gets going, the pages turn very easily. But at the end things took a bit of a nose-dive, when the solution to the mystery arrived from out of left field. Or so it seemed at first; on reflection I could see how it had been set up. But it still was not at all what I had expected, and not really in a good way. Denouements should make you think ‘Aha!’, not ‘Huh?’. And perhaps I’m flattering my abilities a bit too much here, but I couldn’t escape the thought that had a certain gap in my general knowledge not existed - or if I had gone to the reference books in the first place instead of leaving it to the end, the ending might actually have been obvious. If I’m going to read any more in this series, I’m going to want to see some favourite characters reappearing; it worked much better as a historical novel than as a mystery.

Rating: C+ (unless you decide to view it simply as a historical, in which case B-)

Book Review: Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich

Lean Mean Thirteen Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is running out of cash and in desperate need of some bail-jumpers. Unfortunately the current crop are all low-end and the biggest disappearance in Trenton is that of her ex-husband Dickie Orr. He’s not much of a loss, but he left a pool of blood behind shortly after a bunch of his colleagues witnessed Steph trying to throttle him. All in a good cause, of course; the ever-mysterious Ranger asked her to plant a bug on Dickie, and she discovered that he was back with her arch-nemesis Joyce Barnhardt. So now she’s prime suspect in Dickie’s presumed murder, hunting a grave robber and a crazed taxidermist, and trying to find out what really happened to Dickie - and why Ranger’s investigating his law firm. Poking around in the business of the kind of people Dickie’s gotten himself mixed up with is not without danger, and soon Steph’s finding crispy-fried corpses scattered about town. Meanwhile she and bounty-hunting sidekick Lula are dealing with an infuriated Joyce and the usual string of disasters; if they’re not detonating roadkill, they’re blowing up a house packed to the rafters with dope. Grandma Mazur manages to turn up some even more unsuitable boyfriends. And when Stephanie finds out which witness Morelli has squirrelled away, she’s not going to be happy.

I had started to wonder how long the series could be kept going, and after this return to form I hope it’s a good while longer. There’s so much to laugh at: the dope house blast that makes the Burg the most popular place in Jersey, the exploding wildlife, Grandma’s antics, a creative new use for a staple gun, and a bruised and battered crook who will no doubt forever rue the day he met Stephanie. But best of all is the surprise she and Lula arrange for Joyce; it’s simply hilarious and still makes me grin to think of it. Dickie proves just how obnoxious he can be, and it’s really no surprise Stephanie was so quick to get rid of him. The bail jumpers manage to be sympathetic characters and Dave the goon almost pulls off the same feat - almost. But then, it would be hard not to feel at least a tiny bit sorry for him after all the damage he sustains ... and where he sustains it. Lula provides and much comedy and attitude as ever, and you finally discover Tank’s real name; it’s easy to see why he prefers Tank. Investigating Dickie made for an interesting take on the regular formula (and I use the word ‘formula’ in the best possible way) but Connie made little more than a token appearance and sleazy cousin Vinnie was MIA. Nevertheless. a wonderfully funny installment that doesn’t let 13 live up to its unlucky reputation.

Rating: B+

20 July 2007

Book Review: Purr-fect Crime (Anthology)

Purr-fect Crime Cats and mysteries go hand-in-hand (or should that be paw-in-paw?) in this collection of fourteen tales. Both the felines and the stories vary widely. Vengeful cats, missing or murdered cats, cats peripheral to the story, even robotic and metaphorical cats and a cat that turns out not to exist. There’s traditional whodunits; horror and science-fiction; stories humorous and serious and seriously eerie. Best of all, there’s a Dorothy L Sayers that I fervently wished I could have thought of myself. If you love cats or mysteries - and especially if you love both - this is an entertaining read.

Anthologies can be dicey, and after finishing this one I realised that it’s actually the only one I own. Of course, a book bought for fifty cents at a Bookfest isn’t much of a risk; but even had the rest been duds it would have been worth reading for the Sayers alone. I went back and read The Cyprian Cat again after finishing the book and enjoyed spotting all the hints that now seemed obvious, but which I had completely overlooked the first time because the twist was so unexpected that I hadn’t thought to notice them. (It holds up well on a re-read; knowing what’s coming, you can sit back and admire the mastery of it.) Okay, enough rhapsodising. What about the rest? There really is something for everyone, whether you like the chills of Stoker and Poe or the cleverness of Ellery Queen. Some stories are better than others, but it’s still a good read with which to make like a cat and curl up in a sunny window.

Rating: B

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

A Man Lay Dead Journalist Nigel Bathgate is thrilled to receive an invitation to accompany his cousin Charles to Frantock. Sir Hubert Handesley is famous for his house-parties, and this one is about to prove more notable than most. To amuse his guests, the host has created a variation on the Murder Game: during the hours set, someone chosen at random by his butler will quietly select a ‘victim’ who will play dead while the gong is rung and the lights put out. After all but the ‘killer’ have frozen for two minutes, the lights will go up and the guests will attempt to determine the identity of the murderer. The gong rings, the lights go out, and two minutes later the occupants of Frantock discover a very real corpse. Someone has used the Murder Game as a cover to commit murder for real, and it will take real detective to figure out who.

I had hoped that this would be the time that I would succeed in solving the mystery first. But ... no. Although I’m going to blame that on a misapprehension as to the geography of the house, rather than any lack of deductive ability. (And I’m going to conveniently ignore the dozen-odd other times I’ve failed to beat Inspector Alleyn to the answer.) Even if I had identified the murderer, the precise method was something I would never have dreamed of - highly ingenious. I later learned that this was Marsh’s first novel, and it does show; the plot runs off on a tangent and takes a while to get back to the solving of the mystery. But in spite of the detour, it’s still worth a look.

Rating: B-

Booking Through Thursday: Just Wild About Harry

1. Okay, love him or loathe him, you’ have to live under a rock not to know that J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows comes out on Saturday… Are you going to read it?

2. If so, right away? Or just, you know, eventually, when you get around to it? Are you attending any of the midnight parties?

3. If you’re not going to read it, why not?

4.And, for the record… what do you think? Will Harry survive the series? What are you most looking forward to?

1. Definitely!

2. Probably not for ages! I’ve only read the first four books in the series, so I’ll have to catch up before getting to number 7. I want to go back through the series from the beginning, but haven’t yet been at the library on a day when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has actually been on shelf at a branch I can get to. Though I believe my stash of loose change would cover the charges for putting holds on them . . . This is the problem with moving interstate; I can no longer borrow the books from my friend’s little brother! And since I get my books from libraries rather than shops, there will be no parties for me (and definitely not any of the midnight variety; the launch here is at a much more civilised hour!)

3. N/A.

4. I hope that Harry will survive, and crush Voldemort into non-existence in the process. I’m not sure who’ll be killed off, but I really hope it’s not Ron or Hermione – I’d love to see them end up together. Perhaps it will be one of the Hogwarts staff ... speaking of which, I’m looking forward to finding out whether Snape is one of the good guys, like I think.

It’s a shame that I didn’t think to organise my reading and go back through the series before the release of the final installment, because I just know that however hard I try to avoid finding out what happens, I’ll overhear something that will give it away. I’m trying to cheer myself up by reflecting that I found out that Bruce Willis’s character was dead before I saw The Sixth Sense and still loved it, so maybe it won’t be completely spoiled....

17 July 2007

Book Review: Last Seen Wearing by Colin Dexter

Last Seen Wearing The first death is an accident. But DI Ainley’s getting rear-ended by a Jaguar brings attention back to the case of missing schoolgirl Valerie Taylor. He had gone back to it in his spare time, which the superintendent considers sufficient ground for keeping the case open and handing it on to Morse and Lewis. The latter is convinced that she simply got fed up with Kidlington and ran off to the bright lights of London, but Morse is equally certain she’s dead. Running a murder enquiry without a body proves tricky, producing a wealth of possibilities but not much proof. Though before long they do have a corpse on their hands - just not the one they’re looking for. Between them Morse and Lewis come with one theory after another concerning Valerie’s disappearance and/or murder, and its connection to the more recent death. All are supported by the evidence, yet all are proved wrong. Or is one of them right after all?

I tried. I really tried to work out who the murderer was and what happened to Valerie. But I think that even had my brain not been addled by a stubborn cold I couldn’t have beaten Morse to the solution of this one. Make that solutions; they were all beyond me. But then, I wouldn’t enjoy reading these books so much if they were easy to solve. And reading them, you have to admire the ingenuity of the author as much as that of the characters. Morse is one of my favourite literary grouches, and I had to laugh at the scene where, having read Lewis’s carefully-considered hypothesis, he proceeded to correct the spelling, grammar, and punctuation. A pedant after my own heart; and he shares my horror of spiders, too. But as much as I enjoyed the book, I still got seriously annoyed when Dexter produced one of my pet peeves: untranslated French. Luckily, I recognised enough words to get the gist of most of it, so I didn’t have to go running to the dictionary I keep for such times.

Rating: B+

Book Review: Skylight Confessions by Alice Hoffman

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #17

Skylight Confessions On the night Arlyn Singer’s father dies, she decides that her destiny is about to arrive. And it does, in the form of a lost architecture student. John Moody’s attempts to abandon Arlyn fail, and he finds himself married to her and living in the house of glass designed by his father. Instead of the ideal futures each had imagined, they are left with unhappiness and infidelity, and eventually death. Years later, Meredith Weiss follows Arlyn’s ghost to a house falling into chaos. She is swiftly hired as nanny to well-behaved Blanca and rebellious Sam, who gets all the blame for such events as broken dishes and trails of ash. The Glass Slipper saw the end of Arlyn’s dreams, but it proves to be the key to Meredith’s. Once she has gone, Sam and Blanca also make their escapes, one more successfully than the other, until another death draws the remnants of the scattered family back together.

I’m not quite sure how to describe this book. On the one hand, I wound up skimming swiftly through it just to get it done. On the other, I suspect that some parts of it - particularly Meredith and the magical strand of pearls - will stick in my memory for many books to come. I liked Meredith best of all the characters, probably because I related to her most: someone whose dreams have gone down the drain and who has chosen to divorce herself from the society of others. And the pearls - shifting colour to reflect the nature of the wearer - added a nice touch of magic. But otherwise the charm soon wore off. Something about the writing style that I couldn’t quite put my finger on created an air of detachment, so that I never felt close to any of the other characters. While I liked the book’s theory that ghosts can become attached to a time or a person rather than a place was interesting, I didn’t think much of its other theory: that trails of ash are a sure indication of a haunting. In all the tales of the supernatural I’ve read I’ve never come across that one and I’m tempted to believe Hoffman pulled it out of thin air. And I was irked by the repeated references to Arlyn’s belief in her father’s tales of a race of people in Connecticut who had wings, but who only showed them at the very last moment, in order to escape certain disaster. I know her father died when she was still quite young, but surely by seventeen she should have realised that he was telling tall tales? While Meredith was around it was reasonably interesting, but otherwise it was just an easy way to pass the time.

Rating: C

Book Review: The Blue Room by Georges Simenon

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #16

The Blue Room Tony Falcone’s latest affair has not turned out as he planned. Instead of continuing his regular visits to Triant, and to the blue bedroom in his brother’s hotel, he is in a jail cell. His visits are now made to lawyers and judges, who question him and slowly extract from him the details of his relationship with Andree Despierres. In this way the story progresses from the first chance meeting to the events which led to his arrest, until finally in the courtroom the truth is revealed with one last twist.

Why, oh why have I not discovered Georges Simenon before? This was a very clever novel, where the mystery was as much what happened? as whodunit?. Actually, more; for the identity of the murderer/s (no spoilers!) became clear without the need for any detective work. All that had to happen was for Tony to tell his story. It was nice to have the opportunity to read a crime novel from somewhere other than America or Britain, but I could have wished for it to be longer. At just 138 pages it was really only novella length, though the final twist made it feel more like a very long short story. Still, I’m glad I’ve expanded my reading a little more, and this is another author I’ll read more of.

Rating: B

12 July 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Celluloid

1. In your opinion, what is the best translation of a book to a movie?

2. The worst?

3. Had you read the book before seeing the movie, and did that make a difference?

1. This is a little tricky to answer, as my movie-watching is hopelessly out of date; I haven’t seen anything released in about the last two and a half years. But before that time: Harry Potter is always fun. The Lord of the Rings films are great; they finally induced me to read the books and they have some great-looking ... scenery. There’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Snow Falling on Cedars, probably several more that I’m overlooking, and any mini-series made under the aegis of the BBC.

2. A few months ago I saw an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery, where the entire ending was changed, including the motive and the identity of the killer - an unforgivable crime against literature. The Haunting of Hill House was barely recognisable. And I could perhaps toss Troy onto the list for the sheer awfulness of Brad Pitt.

3. That depends on the quality of the movie. If it’s a really good adaptation it probably doesn’t matter if you’ve read the book first. But a less faithful translation, and I prefer to read the book after. Seeing any book, especially a favourite, butchered on screen is never fun; but somehow reading the book after and seeing the changes in hindsight is easier. This can make me wary of adaptations; for instance, I’m set against ever watching the film version of Possession because I’m convinced it could never measure up to the book. What I like best is to see a really good adaptation of a book I’ve never read, one that will prompt me to go enthusiastically in search of the book/s in question. Although that does often leave me mentally kicking myself for not having read the author in question sooner!

Book Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula Newly-minted solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent by his employer to Transylvania to conclude some house-purchasing business with a foreign nobleman. Count Dracula seems like an ideal host: welcoming, hospitable, and genuinely interested in everything his guest can tell him about England; but he gives Jonathan the creeps. He never eats, drinks, or appears by daylight; he has neither mirrors nor servants; he delivers strange warnings and has a peculiar reaction to the sight of blood.... Soon Jonathan realises that he’s literally imprisoned in a nightmare from which his only escape could well be death - if not at the hands (or teeth) of Dracula, then at those of the castle’s other residents.

In Whitby, Mina Murray is becoming increasingly worried. Her fiancé is missing somewhere in Eastern Europe, and her friend Lucy Westenra is behaving oddly. From bubbling over with news of receiving three proposals in one day and of her impending wedding, she has become vaguely anxious and has resumed her childhood habit of sleepwalking. Things get worse after a violent storm and the accompanying arrival of a Russian ship occupied only by a large dog and a dead captain. The dog disappears, and soon so does Lucy, whom Mina discovers in the churchyard across the bay with a tall dark figure bending over her.... After this latest sleepwalking misadventure, Lucy goes into a decline. Her rejected suitor Dr John Seward - director of a lunatic asylum which contains a most unusual patient - sends for his old mentor. Van Helsing diagnoses the problem at once, but fate seems to be against his efforts to save Lucy from death - or from something worse.

By the time Mina has retrieved Jonathan from Buda-Pesth and settled into life as Mrs Harker, Van Helsing has recognised the extent of the threat facing the capital and its ‘teeming millions’. He recruits the Harkers and the three friends who all loved Lucy to help him rid the world of the monster. But Dracula is cunning; he attacks his hunters in a way they never expected and flees the country and it will take a dash across Europe in the face of mortal and spiritual peril to stop him.

Last summer I discovered how fun it can be to amuse myself and freak out my mother by reading ghost stories during power outages; and I originally intended to save Dracula for the same purpose if I didn’t get round to reading it during the Banned Book Challenge. But the temptation was too much to resist and I’m glad I caved; reading this by lantern-light in a dark and silent house would have been altogether too atmospheric. There were several moments where, had the story been on the screen and not the page, I would have been peeking through my fingers. (Which is a completely nonsensical reaction, but I do it anyway.) The chilling effect is heightened by the novel’s being composed of journals, letters, newspaper articles, telegrams, and one very eerie ship’s log. Since the only person who really knows what’s going on - Van Helsing - is operating on a need-to-know basis, the other narrators, and hence the reader, remain largely in the dark as to what’s coming next and just what Dracula is capable of. Previous vampire experience is unlikely to help, as Stoker’s creations are different things from the Undead of Anne Rice, Laurell K Hamilton, or Joss Whedon. Having read or watched all three, part of the fun came from comparing the abilities and characteristics of the various vamps. I don’t want to give anything away, but at least one common vampire preconception will fall. There are some quite gruesome moments, too; you don’t want to discover, like I did, exactly what the lunatic Renfield was up to while eating dinner. It was enough to put a damper on even my appetite.

There are a couple of other small flaws. You never find out just how Jonathan managed to get from Castle Dracula to the nearby town of Bistritz; I can only assume that Dracula decided to keep his word. And you do need to accept a hefty string of coincidences: Dracula’s first target on reaching England just happens to be the friend of the fianceé of the poor bloke he just terrified half out of his wits, and her three suitors are all friends, one of whom just happens to live next door to Dracula’s London home and be acquainted with Van Helsing, one of the presumably very few people who could realise what was going on. But by the time this arises, you’re already some distance into the novel and Jonathan’s journal has gotten you hooked. That’s another way in which the alternating first-person viewpoints are so effective; they put you right inside the minds of characters who are having a harrowing time of it. My favourite of all was Mina; from her first appearance it was clear that she was eminently capable, yet being a Victorian novel I expected that the men would find a way to set her aside out of harm’s way and face Dracula without her. And sure enough, they did - then quickly realised what a mistake they’d made. Good thing, too, as it was her intelligence that enabled them to find Dracula at all. She was there to the end, revolver in hand, and showed enormous courage to get there; and she’ll remain one of my favourite characters and this one of my favourite books - an absolutely fangtastic read!

Rating: A

05 July 2007

Book Review: Was Australia Charted Before 1606? The Jave la Grande inscriptions by William A. R. Richardson

Non-Fiction 5 Challenge #2

Was Australia Charted Before 1606? The year 1606 saw the first recorded landing of Europeans on Australian soil with the arrival of the Dutch ship Duyfken. Claims have abounded of other, earlier discoveries by Spanish, Portuguese, or even Chinese ships. These theories have been bolstered by mediaeval maps which show a large southern landmass; and in particular the ‘Dieppe’ maps, whose southern continent is labelled Jave la Grande. And part of Jave la Grande’s east coast looks rather like a misplaced, stretched-out Queensland.

Setting out in hopes of confirming claims of a pre-1606 discovery of Australia, Richardson wound up declaring just the opposite. This book lays out his case for claiming that Jave la Grande is nothing more than a combination of hypothetical coastline plus a few real ones drawn on the wrong scale in the wrong place. The basis for this new theory is an inspection of the inscriptions dotted along the coastline of the southern landmass.

Richardson might not have any time for the theories of Gavin Menzies, but he could have taken a few leaves out of Menzies’s book in terms of style and readability. The first several chapters were hard going. They outlined some of the history of cartography and explained how a southern continent came to be posited then replicated through the centuries; and the profusion of names of explorers, cartographers, maps and landmasses, and of map inscriptions (mostly in mediaeval Portuguese which I had only half an idea how to pronounce) meant that I understood merely the gist of what he was saying. I was also frustrated by the fact that, when dismissing some previous work on the grounds of that historian’s errors involving loxodromes, Richardson never bothered to define ‘loxodrome’. It took some poking through the dictionary to discover that loxodromes are rhumb lines and rhumb lines are those straight lines that crisscross all over old maps. It got easier once he got onto the subject of place-names (toponymy), and the most interesting chapter was the one detailing how place-names can be altered by errors of transcription and translation, such as Canada’s cap d’esoir (Cape of Hope), which was Anglicised by the Brits to Cape Despair!

When the evidence was laid out, I could believe that Jave la Grande’s west coast could be a misplaced, mis-scaled outline of part of Java’s coastline. But the claims that the east coast are a similarly misused map of Vietnam were harder to swallow. I could sort of see the resemblance between the two; but then, I could sort of see the resemblance to Queensland too. And after critcising other historians for working off false assumptions, Richardson proceeded to deduce the original inscriptions by making assumptions about the most likely errors. He could, of course, be right; but this is more probability than actual proof. I have to award full marks for creativity, though, to his claim that the untraceable inscriptions on a couple of islands off Jave la Grande were arrived at by a cartographer misreading a source map while it was upside down.

Rating: C-

Book Review: Blood and Gold by Anne Rice

2007 TBR Challenge #6

Blood and Gold After many decades asleep beneath the ice, the Norse vampire Thorne makes a return to civilisation, where he is taken in by another blood drinker. Eager for the sound of another voice, he encourages Marius to tell his story. And Marius obliges. Beginning in the early days of his immortal life, his tale travels from the heyday of Ancient Rome to Constantinople to Mediaeval Venice and Dresden. Companions come and go, but two things remain constant. One is his enmity with the cult of Satanic vampires who become known as the Children of Darkness. The other is his search for Pandora, the woman he loves and whom he abandoned at Antioch after and argument. In the hope of finding her, he establishes communication with a member of the Talamasca, an organisation so old its origins have been forgotten and which collects information about all things preternatural. He shares much with them in return, but never mentions the secret that he has kept from as many as he can through the centuries: he is the caretaker of Those Who Must Be Kept, the most ancient vampires of them all.

How much you get out of this book will probably depend on which other books in the series you’ve read. A lot of the backstory is filled in, but not all, so it would help to have read at least the first three of the Vampire Chronicles, particularly since Marius stops his tale at the late eighteenth century, around the time that Interview with the Vampire begins. He also started it after he became a vampire; I was disappointed to see that there was no depiction of his mortal life. But I think there was one in another book (though I can’t remember which) and I guess it would be quite a challenge to cram two thousand years into less than 500 pages. Having read Pandora I was pleased to see information in here about a period she, telling her tale, largely skipped over; I wish there was more to read about her travels through India and Europe. But I think I would have appreciated Blood and Gold more if I hadn’t read The Vampire Armand. A good portion of the book - about one-sixth, though it felt like more - just rehashed part of the same ground from a different viewpoint. I found myself wishing that Marius would hurry it along and get to something new. When he did I finally got to discover how Bianca became a vampire, but I’m not sure whether that was a good thing or not. Afterward she became very clingy and dependent; yet as a mortal , while controlled by her relatives and forced to do their dirty work under threat of her life, she had carried out their orders without flinching. It seemed strange that a process which left her physically so much stronger should also make her so much weaker.

By times interesting and frustrating, this book was useful for satisfying points of curiosity but not a great deal more.

Rating: C

02 July 2007

It's Meme Time Again!

Nylusmilk over at The Literary Pursuit tagged me for this; good timing, too, since I’ve been meaning to count up my books and ended up with rather more time on my hands today than I expected.

1. Total Number of Books I Own: Not including textbooks, 328. Although depending on how you define ‘book’, that could be a slight understatement. If you count multiple titles in a single volume as more than one, it’s actually 337. The total includes 65 that are TBR, 51 that have overflowed into the spare room, and 52 scattered about my bedroom. I really should spring-clean. Maybe in spring....

2. Last Book I Bought: Fearless by Julia Holden for the Non-Fiction 5 Challenge, and Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper by Peter Hill, which has now fitted neatly into the Armchair Traveller Challenge.

3. Last Book I Read: Blood and Gold by Anne Rice; read but not yet reviewed.

4. Five Books that Mean a Lot to Me: The Strawberry Tree by Ruth Rendell; The Riders by Tim Winton; Possession by A.S. Byatt; Chocolat by Joanne Harris; and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss.

5. Tag five people: If you want to do it, go for it. (Hey, it’s Monday. The kind that gives Mondays a bad name.)

01 July 2007

Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

Banned Book Challenge #4

Yes, the challenge finished yesterday. But I finished the book yesterday, so technically I did complete the challenge in time.

1984 In 1984, the world is divided into three superpowers - Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia - and constantly at war in a succession of shifting alliances. In Oceania the Party reigns supreme, headed by the mythical figure of Big Brother, whose larger-than-life-size gaze follows citizens from myriad posters. In London, capital city of Airstrip One, Winston Smith spend his cheerless days toiling in the Ministry of Truth, helping the Party perpetuate its lies by editing past editions of The Times to reflect the current facts. Predictions are changed so that the Party seems to be always right, and references to persons since vaporised are removed so that they appear never to have existed. The process is so efficient that no evidence ever remains - usually. Just once Winston held proof of the Party’s lies. Not that there was anything he could do; as a member of the Inner Party his life is under constant scrutiny. Telescreens transmit as well as broadcast information, involvement in community activities is monitored, and only in the dark can you be sure of being safe from the Thought Police - and then only if you’re utterly silent. Nothing is your own except your mind, and even that had been marked for takeover via the development of Newspeak; a stripped-down version of English so minimal that unorthodox thought will be impossible for the simple reason that the words won’t exist that are capable of expressing it.

So Winston puts his hopes in the thought that one day the proles - the downtrodden working masses largely overlooked by the Party on the grounds that they have neither the education nor the intelligence to cause trouble - will rebel. It might be in one year, it might be in a thousand, but one day the Party will be overthrown. Then he notices that he is being followed by a young woman he suspects of being a member of the Thought Police sent to watch him for signs of unorthodoxy. But Julia is no more a supporter of Big Brother than he is. Unlike Winston, however, she has no faith in the proles or in the defeat of the Party; her idea of rebellion is to maintain an appearance of orthodoxy while finding ways to get around the system. Together they enter into an underground network of conspirators, knowing that it is now only a matter of time before the Thought Police vaporise them - or lead them to a fate worse than death.

I’ve had this book lying around for years; I think I assumed that something so political would be boring. But it wasn’t - well, except for a lengthy excerpt from the book of the resistance, explaining the political and military manoeuvrings of the superpowers, which did begin to drag. I was interested to note that Oceania was formed by the massive expansion of - who else? - the United States. The Party’s success was based in part on the accomplishment of doublethink, a Newspeak word meaning to simultaneously hold two opposing beliefs, and reading the book almost created its own version of doublethink. One the one hand such a future seems impossible; surely no population would stand for such a thing and the concepts of Big Brother and Orwellian society are so well-known that any attempt would be seen at once for what it was. But then ... totalitarian states can and do rise, and the background of the Party’s history was so plausible that you could see how such a regime could hold power indefinitely. So given the right circumstances - who knows? Certainly things are not always as benign as they seem; I’m reminded of a recent report rating countries on their level of press freedom, in which Australia was ranked lower than El Salvador. So even in one of the world’s great democracies there’s a certain lack of transparency; who knows what they’re hiding?

Yes, there’s plenty of scope for paranoia here, especially with the telescreens and the Thought Police. The dystopian society and its workings - given an extra dash of realism by an appendix article on Newspeak - was often more interesting than most of the characters. Except for Winston and Julia they were mostly just well-drawn bit players. I would have liked to know a bit more about what life under the Party was like for the proles, but the story never strayed far from the lives of the members of the Inner Party. But I did like the protagonists; they made it seem that it was not so much the regime as the inability to oppose it that was the real horror - that, and the fate of those who tried. Room 101, anyone?

Rating: B+

Book Review: Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion At the age of nineteen, Anne Elliot became engaged to Frederick Wentworth, a sailor with neither family nor fortune. Her friend Lady Russell was horrified, and persuaded Anne that such a match was beneath a baronet’s daughter. Anne did her duty and broke it off; and the thought that the secret nature of the relationship would prevent any embarrassment consoled her, even if nothing else did. Eight years later she has settled into the quiet life of a spinster; overlooked by her father and her elder sister, and obliged to receive all the complaints of the younger, with Lady Russell remaining her one true friend. Then her father’s extravagant lifestyle catches up with him, and he is forced to let Kellynch Hall and remove with his single daughters to Bath (where even a mere baronet can be of some consequence). As luck would have it, the new tenants are Admiral and Mrs Croft - sister and brother-in-law of the now-Captain Wentworth. And since Anne stays for some time in the area as a guest of her sister Mary and Mary’s in-laws, the Musgroves, it isn’t long before she and her former fiancé meet once more. The past eight years have seen Captain Wentworth make his fortune, but now that he is an eligible suitor for a baronet’s daughter, he concentrates his attentions on the Musgrove sisters Henrietta and Louisa and seems scarcely to notice Anne at all.

She meanwhile attracts the notice of her cousin - and her father’s heir - William Elliot. For years he wanted nothing to do with the family, yet now he is eager for a reconciliation, and perhaps a wedding as well. She puts up with him out of politeness but has no intention of accepting any proposal from him, for she knows that there is only one man she could ever marry. At Uppercross, at Lyme, and at Bath, she watches for any sign that he might still care for her, or at least have forgiven her.

It’s so long since I’ve read this book that, except for a few little bits I remembered of the movie, it was like reading it for the first time. I’m sure I enjoyed it the first time around, and I just adored it the second. Anne is wonderful; I know what it’s like to be forever ignored (though not at home, fortunately) and admired her grace under neglect. And while I don’t know what it’s like to lose someone and then - maybe - get a second chance, I wholeheartedly believed that, yes, that’s exactly what someone in that situation would think and feel. She knows that she has no reason to hope, and she tries not to do so. Yet she can’t help watching him to see if he’s looking at her and listening for any word from him. And who wouldn’t do the same? The side plots always kept me interested - a good thing since Anne and Frederick’s reconciliation naturally takes some time to get going - and were filled with likeable characters, as well as some not so pleasant. The revelation of Mr. Elliot’s motivations in seeking out his uncle left me impressed by how little human nature has changed in the last couple of centuries and hoping that his plans would come to naught. Another thing I liked was that Lady Russell, the instrument of the break-up, was never portrayed as any kind of villain but simply someone who made an error of judgement; an error later rectified when she saw Wentworth’s value, and how her assumptions had misled her.

This being Jane Austen, there was plenty of humour and poking fun at the society of the time. Much of this is directed at Anne’s relatives; her father and elder sister Elizabeth and their determination to maintain the style dictated by the title, Mary and her family using Anne as the recipient of their contradictory grumbles, and the Musgrove sisters developing a sudden passion for all things naval with the arrival of Captain Wentworth. Speaking of whom ... he remained something of a mystery for a lot of the book, as even when he was present his interaction with Anne was minimal. But that was more than compensated for by the letter than he wrote her when he knew she still loved him. *Sigh*....

Rating: A+

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776