31 October 2009

Classics Challenge 2009 Wrap-Up

Classics Challenge 2009

Since the challenge blog only specified reading the classics, not reviewing them, I have technically completed the challenge even though I have five half-finished reviews. (Blame NaNoWriMo. I do.) My selections were:

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (A-)
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë (A)
Possession - A. S. Byatt (bonus) (A+)
The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane (B)
Bleak House - Charles Dickens (A-)
The Metamorphoses - Ovid (B+)
Macbeth - William Shakespeare (A-)

Aside from my tardiness, an unqualified success! Seven books and nothing lower than a B. I read about the American Civil War for the first time; added another century - the 1st - to my list of centuries I’ve read works from (nine and counting); I finished a novel by Dickens; and I ventured back into the realm of Books I Was Forced to Read in High School. I also had a perfect excuse to re-read some old favourites.

Review links will be added over the next couple of days as the reviews are finished and posted.

Many thanks to Trish for providing one of my favourite pre-NaNo distractions!

30 October 2009

R.I.P. IV Challenge Wrap-Up


Reader imbibing peril indeed! In the last two months I have (vicariously) been trapped in haunted castles in mediaeval Europe, learned of a friend’s horrifying transformations, gone on a body-snatching expedition, discovered dark family secrets in the mountains of Spain, been pursued across England by a malevolent supernatural force, and made a deal with ... well, I’m not quite sure with what. Something not entirely human, certainly. I’m a little envious of my northern hemisphere co-participants - such tales demand dark autumn evenings and chill winds whistling round the corners of the house. But reading them surrounded by warmth and sunshine is still a lot of fun. (And now some of my northern hemisphere readers are doubtless a little envious of me!)

To complete Peril the First, I read four books:

The Mist in the Mirror - Susan Hill (C+)
The Mysteries of Udolpho - Ann Radcliffe (B-)
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and other tales of terror - Robert Louis Stevenson (B-)
The Angel's Game - Carlos Ruiz Zafon (A-)
After a trip to the library at the start of the month I decided to substitute The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl for one of the above, but it was a DNF for me - it was printed in a too-thin typeface that I just couldn’t read. The other books I started were much better choices, even if The Mist in the Mirror frustrated with too few chills and too many loose ends, and Udolpho with more excess verbiage than Henry James (and isn’t that saying a lot?).

At long last I got to meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and make my acquaintance with the story behind the saying. Its fame has proved its undoing, taking away the shock of discovery. No such worry with The Angel's Game; for once I actually managed to lay hands on the latest bestseller in reasonably quick time and only had to avoid a handful of reviews on other blogs to keep all the surprises intact.

Looking back over this year’s selection, it’s struck me that all are set in western Europe and all are historical, mostly nineteenth and early twentieth century. Next year I’ll aim for a greater variety of time and setting, but as my justification for adding another challenge to the pile this year was NaNo inspiration the choices were appropriate. Now that I’ve finished reading about historical supernatural horrors, I get to go and inflict some on my heroine!

Carl, you’re a legend for devising this challenge!

Book Review: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

R.I.P. IV Challenge #4

The Angel’s Game David Martín’s great ambition is to be a writer. When he gets the chance to write a noir serial titled The Mysteries of Barcelona he grabs the attention not just of the reading public, but also the mysterious Andreas Corelli, a Parisian publisher who uses an angel emblem and seemingly has the ability to make the impossible become real. Years later, David has taken over a sinister, decaying mansion where he churns out pseudonymous thrillers and dreams of the lovely but married Cristina. When he needs help, Andreas Corelli obliges, but in return David must produce a very specific type of book. Not such a simple task, when the police are watching him, people are dying, and the question of what became of the mansion’s previous owner keeps distracting him. David Martín and the late Diego Marlasca share more than just initials - they both made a deal with Corelli, whose motives and plans are highly questionable and from whom it might not be possible to walk away.

I began this - the first companion piece to The Shadow of the Wind - with high and barely restrained expectations. And although it took me a while to warm up to David I wasn’t disappointed. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books made a welcome reappearance (I would love to spend time in that place!) as did Sempere & Sons bookshop, one generation earlier. It also shared the theme of a young man unravelling a mystery while overcoming his greatest weakness; but while Daniel Sempere’s besetting flaw was cowardice, David’s was cold-heartedness. This initially made him a little hard to like, but did provide some great snarkiness, especially when Isabella showed up. He didn’t want a protégée, and he really didn’t want one who would entrench herself in his house and clean it to within an inch of its life, but that’s exactly what he got and I loved every word of their verbal sparring.

And they share Barcelona. The city is a spectacular backdrop, and obliterates any notion of Spain as perpetually sun-drenched. Eerie mansions, a labyrinth of books, a witch’s hovel, dingy apartments, and of course a cemetery ... they’re all the types of location that would fit easily into The Mysteries of Barcelona. Even when nothing particularly spooky is happening, you know that in a setting like that the characters can’t remain safe for long; something will have to happen. And something always does.

It takes some time for the mystery to really get going, as it centres around Corelli and his game and there’s a fair bit of set-up required to establish his presence in David’s life. But when it does ... it was baffling, at times unnerving, and came with plenty of action. And that smell.... Even after finishing it I was still baffled, but in a “Wow!” way. Closing the book was like stepping out of a mirror maze, suddenly back amidst the everyday and wondering what had been real and what not. I know that one day I’ll have to read it again in the hope of figuring out just what was going on when it all went strange(r).

Rating: A-

Fractal Friday: Nebula


27 October 2009

Book Review: The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill

R.I.P. IV Challenge #3

The Mist in the Mirror After having spent nearly all his life abroad, James Monmouth returns to England, the country where he spent the first five years of his life and of which he has no memory. He plans to research a book about the explorer Conrad Vane, who has long fascinated him and whose travels he has retraced. From the moment he arrives at London’s Cross Keys Inn, odd things begin to happen. Seemingly trivial matters terrify him. A strange boy stands in the street gazing at him. And person after person advises him stay well clear of anything concerning Conrad Vane.

I did feel a chill while reading this ... but that was because the aircon on the train was overdone again. I didn’t find it particularly creepy. Initially it was all too subjective: Monmouth was, by his own admission, getting freaked out for no reason by things unlikely to alarm anyone else. Later, when clearly abnormal phenomena began to appear, it was hard to believe that he was truly scared by them, as regardless of what he felt at the time, he kept going with his enquiries afterward. Being a first-person story, if the character relating the events keeps shrugging them off it’s an open invitation to the reader to do the same. And I didn’t altogether like Monmouth; surely, after receiving that many warnings, a person of sense would have returned to London and boarded the next ship out of there.

On the upside, it’s fabulously atmospheric. Monmouth begins his account with a passage that echoes the opening of Bleak House with rain instead of fog, and you know at once what sort of tale you’ll be reading. From dank inns to ancient college buildings to a dilapidated manor house, the settings fit the genre perfectly. The malevolence quotient increased at the end (perhaps it wasn’t the aircon after all....) but there were too many loose ends that never came close to being explained.

Rating: C+

15 October 2009

Book Review: Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer

Behold, Here’s Poison When a servant finds Gregory Matthews dead in his bed, it’s believed to be natural causes. And natural causes it would have remained, if his dragonish sister Gertrude Lupton hadn’t declared it impossible that there could have been a weak heart in her family, and demanded a post-mortem. When it transpires that Gregory was poisoned, there’s no shortage of suspects for Inspector Hannasyde and Sergeant Hemingway to investigate. His siblings, siblings-in-law, niece, nephews, and neighbour all stood to benefit by his death, either materially or just by getting rid of an unpleasant nuisance. So to, perhaps, did the mysterious "Mr Hyde"....

For some inexplicable reason I was surprised when the victim’s first appearance was as a corpse. It’s happened in numerous books that I’ve read, but still, in a classic-style whodunit I was rather expecting to be able to play spot-the-victim and study everyone’s opportunity before being presented with a body. Still. It certainly got things off to a dramatic start, even if it did prevent Gregory from being as well-defined as the other characters. Although there’s well over a century between them, it was impossible not to think of Heyer’s Regency characters - this group was just as eccentric as any in her romances, and while not all of them were likeable they were a lot of fun to read about. Especially Randall Matthews, who took great delight in always doing or saying precisely the most objectionable thing in any situation. It could be highly entertaining to have a Randall in one’s family - so long as his barbs weren’t directed against oneself.

I felt very pleased with myself for identifying the means by which the poison was delivered pages before the detectives did, which compensated for my utter inability to identify the person who used it. The motive was almost too much of a surprise, but it did fit in with what had been uncovered about Gregory Matthews’s character. Not sure, though, about the eventual romantic pairing....

Rating: B

Booking Through Thursday: Weeding

We’re moving in a couple weeks (the first time since I was 9 years old), and I’ve been going through my library of 3000+ books, choosing the books that I could bear to part with and NOT have to pack to move. Which made me wonder…

When’s the last time you weeded out your library? Do you regularly keep it pared down to your reading essentials? Or does it blossom into something out of control the minute you turn your back, like a garden after a Spring rain?

Or do you simply not get rid of books? At all? (This would have described me for most of my life, by the way.)

And–when you DO weed out books from your collection (assuming that you do) …what do you do with them? Throw them away (gasp)? Donate them to a charity or used bookstore? SELL them to a used bookstore? Trade them on Paperback Book Swap or some other exchange program?

The last time I culled by book collection was also in preparation for a move ... i.e. seven years ago. Since then it’s been steadily expanding to fill all the available shelf space. Given that shelf space is finite - and in my case rapidly running out - a second cull will have to take place in the near(ish) future. Probably I’ll put it off until I have so many books stacked on the front of the shelves that I can hardly get to the books behind.

When the inevitable day comes, what I do with the weeded-out books will depend on their condition. Since a lot of my collection was acquired second-hand some will undoubtedly be fit only for a return to the charity from whence they came. Any that are in good shape I’ll take to a second-hand bookstore I know which accepts trade-ins. Which won’t really help in the matter of shelf space, but since the new acquisitions will go straight into the TBR box their effect won’t be felt for a while. And as it’s essentially a way of getting new books for free, I can justify it on the grounds of its being the economical option :-)

08 October 2009

Weekly Geeks

Weekly Geeks

Take a look at your blog as if you were someone who has never seen a blog before. Imagine they are looking for something specific. Could they find it? Could they find YOU again? Be able to contact you? Would they understand your jargon?

With these questions in mind, start making your blog more reader friendly.

I’ve had vague thoughts of blog improvement percolating in my brain for a while now. I’ve even started acting on them: I’m currently going through my archive unifying the formatting and adding ALT tags to everything. Beyond that ... I have a large list of little things to think about.

META tags, as suggested, are top of the list, probably followed by a lot of reading of Blogger Help to get me started on the rest. (Despite appearances, I’m not great at coding.) I want to overhaul some of the things done in haste as part of the Blog Improvement Project at Sophisticated Dorkiness (the reviews index, the additional personal information, the "Best Of" list); the vision I’m toying with is a row of links beneath the header. Assuming, of course, it’s possible to turn a header into an image map....

I’m also considering switching to either my given initials or a "proper" pseudonym, now that NaNoWriMo has me taking my writing more seriously. Trouble is, that could necessitate changing the URL.

One thing at a time....

01 October 2009

Book Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

R.I.P. IV Challenge #2

The Mysteries of Udolpho Strange happenings seem to follow Emily St Aubert. Missing necklaces and music of no apparent origin are just the beginning. When she is orphaned and left in the charge of her aunt, said aunt soon remarries and Emily’s new uncle, Montoni, takes them both to his Italian castle. Inside Udolpho mystery and danger lurk in all quarters. If it’s not Montoni trying to railroad her into marriage to the obnoxious Count Morano, it’s sinister figures roaming the ramparts or - far worse - the ghastly object concealed behind a black veil.... Emily’s hope of taking possession of her father’s estate and marrying the dashing Valancourt are looking more remote by the day.

While mulling over what to write in my review, two words came to mind: Literary bipolar. Udolpho has a bad case of it. It’s one of the classics gothics ... but large stretches of it aren’t gothic at all. It’s set in the sixteenth century ... and walks and talks like the eighteenth century. Emily St Aubert faints at the drop of a hat (or a black veil, as the case may be) ... except for a few moments of such strength that I felt like cheering for her. It’s got plenty of seemingly supernatural horrors ... but the only scary things in it are patently real. Sometimes I wanted to scream from the sheer tedium of it ... and then something thrilling would happen. Trying to define it is like trying to knit with spaghetti.

I think the only way to read it is to forget all notions of what a gothic novel, or a historical novel - or a novel at all - is meant to be. Give yourself up the surreality of it all: the insubstantial characters, the fainting fits and melodrama, the elaborate explaining-away of everything seemingly supernatural, the eccentric pacing that varies from snail speed to warp speed. If you can do that, you should have fun. I did, at times; but just as often I wanted to shake someone - either character or author. When Radcliffe gets into scenery-painting mode, or Emily begins wilting under the weight of her sensibility, it can get unspeakably dull. (Though it is livened by a few moments of unintentional comedy when other characters think Emily’s about to keel over, and leap into action accordingly.)

As far as spooky occurrences go, it’s not a creepy book, even before everything is accounted for. The chilling thing for me was Emily’s powerlessness against those around her. The Montonis were bad enough; but even the Count of Villefort rattled me with his insistence on knowing what was best for her. With friends and relatives like those, who needs a ghost? Maybe it would have been eerier had I really cared for the women being threatened, but there’s not a single three-dimensional character among them, Emily is frequently exasperating, and I was hoping a ghost or whatever would make off with her chatterbox maid Annette.

Dull bits and flimsy characters aside, it’s worth reading just to gain a new appreciation of Northanger Abbey.

Rating: B-

Library Loot

Library Loot button

The Poe Shadow
The Duchess
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen
Victorian London
A History of the World in 6 Glasses
Lancaster and York

The Poe Shadow - Matthew Pearl (perfect for R.I.P. IV)
The Duchess - Amanda Foreman
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen - Leanda de Lisle
Victorian London - Liza Picard
A History of the World in 6 Glasses - Tom Standage
Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses - Alison Weir

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg.

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