31 October 2007

Book Review: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

R.I.P. II Challenge #5

My Cousin Rachel Philip Ashley’s cousin Ambrose goes to Italy in search of a healthier climate, he winds up married. Half-English Rachel is a distant connection of the family and the widow of the Count Sangaletti. At firs all seems well; then Philip begins receiving odd letters from Ambrose that prompt him to make a dash across the Continent. But in the time before trains such journeys were slow, and by the time he arrives Ambrose is dead, Rachel is gone, and Philip is very suspicious. Returning to England, he learns that Rachel is on her way to Cornwall and decides to confront her. But when he meets her she charms him at once, causing him to forget that she might be a murderess. Indeed, to the horror of his guardian he becomes quite besotted, though for everything that seems to prove her innocence there is something else to suggest her guilt. It will take a decisive piece of evidence for him to decide one way or another.

During the first half of the book, I quite enjoyed it; the mystery was well set up, I was curious to know the explanation for the letters, and there was a promising maybe-villain in the form of Rachel’s confidante Rainaldi. But just past the halfway mark it began to fall apart somewhat, largely because of Philip. It was highly appropriate that his birthday was 1 April, because he acted like a prize fool. It was no wonder his poor guardian was so alarmed; if it was entirely up to him, he would have handed over his entire inheritance to Rachel. As it was he made a very good attempt at doing so, which was a drastic turnaround from his vows of revenge. While I initially liked Philip - du Maurier is very good at writing introverted characters - I ended up losing patience with him and wishing he’d listen to his godfather, or at the very least come up with a workable plan to prove her guilt or innocence beyond doubt. Although, in his defence, I should say that I couldn’t work out whether she was a poisoner or not, either. Once he discovered the truth, though, he did do something, which wrapped the book up very neatly.

Rating: C

30 October 2007

Book Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Book to Movie Challenge #2

Mansfield Park At the age of ten, Fanny Price is taken from her impoverished, overcrowded Portsmouth home to live at Mansfield Park under the care of her aunts, Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris. Painfully shy, her attempt to settle in isn’t helped by her being overshadowed by her more outgoing cousins, Maria and Julia, or her Aunt Norris’s efforts to make sure she doesn’t get ideas above her station. While she is being groomed for a lifelong role as companion to her Aunt Bertram, the one thing that makes life at Mansfield pleasant is the kindness of her cousin Edmund. By the time she’s seventeen Fanny does have hopes above her station, in spite of all Aunt Norris can do to put her in her place, but her dreams of marrying Edmund seem further away than ever when the Crawfords arrive in the neighbourhood. The dashing Henry flirts indiscriminately with both the Bertram sisters, even the engaged Maria, while Edmund falls for his sister Mary. Unfortunately for him, the lovely Miss Crawford is unwilling to give up material pleasures to marry a clergyman who will never be rich or keep a house in town. In the end, Fanny’s reservations about the pair are proved correct as scandal and heartbreak descend on Mansfield.

I’ve been puzzling for days over what to write about this book. Like many Austen fans, I’m going to have to list it as my least favourite of her works. Fanny Price is spiritless, mousy, easily tired, and unable to enter into the fun and frivolity shared by most of her cousins. In fact, she is generally disapproving of said fun, and I had to remind myself of the mores of the time to appreciate her reasons. I did admire her adherence to her principles during the ill-fated amateur theatricals (even if it was motivated as much by shyness as by morals) but I never really warmed to her, or Edmund. I didn’t entirely believe in the happy ending, either; while they were a well-matched couple, bound to share a comfortable, respectable, and rather dull life together, he was still longing for Mary Crawford within twenty pages of the end. Although Austen cleverly left it up to the reader to decide how long it took for him to marry Fanny instead, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘rebound!’

The most interesting characters were the Crawfords; it was hard to decide whether they were as calculating as they sometimes seemed or just thoughtless. (I was in one of the computer labs at uni last week, and saw the title page of a business presentation on an unattended screen - authored by Mary Crawford. Since Austen’s Mary was a bit of a gold-digger, I’m guessing the real one’s parents weren’t familiar with Mansfield Park!) I was glad to see Aunt Norris get her just deserts at the end, but at the same time wished it could have happened after Fanny’s sister came to Mansfield; Susan would probably have been a match for her and I would have enjoyed seeing how the two of them put up with each other.

I have seen the film version of this, but it was a while ago so my memory’s a bit hazy. I do remember it being somewhat modernised; in the movie the scandalous couple were caught in flagrante, whereas in the book they simply ran off together. Unfortunately a favourite quote from the film - the foolish Mr Rushworth inviting people to his recently landscaped estate to see the new ruins - turned out to be a screenwriter’s invention. Another invention was Fanny’s fondness for writing; they actually used some of Austen’s early writing as hers. Beyond those few points all I can remember is an enjoyable movie; and being Austen, the book is enjoyable too, even if it is more serious and less sparkling than her other works.

Rating: B

Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

2007 TBR Challenge #10
R.I.P. II Challenge #4

The Secret History To escape a miserable home life, Californian med school dropout Richard Papens signs up for a scholarship for an arts course at Hampden College, Vermont. There he becomes entranced by the five members of an elite Greek class, to the point of talking his way into their course. He enjoys the time spent in the company of his new classmates: aloof Henry, with his head in the intellectual clouds; flamboyant Francis, with a family even more dysfunctional than Richard’s own; the very unintellectual freeloader Bunny; and Charles and his beautiful twin Camilla. But he begins to notice oddities in their behaviour and grows suspicious. When the truth is finally revealed, Richard opts to keep silent, which paves the way for murder and the consequences that follow.

This is not a murder mystery; thanks to a prologue that recounts events from the middle of the book, you go into it knowing who is killed by who and how. The only puzzle is how soon, why, and will they get away with it? For the most part, this works. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did the pages started almost turning themselves. Interesting characters, the questions about their fate, and a readable style made it easy to get through. But it suffered early on from a number of flaws that probably would have earned the book a lower grade if I hadn’t had several hundred pages to get used to them. I didn’t care about Richard and couldn’t see why he was so fascinated by the Greek class and willing to put his entire curriculum in the hands of their professor, essentially cutting himself off from the rest of the college. I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone as semi-literate as Bunny got into such a class in the first place, or believe that the others could be so immersed in the ancient world as to be astoundingly ignorant of events in the real one (Henry didn’t even know there’d been a moon landing). And the reason for the odd behaviour of Henry, Francis, Camilla and Charles struck me as completely implausible in a book that was otherwise solidly grounded in reality; the fantastical element just didn’t belong. Also, the author created two fictional countries, presumably either for the sake of invention or to avoid unflattering references to real ones. Either way it was a wasted effort as the names were recognisably similar to actual countries in the same parts of the world as the made-up ones. So why bother? But in spite of the bland narrator, the unrealistic elements, and the apparent non-existence of any Hampden College student not intensely intellectual or really into drugs and partying, it was still an engrossing read, which says a lot about the writing talent of the author.

Rating: B-

27 October 2007

Book Review: The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell

Armchair Traveller Challenge #4

The Bafut Beagles In 1949, Gerald Durrell returned to the Cameroons in search of specimens of the local wildlife. The hunt was helped by the cheerful co-operation of the Fon of Bafut, a larger-than-life character with a large capacity for alcohol, who provided accommodation for both animal hunter and animals and a motley team of hunters and dogs who became known as the Bafut Beagles. Needless to say, the collecting - and the subsequent transport of the collection back to England - did not go entirely to plan. A disgruntled hyrax, elusive toads, and the mercenary antics of Jacob the cook created chaos enough. But it was an irate snake and a squirrel inaptly called Sweeti-pie that really left the collecting party in an uproar.

In terms of fitness of selection, this is the high point of the Armchair Traveller Challenge thus far. The jungle and its inhabitant - both animal and human - are vividly described and many of the animals display distinct personality (not in a anthropomorphic way, but just in the way that animals do, as any pet owner knows). Probably there’s a historical perspective in there too; I can’t imagine things have remained unchanged for 58 years. (Is there still such a place as the Cameroons?) Whether the country still exists or not, there were plenty of opportunities there for funny things to happen; though unfortunately events weren’t up to the level of hilarity of, say, My Family and Other Animals. This book had a definite serious side, with potentially deadly situations and the ins and outs of caring for and transporting a large collection of animals. There is also a bit too much information about the less appealing habits of monkeys and the parasites they can carry. But there are some wonderful moments - often involving the aforementioned squirrel - and I wound up with a few attacks of the giggles.

Rating: B-

Book Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #20

The Remains of the Day At the suggestion of his new American employer, the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, Stevens, takes the car and sets off on a tour of the 1950s English countryside. What Mr Faraday doesn’t know is that Stevens has an object in mind beyond mere holidaying: a visit to his former colleague Miss Kenton, to gauge her willingness to leave her unhappy marriage for good and solve his staff shortage by returning to her post as housekeeper. The trip to Cornwall sets off a journey into the past, as Stevens looks back to the height of his career, a time when Lord Darlington held meetings of international importance at a bustling Hall. It was also then that Stevens senior joined the staff to see out his working days, and an outspoken new housekeeper clashed with the starched, unbending butler. And the further he gets from the Hall, the closer Stevens gets to revealing what it was that cost his former employer his reputation.

This is hands down one of the most outstanding pieces of characterisation it has ever been my privilege to read. Stevens is stiff, unemotional, over-intellectualising, and prone to rambling digressions on such topics as the nature of dignity or the ingredients of a truly great butler. Yet his narration of events past and present is completely absorbing. If not the most exciting characters in fiction, he is surely one of the most complete; so much so, that I couldn’t help thinking that in telling his story, he revealed more about himself than he intended or even suspected. Miss Kenton is also fabulous, and her verbal sparring with Stevens is always fun to read. They provide a touch of comedy to a book that is overall somewhat tragic. The tragedy lies not in events, but in Stevens’s nature, and his lack of comprehension of the fact that there can be more to life than dignity and duty. By the very end of the book he was actually starting to irritate me just a little; but it was a small flaw in an otherwise exceptional book which captures the time when English society was shifting from one where rank counted for something to one where ability was the only thing that mattered.

Rating: A-

25 October 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Read With Abandon?

Today’s suggestion is from Cereal Box Reader.

I would enjoy reading a meme about people’s abandoned books. The books that you start but don’t finish say as much about you as the ones you actually read, sometimes because of the books themselves or because of the circumstances that prevent you from finishing. So ... what books have you abandoned and why?

I don’t often abandon books; I tend to feel guilty if I give up on one so I make the effort to keep going unless it gets really bad. Or, unless I get distracted. Sometimes a not-too-bad book will be deserted indefinitely when I get hooked on more interesting volumes and forget about it. An example is Rebecca - I started it last year, stopped, and finished it for the TBR Challenge this year. With these books, the intention is there to return to them ... eventually. But some I just couldn’t make it through; Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, As I Lay Dying, Sons and Lovers, Mrs Dalloway ... and probably some modern ones as well. (One day I would like to get to the end of a Dickens novel, if only to say that I’ve done it, but I’m not sure which one to attempt. Perhaps Bleak House; I’ve seen the adaptation so if I can’t finish it, at least I’ll know how it ends.) The culprit here is usually boredom. If I really can’t get into a book, then I’ll consider quitting. And even then I might settle for skimming through the rest rather than stopping entirely.

20 October 2007

Kimbooktu's Meme

J. S. Peyton over at BiblioAddict was so kind as to tag all readers for this, (originally at Kimbooktu) which was all the excuse I needed.

Hardcover or paperback? Why? Mass-market paperback, because they’re smaller and lighter. This means a. they’re easier to carry, and b. I can carry more of them.

If I were to own a book shop I would call it.... I would definitely not name it after my blog! Too much chance of false impressions there. Instead, I’d start by stocking it with anything at all mysterious, spooky, or suspenseful: ghost stories, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mysteries, thrillers, true crime ... the lot. Then I’d give in to the temptation of a pun and call it Eclectic Shadows (after my hometown’s arthouse cinema, Electric Shadows. I’ve always thought that was a cool name).

My favourite quote from a book (name it) is.... I’m not much of a quote collector, but one that’s stayed in my mind is “Love meant to him nothing but sawdust and cinders” from Orlando. There’s also one from a no-longer-remembered book that I paraphrased to fit me: “If not for bad luck, she’d have no luck at all”.

The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be.... Hmm ... so many choices! I’ll have to say Shakespeare – there’s a lot of questions that could be answered there.

If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except from the SAS survival guide, it would be.... Can you get the entire works of Jane Austen in one volume? If so, I’d take that. (I’d take the survival handbook, too.)

I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that.... would hold the book at just the right height and distance, turn the pages at just the right time, and put in the bookmark when I was finished. A bookaholic’s hands-free kit.

The smell of an old book reminds me of.... the Bookfest, a.k.a. heaven on earth.

If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be.... My first thought was Elizabeth Bennet, but I’m sure at least one person has already said that. My second thought was Claire Randall Fraser, but I’m very attached to my mod cons and not even Jamie Fraser could induce me to rough it in the eighteenth century. So I’m going with my third thought: Temple Barr from the Midnight Louie mysteries by Carole Nelson Douglas. I’d get to stay a petite redhead (only more so); plus I’d have a cute apartment, a funky landlady, a cat with attitude, a great wardrobe, and two drop dead gorgeous men vying for my affections. Sure, there’d be a few downsides, but to have a chance at Temple’s dilemma - choosing between Matt and Max - not to mention her fabulous high heel collection, a succession of people trying to kill me might not be such a bad deal. (And besides, it’s a comedy series; it’s not like anyone’ll succeed.)

The most overestimated book of all time is.... at the risk of offending a good portion of my readers: the Bible. It’s claimed to be divinely inspired, the word of God, and held up as justification for any number of things. Yet it’s just an anthology by numerous - and frequently contradictory - authors, written years after the events described, and many of those events fall somewhere between the improbable and the impossible.

I hate it when a book.... uses ‘Australia’ in a historical set much before 1814, the year in which the name was popularised by Matthew Flinders. (It didn’t become official until 1824.) It never fails to take me out of the book while I mentally berate the author for not using ‘New South Wales’. (Earliest setting I’ve seen it in? 1797.)

The Friday Fill-In: #42

After discovering these a few weeks ago, I finally remembered to do one!

1. October is when the jacarandas come into bloom.
2. The (alleged) ghost in our house doesn't scare me!
3. Haunted houses sound like fun - so long as the ghosts are friendly.
4. My favorite scary movie is The Others because it actually succeeded in scaring me.
5. Electioneering politicians bore me.
6. It was a dark and stormy night and the power went out, leaving us with a couple of storm lanterns and no hot water. Again.
7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to posting some of my overdue reviews, tomorrow my plans include finishing more reviews and Sunday, I want to get my Protein Engineering and Bioprocessing lab book up to date!

19 October 2007

The Catch-Up Part II

I wish I could say that with these three posted I’m up to date, but ... I can’t. Those reviews just keep piling up!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Nurse Ratched has the mental patients on her ward cowed into obedience, all afraid of her needling questions which can put anyone in the wrong, and her power to send recalcitrant inmates to the Shock Shop. One of the few she can’t skewer with pointed questions in group sessions is Chief Bromden, who pretends to be deaf and dumb while observing all that happens on the ward. The humdrum routine is upset with the arrival of McMurphy, a fast-talking gambler who thought the indoor life better than the work farm. Soon he’[s taken charge of his fellow inmates, pushing them to stand up for themselves and doing whatever he can to make the stony facade of Nurse Ratched crack - without giving her cause for retaliation. Then one last plot concludes his schemes in a mixture of triumph and tragedy.

I spent most of the book vacillating. When it was showing McMurphy’s often comic impact on the ward, and the means he employed of getting around the staff, I enjoyed it. But when it stayed in the Chief’s head, tangled up in his memories and delusions, I wished it would get back to the story. It wasn’t until the very end that the reason became clear; the ending needed those delusions in order to make sense, and the Chief’s madness ensured that no other ending was possible. In a way it was sad, but in others it was a happy ending; the freedom and independence inspired in some of the other patients had me smiling. But for me, it took too long to get going, and too long for the two halves of the story to come together.

Rating: B-

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone For Harry Potter, an invitation to the Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a dream come true: a chance to get away from his odious aunt and uncle, not to mention his spoilt brat of a cousin. And Hogwart’s quickly proves to be the first place he’s been where he can make friends and feel at home, and make his mark in Quidditch, a game like nothing any Muggle ever played. But even Hogwart’s has its flaws. The Potions master seems to have it in for him. The evil Lord Voldemort, who killed both Harry’s parents, is gathering his strength for a comeback. And someone is about to attempt a brazen robbery from right under all three of Fluffy the watchdog’s noses.

It’s more than seven years since I last read this, and I enjoyed returning to it. I remember originally loving it from the first page, and I appreciate it just as much as an adult as I did in high school. It has comedy and mystery and drama and sadness, and a complete other world hidden away in the normal one - a world whose residents find the Muggles just as fascinating as the Muggles do them. I think one of the reasons it works so well is that there are things in there for the grown-ups, too: a connection to real-life history in Nicholas Flamel; a nod (or three) to Cerberus; and Mrs. Norris, the janitor’s much-loathed sneak of a cat who shares her name with the petty killjoy aunt of Mansfield Park. Another thing I love about it is Hermione Grainger. Sure she can be an overachieving know-it-all pain. But in a world where the Bratz dolls have a live-action movie (much-bandied-about quote: “Fashion is, like, your superpower”) how nice it is to read about a studious heroine who saves the day with books and brainpower. And it was fun to spot those parts which were translated to film verbatim (and those which were unfortunately cut, like the reason for Snape’s dislike of Harry).

Rating: A

Madam Crowl's Ghost and other stories by J. Sheridan le Fanu

R.I.P. II Challenge #3

Madam Crowl’s Ghost Madam Crowl wasn’t much fun even when alive. But it’s after her death that she really begins to terrify the poor housemaid, in the process revealing a decades-old secret. Elsewhere in the collection, a child disappears to a fate unknown; a bitter dispute between brothers is settled in unnerving fashion; a man’s premonition comes true in a way he never expected; and a haunted house gives new meaning to the term ‘hanging judge’. Two of the tales are in fact miniature collections, weaving a series of stories around a particularly haunted place.

Le Fanu is one of those authors I’ve been meaning vaguely to read for years, and now that I’ve finally done so I can say the tales are a match for anything by either ghost-story-writing James (Henry or M. R.). In fact, R.I.P. II is turning out to be about the best challenge of the year. (I just wish there could be a few more storms, for atmosphere.) The meandering Victorian style works well for ghost stories; the suspense takes its time to build. I was happy to discover that some of the tales actually had several stories in one; it was a kind of bonus. The only trouble I had with the book was that the dialect in the first story could be difficult to follow.

Rating: B+

18 October 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Typography

You may or may not have seen my post at Punctuality Rules Tuesday, about a book I recently bought that had the actual TITLE misspelled on the spine of the book. A glaring typographical error that really (really!) should have been caught. So, using that as a springboard, today’s question: What’s the worst typographical error you’ve ever found in (or on) a book?
I can’t, off the top of my head late at night, think of anything too horrible (certainly not a misspelt title!). I think most of the errors I’ve seen have been the mixing-up of homophones: ‘yolk’ and ‘yoke’, ‘allude’ and ‘elude’, ‘peak’ and ‘pique’, etc. They always annoy me, though, especially when there’s a lot of them in one book, because I always see them and wonder how anything so obvious got overlooked. Outside books, but still in the realm of published writing, a column in the Courier-Mail recently referred to a group of comedians ‘poking fun of’ the Opposition leader.

And then there’s the one I once saw in a Human Cell Biology lecture. A slide came up featuring a schematic of the digestive tract and something about the regulation of apatite. I spent several very confused moments trying to fathom why some poor person would have a white crystalline mineral in their stomach before I realised he meant the regulation of appetite. (Well, it was an 8 a.m. class!)

13 October 2007

The LibraryThing Unfinished Books Meme

I found this at BookLust - as well as at a few other places - and decided a meme was just the thing needed to get me back into blogging mode after my enforced break (due to some nasty allergic dermatitis, if you haven’t read it elsewhere). The books on the list are the top 106 books most often tagged as being unread by LibraryThing users, as of 3 October.

The titles in bold I’ve read - and those in italics I tried to read and failed. An asterisk* means I’ve read it more than once. Underlined books are in my TBR box waiting to be read. The ones in purple are books I want to read but haven’t yet laid hands on. And a question mark ? means I’ve never heard of it.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Anna Karenina (Year 10 English)
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights*
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi: A Novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice*
Jane Eyre (I hope to make this a twice-read book soon. Preferably before the ABC finally gets its backside into gear and shows the new adaptation.)
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveller’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations (also Year 10 English)
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Memoirs of a Geisha
Quicksilver ?
Wicked : The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West ?
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
Angels & Demons
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility*
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park* (Well, partly twice)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay ?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-Present
Cryptonomicon ?
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake: A Novel
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion ?
Northanger Abbey*
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics ?
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit*
In Cold Blood
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

Out of the 106, I’ve read 38, given up on 4, have a pathetic 2 in the TBR box, am on the lookout for 21, and have never heard of 6. The rest I have no interest in or am undecided about. I’ve also noticed three things: I’ve done a lot of re-reading of Jane Austen; I’m not the only one who has trouble with Dickens, and a lot of people have been having an unaccountably hard time reading Austen and Gaiman.

The Catch-Up Part I

I’ve seen it done on other blogs, but never thought I’d do it on mine. Multiple book reviews in one post, that is. It always seemed like cheating; but I’m six behind, and short on time thanks to a backlog of library and challenge reading, and all the work I’m starting to put into wading through the morass of confusion that is end-of-university job hunting, and the dilemma of whether to stay in Queensland or to move out for the first time into a state where I won’t know anyone.

But I digress. I am far enough in arrears, review-wise, to divide up the backlog into two sets of three. (I should point out, this was not my fault; I had a violent allergic reaction to something and spent over a week itching terribly and unable to do much of anything.) So I now present abbreviated reviews of:

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
New Year’s Reading Resolutions #19

The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade’s day takes a turn for the worse when his partner is murdered while tailing Floyd Thursby, the man who supposedly ran off with the sister of their client, Miss Wonderly. Shortly afterward, Thursby is also killed, and certain members of San Francisco’s finest think that perhaps Spade shot one or the other - or both. Naturally Spade has no intention of being charged with anything, and fends off the police while burrowing through a mass of lies, false identities, double-crossing and greed. The whole affair centres around the object of that greed: the Maltese Falcon, a masterpiece of gold and jewels disguised as a piece in black enamel. A lot of people want it, and none of them much care how they go about getting it. One thing, though, is certain: someone will be going down for those murders. And it’s not going to be Spade.

In a word: fantastic. It lives up to its reputation as the great crime novel. The writing is somewhat sparse, focussed on concrete details, but works beautifully and manages to convey a strong sense of character. Sam Spade is very cool, strolling through the plot unfazed by much of anything - except his partner’s tearful widow. The three other main characters are also memorable. Gutman seems like a stereotypical jolly fat man but is consumed by an obsessive avarice. Joel Cairo is an opportunist who doesn’t let his lack of experience in such dealings deter him, no matter how many times he winds up at the wrong end of his own gun. And Brigid O’Shaughnessy is a femme fatale as likely to seduce a man as hit him over the head. The plot progresses at a steady pace and takes not one but several turns before the end. Anyone who likes a good whodunit should read this.

Rating: A+

Three Comedies by Ben Jonson

Three Comedies Jonson’s three greatest comedies in one volume, all featuring the common thread of scammers and con artists on the hunt for dupes. The title character in Volpone is a rich man without family, who amuses himself by feigning illness and dangling the prospect of inheritance before several people. In The Alchemist, a servant takes over the house in his master’s absence, setting up with a couple of accomplices as magicians and parting the gullible from their cash. And Bartholomew Fair follows a group of members of and visitors to the Fair, all of them blissfully unaware of the disguised Justice in their midst.

I enjoyed Volpone, although it was difficult at times to keep track of who was who and who was up to what. The Alchemist was highly confusing, filled with the jargon of the titular profession. It would have been impossible to fully annotate - the notes would have been nearly as long as the play - and I could understand the editor’s reasoning that since the patter of the charlatans was meant to be obfuscatory, a bit of puzzlement doesn’t matter. But I don’t like being unable to make sense of things, and it’s hard to read something when you can’t make head or tail of it. At least partly because of this, it was hard to follow the characters and goings-on of the play. Bartholomew Fair was nearly as bad, because of the enormous cast.

Rating: C- (But I will say that I think a different edition might have been easier to read, and I’m sure they’re much easier to follow on stage).

Down Under by Bill Bryson

Down Under Having long been fascinated by Australia, Bryson finally decided to have a good look around the place. He sequence of visits involved a transcontinental rail journey on the Indian Pacific with a stopover in the arid west of New South Wales; a drive between the major cities of the south-east; a visit to tropical Queensland that didn’t quite go to plan; a road trip from Darwin to Alice Springs; and more motoring along the West Australian coast. He covered only a tiny portion of the country, but quite a variety of its contents. The whole account is filled with humour, disasters, interesting facts, and an unshakeable awareness of just how many ways there are here in which to die an agonising death.

I loved this; it was a wonderful opportunity to find out how Australia looks to an outsider. Sadly my hometown didn’t create a good first impression (so bad, in fact, that he amused himself in the hotel bar inventing slogans like ‘Canberra - Why Wait for Death?’). And I do have to admit that if you’re looking for nightlife, Canberra’s not a good place to start. But he did see the light: “I had been scorning it for what was in fact its most remarkable achievement. This was a place that had, without a twitch of evident stress, multiplied by a factor of ten since the late 1950s and yet was still a park.”. Unfortunately Bryson never made it to Brisbane, so I didn’t get to see him turn his wit on another place I know.

He did, however, get to Cairns, so I got a fabulously funny and dead-on view of Queenslanders and the paranoid persecution complex with which a lot of them regard those dastardly southerners. It was one of a number of things which had me thinking ‘Yes! That’s just what it’s like.’ (Case in point: the persistence of Australian flies.) There was also much that was new to me, such as the mystery of the explorer Stuart, who thought that he and his men were the first Europeans ever to reach the red centre - until they bumped into some locals who greeted them with Freemason signs and knew how to tie bootlaces. And it was interesting to see how alarming many of the things which I regard as normal - the risk of dengue fever, redback spiders, the admonition to freeze if confronted by a snake - must seem to people not accustomed to them.

Rating: A-

04 October 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Decorum

Do you have “issues” with too much profanity or overly explicit (ahem) “romantic” scenes in books? Or do you take them in stride? Have issues like these ever caused you to close a book? Or do you go looking for more exactly like them? (grin)
I’m going to give this one a qualified no. It has to fit with that plot and those characters, and not be over the top. In fact, I think there are times when squeaky cleanness might seem unnatural. But I do have my limits; I don’t read erotica and I’m not sure how I’d go reading a book that was excessively heavy on the profanity. The second caveat is that, while sex and swearing don’t trouble me if I’m quietly reading to myself, I would never read such content aloud to someone else. Okay, so that’s not something I ever have cause to do - anymore. However, I once had a nasty clash with an English teacher on this topic. She expected us to form groups and act out scenes from David Williamson’s consistently foul-mouthed play The Removalists. And having been strictly brought up never to swear, I refused point-blank. I was obliged to call in the support of my mother, who did manage to get the teacher to back down. Apparently in capitulation she professed her admiration of me for sticking to my principles; but she never said anything like that to me, and didn’t make any effort not to make me feel like ... well, crap.

(Yes, household standards have slipped a little since then. But not that much.)

03 October 2007

Book Review: Nocturnes by John Connolly

R.I.P. II Challenge #2

Nocturnes This volume contains fourteen short stories, two novellas, and chills aplenty. The Erlking adds a new character to the pantheon of childhood bogeymen. In The New Daughter, malevolent forces prey on the inhabitants of an old rectory. Deep Dark Green tells of the biggest danger to swimmers sinceJaws. In The Shifting of the Sands a churchman is faced with gods far older than his. In The Inkpot Monkey, a writer finds his inspiration and loses something else. The Underbury Witches features an English village where chauvinism may well be a capital offence. And in the novella The Reflecting Eye, private investigator Charlie Parker is hired to find out who has been showing an unhealthy interest in the house of a dead child killer, crossing paths with a debt collector you don’t want to meet.

I signed up for the R.I.P. II Challenge partly as an excuse to read this; and now that I’ve finally gotten round to doing so I’ve found that it was another ideal selection. I did, however, make a mistake on the day I started it. Having not read as much as I’d hoped to do during the day, I had the bright idea of reading a bit more while watching the evening news. An hour later, it was full dark outside and I was getting a tiny bit jumpy, at which point I cravenly abandoned it in favour of Ben Jonson. After that, I saved it for daylight hours, where it turned out to be quite useful; shivers down the spine are good at counteracting 33 degree heat. The stories were all fun to read (fun if you like being spooked, that is) but I did notice several definite patterns. First-person male narrators; churchmen and/or church buildings; things from underground; children who were lost, stolen or strayed. And the biggest one of all: evil undestroyed. Abated, maybe, but many of the chills come from the fact that usually, something bad continues. That I didn’t mind, as it enhanced the creepiness; but the others left me wishing for a little more variety. On the bright side (if one can use such a phrase here) the writing shifts from British to American English, depending on the setting of the story. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done anywhere else, and thought it a nice touch.

Although it wasn’t my favourite story of the lot, The Ritual of the Bones contained the thing that delighted me most. It was set at the exclusive Montague School, and in keeping with that name, those running the ritual all had literary names: Burrage and Bierce, Dickens and James, Hyde and Lovecraft and Poe. (I do wonder, though ... is that a reference to Henry James, or M. R. James?)

Rating: B+

Book Review: The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien

2007 TBR Challenge #9

The Silmarillion In the beginning there was Eru. And from Eru, directly or indirectly, came all the things of Middle-Earth and everything beyond it. Among them was the Silmarils, three fine jewels that carried the light of the Two Trees of Valinor. Although they are things of beauty, they bring about disaster, as the desire for their possession causes rebellion and bloodshed and war, as well as deeds of great cunning and heroism. And watching over all the War of the Jewels is Morgoth, the original Dark Lord, sowing the seeds of dissension and waiting for the moment to strike. Much of the tale of the early days of Middle-Earth is covered by the Quenta Silmarillion, but this is bracketed by four shorter legends. Ainulindalë tells of the creation of the world and of the powers that shaped it and watched over it. Valaquenta describes those powers, greater and lesser, good and evil. Akallabêth is Middle-Earth’s version of the Atlantis myth: the drowning of Númenór. And Of the Third Age and the Rings of Power brings Middle-Earth magical history to a close with the destruction of Sauron and the beginning of the dominion of Men.

I can scarcely begin to imagine the amount of notes and organisational ability needed, not only to create such a complex mythology, but to avoid getting it hopelessly muddled. The legends in the book span thousands of years of Middle-Earth history - not to mention geography and genealogy, in several different languages. What I most marvelled at here, just like with The Lord of the Rings, was the sheer scale and thoroughness of Tolkien’s creation. Everything is coherently explained; there’s no point where you wonder how or why something happened. And it all really does read like a collection of ancient myths (or what I imagine ancient myths would be like, since I don’t recall having read any genuine ones). I love the style of writing: ’But in after years he rose like a shadow of Morgoth and a ghost of his malice, and walked behind him on the same ruinous path into the void.’ Even if you weren’t acquainted with Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, he’d still sound evil. The legends even contain several passing references to vampires - a beastie I didn’t know Middle-Earth had.

There’s quite a bit of background to The Lord of the Rings here, and not just in the final chapter. It also covers the arrival of the Dwarves and their poor relationship with the Elves; the previous ill deeds of Sauron and his disembodiment; and Galadriel’s rebellious past. And some of the legends referred to in the trilogy appear at full length. Some, but not all, meaning that this book had the same effect on me as The Lord of the Rings - I want to know more!

Rating: A-

Book Review: Sentimental Murder by John Brewer

Sentimental Murder On 7 April 1779, a recently-ordained clergyman shot and killed Martha Ray, the mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, and turned a second gun on himself. Unfortunately for him, he missed, and received no more than a flesh wound before being taken into custody. There James Hackman was overcome with remorse for what he had done. He claimed that he was in love with Ray, and determined to kill himself rather than live without her, but in a moment of madness sparked by seeing her with another man - a passerby who was helping her into her carriage - had decided to kill her too. Now he wanted to die, and within two weeks the legal system granted his wish. But that was not then end. The story lingered in the public imagination, as it fitted in nicely with the current fashion of sentimentalism. It persisted into the nineteenth century, to take its place in the Victorian fascination with crime and morality; and the twentieth, when the victim was transformed into the heroine.

This is an unusual book in that it is not so much the history of a crime as the history of the history: a chronicle of the accounts and versions of the events of that night. It began almost immediately, as the two sides - the friends and supporters of both Sandwich and Hackman - tried to sway public opinion to their side using the far-from-impartial press. Later authors produced everything from fictional correspondence passed of as fact, to morality tales about what could befall fallen women (guess which century that was from). Wordsworth even slipped her into one of his poems. (Mental note to self: read Wordsworth.) While this different perspective was quite interesting from the historical point of view, particularly the sections describing eighteenth-century society and its productions of rakes and demi-reps like Sandwich and Ray, it was also a bit unsatisfactory. The mystery reader in me wanted to know just what had happened before the crime: were Hackman and Ray having an affair, as has been frequently supposed? Were her friends the Gallis responsible - inadvertently or otherwise - for tipping Hackman over the edge? Since those are questions that there isn’t enough evidence to answer, I’ll just have to settle for the speculations of the intervening two and a quarter centuries.

Rating: B-

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