18 August 2009

Weekly Geeks: Second Chances

Weekly Geeks

There have been times in my life where I reread a book (or author) I hated - or thought I hated - but the second time around ended up loving. Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever changed your mind about a book or author the second time around? Have you ever given a book or author a second chance?
The only example that spring to mind is Charles Dickens. Once upon a time, I tried to read Oliver Twist, and barely made it past the first page. (Which hardly counts as a reading attempt, really.) Later I dragged myself through a few chapters of A Tale of Two Cities, and most of Great Expectations. After years of thinking I’d never be able to finish anything he’d written I did manage to get to the end of A Christmas Carol, which changed my opinion somewhat - I then thought I’d never be able to finish anything long he’d written.

But I felt absurdly guilty. This was Charles Dickens - one of the absolute greats of English literature. I read the classics, so shouldn’t I be reading him? Not the most logical of statements, I know; there’s no code of literary law forbidding you to dislike an author venerated by the critics. But I still thought I should give him one last chance.

So I bought a copy of Bleak House on the grounds that if I really couldn’t finish it, I’d know how it ended because I’d seen the miniseries. And I loved it. All 800+ pages of it. I want to reacquaint myself with A Tale of Two Cities (though perhaps not Great Expectations, at least until my memories of much-disliked high school English classes have faded). I want to go hunting for his other works. I can foresee a lifelong literary love ... proving that stubbornness pays off.

17 August 2009

Book Review: A Void by Georges Perec

A Void Anton Vowl is missing, and his companions cannot find a hint as to his location. Anton's diary might avail, but its only bit of significant information is, again and again, allusion to a void. At a loss, Amaury Conson, Olga Mavrokhordatos, and Hassan Ibn Abbou try to throw a ray of light on this conundrum, but it's a bad day for a solicitor to hold Moroccan nationality....

Flying to a country manor (that of Olga's husband's papa), afraid of sharing Anton's doom, his pals hunt for a way to stay living. Which isn't straightforward; a zahir, a void, and an inability to discuss what's going on without risking instant annihilation all play a part in causing havoc. Bit by bit, that fatal void's origins will show, but will our protagonists triumph against this upshot of past acts?

Notice anything odd about that synopsis? That's right - it doesn't contain a single letter E ... and nor does the book. In its French or English versions. Witnessing the skill and dexterity of author and translator alike is so impressive, the book's worth reading for that alone. There is recourse to a little cheating - numerals, abbreviations, interruptions, retention of the original French for titles that would inevitably have contained an E in English. There's also an enormous amount of long-winded circumlocution, necessary I suppose to skirt around those pesky Es but frequently hard to wade through.

And the subplots! I suspect the author had a great deal of fun devising the craziest scenarios he could. It's all completely nonsensical, as is the prologue that doesn't seem to connect to anything that comes after it, and since nonsensical isn't my thing I could only take it in small doses. It left me feeling that it was far more a literary stunt than an actual story. But the E-less version of The Raven offered at least some compensation.

Rating: C+

14 August 2009

Fractal Friday: Sunburst


Book Review: Some Lie and Some Die by Ruth Rendell

Some Lie and Some Die The Kingsmarkham police force is determined that no criminal activity will disturb the music festival at Sundays, and has sent along a couple of detectives to help keep the peace. Wexford’s and Burden’s crash course in popular culture is interrupted by the discovery of a corpse in a nearby quarry. The body is that of Dawn Stonor, who had disappeared - and been killed - several days before the festival began, but coincidentally was a childhood friend of the headline act, Zeno Vedast (real name Harold Goodbody). She had claimed that they’d reconnected, but then Dawn was a compulsive liar where celebrities were concerned. She was obviously planning to meet someone, and Wexford is convinced it was a resident of one of the houses backing onto the quarry, despite the lack of evidence to suggest she entered any of them. The one thing that might break the case wide open is if someone can explain why fashion-conscious Dawn was found wearing a frumpy, outdated dress that didn’t fit and wasn’t hers.

I think I’d have enjoyed the Sundays festival (except for the camping bit). But I wouldn’t have liked to be in Zeno’s inner circle - there’s something not pleasant about him and neither the manager nor the manager’s wife is too charming. That perspective of the music industry is something of an antidote to the current round of Australian Idol hoopla. I don’t think I’d have found Dawn easy to get along with either . . . but this is still a good whodunit in spite of some of the characters. A puzzling crime, false leads, conflicting information, a dearth of evidence - and that dress (which Wexford and Burden needed a woman to explain the real significance of). Since fashion occupies a certain portion of the story its age does show, but it’s rather amusing to conjure mental images of the assorted 70s horrors described - especially a certain lot of wallpaper. And happily Burden has recovered his sanity since No More Dying Then, though I still thought it couldn’t be much fun for his kids to have him for a parent.

I just wish these books would end with a list of the source of all Wexford’s quotations! I recognised a grand total of one, and I’m sure a list would provide me with plenty of ideas for things to read.

Rating: B

13 August 2009

Weekly Geeks: Crime and Punishment

Weekly Geeks

It's a mystery! 1."Do you love a little suspense in your life? Have you ever read a book that keeps you twisting and turning until the last page? Tell us about it (but not too much , we want to be left hanging ourselves). Or maybe there is a series of mysteries that you adore. Why do you keep reading about the same detectives?"***

2. To expand on that a little: the new TV series Castle revolves around a popular mystery writer. There's even talk that a novel will be published supposedly written by Castle himself. TV and books will muddy the entertainment waters once again. I think we all know of the Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes series on PBS and BBC as well. Not to mention the new movie Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law will open December 25, 2009. Looks pretty exciting!

If you were to be given special TV or movie producing powers, which mystery novel character(s) would you create a TV series or movie for? Who would you cast in the major roles?

*** This week's idea came from Kristen: Bookworm Kristen.

I blame Nancy Drew. I got through a handful of Enid Blyton mysteries in Year 2, but it was the arrival in my reading world of Nancy the following year that really got me hooked on whodunits. I doubt my mother had any inkling of the addiction she was sparking. Reading about a team of crime-solvers near my own age was one thing; reading about the adventures of the glamorous and - to the eyes of someone whose age could be counted on her fingers - grown-up Nancy & co. was entirely another. Detective work was not just a bit of summer-holiday fun, but a cool vocation, complete with sports car and boyfriend. Heck, I wanted to BE Nancy ... well, except for the bits about mortal danger. (So I’m short and totally un-athletic ... but my hair’s the right colour. That counts for something, doesn’t it?)

When I made the jump to adult novels several years later, I met Hercule Poirot, and it got worse from there. At the library I’m irresistibly drawn to books with the deerstalker-hat-and-magnifying-glass stickers on the spine, and for the years for which I’ve kept records Mystery & Thriller generally has the highest number of titles listed, unless it’s been beaten by Non-Fiction. (So far this year, Non-Fiction is trailing by 5.) I’ll read anything from the genteel inquisitiveness of Miss Marple to the supernatural-tinged, stomach-turning bloodshed of Charlie Parker’s cases; from the comic semi-competence of Stephanie Plum to the ruthless efficiency of Sam Spade. Not to mention all the points in between.

Mystery novels are a natural literary corollary of my childhood love of jigsaw puzzles. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I really got hooked on them the same year I started having major problems at school, of the “Oh God I’m gonna die of boredom” variety. Armchair crime-solving (or attempts thereat) provided the mental stimulation so desperately lacking between 9 and 3. And since I’m the sort of person who can never get her brain to take a rest, the mystery-reading habit stuck; I like the opportunity to combine reading with a whole lot of thinking.

And now I suppose I really should get around to actually answering the question! There are plenty of detectives I like to read repeatedly: Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Stephanie Plum, Matthew Bartholomew, Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Jonathan Argyll, Marcus Didius Falco, Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspectors Alleyn, Dalgleish, Morse, and Wexford and who knows who else. I’m sure if I took the time I could think of as many again. What keeps me coming back is the combination of plot and characters - ingenious mysteries that keep me guessing and likeable detectives who stand out from the crowd. A good plot will only get you so far if I can’t remember the main characters a few months later.

I’ve often thought that the Jonathan Argyll series has a comedy-of-errors air that would make delightful viewing, but I haven’t a clue who I’d cast. (Methinks I need to watch more British television.) But then, I’d make a woeful casting director; I have such clear mental images of the characters I read about that it would be near-impossible to find a real-life match. The exception is Ngaio Marsh’s charming and polished Roderick Alleyn. Her novels would make a great television series, in the vein of Agatha Christie but hopefully a lot more faithful to the books. And Jeremy Northam would be perfect for the leading role.

A girl can dream....

09 August 2009

Library Loot

Library Loot Oh dear ... you know you love NaNoWriMo too much when your enthusiasm for research causes you to forget all about Library Loot! I’ve actually finished The Sacred Cut and A Plum in Your Mouth already.

The Sacred Cut
Powder and Patch
The Lies of Locke Lamora
The Tears of Autumn
The Sixth Wife
Last Rituals
The Minotaur
Queen Emma and the Vikings
Lucia in the Age of Napoleon
A Plum in Your Mouth

The Sacred Cut - David Hewson
Powder and Patch - Georgette Heyer
The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch
The Tears of Autumn - Charles McCarry
The Sixth Wife - Jean Plaidy
Last Rituals - Yrsa Sigurdardottir
The Minotaur - Barbara Vine
Nana - Emile Zola

Queen Emma and the Vikings - Harriet O’Brien
Lucia in the Age of Napoleon - Andrea di Robilant
A Plum in Your Mouth - Andrew Taylor

Er ... do you think I had a good day?

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

04 August 2009

Book Review: An Unholy Alliance by Susanna Gregory

An Unholy Alliance Nearly two years after the plague arrived in Cambridge society is starting to recover, and Matthew Bartholomew has settled into a comfortable routine of teaching students and tending to patients. Then a man no one knows is found dead in a chest containing the University’s most secret papers, having picked six locks to get there. The proctors have their hands full thanks to the nearby Stourbridge fair, and the chancellor doesn’t care to bring in outsiders, so Bartholomew and Brother Michael are given the task of finding out who the man was, how he died, and whether a warts-and-all history of the university written by a man now dead had anything to do with his fate. Michael is delighted at the opportunity for intrigue (his second-favourite hobby, after eating) but Bartholomew had far rather prepare his students for their disputations - and hope that Robert Deynman fails.

But what the chancellor wants, the chancellor gets. Soon Bartholomew is up to his ears in murder, attempted murder, vanishing acts, theft, kidnapping, highway robbery, sinister warnings, satanic cults, and the appearance of someone who ought not to be alive. Not only is there the body in the box to be investigated, but the repeated ambushing of Oswald Stanmore’s carts and a serial killer butchering the town’s prostitutes - or any woman out late enough to be mistaken for one. Many of them have the symbol of one of the cults drawn in blood on one foot - a signature, or a diversion? If the former, could one of the leading men of the town be involved? Why is the sheriff so unwilling to take on the case? Are there three mysteries, or two, or just one? And how do you deal with one student who think’s you’re a heretic and another as dense as one of Agatha the laundress’s leaden loaves?

Poor Bartholomew. Fate seems determined to keep dragging him into the quagmire of University politics, the very thing he likes least. The first time round was bad enough; but now it’s the secrets of the whole university, not one college, and however closely they might be tied to the case the chancellor is not about to give those secrets up - even if Nicholas of York did die for them. And with a psycho serial killer on the loose the stakes are even higher. It’s impossible not to think of Jack the Ripper, but this isn’t a copying of history - killer and motive alike are very much fourteenth century. Post-plague fourteenth century, I should say; one of the most interesting things about the book is the picture it paints of life after the Death and the ways in which people reacted. Some cling more closely to the tenets of the Church, some turn away from it, and Bartholomew does his best to produce the new doctors desperately needed to replace those who died. Unfortunately this means teaching Brother Boniface - a Franciscan fanatic who believes that if God didn’t intend physicians to use leeches for everything, he wouldn’t have created them - and the hilariously blockheaded Robert Deynman. The latter had me laughing out loud with the dumb things he did, while the former turned out to have an unexpected side to his character that went a long way toward redeeming his earlier outbursts.

For about one mad moment per book I wish Susanna Gregory would lay out all her clues so that the reader has a chance at putting them together before Bartholomew does. Then I realise there’s no point - I would never manage it. I saw the significance of something a few paragraphs before it was explained, but that was the sum total of my deductive success. And really I’m content to sit back, enjoy the characters, the history, and the plot, and be utterly confused.

Rating: A

Book Review: The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye by A. S. Byatt

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye In “The Glass Coffin” an utterly ordinary little tailor sets off on an adventure more remarkable than any fate he’d imagined might be his. “Gode's Story” tells of a village girl whose pride brings a strange visitation. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” shows what happens when a girl embarks on a fairy-tale quest she knows is doomed to fail. Three siblings learn to be careful what they wish for when the tedium of country life is broken by “Dragon’s Breath.” And in “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” an academic travelling to Turkey buys a lovely piece of nightingale’s-eye glass and discovers that it was not as empty as it seemed.

After reading Eliza Makepeace’s stories in The Forgotten Garden I felt in the mood for more fairy tales and this collection was just the thing. At first I was just a little disappointed to see that two of the stories were reprinted from Possession rather than new; but it’s been long enough since I’ve read Possession that I couldn’t really remember them. “Gode’s Story” was just as unsettling and strange the third time around, and I’m still not entirely sure what the ghostly visitor was or what it came for. “The Glass Coffin” is a lovely piece - the tailor is about as far from your typical dashing hero as you can get, with a correspondingly atypical approach to the challenges he encounters, and I very much hoped he would triumph.

Of the four shorter pieces my favourite was “The Story of the Eldest Princess,” who knew that she and her sisters were in a situation straight out of a fairy-tale. Since, in such tales, it is always the third sister who finally succeeds the eldest girl’s quest was certain to fail but she still applied her knowledge of fairy-tales to everything she met on the road in the hope of making the right decisions, until a chance arrived for her to choose her own ending. It reminded me vaguely of Howl’s Moving Castle which I haven’t read for a decade - I’m sure there was something in that about the eldest of three sisters being bound to fail if she sets out to make her fortune. (Wasn’t there?)

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” is novella-length, and reading it was the perfect escape from the misery of a bad cold. (Which I suspect was another reason to avoid the library during school holidays.) I loved Gillian’s notion of herself as “keeping watch on the borders of correctness” - I’ve adopted the phrase to describe my spelling-grammar-and-punctuation pedantry. It sounds so much better that way, doesn’t it? In fact I liked everything about Gillian, primarily the fact that she had dedicated her life to words and stories. What was shown of her work left me wanting to read the tales of the 1,001 Nights and become acquainted with some middle-eastern mythology. So did the djinn, who bore little resemblance to the floating figures trailing wisps of smoke you see in cartoons, but altogether more corporeal and authentic. When the time came for the inevitable three wishes, I admired Gillian’s careful deliberation and her combination of what was practical with what she wanted. The thought she put into her choices made me wonder what I would do in her position, and whether I could be so judicious.

Rating: B+

Weekly Geeks: Music and Books

Weekly Geeks

This week we have a guest post by Ashley of Complete and Unabridged.

Music is a pretty amazing thing. It can take us back to the past, make us want to dance, put us in a romantic mood, or simply lift our spirits. But sometimes, music does something a little different for me: it reminds me of a book.

Yes, there is nothing more geeky than to be riding down the road listening to the radio and suddenly thinking "That song matches [book title] perfectly!". But that is exactly what happens to me sometimes. For example, whenever I hear Phil Collins' song 'Can't Stop Loving You,' I immediately think of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South. To me, it is exactly the kind of song that describes the two main characters' relationship.

So, my fellow Weekly Geeks, your challenge this week is to come up with at least one song-book match. It could remind you of a theme from the book, a specific part of the plot, or even one of the characters (a sort of theme song, if you will). Be sure to include samples of the lyrics and the reason why that song reminds you of that book. If you can provide a link to a recording of the song so that other geeks can hear it that would be great as well. (One good place to look for links is last.fm, there are others, too).

Rock n' Roll!!

I’ll admit that I have already been there, done that. (But only once. And only recently. So I’m just at the start of the slippery slope of that particular form of literary geekdom, aren’t I?) The book in question was The Night Watch, set in part during the Little Blitz in London. After combining reading Sarah Waters with listening to Eskimo Joe, I ended up with “London Bombs” stuck in my head whenever I opened the book. The song refers to a completely different set of explosives - the kind carried into subways in backpacks - but it still seemed appropriate.

However, Ashley asked us to devise a song-book pair, not tell everyone about a pre-existing one, so I went looking for more ... and that was where things went awry. I read the task last night, and my brain does it best creative thinking when a touch sleep-deprived. I guess as some of my thought processes start switching off the rest are left free to make spontaneous leaps. While trying to decide whether I should attempt to match a song to a book or vice versa, my memory conjured up The Girl Most Likely by Rebecca Sparrow (mentioned in this BTT post about the books most loathed). In short: chick-lit heroine once voted Most Likely to Succeed finds herself with a dead ordinary life nothing like anything she ever dreamed it would be, in which she gets railroaded into a beauty pageant by her mother. To make herself sound more impressive she lies and says she’s dating Bernard Fanning ... whose band Powderfinger just happen to have a song called “These Days” that fits Rachel’s situation pretty well:

This life well it’s slipping right through my hands These days turned out nothing like I had planned Control well it’s slipping right through my hands These days turned out nothing like I had planned

(Unfortunately embedding was disabled on YouTube’s clip of the gorgeous piano version, but you can watch it here.)

So now one of my all-time favourite songs is inextricably linked to one of my all-time least favourite books. That was so not the connection I wanted my brain to make! (On the bright side, it could be applied to a lot of characters; it shouldn’t take me long to think of a better association.)

After that little fiasco I had to come up with another pair ... preferably involving a book I like. At first all I got was Phil Collins stuck in my head (and later all I got was Phil Collins stuck in my head ... in fact I’ve still got Phil Collins stuck in my head!) In the end I went some way toward the other extreme, with a book I love and an artist of whom I’ve never been a fan. But it’s such a perfect match: in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair Becky Sharp is the ultimate schemer when it comes to her financial well-being; she wants the finer things in life, doesn’t much care what she has to do to get them, and makes no apologies for it. What other song to team her with than “Material Girl”?

'Cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always Mister Right, 'cause we are
Living in a material world
And I am a material girl

Now ... what do I have capable of driving out Phil?

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

In retrospect, Burne-Jones did not cover himself with glory. He told Ruskin’s lawyers that ‘scarcely any body regards Whistler as a serious person’, that Whistler’s art was founded on ‘the art of brag’, and that Whistler rarely ‘committed himself to the peril of completing anything’.

From A Circle of Sisters by Judith Flanders, p. 154.

03 August 2009

Blog Improvement Project: Task 14

Blog Improvement Project This week’s task is an idea I’ve never heard of: creating a post of links to your best posts as a way of enticing readers further into your little patch of cyberspace. (Apparently the technical-ish term is a “sneeze post” but I think I’ll pass on using it, especially with swine flu doing the rounds!)

I’ve taken a bit of inspiration from Kim and added the link to the post to the profile section of the left sidebar. The post itself, like my About Me page and review indexes, has been drastically backdated so it’s easy to find - and update - at the end of my archive. If you want to see what it contains ... you’ll have to click the link and find out. (See - it’s working already!)

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