A couple of DNFs

>> Sunday, October 19, 2014

TITLE: Murder in the Marais
AUTHOR: Cara Black

I picked this one up based on its setting: it's a mystery set in Paris. Aimée Leduc is a PI specialising in computer-based investigations (the book is set in the mid-90s, so that element felt a bit quaint!). She's approached by an old Jewish man asking her to do a decoding job for him, which she reluctantly accepts (she's wary of getting involved in dangerous work, since her policeman father was killed as a result of doing just that). Having broken the relevant code and accessed a photograph, she takes it to the location her client instructed. And there she discovers her instincts were right. The woman she was supposed to give the photograph to, an old Jewish lady, has been murdered, a swastika carved on her body.

And here we get to what didn't work for me. Of course, if Aimée just turned over all she knew to the police and butted out of the investigation, we wouldn't have a story. But there are ways of keeping her involved, and not all of them require her to behave like an idiot and illegally hide evidence from the police for no good reason, and in ways that completely wreck the police investigation. I didn't understand why Aimée did the things she did, and felt the plotting lacked subtlety. As did, actually, the parallel storyline about a former SS member who's now a minister in the German government and has been pressured by a Neo-Nazi secret organisation into coming to Paris.

The bones of the plot seemed ok, and I'd normally be interested in it, but the execution felt much too clumsy and contrived. The secondary characters were stereotypical and I found Aimée quite preposterous. I gave up after about 100 pages.


TITLE: Black at Heart
AUTHOR: Leslie Parrish (now Leslie A. Kelly)

This is the third in a series whose first two books I really liked a few years ago, about an FBI team investigating cyber-crimes. In the previous book, Lily decided decided to go all vigilante and try to catch a paedophile the team had come across in an online investigation (her nephew had been killed by a paedophile, so her work was always really personal for her). Lily went outside her team to do so, and was captured by the man she was after, who kept her captive for days. Her team, including her enigmatic boss, Wyatt Blackstone, thought she was dead. She managed to call Wyatt for help, though, and he rescued her. Since then, Wyatt has helped her stay in hiding and everyone thinks she's dead. Except the paedophile suspects she might still be out there, and has hatched a plan to force her out.

This just didn't work for me. It took me ages to get into it at the beginning (weeks and weeks to read the first half of the book), mainly because I didn't find the characters particularly interesting. This was a trilogy constructed to have the last book contain the romance the readers would be dying to read, but I... wasn't. The relationship between Wyatt and Lily felt unequal in the first two books, and even though now she's supposed to be so much stronger, I just didn't feel it. Plus, I was a bit annoyed at the direction the suspense element was taking. The villain was revealed to be rich and powerful and preparing to use that power and money to target Lily, even using the police and justice system. That's not a plot that is to my taste.

So, a disappointment. I'm not sure if I would have liked this better when the series first came out, but I didn't now.



Man Booker Prize 2014

>> Monday, October 13, 2014

For the last few years, I've been reading more and more from the Man Booker prize lists. I've found some fantastic books that way, books that I wouldn't have read otherwise, as they don't obviously sound like my sort of thing. Also, I like being able to participate in the very animated discussions about about who should win, and to do so with an informed opinion. The winner will be announced Tuesday evening, so I'll post here my impressions of the books I read.

The experience this year was really interesting. It was a pretty controversial longlist, very white, and with fewer women than in the last few years. There also weren't as many "Commonwealth" novels as usual. True, there were more books there than in previous years that appealed to me a priori, but that only meant that I was going to be more in my comfort zone, not necessarily a good thing.

I started reading like crazy as soon as the longlist was announced, and I was wowed by the books I chose to start with. By the time the shortlist was announced, I'd read 6. I absolutely loved 3 and liked the others very much. Three of those books (2 on the 'liked' camp, 1 on the 'loved') were on the shortlist, so I immediately embarked on reading the rest of the shortlisted books.

And there I hit a bit of a bad patch. I did not enjoy those three books, not at all. In fact, they ended up being DNFs, after reading good, long chunks of each. We're talking between a quarter and a third of the whole book, definitely enough to judge whether it was my thing or not. These 3 weren't.

I'll start with those, just so I can end in a positive note. How To Be Both, by Ali Smith and J, by Howard Jacobson I gave up on for the same reason, even though they are seemingly very different.

How To Be Both is quite experimental with form. It's got two halves, which the author instructs can be read in any order. In fact, half the printed copies have them in one order, half in the other, and the ebook comes with both versions for the reader to choose from. The section I started with is set in the present day, and it's about George, a teenager whose mother has just died. The other section is set in 15th century Italy, and it's about an artist who painted some wonderful frescoes in a palazzo George visits in her section.

J is set in a dystopian future, after an event referred to by the characters as "what happened, if it happened". It's a totalitarian world, in which the approach taken to ensure that event is not repeated is to force people to forget about it and deny what's happened, rather than our world's "never forget".

Both are very much novels of ideas, which is something I usually like. In particular, I thought the ideas explored in the Jacobson were really intriguing (the way I've heard him describe it is what happens when you actually succeed in annihilating 'the enemy', and there's no one to attack but yourself). But in both books the characters created to explore those ideas just weren't up to it. They didn't behave in ways I felt made any sense or recognised as human. It might be that I'm a failure as a reader of serious literature by insisting on characters with internal coherence and with something in them that feels true, but if that's the case, so be it.

The other book that didn't work for me was the one that's the bookies' favourite to win: The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee. It's set in Calcutta in the late 1960s. Mukherjee protests that it isn't a family saga, but in the 150 pages or so that I read, that's exactly what it felt like. The Ghosh family all live together in a large house, and we get to see all the resentments and jealousies and rivalries. Actually, not all live together, because the eldest grandson, Supratik, leaves home early in the book and joins a group of revolutionaries living amongst impoverished villagers and trying to create an uprising.

There were some things I liked here. It's a vivid portrayal of a time and a place, and I'm attracted to the idea of the Ghosh household as a sort of metaphor for the divisions and inequalities of society. I had problems with the characters, though, although in a different sense as in the previous two books. These characters felt real, but they were overpowering and uninteresting in their small-mindedness and pettiness. I particularly resented the way the relationships amongst the women were depicted. They were all purely about competition and nastiness, which made me tired and frustrated. The Supratik sections could have opened up the focus a bit, but I found those much too heavy on the preaching, even if it was preaching of a message I agreed with.

Like How To Be Both and J, I'm sure The Lives of Others is a good book; it's just not to my taste.

And now we come to the ones I actually liked. First, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan (my review here). This one was a bit mixed. The action covers pretty much the whole life of a man who during World War II commanded a group of men being quite literally being worked to death in the Burma Death Railway. The sections directly related to the Death Railway were incredibly powerful. It's not just the sections set directly during the war, but those afterwards, showing what became of the men who were there (both Australian and Japanese) and how they dealt with those events. Unfortunately, there's also quite a bit of space devoted to the main character's private life: forbidden romance with his uncle's wife before the war, his marriage, his constant womanising. Those sections I didn't like at all. They didn't feel emotionally true and frankly bored me. Still, the book is definitely worth reading.

I also liked To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris (my review here). It's a deceptively readable and funny book about a New York dentist whose identity is stolen by someone who uses it to get out the word about the Ulm, a lost tribe of Israel even more persecuted than the Jews (in fact, persecuted by the Jews). I say 'deceptively' because behind the comedy and witty conversations is a really interesting exploration of the search for something bigger than onself. It's a good one, and definitely worth a read

Finally, my favourite of the shortlisted 6 was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (my review here). It's about a woman who grew up in a family that was unique in a very interesting way. When we meet her we know that the family has pretty much disintegrated, and we explore why. The book looks at themes like how families work, the nature of sisterhood, the treachery of memory, animal rights, and activism, but it does this by telling a wonderfully engaging story. I really enjoyed it.

So, out of the 6 shortlisted books, I have a clear favourite. I'd love it if We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won. I'm pretty sure that won't happen, though. If I had to call it, I'd definitely go with one of my DNFs, quite possibly The Lives of Others.

But I guess another issue is whether I think these are the right books on the shortlist, and the answer to that is absolutely not. Much as I liked the Fowler, there were two books that didn't make the shortlist that I thought were even better.

My absolute favourite on the longlist was The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth (my review here), which tells the story of the resistance after the Norman invasion of 1066. This was a book that completely wowed me on all fronts. Its use of language is incredible and I loved both the recreation of a time and place and the way it creates a fascinating character in its narrator. One of the best books I've read in recent years, and it's a huge shame that it didn't get on the shortlist. It's a bit of a hard sell, being written in what the author describes as a shadow version of Old English, and I suspect being on the shortlist would have meant a lot more people daring to start it.

But The Wake was closely followed by David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, which I thought was a fabulous read. Mitchell does his usual thing here of having a book composed of a group of novellas, six here. There is a strong narrative thread, though, as we have Holly Sykes in whose point of view we are in the first and last stories, and who's very present in the middle four. There's also a big fantasy Good vs. Evil-type element which is mostly in the background but pops up periodically in the different sections. I'm not describing it very well here, but it's great storytelling, with really interesting characters I cared about intensely and done with Mitchell's gift for mimicking different genres. I didn't want to leave this world when the book finished, and it will definitely be one I'll reread, probably soon.

I did read a couple more from the longlist. In fact, the first book I picked when that was announced was The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (my review here). It tells the story of neglected artist Harriet Burden. This is done through her diaries and all sorts of different materials (interviews, articles, statements from people involved in her life), gathered by an editor after Harriet's death. It's a story about sexism and the willful blindness of people, who only see what they expect to see and will actually make huge efforts to ignore what doesn't agree with their worldview. It's a bit of a challenging one (some of Harriet's diary entries, in particular), but I liked it very much and found it worth the read.

Finally, as I write this, I'm halfway through Richard Powers' Orfeo. It's about a retired avant-garde composer who has been experimenting with using DNA in his music. For this, he's set up a small DIY lab in his home. This comes to the notice of the authorities, and cue the huge overreaction. Most of that plot line is to come, though. In the first half it has been set up, but mostly we've been hearing about the composer's life and about music... a whole lot about music. And the way Powers writes about it is fantastic. I've been trying to read it at home, because whenever he talks about a real, existing piece I want to hear it (and thank heavens for youtube!). I'm enjoying it.

On the whole, this has been an excellent year. There are always going to be some books that aren't my cup of tea, but the ones I liked, I really, really liked!


The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth

>> Sunday, October 05, 2014

TITLE: The Wake
AUTHOR: Paul Kingsnorth

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 11th century England
TYPE: Fiction

Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next...Set in the three years after the Norman invasion, The Wake tells the story of a fractured band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders. Carefully hung on the known historical facts about the almost forgotten war of resistance that spread across England in the decade after 1066, it is a story of the brutal shattering of lives, a tale of lost gods and haunted visions, narrated by a man of the Lincolnshire fens bearing witness to the end of his world.

The Wake tells the story of Buccmaster of Holland, a man living in a Lincolnshire village at the time of the Norman invasion. The coming of the Normans is catastrophic for Buccmaster, as for so many others. With his family and his house gone, he decides to lead a group of men who've also lost everything and fight the invaders.

Out of all the books on the Man Booker longlist, The Wake is probably the most unlikely one. Not only was it crowd-funded, it's written in what the author describes as a "shadow tongue", a language inspired in Old English, but updated in such a way as to actually make it understandable to modern readers. Basically, there are no words of Latin origin (since the English tongue hadn't yet began to mix with the French) and no letters that weren't used at the time (no k or v or a couple of others I now can't remember), and the spelling, punctuation and sentence structure are very much not modern. The Author's Note gives us a couple of pronunciation rules (e.g. "sc" is pronounced "sh", so "biscop" should be read as "bishop") and there is a short glossary for words that the reader would not be able to guess or deduce (e.g. "fugol" means "bird"), but that's all we get before we are on our way. By the way, these items are both at the end of the Kindle version, which seems counterproductive; you'd definitely want to read them first (I did).

Anyway, I was intrigued when I first read about the book, but I was also quite a bit wary. Was this really necessary, or was Kingsnorth just being willfully difficult and pretentious? Did I really want to struggle through the sort of thing in the photograph below? (click to enlarge). I thought I'd wait and see, and only read it if it got on the shortlist.

Fortunately, I then listened to one of my regular bookish podcasts, Adventures With Words. What they do every year is read the kindle samples of all the books on the longlist and talk about their first impressions, and whether they would want to continue reading based on that. One of the podcasters was really enthusiastic about The Wake. She said that she'd quickly got into the rhythm of the writing and that she'd enjoyed what she'd read of the story. What she said tempted me, and I decided to pick it up next.

Well, I agree completely. This is one extraordinary book, and one of the reasons is, yes, the language. It's not some sort of gimmick; it's absolutely necessary to put you inside Buccmaster's mind and looking out of his eyes and to create the world he inhabits. He's not a modern character plonked down in the 11th century, and the language makes this obvious. I honestly don't think Kingsnorth could have achieved anything even close to the same effect without it. It's little things like, for instance, the way the word "women" is "wifmen", highlighting how in Buccmaster's worldview, a woman is a wife, and that's that.

Is it worth the effort on the part of the reader? To me, definitely. And really, although reading The Wake does require more concentration than reading other books, it's not as hard as the pic above would suggest. I started out sounding things out in my head, virtually reading the text out loud. 'Deofyl'? Ahh, devil. And 'triewe' must be 'true'. And what was 'cenep' again? *Checks the glossary* Ah, 'moustache'. That would have been exhausting, if I'd had to keep it up for an entire book, but I really didn't. After a surprisingly short while I had learnt the language, and other than sporadic checks of the glossary when a new term came up, I was just reading, almost as fast as usual. It's an effort, but not a superhuman one, by any means.

I've concentrated on the language and the setting so far, but the book is much more than a recreation of a particular time. There's a story, but mainly, this is a character study. Buccmaster feels completely real, and he's one fascinating character. He's very alien in some ways, but completely believable and understandable and recognisably human. He's basically a self-important braggart who thinks he's better than anyone else. Partly it's that before the Normans came he was "a socman of three oxgangs" (i.e. a free tenant farmer, owning three of that measure of land), as he constantly reminds us and everyone around him, and therefore superior to his companions, who didn't have that independence. Partly it's that he is devoted to the old ways and the old religions, and therefore has nothing but contempt for the idiots who pay any heed to the Christian priests. Here's Buccmaster talking about his grandfather:

he was eald he was ealder than any man in the fenns and there was those saed this was due to his wicce craft for he was not with the crist and that he wolde go on his death to hel. this is the scit what folcs specs if they is left to them selfs and it is why they sceolde be loccd ofer by greater men.
"greater men", of course, being Buccmaster himself.

And that short sentence I think gives you some indication of why, even though he's a terrible human being, Buccmaster is such a wonderful character and I was willing to make the effort to read his story. He's interesting and entertainingly irreverent. He effs and blinds all over the place... "fuccan" this, "fuccan" that, and his utter disdain for everyone else is jaw-dropping, and yet believable. He's a real pill and a right bastard, and he really comes alive during the book.

And I think, because he's the kind of person he is, the sheer hugeness and horror of what has happened to the country really emerges. He's no great leader of men, no paragon, and you get the feeling there must have been many, many like him around the country: people who have had the fabric of their lives ripped apart. People who had a measure of freedom have become unfree, completely beholden to people who just suddenly showed up and care nothing for anything other than what they can extract from them. I really felt the outrage.

And for all that this is a story about people in quite desperate circumstances and where really bad things happen, and are not taken lightly, it's fuccan hilarious. It's all in the details, like Buccmaster and his companions' outrage when they see that the French invaders are bald as eggs (i.e. they don't have huge bushy beards, like them).

I loved it. This is why I keep making the effort to try stuff on the Man Booker lists. There's no way I would even have heard of this book otherwise.



The Clockwork Scarab, by Colleen Gleason

>> Friday, October 03, 2014

TITLE: The Clockwork Scarab
AUTHOR: Colleen Gleason

PAGES: 361
PUBLISHER: Chronicle

SETTING: Steampunk version of Victorian London
TYPE: Mystery / adventure / romance (I think!)
SERIES: Starts the Stoker and Holmes series

Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes never meant to get into the family business.

But when you're the sister of Bram and the niece of Sherlock, vampire hunting and mystery solving are in your blood. And when two society girls go missing, there's no one more qualified to investigate.

Now fierce Evaline and logical Mina must resolve their rivalry, navigate the advances of not just one but three mysterious gentlemen, and solve a murder with only one clue: the strange Egyptian scarab. The stakes are high.

If Stoker and Holmes don't unravel why the belles of London society are in such danger, they'll become the next victims.

This sounded like fun. All I knew before I started was that it was steampunk and that it featured Miss Stoker (sister of Bram) and Miss Holmes (niece of Sherlock, daughter of Mycroft) investigating a mystery.

The action starts when Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes are invited to a mysterious midnight meeting at the British Museum. They have been called in by Irene Adler (whom Sherlock Holmes readers will remember). Miss Adler has been tasked by Princess Alexandra to investigate the apparent suicides of several well-born young ladies, and wants to recruit Miss Holmes and Miss Stoker to help her do so. The only clues she has to go on are the Egyptian scarabas that have been found on the bodies. And then the meeting is interrupted by a noise in the supposedly deserted museum, and what should they find but another body, clearly one more in the string of killings?

There were some intriguing ideas here, and I liked the setup of two independent and clever young women who initially don't like each other much, but who must work together. However, this was just too preposterous for me. I didn't buy the setup for the mystery, I didn't find the details of the steampunk setting coherent, and then there's the time-traveller who comes out of nowhere with his iPhone (seriously).

But most of all, I think what made me stop reading was that it felt like Gleason was more concerned with whether something was "visually" really cool than with whether it would make sense, both in her plot and in her setting. As a for instance, take the scene where Evaline and Mina have managed to inveigle themselves into a meeting of a secret society that is obviously very relevant to their investigation. The masked leader is speaking, and what she's saying is all new information to our investigators about what the secret society is all about and what their plans are. But instead of listening till the end and gathering as much information as possible, Evaline suddenly stands up, pushes back her hood and loudly demands to know what the leader has done with the young ladies who've disappeared. Ah, but the utter stupidity and senselessness of her actions don't matter, because this gives her the chance to show off her preternatural strength in a really cool fight and escape scene (in a tie-in with another of Gleason's series, Evaline is a descendant of the vampire hunters in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles).

Adding to the annoyance, the names confused me. "Mina" immediately makes me think of Mina Harker, the character created by Bram Stoker. So part of my brain kept insisting that Mina was Miss Stoker, rather than Miss Holmes. It probably wouldn't have been a huge issue in a book I was enjoying, but since I was already irritated, it was the last drop.



September 2014 reads

>> Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A pretty good month. No huge duds, just a couple of books that weren't for me, and the wonderful Bone Clocks, which I adored.

1 - The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell: A
review coming soon

This is one of the few books on the Man Booker longlist I would have picked up even if it hadn't been on in. I loved it, by far the best on the list so far, and it's a travesty that it didn't make the shortlist. It's similar to Cloud Atlas in that it's made up of 6 chunks that feel like novellas in their own right, but the narrative thread that links them all together is much clearer. It's also very much a fantasy novel, even though the prominence of the fantastical element varies throughout the book. It's a big, chunky read, but I didn't want it to end.

2 - Borders of Infinity, by Lois McMaster Bujold: B+
review coming soon

Short story. Miles is stuck in a Cetagandan prison camp which is a clear example of their propensity for fine-tuned psychological. He is at his most Miles-ish here, and I thought it was a really clever and well-crafted story.

3 - Labyrinth, by Lois McMaster Bujold: B+
review coming soon

Another short story. Miles is contracted to rescue a scientist from an earlier contract in Jackson's Hole, but the man refuses to leave until Miles recovers some genetic material... which the man had earlier stored on the product of a super-soldier genetic experiment. I liked this one. I was initially a bit queasy about a certain sexual element, but felt a lot more comfortable with it by the end.

4 - Jovah's Angel, by Sharon Shinn: B+
original review here

Reread. The whole Samaria series is one of my favourites. This is the second book, where we get some quite shocking revelations, shocking to the point that they even change the genre of the series. The plot involves the main protagonist, the angel Alleluia, becoming Archangel when the holder of the post gets injured in an accident and can't fly. It's a difficult job, particularly because everything is going wrong. The god is listening to angels' requests and prayers less and less, and this is diminishing the angels' power at a time when they need it to protect the more vulnerable sections of society. It's a really interesting plot and I also liked the romance very much. Alleluia's love interest is an atheist engineer and inveterate tinkerer whom I thought was just lovely.

5 - Have Mercy, by Shelley Ann Clark: B
review coming soon

So this is what it takes for me to like a rock star romance: just make the star the heroine, rather than the hero. This is BDSM, not usually my thing either, but again, when it's femdom, there's a chance I might actually like it, and I did.

6 - Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy L Sayers: B-
original review here

Another reread. Actually, I'm listening to it this time around, since my library has the entire series on audio. In this, the second in the series, Lord Peter must investigate the death of his sister's fiancé. It's particularly important because Peter's brother, the Duke, stands accused of the murder.

I liked a lot of it, like the portait of increasing class tension, but I found sections of this almost unreadable. Mainly, it was the ones that dealt with Mrs. Grimethorpe and her abuse at the hands of her husband. The attitude is "oh, well, that's such a shame, but nothing we can do about it". Probably historically accurate, but I found it so upsetting that it made me hate the "Establishment" characters, even Lord Peter. There's a point, particularly, when they're talking about whether it's right to put this woman's life in mortal and certain danger if it turns out it's the only way to keep Peter's brother from being hanged for murder. And the response is, again, "oh, well, sometimes these things must be done". Because of course, the life of a Duke is so much more important than the life of a working class woman. Bollocks!

7 - The Man In the Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie: B-
review here

Not really a mystery, but an adventure/caper/international conspiracy type of story. It features a young plucky girl who gets involved in a dangerous plot. I thought it was fun, but the oblivious racism of the sections set in South Africa was upsetting. Also, I used to love the romance here many years ago, but it just didn't work for me as a grown-up.

8 - Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell: B-
review coming soon

I feel guilty for not liking this more. I liked the characters and was interested in their lives and their struggles, it's just that I found the romance really corny, and it was a huge part of the book. Also, the heavy nostalgia for something I never knew didn't work for me either.

9 - Grimm Tales For Young and Old, by Philip Pullman: C+
review here

Pullman's version of 50 of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. His versions were too straight for my taste, not doing anything about what I see as the weaknesses in logic of the stories.

10 - How To Be Both, by Ali Smith: DNF
review coming soon

My first DNF of the books on the Man Booker list. This one sounded interesting, but the characters never felt like people, and I found the whole thing a bit pretentious and not really very interesting.

11 - The Clockwork Scarab, by Colleen Gleason: DNF
review coming soon

Steampunk. The premise is that Mina Holmes (daughter of Mycroft, niece of Sherlock) and Evelina Stoker (sister of Bram) are recruited by Irene Adler to perform a service to the crown by investigating a string of murders of young women of good birth. A bit too preposterous and silly for my liking.

12 - Black at Heart, by Leslie Parrish: still reading
review coming soon

Romantic suspense. Someone's killing (horribly) some very bad men, and the hero suspects the heroine. She used to be part of his FBI team and almost died in a way he feels was his fault, so a massive amount of guilt is mixed up with those suspicions. I'm finding it a bit hard to get into, but hope things will start moving soon.

13 - The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee: still reading
review coming soon

Another book from the Man Booker shortlist. It's set in late 1960s Calcutta and centred on a family living all together in a large house, with all the rivalries and relationships that ensue. I'm not loving it (every single character is nasty and petty, at the moment), but I'm still reading.

14 - Possession, by AS Byatt: still listening
original review here

I read this ages ago and was inspired to reread it when I found an audiobook version in my library. It's basic structure is a literary mystery, with two young scholars in the present day (well, 25 years ago, not present day) investigating the relationship between a well-known Victorian poet and a woman author whose work has been neglected over the centuries. I've only just started it, but I'm finding it incredibly absorbing (plus, it's been long enough since I last read it that I've forgotten most of the plot details).


October 2014 wish list

>> Monday, September 29, 2014

A bit of a mediocre month, October. Either that, or I'm missing some.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Only Enchanting, by Mary Balogh (Oct 28)

The last couple of books in this series have been a bit meh and the blurb for this latest one doesn't particularly excite me, but Balogh is a comfort read for me. I will be reading this one.

Blood Magick by Nora Roberts (Oct 28)

I really didn't like the 1st in this series (this is the 3rd), but I'm a completist with Nora, so I'll be finishing the series some time. Plus, the couple whose romance this is were the only ones with some sort of tension between them in book 1. Maybe it'll be good.

Books that interest me and I'll keep an eye on

In Your Dreams, by Kristan Higgins (Oct 1)

This sounds like it could be a nice friends-to-lovers romance, but I'll be waiting for reviews.

This Is How It Ends, by Jen Nadol (Oct 7)

I like the sound of the blurb... horror-tinged YA paranormal. Could be good.

Immortal, by JR Ward (Oct 7)

Maybe at some point I'll go back and read more in the Fallen Angels series. Or maybe I'm over the Ward crack.

Because I Can, by Tamara Morgan (Oct 13)

I picked up an earlier book in this series, but haven't read it yet. If that one's good, I'll be getting this one too.

Darling Beast, by Elizabeth Hoyt (Oct 14)

I think I've kind of gone off Hoyt, but if I was going to give her another try, this Beauty and the Beast plot would tempt me.

A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev (Oct 28)

I've a weakness for books where the hero falls for the woman he thinks is meant for his brother. I think I've seen good comments about this one, too. Can't quite remember where, but I know I added it to my wish list quite a few months ago, so it must have been from someone with an early ARC.


Grimm Tales For Young and Old, by Philip Pullman

>> Saturday, September 27, 2014

TITLE: Grimm Tales For Young and Old
AUTHOR: Philip Pullman

PAGES: 448

SETTING: Medieval Germany
TYPE: Fiction

Two centuries ago, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their first volume of fairy tales. Since then, such stories as “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Rapunzel,” and “Hansel and Gretel” have become deeply woven into the Western imagination. Now Philip Pullman, the New York Times–bestselling author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, makes us fall in love all over again with the immortal tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Here are Pullman’s fifty favorites—a wide-ranging selection that includes the most popular stories as well as lesser-known treasures like “The Three Snake Leaves,” “Godfather Death,” and “The Girl with No Hands”—alongside his personal commentaries on each story’s sources, variations, and everlasting appeal. Suffused with romance and villainy, danger and wit, Pullman’s beguiling retellings will cast a spell on readers of all ages.

I love fairy tale retellings. I love it when authors take the very thin characters in the traditional fairy tale and give them proper motivations, so that their actions become more understandable. I also love it when an author takes the fundamentals of the story and uses them in original ways.

This is not what this book is, however, and Pullman makes it clear in his very interesting introduction. He talks about why fairy tale characters are so lacking in depth and why so are the settings. He doesn't criticise this, and explains it's all about not getting in the way of the pure story. He explains that his renditions of the stories won't aim to add depths or present subversive views, or anything like that. What he'll do is to tell each of the stories in the way he would tell them, editing anything that he feels obstructs the way of the story, adding anything from other retellings that he feels adds to the stories and makes them better.

I wasn't sure this was what I wanted, to be honest. The lapses of logic in fairy tales do bother me, so I didn't know if a straight retelling was going to be my thing. I thought I'd give it a try anyway. At worst, I'd get a good idea of the basics of the less well-known tales.

I think Pullman completely succeeded in what he set out to do. The stories read really well. They flowed smoothly, lacked the repetitive nature of some of the old versions and I felt the humour was more easily able to shine through.

The problem is, even forewarned about what I was getting, I kept wishing I was reading something different. I just couldn't get over the fact that these people too often acted in completely illogical, stupid ways. And this, I'm afraid, really did hamper the stories. Instead of going with the flow and just accepting that I was not going to find people acting like reasonable human beings here, I found myself grinding to a halt and going "why on earth would you....??" For instance, in Faithful Johannes, there's an initial bit where we're told that the king couldn't die in peace until he'd made Johannes promise he'd keep the Crown Prince from a particular room in the castle. This is because if the Prince goes into this room, he'll see the portrait of the Princess of the Golden Roof, immediately fall in love with her, and endanger his own life. Right, so, why on earth would you keep the portrait there? Why not destroy it? It's not a major part of the story (there are endless ways in these stories in which Princes fall instantly in love with women they haven't met), but it's the sort of thing that drives me crazy. And it's the sort of thing Pullman has no interest in fixing.

I also had a major issue with the portrayal of women. Mostly, they're either stupid and incredibly passive or they're actively evil. Bah!

There were a few good ones here, and several were really funny, but many were just plain annoying.

MY GRADE: It's a bit unfair of me to lower my grade because this is not the book I would have wanted it to be, but I grade purely for my enjoyment, and there was way too much eye-rolling here. A C+.


The Man In The Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie

>> Monday, September 22, 2014

TITLE: The Man In The Brown Suit
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 292
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

SETTING: 1920s England and South Africa
TYPE: Thriller
SERIES: None, although one of the secondary characters does appear in later books

The newly-orphaned Anne Beddingfield came to London expecting excitement. She didn't expect to find it on the platform of Hyde Park Corner tube station. When a fellow passenger pitches onto the rails and is electrocuted, the 'doctor' on the scene seems intent on searching the victim rather than examining him...

Armed with a single clue, Anne finds herself struggling to unmask a faceless killer known only as 'The Colonel' - while 'The Colonel' struggles to eliminate her...

I've mentioned before that I basically cut my teeth on Agatha Christie's novels. My mum and dad had them collected in these tomes that looked like they should contain the entire works of Shakespeare... you know the kind: onion skin-type paper, thick burgundy covers. I tore through them. The Man in the Brown Suit was one of my favourites, possibly because it had a bit of romance in it. This was right before I discovered the romance genre proper (I must have been in my very early teens), so I came back to it again and again.

Well, now I'm in my mid 30s, and I hadn't reread it for a very long time. How would it work for me, after all these years?

The story is not typical Christie. It's an adventure/caper type, rather than a cozy mystery. It's probably closest to They Came To Baghdad, with a young, plucky heroine, all alone in the world, an exotic location and a plot involving the usual staples of spies/international super-villains/mysterious assignations.

Our heroine is Anne Beddingfeld. She's spent all her life buried in a tiny village, keeping house for her absent-minded professor-type father. Now he's died, and all Anne wants is some adventure and excitement. Excitement finds her while temporarily staying in London with family friends. She's waiting in a Tube station, on her way back from a job interview, when she witnesses the death of a man who falls on the tracks and is electrocuted.

It turns out that there seems to be a connection between the dead man and the strangling of a mysterious foreign woman, and Anne finds herself in possession of what she's sure is a clue. The police don't agree, so Anne decides to investigate on her own. And within days, her investigation sees her ensconced in a first-class cabin on a ship to South Africa. There are suspicious characters and mysterious events galore. And it's clear that the villains have noticed Anne, and her investigations are seen as a threat!

This time around, I had very mixed feelings about TMITBS. The romance was a complete bust. It was very dated, all full of admiration for brutal, masterful men. Anne basically raves over her love interest's dangerousness, and because she's attracted to him, she completely refuses to believe he may have been involved in the murder of the foreign woman, all evidence to the contrary. She even thinks "he may have gone to the house intending to kill her, but I'm sure he didn't", and feels hatred towards the dead woman "because he must have loved her at some point". This spot of victim-blaming is long before she knows any details. Ugh.

However, I did actually still enjoy quite a bit of the book, because the romance was such a small part of it. The intrigue is just fun, full of running around and derring-do and tales about lost diamonds. The plot (especially the way Anne gets involved in it all) is very far-fetched, but I was willing to go with it. And apart from her awful taste in men, Anne is wonderfully resourceful and cool-headed, and often saves herself.

I also quite liked the cast of secondary characters. They are fun and fully realised. There's Suzanne, an older married woman with whom Anne forms a friendship. There's Colonel Race, the perfect example of the "strong, silent Rhodesian" type Anne so admires, but a man who makes her very nervous. There's the eccentric Sir Eustace Pedler MP, hounded into doing work he has no interest in doing by his surfeit of secretaries. And one of those secretaries is a particular favourite: Guy Pagett, a man with a sinister, 15th century poisoner's face and an extremely respectable soul.

Finally, the book has a very strong sense of place, which is is both a blessing and a curse. A large section of it takes place in South Africa, but it's not just that. I also loved the glimpses we got of 1920s England and the sections onboard the ship. Still, South Africa is the most interesting -and most problematic. Anne writes that she's not going to do a travelogue for us, but her descriptions still create a very vivid portrayal of the setting. Also, as far as I can tell, the action takes place during the Rand Rebellion. All we're told is that there is unrest and fighting, and several of the characters discuss the "labour situation" and Sir Eustace has ostensibly been asked to play some sort of role in negotiations. It's assumed that the reader knows what's going on. And I suppose at the time readers would have. I didn't mind that at all, but then when I did a bit of research about it and found out what this was all about, the fact that Anne doesn't seem to have an opinion or even care about what's going on seemed very problematic.

But, alas, that wasn't even the most problematic element. The overt racism is actually quite horrific. Black South Africans are almost completely erased. They are barely noticed, other than as, say, natives swarming round the train selling "darling wooden animals". The low point for me was when Anne and her man are together in an isolated place after an incident, and she's talking about how they are alone together. They're not actually alone, though, because a "native woman" who keeps house for this man is there too. But no, they're actually alone, because "Old Batani hovered about, counting no more than a dog might have done." Of its time, of course, but still very jarring and upsetting.

MY GRADE: I can't give this more than a B-.


To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

>> Saturday, September 20, 2014

TITLE: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
AUTHOR: Joshua Ferris

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Little Brown

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction

Paul O'Rourke is a man made of contradictions: he loves the world, but doesn't know how to live in it. He's a Luddite addicted to his iPhone, a dentist with a nicotine habit, a rabid Red Sox fan devastated by their victories, and an atheist not quite willing to let go of God.

Then someone begins to impersonate Paul online, and he watches in horror as a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account are created in his name. What begins as an outrageous violation of his privacy soon becomes something more soul-frightening: the possibility that the online "Paul" might be a better version of the real thing. As Paul's quest to learn why his identity has been stolen deepens, he is forced to confront his troubled past and his uncertain future in a life disturbingly split between the real and the virtual.

At once laugh-out-loud funny about the absurdities of the modern world, and indelibly profound about the eternal questions of the meaning of life, love and truth, TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR is a deeply moving and constantly surprising tour de force.

If there's a type of book that's "Man Booker material", this is not it, at least at first sight. When you actually read it, though, you see why it made it through to the shortlist this year.

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour is about Paul O'Rourke, a New York dentist with a thriving practice and a sense of dissatisfaction with life. His dental surgery is doing great in spite of not having an online presence. And then it does. Someone has created a website for the surgery, and on Paul's bio there's some weird Biblical-sounding mumbo-jumbo. And things escalate. The fake Dr. Paul C. O'Rourke creates all sorts of accounts on social media, and he starts putting out all sorts of weird shit in Paul's name. Fake-Paul is devoted to getting out the word about the Ulm, a lost tribe of Israel even more persecuted than the Jews (in fact, persecuted by the Jews). And before long, Paul is involved in an ever-more-absorbing email exchange with his alter-ego.

This is one truly funny book. Ferris can really write. Some of the dialogue is fantastic, especially Paul's interactions with the people in his surgery. I kept laughing out loud when reading his conversations with Betsey, one of his dental hygienist. We get only her half of the conversation: Paul reports what she said, and then says "I told her." and then what she says back to him, and it works beautifully. Fantastic stuff. Oh, and the way he describes people! So deft, just with a few words.

But this is a comic novel about some very serious things: the meaning of life, no less. Paul is a man desperately in search of something bigger than him, something that will give meaning to his life. His life has been a constant cycle of unsuccesful attempts at devoting himself to all sorts of things that he hopes will do it. Baseball, girlfriends with very religious families, anything will do it. And now he gets drawn into the chance of being part of the select group of the Ulms. Is it any wonder that he finds this irresistible? He's exactly the sort of person who would, atheist or not. But is this actually happening, or is it all in his mind?

This seriousness bangs against the mundane world of Paul's surgery in a way that jars, but at the same time feels quite right. However, I felt the whole thing lacked a sense of resolution. It felt somewhat unfinished, like it just needed something to make the whole thing click properly. I still enjoyed it, but it was not my favourite of the bunch.



We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

>> Thursday, September 18, 2014

TITLE: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
AUTHOR: Karen Joy Fowler

PAGES: 321
PUBLISHER: Serpent's Tail

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction

Rosemary's young, just at college, and she's decided not to tell anyone a thing about her family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to find out for yourselves, round about page 77, what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other.

Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. There's something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. And it was this decision, made by her parents, to give Rosemary a sister like no other, that began all of Rosemary's trouble. So now she's telling her story: full of hilarious asides and brilliantly spiky lines, it's a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice.

Right, so I should probably get a move on posting the reviews for my Man Booker project reading before the winner is announced! I read this one before the shortlist came out, purely because it sounded great (trying to guess what would be on the shortlist hasn't been the most successful strategy in previous years), and it's actually made it through. It's probably the one title there that would have been commercially very successful regardless of its inclusion, too.

We meet Rosemary Cook at the point she herself tells us is the middle of her story. It's 1996, and Rosemary is in university, a quiet young woman determined not to share any details about her family history. We know she once had a brother and a sister, Lowell and Fern, but that Lowell has run away, while Fern is not in the picture any longer. We also know that there's something about their family that Rosemary knows will change other people's perception of her, but for a while, we're not quite sure what it is.

And then Fowler takes as back and forth in time to find out just what made Rosemary's family unique and what happened to destroy it. But there is not just a truth; we have to contend with memory and how that can distort things. And through almost-random vignettes of Rosemary's childhood, we slowly discover the secrets about what happened to Fern.

Fowler has some really interesting things to say about big things like how families work, the nature of sisterhood, the treachery of memory, animal rights, and activism. But she's also a fantastic storyteller, and she creates characters that feel real and that I cared about. In fact, I actually cried. There's a particular point when Rosemary is at a lecture and the lecturer talks about a certain research, which turns out to raise some possibilities about something that Fern might have experienced. Rosemary is devastated, can't stop thinking about it, and I completely understood. It's the idea of someone suddenly being moved from a situation where she's important and valued into one where she's not, and not only can the most horrible, violent things happen to her, no one will particularly give a shit. Oh, even thinking about it makes my stomach clench. And yes, I know that it should be just as upsetting for anyone to be put in such a situation, but for some reason, when it's someone who's known a better life, it seems to hit me much worse. Sorry, this will sound cryptic to anyone who hasn't read the book yet, so the tl;dr version: there is a lot of emotion here, and it's honestly earned.

I also loved the way this story was told. There is a lot of experimentation and playing with structure in this year's Man Booker books, and Fowler uses to excellent effect. The moving around between timelines and the way Rosemary directly addresses the reader and openly discusses her choices in how she's telling us her story, it all goes to developing some of her themes, especially that of memory. I should mention, too, it doesn't make the book hard to read. In fact, it's very readable. I couldn't put it down.

It's also a satisfying book, really satisfying, mainly because of the ending. It wasn't a fairy tale ending, but one that really comforted me and made me close the book with a happy sigh. Highly recommended. If you do decide to read it, though, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, read other reviews. The chances of seeing spoilers are very high, and you really don't want that to happen (if it does happen, though, never mind. I was spoilt, and I still loved it. I just think I would have loved it even better if I hadn't been).



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