24 November 2005

Bonus book review: What do you say to a naked elf? (romantic fantasy)

The best I can say abut the title is that it’s certainly inspired.
Actually, it is among the tackiest and most embarrassing book titles I have come across, so tacky it made it onto my top 5 Tackiest Book Titles list. In fact, had I not read a favourable review of the book by a reviewer I trust, I would have dismissed it as über-tacky and never read it. I’m glad I did, because behind that tacky title there lurks an entertaining romantic fantasy that I wouldn’t mind re-reading at some future date.

Author: Cheryl Sterling
Year published: 2005
Availability: In print

Jane Drysdale is driving home late one night after a successful home sales party, her trunk full of samples of the sex toys and lingerie she was selling. Suddenly a rabbit jumps in front of the car and appears to turn into a man moments before disappearing under the car. Not unnaturally, Jane panics and ends up off road. She is promptly arrested by a group of elves and brought back through an inter-dimensional portal to the elfin land of Lowth where she is to be tried for the murder of the shape-shifting elf she hit. Jane is of course unhappy about this, but the portal has closed and she is stuck, so she decides to make the best of things. She is given a public defender, Charlie, who is half elf/half fairy, whom Jane thinks looks quite a bit like Legolas from The Lord of the Rings (presumably meaning Orlando Bloom in his blond wig, Jane being more likely to have seen the movie than read the book ). Mesmerised by his toned body and sexy wings, she sets out to seduce the stuffy lawyer, but their romance is complicated by the verdict at the trial and before too long they are swept into an adventure of epic proportions that involves, among other things, her supply of sex toys, the true identity of someone, a journey, and a magician who wants Jane delivered to him, presumably for some nefarious purpose.

Review: Quite a good read, not as side-splittingly funny as the other reviewer led me to believe, but there are still some good laughs in it. Sterling has managed to produce a solid, original fantasy with some rather good twists that will surprise many readers. Part of the resolution is something of a surprise, even for adept clue spotters.

Don’t let the title deter you – this is an entertaining fantasy and although romantic, there is also plenty of action and adventure. 4 stars.

16 November 2005

Mystery author #2: Hannah March

Title: Death Be My Theme
Year published: 2000
Number in series: 3
Availability: In print
Pages: 278
Settings and time: England: Chelsea (mostly) and surrounding country, London (a little), 1764.
Type of mystery: Murder (whodunit), historical (Georgian era England)
Type of investigator: Amateur sleuth/crime magnet
Deaths: 4
Some themes: Murder, music, obsession, love, false identity, forgery

Summary (no spoilers):
In the summer of 1764, private tutor Robert Fairfax has been sent by his employers to Chelsea, then a rural health spot, to recuperate from a serious illness. He discovers that a woman he is very much in love with (I assume he met her in one of the two previous books), is staying there as well, in the same house as the Mozart family. Herr Mozart is recovering from an illness, and when little Wolfgang claims to have seen a man coming out of a room in an inn moments after the man staying there had a stroke and died, and the dead man’s wife denies the existence of any such man, Fairfax becomes suspicious. When an unemployed housemaid is found murdered, the local magistrate (upon discovering Fairfax has helped Justice Fielding solve a case) hands the investigation over to him. He begins to sniff around, and finds a twisted tale of love and obsession simmering under the seemingly placid surface of the peaceful suburb. (I’m not sure whether Chelsea had become part of London by then – in the book it seems to be a suburb rather than a town).

Review: With interesting twists and red herrings aplenty, the mystery part is good. The Mozarts are shown as typical jolly Germanic stereotypes and could easily have been left out. Sometimes, even if an author can include someone who really existed, it is better not to if they can not be used in an interesting way. Here they merely lend colour.
Unfortunately Robert Fairfax is a rather uninteresting character. Maybe it’s because all the interesting things about him have been said in the previous two books in the series, in which case it is presumptuous of the author to assume that the reader will have read them. As it is, there is nothing in his character that would induce me to want to read more about him.
One minor character sort of gets lost – his thread in the story is not resolved, and neither is Fairfax’s love for a married woman. This being a series, both story threads could (I suppose) be resolved in later books, but the lack of resolution still nags me.
Not an author I would particularly seek out more books by, but neither would I refuse to read another one.

Rating: 3 stars (i.e. not good, but not bad either)

10 November 2005

Bonus book review: It’s Not About the Tapas (travel)

Author: Polly Evans
Year published: 2003
Pages: 304
Genre: non-fiction, travel, Spain

Polly Evans, fed up with her stressful job as a journalist/editor in Hong Kong, decided to take a nice, long holiday. The obvious choice was Spain, where she had once spent a year, and so spoke the language after a fashion. She had a road bicycle built, light and strong, that would be her conveyance for the journey, and set off. The book tells of her journey, her adventures, people (and animals) she met, places she visited, along with some snippets of history. The first leg of the journey took her along the border with France, and the second through the Extremadura region in southern central Spain.

It was the title that grabbed my attention when browsing for books on TitleTrader. I checked the reviews on Amazon, saw the book was about travelling in Spain, where I spent two enjoyable weeks a couple of years ago, so I sent in a request and got the book within two weeks. For once, I was not disappointed.

Several times I have seen travel books that looked interesting, and which turned out to be disappointing. One such was a recent highly lauded book about cycling the route of the 2000 Tour de France, Tim Moore’s French Revolutions. I have no intention of comparing the two in detail, but I will say that when it comes to being funny, Polly Evans kicks Tim Moore’s sore arse. She is in some ways not as skilful a writer as Moore (this being her first book and suffering slightly from firstbookitis*), but she makes up for it by being far funnier, and I fully expect that her writing skill has improved with her next two books (about China and New Zealand, both of which I am looking forward to read). She certainly has mastered the quip, often dropping one when least expected. She also never crosses the line where self-deprecating humour turns into a self-pitying whinge. Neither does she gloss over her problems, of being out of shape and having forgotten, during her training period, that she was going to be riding with panniers full of stuff that would weigh down the bicycle and change its balance, or the fact that she knew nothing about bicycle repair - both, incidentally, problems shared with Moore.

As I mentioned before, there is are slight symptoms of firstbookitis, nothing that writing a second book can’t fix. The story feels a bit fragmented in places. There is also some unnecessary repetition (her problems with big traffic roads, for example, are repeated so often that you expect a big climactic scene of either conquering her fear and loathing or having an accident, but nothing comes of it). But these are minor problems. For the most part the book is well written, and she cleverly interweaves the historical information with her own experiences of the places she visited. 4 stars.

* firstbookitis = common mistakes in author’s first books

03 November 2005

Mystery author #1: Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone

As the first book of my challenge I chose a classic of the mystery genre. It has been called the first mystery novel ever written, which is not entirely correct, but it is true that it is the first mystery novel known to include all of the most important features of the modern crime mystery. Some of these features had been used in previous mystery stories, but some were new.

Title: The Moonstone
Year (originally) published: 1868
Availability: In print, or, since it has passed into the public domain, you can read it online or download it here
Pages: 518 pages in the e-book version, downloaded and read in Word (font: Geneva, 12 pt). The Penguin Popular Classics version is 464 pages.
Settings and time: English country manor and surrounding area (mostly), London (a little), India (scene setting and conclusion), mid 1800's.
Type of mystery: Whodunit: theft
Type of investigator: Amateurs and a professional detective
Some themes: Justice and injustice, misunderstanding between lovers, unrequited love, religious mania, hidden identity, addiction, money troubles, hypocrisy, scientific principles, death.

Summary (no spoilers):
A foreword tells the story of how the Moonstone, a fabulous yellow diamond, is taken from its rightful place in the forehead of the idol of an Indian moon-god, by a Mughal conqueror, and passed on from one owner to the next, along with a curse of bad fortune. It is also followed by three Brahmins, the stone’s guardians, who are intent on recovering the stone should the opportunity present itself. Generations have passed when a British officer steals the stone and takes it to England with him, followed by its current guardians.
Here the story proper begins. Upon his death, he wills the stone to his niece, Lady Rachel Verinder. It is delivered to her by her cousin, Mr. Franklin Blake, who is in love with her and vice versa. Rachel is given the stone on her birthday, but only gets to keep it for one day, as someone steals it during the night. The investigation is thorough and a detective is called in from London, but not even he can find the stone or get a confession out of the person he decides is the prime suspect, and so the stone seems to be lost forever. But that is only the first half of the story. The second half describes how the mystery is finally solved.

This books is not considered a classic just because it is reputed to be the first mystery novel. It has other merits as well.

The whole novel is written in an epistolatory form, first hand accounts by several witnesses and participants in the story, most addressed to and written at the behest of Franklin Blake. The mystery has been resolved when the writing of these epistles and letters takes place, but the writers are only allowed to tell of the events as they saw them unfold. This brilliant stylistic trick of changing narrators as the story unfolds makes the story all the more interesting, as each writer is very much a representative of his or her age, class, gender and environment. It also makes it possible to include some clever foreshadowing that would have been unconvincing in a story that is happening as the epistles are being written. Using first person narrators also inserts some irregularities into the story, caused by different viewpoints and varying levels of narrator credibility. Some of the narrators are, for example, opinionated and sometimes rambling (Betteridge, for example, who tells the first half of the story), while others are succinct and to the point (such as the faithful family lawyer). Some of the narrators, Betteridge especially, have a sense of humour that carries the reader along with it, while other narrators are more to be laughed at.

As with many mystery novels, the story itself requires some suspension of disbelief. There are strange coincidences and quite a lot of melodrama, in addition to (to a modern reader) a somewhat improbable solution to the problem of the theft and the thief’s identity. It abounds in twists and red herrings (even the clever detective falls for some of them), and some of the characters are not what they seem at first.
Unlike many modern mysteries, this one is in no hurry to get solved. The story moves slowly, giving the reader plenty of time and opportunity to try to solve the mystery. While the story itself is enjoyable, it is the narrators and characterisation that provides the real entertainment.

An entertaining, real mystery, a classic of the genre. 5 stars.

01 November 2005

52 mystery authors

(If you’re wondering about the abrupt start to this blog, it’s because I have just moved it from another blogging service. To visit my old blog and see my original reading challenge, essays and book reviews, click here)

I just realised I have a perfect new reading challenge lined up. A while ago I asked the members of my favourite book forum to recommend to me some good mystery authors in the hope that it would yield a good number of “new” authors. The result was a long list of authors, some of whom I was familiar with, some I had only heard mentioned, and many I knew nothing about. I compared the list with the library database and found books by more than half the authors on the list. In addition, I have several books by mystery authors I have not read before in my TBR pile. Since I have this many authors and books lined up, and all in one genre, I decided to make it a challenge to discover new mystery authors (new to me).

I am not going to be strict about the time I give myself to read each book, so although the challenge will cover 52 authors, it will not take 52 weeks to finish like the previous challenge. It will probably take longer, depending on how many other books intrude on the challenge, and how my studies are going (my Master’s dissertation looms up ahead and will take at least a couple of months to finish). I may read more than one book by some authors, if they are available. Whenever I discover a new series, I like to read 2-3 books from that series, one after the other, to get a feel for the author, the development of the series characters and the improving or declining quality of the writing and the plotting.

I will read mysteries from my TBR pile, and fill up the list to 52 with authors from the Reader’s Paradise list that are available at the Reykjavík city library.

The authors are varied. Some are modern, others date back to the Golden Era of detective fiction, and at least one is so old that his books are in the public domain. Several write cosies (mysteries with little or no violence and amateur investigators), others write police procedurals, books based on scientific principles, spy mysteries, futuristic stories or historicals. It’s possible that some of the mysteries may not even be crime related, or not about murder, although that is certainly the most common crime in mysteries. The investigators are a mixture of accidental innocents and amateur sleuths (what I call crime magnets in the case of series characters), private investigators, lawyers, police officers and professional witnesses. I’m sure other kinds of investigators will surface once I start reading.

I will reveal the author’s names only as the challenge progresses, and I will not read them in alphabetical order. I will continue to read and review other books as well.

For my regular readers from Tblog (I’m sure there are still a few, even after my prolonged absence): I am changing the format for the information I give for the books, so that there will be more detail about which mystery sub-genre the book belongs to and what kind of investigator is involved.