31 October 2006

Bibliophile reviews The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter by Sharyn McCrumb

No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1992
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: North Carolina, USA, contemporary
Some themes: Life and death, second sight, cancer, madness, family ties

Story: Two teenagers are the only survivors of a family tragedy that ended in a triple murder and suicide, a woman expecting her first child is beset by loneliness and doubt, a young mother wants the best for her child, and an old man discovers that the cancer that is killing him may be the result of drinking polluted water. All of these stories begin to knit together little by little, with Sheriff Arrowood and seer Nora Bonesteel observing and occasionally participating in the story.

Review: Calling this installation in the Ballad series a mystery is simplifying things. It is not just a mystery but also a psychological thriller, a true-to-life story about ordinary people, and an ode to the Appalachians and their inhabitants. But "mystery" is perhaps as good a label as any, as the story is steeped in it – not the whodunnit or whydunnit kind, but the more indefinable mystery of life. At every turn you wonder what is going to happen next and sometimes you are right, but just as often you are totally wrong. The story is literary in the best sense of that word: beautifully written, well plotted, realistic and yet dreamlike at times, and McCrumb fully deserves the title of master storyteller. The murder mystery is only a small part of the overall plot and really solves itself, but Sheriff Arrowood is still an important character because he is a participant in all the stories told in the narrative, the central character who binds everything together, along with Nora Bonesteel who observes events from her mountain house, sometimes long before they happen, and offers comfort and advice to the participants.

Rating: A suspenseful story with much more to offer than a mere murder investigation. 4+ stars.

30 October 2006

Bibliophile reviews Ritual Murder (mystery) by S.T. Haymon

Series detective: Inspector Ben Jurnet
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1982
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, contemporary
Number of murders: 1
Some themes: Religion, drug-dealing, anti-Semitism, social injustice
Awards: The (British) Crime Writer's Association Silver Dagger Award, 1982

Story: A choirboy is found murdered in the cathedral of Angleby (a fictional town based on Norfolk) and signs on the body indicate that someone wanted to recreate the murder of Little Saint Ulf, whose holy bones are buried under the church and whose death had sparked a mass murder of the Jewish inhabitants of medieval Angleby. Ben Jurnet, who has now made a decision in the matter he was considering at the end of Death and the Pregnant Virgin (important for the story), is called in to investigate. He soon finds out that no-one seems to have liked the murdered boy much, but neither does anyone seem to have hated him enough to kill him. The murder sparks a riot by British nationalists, and two groups within their ranks start fighting for supremacy, with people Jurnet cares for getting caught in the (metaphorical) cross-fire. The solution of the mystery is a shock to everyone.

Review: This is a really good mystery. Not only is it hard to figure out – although certain bells had started ringing some before the end I only really realised who the killer was at the same time Jurnet finally did, near the end – but it is also well written. The plot is evenly paced and never flags, and the side-stories, one a lesser crime mystery, the other a tragedy, are both very good and are woven seamlessly into the main mystery near the end. The solving of the case here is much less intuitive than in the previous book, and is mostly the result of painstaking investigation and questioning of witnesses, but still it is hard to figure out what the solution is. Even an experienced mystery reader may be excused for being totally surprised by the final twist.

Rating: A suspenseful mystery that mingles together several storylines in the best tradition of master storytelling. 4+ stars.

Author review: S.T. Haymon
The two books I have read by S.T. Haymon are of a quality that should by rights have made her a classic author, but for some reason they haven't. These two novels are of a better quality than many mysteries I have read which have been reprinted over and over. Perhaps Haymon's work gets worse in the following books, or perhaps it was because she was not prolific (for a mystery writer), only producing 8 mysteries in a writing career spanning 16 years (she died in 1996). However that may be, all her books seem to be out of print, which is a pity because I want more. She delves into the mysteries with vigour and goes deeper into issues that come up in relation to the crimes her detective investigates than many authors do, and her characterisations are realistic and well-drawn. The language of the books is somewhat literary and the vocabulary may be occasionally challenging for a non-native speaker, which is by no means a bad thing.

Readers who have read both this book and the previous one in the series may well think Haymon the worst sort of atheist, with her obvious disdain and cynicism towards organised religion, but it seems to me that she is a true believer in God, but at the same time too much of a cynic to fully accept the trappings of organised religion.

While these two books are firmly in the tradition of the English village mystery where setting is concerned, the atmosphere in both is more sinister than what you would expect, for example, from Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, both of which have been evoked by previous reviewers when discussing Haymon. There is a dark cynicism at work in both books that makes them seem more real than the works of those two classic mystery writers, who have, in most of their works, seemed to me to be rather light-hearted about it all. Because the lead character is a policeman, he is involved in more than one case at every given time, and not all the crimes he investigates are fully solved, something that would be unthinkable in Christie or Sayers or most modern cosies.

All in all, I can heartily recommend at least Death and the Pregnant Virgin (unfortunate title, but a good mystery nonetheless) and Ritual Murder. I have the third book in the series as well, which seems to be a take on the country house mystery: Stately Homicide. We will have to see if it lives up to the expectations raised by those two.

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Books as decoration

Books as decoration, originally uploaded by Netla.

Another shelf of books arranged by colour. I have done this myself, with my TBR books, but my other books are organised by a much more mundane and practical system: by size, then genre, then author (not necessarily alphabeticlly). I don't bother with organising by title because once I'm down to that I can easily find the book. Of course, I only have about 3000 books - I suppose once I hit 5 figures I will have to organise them with more precision...

27 October 2006

Color coded books

Color coded, originally uploaded by Netla.

A cool way of organising your books. Very decorative but I'm afraid this would massively annoy any librarian who came near it. Seeing books organised like this, by colour but not by tone, actually makes me look at them as individual books and not as a collection.

Location: Góði Hirðirinn charity shop, Reykjavík, Iceland.

26 October 2006

Jenny Crusie on quote whoring

I came across this interesting entry on author Jenny Crusie's blog. It's good to know at least someone takes these things seriously, even if I never use quotes as a buying criterion myself.

22 October 2006

Tension relievers for book lovers

You are anxiously waiting for someone or something, and need to put your mind off it so you will not start throwing things and screaming to relieve the tension. Books have a calming effect on you, but you are too wound up to read. Well, I've been there, and here are some suggestions for book-related activities:

Dust your books. Dust is an enemy to books just as much as dampness and sunlight.

If you are the type who finds books more by what they look like than by knowing exactly where they are, organise your books by size or colour rather than subject. I've done this with part of my TBR stash and they not only look good on the shelf, they actually look tempting, which might mean I will finally go and read some of them.

Hunt down lost bookmarks. I am a typical bibliophile and if I do something with books, chances are that many other book lovers do the same. I keep putting half-read books away with the bookmark still inside and don't realise I'm doing it until I run out of bookmarks.

Cull your books. It can be hard, but sometimes it needs to be done. Do you have books you have read to tatters and need to replace? Cull them and give them a respectable funeral, then put them on your shopping list. Do you have books that you have read once and know you will never read again? Cull them. Do you have books you bought five years ago and still haven't read? Chances are you will never read them, so give others a chance to enjoy them instead. Give the culled books to a library or a charity, trade them, sell them on EBay or have a garage sale. Think of all the lovely shelf space available for new books.

Get started cataloguing your library. Begin with just titles and authors, then find out which books are valuable. If you ever need to make an insurance claim, it pays to know what you have lost.

20 October 2006

My favourite bookshop

Uppáhalds bókabúðin, originally uploaded by Netla.

Although I buy most of my second-hand books at a local charity shop, this is the book-shop that is closest to my heart. I can browse in there for hours, just looking at book after book and soaking up the atmosphere.

Clicking on the image will take you to a bigger version.
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19 October 2006

Mystery author #24: Kate Atkinson

Title:Case Histories
Year published: 2004
Type of mystery: Literary mystery, murder, missing persons
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: Cambridge, UK, contemporary
Number of suspicious deaths: 3
Some themes: Missing persons, family, hopelessness, murder

You may wonder why I am counting Kate Atkinson as a mystery writer. Simple: she has written two mysteries so far which is all it takes to make it onto my mystery author reading list. I am trying to get my hands on her other mystery, which is about the same lead character as this one.

Story: Jackson Brodie is a typical depressed, divorced and chain-smoking hopeless P.I. Three cases land on his table: a child's disappearance more than 20 years before, a 10 year old unsolved murder, and a missing person. The stories of Jackson's investigations into these cases, his private life and the lives of some of those involved intertwine and in the end some things are solved for the participants and others only for the reader.

Review: This is something of a flow-chart kind of story. The character's paths cross and uncross and recross and in the middle stands Jackson and tries to fit together the pieces of the mysteries. The characters are interesting and Atkinson doesn't just pull them out of a hat fully formed, but gives them backgrounds that explain why they are the way they are, whether it be the woman who grew up neglected, Jackson's daughter who in some respects is very mature and in others a complete innocent, or Jackson himself. The POW changes from chapter to chapter so that we get to see events and people sometimes from several different angles, and while the story starts slowly, it quickly picks up the pace. When I was about halfway through I found I could not stop reading it.
While this is a literary mystery, the plot is something you could easily find in a by-the-book mystery – it is the writing style and the character-driven story that makes it literary. Another thing that divides it from a by-the-book mystery is that there is no Justice in the sense it is usually understood in genre mysteries – the wrongdoers ending up in prison or getting punished by the Law. It is justice of a different kind that is dealt out in this story, and while there are resolutions, some of them are only for the reader, not the characters, to know, somewhat like real life. However, there is a certain fantasy element regarding Jackson that I found highly satisfying after having read so many stories about depressed, divorced and chain-smoking hopeless PI's who don't seem capable of ever changing...

Of interest to mystery fans is seeing how one of Van Dine's principal rules of mystery writing is soundly and successfully broken in the story, making it truer to life than a by-the-book mystery.

Rating: An enjoyable and interesting character-driven literary mystery. 4 stars.

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(not that they work – for some reason Technocrati only picks up the tags in my photoblog, not this one. Not that I intend to stop trying :-)

13 October 2006

Lovely old books

Lovely old books, originally uploaded by Netla.

I came across these lovely old books recently, while searching for used furniture at my favourite second hand shop. I thought they looked so lovely that I snapped a photo of them.

09 October 2006

Bibliophile reviews Anyone but you by Jennifer Crusie

Year published: 1996
Genre: Romance
Setting & time: USA, 1990s

Have I mentioned I'm a Jennifer Crusie fan? I am. Every time I open one of her books I know I am guaranteed a funny read, even when the story itself is disappointing (not that this one was).

The Story: Nina endured a long marriage with a social climber and finally divorced him. One of her gestures of independence after she is free is getting the dog he always denied her. However, when she goes to the pound to find a suitable puppy she spots Fred, a middle-aged, ugly and sad looking bloodhound-bassett mix who is about to be put down. She rescues him and takes him home, seriously doubting her own sanity, but happy that she has saved a life. Fred soon brings her into contact with her sexy younger neighbour, Max. The result is instant attraction on both sides but since Nina thinks Max is too young for her and Max thinks he isn't sophisticated enough for Nina, they become friends.
We all know how it will end, but I'm not going to reveal how.

Technique and plot: This is one of Crusie's early short novels, but some of her signature mini-formulas are in place already: the ugly but loveable pet, the somewhat untraditional couple, the interesting and funny extras, and a misunderstanding that stands in the way of the couple's happiness. It's pure formula, but as in her other books Crusie winks at it and produces a light and funny book that should satisfy any true romance fan and many others beside. In this particular book, the ugly pet gets to play cupid, and Fred is in fact the most memorable character in the book. This is not to say that Nina and Max are uninteresting, but Fred is such a strong personality and driving force that the story is really his.

Rating: An enjoyable and funny read – for both romance fans and dog lovers – too bad it's so short. 4 hearts.

08 October 2006

Bibliophile reviews Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Year published: 2006
Genre: fantasy (aimed at young readers but accessible to all ages)
Setting & time: Discworld, whenever

The Story:
Tiffany Aching (heroine of The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky) is almost thirteen and is still in training to learn witchcraft. This time it's Miss Treason she is working for, a formidable old witch who is both loved and feared by the people she looks after. But old doesn't necessarily mean wise, and when Miss Treason refuses to tell Tiffany the significance of a dance they witness one dark autumn night, Tiffany ends up participating in the dance and catching the eye of the wintersmith, the powerful spirit of winter. But that is not her only problem. There is Horace, and Anagramma, and the Nac Mac Feegles, and Roland. What's a girl to do? Tiffany handles the problems in her own unique fashion, but I don't think I will say any more or it will spoil the fun of finding out for yourself.

Technique and plot:
The book is clearly written for younger readers. You see it, not so much in the language, but in the intertextual connections which are far fewer and more obvious than in the adult Discworld books. There is plenty for older readers to enjoy, however, like the sly references to other Discworld books that pop up when least expected. It is fun to be allowed to see old friends like Granny and Nanny through the eyes of someone from outside Lancre, and while they remain firmly themselves, new facets are revealed that their fans will appreciate.

As always, humour is never far away, and while the story gets quite dark at times, there is always a glint of hope for Tiffany and the others even when things look very bleak. There are sub-plots which tie neatly into the main plot as it progresses, and, as usual, Pratchett has not taken the easy way out and resolved them all with smiley happy endings, and some are not completely resolved at all. In fact, you get the feeling that there is at least one more Tiffany book in the offing (yay!).

I only have one gripe about the book: the book itself (the physical object) is in a different format than the previous two Tiffany books. I can see why – it's 400 pages long and a book in the smaller format of the other two would be as thick as a brick, but it's still annoying.

Rating: Another rich and entertaining tale from the master of funny fantasy. 4+ stars.

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