14 December 2007

Reading report for November 2007

As may be seen from the list I have been on a Ngaio Marsh reading binge, making her the author of half the books I read in November.

It looks like I am not going to finish the 52 mystery authors challenge before the end of the year as I had planned. In fact, I will probably not be reading much until February, as I have just received a big translation job equivalent in length to a short novel (but not nearly as much fun to translate) that will take up most of the time I have allotted to daily reading. (As of December, I have only finished three books, two of which were quickie rereads. If I was reading at my normal pace, I would have finished 7 or 8 books by now).

I have been trying to work up some momentum before I tackle Terry Pratchett’s latest offering, Making Money, by rereading Night Watch to get me in the mood, and I will probably read the previous Moist von Lipwig book, Going Postal, before I start on the new book. Pratchett is one of my favourite authors, but in the last four years or so I have found it increasingly difficult to start reading his newest books. I think it’s because I have read the previous ones so often that they have stopped surprising me (I still enjoy the jokes but now I start chuckling a couple of paragraphs before they actually happen) and deep down I dread not having a new Pratchett book to look forward to. Now that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it looks like that dreaded moment is not as far off as I had imagined (or hoped).

The list:
Edward Abbey: Desert Solitaire
Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson: Engin Spor ("No Trace")
Ngaio Marsh: Artists in Crime, Death at the Bar, Death in a White Tie, Overture to Death
J.D. Robb: Witness in Death
Amy Sutherland: Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America
Mark Twain: The Innocents Abroad

The reread:
Terry Pratchett: Night Watch

13 December 2007

A sad blow to a family, and to lovers of fantasy literature

Today I learned that Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors, has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Having two relatives suffering from this disease, I know first had what it can do to a person, and I would just like to say: “I’m sorry to hear this, Terry, not just because you are a great writer, but because no-one should have to suffer through such a horrible experience.”

Terry’s message announcing the news

07 December 2007

All I want for Christmas...

...is a bunch of books.

Or, putting it another way: My book wishlist for Christmas:

I feel the need to write something and I don’t have a book to review at hand, so I’m doing this list instead. I have left off the list the several cookbooks and foodie books I want, because I want to write about them over on Matarást, my other food blog (you’ll find a link on my profile page if you’re curious).
The reading report for November is in the making.

Not all of the books are new and the list is in no particular order of preference.

Here goes:

Jennifer Crusie & Bob Mayer: Agnes and the Hitman. I really liked the previous book by the Crusie/Mayer team and I expect I will like this one as well. The pairing of a romance with a thriller is not a new idea, but so often romance writers are not good at thrillers and thriller writers not good at romance, so having a romance writer and a thriller writer working together on a book makes sense, especially when they manage it as seamlessly as Crusie and Mayer.

A hardcover 3 volume edition of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I made the mistake of lending my one-volume paperback edition to someone who doesn’t respect books and I got it back in horrible condition that has only gotten worse over several of my own re-readings of it. It has become obvious that this is a perennial read for me, so a longer-lasting hardcover edition is better than a soft cover one, and it’s a big book, so it makes sense to want 3 smaller volumes rather than one large one.

Peter Ackroyd: London: The Biography. I have read part of it and liked it, and want to finish it and have it available to dip into when the mood grabs me. Hardcover for preference, as it’s a big book and thick softcovers tend not to last long.

Neil Gaiman: Angels and Visitations, Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and the collected Sandman graphic novels. Gaiman is a master of the short story and I would love to own all of his short story collections, and his Sandman comics are just great.

Bella Bathurst: The Wreckers: A Story of Killing Seas, False Lights, and Plundered Shipwrecks. I like reading about history, but not the sweeping kind. I prefer specific histories, such as biographies of persons, the history of specific places or things (like the spice trade or the East India Company), rather than the kind that covers whole countries and focuses on kings, politicians, famines and wars. If it’s about something that is usually not covered in the history textbooks, like domestic life or food or a little know expedition, that’s all the better, so this seems to be my kind of book.

Ella K. Maillart: Forbidden Journey. I have already read the “he said” part of this journey through Turkestan: Peter Fleming’s travel classic News from Tartary, and now I would like to read about it from Maillart’s point of view.

There are lots more, but these are the ones I could remember.

04 December 2007

Bibliophile reviews Kingdoms of Experience: Everest, the unclimbed ridge by Andrew Greig

Year published: 1986
Genre: Non-fiction: mountain-climbing, Mt. Everest
Setting & time: Mt. Everest, Tibet, 1985.

The Story:
In 1984 Greig, then relatively inexperienced as a mountain climber, had joined an expedition to the Himalayas as a writer and member of the support crew. At the end of the expedition, the leader, Mal Duff, heard about an available climbing permit for Mt. Everest from the Tibetian side, and decided to put together an expedition to try to climb the then unclimbed north-east ridge of Mount Everest. Greig joined the expedition and the book tells the story, not just about the climb itself, but also the planning, putting together the team, financing and getting to Tibet.

Review:
This book, while probably of most interest to mountain climbers and those interested in climbing, can give non-climbers an insight into the immense amount of work that goes into an expedition like this one, the strain of high-altitude climbing and the dangers of it (not just falls and frostbite), and as it was not written by a professional climber, the language does not lapse into technical jargon. The few technical terms, mostly for pieces of climbing equipment, are easily looked up in a dictionary, but even if you don’t look them up (like me) their presence does not slow down the reading or mar the reading pleasure.

The story as told from Greig’s point of view gives the book structure, but is complemented by frequent entries from the other expedition members’ journals, so we get to see some of the key events of the climbing and their thoughts about it, but also about daily life in the camps.

Rating: A very interesting look at mountain climbing, even for a non-climber. 4 stars.

27 November 2007

Bibliophile reviews The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby

Year published: 1956
Genre: Non-fiction: Memoir, travel
Setting & time: Aboard ship and shore leaves in the UK and Australia; 1938-9

The Story:
In 1938, 19 year old Newby gave up his job as a clerk and signed on for a round trip as an apprentice seaman aboard the freighter Moshulu, one of the last sailing ships that plied the grain route between Britain and Australia. His descriptions of the excitement and hardships of shipboard life make for wonderful reading, and a documentary of a lifestyle that was soon to be extinct. The 1938-9 season was, according to Newby, the last time a fleet of sailing ships vied with one another for the fastest passage from Australia to Britain. After the Second World War was over, the fleet had broken up, many of the ships were destroyed, and ships with engines had mostly taken over the cargo routes.

Review:
Eric Newby had a wonderful way with words and this first book is no exception. He had the ability to make the things he wrote about come alive for the reader.
The only thing that marred the reading of this adventure story for me was all the technical descriptions of sails, masts, ropes, etc. and the techniques employed in their use. Although some of the terms are explained, I soon got lost amid all the technicalities, but it didn’t really matter, because those passages were never too long and I always had some idea of what was happening.

I was delighted to discover through Wikipedia that Moshulu is still afloat and serving as a floating restaurant in Penn's Landing, Philadelphia, USA.

Rating: 4+ stars.

25 November 2007

Mystery author # 41: Ann Granger

Title: Say it With Poison
Series detective: Consul Meredith Mitchell and D.I. Alan Markby
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1991
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur and police
Setting & time: The Cotsworlds, Britain, late 20th century (timeless)

Story:
Meredith Mitchell arrives in the Cotsworlds for the upcoming wedding of her cousin’s daughter. D.I. Alan Markby of the local police has been asked to give away the bride. Shortly after Meredith arrives, her cousin’s seemingly nice young neighbour is found murdered, and both Meredith and Alan start investigating.

Review:
This is a really good first novel, and a great mystery as well. The two don’t always go together, and it’s refreshing to see a book that has no noticeable symptoms of firstbookitis in neither writing or plotting. The characters are realistically drawn, the writing is good, the mystery has some interesting twists and the clues are devious enough to satisfy even the most demanding mystery lover.

Rating: A refreshingly good first book and a great mystery as well. 4 stars.

Author review will follow when I have read more of Granger’s books.

16 November 2007

Waste of trees and time (and petrol)

This isn’t directly about books, although I have read some that were a true waste of paper and by extension both trees and time.

I participate in two book trading societies on the web: Book Mooch and Title Trader. The books I get from my trading buddies abroad have to go through customs. The customs procedures are incredibly bureaucratic and not nearly as streamlined as they could be.

The system, as delivery concerns, goes something like this: Customs receives my package and the officer decides it could be a delivery from an Ebay seller, and thus fees and taxes would be due. A couple of days later I get a letter, telling me this and asking for permission to open the package to look for an invoice. The law for the protection of personal information is such that they need permission every time. As far as I can tell a standing permission is out of the question for individuals.

I sign the permission and fax it back, with an explanation saying I am being sent the books free of charge, which technically* means I shouldn’t have to pay any fees or taxes. A customs officer opens the package and finds no invoice. Usually my books are then delivered 2-3 days later, unless the customs officer thinks it looks like I’m trying to get out of paying import tax, VAT and a handling fee which alone is about 5 times the worth of an ordinary non-collectible used book. This means I get a second letter, as much as 10 days later, couched in polite phrases but basically telling me I’m a liar and they want that invoice or else they send the package back to the sender. Then I have to write another letter (they no longer take phone calls), explaining about Book Mooch and/or Title Trader. So far, this has worked every time except once, when I had to ask for time off from work to drive across half the city to the customs house to have an eye-to-eye with a customs officer. (In that case it would probably have been cheaper to just offer to pay the handling fee and whatever taxes they wanted, however unfair, but I have principles and one of them is not to let myself be blackmailed).

A couple of months ago I was offered the choice of receiving and answering my package announcement letters by e-mail. Of course I jumped at the chance, but I soon discovered that being this bureaucratic dinosaur, the customs office couldn’t just do it like that. Oh, no: now I get the email, and then 2-3 days later I also get the letter. Last time I answered the e-mail so promptly that I got the package a day earlier than the letter announcing its arrival and asking for permission to open it. So instead of making the system easier and simpler and wasting less paper, the only thing that has happened is that there is now a double announcement system and paper is still being wasted.
--

*Technically because the law states that only gifts** for special occasions (e.g. wedding, anniversary or birthday) are non-taxable, the unwritten assumption being that gifts that are not for special occasions (e.g. because the giver was feeling generous) should be taxed. The actual working rule is that anything the receiver is not paying for counts as a special gift and is not taxable, and thus Book Mooch and Title Trader books are not taxable.

**Definable as "packages sent by others that contain something you are not paying for".

13 November 2007

Mystery author # 40: Edmund Crispin

Title: The Case of the Gilded Fly
Series detective: Gervase Fen, professor of English at Oxford University
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1944
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Gifted amateur
Setting & time: Oxford, England, during World War 2

Story:
An obnoxious young actress is murdered. Several people heard a gunshot, but no-one actually saw a thing, and with supreme assurance of his success, Oxford professor Gervase Fen steps in to solve the case.

Review:
The writing is not bad and the plotting is not too bad, but for some reason I found myself not liking this book. Possibly it’s because I have rarely come across a less likeable sleuth (not even Poirot or Gideon Fell), or possibly it is because there is something too smug about the tone of the book for my taste. Also, I dislike books where all the characters are described in detail right at the start, but the clincher was when I was still not able to tell some of them apart without looking at said descriptions. It did have a nice, if improbable, twist at the end, which saved it from being a total loss. Don’t be mistaken, this was not a wallbanger, it was too dull for that.

I’m glad I got the book from the library. I do have another Gervase Fen mystery by Crispin, but it will be some time before I venture to read it. If and when I do, I will post an author review.

Rating: A disappointing mystery. 2 stars.

09 November 2007

Mystery author #39: Michael Pearce

Title: Death of an Effendi
Series detective: Gareth Owen, head of Cairo's Political CID
No. in series: 12
Year of publication: 1999
Type of mystery: Murder, political intrigue, historical
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Cairo, Egypt; 1909

Story:
Owen is sent to keep an eye on a Russian businessman during a conference, but the man is short during a bird hunt and Owen suspects it is murder and not an accidental shooting. But proving it is another matter, especially when a man who may possibly have important information is being kept out of reach. It takes some clever manoeuvring to get to him, and what is revealed is a curious story of idealism, business and politics, but it it may be a small thing for Owen compared with the wrath of his girlfriend when one of the witnesses turns out to be a beautiful woman.

Review:
Pearce writes with a wonderfully light and airy touch, and his characters are three dimensional and human. He manages to tell a light-hearted story about a very serious matter, in a story that is at once character driven and full of plot. I will definitely be on the lookout for more.

Rating: An excellent twisty murder mystery. 3+ stars.

06 November 2007

Mystery author #38: Elizabeth Daly

Title: Evidence of Things Seen
Series detective: Henry Gamadge, author and expert on rare books
No. in series: 5
Year of publication: 1943
Type of mystery: Murder, possibly supernatural
Type of investigator: Amateur sleuth
Setting & time: The Berkshires, NE-USA; 1940s

Story:
Mrs. Clara Gamadge is holidaying in the Berkshires. Her husband is away on government business and she is alone in a rented summer cottage with her maid. The two women feel a bit creeped out by a mysterious, ghostly figure in a sunbonnet that appears at sunset every 2-3 days, but not enough to flee the house. When the ‘ghost’ scares a horse outside the house, causing an accident in which the cottage’s owner is injured, they bring her into the house. During the night she is murdered, and the police seem to suspect Clara of having done it in a fit of madness. Her husband arrives at this point and immediately figures out whodunnit, but he needs proof, and spends the last half of the book looking for it (the villain is only revealed near the end).

Review:
It is perhaps telling that now, a month after I read the book, I can’t remember exactly how the story ended, that is, I don’t remember whether the killer was caught, killed or if he killed himself.
The plot is a classic Golden Era style ‘impossible crime’ puzzler, but the writing is unremarkable and the characterisations dull and I felt no compulsion to read it all the way through in one or even several sittings. I took it to work and read a chapter during my lunch hour and never felt I needed to take it home to read more. The killer’s identity was a surprise, for which the author gets a plus point, because he never occurred to me even though in retrospect his identity was obvious.

Rating: Good plot, dull characters, unremarkable prose. 2 stars.

About the author:
In the author intro at the back of the book it is said that Agatha Christie was a big fan of Daly’s, but although Daly’s books are being republished, she isn’t nearly as famous as her disginguished fan is today. I can’t really judge her as an author based on one book, so I think I will not try to analyse her writing now, but if I get the chance to read another of her books I may write an author review for her.

05 November 2007

Reading report for October 2007

I finished 12 books in October, several of them mysteries by authors I had previously not read, so if I can get myself going with the writing, there should be some challenge reviews coming up. About time too, since I want to finish the challenge before the end of the year.

The books:
Anthony Bourdain: Bone in the Throat - hard-boiled crime.
Suzanne Brockmann: Everyday, Average Jones - romance with a touch of thriller.
Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly - murder mystery.
Mary Daheim: Auntie Mayhem - murder mystery.
Franklin Dixon: Frank og Jói á Íslandi - my first (and probably last) Hardy Boys mystery, read because it takes place in Iceland.
Ann Granger: Say it with Poison - murder mystery.
Andrew Greig: Kingdoms of Experience - travel and mountain climbing.
Tony Hillerman: The Blessing Way - mystery thriller.
Eric Newby: The Last Grain Race - memoir.
Nancy Pearl: More Book Lust - lists of reading recommendations.
Barbara Sjoholm: The Pirate Queen: In search of Grace O’Malley and other legendary women of the sea - travel and women’s history.
Jack Turner: Spice: The history of a temptation - social history of spices.

25 October 2007

Mystery author #37 Tess Gerritsen

Title: The Surgeon
Series detective: Jane Rizzoli – in this book with Thomas Moore
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 2001
Type of mystery: Serial murder, police procedural, thriller
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Boston, USA; modern timeless

SPOILER Warning: if you haven't read the books, there is a minor spoiler for book 1 in the synopsis for book 2. There are also minor spoilers in the reviews.

Story:
A serial murderer is on the loose in Boston and his handiwork is chillingly similar to that of another serial murderer who has been dead for 2 years, killed in self-defense by his last victim, Dr. Catherine Cordell. Police detectives Jane Rizzoli and Thomas Moore begin to suspect that there might have been two killers working together, but Cordell has no memory of another man. Before long, it becomes apparent that the killer has fixated on Cordell and has plans for her. The killer is relentless and when he captures Cordell, it is a race against time to find his lair before he kills her.

Review:
Since I actually read The Apprentice first, I can’t help comparing the two books. The Apprentice is the better of the two, but that is not to say that The Surgeon isn’t a good thriller. It is, and I might have found it better if I had not known who the killer was. Having read the second book first, the story was for me less about finding out who the killer was (he features in the second book too), than seeing the police discover his identity.
While it is Jane Rizzoli who is the series detective, it is not really that obvious here, as Moore is actually the better developed of the two detectives. This may originally have been intended as a stand-alone book, or perhaps the beginning of a series about Moore and not Rizzoli.

Rating: 3 stars.
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Title: The Apprentice
Series detective: Jane Rizzoli
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 2002
Type of mystery: Serial murder, police procedural, thriller
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Boston, modern timeless

Story: It's been two years since Detective Jane Rizzoli captured a serial killer, nearly losing her own life in the process. Now someone is using some of his methods when killing young married women, but also some new methods, and Jane and her team suspect that they are either looking for a copycat who has blended his own methods with the other man’s, or the known killer has an apprentice. When he escapes and it becomes clear that he and the other murderer are working together and their dream target may be Jane. The Boston police have to race against time to stop the murderous tag-team from killing more people, and to find out the identity of the second killer.

Review: It's been a while since I have read a serial murder thriller this good – in fact I think the last one was an early Patricia Cornwell novel. The writing is well-paced and the suspense is nearly relentless and conforming to the classic formula each climax is bigger than the previous one. The episodes (or should I call them 'acts'?) are seamlessly connected and the characters believable, except perhaps the mysterious FBI man who remains wooden throughout, and the mystery killer who is always merely a dark, nameless shadow, a bogeyman to spice up the race to track down the known villain.

I do have a gripe with one storytelling technique used in both books. Of course I am no expert on the mentality of serial murderers, but I know enough to think that the serial killer seems realistic, even though his thoughts – which we get to see now and then throughout the story – are somewhat too literary and coherent (very few if any people think in coherent sentences all the time when not formulating something to say or write down), but I suppose this must be forgiven as it is a well-known literary device and stream-of-consciousness writing is not a device that goes well with the thriller form except in very small dozes..


Rating: 4 stars.

Verdict:
I am definitely adding Gerritsen to my “continue to read” list.

07 October 2007

Mystery author #36: D.R. Meredith

Series detectives: Paleoanthropologist and assistant librarian Megan Clark and her sidekick, history professor Ryan Stevens, aided and abetted by the Murder by the Yard mystery reading group.
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Amarillo, Texas, USA; 21st century

Title: Murder in Volume
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 2000
Type of mystery: Murder

Story: Megan drags Ryan, who happens to be her best friend even though he is old enough to be her father and secretly in love with her (just had to get that in), with her to a meeting to form a mystery reading group, even though Ryan never reads mysteries. A couple of meetings later, a young female member lashes viciously out against the others, belittles everyone and storms out, only to be found after the meeting outside the store with her throat slit. Megan can't miss the opportunity to use her education and examines the body before the police get there, and so gets blood on her clothes, making her a prime suspect in the eyes of the police, who (not unnaturally, considering the circumstances) refuse to allow her to participate in the investigation.
In order to clear her name, Megan decides to investigate the case herself, and Ryan tags along to protect her from harm. In the end, it is the co-operation of the whole reading group that nets the ruthless killer.

Review: As a mystery, this is not an effective story. The killer and motive are blatantly obvious to the reader right from the killer's first appearance. In other respects, I do like it. It was interesting to see the investigation unfolding for the participants, and the characters are well drawn, although Megan does stretch belief a bit. The storytelling device – but I'm getting ahead of myself here. I'll write about that in the author review.

Rating: A funny and entertaining whodunnit. 2+ stars.


Title: By Hook or by Book
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 2000
Type of mystery: Murder, theft

Story: Megan, Ryan and the reading group organise a string figure convention, with participants from all over the world. When a participant announces that he has found a long lost manuscript by a famous string figure specialist that he will sell to the highest bidder, the result is chaotic. The next morning he is found dead, and again the police are less than willing to let Megan participate, but she stubbornly starts an investigation of her own, aided by a reluctant Ryan and an enthusiastic reading group.

Review: As someone not that interested in string figures, I could not work up much enthusiasm for the premise of the story, but by looking at it like any other hobby and knowing that people can become obsessed with even the most trivial of subjects, I was able to enjoy it (for another, better example of such obsession, I heartily recommend Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun). The mystery was more mysterious this time around, but I still had the killer figured out around the time of the second murder.

Rating: Still entertaining, but the string figure instructions were really superfluous. 2+ stars.

Title: Murder Past Due
No. in series: 3
Year of publication: 2001
Type of mystery: Old murder

Story: The reading group celebrate their 6 month anniversary by offering a murder tour of Amarillo to the public, complete with re-enactments of real murders. Afterwards, the head of a very old and rich pioneer family approaches them and asks them to find out who murdered his grand-daughter-in-law 20 years ago, just after she returned from her honeymoon, and thereby caused her husband's suicide a year later. After examining the case, they all agree that the murderer has to have been a member of the family, and an interview with the police officer who was in charge of the investigation brings up some disturbing evidence. The police are un-cooperative as usual, but Megan isn't going to let that stop her, only this time she may have bitten off more than she could chew…

Review: This was the best of the three books I read in the series. The murder stories recounted in the book were interesting (all but the last are real) and although to me the way they helped Megan find the murderer was far-fetched, they did not feel too much like filler material.

Rating: The best of the three. 4 stars.

Author review:
All three books have the same storytelling device in common: chapters with alternating points of view. In every other chapter Ryan seems to be writing books in first person about the crimes, and in the other chapters a partially omniscient narrator is telling the story in the third person from Megan’s point of view. Each chapter picks up where the last one left off, so we only get to see part of the story from each viewpoint. Ryan’s chapters inject humour into the stories, and he is wryly self-deprecating in his admittance that he can’t stand the sight of blood, but he also admits that he will do anything to keep Megan safe.

The idea of a relationship between a young woman and the father of her childhood best friend could easily become icky if not handled right, but Meredith manages to avoid that by not letting anything more serious than some mild kissing happen, usually right after something dangerous has happened and the characters are upset and not quite in control of their emotions. Through the three books the relationship develops slowly as Megan starts to become aware that Ryan has feelings for her that are more than just friendly and begins to discover that her feelings towards him are equally ambiguous. This story thread is an interesting hook that the author is using to make the more romantically inclined readers want to continue reading the books in the hope the heroine and hero will finally realise they are meant to be lovers, but like similar hooks in television series, it could be risky to allow it ever to come to a final conclusion, as it would remove some of the tension that drives the stories.

The writing is straightforward and the stories flow well, apart from the interjections of string figure instructions at the beginning of the chapters in the second book that are probably easy for those who like string figures, but to me could just as well have been written in Chinese.

While one of the stories has a suicide ending (I’m not telling which one), it didn’t bother be much, as it was logical for that character to take his own life. What bothered me more was that one of the murder methods in that book was identical to the same in a Robert Barnard novel I reviewed last year. Even that wouldn’t have bothered me at all if the killer hadn’t then committed suicide in an identical fashion to the killer in the Barnard novel. This is probably a coincidence or an unconscious imitation on behalf of the author rather than anything sinister, but it did bother me. However, it not going to stop me from reading more books in this series (and the author’s other mysteries) should I come across them.

05 October 2007

Reading report for September 2007

I am beginning to go into a reading slump. The symptoms usually start with the feeling that I have nothing to read, even though I in fact do have a TBR stack of about 300 books in my bedroom and a TBR list of over 1000, at least a third of which I can get from the library. Then I start to read one book after the other and decide I‘m not interested in any of them, and the books I am already committed to read stop being interesting. This usually leads to a cull of my TBR stack, but so far I am resisting that temptation. This has happened almost every autumn since I was in my early twenties. Much as I love this season, the diminishing daylight does mean that I start getting the winter blues and a reading slump is usually the first warning sign. School has been somewhat effective in dispelling this seasonal gloom in the past, and when I have not been at school I have learned to keep busy and find new interests to keep the blues at bay. This winter I‘m taking a second bookbinding course (I‘m hoping to start learning about leather binding), and I have also started learning Spanish. This will hopefully keep my mood up, but may also affect the volume of my reading. We shall see.

I only finished 9 books this month, but I started reading at least six more and continued to read two that I started reading some months ago. Only one was non-fiction, Nancy Pearl‘s entertaining book of book lists, Book Lust, from which I got a number of titles to add to my TBR list. The rest were mysteries and thrillers. I may review some of them in the next couple of weeks.

Books I read in September:
Catherine Aird: Little Knell
Jennifer Crusie & Bob Mayer: Don't look down
Elizabeth Daly: Evidence of things seen
Tess Gerritsen: The Surgeon
Linda Howard: Dying to please
Ngaio Marsh: Vintage murder
Nancy Martin: Dead girls don't wear diamonds
Michael Pearce: Death of an Effendi
Nancy Pearl: Book Lust

20 September 2007

Mystery author #35: Ngaio Marsh (WARNING: Very long post)

It may well surprise some to discover that until last month I had not read a single book by this illustrious mystery author, whose name is often mentioned in the same sentence as those of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but it is really not surprising when you consider that Marsh's books seem to be mostly out of print (which makes me wonder: if she is as good as Christie and Sayers, why are her books not in print? Perhaps they are between printing cycles?). It is to be hoped that they will be re-issued as the ones I read are quite entertaining and certainly better than some of the modern mysteries I have been reading lately.

The author review is based on the first five books in the series. It will be interesting to see if my opinions change with further reading.

I will only review the books briefly and rate them. I will discuss the things they have in common in the author review.

Series detective: Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Scotland Yard. In four of these early books he is assisted by journalist and murder magnet Nigel Bathgate.
Type of investigator: Police
Type of mystery: Murder
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Title: A Man Lay Dead
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1934
Setting & time: An English country house and London, UK; 1930s

Story: When a man is murdered, stabbed with his own dagger, in the middle of a murder mystery game at a country house, several of those present are suspects (as per formula). It is up to Inspector Alleyn and the local police to solve the case, aided by journalist Nigel Bathgate, who is one of the few guests in the house who is not under suspicion. The solution depends on a very thorough investigation of alibis.

Review: This is a country house mystery that also features a secret society and mixes together two investigations, thus going somewhat against the formula for such mysteries, but not in a totally bad way. The secret society aspect is in fact quite entertaining. The the means of getting the murderer to confess are rather funny.

Rating: An interesting country house mystery and novel of manners with a touch of melodrama. 3 stars.
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Title: Enter a Murderer
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1935
Setting & time: The Unicorn Theatre, London, UK; 1930s

Story: An unpopular actor is murdered on stage during a show, and Alleyn and Bathgate are in the audience. Several members of the company had reasons to want to harm the victim.

Review: While not a country house mystery, this story follows the same rules: a limited number of suspects within a limited space. As in the previous story, the solution depends on a careful investigation of the movements of the characters, and the solution will be a surprise to many readers.

Rating: A theatrical mystery with quite as many twists and turns as a good play. 4 stars.
--

Title: The Nursing Home Murder
No. in series: 3
Year of publication: 1935
Setting & time: London, UK; 1930s

Story: When a government minister is murdered during surgery, several of those present in the operating room had reason to want him dead, including his jilted former lover, the young doctor who loves her, and a nurse who is a member of the Communist party. Alleyn solves the case, aided by Nigel and his girlfriend.

Review: I found this installation in the series rather melodramatic. The murderer was obvious from his first interview with Alleyn onwards, as was his motive but not his method, which was ingenious, although of a kind that stretches the reader's credulity a bit, but no more than some of the Sherlock Holmes plot devices.

Rating: One of the less entertaining books in the Alleyn series. 2+ stars.
--

Title: Death in Ecstacy
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1936
Setting & time: London, UK; 1930s

Story: Nigel Bathgate gatecrashes a cult and witnesses a poison murder during a religious ceremony. He calls in Alleyn, and before long they are deep into an investigation where nearly all of the inner circle of the cult had reason to want the victim dead.

Review: This is an interesting look into cultism, with several interesting characters and explanations of why they joined, and a look at how a cult can as easily fall apart as any business venture. However, the murder method was such that it was quite uncertain that the poison would kill the right person and not the wrong person or indeed wipe out the whole inner circle of the cult (given how little of this particular poison is needed to kill someone), and so it was left to chance for the right person to ingest it. This I don't like in mysteries.

Rating: An interesting rather than entertaining story with a too risky murder method. 2+ stars.
--

Title: Vintage Murder
No. in series: 5
Year of publication: 1937
Setting & time: New Zealand; 1930s

Story: Alleyn is on holiday in New Zealand and has been travelling with a troupe of actors on tour. He is therefore present at a dinner to honour the leading lady, when a stunt goes seriously wrong and the company manager is killed. Alleyn discovers that the apparent accident was in fact a murder. The local police are thrilled to have the famous Alleyn in their midst, and he is invited to help with the investigation. This time, only two people seem to have had good reason to want the man dead, but both are unlikely killers and have solid alibis.

Review: Another theatrical mystery, and the first book in the series not to feature Nigel Bathgate. The murder method is ingenious and timing and minute examination of the witness statements are all important in solving the murder.

Rating: An entertaining puzzle plot. 4 stars.
--

Author review:
Based on my reading of these 5 books, I found Marsh to be a rather uneven author. Her writing in all 5 books is quite literary, her characters well written and believable for the most part and the dialogue often witty and clever. She reminds me of Georgette Heyer and Josephine Tey in that respect.
The unevenness is in the mystery plots, which sometimes stretch the imagination a bit too much, while at other times they are intricate and well thought out. All of the plots are puzzle plots where the events leading up to the murders are looked at, often from several different angles and with increasing exactness (tediously so at times), and the solutions depend on careful examination of facts, location, timing and alibis, with a touch of intuition.

Characterisation is one of Marsh's strong points.
Alleyn is charming, likable and sophisticated without being arrogant, with a tendency towards flippancy when least expected, that often completely takes people by surprise and puts them off their guard. I find the way he sometimes addresses his staff rather disrespectful, but the way Marsh writes it, they seem to accept the diminutives of their names he uses when speaking to them as being affectionate.
Nigel is a typical sidekick, i.e. a stand-in for a reader who is not stupid but gets carried away by red herrings and his feelings for the suspects. He also acts as someone for Alleyn to test his theories on.
The murderers, suspects and witnesses are mostly well-drawn and believable, and while one might confuse a character from one story with a character from another story if they are read too closely together, one is not likely to mix up characters within the same story.

Altogether, I think I will continue to read Marsh, only I am stalled right now as I want to read the books in order of publication, but I don't have the next two books and am waiting for them to pop up on either BookMooch or Ebay.

17 September 2007

Bibliophile reviews Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss

Year published: 1980
Genre: Non-fiction, travel
Setting & time: Alaska, USA, late 1970s

McGinniss wanted to experience Alaska in all it's guises and seasons and went to live there for a year. The outcome was this report, often funny, sometimes sad or poignant, about a land and society during a period of rapid change. He takes a look at the problems facing the native communities, many of which were caused by the social-upheaval brought on by the arrival of the white man, and also at pioneers, oilmen, opportunists, politicians, scholars and ordinary people, all of them trying to make a living in the harsh environment of the USA's biggest state.

McGinniss does his best to avoid criticising the less savoury aspects of what he saw by trying to describe without judging, but one can not avoid noticing the subtle sarcasm that creeps into his prose whenever he mentions the oil pipeline, oilmen or oil-supporters and oil-supporting politicians, so his stance on that subject is rather obvious, but it is subtle enough that it will not overly bother anyone but the most militant pipeline supporter.

Rating: An interesting look at Alaska, both land and people. 4 stars.

15 September 2007

Mystery author #34: Nancy Martin

Series: The Blackbird sisters
Series detective: Nora Blackbird, aided by her sisters Libby and Emma and Michael Abruzzo whom she is sort of dating but afraid to commit to
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Philadelphia, PA, USA; modern timeless
Type of mystery: Murder

Title: How to Murder a Millionaire
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 2002

Story: When her parents flee the country and leave her with the family farm that has a 2 million dollar tax debt on it, recently widowed Nora Blackbird needs to find a job to pay the bills. A former debutante and society wife, all she really knows how to do is plan parties and be a hostess. This turns out to be the perfect background when she is hired as a society reporter by an old friend of the family who happens to own a newspaper. But then Nora finds him dead and it turns out he was murdered. The police ask for her help, as she knows everyone involved and knows how Philly high-society works. She becomes deeply involved in the investigation when a valuable antique is handed to her to return to the dead man's estate. But several people seem to be after the antique, and Nora doesn't really know whom to trust.
Then there is Michael Abruzzo who bought part of her farm, enabling her to pay off part of the tax debt. She really should hate him for setting up a tacky used car lot down the road from her venerable old farmhouse and distrust him because he is the son of a mafia boss, but the man is just so damn delicious…

Review: I enjoyed this story on several levels. The characterizations of the sisters deftly skirt the stereotypes I feared they would turn out to be and they become real, if sometimes a bit exaggerated, persons, and the descriptions of fine parties come across as genuine, as well they might, the author having been brought up in the kind of society she describes in the book. The murder mystery was an interesting puzzle plot, and while I did correctly detect the villain before Nora did, it was interesting to see the plot unravel towards the denouement.

Rating: A great start to a mystery series with a romantic twist. 3+ stars.


Title: Dead Girls Don't Wear Diamonds
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 2003

Story: The wife of an old beau of Nora's is found murdered, and because the dead woman's father-in-law is slated as the next secretary of transportation, the FBI takes over the investigation. The local police are none too pleased, and one of them blackmails Nora into using her high-society connections to investigate the case. The dead woman had been a kleptomaniac and Nora gets into danger when she begins to investigate that as a possible motive for the woman's death. Meanwhile, her relationship with Michael Abruzzo is rocky. They are very attracted to each other, but Nora is still not ready to let got of the memory of her late husband, and Michael refuses to open up to her about his past and his family.

Review: While I did not quite enjoy this book as much as the previous one, I did like it and the mystery in this one was stronger. Too bad it had to be the same kind of killer as in the previous book. I still liked it.

Rating: Another good high-society mystery where Nora gets to use her connections to solve a murder mystery. 3 stars.

Author review: I like Martin's writing style and humour and the way she writes characters. I will definitely be on the look-out for more Blackbird sisters mysteries, if only to find out how things turn out between Nora and Michael.

07 September 2007

Reading report for August 2007

I finished 13 books in August, and added three new authors to my challenge (I am writing the last review). I managed to finish 4 books I had started some time ago and then stopped reading.

Reviewed:
Laura Childs: Shades of Earl Grey
Deborah Crombie: A Share in Death

Unreviewed:
Leslie Carroll: Miss Match
Lorrain D'Essen: Kangaroos in the Kitchen
Barry Paris: Audrey Hepburn
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Georges Simenon: Maigret and the Toy Village
Paul Theroux, ed.: The Best American Travel Writing 2001

Reviews coming up:
Ngaio Marsh: A Man lay dead, Enter a murderer, The Nursing Home Murder, Death in Ecstacy
Nancy Martin: How to Murder a Millionnaire (I'm reading the second book in this series and will review them together)

03 September 2007

Mystery author #33: Laura Childs

Title: Shades of Earl Grey
Series detective: Theodosia ‘Theo’ Browning
No. in series: 3
Year of publication: 2003
Type of mystery: Theft, possible manslaughter
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: Charleston, SC, USA; modern timeless

Story: When a number of valuable antiques are stolen and a young groom is tragically killed in a possibly theft-related incident, Theodosia seems to be the only one who thinks there might be a cat burglar specialising in antiques at work in Charleston. Some speculation and a little investigation reveals three possible suspects, and she and her sidekick, Drayton, plan a trap to capture the thief.

SPOILER WARNING:


Review: I love cozy mysteries and I had expectations of this book, but unfortunately it fell a long way from those expectations. It’s cozy all right, but the plotting is weak and the sleuthing consists mostly of conjecture and asking a friendly police officer some questions. Additionally, the sleuth commits what to me amounts to a crime: in a fit of TSTL she does something so incredibly stupid and dangerous that one can only assume her common sense has been surgically removed. I don’t care if the criminal was “only” a thief, she had no way of knowing that, and while she sensibly brought her attack-trained dog along, it was still stupid. I know we are supposed to suspend our disbelief when reading fiction, but in the face of something like this mine refuses to let itself be suspended.

The characters have little depth – as a matter of fact the author’s idea of describing a character’s personality seems to consist of describing that they are wearing. It gets repetitive after the second time for each character, as does the endless, pointless tea drinking. I know it’s supposed to create a cosy atmosphere, but one detailed description of tea drinking is enough, whereas there is one in almost every third chapter. (And I happen to be a tea drinker myself).

However, according to some reviews I found on the web, this book does not live up to the standard set by the previous two books in the series, so I am going to give Childs a second chance, but should I discover her sleuth being TSTL again, she will be going on my Do Not Read list.

As usual, there will be no author review until I have read a second book.

Rating: A cosy mystery that is more cosy than it is mysterious, with a clueless sleuth to boot. 2 stars.

26 August 2007

Mystery author # 32: Rex Stout – the Nero Wolfe series

Series detective: Nero Wolfe, adied by narrator Archie Goodwyn.

Title: Fer-de-lance
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1934
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: P.I.
Setting & time: New York and nearby cities, USA; 1930s (early to mid- 20th century timeless setting)

Story: A young woman asks Wolfe to find her missing brother. When he turns up murdered Wolfe is able to link his death to that of a college president who collapsed on a golf course. Wolfe then proceeds to investigate the case in order to collect a rich reward offered by that man's wife and tests his wits against a clever murderer.

Warning: minor SPOILERS follow.

Review and rating: I must start by admitting that I detest gimmick murder weapons in mysteries, and unfortunately this one has not just one, but two. The snake I can forgive, since this is a relatively old story and the snake probably had not become a cliche when it was written (although some might say it became so already in Doyle's The Adventure of the Speckled Band). I can, however, not forgive the poisoned dart, or rather the way it got into the victim. The mechanism used in the story is a novel way of putting a poisoned dart into someone, for sure, but it's gimmicky. I realise why it was necessary to forward the story as told and without it it would have been difficult to tie together the two murders, but like many gimmicks of this kind it is not by any means a sure-fire way for the killer to get his man. There are just too many things that can go wrong with a gimmick weapon like this, and for a murderer who is supposed to be as clever as the one in this book it just doesn't fit. I guess you might say it's too ingenious.

That said, I will say that I enjoyed the story, but not for the mystery element, which is barely average (I had it figured out before the halfway point of the mystery part of the story) but rather for the characters, their interactions and the dialogues between them.

Unfortunately, there is another element in the story that I not only detest but hate more passionately every time I see it used, a certain type of ending that readers of my previous reviews will have no problem guessing at. I therefore feel I can not give this book more than 2 stars.
--

Title: Too Many Cooks
No. in series: 5
Year of publication:1938
Type of mystery: Murder
Setting & time: A spa near Philadelphia, USA; 1930s (early to mid- 20th century timeless setting)

Story: Nero Wolfe has made one of his rare excursions outside his house in New York to attend a gathering of master chefs (as the guest of one of them) and give a talk on American cuisine. When a chef who was hated by most of the others is murdered and another chef is arrested for the crime, Wolfe –out of a purely selfish motive – sets out to investigate the crime. It takes his considerable skills in human relations to get the necessary clues from material witnesses who have either been overlooked or dismissed as unimportant by the police, but once that is accomplished, he is all set to catch the killer.

Review: As in the previous book, it was the characters and their interactions and dialogues that were the most fun part of the reading rather than the mystery itself, which is weak, but at least there was no gimmick murder weapon. Wolfe's way with people is what solves the crime this time, as he skilfully and respectfuly extracts important evidence from people usually invisible in stories like these.

Rating: An interesting mystery where the solution hinges on showing respect. 2+ stars.
--

Title: Three Doors to Death
No. in series: 16
Year of publication:1950
Type of mystery: Murder
Setting & time: New York and Westchester, USA; mid- 19th century timeless setting

This book contains three Nero Wolfe novellas.

In Man Alive, a young fashion designer asks Wolfe to track down her uncle who was supposed to have killed himself a year earlier, but whom she has seen twice recently. When he is found murdered and she is arrested, Wolfe uncovers a clever revenge plot.

In Omit Flowers, a chef friend of Wolfe's (one of the chefs from Too Many Cooks) asks Wolfe to prove the innocence of another chef who is believed to have murdered his employer's husband. It takes some clever thinking from both Wolfe and Goodwin before that case is solved.

In Door to Death Wolfe uncharacteristically leaves the comfort of his home to steal a master gardener from another orchid lover to fill in for his regular gardener who has had to take leave for an unspecified length of time. He has to use illegal means to get the man off the hook and into his orchid rooms when the man's fiancée is found murdered in the greenhouse.

Review: These three novellas are better mysteries than the two novels I reviewed above, probably because they are short enough that the middle doesn't start drooping or the plot become too threadbare. There is still enough funny dialogue between Wolfe and Goodwin, and some rather good puzzle plots. 3 stars.

Author review:
Many seem to agree that the best of the Nero Wolfe mysteries are the short stories and novellas, rather than the novels. I expect this is because in a short story or novella a thin plot doesn't need as much padding as it does in a full-length novel. In both the novels I read there was a lot of padding. Most of it is entertaining, but it's still padding.

It is the characters and dialogue that are the outstanding thing about the 3 books/5 stories I read, rather than the mystery elements. Archie Goodwyn is in some ways a more interesting character than Wolfe, who is basically a grumpy "thinking machine" detective who loves food and orchids. Archie is the sidekick, the muscle, but a smarter, funnier and more streetwise sidekick than, for example, Watson or Hastings, and he keeps surprising the reader. One gets the distinct feeling that he could, if he felt so inclined, solve mysteries on his own, but with very different methods than Wolfe would use. Their relationship is more like that between an uncle and nephew than a master and servant, and the result is lovely bantering dialogue, with Wolfe pretending to be offended by Goodwyn's irreverence, but secretly enjoying every minute. I am thankful to Stout for having given his narrator a sense of humour, because without it the stories would be quite forgettable.

The verdict is that while I am not going to start glomming these books, I would quite like to read more of them.

16 August 2007

Reading report for July 2007

I read 11 books in July. I could have read more, but the weather was good and I spent a couple of weekends travelling with my family.

One book was a reread, one of my perennials in fact. Three of the others were books I had started reading earlier and needed to finish to keep my promise to myself to finish some of the partially read books that are all over the place in my apartment.

Kate Adie: The Kindness of Strangers
Roald Dahl: Matilda
J.J. Marric: Gideon's Week
Sharyn McCrumb: The Rosewood Casket
John Mortimer: Rumpole of the Bailey
Terry Pratchett: Strata
J.D. Robb: Loyalty in Death
Georges Simenon: Maigret's Revolver
Rex Stout: Three Doors to Death and Fer-de-Lance

Reread:
Terry Pratchett: Good Omens

27 July 2007

DailyLit: Reading in instalments

I recently discovered that it is possible to subscribe to literature on the Web. It is by no means a new thing – after all, some of the most popular classic novelists, such as Dumas and Dickens, wrote some their books in instalments that were eagerly awaited by readers. I decided to try it, and have subscribed to a book I started reading a couple of months ago but have kept pushing aside for other books. Now I can simply read it during my coffee breaks and lunch break at work, instead of at home where I am surrounded by scores of other books that keep diverting my attention from it. The book is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. For the next 286 weekdays I will receive it in instalments in my inbox, from DailyLit.

It will be interesting to see if I manage to stick with it, or whether at some point I will go back to the book.

I think this is an excellent way for people who think they are to busy to read books to relax for a few minutes every day over a good book. DailyLit mostly offers older books with expired copyright, among them many classics, but they have now started offering newer books that are published under a creative commons licence. They have something for most tastes, so check them out.

14 July 2007

Mystery author # 31: Andrea Camilleri

Translator: Stephen Sartarelli
Series detective: Inspector Salvo Montalbano
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Vigàta, Sicily (and neighbourhood), Italy; late 20th century

This time, I read two books by the author. Note that the given year of publication is for the original Italian publication.

Title: The Shape of Water
Original Italian title: La forma dell'acqua
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1994
Type of mystery: Death under mysterious circumstances (possibly murder), police procedural

Story: A famous and respected Sicilian political leader is found dead from a heart attack. There is no doubt of the cause of death, but as the circumstances of the finding of the body and the place where it was found are rather suspicious, Inspector Montalbano decides to get to the bottom of it, despite pressure from the authorities to close the case. Was it an accidental death during a sexual encounter with a prostitute, or was the heart attack manufactured, making it a murder?

Rating: A fresh, sneaky and entertaining police procedural. 4 stars.
--

Title: The Voice of the Violin
Original Italian title: La voce del violino
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1997
Type of mystery: Murder; police procedural

Story: Inspector Montalbano's curiosity leads him to the body of a young woman who has been murdered during or after sex. Her purse, full of expensive jewellery, is missing, so robbery appears to have been the motive, but the clues show that in all likelihood she knew her murderer. When the case is taken from the local police and handed over to the carabineri who proceed to make things more complicated, Montalbano seizes the opportunity to put one over an obnoxious police commissioner, but he also has to deal with some serious regrets caused by his own mistakes.

Rating: A fine and entertaining murder mystery. 4+ stars.

Author review: I have found a new "must read more" author in Andrea Camilleri. The narrative technique in both books combines humour, skilful writing and great plotting, and Stephen Sartarelli's translations are very good. Montalbano is an instantly likeable character, and the plots are a heady mixture of passion and cold calculation, interspersed with glimpses of Sicilian life and the ways of the Sicilian people. I can't wait to read more. 4 stars.

P.S. For those who are unfamiliar with Italian/Sicilian society, there are explanations of some of the things a reader may stumble over, in the last pages of the book.

13 July 2007

Arrrgh! Mouldy book

Went to the library yesterday and wandered over to the corner where they sell books they have no more use for and found two cookbooks I had long wanted, plus a volume with both of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books. A quick check showed there were no pages missing, so I went to the desk and bought them. Last night I sat down after dinner to leaf through the cookbooks and discovered mould in one of them. Little spots of bluish-black mould the size of fingerprints were growing outwards from some of the seams in the book. Mould in regular books is a nasty, ugly thing, but mould in a cookbook could be dangerous if it got into the food being prepared. Ouch! And arrrrgh!

I really, really want to keep that book, but I don’t want to have it near my other books, knowing that if I ever have a dampness problem or a water or steam accident in my house, it could contaminate them. I don’t suppose applying a fungicide will do the paper any good, but at least I can minimise the risk of contaminating any food I may make following the recipes, by taking the book out on a windy day and brushing away the spores. I think I will then store it in a plastic bag with a sachet of silica for company. It won’t look pretty, but at least it will not be a threat to the rest of my cookbook collection.

08 July 2007

Reading repors for May and June 2007

Just poking my head in to report on my reading :-)

May:
In May I finished a book on average every 2,4 days: 13 books that total 3562 pages. I started reading some of these books months ago and had been reading them on and off since. I have always liked having a wide variety of books to read and I mix together books that can be read over a long time with books that are best read, if not quickly, than at least over a period of just a few days.

I started reading The Literary Gourmet three years ago and would pick it up every now and then and read a chapter and then put it on the shelf again. I thought it had great promise when I first got it, but I was disappointed with it. The book is a collection of food and eating passages from famous literary works, with recipes researched by the author/editor and adapted and tested by chefs. I think a book like this is probably most interesting when you have read the majority of the books mentioned in it, and I have not, which is probably why I found it disappointing.

I finally did read The Wasp Factory, prompted by someone mooching it from me, so I read it in an afternoon and was not disappointed. The humour is as dark as it gets and it's an imaginatively gruesome account of what can happen when children are allowed to run wild.

Unreviewed:
Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory
Beryl Bainbridge: Harriet said...
Susan Donovan: Knock me off my feet
Mark Gatiss: The Vesuvius Club
Robert A. Heinlein: The Star Beast
Holly Hughes ed.: Best Food Writing 2001
Linda Wolfe: The Literary Gourmet
Margery Allingham: Death of a Ghost
Peter Tremayne: Hemlock at Vespers
Mary Saul: Shells
Thomas Stevens: Around the World on a Penny-farthing

Rereads:
G.K. Chesterton: The Innocence of Father Brown
Terry Pratchett: Moving Pictures

--

June:
It has been a long time since I finished so few books in one month – only six – and all of them before June 10th. I finished the last one at the airport on my way to the USA, during a three hour delay. The next three weeks were so full of sights and adventure that I was generally too tired after dinner each night to do more than write in my journal and fall asleep. I did buy several books that I am looking forward to reading.

One of the books I did finish before setting off on holiday was Titus Groan, the first part of Mervyn Peake's famous Titus trilogy. It is like a huge meal put together from many small dishes that need to be eaten slowly with frequent breaks so as not to cause indigestion. I started reading it in April and finished it at the beginning of June and now I'm looking forward to starting the second book, Gormenghast.

I am working on some reviews, but I'm not making any promises as to when I will publish them.

Unreviewed:
Meyer Berger: The Eight Million
Andrea Camilleri: The Shape of Water and The Voice of the Violin
Giles Milton: Nathaniel's Nutmeg
Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan
Rex Stout: Too Many Cooks

23 May 2007

Vacation notice

Another 52 Books is going into hiatus for a while. I am off to enjoy the summer.

18 May 2007

Why buy hardcovers? Or putting it another way: Why buy paperbacks?

I see these questions and variations thereof pop up regularly on the reading forums I visit on the web. Sometimes they’re posted in an attempt to start an earnest discussion about the pros and cons of each, while at other times the asker wants to convince the other forum members that one rules and the other sucks. I’m sure most book lovers know the pros and cons of each, so I’m not going to bother listing them here, but I do want to tell you about my own preferences.

I prefer to buy paperbacks when I am new to the author, I’m not sure I will want to keep the book after I have read it, all my other books in a series are paperbacks (e.g. J.D. Robb’s In Death books), or I have little money to spare on books.

I prefer hardcovers when I am going to give the book as a present, when I know I am going to want to keep and reread it, when I need to replace a paperback I have read to tatters, and when I can’t wait for the paperback. I don’t give any thought to resell value or collectability or how the books look on the shelf, but of course I appreciate all of these things, just as I do all the other advantages of hardcover books.

The biggest downside to hardcovers for me is that they are bigger and heavier than paperbacks and so are harder to stuff into a purse or hold in your hands while reading. For example, all but one of my Terry Pratchett books are hardcovers and I’m working on getting the one exception in hard covers as well, to complete the collection. This means that I can’t take them with me for lunchtime reading when I go to work because they take up too much room in my purse – especially the big three novel volumes. But it’s not a big problem because there are so many other books out there that are smaller and just as funny that I can take with me.

I do miss the days when hardcover novels were available in different sizes – for example I have old pocket size hardcover editions of Three Men in a Boat and The Three Musketeers (admittedly, the type in that one is tiny) – but nowadays it’s generally only children’s and young adult books, handbooks and novelty books that are hardbound in sizes smaller than octavo. I think it’s probably because a larger size justifies a higher price because it makes people feel they are getting more for their money.

The other big issue I have with modern hardcovers is that some of them are really perfect bound books wearing fancy clothing. I don’t mean the hardcover/paperback hybrids that have thick, sturdy bookboard covers like a hardcover but a flat, glued-on spine like a paperback, but those that at first sight look like genuine traditional hollow-back bindings, even down to the headbands. Then you open them and wonder where the thread is, or look at the spine end of the textblock and wonder why the book doesn’t seem to be put together from signatures. Then suspicion rears its ugly head and after a look-see you realise that you are holding something, which while it may be less easily damaged on the outside because it has hard covers covered with bookcloth or fake leather rather than coated paper, is not going to last the 300 years you expected it to, but will start shedding its pages at about the same time as a paperback of the same age because it is not sewn together but perfect bound, i.e. it’s a stack of single pages glued together at the spine like a paperback. No one is going to tell me that the publishers use a different and better glue for such books than that used in paperbacks. Nope, I’m afraid it’s the same wonderful stuff, the kind which, at the worst, will lose it’s grip on the pages as soon as someone tries to open the book enough to make lie flat when open, and at the best will do the same after drying out for 20 years or so.

Of course it’s all done in order to increase the profit margin by having fewer and less energy demanding steps to go through in the binding process, but I know that I personally would pay more for a sewn book than a glued one, even if it had a soft cover.

17 May 2007

Mystery author #30 Veronica Stallwood

Title: Oxford Shadows
Series detective: Kate Ivory
No. in series: 8
Year of publication: 2000
Type of mystery: Murder, partly-historical, cosy
Type of investigator: Amateur (romance writer)
Setting & time: Oxford, England

Story: Suffering from writer's block and depression following a deadly attack (presumably in a previous book in the series), romance writer Kate Ivory is being hounded by her agent to begin work on a new, preferably spicy, novel. When workmen who are fixing the floors in her boyfriend's apartment find a box of papers and other items dating back to World War 2 under the floorboards and Kate comes across the owner's name on a tombstone shortly afterwards, she becomes interested in researching the war years for a novel. Before long she is digging after more information about the owner of the box, a young boy names Chris who was billeted in the house during the last months of the war along with his sister. The house had then belonged to an aunt of Kate's boyfriend, who is reluctant to have her dig up the past in case some family skeletons should be revealed.

Review: This is a comfortable cosy mystery, while also describing the recovery of someone who has lived through serious trauma and is slowly getting over it. It does, in fact, describe what people suffering from minor depression know to be an effective remedy against the blues, namely taking up a new interest. Of course, this being a series novel about an amateur sleuth, the new hobby is not shell collecting or skydiving, but the investigation of a death that at first merely seems to be merely interesting from a historical point of view, but then appears to be a possible case of foul play.

The writing flows smoothly and while this is not a page-turner, it is an interesting story and even the knowledge of the boy's fate and the quiet despair of Kate's struggles with depression do not suffice to make it any less comfortable to read. This is probably due to the author's ability to disperse any possible gloom with comic relief and strange, funny characters.

I will definitely be reading more of Stallwood's books.

Rating: 3+ stars.

05 May 2007

Reading report for April 2007

I surpassed last year's monthly average a bit this month, with 18 books, a total of 4645 pages. Two were rereads. Most were less than 300 pages long and could be read in under 3 hours.
I have not been much interested in reading long books lately, but now I intend to try to finish the first part of the Gormenghast trilogy, which is about 400 pages of small type, by the end of the month. Another long book I have started reading is Wilkie Collins' classic novel The Woman in White, which is about 650 pages in the Oxford World's Classics edition, so I don't expect to read quite as many books this month, but just as many pages.

I have many partially read books strewn around my apartment and I think I should try to make an effort to finish some of them so I can either put them in my permanent collection or donate them back to the charity shop where I got them. I just finished one that I started reading in 2005 and feel very proud of myself, but I need to do more, so I have resolved not to start reading any more books unless they belong to the 52 authors challenge, speaking of which: I expect to review three (maybe four) new authors this month. I have already read one book by each, but as usual I want to try to read at least one more by each author.

The 'empty the shelf' challenge is nearing its end – I am reading three books from it, have discarded one and have four left unread.

Unreviewed: (I'm working on several reviews)
Simon Beckett: The Chemistry of Death
Nathaniel Benchley: The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming
Nigel Boar & Roger Blundell: The World's Greatest Ghosts
Tess Gerritsen: The Apprentice
Iris Johansen: The Search
Madeleine L'Engle: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters
Joe McGinniss: Going to Extremes
Lee Server: Over My Dead Body: The sensational age of the American paperback
Georges Simenon: My friend Maigret, At the 'Gai-Moulin'
Veronica Stallwood: Oxford Shadows
Paul Theroux: Riding the Iron Rooster: By train through China
Kurt Vonnegut: Deadeye Dick
C.Q. Yarbro: Bad Medicine

Reviewed:
Robert B. Parker: The Judas Goat

02 May 2007

A romance reader bites back

I came across a wonderfully sardonic description of some of the many formulas used in modern literary fiction, written by a fan of another genre that has been much abused for being formulaic, namely romance. If you didn’t think there were any formulas behind literary fiction, think again. Here is the full article: Guidelines for Writing Literary Fiction.

I especially like the last bit:
"On completing the book, the reader should have a satisfied feeling of accomplishment. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is value. He or she will be able to say he enjoyed the book, but will probably not be able to explain why without reading a review. He or she can feel fully satisfied in recommending it to a book club."

I, of course, explore my feelings about books, and not just literary fiction, by writing reviews.

So, have you read a piece of modern literary fiction that didn’t follow any of those formulas? I know there must be some, but most of what I have read in the genre lately has included one or, usually, more of the formulas in the list.

26 April 2007

Bibliophile reviews The Search by Iris Johansen

Year of publication: 2000
Genre: Romantic thriller (with brief and mild descriptions of sex; some paranormal elements)
Setting & time: USA (mostly), S-America, Taiwan

Story: Rich and powerful John Logan forces dog trainer Sarah and her trusty search dog Monty to help him find a missing person. Unlike a previous book where the person was dead, this one is alive and has been kidnapped by Logan's arch-enemy, his former brother in law who could never forgive Logan for taking his sister away from him. There is also the small matter of having been sent to prison in a Thailand hell-hole for 15 years by Logan. (If you think this is a spoiler, think again – this all comes out early on in the story). The man is wreaking systematic revenge on Logan by destroying people and places he cares for, and once he discovers that Sarah is helping Logan, he incorporates her into his plans for total revenge.

Here is where the SPOILERS start.

Review: Reading this book feels like reading a story written to be serialised in a magazine rather than a novel. It is episodic in nature and each episode ends neatly with a mini-climax, after which another episode begins that has a slightly bigger mini-climax, all building up to the big one, and unfortunately they don't always connect well, which is why it reminds me of a serial. This is not to say that Johansen doesn't know how to write a thrilling and entertaining story. She does. But knowing that Sarah and Logan were side-characters in a previous book makes me wonder if maybe this book was written more to fulfil the wishes of readers or editors who wanted more of them rather than the author herself wanting to, because I get the feeling she doesn't quite know what to do with the characters. For example, the scene where they all of a sudden discover each other sexually and jump into bed together because a crude remark made by her estranged former lover makes them fall in lust, is not convincing at all. Apart from a couple of lustful thoughts fleetingly described earlier, there is hardly any build-up to this event, and afterwards they are suddenly in love (although trying not to be), which is even less likely considering she still thinks he is untrustworthy and selfish. The side-romance is allowed much more build-up and is a lot more entertaining.

The thriller elements are much better done than the romance and make for a good yarn. The paranormal element is interesting and done in such a way that a sceptic can interpret it logically and a believer can take it as it is written.

Rating: An entertaining thriller. 2+ stars.

22 April 2007

Mystery author #29 Robert B. Parker

Book 1:

Title: Stone Cold
Series detective: Jesse Stone
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 2003
Type of mystery: Serial murder, rape
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Massachusetts, USA, late 20th or early 21st century

Story: Two serial killers are operating in Stone's territory and when they target his former girlfriend the case turns personal. He also gives personal attention to the case of a teenage girl who has been gang-raped.

Book 2:

Title: The Judas Goat
Series detective: Spenser
No. in series: 5
Year of publication: 1978
Type of mystery: Murder, terrorism
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: USA (scene setting), England (London), Denmark (Copenhagen), The Netherlands (Amsterdam), Canada (Montreal), 1970s

Story: Tough P.I. Spenser is hired to headhunt a group of terrorists whose bombing of a London restaurant wiped out the family of an American billionaire and left him paralysed. In prison or in the morgue, the man doesn't care just if they are punished. The hunt takes Spenser to London, where he finds the first lead, and then on to Copenhagen and Amsterdam, ending at the Montreal Olympic games.


Review: Neither of the two Parker books I read is really a mystery, but rather they are detective novels with more or less known offenders – certainly known to the reader and soon to the detectives as well. Stone's investigation is more about proving that his suspects are the killers he thinks they are and Spenser's investigation is about stopping the bad guys, not finding out who they are. But since both are rather good examples of detective fiction I think I may be excused for including them. And maybe I just didn't pick the right novels – it certainly looks like the Spenser novel I have just started reading is going to be one.

Parker writes in short, concise sentences that make his narrative style clipped and fast moving, although it does slow down the action whenever Spenser starts describing people and the clothes they wear.

The earlier novel is written in the first person, with Spenser as the narrator (as are, I think, all the books in that series), while the second is written in the third person, alternating between several characters. While the same short, clipped style is used in both, the choices of narrative angle serve to make the reader react differently to the two lead characters. The first person narrative, being more personal, tends to bring a reader closer to the main character and make him more sympathetic, which is certainly needed in the case of Spenser, and I think his preoccupation with clothes and what people are wearing is a narrative trick used to give him some human interest (although it sometimes seems it is only being used to pad the narrative…), much as his tender feeling for his girlfriend Susan are. The third person narrative that is used in the Jesse Stone story makes it possible for the reader to react to more characters, and also to separate the two series enough that no-one can confuse the two lead characters. (End of literary analysis and comparison).

It took me several months to finish the Jesse Stone novel. While I found it interesting, it somehow failed to hold my attention for long until I was well into the second half of it. Neither did I feel any need to devour the Spenser novel in one sitting, but I will say that they are both well-told stories with an interesting rather than gripping narrative style. I don't think I will start glomming Parker's books on the basis of these two, but I will certainly read more when and if they come my way.

Rating: 3 stars.

04 April 2007

A reading aphorism

Reading a newspaper's literary and cultural supplement recently, I came across this aphorism. The original is a poem, but I have translated it without keeping the poetic form:

“It takes a long time to wear out a bad book and to finish a boring one”

Amen to that.

01 April 2007

Reading report for March 2007

Another month has gone by and this time I finished reading 13 books, gave up on one and read parts of several more, some of which I expect to finish in April.
I always hate it when I have to give up on a book I had good expectations of, but sometimes even a favoured author can disappoint. This was the case with Eric Newby in his collection of short travel accounts, Departures & Arrivals. Much as I loved A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, I was disappointed by this book. While I found some enjoyable writing in a couple of pieces, most of them were just boring and finally I decided to stop torturing myself and stop reading the book. I may come back to it later when I am in a mood to finish it, but for now it's going in the unfinished file.

As for the rest, I apologise for the scarcity of reviews lately, but with this and that I have not had much time for writing reviews, what with the bookbinding (lots of homework) and travel planning (it's still many weeks until I leave, but it's fun to speculate and make plans and read guidebooks). I have also started keeping a written journal, which takes time away from my e-journaling.

As always, if there is a book in the list you would like to see reviewed, leave me a comment and I will post a short review.

Reviewed:
Naomi Novik: Temeraire (historical fantasy)
Dodie Smith: I capture the castle (coming of age novel)

Unreviewed: (some I may review later)
Luigi Barzani: The Italians (description of the nation)
Jennifer Crusie: Strange Bedpersons (romance)
Elizabeth David: I'll be with you in the squeezing of a lemon (culinary tidbits)
David Day & Lidia Postma (myndir): The Hobbit Companion (literary commentary)
John Douglas & Mark Olshaker: The Anatomy of Motive (popular criminology)
Jane Greenfield: The Care of Fine Books (book conservation)
Ruth Reichl: Garlic and Sapphires (foodie memoir)
Ruth Rendell: Shake hands forever (police procedural)
Ruth Rendell: Some lie and some die (police procedural)
Freya Stark: The Southern Gates of Arabia (travel)
No author given: Bókasafn barnanna (The Children's Library. (A collection of chapbooks of fairy tales that I loved as a child. I bound them together into a book and then could not resist reading them for the memories they evoked)

Some of the books I am reading now and expect to finish in April:
Holly Hughes, ed.: Best food Writing 2001
Lederer & Burkick: The Ugly American
Joe McGinniss: Going to Extremes
Robert B. Parker: The Judas Goat
Paul Theroux: Riding the Iron Rooster: By train through China
Leonard G. Winans: The Book: From manuscript to market

Additionally, there are about 20 books I started reading at some point but have not touched for months. They lie around with their bookmarks pointing at me like accusing fingers, telling me to "finish this book!"

23 March 2007

Bibliophile reviews I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

(I finally gave in and cheated on the shelf challenge...)

Year originally published: 1948
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: England, 1940s

The Story: The book is written with 17 year old Cassandra Montmain as a narrator. She is keeping a journal in which she tries to capture the character of castle she lives in and all its inhabitants. Her father once wrote a very important book, but has not written a thing in 12 years, her artist's model stepmother is wildly eccentric but also rather domestic at heart, her sister Rose is willing to sell her soul to the devil to take herself and her family out of their poverty-stricken situation (they have no regular income), and Stephen, who is a sort of servant and sort of family member, is very much in love with Cassandra, who cares for him very much but is not romantically interested in him.
The arrival of two brothers in the neighbourhood bodes changes in the family's fortunes, and here I think I will say no more, as this book is hard to review without spoilers.

Technique and plot: In this book, Dodie Smith has managed to capture the essence of a teenage girl on the verge of becoming a woman and falling in love for the fist time, and the turmoil of feelings involved in the process. But the book is much more than that. It is a wonderful portrait of a family of eccentrics who immediately made me think of two families in other books: the Starkadders from Cold Comfort Farm, and the Durrell family as described in various books by Gerald Durrell.

The narrative is by turns funny and sad and the characterisations realistic. Cassandra is a good narrator although not a very good judge of character sometimes and looks at her world with eyes open to the family's difficult situation but is also quite cheerful about it, having long ago learned to accept what has been handed out to her by fate. Rose, on the other hand, is not someone to accept a life of endless poverty and lack of new clothes and enough food, and she is really the driving force of the story. It is her decision to marry into money that gives Cassandra some juicy material to write about. While one sometimes wants to give Rose a good shaking, she still continues to be a sympathetic character because Cassandra always loves her in spite of everything she does. The father is the least well drawn character in the book, which is deliberate because Cassandra simply doesn't understand him, and the stepmother is a wonderfully eccentric character.

Rating: A wonderful story told in the voice of a young woman of character. 4+ stars.

21 March 2007

What I found inside The Southern Gates of Arabia

Some months ago I wrote about things I have found in books. Back then, I had not really started thinking about how finding stuff in books could become part of this blog, but I have been thinking it over and I think I will begin a new feature about it. I am not about to go into any kind of competition with the good people of Found magazine and the Found blog, as my finding things in books usually happens at long and irregular intervals, but I think it can be interesting to look at the things people leave inside books and consider what it can tell us about them and the books.

My first featured find is the three items I discovered inside The Southern Gates of Arabia by Freya Stark.

The first is simply a plain bookplate stating that the book is a bequest to the National Library of Iceland from Mrs. Ellen Gertrude Austin, dated 1942. Presumably the book is part of a bigger bequest of books. The edition was published in 1938, so the book was almost new when it was given to the library.

About 80 pages in I came across a letter, written by someone living at what appears to be Musley College, although with this handwriting it could be any of various spellings close to that (Mosley, perhaps?). The letter is addressed to a Miss Binney (or some such spelling) and Meri (?) White, one of whom probably borrowed the book from the library at some time. It is unfortunately undated.

The second find came a little further on. It is an old-fashioned brochure and order form for a subscription to Blackwood's Magazine, at the cost of 30/-, which is presumably 30 shillings in the old British monetary system. The wording promises something quite English and conservative and tries to entice rather than push the reader into subscribing. I doubt the brochure is newer that from the 1950s.

Both these finds indicate to me that not many people can have checked the book out from the library since it was first shelved, because if it had been, they wouldn't be there. Or perhaps it has only been borrowed by people who respected the items and left them where they were? I suppose I will never know, but out of curiosity I intend to ask the librarian what the library does with found items like this when I return the book.


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18 March 2007

Pruning my book collection

I have been doing a bit of pruning in my TBR shelves and am putting the 'cuttings' on my BookMooch trade list. When I got them, some of the books were being given away for free and looked interesting at the time, although I now can no longer remember why they looked interesting, while with others I know I can easily get them from the library and also that I will have no desire to own then after I read them. And then there are the books I do no remember being given, buying or taking from the 'free books' table. How they got into my book collection is a mystery.

If anyone can give me reason why I should keep and read any of these books, please drop me a comment.

Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory - I am only mildly interested in it and if someone mooching it suddenly makes me want to read it, I can easily read it in 2 hours before sending it off.

John Bunyan: The Pilgrim's Progress. Not only can I get it from the library – it is also available on the net. I have mostly been keeping it because it is a pretty little book, a paperback with an old-fashioned woodcut picture and the title in gothic lettering. If I ever fell like reading it, I will get an annotated version.

George Macdonald Fraser: Flashman and Royal Flash. Where these came from I can not imagine. I do find it quite funny that they were shelved right next to Erica Jong – obviously I must have been in a mind to read picaresques when I got these, but now I don't feel like reading them.

Georgette Heyer: Devil's Cub. I think one copy is enough, so I'm getting rid of the spare.

Erica Jong: Fear of Flying: See George Macdonald Fraser.

Maxine Hong Kingston: The Woman Warrior. I must have been interested when I got it, but I am not now.

Colleen McCullough: The Ladies of Missalonghi. Freely available from the library, so there is no need for me to let it take up shelf space.

Barbara Michaels: Houses of Stone. I gave it the obligatory 50 pages and it did not arouse any interest in me, so I am letting it go.

Jodi Picoult: Vanishing Acts. If I ever get an overwhelming desire to read it I can always get it from the library.

16 March 2007

Bibliophile reviews Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the table by Ruth Reichl

Year published: 1999
Genre: Memoir, food, recipes
Setting & time: USA 1950s to 1970s.

I got this book on some solid recommendations from the foodies in my online reading group, and I am not sorry.

Reichl writes about growing up in New York with a caring but rather distant father and a bipolar mother and some of the characters, many of them wonderfully eccentric, who contributed to her education about food. She becomes a rebel, but only when her parents can't catch her at it, has friendships, travels, falls in love and marries, and lives in a commune in California and works in a cooperative restaurant. All of this contributes to her wide knowledge of food that would later lead her to become a restaurant critic, and throughout the book food is a constant theme.

Reichl writes an easy and light style and her prose is entertaining but without ever being fluffy. The book is a collection of episodes from Reichl's early life rather than being one story told straight through, probably because it is supposed to be food themed. These episodes show us how she grows into a person who knows enough about food and cooking to be a good restaurant critic, so it might be said that the book is basically about how to educate a food writer.

I have been unable to get the second volume of Reichl's memoirs, but I am now reading the third part, about her stint as the restaurant critic for the New York Times, and am enjoying it very much.

Rating: An entertaining account of a woman's food education that led her to getting to eat for a living. 4 stars.

My blogs are breeding…

I have a new blog. Its about me learning to bind books, with photos and examples of my work. If you are interested, here is the link: Bibliophile’s Bookbinding Journal.

07 March 2007

Bibliophile reviews a (gasp!) new(ish) book

Author: Naomi Novik
Title: Temeraire
American title: His Majesty’s Dragon
Year published:2006
Genre: Fantasy/alternative history

Yet another independent bookshop in Reykjavík is closing and it looks like soon there will only be two chains left, both owned by the same company. But this is supposed to be a review, not a lament for the demise of the independent bookseller. At the closing sale I came across this book, which caught my attention with the cover artwork: a black dragon hovering over an old-fashioned warship under full sail. The blurb promised a novel of the Napoleonic era – only with dragons. I decided to cheat on my reading diet and read the book while my interest in it was still fresh, so here is the review:

The Story: When William Laurence and his crew capture a French ship Laurence wonders why the French put up such very fierce resistance to the taking of the ship. The reason becomes clear when a dragon’s egg is discovered in the hold. Dragons must be harnessed straight from the egg, or they will become wild and fly away after their first meal. Britain does not have many dragons and since they are an important force in fighting the French, it is important to harness the dragon, but the ship is two weeks from the nearest harbour and the egg is about to hatch. Dragons become bound by love and friendship to the person whom they allow to harness them, so that once bound, the dragon and person belong together for life. Dragon riders (called aviators in the book) are looked at askance by the rest of society because of the beasts and their wild mode of living, so it is not a good prospect for anyone to become an aviator. When the dragonet refuses to be harnessed by the man who was chosen for the task (by the drawing of lots), and chooses Laurence instead, Will knows he is in for a big career change. The rest of the book is about his and Temeraire’s growing friendship, their time in training and their first skirmishes and a full-blown battle with a French invading force.

Technique and plot: Having cut my reading teeth on fairy tales, myths and legends, I have always liked fantasy, but have not read any new books in the genre lately, simply because they have so often disappointed me. Instead I have waited until the books begin to be talked of as classics, but in the case of Temeraire my reader’s sixth sense (which is rarely wrong) screamed at me to buy and read it, perhaps because the artwork was not exactly typical for the kinds of fantasy one sees in Icelandic bookstores and because it mixes together fantasy with another genre that I love: the historical novel.

This is not hard-core fantasy. There is no magic, no wizards, no elves or goblins or any of the things considered necessary for high fantasy. Novik has not created a new world, but has taken an existing world (our own past) and given it a twist to include dragons, and – like Anne McCaffrey in her science fantasy Dragonrider novels – non-magical ones at that. Never mind that according to modern physics an animal as big as a dragon can not fly – the dragons in this book are a phenomenon of nature rather than of magic and therefore only fantastic in the sense that they exist in the book’s world and not in ours. The story blends together the two genres in such a matter of fact way that I didn’t find it at all incongruous to read about dragons in Napoleonic Europe.

Novik might be accused of taking a safe route by using a familiar setting rather than creating a completely new one, but as any habitual reader of history and historical fiction can tell you, there is nothing safe in using a setting that is so very well known to so many readers. She has managed it very well and drawn up such a convincing image (or mirage, if you like) of the early 19th century that you don’t notice until on the second reading that it is in fact only a veneer, a backdrop for the actual story of Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship.

Characterisations are, for the most part, realistic. Will Laurence is a typical English gentleman of the era (imagine Mr. Darcy with a dragon in tow), and his shock when he enters into the world of the aviators, whose views and ideas are more like those of the late 20th century (including women as the social equals of men and fornication without social stigma), is described in such a way as to make it perfectly understandable without making him look like an insufferable prude. Temeraire is given a distinct personality, is very intelligent and he and Will complement each other nicely. Both characters came very much alive in my mind while I was reading. Other personalities are a little less well drawn, but not so much as to make them flat.

For a first novel the writing is of good quality and if there is firstbookitis in it I certainly didn’t notice. While this is her first published book, it is obvious that Novik is not a novice writer. The writing is too polished for that.

There are already three books published in the series and a fourth on the way, and I look forward to reading them.

Rating: An excellent beginning to what I hope will turn out to be an excellent series. A definite re-read. 4+ stars.

P.S. I read that Peter Jackson (the Lord of the Rings director) has optioned the film rights to all three books. One can only hope that the option will eventually bear fruit in the form of a movie (or three). There are too few good fantasy movies around.