25 March 2008

Wanted: Travelogues off the modern travelogue writer’s trodden path

I would like to find modern (i.e. written in the last 40 years or so) travel books about the countries that don’t seem to be in vogue with travel writers/publishers. For example, I have read half a dozen travelogues (including ‘placelogues’) about Spain and France in the last five years, but the only travel account I have read about neighbouring Portugal was a chapter about slaughtering and eating a pig in Anthony Bourdain’s book A Cook’s Tour, and while it did give me some insight into the importance of pork in the Portugese diet, it told me very little else about the country and people.

It is relatively easy to find travelogues about Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, Thailand, Australia, Kenya, Peru, the USA (especially Alaska), Cuba, Russia, China, Mongolia and Norway. But where are the travelogues about Germany (Mark Twain wrote one, but what about new ones?), Switzerland, Finland, Portugal, Honduras, Libya, the UAE, Benin, Liberia, Malaysia, Georgia and Azerbaijan?

I would like to find travelogues with a least a chapter dedicated to one or more of those less-written-about countries (and other such countries you can think of), so please post some recommendations in the comments.

(Don’t bother mentioning Michael Palin's travelogues – I have read all of them; or Paul Theroux's – I am working my way through those).

22 March 2008

Bibliophile reviews A Girl’s Guide to Vampires by Katie MacAlister

Year published: 2003
Genre: Paranormal romance, mystery
Setting & time: The Czech Rebublic, modern timeless

The Story:
Joy Randall doesn’t believe in the existence of vampires. Nevertheless, she humours her best friend Roxy – who does believe – and goes with her to the Czech Republic to seek them out. The vampires Roxy wants to find are the “dark ones”, tortured but not really evil vampires that best-selling author C.J. Dante writes about. These dark ones are always male, and they can be saved from eternal damnation only if they find their Beloved, human women who are their soul-mates. Almost immediately after they arrive, one of those dark ones makes mental contact with Joy, and she has recurring visions where she shares his feelings and he calls her his beloved. He has to be one of the three men who are fighting for her attention, but which one? There is gorgeous Dominic, the owner of a travelling goth fair; handsome, smart, likeable Christian, a local resident; and tall, sexy Raphael, the head of security for the fair.
When a fair employee, a woman who hated Joy for the attention she was getting from Dominic, is gruesomely murdered, Joy becomes convinced that she and one of her suitors are at the top of the police’s list of suspects, and sets out to prove their innocence.

Technique and plot:
I liked Joy, the heroine of this story, to begin with. She is written as a strong woman who doesn’t let anyone give her any shit, but unfortunately it turns out late in the story that she has a TSTL streak in her that at times makes her behave like she left her brain at home. It takes skill to write a gothic heroine who isn’t TSTL, and Katie MacAlister fails that test in this book. Joy’s inability to trust the man she loves is used to create the main conflict in the story, but the way it is written, it comes across as fatal curiosity rather than as upset feelings because he seems not to love her enough to tell her his secret. (I can see several different ways in which external factors could have created a better cause of conflict).

There are several graphic sex scenes in the story, most of them gratuitous, something I don't particularly like. It’s not that sex scenes make me squeamish, I just find them tedious when they don’t serve to advance the story, however hot and steamy they may be. MacAlister does get a brownie point for writing what has to be the funniest sex scene I have ever read.

The mystery element in the story is not strong. An experienced reader of mysteries will have the villain or villains figured out long before the characters (well, except one of them turns out to have known all along but needed evidence), and likewise who the dark one is, but the pleasure lies not in trying to discover these facts, but in watching Joy do so, however stupidly.

Warning: The last paragraph of the review could be seen as a SPOILER, so here is the Rating: An enjoyable paranormal romance with teeth in it. 2+ stars.

Read on only if you don’t mind spoilers.

One thing that always annoys me is when authors get the facts wrong. I know this story takes place in an alternative reality that is much like ours except vampires (and presumably other paranormal creatures) exist in it, so other things could be different as well, but it still annoys me that MacAlister chooses to present Interpol as a global version of the FBI. I don’t want to accuse her of a blunder, as it is so laughably easy to get information about that estimable institution, so I am choosing to assume she did it knowingly because it served the story. I will say no more on this point, however, as I don’t want to turn this minor spoiler into a big one.

20 March 2008

Bad book covers

Is this a sexy cover, or what?

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This is the cover for the British edition of one of Katie MacAlister's paranormal romances.
It's well-designed and well-balanced and the red colour (my scanner didn't quite reproduce it as red as it really is), the woman with a crossbow and the gothic lettering (not to mention the title) leaves no-one in doubt that it is a vampire story, probably a thriller, possibly a horror story, while the title playfully suggests romance.
The only problem is, it‘s misleading. No woman in the book wears a dress covered with bats under a full moon, and there is certainly no female vampire (or even vampyre) killer in the story. This, in my book, is enough to make it a bad cover, however well-designed and sexy. The American cover, while cheesy as hell, at least isn't misleading, except maybe by overemphasising the romance aspect:

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Honestly, though, if I had to choose, I think I would take the British cover, misleading as it is, because at least it's cool.

14 March 2008

Books I acquired this week

I'm thinking of adding a new feature to the blog: Photos of all the books I acquired in a particular week or on a particular day. Here is the first stack:

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The bottom three were delivered by the postman last night, an order from Amazon.
The next six volumes I bought second hand at my favourite used book shop today, and the rest are BookMooch trades. That makes 21 books in 17 volumes. Not bad at all ;-)

BTW, this is an unusual number of books for one week. Sometimes several weeks pass when I don't buy or receive any books at all.

08 March 2008

Bibliophile reviews The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Year published: 2006
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: Britain; modern timeless

Margaret Lea, a young woman who works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop and occasionally writes short biographical essays about dead authors, gets an unexpected invitation from bestselling author Vida Winter to write her biography. Winter is well known for never telling the truth about her past, so Margaret is a bit suspicious, but Winter seems sincere and provides enough evidence of her real identity to satisfy Margaret. What unfolds is an incredible story about a childhood lived in a house full of madness, framed by Margaret’s own narrative about herself and her attempts to verify that Vida has been telling her the truth.

It would perhaps be repetitive to say that this is a brilliant piece of storytelling, since it is what most reviewers say about it. But it is undeniably a brilliantly told story, or perhaps I should say collection of stories, because Vida tells Margaret about her childhood in a series of interconnected tales that are framed by Margaret’s own experiences while writing them down. The history of the Angelfield family unfolds slowly through Vida’s tales and Margaret’s research, too slowly for a thriller but just right for a slow-brewing mystery. I am not even going to hint at the nature of the mystery, because it is one that needs to be allowed to unfold as the story progresses.

As I already mentioned, the story is well told, meaning it is well written, interesting, gripping and beautifully plotted. It is full of unexpected twists and turns, and just when you think you know where the plot is going, the story twists around and goes off in an unexpected direction.

Last weekend I watched my mother get sucked into this story after reading a few pages, after which she spent every available moment reading it, which is a big compliment from her.

Rating: If you like well-told tales with a gothic flavour, read this. 4+ stars.

05 March 2008

Mystery author #42: Tony Hillerman

For this author I chose to review one book about each of the two detectives of the series and one about both of them, plus the Edgar award-winning Dance Hall of the Dead, which is the second book in the series.

Series detective(s): Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee

Title: The Blessing Way
Detective(s): Navajo tribal police officer Joe Leaphorn
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1970
Type of mystery: Murder, thriller
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: The Navajo Indian reservation, Four Corners area, USA; 1960s

Lieutenant Leaphorn investigates the death of a young man who had been on the run from the police after wounding a man in a fight. Leaphorn suspected strongly that he was hiding in a particular area, but the body was found far away from there, and so he deems the death suspicious. Meanwhile, an anthropologist who had been planning to gather stories in the area where Leaphorn believed the dead man had been hiding, discovers his partner gone and gets into serious trouble when he is cornered in a canyon. Naturally, this being a mystery thriller, the two story lines converge…

I started to read this book in bed one night. I generally give myself about half an hour to read before turning in, but once I started I was quickly pulled into the story and didn’t put it down until I finished it around 1 a.m. Fortunately it was on a weekend, so I could sleep in the next morning, but the book would have been worth the bleary eyes and being half-asleep at work.

Not only is this an excellent thriller and police procedural/mystery, it is also well written. The characters come alive and the descriptions of the landscape are very evocative. While I have not visited this exact area of the USA, I came pretty close and certainly saw enough of the similar landscapes in southern Utah for the landscapes being described to come vividly alive in my mind while I read. But it was not just because I knew what the landscape was like. It takes a really good writer to draw up such a good image of a place that you feel as if you have been there, as if you are there.

Rating: An excellent mystery-thriller, a genuine page-turner. 4+ stars.

Title: Dance Hall of the Dead
Detective: Navajo tribal police officer Joe Leaphorn
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1970
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: The Navajo Indian reservation, Four Corners area, USA; 1960s

When a Zuni boy disappears, later to be found murdered, and his Navajo friend disappears, the Zuni police contact Joe Leaphorn in the hope that he can track the boy down and find out what happened. The dead boy had been chosen to represent one of the Zuni gods in a religious procession, and Joe discovers that he may have told his friend some secrets that should not have been told to an outsider, and also that a figure dressed as a Kachina, a representation of a Zuni god, also seems to be looking for the boy, with evil intent. The search for the boy turns into a race between Joe and the Kachina-man.

This is a more pure-bred mystery than the previous book in the series, which was as much a thriller (of a specific kind which I will not mention in case it spoils the story for future readers) as it was a mystery. I enjoyed the snippets of Native American history and lore that are included in the narrative, and again the landscapes came alive in my mind’s eye.

Hillerman knows how to keep a reader interested all the way through, building up the tension without ever allowing the narrative to droop. This time it is not just the search for justice and the race against an unknown enemy that keeps the story going, but also an atmosphere of tension between the law enforcement agencies working in the area, sometimes seemingly at cross-purposes.

Rating: Another excellent page-turner. 4+ stars.

Title: People of Darkness
Detective: Navajo tribal police officer Jim Chee
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1980
Type of mystery: Murder, thriller
Setting & time: The Navajo Indian reservation, Four Corners, USA, and neighbouring areas; 1970s

Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is called to the home of a very rich uranium mine owner and asked, by the man’s wife, to spend part of his leave to recover a box of keepsakes that was stolen from her husband. Shortly afterwards, the husband contacts him to call off the search, but by that time Jim’s curiosity has been aroused. He finds the thief, who tells him where the box is hidden, but when he gets there, a hitman has just murdered the man and stolen the box. Having got a good look at the hired killer, Jim and his companion, a woman school teacher, are now next on the hit list, as witnesses to be eliminated, but now Jim is more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the case before any more people get killed.

Review: There really isn’t much of a mystery in this story, as the killer’s identity is known all the time and the identity of his client is easily guessed, but it takes a while longer to figure out the why?, so genre-wise this would be a whydunnit crossed with a thriller. Getting to see a different part of the reservation than in the previous books I read was fun, and so was meeting a new lead character. The writing is excellent as before, and one gets interesting glimpses into the spiritual life of the Navajo, as Jim is training to be a yataalii, a traditional medicine man.

Rating: A good thriller, but short on mystery. 3+ stars.

Title: Skinwalkers
Detectives: Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee
No. in series: 7
Year of publication: 1986
Type of mystery: Murder
Setting & time: The Navajo Indian reservation, Four Corners, USA, and neighbouring areas; 1980s

Story: When Jim Chee narrowly escapes a murder attempt, Joe Leaphorn initially thinks he must have done something to someone to cause the attack. But Chee is as puzzled as Leaphorn is, and soon they are working together, investigating three murders that seem to be connected to the attack on Chee, but finding out the reasons for the attacks proves to be harder. Meanwhile, Chee’s attacker is planning a second attempt on his life…

Review: This is the first book in the series to feature Leaphorn and Chee together, and it is interesting to see how their investigative methods and personalities come together to form a team where each man’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses. The writing, as before, is great and the plotting excellent.

Rating: Yet another page turner from Hillerman. 4 stars.

I’m not going to write an author review, as I think my reviews for the books say all that needs to be said about the quality of Hillerman’s work. I may review some of the newer books once I get to them (I’m trying to read the series in order of publication) and perhaps compare them with these earlier books.

04 March 2008

Bibliophile reviews Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Year published: 2005
Genre: Fantasy for older children/younger teens (especially girls), coming of age story

The Story: In a medieval type fantasy country, Miri, a young girl, is coming of age among the quarry workers of the mountains. They quarry linder, a valuable kind of rock that is in demand as building material for palaces and fine houses in the lowlands. Traders come to the village once a year to trade food and other necessities for linder, but in Miri's 14th year a messenger comes from the king, proclaiming that a prophesy has foretold that the bride of the crown prince will come from the mountains. Therefore, all the mountain girls aged 12 to 17 must attend a princess academy to prepare them for meeting the prince, who will choose one of them as his bride once they are ready.
Miri's father has never allowed her to work in the quarry for reasons she doesn’t understand, making her feel like an outsider, so in a way she welcomes the chance to experience something different. She is still ambivalent as to whether it is because she wants to marry the prince (not out of any desire for power, but a simple desire to make her family comfortable), or if it’s because she wants a chance to see the world outside the mountains.
Education brings unexpected benefits to the girls and their families, but it also brings out the competitive streak in the girls. But things don’t always go as planned...

Review: Shannon Hale is perhaps best known for her spin on the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale of The Goose Girl, but here she has created a totally new world and characters. The book won a Newberry honour in 2006, which can only mean that the winner must have been very, very good.

The world Miri lives in is not the kind of fantasy world that is full of big magic and monsters – as a matter of fact, it resembles a medieval version of our own world – but Hale manages to make it real, and it does have some magical qualities that I will not mention because I would like other readers to discover them for themselves.

Hale’s characterisations are realistic and lively and while some of the girls are ‘types’, they do change and grow and the reasons for their behaviour, be it meanness, bossiness, xenophobia, shyness, etc. are explained, so they can’t really be called stereotypes. Miri is the focus of the story, i.e. the partially omniscient narrator tells the tale exclusively from her point of view, so the reader gets to sit inside her head and see the world through her eyes.

The writing is excellent and the plotting is good, and while I did see the big twist coming, it may still come as a pleasant surprise to a younger reader.

This is the sort of book that is liable to become a perennial read for girls, much like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables. It is no coincidence that I mention these two books, because like them, Princess Academy is a gripping coming of age story about a girl who feels like she is an outsider, but who discovers unknown strengths and talents in herself and finds acceptance and friendship.

Rating: An excellent coming of age story for girls of all ages. 4+ stars.

02 March 2008

Reading report for February 2008

I decided to include the genre and my star ratings with the books this time. Some reviews will follow later in the month.

As you can see, I am below average in my reading this month. It is not surprising, since an annoyed customer managed to put a damper on my reading activities. I got the big translation project I have mentioned before through a translation centre that I do freelance work for and my middleman misunderstood the client’s deadline requirements, telling me I had 10 days longer than I really did. My plan had been to finish 3-4 days ahead of the deadline I thought I had, but an emergency call from the middleman changed all that and instead of finishing at a leisurely pace, I had a couple of long days of proofreading the translation at double my usual pace, resulting in a myalgia-related headache that lasted a week and two physiotherapy sessions. But I did it and now I have free time to read again.

Jennifer Crusie: Charlie All Night (contemporary romance): 3+ stars
Susan Donovan: He loves Lucy (contemporary romance): 2+ stars
Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford (classic novel): 3 stars (reviewed)
Shannon Hale: Princess Academy (YA fantasy): 4+ stars (working on a review)
Cynthia Heimel: If you can't live without me, why aren't you dead yet? (essay collection): 3+ stars (may review)
Matthew Parris: Inca-Cola: A traveller's tale of Peru (travel): 3+ stars
Diane Setterfield: The Thirteenth Tale (novel): 4+ stars (working on a review)
Alan Taylor, ed.: Long Overdue (writings about libraries): 3+ stars

JRR Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring (fantasy): 5+ stars

Upcoming reads:
I’m thinking about making Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle my classic for March, and I have Jonathan Strange and Mr. Morrell calling out to me from the TBR pile. It's hard to judge whether it's going to be a slow read or a fast one (not counted in pages per hour but number of reading sessions).

Bibliophile reviews Roughing It by Mark Twain

This was my classic for January and I should really have posted it before my review of Cranford (February’s classic, but I forgot I had written it.

Title: Roughing It
Author: Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens)
Year originally published: 1872
Genre: Memoir, travelogue
Setting & time: Western USA, mid-1800s

In Roughing It, Twain tells the story of how he left the east and travelled west, intending to stay for a few months and ending up staying several years. He tells of his own adventures: how he worked as a reporter, prospected for silver and attempted to start a lumber camp, among other things, ending up as a public lecturer. He also tells tales, both tall ones and ones that ring true, and most of all he describes the life in the silver mining towns and other places he lived in or visited, and the magnificent natural surroundings he saw, for example at Lake Tahoe and in Hawaii, which was then called the Sandwich Islands. The story is an entertaining mixture of fact and fiction, which can often not be told apart. Twain was a wonderful story teller and missed no opportunity to tell a good one, never mind whether it was true or not. He could also write wonderfully evocative descriptions of nature and people.

Rating: A funny and interesting account of Twain’s adventures in the wild west. 4 stars.