24 July 2008

Bibliophile reviews On a Hoof and a Prayer: Around Argentina at a Gallop by Polly Evans

Year published: 2006
Genre: Non-fiction, travel
Setting & time: Argentina, 21st century

Polly Evans seems to have settled into a career as a travel writer, seeking out one adventure after the other. I don’t know what her journey in China was like, or her bike ride around New Zealand, but I know that her trip to Argentina was a typical whirlwind tour of tourist travel destinations. That she managed to squeeze out of it a semi-interesting travelogue is mostly due to 2 things:
1. She dug up some fascinating snippets of Argentinian history that she used to spice up the narrative.
2. She included horses and her efforts to learn to ride them.

Without the historical tidbits and the descriptions of her riding lessons and her subsequent rides and relationships with horses and her increasing confidence as a rider, I don’t see how On a Hoof and a Prayer could possibly have been stretched to book length, or even been made interesting enough to get published.

Much as I enjoyed her first book, It’s Not About the Tapas, I find this one to be little more than a book-length “what I did on my holidays” essay, something anyone could have done. She visits some interesting places, but it is mostly the historical snippets that make them interesting, not what she saw and did there. The writing is good, and she does manage to give a few poignant descriptions of places, nature and animals, but unfortunately her journey simply isn’t all that interesting. Gerald Durrell, Michael Palin and Tim Cahill have written more interesting accounts of their visits to Patagonia, for example (and I am sure Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux have as well, but I haven’t actually read their Patagonia books, so I can’t comment on them).

By the way, if you expect to read about hair-raising adventures on horseback and exciting fast rides, don’t bother opening the book. I am of the opinion that the subtitle, Around Argentina at a Gallop, refers to her speed of travelling, because she spent relatively little time actually galloping on horseback over the pampas.

Rating: A mildly interesting travelogue about a typical tourist holiday in Argentina. Mostly recommended if you are not familiar with Argentina or haven’t read some of the more interesting travelogues written about the country. 2 stars.

22 July 2008

Bibliophile reviews Seminar for Murder by B.M. Gill

Series detective: Detective Chief Inspector Tom Maybridge
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1985
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: London, England; 1980s

Story:
D.C. Maybridge is asked to hold a lecture on ballistics at a seminar for mystery writers. When the man in charge of the seminar is found dead, his body mutilated after death, with a taunting note to Maybridge pinned to the headboard above his body, there are a number of possible suspects, and Maybridge and company have to unravel a tangled web of alibis and find the truth.

SPOILER WARNING
From here onwards there may be spoilers, hopefully not serious ones, but you never know.


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I did warn you…

Review:
Not giving the readers a chance to test themselves against the detective is one of the few infractions agains the principle rules of mystery writing that I can not abide by in a straight (i.e. not supernatural or sci-fi) mystery. A deus ex machina solution is another. Some authors have got away with breaking these rules by being entertaining enough or bold enough to be forgiven, but Gill fails on both accounts. The story is only mildly interesting, the plot starts to fall apart somewhere around the discovery of the second body, and the characters are bland and forgettable. Maybridge, for example, is a stock character with few if any characteristics to distinguish him from a hundred other fictional detectives cast from the same mold. The story starts well enough, with a group of writers and a police officer gathered at a seminar on mystery writing, but Gill fails to make the most of it. Then there is the breaking of a third principal rule, one which I think I will not mention, as it would give away too much. Suffice to say that if you like mysteries that pit you, the reader, against murderer and detective in a game of wits, you will probably not enjoy this book, as both detective and reader are in the dark for about the same length of time.

Rating: A bland and uninteresting mystery that breaks too many author to reader courtesy rules. 2- stars.