31 December 2009

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Year published: 2009
Genre: Fantasy
Setting & time: Ankh-Morpork, can remember what year (it’s mentioned in the book)

For some reason I have not yet been able to bring myself to finish Terry Pratchett's last Discworld book, Making Money, possibly because it failed to grip me in the first chapter, and also because I do not find Moist von Lipwig that interesting a character. I had no such problem with Unseen Academicals. It is interesting from the first page, and while it didn’t turn into a must-finish all-nighter for me, I did enjoy it. The humour is less dark than it has been in several preceding books, and the book sparkles with good humour throughout, even when nasty things seem to be about to happen, are happening, or have just happened.

As with most of Pratchett’s other Discworld books, this one presents the reader with several interwoven story threads involving a number of characters that gradually come together into bigger strands and finally become one as the story nears its climax.

The plot revolves around an attempt by Lord Vetinari to tame the brutal street sport of foot-the-ball with the assistance of the wizards of Unseen University. Mix into that academic bickering and rivalry, opposing teams of rabid football supporters, young love, high fashion, the art of cooking, and the mysterious Mr. Nutt, whom lots of people want to kill on principle, and you have the usual heady mix readers have come to expect from Pratchett.

Unseen Academicals is not up in the top league of Pratchett's books, but I would need to re-read it with my literary analysis glasses on to put my finger on why. It is good, solid entertainment and gets a good solid 3+ stars from me.

P.S. I would like to read more about Dr. Hix and his department.

30 December 2009

Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham

Year published: 1960
Genre: Science fiction, satire
Setting & time: England, mid-20th century

Two scientists discover an anti-ageing substance derived from lichen and put it to use in very different ways. When the public find out about the substance it is not, as one might expect, unanimously welcomed, and society is divided into different factions when people start to realise all the implications.

I don’t quite understand why this book is labelled as science-fiction even if a scientific discovery and its consequences are at the centre of the plot. The science is explained in simple layman terms and doesn’t dominate the plot even though it is of course the factor that sets the plot in motion. This is an interesting moral satire on British society in the mid-20th century and an intelligent examination of what might happen in such a society if the people discovered that it was possible to double their expected lifespan.

This is a fun read rather than a funny one, as the undertone is quite serious while the tone is kept light. Recommended.

Rating: 4+ stars.

Wednesday reading experience # 52

Read a biography or autobiography of someone you admire or are curious to know more about.

That concludes the Wednesday reading experiences/suggestions. I will not be continuing this feature in 2010.

25 December 2009

Review of Sex and the City

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Originally published in June 2004, in 2 parts
Book 22 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Candace Bushnell
Year published: 1996
Genre: Social life and customs
Sub-genre(s): Sex, dating, relationships
Where got: Public library

Came across this while browsing in the library and decided to give it a go. It will be interesting to see what the book that spawned the hit TV series is like.

The Story:
There isn’t really a story as such, this being mostly a collection of articles about the mating habits of New Yorkers that appeared in Bushnell’s newspaper column, but some of the same people pop up repeatedly and you get to know something about them and their relationships with each other and others. Sex, dating, marriage and the attendant social rituals are the order of the day, and are sometimes investigated through conversations between people comparing notes on the subject and sometimes as little story vignettes that illustrate the subject. Faithful viewers of the TV series will recognise most of the subjects: “modelizers”, psycho moms, swinging, serial daters, toxic bachelors and perennially single women, and of course Carrie’s relationship with Mr. Big. They will also recognise many of the characters, but may be shocked to find that some of the people in the book have almost nothing in common with their namesakes from the series.

The first two-thirds or so of the book is a collection of articles about the above subjects and more, and the last chapters are mostly a chronicle of the relationship between Carrie and Mr. Big.

Technique and plot:
The book is written in a breezy, journalistic style, which is no surprise considering where the articles originally appeared. Bushnell has a good ear for dialogue and writes conversations that sound real (unlike some writers I might mention).

Although I read most of the book in one sitting, I would recommend reading it more slowly, maybe one or two chapters at a time.

A fascinating record of New York social life in the 1990’s, and a must for everyone who loved the TV series. 3 stars.

23 December 2009

Wednesday reading experience # 51

Read a sequel/prequel or rewrite of a famous novel that features some of the same characters but is written by a different author.

This could be, for example, a modernisation of a famous novel such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as retold in Kate Fenton’s Vanity and Vexation or Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre retold as science fiction in Sharon Shinn’s Jenna Starborn.
Examples of sequels and prequels (and spin-offs) include all of Jane Austen’s books (authors include Emma Tennant and Joan Aiken) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books (authors include Laurie L. King and Nicholas Meyer).

Additionally, you can find thousands of (mostly unauthorised) short stories and some novels that have only been published on-line, written by fans (and not all of it is slash fiction). Most of it is not terribly good, but if you search hard you can find some gems among the rubble.

Some questions to consider:
How did you feel about reading about characters you knew and loved from the original, in a book written by another author?
Did the author do a good job of continuing or updating the story?
Did they try to imitate the original style and language and if so, did they succeed?
Would you read more sequels/prequels or modernisations of famous novels?

18 December 2009

Review of The Haunting of Hill House

Originally published in June 2004, in 2 parts
Book 21 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Shirley Jackson
Year published: 1959
Where got: Public library
Genre: Horror
Sub-genre: Haunted house tale

I started reading this book a couple of days ago and have finished the first two chapters. Although nothing supernatural has happened yet, a subtle sense of suspense and creepiness has started to build. So far, I’m reminded of the beginning of both the TV series Rose Red and the movie The Legend of Hell House, but I guess there are limited ways in which you can start a haunted house tale.

Finished it this afternoon. This is a book that is best read in broad daylight – not that it kept me awake or gave me nightmares, but it took me quite a bit longer than usual to fall asleep after reading the first two chapters at bedtime.

The Story:
Two young women, Eleanor and Theodora arrive at Hill House, a fancy country mansion, to meet Dr. Montague, a researcher of psychic phenomena who has asked them to help him investigate the apparently haunted house. The fourth member of the team is Luke, the rakish future heir to the house. Right from the day of arrival, it is apparent that this is a strange and unusual place, and as the days pass on, we get to know some of the apparent reasons for the strangeness of the house described by Dr. Montague as “…disturbed…. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity…”
Strange things happen and hauntings occur, and the characters are affected in different ways as the house tries to scare and even possess them. Things come to a head when Mrs. Montague, the Doctor’s wife, arrives with an odious companion and tries to contact the spirits she believes are trapped in the house.

Technique and plot:
This is a marvellously spooky story, and Jackson has managed quite well to build up suspense and a sense of creepiness right from chapter one. The suspense and horror are largely psychological, and it helps that we get to follow one character’s internal thoughts and feelings and her… I don’t know if I should call it descent into madness or opening up to possession by evil, but you see her get more and more disturbed – by turns elated or upset - as the narrative moves closer to the climax.

A comic interlude lightens the atmosphere just before the climax, making the climax and denouement all the more effective. The ending is both completely predictable and a total surprise, which is no small feat for any author.

A well crafted, suspenseful and spooky haunted house tale. 4 stars.

Information about Shirley Jackson, including a link to her brilliant short story, “The Lottery”:
Shirley Jackson

A possible inspiration for The Haunting of Hill House:
The Haunting of Borley Rectory

16 December 2009

Books I acquired during my trip to India

Most of these books I bought or was given in India, but three I bought in London, two on the way to India and one on the way home. The first two were the guidebooks, and the third was Ulysses by James Joyce, because I couldn't find an edition in India that I liked.

Indland 2009

Some of the books pictured had been on my wish list for varying lengths of time, others were bought on speculation because I liked the look of them. The books that it's hard to see titles or authors in the photo are, from the top:
1. Incident on the Kalka Mail by Satyajit Ray.
4. Le Morte D'Arthur, part II by Sir Thomas Mallory (I have had part I for ages but never could find part II until now).

Books number (from the top) 2, 8, 9 & 17 I was given by my friends.

Not pictured are the books that I bought, read and exchanged for other books: No Full Stops in India by Mark Tully, and The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple. Both were interesting reads and very informative about various aspects of Indian society, but neither was a book I wanted to re-read, so out they went.

Wednesday reading experience # 50

Celebrate the Christmas season with a holiday-themed read.

Any one of Charles Dickens’s Christmas novels will serve to get you in the mood. Start with A Christmas Carol, then move on to The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. I leave it up to you whether you also read the less popular The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

Fannie Flagg’s A Redbird Christmas is funny and somewhat sentimental, but many of us like sentimentality around Chrismas.

Connie Willis has an excellent fantasy and science fiction themed collection titled Miracle and other Christmas Stories.

For younger readers J.R.R. Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters is both heartwarming and funny and while Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! may have been written and drawn for children many adults find it enjoyable as well.

Christmas probably wouldn’t be complete for many Americans without "A Visit from St. Nicholas", better known as "The Night Before Christmas". This famous poem, originally anonymously published, has been attributed to Clement Clarke Moore and also to Henry Livingston, Jr. Whicever of them wrote it, it’s an entertaining little poem, lively and full of Christmas spirit.

Generally speaking, Christmas in crime stories is rather miserable due to most of them being about murder, but there is an exception: Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter Carol have written several Christmas crime stories starring Mary’s sleuth Alvirah Meehan and Carol’s sleuth Regan Reilly. These aren’t really mysteries, but rather caper stories focusing on how Alvirah and Regan foil some baddies, usually thieves or kidnappers, and tend to be frothy, fun and full of holiday cheer, and weak on mystery but usually with some suspense.
Mary started the series with Silent Night and All Through The Night, and Carol joined her for Deck the Halls, He Sees You When You're Sleeping, The Christmas Thief, Santa Cruise, and Dashing Through the Snow.

11 December 2009

Wednesday reading experience # 49

This should of course have been published on the 9th, but I thought I had it on automatic posting and didn't even check. So here it is now, none the worse for being a little late:

Choose a major literary award, local or international, and read some books that have been given the award.

It can be any kind of award, not just literary fiction. It could, for example, be for crime writing, romance, travel writing or science, etc.

Did you agree that it should have won the award? For a fairer comparison, you could also read the books that were nominated alongside the winner and decide which one you like best and why.

Review of Closed at Dusk

Originally published in June 2004.
Book 20 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Monica Dickens
Year published: 1990
Where got: Bookstore (sale)
Genre: Thriller, mystery

I was going to read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum as this week’s book, but I’m too busy right now to read such a long and dense text in only one week. Instead I have switched to another mystery that is shorter and less demanding.

I’ve read several of Monica Dickens’ children’s books and the autobiographical book One Pair of Feet, about her experiences as a nursing student during World War 2. It will be interesting to see how I like her adult fiction.

The story:
This is not a mystery as I first thought it was, but a thriller, or perhaps it might be called an insider mystery, as the reader knows who the villain is nearly the whole time. In this particular edition, the blurb cleverly gives a hint, but I at least didn’t catch on to it until I reached the chapter where the villain’s identity is revealed, and then I turned to the blurb and went “a-ha!”

Through the first chapters of the book we are gradually introduced to a family, some who live at a mansion called The Sanctuary, the rest coming there often to spend time with the family. The gardens are open to the public, because, as with many of Britain’s old landed families, they can’t afford to keep the gardens in shape without the entry fees from the public. When mysterious, apparently supernatural events start taking place, no one is sure what is happening and The Sanctuary seems posed to turn into a haunted house.

The technical points:
The story is quite well written, and the twists well worked out. It starts rather slowly, with a bit of underlying menace that is introduced through a nervous child who gets scared of the smallest things.

Unfortunately the character development is not quite as good as it should be. None of the victims in the story are really drawn as sympathetic characters. They are, in fact, rather colourless - not unsympathetic, just bland. They are so harmless and normal that you almost feel as if they deserve to be shaken up a bit, but only almost.

The villain, or should I say villainess, is the most strongly drawn character, and you do almost feel sorry for her, even if her revenge scheme is rather on the extreme side. But of course she is insane, so it no wonder. There were times when I wanted to reach out and stop her, help her to forget about her crazy scheme and get on with her life. She does become less sympathetic as the story draws nearer to the end and her scheming becomes more extreme.

This was not what I expected – I had been expecting a mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, and this thriller element was quite unexpected, but not unpleasantly so. Dickens gives the villainess real reasons and motives and shows us her innermost feelings and thoughts, enabling us to feel sorry for her, instead of simply portraying her as an unsympathetic, rampaging madwoman like many writers would have.

A good psycho thriller, where the villain is actually shown as a real person rather than the pure evil some authors might have been tempted to write. 3 stars.

P.S. There’s nothing like a case of the flu to keep you indoors and reading when the weather is sunny and warm. At least I’ve finished the book of the week a couple of days ahead of schedule.

09 December 2009

Reading report for November 2009

As might be expected I finished only a small (for me) number of books in November. They were mostly read in hotel rooms after dinner to delay sleep so I wouldn't wake up at 4 a.m. and on long train journeys when the company was less than convivial (or I had no company) and I was tired of looking at unchanging landscapes.

6 of these books are about India in one way or another. 2 are travelogues, 2 are collections of articles, and 2 are novels by Indian authors.

One of the friends I visited on my trip introduced me to R.K. Narayan – in fact she gave me the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Malgudi. Satyajit Ray I discovered on her bookshelves and subsequently bought another book by him that I have just finished reading. They are written for children but are thoroughly enjoyable for adult mystery lovers and beautifully translated.
My friend also recommended Bill Aitken to me and I bought one of his books that I still haven‘t read. Dalrymple and Shand are old acquaintances of mine. I have enjoyed other books by both of them and will continue to buy their books.
Tully I was new to. I found his analysis of Indian society and politics very convincing. As to the remaining 2 books, Eeyore is my favourite Milne character and Nora Roberts never fails to deliver a good dose of thrills and romance.

Bill Aitken: Divining the Deccan - A motorbike to the heart of India (travelogue)
William Dalrymple: The Age of Kali - Indian travels and encounters (collection of articles)
A.A. Milne (and others); Ernest H. Shepard (drawings): Eeyore´s Gloomy Little Instrustion Book (self-help, humour)
R.K. Narayan: Swami and Friends (novel)
Satyajit Ray: The Curse of the Goddess (mystery)
Nora Roberts: Birthright (romance)
Mark Shand: River Dog - A journey down the Brahmaputra (travelogue)
Mark Tully: No Full Stops in India (collection of articles)

06 December 2009

Reading report for October 2009

I´m back from a great holiday in India.

Here is the reading report for October. I will post the one for November soon, plus a photo of my book acquisitions from India and possibly some reviews.

I only read one Top Mystery in October, and only one Icelandic book, but I did quite well in the TBR challenge, with 7 books altogether.

Árni Gunnarsson (text) and various photographers: Eldgos í Eyjum (documentary)
M.C. Beaton: The Skeleton in the Closet (mystery)
Suzanne Brockmann: Force of Nature (romantic thriller)
Edmund Crispin: Frequent Hearses (murder mystery)
Jasper Fforde: The Well of Lost Plots (futuristic fantasy)
Nicki Grihault: Culture Smart! India (cultural guide)
Thomas Hardy: Under the Greenwood Tree (romantic novel)
HRF Keating: The Murder of the Maharajah (murder mystery)
Sarah Macdonald: Holy Cow! (travelogue)
Ngaio Marsh: Singing in the Shrouds (murder mystery)
Stuart Mclean: Stories from the Vinyl Café (short stories)
Ellis Peters: Death to the Landlords (murder mystery)
Unknown: The Epic of Gilgamesh (classic literature)
Various: Ripley's Believe it or Not (trivia)

Additionally I read large parts of the Lonely Planet Guide to Rajastan, Delhi and Agra.

04 December 2009

Review of The Stainless Steel Rat

Originally published in May and June 2004, in 3 parts.
Book 19 in my first 52 books challenge.

Entry 1:

Author: Harry Harrison
Published: 1966 (this edition: 1997)
Where got: Bookstore, sale
Genre: Science fiction, action

I’ve wanted to read this book since I read and enjoyed Harry Harrison’s short story “The Golden Years of the Stainless Steel Rat” in the comic fantasy collection The Flying Sorcerers.

This is classic science fiction, as can be seen from how long this book has been in print. First published in 1966, it is still being reprinted.

Harry Harrison’s official website.

Entry 2:

Progress report:
So far so good. This is not as funny as I had thought it would be after reading the short story, but maybe the stories get funnier in the later books (did I mention this is the first in a series?). The style is very straightforward and reminds me of classic macho tough guy detective stories. The story is plot driven and there has been action on nearly every page so far. The Stainless Steel Rat is not having a good time where I am reading right now – he’s got serious female trouble.

Entry 3:

Finished the book on my lunch break today. Am planning on starting to read next week’s book tonight, as it is a long one and will probably require me doing some research on the side.

The story:
At the beginning of the story, career criminal James Bolivar diGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat, is in the process of escaping from the scene of his latest crime. By chapter 4 he’s been recruited – reluctantly (his reluctance, not theirs) - by the Special Corps, an elite team of special police whose job it is to control and prevent intergalactic crime. When a mission goes wrong and a highly dangerous and attractive criminal escapes, Jim is determined to see the mission through to the end, even if it means abandoning his post and becoming a renegade from the Corps. The rest of the book describes how he tracks down his criminal and what happens afterwards.

The technical points:
As I have already mentioned, the story is plot driven and the narrative style is in the vein of the classic tough guy detective story. The narrative is in the first person. There isn’t much dialogue, but what there is serves to carry on the action. There are several twists, some more unexpected than others. The humour is in the sometimes ironic situations Jim finds himself in, and the author also had fun with names, some of which are puns and others which are only funny if you know a bit of German. The writing is hardly what I would call sparkling, but there’s never a dull moment, and Jim is the kind of character you can’t help but like.

I do have one gripe with the book, and that is that the story is not completely resolved (for me). Having read a short story about Jim in his golden years, I know something of what takes place after this book ends, and now it will nag me until I have read the rest. If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you will know that I hate stories that spill out into several books. Oh, well, at least they are all published and in print and the library has some of them. Off to the library I go…

A sci-fi classic that should interest sci-fi, action and detective story fans. 3 stars.

02 December 2009

Wednesday reading experience #48

If you have a favourite genre and a favourite sub-genre within that genre (say historical mysteries or paranormal romances), choose a different sub-genre you are less familiar with and try that (e.g. forensic mysteries or Amish romance).

I find I often stick to a comfort zone in my choice of reading materials, concentrating on one or two particular sub-genres and tending to ignore the others, but my original 52 books challenge had me reading out of my comfort zone and I have tried to continue that practice. It has introduced me to authors, genres and sub-genres I might otherwise never have discovered.