30 November 2011

In memoriam: Anne McCaffrey

I read today, on one of my regular blog stops, that Anne McCaffrey has died.

I discovered the Dragonriders of Pern series when I was in college. I picked up the very first book to be published, Dragonflight, at a fantastic second-hand bookshop that, alas, no longer exists. It was love at first read. I scoured the second-hand bookshops for the rest of the books then published, and found Dragonquest, The White Dragon, and the Harper Hall trilogy, read them and loved them all. I introduced them to my mother, who is an even bigger fantasy fan than I am, and she loved them too.

Then came Renegades of Pern, All the Weyrs of Pern and Dragonsdawn, and ouch! Our favourite fantasy stories had become science fiction. Neither of us liked it much, but we struggled on. We finally gave up as the books became more and more sciency (even the prequels and mid-quels) and less and less fantastical, but we both still have an enduring love for the early books and have re-read them often.

I wonder, now, whether she is out there somewhere, and whether she is riding a space craft or if she has Impressed a dragon. Goodbye, Anne, and thanks for all the good reads.

29 November 2011

Romance review: Happy Ever After by Nora Roberts

Genre: Romance, contemporary
Series: The Bride Quartet
Year of publication: 2010
Setting & time: Greenwich, Connecticut, US; contemporary
Level of sensuality: Hot, breathless kissing, short and flowery sex scenes.

Parker Brown (‘of the Connecticut Browns’) is a modern day princess: classy, beautiful, wealthy and well-bred, but blessedly free of any pretension or hauteur (except when faced with people likely to hurt her friends). She is the planner, director and M.C. of Vows, the one who holds the whole wedding-planning business together.

Malcolm is a Harley-driving former Hollywood stunt-man who ran away from a damaged childhood but has returned to run his own automobile repair-shop and plays poker with Parker’s brother Del.

Ever since Parker kissed Mal to spite her brother, he had been interested in knowing her better, and the chemistry is undeniable. But will her breeding and his past get in their way?

Not a bit. Their story runs a smooth and shiny and not very eventful course through a narrative in which two weddings are the high points, when it should have been scenes between the two of them. Their characters are well-written and rounded, although Parker has a somewhat Mary Sue-ish flavour. While they are first appear to be clear opposites, she the modern American princess and he the wild boy from the wrong side of the tracks who clawed his way up and became a successful business owner, they are in fact both goal-oriented, business-minded and focused individuals.

The usual humour and high-quality writing is there (I have said it before, although not here, that Roberts could easily write what the snobs call “serious fiction”), and the plotting is smooth, but there is something missing. It would have been so easy to have a bit of fun with the bad boy-good girl/peasant-princess combination, but instead we get a glittering and perfect romance where everything is smooth and perfectly perfect and love’s course runs nearly obstacle free. Even the descriptions of stormy passions tearing through the bodies of the protagonists when they have sex aren’t enough to make the romance feel as passionate as it could be. I had been hoping for a climactic ending to this tetralogy, but what I got was a fizz (or should I say a whimper?). 2+ stars.
--

Overall, I have to say this tetralogy has been disappointing in its glittery smoothness, but I’m not going to let that stop me from reading Roberts’ future books, or to continue my journey through her back-list. After all, an author cannot be expected to produce top-of-the line work every time. Besides, I must admit that my favourite Roberts books (written under that name) have always been her standalone romantic thrillers.

28 November 2011

Ex Libris: Confessions of a common reader by Anne Fadiman

Originally published in June 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

This slim collection of essays by journalist Anne Fadiman was originally published in a literary magazine, but adapted and in some cases rewritten for the book. It was recommended to me by several people who know I love reading, and I would just like to say thanks to them for the recommendation. I have been trying for ages to find the book - according to the library database it was always in, but I couldn’t find it where it was supposed to be shelved. I finally came across it where it had been filed on the wrong shelf, probably by some browsing library patron.

The book is basically about several different aspects of reading and owning books and an analysis of the author’s reading habits. She discusses, among other things, the problems of uniting libraries, her addiction to collecting books about doomed polar expeditions, her habit of proofreading everything she reads, those pesky gender pronouns that turn everyone into a man, pokes fun at plagiarists and plagiarism, and other subjects related to books, etc., all in a personal vein.

Rating: Fun reading for bibliophiles and an insight into the bibliophiliac mind for non-bibliophiles. 4 stars.

26 November 2011

Romance review: Savor the Moment by Nora Roberts

Genre: Romance, contemporary
Series: The Bride Quartet
Year of publication: 20
No. in series: 3
Setting & time: Greenwich, Connecticut, USA; contemporary
Level of sensuality: Several sex scenes including one in which a metaphor does not evoke the intended emotion in the reader (clue: I posted it the day before yesterday...)

Laurel is the baker/pastry chef of Vows, the wedding planning business run by four childhood girlfriends. She has known Del, company lawyer and brother to her friend and business partner Parker, for most of her life and they are as close as siblings, except Laurel has known for about as long that he is The One. She doesn’t know that Del has recently started noticing her as a sexy woman rather than as an honorary sister, so isn’t quite ready for the backfire when she kisses him in a fit of pique. They end up agreeing to date for 30 days – with no sex – and no one will have any problem guessing what happens next.

The “how it happens” is the reason why romance readers keep reading romances when they already know the ending. Unfortunately, while the characters are about evenly matched in terms of being realistic (repeat characters for Roberts with a few details to flesh them out) and the story isn’t too exaggeratedly a formula, it does drag. The reason is that everything runs too smoothly. The obstacles Roberts puts in their way are minimal and easily overcome, and in fact they are so slight as to be negligible. The narrative is comfortable, smooth and bland and at the end one shrugs and thinks, “oh, well, she can’t write a winner every time”. 2 + stars.

25 November 2011

Since I posted a bad metaphor yesterday, today you get a nice little taste of Nora Roberts humour

This conversation between the rigidly-in-control-at-all-times heroine and her friend takes place after the hero has thoroughly kissed the heroine before they actually get together, seriously confusing her:

“I was wearing the Back-Off Cloak.”
“What?”
“I’m not stupid. He made a little move in the kitchen. Actually, he makes little moves every time I run into him, which is disconcerting, but I can handle it. So when I walked him to the door, I thought he might get ideas.”
Laurel’s eyes widened. “You swirled on the Back-Off Cloak? The famed shield that repels men of all ages, creeds, and political affiliations?”
Yes.”
“Yet he was not repelled. He’s immune.” She gave Parker a slap on the arm. “He may be the only creature of his kind.”

Nora Roberts, Happy Ever After

24 November 2011

I know "love" scenes are hard to write, but this metaphor really isn't a good one

„He watched pleasure turn her eyes to blue crystals, tasted her moan as he crushed his mouth to hers.“  
Nora Roberts, Savor the Moment.

Please tell me what is so sexy about crystals for eyes, even if they are blue? They are cold and hard and while they are pretty to look at, they are hardly sexy. That is an image that belongs more in a horror story than a romance novel."The Girl With the Crystal Eyes", anyone?

23 November 2011

Romance review: Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts

Genre: Romance, contemporary
Series: The Bride Quartet
Year of publication: 2009
No. in series: 2
Setting & time: Greenwich, Connecticut, USA; contemporary
Level of sensuality: Several breathless sex scenes and cute moments with kissing

Emma, friend and business partner to Mac, heroine of the first book in the Bride Quartet, is the highly-skilled florist of Vows, the all-exclusive wedding-planning business they run together. She has long harboured a secret crush on Jack, an architect who is among her best friends. He is also interested in her, but hasn’t acted on it because of his close friendship with Parker’s brother who considers Emma, Mac and Laurel as his honorary sisters and is highly protective of them.

After he helps her when her car breaks down late at night it becomes clear to them both that the attraction is mutual and after some initial hesitation they plunge into a passionate love affair. But their friendship, combined with Emma’s desire for the "happily ever after" package and Jack’s commitment phobia puts some hurdles in their way.

If you read my review of the first book, you’ll know I didn’t like it much (apart from the scrumptious nerd hero). This one, however, I did like. It’s not going on my keeper shelf, but I think it deserves a better rating because while equally formulaic, it is better put together. Roberts even managed to surprise me a couple of times when I thought I knew where the story was headed.

Both the hero and heroine are reminiscent of characters seen before in Roberts’ books, but unlike in the previous book, the two are more balanced and equal to each other. Mac in Vision in White felt too flat, too stock, to me  to balance well with Carter, who felt very much alive, but here I get about the same feeling of recognition for both characters, both of whom she has fleshed out enough to make them distinct and equal.

The plot is the classic “friends-to-lovers” story, skilfully told and written in Robert’s usual readable style. Some of the twists are foreseeable, while others surprise. The best gauge of quality is that this is the first Nora Roberts novel to bring tears to my eyes since I read the Chesapeake Bay trilogy. Tears didn’t actually fall, but there was definitely increased moistness in the corners of my eyes when I was reading the climax and denouement. For that, and for the better balancing of plot and characters than the previous book, it gets 3+ stars.

The next book in the series also seems set to be a “friends-to-lovers” story, this one between people who see each other like brother and sister. I’m looking forward to seeing how Roberts handles that one without making it feel incestuous.

21 November 2011

The Book of Tea by various authors

Originally published in June 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

Mary Cassatt: 5 O'clock Tea
I am an avid tea drinker and have been ever since I drank my first cup of tea around age six. I enjoy tea in many of its incarnations: the sweet, spicy chai of India and Pakistan, the minty green tea of Morocco, strong and sweet Turkish tea, delicate Darjeelings, robust Kenyans and iced tea with slices of orange and lemon, to name some examples. I have never been much fond of fruit teas or plain green teas - the first I can tolerate iced, but the second tastes to me like freshly mown grass: the smell is nice and refreshing but the flavour is less than pleasing. I guess it’s an acquired taste and no doubt I will learn to drink it if I ever visit Japan or China.
I am not what you would call a tea snob - you are just as likely to find me slurping sweet milk tea made with a tea bag (oh, my!), from a chipped and stained old mug (horror of horrors!), as you are to find me sipping milkless FTGFOP Darjeeling from a bone china cup. Each has a suitable occasion. Maybe tea nerd would be a better description of my relationship with the beverage.

But let’s turn to the book. It’s a large-format book of the kind often referred to as “coffee-table books”, although in this case maybe “tea room book” would be more appropriate. It features some gorgeous photography and artwork, and has chapters on tea growing and processing, tea history, tea drinking habits the world over, types of tea, statistics and even recipes for food such as tea sauce and tea ice, and a list of tea houses and tea shops in the USA, London and Paris. It was published in France, is a translation from French.

It is a lovely book for tea enthusiasts and foodies who want to have some knowledge of the subject but do not want to become experts. For those interested in more information, there is a bibliography of books they can turn to for more in-depth reading.

A touch of snobbery surfaces here and there - one author suggests that it is criminal to use either milk or lemon in tea, and that sugar is only acceptable in a few types of tea (as if it wasn’t simply a matter of personal taste). All skim over the subject of flavoured teas - you get the feeling they do not approve of anything beyond Earl Grey or Russian citrus tea, and those only because those blends are old enough to count as traditional. Tea in bags is universally denounced - which is perhaps not surprising as it is a fact that many tea companies use sub-standard leaves to fill their tea bags, but it is also true that you can get quite decent bag tea if you know where to look. Minor snobbery of this kind is forgivable when you really don’t care what others think of your tea drinking habits, but it is unfortunate that it may influence impressionable people who are new to tea drinking and liable to think they must follow the rules implied by the book in order to enjoy their tea.

Rating: A lovely book for tea enthusiasts. 4 stars.


Finally, here is a tea that I often enjoy, especially on cold winter’s evenings when I want something warming.

Mary Cassatt: The Cup of Tea
Pakistani cardamom chai:

3 bags black tea, or 3 level tablespoons of robust black tea leaves. The best tea for chai is broken leaves, dust or fannings (the kind used in tea bags), as they make stronger tea.
6-8 green cardamom pods
1/2 litre water
1/2 litre whole or condensed milk
sugar to taste

Bring the water to the boil. Bruise or lightly crush the cardamoms and cook in the water for 5 minutes. Add the tea leaves and cook for about 2 minutes (I prefer using tea bags - it's less messy). Add the milk. Remove from heat when the mixture boils, strain out the cardamoms and tea leaves and serve with sugar to taste. If you want a more intense cardamom taste, pour the chai into a thermos flask with the cardamoms and leave it to steep for about an hour (do not steep with the tea bags/leaves as it will make the chai bitter).

19 November 2011

Review: The 8.55 to Baghdad by Andrew Eames

Genre: Travel
Area covered: Train journey (by stages) from London to Baghdad, with stops in Italy, various Balkan states, Turkey, Syria and various cities and archaeological sites in Iraq.
Published in: 2004

This is an enjoyable read about setting out on a journey with the slimmest of excuses, in this case visiting places Agatha Christie travelled to and through when she set out to make a new life for herself after her divorce from her first husband, and to go to the places where she lived in with her second husband, an archaeologist who spent his working life digging up ancient cities in Iraq.

Eames visited various places which one would have travelled through on a train journey between England and Iraq in 1928, which is when Agatha Christie first made the trip aboard the Orient Express, following her traumatic divorce from her first husband. Once the trip could have been made in a few stages (for example directly, without disembarking, from Paris all the way to Istanbul), but was in fact much more difficult to do when Eames did it in 2003 (and probably impossible today).

While the premise – to visit places Agatha Christie visited on her first trip to Iraq and on subsequent trips and places where she lived in Iraq while on archaeological digs with husband Max Mallowan – is slight, I must say to Eames’ credit that wherever he went, he tried to dig up connections with Christie and to see things she saw or might have seen (once even putting himself in grave danger to do so). He includes interesting facts about her life whenever it is warranted, but doesn’t try to tell her life story in any detail. He made several stops that were probably longer than hers, and writes interestingly about people he met and places he visited, especially when he is examining political tensions, nationalistic attitudes and apparent national characteristics. He doesn’t try to analyse Christie beyond speculating about her mental state during her first trip to Iraq, and reaches no conclusions about her, but that’s fine, as it is clear that she is the excuse rather than the reason for the journey.

The book is well written, in a simile-rich style that frequently brings a smile to one's face, and I enjoyed it, especially after Eames stopped using blatant stereotypes to describe people, something that annoyed me in the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express chapters. The final chapters were especially interesting and even thrilling at some points. They cover a journey through Iraq on the eve of the 2003 invasion, with a tour group made up of characters just as varied and colourful as the cast of one of Christie’s whodunnits. He even suggests that some of them may have been spies. All in all, a very enjoyable travelogue, covering some places I haven’t read much about before. 4 stars.

17 November 2011

Review: Vision in White by Nora Roberts

Genre: Romance, contemporary
Series: Bride Quartet, book 1.
Year published: 2009
Setting and time: Greenwich, Connecticut, USA; contemporary.
Level of sensuality: Several flowery sex scenes.

Wedding photographer Mackensie Elliot runs a successful wedding planning company with her three best friends. She has never known a proper family life because her immature, self-centered parents divorced when she was a child and have both gone through multiple marriages and relationships since. Additionally, her mother is a master manipulatrix who can play her daughter like a finely tuned instrument to get what she wants, usually money or unreasonable favours.

As a result of all this, Mac is highly strung and insecure and doesn’t believe she is capable of maintaining a lasting relationship with a man. Along comes nerdy English teacher Carter Maguire, who is her opposite in every way: calm, rational and solid, in addition to being very sexy, so sexy that once Mac has decided to have a fling with him, she keeps coming back for more even though she doesn’t believe it can last. However, this being romance, we all know how it ends: problems are resolved and character growth happens and happily ever after with bluebirds and babies looms on the horizon.

As my regular readers know, I like to read Nora Roberts novels. Her romances are like candy or desserts to me: rich, full of calories, perhaps not very nutritional but generally satisfying. Despite this I was almost ready to give up on her after reading the overblown paranormal disaster that was the Sign of Seven Trilogy – which I thought I had reviewed here, but I must merely have written a brief (and scathing) review of for one of my reading forums – but then I found out about the Bride Quartet, which is a return to traditional romance, and decided to give her another chance.

The premise of the series is charming and has a lot of promise: love finds four female friends who have adored weddings since childhood and as adults run a successful all-inclusive wedding planning business, each friend having a specific role within the company.

Unfortunately this book fails to deliver on the promise. This is partly due to characterisations and partly due to the overuse of hoary clichés and formulas that Roberts has combined much better in other books.

The four friends are all types Roberts has written about before and Mac is unfortunately not clearly delineated enough from her predecessors in previous books to emerge as a distinctive and singular character, whereas Carter is an adorable and well-delineated hero. I must admit that I do love to see a romance hero who is clumsy, wears glasses, can quote Shakespeare and isn’t all buff muscles and alpha-dog attitude, but besides these physical characteristics the character is also a distinctive and realistic personality, which means that he much overshadows Mac whenever they have a scene together. Mac’s mother is a crude caricature of a childish, totally selfish and self-centered user, and Carter’s ex-girlfriend is a flat and typical Roberts villainess who exists only to spice up the plot with a twist as old as time, unfortunately done badly.

The gossamer thin plot revolves around Mac’s inability to understand that just because her parents are a manipulative megalomaniac mother and a charming but uncaring and mostly absent father all her romantic relationships are not doomed to fail like theirs did. It is as of she has blinkers on and can only see what her parents’ private lives have been like and not, for example, the loving and exemplary relationship of her friend Parker’s parents. Almost every climactic moment in the story (apart from the actual climaxes in the sex scenes) comes because of Mac having another fit of low-self esteem, fear of commitment – because she knows she is destined to mess it up – and gut-wrenching doubts about herself, while the catalysts for these scenes usually involve her mother (and in one case the evil bitch ex-girlfriend).

These climactic fits are followed by fairly realistic moments of character growth as Mac slowly realises she is not her mother OR her father, and comes to understand that Carter isn’t going to give up on her so easily. Carter, however, does not grow. We see his multi-faceted character unfold over the course of the story and this stands in for character growth. He is basically the same man at the beginning and end of the story, hasn’t changed, just come into sharper focus.

The whole story feels rushed, as if not enough thought was put into creating characters that come alive on the pages (because Nora can do that) and making their development and their stories realistic and interesting. While I would be among the first to admit that most romances are formula literature, I would also be among the first to argue that even the most entrenched formula can be used well and creatively. This is not the case here. The book has certain good points – there is a coherent story, however thin and cliché-ridden, the interactions between the four friends are realistic, the wedding-planning and photography aspects are well done and the descriptions of hysterical brides and averted wedding disasters are interesting and occasionally funny. It’s too bad they are actually more interesting than the patched-together, gossamer-thin main storyline concerning Mac and Carter.

At the end of the book I didn’t put it down with my customary sigh of satisfaction, but felt as if the craving for reading candy was stronger than before I started reading. For that reason and the ones enumerated above I can only give it 2 stars.

14 November 2011

Burglars can’t be Choosers and The Burglar in the Closet by Lawrence Block

Originally published in June 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

These are the first two books in a long-running series about burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. Bernie is a cool character, perfectly immoral when it comes to other people’s property, daring, professional and charming. The books are a light-hearted blending of the traditional cozy mystery and the rogue genre, because the sleuth is a criminal. Being a criminal, he has obvious problems. The only cop likely to take him seriously is bent and needs to be bribed before he will do anything for him, and in both these books Bernie is a suspect in the murders, so has to go not only undercover to solve the murders, but on the lam as well to avoid being arrested for them.

I have read a fair number of rogue stories (e.g. Raffles, Arsene Lupin) but Bernie is the first of the rogue heroes I have really liked. I hated the Raffles stories - Raffles is mean and Bunny such a wimp that it’s a wonder anyone likes them at all, plus the stories are badly written, and several other rogue heroes are into tricking and taunting the police who of course are always dumber than jellyfish. Bernie is the first I have come across who seems to simply make a living off crime without wanting to attract attention or taunt the authorities, and the stories do not hinge on anyone being unnaturally stupid.

In Burglars can’t be Choosers, Bernie is hired to steal a small box that’s supposed to be hidden in a desk. He doesn’t bother to peep into every room of the apartment before he starts to look for the box, which turns out to be a mistake, because when two cops rush into the apartment, one of them finds a recently murdered man in the bedroom. Bernie manages to make a quick escape, and spends the next several days hiding out and desperately investigating the murder, which looks very much like a set-up.

In The Burglar in the Closet, he is again hired to perform a burglary, and is actually in the apartment when the owner comes home unexpectedly, lets in someone she knows and is murdered. Suspicion falls on him when his (innocent) “employer” is arrested for the crime (the victim was his ex wife), and decides to save his own skin and give Bernie to the cops as a possible suspect. Again, Bernie has to hide out and investigate in order to avoid going to jail. The Whoopi Goldberg movie Burglar was ever so slightly based on this story.

Rating: Light-hearted and entertaining murder mysteries with a likeable “hero”. 3+ stars.

12 November 2011

Little Indiscretions by Carmen Posadas

Original title: Pequnas Infamias
Translated from: Spanish
Translator: Christopher Andrews
Genre: Crime, literary novel
Year of publication: 1998 (original); 2003 (translation)
Setting & time: Spain, contemporary

Chef Nestor Chaffinch (speciality: sweet desserts) finds himself stuck inside a walk-in freezer in the middle of the night after catering a successful private party and is found dead and frozen in the morning. At least four people in the house had reason to want him dead, but who killed him, and was he even murdered at all?

After this first, terrifying chapter, the narrative flashes back to the events that lead up to the death, showing how Fate tangled together the lives of several people and finally led them all together in one place for a grand finale. The translation is seamless and according to reviewers who have read it in both languages Andrews has managed to preserve the author’s style, which is, as any good translator knows, a commendable feat.

This is a stylish, elegant and darkly humorous whodunnit/whydunnit, as rich as the chocolate truffles Nestor is so proud of, but with more than a hint of bitter flavour underneath. Several of the characters are aware that Nestor is privy to secrets they would rather not have revealed to the world, and the narrative is an examination of how this knowledge of their little (and sometimes not so little) indiscretions may have led to his death.

The characters are deftly drawn and rounded and a hint of magic realism lends the story a touch of supernatural mystery that spices things up nicely, like a piece of ginger added to dark chocolate. Nestor’s tantalisingly incomplete recipes add a touch of humour, and the result is a wonderfully entertaining but dark story about a man heading unknowingly to his doom. 4+ stars.

11 November 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: The Bags of Sin

One has to hope the minister in this story learned something from his experience:
Once upon a time there was a minister or priest who was wont to moralise to his congregation. He preached sternly and told off his listeners for their sins with great gusto.

Among his parishioners was an old woman who rarely if ever came to church and the minister would scold her mercilessly for this, telling her that she would not be allowed into the kingdom of heaven if she continued to neglect her church-going duties. The old woman ignored this completely.

After some time had passed from the last scolding the old woman fell ill and sent for the minister, saying that she needed his services because she was being plagued by the sins of the human race. The minister hurried to her bed-side and was about to begin scolding her, for he could see that she was deeply worried and he thought it would be a chance to bring her back into the fold. But the old woman asked him to first listen to her and hear about her greatest worry. The minister agreed to this and listened carefully to what she had to say.

She told him: “Not long ago I dreamt that I arrived at the Pearly Gates and knocked on the door, as I was cold and needed shelter. A man opened the door; he had a large key-ring in his hand. I asked him his name and he said it was Peter. Then I knew with whom I was speaking and asked him to let me inside. 

Peter replied: “No, this is not the place for you.”

“Oh, please, “ I said, “please, good Peter, I am so very cold. Just let me inside. I will stay by the door.”

“No, you may not enter,” replied Peter. 

I then saw that there was a great big storehouse outside the gates and off to one side, and asked Peter if I could shelter in there. He told me I could and opened the door for me. I hurried  inside, but Peter stood in the doorway. Inside I saw huge piles of bags and sacks of all shapes and sizes. All of the were full of something and tied closed. I also saw piles of mittens, some of which were full while in others only the thumb was filled. 

I was curious and asked Peter what was inside the bags and the said it was all the sins of all the people in the world. 

I asked him: “May I see the bag belonging to my parish minister? It can not be a very big one, I think.”

“So, so,” said Peter, “take a look over there,” and he pointed to a tremendously large sack. I was quite astonished, because it was the biggest one I could see in there.

“What in the world?” I said, in wonder.  “But where, then, is my sack? It must be very, very big indeed.”

“Not so much,” said Peter and pointed to one of the mittens, which had a tiny bit inside the thumb. I was completely overcome with astonishment and walked out of the building in a daze. Peter slammed the door shut, and that woke me up. 

This is what has been bothering me,” said the old woman, “and the reason why I asked for you was so I could tell you all this.”

The minister didn’t know what to say and hurried away from her bedside as fast as he could.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

08 November 2011

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn

If you’re sensitive to SPOILERS, don’t read beyond the plot summary.

I noticed this book because of the cover, which is reminiscent of an old-fashioned children's book (until you look closer and notice the skull-and-crossbones snowflakes).

Genre: Murder mystery
Year of publication: 1994 (this edition 2009)
Type of mystery: Historical cosy.
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Daisy Dalrymple

Type of investigator: Amateur (and police)
Setting & time: England, 1920s

The Honourable Miss Daisy Dalrymple arrives at Wentwater Court just after the beginning of the new year to write and photograph a story for Town & Country magazine. She already knows a couple of young people there, but in addition she meets Lord Wentwater, his children and his lovely young second wife, who seems to be very troubled and afraid of their houseguest, Lord Astwick.

When Astwick is found drowned in the skating pond, everyone assumes it was an accident, but when the police arrive on the scene, Daisy is able to point out to handsome Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher that something isn’t quite right about the scene. There ensues a delicate investigation into matters, and it turns out almost everyone staying at Wentwater Court could have had a motive for murdering Astwick.

I am in two minds about this novel. On the one hand it is smoothly written, has a lovely flavour of the Golden Age mysteries that I love reading and the author plays fair with the reader as regards clues. On the other hand, Daisy, while being a very likeable character to begin with, turns out to be a bit of a Mary Sue. She is plucky, capable, independent and everyone likes her so much that they immediately trust her and tell her their troubles and secrets. Even the handsome Scotland Yard officer takes her into his confidence after a short acquaintance by having her take shorthand while he interrogates the suspects, without having first done the double-checking necessary to take her off the suspect list.The only flaw she seems to have is not being very good at taking shorthand, and not being a good speller. Even near the end, when she turns out to be an arrant (not to mention arrogant) class snob who likes to play God, it is put forward in such a way as to make it look like a positive trait, thus emphasising the Mary-Sue-ness rather than removing it.

Also, Daisy doesn’t really solve the case. She seems to be on the verge of it but never reaches a definitely reasoned conclusion, instead drawing a confession out of the killer by accidentally startling him into it. The killer confesses too easily and his accessory does too, and Daisy believes them too easily. One would think that a story told in such perfect accord and harmony as that of the killer and his accessory would arouse suspicions, but Daisy takes it at face value – I get the feeling it’s just because they are of her class and she likes them. In fact, a lot of people take too many things at face value in this novel. Additionally, the police officer is too easily placated when he finds out about the trick Daisy has played on the police (even if he is a bit sweet on her) and his superior seems too eager to take part in a deception at the end.

As for the resolution, another reader might not agree, but I happen to think that just because someone deserved to die, it doesn’t absolve the killer of the guilt not does it mean he shouldn’t have to face justice. It can be poetic or karmic as well as legal justice, but in my mind there has to be some kind of justice, and being separated from the woman he loves is not enough. Likewise, among the things that enrage me in detective stories are endings in which someone gets away with a crime because of their social position or wealth. Let's face it: cosy detective stories are fantasies and we, the readers, expect good old-fashioned justice - not bleak social realism.

I feel Dunn deserves a thumbs up for the pitch-perfect Golden Era style and fair play, but a thumbs down for much of the rest of the story, so I am only giving it 2 stars. However, I did like the style and some of the plotting enough that I am not going to let the low grade stop me from reading more, and as a matter of fact I bought two books - the other one is the 17th in the series and it will be interesting to see what has changed (hopefully for the better).

07 November 2011

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

Originally published in June 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

A clever killer sends taunting letters to Hercule Poirot, telling him dates and the names of towns where he intends to strike. The towns and the victims are alphabetical, A in Andover, and so on. Poirot agrees with the police that they are dealing with a psychopath, but he can not but feel that there is something wrong about the letters, something that doesn’t fit the profile of the killer they have deduced from his methods and choice of victims. So begins a cat and mouse game, but who is which? Regular Christie fans will be in no doubt as to who is the cat and who is the mouse, but may be surprised at a deviation from the Christie formula. Whether it is real or a red herring, I leave up to the reader to find out.

I admit to not being a Poirot fan - he annoys me too much, and I need to take breaks between the books about him, but this is quite a good Christie story. It is perhaps unfortunate that I have read so many of them that immediately upon reading the back cover blurb I figured out certain facts about the main plot twist, and knew who the killer was as soon as he appeared.

Rating: Christie dishes out murder with her usual gusto, Poirot annoys the reader, Hastings blunders on as usual. 3+ stars.

06 November 2011

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

Genre: History
Year of publication: 2000
Setting & time: USA and the Pacific Ocean, 1820-21

In 1820 the whale ship Essex , small, old and with a mostly inexperienced crew, set out from Nantucket Island towards the whale-hunting grounds of the Pacific Ocean. Once they were there the crew proceeded to hunt sperm whales and fill the hold with barrels of oil, but on November 20th the ship was attacked by a huge bull sperm whale which rammed it twice and sank it. The crew were able to rescue some navigational charts and equipment and food from the sinking ship, but were left floating aboard three flimsy and old whale boats thousands of miles from the South-American mainland.

Ironically, in light of what was to happen later, fear of cannibals kept them from making for the nearest cluster of islands and instead they resolved to head for South America, a mistake that may have cost 12 of the crew of 20 their lives. About 20 years later Herman Melville read about the incident, which served him as an inspiration for parts of Moby Dick.

The story told in the book is based on the published account of the mate, Owen Chase, and a recently discovered account by the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, in addition to other historical sources.

Philbrick ties together the story of the ship and the crew with a portrait of the whaling industry and of Nantucket society with seeming ease and has created a sympathetic portrayal of a group of men driven to extremes in order to survive.

This is an excellent read, well-written and well-researched, although not recommended for the squeamish, as the boat-bound survivors resorted to cannibalising the bodies of their dead crew-mates for nourishment. 4+ stars.

05 November 2011

Reading report for October 2011

I finished a total of 10 books in October, which means that my reading index is slightly up, although it has not yet reached last year’s monthly average. In addition there was one Did Not Finish, which was rather unfortunate as it sounded very interesting when I was offered it for reviewing.

The books were a mixed bag of various genres, and I have reviewed no less than four of them. One review is already published (in 2 parts) and three more are coming up in the next couple of weeks, starting tomorrow.

Mary Balogh, Colleen Gleason, Susan Krinard, Janet Mullany :Bespelling Jane Austen. 4 paranormal romance novellas, 2 historical, 2 contemporary.
Jim Crace: The Devil's Larder. Short stories with a food theme.
Carola Dunn: Death at Wentwater Court. Cosy murder mystery; historical.
Rachel Gibson: Daisy's Back in Town. Romance, contemporary.
Kay Hooper: Lady Thief/Masquerade. 1 volume, 2 historical romances (1 short novel, 1 novella)
Michael Innes: Appleby's End. Mystery.
Nathaniel Philbrick: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. History.
Carmen Posadas: Little Indiscretions. Crime, literary novel.
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, read by Stephen Fry. YA fantasy, audiobook. Reread.
Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Literary novel, historical.

DNF: The Undertaker by William Brown. 
I got sent this book for review and gave it the 25% test (the Kindle equivalent of the 50-page test for books with no pagination) before deciding that while the premise of the story is interesting and it is well-written, the style is not to my taste and I simply couldn’t work up enough sympathy for the narrator-hero to want to see what happens to him. However, others have given it good reviews, so don’t pass it on just because I didn’t like it enough to finish it.

As usual, I am reading Too Many Books At Once. Take a look:
Children of Kali by Kevin Rushby.Travelogue and history.
Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey
The Oxford Book of Oxford, edited by Jan Morris. History. Bathroom book that I expect to finish by mid-2012.
London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd. History.
The Mysterious West, edited by Tony Hillerman. Short mystery stories set in the western USA.
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon.Adventure tale.
Nul Points by Tim Moore. Travelogue/biography. Examination of what happened to the people unfortunate enough to come last in the Eurovision Song Contest with zero points.

These are just the ones I have read something in during the last week. I have about a dozen more I haven’t touched for weeks or months which are in various stages of being read. When I come out of a reading slump I tend to do it with a rush.

04 November 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: Rich Rusty

There once was a farmer who lived with his wife on a very poor farm in the north-east of Iceland. They owned a bitch that gave birth to a rust-brown puppy. This puppy the farmer raised and used as a sheep-dog, calling him Rusty. He gave the dog an ewe-lamb as payment for his faithful service.

The ewe-lamb grew up to have lambs of her own, and so on, and the dog was very lucky in that none of his sheep ever went missing and all the ewes always had twins, most of them ewes. Over time Rusty came to own all the sheep on the farm and finally the farm as well. People started calling him Rich Rusty, and the farm was now prosperous and doing very well.

Rusty was much loved by his owners, so much so that when people were served food or given favours and people thanked the couple, they would reply and say not to thank them but Rich Rusty.

Once when the bishop of northern Iceland was on a tour of inspection of his diocese he arrived at the farm. He and his men were welcomed with a grand feast and served an abundance of food. Instead of plates, the food was served in troughs, instead of bottles, drink was served in casks, and instead of glasses, they drank from tankards. 

At the end of the feast the bishop thanked the couple for the grand welcome, but they said not to thank them but Rich Rusty, who owned the whole farm. The bishop asked if Rusty was a man, but they replied that he was their dog. The bishop then said that he must see this remarkable and hospitable animal and so they led him out to the dung-heap where there lay, enjoying the warmth from the fermenting dung, a decrepit, ancient dog, deaf and blind and covered in matted fur.

The bishop stood looking at the dog for a while and then looked at his servant and said: “See you the cur?”

The servant kicked Rusty hard in the head so that his brain lay exposed. The bishop then turned to the couple and scolded them soundly and ordered their parish priest to make them publicly confess their sins and then give them absolution for their idolatry and backwardness.

But after Rusty was dead, all the riches he had accumulated dwindled away to nothing and finally the old couple died of hunger and poverty.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

03 November 2011

Quotation

A lovely quotation from Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes  by Robert Louis Stevenson:

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied with our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for."

02 November 2011

Romance review: Bespelling Jane Austen, part II

Continuing on from yesterday:

Blood and Prejudice by Susan Krinard

Sub-genre: Contemporary
Setting & time: USA, east coast, and England; modern times
Level of sensuality: Kissing.

There is no need to mention which Austen novel this story is based on, as the title speaks for itself. I also think it’s pretty clear that vampires are involved. Like in Northanger Castle, the plot is patterned after the plot of the original. The characters, those of them that are used (Charlotte Lucas, for one, is missing) are the same people as in Pride and Prejudice, with the same names and certain modifications appropriate to the modern setting. For one thing, Elizabeth is more active in trying to discover the truth about Darcy than she is in P&P, which is believable because, spirited and forward as she might have seemed to a contemporary of Austen’s in the original, she would seem rather docile and reserved showing the same behaviors in a modern setting, so that is all for the good. Darcy, if anything, is even more forbidding and brooding than in P&P and has a somewhat Byronic feel to him at times, but he is also updated, as is necessary for him in order to protect Elizabeth (who is not called ‘Lizzie’) from the vampirous main villain, who is not who you would expect.

The plot follows P&P pretty closely, with a few interesting twists, some of which are unexpected. It is a longer story than the previous two in the book and the relationships between the two pairs of lovers are given proper narrative time to develop.

The transposition of Regency England settings to modern-day USA and England is interesting. Rosings, for example, is a vampire nightclub, Bingley owns a pharmaceutical company and the two friends meet the Bennett sisters when a takeover of the Bennett family business is being discussed, but other things are just the same: Mr. Collins is as unctuous as he is in P&P, Caroline the same bitch, Mrs. Bennett as silly and Lydia as man-crazy, forward and empty-headed as ever, but it is all done in a believably modern way.

Having the action part of the plot – and no, it’s not the one you would think – take place on stage rather than off as it does in the original is interesting and adds colour to the narrative. The romance is also more satisfying and more passionate than in the first two stories. With everything coming together: characters, plot and a satisfying romance, I am giving this one 3+ stars.


Little to Hex Her by Janet Mullany

Sub-genre: Contemporary
Setting & time: Washington D.C., USA; modern times
Level of sensuality: Kissing and two sex scenes, one off stage, one on.

Those who know their Austen will know which novel this story draws on. If the misquotation in the title looks unfamiliar, think back to the opening passage of Emma.

Like Krinard, Mullany uses the actual names from the original, and the people are more or less recognisable as modern version of the original characters, but with important differences. For one thing, some of them are werewolves. Or vampires. Or elves. This is of course an opportunity for a magical twist to the story, and boy, does it get magical, both in funny and not so funny ways. I am certain some readers of Austen’s tale have wanted to do to Elton what Harriet actually does do to him...

As for the lead characters, Emma and Knightley, they are a witch and wizard. They are the same age in this story and have already had a relationship in the past which didn’t work out, so at least Emma is both more experienced and mature than she is in the original. But while she may be more mature, she is no more sensible or less meddling than in the original, and while Knightley is the same caring but somewhat overbearing know-it-all, he at least shows Emma that he is interested in her. The biggest difference in the characters is that Emma gets to be active here. She is the one who saves the day and makes her own destiny in the end.

Mullany has cleverly used only certain elements of Austen’s story in her own, such as the matchmaking – taken to new levels as Emma actually runs a matchmaking agency – her Elton-Harriet-Martin meddling and the Frank Churchill-Jane Fairfax story, but all of it is done with interesting twists and in fact this story deviates more from the original than the previous two stories in the volume, which is not a bad thing. After all, one can only take so much past-to-present transposition of what is more or less the same story.

The romance comes a bit fast, but not implausible, because after all, they were lovers once and know each other already. It was also interesting to see a certain principal rule of romance writing get broken with impunity.

This is altogether quite an enjoyable and funny romantic story, and it gets 3+stars.
--

Conclusion:
Unlike some anthologies I have read no one story holds up the whole thing here, although one only needs to look at the cover to see that Mary Balogh was the one chosen to catch the attention of potential readers, whereas it was Susan Krinard who came up with the idea and recruited the others. Making Balogh, who is arguably the best known of the authors in the book, the headliner, may not have been a good idea, as she isn’t known for writing in the paranormal genre, and her contribution, while the least derivative, in fact turned out to be the weakest of the four tales.

Be that as it may, this is overall a pretty good collection of short stories/novellas with themes borrowed from Jane Austen, and has helped me add three new authors to my list of authors whose books I think worth checking out (Balogh was already one of my favourite romance authors).

01 November 2011

Review: Bespelling Jane Austen, part I

I won this book in a giveaway last year (thanks, Janet!) and have finally got round to reading it. The premise of this anthology is for four modern authors to play with characters, themes and stories from Jane Austen novels. There are two historical stories and two modern ones, each taking inspiration from a different novel. I decided to review each story separately as I finished it and then give an opinion on the book as a whole. Since the review seems set to become somewhat long, I will divide it into two parts. The other part will be posted tomorrow.

Genre: Paranormal romance
Year of publication: 2010



Almost Persuaded by Mary Balogh

Sub-genre: Historical
Setting & time: England, Regency era
Level of sensuality: Kissing plus one very short (and very flowery) sex scene.

Mary Balogh has written some pretty good historical romances set in England during the Regency and Georgian eras. This, however, is her first venture into paranormal territory. The story she chose to play with was that of Persuasion (my favourite Austen novel), but she did not use the same characters (although some of them are clearly echoes of those of Austen’s book) and she merely alludes to Austen’s story and doesn’t follow its plotting.
What she has done is add reincarnation and Indian mysticism to the premise of Persuasion: lovers kept apart by other people’s intervention, and also by their own insecurities. Her lovers have never met before in this life, but feel a strong affinity and connection from the moment they first meet that turns out to have been caused by them having been star-crossed lovers through many reincarnations, and then it’s a matter of being strong and not letting themselves be separated once again.

The story is written in Balogh’s customary readable style, but it is slow and lacks the sparkle and liveliness of those of her novels that I have read, and frankly I found it a little dull. 2+ stars.


Northanger Castle by Colleen Gleason

Sub-genre: Historical
Setting & time: England, Regency era
Level of sensuality: Kissing.

Here we have an entertaining tale, a spin-off from the Gardella Vampire Chronicles, and if the writing and plotting in this short story is anything to go by, I think I might enjoy those. As the title indicates, it is based on Northanger Abbey, and as the story follows the original quite closely for the first two-thirds of the narrative, I don’t think I will give a summary of the plot. As for the last third, the twists are perhaps not entirely unexpected but clever enough for this to become more than just a clever pastiche of Austen’s original.

As in the original, the story concerns a young woman who loves to read Gothic novels and has an active imagination which leads her into some potentially sticky situations. As these not only concern social faux pas but an actual vampire, there is real danger involved. The characters are quite clearly based on Austen’s, but Caroline Merrill is not Catherine Morland under another name, but a heroine with more modern sensibilities and more courage. If Catherine is “in training for a heroine” as Austen put it, Caroline already is one, albeit quite inexperienced.

As for the hero, he is a bit of a surprise, so I’ll say as little as I can about him. He is underdeveloped as a character and the attraction between him and Caroline feels more like sexual attraction than one of love. They hardly know each other before they have confessed their love for one another and it all feels very sketchy.

However, it is fun to trace the original story, to see how Gleason tackles the task of making Austen’s characters her own and follows or deviates from the original plot, and easy to forgive her for the slight historical inaccuracies which would matter if this were straight Regency and not an alternative reality one. If only she had taken more time to develop the relationship between the hero and heroine than in trying to follow the plotting of the original, this might have been a more believable coming together.

I found this tale entertaining but not very romantic and am giving it 3 stars.