28 May 2012

Any Man of Mine by Rachel Gibson (review)

6 years ago, Autumn Haven came to Las Vegas to have a good time. So did hockey player Sam LeClaire. They ended up married (by an Elvis impersonator, no less) and were divorced before their son was born nine month later. Autumn spent a lot of time hating Sam for walking out on her the day after they got married, but only now she has been able to stop hating him. When Sam suddenly starts paying more attention to their son she begins to hope that they can go on to be friends for Conner‘s sake, but Sam has other ideas. He has matured and changed since their first encounter and this time he isn‘t going to walk away. He just needs to convince her he‘s changed.

Rachel Gibson was first recommended to me as a Jennifer Crusie readalike. I didn‘t really see the likeness when I read the two books from the Seattle Chinooks series that I have read, See Jane Score and this one, which take place in Seattle and remind me of nothing as much as Susan Elizabeth Phillip‘s Chicago Stars sports romances. I did start to see why people would recommend her to a Crusie fan when I read two of her small town books, Not Another Bad Date and especially True Confessions which on a certain level reminded me of Crusie‘s books, especially Welcome to Temptation. Not so much the story (although both True Confessions and Welcome... feature a delectable sheriff and an out-of-towner), but the whole small town atmosphere she is just as good as Crusie at recreating.

This, however, is a Seattle Chinooks novel and has none of the eccentrics that pepper her small town books. The story focuses squarely on the couple, Autumn and Sam, both of whom are damaged people. Autumn got swept off her feet by Sam as easily as she did because
a) he was sexy as hell (aren‘t all romance heroes?), and
b) because she was emotionally vulnerable,
and he fell for her because of his own emotional vulnerability and need to forget certain events in his life.

Both have spent 6 years trying to recover from what happened to and between them, Autumn by concentrating on building a good life for herself and her son, and Sam by being good at his job (he‘s a professional ice hockey player) and sleeping with as many women who are as different from Autumn as he possibly can. Neither has succeeded. Autumn hasn‘t had sex since Conner was conceived and Sam feels an irresistible attraction to her whenever he sees her. When he realises she has stopped hating him he is finally able to listen to what she has to say about their son and her accusation that he keeps pushing Conner‘s needs aside for his own finally hits home and he decides to be a better father.

This incidentally means seeing more of Autumn, and the more she sees of her, the more he realises the massive mistake me made in letting her go. Autumn is justifiably wary of him and his intentions, but slowly starts to come around to the idea that they can be friends, but she is leery of letting thing go any further. But they do and they realise they need to let go of the past in order to be able to have a future together.

As in all romance novels, there is never any doubt that they will get together in the end, but that isn‘t the point of a romance novel. It‘s not for the final outcome – which is always guaranteed – that people read romances, but for the journey towards love and happiness, the how and why rather than the "and they lived happily ever after", although of course that plays a part as well.

Gibson writes good characters and Autumn and Sam are believable. Unlike in some other romances I have read, their insecurities don‘t ever threaten to completely destroy their chances of happiness –  they just have to be overcome and they are, in a believable way. The story moves at a fair clip, but actually covers a stretch of several months so it isn‘t exactly a whirlwind romance and gives the characters space to develop and grow close in a believable way. Not that I don‘t enjoy a reading good whirlwind romance, but in a „second chance“ story like this I prefer a certain level of realism, with people earning trust and forgiveness by their actions and not just surrendering all to the magical afterglow of out-of-this-world sex.

One side character that must be mentioned is Vince, Autumn‘s brother. He is a total hottie and damaged badass who hates the hero‘s guts and comes across as somewhat of a jerk at times because after all it‘s the hero he is clashing with. At the end of the book the thought popped into my mind that Vince needed a book of his own, a story about him coming to terms with himself and his dark past, and yay! Gibson‘s latest book, Rescue Me, which incidentally is being published today, has Vince as the hero. And it‘s a small town romance. I‘m very much looking forward to reading it.

As for the title, it's totally generic and comes from a country song (someday I must devote a post to song title book titles). But Gibson does more than just allude to Shania Twain's hit song: each chapter is headed by a requirement for the heroine's perfect man, and the contents of each chapter show how Sam fulfils and occasionally fails the requirements. I hasten to add that Autumn does not have such a list. She is a list maker, but the headings are merely there to give the book a better connection with the title.

One final word: the cover. It‘s bad. It‘s not so much that it looks like the woman on the cover is sniffing the back of the man's neck and preparing to take a bite out of it, but just the fact that she the cover has reddish-brown hair and the man has dark brown hair. In the book, Autumn has flaming red hair that matches her name, and Sam is blond. Is it too much to expect the cover models to have some resemblance to the characters?

All in all, it‘s a nice, solid romance. 3 stars.

24 May 2012

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

I consider myself lucky that my parents and my brother like giving presents that people actually want and not ones that will surprise but might not be wanted. Which is how I came to get this book for Christmas. I gave them two titles (the other one was Just Kids by Patti Smith) and my brother chose the one he knew I would want the most (he also got a copy for himself). But on with the review:


Samuel Vimes reluctantly goes out to Ramkin Hall, the family country residence, for a long-overdue holiday with his wife and son. Sam junior is six and very interested in poo, so the visit to the country is a prime opportunity for him to indulge his interests. In the meantime his father notices that something is not well in the area: a goblin girl has been brutally murdered and no-one seems to care, and the goblins are not receiving fair treatment. Before he knows it he is neck deep in an informal investigation and at the same time he is busy training the local police constable and teaching him the Vimes way of policing.

This latest installation in the Watch sub-series of the Discworld books is more laugh-out-loud funny than several of the Discworld books before it, but its themes are just as dark. Sam Vimes is his old, slightly insecure and ornery self, Willikins the butler (on this country visit relegated to the role of Vimes’ batman - Vimes presumably being opposed to calling him anything as prissy as a 'valet') has blossomed into a full-fleshed character, Sam junior is a typical inquisitive six-year old, and Sybil, who is more visible here than in any book since her first appearance in Guards! Guards!, gets to show her merit. So far, so good.

The villain, or rather the evil henchman who stands in for the real villain who is only mentioned and never seen, is not fleshed out enough. He is a diluted Carcer (Night Watch) or possibly a speculation as to what Moist von Lipwig (Going Postal, Making Money) might have become had he become a killer instead of a con-man.

The story is the twisty narrative one can expect from Pratchett, but with somewhat fewer perspectives than in most of the other books. The goblins are strange and charmingly repulsive and the way they are treated really is shameful. Unfortunately some of the thrill is taken out of the story because Vimes handles everything (other than interactions with servants) with so little effort and so much panache that it takes away the uncertainty that a reader mush be given a chance to develop as to whether the hero will succeed in his mission or not. Vimes comes across as some kind of superhero, and it took away much of the suspense. For that reason I can only give it 3 stars.

21 May 2012

List love: Top 10 Toilet reads

From The Letters of the Earl of Chesterfield to his Son, ed. Charles Strachey and Annette Calthorp (1901), i. 192.
I knew a gentleman who was so good a manager of his time that he would not even lose that small portion of it which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained, and I recommend you to follow his example.... Books of science and of a grave sort must be read with continuity; but there are very many, and even very useful ones, which may be read with advantage by snatches and unconnectedly: such are all the good Latin poets, except Virgil in his Æneid, and such are most of the modern poets, in which you will find many pieces worth reading that will not take up above seven or eight minutes.(Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) )

As an unapologetic reader in the loo I completely understand this unnamed gentleman. I would have a bookshelf in my own private bathroom/toilet at home if there was any space for one, but all I can fit in is a small IKEA shoe rack I installed on the floor in order to act as a shelf for stuff I couldn’t fit into the tiny bathroom cabinet. Since it’s an open shelf I generally only keep my toilet book of the moment on it. My copies of Neytendablaðið (Consumer News) also tend to end up in there.

I have very specific demands of my toilet books. Unlike readers who would have it that Ulysses is a good toilet read, I like books with short chapters that you do not need too much concentration to read and are not so engrossing as to tempt you to remove the book from the toilet to continue reading. Best of all I prefer collections of short passages or pieces that can be browsed at will, such as quotations, trivia, comic books and cartoons. I don’t buy magazines on a regular basis, but they also make good toilet reads.

Here are my 10 favourite loo reads (so far):

  • The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book by Bill Watterson. I dust this one off every few years and re-read it (in or out of the loo). Each story is one page and you can open it at random and be guaranteed a fun read.
  • The Ripley’s Believe It or Not trade paperbacks. I keep a pencil beside these when I'm reading one, because I like to fact check them and I usually find at least one or two errors in each book.
  • The Mad books. Sergio Aragonés' cartoons for preference, but Spy vs. Spy or any of the other classics will do. Come to think of it, I also liked reading the magazine in the toilet when I held a subscription. Trade paperbacks for preference, but the magazine-size books are good too.
  • Outhouses by Roger Welsch. An erudite and humorous examination of the humble outhouse from many different perspectives. This is a collection of essay on a common theme, but is an engrossing read and perfect for the toilet. I kind of regret trading it off though BookMooch, as I would like to read it again.
  • Son of "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night", edited by Scott Rice and authored by various participants in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest. I haven’t been able to find the prequel or the sequels (not that I have been looking very hard), but I greatly enjoyed this one.
  • The Meaning of Tingo: and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World, by Adam Jacot de Boinod. This is a dictionary of useful and weird words that exist in other languages than English but which the author feels maybe should be considered for inclusion in the English vocabulary.
  • Lost in Translation by Charlie Croker. A collection of funny English from all over the world. I would love to get my hands on the sequel, Still Lost in Translation.
  • The Oxford Book of Oxford, edited by Jan Morris. An eclectic history of Oxford University, told through quotations.
  • Collections of standalone comic strips and editorial cartoons.
  • Trivia books of all kind.

Since finishing The Oxford Book of Oxford I am a little at a loss as to what to read next, but I have a few choices:
I might bring in a stack of National Geographics or The Wordsworth Dictionary of Surnames
or I might choose Get Thee to a Punnery: An Anthology of Intentional Assaults Upon the English Language by Richard Lederer.

I would also quite like to get my hands on Lederer’s series of Anguished English books, which sound like fine toilet reads, or maybe I’ll get a copy of Sh*t My Dad Says or Stuff White People Like, but only if I can find them second hand. They are the kinds of books that can be funny in small dozes (like the blogs they’re based on), but which begin to grate when you read more than a few pages at a time.

A related class of books is the ones I read at work while my computer is starting up and the numerous ponderous software programs I use in my work are waking up. Usually I browse through the day’s newspapers, but when I forget to bring them with me to work I resort to books. These days I generally read a few pages of my book de jour on the smartphone.

More reading about bathroom books:
Do you read in the bathroom? Somebody does!
Little Loo Library
Is reading on the loo bad for you?
Reading in the toilet (This one has some good suggestions for reading material)

18 May 2012

Devices and Desires by P.D. James

Well, here it is. My first review in several months (not counting reposts). I hadn’t planned to review this novel, but I suddenly felt the urge to do so.

As it happens, this is one of the books in the Top Mysteries challenge I abandoned in 2011. I am no longer trying to read all the books on the lists, but it’s nice just the same to be able to cross one off now and then. Another novel I have been able to strike off the list was Hamlet, Revenge! by Michael Innes, an enjoyable old school murder mystery. Than leaves 65 to go, but I doubt I will ever read them all - there are just too many spy novels on it for my taste.

Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard arrives in Norfolk to spend some time going over his aunt’s personal effects following her death, and to decide what he is going to do with the holiday home - an old converted windmill - he has inherited from her. He is consulted by a former colleague who is now with the local police and is investigating the case of a serial killer in the area. At a dinner party one night one of the guests, who has just discovered one of the killer’s victims, reveals details of the murder unknown to the public so that when one of the guests is later murdered by that method and the serial killer couldn’t have done it, it is clear that one of the dinner guests has to be responsible for the copycat killing. But which one?

Genre: Crime, psychological detective story
Year of publication: 1989
No. in series: 8
Type of investigator: Police
Series detective: Adam Dalgliesh
Setting & time: Norfolk, England, 1980s

This is an unusual detective story. Not only because the series detective doesn’t take part in the investigation (in fact, he doesn’t even nose around on his own) but also because of the diverse themes and threads that come together to make the story. James deftly weaves into the warp of the basic story of two homicide investigations the weft of the cares and problems of the various characters, suspects, witnesses and policemen alike, and issues like the different ways in which people grieve, the threats and benefits of nuclear energy, family power struggles, ego, social justice and injustice, love and hate. This all comes together in a richly nuanced and complex narrative that is much more than just a detective story. It is a psychological novel before it is a detective novel, and all the more interesting for it.

The characters are richly drawn and keep revealing facets of themselves throughout the book. In the course of the book the private thoughts and public actions of all the main characters are examined, but without much clue-dropping. You come to care about them or dislike them as if they were real people and all the way from the revelation of the copycat nature of the main murder and nearly to the end you wonder which one of them did it and how it will end for them.

James contrasts the impulse-driven actions of the serial killer with the cold, preplanned and controlled actions of the copycat. One is all about gratification and doesn’t care who his victims are as long as they’re female while the other has a motive and only one particular victim in mind. The unspoken question is: whose crime is the worse?

Verdict: One of the best crime novels I have read in and age and a half. 4 stars.

14 May 2012

List love: A growing list of recommended books with elderly protagonists or significant elderly characters

I think it's about time I posted this, as I have been working on it for a couple of months.

I feel there isn’t enough fiction written about the elderly, or at least about the elderly as protagonists. The elderly in fiction tend to be supporting characters, often wise elders (such as  Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books) or cranky old neighbour types (e.g. the faculty of Unseen University in the Discworld series) or helpless oldsters (any number of books, especially children’s books) for the protagonist to either help or abuse (depending on whether they’re a hero or not).

Terry Pratchett has written several of my favourite elderly protagonists and they always kick ass in one way or another, so you will see several of his books on this list, either as listed items or ‘also’ mentions.

Without further ado: Here is a list of books with elderly protagonists or significant, important elderly characters. I leave it up to you to decide if you’re interested or not, but I certainly enjoyed (or, in one case, am enjoying) them. They are numbered, but that doesn't mean I like no. 1 better than no. 12. This is just the order in which I thought of them.

  1.  Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett. Fantasy. One of the two main protagonists in that book is a 130-year old wizard, Windle Poons, who dies and then comes back to life as a kind of zombie and starts to investigate some strange goings-on. Part of the supporting cast is the faculty of Unseen University, whose average age is somewhere over 80. One of my favourite Discworld books.
  2. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson. Novel. This funny Swedish novel is coming out in English in September. On the eve of a grand celebration of his 100th birthday, an old man decides he can’t face the festivities and escapes out the window and sets off on an adventure. I’m reading it and it’s turning out to be a cross between Forrest Gump, Grumpy Old Men and a Marx Brothers movie with a side of Tarantino. It's due out in Britain in July and in the USA in September.
  3. Memento Mori by Muriel Spark. Novel. There is no one protagonist here, but rather a collection of elderly people who get mysterious phone calls that remind them of their mortality. Gruesomely funny.
  4. *insert your favourite Miss Marple mystery* by Agatha Christie. I could name The Body in the Library, Murder at the Vicarage or 4:50 from Paddington, but I think for this particular list I will nominate Sleeping Murder. Miss Marple may look like a harmless old lady, perhaps a bit of a busybody, but as those who dare commit crimes anywhere near her find out to their detriment, she is as sharp as a stiletto and very, very good at solving crimes.
  5. Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett. The pivotal characters are a trio of witches, two of whom are elderly, and Ridcully, Archchancellor of Unseen University also plays an important part in it. The rest of the Witches books might be mentioned as well. Full of mayhem and Pratchett's signature humour.
  6. The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill. The protagonist is 72-year old Dr. Siri Paiboun who has been made - against his will - the coroner for Laos. The year is 1975, and he has his hands full trying to prevent a war with Vietnam and prove that the wife of a high-up official was murdered. The first in a series. Darkly funny.
  7. Our First Murder by Torrey Chanslor. About two elderly sisters, Amanda and Lutie Beagle, who inherit a detective agency in New York and rather than sell it decide to run it. So off they go to the big city, with their middle-aged cousin Marthy Meecham, and their very first case is a gruesome murder. Practical, take-charge Amanda is the leader of the group, but inquisitive and brave little Lutie is the one who solves the cases, aided by sidekick Marthy. A delightful little detective novel.
  8. Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene. Aunt Augusta has to be one of literature’s great creations, a disreputable old woman bent on having some fun in her old age (or rather continuing to have fun). I hope I have as much fun as she did when I grow old.
  9. The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby. Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde, Evil Harry Dread (a retired Dark Lord) and Vena the Raven-Haired (a Red Sonja-style heroine), are all elderly but spry and ready for anything. Also featured in this book is Leonard of Quirm, who is depicted as an old man, and the old people carry the story. (I might also mention The Last Continent, in which the Silver Horde are benign villains, and The Light Fantastic in which Cohen is first introduced, albeit as a supporting character).
  10. Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. LuTze is as much a leading character as are Susan and Jeremy/Lobsang, and he is much, much funnier.
  11. The Brother Cadfael books. Any one may do, but I am partial to A Morbid Taste for Bones and The Leper of Saint Giles.
  12. Come to think of it, Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett qualifies as well, because of Sargent Jackrum, who must be at least between 70 and 80 years old. Besides having written so many strong elderly lead characters, there are numerous elderly supporting characters, e.g. the UU faculty. 
  13. Edit: I can't believe I forgot Two Old Women by Welma Wallis. It's a wonderful survival tale about two old Athabascan women who are abandoned by their tribe during a harsh winter and are forced to remember the survival skills and knowledge of the terrain from their youth in order to survive the winter. 
  14. Second edit:  Since posting the last edit I have read one more book I really must recommend: Vestal Fire by Compton Mackenzie. It features a community of ageing expats living on a fictional Italian island (based on Capri) and a  serpent that arrives in their midst.
Honorable mention goes to Mrs. Pollifax from the books by Dorothy Gilman. I can’t rightly put the books on the list because of their varying quality and because I don’t agree with some of the political views expressed in them, but the old lady herself definitely kicks ass.

You might be surprised to not find The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on this list, but although several lead characters in those books are old or even very old in human terms (Gandalf, Bilbo, Legolas, Gimli), the only protagonist who looks it is Gandalf (and Bilbo, but only in LOTR in which he is not a major player), but Gandalf is not human and we don’t know what is old for his kind. Therefore he doesn’t count.

On the TBR I have The Old Boys by William Trevor. Can you recommend more?

07 May 2012

In memoriam

My reading was scant last month, only 4 books. What they were isn‘t important, and there will be no reading report for April. I read them more as a way to distract myself than for enjoyment. More important things took priority over reading. I do not consider school work – of which I had plenty –more important than reading for fun, especially since I am not aiming for a degree, but other things are more important, even for a confirmed bibliophile. Such as family.

My grandmother, my amma, died on April 18th, the last day of winter. I loved her more than just about anyone, except possibly my parents and my brother. I miss her terribly. 

She was in a rest home, then in hospital, then in a hospital hotel, then again in hospital, and finally in a recovery home for the final four months of her life and I visited her every day except for the Easter holiday when I went north to stay with my parents, and the 10 days I spent at home with the flu (which I caught off her the second time she ended up in the hospital). All that time she was weak and tired but always alert and clear-headed, and we talked of all kinds of things, both trivial and important, looked at old photographs and told each other stories. I will treasure that time, despite the pain it gave me to see her slowly get weaker and more frustrated with her situation. One day she took a turn for the worse and three days later she was gone. 

Sometimes it feels as if she is still here. At those moments, it is not in the recovery home I feel I will find her, but at her house, ready to feed me pancakes and coffee and show me her latest craft project. 

She rests in peace, free of pain and illness at last, in a beautiful little country cemetery. She chose her final resting place herself and wrote a lovely hymn that was sung at her funeral, in equal measure a goodbye and a declaration of faith. Wherever her spirit is, I don‘t know, but I do know she is happy and healthy. It does not make the loss of her any less painful. 

We shared a love of books and reading.  Saying I got my love of reading from her would be to undervalue the role my mother played in that process, but amma did encourage it and gave me free access to her library and never tried to censor my reading or push particular books on me. I am now the guardian of some of her beloved books, books that she kept in a place of honour in her living room. I know that when I look at them and especially when I pick one up to read it, it will remind me of her. Which is as it should be. She lives on in the things she left behind and most of all in the people she left: her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.