Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Magyk and Mystery

I've been treating myself to some of my favourite reads lately and it's been fun. I love reading a good book again, even if I do know how the story ends. There are always things I've forgotten, or things I look at differently the second time (do now have to admit that my English teachers were right about that?). So in between the "more serious" reads, I've been indulging in two series I love.

The Septimus Heap Series by Angie Sage is the first. I love these books (as you may possibly remember me telling you once or twice, or three times). They're easy to read, fun and imaginative. I've now finished my second read of the first three and am eagerly awaiting Oct. when the next one comes out. The books are set in a fictional world complete with magic, castle, wizard tower, port, marshes, badlands, a cabbage cooking aunt, a grumpy Extraordinary Wizard and message rats. The story follows the adventures of Septimus Heap, seventh son of a seventh son, as he finds his place in a magical world. I don't want to say more and give the plot away, but it's a bit like Harry Potter with all the sense of discovering something new every time Septimus rounds a corner. The books aren't as dark as the HP books, and are really for a younger audience (I think 9-12 year olds), but they are really, really fun and are just a good read. Love them. I'll be re-reading Quest this weekend and then waiting for October.

The Black Magicians Series by Trudy Canavan is the second. In my humble opinion, these are fairly well written books that drag you into the story and manage to keep their hold on you by mixing action with intrigue. Even this second time I can't wait to get back to reading before bedtime (which has unfortunately kept me up later than I really liked, but what can you do when you have a good book?). Set in the fictional land of Kyralia, the story opens with the clearing of the "slum people" from the city. Sonea, one of the slum dwellers, is caught up in the futile fight against the magicians who carry out The Purge once a year. They know they pose no challenge to the wizards, yet attempt to express their anger by throwing stones and nasty herbs at the guards and magicians. Even though Sonea knows this, she throws a stone at one of the magicians with the surprising result of success. The satisfaction is, however, short lived as she suddenly becomes the target of a massive man-hunt. The Magician's Guild says it want to help her, but she knows the magicians to be a cruel and devious group, so to be on the safe side, she runs and hides with the help of the Thieves, but how long can she evade them and is she really better off on the lamb? The story is good, the balance is good and the series has a distinct lack of romance which so often accompanies fantasy books. Personally I found that a great benefit as the author was allowed to concentrate on character development and plot. It's a good series for anyone who likes books of this genre.

Last but not least, The Ice House by Minette Walters. This was Walter's first novel and is the one that got me hooked on her. The story revolves around three women living together on an English estate. Because of their situation, and the disappearance of the estate's owner's husband ten years earlier, the women are subjected to all kinds of unimaginative village gossip, which they do little to dispel. They prefer to keep their distance and themselves to themselves. That only propagates the gossip and cements their roles as outcasts, until the day a body is discovered in the ice house. Once again, as with the disappearance, their lives are turned upside down and inspected from every angle. It's surprising what looking under stones can turn up. Again, this is a good book and one I can recommend to mystery lovers.

Monday, 27 April 2009

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

What I thought was going to be yet another of the Brontës' dark and dismal books turned out to be rather good. Until now, Jane Eyre is the only Brontë novel I’ve really ever cared for (I apologize to the Wuthering Heights lovers. I’ve tried, but I just can’t make myself read it a second time.). Knowing that this book dealt with a horrible marriage in which the wife was more or less abused, I was expecting lots of dark, depressing scenes, yet instead of telling the story linearly, Anne starts the novel in a time that gives the reader hope and knowledge that things will get better. She also cleverly creates a mystery, despite giving the reader insight into the future. She only tells part of the story, leaving the reader to guess or wonder out how it reached that point. This pulls the reader into the story as half a story is, well, just that, half a story. It also gives Anne a good side story by allowing her to tell us how people of that day and age looked upon mysterious people. Anyone whose history is not fully known must be bad, otherwise they would tell you what you want to know about their past. There seems to be no feelings of generosity or Christian spirit involved, despite the otherwise important place of Religion in that society. Indeed, it is the vicar who is one of the most involved in spreading slander.

Once having created the mystery, she goes on to tell the story of how Mrs. Graham wound up as the tenant at Wildfell. This part of the book does become dark and sad. The only criticism I have of it is that it went on just a bit too long. I felt like I’d gotten the point and could we please just move along now. However, I don’t suppose the characters were able to do that, so why should we? Finally, it does move along and the author goes on to tie the two sections of the books together.

All in all it’s a good story and one that must be finished to understand how it all fits in together. The author makes many statements about life and religion, the meaning of which aren’t clear until the book has been read to the end, at which point, things seem to fall into place. Anne Brontë's style seems to be something between realism and romanticism. She tries to give the reader a strong sense that should we live our lives as we should and not as we want, things will turn out for the best in the end, but that suffering will and must take place first for us to truly comprehend the extent of our blessings. It’s almost as if she wants her characters to suffer through antithesis of what they are striving for, so that they can see that their ideals are maybe placed a little too high. We should be content with less than perfection, but will only be able to be so if we suffer through horrors first.

I’ll just add that the book has an interesting perspective, namely that instead of focusing on one particular person as a villain residing within a better class of people, Anne shows us what the world of the villain looks like. That is to say that in literature in general, there are often references to unworthy young men who run with the wrong crowd. Anne shows us what the inner workings of such a crowd look like. For this reason alone, the book is worth a read.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Mixed Mysteries

I'm really quite conscientious about posting for the Classics Challenge, but not about the other books I read. This is catch up time.

Spider's Web by Agatha Christie: This was a play written in 1954 and posthumously re-written into book by Charles Osborne. This is not a classic Christie, but it is brilliant. When I say not a classic, I mean that it is a good mystery, but you get two for one with it. It's a brilliant comedy as well. It's almost a spoof of Christie's other works. A man is murdered in a country house and his body is found by the wife of the man who rents that house. She tries, for various reasons, to get rid of the body in the hopes of keeping the police away from them. She enlists her friends to help her, but almost from the very beginning, everything goes wrong. One thing leads to another and another and another until the whole story is so confused that it's virtually impossible to figure out what's truth and what's fiction. It's almost a comedy of errors and I enjoyed that combination with the classic mystery very much. Two thumbs up for this one.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie - This is one of her classic Poirot mysteries and is, as usual, excellent. I like the hominess of Christie's mysteries. They're enjoyable without being graphic or violent and they're always a comfort read for me. Again, two thumbs up.

White Corridor by Christopher Fowler - Again another mystery (I like mysteries, have you guessed?). This is another of the PCU series which I quite enjoy. Again, they are homey type mysteries without the graphic details of modern crime novels. The PCU novels also have that little twist of the "supernatural" which I like. It's always interesting to see how Fowler works it out. Having said that, this wasn't my most favourite of the series. I found the parallel stories a bit disconcerting because it took him so long to connect them. Once they had been connected, I was happy with it again. I think that's just a matter of personal taste though and not a reflection of the writing.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin - I read this one because of the link to The Victoria Vanishes (another Christopher Fowler PCU book). It's a mystery set in Oxford in the 1940s. Like Spider's Web, it doesn't take itself too seriously and has a Wodehousian element to it. The bungling fool is led by the more serious professor and together they solve the mystery. Again, I liked this one. It's funny without being ridiculous and the twists and turns it takes are genius. Another two thumbs up.

Death's Jest-Book - Another one in Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe series. Hill uses another device I'm not overly fond of in this book. One of his characters is an apparently reformed arch-enemy, Fanny Root, of Pascoe who is constantly writing Pascoe letters. Pascoe sees the letters as sinister simply because of Root's history and is having trouble convincing others that Root is writing him solely to brag about crimes he has committed, but cannot be touched for. Root's letters irritate me with their bragging tone and the criminal's continual insistence that he's a reformed character, but I imagine that was the point. That would be the natural reaction to them, so the author achieved his intent. Parallel to this is the story of Rye Pamona who escaped a serial killer in the last book, or did she? As with White Corridor, this wasn't my favourite in the series, but worth a read anyway. One thumb up, but keep in mind that that's personal taste.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Middlemarch by George Eliot

This book took me a bit by surprise. I've tried many times to read The Mill on the Floss and failed, so I assumed that Middlemarch wouldn't really interest me either. However, I have to admit, I actually liked it, for the most part anyway.

While reading I kept thinking of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. It turned out not to be quite as Hardiesque as the beginning led me to believe, but Elliot does drop into the same long narrative style that Dickens quite often uses. My only real criticism of the book is that sometimes I felt like it could have used a good editor. These bits droned on a tad, but the audio format once again helped me not succumb to boredom and give up. I suppose you could add a similarity to Jane Austen too, but to tell of that would give the plot away.

Middlemarch basically boils down to a soap opera set in an English villiage in the later half of the 19th century. Who did what with whom and when and what happened as a result. Many times you could see that the characters were walking into a mistake, however, much of it turned out quite surprising in the end. Some of the events the reader finds himself hoping for turn out to be a mistake for one or more of the characters, while some things that seem foolish turn into positive experiences. This twists and turns of the plot keep the story interesting while forcing the reader to constantly reappraise his opinions of both the characters and their actions. All in all, I found it quite a good book.

Sunday, 12 April 2009


Stolen from Marireads

Hardback, trade paperback or mass market paperback?
Mass Market. Definitely. I loathe hardbacks because they are harder to hold and I like to read for a good stretch at a time and I don't like the format of the other paperbacks. Plus, I never throw books away, or give them away for that matter, so I have lots and it's easier on the bookshelves to have them in the same format.

Order online, at a chain bookstore, or at an independent bookstore?
All of the above. Anywhere I can get them cheap and easy.

Bookmark or dog-ear?
Bookmark or just remembering the page. I don't like to dog ear my books. I beat them up enough as it is.

Alphabetize by author, or alphabetize by title, or random?
Alphabetized by author.

Keep, throw away, or sell?
Keep. Never, or rarely get rid of a book.

Read with dust jacket or remove it?
Without. I hate dust jackets. They slide around too much.

Short story or novel?

Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket?
Do I really have to choose? I suppose HP, but it depends on my mood. I never like having to choose because it seems to me that choosing is too definite. If I didn't have the choice, the "best" would no longer be the best and it would get boring after a while.

“It was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”?
It was a dark and stormy. Much more atmosphere.

New or used?
Don't care as long as it's not dirty and is readable.

Buying choice: book reviews, recommendations, or browse?
Recommendations and browsing. I love Amazon's recommendations, although they've been getting a little flat lately. Besides, the blogging world generally provides me with enough fodder.

Tidy ending or cliffhanger?
Depends on how well the cliffhanger is done and how soon the next one is available.

Morning reading, afternoon reading, or nighttime reading?
Any time I feel like it. Sunday I read in the morning, but during the week more at night. Unless it's an audiobook and then just anytime I'm walking the dogs, cleaning or doing anything that doesn't require my full attention.

Stand-alone or series?
I'll take anything good.

Favorite series?
Harry Potter methinks, although the Septimus Heap books are in the running too, then there's Lemony Snicket and Kurt Wallender and the PD James, and the Elizabeth George books...I refuse to choose.

Favorite children’s book?
Um, yeah, HP or SH.

Favorite YA book?
I really couldn't say. Again, I don't like choosing and this one isn't necessarily my favourite genre.

Favorite book of which nobody else has heard?
Miss Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg I think, but it's hard to say what others have heard of.

Favorite books read last year?
Again with the fovourites! OK, Jane Eyre because I'd never read it before and was totally surprised at how great it was. I wanted to turn around and read it a second time.

Do you ever smell books?
Yes. I love the smell of books

What are you reading right now?
Middlemarch by George Elliot and The Ice House by Minette Walters

What are you reading next?
I won't decide until I get there. I like to choose according to my mood. Probably something lighter after Middlemarch.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

I chose this book for the Classics Challenge because it's one I've never been able to make myself finish and indeed, had I not been doing it for a challenge, I might never have finished it. I don't even have much to say about it other than I don't understand the popular appeal. It's ridiculous, nonsensical and just strange. I suppose it was meant to be and thus it fulfilled its purpose, and I also suppose it's the reason for its popularity. It just really didn't do anything for me. I don't quite understand the appeal of reading something that makes no sense at all. Even the humour escapes me on this one. Through the Looking Glass was a bit better than Alice in Wonderland, but not much. At least there seemed to be a sort of purpose behind it all instead of just being like a dream that randomly switches from one scene to another without really trying link the stories together. However, neither is something I'll ever read again.

Monday, 6 April 2009

I, Claudius

Do you like war, treachery, betrayal, plots and schemes, conspiracies and even a little (or maybe a lot) of murder? Yes? Well, then I, Claudius is the book for you.

The story is of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the Roman Empire (44BC to 41AD) is told from the perception of Claudius (the forth Emperor of Rome) who is born disabled and develops a stammer as he grows up. For these reasons, he is shunted off to the side by his family and makes the perfect observer of events as they unfold (his family's disregard of him is also one of the only reasons he survived, i.e. because no one thought him to be a threat to anyone's power). He tells the story of his power drunk grandmother Livia who basically uses her power, contacts and lack of conscious to plot, scheme and murder her way to more power and control of the Empire. None of her family, excepting "poor Claudius" is exempt from her scheming. She's entirely Machiavellian in her belief that the end more than justifies the means.

As the novel progresses, the reader's sympathies are turned and twisted along with the events. Very few of the characters seem to possess the kind of self-disinterested qualities that make them sympathetic to the reader. However, what eventually becomes quite apparent is that, as scheming as Livia is, she is actually the only force that holds the Empire on a stable, if immoral, course. She manages to keep factions from forming which would ultimately destroy the empire by tearing it apart. In the end, you don't really know whether to hate her or admire her. To say more would, again, give the plot away.

I, Claudius was an interesting and good read. I think I'd recommend it for anyone trying to get teenagers interested in history, and Roman history in particular. Not all of the story correlates with fact, but it does make history a lot more interesting than dry facts and would have done more to motivate me to read history than any history textbook or fear of getting a bad grade. All in all two thumbs up for this one.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Agents of Light and Darkness

Agents of Light and Darkness is an eclectic book and thus rather intriguing to my mind. It's part of a fantasy series full of vampires, ghosts, ghouls, gremlins and a few other creatures who don't belong to this world, but written like a crime novel in the style of Sam Spade/Phillip Marlowe. The main character, John Taylor, is part human, with a past he doesn't even know about, and has a special talent of "finding things" and thus works as a rather successful private eye with whom few are willing to tangle. The opening of the book finds him in Nightside, or the area of London where it's always 3am and the ghost, ghouls and goblins are always abroad. It's describes as a sort of "wrong side of the tracks" area that's gone bad, really bad. So bad that normal bad characters avoid it. John is commissioned to find the "Un-Holy Grail", or the cup from which Judas drank at the last supper, by a man claiming to be from the Vatican. He wants to find the cup and lock it away safely before anyone, good or evil, can get a hold of it and use its devastating powers. John agrees to take on the case even though he already suspects this may make him a target for just about every savoury and unsavory character within Nightside.

The combination of crime, fantasy and cheesy detective story makes for a good combination. John Taylor is a Phillip Marlowe who doesn't take himself, or the world he lives in, all too seriously which adds an element of tongue in cheek humour that keeps the book readable. I'm not a huge fan of The Maltese Falcon style, but this is just enough of other things to have kept me interested. I may even read other books out of the series at some point. I'll leave that open for now. I'd say one thumb up for this one.

Death of Dalziel

I rarely read the books upon which television series are based, unless I read the books prior to the TV series as with Elizabeth George's and P.D. Jame's books, but I fortunately recently made an exception to this. I read that the series and the books aren't quite parallel to each other so I purchased Reginald Hill's Death of Dalziel on the chance that the difference wouldn't bother me, especially as I've already seen the series and it can no longer disappoint me if the books were better. I didn't regret it. Death of Dalziel was a really good book. I love murder mysteries and crime and this one was right up my street. Of course, it's the same old team of Dalziel and Pascoe, so I was picturing Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan as the two detectives which might have biased my opinion since I like both of them. However, it was still just a good story.

I can't actually think of much more to say about it without giving the plot away, so I guess I'll just leave it there. Two thumbs up for this one though.

Has anyone out there read Minette Walter's latest book? I haven't read The Chameleon's Shadow because the book's description scares me a little. I'm not sure I want to read about hate. However, I have liked all of her other books and loved them, especially the earlier ones, and it seems a shame not to give this one a try. I'd love to know what you thought of it.