Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Return of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of 13 stories, the first of which tells the story of how Holmes, contrary to popular belief, survived his fall over the Reichenbach Falls and remained hidden for three years in order to protect himself and further foil the evil plans of Moriarty’s remaining gang. Holmes returns to reside with Watson, who has taken it upon himself to draft their exploits for publication in the future.

I quite liked this collection. The stories are short and sweet and less likely to lose you than the novels are. I’m tempted to dub it a children’s version of Sherlock Holmes since you don’t have to have a terribly long attention span to be able to enjoy them. Personally, I often found the novels long and complicated and often got lost in the twistings and turnings, which is actually the point I suppose. Sherlock was supposed to be the genius, not the reader, so you had to get lost to make him look good. However, with these, I was often able to keep up and see where he was going with his research before he got there and even guessed at what happened a couple of times. The only thing I didn’t like about these was that Watson was depicted as especially stupid. Obviously this was supposed to make Holmes look all the cleverer, but it really just made me think Watson was a complete idiot. It kind of made the two look like a Pinky and The Brain combo. I’m not sure that’s exactly what Doyle intended.

5 out of 5. If you like mysteries and Holmes, you should like these.

Monday, 18 January 2010

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

After having read and loved Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, I decided I’d read more of du Maurier. Thus, My Cousin Rachel. Once again, du Maurier managed to suck me into a story, despite having intimated the ending at the very beginning of the book. It felt a bit like it did when I was a child and had to know the end, so I started with the last 10 pages of the book and then went back and read the rest. However, instead of actually knowing more than I had before, I actually knew nothing at all about the book as the subsequent pages made clear.

Philip Ashley is the devoted cousin and heir of Ambrose Ashley. When Ambrose goes off to Italy for his health, Philip stays behind to hold the fort. While Ambrose is travelling, he meets, falls in love with and marries another cousin of theirs, Rachel. All seems well for a while, until Philip begins to receive strange letters from Ambrose, which lead him to believe that something is wrong, but are so vague as to make their meaning unclear. Shortly after these letters arrive, Ambrose dies and Philip inherits the estate. All seems over until one day, Rachel arrives in England.

Du Maurier weaves a web of intrigue and suspicion in this book. Is Rachel the kind, loving wife she would like everyone to believe or did she have more to do with Ambrose’s early demise than she’s admitting. Is Philip risking all by allowing her to stay? It’s all very cleverly written. By putting Ambrose’s sanity towards the end of his life in question, she leads the reader down a rocky path of suspicion, all the while dangling face value and innocent until proven guilty in the air. I probably changed my mind about 4 times while reading the book. Just as I was about to make my final decision, she threw something new in and I had to rethink everything. It’s very skilfully done. The woman is a master.

Having said that, I have to rant a bit about two things: The first are her stupid men who throw caution to the wind and chuck everything away regardless of the work generations before have put into what they now own and the second is that the ending of this book is maddening. Absolutely maddening. I don’t know whether to applaud her genius, or feel cheated. I suppose both really. It is genius, but it was terribly unexpected and didn’t give me what I want. After having put up with Philip for the whole novel, I felt like I was owed, but du Maurier obviously didn’t feel obligated to pay up. Bloody geniuses! Sheesh!

Good mystery and style, this one earns 4 out of 5. It missed out on 5 because I liked Rebecca better.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watkins

Google the title of this book and you’re hard pressed to come up with any results but the film from 2008 staring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. There was, however, a book before the film and although I haven’t actually seen the film (but will asap), I’m willing to bet the book is better.

What a fun book. Seriously, I don’t know why it isn’t more widely read. You can find it on Amazon (but nothing else by Winifred Watkins) and I’m sure there are libraries which carry it, but I’ve never run across it before. It should be taught in schools to give younger children a way into literature, because it’s really just fun.

Miss Pettigrew is a vicar’s daughter who grew up prim, proper and prudish. Now, at 40, she has no qualifications to speak of and no one to take care of her. Hitherto, she has supported herself as a governess of questionable abilities, but is finding it more and more difficult to obtain a post as she ages. She has one last chance to gain employment before she is kicked out of her rooms and lands on the streets of London. Scared to death of the future, she knocks on the door of the only suitable position available and finds herself transported into a completely unknown world. By combining her upbringing with her ability to imitate her former employers, she manages to find her way in this new setting with amazing, and sometimes unintentional, alacrity. The situation challenges Miss Pettigrew to throw off her strict, Victorian upbringing and enjoy life for a day before the opportunity is revoked forever. The results are laugh out loud funny. It’s the ultimate underdog story in which you can’t help but root and be thrilled for the unlikely heroine while laughing at her exploits.

Why, oh why couldn’t we have skipped something else (The Great Gatsby springs to mind) and read this in school? Why didn’t they let Winifred write more like it? It’s brilliant. Loved it. Would have loved it as a teenager too. There are enough themes to discuss for a good few classes, so it’s not entirely frivolous, although it feels like it. It’s a book that makes you want to read more of the same. If you’re looking for a book to get you motivated to read classics, this is it. It’s a comedy, a drama and a love story all rolled into one. 5 out of 5 for this one.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Search the Dark by Charles Todd

Inspector Rutledge of Scotland Yard is sent to a small town in Dorset to investigate the supposed murder of a mother and the subsequent disappearance of her two children, but there’s a catch. This particular mother and her children reportedly died, and were buried, during the war. The man being blamed for their death/disappearance is the father. So was he so desperate to see his family that he mistook someone else for them or were they really alive? Where are the children? Is the woman, whose face has been beaten so badly that she is unrecognizable, really the wife of the man blamed for her death? The local detective Hildebrandt says yes, but Rutledge is not so sure. Now he has to not only figure out what’s what on this case, but he has to fight the local constabulary to do so.

Being a fan of crime and mystery novels, I was fairly certain I would like this one and I did. I’m not going to rank him with writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James or Elizabeth George, however, especially as I’ve only read this one novel by Todd, but he tells a good tale. The characters are likeable, or not as the case may be, and the plot is clever and not at all transparent. My only real qualm is that Rutledge, an otherwise entirely sane man, if rather beaten up from the war, hosts the conscious of his old friend Hamish in his mind. Hamish seems to be a separate entity from Rutledge with his own thoughts and consciousness instead of functioning as Rutledge’s inner voice. It seems a little cheesy to me, but maybe I’ll get used to it when I’ve read more by Todd. It might do, however I personally think this is what’s keeping me from classifying him as a serious crime writer. It’s like he’s built Hamish in so he can keep himself from being compared to the major names in crime. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know, but for me, he’s a good writer, but not great.

Having said that, I don’t really believe that all writers need to be great. It’s wonderful to read a great book, but sometimes it’s just as nice to sit down and read a good, comfortable story. I don’t need to be riveted to every book I pick up. Being able to put it down, then looking forward to going back to at an appropriate time is a pleasure unto itself. Just knowing that you have something pleasant to return to is wonderful. So, even if I don’t class all the books I read as brilliant, or give them a 5 out of 5, I don’t see it as reflecting negatively on the writer. After all, it’s better to be consistently good than to be great just once in your life. In that sense, Todd’s 15 min. aren’t over.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

I broke a promise to myself with this book. I had sworn I wouldn’t read any more Hardy because he’s depressing and has a fairly narrow-minded view of life. Granted, he lived during the latter half of the 18th century when people were more religious so he probably didn’t really fall out of the ranks, but I got a little tired of being preached at by him. So, why, you ask did I read this one? Well, it was all down to the narrator, Alan Rickman. I could listen to the man read me the phone book.

Do I regret it? No, for two reasons. The first is that I got to listen to Alan Rickman speak into my ear for something like 14 hours, always a plus, the second is that the story was quite good and a lot less of a moral diatribe than his others have been. OK, the characters are still hung up on what would seem right and proper, but it felt more like a story told in the set time than a Bildungsroman. The characters who suffered did so through their own stupidity and not because they were being punished for being amoral.

The book revolves around 4 young people. Clym Yeobright, his cousin Thomasin, Eustacia Vye and Damon Wildeve. Thomasin Yeobright is “jilted” at the alter by Damon Wildeve because of a technical problem with the licence. Damon, who is actually in love with Eustacia, with whom he had a love affair the year before, isn’t overly keen on marrying Thomasin and leaves her in a state of limbo for several weeks while he tries to persuade Eustacia to run away to America with him. Thomasin, in the meantime, realizes that her relationship with Wildeve was a mistake, but that she has no honourable way of reneging on the marriage without besmirching her name and sanguinely maintains she must now go through with it and make the best of the situation. Enter Clym who returns from Paris where he had a successful business, which he has given up in preference for a scheme to educate the heath folk’s children. His arrival on the Heath changes everything for all parties as decisions are made which affect the whole community.

According to Wiki, Hardy shocked Victorian England with his more or less open references to illicit sex. He also bowed to the public by adding on a happier ending than he originally intended to. Personally, had he stuck to his usual doom and gloom, I think this novel would never have become as popular as it did.

Hardy had actually wanted to become a poet and not a writer, but his prose was better than his poetry and the man had to make a living, ergo his novels. There were love scenes in this book which made it abundantly clear, or at least strongly hint at, why he never really succeeded as a poet. If his poetry was anything like his novels, the love scenes were sickly sweet to the point of being an emetic (even with, or perhaps because of, Alan Rickman reading them), but then tempered with a good dose of morality. It felt a bit like saying Love is Sweet and Wonderful, but only if conducted in a properly monitored setting with appropriate chaperones and in full light of day.

Finally, having said that I don’t like Hardy’s preachy style, you could actually look at his books, not as a lesson in morals, but as a lesson in not fixating on the acceptable. The morals of the time dictated that Thomasin must marry Wildeve to save face, but had she bucked the trend, a lot of trouble and heartache would have been saved. So in a sense, his books could be looked on as a plea for common sense mingled with morals, even if that’s not what he intended.

All in all, I liked this one and would read it, or listen to it again. If you’re looking for an introduction to Hardy, try this one. It is the best I’ve read by him by far. For the record, Tess of the D’Urbervilles was good, but terribly depressing.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Foot-the-Ball. It’s an ancient and ritualistic sport played by the lower classes in Ankh-Morpork. The teams are just as entrenched, the fans as fanatical and the hooligans as bad as in real life. Vetirnari, Ankh-Morpork’s patrician, who of course has nothing to do with reminding the Wizards at Unseen University that they must be seen to play the sport once every so often in order to retain their major grant, would like to see the sport cleaned up. He also has nothing to do with the appearance of the mysterious Mr. Nutt, a funny little man who is extremely anti-social but very intelligent. No, nothing at all.

When the wizards realize that they must participate in Foot-the-Ball, they become intent on changing the game for the better (which Vetirnari had nothing to do with), but will the masses accept their changes or will mass pandemonium break out? And what does the unassuming Mr. Nutt have to do with it? Hmmmm…..

Terry Pratchett is one of my all-time favourite authors. His books are clever and entertaining; his latest bent on examining football (soccer) and making fun of it, and its fans, in every possible way. I’ll admit that not everyone likes Pratchett and he does have his own special brand of humour. You also have to know what he’s on about in order to understand his wit (not knowing what the Scone of Stone (or the stone of scone) in The Fifth Elephant was a real hindrance to getting the jokes), so if you don’t know anything about football and the football scene, you might not get this one. Having said that, I’m neither a fan nor do I follow much of what’s going on and I still found it quite amusing, or maybe it’s because I’m not a fan that I found it amusing. That one could go either way on this book. The point being that just having watched the news and observing my co-workers whose eyes glaze over at the sight of a football gave me enough insight to find the book hilarious.

I’ll also add that you have to have a huge dollop of silly in your makeup to enjoy his books. The wizards are silly. Really silly.

So, if you’re a Pratchett fan, this is another good one. I hope that he is able and willing to bless us with more of his work in the future. Go Pratchett.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Dead Tomorrow by Peter James

Dead Tomorrow, another in the Roy Grace series, was intended to be another one of my good reads in Dec., but it turned out to be an almost harrowing read. Good, but harrowing.

Grace is called upon to investigate the death of a young man sucked up by a dredger off the coast of Brighton who appears to have had all his internal organs before being sewn back up and dumped in the ocean. At first, Grace has little to go on and the investigation doesn’t look like it will really take off, but James cleverly sucks the reader in by paralleling Grace’s search with the stories of several other people, one a man with a motorcycle, one a girl with chronic liver disease, and another of children living on the street in Bucharest. As Grace begins to make the connection between each of their lives, he discovers that evil is alive and well in the hearts of men.

Even though it’s fairly clear from an early stage where James is taking the story, the book sucks you in as you see each person’s standpoint and feel with them as they search for the right path to take. There were times while reading the book that I wanted to yell at the characters to just stop and think about what they were doing. It seemed amazing to me that they couldn’t see the danger they were in, but that too is a part of what makes the book such a good read. The people who find themselves in these situations are either desperate or have no access to vital information, or both and it’s easy to forget that when you live in a warm, comfortable world where more or less everything is all right.

The most shocking thing about the story is that it’s not beyond the realm of belief. I can thoroughly imagine the scenario taking place in the real world since man is so adroit at the justification of evil deeds in the search to fulfil his own wants. Also, if we place ourselves in these people’s positions and ask to what lengths we would go to given the ability or desire that drives James’ characters, can we honestly say we would behave differently than they, or do we really understand them, even if we know their actions to be wrong? How evil does this understanding make us? Does evil begin with the action or in the understanding of the action? Is the understanding and compassion we feel for and with the characters cancelled out by not taking the path of wrong or is it still there just waiting to surface in a situation where we no longer have the power or will to counter it?

These questions make no sense really unless you’ve read the book, but they are things I’ve thought about since reading it, which means this book fulfils one of my criteria for being called and excellent book. You can’t just put it down and forget about it. You find yourself thinking about the dilemmas days later even though you know how the story ends. Therefore, this one gets 5 out of 5 from me.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

A Christmas Carol

This is actually a repeat of my post for last year. I can't really think of anything to add to it (well, I could, but it would probably really start to bore people because I tend to get a little excited about the book), or change, so I'm just re-posting. Bit of a cheat really, but at least I'm owning it.

What can I say? It’s one of my all-time favourite books and I read it every year at Christmas time. It’s a little on the kitschy side with Scrooge’s utter reversal of characters, but it’s cheery and Christmassy and it’s nice to think that there was a happy ending for all. I found out just this year that this work was responsible for a Christmas revival in England. Apparently many Christmas traditions had been dying out and the season was becoming a rather dreary one, but Scrooge helped turn it around and make Christmas a festive season again. It’s fantastic that one book, one written to pay off debts no less, is responsible for doing so much.

One aspect I like about the story is that it shows not only what Scrooge has become, but what he once was as well. When introduced to people and characters with negative attitudes or mean dispositions, we often assume this is the way they have always been. It’s like imagining that your mother was once young and careless, which seems so impossible when she’s become the complete opposite in the meantime. Scrooge was once a happy person who knew how to laugh and celebrate. He became, or let himself become, what he was as a result of his experiences and disappointments in life and not because he was born dour and mean. It’s a warning to us all not to let ourselves become our own enemies. Fred has it right when he says that Scrooge is the one suffering for all his misery and not the people around him. Looked upon in that light, Scrooge could be considered to be damned twice over, once in life and once after death.

Of course, you could argue that had Scrooge never known what it was like to be happy and make others happy, his “cure” would never have worked. It was all more of a revival of his old self than the creation of a new man. Again, this ties in with the revival of the Christmas spirit in the time. It was once and just needed to be revived.

Finally, I think this book must say quite a bit about its author. Dickens was apparently quite an odd man and possibly not as moral as he should have been, but he must have been an intrinsically good, compassionate human being to have been able to write a book out of which so much good came.

An easy and enjoyable read for all ages. Love it.

Friday, 8 January 2010

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pile

Robin Hood is one of those “historical” characters who have managed to fascinate us to the point where multiple movies and television shows have been quite successful over the years. Everyone loves a good tale about Robin Hood. Since he really isn’t an historical figure in the sense that Merlin and Author aren’t really real, I began to wonder where all the tales came from. After all, Kevin Costner’s and Disney’s versions are quite different, so which is closest to the original? I’m not actually sure I have an answer to either after having read this book, but at least I know on what the characters and stories are based.

According to Wiki (, Pyle took the narrated stories and put them into a coherent tale (published 1883) which later became the basis for most of the Robin Hood material which has since reached the market. Indeed, as you read along, all of the usual characters make their appearance although not necessarily as you would expect them to.

The book is made up of many different short stories which tell how Robin became Robin Hood, why he is an outlaw, who the other characters are and why they joined him, plus recounts how Robin caused much gnashing of teeth and raising of bounties. If I had read this as a child, I probably would have been thoroughly enchanted with it, especially as I was quite the tom-boy. I can’t imagine any little boy who wouldn’t want to read it. It’s the typical swashbuckling good guy wins over bad guy story which I could imagine inspiring us to many a play adventure as kids – right up there with Peter Pan and his lost boys. Having read it as an adult, I was less enchanted with it, but it was good to read it anyway. Finally I know where it all came from and can see the connections between many of the stories. It was interesting from that standpoint in any case.

Can I recommend it? I can’t really answer that outright. If you’re a child, or interested in origins, or are young at heart and like children’s stories, yes. If you don’t care for swashbucklers in any way shape or form, then spare yourself.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Hello Again

Well, what can I say, it’s been a while. Although I knew I wouldn’t be around as much as usual, I didn’t actually mean to completely disappear. However, work and life got in the way in big measure and I sort of fell out of the habit of blogging. Even if no one ever reads this, I’d still like to continue with my blog because it’s good to do more than just consume books. Thinking about them and putting your thoughts into writing is just as good an exercise as reading.

2009 – All of the books I read last year on listed on the left hand side of my blog, so I won’t list them again. It totals 140, unless you count that I read A Christmas Carol (one of my all-time favourites) 4 times during December and then it’s 144. My goal had been to make it a round 150, but like I said, work and life (and listening to Christmas music) got in the way a bit, so I didn’t reach it. Maybe this year, although I think 140 is really a good number and I don’t think I’ll stress myself about reading even more. As long as I hit the 100 mark, I’ll be happy (I’m a little Hermione-ish at the best of times).

There are a few I still haven’t reviewed and I plan to get to them as soon as possible. I’m going to start off with a collective post of the fluffier reads, of which there were a few. They aren’t deep books, so there’s not much point in discussing them to death, but I can tell you which I liked and which I didn’t.

The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell – I really like Mankell, his characters and his style of writing, but this one won’t make it on my lists of favourites. Not that it isn’t a good story, but the setting was dark and grim, which made it not a fun place to be. Kurt Wallander is called to Riga to investigate the death of a Latvian detective who had recently visited Sweden. The story was set in a time when the Cold War and the Iron Curtain still cast their shadow on the whole country. Wallander gets caught up in a dangerous game of espionage to which he is not accustomed. It made the book read more like a Cold War spy novel than a modern day crime novel, so if you don’t care for the spy genre, as I don’t, you won’t be enamoured with this particular book in the series. Still, the story was decent and kept me interested despite the dark feel to the book, so if you like Wallander, give it a try.

The Babes in the Woods by Ruth Rendell – Another in the Wexford series, this is comfortable crime/detective novel. Not brilliant in itself, but a good read and quite up to Rendell’s usual standard. Crime Fluff I suppose you can call it. I love reading books like this because they are engaging, yet undemanding and are perfect for a Sunday spent under the duvet just enjoying a good story. If you like the genre, and especially if you like Rendell, this is a good one which I can recommend.

Bone of Contention by Roberta Gellis – This is the first of the Magdalene la Bâtarde Mysteries which I personally like very much. Magdalene is a whoremistress in the 10th century who finds herself forced to search for a murderer in order to clear the name of one of her girls and protect her own “good” reputation. Again, it’s fluff, but a good story and a pleasant read. I feel compelled to mention that if you object to every form and notion of prostitution, this is not the book for you as the heroine is a whoremistress who looks on her job with a very practical eye and even the church turns a blind eye to her ways for the same practical reasons. Should you be very religious, you might find the series upsetting, so just don’t go there. However, if you don’t take too a narrow view, can suspend disbelief and look on it just as a story, it’s a good read.

The Hermit of Eyeton Forest by Ellis Peters – Yet another fluff book. I was big on them in late Nov. and Dec. This is another of the popular Brother Cadfael series. Cadfael is a Welsh monk who only became a monk in later life and therefore has a better insight into real life than many of his brethren. His experiences and compassion lead him to help people and discover the truths behind crimes which would otherwise indict the wrong people. Personally, I can imagine that these make better TV shows than books, but they’re a quick and undemanding read. Having said that, I thought this one was one of the better ones out of those I have read. It’s characters were more personable and therefore the book was more interesting. There were also a couple of plot twists I didn’t really see coming too far in advance, so all in all, not bad, but not great either.

That’s all for today. I’ll get back to the rest as soon as possible.