Friday, 30 April 2010

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is the second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy. It’s a YA book, but I know several adults who have read and liked The Hunger Games, so it really seems to be teenager and up.

There are 12 districts and one Capital in post-apocalyptic, but feudalistic, Panem. The Capital functions as something of a feudalistic overload which “protects” the districts and in return, the Districts provide for the Capital. The catch is that the Capital is really just using the Districts to provide food and fuel for their hedonistic lifestyle while the people of the Districts suffer starvation and deprivation. Needless to say, the Districts tend to be unhappy with this arrangement, while those in the Capital give no thought to those in the Districts at all. In order to prevent uprisings, the Districts are all fenced in with electrical fences and life is strictly controlled. 75 years earlier, one District, number 13, decided to revolt and was subsequently raised by the Capital as punishment and as a lesson to all of the other Districts. As a reminder of what would happen should they choose to revolt again, the Capital instigated The Hunger Games for which each of the Districts must provide one male and one female teenager each year. Those chosen are sent to the Capital and entered in The Hunger Games during which they fight to the death. The Capital’s residents all find this hugely entertaining while the Districts are all forced to watch their children die until only one, the victor, is left.

Katniss Everdeen is a survivor of the 74th Hunger Games, only there was a twist; her District partner Peeta, also survived because Katniss manipulated the Games to ensure he was not killed. This tactic is taken as a form of revolt by the Capital, especially as it does indeed turn out to instigate revolts within the Districts. Panem’s president, President Snow, sees Katniss as a personification and personal motivator for the uprising, thus he begins to target her believing that if he can crush her, he can restore total power to the Capital. Her only chance to save herself, her friends and her family is to prove to him that she is truly, deeply in love with Peeta and that this was her only motivation for saving his life.

I liked this book. I must have since it only took me two days to finish it. It’s a good yarn and an entertaining, undemanding read. I will say that the heroine, Katniss, occasionally annoyed me to distraction. What I saw as a healthy dose of humility crossed with naïveté in the first book rapidly turned to simple blindness and stupidity in this one. Her character didn’t seem to develop at all, even though a whole year passes in the book. It made me want to slap her and tell her to wake up and smell the double espresso for heaven’s sake. It’s just not that possible to miss so much of what’s going on around you unless you’re either self-centred or possess the IQ of a kumquat. The romance was unconvincing and sugary sweet and there is also a bit of plot repetition which bothered some people, but I thought Collins got away with that rather well.

Although the actual premise of the Hunger Games is better, it reminds me a bit of the Twilight series (good teenage vampires? Honestly, how daft does that sound?) which was a riveting read, even though you knew it was really just asinine the whole time you were reading it. Still, it gets a 4 out of 5 for keeping my attention so well despite the heroin

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

This is a collection of 12 short adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The narrator is the iconic Dr. Watson who plays assistant to Holmes during his investigations. According to the doctor, he made notes of the cases at the time and only wrote them up after enough time has passed to prevent anything revealed in the telling of the tales from harming innocent people.

What I think is most interesting about these mysteries is contemplating them from the viewpoint of someone reading them at the end of the 19th century. As a modern reader, it’s very easy to think that much of it is just a matter of forensics, which it really is nowadays. However, for those living back then, it must have all seemed quite fantastic and ingenious. Don’t get me wrong, there are elements, which are still quite brilliant today. Some of his deductions and reasoning is nothing short of genius. However, quite a lot of the magic is dispelled when viewed from a modern standpoint.

The question is, do we really want to dispel the magic? I think the answer to this is fairly universally No. Why dispel the enchantment when there’s so much more to be had from suspending disbelief and thoughts of modern day forensics which destroy the romanticism of the age when it’s much more fun to pretend you’re watching the story unfold with no knowledge whatsoever? That’s the point and the relevance of Sherlock Holmes today, in my opinion. He’s there as a mark of progress and genius of the past. After all, was Einstein any less of a genius because much of his work has progressed passed his own developments? Each successive generation always builds on the past generation and without that past, there would be no future. Ergo, Homes and his tales will always be relevant, even if we do find his methods a bit antiquated.

The only criticism I have is that Doyle does paint Watson as an idiot. “Elementary, dear Watson” isn’t just a saying, it is a fact. He misses quite a lot of elementary elements and simply winds up looking like a fool much of the time. I know Doyle did this on purpose to form a contrast with Holmes and make his deductions seem all the more wondrous, but he very nearly overdid it and wound up with an absurd and incredible sidekick.

I enjoyed reading (or listening to) the stories and they get a 5 out of 5 from me.

Classics Challenge 2010
Marple, Poirot, Holmes Challenge
Typically British

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

John Harmon is a young man who was sent away in anger to school abroad. He remains estranged from his father and only returns to England upon his father’s death. According to the will, he will only receive his inheritance if he marries Miss Bella Wilfer as his father stipulated. Unfortunately for him, he goes missing on the journey home and is found drown later in the Thames. A mysterious man, Julius Handford, claiming to be a friend of John Harmon, arrives to help indentify the body and then promptly disappears.

Since John is dead, the money then goes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, old employees. They are a kind, friendly, jovial, but naïve couple who accept the inheritance and share it freely with others in need. Shortly afterwards, John Rokesmith contrives to meet Mr. Boffin and secure a position as his personal secretary and assistant. Mr. Boffin accepts the offer and Mr. Rokesmith is hired. At the same time, Mr. Boffin asks Miss Wilfer to come and live with them as compensation for the loss of her fiancée and therefore of all her prospects. However, as time goes on, the money goes to Mr. Boffin’s head, and he begins to turn into a miser.

There’s also a subplot revolving around the daughter of the waterman who brings John Harmon home. Lizie Hexam realizes that her brother is worthy of a much better life than he is destined for should he remain with his father, so she arranges to send him off to school before his father can stop her. She later becomes entangled in a love triangle with her brother’s headmaster and Eugene Wrayburn, a friend of the lawyer who in charge of the Boffin inheritance.

That’s the basic set up of the novel, but it is, in reality, quite a bit more complicated. There are a myriad of people who come and go in different settings, giving the reader a good idea of what life in the different social spheres is like. The upper class is incensed at the rise of such uneducated, unrefined people like Mr. and Mrs. Boffin and spurns them, while several of the lower class plot and scheme to somehow loosen Mr. Boffin’s hold on his money. As a woman, Lizzie Hexam finds herself fighting for her freedom as the two men wrangle over her affections. Most of the plots deal with money and how it affects the lives of the people in the different social stratospheres. There are also, as in all of Dickens’ works, glimpses of social ailments and injustices which need attention. Without ever directly saying as much, he demonstrates why and how society needs to be changed for the better and also how kindness can be its own reward.

Again, it’s a very verbose novel (which of Dickens’ isn’t?), but it’s really one of his best. The plot is complicated, but it’s ingeniously crafted so that all of the elements somehow fit together to create the whole story. The only criticism I have is that some of the characters’ actions can seem a bit forced. Dickens’ does work with larger than life characters, but it occasionally doesn’t seem to work. Some are too good and some go bad without real impetus. However, for the most part, they are good, solid characters, so with a little willing suspension of disbelief, you can easily ignore the failings.

All in all, it’s a great book and well deserved of a 5 out of 5.

Classics Challenge 2010
Typically British

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Ivan Ilych lived a good life. He lived the kind of life most people think they would have loved to have. The question is, was it really as good as it looked or was it like a pretty cake that tasted like cardboard? Ivan grew up climbing the social ladder almost before he could climb out of his crib. His education, social life and family life all centred on moving up and earning more, to cover that debt one ran up from spending just a little more than one earned. He considers himself quite happy, excepting a little marital discomfort and occasional problems with his children. However, he manages to focus his attention on the positive things in his life, like promotion, pay raises and social status and with that life little discomforts fade into the background. Then one day, Ivan hits his side while redecorating his newly purchased house, which goes with his promotion, and subsequently falls ill several weeks later. Although it is unclear exactly what is wrong with him, everyone knows that Ivan is dying.

Unable to do anything for many weeks on end, but lay on his couch dying a slow and painful death, Ivan has lots of time to reflect on his life and whether it was really all it was cracked up to be. He begins to regret his lack of a happy family life and to see his family members in a new light, and in turn, sees that his social climbing was really quite different and less rewarding than he had told himself it was. He spent much of his life fooling himself and now feels he must atone for this in death.

Fortunately, this is more of a short story than a full blown novel. Had it been longer, it might have become quite depressing and very tedious. It’s a good length for the subject matter and I found it to be surprisingly good and slightly less depressing than I had assumed it would be. It feels almost like a voyeuristic novel in as much as you are privy to Ivan’s thoughts as well as his actions. It’s like watching someone think while he lives his life, which allows the reader to see that what Ivan sees doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.

I’m not sure how accurately I can review this book. I have a feeling that in order to figure out what Tolstoy wanted to say, you need to know more about him and his works. So, in a bid to get a little more information, I looked the book up in Wikipedia and found this:

“In his lectures on Russian Literature Russian-born novelist and critic Vladimir Nabokov argues that, for Tolstoy, a sinful life (such as Ivan's) is moral death. Therefore death, the return of the soul to God is, for Tolstoy, moral life. To quote Nabokov: "The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since the bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God's living light, then Ivan died into a new life- Life with a capital” (

With the knowledge, or lack thereof, I have of Tolstoy, I think Nobokov’s take seems pretty accurate, at least as an interpretive reflection of the work. Ivan was saved through his slow and painful death as he had time to reflect and regret his life. It was as if he went through Purgatory prior to death and came out triumphant. It does leave me wondering, however, what Tolstoy’s take on Ivan’s life would have been had he bypassed Purgatory by slow death by dying a quick and painless death. What would that mean for Tolstoy? Would Ivan’s life have been just worthless? That would, in an extended sense, mean that society as a whole is fairly worthless and that basically we are all just spinning out wheels unless we strive for a higher goal of living a morally meaningful life. Thus, the story can be seen not only as a criticism of one man’s life, but of a whole society of Ivan Ilychs as well.

One final thought, even though The Death of Ivan Ilych was written well over a hundred years ago, it could have been written last week without losing any relevance at all. Society as a whole still functions pretty much the same and many still live their lives climbing the social ladder. I wonder if Tolstoy would be shocked to see what has become of us, or rather how static people have remained despite the changes over the last century.

Challenges: Classics Challenge 2010

Monday, 26 April 2010

Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

This is the third book in the Inheritance Cycle. It was supposed to be the last of a trilogy, but, to the joy of fans everywhere, Paolini wasn’t able to finish the story in just three books. It’s basically the continuation of Eragon the Dragon Rider’s story as he, together with the Varden, the Elves and the Dwarves, tries to end Galbatorix’s reign over Algaësia. War is breaking out all over the country and the armies fight the ground battles. Eragon is torn between joining in these battles, fulfilling the oaths he has made on both a personal and political level and continuing his training with the elves as he promised he would. He must try and learn to balance what he can or otherwise decide which is the least of all evils and concentrate on that particular goal for the time being. It is, in effect, a story about his personal development as he learns to become a man and make a man’s decisions, as hard as they may be.

Brisingr capitalizes on the motion Eldest has already created and is already in full swing before you start the book. So unlike in Eldest, there was no drag to it and it took off right away. It pretty much keeps up the pace for the entire length of the book, although there are some more contemplative moments when Eragon begins to realize that he cannot please all of the people all of the time and that he will have to make unpopular decisions. All of the characters make huge learning leaps during this novel. It’s as if many of them grow up and really begin to learn what it is to fight a war. I did think that Nasuada made a few poor decisions, but overall, she has begun to grasp her leadership and accept that although she makes mistakes, she’s headed in the right direction generally. Roran is possibly the only character not to really make any personal advancement. He still just keeps his head down and rushes forward while hoping his skills and intuition will keep him alive. There are other story lines I will reserve judgement on since it’s not quite clear where Paolini intends to take them.

All in all I found this one slightly less riveting than the last half of Eldest, although I couldn’t tell you why. I may have just OD’d on the Cycle and had enough of that genre for the time being. Regardless, it was still a good yarn and a good vacation read. 4 out of 5.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Eldest by Christopher Paolini

Eldest is the second in The Inheritance Cycle (Eragon, Eldest and Brisingr) by Christopher Paolini. I suppose I should have started with Eragon, but I’d seen the movie and considered that if I was going to spend that amount of money on a book (English books cost a fortune in the stores here, which is why Amazon practically owns my soul), I wanted it to be something totally new. If I hadn’t actually been in the store, I would have ordered Eragon. As it was, I was there, they didn’t have much selection, but leaving a bookstore without a book is pretty much an anathema. If I am broke, I just don’t go in. I often just try and avoid them altogether as they really are bad for the pocket book.

Soooo, Eldest. Eldest is the continuation of Eragon’s story after the destruction of Durza and the rescue of Arya. This volume also takes up the story of the village Eragon left behind, Carvahall, and his cousin Roran, who returns to pick up the pieces of life after Eragon leaves. This might not have been so traumatic had Galbatorix, the Sauron of the series so to speak, not sent his Ra’zac to capture Roran to use as leverage against Eragon. Roran must fight the Ra’zac and lead the villagers to safety.

I won’t go into the plot any further for two reasons: primarily because I don’t want to give anything away and secondarily because it’s so complicated that it would take ages to go into properly, and then you might as well read the book. I will say that the story is very complex and involved, often with several intertwined story lines running at once. Every action causes a different reaction in each of the tales, all of which are striving to reach the same goal, that of toppling Galbatorix from power, preferably in a very permanent manner. Perhaps the complexity is why it took me so long to get into this book. It didn’t grab me like I thought it would and I spent at least a month on the first half alone. By this point I was glad I hadn’t purchased Eragon and wasn’t planning on finishing the series at all. However, the second half of the book is a whole different ball of wax. The multiple story line format weighs the story as a whole down, meaning it takes a long time for it to get moving. It’s a bit like a long, heavy cargo train; once the story drags all of the parts into motion and it gains a little momentum, it pretty much rolls its way over everything. I found myself fascinated by the second half, couldn’t put it down and in consequence it took me no time at all to finish it. It was so good, that I even made the effort to go out and buy Brisingr (in one of our twice as expensive as Amazon stores) so I could continue reading during my vacation (now you know why I wasn’t blogging) so Eldest turned out to be a very good book indeed. Good enough that I will eventually buy Eragon and read it, even if I no longer really need to.

There is a lot of criticism that it leans heavily on The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, and yes, there are a lot of parallels which would be obvious to anyone familiar with those works. This doesn’t particularly bother me much though since the setting is good and the characters are strong and individual enough to keep them from being boring. Eragon, for instance, is neither a whiney Luke Skywalker (son of the Master Whinger) nor a quiet and pacifistic Frodo. He knows and accepts both his limitations and that he must learn before he can control power enough to be trusted with it. So yes, the parallels are obvious, but not detrimental in my opinion. Besides, if we were to condemn every story which contains some of the same elements as previous books, we’d have very little new material to read since even the newest ideas build on what came before.

This one gets 4 out of 5 because of the slow start.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman

Cale has never known anything but the life of penury and punishment within the Sanctuary. His tormentors are the Redeemers, something akin to fanatical monks, who run the Sanctuary like a religious prison where the slightest infraction of the rules results in public torture and death. Their imagination knows no bounds when it comes to inventing new ways of humiliation and pain, thus the Sanctuary more closely resembles a sadistic haven rather than a monastery. Most of the training the boys receive is of a military nature riddled with religious doctrine so that when they come of age, they can join the war. Escape is nearly impossible because the Sanctuary is situated in the middle of the Scablands where there is nowhere to hide from the Redeemers bloodhounds. Those who try are made an example of by methods such as roasting them alive to purify their souls before they die.

Cale is a canny boy who knows how to get by in the Sanctuary, and besides, why would he run away when he has nowhere and no one to run to? His situation changes abruptly one evening when he is sent to the Lord of Discipline with what is surely a order for his punishment. All Cale can think about on his way there is what they will do to him and if it will result in his death. All such thoughts flee his mind, however, the moment he enters the room to discover the Lord of Discipline carrying out dissections on two live girls. In a fit of vengeance, Cale kills the Redeemer and must either run or be killed himself. Knowing that his chances are slim to none, Cale flees in the hope he can outrun those who will surely kill him. What he doesn’t know, is how desperately the Redeemers want him back and why.

I bought this book on a whim and having read it, I’m of two minds as to whether I’m glad I did. On the one hand, it was riveting and I had difficulty putting it down. The story grabs you from the beginning, especially as it is easy to relate to and sympathize with the boys in the Sanctuary. You feel their despair and hope as the story continues. The integration of Religion into a semi-fantasy, semi-post apocalyptic world (this is not defined in any definite manner) is well done and serves to create more interest in Cale’s world as a whole.

On the other hand, there are a lot of poor elements in this book, such as sub-plots and foreshadowing that appear once, but are never returned to, cheesy, plastic romance which is thankfully kept to a minimum, and an ending that leaves you flat, especially as it leaves so much open. It cries out that it’s the first book in a series, but there is no mention that there will be one, so you don’t really know if the ending is just lame or if you must just wait for the next instalment. In the meantime I’ve googled and it is apparently going to be a trilogy, but it would have been nice if they had mentioned that at the end of this book instead of just leaving you hanging. Finally, I have to mention that the last third or so of the book necessarily revolves around military tactics and leaves the character development behind. Since I have no interest in military strategy, my attention flagged here, but I kept at it in the hope that the ending would be worth slogging through the battle plans. Perhaps this is why I felt so disappointed at the abrupt and rather odd ending.

It’s difficult to give this one a rating since it was fascinating on the one hand and horrible on the other (kind of like the Twilight books). I’d give it a 4 out of 5 for grabbing my attention in the beginning, but a 2 for being so poorly executed as a whole. So, either take your pick of the two, or average it out to be a 3 out of 5, as you will. Very decisive, yes?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

the Meme-y Meme

I borrowed this meme from Dog Ear Diary who borrowed it from C.B. James. Let me preface this by saying I haven’t yet read the Farm Lane Books comparison between UK and USA blogs so I missed the whole American blog blowup. I’d never actually thought about it much either. This is probably because I never really associate blogs with where the people are, but who they are and whether I find what they write interesting or not. My blog is relatively simplistic and uncluttered. What this says about me I don’t know. I just know I don’t necessarily care for blogs with lots of blinking and flashing of buttons and ads, so I don’t add them to mine. I also don’t parade my private life on the web much, which some people may not like, but I just don’t consider it interesting, or public, enough to waffle on about to anyone who happens to pass by. I know people who have gotten in trouble by doing that, so I avoid it if I can. That’s part of the reason I don’t often do memes, because many of them can become rather personal. It may be boring, but it keeps me out of trouble.
Now, on to the meme…

Do you participate in memes?
Rarely, for the reasons mentioned above. I like really good memes, but I don’t just do them to have something to do. I don’t have enough time for that. This particular one is on a subject I think we should all think more about.

Do you participate in Book Tours? What about ARCS?
I’ve never done a book tour or received and ARC. I probably never will since many seem to be limited to residents of the US, which I am not. I wouldn’t mind reading a few ARCs and blogging about them though. It might help widen my world when it comes to genres I prefer to read.

Do you encourage followers? Do you follow?
Not really. I work on the principle that if I want to read someone’s blog, I bookmark them and then go to their blog when I have time. I read many more blogs than I comment on, although I do comment as often as I have time to, so that might not even be considered following. Respectively, I assume that since my blog is public and anyone who wants to read it can, they will return and read more if they so desire. Not that it hurts to know you have readers.

What do you think of giveaways and other contests?
Contests and giveaways are great for those who can participate and I have nothing against them. Again, since I’m not in the US, many contests aren’t open to me anyway. I don’t hold them myself because our post office requires a huge fee and 6 pints of blood before they will send a letter. The rates go up for packages, usually requiring a small limb or two. I don’t have that many appendages.

Do you read and/or conduct author interviews?
I occasionally read them, but I’ve never interviewed an author. I don’t think I’d be particularly good at it either.

Do you enjoy challenges?
Yes, but only if I’m really interested in the subject/author. I love the Classics Challenge, for example, because I’ve made it a personal goal to read as many as I can just to improve my general education. A lot of the ones I’m taking part in right now will take care of themselves and so aren’t really a challenge to me. E.g. the Classics Challenge will cover the Typically British challenge and the Marple, Poirot, Holmes challenge. The Christie Challenge will motivate me to read more of the Christie books, which I didn’t actually plan on, so it’s more of challenge to me, as is the 100+ Challenge (read 100+ books in a year). I want to read at least 100, if not 150, although the later probably won’t happen. So yes, I do enjoy them as long as they don’t try and get me to spend time on things I would rather not. It is, after all, my fun time I’m spending here!

Do you like giving/getting awards?
Yes, I do (to both). I think they are a great way of saying, Hey! I really like your blog.

What is your opinion of cat videos?
If they’re funny, then great, otherwise I’m not forced to watch them, so I hit the stop button. I’m not sure why this question is limited to cat videos since there are thousands of types of videos that fit into the “Why would anyone but the people involved want to watch this?” category. Just because I find my dog and her new friend from next door adorable, doesn’t mean the rest of the world wants to watch them. I’d personally never post a video, or even a picture, unless there was just that something special about it that I thought might amuse other people. I have posted pictures of my animals, but not many and not often. Just occasionally to add some variety.

I think with any blog it’s all about balance. I can ignore memes, challenges, videos, interviews, well, basically anything I want when reading a blog. It’s only when a blog becomes top-heavy with “filler material” or too busy that I stop reading it. There are some blogs I read, where it became difficult to sort the real, “yes I did actually read this book and here are my opinions on it”, posts from the daily memes etc. and I quit reading them. I also, as mentioned above, find the incessant blinking and changing of multiple icons, ads, gadgets etc. annoying. When I click on a blog, and my eyes are drawn to the sides rather than to the middle where the meat should be, I usually just click off again because I don’t have the time to search for what I really want to read.

Ignore at will - Just to add some variety and because I personally thought it was funny, I’m adding a picture of my dog and her new neighbour (16 week old Landseer). Just so you know, no dogs were given any beer or other alcoholic beverages before, during or after the making of this picture…nor were they made acquainted with any tavern songs inappropriate for minors. Also note the lack of cats in the picture. Although generally present when the dogs are outside, they all wandered off shaking their heads while the shoot was taking place. Disdain was rife.

When the fit had passed...

Monday, 19 April 2010

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

After having watched, and loved, the BBC series with Judy Dench, I really wanted to read this book. Confident that it would at least be a good read, I bought the audio book and put it on my Classics Challenge List. It was indeed a pleasant read, although a bit different from the series. I have since learned, however, that the series was based on three novella, Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mrs. Harrison’s confessions, so there’s another two for me to add to my list.

Mary Smith, a friend of the family, frequently goes to stay with the Jenkyns’ sisters and on those occasions, writes her observations about the town of Cranford and its inhabitants in her journal. She describes Cranford as a town ruled by women which never changes as to its habits and ways. The ladies of the town like to keep change to a minimum, and while their lives aren’t exciting, they live a pleasant life and entertain themselves with the antics of their neighbours. In this way, they seem to be a lot more content with life than many others. Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that these women belong to the upper-middle class and although they aren’t wealthy enough to disregard money, they don’t have to worry about their existence and thus have little impetus to change. They can afford to live slow, pleasant lives. That’s not to say that they don’t have troubles, because they do, but even then, the ladies fight back in a very unexpected and touching manner.

At first it bothered me that there was no real central theme or story line to the novel, the writing style is pleasant and it flows. The town also provides enough in the way of mishaps and secrets revealed to hold the interest. Additionally, the characters are well structured and realistic both in personal attributes and actions. It makes for quite a good mix and a nice read. These are people you’d want to meet in real life; people who make the world a better place to live in, despite their pre-occupation with status. Gaskell portrays their emotions well, without ever actually telling us how they feel, by intimating their feeling through small motions and reactions, like the turn of a head, the aversion of a gaze, the change tactful change of topics of conversation. Their actions do speak louder than their words.

Although the book is totally different to the series I love, it’s still very good. 5 out of 5 for a pleasant read.

Classics Challenge 2010
Typically British Challenge

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This is the first of my Classics Challenge 2010 books. I had tried to read it before, but didn’t care for the style of writing and gave it up, despite having heard how good it was. This time I went for the audio addition, as they are usually easier for me to get through when I have problems actually reading a book. Sometimes the narrator can bring a book to life where my own imagination failed. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times. The narrator, Gabriel Woolf, interpreted the book in the same way I did and the narration remained languid, wordy and soporific. I can’t fault the narrator for this, however, as it is really the way the book was written and trying to invigorate it would be forcing something on the book that isn’t there in the first place. This book just sounds much more exciting than it really is.

Walter Hartright, a poor drawing master, secures a place at Limmeridge House teaching the young Laura Fairlie how to draw. Upon his arrival at Limmerage, Hartright meets a young woman dressed in white who is fleeing from a sanatorium where she says she is being kept unjustly because of what she knows. Hartright helps her escape and then immediately becomes interested in this woman and her connections with Limmerage. With the help of Marion Halcombe, Laura Fairlie’s half-sister, he endeavours to find out more about this mysterious woman. Unfortunately, Hartright falls in love with Laura, and she with him, before he has much of a chance to find out more. Their relationship is, however, doomed before it even began. Hartright is penniless and Laura has been promised to Sir Percival Clyde from a young age. Clyde was her father’s favourite as a husband for her daughter and she feels bound to marry him. However, from the very beginning, the worst is feared about Clyde. Although he seems to be perfectly honest and upright in his dealings, one has the suspicion that his intentions towards Laura aren’t truly honourable and that he is really only marrying her for her money. Indeed, the woman in white writes a letter to Laura saying as much and intimating that she should look into her husband’s affairs well before coming to a final decision regarding her marriage. Unfortunately, the only person in a real position to help and defend her is Mr. Hartright who has, in the meantime, left England for South America in a bid to forget Laura. Her half-sister Marion, who is like a sister to Laura, does her best but as a woman without means is unable to exert much influence and must resort to subtle tactics in order to protect Laura.

As the novel progresses, it turns into something of a chess match between Miss Halcombe and Clyde’s closest friend, Count Fosco. Marion knows Fosco is the brains behind the whole operation and she tries to counter him at every step. For every action, there is a reaction. Fosco himself seems to enjoy the game they are playing and decries Halcombe as a treacherous, but very worthy, opponent. His admiration of her earns him no favour with her though and she continues to attack and counter attack him as vigorously as ever.

Like I said before, this book sounds much more exciting than it really is. Collins’ verbosity undoes everything his plot and characters manage to achieve. It takes him much too long to get to where he’s going and most of the time my attention flagged before he finally got there. I’m afraid I won’t be rushing out to buy any more of Collins’ books. This one rates 3 out of 5.

Classics Challenge 2010
Typically British Challenge

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Chorister at the Abbey by Lis Howell

Another English whodunit but this time a real cracker of a book. I don’t mean to imply that it’s face paced, just well written with good, strong, likeable characters and a plot that’s not at all transparent. It was a good read from start to finish.

Suzy Spencer is a single mother living with a man who “saved” her in a previous adventure. As they and her two children struggle to make their lives work together, a well known member of the community is found murdered in the local music college. Morris
Little was a grouchy snoop who liked preaching hellfire and brimstone to anyone and everyone as long as he thought they were listening. Still, his death makes no sense at the time since being grouchy isn’t usually grounds for murder. The police are quite happy to lay the blame at the door of two local thugs who just happen to fit the bill. However, as Suzy and her circle of friends and neighbours start to think about it all, little details that make the scenario as assumed no longer quite to likely. They start to look into the whole business a bit deeper, especially when “accidents” start to happen and the situation starts to become dangerous.

Although this is literally a mystery and is rightly sold as such, Howell does an ingenious job at integrating the lives of her characters into the novel. There are times when it feels more like an inspection into the lives of those surrounding the murder rather then a mystery which in no way detracts from the book. The forays into each character’s life are engaging and interesting, especially as Howell is so good at allowing to reader to identify with the characters and their choices. In a way it reminds me of Kate Atkinson’s “Behind the Scenes at the Museum”, although it’s not just focused on one family. Howell wanders through their lives, hinting at circumstances and events each character would like to have hidden away from the world, even though they may, or may not, have something to do with Morris Little’s murder. They are all afraid of revealing something of themselves to others because they are embarrassed or ashamed, allowing Howell to grab the reader on both the level of the mystery as well as on a human level. This also adds to the suspense of the mystery by opening up many different avenues for the reader to search for clues in.

This is a thoroughly good read for anyone who likes a good English whodunit with a touch of human soul searching in it. 5 out of 5.

Challenge: Typically British

Monday, 12 April 2010

The Wintergarden Mystery by Carola Dunn

I'm afraid I've been a bit lax in posting lately. Mostly that's because my brain seems to have assumed that taking a vacation from work also means taking a vacation from just about everything else too. The last ten days have been bliss. I did nothing I didn't feel like doing at the time. I swore to myself I wouldn't pressure myself into doing anything at all, regardless of necessity and I succeeded. Perhaps a little too well. I didn't even know I was capable of sleeping so much. 9-10 hours a day became the norm when I usually can't sleep much more than 6.5 without having trouble sleeping later. It must have something to do with sleeping when you're tired and not when you have to. Anyway, I also got a lot of reading done, including finishing Eldest, which I've been working on for a while. So, now I've got a lot to review. I'm going to start with The Wintergarden Mystery by Carola Dunn, which I actually finished before my vacation , but didn't get around to blogging about.

The Wintergarden Mystery by Carola Dunn

Daisy Dalrymple is a 1920’s aristocratic woman with a twist; she wants to work for her living instead of just being an societal ornament. She turns to journalism in her bid to make her own way in the world and finagles an invitation to a fellow aristocrat’s large country home as a way of finding enough information to put together an article on the house. Unfortunately, the family matriarch is not too thrilled with having to entertain a working woman, let alone an aristocratic working woman and protests her presence vehemently. Daisy is already walking a proverbial tightrope when she stumbles across a body buried in the winter garden. Daisy then becomes bent on finding out whodunit, despite the protestations of police inspector, who is also a friend of hers.

I like mysteries and I adore Agatha Christie, so I figured I could hardly go wrong with this one, especially as I got it during Audible’s $4.95 sale. If you’re looking for a cosy mystery and a simple, quick read, this is a good one. It’s hardly taxing as both the plot and the characters are fairly predictable and it’s a little heavy on the cheery-o pip-pips and that sort of rot (just enough to make the eyes roll but not to irritate). It’s definitely not up to Christie standards, yet it’s light and enjoyable and just the thing is you’re looking to relax with a bit of fluff. 3 out of 5 for this one. Recommended if you’re looking for something that won’t tax you too much.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan

I’d seen this book around a few times and thought it looked interesting but never wanted to risk spending money on it. So, when it popped up in the latest Audible $4.95 sale, I decided the price was worth the risk and bought it. Well, let’s just say I’m glad I waited until it was on sale. It really just wasn’t my thing.

Alfeo Zeno, a poor nobleman, is Master Nostradamus’ apprentice. For a price, Nostradamus solves mysteries and helps prove innocence of guilt but because he has slowly become infirm, Alfeo must do most of Nostradamus’ running around for him while the master himself does the thinking. Venice’s “courtesans” are being killed off by a serial killer and Nostradamus is hired to find that killer before anyone else dies. Alfeo, whose lover is a courtesan, is desperate to protect the girls, especially his own, from further harm and pitches himself into the hunt with fervour. The trail brings them back to an old murder in a noble house; one the lords of Venice don’t want dug up. The more they find out, the more dangerous the whole situation becomes for everyone.

The idea for the book sounds pretty good, but it doesn’t live up to the hype in my opinion. The plot was fine, but I didn’t care for the execution of it. Alfeo lacks personality and his forays into the world of romance are cheesy at best. Some of his romanticisms were so bad I actually groaned out loud. It was like reading the thoughts of a love-struck teenager who’d read too many bad romance novels. Nostradamus had a little more spark, but he didn’t feature in it as much as I would have liked. The other characters were OK, but seemed either stereotypical or wooden. Of course, this brings me to mention that it was an audio book and the reader isn’t going to become one of my favourites. His voice is pleasant enough, but he lacked any notion of the Italian language and truly slaughtered a lot of the words, he seemed to be stuck in intense mode, even when the dialogue was light-hearted and didn’t adapt to the characters very well. This all sounds a lot more scathing than it’s meant to be. After all, I did actually finish the book, which is more than I can say for several I’ve tried recently, and it’s not as if I didn’t enjoy it at all because it was OK. It may also be right up someone else’s ally, and it may be that I just didn’t catch the best of the series, so if you think it may be your kind of thing, then by all means give them a try. I think I’ll be passing though.

This one gets a 2 out of 5 from me. Disappointing especially as it had the potential to be quite a good read.