Monday, 31 May 2010

Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook by Terry Pratchett and Stephan Briggs

Everyone who is familiar with Terry Pratchett’s Disc World Series knows Nanny Ogg and her penchant for things, well, for things a little on the naughty side. Her Strawberry Wobbler is famous for it’s inappropriateness for those more formal occasions, unless you want to send half the guests into fits of laughter they must cover up by pretending they’re choking on that last bit of bread and the other half home in a huff muttering comments such as “Well! I never!” and “I can’t believe…”. You will have insured that that particular half never invites you to their soirees again, so if you are trying to get out of them, you have the perfect answer.

Anyway, after her The Joye of Snackes, which was banned just about everywhere, she came out with her own cookbook, which put a real strain on the editors. Without some fairly heavy use of a black marker pen, this book would have gone the same way as The Joye of Snackes. As finally printed, it’s suitable for most adult audiences and the recipes are really rather good, although you might want to try out the suggested arrangement on the plate in a trial run to avoid any possible embarrassment.

I was expecting a little more humour, but then, I’m neither a particularly adept or interested cook so I may have missed something. The most entertaining bits are Nanny Ogg’s own particular take on etiquette and manners. More interesting than helpful really.

If you’re looking for a good read, remember, this is really more a recipe book than a book for reading, but if you’re interested in cookery, go for it!

Sunday, 30 May 2010

No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious Ramotswe is alone in the world after her father dies, but she declares her intention to use her inheritance wisely and start her own business, a detective agency. She’ll be the first woman detective in Botswana, but since she has a knack for judging people and observing how they work, she’s confident she can make a go of it. So, she sets up her business, hires a secretary and waits for business. At first, it’s slow-going, but as word spread, her business improves and she begins to build up a client base and gain notoriety. Fraud or witchcraft, nothing is too much for Precious.

I’d heard of this book many times, but had never gotten around to reading it, so when it showed up in a sale, I couldn’t resist. I know a lot of people like the series, but I was disappointed in it. Yes, it was a decent read, but not very challenging and nothing about it really seemed to grab me. Yes, Precious is a likeable character but her cases just lack something. They may just be too simple for my taste. That may change with the development of the series and if that is so, I’d love to know, so if anyone has continued with the books, let me know. For me, this one gets a 2.5 out of 5, readable, but not overly riveting.

Friday, 28 May 2010

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

After having seen the film and hearing that the book was quite good, I decided to read The Name of the Rose for the Classics Challenge 2010 as my “Classic to be” book. Since it isn’t actually that old (the original Italian version was published in 1980), it’s not actually a classic, but I’m certain this is one of those books that will stay with us for a very long time.

The book’s plot focuses on the arrival of William of Baskerville and his acolyte Adso at the monastery in Italy. Shortly before their arrival, a young monk is found dead which disturbs the inner peace of the monastery and William is asked to investigate. Unfortunately, he has trouble doing so as he is not allowed as much access to the buildings, in particular the library, as he needs in order to fully investigate the incident. It is almost as if the whole of the monastery is a fighting him while urging him on at the same time. They want a solution, but not necessarily the solution. Most of all, they want it quickly as there are several delegations due to arrive to discuss the complex religious/political situation in Europe. They fear that any questionable death will reflect poorly on them and lead the Inquisitor Bernardo de Gui to investigate upon his arrival. Unfortunately, the William is unable to find a solution before the next murder takes place and soon the monastery becomes a dangerous place to be at all, especially after the arrival of de Gui.

Even though this book is often sold as a whodunit, especially after the airing of the film in 1986 with Sean Connery, the focus of the book is less on the mystery and more on the political and religious turmoil of the time. There are many lengthy explanations and discussions about religious sects, their doctrines, who are persecuting whom, why and how this all relates to the politics of the times. There seems to have been many different opinions as to what Jesus would have done in regards to poverty and laughter. Instead of trusting to their own common sense or turning to prayer to find an answer, the monks ore looking for hard evidence as a basis for their teachings within the behaviour of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately the Bible isn’t particularly specific about either subject and this leads to much discussion, some of it quite angry.

Not being personally interested in such matters and finding some of the arguments overly pedantic and not particularly helpful or practical, I sometimes found it difficult to continue reading. I spent a lot of time thinking “build a bridge and get over it before you burn the damn thing to the ground having never used it”. It was often as if they were standing in their own way. Eco does make this point in the novel, that the monastery is hoarding books for the sake of hoarding rather than for the sake of passing on religious knowledge. The monks were too caught up in the pedantry of learning to be useful to anyone but themselves. I also had difficulty with the abundance of Latin or other languages without translation. If often seems as if I had to skip quite a bit simply because I never learned the ancient languages.

Having said this, the book is very clever indeed. Just about everything Eco does contains more than the meaning of the words on the page and I think it would be a better book if taught/discussed rather than just read for pleasure. Like me, if you’re not versed or particularly interested in religious history and doctrine of the time, it can be difficult to follow and I know I would have benefitted from reading this in a class rather than just on my own. So, I give this one a 3 out of 5 for fun reading, but a 5 out of 5 for cleverly combining mystery and learning.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Lucy Honeychurch is visiting Italy with her old fashioned, Victorian cousin Charlotte Bartlett as a chaperone. Lucy is all friendliness and wonder while her cousin is repressed and terribly disapproving of breaking with old traditions. They arrive at the Pensione Bertolini to find that their rooms do not have the promised view. This becomes a topic of conversation amongst the English visitors, two of whom, Mr. Emerson and his son George, offer to exchange their rooms, which do have a view, with the rooms of the women so that Lucy and Miss Bartlett can have their rooms with a view. Miss Bartlett refuses the offer at once on the grounds that an acceptance would put them under obligation to two unknown gentlemen, which would be improper. However, Mr. Beebe persuades them that the offer was only meant as a kindness and that they should really accept it. Miss Bartlett acquiesces and they exchange rooms. Much of the rest of their trip then revolves around the possible, or possibly imagined, debt they owe for having exchanged rooms with the Emersons, especially as the two men show themselves to be devoid of conventional manners.

The second part of the novel continues at a later date back in England when all the characters happen to find themselves living near one another, which forces another breakout of minute speculation and analysis of everyone’s behaviour and how it might, or might not, affect others. Much of the novel focuses on the shift from Victorian conservatism to the new liberated age and rebellion against conventional repression. The old guard, such as Miss Bartlett and Mr. Beebe represent the last of the Victorians while Lucy and George belong to the new age where strict form no longer applies. Forster is really criticizing the extreme repression of the Victorian age and advocating that society leaves it behind to focus on a new and more liberated lifestyle which fosters happiness for oneself in lieu of a perpetual sense of duty to others.

In a sense, this falls into the category of Bildungsroman because Lucy begins as a naïve girl trusting in her elders for guidance but develops into a mature young woman who can think for herself. It’s about her journey into the world of adults who are no longer subject to the same repression the previous generations were subjected to. Making this journey becomes her salvation because without it, she would have almost certainly lived a miserable life, but having made it has at least a chance at happiness.

Personally, I like the idea of the book better than the book itself. Forster had the same effect on me with Howard’s End; the idea was brilliant, the execution somehow lacking in vibrancy. He somehow seems to have gotten stuck between the flowing style of Virginia Woolf and Daphne du Maurier and the more conventional writing styles of the earlier ages and being neither here nor there, it just lacks something that makes the stories come alive. Part of the problem might lay with the lack of explanation into why certain things should be considered offensive, such as trading rooms or speaking to fellow travellers one doesn’t know prior to the trip. This would have been clear to those living at the time, but as the old ways have been almost entirely forgotten outside of literature or history studies, so for me it was sometimes quite hard to follow why such a big deal was being made of such little things. I will say that his work makes for brilliant films though. It’s much easier to follow and imagine all of the characters and their foibles when being portrayed by talented actors.

I’m going to rate this one a 3 out of 5. Good, but not overwhelmingly so.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman

Merrily Watkins is a single mother of a very teenaged daughter whose life suddenly took a twist when she decided to become a vicar. Her daughter accepts her decision, but doesn’t understand it and gives little thought to the whole realm of religion herself. She does, however, support her mother and together they move to the village of Ledwardine so Merrily can become its first new vicar in 30 years. Unfortunately for her, her arrival coincides with a playwright’s desire to write and perform a play based on a 17th century clergyman who was accused of witchcraft and being a homosexual. The question of whether or not to put on the play quickly divides the village into two and the villagers turn to Merrily for a decision. She quickly finds making this decision is more dangerous than it sounds since it not only takes up the theme of homosexuality, but threatens to air century’s worth of dirty laundry in public. As the village is an old one, many of its residents have family who participated in the hanging of the Reverend Williams and they would rather the past be left to lie. To add to her troubles, Lucy Devonish, the local paganite and general believer in spirits, be they of trees or men, takes Merrily’s daughter under her wing and introduces her to people and ideas Merrily would prefer her not to know about.

The Wine of Angles is an interesting combination of Mystery, Religious Mystery, Paganism and Demonology. Although I was expecting it to be mostly mystery, it was well written and Rickman kept it from going off the rails either one way or the other. There was a good balance of all of the elements with an excellent use of suspense and mystery. His characters are realistic and likeable (or not as the case may be) with a lot of variation and subtlety. There were 6 kinds of potential for this book to go wrong, but it kept its balance without faltering. Rickman surprisingly never tries to convince the reader that there are such things as ghosts a spirits, but leaves everything open to interpretation. Devonish is either in tune with nature or is a batty old woman, depending on your opinion. He refrains from introducing the outlandish and keeps the creepier side to a level that just suggests the supernatural rather than forcing it on you.

I liked this book so well that I promptly bought the next in the series. If you’re looking for something new, something just a little odd, but not fantastic to the point of disbelief, take a look at his books. This one really fits the bill. I’m rating it 4 out of 5.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

This is one of those books that I tried to read several times, but failed. In this case, it was mostly due to one of the major points of the book, but more on that later. However, after having seen the fabulous (imho) BBC production of Bleak House with Gillian Anderson et al (the full cast is amazing), I decided I had to read the book. That was over a year ago and it was so good, I’ve just read it for the second time.

Back to the reason I had difficulties reading this: One of the main points Dickens was making when writing this was that the justice system at the time was slow to function, costly and not necessarily just. To illustrate this, he goes on and on (and on…and then on some more) about how the various members of the Chancery and legal system pass the buck from one to the other, each taking their fee, until finally nothing was done and there is no money left totake. His makes his point quite well with the unfortunate side effect that it can be very difficult to wade through this and get to the actual story which is brilliant.

Esther Summerson is an orphaned girl who grows up with her evil godmother, but despite her upbringing, has a good heart. Once her godmother dies and she finishes school, she is brought together with Ada and Richard, two wards in the famous Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Together they travel on to live with John Jarndyce, a kindly older gentleman, who has offered them all a home with him at Bleak House. Esther becomes his housekeeper and friend to Ada while Richard is encouraged in two things by John Jarndyce: one to find an occupation he can carry out for the rest of his life, the second is to at all costs avoid getting sucked into the Jarndyce case. He knows from personal experience that it ruins men.

Meanwhile, there is a mystery afoot. Lady Honoria Dedlock, wife to sir Leichester Dedlock Baronet, has come across legal letters presented to her husband by the family lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn. She recognizes the handwriting and asks Mr. Tulkinghorn if he knows who wrote them. This simple inquiry makes Mr. Tulkinghorn suspicious and he sets off to find out why Lady Dedlock is interested in who wrote the letters, ostensibly because he feels himself dedicated to preserving the Dedlock honour, but mostly because he likes the feeling of power it gives him.

This race to find the man who wrote the letters and why he is so important is tangled up with many different lines that run through the novel. There is the question of Esther’s parentage, who her godmother was and why she was so convinced that it would have been better had Esther not been born. Mr. Guppy comes into play when he sets out to find the answer before Mr. Tulkinghorn in an attempt to impress both Esther and Lady Dedlock. Since all those involved are also involved in Jarndyce and Jarndyce does that mean there is a connection between the two? In essence, within all of the social critique and simple stories, there is an element of mystery that keeps the reader hooked.

In addition to the Jarndyce/Dedlock/Summerson story line, there are many, many sub-plots. So many that it’s actually quite difficult to separate them, especially as most of them are bound together at one level or another. Dickens introduces so many extraordinary characters like Harold Skimpole (I will never forgive Nathaniel Parker for playing him so well that I find it hard to like him any more), Mrs. Flite, Krook Guppy and Smallweed (same to Phil Davis – it’s your own fault I associate you with villans now Phil!). It’s amazing how much of life Dickens managed to capture in all these characters. I often find myself thinking of them when I meet people who share characteristics or in situations where you can just picture then taking part.

There’s only one thing I don’t like about the book but I won’t mention it here since it would spoil it for those who haven’t read the book. I will say that it pertains to Lady Dedlock and that is arguably the more appropriate than my preference would have been (if you’ve read the book/seen the movie, you’ll understand what I mean). If you haven’t read the book, what are you waiting for?!? If you can’t get through the book, treat yourself to the 2005 BBC mini-series. You won’t regret it.

The is definitely and well deservedly a 5 out of 5 book.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

This is one of my most favouritest Agatha Christie novels. I adore Poirot (although not more than Miss Marple) and I’m quite fond of Ariadne Oliver with all her foibles, so this makes for a comfy, cosy mystery with characters I love.

A bossy, bully of a woman approaches Mrs. Oliver at a luncheon and has the audacity to request Mrs. Oliver to ask her goddaughter who killed whom in her parent’s double suicide some 10 years before. Mrs. Burton-Cox feels she has a right to know since her son will be marrying Mrs. Oliver’s goddaughter. Despite being incensed about such an intrusion, Mrs. Oliver’s curiosity is aroused and she presents the question to Hercule Poirot. Together they set off on a hunt for elephants who can remember back to days past. Their search leads them into a labyrinth of sisters, dead children, travel abroad and absent children. It takes Poirot’s little grey cells to unravel the stories that elephants tell.

This one is clever. Very clever. The clues are all there, but it’s a matter of sorting out which are relevant, what order they come in and what really happened instead of what was perceived to have happened. It’s a case of “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” (Sherlock Holmes, The Sign of the Four). Elementary, or not if you’re not Christie or Doyle. I give this one 5 out of 5.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

Hilary Craven is a woman whose life has fallen apart. Her husband left her, her small daughter has died and she has no reason to live any more. No longer attaching any importance to her life, she decides to commit suicide in a Moroccan hotel, only for her latest endeavour to fall apart on her when she is found out and prevented by a spy who happens to put two and two together. He makes Hilary an interesting offer. If she is going to die, why not do so in the service of her country? It seems that scientists all over the world are going missing and it is presumed they are either defecting to or being kidnapped by the Russians. The need Hilary to go undercover to see if she can ferret out just what is going on. Her interest in life renewed, Hilary embarks on a dark and dangerous journey into the heart of evil.

Although the style of this book is unmistakeably Christie, it’s not one of her typical books. It’s not actually a mystery as such, but a thriller with the element of a mystery. There’s no Marple of Poirot to lead the reader through the twists and turns and as such is disappointing and nice at the same time. Disappointing because Marple and Poirot are really her most beloved characters and those who enjoy Christie are usually big fans of both and like to see them again and again. Nice because it keeps Christie’s work fresh and new instead of relying on the same old formula time and time again. Even the venue is changed in this one from England to Africa, so no lush countryside or humungous country homes, but the mystery and intrigue of a country with strange customs and vast expanses of land with few inhabitants. The story itself is fairly simple and I’m afraid rather full of holes, relying heavily on luck and coincidences. Having said that, it’s Christie and not really meant to be taken quite so seriously, so it’s easy to forgive its failings. What is particularly interesting to me reading it so many years on is not the plot itself, but how it reflects the political situation of the day. The Cold War was raging and the West feared the East as much as the East did the West and everyone lived in mistrust of each other. A disappearing scientist wasn’t simply a disappearing scientist but a political crisis. One fewer scientist in the West was a double loss because it was a gain for the enemy. There’s a curious mix of fear, idealism, obsession weaving it’s way through the characters giving today’s reader an idea of what the situation must have felt like back then. Christie exploits the romance of the age in this work, with a twist of her own which keeps it from becoming a cliché.

Even though I’ve never been a flaming feminist (probably mostly because the way has been cleared by other women who came before me), one thing I quite liked about this novel was that she made the heroine weak on the one hand, but strong on the other, just like we all are at times. It’s more realistic than just creating a strong, fearless woman who sets an obviously unattainable standard for other women. It sets a good example for how a woman can become strong given the chance. That might seem trite in today’s society, but looking at the period when it was written, I think it was an important message for women in general.

All in all, I give this one a 4 out of 5 rating for a Christie novel.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Gallows View by Peter Robinson

Gallows View is the first in Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks series. I’ve always been rather partial to his book, so when this one showed up in a sale, I snapped it up.

Perhaps I should mention here that I am not only a lifetime member of The Library Thing, but own Bookpedia so that I can catalogue the books I own and so avoid purchasing books twice. Yep. I do. So can someone tell me why I don’t check them before I buy? If you can figure that out, let me know please because buying the same books twice gets expensive, especially when it costs less to keep them than to ship them back.

Soooo, I was reading along when the plot suddenly started to sound very familiar. At first I just thought it was a plot repeat, which happens when you read as much as I do. Unfortunately, as I read further, I realized it wasn’t just similar, it was the same plot. Back to my library I went and sure enough, I own this one.

After having read it twice, I can say that it was a good book. It would have been better the second time around if the plot hadn’t been so memorable, but that’s not Robinsons fault. After all, he can only write the same book once. I assume so anyway. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. Perhaps if he has multiple personalities that one might work. One personality could conceivably write it without the second personality knowing what the first did.

Ok, back to the book. It’s a good cozy crime novel which I can recommend to anyone who likes that particular genre. As a first book, his characters aren’t quite as settled as they could be, but that’s something that takes time in any case. Having read further books, I know that he does develop his characters and that his books get better as time goes on. I’ll give him a 4 out of 5 for this one. It deserves it for keeping my attention the second time around as well.