Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie tells the tale of an innovative and very different teacher at a girl’s school in 1930’s Edinburgh. Miss Jean Brodie chooses to dismiss the standard classroom exercises, along with the classroom itself, in favour of real knowledge garnered from a life lived with the intention of ever improving the mind. She takes her classes outdoors and tells them of her life, her loves, her passion for art and of her extensive travel in Europe, occasionally asking them to repeat certain parts of the lesson so as to relate them to the standard curriculum. She invites the class to teas and takes them on unconventional excursions, leading them through part of Edinburgh they would not otherwise see, i.e. the impoverished sectors. As she does so, the students learn not only of art, but of life and its many facets. Miss Mackay, the headmistress of the school, doesn’t care for Miss Brodie or her methods and repeatedly tries to catch her out so she can dismiss her, but Miss Brodie’s success with the girls prevents her from being able to do so.

After a while, the girls begin to stand out in the school and become known as the Brodie set, a mark which they never loose. The story also begins to drift more and more into the personal life of Miss Brodie as she makes the girls into her friends and not just pupils. This, as is repeatedly is mention in the flash forwards, turns out to be her downfall as one of her pupils betrays her. Even when the girls go on to other classes and forms and Miss Brodie herself teaches new students, this particular set of girls continues to play a pivotal role in Miss Brodie’s life.

Superficially, this book is a quick and good read, but it offers a lot of food for thought if you care to think about it. Miss Jean Brodie, who constantly professes to be in her prime, is a passionate, somewhat unorthodox woman with deep undercurrents of malcontent and disappointment. She loves where she cannot and cannot return love where she should. She wants to keep her pupils from becoming boxed in as society would have it and free them to widen their horizons. In some ways, it’s quite reminiscent of the Bloomsbury School, even though it’s being written decades later. Unfortunately for Miss Brodie, she also possesses a naïveté which she uses as a buffer against the real world. It’s almost as if she knows, but ignores, that the world is a much harder place than she feels it should be. If she consequently disregards the inconvenient truths of life, in part by romanticising everything she sees and hears, they will not affect her. It’s as though she believes that her convictions will materialize if she simply believes in them long enough and hard enough. She is trying to shape the world through will instead of pragmatism. It is this forced ignorance of reality, or romanticism, that finally leads to her betrayal as she is finally incapable of seeing things how they are instead of how she would like them to be.

My first impression of the book was to chalk it up onto my “have read” list and relegate it to the back shelf. It turned out to be a bit more difficult than that. Somehow it’s worked itself into my subconscious and keeps popping up at the most unexpected times with an analogy or a sudden flash of understanding about what Spark intended. It’s almost like it’s haunting me and challenging me to think, as Miss Brodie was trying to do for her pupils. In my opinion, that’s one of the things that makes a book great and I can now understand what all the fuss is about with this one. 5 out of 5. A must read.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

A Wind in the Door Part Two

Yesterday, I got to thinking about this book whilst driving home from work. I can't remember what sparked it, but it had something to do with the universe and being very small, etc. etc. Just then, I realized that the first time I was confronted with thoughts of relativity and the universe was when I read A Wind in the Door. When Meg, Calvin, Mr. Jenkins and Progos are with the teacher learning about the farandolea, their role in the body and what is causing Charles Wallace's illness, L'Engle broaches the subjects of relatively and interpretation. She challenges the children to think outside the box when she presents the Farandolae to them as a macroscopic being with roughly the same physical size (or a little smaller than a human child). They have difficulty grasping that the being before them is usually not visible at all, let alone to the naked eye. They must extend their minds and think not of where they are in relation to what they know, but to where they are, i.e. when they enter Charles Wallace's cells, their universe become Charles Wallace and time slows to where a heart beat lasts a decade. They must also learn to move and think without actually moving, which they have a great deal of difficulty. It's their first brush with the idea that their world is not the norm for the whole of the universe and that they must learn to adapt as their situation changes. i.e., they must learn to think outside of the box.

Along with Meg and Calvin, my first reading of this book lead me into new worlds which started me off into thinking for myself and helped me not to assume that things are always as they seem on the surface. It's an invaluable life lesson and can be applied to many situations in any ordinary day. In retrospect, it was also my first brush with both science as an applicable field and philosophy, both of which I found terribly interesting.

Basically, I just wanted to add these thoughts on the book because they made me realize how important this book, and many others as well, were to my education even though they were read for fun. I also realize there are kids out there who miss out on such opportunities and that makes me infinitely sad. Everyone should be able to experience books this good as a child. If they did, we'd have more readers and most certainly a better educated society.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle

Meg Murry’s little brother Calvin isn’t well. Meg’s mother, an important biologist, believes his mitochondria might be ill, but doesn’t know how to fix it. Charles is also being bullied at school because he doesn’t fit in. Meg is frustrated with her lack of ability to help Charles on either front, even thought Charles knows himself that he must learn to adapt. Then Charles begins to see things. He tells Meg he’s seen a dragon in the garden, which she at first does not believe, but when they find one of it’s feathers, Meg begins to see that another fight between good and evil is inevitable. Once again, Meg must find the will to grow and become wiser while committing herself to fighting the darkness which is beginning to surround and overtake the earth.

This was another of my favourites as a child. I loved all of the Wrinkle in Time books back then, which is why I’ve got back to them in my old age I suppose. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed with the character growth in this one. As with A Wrinkle in Time, the focus is on Meg’s shortcomings and although she should have learned quite a bit in the first book, she seems to be right back where she started in this one. I would have expected more of her. However, that’s my opinion when reading it as an adult. As a child I remember having much more understanding for Meg and thinking she was thoroughly justified in her self-doubts and obstinacy.

The references to Christianity were less noticeable in this second book, but the fight between good and evil was still there in full force. The children must face, and fight, things they don’t understand and resist the urge to remain stagnate while the world goes on without them. It’s a good metaphor for life, either Christian or non- Christian. There will always be things we must choose to do or not to do even if we don’t fully understand them. The most difficult thing is to learn to chose the right thing despite that lack of understanding and the desire to do what’s easy. L’Engle does a good job at presenting this to children in a way they can understand.

A Wind in the Door is an excellent book I can recommend to anyone with children. 5 out of 5.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

House of Night

After having finished Crime and Punishment, I felt as if I’d earned a break and decided it was time to wallow in what I like to call reading junk food. Boy did I wallow. Audible was having a sale, so I purchased the House of Night series by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast and started reading.

Frankly, I’m not going to bother writing a review of each book in itself. I’m up to book four and decided that, although entertaining, they simply aren’t worth a review a piece. They do not live up to the hype of Forget Harry Potter nor do they even measure up to the Twilight series – let me just add here that I still cringe at the whole idea of the Twilight series and if you look at the individual elements such as plot and writing style the word shameful comes to mind, but somehow Meyer manages to get you hooked all the same. Hat’s off to her for doing so. There aren’t many who could have pulled that off.

Back to the House of Night: The books are set in normal, modern society with the twist of everyone not only believing in vampires, but knowing that they exist. Vampirism is genetic in origin and those who experience the change, i.e. are marked, have no choice in the matter. Not all of those who are marked survive the metamorphosis into Vampirism either. Some people’s bodies reject the Change. Since they are no longer human, those who are marked must attend the local House of Night school. In Zoey’s case, this means the one in Tulsa. She must leave behind her human friends, boyfriend and zealous Christian family to attend.

From here the books go on to the usual, predictable plots of rejection by friends and family, making new friends, and facing the evil that is to come. Zoey is, of course, special and has special talents that will help her and her new friends to defeat the coming evil. All in all, they’re entertaining enough, but they fail to really grab one in the way Harry Potter or even Edward Cullen did. The characters are likeable and engaging enough, although occasionally a little flat. The constant obsession with sex becomes more than a little annoying as well. If this is an accurate reflection of today’s youth, no wonder the world’s in trouble. I mean honestly, I was once a teenager too, but no one in our school of 1000+ students was that constantly focused on sex. The Casts would have done well to focus more on some of the unusual lessons or lore included in the school. After all, it is important to the plot, but it’s usually added as an after thought instead of making it central character’s lives and discussion topics. It's almost as if they couldn't be bothered to do the research.

Also, it just has to be said that the main character Zoey is just a ho. I don’t say this lightly, but the girl is a ho by anyone’s standards. I can understand the confusion and not wanting to decide, or waiting until marriage etc. etc., but someone who is apparently supposed to be so special that the fate of the world will eventually rest in her hands ought to possess a little more common sense in regards to mere boys and sex. Honestly, if she can’t focus on something else for longer than a few minutes at a time and be honest with the people involved, I want another super-hero please.

I’ll also probably get branded a homophobe for this – let me just say I frankly just don’t care if people are gay or not. What counts for me is how they interact with me, not the person they go to bed with. - but the constant Issue of homosexuality gets annoying after a while. It’s not enough to say that Damian and Jack are boyfriends; they have to make an issue about it every time it comes up. It seems to me they would be doing more to advance the cause if they just write the whole thing in as if it were the accepted norm and no one ever questioned it. After all, no one introduces the heterosexual characters as, this is Erik, e.g., he’s hetero, so why do it with anyone else? Making it an issue, well, that makes it an Issue instead of the non-issue it should be. They’re gay. We get it. Can we move on please?

I read somewhere that Kristin is a co-writer because they wanted to keep the teenage bits authentic, but personally, I would have preferred a little less realism. I’m certainly old-fashioned on this front, but I can’t help but feel that instead of writing down to people, we should be giving them something to aim at. Characters who are likeable, but follow a good moral code, e.g. Harry Potter. A good editor wouldn’t have hurt this book either. Some of it is so poorly written that even I notice how bad it is. N.B. My blog may be poorly written, but no one is paying to read it.

As scathing as that all sounds, the books are still entertaining, if annoying from time to time. I may (or may not) finish the series, if only to see where they go with it, but I wouldn’t be in a rush to read any more of their work. The whole series gets a 2 out of 5 from me.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell

Once again, Inspector Wexford finds himself confronted with a body. This time it’s several years old and is found in a ditch by a truffle hunter. The gruesome find turns into a hunt for someone who must have disappeared years ago. In his search to discover the identities of both the victim and the perpetrator, Wexford runs into a second body and more problems. As if he didn’t have enough problems to deal with, he becomes involved with the Somali community and the fight against Female Genital Mutilation as he realizes that there are things out there which are often more disturbing even than murder.

OK, this one isn’t going to win any prizes and it isn’t Rendell at her best. The murder mystery isn’t particularly memorable in any way other than being a very intricate puzzle that Wexford must piece together; luck being served up in healthy portions to help him complete this task. What one does remember is the FGM. Although I knew it existed, it’s not a subject I’ve personally been confronted with and some of the details Rendell gives in the novel are quite disturbing. Especially distressing is that it becomes obvious that it is, like so many other crimes, almost impossible to prevent and difficult to prosecute for. Few people follow laws they know they won’t be punished for, but prosecution and punishment can only occur if the crime can be established after the fact. That means waiting until the crime has been committed, putting the investigators in charge in the difficult position of allowing a crime to go ahead and one child to suffer so that others can be saved in the long run. What an awful decision to have to make.

Often times, using entertainment media to underline the importance of political or social issues winds up putting people off. Who wants to be preached to while they’re relaxing on their couch at the end of a day’s work? Most of us get enough of reality during the day, so please don’t shove it in our face at night. I have to applaud Rendell for addressing issues like FGM, racism and familial violence without making the reader feel as if it’s social lesson time. She weaves it into her story, making it clear what she thinks without beating the audience over the head with it.

She’s also been much criticised for her lack of modern policing and that Wexford doesn’t seem to have grown with the times. Personally, I think we’re lost in modernism today. After all, Just because the police Can Do all of the tests they show on any of the 100+ CSIs, doesn’t mean they have the budget or the time to do them. It also doesn’t mean that the men and women who are leading investigations get to turn their brains off and rely solely on the latest technology. They still have to be astute and observant. I’m also sure that some of them still prefer to rely on old fashioned methods, at least for the bulk of the investigation. Hard work is still the crux of most things, modern or not. So I’m prepared to forgive the old-fashioned Wexford with his lack of forensics and up-to-date technology. Besides, I’m still a fan of the good old English mystery and that’s what I expect from Rendell. Frankly, I’d be disappointed if she did change it all to fit the critics taste.

This isn’t Rendell’s finest, but if you’re a fan, it’s still worth a cosy Sunday afternoon.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Once again, big thanks to Trish who hosts the Classics Challenge every year. I like reading classics, but because of the challenge, I read more than I might otherwise and I can challenge myself to read some I probably would never read without a bit of a push. Crime and Punishment definitely belongs to this last category. I have tried repeatedly read it but could never get past the horrible murder scene. I even once tried to watch the BBC adaptation, but, again, couldn’t get past the murder scene. I’ve always found the story disturbing and uncomfortable to read. The only thing that could make it any more disturbing is if I enjoyed reading it, because that would truly worry me.

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is a young student in St. Petersburg who has dropped out of his courses and finds life difficult in all respects. At the beginning, he seems a little odd and slightly unstable. This quickly progresses to serious flirtation with insanity. He feels pressured from society, his family and himself in regards to finances and in the end talks himself into murdering an old pawnbroker and her sister, ostensibly to enable him to steal their fortune from them. He works himself up into quite a state in order to go through with it, so much so that he bungles the robbery, takes only a small amount of what was available and then uses none of it for his own benefit. Indeed his financial situation goes from bad to worse as the creditors move in and start to demand money from him. The stress of the robbery, his sister’s impending marriage to a man he feels is unworthy of her and the continual hounding by a policeman who suspects him of the murders but has no evidence weighs heavily on Raskolnikov in the following days. He becomes trapped in his own, no longer quite sane, mind and cannot judge how to act or react to the life which goes on around him. It’s as though he is living in a continual, delirious fever which makes him see life in a distorting mirror, completely preventing him from rational behaviour. He could pay his debts with the money he stole, but somehow doesn’t seem rational enough to do so. Even the money his mother borrowed to give to him goes on the funeral of a friend instead of towards his own comfort. Raskolnikov seems to be torn between his own social conscience, i.e. the need and goodness of helping other less fortunate people and his own need to survive. His initial intention was to steal to help himself, yet his conscience forces him to help others to the point of his own destitution.

Raskolnikov finally finds himself in a very difficult position. He knows they will never be able to prove he murdered and robbed the women, but neither can he stand the pressure. What to do? Dostoevsky compels the reader to ask himself what he would do himself in that situation. Knowing that the police would never be able to prove the slightest guilt seems to make the decision a given, but seeing Raskolnikov’s rapid decline forces the consideration of conscience and guilt. Would it really be so easy to ignore your own conscience or would it force you to yearn for penitence? After learning Raskolikov’s fate, it’s evident that Dostoevsky believes punishment is unavoidable. Either Raskolnikov will punish himself through his own conscience, or he will have to confess and receive formal punishment. It is also clear that Dostoevsky considers that (self) forgiveness and redemption can only be obtained through official punishment. The confession is necessary for true redemption of soul.

As I said, I found the whole book rather disturbing and uncomfortable. I suppose you could say that Dostoevsky achieved his goal by simply making the whole ordeal a worthless waste of life and sanity. That aside, I can see why this book is considered a classic and is still read today. Dostoevsky provides lots of material for discussion and food for thought with this work as despite the early 19th century setting, it still reflects modern social conflicts such as materialism vs. social conscience and the purposes or effectiveness of punishment. Did I like it? A resounding No to that. Did I find it a worthwhile read? Definitely, although I’m glad I won’t ever have to read it again. 5 out of 5 for being a great classic book.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Rachel Vinrace journeys out to South America on one of her father’s ships. It is her first foray into the world at large and she is overwhelmed by the impressions others leave upon her. As she meets more people with different views, she begins to see that there is more than just one way to look at life and that she mustn’t necessarily stick to the path others would choose for her. Her observations of other people open her eyes to the differences in the way people behave towards both strangers and their family and cause her to reflect on the rights and wrongs of social behaviour and the necessity of being open minded towards the attitudes of others. In short, it’s the journey of a young mind which is awakening to the world as a whole as opposed to a thing outside of one’s own small realm.

The Voyage Out is a psychological work as opposed to a classic novel. There’s less focus on the plot and more on description and thoughts of the characters. Woolf also uses the work to criticize the conventional lifestyle of the time and praise the choice of free thinking. The characters are often tedious and absurd, which Woolf uses to make her point. Offsetting the tedium is Woolf’s excellent writing style which flows along nicely, even through the tedium.

As a teenager or possibly into my early 20s, I would have adored this book. After all, it is about discovery of life and self and new ideas. Not having read it until I was well out of the age where much of life outside my own world was new, it served as a reminder of that time of my life rather than to expand my views. Much of it seemed a repeat of my own experiences and thus the work lost a lot of its shine for me. I found it quite difficult to concentrate on it, although I will admit that it may just not have been the time for me to read this novel. Perhaps I’ll pick it up again at a later date and see if I can’t get more out of it than I did this time. It is possible that I was just in the wrong mood for reading it, which is why I’m not going to rate the book. I’ll just say that if you’re not feeling like a good dose of introspection, you might want to leave it be until you are.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Catherine and Other Writings by Jane Austen

Catherine and Other Writings is a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia. All of the works are short stories, and some even have the feel of a literary ditty so to speak, but reading them is like watching Jane Austen grow up. You can see how she plays with ideas and character constellations as she seeks to entertain her family while creating her own outlet for her social criticisms. You she how she grows as a writer and person as her writing, and her person, become more mature, her education becomes more well-rounded and she begins to form thoughts and opinions of her own. She grows from being a girl who likes to write, to the full-fledged novelist who is still loved nearly 200 years later.

Many of the pieces were written to entertain her family who she is uses, even if unconsciously, her family as a testing ground for her future audience. If they like what she writes, others will too, so she can feel free to try out many different themes, pairings and wit without publically embarrassing herself. This tells her that she feels secure enough in her home environment to take such risks, which in turn leads us to realize how difficult things must have been for her after her father died and their life became less secure in general. She was no longer in a position which allowed her to test and try, but in one where she became increasingly more interested in selling her works as a means of support. Would she have written as much or as well had she not been placed in those circumstances? I tend to think she might not have considering how time itself has changed. In today’s society, a young woman without means would simply, even be expected, go to work even if that meant flipping hamburgers, or alternatively rely on social welfare. Jane did not have either option in her day, especially as the only social welfare available would have had to come from family, meaning her brothers, who were for the most part still trying to establish a living for themselves and hadn’t enough to support Jane as well. Young women of her class also had few options to earn money, none of which were pleasant. Thus, the easiest and most agreeable way for Jane to earn a living was for her to make her hobby into a career. The added pressure must have contributed to her focus and prolificacy.

Even if you don’t find the stories themselves terribly interesting, this collection is worth a read for anyone who is truly interested in Jane Austen. It provides valuable insights into her character and development which greatly influence her future life. I’m not going to rate this one as a read because that would be virtually impossible since the stories themselves are much less important than what they tell us about the author. I will, however, give Jane a 5 out of 5 for being a woman dedicated to voicing her criticisms and values in a time when women were considered inconsequential in any metier outside of the domesticity of home. Although she never actively recommend the emancipation or equality of women, simply becoming a successful and well loved writer who voiced her opinions through her works in the early 19th century ultimately helped to open up options for women at a future date. Sometimes the softly, softly approach can be just as valuable as a more aggressive stance.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Meg and her brother Charles are outsiders. Their parents are brilliant and their twin brothers normal, but Meg is a chronic underachiever and Charles, who is really a genius and empathetic to boot, is considered backwards because he didn’t develop speech until well after he should have. They just don’t seem to fit into their surroundings. Topping off their troubles is the mysterious disappearance of their father, whom the town assumes has run off with a younger woman, when in reality, he works for a top secret, scientific branch of the government and disappeared on duty. Then Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit appear on the scene just after Meg meets Calvin, a popular boy from school who is a couple of grades ahead of her. Their little group seems to be the necessary constellation and the time has come for them to go and rescue their father from a far off world the children know nothing about. Their guides are the three women. They give the children a quick lesson in wrinkling time as a method of space travel and they are off in search of their father.

When you read a book at the age of 10 and pretty much remember the whole thing 30 years later, you know that book has got to be good. A Wrinkle in Time very much belongs in this category.

I recently picked up a new set of the series, my old set probably having been given away by my parents after I left the house, because I wanted to see if I could remember them and if they were still as good as they were when I was a child. Your perspective changes as you grow up and I thought maybe I’d find them silly, but I didn’t. Yes, they do seem a bit more one dimensional and the characters flatter than they did at the age of ten, but then L’engle wasn’t writing them for adults. As a kid I loved Meg and Calvin and Charles and felt I could relate to them. I can still see how this was, even though I now have a different perspective and can see their faults more clearly. I was also a bit shocked to realize that there’s quite a religious/Christian element to the books. That didn’t register with me back then, even though I did recognize the good vs. evil element. That might be because my younger self had more belief in Religion and took the references for granted. It might also be because I read the stories for the plot and didn’t spend to much time analysing them (maybe no time would be more exact). Even today, I feel that L’Engle put more weight on good vs. evil as opposed to making the books into a religious advertisement, so to speak. I thought that was well done.

Still, all these years later, it was a good read and I loved reading it again. It's not really old enough to be a classic, but I think it should be in a little classic category all by itself anyway, so I'm counting it towards the challenge. How you could give A Wrinkle in Time less than 5 out of 5 is beyond me.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Red Dahlia by Lynda La Plante

DI Anna Travis, under James Langton, is investigating the rather grisly murder of a woman who was found severed in two. Both Langton and Travis are desperate to prove themselves and work flat out to solve the case as soon as possible. The killer, it seems, is desperate for attention and begins to send the police anonymous letters I through the media when the attention the story receives flags. It doesn’t take long before they realize that they are dealing with a copy cat killer. The whole case is following the scenario and time line of The Black Dahlia murder in the 1940s. Since The Black Dahlia killer was never caught and it’s clean that The Red Dahlia is just as, or even more sadistic than the original, the pressure to stop the killer before more fall victim to him reaches a fevered state, especially when the trail goes cold.

Thanks again to Audible for this one. It’s another of those that comes from their sales, although it would have been worth the original price. La Plante finds just the right balance between following a brutal, gruesome killer and character interaction. The one offsets the other quite well as she dwells on neither portion for too long. More time spent focusing on the appalling details would have put some readers off, as would too much focus on the feelings and private lives of the characters.

La Plante lets the reader see into the minds and lives of her characters, generating a sympathy with them otherwise not possible and giving them a three dimensional feel. They aren’t just coppers, but humans with their own lives, problems and motives. Fortunately, La Plante does keep the murder investigation and the characters lives separate, unlike, for instance, Cornwell’s Scarpetta who invariably ends up becoming the victim with the criminal taking her efforts to bring him to justice personally. There is a clear definition of work and private life in La Plant’s book which keeps it from becoming predictable.

I can’t say much more without giving the plot away, but it’s a good read for anyone who likes crime/mystery novels. Yes, there are a few gory details about the murders, but these aren’t dwelt upon. I give this one 4.5 out of 5. I’ll definitely be reading more of La Plante’s work.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Minutes of the Lazarus Club by Tony Pollard

As I like a good mystery/thriller, am quite fond of 19th century literature and believe very much that fun books should be on the menu just as often as more serious literature, when I ran across The Minutes of the Lazarus Club in another blog (sorry, don’t remember whose), I felt it was a must read for me.

Surgeon and lecturer George Phillips suddenly finds his life becoming very interesting indeed when he is asked to join The Lazarus Club: a club for the most eminent men in their fields. Each contributes to the club by holding talks about subjects in his own expertise, thus widening their scope of interest and knowledge. George is bemused, but honoured, to be asked to join and endeavours not to disappoint with his first lecture on the workings of the heart. He is well received and thus taken into the fold with enthusiasm. When Brunel, the engineer who asked him to join in the first place, asks George to pick up a package for him, George suddenly finds himself running for his life in an effort to keep that package safe. He is chased around London, his rooms are searched and someone illusive is following him. Adding to his troubles, he is suspected of murdering young girls, mutilating their bodies and disposing of them in the Thames.

Despite the rather clichéd and action heavy plot (in my humble opinion, this book would make a great film), Pollard’s characters are strong and likable. There are enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing and one or two resolutions which I didn’t see coming at all. One thing that did irritate me a bit was the “name dropping” Pollard engaged in. Adding characters like Darwin and Florence Nightengale into the mix seemed a bit hokey and unnecessary. I personally felt he would have done better to create his own characters instead of trying to integrate historical figures into a fictional novel, although the introduction of Darwin did throw up a few interesting points on the introduction of evolution. However, I think that’s a personal view and won’t necessarily negatively affect other reader’s opinions of the book.

I also want to mention that not being very mechanically inclined; I often had a difficult time picturing what was happening. I haven’t got a clue about ships, steam engines and the workings of valves. However, I was able to happily skim through the more technical bits without feeling like I was missing something terribly important; meaning that intimate knowledge of mechanical workings is not a prerequisite for reading the book, although you might get more out of it if you were more mechanically inclined than I am.

All in all it was a good weekend read; enjoyable and not overly taxing. It gets a 3.5 out of 5 rating from me.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Micheal Henchard wanders into a country fair with his wife and baby daughter and sits down in the furmenty tent to have supper. The tent’s landlord laces his furmenty with rum, Henchard gets drunk and sells his wife to a sailor by the name of Newson. When he wakes up in the morning, he realizes what he’s done, is dreadfully sorry and sets off to find them. Unable to do so, he swears off alcohol for the next 21 years and feeling that she might be better off with someone else anyway, settles down to make a life for himself alone in Casterbridge. Nearly 21 years later, having stuck to his vow of abstinence, he finds himself an upright citizen and Mayor of Casterbridge. Although the township knows there is something is his past he is deeply ashamed of, he’s very close with his information and lets them assume his wife has died. Unfortunately for him, his past catches up with him when his former wife and daughter return to find him after Newson’s death.

Sometimes I think Hardy could make the happiest of scenes sombre without even thinking about it. This book is no exception. The whole novel feels as if there’s a sheet of grey dullness pulled over it and no one who lives anywhere near his characters are ever happy, even when the laugh. His sobriety is why his novels are often better as televised dramas rather than read. OK, maybe not better, but at least easier to swallow.

His main character Henchard is a real rogue. Despite his feeling true remorse over his past deeds, he never learns from any of his failings. Instead, he chooses to find another person or even to blame his misfortune on. In this sense, he is a true forerunner of today’s society – always make someone else responsible. We see from the beginning that he blames the alcohol for his rash actions, but while he may never have done the same when he was sober, if you accept that alcohol only serves to lower our level of inhibition, than the sale of his wife is still a sign of evil that lurks in the bottom of the man’s soul. Later in the novel, he blames friends, family and business colleagues for the turn of his fortunes instead of owning up to his own mistakes. Had he taken the blame himself and thus given himself the opportunity to learn from his mistakes, he might have been able to stem the course of the tide and save himself.

That he has not learned from his first mistake is evident in just about every action he later takes. Instead of standing up to what he has done, he lies to cover it up, which leads to lie after lie after lie, and also sets up a pattern for all of his other dealings. Instead of learning to tell the truth and standing up for his failings, he continues to try and hide them, which just worsens his position. What’s truly sad about the story is that he does have quite deep feelings of sorrow and guilt for his wrong doings, but he allows his pride to overwhelm his remorse every time and thus continues on in the same self-destructive vein.

Perhaps his most fatal flaw is the deep jealousy he feels, which can be ignited by the silliest things. As soon as any man shows himself more adept at anything than himself, Henchard becomes terribly jealous. He then takes actions he later regrets and instead of later apologizing for his behaviour, he allows his pride to get the better of him and thus runs his friends and family off.

These flaws are the dominant theme of the novel and pretty much bury every other subject that might have arisen. It’s almost like a Bildungsroman in reverse since instead of developing his character, Henchard allows his own failings to swallow him up and isolate him from the rest of the world. It makes for very sombre reading and I was glad when it finally finished. Having said that, I still feel that it’s a good book, it’s just not a very uplifting one.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5, good but don’t read it when you’re depressed.

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Flower Arranger at All Saints by Lis Howell

Surprisingly enough, considering how much I personally dislike most organized Religion, I really like clerical mysteries. This might be because their depiction of Christian communities is more realistic than the image most such communities would like to have themselves portrayed. They take out the holier than thou element and put it aside by letting us see into the minds of all the parishioners and show both their hidden evils and their hidden kindnesses (because let’s face it, there are few who are purely evil and have no kindness in them). It might also be because they are usually fairly cosy mysteries. Then again, it might be because they bring back an element that used to be so important to the community. As much as I dislike organized Religion as a whole, I can see the importance the church has had for society both in a social and a religious sense and do believe that it’s a shame that it’s disappearing. Now, before earn myself a bunch of hate mail from either or both camps, I think I’ll move along to the book.

Phyllis is found dead in All Saints. It’s assumed she’s had a heart attack while arranging the flowers for the next service, but Susie Spencer notices her injuries couldn’t have been an accident. With no other evidence to go on, she takes the matter no further, but it niggles at her and her new friend Robert. Then, when someone else dies, they know it can no longer be ignored and the both set out whodunit.

I know this is a pretty poor synopsis, but it’s difficult to say anything about the book without giving some of the plot away. As with her second book, The Chorister at the Abbey, much of the book centres on the characters, their connections with each other and how they think and function. As I said in my review of The Chorister:

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.

I don’t want to imply that the books are the same, because they aren’t. Indeed, The Flower Arranger has a much more malevolent feel to it. The characters are more self-centred and much less Christian in their behaviour. What I like about these books is that Howell gives you access to their thoughts, and although you’d think it would be easier to divine whodunit, it actually muddies the waters. Instead of not having any information, you have so much that it’s easy to loose site of what’s important to the murders, which adds interesting elements to the book. Most crime/mystery is based on too little information, so having too much gives the book freshness.

4 out of 5 for this one. I hope to see more of Howell.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Die with Me by Elena Forbes

Elena Forbes is a relatively new writer (in comparison to my old favourites like PD James, Elizabeth George, Minette Walters and co) in the Crime/Mystery genre. She made her debut in 2007 with Die with Me. On the surface, it’s an ordinary crime novel with the obligatory DI and team working on a case. What makes her team a bit different is that she’s modernized it by creating a good looking young detective who pays attention to his dress, doesn’t drink excessively and is able to work with a team. He also hasn’t got the emotional baggage most of the detectives seem to have, which is not to say he doesn’t have his problems. One of his biggest seems to be that who he is and how he appears to others is not necessarily one and the same. He doesn’t always seem to realize that people don’t see through the exterior, which is quite refreshing. The subject of this first novel is also quite modern as it deals with the plight of depressed people and the role of modern technology in their demise.

When a young girl is thrown off the roof of a church, DI Tartaglia finds that he has more than just a simple suicide on his hands. The presence of GHB makes it fairly clear that they’re dealing with foul play. What’s odd about it is that there is absolutely no sign of sexual activity. As the team continues to investigate, they find other cases that may, or may not be linked to their most recent one. Tartaglia is convinced they are linked but even he knows he doesn’t have enough evidence to convince his superiors his hunch is right. Few witnesses come forward and even fewer have anything helpful to report so the team is forced to dig while they wait for more bodies, and more evidence, to pile up.

The characters are well drawn up and believable and the plot full of nice twisty bits that catch you off guard, or at least keep you guessing. All in all, it’s quite a good book, especially for a series starter. I’m looking forward to reading more of Forbes’ work and hope that she’ll continue with her character development. She’s made a strong start with this one anyway. 4.25 out of 5.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Harm Done by Ruth Rendell

A paedophile convicted of raping and murdering a small boy is released from jail and moves back to his old home on an otherwise quiet estate prompting protests. A 16 year old girl inexplicably goes missing from her home after an evening out with her friends, but returns 3 days later with a bizarre tale that she was kept hostage by a middle aged woman and a younger man and forced to do housework. As Lizzie is a bit intellectually challenged and obviously afraid of something, no one takes her tale very seriously until another girl of roughly the same age goes missing. Even more sinister is the disappearance of a 3 year old girl from a wealthy home in the same town. Suddenly the reappearance of the paedophile takes on a whole new meaning as far as the town is concerned. Inspector Wexford sets out to find the girl and save a paedophile from a lynch mob.

Harm Done is a very diffuse novel which tackles several difficult themes: paedophilia, kidnap, vigilantism and domestic violence. The plot is complex but the story is well written and it isn’t difficult to keep the different lines of inquiry separate when necessary. Personally I thought this one took on a bit much myself although I understand why she wrote it as she did. It does have it’s advantages, the primary one being of confusing the focus of the real crime so the solution isn’t obvious from the beginning, which is what would have happened in real life. It also shows how much one piece of news or one person can effect many different people at once. Still, I personally would have preferred her to concentrate on fewer issues at once. Doing so might have made the novel a bit more powerful, especially as it would have obviated the need for the epilogue. Written as is, however, it’s a good mystery and a good, quick read. It’s not one of Rendell’s best, but neither is it one of her worst.

3.5 out of 5

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Stephanie’s uncle Gordon is dead. His family gather around for the will, joined by a strange man in a flash suit with his face wrapped up in a scarf and sunglasses on indoors. Knowing Gordon as they do, they assume this is one of his odd friends, which he is, very odd. Stephanie, who has always been Gordon’s favourite in the family, inherits his house, including contents. Little does she know, she’s inherited a whole lot more than that, she inherited his odd friends and strange ideas as well.

Gordon plunges his niece into a world filled with magic, demons, sorcerers and talking detective skeletons included. She takes to it like a duck to water and promptly finds herself on a roller coaster ride with real, live skeleton detective Skulduggary Pleasant as they try to beat their evil adversaries to one of the most destructive weapons ever made. Along the way, she finds out more about herself than she ever thought she could, even the sarcastic, talking skeleton is impressed. Explosions, murder, car chases, general mayhem ensue and ensure that the reader never gets bored.

I’m not really even sure how I found this book. It may have been from a blog or from an Amazon recommendation. However I found it, I enjoy a good children’s story now and again so I thought, what the heck, and bought it. It didn’t disappoint. Granted, if you’re an adult, this book isn’t going to challenge you (except if it’s to think like a kid for a change), but if you’re a kid, it will in more ways than one. Aside from being a great, original story, it’s got a good range of vocabulary and some interesting ideas in it. Skulduggery’s humour is also some of the driest I’ve ever come across, which is perhaps why I liked it so much. All the characters are strong, but I appreciate that there’s a good, strong female at the head of things. Not that I’m knocking books like Harry Potter where the protagonist is male, but it’s always good for girls to get their turn as well.

Rated as the children’s book it is (9 and above according to the Amazon categorization): 5 out of 5.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Thanks to Audible’s sales, I’ve found a new author. I’d never heard of Elizabeth von Arnim before, but the book was on sale, it looked like my sort of thing, so I bought it et voilà! I have a new author to read.

The Enchanted April tells the tale of four women as they vacation together in Italy in a secluded castle. The idea is formed by Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins who see an advertisement for castle in Italy which is to be let for the month of April. Mrs. Wilkins decides on the spur of the moment, that she would love to go, but cannot afford it herself. The scheme is hatched and the two women decide that they will do something for themselves for a change, rent the castle and go on vacation together. To further defray the costs, they advertise for a further two women to join them and thus Mrs. Fisher and Lady Dester join them on the holiday.

Each of these women is quite different from one another and as soon as they arrive they seem to get on one another’s nerves. As the days pass, they learn more about each other and more about themselves than they really expected to and the holiday turns into much more than any of them expected.

As mentioned, I got this one from Audible, so I listened to it. The narrator was pleasant and good (which is not always the same thing) and the story flowed well. It wasn’t really what I was expecting it to be, i.e. I misjudged the plot having made assumptions after having read the blub, so the plot development came as a bit of a surprise, although not an unpleasant one. It is a bit cheesy, but it’s an upbeat and happy story written in the 1920’s when women’s expectations were different, so I can forgive the cheesiness.

4 out of 5 for being a pleasant story and a good read.