Tuesday, 14 December 2010

[009] The Reaper - Peter Lovesey

The Reaper by Peter Lovesey

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

A dark delicious tale of a handsome and popular village cleric who has no conscience.

Why I Picked It Up:

I'd seen it at the library a few times. It was purse-sized and didn't look too long. No intense interest but it could be good.

What I Think:

I had absolutely no idea what to expect going into this novel. The back of the book is a single sentence, for crying out loud. I thought it was maybe going to take place in the Middle Ages and maybe there would be some murder or something. I didn't know but I figured it couldn't be horrible.

I came out of it completely, head-over-heels in love with this book.

Now, right from the get go, you know that our "hero", the vicar Otis Joy, is a horrible man. This is established from pretty much the first sentence of the novel. He's young and charming and the congregation loves him but he's also a thief and a murderer (and that's only in the first chapter). However, despite knowing all that before you even get to know the character, somehow you are still rooting for him the entire book which is quite an accomplishment for an author.

Lovesey has created this small, modern-day village in rural England, full of gossip and bake sales and a society centered around their little Sunday services. It's all very real, all the people seeming to jump off the page to talk to you about Elaine's son or that awful Colin. Added to the mix, though, is murder and mayhem and underhandedness. Joy's plans seem to keep going awry and he has to go farther and farther into the pit he's dug for himself. 

I keep seeing this book categorized as a mystery and I don't know if I quite agree with that. I know that Lovesey is a mystery writer and thus, I understand the temptation but I think I would call this book a thriller. A mystery implies that there are circumstances that one doesn't know the truth behind and that's never quite true in this novel. You always know who exactly it is that is behind each crime (even if it may take about ten pages to reveal itself). There is some mystery solving going on, by two of the most obnoxious characters in the book, determined to pin every crime in the village on the beloved vicar (and quite right they are to do it). But they are repugnant people and no one in the village listens to them.

There's thrills and questions and twists and turns. There is a character introduced fairly early on, Rachel, who you are never quite sure what to think of. She's definitely one of the best characters in the novel. Finding out what role she plays in all this, finding out about Otis Joy's devious past, watching horrific crime after horrific crime getting committed and all along, hoping that Joy's deeds are not going to catch up with him are all part of the ride.

This book is thrilling, darkly hilarious and always entertaining. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you read one book I review on this entire website, it should be this one.

[008] Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Harry Potter is a wizard. He is in his second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Little does he know that this year will be just as eventful as the last...

Why I Picked It Up:

Optimistic attempt to reread the whole book series before the seventh movie. The seventh movie came out almost a month ago. I obviously failed.

What I Think:

Now, most of my thoughts on the early Harry Potter novels were pretty much summed up in my review of Philosopher's Stone so this review is going to be short and focused.

Chamber of Secrets is pretty awesome simply because it introduces us to Tom Riddle, one of the best characters in Harry Potter. I consider him a separate character from who he grows up to become because Voldemort, for much of the series, is more of an idea than he is a character and Tom Riddle just gives us so much to work with. He's smooth and charming and even vaguely sympathetic at times. Sure, he turns out to be evil but it's a face behind the mask and that makes it interesting.

Of course, this book also introduces us to Ginny. I'm kind of neutral towards Ginny; I  never really felt any sort of connection to her character other than as a love interest for Harry (and that was very poorly done, in my opinion) so I'd rather not comment on her. Having said that, however, I think this is possibly my favorite book for Ginny-antics. She's not pretty or alluring yet; she's Ron's mousy little sister that has a very obvious crush and acts like a typical eleven year old. That's the kind of Ginny I like and find adorable. When she gets older, not so much.

One thing I didn't mention in the last review is that I'm actually reading the British editions this time around, due to their availability. Now, obviously, not too much is different between the two countries but there are some instances of words we would not use in America confusing me upon first reading. While I have acclimatized myself to the use of 'jumpers' meaning 'sweaters' by now, at first glance I was a little worried for the Weasley's choice of apparel for boys. Reading the British edition definitely keeps you on your toes.

Chamber is getting into the swing of things for the Harry Potter series, more so than the first novel and leading into the third, where I think things really pick up. It's still a children's novel but it has a little more depth and is starting to look more like the epic it is destined to become. It introduces plot points that will come together in future books and it's clear that J.K. Rowling knew what she was building as she wrote this novel. It feels like it is aware of what it will soon be. A much better re-read.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

[007] The Countess - Catherine Coulter

The Countess by Catherine Coulter

What the Back of the Book Has to Say: (and in this case, it's a hell of a lot)

Dear Reader,

The Countess was my very first novel, published in 1978 under the title The Autumn Countess. Even at that amazingly young age, I still realized I should write about something I knew. Since I'd grown up reading Georgette Heyer and my master's degree is in nineteenth-century European history, it wasn't much of a mental stretch--a Regency romance. Well, sort of.

As it turned out, The Autumn Countess danced into the bookstores not as a Regency, but as a Gothic masquerading as a Regency.

I've rewritten the novel extensively to make it even more unabashedly Gothic in form, texture, and content, including use of the first-person narrator in the classic Gothic style.

Andrea Jameson, unlike the conventional Gothic heroine, isn't a destitute governess. She's young, rich, and toothsome, and adores her Dandie Dinmont terrier, George. However, Andrea doesn't have a single dream of meeting Mr. Right, marrying, and living happily ever after. Go figure.

She strikes a bargain with an older widowed earl who promises her all the razzle-dazzle without the obey part. She's perfectly happy with the deal until she meets the earl's nephew and realizes fairly quickly that she might have made an exceptional blunder. 

But she doesn't have much time to ponder her dim-witted choice of husband because someone is trying to kill her. Will she survive to marry the man of her dreams? 

I hope you enjoy the inside cover. The art department had a ball designing what they call their "uptown classic Gothic." 

Do tell me if you enjoyed the rebirth of my Gothic tale.

Catherine Coulter
Write me at PO Box 17, Mill Valley CA 94942

Why I Picked It Up:

It had been a long time since I'd read a romance novel and it looked to be one of the few, if the only, on the shelf.

What I Think:

Romance novels and I have a long and colorful history. It all began when I entered college and quickly became an English major. For a majority of my college life, I also lived with two other English majors, the aforementioned A and another roommate who we will call V. It didn't take long for the three of us to discover that reading very serious literature all the time was rather tiring for the brain and although we loved reading enough to major in it, we did not love it so much as to read heavy things in our free time. And thus, we discovered romance novels, Regency romance novels in particular.

Regency romance novels are beautiful in their formulaic-ness . They all proceed in about the same fashion: young virgin meets slightly older (probably titled) man with a flawed and most likely tragic past, the two fall in love and will have to overcome some sort of evil villain or dangerous plot or just society in general that stands in the way of their happiness which, of course, they will. The woman will probably better her social status and the once nefarious rake will finally settle down, most likely with the birth of their child in the epilogue. You pick up the book knowing there will be a happy ending, after a few adventures and roughly three sex scenes, varying in graphicness. 

To be quite honest, despite trading romance novels around in our suite like a mini-library, when I ended up not living with the two of them my senior year of college, I fell out of the routine of the romance novel. They still have not lost their appeal but without others to laugh at it with and tell that "you have to read this one next," it's just not the same.

Perhaps nostalgia for a sillier time is what prompted me to pick up The Countess. If you gave even a half glance to what the back of the book had to tell me, I think you have a pretty good idea of what was going to happen in the book as well as the quite ridiculous writing style I was going to have to put up with. This book can ramble like nobody's business and enjoys going off on tangents that seem unnecessary (and, well, are). It takes itself very seriously (as it's a "Gothic novel" after all) and that is why I have put it in the 'so bad, it's good' category.

The Countess is like a stupendous B movie. First of all, it thinks it is a Gothic novel which, I can tell you quite plainly, it isn't. Apparently, to be a Gothic novel, you just need a dusty castle and a ghost. Admittedly, The Countess has both of those but those two traits alone do not a classic Gothic make. The whole thing stinks of an author who has read too many romance novels (along with real literature) herself and was very self-satisfied with her own attempt, despite the fact that it really isn't what she thinks it is. Which, I suppose, I should take as a warning should I attempt to write my own some day.

The best thing about this whole, ridiculous novel, however, is that despite the fact that you can tell on the back cover what the entire plot of the novel is, she still throws in more plot twists than you can shake a stick at, just to confuse the hell out of you. If you read the back of the book, you know already that person who is "trying to kill her" has to be the husband she married or else there is no feasible way to pull off the happy ending prescribed of her marrying this nephew of his. It would just not work in romance novel logic, especially as a Regency book. Putting all that aside, though, Coulter has thrown in side-stories about ghosts, some sort of terrible past the heroine has with her father which will coincide with her staying pure (another thing a Regency heroine needs is purity, since one plot point of the story will be her finally sleeping with the true love of her life, in this case the nephew), a brother and sister-in-law who are either sinister or just kind of strange, a society rival (despite the fact that their castle is in the middle of nowhere) and just general danger and mayhem. It's an awful lot for this tiny book to carry and most of the time, it flounders under too much plot.

Despite all this, I still genuinely enjoyed The Countess because it was just all so silly. Coulter's writing style is bizarre, full of out of place language and asides that don't mean anything. The plot doesn't make sense at the best of times and is vaguely offensive at the worst. All in all, though, it is silly, ridiculous fun and a nice relaxing break from the depressing speculative fiction of Never Let Me Go.

After I finished it, I talked to A on Skype and spent two hours recounting the entire plot to her, including as many quotes as I could find flipping through the book. I think I can say with complete honesty that both A and I give The Countess two bemused thumbs up.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

[006] Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

In one of the most acclaimed and original novels of recent years, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now thirty-one, Never Let Me Go hauntingly dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.

Why I Picked It Up:

I'd always been curious about it and now with the movie coming out soon, I felt like there was no time like the present.

What I Think:

One thing that annoys me before I read a book (or, to be honest, see a movie, watch an episode of a television show, etc) is to hear a friend's opinion on the piece of work. I don't mean them saying something like "It's really good!" or "I didn't really like it." Those are vague enough that they don't affect my reading of the novel. However, if they mention something specific ("This character just got on my nerves," "The way they did this scene didn't seem realistic enough," "They kept mentioning this when they didn't need to"), I spend the entire reading focused on their comments. Usually, I know if I normally agree or disagree with said friend's opinions, as well, so I already have an idea of how I am to feel about whatever is in question. Basically, I have been prepared to go into something unknown with preconceived notions and that doesn't feel fair to the book so I try my hardest to avoid this.

When I picked this book up at the library, I ended up talking to my best friend (we'll call her A, for both anonymity and so that she feels like some sort of awesome inside source) over Skype later that night. I was rather excited to read it and told her so. She said that she had read it and while she kind of liked it, she could never get into it. At this point in conversations like this, I normally go, "No! Don't tell me any more! We can talk about it after I finish!" as we have these conversations about pretty much any media in our lives, but, as normal, she goes "Well, I'll just say that the narrator feels awkward because it's a British man trying to write in the voice of a young schoolgirl and it never feels authentic." Which, unfortunately, is exactly the kind of comment I always try not to hear before jumping into a book, especially as A and I have very similar taste and thus, I mentally resigned myself to feeling uncomfortable with the narrator. 

Now, the novel jumps right into the story, with our narrator, Kathy, thinking back to her childhood and the various relationships and events that have formed her life up to this point. There are a lot of unfamiliar terms in her speech and questions that won't be answered for hundreds of pages and that's when I realized something. Maybe I just hadn't heard anything about the novel before I read it or somehow lived under a rock but it took me getting about 100 pages into it to realize that I was reading a science fiction novel. This was a delightful discovery. I adore science fiction and, in particular, the tone science fiction novels adopt by their sheer speculative nature. 

This is a 'what if' novel, as most speculative fiction pieces are. It takes a scenario that actually isn't all that unbelievable and posits it into a picture of modern England. All of our characters are a product of this different reality and by showing them coming to terms with what their very existence means to both them and society as a whole, Ishiguro is able to point out the flaws in this idyllic seeming world, playing with morality and the greater good through the eyes of children. 

I don't want to spoil what is going on in the novel as I accidently got spoiled by a google search about a hundred and fifty pages in and I felt it ruined it a little bit to me. The slow-dawning horror of what is actually going on is very well done, especially as it comes from the eyes of an innocent, a group of children that don't know any better and the strange reactions to events that seem normal to them from the adults around them. It's a well constructed tale, pushing its views without drowning the reader in some sort of preachy tone. 

And that's where my preconceived notions began to distress me. I had it in my head that I should feel sort of put out by the narrator, as A was. We agree on about 99% of these sorts of things. But I have been reading speculative fiction most of my life and one thing that is a common reoccurrence in this sort of novel is an alien feeling from our narrator. Of course they shouldn't feel completely realistic; the whole point on the novel is that they live in a world different from our own and thus, they won't feel things the same way we do. They are written that way for a reaction, so the reader finds some sort of pity or empathy or fear from the way another human being could react to something so foreign to us. Kathy shouldn't feel like a normal schoolgirl because she isn't. She is a product of the reality of the book. 

Never Let Me Go is a wonderful novel addressing a vision of a future that isn't so unbelievable from the point of view of a young girl. It tackles questions of morality in science and the age old question of why are we here. Admittedly, the science fiction fan in me was a little disappointed in the ending but the literature major appreciated the understatement. It is thought-provoking, touching and a little scary, to be honest. A surprisingly quick read and highly recommended. 

Sunday, 21 November 2010

[005] The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House/The Haunting by Shirley Jackson

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Four seekers have come to the ugly, abandoned old mansion: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of the psychic phenomenon called haunting; Theodora, his lovely and light-hearted assistant; Eleanor, a lonely, homeless girl well acquainted with poltergeists, and Luke, the adventurous future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable noises and self-closing doors, but Hill House is gathering its powers and will soon choose one of them to make its own...

Why I Picked it Up: 

A love of ghost stories and positive memories of liking the 1999 movie.

What I Think:

I have a deep and abiding love of horror stories, instilled in me by my father at a very early age. I remember watching Predator around the same age I was watching those good old Disney musicals and Gremlins has been in my top five movies since I was six. And when it comes to horror, I've always preferred ghost stories. I think the best part of horror stories aren't the overtly gory things but the little things that put a chill down your spine: a footstep when you're alone in the house, things in a different place from where you left them, a voice you don't recognize calling your name. 

The novel The Haunting of Hill House is much different from the recent movie that was based off of it. I hear that the 1963 movie version is closer to the novel but I have not had the pleasure of watching it yet so I cannot compare. The 1999 movie, starring Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is a classic ghost film, all about a vengeful spirit slowly trying to kill off a group of researchers in a big, scary haunted house. There's living furniture, voices in the night and murderous spirits. There's even a colossal climax at the end where the house chooses to try and take one of the main characters to itself. It's a good ghost story and delightfully creepy.

The novel is divergent from this movie but no less enjoyable, if for different reasons. The characters are still all there and the basis of the plot is the same: a professor wants to study the idea of 'hauntings' and invites a group of people to the house to be test subjects. That is about as far as they are similar, however. The book is not so much a ghost story as a true gothic novel, all dark corners and suspicion and shadows. There is the feeling of claustrophobia, the entire world consisting of the four researchers in a big, drafty house that seems to change its architecture at whim. There's a delectable backstory of past cruelty and unhappiness infecting the house. There's a group of strangers thrown together who bond quickly and deeply, calling each other 'dear,' playfully creating fake identities for each other and acting as if they were closer than family mere hours after meeting, a strange tone that only seems to work in the very best gothic novels ala Murdoch's The Unicorn

Most of the story is told through the eyes of Eleanor, a girl who came to the house because she had nowhere else to go. She lives with a sister and brother-in-law who view her only as a burden and escapes into the new life that is offered her at Hill House. Here she is a valued member of the team; here she is sharp and witty and important. She delights in looking clever in front of Luke and forms a vaguely homoerotic relationship with Theodora (but what gothic novel doesn't have some vaguely homoerotic relationships?) As time goes on, however, she begins to feel more and more left out, as if she weren't as important as she seemed at first, as if perhaps the others don't care for her, as if perhaps the house is getting to her, getting inside of her.

The real delight of this novel is that it is a ghost story without a ghost. Sure, many spooky things happen to the characters as the story goes on: doors bang open and closed, there seem to be strange whispers in the hallways, there's always a feeling of being watched, being chased. However, nothing explicit ever happens. Everything is so deliciously vague. Since everything takes place through Eleanor's eyes, it's just as easy to interpret the strange actions not as fact but as a very gradual descent into madness. Even the language of the novel supports this theory, getting more and more stream of consciousness and fluid and yet disjointed and confused as the journey through the house's secrets continues. 

It all culminates in a grand climax, just as exciting as the movie but much more dependent on the reader to determine exactly what has happened. Depending on whether you believe the house is evil or Eleanor is just crazy, the ending is either sinister or tragic. Either way, however, you're equally pleased with the conclusion. There's just something perfect in the denouement or, I suppose, the lack thereof. 

All in all, I loved this book and highly recommend it. I suppose it's a little late to read it for Halloween but if you want a little bit of a spooky Thanksgiving, pick it up. It's a quick read and well worth it.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

[004] Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy - until he is rescued by an owl, taken to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!

Why I Picked It Up:

An optimistic attempt to reread the Harry Potter series before the seventh movie. Considering I'm seeing the movie on Friday, you can consider this a failed mission.

What I Think: 

Let me get this on the record to begin with: I love Harry Potter. Starting at book four, I was at every midnight book release, dressed in pajamas if that would get me a discount. I'm going to opening night on Friday, dressed in a Neville Longbottom shirt and hoping beyond hope that my friends and I will get the special keychains they're giving out for some of the premieres. I know more than I should about the mythology and could make bad Harry Potter reference jokes with the rest of them.

Back when I was younger and had more time in my life, I used to reread the Harry Potter books all the time. In recent history, though, I can't remember the last time I read any of the books. Probably the last time I touched one was when I read the seventh book when it came out three years ago. Unfortunately, school and life got in the way but suffice it to say, Harry Potter is never going to leave my mind. I'm sure I'll still be talking about it well into my old age. Exactly why I was so excited to reread the books; it had been so long. 

That's why I say, with great sadness, that the first book was a bit of a letdown. It's like rewatching your favorite childhood movie again in your twenties and realizing it's not what your mind has built it up to be. All the scenes you remember are there but they're only a page long. There isn't much character development and it's too fast paced to build the fantastic world that you have in your mind. Logically, I know this is Harry Potter, the same story I've loved for over ten years but somehow, it's not the same as what I remember.

Now, I'm sure that the books improve with time. The only book I didn't like the first time I read it was book six and I know there were a lot of people in that boat with me. Like anyone, JK Rowling's writing gets better with time and this is her first novel, written before it became a phenomenon. And it's a children's book, as much as we tend to forget it. Of course the first few novels are going to be more concerned with plot and action to keep its young readers interested. No ten year old is very interested in character development. 

To be completely honest, what makes the Harry Potter books amazing is not actually the plot, as much as most readers don't want to admit it. Harry Potter has enraptured a generation of young people, myself included, because the world it has created. It's all the little details: the spell names, the throw away facts, the magic and the mystery and the comfortable feeling the emanates from every word. There is something that feels like childhood and home and a place you can always go back to that has enchanted us all. 

If you want a quick journey back to Hogwarts before you see the seventh movie, I would recommend watching A Very Potter Musical and A Very Potter Sequel on Youtube. If you somehow haven't discovered these gems yet, it's a Harry Potter themed musical comedy put on by a group of students at University of Michigan, the lead of which, Darren Criss, has recently found himself on Glee. The great thing about AVPM is that it isn't Harry Potter, it's Harry Potter as we see it, with all the references, in-jokes, and sarcasm. It's everything you love about the world, without the anticlimax of ruining your perfect childhood memories. A perfect (and hilarious) solution.

See you at Deathly Hallows Part One!

Friday, 12 November 2010

[003] The First Horseman - John Case

The First Horseman by John Case

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

On the Norwegian Sea, an icebreaker forges its way through frozen waters to a remote island in the Arctic, carrying a scientific team that hopes to unearth the bodies of long-dead miners. "Washington Post" reporter Frank Daly has the story of a lifetime. But his plan to join the scientists on their historic mission is ruined by a ferocious storm. When he meets up with the ship upon its return to port in Norway, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong.

Fear haunts the faces of the crew. No one will talk. And someone wants Daly to stop asking questions. But the more he uncovers, the more dangerous the stakes become until at last he comes face-to-face with a shocking secret, a secret that pitches him into a harrowing race to prevent nothing less than ... apocalypse.

Reason I Picked It Up:

I felt like reading a thriller and was intrigued by the shiny gold cover. Yes, I judged a book by its cover.

What I Think:

First, let it be known, that I believe the use of ellipsis in the blurb on the back cover of a book to be completely over used. After copying down a large number of short summaries in preparation for this blog, I have discovered this troubling problem. Whoever is in charge of writing these needs to realize that there are more ways to create dramatic tension than a painfully obvious nonverbal pause. In this case, maybe a bit more plot detail because, honestly, the back of the book makes it sound a lot more boring than it is.

The first half of this book is, indeed, very deserving of the term "thriller." For the first forty pages or so, the point of view changes so many times that I kept having to flip back to remember who was who. While this might sound like a confusing and annoying state of affairs, the truth is that so much was happening, it just added more drama to the mystery itself and kept me intrigued. 

Risking perhaps telling too much, I'll let you in on a bit more than the original blurb writers did. First, you follow a charming young woman as she fakes getting lost in a suburban neighborhood to kidnap a middle aged couple. Next, you fly to Korea and watch a small village burn to the ground through the eyes of man who was out collecting wood when it happened. The next chapter finds you in DC when someone is informed of the Korean man's escape to authorities. Meanwhile, a biological researcher and her colleague get special funding for their journey to Arctic to study a long dead strain of bacteria frozen in the ice years after they'd been told it would never happen. This is all in the first twenty pages. 

One thing that does throw me a bit, though, is that they don't introduce our protagonist, Frank Daly, for far too many pages. After the hectic pace of the beginning of the novel, once they introduce Daly, we follow him pretty exclusively and it slows the plot down. Between him and the female lead, Annie (who is, admittedly, a breath of fresh air as a female scientist), the only other perspective we come back to is the young woman from the beginning and thank goodness, because otherwise there would be no way to follow what was truly going on plotwise. While it is flattering that the book allows the reader to make connections it never fully reveals, rare for a thriller, it's a strange stylistic jump that doesn't sit right.

The only other problem with the book is something Case had no way of working around: the apocalyptic event he predicted when he wrote the book in 1998 actually occurred in the real world ten years later. If you don't want to be spoiled, I would recommend you stop reading here. ..... Ready? The horrible event that is set to be unleashed upon the world? Is an epidemic. An epidemic that is basically Swine Flu. Once I realized that, most dramatic tension of the novel washed away. Of course, it's not Case's fault I read this novel in the future and had already lived through the panic, only to realize there was nothing much to worry about but is a bit of a let down.

All in all, this is a thriller that would be much more thrilling before 2009. However, the writing is well done and the plot is fairly twisty. Given the chance, I would read more John Case. Unfortunately, though, that doesn't seem to be in my future. Happily, though, there are many more novels that predict real life disasters and I have all the time in the world.

Monday, 8 November 2010

[002] Shrink Rap - Robert B. Parker

Shrink Rap by Robert B. Parker

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Melanie Joan Hall is a best-selling author in a bind. Her publisher needs her on tour on behalf of her newest blockbuster, and Melanie Joan needs a bodyguard-cum-escort to protect her from an overbearing ex-husband whose presence unnerves her to the point of hysteria. Sunny Randall's cool demeanor, cop background, and P.I. smarts are an instant balm for the older woman. She begins to sense that Melanie Joan's ex (a psychotherapist) is not your basic stalker, and when an incident at a book signing leaves the ex-husband bloodied and the author unconscious, it's clear the stakes are high. Deciding that the only way to crack the case is from the inside, Sunny enters therapy herself, only to discover some more disturbing truths about herself ... while putting her life on the line.

Why I Picked It Up:

To be completely honest? It looked like it would fit easily in my purse.

What I Think: 

When I grabbed Shrink Rap off the shelf, I did indeed notice the little "A Sunny Randall Mystery" above the author's name. Obviously this book was a part of a series and as the inside page listing his other works didn't tell me which books came before others in the series, I shrugged my shoulders and picked up the book anyway. This is something very un-me as I hate doing things out of order. I'm currently watching Series 2 of Never Mind the Buzzcocks as I want to watch the one airing this year, Series 24. However, the circumstances being what they are, I managed to shrug it off and grab the book anyway. After all, there must be plenty of people that will read a book without reading the ones that came before. Surely, the inglorious Mr. Parker would give me enough to sift through in the novel that I could figure out his characters regardless of my jumping in point.

Have you ever met a group of people where you could tell there was some deep underlying history but there was no way you were ever going to find it out-- all hidden meanings in their words and significant looks which you were never going to decipher? While, admittedly, this is a good atmosphere for a detective novel, you really shouldn't be feeling that way around your main characters. Parker, assuming the reader has read the previous two novels in the Sunny Randall series, gives you almost no background information on the characters you are supposed to be following around. Name dropping does not have the same effect when the other person can't place the name. Half the mystery should not be trying to figure out who exactly you're reading about. 

Beyond that, the main problem of Shrink Rap is the plot itself; it presents itself as a mystery thriller when in reality, the entire novel could have been solved in twenty pages if one of the characters had simply spoken up in the beginning. A mystery, by definition, has to have something that needs to be solved, a missing fact or clue that, with its discovery, helps wrap everything together. This was simply a case of "Well, I was going to tell you eventually..." When you get through the whole novel to discover that one of the characters knew what was going on all along and simply didn't speak up, it ruins the mystique. Of course, if this were reality, the character's silence would make sense but in a novel, it takes away any dramatic tension in an obvious ploy to make the actual focus of the story not the "mystery" itself but its subplot.

This magical plot point is Sunny, our main character who is so painfully quirky that she grates annoyingly, going to therapy with our villain, undercover. I suppose, if you truly cared about Sunny, or indeed, if you knew much about her at all, this might have been an interesting subplot. She kept accidently letting the therapy get through to her and would worry herself incessantly about the issues she was discovering. Honestly, coming at it from perhaps the most impartial of standpoints, I think I could have told her those things to begin with. What is meant to be a deep psychological look at our main character just tends to make her further unlikeable.

I will admit, once I figured out who he was, I did take a liking to Sunny's best friend Spike, who was a very original take on the sweet but badass sidekick. It was a very strange introduction in this novel, though, as Parker once again assumes I know that Spike is a large burly gay waiter with a heart of gold and a penchant for beating people up. I don't know about you but that's not exactly a personality that I jump to when a new character is introduced and it took me awhile to figure out who this was. He definitely turned out to be a breath of fresh air, however, in a novel full of people who took everything very seriously, including their image as "original" and "fresh-faced."

The little bit of Google research I have done on this book has taught me that Robert B. Parker is actually a really well respected mystery writer who's been putting out books since the late seventies, his main detective being a character by the name of Spenser. Actually, apparently the character of Sunny Randall herself was created at the request of Helen Hunt, who wanted Parker to write a character for her to play in a movie (which, obviously, did not pan out). All I can figure is that I jumped into the pool at the wrong end. Perhaps if I had started with a Spenser novel or even the first Sunny Randall, my relationship with Parker might be different. But, like many things in life, this is how the world works and now we shall never know...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

[001] Crooked House - Agatha Christie

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

The Leonides were one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion. That was until the head of the household, Aristide, was murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection.

Suspicion naturally falls on the old man's young widow, fifty years his junior. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward - fiance of the late millionaire's granddaughter...

Why I Picked It Up:

A safe bet to start off with. You really can't go wrong with Agatha Christie.

What I Think:

I don't know about you but if there is one author who has never really let me down, it's Agatha Christie. Despite having a list of works to her name longer than most rivers run, I don't think I've ever read something by her that didn't live up to her reputation. I still remember the very first time I read a Christie book: I was in seventh grade and had been assigned the first third of the book And Then There Were None (the most recent and politically correct title of that book, despite many tries) to be read by Friday and somehow came to school the next day having finished the entire novel. To my delight, so had half the class. But you couldn't really blame us; the only books we'd really been assigned before that either had to do with medieval midwives or children smuggling Nazi gold out of their country under their sleds. A story where the characters dropped like flies was really up our alleys by that point.

A love affair with Christie was born from that moment and yes, this is seemingly relevant to my reading of Crooked House ten years after my first encounter. You see, my favorite Christie books are the ones that don't involve Poirot or Miss Marple but just a one off detective. I feel she's strongest when she has to create a whole character in one book instead of relying on past history and novels. I tend to like her older books better because of it. The point of this is, when I was in my early teens, I devoured these books like there were no other authors in the library. Perhaps you see where this is going.

Crooked House falls into my favorite category: the one off detective. Like many of Christie's novels, it has the just post-World War feeling, understandable as it was written in 1949. All the characters inhabit a bizarre Gothic-esque realm where there only seems to be one house and ten people in the entire world. Charles, our hero, appears to walk a strange line between the outside world and the miniature society of his fiancee Sophia and her strange family. In fact, only perhaps twenty pages of the entire book take place outside of the house itself. And thanks to this claustrophobic atmosphere, Christie is able to imply anything about her characters and, due to our unfamiliarity with their world, we won't know what to believe. 

All the characters that inhabit this house have something slightly off about them, as the title of the book suggests and the only character that seems normal is our stand-in, Charles. The mystery of who killed Aristide takes a backseat to just what is going on in the household and each character adds to the mystery. The youngest child in the house, Josephine, in particular is interesting in her wise-beyond-her-years manner and penchant for investigating. Beyond just her, however, there are two brothers who are worlds apart in temperament and their wives, one overly dramatic and the other overly stern. There's the boy who just wants to escape to the outside and the two family outsiders, the young widow and the family tutor, who may or may not be having a secret love affair.  And at the head of all this is Charles's Sophia, who might just be as crazy as the rest of her family. 

You would think with all of these unique and memorable characters that I would remember sooner than halfway through the book that I had read it before. It all came back to me in a flash-- the strange, black-haired girl wandering around a big house, the fiancees that might not be together due to murder, the mother who fancies herself an actress. But strangely enough, despite having all the characters rush back to me in an instant (along with the vision of myself, age 14, reading it in the car, flying down Highway 26 with my mother), what did not return to me was the actual solution to the mystery or what the patented Christie Twist of this novel was. I had to read to the end, again, to remind myself who, exactly, dun-it.

And I think that says what I would like to say about Christie best: her characters and worlds are top notch. Even if you don't remember exactly what the twist was or who poisoned who, the raven-haired beauty or the cruel old man or that mysterious figure in the brown coat will stick with you. It's the atmosphere that Christie excels at and if you love that feeling, than you'll love this. 

A few recommendations of my favorite Christie books: The Man in the Brown Suit, And Then There Were None, Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, Crooked House

Christie fans out there, any more suggestions? 

Monday, 1 November 2010

How It All Began...

When I moved to Tokyo a little over three months ago, I honestly didn't really expect to see many books in my future. Despite the fact that I'm not exactly bad at speaking Japanese, I'm not amazing at reading the language and airline baggage weight restrictions had limited me to only bringing five books from home with me on the journey (and the airport had seen me dumping a lot of stuff out of my suitcase the morning of the flight). I had accepted the fact that, if I wanted to read a book that wasn't by Bill Bryson or Haruki Murakami, I would probably have to go to a rather overpriced bookstore downtown and buy something imported.

Now, it's not to say that I don't love my Nintendo DS or playing DragonQuest or something of the sort on the train to work in the morning wasn't entertaining. But I do have an hourish commute across town and there is something to be said for books, of pulling a small volume out of your bag and flipping through it, not worrying if you can finish a boss battle before your stop or if your DS will run out of batteries halfway through the ride. Not to mention only a few months before I was writing papers on physical imagery in Chaucer or what tropes in science fiction meant towards society as a whole. I missed it, plain and simple. But, having just started work at an English language preschool, I didn't have the money to go out and buy myself a personal library. 

The answer presented itself one afternoon while registering myself at the local equivalent of city hall. While I was waiting for my papers to be sorted out, a worker handed me a thick volume entitled "A Guide to Living in Suginami City" and told me to keep it. Twenty minutes later, I was flipping through it at the local donut shop (what else are you supposed to do when there is a Mister Donut next door to town hall?) and to my delight discovered a section entitled "Checking Out Books at the Library." The first paragraph informed me that the Central Library had a foreign books section and I eagerly read the paragraph about Suginami Central Library. It reads:

"The library contains approximately 5,600 foreign books and has a plan to expand the collection. One-forth of the foreign books are about Japan. The picture book corner consists of about 2,400 books from many foreign countries. Also, about 13 foreign magazines from the United States, Germany, France, China, South Korea and other countries are available. Records, cassette tapes and CDs can be checked out."

Underneath was this very vague map of where I was headed:

Obviously, I was on my way ... as soon as I finished my delicious honey glazed.

Thirty minutes and one bizarre encounter later, I found myself on the threshold of Ogikubo Public Library. I had a bit of an adventure making a library card, a process that ended up taking me forty five minutes, but was eventually led to a shady back corner of the library that housed its prized "foreign collection." I was astounded.

Three bookshelves. That's all I found. I suppose I should have seen it coming. 5,600 foreign books do not mean they are all in English. One fourth are about Japan and were not in this section. 2,400 seem to be picture books. My (admittedly perhaps not quite right) calculations tell me that only 3,800 books are not about Japan or told through pictures. Of those, maybe 500 line my three favorite bookshelves. 

They seem to be populated by the remnants of past Suginami residents: books that were fun to read but not worth taking home. There are more Tom Clancys than you can shake a stick at but not a single book by an author whose last name begins with 'A'. There are all Harry Potters bar books three and five. There is only one book in the 'K' section. 

Thus, a new goal was born: read as many of the English language books (if not all) from the public library as I can before I leave Japan. I have read some bizarre treats since I began (murderous monks, books written about events that actually occur after their publishing, classics I never got around to reading in school) and intend to discover many more as weeks pass.

And that's where this blog comes in. It's no fun to read ridiculous fiction and have no one to share it with. This blog will be full of reviews of the strange, sometimes good, sometimes horrible things I read as I ride the train morning and night. Perhaps someone may find it amusing. Perhaps it'll be taken as a cautionary tale. Perhaps someone might even have read one of the books before--but I doubt it. All in all, I'm taking a journey down a strange path and I hope someone would like to take it with me.

At the very least, let's enjoy the ride. After all, beggars can't be choosers.