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.