Sunday, December 27, 2009

Many happy returns of the holiday season to one and all! Also Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

I've had a lovely quiet Christmas at casa Bani, and my beloved husband gave me two books: Annie Proulx's Fine Just The Way It Is and another called Dead Lovely by Helen Fitzgerald. Very excited obviously by the former, but actually almost as excited by the latter, since it may turn out to be quite a find if the cover quotes live up to what they promise. I've never heard of the woman, but it seems promising. It's very sweet of him, and here's me only after getting him a box of chocs and running trousers (that turned out to be too big). The shame.

Fittingly I shall conclude by writing about another gift, one of the books my cousin sent me for my birthday, namely Raymond Carver's collection of short stories. Reading up a bit on Carver on Wikipedia (can't be bothered to link now because I'm at work and the computer is soooo slow) I learned that there are apparently two versions of this collection, or at least of many of the stories in it; one being a sort of author's cut since he was unhappy with his editor's heavy editing. It would be interesting to read Carver's preferred version some time. A quote from the Times Literary Supplement on the back cover calls the stories "brilliant shards", and that is an excellent description - they are short, often only describing the centre of something much longer, so you are left to imagine what led up to it and what might follow and why it happened, and they feel as translucent and brittle as glass shards too. I liked some better than others, as is always the case, but in general the whole is still one of the best books I've read. I think the first one, Why Don't You Dance? might be my favourite. It stuck with me most. Very much recommended.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sara Gran: Dope

What. A. Find. Stumbled across it, and borrowed it thanks to the endorsements on the back cover. Kate Atkinson says that it's "a perfect noir pastiche but with a life and character all its own." Lee Child says that "If Raymond Chandler knew then what we know now, he might have written a book like this. Highly recommended." Someone called Robert Rayner says it's "A thrilling, heartbreaking journey through the heroin underbelly of 1950s New York. I was more than hooked. I was blown away." And Robert B Parker (whoever he is) says that it's "Tight and polished and exquisitely crafted."

All these statements are true. It's a really intelligent and moving little novel, about a former heroin addict and small-time criminal who thinks she's gotten her big break when she's hired to find a rich man's daughter. The daughter has become a "dope fiend" and since Josephine Flannigan knows the world of the dope fiends she has been suggested as the best detective. While Joe starts digging she discovers that the job isn't as clearcut as she'd thought, and that the past will always catch up with you. It's definitely noir, but with an edge that makes it anything but parody, it's beautifully sad and heartbreakingly dirty. Loved it. I'm definitely reading Sara Gran's other books - and on her website you can read the first two chapters of Dope if you want to see how good it is.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Some things I've thought about

I read about a Swedish woman caught smuggling cocaine in Brasil, who was sentenced to community service. Apart from working one hour a day in some sort of rehab clinic, she is to spend her time reading Selma Lagerlöf and Harry Martinsson in the court's library, and then present some sort of essay or something to the judge.

There are worse ways to spend three years, I hope she enjoys the literature and profits from her studies.

I think if I do another crime fiction splurge (I think this one is almost over) I want to read books set in Uppsala. There's some sort of exhibition thingy at the library so I picked up a leaflet with reading tips. The leaflet was put together by the former librarian and author Thomas Brylla, who sadly died a little while ago. I have to say that I once read one of Brylla's own detective stories and hated it, but I'd gladly honour his memory by reading one of his favourite genres like this. Of course, Kjell Eriksson is worth it, and so is Kerstin Ekman (she only wrote one book set here though). As for the rest, we'll see.

First I might maybe maybe indulge in something that is apparently called skämslitteratur - that is, books you're ashamed to own/have read. Namely, Jean M Auel. I never did read that last one. I think I want to. When I was a teen I read the sexy bits, obviously, now I enjoy the parts where she describes how they make stuff, and stuff. I'm honestly not ashamed to have read Auel, but possibly a little hesitant to own the influence the books had on me there for a while...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Amanda Cross: Honest Doubt

Now, I like Amanda Cross. So obviously I was delighted to see a Cross I hadn't read on the shelf and immediately brought it home. Last time I read one of her books was in February 2006, and I've had her simmering on the back burner of my brain since, hoping to come across a new one. This is why my disappointment in Honest Doubt is so acute. I didn't enjoy it at all. And I hate that I didn't. [cue violins and sobs]

It's a very recent book, from 2000, and therefore feels slightly anachronistic. My last forays into the world of Kate Fansler were set in the mid-eighties, and this book has that air of really being set in an earlier time, just not. This is the same problem that P.D. James has sometimes, as I've said. Unlike the other Crosses I've read it's not written from Kate's perspective, but as a first person narrative of a private detective known as Woody, who has been hired to solve the murder of a much disliked, mysogynistic college professor who specialised in Tennyson. (Hey, that was a long sentence!) Woody, for some reason that just feels contrived, needs some expert insight into the workings of an English department, so is recommended Kate as a sort of consultant. So from here the story potters on. Woody interviews suspects, on her own or with a local policeman who is very helpful. She is baffled by the intricate mysterious workings of both the department itself and those intelligent academics who talk and talk about academic things until she gets confused and only realises later that she's been distracted. It's just very unrealistic, and has a very uncomfortable air of an academic trying to blow her own trumpet. Unlike! It all ends with Agatha Christie playing a part in solving it all. 

I dunno. Was rather bored to be honest. Of course, I'll read anything else I can find - goes without saying. I've not given up on her.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Marian Keyes: This Charming Man

Okay, not crime fiction. But there are crimes in it.

My soft spot for Marian Keyes continues to be pokeable. As soon as I saw this I nabbed it - and I was the first reader, too! The first to crack the spine. That makes two in one library trip. Almost as good as buying new books!

It's a real brick of a book, must be her thickest yet, and tells the story of three women - well, four really, but the fourth is more minor - who have had a relationship with a politician called Paddy de Courcy. They each get their own section: stylist Lola's is written in the sort of diary style made popular by Bridget Jones, journalist Grace's and her twin sister Marnie's are more traditional narratives (can't remember now if one was first person, don't have the book here and really not important). Interspersed are short paragraphs describing an abusive episode, with no names mentioned. As the book unfolds we find out which woman was being beaten and by whom. The first woman to have her say is Lola, and after ten pages or so I started worrying that the whole book would be in this style, because it's rather tiresome to read. Diary type books are fundamentally flawed, because surely no-one ever writes diaries like that. You don't abbreviate in absurdum yet relate dialogue, you just don't. Like I said, I don't have the book here, but a passage could go something like this:

"Why you here, Dermot" I asked.

"Am here for film night, Lola" replied.

"No film night, Dermot. Have done away with film night. Am tired. Want sleep."

You see my point? I was a bit relieved when the point of view changed to Grace's. However, Lola's parts are needed, because they provide the comic relief necessary between the heavier parts that are Marnie's alcoholism and Grace's worries on that subject (and other things). The Lola bits do feel more "traditional" Keyes, more in her light-hearted style.

The book has a theme subject, and that is abuse of women. All the women have been abused. Your first guess at who the culprit is is probably correct, but it's a bit more clever than that: there are little hints dropped to make you wonder if more of the men featured in the book are sadists, and if you're first assessment of the situation was wrong. It's painted with a broad brush, admittedly, but nevertheless it's well done, because that is what women often face - a perfectly normal-seeming man who isn't.

The "charming man" referred to in the title really isn't, in my opinion, and that is a flaw. There's no way it seems believable that anyone would ever fall for that sleaze, frankly. Charm does work better in person. But I liked the book, several bits were very funny indeed if you know Ireland at all, and the abuse parts made the laughter stick in your throat. As usual the descriptions of an alcoholic sinking way down are fantastic. Marian Keyes may write books with neatly tied up and happy endings, but the fact that she has been through hell always shows. It's never completely rosy and she knows first-hand about the dark side.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

2 x Lee Child

Lee Child was recommended to me by a former colleague, and I didn't have high hopes at all because said collegue also likes Camilla Läckberg, and I was flipping through one of her books that he'd brought to work and oh no, is that a waste of space. But I'm running out of stuff to read on my crime extravaganza, not to mention that I'm getting plain bored with it - see how I've evolved? I want real literature! - so am a bit choosy. But I decided to give Child a try, and got the two books that the library had (in English). They happen to be the two last ones in the series, no. 12 and 13. By chance I also read them in the right order, not that it matters much with this series.

Child's hero is a former military called Jack Reacher, who left the army and is now a vagrant, by choice. If you read that link you find out everything about him, which frankly spoils the books. I've now read the two last ones, and don't know that much. This is a Good Thing, because it's one of Child's strengths as an author - he doesn't feel the need to repeat stuff he's already written about. He can be repetitive in other ways, but he doesn't for example explain in every book exactly why Reacher left the military, why he has money (it's enough for him to choose to never do laundry, but instead just buy new clothes when needed, and to leave quite generous tips), why he drifts. I'm kind of wanting to read the link now, but kind of not. If I come across more of these books I'd read them, and then discover more as I go along. It's a bit of a novelty in this type of fiction to be presumed intelligent enough to follow a plot without having all the background information shoved in my face.

So among the bits I know about Reacher is that he's had a career in the army, as a Military Police. He's been around the world, has been injured several times. He's had some sort of disenchantment with the military, so that's probably why he left, I don't think he was kicked out. He now roams the US and comes across crimes or odd situations which he decided to solve or fix or change, like a one-man hurricane. He's a big man who just plunges into fights and wins. Reading the first book I was quite hooked. You just get flung into the story, and Reacher ploughs through to the end. However, reading the second I could see where he repeats himself (another attractive female police officer that Reacher has sex with for example), so it got a bit less interesting. Plus there were more things that annoyed me in that book, more on that below. There are a few inconsistencies: in Nothing to Lose Reacher comments on all the cups of coffee he drinks - a good brew, a nice cup, but in Gone Tomorrow he says that he doesn't care what the coffee is like really, it's just about the caffeine.

So in summary, much more entertaining reads than I'd thought, but not unflawed.

Nothing to Lose: Reacher is hitch-hiking, and has plotted out a course he wants to follow, a course that takes him through the town of Despair. To his surprise the townspeople act like something out of the Wild West, are openly hostile and kick him out. He goes back to the sister town of Hope and starts looking into what the problem is in Despair, enlisting the help of the sheriff (female, attractive - etc.). I was, as I said, very pleasantly surprised. A good thriller.The red heifer is mentioned, btw.

Gone Tomorrow has Reacher in New York, where he notices a woman on the subway displaying all the signs of a suicide bomber. When he tries to talk to her she kills herself. This drags Reacher into a post-9/11 mess, where he is questioned and detained without his rights. He teams up with the dead woman's brother and an attractive female police officer (natch), and tries to find out why she died. I was more annoyed with this book, because despite it being quite critical of the Terrorism Act and in general of the post 9/11 paranoia, the general conclusion seems to be that the Afghani mujaheddin became Taliban or Al Qaeda, are very viscious and cruel - not to mention a bit crazy - and to sum up the whole thing feels more than a little speculative. Meh.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Charlaine Harris: From Dead to Worse

Let me reassure you that I didn't go from Herta Müller to Sookie Stackhouse - no no, I don't think that would have been bearable. I read this a while ago, actually. I saw it in the library and couldn't help myself - seems like I have a compulsion to read one of each heroine, so since I haven't read an Aurora Teagarden it ain't over yet. But it really is - to me! - hardly readable. And what makes it sour is that, like I said, the books could be so much better if better editor and given more time. Charlaine Harris is, according to this interview, a rape survivor herself, and one does get that shot of true feelings being tapped into here and there. But without better flow to the stories it's just mediocre. Which makes me sad, I want to like her. She seems like a nice person. But so far the most I've gotten out of her books is finding out (via the interview via her website)that Elaine Viets has a pair of custom-made vampire fangs that she uses instead of a gun or pepper spray to deter unwanted attention. How wonderful is that?

This one is about... um... Sookie's brother has marital problems, the werecreatures have some sort of power struggle and vampires from Las Vegas move in and take over the vampire community. I think that's most of it. Wow, she packs in a lot of blood and sex. But she's not the greatest at it that I've come across. Quite interesting though how Sookie is church-going Methodist (or Baptist?) yet has carnal relations very freely and is all into supernatural things and world. Oh, and this isn't the first book, it's the second-to-last one, so one isn't exactly slowly lulled into the alternative universe here. It's full on fantasy supernatural political summaries from page one, and I almost laughed out loud thinking what Nick Hornby would have made of it. Vampire queens, werecreatures and synthetic blood, all in earnest. Ha.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Herta Müller: Hertztier/Hjärtdjur/The Land of Green Plums

I have had the great honour and pleasure of being invited to join a book discussion club. They've been reading together for a few years and recently decided to invite some more people, and I'm honoured to have been one of them. Hardly surprisingly the book of choice for the December meet was one by our latest Nobel Prize winner, so I interrupt the regular programming of crime fiction for a bit of Culture. I read the book in a Swedish translation, but I decided to write about it in English anyway. Y'know, for that international touch.

The novel seems to be largely autobiographical, echoing events in Müller's own life. It is a largely linear story, with some flashbacks or glimpses of the future here and there, but told in episodes rather than a straight line. I was reminded of P.O. Enquist and Jeanette Winterson.  The way I understand the linear story is as follows: the narrator, who grew up in a village, comes to the city to study, sharing a room with five other girls. One of them is a troubled soul, desperate to find a white-collar man. She joins the Party, which in combination with some selfish habits leads to tension in the shared room. After her apparent suicide the narrator becomes friends with three young men who oppose the regime, and collect unpermitted literature in a secret place. At one point they are all taken in for questioning. Later they find work, but it becomes difficult for them to work with their political views. They are fired. Three of them leave the country, and two of them end up killing themselves. Interspersed with this are short episodes from the narrators childhood, which are written in a slightly more fantastical fashion, leaving the reader more unsure of what is real and what is childish imagination.

Right, so did I like it? I'm not sure. I felt as though I was missing something. Some sort of background information. There was imagery I didn't fully get, such as the green plums referred to in the English title - when she is a child the narrator's father says that green plums will kill her, and as an adult she keeps pointing at this eating of green plums and how the guards of the totalitarian state eat green plums always. I don't really understand this. Why would anyone eat green plums at all, they're vile. I must be missing something. It's going to be really interesting discussing this tomorrow, and I'll probably update the post then. I'm wondering if it's a translation issue, but I don't think so, the translation seems good. Is it just that I'm unfamiliar with her work, and this is best read in conjunction with earlier books?

Update after just arriving home from club: it was indeed very interesting to read what the others thought about the book. Some opinions we shared, like that it was generally not easy to read, but in some we differed. Got some new ideas on the green plums issue that were interesting. Has made me determined to re-read book at later date. I had so much fun!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Now would you look at this!

I borrowed The Hanging at the Hotel the other day (by Simon Brett), but I think I've read it. Not that I'd know from the blog, because apparently I never wrote about it. Arse. Then how'll I ever keep up? And then I found this post and there's more I never wrote about. Damn damn damn.

Agatha Christie: The ABC Murders

I know I know, I'm not that keen on Christie. I borrowed this on whim because I recognized the title but hadn't read it, and I was desperate for some vintage.

As stories and plots go this one is actually quite good. A serial killer challenges Poirot before he starts murdering people in alphabetical order. He signs his letters ABC and leaves an ABC railway guide by the corpses. There are intriguingly modern discussions on the motivations of a serial killer - a well-known alienist is called in to do what we today would call a profile on the killer. Nothing new under the sun, eh? However, Poirot is such an annoying character and Hastings really doesn't improve things. Bleurgh. The end did surprise me a good bit though. If you're into this type of stuff I recommend it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

3 x P.D. James and a long ponder about coffee in crime fiction

Remember I  said that I wanted to read an old P.D. James to compare with the new ones? Well, I did, I went back to the library and borrowed the newest, The Private Patient from 2008 and Innocent Blood from 1980, and then I realised that Innocent Blood wasn't a Dalgliesh novel so thus not perfect for comparisons, so I went back again and borrowed Shroud for a Nightingale from 1971, which I at first had discarded because I had such a distinct memory of reading it - whereas I have a far more vague recollection of, say, Cover Her Face - but I took it in the end because all the others were taken.

So I dove into P.D. James-land, old and new, and tried desperately to pay attention to what I was thinking while I was reading, so I could relate those thoughts later. For what it's worth. I remember noticing how, in the older books, she often mentions the clothes using expressions like "made from good wool", whereas she seems to use less of these qualifiers in the newer ones, choosing instead to describe the clothes and perhaps say something about "from an expensive brand" or similar. Which I think is quite telling. We aren't as good at telling quality anymore, we just know brands. Expensive has become good in itself. But it's interesting how she uses clothes to describe people, to define them. In Shroud for a Nightingale of course the nurses' uniforms too say a lot about them - one chooses to wear a more old-fashioned cap, another sticks to the army nursing uniform she was trained in.

Another thing: when reading Innocent Blood I was suddenly struck by the fact that people in P.D. James' world always drink such great coffee. And then I started noticing and remembering that this is true of lots of crime fiction I read (in English, Swedish is a whole other kettle of java folks) - they're forever taking beans out of the freezer and grinding them to make fresh, strong coffee. From John Grisham to Caroline Graham, not to mention the much older ones. It's EVERYWHERE. Once I started thinking about it I couldn't help but be really struck by it. Now, my experience of Anglo coffee culture is a jar of instant and the electric kettle beside it. I have no personal experience of American coffee, but all my reliable sources (i.e. friends who have been there) say that the stuff people in general drink is vile. So where does this love of bean-grinding come from? Is it an attempt to convert people? Is it just that crime writers somewhere somehow pick up excellent coffee habits and can't imagine their characters drinking anything else? Is it some sort of inside joke? Or is it a class thing - have the middle to upper middle classes (and above) always had good coffee? It just tickles me that there is no middle ground. It's either crap instant coffee OR freshly ground beans and the infusion method. To me there's an intermediate level, and that is buying coffee ready-ground and a drip-style coffee maker. Which is what we have, like, I'd wager, most Swedes. In fact, even though I have a few friends who have oh-la-la espresso makers, I doubt they grind their own beans to be honest. Anyway, P.D. James is a great one for good coffee. It honestly doesn't seem to cross her mind that anyone would make coffee any other way. Oh, I didn't bring the books now (am at work) so I can't check for sure. This is from memory. Possibly the odd jar of instant pops up, but then it's a Telling Thing, I'm sure, like the quality of their clothes. (No prize by the way for guessing what I want for Christmas now.)

I also realised what has bothered me a lot when reading P.D. James - I have time issues. I don't get a clear sense of the time, the when we are talking about. This is silly, because she states the "when" very clearly. Often the book is divided into sections that are dated, so we know where in the investigation we are (July or 10 Aug for example). And the year is the Now, it's not a distant past or anything, just think Now and you're there. But I'm still disoriented. I think it's partly because she creates characters that are not really contemporary. They seem vaguely timeless - if music is discussed it's always the classics, ditto for books, and somehow there is such an emphasis on class that I don't know when I am. And then there's the classic problem of the never-aging detective. In Shroud for a Nightingale Dalgliesh's obnoxious side-kick Masterson thinks of Dalgliesh as "the old man", and Masterson himself is 28 or so. So surely Dalgliesh should be at least 50? Or nearly so anyway. Nevertheless, he seems to be about 50 in The Private Patient too. Or alright, maybe 60. A little closer to retirement. Coupled with the slightly archaic feel to a lot of her characters I end up feeling decidedly lost. It wouldn't happen if she wasn't actually a very realistic writer, someone I take seriously. There are some writers were I don't even notice anachronisms if there are any, but with James I would.

So do I actually really and truly like P.D. James? I think I have to answer yes, because it's impossible to say no. Shes' still one fo the greatest. But I don't, or at least very seldom, feel a strong compulsion to read something she's written. It doesn't really warm the cockles of my heart. It's somewhere in between. Hm.

Innocent Blood
, first, is a stand-alone, one of those crime novels that are acclaimed for being "real literature" and not just detective stories. A young woman, Philippa Palfrey, has always known that she is adopted, and as soon as she legally can she finds out who her biological parents are. To her shock she discovers that she is the daughter of convicted murderers - her father raped a 12-year-old girl, and her mother strangled her. Her father died in prison and her mother is just up for release. Philippa decides to spend the summer with her mother in London. Meanwhile, the father of the murdered girl is looking for them, to take the revenge he promised his wife before she died. It's a novel about the repercussions of crime, and how people cope - and thankfully not so much about whether "bad blood will tell". A lot of commentary on the political tension of the times, and the shift to a gentler, sociological attitude towards criminals, and whether this is right. I can't really fault the book, but it's not a favourite of mine. I don't understand the way the characters behave (apart from the father of the murdered girl). None of them really touch me. I am more interested in the descriptions of a London that is now gone, how Philippa hunts for a flat and so on. One of my problems with P.D. James is clear in this book, and that is how people tend to speak the same way. Granted, she'll have a few of the lower classes talking slang, or with an accent, or what have you, but the middle class she writes about tends to all use the same language. It just annoys me a little that Philippas mother, who isn't supposed to be very educated, talks with much the same vocabulary as Philippa. Another thing which is interesting is that she doesn't really focus on the horror of a paedophile raping a young girl, not the same way as we'd do now. As a matter of fact I get the distinct feeling that the girl sort of has herself to blame? Unpleasant, but something is definitely off.

Shroud for a Nightingale
is also interesting for its historical value, as it describes a shift in nursing education and the general view on and attitude towards nurses and nursing. Not in great detail you understand, but there is information there. The nurses in the book still wear more elaborate uniforms and some of the older ones emphasise the ideals they were trained under - in retrospect the descriptions in McEwan's Atonement were useful to me; I didn't even write about the passages on Briony's nursing training at the time, but now I think I get it. Oddly, I started thinking about an old Ladybird book I had as a child - still have it somewhere. It was about nurses and very retro. Without having read that I don't think that I'd understand all the things she writes about uniforms, spinsterhood as a requirement, staff housing for nurses etc. Ladybird books... oh, I'm having an acute nostalgia attack. They just aren't the same anymore. I must give them a blog entry sometime. Anyway, storyline: in a private hospital with a nursing school attached, housed in an inappropriate old formerly private house, one of the nursing students is killed during a demonstration. Later another is found dead in her room, and then Dalgliesh is called in. The very unsympathetic officer Masterson functions as a contrast to Dalgliesh, the gentleman. This is good detective story, with no dead bits and a bit of a surprise at the end. I remember liking it last time too. I did get a bit overwhelmed by an abundance of names though, but I just went with it. It's not James, it's me, I'm easily distracted.

The Private Patient is also set in a hospital, but I didn't think of that when I was choosing the books.Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative journalist, has decided to remove a very disfiguring scar. She opts for the surgeon George Chandler-Powell, and decided to go to his private clinic in the country instead of having the operation in London. During the night after the operation she is killed, and it's evident that someone connected to the clinic did it.

I really enjoyed this book, and I agree with all those who think that it's James's farewell novel. She wraps up all loose ends and lets everyone be happy (pretty much). It's one of the most hopeful of her novels. Maybe that's why I liked it, because even though the melancholy is there it's offset with love and dreams for the future. So read this if you haven't! It's a good-bye from one of crime fiction's best.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jeffery Deaver: The Broken Window

I haven't, according to the blog, read a novel by Jeffery Deaver since 2006. (I have also misspelled the label - "Jeffrey" -  so I may try to fix that now). I had a bit of a phase then and was quite taken with him. Now, the saying is that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but in the case of revisiting formely pet writers this is not necessarily true. Reading The Broken Window I was more annoyed than I remember being before at how repetitive Deaver is when he fills the new readers in how background info, like that Rhymes is paralysed. And that he peppers the text with cliffhangers. It also felt obvious when he led us to red herring assumptions into who the killer really was - so obvious that I realised it must be someone else that we'd never thought of.

Nevertheless Deaver is a very skilled thriller writer who puts together an entertaining read. When I spotted this brand new paperback at the library (I was the first reader! The spine will never be the same) I was happy to pick it up. The theme of this book is that we, in our new computerized society, sprinkle small bits of information about ourselves all over the place, and that the people who can access all this information have, potentially, enormous power. In this case a serial killer uses the information to stalk victims and frame innocents as their murderers. He knows his victim's interests and can disarm them by liking the same things, he knows what brands the would-be murderer favours and can plant evidence at their house. I have to confess that I am ignorant and am  not sure if there really is a private company that collects ALL such information about us so they potentially can sell a complete dossier on us to anyone, but sure, there might be. It's a sobering thought. Although I can't help feeling a little incredulous about it, since my first reaction is "why would anyone bother?". Except perhaps (a plot in the plot) the government looking for terrorist affiliations. But on the whole I'm not into conspiracy theories - well, I mean I'd read about them as fiction, but I don't believe them to be true.

Perfect book to read when travelling. Just long and engrossing enough, but not too complex.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Alexander McCall Smith: The Miracle at Speedy Motors

I haven't read any of McCall Smith's books for ages, since I was a little tired of them to be honest. But I saw this at the library and thought "oh it's the newest one" and borrowed it, only it's not the newest one, is it, there are two more after this one if you count Mma Ramotswe's Cookbook. I'm clearly a little behind the times. This one is about Mma Ramotswe receiving threatening letters, and Mr J.L.B. Maketoni hearing of a doctor that might be able to help Motholeli, their foster daughter, who is lame. (As in: unable to walk. Stop sniggering at the back.)

Being not as enchanted with McCall Smith now - not the same way I was when he was new to me and I first read him -  I noticed his repetitiveness more, which is what gets annoying if you read a lot of his books in a row. But what the hell, I still like it. I like reading a book as friendly and positive as this; friendly and positive even though it deals with sorrow sometimes. I find it immensely hopeful.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Caroline Graham: Faithful Unto Death

All in all, Caroline Graham has written twelve books it seems, and our library has four (in English that is). Sad. Considering how immensely popular the Midsomer Murders is here too, you'd think there'd be more. With Faithful Unto Death I think I've read them all now. I have to say that I've enjoyed this one more than any of the others, and since it's been so long since I've read the others I can't be sure if this is due to some actual literary merit or just a case of Graham hitting the spot for me just now. I really revelled in her wittiness, even laughing out loud sometimes.

The storyline starts out fairly simple, with a woman disappearing, her husband acting increasingly odd, and then being found dead. On the face of it it seems to be an all too ordinary case of a jealous possessive man abusing his pretty, subdued and frail wife. There are twists to it though, some of which I guessed, but some I didn't. The plot hung together very well on this one I thought.

I started reading and before I'd come thirty pages even I'd found several bits I'd like to quote here, which stressed me as I didn't have a pen at the time to note them down with. Sadly this marred my experience somewhat, until I decided to let it go, I couldn't bloody well quote the whole book anyway. Allow me to laboriously type out one passage though. Mrs Molfrey (a former star of the stage, living out her last days in obscurity), visits Barnaby to report that her neighbour, Simone Hollingsworth, appears to have vanished:

'She vanished last Thursday. Into thin air, as the saying is, though I've never understood why. Surely if a person is to be concealed the air would have to be extremely thick. Rather like the old pea-soupers.'

'If you could - '

'Don't chip in, there's a good fellow. When I've finished I'll give some sort of signal. Wave my handkerchief. Or shout.'

Barnaby closed his eyes.

'I became suspicious the very first evening. I remember it precisely and I'll tell you why. The sunset, from which I usually derive considerable refreshment, was a great disappointment. A dreadful common colour, like tinned salmon. Cubby was feeding my onions - renowned, I might add, for their splendour - and I was rootling around with my little hoe anticipating a word or two with Simone. She would usually come out around that time to call her cat and we would exchange pleasantries, the latest bit of viillage gosspi from her side of the fence whereas I would discuss the progress of my plants, curse all winged and crawling predators and inveigh against the weather, the way all gardeners do.'

Barnaby nodded. He, too, was a keen gardener and had been known to inveigh againt the weather in his time in a  manner so robust it caused his wife to slam the French windows with such vigour the panes rattled.

Oh, that'll do. It's a very funny book in many places. As I've said, she writes miles better than the TV series, which is not at all as cynical and wicked, but instead rather bland and boring. It's a really clever blend of the modern and the old-fashioned, in that she is writing these village whodunits basically, but she is contemporary. Like, as we say on Facebook.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ellery Queen's Book of Mystery Stories by 25 Famous Writers

I found this secondhand aaaaages ago - in the summer? BEFORE the summer? Long ago, anyway. Like it says on the tin, it's a collection of stories by authors normally not associated with crime fiction. I decided when I bought it (for a pittance, by the way) that it would be fun to jot down a few notes after reading each story, and then posting everything on the blog. Ha ha. What followed was that I read 3/4 of the book and then got tired of taking notes, so left the book "to rest" for a good few months. Also, I suspect that the notes are not that thrilling to read. But it has the bonus of me listing ALL the authors and ALL the stories, and that may be of some historical interest. Perhaps there's a desperate Googler out there just waiting for this blog entry, who knows. In my recent determination to have a crime fiction spree I've finished this now, so here goes.

Sinclair Lewis: The Post-Mortem Murder
Pearl Buck: Ransom
Nobel Prize? First one rather dull. Overly dramatic delivery of lines. Buck better, but v. fanciful - Grey Squad from FBI etc. Strong silent men etc. Wtf? [I later happened to see a TV-programme on Hoover, and learned all about how he promoted the educated FBI agent that popularly became known as a G-man, and that became an almost super-hero figure, including comic books. So that explains the Grey Squad in the short story and the hero-worshipping.]

Somerset Maugham: Before the Party
V. good.

Edna St. Vincent Millay: The Murder in the Fishing Cat
From a time when Americans could write in French and assume they'd be understood.

John Galsworthy: The Juryman
Depth, moving, well described. Man more involved with status and material comfort learns that empathy and understanding more important, and that his marriage is empty if they cannot talk really talk about such things. He feels admiration for her but they are not close.

John Steinbeck: The Murder
Most impressed by Jelka Stepiz - those where the days when an American author could write diacritic signs and get them printed. Now US gets special edition of Harry Potter so US kids don't have to wonder what a jumper is.

William Faulkner: Monk
Quote the bit in §1! [I have no idea what I wanted to quote now. Introduction to story mentions several books I have to read though.] Monk name of criminal - is the tv series a joke?

Rudyard Kipling: The Limitations of Pambé Serang
True to imperialist form, but he is a great story-teller.

Louis Bromfield: Prime of Life
"Really American story" [according to introduction] - maybe so, v. good story-telling.

Ernest Hemingway: The Killers
Terse and hard-boiled.

Charles Dickens: Hunted Down
Curiously disappointing. Starts off well, but finishes bla bla bla all the tension gone from story.

Willa Cather: Paul's Case
Pulitzer prize winner deservedly. Example of American writing. Little gem. Imaginative boy unable to accept ordinariness, ultimate escapist - perhaps all criminals are?

Mark Twain: The Stolen White Elephant
Stolen elephant. Humorous but not really my thing.

Aldous Huxley: The Gioconda Smile
Flirty ladies' man accused of poisoning wife. Mostly about his inner workings, crime by the bye. Not bad.

Guy de Maupassant: The Hand
Funny how an Englishman plays pivotal role in French detective story - set in Corsica, no less. After all typically English genre. Almost Poe-ish.

C.S. Forester: The Letters in Evidence
Wife abuse. A little chilling at first but the endearments start to feel silly. Letters. Clever.

Ring Lardner: Haircut
Friend of Fitzgerald. Barber tells customer the tale. Interesting.

Walter de la Mare: An Ideal Craftsman
A bit too long and too intent on conveying in minute detail some sort of gothic feel. Less is more. Doesn't describe the boy's reasoning terribly well?

James Thurber: The Catbird Seat
Nice! English in flavour, mildly humorous.

R.L. Stevenson: Markheim
Moralistic. Reminds me of Poe, but less goffik.

H.G. Wells: Mr Brisher's Treasure
What's a taproom?

Damon Runyon: Sense of Humour
Cute funny mob story - must have inspired lots of people. Twisted macabre ending.

Frank Swinnerton: The Verdict
3 women discuss a friend's death. Liked! But odd ending? Good but not sure I get it.

James Gould Cozzens: Clerical Error
V short story on blackmail. Ok.

Fannie Hurst: Guilty
Another writer v popular in her day. About heredity of mental illness. In bits excellent, but author has annoying mannerisms like writing . . .  at end of sentence. Super descriptions of way of life. [Read the short Wikipedia article! What a woman. And now all but forgotten.]

I can't tag the post with all the authors' names, which irks me, but there you are. Hopefully all my hard work will benefit some curious soul some day...

Each short story has an introduction of the author at the beginning, and often those introductions are the bits I find most interestingin this type of book, since they praise authors now forgotten and mention in passing those that have now become cult classics. I wish I had the energy to type in lots of examples, but I don't because a) I don't, and b) I'm writing from work (have Internet access of sorts!!!) and haven't got the actual book here now. But I reoommend this heartily for any crime aficionado!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Janwillem van de Wetering

Another random library choice. I think I was struck by the author's name, that is its similarity to the name of the policeman hero, van Veeteren, in Håkan Nesser's books. (Remind me to give those books a proper try some day. Have read the odd one that's all.) Looking the cover over I saw it was full of superlative quotes, the most memorable being from someone called John Leonard:

He's doing what Simenon might have done if Albert Camus had sublet his skull.

Now, with an endorsement like that i just had to read it, obviously.

This is a part of a series, the Grijpstra-de Gier series, but our library only has this one book, and I don't think it's the first one either. I don't know if the book would have been more immediately appealing if I'd read the series from the beginning, but as it was I had a hard time getting into it. About half-way through I started to quite like it, and now I feel like I might at some point read more of van de Wetering's. Perhaps not actively hunt for them, but if something fell into my lap, like, I wouldn't shy away from it. My initial reaction was that here was someone trying too hard to be quirky and original, leaving his characters more like caricatures than people. I was proven wrong towards the end, as I said. There's definitely more feeling in his writing than I first thought. I think van de Wetering might be quite a Big Deal, but I'd never heard of him before. Apparently he wrote in Dutch and English, and this book was previously published in a Dutch version - I just love that, that he wrote different versions of the books instead of translating them!
de Gier has moved to a small town in Maine and rented a house in an attempt to find himself after he and Grijpstra quit the police. Now he rings Grijpstra in a panic because his lover is dead and it looks like de Gier murdered her. Nobody knows yet, and can private detective Grijpstra please come and help him? So his old partner does, and discovers a more complicated town and situation than what he'd expected.

My favourite bit is that the man who comes to pick Grijpstra up at the airport in a small aeroplane is called Ishmael. And that Ishmael has an old warehouse in which he has a collection of What. It's worth reading the whole book just for Ishmael's theories on owning, losing, having and not having, and what is worth collecting. I'm not going to explain what a collection of What is, that would spoil it if you want to read it, and it's too wonderful to spoil.

I didn't think I'd recommend it, but I do. I don't LOVE it, but it's appealing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

3 x Charlaine Harris

In one of those wonderful coincidences that make up life, I came across Charlaine Harris for the first time about a month (or is it two?) ago when I went shopping with my sister. Shopping means thrift store hopping in our case, and it was in Myrorna that I browsed the paperbacks and saw a book from the "Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries". I was turning it in my hands when my sister noticed what I was doing and commented on the book, and that's how I found out that this is the basis of True Blood. I've been meaning to watch True Blood, especially since SVT started airing it from the start this autumn, but I missed the first episode and yada yada yada, I didn't. Anyway, I opted to not buy this paperback because I decided it wasn't worth 15 kr to me - not at that time anyway. (I'd found this pair of trousers, y'see.) I asked mys sister if they were any good these books, she hadn't read them so didn't know (I think) but had heard that they were "cute", so I thought about it but no.

Then the other week I was in the library and just by chance noticed a book lying in the wrong spot, and lo, it's another Charlaine Harris. Not that I remembered the author's name, I was just checking out the cover when I noticed. However this one was not a Sookie Stackhouse book, but a Harper Connelly. Also in the science fiction/fantasy realm though. Harper was struck by lightning in her youth, and got the ability to sense where dead people are, and also how they died. She now does this for a living. Grave Surprise is about how Harper participates in an experiment to see if she's a fraud, and finds a new dead body in an old grave. The body is that of a child that Harper and her brother Tolliver (!? that's some name folks) tried to find 18 months earlier and failed. So why has the child turned up now, in a different town and over a 200 year old coffin?

I started reading it and was pleasantly surprised first at how good the writing was, but another chapter or so in I had to amend that. It's not that good, really. It's a standard writing effort, nothing terribly exciting. You don't exactly lose yourself in the prose here. The thing that stuck with me most is that Harris writes you-all instead of y'all, something I've never seen before. Does this reflect some local dialect? However, there is a sudden bite sometimes in the story itself which I suspect is the root of Harris's success and the reason for True Blood's existence. Something darker, something real. In the Harper Connelly case it's hinted at in her and her brother's past, when they grew up with parents who used drugs - I'm thinking of a mention that her mother tried to sell Harper to a drug dealer. In the next series I've tried, the Lily Bard series, it's again a traumatic event in Lily's past that provides it, and some other things that I forget right now. I had it two hours ago. Sigh. Anyway, it's not much, but it's there. While the books themselves are formulaic to say the least (she has a fondness for men with long hair, I see), and her heroines are Mary Sues (God I love that expression), there is a definite undertone of an author who wants to SAY something. I just hope she gets better at it. Churning out books at the rate she is I don't reckon she gives herself time to - the woman is ludicrously productive. I mean, in the days of Patricia Wentworth you'd have to write a book by hand, send it off to be typed, re-read the proofs etc etc. Nowadays it must all be done in one go what with computers and all, so a productive writer can really be just that.

I'm going to write about the Bard series even though I haven't finished the books (because to be honest it doesn't matter that I haven't): I'm reading Shakespeare's Trollop and have also borrowed Shakespeare's Counselor. I just took 'em because they were there, and about five pages into ST I didn't think I'd even finish it - writing's a bit dull, like I said. But looks like I might after all. Lily Bard is a cleaning lady in a small Arkansas town called Shakespeare (Bard, Shakespeare - get it? Get it? YES WE DO) and also a bit of a karate expert (in my idea of a small town there is no room for a dojo, frankly, but there you go, and there's two, a taekwondo one too). Karate because of her past - kidnapped, raped and savagely knifed: never again, I take it. ST is about when Lily finds the town's bad girl, who is also one of her employers, dead in her car in the forest. SC is about Lily going into group therapy to face her past, until one of the group's members is murdered. I'm half skimming them, and if I ever come across one of her Sookie books I'll skim that too. Oh, bonus point for Charlaine - it's nice when writers stick to places they know, in this case the South. She is consistent, all the books are set in the South. I quite like that. Not that I like the reality of the South she is portraying, mind. But it's realistic, I suppose. It's clear from her books that the South is still a segregated society. There are few black people in the books, when they're there it's pointed out that they are black (not in a racist fashion at all, but still), and in ST the victim's stepfather makes it clear that he didn't like her sleeping around indiscreetly with "people of colour". But see that's what I like, it's not glossed over. It's not an overt social commentary either, but in the aside it says a lot.

Right, now off to bed for me. And I haven't linked so much in a blog post EVER.

Edited the next day: naturally the racist issue was more openly discussed in the book I hadn't read when I wrote the above. Just to punish me for my haste. SC tried a little more to touch on controversial subjects too. I'm also regretting calling all Harris's heroines Mary Sues. They have tendencies sure, but whereas a Mary Sue has an imaginary flaw Harris's ladies to have real ones, in my opinion. Now.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Ngaoi Marsh: The Nursing Home Murder

This novel comes from the Diamond Anniversary Collection from HarperCollins, which means the novels come in sets of threes. I'd already read the first two, A Man Lay Dead and Enter A Murderer, which naturally meant that I was a little annoyed at having to lug around all those extra pages. (Especially since I actually own the first two.) Makes the book harder to hold with one hand, don't you know. On the upside though, the volume includes a great introduction by Ngaio Marsh herself on Roderick Alleyn (pronounced ALLEN thanks be to God for clearing that up for me!), and her first published short story (not crime). Very interesting! Ngaoi writes that when she created Alleyn she wanted to create an ordinary man, not one of these affected detectives that abound(ed) in crime fiction, the ones that are defined by their mannerisms and habits - but she admits that she failed a bit, at least at first. She ironed out those rough edges later. On the whole these Diamond editions seem like they might be worth collecting really, at least if they all contain freebies.

Oh, and unrelated but not, look at this blog, devoted solely to New Zealand crime fiction!

When I read The Nursing Home Murder I was first struck by how bad it was. I mean, considering. I was quite taken aback. The writing feels much more stilted and has less flow then the Marsh I'm used to. There were some odd things, like references, like footnotes, to the two earlier books - has this been added by teh publisher for this edition or was it like that all along? It's lame. And it has a theme that is very current for a book from 1935, namely forced sterilization and the "weeding out" of people with "undesirable genetic traits". Ring a bell? But at first this is mentioned as a matter of course, and I'm going oh sweet mother of God, Ngaio babe, are you PRO? But it sort of resolves towards the end. I mean, I'd be able to put this book in the contra faction. I don't remember the other two (which are from just before and just after this one) as being THAT poor, but possibly I was just starved for Marsh at the time.

The story is that a minister, responsible for a controversial new Bill (on sterilization, probably, but I don't think it's actually said outright), ignores a stomach ache and ends up in emergency surgery. He dies on the operating table, and the widow is convinced it was murder. Turns out that, actually, everyone present might have done it. Carrying on a theme from the previous two books we have the Communists lurking about in a revolutionary rage, and Nigel the journo as Alleyn's sidekick. Oh how glad I am that he was axed. Poor book, but readable if you're loyal and interested.

4 x Patricia Wentworth

Patricia Wentworth is an author that I have (hithertooooooo) completely overlooked. I'm not sure why I've never spotted her - possibly her name reminds me of another author that I don't care for, possibly it's just another example of my scatty approach to enjoying detective stories. Anyway, she's one of the golden oldies of vintage crime, and I was put on to her by a tip on a forum I frequent. Also, I'd just come across the name at the back of a Cyril Hare book, I think, because it rang a bell as soon as I'd read it. Another example of coincidence being all over this thing we call life. So I skedaddled over to the library and borrowed everything they had to offer - not much, sadly - because as I said, I need to indulge in a bit of crime fiction for a bit.

A novel by Wentworth is easily read in one night's work (if you work nights as I do). They are heavily tinged with the author's other literary bent, namely that as penner of romance novels. There is always a young couple in it, who are in love but don't at first realise it, or are thwarted by one of them being suspects in the murder, or something to that effect. At the end they of course fall happily into an embrace for ever after - it's really rather Austen-esque. One of the novels I read now, The Gazebo, even has a Persuasion theme - years ago, the unfeeling relations forced the young couple apart, but now they meet again etc. Sweet!

Our detective hero is Miss Maud Silver, who used to be a governess but now runs a private enquiry agency. I love this old-fashioned term for private eye by the way. It's very quaint. Miss Silver is one of those old ladies who finds out a load of things simply by always knitting and looking old and harmless - a bit like Miss Marple, but not as draconian. As a recall Miss Marple, she can be quite hard-core: a staunch supporter of the death penalty for example. Wouldn't surprise me if she in one book or other advocates the rod as the best aid in child-rearing - Miss Silver however in The Watersplash clearly says that if you beat a child you've failed at raising it. I find myself a little untaken with Miss Silver though despite all this, mostly due to Wentworth giving her an annoying cough, that she uses to punctuate her speech at The Important Moments. Dreadfully irritating. Other than that she's rather grand. A random thing I really like is that Miss Silver is in at least three of the books I think is knitting baby vests in pink wool. She does this regardless of the sex of the child - in two cases she doesn't know it as it's not yet born. Wonderful. I choose to see this as proof of the somewhat controversial statement that pink was a colour for boys up until the 50s or so (Miss Silver is knitting unisex pink during that decade).

I've read, in this order, Spotlight (1949), The Gazebo (1955), The Key (1946) and The Watersplash (1954). All four as you can see set in the war and post-war era, with references to rationing, egg substitute, bombings and happiness at pink wool finally being available again after so many years of khaki. The Key is set smack in the middle of the war and has a spy theme, even. Spotlight is the oldest edition, from 1952, and has this great romantic retro cover that seems to have been the norm for Wentworth novels for a while, since The Key and The Gazebo are re-prints from 2005 and have the same style artwork on the front. Cute but a little embarrassing to read in public, if you are a little vain, as I am. Whatever did people who saw me think? The Watersplash has a horribly lurid MURDER!!! cover photo though, printed in -88 that one is. The first and last of the books listed are old enough to be dotted through with comments by the crime aficionado/proof reader who haunts the pages of all older crime novels the library possesses, at least in the English section. Haven't come across her (I think it's a her) for ages! I wonder why she stopped commenting? Is she dead? Or did she just move? Or stop reading? Check the link and you'll see that I asked myself these questions before.

Spotlight: the only one where the murder takes place in a country house in manner of a classic whodunnit. A young woman, Dorinda, takes a job as private secretary to a rather indolent wife of a wealthy man. They are all invited to visit a business accquaintance of the husband's. All the guests are oddly ill-matched and make up an awkward house party. When their host is found murdered it transpires that he was blackmailing them all. Fascinating little thing: Dorinda is supposed to have unusual colouring with hair and eyes the same shade of gold, and her cousin fervently hopes that she'll not start tinting her eyelashes, they are so beautiful as they are. Imagine that these days when mascara is such a norm. Sigh.

The Gazebo: See above. The evil relation (mother) is found strangled. Did the thwarted fiancé do it? Or has it got something to do with the fact that two people seem oddly keen on buying the young lady's house, no matter the cost?

The Key: an inventor and refugee from a concentration camp has finally finished the explosive he's been working on for so long. Immediately after announcing this fact he is murdered. Warum?

The Watersplash: a young man returns after being missing for five years. Everyone thought he was dead, including the rich uncle who made a new will and left everything to his own brother. But was that really the end of it all? A local drunk who claims to have witnessed an even newer will is found dead in the local watersplash (whatever that is, I have to look this up when I get home - is it a glorified word for puddle?). Somebody is killing those few who might have an inkling that there is something odd with the wills…

I can't say I have a favourite, because to be honest they are all pretty much the same. The plot is fair - good workmanship throughout. They're not proper whodunnits I'd say, as evidence keeps falling in all through the book. I liked them though and will definitely keep a look-out for more! - the library has none so it'll have to be careful second-hand browsing and possibly a bit of an E-bay spree. But not for a while, I must be good now. I've been too liberal lately.

Oh, final note: what I especially like about vintage crime is that you do learn something, honest, while enjoying yourself. I've learned during this recent spree that the expression originally was "to make up" and not "to apply make-up" or "put make-up on". Very educational.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

P.D. James: The Murder Room

I have a feeling I may have read this before - I often get that feeling with these British crime authors, both because I may actually have read them, but also because they are so often televised. It is impossible to imagine the face of Adam Dalgliesh as anything other than that of "his" actor now, of course. Anyway, I took it on a whim and if I've read it it must have been long enough ago for me to forget most of it, so all is well. I see that I have never blogged about a P.D. James book since this one - not surprising since I think my last P.D. James craze was in my teens sometime.

It's one of the newer Jameses, and I believe I said in the previous post that I'm not as fond of them. I somehow feel that they become so centred around Dalgliesh's "new" staff. We've got Inspector Kate Miskin here, who has gone from low class and delapidated housing estate to middle-class, but who can't always let go of the past despite wanting to belong to her new status. She's the most important side-kick in this book, with Tarrant and Benton-Smith as seconds. I'm not sure why I disapprove so much of the new kids on the block. I think I feel it's a bit strained, like James is trying to update the concept but her heart is still with the more classic lone detective genius solving the country house crime? Not that James has ever been that predictable, but she does write sort of in that genre - but well. I think I may just have to re-read a bunch of Jameses and see what the difference is between the books from say the 70s and the ones written now. This one is from 2003. Part of it is probably that she for the sake of realism inserts people that she doesn't (probably) know that much about - homeless people or what have you. I might be unfair, we'll know if I have a binge.

The book starts off with a coincidence - Dalglish is taken to a private museum on the inter-war years, the Dupayne, by a friend. A week later a murder takes place on the premises, and owing to one of the employees having a connection with MI5 it is considered best if Dalgliesh and his special team handles the investigation. We have a narrow set of suspects from the beginning. True to James's style we delve into the minds of all involved, and get just enough hints from the suspects' thoughts to keep us guessing. I wasn't too surprised at who the murderer was, but felt like I had missed some things when she mentions her motive - maybe I wasn't paying attention somewhere, but as it was it felt like loose ends. On the other hand, that's what life is, a bunch of loose ends.

By a coincidence of my own I read this at just about the same time of year as when everything happens in the book. I started reading on Nov. 3 and finished on Nov. 4, and the first victim dies on Nov. 1 in the book. This amused me. Also, in the fictional Murder Room at the museum are displayed real cases from the inter-war years, and snippets of facts from these cases are mentioned, such as that one of the murderers got off largely thanks to a very well-spoken lawyer with a sonorous voice. I think the murder took place in -34. Now, when reading Hare's Tragedy at Law (from 1946) I remember that one of the lawyers is said to have just such a beautiful voice, seducing juries into letting his clients off the hook. I'm thinking that Hare's fictional lawyer is modelled on a very real lawyer then, y'see.

I did like the book, and like I said I might go on a bit of a PD James kick now. She is worth it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Ariana Franklin: The Serpent's Tale

My sister brought to my attention that although I borrowed and read the second book in the Mistress of the Art of Death series I never blogged about it. The shame. It's been MONTHS. And it's sort of faded on me now, so I'll just do my best. It's set a while after the first one ended, and while Adelia and Rowley were lovers for a bit and have had a daughter, they are now estranged. He has become a bishop and seems to have truly found a calling too, she lives modestly (poorly) in the Fens with her friends.

The king's mistress is murdered with poisonous mushrooms, and Adelia is called in by the king to investigate. The plot turns out to be more convoluted than expected, with a coup staged by the jealous queen imprisoning them in a convent, and their lives being threatened by an assassin. I liked how the mistress lives in a tower surrounded by a maze of thorny bushes - it's a nice little hint at an origin of the Sleeping Beauty story. This may just be embellishing a legend, but I liked it.

I had, frankly, expected to like it less, being a sequel, but it's quite okay. The plot was a little much though, with things happening all over the place. It bothered me, don't know why… I think I got that cynical feeling that the author thought it would look good on film, maybe. I hate that feeling. However, it's great that it's not at all all lovey-dovey between Adelia and Rowley, because that would have been too simple and too obviously some sort of sponge-off Ellis Peters' and her optimistic view of the world. If my sister gets the third one I'll read that too.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Ngaoi Marsh: Tied Up In Tinsel

Fed up with "real literature" I have decided to wallow in crime fiction for a while. Specifically as much vintage as I can get my hands on - I may even re-read some. I was pleased to find a Ngaoi Marsh at the library that I hadn't read, although to be honest I think I must have - the story seems a little familiar. But there were huge chunks that were not, so maybe I haven't? Haven't blogged about it anyway. Although the book is old (written in -72, reprinted -76 by Aeonian Press, a company that seems to have taken pride in a hit-and-miss approach to inking their typewhatsits, the little metal letters like, that you print with. The print is sometimes very blurry) so I should in all fairness have seen it when I had my MASSIVE detective story craze a few years ago, before I started the blog. Although I did just find a new Marsh, a collection of three novels (two of which I've read I might add, typical), so maybe someone has donated some books or something. Not important. Moving on.

Being a late Marsh it has moved with the times - somewhat. We have here a murder in a country house, with a limited number of suspects. But, since this is the seventies, the country house is a delapidated new accquisition by an excentric rich man, who has made his fortune in antiques, and who staffs it cheaply with criminals - murderers - from the nearby prison. Troy is here painting his portrait, and when Alleyn unexpectedly is home for Christmas he arrives just in time for the murder.

Favourite bits:  Marsh has once again inserted a homosexual character, subtly. We even get a little sad taste of the times, possibly it's even social criticism? One of the staff of murderers is descriped like this:

"He actually trained as a chef. He is not," Hilary had told Troy, "one hundred per cent he-man. He was imprisoned under that heading but while serving his sentence attacked a warder who approached him when he was not in the mood."

It's actually very sordid and sad in many ways, but so lightly dealt with. You can't say that this type of literature doesn't teach you loads about the times in which they were written. Our gay chef is later referred to as "that queen in the kitchen" I might add.

I also liked the description of how the rich man's girlfriend behaves and talks. I can't find the spot now, but she makes a "dead set" at Alleyn, much to Troy's amusement, and says something to her along the lines of "Darling! Your husband? The mostest! You know?" which is hilarious.

Not my favourite, but not bad.

Friday, October 30, 2009

James Lasdun: The Horned Man

This is one of the books my cousin sent me, and it is NOT a thriller. Which has sadly prejudiced me against it, because I thought it would be. The back of it is all "oooo a series of brutal killings", "as the novel spirals to its shocking conclusion" and the killings don't even get mentioned until half-way through, and the end shocked no-one.
A first-person narrative, we follow a professor of gender studies, who seems to be followed and set up by a former professor of the college he works at. Our professor Miller seems like a meekish, sane man of sound values, but as the book progresses we get hints that maybe he is not what he wants himself to be, or else he is indeed being hounded. The ending doesn't really clear it up for us. Is Miller mad? It's more Kafka-esque than anything else, with that slightly fantastical, dreamy air. Not really my thing, to be honest, but it was severely marred by my expectations of something more in the linear thriller line. If I'd ever heard about James Lasdun though I mightn't have been surprised.  To do it justice I might have to re-read it in a few years. In general though I'm not mad about this type of story at all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tony Parsons: My Favourite Wife

I have friends who really like Tony Parsons, and when I last was at their house I was supposed to borrow a book from them (I was headed to work at the time and needed a read). Naturally I forgot it there and had to do without literature that night, but Tony Parsons lodged in my mind. So I picked this up to try, and it did nothing for me. Even blogging about it is cheating a little, because I haven't read it. I read about six chapters in and then I gave up, just skimmed a little in the middle and read the last two-three chapters. It's about a young family who move to Shanghai so that he can make more money and climb the career ladder, since life in London is too expensive for them and is wearing them down. Things don't work out so perfectly as they had planned, and while the wife is back in England for a while with their daughter he gets friendly with a lonely "second wife" in the same building. And towards the end he has to choose a family.

None of the characters felt flesh and blood to me, none mattered. The words just fell completely flat, even though there's nothing wrong per se with the language. Not very disappointed, more bemused. Don't understand why people read him. I might try another some time, if all other books have been burned or something. Dull dull dull.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nora Kelly: My Sister's Keeper

I took this out because the cover blurbs compare Kelly to Amanda Cross, whom I love, and because the book looks like this, like someone photocopied it in a cellar somewhere to smuggle into Soviet Russia, except the paper was better. It's not terribly good, but I'm intrigued enough to maybe one day borrow another one of hers. It's too obviously moralistic and - what did that one reviewer say that I happened across on the net... something about dialectics... damn, I should have blogged about it straight away, shouldn't I? Point was that she preaches a message, but the other guy put it better.

The books heroine, Gillian Adams, is a college professor, but there endeth all comparisons to Amanda Cross. She has a position of boss-ness at her department (don't ask me to remember the title, but not dean), and gets caught in the centre of things when a group of feminists want to change old and misogynistic traditions at the university. It's quite obvious who'll die, but less obvious who did it. The plot isn't terrible I suppose. However, it's not very interesting unless you need a crash course in gender studies - actually, it's not even that informative, it just tells you over and over that misogyny is bad and feminism good. Meh, but MAYBE I'll try another one some time.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jeanette Winterson: Lighthousekeeping

Sometimes she just completely hits the spot, Winterson does. This one does for me. One of the narratives is of Silver, a girl born out of wedlock in a small Scottish town/village, and who goes to live with the lighthousekeeper Pew when she is orphaned. Pew teaches her that the world is made of stories, and that the lighthousekeeper tells them. One of his stories is about Babel Dark, son of the man who built the lighthouse and about his cruelty to his wife because of his heartbreaking love for his first love and his mistress. Winterson can make you feel sympathy for a wife-beater. Silver tells us the story of her life - not all of it, but the bits she wants to tell, and also of Tristan and Isolde. This sounds like a lot, but it's beautifully sparse and the sections of what's told are carefully chosen. It touches me a lot… "the stories I want to tell you will light up part of my life, and leave the rest in darkness. You don't need to know everything. There is no everything. The stories themselves make the meaning." I can't find all the quotes, but something is here that I want to think more about, something about the importance of telling yourself as a story. I've been struggling against that because it hasn't felt real, but maybe that's okay. Maybe unreal is good?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Stephanie Meyer: Twilight

My eldest girl is 14 and has long suffered from her friends' Twilight-mania - not having read the books she was forced to just hang around and be bored while they endlessly talked about Edward and Bella and bla bla bla. After seeing the film (meh, she thought) she wanted to read the book, but being a purist (oh I'm so proud) she wanted to read it in English, and to get it from the library you'll probably have to be patient for five years, the waiting list is so long - obviously she didn't want to buy it, in case she hated it. Enter our friend, publisher E, who had bought the book once (to read out of professional interest, natch). So, Maxima devoured it. DEVOURED. She tries to tone it down, but I can tell that she is quite smitten. And what teen, with a penchant for escapism, fantasy, science-fiction wouldn't be? I read it now in one sweep, most of the time with a stupid smile on my face, mostly due to a strong feeling of true connection with my inner teen or pre-teen (I was so precocious), in other words "aaawwwww I would have loved this", but also because it's just quite amusing how Meyer has managed to score so many emo points. A woman on an Internet forum I frequent said that she'd read it on holiday, and her only comment was "What a load of emo shite. SRSLY." And  yes, it is emo shite. But oddly appealing emo shite, I'll give it that. I can see why all these young girls were/are sucked into this world. Meyer is not an original author, her prose isn't truly poetic or anything even though she clearly likes to think so, rather more than a little repetitive (Edward chuckles, smirks, laughs silently ... A LOT).

Our heroine, Bella, is also possibly the ultimate Mary Sue. I just recently learned what a Mary Sue is, when someone on said forum up there resurrected a thread about My Immortal. That lead on to a link to Encyclopedia Dramatica, and in fairness to myself I didn't recall that the Encyclopedia does define Bella as a Mary Sue, but when reading I just laughed out (silently) to myself and clocked her as one. Bella is gorgeous - but doesn't realise it. She's always felt a bit different, as though she can't fit in anywhere. She has a "flaw" - she is very clumsy. Vampire Edward falls in love with her because he can't read her mind like he can with other humans, and because she smells so fantastic. Floral like. He is beautiful and muscled and possessive  - but only because his LOVE IS SO STRONG - and the whole thing is like one big sex fantasy of Meyer's that, yes, possibly, should never have made it to print. However, it is not the printing of Twilight I mind so much, it's the printing of the sequels. The first few pages of New Moon are included in this edition, so I can already tell. The usual suspects are lined up - repetitions of who people are, what they did in the previous book, what they look like (apart from gorgeous). Yawn and snore. Clunketty-clunk goes the prose. Sadly, I may feel like I have to get Maxima these for Christmas. How can I live with myself?

My husband is against Meyer because he feels that her message is anti-feminist. Bella puts herself in danger by staying near the vampires - indeed, in Twilight she is almost murdered by an evil one, leg snapping, ribs broken and shattered glass cutting her scalp. She makes herself into a martyr for Her Love. Her only assurance that Edward or any of his family (or coven) won't hurt her is that they promise not to. Really much. They love her lots, after all, because she's ever so special. Her life is worth nothing unless it's with Edward. I see what he means, and while I can shrug it off for the one book I don't know if I can for three more instalments... that said, if Maxima comes home with them I'll probably read them anyway. For the same reason that I saw Matrix 3. Some sort of masochistic desire to see the train wreck through to the end?

I can't in all fairness say that I recommend it, really ... not if you have to pay money to read it. This should be a free read. Especially if you read more than one.

Friday, October 23, 2009

3 x Cyril Hare

I discovered that while the main library only has one Cyril Hare book, my little local branch has three, so after being so sorely annoyed at The Echo Maker I really felt that I needed a Detective Story Break, which means not a break from, but an indulgence of, so to speak. I promptly skedaddled over and managed to involve all the two staff there into looking for the books since I couldn't find them myself (I was scanning for hardbacks, but they are slim little Penguins that were hiding on the paperback shelf they keep beside the English language section). Anyway, three Cyril Hares - three! Imagine my delight. I meant to ration them, but I didn't. Hare has, according to Wikipedia, written ten novels, one collection of short stories, a play (probably based on one of the books I've just read, An English Murder) and a children's book (I'm particularly intrigued by that). So if I only count the novels then I've now read 40 % of his works. They seem to be surprisingly scarce - admittedly I've only looked briefly on E-bay. However, I think I'm going to start looking for vintage crime more devotedly. There are several authors I really enjoy that are most easily found through Internet shopping, and I think I can afford to now and then buy a few second-hand books that way. One of my more modest dreams is to have my own little crime fic book shelf somewhere in the house (this dream needs a less modest dream to be fulfilled first, namely that of a larger place to live, but hey).

So, the books then, which I read according to age, oldest first:

Tenant for Death: The first Hare I read, Tragedy at Law, is according to the biography on the back of this Penguin edition, probably Hare's most well-known book, but Tenant for Death is his first, from 1937. It introduces Inspector Mallet of Scotland Yard as the hero - I believe his other hero, Mr Pettigrew, appears first in Tragedy at Law. In this book a well-known business man and man of finance is found dead in a house in London, a house that for a month has been let to a mr James, who is now nowhere to be found. Not only that, but mr James seems to have not really existed, he has left no paper trail and seems generally suspect. There are a load of other suspects too, and a few red herrings. I did guess some of the final unravellings correctly, but I admit it was more gut feelings than logic at work. It's a pleasing book, but possibly still a bit raw in style, you know? One thing I was struck by, that I liked especially, is that just like a lot of authors in the genre Hare has included the "young couple" - but with a slight twist. In detective stories there often seems to be a young couple, or at least a young person, included to provide a sort of backdrop of innocence and freshness to the sordid affair of murder. At the end, they will come up roses and walk hand in hand into the sunset. Ngaoi Marsh often has a young girl - an aspiring actress or poor relation or friend - as a main character - obviously innocent, the only one who can be innocent, and so to speak the eyes of the reader. Hare has a young couple alright, but they are not as nice as I usually find them to be. Indeed, the young man has several flaws in his character and some growing up to do, and Hare clearly includes him among the suspects. I quite like that, that no-one is "the good one". Oh, and I also especially liked that The Young Lady's adored dog is called Gandhi, which exasperates her military father, because she should be ashamed to name a pet after that menace to the British Empire. Nice little period flavour there!

An English Murder: From 1951. Christmas is being celebrated at Warbeck Hall, and a slightly motley group of people are assembled for the holiday. At first we think that the English murder referred to in the title is going to be the one that is classic in vintage crime fiction - there is a house party, and one among the party is killed, and the rest are all suspects - you know the drill. But there is a fabulous twist here that I could not have seen coming since I lack the expert knowledge that would have been required  - which in a way is a pity but not really. It's fun to see the classic formula re-worked like this. The Hall is dilapitaded and almost all servants gone, the Lord is dying, his brother (or was it cousin?) is a politician of the new welfare state, responsible for financial decisions that contribute to his brother's (cousin's?) inability to keep up the former glory of the place, and the detective of the story is a foreign historian, Doctor Bottwink, who delights in the little quirks of Englishness he comes across. Lovely. As usual with Hare the solution of the mystery hangs on law, and not so much on alibis and such. It's very informative as well as entertaining.

He Should Have Died Hereafter: From 1958. I liked this one the least (but all is relative, remember!), because it seemed to leave more loose ends.. it just wasn't quite as fluid. We're back with mr Pettigrew, who has retired from practising law and is on holiday in (on?) Exmoor with his wife. On the day of the hunt he sees a dead man on the moor, but when he returns with help the body is gone. Inspector Mallet is also retired and living nearby, and together they string the facts together to figure out what crime has been done and why. Lovely scenes from the courtrooms, fantastic. Grisham can feck off, this is a lawyer who writes about what he knows! Anyway, one of the loose ends is that Pettigrew as a child found a dead body in the exact same spot, and has suppressed that memory ever since, but this just peters out into nothing, and I don't really see the point of it being there at all.

Unexpectedly I can write this AND POST IT at work since somebody left a computer on. Naughty person. I'm thrilled though and not in the least ashamed of taking advantage of it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Look, I don't get this book. I realise that it won an award, but I don't get it. A man called Mark Schluter is badly injured in an accident with his truck, and when he finally can communicate again, he claims that his sister Karin is not herself, but an impostor playing her. Karin contacts a famous neurologist named Weber, who comes to study Mark's condition. Karin is disappointed because she thought Weber would cure Mark, whereas Weber is only interested in observing and then writing about interesting conditions. Is Weber a (thinly) veiled Oliver Sacks? Why the anger and criticism of "Weber's" m.o. and writing style?

Okay, I can't even be bothered writing about it. I'm sick and I'm annoyed at this book for being all over the place, and I feel stupid because a lot of people, clearly, think it's great. Opinions welcome.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Nicole Krauss: Man Walks Into A Room

I've honestly never heard of Nicole Krauss, and picked up the book just for that reason: who is this unknown chick-lit author? Not that I borrow chick-lit just for the sake of the genre, mind - I have a few favourites, I admit, but it's not, on the whole, my thing. I have, for example, NOT read Sophie Kinsella. However, this is not chick-lit, it just looks like it at first glance, with its blue and fluffy cover. Krauss has been shortlisted for a few book awards and is generally quite acclaimed I believe.

This novel is about Samson Greene, who disappears from his New York home and is found wandering the desert in Nevada, his mind a blank, literally. Turns out that Samson has a brain tumour, the pressure of which suddenly became critical and caused a form of total amnesia. And when the tumour is removed Samson can remember nothing that has happened to him after the age of twelve. He is not a boy trapped in a man's body though, he is still a man of thirty-six, but he can't remember his wife, his job, his education, his friends, that his mother has died - nothing. Shaving feels odd and he's not sure if he can drive. This odd loss of memory leads him to want to relinquish his old, unremembered, life, and when an LA neurospecialist and researcher rings him to ask for him to participate in some ground-breaking research on memory transference, he agrees. There, I've told you a fair bit of the plot now, more than the cover did I think. The cover ends with telling me that "what he gains is nothing short of the revelation of what it is to be a human being" - you don't get depth like that from me, now.

This is not at all a bad book. It's well written, by an author that cares. Yet it leaves me strangely cold, and I'm struggling to pinpoint why. I remember reading an article somewhere about the abundance of authors these days who learned their craft in creative writing classes, and the article bemoaned the similarity in all these writing styles that was the consequence. Now, I'm not educated enough to detect anything like that, but I was struck by a similar sense of déja vu-ishness when reading this. As though I'd read this kind of prose a million times before, and this kind of theme too. (As a matter of fact the amnesia idea is not dissimilar from Mil Millington's Instructions for Leading Someone Else's Life, really. No other comparisons should be drawn though. Krauss is more in the vein of Ian McEwan, I'd say.) Somehow I don't really grow to care about any of the characters. I will admit that I shed a tear at some point, I think when Samson learns of his mother's death, and it's as raw to him as if it had happened five minutes ago. I thought it was sad. But somehow not so much Samson's grief, as the general idea of grief, if you see what I mean. I don't understand why the characters act the way they do - I can see this being filmed, and myself, watching the film, shouting at the more and more estranged Samson and wife to BLOODY TALK TO EACH OTHER ALREADY. As if I were the virtous paragon of exemplary spousehood. In short, I'm just not sucked in. I'm just not that into it. Also, I was super-annoyed at Samson talking to his doctor about cloning, and mentioning an idea he's just had that in the future everyone will have a spare living on a farm somewhere, to be called into service for organs if something happens to the original. Fair enough that the idea is original to Samson, who has lost twenty-four years of memories, but that the doctor hasn't heard of this very popular science fiction theme is a bit silly.

There are some great scenes in this book, but on the whole it's not that memorable (ha ha) for me. Admittedly it's books like these that I'd like to discuss, because I think I'd get a lot out of hearing what someone else, who maybe loves it, thinks.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I got a lovely surprise today!

My cousin (I wrote about her here) sent me a package and a card for my birthday (which was on the 11th), out of the blue. It was really nice of her, and I am delighted! Four books - not one, not two, but four! (Incidentally, my husband commented that they smelled the same as the dvd she gave us in Ireland - must ask her if she buys at the same shop or if it's her house that smells so nice. I wouldn't have noticed myself but mr Bani has a good nose.)

She sent me two novels by Michel Faber, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps
and Under The Skin. I've read the former - I didn't remember when I texted her to say thanks! thanks! thanks! but after a while I did and I just checked the blog to make sure. See how useful a blog like this is? Doesn't matter that I did, because I liked it and can read it again. Looking forward to reading Under The Skin then, looks like one of the short and sweet Fabers that I enjoyed. Also, Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love - a book that mr Bani likes a lot but I haven't read. Seems right up my alley though. Possibly this is one of the best book titles ever, by the way. Then there's a complete newbie, The Horned Man by James Lasdun. Seems to be some sort of crime fiction - so to be honest I may read that first.

They'll have to bide their time until I've finished the pile from the library though. But it's great to have a stack like this in reserve. Love it!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cyril Hare: Tragedy at Law

Now, this is a real little treasure. I found it by accident - I was just going to "get something to read", and ended up trawling the crime section, gazing intently at all the yellow-stickered volumes hoping to find something new. This caught my eye, being an "old one". I'd never heard of Cyril Hare, and these old books have no information at all on the covers, so I really was borrowing blindly so to speak. Oh how I love finding something so entertaining and clever, completely by chance! I'm definitely going to be on the look-out for more of his writings. As Martin Edwards writes, he is one of the forgotten ones - he deserves a revival! And the best thing - the novel centres to a large extent around a car accident that takes place on 12th October 1939. And I finished this book on 12th October 2009. By accident, mind! It's only on the last few pages that one of the characters remarks on the significance of dates, and I noticed then. Clearly it is meant to be, me and Cyril are going to have a torrid love affair. There is no escaping such numerological coincidence.

The novel was written in 1942, and takes place, as I said, in 1939 to 1940. The earliest days of the war are nicely described by someone who is currently in the thick of it. Lord Barber is a rather unlikeable circuit judge, who on one night of the Assizes has too much to drink and knocks a man over with his car. (Or motor, as we said in those days. Oh yes we did.) Of course his position demands that the thing is hushed down, and not only that, but he is virtually penniless despite said position, so he'll be ruined if forced to pay damages. We follow Barber, his brilliant wife Hilda and the people he works with on the circuit, while mysterious things keep happening - anonymous notes, attempts on his life... so who wants to harm Barber, we wonder, while Barber himself is more preoccupied with worrying about financial ruin.

Great things about the book: you learn a lot about the system of the Assize courts. Hare was a judge, and it shows. It shows the system from the inside, and is pleasantly cynical and knowledgable. The real crime takes place at the very end, and then the last chapter or so solves it, while we've been given a lot of clues to do so during the read - Ngaoi Marsh uses much the same style. Plenty of period detail, charm and info in general. Fab bit about Hilda Barber, who is a legal scholar in her own right, but was kept from practising because of male prejudice. The author seems to be torn between recognizing Hilda's superior intelligence and the injustice that she can't practise law openly (only through her husband), and at the same time he feels that it's decidedly unfeminine and a little freakish. I find it fascinating froma feminist point of view, like.

Oh do read this if you come across it, alright? I'm so pleased I'm starting two new labels.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Vikas Swarup: Slumdog Millionaire (a.k.a. Q&A); Lemony Snicket: Slutet (The End)

I saw the film Slumdog Millionaire this summer (I think it was), and although it wasn't perhaps the best film I've ever seen I did like it. The book by comparison is actually not as good - and most importantly, the book differs so much in storyline from the film that it was, in my opinion, a poor decision to change the original title Q&A into the film title of Slumdog Millionaire. It gives you false expectations. However, the fundamental idea is, obviously, the same, since that is the book's originality and most appealing feature, and the one I can imagine the film-makers warming to: a young man, an orphan, who has survived by his wits and a fair bit of luck, comes on a tv quiz show and wins the billion rupee top prize. He is accused of cheating and beaten by the police. In the film, he tells the policeman how come he knew the answers to all the questions on the show; in the book he tells a young woman lawyer, who turns up out of the blue at the police station and claims to be his defence. His story is given in a series of flashbacks of his life, relating episodes where he just happened to learn those facts that just happen to appear as the questions on the show. Street knowledge, not book knowledge, as the author puts it in an interview at the end.

There is a strong message of belief in a destiny in the book, something which feels very Bollywood (and is not as obvious in the film). It is Ram's destiny to meet the woman he falls in love with, and to win the one billion rupees. If it were not his destiny, then why would he only get questions he knew the answers to? He also has a lucky coin that he uses when making decisions, and in the final sentences he throws it away, saying that luck comes from within. Which does sound the opposite of fatalistic really, but his point is that is doesn't matter if the coin comes up heads or tails, all the paths in your life have led you to the decision-making moment, and you know what must be done. And as for "all the paths in your life" as a theme - I feel a certain kinship to Dickens in the way that the story is put together. The woman lawyer is revealed to be someone from Ram's past, who has searched for him all these years to repay her debt, a school teacher whose sick son is saved by Ram's money becomes his lifeboat choice on the quiz show, the quiz show host is also a figure from the past, albeit a villain - out of the population of a billion the same few people seem to be falling over one another's feet all the time, and then the threads are gathered up at the end. It is very fantastical at places, and so I first decided it's unrealistic. But then I started thinking about how life is exactly this unrealistic really, and how odd it is that we have a different demand on realism in fiction - the dialogue for example has to be quite unreal to be deemed real. If you see what I mean. So I don't know. I saw the film as more realistic, to be honest, but that might also be to a large part thanks to fantastic performances from the child actors in it. A decidedly unrealistic side of the film was the way the characters as adults all spoke English - with no reference to how they might have learned it. In the book this is explained, and not considered a minor detail.

I have noticed several times (since we're speaking of destiny and such matters), that two ostensibly very different books may strike you as being very similar, especially if you read them close together so the impressions are fresh in your mind. In this case, I read the last book in the Lemony Snicket saga of the Baudelaire children just before Slumdog Millionaire. I read the first seven or so in one sweep at around this time but then I got a bit bored with the style (plus that the library never had them in) so I stopped reading them. My youngest daughter and her friends however are going through a Lemony Snicket phase, so she has been bringing them home en masse, albeit in the Swedish translation. When I saw the final instalment lying on the shoe bench in the hall (such a logical spot for a library book, don't you agree?) I thought that I'd just have to skim through it, translation or no, because one would have to know the end, right? Okay, and my point then about odd similarities (at last! they cry): Lemony Snicket and Vikas Swarup are similar in their writing styles. It is boxy, stilted, a little formal, repetitive at times. While this works in the part fantasy part pastiche frame that Lemony Snicket uses, it is not as successfull for Swarup. He's just not that great a writer - particularly since there are so so many FANTASTIC Indian writers of fiction. He simply cannot measure up. I skimmed large parts of the book - and not just because I knew the story and it was late and I was tired. It's not very spell-binding. That said, there is room for Swarup too in the pantheon of authors - he can sometimes be better than he is worse, and he is clearly driven by wanting to tell us a story. Which is not a bad thing.

I don't have that much to say about the final Lemony Snicket book. I've missed several books before the last one, so there were some references and characters I was unfamiliar with, but I really don't think that impairs my judgement when I say that the conclusion is a bit of a disappointment. The author fails to follow through on all the terrible hints and promises of horrific history we are fed with during the series. There is a slightly darker note in the book, as if Snicket wouldn't have minded going Gaiman on us and killed everyone off, but then he remembers that this is a children's book and that they deserve a happier ending. This, accordingly, is what we get, and for an adult it isn't completely satisfying. There are too many loose ends left for me to be entirely pleased, and it feels as though he just wanted to finish the damn thing already. I'm sure my daughter liked it just fine though, but I'll have to ask her. Update will be posted here.