29 January, 2015
Well, hello there.
It’s almost the end of January and I’ve only posted one review after a month’s silence. I’ve been away, you see, on a three week holiday to Sri Lanka and Thailand where I was planning to catch up on my reviews and read. I even took my heavy laptop with me. However, it was just too warm and sultry and I got no writing done. All I did was eat, sleep and shop and get lots of Thai massages. However, I did a lot of reading, unencumbered with work and commuting and socialising, so my pile of reviews to write has grown even bigger. But I’m happy to say that I’ve read some fantastic books and can’t wait to share them with you this year. The second half of last year was eaten up with work, a promotion and lots of overseas visitors leaving me with little energy to write but I hope to get back into the swing of things again. I miss writing about books, especially the ones which have worked their way into my brain and left a pocket in my heart when they finished and there were so many of them last year.
But one thing I did when I wasn’t blogging was just reading. Whatever I liked and in any order I liked (that is, except for series which I need to read in order, obvs.) So I read Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 series one after the other after finishing Connie Willis’ Oxford time traveling historian books one after the other. And it was great. I even dipped into a collection of stories about mummies, The Book of the Dead, and the extremely diverse and qualitay We See A Different Frontier. So many books I want to talk about. I took my kindle with me and picked random books I fancied while attempting to wrestle my digital TBR into something more manageable (I failed as I kept buying more titles on sale). It was kind of nice to read without a schedule and something I missed since I started blogging. So this year, I’m hoping to achieve some kind of balance between the two and be a little more consistent in my reviewing.
You’d be surprised to hear that I bought NO books in Sri Lanka. I figured I had enough from the last few years to keep me going – they are safely stashed away on my shelves and I really need to start reading them.
So what have you all been up to and what have I missed?
15 December, 2014
Please let no one open their mouths and find the gold cufflinks with the initials PIJ.
Poirot returns with a bang in The Monogram Murders set in 1929 amongst the sumptuous art nouveau backdrop of the fictional Bloxham Hotel. Agatha Christie’s mantle is taken up by Sophie Hannah, a contemporary crime writer with a substantial following. Anyone taking over from the Queen of Crime is facing a daunting task. And any lover of Christie’s work will inevitably read the novel with a fine tooth comb.
However, Hannah does Christie proud. Her Poirot is faithful, perhaps more to David Suchet’s portrayal, but when you start reading The Monogram Murders you feel you are falling comfortably back into familiar territory. His sidekick is Edward Catchpool, a young and inexperienced Inspector of Scotland Yard who is alternately frustrated and in awe of Poirot.
The mystery begins at Pleasant’s Coffee House, where Poirot takes his daily evening coffee, when a terrified woman known only as Jennie rushes in seeking refuge. Before she vanishes into the night, she leaves Poirot with the mysterious
Once I am dead, justice will be done, finally.
which sets him off on his new quest.
Poirot is recently retired and is taking a staycation at Mrs. Unsworth’s lodging house where Catchpool also resides. When he returns that evening, he witnesses Catchpool coming to terms with three murders he is investigating at the posh Bloxham Hotel. All three victims died at around the same time in different rooms but laid out in the same way and with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths.
Poirot feels there is a connection with the mysterious Jennie but Catchpool is doubtful. And so the pair embark on their first investigation together as they uncover a wrong that was done 16 years ago and what looks like revenge finally being enacted in the present day.
Although I began the book with some trepidation, once the mystery gets going, I began to feel Hannah’s rendition of Poirot and the mystery approaching Christie’s hallmark darkness and complexity. Re-reading Christie, whom I’ve been reading since I was nine, I am always astonished by the real darkness and deftness with which she layers her novels. And I am glad to say Hannah’s version does not disappoint.
Poirot is a national institution and staying faithful to who he is may risk stereotyping him but deviating would be disastrous. All the elements are here in The Monogram Murders, the young lovers, a free artistic spirit, the vicar, the doctor and the maid.
I really enjoyed getting back into Christie’s world and I do hope Hannah will continue in this vein.
5 December, 2014
I was hunting, thirsting though I didn’t need to drink, at the mercy of the craving, the deep agonizing lust for heated pumping human blood. … Too hungry for anything else. Give me the heartbeat. Give me the salt. Give me the Viaticum. Fill my mouth.
It’s been 14 years since Anne Rice’s last vampire chronicle, first created in Interview with the Vampire which made her famous and inspired in all her readers a lasting love for her dark and richly gothic mythology. Spanning over 10 books and featuring a vast cast from different historical eras, nevertheless, there is only one vampire that will outshine everyone else: the mad, bad, devil-may-care Lestat de Lioncourt. Born into darkness out of violence, Lestat is a complex figure, at times playful and reckless, often depressed and contrite but also capable of feeling a deep love for his fellow vampires and humans. He seems more vital and vibrant than ordinary humans, seductive and monstrous at the same time. In Prince Lestat, Lestat returns, reluctantly.
There is a new cataclysm afflicting the vampire community: vampires are being destroyed in successive cities from Paris to Rio. It’s mainly the young ones that are immolated by an unknown force bringing back memories of an earlier purge by Akasha in Queen of the Damned. The young vampires, led by Benji Mahmoud, urge the old ones to come out from hiding and lead them in battle against their unknown enemy via Benji’s pirate radio station, a beacon of news. And of the ancients, the one they most need is Lestat. Lestat, who craves solitude and oblivion above all else, ignores it all, until he is sought by fellow vampires Jesse and David Talbot, formerly of the Talamasca. They urge Lestat to help them find Maharet, one of the original ancients created by Akasha herself and whose sister Menkare devoured Akasha’s brain bringing the seed of all vampires into herself and assuming the role of the Queen of the Damned. But Menkare is oblivious to the world, only trusting Maharet and Khayman, their companion of old. Maharet was the guardian of her family tree, keeper of secrets and wisest of the vampires. But now, she is in hiding, receding from the vampire community, anguished. The enemy is penetrating the vampires’ consciousness, speaking to them, urging them to do its bidding, to keep the blood pure. For too many young ones have been created and it feels stretched, unable to control its will. Who exactly is behind this voice? And will Lestat take up his calling and save his kind?
Rice is being very ambitious with her comeback novel. In some ways, it feels like a compendium of all her previous books as references to them are made throughout this one. Almost all of her characters make an appearance, even minor ones, and we finally get to the root of the Talamasca. Unless you have read all her previous vampire novels, Prince Lestat may be difficult to follow. Because there are so many characters, not enough story time is allocated to each one and the characterisation and tale sometimes feel thinly spread. However, as a true fan of the vampire chronicles, this made me want to go back and revisit all of her books, especially the first three novels. Although some of the chapters felt like a summary of all that has gone before, the chapters in which Lestat takes over are the ones that shine the most. Rice has created something special in Lestat’s voice. It is as though the years have tarnished nothing; Lestat sparkles, his wicked sense of humour and style are still intact. The other vampires, apart from Louis and Gabrielle, pale in comparison to Lestat and are too numerous, and all the talk of love and beauty become repetitive after a while.
The addition of modern technology and science may seem inevitable in the course of things, however that brings Rice’s truly original creation in line with other current vampire novels which seems unnecessary. The strength of Rice’s vampires lie in their character which eschews the modern adoration of all things high school and mundane. What makes Lestat and his kin irresistible is precisely that they are not the boy or girl next door, they inhabit the ‘other’, worlds which only come alive in our imagination. And the vampires don’t pretend to be good; they feed on human blood, their morals are askew, for they are monsters afters all. The glossary of terms too, seem unnecessary, we don’t need soundbites such as ‘in the blood’ or ‘of the blood’ to label these characters. We are perfectly aware of who they are. Rice doesn’t need to compete with the new crop of vampire novels that have appeared. Her world is hers and cannot be replicated by others. In an increasingly crowded genre, what she has created is unique and will remain so precisely because of her gorgeous prose and the character of Lestat.
Like me, lovers of Rice’s vampire chronicles will inevitably have very high expectations of her vampire novels just because they love them so much. I’m really looking forward to the next one but feel some trepidation too. However, I’m just over the moon that Rice is writing about vampires again and Prince Lestat has been my most anticipated book of the year. And it looks like I’m not the only one as the novel has won the prize for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Horror in 2014. Congratulations!
I would like to thank Random House for kindly sending me a copy of Prince Lestat to review.
28 November, 2014
Never to whine; to accept what came; to wait for better; to take what you could; to let no one, not even yourself, know how near to giving in you were: these were his principles by which he lived…
Robin Jenkins’ novel, The Changeling, about a poor young boy from a Glasgow slum who is whisked away on a family holiday by his well-meaning but ultimately naïve teacher, is a startling account of the fallible and arrogant nature of altruism and superiority gone wrong.
Jenkins uses the character of Charlie Forbes and his do-gooding cloaked in good intentions and shortsightedness to show in sharp relief the desperate nature of a child born into poverty who possesses an uncanny intellect, survival skills and self-assuredness who comes to realise that there is no escape from his situation.
Donaldson’s Court, a slum in 50s Glasgow, is a wretched place reminiscent of Dickens’ Victorian London at its worst. Forbes’ well meaning belief born out of pity that two weeks on holiday with his family will bring some relief to Tom Curdie’s miserable existence is naïve at best and cruel at worst and so arrogant and misplace that he doesn’t realise this may have an adverse affect on his pupil, giving him false hope for a brighter future, something Tom realises early on and tries so hard to prevent. And yet, he is a child of twelve, starved of kindness, affection and stability, that a week away with a normal family irrevocably changes him and plunges him into further despair. And little does Forbes or the other adults realise this; so wrapped up in their petty drama of being fair and moral and trying to keep their indignation at bay that they are prepared to strike immediately if Tom goes out of line.
Everywhere in Towellan, in the garden among the rose-bushes, in the hut at night listening to the owl, on the lawn putting, even in the ruined castle with the sick rabbit, he was becoming convinced that this was the way of life he had always known and always would know; that at the end of the holiday he would return with the rest of the family, and would for the rest of his life be involved in their affairs as he was now; and that he would always have a bed to himself with clean sheet, and plenty of good food served on a table with a white cloth.
It is only Gillian, Forbes’ daughter who sees Tom for who he really is. At first suspicious of Tom’s motives in inveigling into her family, she is determined to expose him for the thief she knows him to be. And yet there is something about Tom which calls to her and she soon becomes the only one to see the tragic unfurling of Tom’s tightly held grasp on his emotions, something he has always hidden from everyone.
‘Did you,’ she asked, ‘did you steal those things in Woolworth’s because – because you didn’t want- to get – too fond of us?’
Expressed like that, almost angrily as if she was again accusing him, it was very far from saying what was in her heart to say. She felt not only pity and love for him in his terrible predicament, but also complicity with him. There was no way of explaining that.
Nevertheless he seemed to understand, and smiled with a gratitude she could not bear.
Jenkins’ storytelling is sparse, he draws the well-argued and dramatic emotions of the Forbes family with flair in sharp contrast to the controlled, spartan stance of Tom’s character. Forbes is poorly trained to deal with the invisible complex emotions swirling within his pupil and ultimately fails as a mentor and person. What starts as a silly, thoughtless whim quickly escalates into tragic proportions.
The Changeling is a tragic tale devoid of sentimentality. A beautifully drawn portrait of quiet suffering. Tom’s streetwise knowledge cannot help him against such mishandled naïveté. Inevitable yet heartbreaking.
I’m so glad Kim chose this for our book group otherwise I would never had heard of Robin Jenkins. There are layers to this novel which would benefit from many re-readings and I hope to do just that. A thoughtful and melancholic study of human fallibility and short-sightedness encapsulated by a fellow teacher’s description of Forbes:
The difference between you and me, Charlie, is this: if I passed a blind beggar with a tinny I’d drop in a couple of coppers and pass on, without giving him another thought but you’d be so damned indignant at such public misery and so busy blaming everybody else for it that you’d pass by without putting anything in at all.
18 November, 2014
I confess I’ve only read one book by Goethe which was Faust because who didn’t try that one as a student? But I don’t remember much of it and I probably raced through it without really thinking about it much. So although I’ve been wanting to try more of Goethe’s novels, I only retain memories of something dark and heavy. So what a revelation Elective Affinities turned out to be. Chosen as my October/November’s book group read, the novel showcased Goethe’s lightness of touch and acute sensibilities which are so finely tuned that you really feel you are in the presence of a master. What could so easily have turned into a heavy, dank romantic tragedy was saved by the relentless self questioning of his characters and their wish to do the right thing.
Elective Affinities begins with Charlotte and Eduard who has been given a second chance at love. No longer in their first flush of youth and having overcome previous life events that were orchestrated by others, they are now happily enjoying the freedom of their simple coupledom. Charlotte’s daughter is away at school and so they spend their days organising and designing their house and land at their pleasure. In fact all their time is taken with pleasure. Happy but getting a little bored of their monotonous life, a visit from a scandalous aristocratic couple embeds ideas of love and affairs which slowly take root in their minds. Their fidelity is tested when Eduard’s close friend, the Captain, and Charlotte’s niece, Ottilie who is unhappy at school, come to stay.
Goethe melds his views on romanticism with the scientific ideals and advances from the Age of Enlightenment that was fashionable in 19th century Europe to create a story which mirrors science. Elective affinities, a concept in chemistry where elements naturally gravitate towards their optimal counterpart, is used here to illustrate the romantic leanings of the four main characters.
Eduard, a dynamic man, begins to feel an affinity for Ottilie who is equally smitten, and succumbs to temptation, albeit platonic. However Charlotte and the Captain are a bit more reserved, battling with their morals even though their feelings for each other are as fierce. The main focus of the novel is the love affair between Eduard and Ottilie, a reflection and dissection of the ideals and reality of what love is.
However there were a few things that perplexed me. For example, why did everyone love Ottilie so much? Because she is young and innocent? Eduard who is actually married sees nothing wrong in his feelings and nor does Ottilie until towards the end of the tale. Only Charlotte and the Captain seem commendable but Goethe seems more sympathetic towards Eduard and Ottilie as though he holds them much higher up as his romantic ideal, that theirs is the great love story with so many obstacles when in fact they could have really gotten together at any point. Ottilie’s refusal of Eduard doesn’t seem to have a moral aspect to it, more as a whim and feels self-indulgent. And personally I felt Eduard comes very close to being the villain of the piece, acting as though his marriage to Charlotte meant nothing. It seems as though he was going through a mid-life crisis and as a result I found it very difficult to sympathise with him. In fact, all the characters felt a little flat, especially the female characters, except for Charlotte’s aristocratic friends who revel in their scandalous lives. At least they don’t pretend to be good. And although there are tragic consequences to the choices these characters make, Goethe’s light touch stops short of making Elective Affinities a tragedy or even a moral tale, leaving the reader feeling rather confused.
It’s been several weeks since I’ve finished the book but I’m still wondering about the characters in Elective Affinities, especially Ottilie and Eduard. I wonder whether Goethe was drawing a parallel to himself and his own choices in life. However, the novella certainly made for an interesting discussion and I most certainly would like to read more by Goethe.
12 November, 2014
My name is August.
I won’t describe what I look like.
Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.
Several months ago, my book group chose Wonder by R.J. Palacio as the monthly read. I couldn’t attend the discussion for some reason and somehow ended up not reading it. To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read a novel that I was sure to be sad at the time. But I returned the following months to gushing adoration of the book. And month after month, I would see lots of wonderful reviews of Wonder online. And finally, my nephew lent me the book and I decided to give it a go. And I confess that I was wrong and should have listened to all of you when you told me it was a brilliant book. Because it is.
Told from the viewpoints of the various characters in the book, Wonder revolves around August ‘Auggie’ Pullman, born with severe craniofacial syndrome, and the people in his life. Home-schooled until the 5th grade, Auggie’s life has revolved around his mum and dad, big sister Via and dog Daisy and trips to the hospital for corrective surgery. However, his family have always treated Auggie as a normal boy. Perhps slightly overprotective but he has been cocooned by their love since birth. Until his parents enroll him in middle school for the first time. Via is also starting high school and both of them must navigate the battlefield of the school corridor, making new friends and experiencing the complexities of teenage social life and, in Auggie’s case, trying to come to terms with acceptance and building connections with his peers. There is Summer, a young girl trying to find her place in the social hierarchy who is the first to befriend Auggie from her own volition. Then there is Jack who feels he must befriend Auggie but is torn between his old friends and new. And then there is Julian, who covers up his fear of the unknown the only way he knows how.
What elevates Palacio’s tale is her story-telling skill. She pares it down to its simplest form and creates a warm, funny story about some really tough issues while keeping the focus on the children. It is from their point of view that she brings to life this story that is ultimately about kindness. And because August’s tale is also told from his family and friends’ viewpoints, you get a multi-faceted perspective of a complex life and identity. Reading Wonder makes you realise how kind people can be. And makes you want to be kinder too. And I have to confess welling up several times while reading this book. It’s a sweet story with a really powerful message written in an engaging way. I loved the fact that Palacio doesn’t throw in miracles or an ultimately happy ending. It is happy but you know that Auggie will face many battles in his road to adulthood but he will have his family and friends around him and we will cheer him on.
If you haven’t read Wonder, then I urge you to do so. It’s a beautiful story and will make you more conscious about being kinder.
There is also a new chapter which was published recently on Auggie’s nemesis Julian who learns a lesson of his own at the end of Wonder so do read that too.
21 October, 2014
I am also calling it the Domesday Book because I would imagine that’s what you’d like to call it, you are so convinced something awful’s going to happen to me. I’m watching you in the observation area right now, telling poor Dr. Ahrens all the dreadful dangers of the 1300s. You needn’t bother. She’s already warned about time lag and every single mediaeval disease in gruesome detail, even though I’m supposed to be immune to all of them. And warned me about the prevalence of rape in the 1300s. And when I tell her I’ll be perfectly all right she doesn’t listen to me either. I will be perfectly all right, Mr. Dunworthy.
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is an incredible novel. Well-written, pacey, it’s relentless in driving the story forward while keeping the terror just in check. Almost from the start, Willis flings you into the world of academic experimental history at Oxford circa 2054.
It’s just before Christmas and Kivrin, a Medieval history student, is determined to time-travel back to the Middle Ages to experience life as it really was. The absence of the Department Head meant that she was able to convince the acting Head at Brasenose College, Gilchrist, to authorise her drop even though Dunworthy, her mentor at Balliol, warns her against the dangers of traveling so far back in time. For Gilchrist. trying to maximise his trajectory up the career ladder, is planning to send Kivrin back to 1320, before the plague crosses over to England. With so little real information about actual daily life in the Middle Ages, Kivrin spends every moment of her time preparing, learning all the relevant languages, medical information, daily customs so that she will blend in seamlessly. Dr. Mary Ahrens has also prepped her at the hospital, giving her all the necessary inoculations including against bubonic plague, and enhancing her immunity.
Amidst severe misgivings from both Dunworthy and Ahrens, Kivrin goes through and the others make preparations to pick her up 2 weeks later. But something goes wrong and Badri, the university’s best tech who supervised the drop, falls ill just as soon as he finds Dunworthy. And Oxford goes into lockdown as a mysterious pandemic brings down those involved in Kivrin’s drop, one after another. The net, which allows the time-travel, works in a paradox where nothing that will change the course of history can get through. But something unforeseen has happened and no one is sure where Kivrin is. So what exactly happened here, and will they be able to get Kivrin back?
Kivrin finds herself transported to the Middle Ages but nothing is as she expected. The net was supposed to drop her near the village of Skendgate, close to Oxford, and her aim is to record everything she finds there so that when she returns she can help Dr. Montoya with her archeological dig. But she isn’t sure whether the trail she has found is the Oxford-Bath Road and whether the smattering of dwellings she spies down the hill is actually Skendgate. But she is suddenly overcome with fatigue and before she knows it, she is ill and someone has come to rescue her, and she finds herself in a household filled with fourteenth century people, in all their unwashed, superstitious glory. And she can’t understand them, their pronunciation differing from the Middle English she was taught. While Kivrin fears she will spend Christmas ill in bed instead of completing her research, something worse comes along and people begin to drop like flies. She should have landed in 1320, 28 years before the plague arrives in Oxford. But something has gone wrong.
She has a fever, but no buboes, and she isn’t coughing or vomiting. Just the fever.
In Doomsday Book Willis has created a complex, chaotic and thrilling tale mixing futuristic technology with old-world academic squabbling and melds it to the horrors of medieval society faced with the onslaught of the bubonic plague. It is seamless and the terror relentless. There is just a wonderful mixture of drama, speculation and comedy from a futuristic but still identifiable Oxford to a more earthy fourteenth century guise. I love the bit where Dr. Ahrens asks Kivrin whether she would like her nose cauterised as
the smells of the fourteenth century could be completely incapacitating, that we’re simply not used to excrement and bad meat and decomposition in this day and age. I told her nausea would interfere significantly with her ability to function.
And as Oxford in 2054 quickly buckles into a chaotic epicentre of disease control, Dunworthy, hounded by his secretary and a group of stranded American bellringers, finds a helper in Colin, Dr. Ahrens’ grand nephew, who injects a festive cheer in the nightmare from which he may be unable to rescure Kivrin. Colin is such a great character with his interjections of ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘necrotic’ which makes it seem as though he’s crawled out of an E. Nesbit book. And Kivrin is a protagonist that Willis can be proud of, strong, intelligent, scared and yet fearless; a true seeker of knowledge, with Dunworthy and Dr. Ahrens making formidable allies. As both Kivrin and Dunworthy battle through their respective timelines, will they both survive? And can Dunworthy bring his student back alive?
Doomsday Book has seen many years on my shelf and so many of my book blogging friends have entreated me to read this book and I wish I had listened to them earlier. It’s a magnificent story, far superior to so many time-traveling books and films I’ve seen over the years. I wish they’d make a live action adaptation of this but I fear they would spoil it. And boy am I glad Willis has written more novels in her Oxford Time Travel series. Who amongst us hasn’t wondered whether what we read in history books or watch in documentaries even come close to how life was really like in the past? Imagine studying history, really studying history by actually traveling to the past.
I’m off to read To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear next.
I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.