R.I.P. VI Wrap up!

7 November, 2011

Aaah, I thought two months would give me ample time to read all the spooky books I wanted but, alas, time does not slow down when you are having fun. Carl’s wonderful R.I.P. VI Challenge has once again ended and although I would have liked to have read more books from my favourite genres, still, I didn’t do too shabbily.

I read the following:

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Mystery in the Minster by Susanna Gregory
Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier
Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James
Angel Time by Anne Rice
Dark Matter by Juli Zeh

I did actually read Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter: A Ghost Story but couldn’t post the review on time. So 5/9 from my original list isn’t too bad, especially since I keep finding new titles every day!

I rather enjoyed reading seasonally although I’m finding that I don’t scare easily. So any suggestions for books that will give me a fright will be warmly welcomed!

This is one of my favourite challenges and I can’t wait for R.I.P. VII next year!

Dark Matter by Juli Zeh

2 November, 2011

I first heard about Juli Zeh last year through one of Sarah Weinman’s posts (either on her now defunct and sadly missed blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind or her monthly crime column, Dark Passages, in the LA Times, I forget which) and promptly put her novel In Free Fall on my wishlist. It turns out Vintage published this novel under the title Dark Matter last year describing it as an existential crime thriller exploring the nature of man, philosophy and science. That ticks all my boxes and I chose it for my book group this month. I haven’t seen much coverage on the web except for Lizzy’s review.

Sebastian and Oskar are both physicists whose friendship goes back to their first encounter on their first day at university. Both tall, enigmatic and with minds like quick-silver, they stand apart from their peers although one is blond and the other dark. Their friendship is intense and touched with a competitive streak that will one day drive them apart as Sebastian chooses marriage to beautiful Maike and a domestic life coupled with a job as a Physics Professor at the university in Freiberg, while Oskar goes on to a glittering academic career and a job at CERN exploring the very fabric of reality. When Sebastian’s son Liam goes missing together with his car, he is given a clear yet enigmatic order. A split second decision will change the course of everyone’s lives and Sebastien turns to the one man who understands him more than anyone else, including himself. And once the course is set, can he and his family come out of it unscathed?

Can I just say how fracking brilliant it is? Juli Zeh’s debut has totally exceeded my expectations. In some ways, reading the blurb led me to believe the novel would proceed in a certain direction and although I sort of guessed the twist, Zeh’s intricate explanation was surprising and something I didn’t really expect. It went beyond the pedestrian and became a novel that is so much more than just a crime novel, or a novel of ideas. There was a perfect mixture of humanity, ideas and feeling. You cared about the characters as well as wanting to know what happens next. She doesn’t overexplain anything, yet gives you more than you expect. Her prose is delicate but robust. And she imbues daily life with the beauty of complex science. It made me want to read more about science just because science is about our world. That’s not an easy feat for a writer. And neither is it for Zeh’s translator Christine Lo who has done a remarkable job here.

The police component of the story was also nicely balanced. There is Rita Skura, the eccentric inspector who is looking into a hospital scandal and murder that may or may not be connected to Liam’s kidnapping. There is her old mentor Inspector Schilf who is brought in from Stuttgart to oversee the investigation and who is the only person who understands Skura. And there is her assistant Schnurpfeil who will follow Skura blindly and is a little in love with her. However cynical and weatherbeaten Schilf is, what I liked was the way he would not let go of hope and what he believed was worth saving.

Apart from the weaving of scientific ideas into the everyday narrative of the tale such as

Seb’s appearance in Maike’s life was – as he would express is – a wave function collapse in quantum mechanics


So Oskar is merely a random collection of matter from which the world is formed, containing everything that exists because it is impossible to be otherwise. He knows that the boundaries of his person blur in the enormous whirl of particles. He can literally feel his substance mixing with that of the people around him,

what I really liked about Zeh’s novel is how three dimensional the characters were including all their flaws, their strangeness, their intelligence and naïveté. Although reminiscient of the image of early 20th century scientists a la Einstein, Dirac or Oppenheimer, the fact that they are modern characters adds an edge to their make-up.

Probably the only weak point of the novel is at the end, the tying up of the various threads. But at the end, it’s no longer just about the crime; it’s a metaphysical journey into what is real and what is important and what you would sacrifice for your beliefs. It’s a clever and yet very poignant story about love and one that you may not expect when you start reading the book.

I don’t want to give away anything because I’d like you to read it and feel the sense of wonder I felt as each page slipped through my fingers, not knowing where this story was going, knowing that I will be surprised. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way about a book and I can’t wait to read more by Zeh.

Everyone at the book group enjoyed the book although the discussion threw up some interesting questions regarding belief, action and free will which made me think I may have to read this book again.

I also read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

Caroline who, together with Lizzy, is hosting the German Literature Month November 2011 has kindly reminded me that this qualifies so do go and check out their blogs to see what German treats other participants are reading this month.

Susanna Gregory’s 17th foray into historical crime featuring the physician Matthew Bartholomew, Mystery in the Minster, takes the 14th century sleuth away from Cambridge and Michaelhouse College to York before term begins to settle a disputed legacy. Together with Cynric, his loyal Welsh servant, Michaelhouse’s Master Langelee, Brother Michael, a Benedictine and Senior Proctor of Cambridge, and Radeford, a lawyer, Bartholomew must delve into the mysterious deaths that have dogged a missing codicil granting Michaelhouse the church and living of Huntingdon from Langelee’s former master William Zouche, the Archbishop of York.

Before becoming the Master of Michaelhouse College in Cambridge, Ralph Langelee was a trusted servant of Zouche, working with him to ensure peace and stability in York during a time of strife and the ever present danger of French attacks. Langelee is tight-lipped about what this work entailed but what isn’t disputed is Langelee’s affection for his former boss and his sorrow that Zouche’s last wish, that a chapel be built for him to atone for his sins, hasn’t been completed even after nine years. The money has disappeared together with the codicil bequeathing Michaelhouse the parish of Huntingdon and, on top of that, Zouche’s closest advisors have started to die. The Michaelhouse men must use their wits against the vicars choral who are hellbent on keeping Huntingdon for themselves and there is the danger of being accused as French spies. Bartholomew has his work cut out as he uses his medical knowledge to see whether murder has been committed, keeps his friends out of harm’s way and their purity intact against Zouche’s beautiful nieces and watch out for mischief from the vicars choral who seem oddly obsessed with shoes. Will Michaelhouse get Huntingdon? And more importantly, will they survive York?

Once again, Gregory brings 14th century England to life; this time it is the great city of York instead of Cambridge. Although Bartholomew is well travelled and was trained in Paris, he is struck by the cosmopolitan nature of York, its magnificent Minster, its great hospital that takes the issue of hygiene seriously (a rare occurrence even after the Black Death) and the necessity for hats (to protect the head from unwelcome fluids being thrown out of windows.) One of the new things I learnt in this volume was the existence of the vicars choral, lay members of the community who look after the choral duties of the busier church canons, who seem to have wielded much power in medieval York.

I’m a huge fan of Matthew Bartholomew and his coterie of eccentric Michaelhouse Fellows and although the mystery isn’t as taxing and some of the characters may lack subtlety, Gregory’s novels give a welcome glimpse into a violent, dirty, smelly and yet fascinating period in English history. More please!

There is only one issue that has been bugging me in the last few books and that is, where is Mathilde? She’s one of my favourite characters after Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael (of course) and I miss her!

I recommend reading these mysteries in order so that you don’t miss out on the everchanging friendships and relationships that make this series so wonderful. Begin with A Plague on Both Your Houses.

I would like to thank the lovely people at Little, Brown Book Group for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

I read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

I’ve seen lots of reviews of this book on blogs in the last two years and although I’m late to the party, I’m mighty glad I read this. I was expecting some sort of ghost story à la The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, but it’s more akin to Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns both in style and ambience. Which is a good thing in my book because I loved it. This is my first novel by Shirley Jackson (not counting her short story The Lottery which I read on Simon T’s blog and was seriously impressed), and like with Comyns, I plan to read more.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is set in 1960s New England, although it could almost be transplanted to early 20th century England (or even earlier). The castle is Blackwood House, tainted by tragedy and inhabited by the remaining members of the wealthy Blackwood family, sisters Constance and Mary Katherine (Merrycat) and their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian. The villagers shun the Blackwoods and either ignore or taunt them, especially 18 year old Merrycat who goes out to do the weekly shopping. Her sister Constance, now 28, has not stepped outside the house for over 6 years since she was acquitted of poisoning her family. And Uncle Julian alternates between wanting to recall and write about the night of the tragedy and being unable to recall anything. Although strange and coccooned, this is a happy and carefree existence for the family where Merrycat is free to make up the rules of her life to keep the family safe. That is until their cousin Charles arrives, taking over the house, trying to assert control and always enquiring about the money that he knows Constance hides in the safe. As Merricat becomes agitated by the presence of her bullying cousin, things slowly spiral out of control as what was kept safely at a distance slowly encroaches and threatens the sanctity of their daily life.

Although I wasn’t really surprised by the main revelation of this story, I have to say I was impressed by the tension and the sense of doom with which Jackson imbues the arrival of Charles into the Blackwood House. Both Constance and Merrycat are characters you empathise with even though you slowly begin to see that all may not be as it seems in that household. Yet the love between the two sisters is touching and you can’t help but root for their survival.

As well as being a story of family secrets and dynamic, this is also a story of the divide between the wealthy landowners and the villagers and the blistering hatred and suspicion arising from their differences. The thing that softens what could easily be an unpleasant and harsh view of prejudice is Jackson’s constant references to food, from Constance’s culinary creations to the offerings laid out on the front doorsteps by the villagers. Of all the characters, my heart goes out to Constance who is happiest when cooking for her family and preserving fruit.

Although a short novella, We Have Always Lived in the Castle certainly packs a powerful punch. I’m not sure whether I was entirely satisfied with the ending, but I dare you not to feel a chill when reading it.

I read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

R.I.P. VI is here!

7 September, 2011

I was just feeling all gloomy last week thinking about how summer’s over and dreading the encroaching darkness and chill until I realised that Carl V of Stainless Steel Droppings will be hosting his Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P.) VI challenge from Sept 1st – Oct 31st. It’s in its 6th year and is one of the first challenges I joined when I started blogging and one I always look forward to every year. Takes the edge off the approaching winter.

I’ll be participating at the Peril the First level where I plan to read 4 books or more in the following genres: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror, supernatural. All genres I love!

So I’m hoping to read some books from the following on my TBR and maybe some new titles I may come across in the next two months:

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – I’ve heard this is super creepy, a favourite amongst bloggers
Dark Matter by Juli Zeh – existential/philosophical thriller with physicists, my choice this month for my book group
Dark Matter: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver – I’ve heard this is uber creepy
Twelve by Jasper Kent – vampires in 1800s Russia
Ghost Stories by M.R. James – I keep putting this on my RIP lists but never managed to read it, oops
Heartstone by C.J. Sansom – ‘cos I love Shardlake
The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams – some gothic fun and ‘cos I’ve had this, like, FOREVER
Mystery in the Minster by Susanna Gregory – Physician Matthew Bartholomew sleuths in 14th century Cambridge on his 17th case
Still Life by Louise Penny – Inspector Gamache’s first case in Quebec

It’s all about having fun and I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else will be reading. And once again, how gorgeous is the banner? And will you be joining us?