R.I.P. VII Wrap-up

1 November, 2012

I wasn’t sure whether I was actually going to find time to read all the books I planned for Carl’s R.I.P. VII this year but lo and behold, it seems nothing can keep me away from gothicky goodness. MWAHAHAHAHA.

All in all I read 11 books:

Ash by James Herbert
Twelve by Jasper Kent
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
Inquisition by Alfredo Colitto
Still Life by Louise Penny
An Evil Eye by Jason Goodwin
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Legend of the Wolves trilogy by Alice Borchardt

OK, strictly speaking I read Twelve and Shadow of Night before September and I haven’t posted my reviews of The Secret History, which was a re-read, or the three volumes in The Legend of the Wolves trilogy yet but I’m working on it. Incidentally Alice Borchardt is Anne Rice’s sister which makes it even more interesting, right?

But I did surprise myself by reading most of the books I planned to, which is a first, since I always get distracted and I did complete my Peril the First challenge of reading more than four books. I say it’s a win-win situation.

I’d like to say a big THANK YOU to Carl for hosting such a wonderful event and do please check out the R.I.P. VII review site to see what everyone else has been reading. I hope you’ll join us next year because I’m a little sad that it’s over as R.I.P. is one of my favourite bookish events I look forward to every year.

An Evil Eye by Jason Goodwin is the fourth book in the Ottoman mystery series featuring Yashim, the Sultan’s investigator and eunuch. Beginning with The Janissary Tree, Goodwin has brilliantly recreated 1840s Istanbul, an international port of devilish intrigue. In such a sophisticated world, only a well-trained and discreet palace servant such as Yashim can uncover the deadly mysteries that occur while at the same time preserving the reputation of the people he serves.

In his latest case, Sultan Mahmut II is dead and his young teenage son, Abdülmecid, has taken the throne bringing with him his coterie of staff including his concubines. It is a distressing time in the sultan’s harem as the deceased sultan’s concubines are replaced by much younger and more beautiful versions of themselves. The cruel bickerings following the displacement occurs at the same time as the body of a Russian spy is found drowned in the well of a Christian monastery on a small island not far from Istanbul. Yashim is sent to investigate and soon realises that he must confront his old mentor and nemesis, Fevzi Pasha, someone he has studiously avoided all these years and who is now commander of the Ottoman fleet. For this man has taught Yashim everything including how cruel humans can be. When people start to turn up dead in the sultan’s harem, Yashim soon begins to realise that the seeds of this case lie many years in the past and he must unravel the sticky strands carefully in order for him and his friends to survive.

In between the mystery are little nuggets of information about daily life in Istanbul including tantalising descriptions of Yashim cooking his meals. One of these days I really must try some of his mouthwatering recipes.

We are also reacquainted with Stanislaw Palewski, Yashim’s friend and the Polish Ambassador to the Sublime Port who still maintains his Embassy although now sadly diminished in monetary terms with the demise of a sovereign Poland. It’s these little political details which are fascinating. Goodwin is brilliant in bringing Istanbul with its complex political and military history alive while at the same time injecting it with the humanity that keeps you reading the stories.

I can’t wait to find out more, especially about Yashim’s own murky history.

I read this as part of R.I.P. VII.

Still Life by Louise Penny

29 October, 2012

The first volume in the Inspector Gamache series, Louise Penny’s Still Life is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Winner of the Crime Writers Association’s New Blood Dagger in 2006, Still Life introduces the Chief Inspector at the Sûréte de Québec but also to a part of the world of which I’m unfamiliar, French Canada.

Inspector Armand Gamache is called to Three Pines, a small village in the heart of Quebec when retired local teacher Jane Neal is found dead in the woods. It is the beginning of deer hunting season and it looks as though a stray arrow has found its way into her heart. Three Pines is a sleepy village where everyone knows each other. But soon, Gamache and his deputy Jean-Guy Beauvoir (don’t you just love that name?) begin to sense that not all is as it seems in Three Pines. Jane has recently submitted a piece of artwork to the annual Art Exhibition curated by her friends Clara and Peter Morrow. At the celebratory Thanksgiving dinner that same evening, Jane had also invited her friends over to her house for the first time. But a few days after her artwork was accepted, she is found dead. Was there something about her painting or her house that needed to stay hidden? Can Gamache tease out the murderer in what looks like an inside job?

I initially found Still Life a little slow. But it’s a slow burning book and by the end, I was racing through to find out exactly whodunnit. Armand Gamache is a happily married policeman setting out to do his job and teaching his deputies along the way. Beavoir is his deputy, independant, strong and loyal. And togther with their team, they burrow into the daily lives of the villages, leaving no stone unturned. Three Pines has a mixture of eccentric folk but what they do have in common is their shared history, one which Jane Neal had faithfully rendered onto her painting.

As a city person, I’ve always been fascinated by small town lives ever since reading Anne of Green Gables as a child. The intense friendships, the long histories, even the claustrophobia. As Miss Marple would say, it’s a microcosm of human society everywhere.

There are now eight books in the series and I’m looking forward to catching up starting with the next book in the series, Dead Cold.

And thank you Carl for urging me to read this one and do check out his review. You were right!

I read this as part of R.I.P. VII.

A Templer in disguise.
A dangerous scientist.
A killer who turns hearts to iron…

Since I first read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum as a school kid, I’ve been partial to stories about the Knights Templars. So how could I turn away from this premise? Especially when the book is titled Inquisition by Alfredo Colitto (originally Cuore di Ferro or Heart of Iron in Italian and translated by Sophie Henderson). There’s been a plethora of historical conspiracy books since The Da Vinci Code hit big time, many disappointing. I love historical mysteries and when the history and mystery are balanced just right, it can be an exquisitely thrilling and informative read.

Colitto’s novel featuring the fourteenth century physician and anatomist, Mondino de Liuzzi, does just that. Set in Bologna, Europe’s oldest university town, it’s a refreshing change from the usual geographical culprits in historical crime fiction. Mondino is also an intriguing figure, a political and religious dissenter, a visionary in the ever-changing field of medieval medicine and an exile returned. As much as he is a thinking man, he is also a fighter who can look out for himself.

When one of Mondino’s students asks for his help after a suspicious fire sweeps through his university neighbourhood and a Knight Templar lies dead, Mondino is swept into the path of a frightening killer who has the ability to turn living tissue into iron. Amidst the alchemists and the current persecution of the Templars by Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V, he discovers that his student Gerardo is a clandestine Templar sought after by the Inquisition. With the threat of arrest hanging over them, they must uncover the killer who seems to be targeting rogue Templars before all hell breaks loose.

Colitto’s Bologna is rich in detail, a bustling city with busy academics, strutting politicians, discreet bankers and suspicious monks. There is a lot of historical detail but Colitto blends this effortlessly into the tale. Mondino is an experienced and well-travelled physician, a widower with a young family but unable to shake off his roguish ways. Gerardo is a young Templar monk, just ordained, only to find his order besmirched, ruined and hunted by the Inquisition. Together they make an interesting pair. Add to this a sinister Templar with a secret, a banker who caters to the Templars with a beautiful, disfigured daughter, an Arabic alchemist with a reputation as a witch and you have a very colourful mystery.

I think one of the things I really liked about this book was that there was just enough historical depth to it, no dumbing down and with some interesting discussions on medicine, philosophy and religion. Mondino and his family are Ghibellines who are looked upon with suspicion by the Pope’s supporters and have to navigate the political and religious minefield of fourteenth century Bologna while still maintaining their status and livelihood as physicians. Also, fourteenth century Italy seemed to have been a hub of travel and information exchange. In a period when Arabic texts were being rediscovered and translated into Latin (albeit with a Christian twist) leading up to the Renaissance, there also seemed to be a lot of mingling of travellers from around the world. The Arabic alchemist Adia, apart from being a woman, is also a fascinating figure, one who is always poised for flight should the tide turn against her.

I really enjoyed Inquisition and hope to meet Mondino and Gerardo in further adventures.

You can read an interview of Colitto by Hersilia Press here.

I read this as part of R.I.P. VII.

You may recall I was pretty impressed with Deborah Harkness’ debut novel, A Discovery of Witches about the search of a mysterious manuscript and the romance between a witch and a vampire. Yes, I had a few qualms about Diana and Matthew’s relationship but what relationship is perfect? Knowing that it was the first volume in a trilogy, I was even more thrilled to find out that Diana and Matthew would be travelling back in time to Elizabethan England and would be meeting Kit Marlowe amongst other famed historical characters. I couldn’t wait for the sequel. So imagine my frothing delight when Shadow of Night arrived on my doorstep.

Diana Bishop and Matthew de Clermont have traversed across time to Elizabethan England in pursuit of Ashmole 782, the legendary manuscript that propelled Diana towards this journey into her hidden heritage and the vampire’s arms. As a historian, Diana must use her knowledge to survive in a time and place where a woman’s role was fixed and bound by her relationship with men and where knowledge is a powerful weapon that can save her or break her. It helps that the 16th century Matthew kept a permissive household that also doubled as the headquarters of the School of Night amongst whose illustrious members were the playwright and spy, Christopher Marlowe; courtier and explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh; Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland; Thomas Herriot and George Chapman. It is also a time when the Witchfinder General is flexing his muscles and witch burnings are becoming common. As Diana and Matthew negotiate the dangers, they must confront Matthew’s father Phillipe in France, lecherous Prince Rudolph of Prague, John Dee who used to own the manuscript and Elizabeth Regina herself. Can they do so without altering the strands of time themselves? And how will they deal with Diana’s awakening and changing talents as a daughter of two powerful witches?

I really enjoyed reading Shadow of Night, even more so than A Discovery of Witches. This is partly due to it being set in an era in which we have grown familiar due to all the novels, films and tv adaptations which abound and yet with enough mystery and danger to keep us on our toes. Harkness really knows her stuff. And what I found incredible and what I loved about her novel is how seamlessly she folds her historical knowledge into her story without dumbing down, overloading her story or jeopardising her writing style. I loved all the bits about alchemy, Diana’s specialist subject, and the historical characters seemed both alive and yet accessible.

One of the things I enjoyed most was how frightening Elizabethan England could be, even for a historian specialising in that era. Because however much of an expert you are, in the end, you are extrapolating from the primary material using secondary sources and there is no real way of knowing how people lived in detail. Who hasn’t thought about going back in time, just for a little bit? It’s made me rethink it.

I am, however, a little heartbroken by the characterisation of Christopher Marlowe although what else can he be but a daemon? He is one of my favourite historical figures probably because there is so much mystery surrounding him. I wish he could have been friends with Diana. But I loved that Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, made an appearance and that Walter Raleigh cut such a dashing figure in a Three Musketeers sort of way.

Oh, and how can I not mention Matthew’s vampiric nephew Galloglass? He’s probably my favourite character in this book.

My one quibble is as before: the romance between Diana and Matthew, more specifically the character of Diana. For an independant woman in her thirties with a career and history of relationships, her vulnerability and girlishness around Matthew is disconcerting. I have no issues with her relationship with Matthew and yet I find it infuriating. And yet, this is a very small quibble in what is a brilliant second volume. Usually second volumes in a trilogy are often iffy but this was even better than the first.

I cannot wait until the final volume and am looking forward to the film adaptation. I know it’s going to be amazing but may have a few things to say about the casting. I was lucky enough to go to an event with Deborah Harkness and Christopher Fowler and she was as lovely, friendly and witty as I had imagined and had such enthusiasm for her subject it was almost infectious. And she knew my name!

Do also check out Harriet and Iris’s thoughts on the book.

I would like to thank Headline for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

I read this as part of R.I.P. VII.

Ash by James Herbert

1 October, 2012

Many years ago I read James Herbert’s Haunted and later watched the film. I don’t remember much of the book but I did think the film was pretty scary. Well, horror films never fail to terrify me. So when I was offered the chance to review Ash, the latest novel by James Herbert, I was intrigued to see what had become of David Ash, the parapsychologist whom I first met in Haunted. BBC is about to show a dramatisation of Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall and the nights are drawing closer. I was in the mind for something spookay!

In David Ash’s third case (the second is The Ghosts of Sleath which I haven’t read), we find him battered but almost recovered from his previous two encounters with the paranormal. A powerful, secretive organisation called the Inner Sanctum has requested his expertise in uncovering some sinister events that have taken place in a hidden castle in the middle of the Highlands, a place of refuge for the world’s wealthiest recluses. Or so they claim. With some misgivings regarding the secrecy surrounding Comraich Castle, Ash is soon on his way to the secluded castle where he comes face to face with some of history’s most notorious faces whom the world believes dead. With so much evil concentrated in one place, it is only a matter of time before a malevolent presence finds a conduit through which it can materialise and Ash must somehow convince the owners to evacuate the place in order to save lives.

To complicate matters, he has fallen for the resident psychologist Dr. Delphine Wyatt and so he must not only protect himself but other innocent people from the evil that is growing beneath the castle.

The premise sounded extremely intriguing and my memories of Haunted were pleasant enough for me to anticipate reading this novel. Unfortunately there were too many things that irked me for this to be an enjoyable experience. The writing style was fine but occasionally veered between being condescending to pedantic. There was too much information that sometimes I felt as though I was consulting wikipedia. I’m sure half of the explanations could have been cut without hindering the story in any way. The writing style was somewhat crude in places which I thought was unnecessary although I guess it scores on the shock factor. But I always assumed David Ash would be a conflicted, agonised man, but one with style. There was a lot of brand name dropping which annoyed me. Do I really need to know that Ash’s mobile was a Samsung? I don’t think so. And lots and lots of names of medical drugs and product descriptions which could have been edited out.

Herbert’s characterisation also leaves a lot to be desired. Apart from the stereotypes you would expect to find in mainstream horror, they often didn’t have continuity or acted out of character. Take Ash. For someone so jaded, he was pretty naïve at times. And he hovered over Delphine so protectively as though she was some kind of innocent lamb. Which didn’t make much sense since she had been working for the Inner Sanctum for 3 years administering sedatives to patients and conducting experiments which weren’t exactly legal. For a grown woman with a career, Delphine was a little too ‘wan’ and fragile.

There was also a bewildering number of urban legends from the Nazis to Princess Diana which were really interesting and I do think Herbert makes you ponder the consequences of evil and its many facets although with a rather simplistic view of redemption. Ultimately, Herbert tries to put too much into the story without providing a satisfactory explanation to the hauntings that are so central to the tale.

I’m sure this would make a great horror film and a perfectly good holiday read but it’s not one to read too closely. I’m probably being harsh but I think my exasperation stems from my expectations which were rather high. Although there were certain things that were chilling and lots of blood and gore, it didn’t really scare the pants off me (but even The Woman in Black, everyone’s favourite ghost story, didn’t do the trick). Maybe books just don’t scare me? Do also check out the reviews at Gaskella and SFX.

Have you read any books by James Herbert? And what’s your scariest read? Spill!

A review copy of Ash was kindly provided by the publisher.

I read this as part of R.I.P. VII.


11 September, 2012

Hurray! The only good thing about the descending cold and darkness is that Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings will be hosting R.I.P. VII! This is one of two events in which I have to participate and I look forward to it every year.

Between Sept 1st – Oct 31st, I’ll be participating in Peril the 1st where I aim to read four books in the following genres: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, Supernatural or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

Below are some of the titles I’m hoping to look at, although it’ll probably change:

Twelve by Jasper Kent – I’m cheating as I’ve chosen this for this month’s book group but it’s perfect for R.I.P.! And I also have the sequal, Thirteen Years Later.
Ash by James Herbert – I just received this for review. The timing is perfect especially since there will be an adaptation of Herbert’s The Secret of Crickly Hall on telly this Autumn.
Still Life by Louise Penny – I keep saying I’m going to read this every time R.I.P. swings by. This year I really must.
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul – any book published by Peirene is a delight and this is a good opportunity to get to grips with what promises to be a different kind of murder book.
Silver Wolf by Alice Borchardt – by Anne Rice’s sister no less! I only discovered this series this year so am rather excited about this. And also the other two titles in her trilogy, Night of the Wolf and The Wolf King.

Carl will also be doing a group readalong of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, both brilliant novels. I’ve already read them and they are both brilliant so I do urge you to give them a try.

So, what will you be reading as the nights grow longer?