Monday, November 28, 2011

Ghostwalk—Rebecca Stott

Cambridge is just a palimpsest. All of this is. Just one century laid upon another upon another. Nothing is ever quite lost while there are still a few old buildings standing sentinel. Time bleeds here, seeps, perhaps more than anywhere else in the city. You'll see. (21)

I suppose I should have been more prepared, given the title of the book. However, after reading the summary on the back of the book, I somehow thought that it was going to be more historically based and exploring "ghosts" rather than being minimally historically based and exploring Ghosts. The difference between quotes ghosts and capital-G ghosts is quite a large one.

Here is the summary on the back:

A Cambridge historian is found drowned, leaving her study of Isaac Newton's alchemy incomplete and a spate of mysterious deaths surrounding Newton's rise to face unsolved. Her fellow writer, Lydia Brooke, agrees to finish the book as a favor to the historian's son, a neuroscientist with whom she had a long affair. But her attempt to complete the book's final chapter, and her return into her former lover's orbit, put her in mortal danger as she uncovers troubling evidence surrounding Newton. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.
This was possibly the most misleading summary I've ever read. Probably a good 70% of the book is focused on reliving the old relationship Lydia had with her former lover (Cameron Brown) and in fact the rekindling of that affair. Breaking down the rest of the book, 15% explores the various supernatural occurrences which actually aren't entirely tied into the plot of the book; 10 % covers the historical content, including specific references to Newton's interest in alchemy and the appendices at the end of the book concerning those interests; and 5% are beautiful words.

While there were a few things that I appreciated, I found myself disappointed. The book felt disjointed, the plotline was not tied together in a coherent way, and it had little historical content to keep my history nerd side happy.

I also felt that she tried too hard to create a mystery, when she could have presented the mystery that was inherent in a more subtle manner.

The few things I appreciated: when Lydia is working on finishing the book that Elizabeth (the aforementioned drowned historian) left behind, the author included those chapters, along with some related images. Stott obviously did her homework; I'm not certain that the presentation was the most effective. Stott also included appendices in the back with relation to Newton which were quite interesting, if somewhat unrelated to the actual content of the book. It also made me think about some of those great historical figures that we learn about. How many of them had "secret," possibly shameful interests that we're unaware of because they're not typically included in our elementary school introductions to them? For Newton, it was alchemy, a kind of magic. What might it have been for some of the others?

The thing that kept me continuing to read (besides my obsessive compulsion to finish a book once I've started it) were the elegant descriptions and words that she used. These moments, admittedly fairly prevalent, almost redeemed this book for me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Pirates! Update

Apparently they're making a movie featuring our favourite pirate band, The Pirates! Check out the trailer here. It looks like it might actually be pretty funny. Also, clay animation. What could be better?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Big Over Easy—Jasper Fforde

"How about this: 'Big egg gets a shellful, throws himself off wall in fit of drunken depression.' Or this: 'Humpty goes to party, gets completely smashed, comes home and...gets completely smashed.'" (57)

"There's usually a rule of three somewhere. Either quantitative, as in bears, billy goats, blind mice, little pigs, fiddlers, bags of wool or what-have-you, or qualitative, such as small, medium, large, stupid, stupider, stupidest. If you come across any stepmothers, they're usually evil, woodcutters always come into fame and fortune, orphans are ten a penny, and pigs, cats, bears and wolves frequently anthropomorphize." (58)

Jasper Fforde is another one of my personal favourites. His writing is intelligent and inventive and thoroughly enjoyable. I thought that I had already read this particular book when I purchased it from Half Price Books to add to my library - it was in the clearance section for $2.00 - but then quickly realized I had not. The first series of Fforde's I read was that of Thursday Next which is about a detective, Thursday Next, who is hired to work in a department where she polices what happens in books! She travels into the books and makes sure that the characters are towing the line to maintain the plot for readers. My short description there cannot begin to do justice to the brilliance that is the Thursday Next series, so you should definitely check it out.

This is the first of the Nursery Crime Mysteries. (Get it?! Nursery crime? Like nursery rhyme? Delightful!) Sergeant Mary Mary is transferred to the Nursery Crime Department. She's not pleased at first, as the Nursery Crime division is the ridicule of the entire police force. She works with Detective Jack Spratt in order to solve the death of Humpty Dumpty, who seems to have taken a tumble off of a wall.

Fforde is incredibly thoughtful about the way that he ties the nursery rhyme stories together. Although Jack Spratt is obviously meant to come from the nursery rhyme about Jack Spratt, who would eat no fat, Fforde also manages to tie him into the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. It's something that I had never considered, but who is to say that those two Jacks are meant to be different ones? In this book which is our first introduction to Jack Spratt, we hear explanations of how his first wife had died because she only ate fat ("Jack Spratt would eat no fat, his wife would eat no lean") and how he then married his second and current wife. We also meet his mother, who sends him with a painting to sell in order to buy food for her many cats - a painting of a cow. Jack is told that it is a fake, and is traded some beans for it, beans which grow into a beanstalk.

Fforde also creates beautiful mysteries on top of his thoughtful character development. In this book, as with his other books, it seems the mystery is there until the end. He may give you hints, but I always end up thinking that the resolution is going to be completely different than it ends up being.

A marvelous part of Fforde's writing is the intro to chapters. At the beginning of every chapter, in this book and likewise in his Thursday Next series, he includes a paragraph, ostensibly from a book or newspaper that exist in the scope of the Nursery Crime world. These paragraphs relate to the events in that chapter. He also includes "posters" of ads in the back of his books which directly relate to the story. What it all amounts to is an incredible dedication and thoroughness in order to completely create this world for readers.

It's quite lovely to read such engaging, creative writing and Jasper Fforde has gotten as close to perfecting it as I've managed to find.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Treasury of Great American Scandals—Michael Farquhar


Ten of our less appreciated first citizens, as well as their eccentricities, are celebrated here. But not a word will be said about Millard Fillmore, who has become so famous for his obscurity that, strictly speaking, he no longer qualifies as obscure. (113)

This book was fantastic. I'll just start there. It's well written, clever, entertaining, engaging, and informative. I believe that anyone would quite enjoy this book, even were they not a self-proclaimed history nerd like myself.

We had a joke in the history department at university: it's not truly an academic work on history until it has a subtitle. Farquhar didn't let me down. The subtitle of this book? "Tantalizing True Tales of Historic Misbehavior by the Founding Fathers and Others Who Let Freedom Swing." There's some alliteration, some puns. Just beautiful. You couldn't ask for more from a subtitle.

Farquhar has separated the book into "categories," which are introduced by means of an illustration with an amusing caption. (For example, the illustration for the first category about historical family disputes, shows Benjamin Franklin with his son. The caption says: "Benjamin Franklin back when he still liked his son.") The categories span a wide range of scandals, including the above about family disputes and disagreements, and ranging to what Farquhar calls "The American Hall of Shame" dealing with things like traitors and Richard Nixon, who is so easily admitted to the Hall of Shame that his chapter structure is purely sentence-long introductions to horrific quotes.

Some new thoughts that I will take away from this book: LBJ was kind of a dick and so was Benjamin Franklin. Really, quite a few historical figures were more dickish than I had previously thought. Some were not; I'm thinking specifically of Joe McCarthy, who I've always considered to be a horrible human being. Also, quite a few of our historical figures were exhumed several times. There's a whole category, in fact, of people who were dislodged from their initial places of rest. Awkward. Another takeaway, many problems that we experience in today's political atmosphere are not new problems. Almost from the day of the foundation of our nation, there's been mudslinging and scandal. I have yet to determine if that makes me more hopeful or more cynical about our political path.

One of my favourite portions is from a chapter about Woodrow Wilson. Although Wilson projected a dignified, strong exterior, he turned a bit mushy when courting his second wife. A mushy president is not the best part of this chapter. There was apparently an article in the Washington Post about this courting, and in the article (on the front page, no less) it stated that "the president spent much of the evening entering Mrs. Galt." Obviously, it was meant to say that he was entertaining her. Hilarious.

Another great story is that of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury. He was the governor of New York in the early eighteenth century, and as Farquhar writes, "believed that since he was the colonial representative of Queen Anne (Britain's monarch at the time), he bloody well ought to look like her." As a result, he often took to dressing in female garb.

I appreciated the expansion of several scandals of which most of us are probably already aware: the Salem Witch Trials, Alexander Hamilton versus Aaron Burr, Nixon. I think it would have been simple to stick with those same old familiar stories. What makes this book unique from others similar to it (at least the ones that I have read) is the introduction of quite a few anecdotes to which I had never been privy.

Farquhar creates graceful transitions and lovely tie-ins to previous chapters. Although separated as mentioned before, the book in no way feels disjointed. He also contributes two amazing appendices in the back of the book. One lists all of the presidents, general information about them, and then at least one "distinction." The second is a brief timeline of the United States.

Quick, worthwhile read, even if history is not your favourite. If you're interested, Farquhar also wrote a book titled A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History's Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors. While that is a lot of commas (and I'm not sure how I feel about that), he does use the Oxford Comma at the end there, so I'll forgive it. Plus, he's a delightful writer. I've certainly added it to my list.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Forgotten Garden—Kate Morton


A week of cleaning had left her calves stiff and her thighs sore. Not that she minded. Cassandra drew perverse pleasure from her aching body. It was the indisputable proof of her own physicality. She no longer felt invisible or fragile; she was heavier, far less likely to blow away on the breeze. (389)

This is the second book by Kate Morton that I have read. The first was The House at Riverton, which was a wonderful narrative. Although The Forgotten Garden has a great story at it's core, I was not nearly as pleased with it's execution as I was with my first foray into Morton's world.

I found these two novels on a shelf at Powell's in Portland. (Side note: If you've never been there, you're missing out. Although fair warning, it's impossible to simply browse.) I actually picked up this one before her other and was intrigued by the description on the back cover:
A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book - a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own.
Those first sentences were what hooked me, although the idea of the mystery and of Nell (the girl with the fairy tale book) tracking down her own origins were certainly an added bonus. Especially after having read The House at Riverton. Whatever faults I may find with her books, I can certainly appreciate her words. Morton writes beautiful, almost lyrical sentences, one of which I included above.

Ultimately, the story spans several generations. There's Nell, the tiny girl on the ship; then there is Cassandra, her granddaughter who tracks down the resolution of the mystery after Nell's death; later, we meet Eliza, the Authoress of the fairy tale book and star of one of Nell's oldest memories, as well as her cousin Rose. Also, Nathaniel (Nell's father), Linus (Rose's father), Adeline (Rose's mother), Georgiana (Eliza's mother).

Confused yet? Exactly. All of these characters occupy huge portions of the story, and it becomes quite convoluted. Morton skips backwards and forwards to multiple points in time, alternating the character that we are following. Don't get me wrong, I'm fairly adept at keeping track of characters and their stories, but I found this particular structure slightly annoying.

I also found some things in this book to be lazy narrative. Perhaps it was because I was paying more attention this time around. For instance, there's a particular scene when Cassandra has been searching for Nell's suitcase, the one she arrives in Australia with. After a day of searching she is exhausted. Just as she is about to give up her search, a light shines in through the window, illuminating the suitcase. Okay, not as "supernaturally" as that sounded, perhaps. But it still seemed like a bit of a cop out. Perhaps that's why I divined the solution to the mystery about halfway through the book, whereas the same cannot be said for my read of The House at Riverton. It's somewhat disappointing to come to the conclusion so far from the actual conclusion of the book.

Most importantly, I can't decide if the same story structure in multiple novels is comforting or irritating. Romance novelists have definitely made a fortune off of it. Similarities between this novel and The House at Riverton:
  • Grandmother figure is dead or dying and grandchild uncovers and solves mystery
  • Grandmother marries man she doesn't love (after having pushed away one she does) and has child that she feels no maternal attachment to
  • Grandmother and grandchild bond over daughter/mother (respectively) being distant
  • Skipping back and forth from various points in time to increase suspense
  • Key involvement of "domestic" staff, specifically maid
There are others that I can't think of at the moment, but it was evident from the first ten pages of the book that the story structure was eerily similar to the other.

The Forgotten Garden was mostly a good read; I just wish it had been a bit more independent.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ten Second Staircase—Christopher Fowler


"A populated gallery, a noisy, messy murder that nobody sees or hears, a killer who appears and vanishes at will, an artist killed by her own work, and an animated poem in riding boots and a tricorn hat who comes galloping through a building before leaving a calling card - doesn't it sound to you like someone's been reading old detective stories?" (92)

This is the second Peculiar Crimes Unit book that I have read. (The first was The Victoria Vanishes.) The first one was a bit difficult to get into; I'm not sure what it was about it, but it didn't particularly intrigue me. As I got into the second third of the book, though, it drew me in. At least enough to compel me to buy another Peculiar Crimes Unit book when I saw it on the clearance shelf at Half Price Books.

In this my second book with the PCU, I laughed out loud often, from the first chapter of the book. I marked several quotes as particularly hilarious from that point on and didn't stop until I reached the end.

In this episode with the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a series of two-bit celebrities (a controversial artist, a reality television star, a magazine editor) are murdered. At the scene of the first murder - that of the artist in her own installation piece - the twelve-year-old eyewitness claims to have seen a cape-clad highwayman atop a black stallion. As they get closer to catching the killer, Bryant and May must also sort out a cold-case which split up their partnership once before, all while trying to keep their unit from being shut down by the Home Office.

I find there might be a comparison to be made for Bryant and May as a modern-day (mostly) Holmes and Watson, respectively. Bryant is the brilliant fount of obscure knowledge with no family and an inability to sustain or understand social norms. In fact, I found some of the phrasing and word choice of Bryant particularly reminiscent of Holmes. May is the more socially adept one of the pair, often having to smooth things over after Bryant has been through.

Fowler writes with wit and creates nuanced characters. His books are quite a joy to read, once you are initially able to connect to the people that he has conjured

One thing that I did find irritating was that Fowler will sometimes latch onto a particular, rather obscure adjective, and use it several times over. Now, for regular, everyday adjectives that's not a problem. But if you are going to use words that are not commonplace, then use them sparingly, I say. Especially don't use them twice within fifty pages.

Overall a good book, and certainly worth the $2.00 I paid for it. Thank you once again, Half Price Books!

Some other favourite quotes:

  • After having received vague, noncommittal answers from a security guard at the art gallery, Bryant asks him: "Is there something wrong with you that requires all answers to be preceded by a conditional clause?"
  • "Madame Briquet divides her time between here and her villa in Menton," explained the caretaker. "She wouldn't like me letting strange men into her flat."
    "We're not strange," said Kershaw. "We're from the Peculiar Crimes Unit."
  • One of the best exchanges:
    (Frank, a librarian, in answer to a question from Bryant) "He can't come round for a few days because he was cat-sitting for a sick aunt, but her Persian swallowed a hair ball and coughed itself to death, so he had to find an identical replacement, and the trouble is that the new one has one green eye and one yellow, so he's waiting to hear back from the vet about whether they can put a contact lens in."
    (Bryant) "I'm sorry, Frank; you seem to be speaking some alien language designed for people who care about your problems. Back to me. Where is Dorothy?"

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Color of Magic and Mort—Terry Pratchett


Yet Mort, standing there looking rather embarrassed and casually sipping a liquid you could clean spoons with, seemed to emit a particularly potent sort of solidness, an extra dimension of realness. His hair was more hairy, his clothes more clothy, his boots the epitome of bootness. (Mort, 118)

If you haven't read any of Terry Pratchett's books, you are seriously missing out. The first one I read was actually a jointly authored book (written in partnership with Neil Gaiman, another personal favourite) entitled Good Omens.

Pratchett's books are always artfully constructed. I have read books from two of his series: several books from the Discworld series, and a book from the Tiffany Aching series. The latter is specifically written as a young adult series, but Pratchett's humor loses nothing as a result. Both The Color of Magic and Mort are part of the Discworld series.

The Discworld series, as described on Pratchett's website,

"...well, it's like this. If you started watching Star Trek halfway through the series you probably wondered why one guy had pointy ears. But since you liked what you saw, you probably let the question ride for now and just got on with enjoying the show. Discworld is like that. There are mini-series within the series (the "witches" books, the "City Watch" books, the "Death" books --) and there are one or two big story arcs, but generally the books are written to be accessible at any point to anyone with a nodding acquaintanceship with the fantasy genre. Or even with real life." (http://www.terrypratchettbooks.com/discworld/)
I can personally vouch for this. I have read several of the Discworld series without considering the chronological order. At some point, it might be interesting to re-read them in chronological order and see if there are things that I understand more, or inside jokes that I didn't get before.

The Color of Magic is the first in the Discworld series. We are introduced to Rincewind, a wizard who is not much of one. He is hired by a visitor from elsewhere in the Discworld, Twoflower, to guide him around Ankh-Morpork. Twoflower seems to have quite a skewed, romantic idea of what Ankh-Morpork should be like, but for Rincewind, his oddities are balanced by a vast supply of solid gold coins. The two travelers are joined by Twoflower's Luggage (yes, capital L, Luggage) and they cut quite a large swath across the twin cities.

Mort is a gangly teenager whose family is unsure what to make of him. He's not particularly helpful on their farm, so an uncle suggests that Mort's father take him to the village and try to find him an apprenticeship. It seems Mort is not exactly a pearl in anybody's eyes; none of the village professionals want to have him as an apprentice, not even the thieves and beggars. Finally, Death comes along and provides Mort with an opportunity. Mort learns about Death's trade, meets his daughter Ysabell, and becomes more and more like Him.

I greatly enjoyed both of these books, as I seem to enjoy all things Pratchett. He's brilliant with words, and hilarious to boot. His writing reminds me a great deal of Piers Anthony, another author who writes about a world strangely similar to our own. You should check both of them out.

The Hunger Games Trilogy—Suzanne Collins


But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim's place, and now it seems I have become someone precious. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love. (The Hunger Games, 24)

I have to say, I was reluctant to read these books. I was encouraged by practically everyone I knew to read them, which is exactly what happened with Twilight as well. Even more discouraging - a quote from Stephenie Meyer (author of Twilight) on the back of the first book. This, directly under a rather more eloquent quote from Stephen King. Let me clarify my feelings about Twilight. I'm not a fan. I read them, honestly, because Jon Stewart mentioned them one night on his show, and they sounded interesting at the very least. For me, that is the very least they were. For the most part, they were poorly written, ill informed, and predictable, with mind-numbingly simple characters. There's a quote, funnily enough from Stephen King, that sums it up by comparing Twilight to the Harry Potter series: "Harry Potter is all about confronting fears, facing inner strength, and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend." Regardless, enough about my loathing of all things Twilight.

I'm glad I didn't listen to that little voice inside me that wanted to rebel against everyone telling me to read them. I sped through them, reading ravenously until I was finished. My biggest takeaway from the series: if there is a book (or set of books) that you can talk about with your fellow reader friends, which opens up a dialogue about real issues - issues beyond "vampire versus werewolf" - a book that causes you to ponder what you would do in such a situation, it's a book to be treasured.

If you haven't heard the general synopsis of at least the first book, you're probably living under a rock, especially with the film set to come out in March.

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before - and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love. (Back cover description)
One thing I appreciate about this series, and appreciated about the Harry Potter series, is that the author is completely unapologetic about killing people off. Fair warning, this means that you should not get too attached to any of the characters. It also allows for quite a bit of unpredictability. Especially as you get into the end of the first book and basically the entirety of the second, I had no idea of the twists and turns that were coming.

Collins creates engaging, realistic, complex characters who cause you to think deeper about the underlying facets of the Hunger Games, and what they might imply about the state of humanity. Can those involved in the Hunger Games truly be said to retain their humanity if it means killing off other human beings for sport, or even for the purpose of survival?

All in all, I would strongly suggest these books to anyone. They are quick reads, particularly because you will get sucked into them and have to finish them. But if you're like me, you'll struggle to start the last one, because you know it means the end.