December 2, 2008

Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt

Though A.S. Byatt's most well-known work to date is, arguably, the novel Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990, Byatt's work is not limited to novel form. She writes wonderful short story collections that incorporate elements of academia, fairy tales and folklore, pop culture, and art. She also writes novellas, which can be tricky for both reader and writer, as they inhabit to the gray space between the short story and the novel - too much information for one, not enough for the other. 

Her book, Angels and Insects, straddles this divide. The volume is made up of two novellas - "Morpho Eugenia" and "Conjugial Angel", which are thematically, if not narratologically related. Although I enjoyed "Morpho Eugenia" a great deal more than "Conjugial Angel", I can see why Byatt chose to put them next to each other in this volume. Together, they offer a novel length examination of the relationship between science and religion as it was being explored in the mid-19th century, and as it is still being explored today.

"Morpho Eugenia" tells the story of a naturalist, William Adamson, recently returned from the Amazon and welcomed into the marbled household of his patron, Harald Alabaster. Byatt parallels William's enchantment with the Alabaster family, particularly the pale, beautiful Eugenia, with his study of insects until, through William's disenchantment, the reader is brought to see how human beings and insects are similarly ruthless, and misunderstood. All of this is set against the competing backdrops of evolution vs. faith, and reality vs. fantasy, which Byatt weaves with the threads of Milton's Paradise Lost, a fictional religious treatise, etymology and several invented fairy stories. 

"Conjugial Angel" occupies an entirely different tone and space than does "Morpho Eugenia". Whereas Byatt concerns herself with the base root of humanity in the first of the two, "Conjugial Angel" poses questions about things of a spiritual nature through the strange happenings at a Victorian seance. Though decidedly more tongue-in-cheek than "Morpho Eugenia", "Conjugial Angel" lacks its companion's depth and clarity, though it is far from substance-less. While I would recommend "Morpho Eugenia" to anyone as a stand alone (with the slight warning that it is a stylistic pastiche), I cannot do the same for "Conjugial Angel." However, read in their intended pairing, both stories work beautifully as an overall exploration of faith, science and the changing nature of love.

November 23, 2008

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

I'll come straight to the point - The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr is a very nice piece of Sherlock Holmes fanfic, but really not worth the time it took to read it. I am not in any way disrespecting fanfic as I've read some that is really quite good, but I expect more from the celebrated author of The Alienist - a book that is both very well written and, quite frankly, disturbing.

The Italian Secretary features a sadly anemic Watson's pitifully anemic account of how a dreadfully anemic Holmes solves the horribly anemic "case" of the haunting of Holyroodhouse. It was preposterous from the moment Holmes and Watson are called to Scotland by Mycroft, who is apparently on very intimate terms with Queen Victoria. Like is said, preposterous, not to mention sadly underdeveloped. Instead of building the case throughout the narrative, Carr simply insists at every possible juncture that everything that happens is either breathtakingly thrilling, important or dangerous. It is not, though clearly the reader is meant to think otherwise.

Carr is obviously a genuine fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's (I can't fault his enthusiasm - I'm a huge fan myself), and he's clearly read the canon. Unfortunately, this obvious knowledge and appreciation did not translate into a compelling "further adventure," or even a convincing portrayal of the master detective (for that go straight to said canon, or the Granada TV series with Jeremy Brett). Rather, The Italian Secretary simply made me feel cranky and dissatisfied - a feeling that only went away after I'd re-read "The Blue Carbuncle" and "The Resident Patient." So that's what I would suggest - stick to the real Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (or any of the other canonical collections or novels) wherein the cases and the hero are anything but anemic.

November 17, 2008

The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

I haven't read any Dickens since I re-read A Christmas Carol several years ago, and, upon finishing The Haunted House, I was once again reminded of why I like him so much. Dickens is really funny. Really, I'm serious. Dickens can actually be funny enough to make up for the lachrymose moralizing that sneaks into some of his longer works (see Oliver Twist, or, god help you, Little Dorrit). Granted, Dickens wields the lachrymose as a means of social commentary and even of reform so it's hard to complain. Still, his sly, almost biting humor, does help the medicine go down. 

That said, the medicine in The Haunted House is already pretty sweet, if a little pious and saccharine at times. The haunted house of the title is engagingly drawn, complete with cataleptic maids and panicky cooks - people that are as whimsically ridiculous as anyone Edward Gorey could create. But the house isn't really haunted - at least not by rattling spirits. The only ghosts that haunt the denizens of the house are their own. Their memories, pasts and experiences comprise the 'haunting' stories named for each of the occupied rooms. 

Ultimately, the set-up is a fairly Dickensian exercise in catharsis, redemption and acceptance, although Dickens did not write all of the stories himself. He orchestrated the frame tale, entitled "The Mortals of the House," and contributed two other stories, but the rest were commissioned for the Christmas 1859 edition of All the Year Round. Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Hesba Stretton, among others, contributed, each writing a story set in one of the 'haunted' rooms. Sadly, most are negligible, though pleasant reads. There are exceptions in Collins' tale of the terrors of a candlestick, and Stretton's melancholy story of nearly lost love, but, for the most part, Dickens initial frame tale, "The Mortals of the House," is the only must read. 

So, here's my recommendation: 
Should you be interested in trying The Haunted House, borrow it, read the frame, and cherry pick the rest. Then go read Great Expectations for a full dose of the good stuff.

Ah, Christmas

The holiday season is coming up, and several very wise friends have done the smart thing and made their Amazon Wishlists publicly available, so I'm going to follow their lead, as queries are being logged. Here's the link that will take you to my wishlist. Eventually, I'll put a little button on the blog, but for now, I hope this will do.... 

On a separate but related note, its going to be hard this year for a lot of folks with the economy being what it is, so if any gift givers were inclined to donate the money they would spend on my present to the SPCA (for all of the foreclosed and abandoned pets) that would be really awesome too.

And with that, I end this flagrantly non-review related post!

November 6, 2008

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I just read Dracula for, I think, the fifth time - could be the sixth, I'm not sure, so it goes without saying that this is one of my favorite books. In fact, Dracula has become a sort of friend, a book that gets better with every reading, disproving the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. It's my number one choice for comfort reading - the literary equivalent of a blanket and tea on a rainy day (which may be why I tend to read it in the fall, just when the seasons are turning). So, instead of writing a review that I'm too biased and unqualified to write, I'm going to use this post to plug a three editions that I've especially enjoyed, and one that I would very much like to. 

1. For anyone who has already read Dracula and wants to do it again, I recommend The Essential Dracula edited by Leonard Wolf. This edition is the one I just finished, and while I think that the footnotes would most likely distract a first-time reader, the inclusion of so much scholarship was fun for me. Wolf's introduction is informative without being too stuffy (as are most of his copious footnotes). The other thing I like about this edition is that it includes the deleted first chapter of Stoker's text, now called "Dracula's Guest," which implies certain things about the origins of Dracula's famous brides. 

All of this said, the first time you read Dracula, it really should be to get lost in the story, which remains charming, funny, tragic and suspenseful, even after a century. So, onto the next edition.

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker, published by Modern Library Classics. This is a great, basic, 
trade paper edition. Peter Straub's introduction is informative without being distracting, the text is nice and big, and the appendices are both relevant and interesting if you happen to like appendices, which I do. Also, included in one of the appendices (which I thought was just cool), is the alternate ending that Stoker didn't use - hours of fun for comparative purposes and lit. geeks everywhere.

3. For those of a more visual frame of mind, it gives me great pleasure to recommend the Barnes and Noble edition of Dracula illustrated by Edward Gorey. While every page does not have a picture, this edition is peppered with them - not to the point of distraction, but just enough to charm. This edition also includes "Dracula's Guest" and a lucid introduction by Marvin Kaye. The appendices, also compiled by Kaye, include a brief "Sampling of Contemporaneous Opinion," and a nice snippet of biography on Stoker, who was a pretty interesting character himself.

4. Lastly, the edition that I haven't read yet, but want to: The New Annotated Dracula, edited by Leslie Klinger, with introduction by Neil Gaiman. Just released in October of this year, The New Annotated Dracula is the newest addition to Norton's "Annotated" series, which has proved to be pretty excellent across the board. The series has, so far, included The Annotated Brother's Grimm, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, and The Annotated Alice among others. But what makes The New Annotated Dracula so exciting is Leslie Klinger's involvement (although Neil Gaiman is neat). Klinger worked for years on The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which James gave me for my birthday, and which is also FABULOUS. I can only say that the prospect of reading Klinger's annotations and scholarship in conjunction with Stoker's text is a very happy one for me.

So there you have it. Four editions of Dracula just waiting to be picked up. Actually, there are probably over five hundred editions out there by now, so there's no excuse - go out there and get one and enjoy it to pieces, hopefully more than once.

October 3, 2008

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

When either Oprah or the Today Show tells me that I absolutely must read a book, I tend to think "yeah, uh huh, ok, definitely, maybe at some point..." This is partly because I'm a snot and just don't find the selections of mass media book clubs terribly interesting, and partly because there are too many books in the world and I will only get to read a fraction of them. Seriously, I have pangs of anxiety over the fact that I will never read everything I want to read before I die (and yes, I know how obsessive and lame that sounds). 

That said, I had been wanting to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Hadden (a Today Show Book Club selection a couple of years back) for quite a while, mostly because the title references the Sherlock Holmes mystery "Shoscombe Old Place" and I'm a Sherlock Holmes junkie. I finally got around to it last week-end. I finished it in a day and a half. It was wonderful.

This book manages to both charm and ache thanks to the author's empathy in portraying his narrator, Christopher Boone. Christopher is autistic and a mathematical prodigy. He numbers his chapters not with the cardinal numbers (1,2,3,4...), but with prime numbers, because he likes prime numbers and can count them up to 7,057. He also has a very difficult time understanding human emotions. He hates being touched and he hates the color yellow, but he likes animals because their faces can't lie. Though he doesn't like fiction, he does like mysteries because mysteries are a puzzle. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time begins as Christopher's account of a mystery he solves using "logic" like Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character whose emotional detachment he admires. What the book becomes however, is a portrait of Christopher's internal life and how it effects the people around him.

The book is well paced and very engaging, which is quite an achievement for a novel with an autistic protagonist. Hadden triumphs because of the skill and sensitivity with which he renders Christopher's voice. While this is anything but a sugary Disney-fication of autism, the novel also never descends into the gritty or truly disturbing (though there are some tense interpersonal moments). Hadden allows Christopher to narrate in a staccato, emotionally detached voice that manages to convey a world of emotion, both expressed and unexpressed, in himself and in others. What results is a book that relates not only Christopher's internal reality, but his external effect as well (as seen in his various relationships and encounters).

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was charming and touching, and insofar as a novel can be, more important than not. Hadden's empathy is... honestly, I don't have a word that hasn't been over-used... let's say that his empathy is prodigious and Christopher's voice is true. While I could still skip reading My Antonia with half the country, the Today Show Book Club got it right with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This is really a book to read.

September 17, 2008

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Moral Disorder and Other Stories is a quiet sort of novel, not completely like Atwood's other novels, but still recognizably Atwood... and that's actually not a typo - Moral Disorder is a novel told in short stories. I didn't actually realize this when I picked up the collection. I just felt like reading some Margaret Atwood (like you do sometimes...) and Moral Disorder was on my sagging, overburdened "To Read" shelf, so I read it. Even if the novel-in-short-stories wasn't one of my favorite structures (it really is) and a lovely surprise, I still would have enjoyed the book, though not as much as some of Atwood's other work.

The stories make up a semi-chronological biography of a woman named Nell, some narrated by Nell in the first-person, others in the third. Most of the stories Nell narrates deal with her childhood and adolescence. In these, Atwood employs the lovely, hazy tone that distant memories have, mostly through language and observation. Nell's narration lopes along, peppered by the very specific, quirky details - the raisin stains on the layette she struggles to knit for her baby sister, the patronizing laughter of her mother's friends, how her sister adopts the paper-mache head Nell makes for Halloween because she feels bad for it (it's not Bob's fault that he doesn't have a body). The first-person narration ends with the last story of Nell's adolescence, "My Last Duchess", which ends with her walking into adulthood.

The adult Nell's stories are picked up by a third-person narrator. While the tone is more clipped and necessarily more distant, the switch works. For much of her early adutlhood, Nell is disconnected from her family and from herself. The narrative shift shows that. It also allows Atwood to play with a less halcyon tone and humor.

Overall, I enjoyed the stories in Moral Disorder. It's a quiet sort of account of a quiet sort of life, with none of the speculative, psychological or epic qualities much of Atwood's work tends to have. In fact, Moral Disorder feels more like a fable - an edifying look into someone else's life, from which you can take what you need. 

September 10, 2008

Sarah Palin

Sorry Folks! 
It turns out my vetting process has proven that the link I was going to post is false, so I won't be posting it :-) 

The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyers

Ok, yes I admit it. I read the Twilight series. Sigh. It wasn't even very good, although the first book, Twilight, showed a lot of promise. But the crack-like addictive-ness, faded over the course of the next two books, Eclipse and New Moon, until by the time I got to the last one, Meyer's new release, Breaking Dawn, I was skimming huge chunks just so I would know how it all ends (not with a bang, but a whimper). This is not to say that the books weren't fun - they were. It's just that they felt kind of like styrofoam boulders. At first they seemed substantial and even intriguing, but then you pick them up and they turn out to just be foam. Fun foam, with a bit of potential,  but foam all the same.

That said, I'm actually not going to give Breaking Dawn or the Twilight series a serious review because they aren't meant to be read that way. They are strictly entertainment, and for the most part, they succeed. And while I don't understand the crazy following Meyers has gathered because of them, I'm also not a sixteen year old girl. 

My only real problem with the series is that Meyers fails to grow as a writer over the course of it. She keeps using the same tricks and they get tired after awhile. And the books keep getting longer, really needlessly longer, which results in big fat patches you just want to skim. You hang in there for the climax, which you assume will be awesome, but when the climax finally comes, it feels like opening up a bottle of flat champagne. Kind of a bummer. A lot of it just feels self-indulgent on Meyer's part. A little bit of serious editing and the series could have been tight and suspenseful. As it is, the books gets progressively flatter and flabbier. In fact, by the time Breaking Dawn comes around, Meyers is writing more and saying less than pretty much any author I could name... except for maybe Thomas Pynchon, but that's a whole different post.

Huh. So much for not doing an actual review.

Anyway, the Twilight series is fun and entertaining and sort of compulsively readable in a weirdly impassive way. As far as brain candy goes, it's not too bad, it's just could have been a steak. I know that to fault it for what it could have been isn't really fair, but hey, what can you do? 

September 2, 2008

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

I finished Use of Weapons Saturday night, but didn't want to write the review for it until I had figured out how to talk about it without revealing too much. I still haven't done that, but I really want to say something, so I'm just going to go ahead with the warning that if what I'm saying seems circular or vague, it's because I'm trying to avoid spoilers.

Okay, first things first. This is the first book I've ever read that might be considered "hard" science fiction, or the sort of sci-fi that tends towards technological speculation. I've just never been terribly attracted to that sort of book. Use of Weapons also has a pretty prominent military component, which has never been my thing either. So, the only reason I picked up Use of Weapons in the first place is because someone I really respect *loves* this book and I figured, it must be worth reading, even if it isn't the sort of thing I'm into and....

I loved it. Like, really loved it. As in, Use of Weapons, in all of it's hard sci-fi glory, is now in my list of top 10 favorite books. Seriously, it's awesome. Really. 

Quick caveat. For reasons that I can't get into without totally wrecking it, there are people who find Use of Weapons to be "dark" or disturbing or genuinely upsetting. The book examines what might be considered uncomfortable territory from a moral point of view, and I can see why it strikes some readers as difficult. All I can say is that, for me, though affecting at times, I was too jazzed by what Banks was doing to be disturbed by it, "it" being something that I can't talk, so I'm going to stop referring to "it" and move on.

Very generally speaking, Use of Weapons is a sort of non-linear biography of Cheradinine Zakalwe, an operative for the Culture's Special Circumstances department. He makes, runs and strategizes wars and is a very bad man. He is also charming, fractured and funny - as is much of the book itself (discounting certain parts).

The biography is comprised of two separate narrative streams. One moves forward with the present operation, the other moves backward in Zakalwe's life, slowly revealing his past. The two streams alternate chapters and are book-ended by two very important prologues and an epilogue. This structure can be challenging at first, but once you find the rhythm, it becomes intuitive and fairly seamless. This structure was a bold choice on Banks' part - it asks a fair bit from the reader, but it works brilliantly as a reflection of Cheradidinine's psychological make-up.

And that's really at the heart of the book - Zakalwe's social and psychological make-up (which is probably why I enjoyed the book so much). Use of Weapons is a sort of onion-skin portrait of this character. As more and more gets revealed, the reader's understanding grows until the climax blows general expectation out of the water. Fantastic.

Though I can see why this isn't widely considered Banks' best book - it straddles literary fiction and genre with its structure and subject matter - it's a brilliant book and I wish it were more widely read. Regardless of where you categorize it, Use of Weapons is truly speculative, not just technologically, but socially and psychologically as well. I loved it. Even if I had found the "disturbing" portions difficult, I think I would have still found that the book as a whole very much worth the disturbance.

August 11, 2008

The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath

The Grotesque is Patrick McGrath's first novel, published in 1989 before Asylum and Martha Peake brought him a wider audience. It's an unusual book with few of the problems typical to first novels, over-reaching and precosity being especially dangerous for an edgy young Brit and, at the time of publication, McGrath was very much an edgy young Brit. I enjoyed The Grotesque for the most part. It reads like an intelligent, sometimes lurid, often gothic semi-hallucination thanks to McGrath's narrator (more on him in a second), but though I enjoyed McGrath's execution and language, it fell short of being ultimately satisfying. This isn't to say that The Grotesque was unsatisfying, it just fell slightly short of the impact I'd felt coming since the second chapter.

The Grotesque is about point of view, really. Briefly, the plot revolves the around Sir Hugo Coal's reconstruction of the events surrounding the disappearance and murder of his daughter's fiance. At the center of Hugo's reconstruction sits the sinister figure of his new butler, Fledge, for whom Sir Hugo formed and instant and apparently reciprocal dislike. But McGrath puts a twist on the typical retrospective 1st Person narrator by having Sir Hugo reveal quite early on that he is, in fact, a vegetable. Having suffered a cerebral "event" several months before, Sir Hugo narrates the story from within his own paralyzed carcass. Nobody knows that Hugo is cognizent, so we get the story without any filters but his and though he starts off quite reliably, he soon begins to unravel.

This unraveling is a gradual process, one that McGrath handles with awesome subtlety. Hugo presents his conjectures as fact and imagined scenes as actual events until the reader doesn't know if Sir Hugo is deluded, obsessed or simply crumbling under the weight of his own unexpressed consciousness. In short, he proves himself to be a very unreliable narrator, all the more so because he admits that his "empiricism" (before his "event", he was gentleman naturalist) is beginning to fail due to his vegetal condition.

The overall effect of Sir Hugo's gradual narrative decline is a pretty juicy one. The reader has to read actively. Hugo betrays his unreliabilty in small details and part of the fun is piecing together the possibilities. However, as fun as this is (and it is fun), the pieces fail to culminate in a meaningful climax. This is why The Grotesque fell just short of being satisfying. This book is full of so many breaking mirrors and crumbling echoes that you want it all to come together to a purpose. It's possible that the novel doesn't need to - this is not a story that requires resolution - and I'm glad that McGrath avoided the oh-so-clever notes on which it could have ended. Still, I can't help but feel that if one more connection had been implied, one more facet exposed, it would have pushed the book into the realm of the unforgetable. As it is, I'm very glad I read it, but I feel no compulsion to own it.

August 1, 2008

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black is written by the same Susan Hill who wrote The Various Haunts of Men and The Pure in Heart, though I never would have guessed it if I hadn't already known. Whereas Hill's style is CSI-modern in the Simon Serrailler series, she does an admirable job of sounding Dickensian in The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black is, first and foremost, a ghost-story in the tradition of The Turn of the Screw. It is a short novel, almost a novella, and it moves along at a brisk pace without an ounce of fat. But for all that, Hill manages to build up a real sense of dread without seeming as if she were trying, so that by the end, we're primed for her punch to the gut.

Here's the inevitable synopsis:

The novel begins, as a good many Victorian era ghost-stories do: with a frame-tale. 

It is Christmas Eve at an English country manor, and though set roughly in the 1940's, an air of warm antiquity hangs over the house. The family takes turn telling ghost-stories as our narrator, the family patriarch, grows increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, when it is his turn to tell a tale, he abruptly leaves; the events of the past have come back to haunt him. He decides to exercise this ghost once and for all, and proceeds to write down the scarring experience that has been with him since he was a young man. This is the story of the woman in black.

As a young solicitor,  the narrator travels to the north of England to sort through the papers of a recently deceased client, a Mrs. Drablow, whom he's never met. At her funeral he sees a woman in black, wasted and dressed in mourning. While he is staying at Mrs. Drablow's home, Eel Marsh House (fantastically conceived as sitting in the center of a fen - inaccessible except for a causeway which is, by turns, exposed and submerged with the tides), the young solicitor falls prey to a series of disturbing visions, sounds and experiences, all of which climax with the realization of who the woman in black is.

Unfortunately, to say anymore would stomp directly all over Hill's awesomely constructed plot.

Now, I have to admit that for most of the book, while I was impressed by Hill's style and even-handed detail, I wasn't feeling the little gut twist of nervousness that I like to come with a ghost story. It all felt too laid out - so perfectly constructed as to be inevitable, and so, not very emotionally unsettling. Until the final chapter. The final chapter did it, and did it really well. 

Overall, The Woman in Black didn't get me the same way that James' Turn of the Screw or "Uncle Silas" by Sheridan le Fanu always do, but it got me all the same; enough so that I want to trade in my library copy for a copy of my own. It's the kind of story for a rainy November day - an awesome post-Victorian, Victorian ghost story.

July 22, 2008

The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill

So, The Pure in Heart is the next book in Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler crime novel series, and it's pretty good. It's only pretty good though, as compared to The Various Haunts of Men which was fantastic.

Technically, The Pure in Heart is almost as strong as The Various Haunts of Men. Hill uses the same multiple 3rd person POV technique again and it still works, though for some reason it was vaguely less effective. Once more, the reader is drawn into the lives and minds of the characters, all of whom are realistically drawn. But....

There's something missing and it took me a little while to figure out what it is. The book lacks a central sort of heart - a sympathetic central point of view. In The Various Haunts of Men, that heart was Freya Graffham, who, for reasons I'm not going to get into, does not appear in the second book. Now, instead of Graffham, we are given Simon Serrailler, whose point of view was the only one never given in the first book. Simon was always either observed or talked about, but his point of view was never breached. This made him something of a cipher and very compelling. But he was compelling because Freya found him compelling. She convinced the reader to find him so as well. Left on our own with Simon now, he's not so much compelling as as inaccessible and hollow. Hill obviously still finds him a very attractive character, but without Freya's eyes to soften the portrait, he's just rather frustratingly cold.

The story itself also lacks something. The Pure in Heart is much more procedural in nature. We see the Lafferton police rally to search for an abducted boy, or solve the murder of a handicapped woman and both are not uninteresting. But the taut line of suspension that runs through The Various Haunts of Men just simply isn't there, so the climax is less of a catalyst and more of a get-it-done sort of experience.

Though well written and interesting to a point, The Pure in Heart is a lesser book than its predecessor. The Various Haunts of Men is most definitely the one to read. I wouldn't necessarily bother with The Pure in Heart unless you're a hard core fan of procedurals and crime fiction, or you're a sucker for inaccessible, emotionally distant men.

Bookmarks Magazine

I just picked up Bookmarks Magazine for the first time and it's great. Ever since I stopped working in bookstores, I've felt a little disconnected from the general publishing scene, which I used to follow like politics. It was really fun knowing whose getting published and what's going to be released before the books hit the stores. Bookmarks fills that geeky knowledge gap.  

Each issue generally covers about two to three months of new releases in both fiction and non-fiction, literary and genre, with a compilation and overview of all published reviews to date. Each issue includes author interviews and reader picks and all kinds of good, book-y fun. 

Check out their website here.

July 18, 2008

The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman

In the past few years, I've started several of Alice Hoffman's books, but this is the only one that I've finished. It's not that the others weren't good - they were very well-written from what I could see. They just didn't hold my attention.

The Third Angel - Hoffman's newest - held my attention. A lot. So much so, that I finished it in two days and, between it, work and my own writing, got very little sleep. And I'm still not sure why I couldn't put it down....

So, instead of trying to put into words the intangible something that apparently got me, I'm going to focus instead on the more tangible - arguably - issues of style and structure.

Hoffman's style is easy - she writes with a very light hand. This suits the structure she chose. The story is actually three stories divided into three interconnected parts. Each part is its own novella, with a complete narrative arc. The three novella/chapters are woven loosely together by imagery (feathers, darkness and light), themes (death, redemption, hauntings), setting (London, a mid-class hotel) and the characters. The characters being the strongest link. For example, the too-handsome fiance from the first chapter is the son of the girl in the second chapter. The girl in the second chapter writes a song about the lovers in the third chapter. These are just the largest, simplest threads - the links run from huge to miniscule, but they never feel contrived. Hoffman's characters walk through each other's lives, barely touching or devastating, and forming a web of experience around the titular third angel.

I liked Hoffman's idea of the third angel - maybe it's this idea that drew me. In the second chapter, a doctor tells his daughter that there is the Angel of Life and the Angel of Death. Then there is Third Angel, who walks among us and whom we're supposed to help. This angel is a mirror, so that we might see ourselves and respond. The Third Angel carries with it the sense of regret and responsibility and, oddly enough, hope that runs through the book. Characters lose themselves in a single moment, lose a part of themselves, become ghosts. Sometimes that part is recovered; sometimes it stays lost. 

But Hoffman doesn't preach. She just loosely weaves her tale, and I suspect that every reader will get something different out of it - something reflective of themselves. For my part, I am both impressed and unsettled by how she moved me. It was very unexpected. Based on that alone, I'll be giving her other books another try.

July 15, 2008

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

I really enjoy mysteries and crime novels, though I tend to gravitate more towards Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy L. Sayers than the grittier, 21st century sort. Given this, I was kind of surprised to find myself up at 2am, totally eaten by The Various Haunts of Men. 

This is Susan Hill's first book in the Simon Serrailler series, which feels much more like a psychological crime novel than a traditional murder cozy, though there are plenty of murders to go around. Here's a very brief, spoiler-free (hence the brevity) synopsis:

Detective Constable Freya Graffham transfers to the cathedral town of Lafferton from London's Met after finalizing her divorce. She fits in well with the town and the force, and becomes fascinated by her superior, the rather enigmatic CDI Simon Serrailler. When a middle-aged spinster goes missing, Freya finds herself unable to let it go. When more townspeople and even a dog disappear on 'The Hill', Freya's hunch is verified and a serious police search begins, drawing her closer to Serrailler and the dark, startling ending of the book. 

The strength of Hill's writing is in her structure and her subtly. Through the use of multiple points of view, she allows the reader to understand and become attached to many of the characters, even (and perhaps especially) the characters who will later disappear. She alternates the multiple third person POV with brief chapters written in the first person, allowing us to briefly occupy the perpetrator's mind. In this way, Hill slowly reveals the criminal's identity and the full scope of his/hers (see, no spoilers) psychosis. 

The other thing I really liked about The Various Haunts of Men is the ending. Obviously, I'm not going to say much about it, except that Hill is a very unsentimental writer - she allows things to happen to her characters as things might happen to people in real life. Just because you love someone, does not mean you will be loved back. Just because you're turning you're life around, does not mean it cannot end. Hill avoids the temptation to neatly tie up the ends and in doing so she wrote a crime novel that feels a great deal like reality, only with more corpses than most of us will probably ever see, which is pretty much fine by me.

Incidentally, this all started when a friend sent me a LibraryThing recommendation for Susan Hill's novel, The Woman in Black - a ghost story in the Dickens mold. I read The Various Haunts of Men while waiting for Link+ to deliver it. There are also three more books in the Serrailler series (the newest will release in February), so a small swath of Susan Hill posts are probably going to follow....

July 9, 2008

"Study in Emerald" by Neil Gaiman

"Study in Emerald" is not a book, it's a stand alone short story by Neil Gaiman and it's fantastically well-written and chilling as well.

One warning: While "Study in Emerald" is good enough to enjoy on it's own, the reader will get a thousand times more from it if he or she has at least a passing familiarity with the Sherlock Holmes canon by Arthur Conan Doyle and/or Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos. I am not a Lovecraft gal, but I'm addicted to Holmes. The friend who sent me the pdf of Neil Gaiman's story loves both. "Study in Emerald" is brilliant, but because its brilliance is tied into how well Gaiman uses the Doyle and Lovecraft material, knowing the two narrative contexts helps. 

Okay, that said, I want to be sure not to scare people off because this is one hell of a short story. Lovely use of period language (terrific Victorian 1st person POV), lovely description and a beautiful subtle twist of an ending. Just wow. It's available free online here. And be sure to read the advertisements that are sprinkled throughout the text - I especially liked the one for Vlad Tepes's Exsanguination Service. Too funny.

For the lit. geek with a fondness for Victorian mystery and/or existential horror (love that that I can actually classify that as a subgenre), "Study in Emerald" might just be the best short story you'll come across in a very long time.

July 5, 2008

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Philips

Gods Behaving Badly is Marie Philips's first novel. I loved it. Here's a quick synopsis: 

The gods of Olympus live on on the 21st Century, but their powers are waning because no one believes. They're forced to live two to a bedroom (Apollo and Ares share; Persephone takes the floor when she visits Demeter) in a dilapidated house in London. They do mundane work to pay the bills (Artemis is a dog-walker, Apollo's a TV psychic and Aphrodite is a phone sex worker), and in general are having a bit of a hard time (Eros has converted to Christianity and Zeus is the crazy old guy in the attic). Apollo refuses to heat some shower water for Aphrodite (they have to conserve their powers) and revenge ensues. Then Artemis hires a mortal cleaner named Alice, who, with her non-boyfriend Neil, bring about some greatly needed change, though entirely by accident.

This synopsis doesn't do justice to the plot, which arcs very cleanly while covering a a great deal of well-paced ground. In fact, their isn't one loose link in the plot or one flabby bit in its execution. Philips's breezy, clever style works beautifully for the material, as well. But in a book full of the delightful, it's Philips's characters that make Gods Behaving Badly an especially enjoyable read.

Neil and Alice are Philips's two mortal protagonist/heroes. We first meet them in Alice's broom-closet office when they sat down with orange juice boxes to play Scrabble before watching a taping of Apollo's awful cable TV show.  Their most outstanding qualities, respectively, are how nice they, yet Philips also establishes them as fully rounded characters without compromising her generally light hand. 

And if Philips's mortals charm, then her Greek Pantheon dominates. I actually laughed out loud. I almost never laugh out loud when I read (nor do I usually cry - except for Where the Red Fern Grows, which made me cry like a little girl, and not just because I was a little girl when I read it). Philips's characterizations of the Olympians as narcissistic and fantastically amoral worked - and it worked because she also allowed for a great deal of pathos in them as well. Demeter is beside herself because she couldn't keep a clemetis alive, Artemis misses her dogs, and Athena, though the goddess of wisdom, cannot communicate clearly enough for anyone to understand her, and so on.... 

Philips's characterizations, which come through like crystal in her dialogue, are her real achievement. The characters, and her care in conceiving them, set Gods Behaving Badly apart from the flock of other clever, post-modern retellings of historical, mythological and otherwise un-copyrighted material that has recently been appropriated. Much as Glen Duncan re-conceived the devil in I, Lucifer, Philips re-conceives the Greek Pantheon here. Granted, Duncan's work is by far more speculative and intellectually daring, but for sheer entertainment purposes, Gods Behaving Badly is an absolute winner. 

June 19, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

Recently, I've gone off on a non-fiction "research" tangent - anything about true crime or medicine in Victorian England is up for grabs. Given the recent fascination, I was really excited to run across a recently published account of the Road Hill Murder, a murder case that rocked Victorian England and inspired the first true-crime frenzy, which period newspapers called "detective fever". Unfortunately, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale only partially lived up to its blurb (which, incidentally, was very nicely written).

Ultimately, the issue with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is that Summerscale juggles enough material for three different books without proper integration. There is the biographical portion on the great Victorian detective, Jack Whicher, an account of the Road Hill Murder, and an investigation of how both Whicher and the Road Hill case directly affected what was to become known as "detective fiction". All three aspects are interrelated and  highly complimentary. They even play together nicely in the blurb - hence my excitement, but they compete with each other in the book, where Summerscale jaggedly juxtaposes them along with other semi-related facts (Protestant distrust of the Roman Catholic Church and watercolors of the Great Barrier Reef being some of the larger tangents).

The Whicher biography was a compelling portrait of a sharp-minded man ahead of his time, ruined by the largest case of his life. Summerscale handles the Road Hill portions with equal interest, painting the scene with forensic detail and compelling emotion. She also makes some genuinely interesting connections between the Whicher/Road Hill historical material and the literary craze that it spawned. One can definitely see Whicher as the prototype for Inspector Cuff in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. There are even shades of Sherlock Holmes in his single-minded pursuit of forensic proof. Likewise, one can easily see how the Road Hill case spawned hundreds of literary imitations in the form of the "estate mystery," where a murder or crime takes place at a large country manor, with the guilty party being either family or visiting friend. Every single aspect of the book is interesting, but therein lies the problem. They each remain single aspects instead of well-integrated parts of a whole.

Given all of this, I recommend the book but I do so with a warning: The narrative and historical fascination Summerscale delivers are tempered by structural flaws and tangential wandering. I recommend reading the parts that interest and skimming over the rest to avoid what I found to be irritating side-tracks.

June 4, 2008

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I'd been meaning to read The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole for ages. I'd been told many times by many people that any fan of gothic literature sort of has to at some point, and after having read it, I think those many people are right... on condition.

The Castle of Otranto is sort of the grand-daddy of gothic literature and its many permutations -Victorian gothic (Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker), gothic romance (everyone from Anne Radcliffe to Victoria Holt), gothic mystery (Edgar Allen Poe), even Stephen King's modern psychological horror (The Shining) and Anne Rice's tortured, vampiric anti-heroes  owe something to Horace Walpole's novel of death, sexual obsession, religion and hidden identity, all of which revolves around various claims on the castle in the title.  It was stumbling across all of these instances of influence that I most enjoyed about reading The Castle of Otranto....

And here is where I have to admit that I didn't enjoy much else about it, which actually embarrasses me. The thing is, there was nothing particularly wrong with the book. In fact, it might just be that I wasn't in the mood for melodrama. I suspect if you read The Castle of Otranto with your tongue in your cheek it would prove to be pretty entertaining, especially if you have a passing familiarity with medieval romance, which Walpole both draws from and satirizes with the story and its narrative tone. Altogether well-done and entertaining. I just found it to be a bit tedious. Maybe I wasn't in the mood...

Regardless, I would recommend it. It's fairly short, so it isn't much to slog through if you are, in fact, finding it tedious, and the pay-off is pretty good from a lit. geek point of view. I couldn't help but enjoy reading the locus from which so many other genres and works grew, so even on those merits alone, The Castle of Otranto is worth the read.

May 27, 2008

Revenge: Limited Edition by Ellen von Unswerth

Last week was a hard week and I didn't much done in the way of reading. Still, while I didn't get to finish anything that I've got started, I did manage to get side-tracked by Ellen von Unwerth's lovely book of photographic erotica, Revenge.

While there is a general narrative arc (taken as "excerpts" from the diaries of the nubile young heroines), von Unwerth primarily uses stylized black and white photography (think Helmut Newton meets Man Rey) to tell the story of how the Baroness "disciplines" her newly orphaned nieces.

It is not an original story, but Revenge is really not about the story. What little narrative there is, is executed with a tongue-in-cheek panache that sets the winkingly saucy tone of the book. And the eroticism in Revenge really does have panache. The models are gorgeous (think Robert Palmer's Wall of Babes), the clothes (when there are clothes) are gorgeous, the set (a glorious mansion and its extensive grounds) is gorgeous - all in the style of the lovely pornography of early 20th century France and Italy. 

The sado-masochistic elements tend less towards real pain and suffering and more towards the discomforts of dominance and submission in a campy, Vogue Paris sort of way. You can't help but laugh, but you also can't put it down - it's just too damn pretty.

Though I found the pleasure of reading Revenge to be more aesthetic than erotic, I certainly won't deny that it was a pleasure all the same. Revenge: Limited Edition is a sexy little volume, all the more so because it doesn't take it so too terribly seriously. If a book could wink, this one would.

May 19, 2008

Library Thing


Loss of words. Just great. Love it. Spent week-end inputing ISBN's and cataloguing personal library. Am serious geek. So happy. Love it.

Sigh. Wonderful.

May 18, 2008

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Cement Garden is Ian McEwan's first novel, written in 1978 after having published two successful short story collections. As first novels go, it's good in a strange sort of way. I'm much more familiar with the Ian McEwan of Atonement and Amsterdam  (for which he won the Booker Prize). His later work is fairly well defined by a light hand, psychological sensitivity and thematic subtlety. His prose is, by turns, both searing and delicate, a balance that draws the reader over the fine line of his characters' minds. The Ian McEwan of The Cement Garden is most definitely younger, more gleefully brutal and quite psychologically cold. 

Without revealing too much about the plot (though anyone who's read the Greeks will see the nature of the novel's climax coming), the story concerns four children, ranging in age from the youngest, Tom who is about six or seven, to the eldest, Julie, who is a beautiful seventeen year old. Their parents die in quick succession, and the story concerns what happens after they are left to their own devices, isolated and with no supervision. 

The brutally offhand tone with which McEwan tells this story, so jarring in light of his later work, is actually appropriate for the kind of tale he seems to have intended. The device that allows him to reach this tone is his narrator - the eldest brother, fifteen year old Jack. McEwan captures the naturally obsessive self-concern of the teen-ager (yes, I'm generalizing), and in this way executes a chilling series of events without making the reader feel that the children are actively monstrous. They are simply young, and the young can be quite monstrous at times, and at other times, nothing but pathos. 

I've read some reviews of this book in which the reviewers were either profoundly disgusted or terrifically disturbed by The Cement Garden. I suppose I can see why, but I would say that this makes it a successful novel. Disturbing things occur, but the story drives forward and remains incredibly readable. It's the offhand delivery of disturbing events that make the novel thought-provoking and worth the read. You'll either like it or you won't, but you will not be ambiguous about it, and that, I would say, is quite a compliment to Mr. McEwan.


May 11, 2008

Bound to Please by Michael Dirda

I've been reading Michael Dirda's book, Bound to Please, piecemeal for a couple of weeks and have found it to be a fantastic cure for the overtaxed attention span (some week-nights it's even hard for me to concentrate on what the cats mean by "meow", but I read one review and I'm re-engaged and not mentally multi-tasking).

Bound to Please is a selection of Michael Dirda's essays and reviews on lesser known books that deserve to be read. Michael Dirda is the editor of the Washington Post Book Review and holds a PhD in comparative literature (I'm biased on this because I got my MA in comp. lit. and it's still a pretty young field). His insights are educated and erudite, as well as charming and accessible, almost all the time, whether he's writing about Herodotus or Terry Pratchett or a lesser known biography of George Bernard Shaw  (reviews for all of which appear in this book). That he should be both titanically intelligent and a complete lit. geek is just kind of formidably adorable....

OK, at this point, I think it's only fair to admit that I have a crush on Michael Dirda, or least on Michael Dirda's brain. 

But anyway, according to his introduction to Bound to Please (which is charming... sigh) Dirda's whole reason for compiling this particular collection of essays/reviews was to introduce a selection of books that deserve reading but don't often get read. It does this quite nicely too - my 'to read' list has nearly doubled (plus Name of the Rose is getting a bump up in the queue). It was also neat to read his fantastic review/criticism of two books that I already love - Possession by A.S. Byatt and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. 

All in all, if you like reading book reviews (I do) or you enjoy light but insightful literary criticism, Bound to Please is a lovely book to have around. It's the sort of thing you can just pick up and browse through - especially when you're not sure what you want to read next.

May 5, 2008

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize winning novel, The Remains of the Day on Saturday and needed a day or two to think about it. 

On the surface it is a wonderfully subtle comedy of manners, but what is so brilliant about Ishiguro's prose is that what appears on the surface, to be nothing but the amusingly miopic recollections of an iconic English butler, is in fact, a tragedy unfolding in slow motion. This novel is, as Salmon Rushdie put it, "a story both beautiful and cruel" about a man who suspects he has wasted his life but cannot truly acknowledge this waste and so he cannot redeem it. He is cauterized and this cauterization dooms him. 

I'm not qualified to say anything new about The Remains of the Day - it's long been hailed by scholars and critics as a modern classic for good reason (and the fact that it won the Booker Prize really does speak for itself). That said, I was impressed by one thing that I feel is especially worth mentioning from a craft perspective. That is the subtlety and respect with which Ishiguro portrays his narrator and protagonist, the butler, Stevens. 

In lesser hands, Stevens could have been a ridiculous figure, with his seemingly hollow obsessions, such as with his "staff plans" (a brilliant device on Ishiguro's part), the superiority of a particular silver polish, and his somewhat horrifying understanding of the nature "dignity". His blind faith in his employer, Lord Darlington's, judgement could frustrate as much as his inability to emote in even the most extreme situations (as with his father's death). It is a testimony to Ishiguro's sensitivity as a writer that all of these qualities, qualities that could so easily have read as farcical, should instead break your heart slowly. There is an intense vulnerability in Stevens that is entirely implied through repeated actions (such as his obsessive rereading of Miss Kenton's letter) and Ishiguro's 'quoting' of certain words and phrases that are outside of Stevens' comfort zone ('bantering' and 'having one on' among them). All of these work to create a narrator/protagonist who prides himself on being an inscrutable professional (something he largely succeeds in, if he is to be believed). But he is also a man who constantly and subtly betrays an astonishing depth of pain and bewilderment in private moments. Of course, Stevens would be horrified to hear that.

The Remains of the Day is simply excellent, as excellent as anyone who has ever told me that I absolutely must read it, insisted it would be. And so I'm going to hop in line with all of those people and say, "you absolutely must read it - it's absolutely excellent." You won't be sorry if you do (though you may be a little melancholy for a day or two after).

May 2, 2008

I, Lucifer, or, I might as well have fallen off the edge of the Earth....

There are no words to describe how sheepish I feel as I write this post more than a year after I wrote the last one. No words. But being me, I'll try.

All I can say is that I had a rough year, followed by a hectic couple of months. Happily, things are settling down. We're back in California (which is lovely), I'm tutoring kids (which is by turns both rewarding and fantastically frustrating) and writing short stories (which I simply love). 

One day, in the middle of all of this new found sort-of-calm, I was gently reminded by my Lemur and my very good friend, Mexalapotis, that eons ago (which translates to slightly over a year in the language hyperbole), I had written book reviews and posted them on a blog. This had really seemed like something that I'd enjoyed - perhaps that was something I might want to do again? I said, "Hey, great idea!" Then three months passed.

Then last week, Mexalapotis came to visit. It was a terrific week-end all around - we took her to see both the ocean and the Bay (because they are different, though both are full of water), Sutro Baths, our old apartments, Golden Gate Park, Park Chow (yummers), the Seven Sisters at Alamo Square and the Palace of Fine Arts. Then at her request, we went to Green Apple Books on Clement. 

Now, I really have to say that Green Apple is, outside of Powells in Portland, the most dangerous place in the world for me... and I'll just stop right there. If I don't, I'll go off on a tangent about independent bookstores and new/used stock and the beauty of remainders and two story buildings stuffed to the rafters (literally) with new/used stock and beautiful remainders.

So, there she bought I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan, which is an absolutely fantastic book - almost everyone (including nuns with a sense of humor and/or a lot of pathos) should read it at some point or another, if only to appreciate Lucifer's incredibly un-trustworthy yet appealing narrative voice.... But I'm getting off track.   

Mexalapotis. She visited and we had fun, and she bought I, Lucifer, and then sadly went home. But before she did, she mentioned the whole forgotten blog thing again. This time, I said "Oh, yeah, huh..."

Meanwhile, Mexalapotis wrote a wonderful review of I, Lucifer which can be found here. And after getting all excited and reading it and commenting, I realized that it really is time for me to get off my duff and start posting the reviews again, if only for my own pleasure of my own reading and the pleasure it gives me.

 So now here I am, and this time I'll try not to fall off the edge of the Earth.