Monday, August 29, 2011

Cover art for Sacre Bleu

From Christopher Moore's Facebook page, there are apparently 5 versions of the cover art for "Sacre Bleu."  My vote is for the one that accompanied my first post on this book!  The other ones:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I loves me some dystopian fiction; there’s no deny it.  I spent years of my undergraduate degree trying to fit a utopian/dystopian English class into my timetable, and only managed it during my last year.  I read Utopia by Thomas More as a teenager, and have been enjoying the genre ever since.  When the book The Hunger Games came across my radar, I wasn’t sure I was interested until I found out it was about North American society a century plus in the future, following (an unexplained) massive social upheaval.  Since The Hunger Games is going to be made into a movie, I wanted to read the book before I heard too much about the production, and before seeing it for myself.

This is the first work that I’ve read by Suzanne Collins, and I find her to be a good author.  Her plot was extremely engaging, and her characters immediately likable.  I’ve always considered the challenge in dystopian fiction to be the creation of a recognizable society that is different enough to produce fear in the contemporary reader, and Collins’ work hit that nail on the head.  The book is fast paced and never lags, and is enjoyable from start to finish.  

The Hunger Games themselves are a yearly ritual in Panem (formerly known as North America).  Each year the satellite states (known as Districts, of which there are 12 in total) of the main state (the Capitol) are forced to send two children each to battle each other to the death.  It’s basically a game of capture the flag with sharp edges, and it’s all televised for the watching enjoyment of the Capitol, and the forced viewing of the Districts.  The ritual is supposed to punish the Districts for an insurgence almost 75 years earlier, and provides an opportunity for the Capitol to humiliate them and keep them psychologically beat down.  With the contestants being chosen by lottery, there is a constant fear of loosing a child, which is what makes the ritual so successful year-round.  Like I said, I deviously well charted plot that draws the readers in.

Why, however, did Collins’ plot rely on children aged 12-18?  This was a question that I only asked myself when I finished reading the book.  It seems like the choice of age would be terrain rife for soul searching as the characters are forced to dig deep to find out if they could kill each other.  Collins seems to have foreseen this complaint and indicates multiple time that the children, raised watching the games, were immune to these types of questions – it was a task they had to complete, like math homework, and just got on with it.  I don’t care how hard the living is – drop a 12 year old in a forest with 23 other people trying to kill them, and the stage is set for a lot of confusion and soul-searching.  Collins didn’t tap into this.  This decision drew me a little bit out of the story, but not enough that I didn’t enjoy the read.  I still say, however, the story would have been as effective if she had Logan’s Run-ed it, and kept the main characters in their late teens/early 20s.

The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy of novels by Collins.  This first book sets up a love triangle and a potential rebellion against the state for the following books.  I don’t know how I feel about that.  I think the ending Collins had for the work is strong enough to stand on its own as a single book, and I don’t know if there will be much value in continuing the story.  But, of course, the world revolves around money, so the books were written.  To me, the beauty of a dystopian fiction is that it ends in hopelessness, and the reader feels like nothing can change: the point of the genre is to reflect on how shitty life really could be, and make you think that your petty complaints aren’t all that bad.  I fear that books two and three of the trilogy will try to wrap up everything too neatly, ruining the effect of the dystopian world Collins has created.

Will I read the other two – most definitely.  But let’s just say I’m not rushing out to Chapters first thing tomorrow morning to pick them up (which, I have done with book series that I adored after reading the first).  Will I go see the movie when it comes out – of course.  As much as I hate film adaptations, I live in hope that some film maker will eventually get it right.  I’ll definitely recommend that people read the book, if for no other reason that it’s gearing up to be part of the zeitgeist, but I’ll reserve judgment on the sequels for now.  And, in the mean time, here’s to hoping that The Hunger Games survives the silver screen.

Update: To read my reviews on the sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, click here.

Reliquary, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Today’s review is about a sequel to a book I read some months ago.  Reliquary, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, is a modern-day thriller set in Ney York.  The first novel by the authors, Relic, is about a mysterious creature unleashed in New York’s Museum of Natural History, and the sequel picks up the story – though the original creature is no longer the problem, there appears to be copy-cats roaming the city.  Back are NYPD detective Vincent D’Agosta and FBI agent (first name escapes me) Pendegrast to work on finding out who (or what) is really behind the series of strange murders occurring in Manhattan.  Though the plot of Reliquary occurs 18 months after Relic, it really can’t be read without reading its predecessor.

Preston and Child’s novels are extremely well written.  The characters are charming and I’m slowly but surly snapping up all the books I can find about D’Agosta and Pendegrast.  The plot moves quickly and is well developed; the authors manage to strike a balance between thriller, scientific fact and academia that is engaging and leaves the reader feeling smarter for having understood the technical mumbo-jumbo of the science and academia, while not getting lost in plot twists.  My favorite aspect of the authors’ work however, is there ability to turn the supernatural into the natural.  While most authors rely on a third-act plot twist in which the unexplained ties up all the loose ends remaining, Preston and Child are able to hook the reader with a seemingly unnatural set of occurrences, and reveal at the last that there is a perfectly rational explanation for everything that has occurred.  

All the Preston and Child novels that I’ve read have relied on an overarching theme of the macabre to tie the story together.  The first I read was about Voodooism, the plot of Relic relies on human superstitions, and this book’s central plot is intimately connected to the world that exists underground in New York.  I’ve not done extensive research into the possibility of huge communities living underground in the endless miles of centuries tunnels carved into Manhattan’s bedrock throughout the centuries, but I’ve heard/seen it mentioned in passing in other books and TV shows, and Preston and Child do a great job of creating a complex backdrop for this work; it might not be the whole truth (for what truth can really be gathered about a liminal community like that?), but it’s a wonderfully crafted fictional reality.

A word about the authors:  I find it amazing that such a seamless piece of fiction was created by two people.  I’m amazed – I don’t like sharing pens, let along creative ideas.  I’m incredibly impressed by the world created by Preston and Child.  For the reader however, a word of caution: don’t rely on the list of work at the start of each book to help you find your next read in the series.  These two have written several works together, not all of them about D’Agosta and Pendergast, and there is seemingly no distinction made when they list their works at the front of a novel.  Moreover, I’ve seen a list of previous works that starts with the most recent work and moves backwards (consequently, I read the latest book of the series first, much to my displeasure, then went back to read Relic).  

A note on this book in particular: it was written and published in the mid-1990s.  As such, it appears on the surface as if it could be happening today, but there are glimpses of the fact that it is more than a decade old – a joke about George Bush no longer being president (and they mean the first one, folks), references to the widespread use of fax, and the (almost) complete absence of cell phone all stand out like sore thumbs.  But I implore you to look past all that.  Pretend (like I do) that it’s happening today, and the story stands up remarkably well.  

All in all, I look forward to the rest of the books which follow D’Agosta and Pendergast, since both characters are unbelievably charming and lovable in their own ways, and from what I’ve seen so far, these works deliver on great plots with a hint of the macabre.  What more could you want from a paper-back thriller?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

Let me start off this review by saying I love Maggie Smith.  An odd way to start, I know, but bear with me.  I don’t know when it was that Smith hit my radar, but I do know that I’ve enjoyed her non-nonsense acting style long before the Hogwarts days.  If this started when I first saw Death by Murder (or is that Murder by Death?  I can never remember), or when I first saw Murder on the Orient Express, I can’t be sure.  Needless to say, I am a fan, so when wandering through Chapters one day, a table of Agatha Christie works caught my eye and I started looking for Murder on the Orient Express, which leads me to my latest read.

Going into the work, I knew the ending.  This approach sucks when reading a murder mystery.  I think I had caught the last half of the film by the same name a dozen or so years ago, but with an ending like this story has, you’re not likely to forget it.  This also makes writing a review on the work challenging, since I don’t want to give away the ending.  I can, however, set up the story for you.  This tale is spread out over 24 hours in the luxury car of a train heading from [I]Stanboul to Calais.  Much to the surprise of the train-line’s director, and his good friend and international detective, Hercule Poirot, the car is full in the dead of winter.  13 guest, including Poirot, are travelling on this particular car, heading back to Europe.  On the second night of the trip, one in their midst is murdered, leaving Poirot to put two and two, and two and two, and two and two together to figure out who done it.  

Christie wrote this work in the middle of her series of Poirot novels in 1934; and surprisingly, the work holds up remarkably well.  There might be some instances of the reader being lost in translation due to the old-fashioned behaviours and etiquette, but if one keeps hold of the idea that it was written 80 years ago, it shouldn’t be a problem.  Fast paced and with well developed characters, interesting plot twists, and an engaging writing style, I can see now why Christie has remained popular for so long.

One quick note on something that made me laugh out loud.  The story partially revolves around the death of a child.  While interviewing one suspect (a German lady), Poirot summarizes how that death relates to the murder.  The woman exclaims in shock something to the effect of: ‘Murdering a child?  How horrible!  We are much to gentle in German to allow such a thing!’  It was after reading that line that I checked the original copyright date in the book – 1934.  Boy, did Christie miss the writing that was all over that wall….

All in all, this was a good read.  If I had been ignorant of the ending, I probably would have enjoyed it more.  Am I going to run out and snap up all of Christie’s works now?  Probably not – they just aren’t my style.  I might borrow the collect that I’m sure my folks have, but I’ve got a lot of books I’d like to read first.  Murder was a fast read, so I can see myself curling up with other Poirot mysteries when I need something quick as a distraction, but don’t want to drag out my Arthur Conan Doyle omnibus.  I would be interested in knowing, however, how the other stories written by Christie pay off when one is ignorant of the ending.  And, needless to say, I’d read any other stories that were adapted to the screen if Maggie Smith were somehow involved.   

Friday, August 26, 2011

Company of Liars, by Karen Maitland

In my last year of University I took a class in which the prof instructed us to read Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, to find inspiration for our term papers to write about Medieval society.  Pillars was rife with inspiration and I loved the book so much that even with a full course load I finished it, then eagerly bought Follett’s follow up work World Without End.  (No, this review is not about either of those books, but I strongly recommend you read them as they are amazing).  Now that Pillars has been turned into a mini-series, I would think the prof in question should be looking for a new work of fiction to encourage her students, and I think that can be found in Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.

Like Follett, Maitland does an amazing job in painting her readers a picture of Medieval society in England.  The story begins shortly before the plague breaks out on England’s southern coast, and follows the tale of nine people fleeing north and east in their attempts to out-run it.  The cast of characters includes charlatans, musicians, and a cripple, and each character is properly developed and intriguing.  As the title of the work suggests, each traveler caries with them secrets which, if exposed, threatens their position in their worlds.   

Maitland’s work is a well crafted and highly researched.  Medieval society is innocuously explored and the reader is introduced to religion, culture, consumer goods, and the social system with a deft hand which imparts knowledge without being relentlessly preachy – a sign of a good historical fiction author.  There were minor anachronisms which can’t be forgiven, however, because of the high quality of the research that went into the rest of the work.  The most blatant is the multiple references to chess by members of the lower orders; I’m not an expert on when the game reached England, but it seemed out of place that it was referenced on more than one occasion as if the characters were well-seasoned players.  The other thing that struck me was the casual acceptance of homosexuality; I’m sure some people would have accepted it (much as we do today – without a second thought), but there was quite a lot of acceptance of it in the book, which didn’t sit true with how it was perceived in Medieval society.

As for the plot, there’s not much that I can give away.  Secrets and lies are revealed in increments, but the reader is privy to all stories by the end.  One of the best things I can say about the work is that none of the stories seems implausible.  There is, however, an aspect to the story that did bother me and this was the inclusion of the supernatural.  Again, we see an author who is to lazy (or who feels that her readers want a twist in the third act) to try and explain away her plot without relying on unnatural forces.  The rational mind in me is always shying away from this device, and Maitland leaves just enough unsaid that I can cognitively reframe her plot to get away from the supernatural, but just barely.  This work (as with most works which rely on this device) would have been stronger had the author given it a little less hocus-pocus and a little more plot development.

All in all, this was a good read.  I’m not going to say a great read.  I started off with high expectations as the open chapters are rich with layers and allusions to the ‘liar’s’ theme, but this drops off in favour of plot development.  But, as I said, the historical research (which includes several pages of historical notes at the end of the book) makes up for some of this.  The characters and the plot development are all to be admired, even with the twist in the third act.  If you’re looking for a Follett-like work (in the vein of Pillars and World) than Maitland’s Company of Liars is definitely worth the read.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

EzineArtciles publication

Good news - my review on The Catcher in the Rye has been accepted for publication by the on-line source EzineArticles. 

To check it out, see it here!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Faculty Club, by Danny Tobey

So, yesterday I decided to indulge in some literary junk-food.  And I don’t mean to use that term pejoratively to describe my latest read, merely to put it in context: I’ve been reading a lot of classics and books that appear on ‘must-read’ lists lately, so was ready for something a little more modern and engaging, and boy did I ever find it with Danny Tobey’s The Faculty Club.

Two things drew me to the work: it’s set in academia and the main plot revolves around a secretive faculty/student club.  I enjoyed my time in University, so I enjoy reading about situations that remind me of it.  True, I didn’t get into a prestigious Ivy League law school like the main character, Jeremy Davis, but the author does a great job with setting the stage in terms of location and surrounding characters – the (always unnamed) university campus, the fellow classmates, and the eclectic professors all ring horribly true for someone who spent six years in an ivory tower.  One of the best scenes which incorporates all of the above is a mock-trail that Jeremy participates in as the prosecution.  Tobey’s writing was engaging and never lagged.

The other interesting dynamic, the mysterious club, also drew me in.  Children of the 90s will recognize the theme from that movie with Pacey from Dawson’s Creek about the Skull and Bones club.  Tobey does a good job designing this secretive world, but could have spent some more time developing Jeremy’s character to explain why he wanted in so badly; it seemed as if the reasons were so obvious that Tobey felt he didn’t need to use the ink to describe them.  In some ways, I can understand the author’s decision to gloss over his character’s desire, but the work would have been stronger had he spent more time fleshing out his character.  As for the composition and rational behind the club, I’ll let readers discover that for themselves….

Now we come to the part I wasn’t thrilled with.  Unfortunately, I can’t talk too much about it here without ruining the ending, and that’s something I never want to do.  In the third act, Tobey zigs left when he was all set to zag right: had he gone right no one would have blamed him and it might have made the work stronger.  By going left, he departs from the expected and it weakens the work – the unexpected was unnecessary and over-the-top.  Vague, I know, but you’ll have to read it to figure out what the hell I’m talking about.  There is an interesting question raised in this third act, however: is the fate of faceless millions more important than the fate of a known few?  I had to confront something about myself with that one: I think I’m going to have to give the answer you are apparently never supposed to give and say the faceless millions are more important.  In the end, I had some sympathy for the protagonist, which took the wind out of the ending for me.

This book reminded me a lot of The Rule of Four by Ian Cadwell.  It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember it as being set in an institution of higher learning, and centered around mysterious doings in steam tunnels (there are always steam tunnels).  If you enjoyed one, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the other.  I don’t recommend a back-to-back reading though, or else you’ll spend all your time comparing the two.

All in all, I good book and a great read!  I needed to step away from the stuffy books I’ve been reading lately and step into something fun, and The Faculty Club did it for me.  The hard cover was priced at $30, but I got it on sale for $5.  I don’t recommend paying full price (it is only a four-hour read, after all), but pick it up on discount or e-book and you’re all set.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

One of the ways that I keep busy is by tutoring.  I’ve had a student for the last year whose parents that have asked me to expose him to more literature than can be found in the single English class that high-school students get each year.  In order to recommend books for him, I’ve got to read them first myself (we learnt that the hard way with A Farewell to Arms – neither of us liked it, nor finished it).  So, this week, I read The Secret Garden in hopes of giving him a good book recommendation.

I’ve known the story of The Secret Garden since I was a kid.  There was a Hollywood movie that I loved to watch, but now have enough distance from to not be able to remember all the details.  The story follows Mary Lennox whose parents are killed in India during the Raj administration.  Mary is sent back to England to live with an uncle since he’s her only surviving relative.  While there, Mary hears about a garden on the property that has been locked up for a decade and sets out to find it.  Finally getting into the garden, Mary get the help of a local boy, Dickon, to help bring it back to life.  As the garden gets healthier, so does Mary.  The other secret that Mary discovers is that she has a 10-year old cousin, Colin, who has been thought of as an invalid so long that he’s expected to die.  Finally in the company of children, Mary and Colin, both support each other and their health improves. 

I knew going into the book that it was for kids.  As such, it was an expected disappointment.  Like Little Women, the author (Frances Hodgson Burnett) hides morality lessons in the work designed to show children how to be polite, how to act appropriately, and how to appreciate what they have.  Unlike Louisa May Alcott’s attempts, Burnett’s work is readable for adults: the morality lessons aren’t oppressive, and are more subtle.

As a historian of the British Empire, I was able to appreciate this book from a historical perspective.  The tale begins in India where Mary’s father is an officer and is never around, and her mother is such a social butterfly that she has instructed her household staff to keep her daughter away from her so she can better enjoy the social scene.  There’s not much detail of Mary’s life in Indian (as it is a catalyst for the rest of the book), but the subtle way in which the characters back in England comment on Mary’s health and comportment (and even the author’s own observations that can only be described as stemming from ‘common knowledge’) provides the reader with information on the lives of Raj children.  Mary’s yellow skin tone, her limp hair, her resistance to eating British foods, and her general lack of energy are all commented on multiple times.  It is not until Mary is forced into going outside and experiencing the bracing air and sunshine of a Yorkshire moor that her health begins to improve.  The health of children was often a concern of Raj families, and those who could afford it would send their children to schools or relatives in England to avoid what was thought to be the inherent health-risks of raising European children in an exotic climate.  (For those interested, Empire Families: Britons in Late Imperial India by Elizabeth Buettner is a wonderful study of the family dynamic for Brits in the Empire.)

All in all, the book was alright.  If I were asked to take an editor’s knife to it, I believe I could safely cut out 1/3 of the work without loosing the threads of the story.  I won’t be recommending this book to my tutoring student – it’s not interesting enough.  I think this is one of those books that ‘simply must be read’ because it’s part of western literary heritage, but it’s nothing to get fussed over.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

My latest read is one that appears on almost everyone’s ‘to-read’ list.  And I’m stumped as to why.  The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is an American classic that I’ve heard about for years, but only recently read.  To me, it fits into a particular genre of books - one that is easily identifiable as being written in the first half of the preceding century by Americans, just like The Great Gatsby, or The Graduate.  I think the real problem lays in the fact that there is no real plot to these books, merely a collection of observations about human emotions, strung together by characters who aren’t the least bit likeable, but who have attained entrance into the zeitgeist due to generations of readers.  These books strike me as trying far too hard to be meaningful, and perhaps Salinger’s work is the leader of the pack. 

The story focuses on Holden Caulfield, an entitled rich boy from New York.  Holden’s biggest problem with the world is that it is full of ‘phonies’ – people who are too polite, people who are less intelligent than he is, people who don’t meet his expectations.  Holden begins telling his story at the point where he has been kicked out of yet another boarding school.  Afraid to tell his parents, but unwilling to stay at the institution for another 3 days, Holden bolts for New York and sets up in a sleazy hotel.  While in New York, Holden meets up with an old girl friend, an old teacher, and his kid sister. 

Throughout Holden’s time in the city, we learn more about his personal history.  Holden’s father is a corporate lawyer; he has an older brother who is in Hollywood writing screen plays, and a younger brother who died of leukemia; he’s been expelled or dropped out of various boarding schools; and he’s a virgin, for which he blames himself for being too much of a gentleman to force girls.  Most importantly though, we learn that Holden is a coward.  He calls himself such multiple times, but he’s a far bigger coward than he’s willing to admit to himself.

And there’s the rub of the story – Holden won’t admit anything to himself, beyond surface niceties.  Fine, he will say that the fact that he’s bounced from school to school is his fault, but he doesn’t mean it.  We repetitively see him parroting back the opinion and advice that responsible adults give him during his narration, and it strikes me that his willingness to accept blame is something that came from being lectured countless times about his unwillingness to buckle down.  Finally, while discussing his situation with an old teacher that he respected, I felt that Holden was going to finally learn why he was a habitual failure – this teacher tells him that life is a game and, whether you like it or not, it’s a game that has to be played or else you risk a crash and burn that you can’t bounce back from.  Holden finally seemed to listen and (maybe) get it.  Then the teacher made a pass at him, and he ran, forgetting everything he seemed so willing to absorb.  

The only other moments of emotional or intellectual honesty are those that Holden seems experiences while with his sister, Phoebe.  She asks him at one point what he’s going to do with his life, to which he describes his ideal job as a fantasy of his, based on a poem by Robby Burns.  The poem runs, “If a body meet a body coming through the rye,” but Holden thought the ‘meet’ was ‘catch,’ and so his fantasy is to keep the children he envisions running through a field of rye from running of a near-by cliff by catching them before they fell.  Ah, the delusions of one who has never had to apply himself.  In the end, Holden is placed in a mental health institution (I think – Salinger never overtly states it), and the story ends.

The Catcher in the Rye seems like a work that would pop with people in their late teens/early 20s, before they wake up to the reality of the world in which rent it due on the first of the month, you have to buy your own toilet paper, and you hate your job but feel you can’t quit.  I can see Holden’s tale of woe appealing to those who find themselves is a similar boat as the main characters, in which there are no real responsibilities in their lives, and the veneer of cynicism that applies itself after half a decade of self-reliance has yet to solidify.  For me, however, Holden’s tale is one of self-deluded grandeur, in which he has yet to be forced to grow up.  His concerns are ones that normal, hard-working, self-aware people never have to struggle with, and are the stronger for.  There was nothing in Holden’s life that was particularly difficult to deal with, and his teen-angst was an invention of his own creation.  In the end, Holden was the biggest phony in his own tale.

Salinger’s work didn’t resonate with me.  Because I couldn’t sympathize (or even empathize) with Holden, it felt like 214 pages of teenage emotions that have no place in the real world.  I wonder though, had I read this work 10 (even 5) years ago, would my outlook be different?  I don’t know, but what I do know is that The Catcher in the Rye has no place on my personal ‘to-read’ list.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts, by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of Ghosts is nothing to write home about.  Set in the 1780s, it was going to be a treat for me to read a historical fiction NOT set in Medieval or Tutor Britain.  I specialized in the Hanoverian age, and was wondering what the author would do with the time period.  Well, he ignored it.  There was very little indication of the time period, other than the occasional mention of powdered hair and unlocking of tea caddies.

Admittedly, this short coming can be laid at the feet of the location for the story – Cambridge.  The University long held on to (and in some ways still does) its Medieval traditions.  Still, the author over-looked the actual time period that the novel was set in in a number of unforgivable ways.

Besides the problems with the when and where of the work, I found I had problems with the ‘who.’  The story is set around John Holdsworth, a down-on-his-luck bookseller from London.  Holdsworth has recently lost his wife and son to accidents when he is approached by a descendent of the founder of Jerusalem College (a fictional institution) at Cambridge.  Lady Anne Oldershaw wants Holdworth to go to Cambridge to find out why her son has seemingly gone mad after seeing a ghost, under the cover of assessing the current state of the College’s library.  And off Holdsworth goes.  His only tenuous claim to credentials in this mission is that he was the author of a short treaty entitled “The Anatomy of Ghosts,” written after the death of his son.  

Holdsworth finds himself in Cambridge as Lady Oldershaw’s representative, and assessing the mental capabilities of her son, Frank.  But why?  There had been no previous indication that Holdsworth had any sort of inquisitive mind or ability to ferret out the truth.  That jump in logic sunk the book for me – something that should have taken a day to read took 4 because I just wasn’t interested enough.  Not only was Holdsworth assessing Frank’s condition, but he was then entrusted with taking him out of the facility he had been placed in, and overseeing his recovering in a secluded location.  Again, WHY?  The author never offered any rational for why this was viewed as a feasible turn of events.

The mystery that ties the entire work together is diluted by a secondary plot that only connects to the main in the very last instance.  Rather than add colour to the work, it adds distraction.  In the end though, it’s that secondary plot that is the key to revealing all – I’ve always thought of this as a sloppy way for an author to proceed.  True, an author’s work is a world of their own in which anything could happen, but the 11th hour revelations always seem to cheapen a book.

All in all, not a great book, but not the worst either.  If, however, you’re looking for a similar type of read, I would first recommend you check out the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom.  This set of 5 books is set in the Tudor period and follows the lawyer Shardlake as he investigates various crimes/situation at the direction of the Crown.  I know I started off saying it was nice to see a historical fiction not set in Medieval/Tudor Britain, but since Tyalor’s work reads like a Medieval/Tudor work because of its setting, I found myself comparing it frequently with Sansom’s works.  All in all, I recommend that you skip Taylor and go straight for Sansom.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore, a preview

I have been following the progress of this book on Facebook and Twitter for months now, and so am glad to finally get some details on it!  Christopher Moore has to be one of my all-time favorite author's.  I have yet to read anything by him that I did not enjoy, and that's saying something, considering this will be his 13th book.

Moore's ability to create charming characters, who all seem to have more than a fair dose of smart ass in them, coupled with great story telling, and a sense of humour so subtly ingrained in all aspects of his writing, makes his works highly sought after in my life.  Once I start reading one, I can't put it down, and will usually read all of his books back-to-back.

Sacre Bleu, or sacred blue, named for the color of the cloak of the Virgin Mary, is made from crushed lapis lazuli, a gemstone prized for its deep hue. Brought from the Orient by camel and ship, across deserts and over mountains, this dazzling pigment coveted by artists is infused with danger and adventure and even, some say, the supernatural...
The son of a baker, who is the son of a baker, who is the son of a baker, who is... Lucien Lessard was destined for a life in flour until a brush with his father’s Impressionist friends Renoir, Monet, Bazille, Pissaro, and Cezanne changed his perspective. And then there was Juliette, the dark-haired young beauty with eyes the color of a summer sky. Driven by passion, Lucien spent his days painting his beloved muse sheathed in a bewitching blue dress.

But one day, all of Lucien’s paintings mysteriously disappeared. Gone, too, was Juliette — and the twisted little fellow known as The Colorman, the strange dealer in a brown suit and bowler hat who trafficked in artists’ paints, in particular a startlingly intense shade of blue.

Two years later, Juliette suddenly reappears. Along with a little man in a bowler. Oh là là, can trouble be far behind?

A tale of intrigue, passion, and art history filled with crusty bread, can-can girls, absinthe, Toulouse Lautrec, fin de siècle Paris, and many other French assortments, Sacre Bleu is a wonderfully witty masterpiece from the ever-impressive Christopher Moore.

For those initiated in Moore's world, men in bowlers are never a good thing for the beta-male lead character in a book, but they always bring action and adventure.

I've seen a few different release/publication dates on this one, some for in March and others in April, but either way, I'm waiting with baited breath.  This is one I'll be looking to pick up right away!

Update! (October 13)

Straight from Christopher Moore's Facebook page:

Hey, the new book, Sacré Bleu will be out April 3, 2012, but it might be available a week before that, if you want to preorder it or something. I'm working on the next one, which is another Shakespeare-based adventure like Fool. I'm just sort of throwing this stuff out there because everyone seems to ask.

Not only do we get news about this book, but the next one too!?!  And since Fool rocked super-hard, I'm super excited to see which play(s) get the Moore treatment.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Kick it into gear, Waddell

A book series that I've enjoyed are the Blood (for a lack of a better term) books by Dan Waddell.  Waddell is a British author with a background in geneology.  He's well known for creating the Who Do You Think You Are? phenomenon in the UK.  His books, The Blood Detective and Blood Atonement follow geneologist for hire, Nigel Barnes as he assists the London police with investigations on cases that have a historical bent to them.  The living-history theme caught my attention, and the writing/storytelling kept it. 

It must be more than 2 years since Blood Atonement was published, and I've been haunting Chapters waiting for book 3 (there was a bit of lead in at the end of book 2 that I'm hoping he'll carry through).  Finally, fed up with passive activities, I started looking for info on book 3.  Thanks to social media, I've stumbled across a couple of answers regarding the delay.  From Waddell's Facebook page (

Dan Waddell  The third book will be released this Autumn. The format and method of its release is still to be decided. If that makes sense...  April 29 at 5:04pm

And then, a few months later:

Dan Waddell I am working as hard as I can on this - the books are done, just need an ******* publisher to get ***** in gear. The *******.  June 24 at 7:18am
Wait.  What?  Books?  Alright, I can stand the wait.  I get the feeling from these posts, and some other on-line writing that he's done, that there might be questions surrounding eReaders.  I certainly hope that his next works appear in paper - I like collecting books. 
I'm certainly looking forward to his next addition to my library - paper or electronic!

RIP Ariana Franklin

So, this was a morning where I was going to catch up and find out about the status of a bunch of book series that I enjoy and was looking forward to reading more of.  The following news took the wind out of my sails.  From (

Ariana Franklin aka Diana Norman passed away on January 27, 2011.  Franklin’s historical mystery series ended with a cliffhanger and thus the outcome of the series is unknown.   Franklin was 77 and had been ill and in the hospital. 

The Mistress of the Art of Death series has long been a favorite of mine.  I really identified with the main character, Adelia, and I was enamored with Rowley in a big bad way.  I wanted nothing more than to see them end up together.  At the end of A Murderous Procession, the reader is led to believe that there might be hope for the parted lovers, and Rowley is seriously injured.  Now the question will forever remain: would Rowley have lived, and would they have ended up together?

I was telling a friend about my love of these books and how much I looked forward to the 5th in the series, especially given the cliffhanger ending.  My friend's response was "I hate when author's do that!  I mean, what if she dies!?"  While I appreciate the irony, I would have appreciated the next book more.

RIP, Ms. Franklin.  You, and your tales, will be missed.

The Queen's Gamble by Barbara Kyle

I've been reading the Thornleigh series for quite a few years now.  The first book got off to a rocky start with me, but then I really enjoyed it.  The second book was great, but the third not so much.  I am look forward to the 4th however, since it focuses on Isabella and Carlos - who made book 2 pop so much. 

Below is a summary from Barbara Kyle's web page (

Young Queen Elizabeth I’s path to the throne has been a perilous one, and already she faces a dangerous crisis. French troops have landed in Scotland to quell a rebel Protestant army, and Elizabeth fears once they are entrenched on the border, they will invade England.

Isabel Thornleigh has returned to London from the New World with her Spanish husband, Carlos Valverde, and their young son. Ever the queen’s loyal servant, Isabel is recruited to smuggle money to the Scottish rebels. Yet Elizabeth’s trust only goes so far—Isabel’s son will be the queen’s pampered hostage until she completes her mission. Matters grow worse when Isabel’s husband is engaged as military advisor to the French, putting the couple on opposite sides in a deadly cold war.

Release date is listed as August 30 on Kyle's page, but Chapters has it as being the 23rd. 

Looking forward to reading it!

Update of September 1, 2011:

So, I've read it, and it was great!  Like I predicted, I enjoyed it because of the Carlos/Isabel story line.  I won't be including a full review of the work, since it is number 4 in a series, but I HIGHLY recommend that you pick it up.

Honourable mentions

I've been reading A LOT lately, but don't want to start writing reviews for books from the past.  So, here's a list of books you should just take my word on:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The Game of Thrones series by George RR Martin (I'm sure when the 6th book comes out, I'll have lots to say on the matter).
The Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlain Harris (look for reviews when I start re-reading the books).

Juliette, by the Marquis de Sade

Some months ago, while strolling through Chapters, an interesting title caught my eye – Juliette by the Marquis de Sade.  Ever since a friend and I spent one summer during high school watching the movie Quills over and over again, the topic of de Sade’s writing has been titillating.  I once brought home a collection of de Sade’s letters to his wife and mother-in-law to the horrified disgust of my dad.  Nothing in that volume was in the least sexual – rather they were penned by a man incarcerated for his mind, a mind which was increasingly spiraling out of control and waxed and waned between sharp satire and lonely desperation.  

My next encounter with de Sade came during a graduate seminar on the French Revolution.  We were asked to read a book about the psychology behind the Revolution, and the art(s) that it inspired.  Rather ham-fistedly, the author included a chapter on de Sade’s writings in the middle of the work.  It was a shocking review of de Sade for an academic text, as it including direct quotes and pictures.  I say it was a ham-fisted inclusion because the author never mentioned de Sade before, or after, the chapter on him.  None of the reviewers mentioned it either.  It was almost as if the chapter was an afterthought which the reviewers wouldn’t deign to acknowledge it.  

Having said all that, while in Chapters, I decided to go directly to the horse’s mouth, by-passing Geoffrey Rush and French academics, and read the words of the man himself.  I bought Juliette, and it promptly sat on a bookshelf in my apartment for over a year.  Last night, I pulled it down and gave it a brief read.  There are several comments on the work I think should be mentioned.

What first struck me was the writing style of the sexual scenes.  It was almost as if de Sade was a frat boy, recounting his sexual escapades to his buddies, with less and less honesty.  The tales become so big, so detailed, and so inflammatory as to remove any sincerity from him.  What then becomes apparent is that the sexual scenes lack all passion.  De Sade writes of disgusting, degrading, and horrendous sexual acts, but they’re the imaginings of a man who has no real desire within him.  They are chilly narratives that are too calculating to be titillating.  

What passion is committed to the page is geared towards de Sade’s distaste for the aristocracy and Church.  The only rise the author seems able to get out of himself is a description of the horrendous sexual acts committed by priests and cardinals, or by members of the French nobility.  From what I read, he distained his fellow nobles, but was disgusted by the members of the Church.  This contempt is fully realized in long-winded rants that go on for pages and pages, in uninterupted paragraphs, delivered (generally) by the characters who represent the aristocracy and/or Church.  These rants are rationals for libertinism which try a little to hard to be rational.  From depraved sexual description to mental masturbation?  The work becomes almost undreadable in multiple spots. 

On a whole, I am at a loss to understand why his contemporaries saw de Sade’s works as anything other than sloppy satire.  I understand the times and public moral codes that dictated to the people of the time how to react, but with the benefit of historical hind-sight, the French state handled de Sade incorrectly.  Juliette (and one can only imagine his other works are of a similar propensity) would best have been defeated by ignoring it.  It would have interested horny teenagers, the social gauche, and maybe a few brave souls, but had officials ignored it, it most likely would have been dismissed from the public consciousness as unimportant – for that’s what it is.  

De Sade’s work is the ranting of a disaffected man on paper.  I cast no judgment on the man himself, merely on his works.  Is it worth reading?  Certainly – all books are worth reading, even if they can’t be finished due to lack of interest, simply so one can have an opinion on them.  Is it worth lauding as a classic?  Certainly – because of the French state’s reaction to the works of de Sade, everything he’s written has a place in the annals of western literature.  Is it any good?  No, of course not – the writing style is readable, but the manner in which the story is presented is sloppy.  The reader can almost hear a breathlessly giggling de Sade urging them on like a child, saying ‘and then, and then, and then….’ 

Juliette holds a place in the zeitgeist because of its own history, not because of the quality of writing or the story itself; worth a peruse, not worth a read. 

Issue Zero

It's summer!  Well, summer's almost over, I know.  But, what I tend to do most during the summer is read.  And, now that I'm out of school, I have lots of time to read what I want, not what's forced on me.  So, I've decided to do something productive with all my reading time, and write short reviewes of what I read.  You'll find here my opinions on the works that I read.

A note on the Blog's title - I love books so much that I collect them as most women collect shoes.  Consequently, I'm currently up to 8 bookcases in my apartment.  It's getting a little cramped, but it's worth it.