Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling, by J.K. Rowling

I’ve made no secret of it – I think J.K. Rowling is one of the smartest, wiliest broads out there.  After writing one of the most successful book series in the history of western literature (if not the most successful), she could have just rested on her laurels and never written another word.  Rather, she recently published The Casual Vacancy which rocketed to the top of best seller lists.  Also recently, and very quietly, a book called The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith was published.  It was met with positive reviews by critics and other authors, but for the most part joined the mass market of books that are published every year without making much of a blip.  It wasn’t until new leaked that Robert Galbraith was a pen name for J.K. Rowling that The Cuckoo’s Calling exploded on  the consciousness of most readers.  I read online that within a week of the news getting out that Rowling had published again, sales for The Cuckoo’s Calling exploded by 507,000% - since you couldn’t get a copy anywhere, I believe it.

What’s all the fuss about, you ask?  The Cuckoo’s Calling is the story of Cormoran Strike, former military police investigator turned private eye who has been hired by the brother of a childhood friend to investigate the death of Lula Landry, supermodel and media lightening rod, who purportedly through herself from the balcony of her penthouse apartment.  Strike, down on his luck in love, health, and money, takes the job at twice his usual rate in hope that it will turn his luck around.  What follows is Strike’s attempts to unwind a complex web of lies and secrets woven by almost everyone even remotely involved in Lula’s life.  The payoff of the plot, when it comes, is satisfying and interesting and a little out of left field; it was a great way to end a who-done-it mystery.

In terms of plot, the work is strong, but a plot has to be carried by capable characters.  Rowling doesn’t fail in that regards either.  Cormoran Strike is at once flawed and loveable, which makes for an engaging main character – suffering physically from his last tour of duty in Afghanistan, and emotionally from his last tour of duty with his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Strike is a good guy that finds himself in an unenviable position.  Regardless of that, he’s not one to wallow, and is constantly looking for forward movement in his life.  

The supporting characters in The Cuckoo’s Calling are equally strong; Robin, Strike’s temporary secretary is an adorably competent young woman who, at first blush, seems like she could be steam rolled, but proves that assessment wrong very quickly.  Lula herself, though the reader never ‘meets’ her, is a well developed and fleshed out character; the reader gets to trace her character development from age 16 to her death.  And for the other handful of secondary characters that either sit at the periphery of the main story, or are central too it, all are eminently believable and engaging, though some may not be likeable.

In terms of writing style, I find I have mixed impressions.  The writing style contributes to the relatively quick pace of the forward movement of the plot (there are lags), but it was almost as if Rowling had been watching some film noir while writing her exposition passages – they’re full of boarder-line cheesy analogies and similes that don’t add to the feel of the book, but rather detract.  While a hell of a lot stronger than The Casual Vacancy, this book is definitely missing the spark of the Harry Potter series.  

A last nit-picky word on the book itself.  When I order this work on-line, it was implied the work was sold out and Chapters was waiting for new copies from the publisher (understandable with a 507,000% spike in sales), so I knew the publisher was doing another print run.  I figured that would mean they’d have another chance to fix some typographical mistakes – not so.  There is an instance of repeating a word, and several instances of mistakes with punctuation.  If the publisher had enough time to switch out the previous author’s biography (which paints a picture of Robert Galbraith as a real person) in favour of an explanation that Galbraith is a pseudonym for Rowling, you think they would have cleaned up the rest of it.  Well, since the cat’s out of the bag, you’ll notice that this post identifies the author as Rowling and not Galbraith; lets be honest with each other on that point.

So, final verdict?  Of course, it’s read this book.  Once again, Rowling has contributed in a wiley way to the public zeitgeist.  The Casual Vacancy wasn’t very well received, so she got sneaky with her publishing intentions and found a new and interesting way of presenting the world with her efforts, and I have no doubt that she’ll be turning this book into a series.  While the book itself is strong and interesting in and of itself, I would recommend you read if for the simple fact that it’s now a significant piece of the western literary history, and there’s no point being left behind on this one.  

Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Crowning Mercy, by Bernard Cornwell and Susannah Kells

One of the biggest contributing factors to my decision to study History in university was a series of British TV movies from the 90s – the Sharpe series, staring Sean Bean, and based on the novels of Bernard Cornwell.  My dad got me interested in them, and I always figured I’d end up doing my Masters’ thesis on some aspect of the Peninsular War (it ended up being about the Empire, but close enough), and I recently named my kitten Wellington, in no small part thanks to my interest in Waterloo and the time period.  In retrospect, so many of my life choices resulted from a series of books written by Bernard Cornwell that I should either thank him profusely or blame him unashamedly (jury’s still out on that one).  It’s surprising then, that until this week, I had never actually read one of Cornwell’s books for myself.  I rectified that oversight with A Crowning Mercy by Cornwell and Susannah Kells.

A Crowning Mercy is set in England during the Civil War between the Royalists and Protestant factions (in the 17th century).  The main character, Dorcas Slythe, has been raised in a Puritan household, but suffered cruelly her family’s attempts to curb her spirit.  By accident, Dorcas meets Toby Lezander and falls madly in love, prompting her to run away from home.  When she leaves home, Dorcas, now calling herself Campion after the flower, is caught up in the wider world she had always been sheltered from, including unscrupulous politicians, the on-going war, and her own secret past.  It’s a hard place for a naïve country girl to find herself in, and the book is about her struggles to find happiness with Toby.

I had two negative impressions on this work.  First, was that Campion and Toby were incredibly naïve and even though they lived through hardships that should have taught them better, they still exhibited some resistance to the idea of growing up.  Second, the plot line related to Campion’s secret past seemed a little far-fetched.  It all came together in a suspenseful and interesting way, but the premise seemed a little bit out there.

Regardless of this, on a whole, this book is extremely well done.  It’s fast paced, built on a dynamic and interesting period of history, and peppered with engaging and dynamic characters.  It’s part romance, part historical fiction, and wholly enjoyable.  I’m already looking forward to reading the sequel, and other works by Cornwell.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It’s one of those works about British history that isn’t based in the Tudor period, which seems to be rare these days.  More than that, it’s accessible to those that aren’t well versed in the British history of the period, and doesn’t rely heavily on battle scenes and political discourse to advance the plot.  I am interested, however, in reading more written by Cornwell without a partner, to see how much of my enjoyment of the work is in him as an author, or in the partnership.  That said, I’m still looking forward to adding Cornwell to my list of authors whose books I snatch up.

The Lily Bard Mysteries, by Charlaine Harris

For me, summer is all about reading book series.  There’s nothing more relaxing than being able to look at a giant pile of books on the corner of my coffee table, and know how I’m going to spend free time on evenings and weekends.  I seem to be able to dedicate more enthusiasm and brain power to series in the summer than at other times of the year.  The last two summers, my focus has been on Charlaine Harris’ True Blood series.  But, given that the last book isn’t out in paper-back yet, I decided to forgo a re-reading this summer in favour of another Harris series, this time it was the Lily Bard Mysteries: Shakespeare’s Landlord, Shakespeare’s Champion, Shakespeare’s Christmas, Shakespeare’s Trollop, and Shakespeare’s Counselor.  

Lily Bard is the survivor of a horrifically violent sex crime; in order to distance herself from that chapter of her life, Lily moved to the small town of Shakespeare in hopes of living a safe and quiet life.  When we first meet Lily in Shakespeare’s Landlord, she’s witnessing the disposal of a body; from that point on, Lily’s quiet and unnoticeable life is over.  Each book in the series revolves around crimes that Lily seems to be a peripheral witness too, but that eventually sucks her in to help solve because of her need to see justice done.  
Having been a fan of Harris’ for quite some time, I was looking for her usual device of the supernatural in these books, and yet there is none.  It’s refreshing to see that Harris is a wonderful author that can develop plots and characters without relying on a crutch, such as the supernatural.  Rather, the plots are developed through the creation of strong characters and face-paced writing that never lags.  While these books aren’t long (I read three in a day), they are well crafted and never come up short.

I think what Harris does so well is to create characters with believable quirks and personalities.  Lily, for example, is hiding from her past by taking menial jobs around town, but in her spare time, she’s something of a gym rat, always lifting weights and attending karate classes.  Harris takes an exceptional history, lays over it a mundane daily life, peppers that with extraordinary circumstances, and the end result is a dynamic, interesting, believable and engaging character.  

Regardless of her current use of the supernatural (which she does extremely well), I think the real skill that Harris has as an author is her ability to create characters.  In all the books of Harris’ that I’ve read so far, Lily Bard included, she has yet to create a character that I didn’t find believable and engaging on some level. 

So, final verdict?  Read these books.  They are well written, interesting, and dynamic.  If you’re looking for a great summer read, then I can’t recommend the Lily Bard series, or any of Harris’ books enough.

See my review of Harris' True Blood series here.
See my review of Harris' Harper Connelley series here.

Children of England: The Heirs of Kings Henry VIII, 1547-1558, by Alison Weir

With all the hoopla surrounding the royal birth, I was inspired this week to read up on some British history and, sitting on my shelves for quite some time was Children of England: The Heirs of Kings Henry VIII, 1547-1558, by Alison Weir.  This seemed like a great time to get to it.

Alison Weir is a fabulous historian and author who has done what few can and have done; she’s bridged the gap between professional and public writing.  It’s the dream of all historians to be able to write and publish books that are both snapped up by the general reading public and are well received by their peers.  Weir seems to have cracked the code and done just that.  Not only is she a well-respected non-fiction writer, but she’s also written several fiction books that are also popular.

In Children of England, Weir sets out to tell the story of the relationships between Edward IV, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, who are the children and heirs to Henry VIII and his politics.

Mary was the daughter of Henry and Katherine of Aragon, and was the only surviving child of that marriage.  When Henry realized sons would be forthcoming, he divorced Katherine and married Anne Boleyn, who gave him Elizabeth; more children (including sons) might have come along, but Henry was fed up with Anne and divorced her and had her beheaded.  Edward, the long-sought after son, was the fruit of Henry’s next marriage to Jane Seymour.  Jane Grey, however wasn’t a child of Henry’s – she was the daughter of the daughter of Henry’s sister, and was raised a devout Protestant. 

When Henry died, he left behind a will that had been ratified by Parliament; Edward was his successor, but Mary and then Elizabeth would follow him if Edward didn’t have any children, and in Elizabeth’s case, if Mary didn’t have any children.  It was all very dicey as Edward with a devout Protestant, Mary was a fervent Catholic, and Elizabeth was just trying to stay alive.  When Edward died before he could marry, the Protestant faction at court scrambled to find someone to step into the monarch’s role that wouldn’t tank the Protestant reformation that had been going on in England; the natural choice would be Jane Grey, who had a claim to the Tudor blood line and was legitimate (unlike Mary and Elizabeth, who had been declared bastards when their father divorced their mothers).  The Protestant faction at court put Jane on the throne for nine days following the death of Edward, but Mary was able to raise an army in her defense and re-took the throne quickly; when Mary died without heirs (not from lack of trying, and a couple of false positives), Elizabeth came to power.

That is a potted history of the situation.  In her work, Weir states that she’ll be looking at the relationship(s) between the four heir of Henry to see how they related and interacted with one another, and how that influenced their decisions and action.  While she does this for the first two-thirds of the work, her assessment of the personal dynamics ends after Mary comes to the throne.  In my mind, the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth after Mary comes to power but before her death is critically important – it sets up rational for many of the early policies of Elizabeth’s reign and the Golden Age in England.  And yet, in favour of a religious/political assessment of Mary’s reign, Weir overlooks it.  It was a serious misstep, in my opinion.

But, for the rest of the work, and even during that last third when she assesses Mary’s personal life, Weir delivers an interesting and engaging assessment of the personal histories of three ‘blink and you miss them’ monarchs, and one of England’s most successful queens.  The stories that Weir is able to extract from a disparate collection of sources (such as court reports, personal journals, and diplomatic letters) brings a level of personalization and almost gossip to the lives of her subjects, and humanizes them.  It’s interesting and a well-written account of the lives of four of England’s monarchs.

So, final verdict?  I’d say read this book.  For a historical biography, it demonstrates exactly why Weir is so well received in both professional and public spheres – it’s interesting and engaging, it rarely lags, and it does a good job at giving as personal an account as possible of four very important figures in Tudor history.  I enjoyed it, and I’ll be going back to Weir as an author for both fiction and non-fiction works for years to come.  

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris

Once again, the book graveyard in the laundry room of my building paid off.  This time, I picked up Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris.  I’ve already reviewed a work by Sedaris (Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls), and as Sedaris is an essayist, there’s really no point in going into a great amount of detail about this work, as it’s similar to Owls.

I will, however, give you a little taste of why I love this guy’s work so much:

On the topic of his apartment, Sedaris tells us that his landlord won’t sell it to him because he wants to keep it to give to his granddaughters as an inheritance some day.  Sedaris loves his apartment, and has this to say about the situation:

… I kept hoping for a miracle.  A riding accident, a playhouse fire: lots of things can happen to little girls.

Later on in the essay, while the apartment hunt continues, Sedaris suggests that maybe Anne Frank’s family was turned in so that an enterprising neighbour could take over their apartment which, with a little bit of remodeling work, would be great.

A little macabre?  Yes.  But my sense of humour?  Totally.

So, final verdict?  Read this book, and all the others that Sedaris puts out there.  It’s comic gold.

The Lincoln Lawyer Series, by Michael Connelly

When I was in high school, I was convinced I was going to be a lawyer.  Specifically, a Crown prosecutor.  I think a major contributing factor to this career path was Jack “Hang ‘em High” McCoy – the ADA character from Law and Order.  In McCoy’s world, right and wrong were clearly delineated and things were (for the most part) simple: bad guys went to jail for as long as possible and anyone who got in McCoy’s way would be held responsible in some part for the crime.  I have a very black and white world view – my boss comments on it all the time – so McCoy fit into that perfectly, and I was going to follow in his foot steps.

So what happened?  During the first year of my undergraduate degree, I bought a practice LSAT book.  I spend 15 or 20 minutes on the first question and was reduced to tears.  I couldn’t figure out what the question wanted, or how I was supposed to find an answer.  It’s taken me years, but I realize now that my thought processes just don’t accommodate the LSAT way of thinking.  Needless to say, the experience tanked my desire to practice law thoroughly.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy Law and Order or reading crime novels.  

All that brings me to my latest reads, the Lincoln Lawyer series by Michael Connelly.  Currently published are The Lincoln Lawyer, the Brass Verdict, The Reversal, and The Fifth Witness.  There’s a fifth book coming out later on this year. 

This series is centered around defense attorney Mickey Haller.  Mickey, as a character, is incredibly engaging.  He is charming, intelligent, and principled.  It’s hard to reconcile such a great guy with the role of a defense attorney; Mickey’s clients are drug dealers, gang members and murderers.  And yet, because he is principled, he does his best for his clients within the existing system.  There are moments where Mickey has crises of conscious, but he always comes back from them with to two facts: 1- the justice system requires that the accused be given a fair and equal opportunity to present their case, and 2- if he didn’t represent them, someone else will.  Mickey is incredibly likeable, even to the point that you can overlook the fact that he’s a defense attorney which, until I read these books, I always considered to be the worst of the worst of society.

Each book in the series focuses on a particular case that Mickey is working.  This gives the reader a chance to view how a defense attorney might put together everything from a jury box, to a witness list, to an alternate theory.  Not all books hit on all aspects of a defense attorney’s role with the same level of details, but each book provides the insight required to reach the verdict for the client, and it’s indicative of Connelly’s deft hand that he’s not repetitive in each book.

In terms of writing style, Connelly is fabulous.  The books are fast paced, all the characters are strong, and the dénouement is fluid and believable.  One of my favorite aspects to the books are the side stories to the main event – written in the first person, Mickey often tells the readers stories about his past experiences or other case he’s heard of that are ridiculously hilarious.  These become insights to the larger legal system, and while they don’t always develop the plot, they are lighthearted additions to the books.

The fact that the voice of the books is the first person is, I think, what makes them so engaging and interesting.  It helps tremendously with the character development of Mickey and it adds to his charm and panache.  In The Reversal, Connelly switches between the first person narration of Mickey and a third person narration of Harry Bosch (one of his other famous characters) to tell the story, and I think the book (and series) suffers immensely from this decision – it’s still well written, it’s still interesting, but it’s missing that spark that the other books in the series have.  It had the potential of being the most interesting case that Mickey tackles (and the most interesting way he tackles a case ever), but that potential was lost in splitting the readers’ attention.  Regardless, I won’t hold it against Connelly.

So, final verdict?  (Ha ha!  I just realized what I did there….)  I’d say read these books.  They are great beach-blanket reading for the summer, and a great escape for the rest of the year.  Who knows, maybe like me, these books will give you a new perspective on what it means to be a defense attorney.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

**Spoiler Alert – I give away a minor plot point.  In my defense, you’ve had more than 150 years to read this book.**

Remember Wishbone?  For those amongst you who were never introduced to the joys of the Wishbone television show, Wishbone was a dog who liked to tell stories based on great pieces of literature.  Inevitably, Wishbone himself would play a part in the telling of the story – what really stands out in my mind is the canine Odysseus.  But I digress, and bring us back to my purpose here today.  During the time that Wishbone was on the air, I took a serious interest in classical works.  I usually couldn’t get through any of them, but I still tried.  In that spirit, my dad took me to the Chapters store on Rideau (I remember it being one of my first trips there!) and bought me The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, to read.  It promptly sat on my bookshelf though three moves, and I didn’t get around to reading it until this week.  Sorry Dad.

Onwards….  The plot: This is the story of one Dorian Gray to whom the reader is introduced while he is in his young and impressionable 20s.  Gray is sitting for a portrait being created by his friend Basil, and while there, he meets Basil’s friend Lord Henry.  Henry takes great delight in being a dilatant with few exhibited morals and cares for those around him, and takes great delight in impressing this way of life on Gray.  Upon the portrait’s completion, Gray laments that it will continue to be a beautiful testament to his youth while he’ll grow old overtime; in a Freaky Friday kind of thing, he wishes that the portrait would grow old while he stays young.  It’s not until later, after he breaks the heart of a young actress, leading to her suicide, that he notices that the portrait takes on the physical imprint of the things he does in his life, while he retains his youthful charm.  Here I’ll leave off with a summary of the plot, as things move into climax and dénouement, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for anyone.

So there – it took me about a paragraph to give you the plot.  One would wish that Wilde also learnt to be a bit more concise.  This novel suffers from what a lot of Georgian/Victorian novels suffer from – an author with a social agenda and a penchant for moralizing.  For those that aren’t familiar with Wilde, he lived one of the worst kept secrets in London – namely that he was gay.  He was a well received author and whit however, which kept some of the negative censure at bay for his lifestyle during the famously repressive Victorian age, but he still faced criticism and austerized.  The Picture of Dorian Gray reads like an indictment of the life styles of those who hounded Wilde.  For those not knowledgeable about nineteenth century London and its society (or for those who don’t care), this book is a slog.  I’m pretty sure that a judicious editor could get this story in under 50 page if they really tried.  Many times, I found the moralizing to be just too much – I didn’t find it interesting and it distracted from the rest of the work.

As for the other points I usually hit on in a review: in terms of writing style, it’s good, but the moralizing gets in the way.  More, character development is hampered by the moralizing as well; for a story based completely on one man’s journey from impressionable youth to hurtful bon vivant, there’s not a lot of character development that isn’t wrapped up in the moralizing; consequently, it gets lost.

So, final verdict?  Find an abridged version of this story.  There’s no need to read it in its entirety.  If you’re interested in reading Wilde’s work, why not try some of his plays, which are funny and full of the whit he was renowned for (like The Importance of Being Ernest or A Woman of No Importance).  Or, if you have a friend who has a friend, get them to revive Wishbone and have him cover it – it would end up being a lot more enjoyable that way….

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

You know those movies that all your friends tell you are simply the funniest/scariest/best thing they’ve ever seen, so you just have to see it for your self?  You build up your perception of the movie until it’s of Oscar-worthy proportions, but then you see it and, while it’s good, it falls a little flat?  That’s how I would describe my experience with my latest read, The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker.  That is not to say I didn’t enjoy this work – I absolutely did! – just that I was expecting something a little different.

The Golem and the Jinni is the story of two mystical creatures who, by happenchance, find themselves in turn of the century (nineteenth to twentieth, that is) New York.  The Golem had been built to be a wife for a Polish immigrant who died on the journey from Europe, while the Jinni is unexpectedly released from his prison (a copper oil jar) by a tinsmith.  The book tells the story of their efforts to fit into the immigrant societies they find themselves in, of their meeting and friendship, and finally of their efforts to find a permanent way to live with their true natures.

And that’s the key to this work – it’s all about the intrinsic nature of people (okay, and mystical creatures).  Are you meant to be subservient to someone, or create your own path?  Can you be happy in what you build for yourself, or will you live is a suspended state?  And at the centre of all this is the basic question I think we all ask ourselves from time to time - are you good at heart, or evil? 

Wecker, in some ways, blew me away with this book; keep in mind that this is her first novel.  First of all, her method of describing the history and nature of her characters is incredibly enjoyable; I think some of the best written and most interesting passages are the biographical ones where she gives us the history of her characters.  Secondly, the writing style is fast-paced and enjoyable; at no point does it lag.  Finally, Wecker’s ability to bring all the disparate pieces of her story (that is to say, the characters themselves) together into a well-balanced and well-crafted plot is amazing; like the Jinni’s love of fine filigree work, Wecker’s own story is held together by small strands that run throughout each character’s tale – those strands are delicate and beautifully worked, and contribute to the whole in such a way that they add to the overall pleasure of the read.

On a practical front, it’s interesting to read about mystical characters that aren’t angst-y sparkly teenagers.  A golem is a monster from Jewish mythology that is built of clay and intended to be bound to a master to do their bidding; a jinni is a creature much like our modern impression of a genie (but with more nuances).  While the shelves of the local book stores are stuffed with vampires, wolf men, and zombies, Wecker found a way to buy into the supernatural craze in a wholly unique way, for while I think she deserves some serious kudos.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  It’s a joy to read and a well-written piece of literature which, I’m sure, is going to be on a lot of lists for this year.  However, don’t let yourself be sold by the hype like I did, or else it might not live up to your expectations.  Wecker’s abilities, however, are great, and I’ll be looking for more of her work in the future; I think she’s an author I’m going to be enjoying for years to come.  

White Rose Rebel, by Janet Paisley

My latest read, White Rose Rebel, by Janet Paisley, has been sitting on one of my book shelves for years.  Several times, I picked it up, read the book flap, and considered sitting down with it, but never did.  Clearly, my good sense wasn’t wasted.

There is nothing wrong, per say, with this book.  It has an interesting plot centered around the 1745 Scottish rising against the English; there are a handful of interesting characters; and the writing style is readable.  But it’s missing something – it’s missing a spark.  I don’t know if the lack should be laid as my feet (in that I just wasn’t feeling it), or if there really is something missing here that other would pick up.

To be fair, the first two-thirds of the books could use some judicious editing.  The problem, though, is I can’t put my finger on what it is that should come out.  It all seems to contribute to the plot, the characters are well represented, and it reads quickly enough, but I just didn’t find it that interesting.

So, final verdict?  If you’re interested in eighteenth century Scottish history (particularly the rising of the clans and the Battle of Culloden), then this is a book for you.  Otherwise, I’d recommend you skip this one.  That, or read it, and point out what it is that I’m missing!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

New Look for Eight Bookcases!

So you might have noticed that things look a little different around here than before!  With my blog's anniversary coming up, I wanted to do something to celebrate and, since I'm off on vacation this week, I thought 'what a good time to drive myself crazy with the minutia of a re-design!' 

I enjoy the cleaner and more personalized look, and I hope you do to!

Happy reading!

For the King, by Catherine Delors

I should probably mention at this point that I’m on a vacation from work.  However, since I work for a Not for Profit, money’s tight and I can never seem to afford to get away.  But I’m okay with that, since it gives me an opportunity to have a staycation, where I get to stay home and catch up on my reading and blogging!  That’s why there’s so many posts going up these days, and it’s likely to continue for the rest of the week.

So, that brings me to my latest read, For the King, by Catherine Delors.  For the King is the story of Roch Miquel, a young police officer in Napoleon Bonaparte’s early Paris.  Roch is working to determine who it was that planned to assassinate Bonaparte on Christmas Eve 1800 with a bomb as he made his way to the opera (which actually did happen).  Roch’s investigation involves a complex web of politics, personal ambitions, and his own personal life.

I found this book to be ho-hum.  It was fast paced enough, but it just wasn’t engaging.  Roch, as a main character, had some serious flaws that were hard to overlook.  Worst of all, I didn’t find him to be very well developed to buy into his ending.  The secondary characters had no development at all – we were just asked to accept them as they were without understanding really where the came from.  Admittedly, Delors was working largely from a cast of real people, but still…. a little more insight into her characters would have been appreciated.

In the author’s historical note, Delors claims that the investigation into the assassination attempt was the first modern police investigation.  I have read this claim about different cases so often that I now doubt it every time I do see it.  If that was the case, why didn’t Delors play on that theme more in the work?  It seemed like Roch’s actions were well understood and accepted, and his superiors didn’t questioned him – so had he always worked like that?  If so, than all his previous cases would have been done with modern techniques.  Maybe Delors made this claim to justify why her work reads like a script for one of the CSI television shows; I wouldn’t have been surprised if, at any point, we were informed that Roch slowly removed his sunglasses while making a pithy witticism about one of the victims…  I’ll admit this isn’t my historical area of expertise, but it seems to me that there were a lot of historical anachronisms that Delors included into her investigation.

So, final verdict?  Feel free to skip this one.  It’s a quick read, but it’s not really worth the time and effort.  

The Amityville Horror, by Jay Anson

If you ask my parents to give you a potted history of my childhood, I’m sure they’d eventually come to the part where I was a bundle of nerves that could never watch a horror movie, or hear a scary story, without being reduced to tears at bed time.  Some of my most poignant childhood memories involve being unable to close my eyes in the dark for fear of the things that go bump in the night.  Oddly enough, my concerns were never about the earthly boogiemen, it was always fear of those things supernatural (except for Robert Stack – I was terrified of Robert Stack).  So, I learnt how to work around these fears; I never watched scary movies or read scary books, I crawled into bed with my parents (when they would let me), and the rest of the time I’d put on a brave face during the day and cry at night.  As a grown-up, you’d think this fear would have been alleviated; not so.  For the most part, I still avoid scary movies and TV shows about ghosts and other things supernatural.  But, while reading Northanger Abbey, the main characters are fanatical for gothic ghost stories, and it encouraged me to pick up one of our own modern ghost story to give it a try: The Amityville Horror.

The Amityville Horror is the story of the Lutz family who, in December 1975 moved into a beautiful home on Long Island at 112 Ocean Avenue.  The history of 112 was a bit of a mixed bag; the book purports that it had been built on an Indian burial ground/insanity ‘hospital’, and in more modern times, it had been the site of the grisly murders of the DeFeo family in 1974.  When the Lutz family bought the home, they weren’t concerned with any of this, but were instead thrilled with the rock-bottom price the house was being offered for.  Shortly after moving in, however, strange and unsettling things began to happen – inanimate objects were moving around, the Lutz family began experiencing personality changes, apparitions were seen, strange noises were heard, and foul odors were unexpectedly be smelt.  Through all this, the book also tells the story of a priest who, as a family friend, blessed the home with the Lutz’s moved in; he also experiences unsettling phenomenon, such as ill-health, dangers, and a personality change.  Throughout the Lutz’s residence at 112, the situation quickly deteriorates to the point where the Lutz’s fear for the physical safety of themselves and their children, and so they abandon the house after a 28 day residency.

The Lutz family’s story is one that has captivated modern pop-culture since it first emerged; the book itself had gone through 21 individual printings in the first three years after it was published, it’s been the inspiration for several movies, and with the advent of the internet, it’s been the subject of many web pages, some that debunk it and others that support the claims made by the Lutz family.

So, while the book itself makes repeated claims that it tells a true story, the question remains – did the events at 112 Ocean Avenue really happen as George and Kathy Lutz tell us they did, or were the Lutz’s looking for a pay-day?  Many of the conspiracy theorists seem to have found some rock-solid facts to dismiss a lot of the assertions made in the book; claims of foul weather and snow aren’t substantiated by the local meteorologists, reported calls to the police and the priest who original blessed the home have been denied by those individuals, and neighbours report nothing out of the ordinary happened while the Lutz’s lived in the area.

Now, far be from me to deny another person’s truth.  If the Lutz’s truly believed that these events happened to them, then maybe they did.  However, when you start reading about how the story and book came together, I start having doubts; apparently, the Lutz’s never worked directly with the book’s author, Jay Anson, rather, they sent him hours of audio tapes that recount the events.  In my opinion, when you’re trying to get an accounting of events out of people, they should be separated so you can compare stories – rather, George and Kathy collaborated on the audio tapes, each telling their story, each supporting and validating the other’s account, and finally agreeing on a series of events.  I don’t think we can discount the psychological ability for humans to accept as fact suppositions when they are supported by a second person.  However, Shakespeare’s words,There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” ring true as well – something might have happened in that home; whether it all happened as the Lutz’s purported it to, or if it was built upon during the recounting, I can’t say.

So, final verdict?  I’d say read this book.  It’s a massive piece of our modern literary tradition.  However, if, like me, you’ve got a fear of things that go bump in the night, this one might not be for you.  You would think, at my age, I’d be able to get over my fears.  But, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I had a hard time falling asleep the last couple of nights – I kept having the urge to open my eyes to make sure nothing untoward was in my room with me….

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

Fun fact: even though I live in downtown Ottawa (the national capital of Canada), I hate going to Parliament Hill for the Canada Day celebrations on July 1st.  It’s usually too hot, too crowded, and the government department that plans the show on the Hill is apparently either high or grossly out of touch with the average Canadian.  So, in light of all this, I’ve developed my own Canada Day tradition; I generally read until 6pm-ish, then I’ll watch the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice.  Having just recently read P&P, I was inspired to pick up another Austen work, and settled on Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine Morland.  Catherine, as might be expected from an Austen work, is a young woman on the look out for a husband she could love.  After accompanying a family friend to Bath, Catherine becomes fast friends with Isabelle and is introduced to her brother John; Bath is also where Catherine meets Mr. Tilney, and almost immediately falls in love.  However, John (who’s kind of a douche.  No, wait, he’s a douche), fancies himself as the prime contender for the roll of Catherine’s husband, and does what he can to upset the Catherine/Tilney apple cart.  In the mean time, Isabelle has fallen in love with James, Catherine’s brother, and accepts his proposal.  All this happens at Bath, but the climax and most of the dénouement of the novel happens at Northanger Abbey, the Tilney family home, where Catherine is invited to visit as Tilney’s sister’s friend.  It’s an Austen novel, so I’m sure you can guess the end, but there’s a minor twist in the climax of the story, so I won’t say any more here.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that this work had more of Austen’s innate sense of humour than my last Austen read, Mansfield Park.  Right off the bat, Austen opens with a tong-in-cheek assessment of her main character.  This frank and humourous bent continues throughout the entire work as Austen continues to introduce her other characters, who are in fact archetypes in the Austen/Georgian world; we have the pompous (John), the well-meaning (James), the dastardly character (Captain Tilney), and the true gentleman (Mr. Tilney), just to name a few.  Austen’s pen at once lambasts her characters and yet makes them all highly engaging, if not endearing.

While Austen is busy harpooning her characters, she’s also busy doing the same to herself as the author.  There are numerous passages where Austen mocks the contemporary novelist; this can distract from the plot, but it’s also quite telling of her own assessment of her chosen profession.  During my last year of undergrad, I wrote a seminar paper of the gender-dynamics of the Victorian author (of which Austen doesn’t quite fit, admittedly, with the time frame), and many of the complains and observations that Austen makes with her own words were supported with the research; novels were considered trite ways to pass time for uninformed women, novels gave women un-reasonable expectations of every-day life, and most damning of all, novels created in women an impression of the men in their lives that just weren’t reasonable.  Austen plays on all these criticisms with her characters, while also addressing them head-on.

So, final verdict.  Read this book.  It’s one of the few works that Austen left to the world, and it embodies so much of the classic Austen world-view that it’s worth the read.  While I’ve yet to find an Austen book that lives up to the Pride and Prejudice of it all, Northanger Abbey is a close second with its wit, characters, and self-awareness.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

About a year and a half ago, I took over a job from a young woman who was always portrayed to me as the cream of the crop – everything I did was compared to her and her abilities.  I’ve spent the last 18 months trying to live up to the expectations she set, and then trying to exceed them.  Finally, about a month ago, my Executive Director turned to me and said, “I think you did this better than she ever did.”  My heart almost stopped.  Finally!  So, maybe that’s why I related so much with my latest read, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.  So much so, that I think it’s fare to say that I have a new favorite book!  I wasn’t looking to add to my rotation of books to read every year of so, but I think I found one regardless.  Rebecca was a pleasant surprise in terms of writing style and plot.

A word on the plot: this book revolves around the de Winter family, specifically Maxim.  When we meet Maxim, he’s vacationing in Monte Carlo after loosing his wife (Rebecca) in a sailing accident.  While in Monte Carol, he meets a young woman who’s a paid companion to an older woman; they quickly fall in love, marry, and return to Maxim’s family estate of Manderley in England.  Maxim’s new wife, however, finds her fit at Manderley to be an awkward one – continually living up to the memory of Rebecca, all her natural insecurities and inabilities are magnified, and she feels like an unmitigated failure.  However, as she learns more about life at Manderley, it becomes clear that not all is as it seems….

So, that’s a little wishy-washy as far as a plot summary goes.  There are two reasons for that: 1 – I don’t like to ruin plots and the give-away is a great twist, and 2 – I can’t give you the name of the main character of this book (Maxim’s new young wife), because du Maurier never names her; it’s a brilliant piece of writing that she goes over 350 pages without giving her book’s narrator (because this is told in the first person) a name!  There’s a brief reference to it in the early chapters, but the only comment made is that it’s a unique name.  But that’s it.  Hats off to du Maurier for that slight of hand, because it doesn’t impact the flow of the book at all.

The more I think of this book, the more it comes as no surprise that I enjoyed it so much, as it parallels one of my all-time favorite books very closely – Jane Eyre.  Both are about young women who meet, love, and marry older men, then have to come into their own in order to fit in with their worlds.  I made the connection the first time by comparing Maxim and Rochester – on the surface, the comparison doesn’t stand, but the more you read, the more it does.  And, just like Jane Eyre, Rebecca is about a twisted love-triangle.  I found it wholly engaging. 

The love triangle at the heart of this book leads to a collection of wholly engaging characters.  Trying to figure out who is the ‘good guy’ and who is the ‘villain,’ I found myself rooting for some characters and disliking others, but in the end, coming to terms with all of them for who they were and what they did.  I think that’s the sign of a great book – when you have acceptance even for those characters whose actions hurt the ones you’re rooting for, it means you’ve been wholly engaged in the characters the author has created, and you’re enjoying your read thoroughly.  

In terms of writing style, at first I was a little turned off – there are long passages describing settings and plants, but I quickly realized that these passages were so well written that it was no burden to get through them.  In fact, it became a pleasure in and of themselves to have du Maurier describe her Manderley and surrounding areas in a such a compelling fashion.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It’s amazing.  I love it.  I read a borrowed copy, but the next time I’m at Chapters, I’ll be buying my own copy.  This one is going into rotation with Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland, no doubt.  

Oh, and one last word on why I think I love this book so much and can relate: the girl who I replaced at work?  No word of a lie, her name was Rebecca.

A Child Called It, by Dave Pelzer

With a title like A Child Called It, I think we can wrap this up with the final assessment: humanity sucks.

Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power, by Virginia Rounding

When I first read Anna Karenina, I was at the impressionable age of 15, and I became obsessed with all things Russian.  I finished AK, and immediately picked up biographical fiction on Catherine the Great, I watched the 1997 version of AK so much we all feared for the ability of the tape in the VHS to withstand my obsession (wow, talk about dating myself!), and when the Catherine Zeta-Jones biopic about Catherine was shown on History Television, it was appointment viewing for me.  Like all things at that age, I burned hot and fast for the Russkies, then things calmed down.  My decision to take Russian history and language classes in my undergrad was definitely influenced by that period in my life, and every so often, even today, I get the urge to read about Russian history.  And that’s what led me to my latest read, Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power, by Virginia Rounding.

Like most biographies of rulers, Rounding is stepping into some well-trod ground.  Beginning with a potted history of Catherine’s parents, and ending with a brief assessment of how Catherine’s immediate heirs handled taking over the Russian Empire from such a power-house ruler, Rounding’s assessment of Catherine’s life appears to be a tops-to-tails version.  (I freely admit this isn’t my area of expertise, so I don’t have an eye for any of the nuances.)

What, then, sets Rounding’s works apart from the countless other biographies on Catherine?  This work focuses mainly on Catherine’s own words to tell her story.  Catherine was a prolific author and a truly reasoned ruler; the results are a series of letters and writings that span the gamut from silly little love notes, to posterity writings, to formal diplomatic tracts.  It’s interesting to read Catherine’s words to her morganic husband, then pieces of correspondence to men like Voltaire, followed by her opinions as they were shared with the crown-heads of Europe.  Kudos to Rounding for collecting all these disparate pieces of evidence and bring them together, and breathing fresh life into a story that’s been told many times.

My one complaint is that Rounding hops from idea to idea without any sort of break to allow the reader to follow.  She’ll be going along swimmingly telling the reader about some aspect of Catherine’s life, then in the next paragraph (with no physical break, or a lead-in/introductory sentence) switch to a subject related to global politics.  These hops are very distracting, and become frustrating when they occur in quick succession.

All told though, this biography is exactly what I expected it too.  With the subtitle of Love, Sex, and Power, Rounding delivers.  So much of Catherine’s personal and professional history is wrapped up in brokering power dynamics between those she loved, those she slept with, and those who could bring her a measure of control in the Russian court.  It would be impossible to remove the power question from Catherine’s love life, and Rounding does a good job at demonstrating the balance that was created in the Court to accommodate this reality.

What this biography also did was set out to right a school-yard wrong done to Catherine by history.  Often times, when you ask someone who’s not well informed (about anything) what they know about Catherine, they’ll often give you a graphic summary of her sex life and how it led to her death; of course, I’m talking about that old stand-by story that Catherine died while having sex with a horse.  I myself often use that story to judge just how off-base (or dumb) a person is while talking about history.  I happen to agree with Rounding, who sees this rumour as almost a personal insult; intelligent people shouldn’t/don’t believe it, but it’s one of those rumours that persists, mainly (I think) because less intelligent people aren’t comfortable with attributing greatness to a woman like Catherine.  Okay, feminist rant over.

So, final verdict?  If you’re looking for an interesting write-up on Catherine, this is a good book.  While there are some flaws that can be hard to ignore, Rounding’s methods and primary documents are really quite interesting and offer a unique look at Catherine’s personal and professional life.  I’m not saying this perspective is enough to over-look the flaws in Rounding’s style, but I enjoyed it enough to power-through.  I guess what I’m saying, is that this isn’t a work for the casual reader – you don’t have to be obsessed with all things Russian to get through it, but it might take a bit more dedication than the average read to finish.