Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Devil's Beat, by Robert Edric

When browsing through the local Chapters, my latest read caught my eye then my attention; The Devil’s Beat, by Robert Edric, has a creepy-looking cover (yes, I judge books by the cover – we all do) and a interesting title; the write-up on the back was equally engaging, so I threw it into the pile of books I was getting, and headed for the check out.  All in all, it turned into something of a disappointment.

The Devil’s Beat tells the story of a small English town in 1910.  The main character, Merritt is sent to the town by his London bosses to head up an inquiry into claims that five girls (ranging in age from nine to fourteen) witnessed the Devil in the local forest.  All of this sounds like the makings for a ‘modern-day’ witch hunt and a really interesting plot.  And yet, for all the potential, this book fell flat.

Edric’s tale begins with almost no back story.  The only way I knew that it was 1910 and the story was occurring in England was because I read the back of the book; and, in fact, the year is only hinted at one, about 200 pages in.  There is no up-front explanation for who Merritt is, what his actual job is, or what his experience is; again, you only get that information in drips and drabs throughout the book.  Finally, the whole ‘we saw the Devil’ aspect of the story is never fully explained or acknowledged until almost 100 pages in – for the first third of the book, the reader is guessing at why Merritt is there and what is happening in the small town; if you hadn’t read the back of the book, I think you’d be lost.

Plot development aside, I have serious problems with the characters as well.  As mentioned, Merritt appears in the book with almost no back story; some of the supporting characters have a bit more context, but not much.  The other major problem I had with most of the major the characters was that they came across as bumbling fools; of the four-man panel that head up the inquiry into the girls’ claims, they all come across as incompetent and out of their league – Merritt included.  Finally, and possibly the biggest sin to someone like me for whom characters are of central importance to enjoying a book, there was no character development in the end.  Merritt, perhaps because we don’t know much about him at all, comes across as flat, the supporting cast don’t have a satisfactory conclusion, and the antagonist doesn’t see the error of their ways.  What I will give Edric is that his antagonist was a really interesting character, however, that character doesn’t appear much, and that aspect of the story is left hanging.  All in all, not very satisfying.

So, final verdict?  Skip this book.  The most interesting thing about it was the write up on the back, and then it falls flat.  Unfortunately, the write up in the back of my copy for another of Edric’s books looks really interesting, but now I’m gun-shy to read anymore of his work for fear of wasting my time.  I guess the moral of this review is that when the synopsis of your book is better than the book itself, you should probably hire a less talented synopsis writer.

The Thursday Next Series, by Jasper Fforde

When I find a book that I love, and it’s part of a series, you can bet big money that I’ll be rushing out to the local Chapters to pick up all the other books.  Finding a good series, one that I can sink my teeth into and really enjoy, is a treat, and something that doesn’t happen all that often.  So, after reading (and loving) The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, I immediately rushed out and picked up the rest of the books in the Thursday Next Series: Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, and The Woman Who Died a Lot.  (And I see there’s to be an eighth book – Dark Reading Matter, expected in 2015.)

Fforde’s Thursday Next universe is one that is remarkable similar to our own.  Thursday lives and works in Swindon, and the day-to-day niceties are all the same.  But Thursday’s world is one of time-travel, genetic splicing, and werewolves.  Thursday works for a branch of the British government that deals with literary crimes, has a pet dodo named Pickwick, and has a time-travelling father who has gone rogue and so was never technically born.

But, this is only Thursday’s life in our world.  What makes Thursday’s adventures so interesting and exciting is that she is able to jump into BookWorld; the world in which all books of fiction exist.  In BookWorld, the characters are living, breathing people, independent of their plot lines; settings are only in use when a book is being read; and all sorts of shenanigans and hijinks occur for which Thursday and the other agents of Jurisfiction are required to step in and police the goings on of the citizens of BookWorld.  It all sounds highly unbelievable, but when Fforde sets BookWorld in the terms of modern bureaucracy, it all becomes very relatable and understandable; somehow, he was able to create a fictional world that lives right under the readers’ noses.  And the meta-jokes.  So many meta-jokes.

Stepping into the Thursday Next universe takes two things: 1- suspension of disbelief, and 2- a sense of humour.  If you can bring both of these things to a reading of these books, you’re guaranteed to love them.  Thursday’s adventures, and the people that populate them, are all highly unbelievable and at first I wasn’t sure if I could fully buy into them.  But by the end of book two, they become de rigueur; at some point, it becomes completely understandable and acceptable that croquet is the world’s favorite sport, that minotaurs dress in trench-coats and drop pianos on people, and that dodos just can’t be taught to stand on one leg, no matter how many marshmallows you offer them.

So, final verdict?  I loved these books, and so I would highly recommend them.  Fforde’s writing style is highly accessible, his characters are incredibly engaging, and his plots are unique, innovative and enjoyable.  If you’re the type of person that enjoys a quirky read, then these books are for you.  Fforde’s got several other books out (and a couple from a new series), and I’ll definitely be picking them up in the near future.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

AJ Jacobs Chooses His Own Adventure Interview!

CYOAI is an interview series with authors, where I send them 10 questions, and ask them to answer whichever they feel inspired to tackle.  The questions are generally about the author's opinions and personal experiences, but are meant to be light-hearted and a window into a person's creative nature.

This month's interview features AJ Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy! A big thank you to AJ for humouring me in answering my questions!  Let's see what his answers were!

What's your first book/reading/writing-related memory?
It was terrified of the book "Are You My Mother?" Childhood is stressful enough. I didn't need to read about an abandoned bird. 
Have you ever gotten a book hangover from a book?  
(A book hangover being a feeling of being unable to start another read because you're still wrapped up in the last one.)
I've gotten hangovers from writing books, where I've never wanted to write again.  But reading? It's too much of a pleasure. 
Is there one word or turn of phrase that you've felt compelled to work into your writing?
I'm a fan of the word vainglorious. I'm not even sure I've ever used it in writing till that previous sentence, but I've been a longtime fan. 
What book by another author do you wish you had written?
I'm jealous of Josh Foer, who wrote Moonwalking With Einstein. It's about how he became the memory champion of the United States. Of course, writing that would have necessitated such feats as memorizing the order of four randomly-shuffled decks of playing cards, which I'm not quite sure I could accomplish. Or pretty sure I couldn't. 
Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
I often force myself to spend 15 minutes brainstorming every day. I know that forced creativity sounds paradoxical -- but it works! 
(I wrote about it here )
Do you reread books?  If so, which ones?
I have the opposite problem. I have trouble finishing books because there are so many other ones I want to start. I'm monogamous in my marriage, but quote a philanderer in my reading habits. 
If you weren't a writer, what would you do as a profession?
I'd be the social media director for Praeger's, makers of delicious spinach pancakes. Highly recommended! 
What's your opinion on Shakespeare?
I might come off as a rampallian (aka a "mean wretch," I had to look it up too), but I'm only a partial Shakespeare fan. I love his use of language and his tragedies. But his comedies? I'm sure they were groundbreaking in their day, but now it just seems like a Three's Company episode -- mistaken identities, men dressed as girls, lots of puns. 
Use the word 'margarine' in a sentence.
Margarine is vainglorious. 
If you could only read OR write for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
I'd have to say write. Since, at least for now, until the publishing model implodes, I make my living that way.

**If you’re an author that would like to participate in the Choose Your  Own Adventure Interview series, please contact me at**

Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

There is nothing more satisfying to an intrepid reader such as myself than picking up a brick of a book, and working your way through it.  To me, reading is as much a tactile event as a mental event, and my last read, Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell, is certainly a satisfying read in terms of heft, but not much else…

Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson and the intimates in her life.  Set in Regency England (think Jane Austen’s time-period), Molly is the daughter of the physician that services her village and the surrounding areas.  Molly’s mother died when she was very young, and so she was raised by her father and the long-term domestic staff he employed.  As she grows older, Mr. Gibson realizes he’s woefully inadequately prepared to raise a young woman, and so marries the former governess of the local Earl’s household.  The story of Wives and Daughters revolves around Molly’s relationship with the new Mrs. Gibson, her friendships with the other town’s people, her relationship with her new step-sister (Cynthia), and the new sisters’ quest for love.

In a lot of ways, this book was an enjoyable read because it reminded me of the things that I love in Jane Austen’s work.  The dialogue was quick-moving, the characters were a hodge-podge of the sympathetic and ridiculous, and the daily lives of Regency women were dynamically presented.  And yet, this is a big book that could have used some judicious editing; while all the pieces come together, as I was reading it, I was wondering why Gaskell was taking so long in telling her story.

And the telling of that story wasn’t what I expected.  For a book entitled Wives and Daughters, one would expect the plot to revolve around how the woman in the story interact with the paternalistic figure(s) in the book.  To a certain extent, that dynamic existed, but it was overshadowed by the relationships between the women; a much better title would have been “Mothers and Sisters.”  But I suppose that goes to the era in which Gaskell was writing – as the wife of a Reverend in Victorian England, she brought her world view to bear on how she interpreted her own work.  It’s something of a shame, really.

Other than these flaws in the back-ground noise of the book, I found the characters to be dynamic, the book’s a fast read (despite the social moralizing), and the plot is interesting.  My one complaint about the book is the ending – it leaves the reader hanging; Gaskell could have taken another 20 pages to round-up all her loose ends, but instead she leaves the story unsatisfyingly unfinished.

So, finally verdict?  I’m not entirely sure.  I enjoyed reading the book, but in retrospect (and after writing this review), I’m wondering why I enjoyed it so much.  I know I’m interested in reading more of Gaskell’s works, so that’s something.  But would I recommend this one?  If you’re a die-hard fan of Jane Austen, then yes – I think you’ll enjoy this book.  If you’re looking for a satisfying read in terms of tactile experience (which all die-hard readers enjoy occasionally, I think), then yes – this one would be for you.  But if you’re looking for a light-hearted romp through Regency England, then no – I would pass on this one.  

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

When I was in my mid-teens, I discovered Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  It quickly became a favorite book of mine, and one that I read every year or so in the spring time (it’s become part of my personal literary tradition).  So, while wandering through Chapters, my eye was immediately drawn to my latest read, The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, and my curiosity was peaked.  I know the story of JE so well, that I’m always curious to see how others view it, and how they would use in for inspiration.

The Eyre Affair is set in 1980s England in a historical stream very different from the one we lived through; in Fforde’s world, the Crimean War is entering its 132 year, the state bureaucracy is built on almost 30 levels of Special Operative departments, werewolves and vampires wander amongst the people, time travel is de rigueur, and a whole host of other pieces of our known history have change (notably, those pieces related to Churchill, Wellington, the Nazis, etc).  The main character in The Eyre Affair is Thursday Next, a LiteraTech, that is a SpecOps-27, one of the bureaucratic cogs assigned to crimes against literature; fraud, forgeries, misrepresentations, etc.  When a copy of the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit goes missing, Next is called in to investigate.  What follows is an adventure in time and (literary) space as Next works to protect the beloved literary work Jane Eyre from a mad-man who is bent on reeking havoc for the sake of having some fun.

This book is so far from the average read (in many ways) that it is almost indescribable.  To start off with, Fforde has taken such a very non-flappable approach to rewriting our shared history that he has to be commended; I found it completely believable that dodo birds have become a popular personal pet, no matter what genetic splicing accident they were afflicted with.  Not only did Fforde mess with the readers’ accepted reality of history, he also bent our understanding of the physical world; an invisible car?  Sure.  Totally believable.  But what I appreciated the most was Fforde’s creation of a society that placed such a high premium on its literary tradition.  An entire government department (with regional offices!) dedicated to ensuring the consistency and veracity of literature?  I would happily live in a world where time vortexes can open up on a freeway if I could live in a culture that so treasured the written word so much.  This ability to capture the imagination of the reader is capped off with an unctuous writing style; almost like the whipped cream on a slice of pie, the foundations of the book are strong, but accented by the skills of the writer in forming beautiful turns-of-phrase and chains-of-thought.

While the plot and writing style are unique, where Fforde really hits his stride is in creating his characters.  Thursday Next is a no-nonsense operative with a whole host of skills at her disposal, and a whole host of baggage that comes with her everywhere which she can’t seem to shake.  Her nemesis, Acheron Hades, would be a lovable rogue, if he weren’t so bent on creating havoc and destruction for no purpose other than to live up to his name.  Next’s coworkers, family and friends all have their own personal backgrounds, history, and quirks that, while not fully explained, are presented so calmly and clearly, that you feel like you know their personal histories without actually having been given anything of the sort.  Most interestingly of all, however, is the way that Fforde makes literary characters come to life.  I won’t say more on that aspect of this book, but trust me – it’s amazingly, creatively, and uniquely done.

So, final verdict?  Oh my god, read this book.  This book was a real book-hangover read for me; I’m still trying to extract myself from the world that Fforde has created.  A large part of my wants to rush over to my local Chapters and pick up the rest of the books in the series, and that’s definitely something I’ll be doing this week.  And what higher recommendation can I give?  In a world where we’re all busy to the extreme (and have no ChronoGaurd to help us sort things out), I’m desperate to give away my time and money to spend more time in the world that Fforde has created.  I can’t say it enough: go out, and read this book!

The Maid, by Kimberly Cutter

When I was 16, my mom and I took a bus tour around France.  One of the stops was in Rouen; a city whose claim to fame is being the location when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake for being a witch by the invading English force.  What do I remember most about this stop on our vacation?  We had a lovely lunch at a crepe restaurant, and wandered past a rather small memorial to Joan in a city square.  At the time, it was just a passing activity during a full week of passing activities.  But even at 16, I was interested in (English) history, so what I took away from the stop was that the English had been really ambitious, and had managed to penetrate very deeply into France.  But after that, I stopped thinking about the 100 Years War, Joan of Arc, and Rouen.  It never figured into any of my studies in University, so when I found my latest read The Maid, by Kimberly Cutter, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about the facts behind the legend of Joan of Arc.

For those (like me) who know/knew little about Joan’s story, here’s a potted history: this was an era in France of great unrest; the English were invading from the north, and the Burgundian forces were marauding out of the Paris area.  To further complicate the national issues, the crown wasn’t settled firmly on anyone; the French king had gone mad, his wife was accused of various crimes against decency, and the rightful heir was forced to flee Paris by the Duke of Burgundy and so was living as a ‘pretender,’ surrounded by a court of self-serving noblemen.  Jehanne d’Arc was growing up in the country-side during this time of uncertainty, and found a great deal of comfort from her time spent in prayer.  One day, Jehanne experienced a holy visitation from the arch-angle Michael, and later visits from the Saints Catherine and Margaret; the purpose of these visits was to direct Jehanne in how to lead the French army against the English and Burgundians and put the pretender on the throne.  After many tests of her veracity and many trails of her earnestness, Jehanne is finally put in a position of power over the French army, and leads them to multiple victories; however, the in-fighting at court slowly erodes her power-base with the pretender (by this time, and thanks to Jehann, Charles VII), until she marches into battle under-supported, is captured, and sold to the English.  After a trail for witchcraft, Jehanne was burnt at the stake.  She was 19 years old.

What I appreciated in Cutter’s work was that the historical narrative was well respected, but there was enough license taken to make the whole story a human tale.  Jehanne’s fear at being unable to live up to the expectations of her holy visitors, her struggles with earthly temptations, and her burning passions for her holy mission are all described with a real sense of humanity and believability in order to make this extremely complex and impressive period of history relatable to the modern reader.  More than just Jehanne’s story, the reader also gets a look at the human side of other various historical persons, such as King Charles, the Duke of Alençon, and Yolande, Charles’ mother-in-law and the driving force behind his claim to the throne.  

I was less thrilled, however, with Cutter’s writing style.  To me, it seemed like the narrative shifted unaccountably in the voice used; some passages are first person-present tense, others are third person-past tense.  I realize the Jehanne is recounting her story to a priest while imprisoned in Rouen, but this shifting between voices was extremely distracting and made Cutter seem like an inexperienced author (which isn’t at all true – her pedigree is strong).  Unfortunately, this (what I see) as a flaw at the very foundations of the book, made the reading less enjoyable than it could have been, and so it took me over a week to finish what could have been read in a day.

So, final verdict?  If you’re interested in this period of history (either avidly or in passing), then this book is for you; the historical narrative seems strong and well researched.  If you’re really interested, you’ll be able to over-look the foundational issues in the writing style.  If, however, you’re not a history buff of the 100 Years War, I would take a pass on this one.  There’s a wonderful short skit The Simpsons did a few years ago on this period of history – I’d strongly recommend you check it out of a quick-and-dirty history lesson on Joan of Arc.