Saturday, 10 December 2011

I have decided to return to my original blog name and format.  For a long time I let life become a bit disrupted after what seemed to be a perfect storm of stress; a death well actually two close family deaths, bad neighbours, the loss of a job, personal attacks by a mentally ill family member, then my own serious illness.  This blog was really just part of me trying to keep going when all I really wanted to do was lock myself away and hope the world would just go away and leave me alone.  Slowly I have started to feel more like my old self and now I am starting to resume life in full so I have decided to resurrect The Genteel Arsenal not the original but markII so that is where I now blog.  Blogging is for me part hobby but also part of my professional development and part of my professional portfolio.  If anyone is interested I can now be found here at The Genteel Arsenal.  This blog is now retired.

Friday, 25 November 2011

I have been a bad blogger again! Feel the need for a fresh start, so maybe I will close this blog down and start a new one in the near future with invigorated commitment and enthusiasm.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A dystopian young adult novel and R.I.P.

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Last week I finally got round to reading The Hunger Games, a disturbing dystopia tale set in a world of persecution and exploitation, where reality television is carried to its frightening and entirely logical conclusion.  In this world, what was once North America has been transformed into an exploitative dictatorship where the society is divided into districts based on what they produce, those districts are then forced each year to send two of their young residents to participate in what is the society's equivalent of gladiatorial games.  A ritual designed to maintain fear and control in a subjugated society. 

The main character, Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister's place when she is selected as one of district twelve's two tributes.  The idea of young tributes selected and sent to appease the capital's appetite for violence is very reminiscent of the classical Greek tale of the Minotaur, where Athens is forced to send tributes to Crete to appease the blood lust of the monster but even by classical standards this is a bloody and violent tale.  This is a world where each district must send two tributes each, a boy and a girl, chosen from amongst their youngest and most vulnerable members to be transported to a unique arena to literally fight to the death, forced to kill each other not only in order survive themselves but also in order to ensure the safety of their communities and families back home, and all of this dramatic violence is televised for the entertainment of the capital and the society at large, a  kind of Logan's Run for this generation, or a televised Lord of the Flies, Survivor with real consequences.

This is a dark and dramatic, if essentially simple tale, Collins throws in some romance in a love story, sub plot between the two adolescents from district twelve but even this romance is something the capital essentially seeks to exploit for entertainment.  Mutation and genetic engineering also feature within this dystopian mythology.  The big brother themantics of 1984 are also a feature of this dark thriller.  Certainly this is a very pacy narrative, one that grabs the reader and demands their continued attention until the very end, the end of this book is, however, not the end, as the story continues into two more titles making up a trilogy, I must admit I am intrigued to know how Collings will resolve this dark drama.  Will the districts rebel and ultimately overthrow the capital or will the story continue at the merely personal level?  This is an interesting young adult title, interesting for the dark nature of the story line as much for the gripping quality of the narrative.  Collings effectively draws the reader into Katniss'world making this a very diverting novel, compelling and hard to escape.

I have not yet read my second R.I.P.  novel and while I have a couple of books  on the shelves that might satisfy the criteria, I think I could safely count The Hunger Games as a R.I.P. title, certainly it is a thriller and a kind of dark fantasy set as it is a disturbing dystopian future where the state forces children to kill while it also engineers monsters to add to the bloody drama of their conflicts.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Clockwork man and Imbibing peril!

Burton & Swinburne in
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
byMark Hodder

Since I decided to participate in the annual R.I.P. challenge this novel which was already in my TBR pile has become my first title for the challenge.  Does it fit the criteria? Well it does feature ghostly apparitions and zombies and it is certainly a thrilling ride, more than anything, though, it is good, old fashioned, pulp fiction fun.  I have to say up front that I have really enjoyed both of the Burton & Swinburne titles available to date, this title and it's predecessor, The strange affair of Spring heeled Jack.  Mark Hodder has successfully created a great addition to the growing steampunk cannon and given us an entertaining narrative to while away the hours.

From the back cover:
London 1862.  A lost aristocrat returns and the steam wraiths rise!
Sir Roger Tichborne: Lost at sea but now he's back to claim his family fortune.  Or is he?  To the upper classes, he's obviously a cunning  swindler; to London's laborers, he's the peoples hero ... while to Sir Richard Francis Burton,he's the focus of a daring plot to gain possession of the legendary black diamonds known as the Eyes of Naga.  Burton's investigation takes him to the cursed Tichborne estate ... and to an encounter with the ghost of a witch!

Like the previous novel Hodder takes real events and personalities and essentially plays with them, weaving a fiction out of the thread of history.  In this volume Hodder adds the philosopher Herbert Spenser to the mix and  Charles Altamont Doyle, (father of Arthur Conan Doyle) just to name two, other significant figures also appear, but historical figures in Hodder's work bear only the flimsiest resemblance to their historical selves, rather they become far more outrageous figures in Hodder's hands and their personal histories are only relevant to the point that they enhance Hodder's narrative.  The playing with 19th century history is half the fun of these books, and they are fun, old fashioned, escapist fun, literature they are not.

A logical underpinning of the narrative is key to Hodder's story and so even supernatural elements are explained in pseudo scientific terms.  Like the previous Burton & Swinburne novel we are treated to an alternative history where technology is exceeding its historical limits and developments are rapid.  This is a  world where genetic engineering arrives long before it's reality and while Hodder's universe is far more dependent on the tropes of science fiction, elements of fantasy still exist his work.  One of my favourite inventions was the cactus gun, a by product of horticultural genetic manipulation gone feral, which amongst other things turns Ireland into an uninhabitabitable jungle of dangerous and often carnivorous plants all because of failed attempts to deal with the problem of potato blight.

Hodder also makes great use of established mythologies; ghosts, zombies and fairies are re-evaluated in what is an entertaining tale.  It must be said that Burton and Swinburne are great editions to fiction's hall of heroes.  The real men on which these characters are based must be seen as an absolute gift to steampunk.  Sir Richard Burton is like something straight out of boys own adventures; a famous explorer and geographer, a master swordsman, an exceptional linguist and master of disguise, who in his early career worked as a spy for the British in India and Swinburne the pre-Raphaelite poet with a reputation for deviancy and outrageous behaviour, outwardly the two men seem quite different, the soldier and the poet, and yet clearly they had much in common, since a very real friendship existed between these two remarkable men.  Hodder has made great use of some basic historical fact and transformed it into entertaining and creative narrative.  I am looking forward to the next installment in the Burton & Swinburne saga, while the Curious case of the clockwork man, can be read as a stand alone novel it does set up a link to the next adventure.

First book for R.I.P. done, still not sure what my second novel will be.  If I don't find something else perhaps I will read the Arthur Conan Doyle novel The Sign of the Four, a novel I have been meaning to re-read.

Friday, 30 September 2011

A quick catch up on the week's reading

A.C. Swinburne: A Poet's Life
by Ricky Rooksby

A relatively brief and disciplined biography.  The book makes liberal reference to Swinburne's own creative output and thus gives insight into not only the life of the poet but importantly into his work. A unique and eccentric figure his life makes for interesting reading.  Swinburne's involvement with other leading figures of the age such as the Pre-Raphaelite circle, Monckton Milnes and Richard Francis Burton means this book offers insight into the avant-garde culture of the time.  If this book has a  flaw it is in its heavy dependence on biographical criticism making it perhaps to academic for the merely curious reader.  This book has fuelled my curiosity about Swinburne and his work.

The Apothecary
by Maile Meloy

This was another school/work related read.  I do try to keep up with new young adult fiction and I must admit to being drawn to the cover of this title.  Essentially the premise of the novel revolves around Janie an American girl having to move to London with her parents who have left the McCarthy fuelled hysteria of cold war America.  Once in London Janie discovers magic and mystery in unexpected places as well as friendship in face of threat and challenge.  Much of the story involves an ancient and magical book the Pharmacopoeia, a book that contains the means to achieve some magical results including the ability to turn into birds.  This book certainly sounded and looked as if it would be a great read but  I must admit that while it was a diverting enough read it has not proved particularly memorable.  Certainly the setting of 1950s post war, cold war Britain was novel but not particularly convincing or compelling.   I suspect this novel would have had greater appeal to a younger reader, it was well executed and the historical setting may have been more convincing and more interesting for a younger reader.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Pigeon english - the modern world is brutal.

Pigeon English
by Stephen Kelman

A timely and fascinating tale told with childish innocence and perception.  Shortlisted for the Booker it is a debut novel of some note, relevant for its contemporary comment and for it's playful use of language and narrative.  Set on an inner city estate in contemporary London, it explores the world in which childhood ends abruptly in face of the harsh realities of what is a fairly brutal modern life, where knife crime is a constant possibility.  A good book but not perfect, what book ever is.

Narrated by Harri, eleven years old and newly arrived from Ghana, he tries to make sense of his new home and life.  An astute observer, Harri is fascinated by the life around him from the gangs that operate on the estate, to the life of a pigeon that visits his balcony.   When a boy is murdered on Harri's estate he and his friend Dean, (a crime show junkie), begin a naive investigation into the murder.  The story is punctuated by the occasional brief aside from the pigeon that gives comment on the nature of life and human self delusion, from the pigeon: What your problem is, you all want to be the sea. But you're not the sea, you're just one raindrop.  One of an endless number.  If only you'd accept it, things would be so much easier...(p.210)  The pigeon's asides can be a bit clunky, nevertheless, this is a book worthy of attention.

Harri's narration is at times joltingly colloquial but there is a kind of poetry to phrases like 'advise yourself' and words like 'hutious', as someone who has no real experience of Harri's world it is hard to judge the authenticity of his voice but it certainly sounds authentic and convincing.  Harri's innocence is often captured in his confusion over phrases with sexual portent and Kelman has done well to keep Harri's endearing naivety in face of what is a fairly ugly world.  Harri is one of those wonderful child narrators who speak with such authority and conviction they linger in the memory.  They allow adult authors to make observation and comment that would otherwise sound hollow and absurd, but from a child sound insightful and powerful.  I am thinking of characters like Scout in To kill a Mockingbird or for that matter Mina in David Almond's recent book My name is Mina, another great recent title with a memorable child narrator.

This certainly seems to be a timely tale, given recent events, certainly the London riots probably influenced my choice to read the novel as much as its presence on the Man Booker shortlist and I can't help but wonder if recent events did not influence it's inclusion on that shortlist.  It certainly has a current relevancy which can't be overlooked, combined with it's strong narrative and the intrinsic humour in Harri's voice this is a great read.

Monday, 26 September 2011

R.I.P. or Readers Imbibing Peril

It is that time of year when reading thoughts turn towards Halloween fare and the annual R.I.P  challenge begins.  I first discovered this challenge a few years ago in my previous online life, under a different name and blog, these days I just use the book blog as a personal reading journal and I don't normally sign up for challenges, I like to keep things simple and pressure free but R.I.P. is pretty simple and stress free and I love the concept.  Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings created a great reading challenge in the annual R.I.P. event and I can't resist but since I am starting a bit late I thought I would only sign up for peril the second; read two books of any length that fit with the loosely defined terms of the challenge:

The purpose of the R.I.P. Challenge is to enjoy books that could be classified as:
Dark Fantasy.

The emphasis is never on the word challenge, instead it is about coming together as a community and embracing the autumnal mood, whether the weather is cooperative where you live or not.(copied from Stainless Steel Droppings).

I always love the art work that Carl V finds for the challenge banners and this year is no exception, the images are the work of Melissa Nucera and the angels evoke the creepiness of the weeping angels of Doctor Who fame, (Blink one of the scariest episodes ever and Moffat at his creepy best).  I love the angels.

Now to what I will read, well since I am starting late and the challenge ends on the 31st of October I have only set myself to read two books, one of which will be the Mark Hodder Burton and Swinburne novel The curious case of the clockwork man, not sure what the second title will be.  I do know that I will also try to read at least one short story and as part of the Halloween reading plan I thought I would re-read the original Grimm version of Cinderella, which is a whole lot darker than anything Disney came up with. So this is just my first challenge post and the start of my reading pool, further additions soon.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Heat and Dust

Heat and Dust
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

A relatively short novel, set in India and recounting two relationships that occur there, although the English relationship with India itself is a principal theme. A young woman visits India searching in part for details of her great Aunt Olivia who in the 1920s disgraced the family by having an affair with a local prince, the narrator also develops a relationship both with a local man and with the nation itself thus to an extent repeating history in the 1970s.  The novel won the Booker prize in 1975.  A quick read and reasonably diverting but for me largely disappointing, somehow I expected more, maybe I am missing something but I did expected more substance.

Monday, 19 September 2011

My name is Mina and I love the night.

My name is Mina
by David Almond

The journal of a unique and wonderful girl, Mina.  This book is a wonderful contrast to the last YA novel I reviewed.  This is a remarkable novel, rich and complex in terms of its story and language.  A prequel to Almond's brilliant, masterful novel Skellig, this lovely book sees Almond return to the story of Mina just before she meets Michael and Skellig. The novel takes the form of a journal and Mina's story is told in rich and experimental language that celebrates beauty and creativity.

Lush and imaginative it is Mina'a story told in her own words and voice and what a voice, still quite child like but with Mina's remarkable intellect and perception, this is simply a lovely book.  The journal form is both creative and inspiring, how many kids would find Mina's journal inspiring in their own exploration of themselves and the world via a journal.  I must admit Mina was my favourite character in Skellig, her independence and original thinking was very appealing.  Her difference from the everyday made her unique.  It is interesting that Almond has used this work to offer a critique of contemporary education and the regimented assessment that now defines education.  He exposes the intrinsic failure of such education to meet the needs of those who deviate from the norm, he exposes the stifling lack of imagination and empathy in contemporary education and the way it pushes any child who is different despite their intelligence to the margins, exposing them to even further hurt and marginalisation.

This is a great little book but perhaps it is not quite as great as Skellig, which is a truly remarkable novel, my favourite children's novel of all time and one of my favourite novels full stop.  Mina's journal speaks to everyone but especially to anyone who feels different and anyone who sees the world in a unique way.  What a great combination the two books make, I recommend them both in the highest terms possible to any reader of any age.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

YA reading, a romance and the path to discernment.

by Aprilynne Pike

Again this is just a quick update my recent reading post.  Wings is a young adult paranormal romance novel a couple of the kids at school had me read, not a novel I would have chosen for myself, I can however, see why it appeals to them.  It has drama and romance, an easy accessible prose style and magic, lots and lots of magic, not always plausible but with big teenage girl appeal.  The main character has recently moved to a new school and seems to be developing an unusual problem, she is sprouting leaves.  Is she becoming a plant or something all together more magical?  Fairies and trolls feature, a relationship with a boy at school and an another encounter with an apparently fairy boy, complicate the plot, while primarily the main character has to thwart the evil plans of trolls.  Overall this is a pretty mediocre book to say the least, the prose is pedestrian at best, the plot is silly  and the characterisation is simplistic and predictable.   
I don't want to sound like too much of a snob about this book, but to put it briefly, it is just a Twilight clone that replaces vampires with fairies, literature it is not.  Is it a bad book?  Well it certainly is not a good book but then, it is what it is.  If it entertains a teenager and keeps them reading, stimulates their imagination and curiosity then it is a good thing, it becomes merely a step in their reading development, a building block to discernment and reading maturity, such books are necessary, how else will kids learn to appreciate truly great books if they do not have the privilege of reading many and varied books on their reading journey, at least this is a book that makes them want to read and keeps them turning pages.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A Rage to Live and steampunk fantasy and reality!

A Rage to Live.  A biography of
Richard and Isabel Burton.
by Mary S. Lovell.

Burton &Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.   
 By Mark Hodder

Yet again I have been a neglectful blogger, so this is a another catch up on recent reading.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack was a book I had been eagerly looking forward to and it did not disappoint.  A Steampunk sci-fi, it makes good use of intrinsic time travel dilemmas and paradoxes to create an alternative reality in which Hodder can play out steampunk fantasies within the confines of a plausible logic. The novel is perhaps not perfect, but it is certainly one of the better recent additions to what is  a growing body of work within  the genre. Over a skeleton of plausible fact, Hodder builds an entertaining story, but the use of very real historical figures can also be a little jarring at times and requires some effort from the reader to accept these fictionalised, mythologised characterisations.

In essence the novel occurs in an alternative history where Queen Victoria has been assassinated and Albert is on the throne.  Richard Burton rather than pursuing a diplomatic career is appointed as a special agent to investigate strange mysteries, hence his involvement with the mystery of spring heeled Jack.  Jack is of course a real figure in British urban mythology, his identity was never discovered and he may in fact have been more than one person. Hodder makes great use of this very real historical mystery to weave the framework of his alternative history, other historical icons abound in this sci-fi tale where steam technology  moves beyond the limitations of its time.  Technology and Eugenics (or rather genetic engineering), explode in possibility, new animals are  breed or evolved like the entertaining, 'messenger parakeets', who swear prolifically when delivering messages.  Steam engineering exceeds it's historical limitations and coal powered vehicles abound, including the invention of primitive helicopters, while Brunel builds the first  geo-thermal power plant, well before its time.  Hodder explains this exceptional technological progress in terms of a time travel paradox, to say much more, will give away to much of the plot.

Hodder's use of Richard Burton and Charles Algernon Swinburne as heroes is inspired, if ever a historical figure was suited to adoption by a steampunk adventure it is Sir Richard Francis Burton, explorer, adventurer, linguist extraordinaire.  Swinburne also makes for an interesting characterisation, the diminutive poet is a nice opposition to the masculine and dramatic Burton and the two men were in real life friends. It was however, some of the other characters that I did find a  bit of challenge to accept, at least initially.  Oscar Wilde features, but not the Oscar known to history and literature, in Hodder's universe Oscar is a child in London after having fled the Irish famine.  He appears as a paper boy who Burton christens with the nick name Quips and many of Wilde's famous lines issue from Quips' precocious mouth, while this is an interesting ploy I, did at first struggle with this use of Wilde.  Many of the other characters are also very real historical figures and the novel begins by recounting one very real dramatic adventure from the life of Burton, the attack in Somalia that left him seriously scared as a result of being speared through the face.  From this point onwards Hodder changes Burton's story to fit the demands of his narrative.  Isabel Arundel,the woman destined to become Burton's wife  appears at the start of the novel but Hodder manages to push her out of the story, (I hope this is only temporary and Isabell will re-appear in later novels, the possibility for further appearances certainly exists).  Other figures also make appearances, from Darwin to Brunel, Hodder utilises the icons of the age with some effect, and many of the characters are in fact very real historical figures, including the women who were in fact the victims of spring heeled Jacks rather odd and disturbing attacks.

Like Scott Westerfield,(Leviathan),  Hodder has played with both history and science fiction in  creating this great new fantasy.  Like Westerfield, he has created the twin disciplines of technology and genetics to feed and drive his narrative, the view he creates of an alternative 19th century is imaginative, creative and entertaining, furthermore, his story is more mature and adult in its outlook, than Westerfield's.  Ultimately it is just outrageously good fun. 

One of the side effects of reading a novel that takes the bulk of its cast of characters from history is that of course it leads you into further reading in order to satisfy the curiosity that the original work sparked and this is what lead me to seek out a biography of Richard Francis Burton himself.  A Rage to Live is the somewhat lengthy biography of both Richard and his equally interesting partner Isabel, that I found in the local public library.  It was a rather daunting book to start and when I did start it I wondered if I would persevere and read it all the way through, I needn't have worried, Burton's life reads like something straight from the pages of a Boys Own adventure and combined with the romance of genuinely loving relationship with an equally interesting woman the work was a compelling read.
This is the only biog of Burton I have read and so find it a little difficult to comment on the validity of Lovell's interpretation of their story.  From the text I gather there is considerable controversy surrounding Burton and Isabel.  Her destruction of some of his papers after his death left something of a shadow on her reputation and many biographers have speculated about both their marriage and Burton's sexual orientation but Lovell does present a very convincing portrait of one of the great men of the age and a convincing portrait of a loving couple.  Lovell clearly developed considerable affection for her subjects and while she aims for objectivity, she does seem a little in awe of them.

The book presents an account of their lives including Richard's time in the army in India, his early,  fascination with languages and cultures foreign to him.  Lovell describes his remarkable ability to blend in, his fondness for disguises and his fascination with all aspects of cultures new to him, including sexual mores.  Episodes like his historic Hajj and his early exploration of Africa, including the infamous trip with Speke to find the source of the Nile, are fully recounted and they make for great reading.  Burton emerges as a remarkable, if a somewhat self destructive figure.  Isabel is no less compelling in her determination to spend her life with this unusual man.  Later sections of the book deal with their lives together while Richard pursued a  career as a Consul in a variety of postings, towards the end a posting to Trieste, largely designed to keep him out of trouble.  The later part of the book also covers the translations that resulted in Burton's enduring fame; Thousand Nights and one, and the Karma Sutra.

I must admit I did struggle a little with the last hundred odd pages, certainly the tragedy of Isabel's loss of the man she loved was sad, but then all biographies must end with a death, and her struggle to protect his reputation was really no less compelling than the earlier parts of the book, perhaps the work could have benefited from some tighter editing and a more concise account of those final years for the participants in Lovell's history.  Overall A Rage to Live was a great read, what a good biography really should be, it bought to life the biographer's subjects, illuminating them in clear, if essentially kind light.  I enjoyed it very much.

I note that Hodder has begun a trilogy featuring Burton and Swinburne, The Strange affair of Spring Heeled Jack, is just the first book in the series, the next entitled, The Curious case of the clockwork Man is now sitting on my shelves awaiting my attention and as soon as the third is available it to will find a place on my TBR shelf, their can be no greater praise really than that.  Perhaps, too a biography of Swinburne is on my horizon, reading does that, it creates webs of connection that expand exponentially out, one book leading to another and on and on, ad infinitum, with fiction arousing curiosity that must be satisfied.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A catch up post and great young adult reading with no vampires or werewolves!

Marrying Ameera
by Rosanne Hawke

This was a great read, a compelling plot from start to finish and a main character who was not only plausible but who the reader could identify with and care about.  Ameera takes the reader into a world that for many Australian teenagers would seem totally alien and yet the experience the novel recounts is for some a frightening reality.

Ameera is a 17 year old Australian high school senior, her mother is Anglo Australian and her dad is Pakistani Australian, raised as a Muslim, Ameera is at an age when western culture begins to conflict with her father's aspirations for her and circumstances see him send her to Pakistan on a flimsy pretext, while in reality he has organised a forced marriage, much of the novel deals with Ameera's entrapment in a land in which she is controlled by family and draconian gender politics.  She is cut off from her mother and also from the Australian Pakistani boy with whom she was beginning to form a friendship in Australia.  This is a compelling story and Hawke beautifully evokes Ameera's environment both in Australia and in Pakistan, dealing with a sensitive cultural issue in the subject of forced arranged marriage and family honour, crafting a novel that is adventure, thriller and to an extent romance.  This really is a great young adult read.

Climbing the Stairs
by Padma Venkatraman

After Marrying Ameera this title in the library caught my eye, another story about a young woman struggling to build an independent identity in an environment that presents extra challenges for women, where the cultural expectation is that marriage will come before education and independence.
Set in British occupied India during the second world war, the novel tells the story of Vidya a fifteen year old girl living in a liberal Hindu household. Tragedy strikes and the family are forced to return to living in a shared, extended, traditional household, where men and women live in separate areas of the house and the expectations are that women will follow traditional paths of marriage and family.  Vidya finds those expectations impossible to accept and life is complicated further when her brother seeks to enlist in the army despite the family's strict Hindu beliefs.  The position of women is one theme, but violence and non violence are also themes explored in the novel.

The stairs in the title refer to the stairs to the higher levels of the house where the men live and where Vidya's grandfather keeps his library.  The library becomes Vidya's precious sanctuary in what is a hostile environment, it is also here in the library that Vidya meets a boy, who has the potential to offer her an escape at least from the cruel family circumstances in which she is living.  I loved the library and the way Vidya explored it's contents and celebrated the power of books and words, this was another great YA read, again a compelling book that I read very quickly.

 White Crow
by Marcus Sedwick

An amazing book, I could not put this down once I started it, a masterfully crafted thriller, this book is unsettling and haunting.  Again a YA novel this time dealing with the friendship between two teenage girls but the novel is more than just a tale about intense friendship in the here and now, it also presents a terrifying story from the past and the lengths a person will go to find an answer to the unanswerable.  This was a frightening and compelling story, one that can't easily be put down or forgotten. Good and evil, friendship and loneliness, and fear are all explored. When you die who will come for you, will it be angels or devils?  Not a book for the feint hearted, this is a dark and disturbing book, not for every reader but the craftsmanship must be admired.

 Skulduggery Pleasant
by Derek Landy

Now this was a book on a much lighter note!  A tale of magic and drama, action and adventure and perhaps most importantly humour, for all its sinister appearance Skulduggery Pleasant is essentially a humorous book, where  a plot about good and evil is driven forward by high octane adventure. This was not the first time I have read Skulduggery but the first time I got to finish it, in the past no sooner would I start to read it than someone would want to borrow it, so I found my reading of this title was endlessly interrupted, which in itself says much for the books popularity.  This is a fun book, well crafted and entertaining, great characters and I loved the names like, Ghastly Bespoke.  I also enjoyed the portrayal of Stephanie's extended family and her ghastly relatives. 

 The book of Unicorns
by Jackie French

Short stories about unicorns, bringing magic into the everyday and mundane.  A great young read, that illustrates why Jackie French has proven such a successful author.   A student suggested I read this one and I enjoyed the journey into what are gentle and well crafted stories with a real sense of magic.  This one reminds me of the now classic novel by Peter Beagle, The Last Unicorn, a book I am also intending to re-read at some point soon. 
These have been very brief summations of some of my recent reading and I do feel a bit guilty for not giving more detail and doing more justice to what have proved to be highly diverting reads.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

A bad blogger post

Oh dear, I have been so slack, failing to update, but all that will change.  I have been reading, just failing to update the blog, bad me.  Brief distraction which interrupted my reading flow, still have books to post on and to return to, but in the meantime this is just a brief catchup.
In the last couple of weeks I have read a few books from work, (work being a library that services young adult readers),  one title because it was new and simply grabbed my attention, a few others because I asked the kids to pull out a few books they thought I should read instead of me always telling them to read, so in brief my recent reading:

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Scarlet thread of murder!

A Study in Scarlet
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

"I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet,eh? Why shouldn't we use a little art jargon. There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it,and expose every inch of it." (p.37).

I first read this as a teenager looking for diversion and escape, I had no preconceptions and expectations, but journeyed innocently into the grimy world of late Victorian London to be dazzled by the genius of Sherlock Holmes through the naive and admiring eyes of Dr Watson.  Sherlock Holmes represents my first case of hero worship, I found his cerebral eccentricity compelling and attractive, I found him plausible and his more obnoxious moments entirely forgivable.  I also found his rational explanation of the inexplicable, comforting and admirable, mystery was no longer that, but rather a puzzle to be reduced by logic and the application of knowledge and mental discipline. 

In this, the very first Sherlock Holmes story, Doyle introduces Holmes' scientific and rational approach to mystery, but as evidenced by the above quote the narrative also maintains a romantic tone in it's portrayal of what is a new scientific discipline.  A Study in Scarlet like all the Sherlock Holmes stories embodies a Victorian enthusiasm for science and rationalism, via a manifestation of the Byronic hero and a taste for the Gothic.

I must admit I enjoyed this novel as much now as when I read it many years ago.  I did find myself wondering about how p.c. the plot was, given the vilification of Mormons and structurally the narrative is perhaps a little disjointed.  It is a very short novel and Holmes succeeds in catching his murderer quite early on, the middle of the novel is devoted to recounting the perpetrator's back story, exposing the motivation for the crime and reveals an abrupt shift in setting and viewpoint, but it does effectively expose motivation and is an entertaining narrative.  In many respects this short novel has the tight story telling that characterises the short stories.  It recounts Watson's first encounter with Holmes and his methods, beginning what is a now legendary partnership.

This is just a short post I may come back and add to this, short of time at the moment, suffice to say this is an entertaining read. 

Friday, 15 July 2011

Grandville Mon Amour

Grandville Mon Amour
by Brian Talbot

A kind of crime/political thriller set in a very alternative dystopian world where the main characters take the form of antropomorphised animals and humans take only a very marginal role.  Very much a graphic novel for grown ups, violence at least abounds, and sex does not escape mention, check out the sexy badger Billie.  A fairly simple crime plot sees the hero Detective Inspector Lebrock in pursuit of an escaped serial killer, some complexity in the plot emerges with political implications emerging, entertaining but not especially complex.
Grandville is very much a fantasy world drawing heavily on steampunk traditions, in this world France won the Napoleonic war and colonised England, guillotining the royal family as a consequence.   The characters are all antropomorphised animals but this no Wind in the Willows, this is a curious grown up tale, part Tin Tin, part Watership Down, it really is a grown up comic book, beautifully drawn, a vividly realised universe.  In fact the art work is the most remarkable feature and it is truly remarkable, the beautiful complex panels give great depth to what is essentially a fairly predictable plot, proving more evocative and powerful than the text on it's own.  The book trailer which I have borrowed from YouTube does some justice to Talbot's work, letting his powerful illustration speak for itself.

This is of course the second Granville graphic novel, and several more are planned, it could have been just plain silly, and yet it works and works beautifully, as much a tribute to the past, and writers and illustrators who have gone before, as much as it is a new and inventive text, spotting the reference is of course half the fun.  Just for information and interests sake here is the link to Michael Moorcock's review in the Guardian:

This was an interesting reading experience, as it was the first time I attempted to read a book on an ipad, my other half had the book as an e-book on his ipad which is how I came to read it that way and while I am not, so far a fan of the digital book experience, I have to admit that the back lit screen of the ipad gave a vivid quality to the art work, making it feel more like I was watching an animation than reading a graphic novel,  reading a text based work on the ipad may be a different experience. 

Libraries, bats and twitter.

Okay so I am a bit of a Luddite. I have only just joined twitter, for so long I just didn't see the point, still not sure I see the point, but for what it is worth I have finally joined the twittterverse, with some guidance from the ever helpful Bell, who also had a select  number of tweets for me to start following, including Neil Gaiman which is how I stumbled upon this little nugget: "Librarian bats", originally a blog/twitter post by Jo_EQ  and re-posted by Neil Gaiman.  Jo writes about how bats co-habit two of Portugal's oldest and most famous libraries, in the University of Coimbra and the palace of Mafra. An interesting story about co-existence and eco pest control.  A cool story given the unpopularity of bats and especially flying foxes or fruit bats where I live.  We are currently experiencing another outbreak of Hendra virus, a terrifying disease, rare but with a high fatality rate for both horses and humans, which has resulted in hysterical calls to cull our native bat populations, not a rational, practical, or humane response.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Missing in action and ghosts

A major reading rut at the moment!  It is a cruel irony that when I am stressed and depressed I just can't read, I endlessly pick up books only to abandon them after a couple of pages, which is what I have been doing for the last week, so this is really just a brief book post.  I spent most of last week in Brisbane visiting libraries as part of a study thing, which was pretty cool, I will possibly post more on that later.

I thought I might just put up a short post on the subject of a very small, local publication; Ghostly Tales of Toowoomba, by Don Talbot, I just picked this up when I was tidying shelves at work and had a flick through.  It's not very long and each entry is only about a page to a couple of pages long, illustrated  with black and white photos and some low grade clip art, just a brief curiosity piece of local history really.  I was mainly interested in the 'haunted railway station' entry: the Toowoomba railway station is a great local piece of Victorian architecture and supposedly sports a resident ghost, Mrs Perkins.  The old tea rooms have been converted into a restaurant, Platform 9, effectively it is a living museum with much of the crockery and cutlery being original Queensland Rail issue.  We have visited a couple of times, mainly to partake of their great weekend breakfast special; cheap, filling and yum, oh and of course I love the historical/Victorian feel of the whole place, so it was with some interest that I read of the problems with the renovation of the building caused by the apparently ghostly presence that haunts it.

Below I have copied in a video of Don Talbot discussing Toowoomba ghosts.  It is a State Library video which I have taken from their youtube channel, the link: State library are a great resource, not just some interesting video resources, but they have also made a lot of their photographic collection available online, much is out of copyright, so I have used an early post card image of the building, (the link to the state library online image is below it).


They are a great resource for historic images.  Next time I'm at Platform 9 I will try and take some pictures of my own, never know maybe I will get to see Mrs Perkins in person.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Looking for something to read

I have stacks of books to read at the moment but I seem to have hit a slight reading rut, one of those blah moments when nothing seems to grab, it is not a reflection on the books but on me.   Despite the numerous unread titles and many old favourites awaiting a re-read I find I just sit amongst my books not able to discipline myself to focus on one title, I find I am thinking about the books I have not yet acquired that I suddenly seem to have an irresistible urge to read right now. 
I find local bookshops endlessly frustrating, they seem to have a very limited and very mainstream range of titles, I really do want to support local bookshops, particularly independents, but when they fail to stock very little beyond what I can buy at BigW or Kmart for a discounted price I wonder why I even try.  I mention this only because it relates to a recent frustration which has  arisen.
Several weeks ago I stumbled across a new speculative fiction title which I was very interested in, at the same time I have also been intensely aware of closing bookstores at every turn, so I decided I would not order this title from Book depository or Amazon but buy from a local bricks and mortar outlet.  The problem is this, here where I live we have a limited number of book shop possibilities and within those available retailers the stock they carry is limited and generally very mainstream, sci-fi for example has become increasingly limited and marginalised, and the title I am after falls into the genre designation of speculative fiction in particular steampunk and science fiction, so despite now being an award wining title I new that it was unlikely that I would find it here locally, which I didn't.  Now local book sellers are obliging and willing to order in titles, my problem with that is they tend to take at least twice as long as it would take for me to order the same title from the Book depository and charge me at least twice as much, usually more than twice the price as the Book depository, so this combined with a generally inadequate service is why I am reluctant to do so.  My preferred option is to make the trip to Brisbane and  visit an independent retailer who I know not only stocks a wide range of speculative titles and but is in fact a genre specialist.  In this general region a number of big book retailers have collapsed and finally closed their doors, (Borders and Angus &Robertson), these are stores that I utilised, since they have now failed I am afraid that without continued support we will see the smaller independents also struggle and in some cases, ultimately fail, hence my decision to try to avoid online book retailers, at least for the moment.  I do not want to lose the pleasure of just browsing, happy wandering with the possibility of discovering a hidden gem and the welcome guidance of knowledgeable sales assistants to help the process of discovery.  To an extent book blogs have provided a substitute for that process, but I am not yet ready to relinquish it completely, hence a determination to support good independent book stores.   For months now I have been trying to find a time to visit Pulp Fiction and a perfect time has simply not arisen, until now, next week I have a uni prac in Brisbane, so will be in the city for about a week, before coming home I am determined to find time to drop into Pulp Fiction.  Hopefully they will have the book I am hanging out to read, if they don't I will almost certainly find other books to pique my interest, in any case I will be buying a book, if not multiple titles from a favourite book shop, so even if they don't have the title I am after I can assuage my guilt and go home and order it from the Book depository.
The name of the book I am so keen to read, well it is the winner of this year's Philip K. Dick award: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder.  Just the cover alone on this title makes me want to read it, let alone the cool steam punk setting and characters.  In the meantime I discovered a great web site from the publisher where they post sample chapters from the books in their catalogue, including the first two chapters from this novel found here at;Sample chapters of Pyr Books.  Definitely a web site and publisher worth checking out.

In the mean time I have managed to pick up a book and will hopefully over the next week manage to finish The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds, not a long novel, so far characterised by beautiful prose, hopefully it will distract me from this blah mood and keep me reading.  It was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker prize and has been a title I have been meaning to read ever since it was mentioned on the Booker shortlist, I'm just a couple of years behind the times.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

The Beekeeper's Apprentice
by Laurie R. King
The first Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mystery

My reading this book is a good example of how book blogs can help promote and spread the word about an individual title.  The Beekeeper's Apprentice is a title I seem to have seen on various sites over the years, almost always with an enthusiastic and  glowing review, so when I was wandering in Pulp Fiction, (favourite genre bookshop) and this title was prominently displayed it seemed a natural move to pick it up and add it to my TBR, in the last few days I finally got around to reading it. 

First let me say that as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche featuring a young woman with an intellect to match and rival the great detective, this book would have been absolutely loved by my fourteen year old self but I must admit that my more cynical and critical older self was left wondering what all the fuss was about.  A diverting enough escape, I think perhaps my expectations for this title may have been just too high.

This novel sees the fifteen year old Mary Russell wandering somewhat clumsily around the Sussex Downs with her nose buried in a book where she stumbles into an older man engaged in an intense study of bees, the man of course turns out to be none other than the now retired Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes impressed by Mary's apparent intellect begins a mentoring relationship with the young Mary.  Essentially a Mary Sue character I found the story of Mary Russell to be unrealistic and like most Mary Sue creations ultimately irritating.  Characterisation was for me a serious issue in this text, the problem with using someone else’s well established characters  is that your own interpretation will not match up with how readers imagined the original creation and this was very much the issue for me, King’s Sherlock Holmes just never really fitted my image and expectations of the character, for that matter neither did the peripheral characters of Watson, Mrs Hudson and Mycroft.  The plot itself was okay and structurally at least King tried to emulate the feel of Doyle’s original collected stories.  Russell and Holmes deal with a number of minor mysteries culminating in the abduction of  a child and finally one significant challenge, there is, however, little mystery in that final challenge, although it is a diverting enough read.  

The precocious arrogance of Mary Russel was more than a little irritating, her dismissal of Watson as essentially stupid next to not only Holmes’ intellect but her own, was off putting, even though it was not unusual for Holmes to dismiss Watson’s intelligence in the original stories.  I think it was just the blatant Mary Sue nature of the novel that left me unimpressed.  Like the author, Mary Russell has an interest in theology, and it is theology along with chemistry that Russell chooses to study at Oxford. Towards the end of the novel Holmes and Russell are sent off on an excursion through Palestine, which seems to have more to do with pandering to King’s particular interests than the requirements of the narrative and the final damming element for me was the romance emerging between the aging detective and the much, much younger female protagonist.  In later novels Russell and Holmes become a married couple, I think I prefer my detectives as essentially isolated and tortured figures because Sherlock Holmes as a happy married man just doesn't seem right and certainly not if the woman in question is young enough to be his granddaughter.

Certainly King has considerable skill, this is a hugely popular novel, so I feel a little guilty for not really liking this novel.  A story about an intelligent, strong young woman set during the early 20th century, I really should like this novel and yet I don’t.  I don’t want to put anyone off reading this book, it’s just that for me at least this book will not be remembered as a favourite read, having said that, it is still a book I would recommend to young readers.  I am sure I have seen this title described as a young adult book and I suspect at, say fourteen I would have enjoyed this book a lot more.  I would have enjoyed the kick arse nature of Mary’s character, her intelligence and independence and even probably the fantasy of her relationship with Sherlock Holmes.

It would be a dull world if we all liked the same things, but at least I can to an extent understand and appreciate other readers fondness for this novel and the rest of the series, it just isn’t my cup of  tea so to speak.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel that embodies the full range of post modern themes.

Wide Sargasso Sea
by Jean Rhys
Power is what this book is about, the unequal power that exits between men and women, between the rich and poor, white and black, very much a post modernist novel, it is beautifully written, with absolutely breathtaking prose.  Feminist and post colonialist in its outlook, it is brief, concise and disturbing.  Telling the back story of the first Mrs Rochester, the mad woman in the attic in the Bronte masterpiece Jane Eyre.
Jean Rhys, herself born in Dominica, the daughter of a welsh father and a white creole mother, returns to the Jamaican islands to tell this the early story of Rochester's first wife, the creole Antoinette Cosway, who Rochester renames, Bertha, she is a complete mystery to him and in his failure to understand her, the relationship represents all that is wrong in the colonial relationship between Britain and its colonies, further the colonial relationship becomes a metaphor for gender politics and the novel exposes the inequalities that exist between men and women.  Remarkably complex the novel touches on so many themes that pervade the modern consciousness.  
Antoinette is an inherently tragic figure and this novel brings depth and compassion to her story, exploring the childhood dramas of growing up vulnerable in a post emancipation world, a world that is lush and beautiful but also frightening and confusing.  Rhys writes with a rich, poetic, symbolism  that unifies her purpose and theme. She creates a story which hauntingly hints at Antoinette's eventual end and she gives a powerful, moving voice to the mad woman in the attic.  The novel is only a 156 pages long, divided into three parts.  The first dealing with her childhood is told by Antoinette herself, a beautiful and haunting piece of writing filled with incident that echoes her future.   The attack on her home and family, the arson that anticipates her future tragedy, all magnificently rendered.  The second section gives voice to Rochester’s confusion in his relationship with this beautiful and tragic woman, the novel explores his inherent lack of empathy and inability to see the truth, it exposes the way his confusion and ignorance further propel the  tragedy towards its conclusion and the final section returns again to Antoinette, and gives voice to her confusion and despair.
This is a quick, beautiful read that leaves the reader feeling haunted and troubled, well deserving of its now classic status.  I am amazed at myself for not having read this much sooner.  The novel, while a kind of prequel to Jane Eyre can be read as completely independent of that work, it does, however, enrich and add another dimension to the experience of Jane Eyre.
"But I looked at the dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now."  (p.153)