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)

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


I have just spent a very frustrating morning trying to comment on people's blogs only to end up in an endless loop of sign on, tried all the usual solutions like deleting history, cookies etc to no avail.  This may well be a problem localised to my notebook or it may be a blogger problem, either way it is very frustrating!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

'No man can step into the same river twice...' or the Paradox of time travel

 The Anubis Gates
  by Tim Powers

Wow, this was not quite what I expected, but it was certainly a rollicking great adventure of a book.  I was attracted to this title for a couple of reasons, firstly with my rising interest in steampunk I thought it was about time I got around to reading what is regarded as something of a pioneer text within the genre.  The other thing that attracted me to this title was the fact that the story involves Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the bad boy of romantic poetry, Lord Byron, a novel featuring cameos by a couple of the greats of the romantic movement held great appeal.  What did surprise me was the apparent absence of technology in this speculative title,  I have come to expect the term steampunk to be heavily associated with a kind of retro tech and to be essentially sci-fi in terms of its outlook, but this book is much more a fantasy title, with magic rather than science being the dominate motif.  Having made that obvious observation, let me just say that it  in no way detracts from the roller coaster ride of what is a great adventure. 

A time travel novel that sees the main character transported back to 1810 London as a result of gaps or gates in the time stream which have been created by sinister Egyptian magicians and exploited by an equally sinister millionaire in the twentieth century.  The main protagonist, Brendan Doyle becomes involved when he is recruited as a Coleridge expert to escort a fund raising tour into the past, Doyle becomes marooned in a nightmare world where he must struggle to just stay alive, let alone escape back to his own time.  Peopled with fantastic grotesques and cliff hanging incident after incident, this novel has a high octane plot that drives the narrative compulsively and compellingly  forward.  Gypsies, poets, magicians, beggar and thief lords, a clown worthy of our worst nightmares, werewolves and girls disguised as boys, all make this a varied and sensational novel.  This is the kind of speculative novel which makes the term speculative fiction so accurate as a genre descriptive.  Essentially a time travel novel, it deals with the conundrums presented by the possibility of time travel, but also voices our fascination with the past.

I must admit I did not find the character of Brendan Doyle particularly appealing but the mysterious poet William Ashbless was much more compelling.  The novel is a little demanding of the reader in that one of the plot devices involves characters switching bodies and to an extent persona's.  The damaged magician who becomes the werewolf character Dog faced Joe needs to keep finding new bodies in which to hide, due to the excessive hair growth his condition occasions.  Incidentally, other elements in the novel feed into well know London legends, such as the legend of spring heeled Jack, although never explicitly spelled out, the elements are there.  The character of Horrabin the clown is vividly realised, the stuff of nightmares, he haunts the pages and potentially the readers dreams and nightmares, he and the terrifying dungeons of the rats castle, his base certainly haunt the dreams of Coleridge:
"This Fuseli-esque scene, together with the familiar - though extra strong this time - ballon-headed feeling and the warm loseness in his joints, made him certain  that he had once again taken too strong a dose of laudanum and was hallucinating.
In Xanadu, he'd thought  wryly, did STC a morbid dungeon world decree." 

Aside from this 1811 London setting, the plot also sees the main character travel further back in time, to take part in a chase across the frozen Thames at the time of the great frost fairs.  Part of the novel also occurs in Egypt at the time of the massacre of the Mamelukes, giving Powers the opportunity to write great, dramatic scenes.  This is a vividly realised world and a great, (if not literary,) read.  To an extent the novel reminded me of a novel I read several years ago called The List of Seven by Mark Frost.  I went and dug through the three deep stacks of books that fill the bottom shelves of my book shelves in order to dig that title out and will probably dip back into that in the near future.  The Anubis Gates is also a title that will warrant re-reading in the future.

On the back blurb on the edition I have is a quote from a TLS review which I will quote here as it seems to nicely sum up the book:
"An adventure novel ... an impressively intricate time-travel conundrum ... a supernatural thriller ... a literary mystery ... a horror story ... a catastrophe of necromancy and ruin ... virtuoso performance, a display of marvellous fireworks that illuminates everything in flashes."
All and all a great escape!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Steampunk or back to the future with brass, brown and perhaps a just a little bit of burlesque.

I thought I might just throw up a quick post on the subject of steampunk.  The term is now well known, a sub-genre of speculative fiction that incorporates, a neo-Victorian aesthetic, it speculates on what might have been if the industrial age had developed at an even greater technological rate, what things would have been like if Babbage completed his Difference engine or if other technologies, such as rocket technology went forward with steam tech.  It celebrates a kind of Victorian discipline and Victorian enthusiasm for science and technology, combined with a kind of Victorian comportment and aesthetic, in essence it is a rich and varied sub culture that with a romantic sensibility speculates on what might have been and what could be. Personally I consider some texts that combine old technology with more recent, such as Philip Reeve's wonderful Mortal Engines series as possessing distinctly steampunk elements, though set in a dystopian future.  And while the genre does not really include the 'scientific romances' of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells they certainly provide much of the inspiration for the current genre of steampunk.

Steampunk is something of a zeitgeist idea or aesthetic, at the moment, with it currently permeating popular culture at multiple levels, everywhere in fashion at the moment one can see the influence of steampunk or neo-Victorianism.  Pop culture now embraces the ethos with things like the new invigorated Doctor Who incorporating steampunk into its narrative vision, (how cool was the Silurian Victorian vigilante from the A Good Man Goes to War episode). 

I guess I have to admit to being a bit of a fan of the whole steampunk aesthetic, and for that matter a bit of a history junkie with a fascination for all things Victorian, with a particular interest in the technology of the age both in terms of history and in terms of speculative literature.   The essential romanticism of the movement, combined as it is with a celebration of the development of technology and innovation is hard to resist, and then there are the clothes, oh my, the clothes, is there anything sexier than a corset?  When women chose to wear them, as opposed to wearing them for the sake of an unrealisable ideal, they become an object of empowerment, a kind of glorious wrapper for femininity.  And I have to say a surprisingly comfortable piece of clothing to wear,  they do wonders for posture which in turn seems to ease the aches of a slouching progress through modern life, corsets seem counter to back ache, so yay for sexy Victorian wear.  Not that it is all just about corsets, the guys look pretty hot also, weather they wear the formal attire of the Victorian gentleman or the rolled up sleeves, braces and corduroy of the working engineer, steampunk or neo- Victorianism is just plain gorgeous.  And who doesn't love the chance to play dress ups.

I have read some rather glib, if possibly accurate summations of steampunk recently, which really just further reveals the extent to which the idea is permeating pop culture, one such definition in a major newspaper was; 'steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown', and certainly steampunk has much in common with the romantic goth movement.  Another was 'steampunk is a desire for machines that aren't crap', who can't relate to that, when we have to replace our digital tools every couple of years not just because they become obsolete so rapidly, but also because they just don't last, they really are crap, (IPhone being a case in point).  And now since I have outed myself as a steampunk fan here are some  photos from the steampunk picnic I attended yesterday, (oh and after my defence of corsets I must admit to choosing not to wear one yesterday, Steampunk and neo-Victorianism is about more than just one narrowly defined dress code).

More to come.  But in the mean time and just for fun here is the link to Girl Genius: adventure, romance and mad science and very definitely one of the many steampunk texts around and this one can be read online.  Girl Genius with it's ready availability online is one of those texts I often point teen readers towards but it is not just for young adults, my other half is a huge Girl
Genius fan, in fact it was G who introduced me to the fun that is Girl Genius.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Not just a dog tale

Marley & Me
by John Grogan

This is not the usual kind of book I read but having stumbled on it while tidying the shelves and having a neurotic dog of my own I thought I would give it a go.  Essentially it is a simple account of a life shared with a dog, a little bit more than a simple biography of Marley's full throttle life, it recounts Grogan's journey through life from the early days of his marriage, to his middle age and the inevitable end of Marley's life. 
An established cynic, at times I found the book a little irritating, and others I recognised the familiarity of Grogan's experience with Marley.  The delinquent behaviour of  an active animal whose needs exceed his circumstances is familiar, as is the incredible destructive force that is an anxiety, panic riddled canine in the grips of a terror that we can only vaguely begin to understand.  It was the accounts of Marley's destructive prowess that attracted me to the book.  My own dog's out of control neurotic behaviour has been a source of endless irritation and despair.  Despite our best efforts we have never been able to coax her out of the more outrageous manifestations of her anxiety and have now reached the point of acceptance and pursuit of a policy of management rather than holding out any false hope that the behaviour will completely abate, for those reasons I found reading Marley and Me a worth while exercise, certainly Marley's extreme storm anxiety is a familiar experience in our household.  Each dog is to an extent different, but some behaviours occur universally, including the more extreme negative ones, for that reason Grogan's philosophical acceptance of Marley's worse destruction was somewhat reassuring.  Sometimes you just have be philosophical about what you cannot completely change and sometimes some dogs are just more challenging than others.  In my case I have never known life without dogs, but it has only been in recent years that have experienced life with a damaged and neurotic dog so it was with some interest I read Grogan's account. 

Marley &Me is more than just the story of a dog, it is Grogan's story as well, including the early dramas of family life.  The dramas of conception, child birth and early parenthood are all played out through this account of a faithfull family pet, giving the narrative slightly more substance than a simple dog story.  This is essentially a feel good story about the great value a dog can bring to our understanding of our lives, not just in terms of the undeniable value of their companionship but more in terms of lessons they and their lives can teach.  Grogan is a journalist and a columnist so essentially the book has much of the tone of an extended newspaper column which makes it very  readable.  It is not the normal type of reading material I would choose but it was an enjoyable journey, if for nothing else a sense of identification and shared experience:

"...I peeked in over her shoulder, and it was uglier than I had feared.  Marley was standing there, panting frantically, his paws and mouth bleeding.  Loose fur was everywhere, as though the thunder had scared the hair right out of his coat.  The damage was worse than anything he had done before, and that was saying a lot.  An entire wall was gouged open, obliterated clear down to the studs.  Plaster and wood chips  and bent nails were everywhere.  Electric wiring lay exposed.  Blood smeared the floor and the walls.  It looked, literally, like the scene of a shotgun homicide.
'Oh my God,' Jenny said a third time.
'Oh my God,' I repeated.  It was all either of us could say.
After several seconds of just standing there mute, staring at the carnage, I finally said, 'Okay we can handle this.  It's all fixable.'  Jenny shot me a look; she had seen my repairs. 'I'll call a drywall guy and have it professionally repaired', I said, I  won't even try to do this one myself.'  I slipped Marley one of his tranquilizers and worried silently that this latest destructive jag might throw Jenny back into the funk she had sunk into after Conor's birth.  Those blues, however, seemed to be long behind her.  She was surprisingly philosophical about it.' (p170).
A feel good account of life.  A book for pet lovers of all kinds but especially dog lovers of all kinds, not a great book but an okay read.

Saturday, 4 June 2011


Just thought I would post a reading promotion poster I did for school.  I made up several posters of staff with an assortment of books, their personal favourites where possible, added a quote usually from the book they choose, or a general quote about reading and stuck them up in the library.  This one I did of myself, so I had the luxury of choosing a nice large book to hide behind and of taking the photo at home in a comfy chair with one of the cats beside me.  A workmate also did up some great posters using photoshop of staff on the cover of favourite books, we also managed to get some photos of the kids reading.  Did these in A3 so they were large enough to read the text and generally get attention, now if we could just get more kids reading and reading more often that would be great.   Oh and the quote, I have added that below in text large enough to read, it is a great quote on the power of reading:

“There’s nothing better for you – not broccoli, not an apple a day, not aerobic exercise. In terms of the whole rest of your life, in terms of making you smart in all ways, there’s nothing better. Top-ranking scientists and mathematicians are people who read. Top-ranking historians and researchers are people who read. Reading is like money in the bank in terms of the rest of your life, but it also helps you escape from the rest of your life and live experiences you can only dream of. Most important, along with writing, reading is the best way I know to find out who you are, what you care about, and what kind of person you want to become.”
Nancie Atwell

Friday, 3 June 2011

A literacy link

I thought I would put in this link to a fascinating video from literacy educator Nancie Atwell,  this was a response to a New York Times article on children and reading choices that sparked considerable debate.  From the perspective of the library this is a fascinating and relevant discussion:

To an extent this blog is my reading journal and an occasional place of work related jottings and that is what this link is.
Also I used a quote from Nancie Atwell on a reading promotion poster for school.

Spectral hounds and ghastly deeds out on the moors!

The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles many years ago in my early teens, I think The Sign of Four was my first Sherlock Holmes book, borrowed on impulse from the local library, it was the beginning of what was I think my first literary crush.  As a teenager Holmes entered my consciousness as something of an ideal hero: the cerebral man of action for whom the rational intellect was the ultimate weapon.  Doyle's stories had a great vitality, just as his hero was a vital and compelling figure.  From that first book I went on to read every Sherlock Holmes story I could find and from there to read everything I could find written by Doyle.  In that process I discovered Doyle wrote a varied range of fiction, aside from the stories of the great detective, I also discovered with relish his wonderful science fiction which for me rivalled the best of Wells and Verne.  Doyle himself became a figure of interest and I also read biographies of the man himself, as complex and as fascinating as his fictional creations, but it has been a long time since I have engaged with any of Arthur Conan Doyle's wonderful stories, until now, but having just re-read The Hound of the Baskervilles I will definitely be re-reading more of his work.

This book proved a great escapist read, filled as it is with a compelling narrative and evocative atmosphere, essentially gothic in tone, as much a ghost story as a crime novel, this book enters the imagination and sets up a dark residence.  The subject of the plot is well known: Holmes and Watson are approached by a Dr Mortimer to investigate the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville and protect his heir Sir Henry from succumbing to a similar fate.  The recent death and the continuing looming threat seem to stem from the legendary curse on the Baskerville family of a spectral hound hunting down the descendants of the villainous Sir Hugo whose vile behaviour originates the curse.

The story begins in London but then sees Holmes dispatch Watson as Sir Henry's bodyguard to Baskerville Hall in Devon.  It is from this point that Doyle wonderfully evokes the gloomy moors and the terrifying great Grimpen mire; '...a false step yonder means death to man or beast.' Doyle peoples his gothic landscape with a cast of likely suspects, including an escape convict wandering the moor, through Watson's eyes the reader is granted the clues to the mystery, while Holmes remains a mysterious figure lurking in the background. The novel progresses at an urgent pace and I read most of the short novel in one day.  It was a freezing cold, bleak Autumn day at that and this novel made a perfect companion, as I sat nestled in my home library by a cozy fire with cats and my own hound for company. The book celebrates the power of the imagination, evoking so fully character and setting, Doyle loves to blend hard logic and scientific rationalism with the power of imaginative thought, he has Holmes sitting in an armchair while mentally exploring the Baskerville landscape:
"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.  Where do you think that I have been?'
'A fixture also.'
'On the contrary, I have been to Devonshire.'
'In spirit?'
I to travelled to Devonshire, Baskerville hall and it's haunting surrounds, re-living a youthfull enjoyment of a great novel.  Next time I visit my favourite bookshop I will be seeking out more Holmes stories and also Doyle's science fiction which I now also want to re-read.

I read this in a popular penguin edition and I really love these inexpensive, iconic editions, the evocation of the old penguin editions seems to add to the enjoyment of reading a title like this, couldn't resist the promotional video for these: