Thursday, 30 October 2008

Northanger Abbey

I am sitting here listening to Vivaldi, wondering if Jane Austen heard it while she was writing her novels. Did Vivaldi's music come quickly to England, or did it arrive after her death? It's not really important, but there is something in his violin concertos, which I especially like (Konzert 11, d-moll 565 is what is playing) that reminds me of the quickness of repartee, and all the dancing and social events, in Jane's novels. We take music for granted in this century. It's available 24 hours a day, and anything we want can be played. Back in Jane's time, of course, music could only be heard if someone was around to play an instrument. So young ladies who could play were in great demand!
Northanger Abbey is a novel about a young girl coming out in society; it is moreover, a novel about a girl who is not skilled at anything, who comes from the countryside to the town of Bath for a visit. Being from a kindly and dull family, she has no 'wit' or effortless repartee skills that her new friend Isabella has; nor does she have any fortune. What she does have is a kind heart, that allows her to bear all kinds of company with no complaint, and she also has one other quality that all of Jane Austen's heroines bear: honesty. Catherine cannot bear dishonesty, and when she is put in a position by a potential suitor's actions, she is dismayed, and she acts on it: 'If I could not be persuaded into doing what i thought was wrong, I never will be tricked into it.' She is no push-over, and this is very important, because above all, Catherine is silly. She has absolutely no thoughts about anything except Gothic novels and the places such novels are set in. They are all she reads, because history is dull and boring.
In having a dear, sweet, practically brainless heroine, Austen is able to be as ascerbic as she likes in commenting on the society around her. From making fun of Catherine's feelings and torments as she falls in love with Henry Tilney, to the absolute embarrassing idea Catherine develops that Henry's father murdered his mother, to her being sent home in ignomy by carriage alone for a 70 mile trip, and which Catherine is not afraid, not humbled, but rather wonders what she did, what Henry feels when he finds out, and how her family will feel - Catherine and Jane Austen turn the world of the Gothic novel and indeed, most 'female' novels on their head. Catherine faces no danger, does not need to be rescued by Henry at any point. And yet, and yet. She does come to see for herself, by herself, that Isabella is a tease, a flirt, and not a trustworthy friend; she is able to face down her brother, Isabella and Isabella's brother when they are trying to persuade her to break an engagement she has just made with Eleanor and Henry Tilney, and her inability to really hold any kind of deep conversation or learned conversation on anything is more the result of her family (her parents are kindly and dull, dull, dull with nary an opinion really on much and can't get stirred about much either) and her background - from the tiny village of Fullerton, than any lack of intelligence in her. She does talk with Henry and here is a perfect example of Austen's wit and comment on dating:
"She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. to come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can."
Oh, I dearly wish I could have met Jane Austen and talked with her! The advice above is still being repeated today to girls!! Yet Jane means it ironically - and probably knew many women who pretended to be dumb to get a man - just as we still do today. This probably began the first time there was two women and a man in cave man times: one women would be herself, and the other would play helpless.....I leave it to you to guess how that one played out! However, enough of the smart women must have won out because the human race has continued, though it is doubtful any lessons have been learned from cave man times on.
I pointed out Catherine's honesty, because I was thinking about Austen's other heroines and began to see that despite their faults and flaws, every one of them - Anne, Emma, and Elizabeth - also share one quality: they are unfailingly honest. Emma doesn't mean to hurt with her matchmaking skills, she thinks she is helping her friend; Anne never says she doesn't love Wentworth when she first breaks the engagement, she just says she doesn't think it wise to marry when he has nothing but his face to recommend him; and Elizabeth is too proud by far, and is not leading Darcy on (as her other suitor claims is the practice of women to do) by refusing the first offer; she genuinely doesn't recognize he is her equal yet, and that she could love him. Catherine may be simple, but she is quick to learn, and she recognizes her own follies as well as everyone else's; all she wants to become a better-read/more knowledgeable person, is better company to keep.
It does still puzzle that Henry could fall in love with her, but Austen says that he fell in love with her this way:
"for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of a heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own."
And how often in our own lives and families, did romance and true love begin because someone told us someone else liked us, or thought we were cute, etc? In what I think is the crucial scene in the novel, Catherine reveals that she knows nothing of drawing, and Henry begins to instruct her in the beauty of the natural setting around them, and Catherine 'so hopeful a scholar': 'his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in every thing admired by him, and her attention was so earnest, that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste.' It is this that shows them together, naturally, and that they are suited to one another. From the very beginning of their meeting, I wanted them together, and as a romance novel this is as sweet as any of Austen's novels.

I have finished RIP3 Challenge with this book, but since I have to review Tamsin (tomorrow with any luck), I will save my final thoughts until then. However, Northanger Abbey does fit in. If nothing else, Catherine's fanciful imagination has been led astray by reading only Gothic novels. Henry himself has read most of Ann Radcliffe's books, so they can converse on The Mysteries of Udolpho with ease. But when he quizzes her on other books, she confesses she finds them too dry. and herein we find an old debate that rages today, whether one should read only fiction, or try to read non-fiction - and thus better one's knowledge of the world. I'm not debating that here. But it is interesting that Jane Austen takes the side of reading widely - she does not say Gothic novels are bad, just that reading only them reveals a mind that is not curious about the wider world. My guess is that Henry will lead Catherine into reading more. One scene at the end of the book suggests that Catherine reading Gothic novels only is sprung from her parents, her mother especially, who gives her "The Mirror" to instruct her daughter in how to behave!!

If you are in the mood to laugh out loud, to poke fun at society's pretensions, to roll your eyes at the sheer silliness of people (all Mrs Allen talks about is her dresses!!), then Northanger Abbey is a delightful book to choose. If you are in the mood for romance, for true love, Northanger Abbey has that too. If you are in the mood for England, and a bit of English society, pick this book up. And most of all, if you want a delightful companion to lead you through a light-hearted, caustic look at dating in merry old England, this book is for you too.

However, while this was read for RIP3, if you are looking for a creepy setting, horror, scary events, dark scenes, this is not the novel for you. It makes fun of them, without scaring anyone. Not at all like the Scary Movies series! I do love that we do go to an Abbey in the book and get an inside look at a fine English house, but because Catherine has an 'undiscerning' eye, we are not given much period detail at all. The weather (it rains a lot in this book!), and the character of Mr Tilney himself (the father), are far more frightening than anything Catherine can conjure in her mind. He is domineering, and erratic, and that is probably the hardest part of the novel to read. There are no ghostly moments, just Henry making fun of Catherine when he is setting her up for the abbey before seeing it, making fun of what her Gothic-filled mind is conjecturing. Reading Gothics, and horror novels, is silly, and fun. So I guess the question 200 years later, is are there any horror novels or ghost stories that are serious works of literature? Dracula is the only one that comes to mind. Then, we end up in discussing what kind of book is art, or literature, and how we define that.....

I love Jane Austen. After reading this and Tamsin earlier this week (review to follow, also a wonderful, wonderful ghost story), my faith in novels is happily restored.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Odd Thomas - Dean Koontz

If I am going to be honest here, and that is one of my goals with my blog, is that I am honest about books I like and dislike, then I have to take a deep breath, and very quickly say: I hated this book. Ok, hate is too strong. It is badly written in places. And I so intensely disagreed with what Odd did - moving the body of Robertson to the desert? C'mon! Not going to happen. I wanted to like this book. I really was looking forward to it, since so many other bloggers count it among their favourites. But it's poorly written. Now, I'm not sure if, because the main character who is 'writing' this story - his is the only view point given, and he is writing down the events to please his old writing mentor, and so he doesn't forget the events that happened - he has 'writing potential', he was told by this same writing mentor, and so the overblown descriptions could be the author showing how desperately the main character wanted to write. Here's an example: "Pale, puffy, his watery gray gaze floating over store windows, looking almost as bemused as an Alzheimer's patient who has wandered out of his care facility into a world he no longer recognizes, Fungus Man carried stuffed shopping bags from two department stores." That's an opening paragraph, one long run-on sentence that my English teachers at university would have ripped to shreds with red ink everywhere if I had dared to submit that as a descriptive paragraph. What is a watery gray gaze? Are his eyes watering? How does the main character know from across the mall that the man's eyes are gray? and don't get me started on the Alzheimer's bit - I'm sorry, 'bemused' is a terrible expression for someone who is slowly losing every sense of himself and the world around him. They aren't bemused, they're angry, and afraid.

The thing is, I can almost get the image Koontz is trying to convey. The terrible descriptions - and the book is filled with strange things put together, kept pulling me out of the story. I dislike intensely any writing that throws me out of the story I am reading, that reminds me I am reading a story. That's bad writing, and Koontz is too experienced a writer to be doing this.

The thing is, the story itself is good - Odd is psychic, and the things he sees during the events of this novel are creepy - I had problems going to sleep last night, thinking of the Bodach, the black slinking shadow creatures that presage violence, that Odd keeps seeing around his town. All the secondary characters are fantastic, and the ghost of Elvis haunts this book, a very sweet touch. It's not all bad, this book. But the descriptions don't work: "Nonetheless, time was running out for me. My watch was digital, but I could hear my opportunity for action tick-tick-ticking away." I know some of you would think that was cute, but I don't. It's self-conscious and verbose, when if Odd and Koontz were trying for a cool noir tone, this novel could have worked, amazingly. Instead, Odd is annoying. There, I said it. He won't touch his girlfriend, 'saving himself' because they are perfect together. Ok, in my world, once upon a time 30 and even 20 years ago that was still acceptable (not done, but thought about as possible, once!) but today? He'd be beyond freaky, and while he keeps saying he is 'different' and uses the word freak for himself, I just got annoyed at his innocence, which was a cover for fear of everything that could go wrong in love and in a relationship. The thing between his mother and himself - when he finally reveals it (and I know at least one of you, my dear Bloggers, hasn't read this yet! so I'm not revealing much here!) I got mad and that no one, but no one would go through a life of what his mother did to him and not fight back once. so I lost all respect for him too, even though as a character, he is interesting. See, it's a difficult book to write off completely, which is why I keep reading the occasional Koontz in the hope it will be a better read than the previous book. He has such great horror ideas, and terrible execution - but then again, we do live in a world where Dan Brown is a bestseller, and his dialogue makes me shudder. I've only managed one of his books, and I could read it only because the story was good enough to drag me yelling to the end....oh no, now I sound like Dean Koontz here! I'm going to go away now, and hope Tamsin by Peter Beagle is better written.

It's been a very bad week at work so maybe I've been a bit hard here, but I don't think so. Will I read any more in the series? Maybe, if only to know what happens to the secondary characters - Little Ozzie and Chester the cat, the chief and Karla, Terri the Elvis lover - they are people I'd love to have in my life. I just wish Odd wasn't so prissy, and was more human, but then seeing dead people does do strange things to one. I do believe psychic ability exists, and to accept the gift and how it makes you different does make the psychic person different. I guess Odd has no sense of humour, and that's what has gotten me through my life, so I'm not sure he and I could ever be friends.

It is an interesting story filled with ghosts, and good people, but it's not a well-written book, so I can't really recommend it as anything more than an airport book.

I'm so glad I read Lonely Werewolf Girl before Odd Thomas. LWG sustains me now. When I encounter a badly-written book, at least I know there are great ones out there, that are what perfect reading and perfect books are all about. It's been a few weeks now since I read it, and I keep coming back to it in my mind, replaying my favourite parts, thinking about the characters. LWG is quickly moving from my list of favourite books this year, to the list of the best books I've ever read. I think some friends and family members might find this one under the Christmas tree this year...I also love The Woman in Black, and find after letting it sit for 6 weeks in my mind, that it is still so creepy that I won't let myself think about the book for too long in case I start getting scared again. Now that is a ghost story.

Odd Thomas finishes that section of the 888 challenge for me; I've completed two sections now, and have two more sections I hope to complete in November. So I'm not going to complete the whole challenge, but I have read 44/64 books so far in the challenge, which is a very good achievement for me. I've also now read 11/4 books in the RIP3 challenge! With Tamsin now, and Northanger Abbey or Thirteenth Letter, I haven't quite decided what to end the challenge on, I will have read 13 books for the challenge, which is a very appropriate number to end the challenge on Hallowe'en with!! (Carl, do I get any bonus points for this?)

PS note to Koontz fans: Please don't write and tell me I will go to Book Hell for dismissing your all-time favourite horror writer. I already feel badly enough that I didn't see what was so great in the book, when everyone, and I mean everyone, has only had good things to say about it. I'm back in that group of one again!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Sunday Salon - It's all about Neil Gaiman

The Sunday

Fragile Things, Coraline, The Graveyard Book.

I've decided to do a post about one of my favourite authors, in honour of RIP3 challenge, AND that these three books fit this time of year, spooky and ghost-filled. I know that for many of you, my Gentle Readers, you also love Neil Gaiman. I thought I would try to show some of what I admire and love in his books, and his writing. Most of all, it's as if he pierces my heart, but instead of ripping it into shreds, he gently puts it back together with love and hope and faith.

Fragile Things

I read Fragile Things earlier this year. I didn't post on it because I got caught up in other things, but it never left the side of my computer where I pile the books I really want to review. I am in awe of this writer. Fairy tales, fantasy, gothic, and horror, all with a touch of melancholy about them. Even the poem about Bluebeard, The HIdden Chamber, isn't straightforward, instead mixed with doom - unlike the fluttering butterfly he (the writer) sets free, this is what will happen to his new love:
If you are wise you'll run into the night,
fluttering away into the cold
wearing perhaps the laciest of shifts.
The lane's hard flints
will cut your feet all bloody as you run,
so, if I wished, I could just follow you,
tasting the blood and oceans of your
tears. I'll wait instead,
here in my private place, and soon I'll put
a candle
in the window, love, to light your way back home.
The world flutters like insects. I think this
is how I shall remember you,
my head between the white swell of your breasts,
listening to the chambers of your heart.

The horror, the real horror, is that even if she escapes, she will come back again. He - the writer, Bluebeard - understands the secret to a woman's heart, that even if she senses danger, she has to know all the secrets: "You'll see/the heartbreak linger in my eyes, and dream/of making me forget what came before you walked/into the hallway of this house."
And he is right! It's a play on Harlequin novels, gothics, that sense that the right woman will heal a man. Wise, and heart-breaking, the collection of stories and poems in this book are all like this. Some succeed more than others - in past posts, here and here, and here , I've referred to my favourites: October in the Chair, A Study in Emerald, The Problem of Susan , and my favourite poems of all: Instructions and Locks.

If you are looking for short stories to read before Hallowe'en, I highly recommend this book. It is magical and fantastical, creepy, unsettling, spooky, funny, everything that is good in fantasy and horror writing today. It should be in every serious reader's library.


I read Coraline over the past three days, mostly because I kept getting interrupted. I finally finished it late last night. It has to be one of the scariest books for children I've read, and I really wish it had been around when I was a kid. I would have loved it! I would have read it over and over! My children are just a little bit too young for it - I think the 'other family' would confuse them, and the horrible button eyes and the other mother creating the world, is for children about 7-8 years old. I can hardly wait to read it to them, though! Coraline is the spunkiest, bravest heroine ever. I mean it, I'm not sure I could have survived the other world. I was possibly holding my breath during the last 50 pages of the book. It was awful, in the awe-inspiring sense that real terror can take. And beautiful, because she makes it right in the end, and the sense of relief was palpable to me, at least! I was able to get to sleep last night. I think if Coraline hadn't gotten out and back into her world, I would have nightmares about her being trapped, for a very long time. That is how real Neil makes his characters, and how real the story is. Especially as I live in a semi-detached house, though thankfully there are no doors between our houses, in the wall!!

I think one reason Neil Gaiman is so popular a horror/fantasy writer is because the underpinnings of his writing is love, and faith, and hope. This is what saves his characters. It is a real treat in today's world of endless bad SAW movies (I haven't seen one and never will) and stupid slash and gash horror movies where fatalism means no one escapes, that there are writers who deal with the mysteries, the ghostly and ghastly, with the emotions and characteristics that make us our best as humans. No matter the danger, or the eeriness, it all comes down to the heart. Whether Bluebeard's uncanny understanding, or Coraline's bravery, most of Neil's characters are on human journeys of finding love, recapturing love (several of his short stories deal with both these topics), or surviving love. He explores the dangerous pathways of the world, in myths (American Gods), folktales, children's stories, the underground literally in Neverwhere, horror in Coraline, and in my next book to review, The Graveyard Book, and in all of them, he never loses sight of what makes people human, good or bad, and he lets his heroes and heroines be brave. And if any of you have had to face real nightmares in the world, as I have, you know that bravery and courage are needed as much today as ever. He's writing to you, to me, to his children, to the world, telling us the stories we need to hear to survive. To me, Coraline is one of the best heroines for girls to ever be written. It's a truly good horror story for kids that deserves every award it received. And the illustrations are truly creepy and delightful and my kids will pore over them. They are the stuff of nightmares. Most excellent!

The Graveyard Book

I read this today. I couldn't put it down!! I love this story! I thought it could be good, the premise is certainly interesting - little boy raised in a graveyard by ghosts - and this story is everything I hoped for, and more. It is enchanting. How I can say that about a book that involves murder, ghouls, vampires, werewolves, witches and ghosts, is almost a mystery, but it's not - it's Neil, so it's heart-breaking even as it's beautiful and haunting and funny. It's a ghost story for families. In case you are one of the 10 readers left on the planet who haven't read the book yet, I am not going to give the plot away here - I'm just going to give you how I felt reading this book, and why I think everyone can read it. First of all, it's not scary, even the opening, even my most faint-hearted, sensitive Gentle Reader can be assured that no matter how it starts out, you will not have nightmares. Yes, it's scary in places. Have you ever spent a night in a cemetary? Me either. Nor do I want to. Why? Because the dead walk at night. I don't care what anyone says, they do. I love the melancholy beauty of graveyards, I think about the people gone before and try to imagine their lives as I read the headstone inscriptions, but I would not spend a night in a graveyard. Well, The Graveyard Book is about a boy who lives in one. And how he does, and how the ghosts help him, and what wonders befall him - make this book truly worth reading. It is a magical tour through the world of a graveyard. Not necessarily the land of the dead, mind, just the world here of the dead. And yes, I cried at the ending. I hate change, even though I know it's necessary, I hate loss of people, change in relationships, and the loss here in this book is inevitable, and piercing.

Of all the amazing characters that people this book, the one I love is the Lady on the Gray Horse. Much is made of Neil's remarks at the back of the book to Rudyard Kipling and The Jungle Book, how there is inspiration from that book in this one. I've never read The Jungle Book, but I have read John Keat's poem The Belle Dame Sans Merci, and seen the Pre-Rahaelite painting of the same name, and that is who the Lady on the Gray Horse reminds me of. When Bod Owens (the main character) first meets the Lady, this is his impression and what they end their conversation with:
"There was a woman riding on the horse's bare back, wearing a long grey dress that hung and gleamed beneath December Moon like cobwebs in the dew.
....."Can I ride him?" asked Bod.
"One day," she told him, and her cobweb skirts shimmered. "One day. Everybody does."
"I promise."

Every time I read those lines, I get a lump in my throat. She is Lady Death, and isn't she a better figure to come carry us away, than the Grim Reaper Spectre with th scythe that we are more familiar with?

For a book about death and ghosts, it is filled with whimsical moments and ideas like this. So it's not a scary book. It's filled with love and humour, and ghosts and graveyards, and I think it is perfectly wonderful. As soon as my kids are old enough - I think sometime in the next year Holly-Anne at least will be able to listen to the story being read (albeit with 5,000 questions in between!) - I will be reading this to them. And the illustrations, of course - line drawings that leave the mind to fill in the gaps, setting the tone, and I've forgotten until I read Coraline and The Graveyard Book how much I enjoy drawings with my stories!

Recapturing childhood wonder, somehow that seems to be the essence I get from reading these two books. So I recommend them highly, as marvelous work that must be read. Come, take Neil's hand, and let him show you how to survive the night, and face the dawn, and live to tell the marvelous frightening tale.......

*sighs happily, contentedly*

I hope your ghostly reading is taking you to fantastic places today, too!

Other reviews:
Bart's Bookshelf
Stuff as Dreams are Made On

Stainless Steel Droppings (Carl)
Eva (A Striped Armchair)

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Turkey, voting, and freedom

My sister Patricia at Patricia's Pages has a great little post on why we should vote today on our Canadian Federal election, here.
I'd like to add, she has a military husband (now out of the army, but after 20 years in the military, I think the military will always be part of him), and one of our other sisters also married a young man currently in our Canadian Armed Forces. Whatever our views are on the war in Afghanistan, the desire is the same: to make sure all our soldiers come home safely. That's one good reason to vote.

Another reason has to do with reading. Last week many of the American bloggers were reading banned books, in support of freedom to read. In Western society, we have a lot of freedom. In order to keep that freedom, we have to vote, we have to care, and we have to realize that what we say and think, somehow, eventually, does matter. In my own personal world view, if a person doesn't vote, they have no right to complain over the next 4 years, because they didn't bother to take the time to vote. I look at book banning in much the same way - we are going to end up with the world in Fahrenheit 451 if we don't challenge the reasons why books are banned, if we don't stand up for the right to choose our books to read. I don't want someone telling me I can't read this or that book because they think it's unsuitable for me. I want to make that choice myself.

It's all about freedom, Gentle Readers. And I take the right to cast my vote seriously. So, tonight my husband and I took our children with us to the polling booth, and as I did with the eldest son (now able to vote for himself), I showed the youngest how to vote - what the ballot looks like, the names, and how to put the X on. Then I marked my choice and folded it up, and it was done.

We have 10 minutes and the polls close! Hurray!! Please don't let the Conservatives get a majority, please don't let the Conservatives get a majority.....

Yesterday was the Canadian Thanksgiving Day. We ate turkey - indeed, we have turkey leftovers for most of this week. It was a success, we ate far too much, and I managed to not read a word of my book. Either I ate too much turkey today at lunch, or I'm tired, because The House of Dr Dee today kept putting me to sleep. I want to like it, I have to read it for the 1% Challenge - so the question I put to you, my Gentle Readers, is this: if I try to read a book for the challenge, and I just can't get through it, does it count as being a book I've read? Let me know what you think....I guess not, it will end up being one I could not finish. I'm going to keep at it, but honestly, it's boring and I really want to read The Graveyard Book, Tamsin, Coraline, and Odd Thomas for the rest of the RIP3 Challenge!!! Why do I find 'good literature' so boring to read? It's like the vegetables we were forced to eat as kids: I cannot like tomatoes, will not ever, but I love spinach now. So I try and try to please my Cool Inner Literary Bookworm, but she might have to abandon me to Fantasy Book slut. I just have more fun with the latter!!!

Ok, polls are done, election results coming in.....happy day after turkey day, gentle Readers, from Canada!!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

Trish at Hey Lady, Whatcha Readin', has a wonderful post here
which is one I've often thought of writing about. What books made you cry? Funnily enough, two of the recent horror books I've read made me cry:
1. Lonely Werewolf Girl
2. The Woman in Black

and both times, I actually wept, didn't just feel a tear form in my eye. I've been a lonely teenager, so lonely when I escaped from my home that I wanted to die (Lonely Werewolf Girl), and I've felt shock and loss so deep that it could hardly be processed (The Woman in Black) though thankfully, not haunted by anything like that spectre!

So this leads me to ask you on this Sunday Salon: what books have made you cry? and did you like them the more because they made you feel, or did you push them away?

I have to confess here that I cry a lot. I cry when I get mad, when I miss buses, when things are out of control, when I'm pmsing I cry at commercials (especially the Mormon ones that thankfully have stopped airing now, it was so embarrassing!), and I have always, always cried while reading books. But does this make it a good story?

I think it does. I think that if you or I, the reader, responds to a story from such a deep level that we cry, then it means the story is telling some truth that we recognize. I'm not the only one who has ever felt lonely or grief; the thrill of reading the above novels for me is being recognized. It's not easy to remember that anguish, but it's human, and it's part of what made me me, and now Kalix and her story are also part of my experience. I think when we cry or laugh, or in some way are deeply moved by a book, it does become part of our selves.

So here are some of the books that have gone into my reading life, by which I have been moved and shaped:
1. Anne of Green Gables, and right through the entire 8 books of the series. Every one had a moment or two that had me wiping away tears. Most memorable? When Anne is about to go back to the orphanage, when Matthew dies, when Walter dies, when Rilla stutters at the very end of the final book, Rilla of Ingleside.
2.The Diary of Anne Frank. She was and is my heroine, and always will be.
These two books single-handedly got me through my teen years, which like everyone else's, was the worst in the world.
3. Little House on the Prairie - somewhere in this series, I cried, at least twice - once when they think Alonzo is dead, and once with one of Laura's sisters.
4. Robin Hobb - The Farseer Trilogy, and Tawny Man Trilogy. She can make me cry so easily!!
5. Doomsday Book (Connie Willis). One of the best time-travel books ever, and the ending made me realize what life in the middle ages was really like, and it was so real I cried.
6.anything by Connie Willis - every single book by her has made me cry. She writes about humans in science fiction society, and I think she is one of the most under-rated writers in the US. Only the SF world seems to be recognizing her so far.
7.Jasper Fforde: every book in the Thursday Next series also has a moment of tears. How can it not, when her husband doesn't exist, her father may or may not be dead as he time travels, as she deals with tavelling between books with heroism and tries to remember who she is.
8. Forty Words for Sorrow - Giles Blunt
9. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke
10. A Wrinkle in Time - Madeline L'Engle
11. Suite Francaise

Well, that's just the beginning.....I don't cry at every book! But I have to confess also that once upon a time in my reading life when I was 13, I read a whole bunch of Harlequin romances, and the really good ones would always have me upset when the vixen would undermine the good heroine girl...I can't say I always wept, but sometimes I did.

I also cry at news stories, so I think it's me. But in my world, a writer is doing something right if I have been moved. I must have been very lonely at times if a moment of recognition can still make me cry. Or, I prefer to think, books bridge that gap, so that for a moment, in our lives, like good conversations where we are listening and being heard, that priceless exchange amongst friends, books have that same kind of exchange, from writer to reader. And that is the stuff of life.

And before you picture me crying all the time, I have to add that I also laugh. Often. I love it when books make me laugh. Which Lonely Werewolf Girl did. Which Anne of Green Gables did, often, all through the series. Which almost every book that made me cry, also had some moment where I laughed too. Those are the best kinds of books. Connie Willis is delightful - Bellwether has the best description of office/corporate life I've ever read. I can't decide if I would want Flip in my office or not!! So, if you want to write about books that made you laugh out loud, please do that instead. This is Sunday Salon, where we are talking about books, and somehow we are talking about what it is to be human. Isn't that what it's all really about? Books and life? For me anyway, it is....

I hope your Sunday reading is good today. I have begun The House of Dr Dee, though our Thanksgiving Day is tomorrow and I have a 15 pound turkey to cook, so I'm not sure how much reading I'm going to do!

Happy Sunday reading!

Tainted Blood - Arnaldur Indridason

Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indridason is the first book in the Icelandic mystery series featuring Detective Erlendur. I first encountered Erlendur when I read Silence of the Grave last year. It's the second book in the series, but all I could find at the time. I can't say enough good about this series, since I have been hooked since Silence of the Grave. I am so pleased that Tainted Blood is as good.

The book starts off quietly, with the discovery of a body in a basement apartment. After that, the mystery slowly builds as Erlendur and his team try to discover why the old man was killed. Erlendur is fascinating. He is an older detective, with a failed marriage behind him and lost touch with his children when they were little. One child has gotten in touch with him when the book opens. She is almost a failure, exactly like he is, personally, and like him, is very intelligent. It's not that Erlendur is a social outcast, far from it. He is part of the new breed of detectives in current mysteries, where their desire to solve a mystery takes them to places that precludes being able to sustain deep relationships. It's like looking into the human heart affects people, as it surely must: " You think it won't affect you. You reckon you're strong enough to withstand that sort of thing. You think you can put on armour against it over the years and can watch all the filth from a distance as if it's none of your business, and try to keep your senses. But there isn't any distance. And there's no armour. No-one's strong enough. The repulsion haunts you like an evil spirit that burrows into your mind and doesn't leave you in peace until you believe that the filth is life itself because you've forgotten how ordinary people live. This case is like that. Like an evil spirit that's been unleashed to run riot in your mind and ends up leaving you crippled."
This is the longest speech in the book by Erlundur. When I read it, it got me thinking about how mysteries and detectives have changed from the beginning of the twentieth century to recent times. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett had heroes who were single, who commented on life because they were outside of it. They could go where no one else who was 'ordinary' could go. Investigating mysteries - crime - assaults on people - meant that you couldn't engage in ordinary life after. For a very long time this continued through detective series and mysteries, although there were exceptions - Tommy and Tuppence Beresford from Agatha Christie, Nick and Nora Charles by the same Dashiell Hammett - which were foils to the theory, but because they were a team, the sense of loneliness was not part of their story as it is when the detective is single.

I admire both kinds of detective series - Tommy and Tuppence are part of two of my favourite Agatha Chirtie novels, N or M, and By the Pricking of my Thumbs, but I have a particular preference for the plumbing of the human heart, for the sense of righting a wrong that restores some sense of justice in the world. The single detective in particular stands for morality, and Erlendur is Iceland's contribution to this form of detective story. Even though he has a failed marriage, he does get along with his team - although when we finally meet his boss, it is hilarious how he undercuts him, so Erlendur is no pushover or hierarchical, by-the-books detective either. There is a great deal of intuition, that essential key to great detective work. There is also what I think is part of the Iceland character, the inheritance from the old Icelandic sagas, the idea of fate and gloom. How could a people live in darkness, and snow, for much of the year, and not be somewhat morose and gloomy? I like Erlendur. He is quiet, forceful, persistent, and human. I enjoy how he solves mysteries, with doggedness, and the desire to discover why. There are no car chase scenes, no mobsters, no city in peril here. Just a quiet mystery involving a man who turns out to be much worse, a monster, and the crime committed years ago still ripples through lives in the current day, as crimes do. These are contemplative books on human life, not shying away from the twists in human nature, and I am becoming a very big fan of this series. I have gone out and bought the next two (after Silence of the Grave) that have been translated, to read in the new year as my challenges end.

This is also part of my Orbis Terrarum challenge, so I've now read 5 books in this challenge.

You might think this is not a big change from reading horror, but for me it is. I was thinking over this week why it was, and the conclusion I've come to is that horror often is unresolved, whereas in most mystery books, there is a resolution, a restoring of justice, peace, the balance.

Next up: back to RIP3, and The House of Dr Dee by Peter Ackroyd.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Lonely Werewolf Girl

Lonely Werewolf Girl
by Martin Millar is a fabulous novel. A story about Kalix MacRinnaich, youngest daughter of the ruling Werewolf Family of Scotland, who is the lonely Werewolf Girl of the title. I was lucky enough to pick this up on a day home sick - Monday - and I spent all day reading it. I can't say enough good things about this book, because it has everything. Teenage angst, dysfunctional family, werewolves, fairies, elemental spirits, clan gatherings, friendship, love, betrayal, and fashion. Yes, fashion. This is the funniest novel I have read in a long time, and I mean I laughed out loud many times during this novel. It also has some very heart-breaking moments, because we are dealing with teens, to whom every disaster is the last one that can be survived, and hearts get broken so easily. I cried when Kalix was about to die. Funny thing that. She might be a werewolf, but she is also a human girl when she's human, and her loneliness after running away from her family is so real and so poignant that I cried. It's a feeling every young adult has as they set out from home - or, if not all people, then certainly those that escape from unhappy homes, as I did. I understood Kalix, even as I got mad at her for resisting any help, and yet her family is so dysfunctional that eventually her behaviour makes sense. And how she makes friends is part of the pure magic and delight of this novel. I loved it. It is one of the best reads I've had this year.

And yes, the fashion was an intrinsic part of the story, and very funny: "But really, who can blame the Duchess? One cannot be answering requests to deal out blazing destruction when one's frocks are the subject of public ridicule."
or this from the Queen of the Fire Elements: "Do you mind if I remain when Dominil comes to visit? I am curious about this white-haired wolf before whom all tremble."
Thrix looked at Malveria.
"Just how bored are you these days?"
"Very bored," admitted Malveria. "Sometimes I regret that I so completely vanquished my enemies."
or this description of cricket: "Daniel tried to explain the rules of -" Malveria paused. "What is the human game that requires white clothes and a great deal of time?"
"That is it. Cricket. Apparently the rules of this game are most puzzling and complex. Daniel tried to explain these rules to Vex. As a consequence of this I understand she almost lost consciousness, and had to be helped to a chair, in a very poor state of mind."

This is my favourite two lines from the book: "It was good to have a cheerful werewolf in the house. Much better than a suicidally depressed werewolf."

I would recommend this book to anyone over the age of 14 who can read and enjoys a fun, gripping, slightly scary - because werewolves are frightening creatures, and there is plenty of death and bloodshed in this book - hilarious, well-written novel. It is brilliant.

I have had to take a tiny break from reading horror after this book. 8 straight books of horror for RIP3!! Because I finished Everything's Eventual by Stephen King, which I am going to review tomorrow because one story scared me so much that this book deserves its own post also. I am reading Tainted Blood by Arnuldur Indridason, the first book in his Iceland mystery series. Yes, a mystery, not much of a change from horror! but not horror, so I can get a break from the adrenaline horror gives.

I am so glad I read Lonely Werewolf Girl, and I suspect this will become a yearly or biannual read for me. This is one of my top 10 reads for the year.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

You may be noticing some changes on my blog - the new header,which is a picture I took myself with our digital camera of visitor to my garden this past summer. I have planted a butterfly and bee flower garden deliberately, and this was the first time I saw the Monarch butterfly on the butterfly bush! So I grabbed our camera and this is the result. I was and am so delighted! "If you build it, they will come." No wonder Field of Dreams is such a powerful movie. You have to picture it, imagine it somehow, before it can come into being. And I want to feed the butterflies and bees.

Which all provides me with the next change: Sunday Salon. I have long been admirer and reader of this book forum, and finally took the plunge last week and signed up. So here, as I start my second year of blogging, I'm going to begin writing about books and what I'm reading, on Sundays.

And wouldn't you know it? The very first blog I went to on Sunday Salon, had a post on writing! Exile on 9th Street, a new blogger to me, posted about the writing life and creativity here.
What I want to talk about, from his post, is the book he brings up - Write Free, Attracting the Creative Life, by Rebecca Lawton and Jordan Rosenfeld. It sounds like a feel-good book about living a creative life, as Exile says, new-agey. But what he is discovering in it, has meaning for me: 'What’s the book about, you ask? It’s principally about how to a attract a creative life through positive thinking. But it’s not just thinking you’ll be a writer that the book proposes: it proposes action and resolve. It helps writers, or any creative person for that matter, focus on what they want by writing down their desires and acting on them.' As some of you know, I am a writer also, and I wrote my first draft of a fantasy novel over the last several year, concentrating and finishing the draft by last Christmas. Then I put it away. Last night, at a party for a friend's birthday, I encountered members of my old writing group! I hadn't seen most of them in almost 20 years. So, they asked me what I was doing, and I told them about the book. Today, I made my mind up that it's time to get back to writing. I've had enough time off and away from creating. I copied out the section from Exile's blog because for me, focusing my desires and acting on them has always been fraught with anxiety for me. Not that I can't do it, more that I am afraid to know what I want, because then I would have to go out and get it. And I'm scared of that. Is it just power? Is it the possibility I could have everything I dreamed of? The thing is, I am not far from having a really good life I like. What I don't have is a strong creative section set aside for myself, and that's what I need. I've been seeing this year, I think, if I need to write. and I always come back to yes. Because I enjoy writing, I enjoy creating stories, I like writing about ghosts and magic and people. There is a power for me in writing that, a sense of being connected to a deeper river of life around me. I want my life to have meaning. It's that authentic self stuff again, I know! I think I will get this book and, as I feel some anxiety in answering questions about what I really want, I also know that is where I've hidden away from myself something that I need.

Sadly, I read one Stephen King story in Everthing's Eventual today, I'm trying to finish the book tonight so I can start on Lonely Werewolf Girl tomorrow. I'm enjoying Everything's Eventual, but I can't shake the feeling that I've read all the stories before, yet I can't remember when or where I was! It could be whole deja vu thing, but it doesn't feel like it!

I hope you have had a good Sunday catching up on reading, and whatever else you wanted to do this weekend. If you know any recent good books on writing, please let me know about them. I am going to get Natalie Goldberg's new one soon, as well, which Andi at Andi Lit has been writing from over the past spring and summer and sounds wonderful.

From good writing comes good reading. The best books are written with passion, and so are the best lives lived. That's what I aspire to! (There. I said it!)

by the way, my old writing group did invite me back; I don't know if I am ready, mostly because they write hard science fiction, and I write fantasy, which was the reason my friend Jennifer and I left in the first place! (She writes fantasy also) We actually were part of one other writing group, and then it all fizzled out. This was all in the late 1980's, fresh out of university and starting life..... They are a lovely group of writers, and I might go back for a visit, in which I will let you know how it goes! I think though, that this blog and the blogging writing community functions as my writing group that I need right now. Mostly I just need to sit down and get writing again. Now that I am reading more, it's time to balance with writing again.

Friday, 3 October 2008

At last, some book reviews - RIP3 catch-up

Last night, I was all primed to watch two sets of debates - here in Canada it's also our Federal election time, and all five party leaders were having a debate, at the same time - yes, the very same hour!- that the VP debates were happening in the US. So there I was, channel selector in hand.....and I fell asleep. I woke up when it was all over! So I can't give an opinion on either set of debates last night! And I was so looking forward to hearing Sarah Palin for myself, and to hearing our own leaders (hopefully) discuss issues and not resort to name calling as the last few debates have been. All this, to explain that I haven't been able to get on as often as I would like because I keep falling asleep shortly after the kids are in bed! So, here are the round-up of book-reviews from RIP 3, which I've read 6 in total so far, and with one exception, have thoroughly enjoyed them all so far. And yes, before you ask - I do intend to keep reading from my horror list right through to Hallowe'en night! Of course, you all keep adding books I wish I could find up here - Chris at Stuff as Dreams are Made Of
especially: Cherie Priest, The Bat-Poet, and oh no! Today he just reviewed The Graveyard Book here
and it's an amazing review and I still haven't made it to a bookstore yet to get it!!! I've put them all on my immediate to buy list if I ever make it to the bookstore!

Anyway, here are the books I've read and not reviewed yet for the RIP 3 Challenge:

The Night Country, by Stewart O'Nan. I finished this last night. It is one that left me almost in tears, it is so full of melancholy. It's the story of the anniversary a year later of a car crash that kills three of the 5 riders, and gives the perspective from one of the parents of Kyle, one of the 2 survivors, from Tim, the other survivor, from Brooks, the policeman who found them, and the ghosts of the three themselves, one of whom is telling the story. Because it is a year later, the messiness, the terrible grief and anger is felt mostly in the ramifications of that night a year ago, in how life is now, in the book. The sadness is there, but it doesn't overwhelm the story, nor does the grief, or anger, or guilt. It's a beautiful story of life after, and yet, it is also a horror story. Because that night isn't over. Something happened that night, and for everyone who was there, they can't escape it. Not until the ending of this book, are things put right.
Because it deals with grief and loss, it's not a light read. It is intensely moving in places, and I couldn't put it down as I realized there was a terrible secret about the crash. I had to know what it was.
I can promise that you will never look at ghosts or the idea of haunting in quite the same way again. There is no gore here, no truly scary eerie skin-crawling horror. This is a quiet novel about ghosts, and tragedy, and really, it becomes a novel of lost chances and regret. It is bittersweet and melancholic, perfect for autumn and the rainy mists and leaves swirling down. Fittingly, the accident occurs on Hallowe'en night, and the novel occurs over the 24 hour period to the time of the crash a year later. I highly recommend it.

In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead - James Lee Burke. This is one of the early Dave Robicheaux mysteries, set in Louisiana, in the bayous in Jefferson Parish, and other names familiar to us from the recent hurricanes that have battered that part of the US. Indeed, during this book there are two tropical storms that hit the area! None of course, in the book, do much damage besides flooding. (This is because Tin-Roof Blow-down, the latest book by Burke in this series, is about Katrina and events that happen during the hurricane. I've already been told I'm getting it for Christmas, my mother says it's very very good). In this book, Hollywood has started filming a Civil War movie, and an old boyhood acquaintance of Dave's comes to town, rolling the money out for the movie - Baby Feet Julie the Bone, a mobster; a serial killer is stalking young prostitutes and brutally killing them, and the star of the movie is an alcoholic who sees spirits, and the spirits start talking to Dave. What Dave learns, and how he sovles the case - and gets rid of Julie in the process, makes for at-the-edge of my seat reading. I had to keep telling myself to breathe! Because at the edge of everything Dave Robicheaux does, is his past in the Vietnam War, and the resulting nightmares and alcoholism he has struggled to overcome.
I have always considered these books among the best mysteries written because the crime isn't glossed over, and the politics are dirty. Dirty, and mean, the way we all know now politics are after the past twenty years, both down in the US and up here in Canada. I like the writing, it's honest: "I don't like to bust drunk drivers, I don't like to listen to their explanations, watch their pitiful attempts to affect sobriety, or see the sheen of fear break out in their eyes when they realize they're headed for the drunk tank with little to look forward to in the morning except the appearance of their names in the newspaper. Or maybe in truth I just don't like to see myself when I look into their faces."
One of the things I like best about this series is that Dave is happily married to Boots, and they have adopted Alafair. Batiste helps him out in the bait shop (they run a small fishing boat for hire business on the side). Dave has roots in this community, he is grounded in his family, and this helps keep the terrible acts from taking over the book.
And, Dave has ethics, and these always get him trouble, and since I have trouble keeping myself from speaking out, he is someone I can easily relate too.
There are ghosts in this book, and they play a role in confronting the evil in Dave's parish, as well as resolving a crime from long ago that he witnessed, as well as helping Dave to come to terms a bit more with himself and his past. A very well done mystery. I very much enjoyed reading it.

Wolf Moon by Charles de Lint. This is sadly, the only book I have not enjoyed so far. It was published in 1988, and reads like it was an early effort at horror. His characters are good, as usual, but somewhat cliche, and the dialogue is the weak and very cliche. It's a fascinating idea - a musician who can call forth the true shapes of things, and is hunting werewolves, which the main character, Kern, is. This book is set in medieval country, as was many of Charles' early efforts like Riddle of the Wren, which also has some of the same flaws - but is better told, which is why people know it and not Wolf Moon! The musician is a harpist, and one dimensional. We aren't even told why he hunts werewolves! Sorry, I know I'm giving a bit of the plot away, but I really wanted to like this book because I could see the idea he was working on, but it isn't a natural fit. The fantasy elements are great, and work, and the horror becomes cliche, down to the musician bespelling them all against Kern for being a werewolf. Granted, one character, Fion, is able to break it, but I really wanted a character to surprise me, and in the end nothing did. I wish I could recommend it, so to those who want to read a book early in a successful writer's career - and a book that isn't very good (to cheer you up! keep writing!), here's one to try! Otherwise, this can be, sadly, missed.

And, finally, last, but it's one of my favourites (by now you should know I leave the icing for last on the cake, all the best things I leave for the end, I want the bad news first so I can have the good news last!!! - I'm that kind of person!) so far, a really decent horror story, Alexandra Sokoloff's The Harrowing.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It is a first novel, and nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. It didn't win, and I haven't read the winner of that year yet to know if it should have, but definitely The Harrowing deserved to be nominated. It is scary! It's got a ghost haunting a college dormitory, past suspicious deaths, an ouija board, and creepiness and unsettling descriptions of being alone in the dormitory over Thanksgiving holidays: 'And Robin hadn't really imagined how different it would feel - that there was a life force in the presence of others that pervaded the building. Even when she was in her own room, consciously unaware, her subconscious must have registered all the others.
Now the Hall was as empty and dead as a shell.'
The descriptions are a little heavy-handed in obvious symbolism - the outside of the hall Robin compares to the delirious imaginings of Hawthorne and Poe, the grave, emptiness, darkness, are mentioned often in the first few pages. Bear with this - it gets better, especially as the other characters meet in the dormitory living room one night over the holidays and the story really gets going. It is a quick read, by that I mean it is a fast-paced horror novel, with characters that could have been cliched but turn out not to be. In fact, this book is like that - it could have been a walking cliche, but everything turns out much darker, deeper, and well-thought out.

I read the book in a night. There was no way I could go to sleep with the horror lurking in that building, with the characters facing the unknowable - will they survive? they are young adults and so not always bright in their choices, but they are faced with an ancient evil that does lift this book from the ordinary "teens make bad choices and pay the price' bad ghost story novel. This is a good story. I dare you to read it and not get scared at some point! At the least, not get creeped out at the idea of staying in a dormitory alone. I sure couldn't. My imagination is barely contained at the best of times! I really like how the characters have layers, and aren't one dimensional, and I really like how the plot is resolved. This is a really satisfying ghost story with some really thrilling, scary moments. (*Note: sorry for all the reallys. I was writing this with pizza waiting on the counter....and the kids were needing attention....)

This is a great close-to-Hallowe'en scary ghost story read, well-deserving of its nomination, and I think deserves to be more widely read. I like the quote that Robin hears on the last Friday before Thanksgiving begins: "But while Freud contended that the forces that drive us come from within us, our own unconscious, his disciple and colleague Jung believed there was a universal unconscious around us, populated by ancient forces that exist apart from us, yet interact with and act upon us." He paused, looked around at the class.
"So who is right? Do our demons come from without, or within us?"

And that is how I look at horror - it is an archetype. We all know horror, we have all encountered it in some form in our lives, so how do we deal with it? Horror novels give us some options and show conclusions. How can we deal with horror? And how can we hold ourselves together when we do encounter it? I look at horror novels as signposts along the way - either pointing for a way through the trees safely, or showing bad decisions leading to traps, cliffs, and paths that end that end in graveyards.

I am so enjoying this challenge. I know I keep saying this, and I really am!

Other links to books:
The Night Country: 3M (An Adventure in Reading)

Wednesday, 1 October 2008


Yaaay!! I'm one years old today!!

Last year, I set out with trepidation - really, my heart was pounding, I was almost sweating, would anyone answer me? Would anyone read what I had to say, would anyone care? Was anyone out there?

Well, I got my answer, and I have been blessed this past year, with all of YOU, dear Gentle readers. My blog overflows with your comments and witticisms and wonderful humor and shared love of books. I really had no idea who was out there, what kind of book readers and blogs were available. I couldn't have asked for a better blogging community to share. Some of you are becoming friends. We have shared books, thoughts, memes, jokes, laughter, tears, I've won two giveaways (thank you Carl and Kim L!), I've participated in many interesting challenges, and most of all, I've discovered the love of books really does cross water, culture, language, and we do end up speaking the same language - the love of books.

So I share some yummy cake with you - Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Cloud cake, which is as dark chocolate and delicious with real whipped cream as it looks (and I know, I made it in the spring!) - here, sit down, have a piece, here's a cup of tea (I have several, even herbal), let's eat and talk about our favourite books of all time, and share some thoughts on autumn and good ghost stories....let's talk about books.