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Meredy's 2013 reading journal

This topic was continued by Meredy's 2014 reading journal.

The Green Dragon

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Edited: Jan 2, 2014, 12:20am Top

2012 was my first year keeping a journal (here). I really like both having the record and seeing the interesting responses posted by other members. So I'm continuing in 2013.

I'm not posing any reading challenges for myself. It would detract from the pleasure of reading to attach any sense of obligation or constraint to it. But I have set myself the challenge of reviewing everything I read, even if I give it only six words.

My reviews are also posted on the book pages, and I would be thrilled if you gave a nod to the ones you like.

There are no spoilers in my reviews.

Solid star (★) = 1 star. Open star (☆) = ½ star. Post references are links. Reviews are posted on the works pages as well as in this thread.


The Reality Dysfunction, by Peter F. Hamilton, 1/6/13; 588 pages (★★☆); review: posts 9 & 10.
The Various Haunts of Men, by Susan Hill, 1/12/13; 438 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: posts 13 & 15.
The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott, 1/15/13; 327 pages (★★★★☆); review: posts 17 & 24.
Wittgenstein's Mistress, by David Markson, abandoned 1/17/13 after 88 of 240 pages (not rated); review: post 18.
The Pure in Heart, by Susan Hill, 1/21/13; 370 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★☆); review: post 23.
The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch, 1/25/13; 302 pages (★★★☆); review: post 25.
What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, 1/25/13; 130 pages (★★★★); review: post 27.
Gilgamesh, by John Gardner and John Maier, 1/30/13; 304 pages (★★★★); review: post 29.
A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters, 1/30/13; 192 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 31.

January totals: 8 books finished (2651 pages); 1 book abandoned (88 pages)


Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick, 2/2/13; 314 pages (★★★★); review: post 38.
The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill, 2/5/13; 257 pages (★★☆); review: post 43.
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, 2/9/13; 387 pages (★★☆); review: post 47.
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, 2/15/13; 291 pages (★★★☆); review: post 54.
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, 2/21/13; 709 pages (★★★★★); review: post 98.
Broken Harbor, by Tana French, 2/27/13; 450 pages (★★★); review: post 56.

February totals: 6 books finished (2408 pages)


The Tigris Expedition: In Search of Our Beginnings, by Thor Heyerdahl, 3/2/13; 338 pages (★★★☆); review: post 59.
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, by David Grann, 3/4/13; 338 pages (★★★★); review: post 68.
The Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, 3/10/13; 468 pages (★★★); review: post 75.
One Corpse Too Many, by Ellis Peters, 3/16/13; 214 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 80.
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, 3/26/13; 578 pages (★★★☆); review: post 87.

March totals: 5 books finished (1936 pages)


Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov, 4/2/13; 224 pages (★★★★★); review: post 95.
Reliquary, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, 4/4/13; 464 pages (★★★☆); review: post 93.
Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain, by Simon Winchester, 4/10/13; 281 pages (★★★☆); review: post 108.
John Dies at the End, by David Wong, abandoned 4/10/13 after 20 of 375 pages (not rated); nonreview: post 111.
Johannes Cabal the Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard, 4/14/13; 289 pages (★★★☆); review: post 116.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, abandoned 4/18/13 on page 1 of 604 (not rated); nonreview: post 125.
Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, by Richard Fortey, 4/20/13; 314 pages (★★★★); review: post 128.
Monk's Hood: The Third Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters, 4/21/13; 210 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 129.
The Cabinet of Curiosities (Pendergast Book 3), by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, 4/26/13; 466 pages (★★★☆); review: post 132.
Mister B. Gone, by Clive Barker, 4/28/13; 248 pages (★★☆); review: post 133.
Death at the President's Lodging, by Michael Innes, 4/30/13; 275 pages (★★★☆); review: post 140.

April totals: 9 books finished (2771 pages); 2 books abandoned (21 pages)


The Risk of Darkness, by Susan Hill, 5/2/13; 374 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 145.
To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last, by Connie Willis, abandoned 5/7/13 on page 172 of 493 for sheer tedium (not rated); nonreview: post 164.
St. Peter's Fair: The Fourth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters, 5/12/13; 217 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 170.
Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, by Keiko I. McDonald, set aside 5/12/13 after about 60 pages (not rated); comments (but not a review): post 171.
Hamlet, Revenge!, by Michael Innes, 5/15/13; 284 pages (★★★☆); review: post 172.
Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception, by Philip Houston et al., 5/20/13; 258 pages (★★★★); review: post 178.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, 5/22/13; 266 pages (not counting backmatter) (★★☆); review: post 187.
The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, 5/29/13; 368 pages (★★★★★); review: post 240.
The Leper of Saint Giles: The Fifth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters, 5/29/13; 201 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 190.

May totals: 7 books finished (1968 pages); 2 books abandoned (232 pages)


The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima, 6/2/13; 181 pages (★★★★☆); review: post 198.
The Harper's Quine: A Medieval Murder Mystery, by Pat McIntosh, 6/10/13; 300 pages (★★☆); review: post 199.
The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, 6/18/13; 482 pages (★★★☆); review: post 201.
The Virgin in the Ice, by Ellis Peters, 6/24/13; 201 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 212.
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, by Espen J. Aarseth, 6/29/13; 183 pages plus backmatter (★★★★); review: post 217.

June totals: 5 books finished (1347 pages)

Half-year totals: 40 books finished (13,081 pages); 5 books abandoned (341 pages)


The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel, by Anthony Horowitz, 7/2/13; 294 pages (★★★); review: post 221.
Still Life with Crows (Pendergast, Book 4), by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, 7/8/13; 564 pages (★★★☆); review: post 218.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel, by Neil Gaiman, 7/10/13; 178 pages (★★★★); review: post 240.
Liz: An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor, by C. David Heymann, abandoned 7/10/13 after 58 of 438 pages because the library copy was not in readable condition (not rated); no review.
The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault, 7/15/13; 370 pages (★★★); review: post 226.
Journey Into Fear, by Eric Ambler, abandoned 7/17/13 after 110 of 275 pages because it just wouldn't get going; no review.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, 7/19/13; 72 pages (★★★☆); review: post 227.
Lament for a Maker, by Michael Innes, 7/26/13; 222 pages (★★★☆); review: post 234.
The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, by Matthew Hutson, abandoned 7/31/13 after 53 of 249 pages (not counting backmatter) because the writing is weak and I'm not learning anything (not rated); no review.

July totals: 6 books finished (1700 pages); 3 books abandoned (221 pages)


Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli, 8/9/13 (link); 516 pages plus backmatter (★★★); review: post 240.
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to DVDs and Videos, by Donald Richie, 8/12/13; 302 pages plus backmatter (★★★★); review: post 236.
May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes, 8/23/13; 480 pages (★★★★☆); review: post 240.
Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis (exhibit catalog), by Lea Van Der Vinde, 8/26/13; 140 pages; not rated, no review.
The Sanctuary Sparrow: The Seventh Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters, 8/30/13; 180 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 245.
Andersen's Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen, 8/30/13; 180 pages (sentimental rating: ★★★★★); review: post 245.

August totals: 6 books finished (1798 pages)


The Sweet Life in Paris, by David Lebovitz, 9/1/13; 269 pages plus backmatter (genre: ★★★★); review: post 245.
English Eccentrics, by Edith Sitwell, 9/2/13; 335 pages (★★★★); review: post 245.
The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith, 9/9/13; 455 pages (★★★★; genre: ★★★★☆); review: post 247.
The Maniac: A Realistic Study of Madness from the Maniac's Point of View, by E. Thelmar, 9/13/13; 304 pages (★★★★★); review: post 248.
Joyously Through the Days: Living the Journey of Spiritual Practice, by Les Kaye, 9/15/13; 180 pages (★★★); review: post 248.
The Devil's Novice, by Ellis Peters, 9/20/13; 172 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 248.
Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes, 9/27/13; 211 pages (★★★); review: post 248.

September totals: 7 books finished (1926 pages)


At Home, by Bill Bryson, 10/8/13; 452 pages plus backmatter (★★★★); review: post 249.
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens, 10/9/13; 293 pages plus backmatter (★★★★☆); review: post 249.
Touchstone, by Laurie R. King, 10/17/13; 548 pages(★★★☆); review: post 249.
Dead Man's Ransom, by Ellis Peters, 10/21/13; 176 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 250.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, 10/23/13; 337 pages plus backmatter (★★★★★); review: post 250.
The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers, 10/29/13; 331 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 250.

October totals: 6 books finished (2137 pages)
(YTD: 65; 20,642)


Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon, 11/5/13; 477 pages (★★★★); review: post 250.
Still Life, by Louise Penny, abandoned 11/10/13 after 22 of 312 pages because the writing is disappointing; unrated, no review, but comments in post 257.
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 11/15/13; 407 pages (★★★★); review: post 261.
The Pilgrim of Hate, by Ellis Peters, 11/20/13; 271 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); post 283.
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri, 11/25/13; 340 pages (★★★★★); review: post 268.
Christmas at Candleshoe, by Michael Innes, 11/26/13; 207 pages (★★); review: post 266.

November totals: 5 books finished (1702 pages); 1 book abandoned (22 pages)
(YTD: 70; 22,344)


Sight Reading: A Novel, by Daphne Kalotay, 12/2/13; 329 pages (★★★); review: post 270.
The Perfect Ghost, by Linda Barnes, 12/3/13; 310 pages (★★★☆); review: post 271.
The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, 12/8/13; 302 pages (★★★); review: post 276.
Dissolution, by C. J. Sansom, 12/13/13; 387 pages (★★★; genre: ★★★☆); post 283.
Brimstone, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, 12/17/13; 726 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 281.
Name to a Face, by Robert Goddard, abandoned 12/21/13 after 158 of 340 pages because I just didn't care about the characters or the story; unrated, no review.
Dance of Death, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, 12/27/13; 560 pages (★★★☆; genre: ★★★★); review: post 281.
The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, by Ian Mortimer, 12/28/13; 292 pages plus backmatter (★★★★☆); review: post 283.
The Book of the Dead, by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, 12/30/13; 597 pages (★★★★; genre: ★★★★☆); review: post 281.

December totals: 8 books finished (3503 pages); 1 book abandoned (158 pages)


Year totals: 78 books finished (25,847 pages; average, 331 pages); 10 books abandoned (742 pages)

Jan 1, 2013, 9:23am Top

I will be keeping an eye out for your postings, Meredy!

Jan 1, 2013, 9:34am Top

great! more book bullets.. Oh, wait...

Jan 1, 2013, 10:31am Top

Starred :)

Jan 1, 2013, 9:50pm Top

I have you starred!

Jan 1, 2013, 11:04pm Top

Thank you, thank you! I'm honored. My present book isn't so wonderful, but I've decided to persist with it, and it's going to be about another 5 days before I finish it. That'll get my log rolling.

Jan 2, 2013, 5:06am Top

Looking forward to following your reading this year!

Jan 2, 2013, 4:31pm Top

I enjoyed following along last year and will do so again this year. Happy reading!

Jan 7, 2013, 4:29pm Top

This is not what I would have chosen to top my list for the year, but it happens to be where I was when the year began.

The Reality Dysfunction, by Peter F. Hamilton (2½ stars)

Six-word review: Ponderous, overwrought futuristic space series opener.

Expansion: To come.

Jan 8, 2013, 1:53am Top

Extended review:

The Reality Dysfunction, by Peter F. Hamilton (2½ stars)

I knew when I started this one that it was not just the first installment of a trilogy but the first half of the first book in a six-book "trilogy." So I did not expect a complete story arc with all plot developments resolved and all loose ends tied up.

I could also tell pretty quickly that I was not the primary intended audience. This passage from the opening battle scene (page 1) made that plain:

"His neural nanonics relayed information from the ship's external sensor clusters directly into his brain. Out here in the great emptiness of interstellar space starlight wasn't powerful enough to provide an optical-band return. He was relying on the infrared signature alone, arching smears of pinkness which the discrimination programs struggled to resolve. Radar pulses were fuzzed and hashed by the ships' electronic-warfare pods."

But still.

I expected that at some point there would at least be a focal character, some good guys and some bad guys, a challenge to overcome or a foe to defeat, a prize to win or lose.

Yet with a cast of thousands, it never became apparent in nearly 600 pages if there was a main character or even who the top ten contenders for the honor might be.

New characters were introduced by the barrelfull, chapter after chapter, page after page, right up until a few pages from the end, many of them dragging such bargeloads of information (age, appearance, attire, birthplace, personal background, social class, physical prowess, employment history, political affiliation) that you thought they had to be important, even while knowing you were never going to remember all that stuff--only to have them disappear after one mention and play no further part.

What's more, chapter after chapter introduced entire separate worlds, with different physical and atmospheric composition and characteristics, orbiting satellites, native species, natural resources, global governance, economics, social structures, etc., etc., etc., and vast technological scopes, complete with history, with the chemistry and physics of everything explained in encyclopedic detail. But there was no clue to which of these mattered to the story or why, or even if there was a story. It seemed as if the author was inventing for the sheer sake of invention, indiscriminately, just because he could.

One word for it might be exhaustive. Another might be exhausting.

I nearly gave up after six chapters and 124 pages, already weary of waiting for some constants of character, setting, and plot to emerge. After all, the author was working so hard. He must have had voluminous notebooks, charts, timelines, character bios, resources in hard science and speculative science, and much, much more. He was also exercising his thesaurus to death (although not always successfully). Surely this must all have been to some purpose.

In fact, I pressed on because I was just curious enough to want to see where the author was going with all this.

I never did.

Book one-half of three resolves nothing. It is just acres and acres of setup. And the prospect of thousands more pages of relentless exposition is more than I can face. At the end of 588 pages there is no character prominent enough about whom I care enough even to wonder what happens next.

Moreover, the writing has two flaws that I find intolerable. One is that it is rife with comma splices. My impression is that there are several on virtually every page. After a score of pages of that, I begin to feel short of breath. I can see why nobody gave this a careful, conscientious edit, but that doesn't mean it didn't need it.

Almost as if to balance this debit with a credit, the author generates sentence fragments--hundreds of them--as if he were paying a fee to pair subjects with predicates.

And the other flaw is that the author practically raises malapropism to a fine art. That thesaurus I mentioned? Time and again he makes a wrong word choice, as if picking from a list of near-synonyms without knowing which suited the case, or in some cases as if he just went with the first word he thought of and didn't give it so much as a second glance.

A few random examples:

"Enlistment offered a golden ticket offplanet, away from the rain, the heat, and the remorseless physical labor of the farms."

The word he reached for was "relentless." But he missed.

"Lori evinced a five-room building standing apart from the others."

In context he seems to mean "noticed."

"Outside Colsterworth the rolling countryside was a patchwork of small fields separated by immaculately layered hedges."

It simply makes no sense to say that hedges are purely and spotlessly layered.

I'll just add two more excerpts without comment:

"But while the Swithland {a boat} and her ilk were bland distaff inheritors utilizing technology instead of engineering craftsmanship, this grande dame could have been a true original."


"The colourful solid mirage sailed on regally down the river, its wake of joyous invocation tarrying above the brown water like a dawn mist."

You can find all of these with the "search inside" function on Amazon.

I gave the book two and a half stars and consider that generous. I recognize the tremendous effort that went into it. But as for the effort it would take to get something out of it--I leave that to hardier souls than I.

Jan 8, 2013, 11:40am Top

I've only read one of his shorter works, Pandora's star IIRC, and I felt much like you - far too much verbiage for anything worth reading. I like lots of description and detailed plots ... but this just doesn't work for me.

Jan 10, 2013, 4:21pm Top

My husband and I were somewhat older parents. When we took our sons to Disneyland, we were pushing 50. The boys wanted to race through Space Mountain, the Matterhorn, Indiana Jones, and other dynamic, high-intensity adventures. We, on the other hand, genuinely enjoyed the Mark Twain Riverboat ride, which barely moved. Not to mention the Swiss Family Robinson tree, which didn't move at all.

It's not that they were without drama and excitement; but it was quiet drama. Slow excitement. For us, very pleasant and not boring at all.

It's with a very similar kind of contentment that I'm currently reading Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor, with its early 19th-century prose, its protracted descriptions and formalities, and of course its generous helping of Scottish dialect. There's something about this sure, purposeful prose--as contrasted with the overloaded verbiage of its immediate predecessor on my nightstand--that is deeply satisfying. Both are dense on the page; but Scott's is dense in the way of tight-woven, fulled wool, warm and supple and trustworthy, and not like a bag of rocks that is simply heavy and hard to hold together.

This is not my sole reading matter at present. I have two contemporary novels going on other channels, two mysteries, as it happens, one by Tana French and one by Susan Hill. Balance is good.

Jan 13, 2013, 3:23pm Top

The Various Haunts of Men, by Susan Hill (4 stars within the mystery genre)

Six-word review: Murderer, victims, detectives all multidimensional characters.

Extended review: To come.

Jan 13, 2013, 3:50pm Top

Sounds good--looking forward to it.

Jan 14, 2013, 1:56am Top

Extended review:

The Various Haunts of Men, by Susan Hill
( (3½ stars, 4 for mystery)

From the first pages, The Various Haunts of Men invokes the silent menace of fog and shadow even as it depicts the contrasting warmth and welcome to be found in a small (fictitious) cathedral town in southern England. This simple elemental duality of light and dark is reflected in the lives of the principal characters, from the murderer and his victims to the detectives on his trail. Effects of light and dark enhance the mood and deepen the mystery as they recur like a cinematographer's motif throughout the story.

Like The Woman in Black, this novel showcases Susan Hill's gift for creating atmosphere. She even elicits a shudder with a mere few dozen words of deft description in the chapter where the dog disappears on the hill. Nothing appears to happen. Nothing is seen, little is heard. Yet something evil and hidden is felt.

Mood and mystery set the stage, but the characters are in the foreground. Using an omniscient point of view, the author shows us depths and dimensions of numerous characters who feel startlingly real, as if sketched from life like the drawings of Simon Serrailler.

However, setting and character don't sustain a mystery. Plot is paramount in this genre. And plot is the weak point of this novel. Far too much depends on accidents of circumstance that conveniently point the way. Despite all the donkey work that figures so heavily in police procedurals, the solution seems contrived. The actual detecting and solving seem thin to me.

I must add that I did ID the perpetrator as soon as he'd made his first appearance as a character. I don't think that was the author's intent, and I'm not sure what it was that gave him away, but I was right. From there it was easy to watch his exposure unfold. So the solution was not a surprise at all, although there was indeed suspense.

What's more, it seems odd to call the novel a Simon Serrailler mystery when Serrailler is absent or in the background for most of the story and contributes nothing to the solving of the case.

I also felt that at times the author's apparent mission to call out fraudulent practitioners of allegedly healing arts, doing potential harm even when they hurt no one overtly, simply by diverting patients from standard treatments that could actually help them, threatened to turn the story into a soapbox.

So this is definitely a mixed review: like the story itself, an uneven patchwork of light and shadow. I like Susan Hill's writing, as seen in two novels so far, and I will probably read the book that comes after this. But the weakness of plot--and one big departure from the conventions of the genre that I can't say sat well with me--cause me to feel less confidence than I want to feel when I commit hours of my life to the work of a writer of mysteries, where the good guys are supposed to win and the bad guys should be dealt such justice as the constraints of circumstance allow.

Jan 14, 2013, 10:04am Top

I read The small hand a couple of years ago and felt that it too suffered from weak plotting, while being incredibly atmospheric. As it is a ghost story though, I don't think it suffered as badly from this as the one you've reviewed.

Edited: Jan 16, 2013, 12:28am Top

The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott (4½ stars)

Six-word review: Vindictive mother tragically separates Scottish lovers.

Extended review: To come.

Edited: Jan 18, 2013, 7:07pm Top

Wittgenstein's Mistress, by David Markson (unrated)

Six-word review: Solitary survivor isn't mad, or is.

Extended review:

Without doubt it's my own shortcomings that make me unable to continue reading this book. It is simply too brilliant for me.

As best I can ascertain, Wittgenstein's Mistress plays out in fictional form an experience of the world as perceived through the lens of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy, in much the same way that The Stranger represents the absurdism of Albert Camus: by engaging the reader in the vicarious apprehension of it in the philosopher's terms rather than by writing about it. In place of discourse, we have, as it were, direct experience.

(It is difficult even to speak about this properly in ordinary language, because words such as "experience," "perceived," "lens," "represents," and so on all present problems of meaning in themselves.)

Wittgenstein's first proposition "The world is everything that is the case" turns up verbatim in the text, though disembodied and unattributed, floating in like a wisp of a cloud, detaching itself, and floating off.

The fictional concept is that of a woman who is unaccountably the last person alive on earth. Settled for the time being in a beach house that might be somewhere in New York, she is typing a stream-of-consciousness succession of reminiscences, observations on her present circumstances, autobiographical snippets, accounts of her travels, and remarks on works of art, music, and literature that either have or have not been part of her life.

The first thing that began to wear on me to the point of distraction was the unbroken succession of short, short paragraphs, most of them only one sentence long, many others only two. This stylistic affectation gives the text a breathless, disjointed quality that I am sure was intentional and carefully controlled by the author but that nevertheless exhausts my attention.

The second was the narrator's incessant self-contradiction, qualification, self-correction, and use of words that signal reversal, such as "although," "however," "rather," and "still." Scarcely has the narrative voice of Kate recorded a memory or made an assertion than she has countered it in the next paragraph or a few paragraphs later. For example (page 67):


     Once, in the Borghese Gallery, in Rome, I signed a mirror.

     I did that in one of the women's rooms, with a lipstick.

     What I was signing was an image of myself, naturally.

     Should anybody else have looked, where my signature would have been was under the other person's image, however.

     Doubtless I would not have signed it, had there been anybody else to look.

     Though in fact the name I put down was Giotto.

     There is only one mirror in this house, incidentally.

     What that mirror reflects is also an image of myself, of course.

     Though in fact what it has also reflected now and again is an image of my mother.


(I've simulated all those paragraph indents with nonbreaking-space characters. They're prominent on a standard trade book page of text.)

I understand that this too is intentional and central to the purpose of the novel, and it can only be my own impatience and lack of endurance that make me unable to persist with it.

I have made it to page 88. I glanced ahead a hundred pages and more, and it seems to continue in the same vein all the way to the end: meandering observations, allusions to art and to classical literature, assertion and reversal. I even, against all my readerly instincts, glanced at the end.

It's like looking at a huge abstract painting with thousands of little brushstrokes none of which actually depict or even evoke anything. Yes, I know, the intended effect may come from taking in the whole of it. So call me a Philistine, but a few square inches of that would have sufficed; I don't need an entire wall.

Enough. I've long since done my philosophy classes. I've read my Sartre and Camus. At this stage of my life I want a novel that more or less follows a conventional plan. I'm leaving Wittgenstein's mistress to the house that may or may not be on the beach and may or may not be a house, with or without paintings, and I'm moving on.

Jan 19, 2013, 12:11pm Top

I think that one (Wittgenstein's Mistress) would just irritate me!

Jan 21, 2013, 8:50am Top

I'm with you there, having read your review!

Jan 21, 2013, 4:12pm Top

However, my son the philosophy major has now decided that he'd like to give it a shot. I'm curious to see if he reacts differently. I was only a philosophy minor and never studied Wittgenstein.

I'll add that I was actually looking at a different edition. Mine had an afterword by David Foster Wallace, not Steven Moore. I read a few pages of it and tentatively concluded that I was not equipped to admire it in the extravagant terms that Wallace applied to it.

Jan 21, 2013, 4:51pm Top

Nice review. You saw some of the same problems with Various haunts that I called out, although you gave Hill more credit for atmosphere than I did.

Jan 22, 2013, 12:32am Top

The Pure in Heart, by Susan Hill (3½ stars, 2½ for mystery)

Six-word review: The crime is not the mystery.

Extended review:

Fie. Either this author doesn't play fair or the marketers, promoters, and cover blurb writers are misrepresenting her work.

This second novel in the series billed as "Simon Serrailler mysteries" shows us a good deal more of the difficult, elusive character of Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler than did the first installment, in which he was little more than a peripheral presence. But here again we don't see him solving any crimes. I'm starting to wonder if we ever will.

Structured similarly to the first novel of the series, this book unfolds episodically from the points of view of several characters each in their turn, not always giving any indication as to which of them is important or why. I almost said "important to the plot," except that as before there isn't much of a plot.

There's nothing wrong with a character-driven story, and this one is certainly that. But again, a novel billed as a mystery and featuring police detectives as principal characters gives rise to certain expectations. If I'm disappointed in the conclusion, the author may not be at fault, but I must ask: is the genre label correctly applied?

If I say much more, I will be guilty of publishing spoilers.

So I'll just add that my appetite for continuing with the series has diminished. Perhaps my curiosity about the development of the Serrailler character himself will be enough to lure me on, and perhaps it won't. If I continue, however, it will be without my usual confidence that the conventional promises will be fulfilled.

Jan 23, 2013, 4:05pm Top

The Bride of Lammermoor, by Sir Walter Scott

Extended review:

I don't know why I've had such a difficult time trying to review this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and yet I feel, unreasonably, as if I somehow had to defend that response. Is it so absurd to love the archaic language and rambling style of a 200-year-old fiction better than most of the contemporary works I've picked up in the past year?

What's more, my pleasure in it went well beyond the story and the language and took in the physical properties of the book itself.

Not that this was by any means the oldest book I've held and read, nor was it a particularly noteworthy old edition. But it is true that I seldom read books of that vintage any more.

I didn't want to take this book back to the library. It was a real book, well handled, many times read. It's an undated edition, but my guess is that it was published in the 1930s. It's just an ordinary everyman's inexpensive hardcover of the time, solidly cloth-bound, with deckle edge, tipped-in engraved illustrations, old-fashioned typeface, a glossary of Scottish dialect in the back, and, bless me, an index so you can look up characters by scene.

I might have read the same story in a paperback issued six months ago, but it wouldn't have been the same experience.

However, I feel certain that I'd have enjoyed it in any form, so long as the author's words were preserved and no misguided 21st-century editor had decided to make it easier for a modern audience to read.

Scott's historical melodrama was allegedly based on a real incident, that of a tragic love affair between the young son of an ancient noble family and the daughter of the man who engineered the loss of his hereditary properties, bringing his dying family line to penurious ruin.

Edgar, the young Master of Ravenswood, whose ancestral home and lands have been wrested away by the machinations of Sir William Ashton, finds himself smitten by Ashton's lovely daughter Lucy. For the sake of their romance, he makes peace with his sworn enemy and exchanges a pledge of engagement with Lucy. But Lucy's mother Lady Ashton, a pitiless, domineering woman who serves no interests but her own, sets herself against the match and insists that her daughter accept her choice of a husband instead.

Against a backdrop of Scottish customs, traditions, and politics of the early 18th century, the drama plays out as a strong brew of secrets and rivalries, loyalties and vengeance, promises and betrayal, mysterious prophecies and folk superstitions, love and fidelity and deceit and loss.

If, like me, you knew this story only as the plotline of Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor, you'll find that the adaptation for opera is a loose one indeed and that only a few of the basic plot elements--a secret love affair between members of hostile families, a forced marriage, madness, and death--are drawn from Scott's far more complex, character-rich, and emotionally engaging text. The pair's romance and its narrowly missed favorable outcome, the tension between Lucy's parents, the trivial incident that sets Ravenswood's former friend against him, and the unwavering loyalty of Ravenswood's old family servant Caleb Balderstone bring depths and dimensions to the story. The solitary ordeal of Lucy, cut off from all contact with Ravenswood by her mother's cruel stratagems and subjected to unbearable psychological pressure, is truly pitiable, and it is easy to see why she is broken by it. The graveside altercation between her brother and Ravenswood steers the plot to the final tragedy.

As in other tales of star-crossed lovers--Romeo and Juliet comes to mind--the lovers' passions, both in their transports of joy and in their utter grief, bring a quality of grandeur to the finale, rendering it cathartic. The last poignant moment belongs to old Caleb, who, like us, has borne sad witness to a chain of events that it seems nothing could have turned aside. It is a credit to the art of the storyteller that we can feel uplifted by the ultimate harmony of the drama even as the tragedy touches our hearts.

Edited: Jan 27, 2013, 2:59pm Top

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Lost ancient epic comes to light.

Extended review:

If you've read with eager attention the story of how Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics and how Howard Carter found King Tut's tomb, this book will feed those same appetites for ancient mystery and grand discovery. Literature's oldest epic poem, the story of Gilgamesh, lay buried in a series of broken clay tablets in the Middle East for 2500 years.

The author treats us to a series of narratives of relevant history, from the finding of the tablets in the 19th century and the decoding of the cuneiform script back to the time when they were buried, when the kingdom of Assyria fell to its Babylonian enemies in 612 BCE and the great library of King Ashurbanipal collapsed into rubble. At that time the texts themselves were already ancient and harked back to a still more ancient time. These dramas played out in and around the region that is enclosed by the borders of present-day Iraq. The author's account incidentally affords some insights into the lands and peoples that Western forces have lately engaged in war.

This book is not especially compelling literature in its own right, nor does it pretend to be, although it is readable enough and recounts the various crisscross narratives of recent and ancient history in an engaging manner. What I liked is the blend of scholarship and storytelling. I found it fascinating from first to last, the last of it being a surprising discussion of a novel called Zabibah and the King, written by Saddam Hussein and published in Arabic in 2000. The novel allegedly shows the influence of the ancient Akkadian verse account of the life, death, and afterlife of the hero Gilgamesh, whose story also has its echoes in the epics of Homer, in the Arabian Nights, and in the Hebrew Bible.

A great irony of the discovery of these and other inscribed clay tablets of 2500 and more years ago is that, like the artifacts of Pompeii, they owe their preservation to a single catastrophe--in this case, the destruction of Ashurbanipal's palace in Nineveh. The burning and collapse of the library meant that the tablets, though broken and crumbling, were gathered and covered over in an abandoned heap rather than being tossed out like rubbish over the centuries or recycled into building materials as in other cities of ancient origins. Their discovery and eventual decipherment opened the door to a view of past civilizations far remote in time, language, and culture and yet as near to our sensibilities as they human emotions they record.

(Edited to fix typo.)

Edited: Jan 27, 2013, 2:52pm Top

Removed accidental duplication.

Jan 27, 2013, 1:33am Top

What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (4 stars)

Six-word review: Without the Four Seals, no Buddhist.

Extended review:

During the past 18 years I've read my way through a quantity of Buddhist literature, most of it of the Zen variety. I've seen and heard numerous discussions of the Four Noble Truths.* But this is the first time I can remember encountering the Four Seals, to wit:

All compounded things are impermanent.
All emotions are pain.
All things have no inherent existence.
Nirvana is beyond concepts.
(page 3)

The premise of this book is simply that a person who does not accept these four truths is not a Buddhist, regardless of what other practices that person might follow or ideas he or she might embrace. And a person who does is:

Once you have intellectually accepted the view, you can apply any method that deepens your understanding and realization. In other words, you can use whatever techniques or practices help you to transform your habit of thinking that things are solid into the habit of seeing them as compounded, interdependent, and impermanent. This is true Buddhist meditation and practice, not just sitting still as if you were a paperweight. (page 119--little dig at Zen there.)

Each of the four statements in turn is the subject of a chapter, followed by a conclusion that enlarges upon the subject of what Buddhism is and what it is not, as well as what prevents Buddhism from being a religion, despite some superficial trappings:

Buddhist disciplines such as maroon robes, rituals and ritual objects, incense and flowers, even monasteries, have form--they can be observed and photographed. We forget that they are a means to an end. We forget that one does not become a follower of Buddha by performing rituals or adopting disciplines such as becoming vegetarian or wearing robes. But the human mind loves rituals and symbols so much that they are almost inevitable and indispensable. Tibetan sand mandalas and Japanese Zen gardens are beautiful; they can inspire us and even be a means to understanding the truth. But the truth itself is neither beautiful nor not beautiful. (page 121)

For me, the most arresting and valuable passage is the one on page 115 that includes the statement: "when you see that you will never come to the end of problem solving, that is the beginning of the search for inner truth."

Sometimes all it takes for something to sink in is to hear it a different way. For me this presentation was a different way and one that served to open my mind a little more. I can't say that I am yet in full possession of the Buddhist view or even close to it, and I may never reach that point; but I don't think I understand less than I did before I read this book.


*The Four Noble Truths (approximately):

Life is suffering.
The origin of suffering is desire (craving).
There is an end to suffering.
The Eightfold Path is the way.

Jan 27, 2013, 2:35am Top

Meredy I have to agree with you regarding the Peter Hamilton (if this is the one I read). I think I got 1/2 way through the first book and just lost track - who was what and where, let alone the aliens' going 'we know what this is but can't help you

From memory there were here were a few good characters - if I had been able to pick just their threads I would have probably enjoyed their stories but the whole lot was just too much.

Jan 30, 2013, 8:17pm Top

Gilgamesh, Translated from the Sin-Leqi-Unninni Version by John Gardner and John Maier (4 stars)

Six-word review: Ancient epic hero futilely seeks immortality.

Extended review:

I read this work immediately following The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch, which not only narrates the discovery and first efforts at translation of this epic poem of ancient Mesopotamia but sets a historical context for the story itself. The background reading enlarged and enriched my appreciation of the epic, as well as being an absorbing history in its own right.

The verse occupies only about one-third of the pages of this book. The rest consists of detailed scholarly explication and notes on the translation, including extensive reference to other sources and painstaking elaboration on the language and the process of decoding the cuneiform script. If I were not so fascinated by language as both an art and a medium, I might have found many parts of this book borderline unreadable, but as it was they held my attention fast.

The story itself concerns the adventures of King Gilgamesh of Uruk (in what is now Iraq), who sets out first to make a name for himself as a hero and then to learn the secret of immortality. The gods have fashioned as his counterpart a primal man called Enkidu. While Gilgamesh has enjoyed--and at times abused--all the power and privileges of the ruler of a great city, Enkidu has grown up in the wilderness among the animals and never known civilization or the touch of a woman. Enkidu is a kind of Doppelgänger who comes to be the bosom companion of Gilgamesh. Together they take on the conquering of a monster named Humbaba and then slay a divinely created beast called the Bull of Heaven.

The death of Enkidu causes Gilgamesh great mourning and also dread of his own future death. He goes in search of Utnapishtim, the only man to survive the Great Flood, to learn how he too can defeat mortality. From this Noah-figure, he learns secrets, but not the one he wants to hear.

The themes pertaining to the interactions of gods and humans and the motifs related to love, heroism, loss, submission to the gods and defiance of them, life, death, and much more recall similar strains in the Homeric tales and the Hebrew Bible. I read portions of Genesis alongside the Flood story in Gilgamesh just for the sake of comparison. An interesting note is that the Flood of Gilgamesh's story is not conceived as punishment for anything but is simply the will of a god who acts without consulting his fellow members of the pantheon; they later reprimand him for his misuse of power.

To me a great part of the wonder of it is how the words of a poet of some three or four thousand years ago, retelling legends that were already ancient in his own time, still have the power to hold, to move, and to enlighten the reader of today. It's hard to think of history of any kind--the history of so-called fact or the history of myth and lore--in the same way after dwelling for a time within the edifice of its own words.

Jan 30, 2013, 8:26pm Top

I suspect that the history of the archaeological finding and translation of the tablets (#25) would be a more satisfying read than the actual story of Gilgamesh. I have always found the names to be intimidating whenever I dipped into the story of Gilgamesh.

Jan 31, 2013, 4:38pm Top

A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Clever medieval monk investigates Welshman's murder.

Extended review:

The first of the well-known Brother Cadfael mysteries by Edith Pargeter (writing as Ellis Peters) is also my first exposure to the series. I managed to miss all twenty of the novels, published beginning in 1977, and the four-season TV series broadcast in the nineties.

Now, it seems, I'm in for a treat.

Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk of the twelfth century, a Welshman living in an English abbey. After an adventuresome life as a soldier and sailor, he took the cowl in middle age. Hints of his colorful background enliven the quiet picture of a monastic herbalist and also account for his world-weary ability to see past men's poses to read the evil behind their acts.

In this novel, the prior of Cadfael's abbey takes it as a personal mission to annex a long-dead Welsh saint and have her relics moved from her resting place to England where they can be properly venerated. The Welsh parish that has kept her chapel over the centuries objects. A violent death ensues, amidst thwarted love, a blooming romance, clan loyalties, and ecclesiastical ambition. Only Brother Cadfael can see the way to uncover the truth of the crime and accomplish justice for the afflicted parties.

Jan 31, 2013, 7:02pm Top

I keep meaning to read these. I'm still fond of the TV series (it's quite soothing, if murder and mystery can be considered soothing!). I remember my old medieval history lecturer extolling the virtues of this series for its accuracy.

Jan 31, 2013, 9:29pm Top

I read the first one and told my wife it should have been called A Morbid Taste for Commas. I just couldn't get past the style.

Feb 1, 2013, 12:29am Top

The Cadfael mysteries, by Ellis Peters, are on my top shelf of mysteries I will read again and again. Along with Rex Stout, Dorothy L. Sayers, Laurie R. King and now Margaret Fraser. You are in for a treat, Meredy, and Stillman too. Jim, I have no words, but many commas, for you. ;)

Feb 1, 2013, 4:23am Top

#27 Meredy, I found your review fascinating. I believe you have created a desire in me to read this book. Thank you for the suffering. :-)

Edited: Feb 1, 2013, 9:30am Top

I read and enjoyed all of the Brother Cadfael books. The only reason I haven't kept the whole series is because of shelf-space issues. When I look back, there are some that had memorable plots and characters, and others that blend together. After reading a few more books in the series, you should read A Rare Benedictine, which fills in some of Cadfael's background.

Feb 1, 2013, 9:52am Top

My wife is a great fan of the Brother Cadfael books and she enjoyed the TV series which one of our daughters bought her for Christmas.

We both loved Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose which seamed to trigger many of the medieval murder mystery series.

Peter Tremayne has a series of medieval mysteries set in a Celtic environment.

Feb 3, 2013, 6:01pm Top

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (4 stars)

Six-word review: Surviving in a starving Communist society.

Extended review:

When I read The Orphan Master's Son two months ago, I wondered how much of its depiction of life in North Korea was based in fact and how much of it was fanciful speculation. After reading Barbara Demick's vivid account of the lives of six defectors, supported by exhaustive journalistic research into the social, economic, and political environment they fled, I've concluded that Adam Johnson's novel embodies more truth than fiction. Even the clearly imaginative story elements appear to depict the truth in a way that trumps literalness.

However, the realities of life in a famine-ridden land where a person's efforts to subsist are seen as crimes against the state are even more extreme in the factual narrative than in the fiction.

Nothing to Envy is a window into a world so repressive that despite mountains of corroborating detail it is virtually impossible to imagine. State-controlled media promote idolatrous adoration of the godlike leader and deliver nonstop false reports that no one can counter. People don't dare to whisper the faintest hint of adverse opinion even in private; the most innocuous joke can get you sent away for life if it sounds to someone like a criticism of the leader. Anyone can be a spy, and denouncing one's neighbors is a routine fact of life.

The electrical grid is defunct and so homes, streets, and entire cities are dead dark at night. Starving people grind corncobs, bark, grass, and weeds to fend off death by malnutrition and its many complications. Sweethearts can't marry if the low status of one person's family could destroy the career aspirations of the other. Orphaned children roam the streets in rags and live by such desperate means as to make Oliver Twist's street life look like luxury. Bags of rice sent by the U.S. as humanitarian aid to the hungry people are confiscated and sold by the military even as America is condemned as the evil aggressor.

Among the people of this impoverished, aching nation there still remain true believers who trust that theirs is the best and happiest country in the world. "We have nothing to envy in the world," they sing, and they believe it. Or at least maintain such a perfect guard over themselves that no one can suspect otherwise.

A stirring moment of truth occurs when a young college student looks around at the blank faces of his classmates during an ideological lecture and realizes that he himself wears the same vacant expression--all revealing nothing, all concealing the same thing: the knowledge of the lie.

The collapse of North Korea's government was predicted not only by North Korea watchers and pundits but also by ordinary citizens even before the death of "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung and the installation of his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, in 1994. Yet still it hangs on. This book was published two years before the death of Kim Jong-il and the succession of his son Kim Jong-un. Author Demick does not offer any guesses about the future of this nation or its people. The stories that she tells are unfinished because they are those of real people who are still living. Nevertheless they offer an astonishing insight into the structure and character of a surpassingly alien society that sees us as the ultimate enemy.

Feb 3, 2013, 9:00pm Top

That's been on my wish list for a bit, but I haven't acquired it yet--I'm worried about it being too depressing.

Feb 3, 2013, 9:18pm Top

39: I didn't find it depressing at all. For one thing, the six people whose personal stories are being told have in fact made it across the line. For another, the society itself does not appear to be static, despite the best efforts of the government, and the type and direction of change reflected in the latter part of the book seem to me to signal greater changes to come.

As I said, the author stops short of making predictions, but that doesn't mean we can't look at the signposts and see which way they point.

Feb 6, 2013, 4:38pm Top

I've read so many raves about The Night Circus on LT that I brought it home from the library yesterday. Now I'm wondering--did anybody else not love it?

Narratives in the present tense always put me off right up front. Narratives in the second person, doubly or triply so. It turns out that the main story is in the third person, but the frame is second person, and it's the frame that you encounter first.

None of the characters has really drawn me in after 40 or so pages.

Moreover, I'm finding the style cloyingly precious.

I'll probably give it at least one more bedtime's worth, but I'm thinking of letting it go.

Feb 6, 2013, 5:45pm Top

Thank you re Nothing to Envy...and I've hesitated to pick up Night Circus because I worried about that very thing--the preciousness.

Feb 6, 2013, 6:24pm Top

The Coroner's Lunch, by Colin Cotterill (2½ stars)

Six-word review: Exotic setting can't save jumbled mystery.

Extended review:

Once I got past the alienness of the setting, communist Laos in 1976 (and here I was helped along by another recent read that treats a communist society), I was ready to settle down with an intriguing cast of characters and some unusual crime-solving.

The focal character is a 72-year-old doctor who has been pressed into service as his country's only coroner and who, with the aid of two appealing assistants, digs for the truth behind several deaths that are not what they seem. The politics of the time and place functions as a major plot element, as well as giving an air of mystery even to mundane things.

However, the story was disappointing on two counts. First, I didn't buy the supernatural element. Including communicative spirits in a setting that does not otherwise appear to be a magical world leaves me unable to know which set of rules applies. The doctor's experience of posthumous visitations from assorted victims is his only source of certain key pieces of information, and this aspect undercuts a process that otherwise appears to be rational and scientific.

Second, the unraveling of the mysteries for the reader does not take place through the agency of the character who occupies the role of detective. Rather, as we near the end, there is simply a chapter that suddenly explains everything from the point of view of the perpetrator. What's more, at least one of the crimes seems too arbitrary and far-fetched even for a highly fanciful plot.

I've used the word "conventional" in a number of my reviews, and this causes me a little bit of conflict because in general I'm not a special fan of convention. I'm more than willing to follow an author or artist outside the ordinary boundaries just to see what happens. But in my opinion a novel that invokes a particular genre by means of its structure and its use of the conventions of the genre, not to mention its audience identification and marketing, incurs certain obligations to readers of the genre. When it fails to deliver on the promises it makes, it deserves to be pronounced unsatisfactory.

Edited: Feb 6, 2013, 7:22pm Top

Meredy, I think it's hard on an author who is introducing a detective or other series character, his or her environment and social network in a first novel to hit all the bells right. The bar is very high! Yes, there are peculiarities to this particular title, but I think the introduction of the supernatural was done to familiarize the reader with some of the cultural aspects of a country and population very different from mainstream Western expectations.

I have done this book with two very different discussion groups and the commentary tended to be focused on the idea of trying to practice one's profession without current science or without transparency from the higher-ups.

(None of which is intended to suggest that you aren't entitled to react to the book exactly as you have. Just suggesting that, from the perspective of the author and publisher assuming the risk in putting out a new author and new series, there were other things that needed to be established in setting up a "brand" in a series.)

Feb 7, 2013, 4:53pm Top

44: We can certainly disagree about the merits of a book and give our reasons.

However, I can't see defending a published novel on the grounds that what the author was attempting is hard to do.

In the first place, the author is in complete control of the goals he sets for himself. And it's not as though he were undertaking to create the next Macbeth or War and Peace. If he can't perform to the standards of the genre, he's in the wrong business.

In the second, the same challenges face every author in some way. Character, setting, plot, and theme all have to be built and interwoven successfully in order to create a good novel. With traditional publishing being a very hard nut to crack these days, the standards have to be high. We don't make excuses, saying, "Oh, well, it was his first time," or "This is good, for a beginner" and expect the book to clear the hurdles of process in a beleaguered industry that can only afford to bet on winners.

Cotterill does write well, and his descriptions of the setting are very effective. These glimpses into an Asian country in the awkward period following the communist takeover feel authentic and offer an interesting perspective on a society that we are most apt to see depicted from the opposite point of view. If he had a certain cultural mission to pursue, fair enough (even though it should not get in the way of the story); but he should not leave the reader having to accept the superstitions and mystical practices of a traditional society within a realistic context in order to make sense of the plot. It's the mixture of incompatible elements that throws the book off balance.

Third, an author can write any sort of book he wants and not be bound by the conventions of any genre. But by invoking a particular genre, he sets expectations. Failure to fulfill those expectations--by bringing a ghost story into a realistic setting and making spectres the sole source of key information, and by explaining the mystery without letting the detective-hero solve it and expose the culprits--is what disappoints. In order to play fair with the reader, he must manage the expectations if he can't produce the results.

Every book and indeed every story makes certain promises to the reader. Its obligation is to deliver what it promises. My criticism of this book is essentially that it does not.

Feb 10, 2013, 6:22pm Top

I see your points, Meredy. I think my reaction was from a different perspective perhaps. I think authors who are trying to establish themselves professionally with a new series are faced with a variety of expectations expressed by the agents who try to place a manuscript and from publishers who want to market it.

I applauded the first Dr. Siri title, simply because I thought the premise was unique in the marketplace. It's a challenge to introduce a detective from an exotic culture in a time period only 40 years in actual chronology while being far more removed in terms of scientific and political thinking. I thought he did very well in that regard. The supernatural element (in my view) was introduced to try to communicate the very different perspective of spirituality embraced in the area. It was perhaps outside of the standard genre conventions, but again, I think it was done to provide a different spotlight on the spiritual thinking in that part of the world.

Feb 12, 2013, 3:05am Top

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (2½ stars)

Six-word review: Cardboard characters compete and love magically.

Extended review:

This overrated piece of fluff is like a sugary dessert that leaves you feeling bloated without satisfying your appetite.

It's like yesterday's pancake: flat, cold, and not improved by an extra helping of syrup.

After forty pages, I was wondering when I'd meet a character I could care about. Not until somewhere beyond 150 did I start to take an interest in the outcome. It was only at page 300 that the stakes of the game were revealed, so that the coming showdown acquired a little tension.

Meanwhile, not only did I have to fend off yawning indifference but I found the self-conscious preciousness of style ceaselessly annoying.

For instance, the author doesn't say "but" or "except" or "other than." She prefers to say "save for":

"No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields." (page 3)

She does this 24 times. Four instances occur in rapid succession, beginning on page 227. Who talks like this? Maybe some people do, but I don't believe the author does. Not an author who puts 21st-century expressions into the mouths of 19th-century characters and doesn't know any better than to say "as of late" when she means "of late." She consistently sounds as if she were treading in alien territory, unsure of her way and wobbling slightly. (And where was the editor?)

Speaking of repetition: another pet word is "vibrant." That occurs 12 times, two of them in the same paragraph. Consider this passage (boldfacing added):

=====(Excerpt begins)

Besides, no one truly suspects the infamously black-and-white circus would be associated with an event so full of color.

It {the party} is extremely colorful, with both the house and the partygoers adorned in a rainbow of shades. The lights in each room are specially treated, greens and blues in one, reds and oranges in another. The tables dotting the dining room are shrouded in vibrant patterned tablecloths. The centerpieces are elaborate floral arrangements with only the brightest of blooms. The members of the ensemble that plays odd but melodic and danceable tunes in the ballroom are bedecked in suits of red velvet. Even the champagne flutes are a deep cobalt-blue glass rather than clear, and the staff wears green rather than black. Chandresh himself wears a suit of vibrant purple with a gold paisley waistcoat, and throughout the evening, he smokes specially made cigars that spout matching violet smoke.

=====(Excerpt ends)

This selection nicely illustrates several other tiresome stylistic traits. Here we have both "bedecked" and "adorned." There's nothing wrong with these words themselves, in their time and place; but an overdose of florid language becomes cloying to the point that the prose begins to smell like an unventilated funeral parlor. The author repeatedly opts for the more ornate choice, even when it comes to prepositions: she habitually uses "amongst" instead of "among," "within" in place of "in," and "upon" rather than "on."

Another is her overuse of absolute phrases. They litter the pages, piling up like gnawed chicken bones at a barbecue. Here's an example at a randomly opened page (it happens to be 350):

=====(Excerpt begins)

As his eyes adjust, he can discern the shadow of a tree. The hanging branches of a frosty white willow cascading around him.

He takes a step forward, the ground disconcertingly soft beneath his feet.

He stands in the middle of the Ice Garden.

The fountain in the center has halted, the normally bubbling water quiet and still.

=====(Excerpt ends)

There's more. Comma splices. Sentence fragments (as in the above excerpt). Heaps of qualifying phrases and sentence fragments beginning with "though" and reversing what has just been said. I counted four or five instances on a single page. Personification: word choices that ascribe human behavior and emotions to inanimate objects and abstractions. I could go on.

The author frequently misuses words, sometimes subtly but often egregiously. Boldfaced in the first passage quoted above:

"infamously": "Infamous" means having an extremely bad reputation. There's nothing infamous about the circus's trademark color scheme. "Famously" might make sense, but "infamously" does not.

"shrouded": A shroud is a sheet in which a corpse is wrapped for burial. Used more loosely, it means veiled or concealed, as by a mist. Brightly colored tablecloths do not shroud tables; it's simply an ignorant usage, a reaching for a fancy word in place of a normal one, as if that were enough to make it poetic. In appearing to court "poetic" as an epithet, Morgenstern reminds me of a woman who underestimates her own natural charms and uses makeup so excessively that it detracts from her beauty.

So why did I persist instead of abandoning the book? At some point it became sheer grim stubbornness. Further on, I did at last find my interest engaged sufficiently to want to see how it turned out. In the end, I had to award some points for ingenuity and imaginative prowess. It's not all bad, by any means, and as a first effort it's better than most. I won't say it didn't deserve to see print. I will call it amateurish. And I will say that a hard-nosed editor with an eye for repetition and malapropisms and an unsentimental insistence on sound characterization could have made this book into something considerably finer--maybe not a diamond, but at least a respectable cubic zirconia instead of cleverly faceted glass.

Feb 12, 2013, 7:58am Top

I knew there was a reason I was resisting the zombie pull of The Night Circus.

Feb 12, 2013, 8:38am Top

I tried to read The Night Circus and couldn't get through the first chapter. I thought it was my mood at the time.

Feb 12, 2013, 9:15am Top

the prose begins to smell like an unventilated funeral parlor

This phrase totally made my day, Meredy! Thank you for this review--it sounds like a book that would drive me crazy.

Feb 12, 2013, 4:56pm Top

I'm aware that The Night Circus has some enthusiastic fans among LTers. I know that many members take a more forgiving attitude than I do toward deeply flawed books. The ones that bother me most are those that show considerable potential and then settle for a great deal less.

Feb 14, 2013, 8:49am Top

#51 The ones that bother me most are those that show considerable potential and then settle for a great deal less.

Meredy, can you clarify if you're referring to books or LT members in the above statement?


Feb 14, 2013, 4:05pm Top

52: Oh, goodness, I'm talking about books. I guess my pronoun reference was a little loose. Sorry!

By natural inclination and by profession I'm accustomed to looking at books in terms of what they promise and how well they fulfill that promise. Some fall short more conspicuously than others. The fact that I can't do better myself doesn't make me blind.

At the same time I do still relax into a book (especially fiction) as much as possible and entrust myself to the author. Some authors merit that trust even when their books are far from perfect, by virtue of some quality they have, such as inventive intelligence, rich characterization, or pervasive integrity.

Feb 17, 2013, 7:07pm Top

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Witty, entertaining fantasy of the macabre.

Extended review:

Johannes Cabal enters upon a wager with Satan to regain his own forfeited soul by ensnaring a hundred others within a year's time. The means at his disposal is a carnival. Black humor abounds as zombies, ghosts, imps, and demons romp through an imaginary English countryside whose inhabitants furnish both Cabal's clientele and his prey.

This inventive yarn doesn't quite seem to fit into a familiar genre, although it owes something to several, including fantasy, steampunk, gothic, and horror. Perhaps I might characterize it as Edgar Allen Poe meets Monty Python. It shouldn't be forgotten, however, that Poe himself wrote a number of humorous tales that were really pretty funny, or at least I thought so when I was 13 or 14.

Early on, Howard's humor felt too strained and calculated for my taste, but further on it seemed to relax and flow naturally out of the characters and situations. There were even a few places where a sly literary joke appeared to arise unplanned and just snap into place in the moment. I could almost picture the author pouncing on them with glee like a collector finding a rare coin in his grocery-store change. A throwaway line alluding to Cold Comfort Farm was one that struck me that way.

At the same time, I thought Howard did rather a nice job of making a relatively repulsive main character sympathetic, even while showing him failing a moral test that comes close to being the heart of the story.

I can't give this short and fairly lightweight piece more than three and a half stars alongside serious, accomplished works that merit only four; but in addition to exhibiting skillful writing and an engaging style, it does meet my test of delivering what it promises, so those three and a half stars are solid. I was displeased by the cliffhanger in the final pages, but not enough so to refrain from immediately ordering the second Johannes Cabal title.

Edited: Feb 28, 2013, 5:58pm Top

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski (5 stars)

Six-word review: Labyrinthine journey into the in{finite|ternal|conceivable|vasive|explicable|sidious|nermost} darkness.

Extended review: (Not yet ready for prime time.)

Mar 1, 2013, 2:37am Top

Broken Harbor, by Tana French (3 stars)

Six-word review: Bloated, unsatisfying catalogue of human frailty.

Extended review: Give me a good, old-fashioned detective story. One that presents a puzzling crime that demands to be solved. One with plausible suspects, intriguing clues, false trails, enticing leads, and enough misdirection to keep it interesting--all handled fairly and skillfully so that the reader is mystified until the revealed solution proves that the answers were there all along.

A story with a detective who, despite an adequate helping of credible human fallibility, manages to uncover the truth. A story that concludes with the serving of justice--justice by some measure, even if not always a conventional one. With all loose ends tied up and all questions answered. One with suspense and surprises and a great payoff at the end. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, and the balance of the universe is restored.

Not one like this.

There are enough experiences of ambiguity, angst, moral doubt, existential dread, unanswered questions, and just plain weirdness in everyday life as well as in plenty of today's fiction. That is not what I'm looking for when I pick up a detective novel.

If we can no longer count on contemporary authors to deliver the elements that used to make crime fiction the most reliable of genres, I'm just going to go back to reading the old stuff.

Mar 1, 2013, 6:09am Top

Meredy, I love your "Six-word reviews".

and enough misdirection to keep it interesting

Your comment reminded me of my attending a talk by Christopher Priest when he was talking about his novel, The Prestige. The book is about an illusionist and in his discussion he compared the work of authors as being akin to that of illusionists as both professions are trying to misdirect their audiences to entertain them with the surprise of the reveal.

As an aside, he also talked about the making of the film that was based on his book. He said he was pleased with how the film makers had interpretted his book.

Having read the book and seen the film I can say they are quite different and can be enjoyed as separate works.

Mar 3, 2013, 11:52am Top

Actually, I was enjoying your six word review, "Bloated, unsatisfying catalogue of human frailty. You're quite right that in a more satisfying era, detective stories were about re-creating the social order following the disruptive criminal act. I think it's a shame that we now seem to accord more visibility to the angst driving the criminal act than to the restoration of the balance.

Edited: Mar 3, 2013, 8:10pm Top

The Tigris Expedition: In Search of Our Beginnings, by Thor Heyerdahl (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Exploring nautical links among earliest civilizations.

Extended review: Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon-Tiki fame, set out in 1977 to answer by direct experimentation the question of whether the oldest known human civilizations could have been linked by seagoing vessels. Using technology that is five thousand years old, he oversaw the construction of a ship made of bundles of reeds exactly like those depicted on ancient artifacts found in Mesopotamia and launched it in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf.

With an eleven-man international crew, the Tigris followed sea routes that might have been taken by the Sumerians of 2500 BCE and their descendants, showing that their reed ships not only were seaworthy but were in some ways better suited to long ocean voyages than later vessels built of wooden planks with breachable hulls. Along the way they visited archaeological sites where excavations had uncovered indisputable evidence of cultural and mercantile ties among the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley. Heyerdahl's exploratory voyage proved the concept that competent prehistoric navigators could have made such journeys over centuries whose records are lost to time.

This book isn't literature, but it merits a respectable 3½ stars for scope and depth of content as well as engaging delivery. It's a clear, vivid narrative, with moments of high drama and danger, occasional lyricism, and a wealth of historical detail interwoven with present-day (1970s) observations. I was led to it by citations in the annotated Gardner & Maier Gilgamesh, and I enjoyed seeing how each of these two works illuminated the other. The modern-day depiction of lands and phenomena and relics that were matters of myth already ancient at the time of the cuneiform text breathed a reality into the epic tale that it could not achieve through footnotes. At the same time, Heyerdahl's allusions to the Gilgamesh lore and other historic literature anchor his adventure within a context that gives it a broader meaning.

Mar 4, 2013, 4:22am Top

Really waiting to hear your extended views on HoL! Although to be fair, I think your six word review is pretty much the best review I've seen on it!

Mar 4, 2013, 5:14am Top

#59 In the 1960s I read a book on Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition and thoght the man a hero.

I enjoyed your review of The Tigris Expedition. I haven't read as much about this expedition but you have whet my appetite for more Heyerdahl knowledge.

Mar 4, 2013, 8:25am Top

fascinating stuff!

Mar 4, 2013, 3:25pm Top

I love reading Heyerdahl's works. I find him very accessible, and even fun to read. For some strange reason, even though I have no desire to go on the ocean (seasick in the extreme), I love reading ocean adventures.

Mar 4, 2013, 4:25pm Top

I appreciate all comments! Thank you, kind folks, for taking an interest in my reviews. I'm delighted that you find my six-word compressions appealing. They're a challenge to write, and the process helps me get a grip on the essential matter.

60: That's quite a compliment. Sometimes it takes me a few days to pull my thoughts together, but this is unusual. I have been wrestling daily with the extended review since I finished the book. I can't even decide whether to use the word "characters." Any minute now I'm going to have to sacrifice my rash desire to make the review worthy of the book and just write something.

Mar 4, 2013, 5:21pm Top

I know what you mean. HoL is one of my favorite books, and whenever I recommend it to people I am inevitably faced with answering the question 'So what is it about?' I'm still seeking a nice, pithy, non-confusing couple of sentences that will sum the whole thing up... and yet not sum it up as that seems to go against the grain of HoL. Good luck!

Mar 4, 2013, 5:49pm Top

I saw "Bloated, unsatisfying catalogue of human frailty," and thought about how I sometimes feel after cheating on my diet extravagantly...

Another hurrah for the six-word concoctions. I can see you put some thought into them.

Mar 4, 2013, 8:34pm Top

I know it is harder to say something meaningful in a few words, than in two dozen. I like it, too.

Mar 5, 2013, 11:17pm Top

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, by David Grann (4 stars)

Six-word review: Vivid profiles of barely imaginable lives.

Extended review:

Literary journalist David Grann pursues his fascination with people who choose to live on the far edges of normality by researching their lives, by meeting them and listening to their stories, and sometimes even by going to their extremes along with them. Insofar as any person's story can be called true, he records the truth of these bizarre histories in twelve absorbing chapters, most of which were previously published in The New Yorker.

To learn how his subjects view the world and interact with it, he puts himself in their places, either figuratively, through documents and interviews, or literally, by going where they go. He hunts with a marine biologist in New Zealand who is obsessed with capturing a baby giant squid. He crawls through mud in an excavation hundreds of feet beneath the city of New York. He visits an incarcerated bank robber who, despite a seemingly settled life comfortably financed by his long criminal career, could not resist pulling off one more holdup at the age of 78. He traces the footsteps of a New York firefighter, the lone survivor of an engine company who answered the call on 9/11.

Of all the extraordinary stories he documents, perhaps the most inexplicable is that of Frédéric Bourdin, who into his thirties has repeatedly posed as an orphaned or abandoned teenager and once convinced a family in Texas that he was their missing son. Having made a lifestyle of deception and artifice, the 34-year-old Frenchman apparently spoke candidly with Grann about his many charades. (The article that constitutes this chapter is here.)

Grann recounts each of his tales with a novelist's flair for presentation and a journalist's instinct for authenticity. The result is a collection of stranger-than-fiction narratives that cannot help expanding our awareness of the very broad range of human behavior.

Mar 6, 2013, 2:38pm Top

That book sounds fascinating. That is definitely a set of stories you'll not stumble across every day.

Mar 6, 2013, 3:35pm Top

I liked your review but I must say I had a moment of dischord when I read the phrase, a journalist's instinct for authenticity. That made me smile.

Mar 6, 2013, 4:33pm Top

70: I hesitated over the phrase too . . . but of course I meant to invoke a standard of journalism that still exists, even if not universally upheld.

Mar 6, 2013, 5:41pm Top

#71 I have praised the objectivity of Robert Kee's reporting. He was the first British journalist I found who reported on Irish matters without bias or any agenda other than to put the facts in front of his readers and viewers.

He first came to my attention in 1980 when his thirteen episode TV history of Ireland was broadcast on BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation). I knew he was being objective as his programme annoyed people on both sides of the community equally, and he presented information that did not flatter either the Northern Ireland Government or the British Government. I was amazed that the BBC broadcast the series.

I think you would have found him to be a journalist who upheld the standards you allude to in post 71.

Unfortunately he died in January of this year but I had the pleasure of meeting him about fifteen years ago at a launch for one of his history books and I had the chance to thank him for the wonderful service he provided to the Irish people.

Mar 6, 2013, 5:51pm Top

#71 On the other hand, the majority of articles I read in the paper about subjects I know something about are inaccurate, incomplete, internally inconsistent, and ascribe quotes and ideas to the wrong people. (Hyperbole I know, but you get the general idea.)

I remember reading the first article in which I realised the journalist had gotten everything wrong. What made it of interest to me was the fact that the journalist in question had interviewed me about the incident she was writing about. It was about a shooting that I happened upon and I knew what had happened and what I had told her. The content of her article bore no resemblence to the facts or to what I had told her.

Mar 7, 2013, 12:17pm Top

I'm glad to hear you enjoyed The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. I just grabbed myself a copy a few weeks ago. The stories sounded too intriguing to pass by, especially knowing they are all true stories.

Edited: Mar 11, 2013, 2:59am Top

The Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (3 stars)

Six-word review: Adequate page-turner: monster chase in museum.

Extended review:

First installment of the Agent Pendergast series provides enough quasi-science to support a far-fetched fiction and enough suspense to keep you guessing. I ordered this light-duty, gore-heavy thriller as one of Amazon's one-cent bargains (plus $3.99 for shipping, of course) and pretty much got what I paid for.

Mar 11, 2013, 7:32am Top

I seem to have enjoyed Relic a bit more than you did. Sorry it wasn't more up your street.

Mar 11, 2013, 7:00pm Top

76: I wouldn't necessarily say that, majkia. I can totally enjoy a Big Mac and fries and a vanilla shake. I just wouldn't confuse it with a full-course dinner at a nice restaurant downtown (not imputing any such confusion to you--just drawing an analogy). This was more in the way of fast food than a balanced meal prepared by a chef. I enjoyed it for what it was, apart from several dozen editorial lapses that I could not help noticing. I'll probably go on to the second entry in the series, even if I'm not getting on an airplane.

Mar 12, 2013, 1:02am Top

Nabokov's Pale Fire has been in my library for approximately 40 years, and I never read past the beginning, although I am otherwise a great fan of Nabokov. Now, having read House of Leaves (and seeing what I understood to be an inevitable comparison between them), I am belatedly giving it the attention I always knew was due it.

Mar 12, 2013, 10:44am Top


Meredy, now that you have finished House of Leaves but are still working on you review, I will make the comments that supplement my review. You may want to skip this posting until you share your review. If so, do not read the next paragraph, which is a redundant directive if you have already read it, but I must assume you will follow standard conventions for reading, which could be wrong as you may still be in your House of Leaves reading mode.

While I enjoyed reading House of Leaves I felt it was too long for the reward. The story did not in my opinion support such an elaborate structure and length of book. There were strands of the story that I did find spooky, but as a whole I thought there was a lot of work involved for what was provided. I stand by my review but do feel the story could have been more rewarding. I am not inclined to read any more of Danielewski's work because I would feel there would be too much effort required if House of Leaves is an indication of how his other work pans out.

I am glad I read the book and enjoyed the experience of following the built in convolutions. I am also glad I spent a week in Saudi Arabia but I never want to return there.

Mar 16, 2013, 11:57pm Top

One Corpse Too Many, by Ellis Peters (3½ stars; genre: 4 stars)

Six-word review: Politics in medieval England breed murder.

Extended review:

In this second Brother Cadfael tale, the resourceful monk is not just a detective but a clever problem-solver.

The tale ranges beyond the exposure of a murder committed under cover of political executions to take in royal rivalry, romance, a treasure seeker, intrigue, and deadly combat. The period flavor is distinctive, the adventure is entertaining, and the characters appealing. Brother Cadfael acquires dimensions and grows more interesting. I'll continue with the series.

Mar 18, 2013, 8:26pm Top

I love that book. I also love the movie they made of it. I mean, really, who would take the time to notice one corpse out of place in a courtyard of hundreds? Only my hero, the monk Cadfael.

Mar 19, 2013, 4:28am Top

My wife enjoyed reading the Ellis Peters books and we both enjoyed watching the TV series. I clearly remember the "One Corpse Too Many" story and agree with MrsLee's comment about noticing one corpse too many and its having some attributes that set it apart from the others.

Mar 19, 2013, 4:53pm Top

I was really looking forward to picking up some Cadfael reading over the Easter break as a bit of a change of pace from wizards and sorcery. According to LT I have the second omnibus somewhere (not sure where) - if I do find it, do you think there's any harm in starting the series a few books in? Just trying to save another round of book buying!

Mar 19, 2013, 10:51pm Top

Stillman, I didn't read them in any particular order, just as I found them. I don't think it matters at all. The mysteries are not carry-overs and the characters don't develop so much that you can't figure things out.

Mar 21, 2013, 5:23pm Top

:) I loved Relic when I read it as a teenager many a year ago. I started reading the Pendergast books after that. But then I started to get bored of them as I got older. I don't know if that's because I grew out of the quality of writing, or the quality of writing got worse as it went along. Probably the former. I might try again some day, though.

Mar 21, 2013, 5:50pm Top

Thanks Mrs Lee - if I manage to find this missing omnibus version I'll add it to my holiday reading next week. I'm really in the mood for a mystery for a change.

Mar 28, 2013, 4:17pm Top

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Great concept thickened by maddening repetition.

Extended review:

Doomsday Book is anchored in a wonderful premise: that in the year 2054 academicians use time travel to conduct historical research.

The story takes place in two time periods: a future Oxford, where a mysterious epidemic fouls up the technical support on the sending end of the time leap, and a medieval village in England, where an intrepid history student named Kivrin finds herself overwhelmed by circumstances she had confidently thought she was prepared to handle.

The plot elements are well thought out, and the twist at the end is nicely done: unexpected and yet seeming logical enough to have been inevitable.

There are some charming characters. I liked twelve-year-old Colin, his great-aunt Mary the doctor, the secretary Finch, and the priest, Father Roche. The relationships that Kivrin forms in the household where she finds shelter are bonds as strong as those with the loyal professor who is determined to bring her safely home, even though the five-year-old is too willful and demanding to seem as adorable as she's claimed to be. And the depiction of village life in the Middle Ages is very vivid, based, I presume, on solid research conducted without benefit of a time machine.

But the narrative is marred by some conspicuous flaws that ought to have been seen and corrected by an editor. They are so egregious that it makes me doubt that any manuscript editor was even involved. I am speaking mainly of a terrible habit of repeating things--over and over and over and over again. And again and yet again. And this refers not just to pieces of historical data such as the fact that the Black Death killed one-third to one-half of Europe but that some entire villages were spared, or that it had reached Oxford by Christmas. It also pertains to bits of story information that the author simply could not stop restating, sometimes more than once on a page.

For instance, she tells us repeatedly that Kivrin didn't know where the drop was and so she had to speak to Gawyn because he was the only one who knew where the drop was (the rendezvous point for her return) and she had to find the drop, the drop, the drop. We got it. She had to find the drop, and she didn't know where it was, and she had to ask the only person who knew. We got it. We got it. We got it. We got it! (If the "Look Inside" feature of Amazon were active for this book, I would have done a search and counted instances of the phrases "where the drop" and "find the drop," which I expect would have figured in the hundreds.)

Not only does she weigh down the pages with endless recycling of information in the same words, adding significant heft to a bulky book, but she often seems not to realize that she is saying something she just said. It's as if she frequently changed her mind about where to place a line and so she adds it here but forgets to delete it there. For example (boldface added):

=====(Excerpt begins)

"You know, if Ms. Montoya is at the dig, I could get you through the perimeter," Colin said. He took his gobstopper out and examined it. "It'd be easy. There are lots of places that aren't watched. The guards don't like to stand out in the rain."

"I have no intention of breaking quarantine," Dunworthy said. "We are trying to stop this epidemic, not spread it."

"That's how the plague was spread during the Black Death," Colin said, taking the gobstopper out and examining it.

=====(Excerpt ends)

Likewise, several characters are apparently as obsessive about repeating the same thoughts and recollections to themselves as the author seems to be about reminding the reader for the dozenth or the twentieth time.

The incidence of authorial/editorial errors of this kind is so high that it was getting on my nerves well before the one-third mark, and by the end it made me want to scream.

Beside the location of the drop, there are several other key bits of information that one character needs to obtain from another and yet they suddenly seem to go mute when their opportunity to gain them arises. So instead of moving forward, we are cycled through the same fruitless exchanges again and again, while the author tells us (as if we didn't know) that the information is needed and that they're not getting it. This is not suspense. It's just wheel-spinning frustration.

Similarly, she has characters trying to reach someone by phone (land lines; the book came out in 1992 and did not anticipate cellphones or other wireless communicators) and failing to get through; calling again and failing to get through; calling again and failing to get through. Sometimes this goes on for pages.

And (while I'm at it) we also have several very dimensionless cardboard characters who are seriously obnoxious. It is hard to imagine anyone being so obtusely single-minded as either Lady Imeyne or Mrs. Gaddson. Lady Imeyne serves a purpose in the plot, but Mrs. Gaddson seems superfluous and is far too annoying to be funny. Apart from supplying an occasion for a little constructive coercion, I couldn't see what she added other than the scene-by-scene conflict that the standard fictional formula requires. But because she's a minor character, conflict with her is irrelevant to the plot. Again, it's just an annoyance.

In sum, then, I can award this novel only a half-hearted 3½ stars, even though I wanted to love it and do admire its original plot.

Apr 3, 2013, 2:34am Top

I've just finished Nabokov's 1962 opus Pale Fire, and now maybe I can finish my review of House of Leaves.

Apr 3, 2013, 3:43am Top

#88 I am looking forward to your House of Leaves review. No pressure!

Apr 3, 2013, 5:23am Top

#88, 89 - I'm looking forward to your HoL review too!

Apr 3, 2013, 8:52am Top

I just LOVE your short, six word reviews!!!

Apr 3, 2013, 7:28pm Top

Meredy, your six word reviews are an inspiration. I find they give me the essence of what you feel about a book.

It takes a lot of skill to produce something so succinct, to peel away all the layers of thoughts about a work and leave just the core.

Edited: Apr 5, 2013, 1:38am Top

Reliquary, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Gross but fun monster chase underground.

Extended review: Like the first book in the Agent Pendergast series (reviewed above), this isn't glorious writing. Authors who would use phrases such as "gurgling silently" (when "gurgle" is a word of sound) and "lambent darkness" ("lambent" means "glowing") have a command of the language that fails to excite admiration. But it is adequate to the purpose, which is to entertain with fast-moving narrative, vivid description, and page-turning suspense, throwing in enough social relevance to add some ballast. Several characters are both likeable and interesting, and I hope to see one or more of them in another installment.

So three and a half stars for this one are a good mark, not half-hearted at all but fully appreciative of the value of setting a goal that's within one's reach.

Apr 5, 2013, 2:33pm Top

Authors who would use phrases such as "gurgling silently" (when "gurgle" is a word of sound) and "lambent darkness" ("lambent" means "glowing") have a command of the language that fails to excite admiration.

I'm shocked you would say that.... (Yes, that's said in a deadpan tone with tongue firmly in cheek.)

Apr 6, 2013, 7:34pm Top

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov (5 stars)

Six-word review: Difficult, dazzling fictional coup by virtuoso.

Extended review:

No one with a shred less intellectual and literary confidence--even, I would say, arrogance--than the likes of Lolita's Nabokov would have dared to construct a 999-line verse that is at once brilliant and brilliantly bad and then append to it a novel in the guise of scholarly annotations.

I read my first Nabokov novel (it was Despair, his characteristically unorthodox contribution to Doppelgänger literature) in the 1960s and immediately became a fan. I read his novels one after another, his autobiography, his criticism, his lectures. At one time I loved Ada above all other novels. I was dazzled by the author's erudition and his fierce, unforgiving intelligence. I was in awe of his command of our language, not even his native tongue, in which he moved as through a tesseract, inhabiting dimensions that most of us could not even conceive. He played with English like Thor playing with thunderbolts, handling them like toys, but never, ever in the absence of absolute control.

And yet when I tried to read Pale Fire in about 1969 or 1970, I bogged down early and just could not push myself through it.

Pale Fire sat on my shelf--or actually a considerable succession of shelves in two states--until a few weeks ago. After reading House of Leaves and finding myself stymied in my attempt to write a review, I became aware that I could not accomplish that feat without first knowing Pale Fire. And so at last I read it.

Now I find myself oddly compelled (a) to give it five stars and (b) to not recommend it.

There is something almost embarrassing about the spectacle that this work presents, as if we were accidentally to espy the speaker fondling a ladies' silken undergarment and realize a moment too late that we ought to look away.

And yet we know that he knows we're watching, and catching us in the act of involuntary but fascinated voyeurism seems to be exactly his intention. We are the Biter Bit.

Not that I would say to anyone "Don't read it." I think it's a great work and continues to merit major attention. But it possesses such a quality of autonomous self-sufficiency that it seems indifferent to opinion and makes fools of us for trying to express one: as if we were to emerge, speechless, from a stunning performance of an operatic masterwork and overhear a bumpkin behind us gush, "That guy wrote really good music." How dare we judge it?

Story. The story. All right. It's a first-person narrative by one Charles Kinbote, putative professor of literature at a fictitious American college, who asserts a claim to the intimate friendship of a recently deceased poet by the name of John Shade. Kinbote takes it upon himself to publish a heavily annotated version of Shade's last work of verse. The annotations constitute not only an autobiography of Kinbote, whose personal history as a refugee from the fictitious European kingdom of Zembla is rife with political and sexual intrigue, but a catalogue of personal grievances by a self-avowed victim of endless private and public injustices. Converging paths lead to murder and leave the fate of John Shade's final opus in the hands of the quintessential unreliable narrator.

As the layers of self-revelation unfold and coy hints become an ever-broader trail of clues, we are led to wonder whether there is any narrative truth to be found in this deeply paranoid fantasy whose self-delusion appears from the first moment, with expressions of abject admiration for a poet who writes such lines as this (183-194):

=====(Excerpt begins)

The little scissors I am holding are
A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.
I stand before the window and I pare
My fingernails and vaguely am aware
Of certain flinching likenesses: the thumb,
Our grocer's son; the index, lean and glum
College astronomer Starover Blue;
The middle fellow, a tall priest I knew;
The feminine fourth finger, an old flirt;
And little pinky clinging to her skirt.
And I make mouths as I snip off the thin
Strips of what Aunt Maud used to call "scarf skin."

=====(Excerpt ends)

Nabokov knows exactly how banal this is, and yet he carries off the banality with such audacity of style and such intermittent exhibitions of genius that we cannot doubt he strikes precisely the note he means to sound.

The first of many puzzles that the reader must solve is simply how to read this multidimensional work to which there is no such thing as a linear approach.

I read it using two bookmarks, often with my fingers in several pages at once, and rereading sections in overlapping sequence while also following cross-references forward and backward. From foreword to index, I read every word, because every word from the beginning of the foreword to the end of the index is part of the story.

When I reached the end, I felt both satisfied and mystified, as though I had dived into the depths and seen strange creatures not of land--but also sensed the merest fraction of the depths not yet attained.

And those depths, if I could but see into them--I'm certain they'd be mocking me.

Apr 8, 2013, 4:27pm Top

Great review of Pale Fire. I was lucky enough to read it many years ago in a graduate class on postmodern literature, so that I had a ready-made group with whom to discuss it. On the one hand, it felt like "there's no there there," and on the other it seemed like the ultimate expression of literary balls, an expression we threw around a lot in that class. I loved it, and it made some of the other books we read seem like walks in the park.

Hearty agreement with your critique of Doomsday Book, too. I wanted to take scissors to it and see what it would weigh without all the repetition. This was after I gave her the benefit of the doubt and looked for a reason for it, but couldn't find any. It's my least favorite of her Oxford historian books; To Say Nothing of the Dog was much better.

Apr 8, 2013, 5:42pm Top

Thanks so much, Jim. I truly appreciate the validation. I often feel like I'm going out on a limb with my reviews.

I think I would have enjoyed your class.

Apr 10, 2013, 2:36am Top

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski (5 stars)

Six-word review: Labyrinthine journey into the in{finite|ternal|conceivable|vasive|explicable|nermost} darkness.

Extended review:

I've awarded a rare (for me) five stars to House of Leaves. I feel a strange reluctance to offer such an unqualified endorsement, yet to give it anything less would be to make a mockery of my own ranking system.

Reading this book reminds me of viewing a Surrealist painting by Dali or a Cubist work by Picasso: I feel that I'm being had by a brilliant con artist. The brilliance is undeniable, and yet at the same time I can't escape a sense that I'm being duped, manipulated, toyed with--not in the honest illusion of theatre or poetry but more in the way of a stage magician whose stock in trade is an ability to ensnare our senses in defiance of reason.

The naked shell of the story is the disturbing, menacing, and ultimately madness-inducing effect, whether real or hallucinated (and what is real?), of a grotesque anomaly within what otherwise appears to be an ordinary house. The principal figures, whom I would rather call "presences" than "characters," are the couple who own the house, the phenomena of which the husband has attempted to document on film; the old man called Zampanó, recently deceased, who has left a massive, jumbled manuscript analyzing the film record; and the man named Johnny Truant who finds, assembles, and annotates the old man's opus.

The dramatic interplay among three parallel narratives is almost the least of it. The narratives themselves, bizarrely arresting in their own right, seem to exist primarily to furnish the pretext for special effects. And these are special effects of the first order, accomplishing results that I have never seen perpetrated on paper before.

The book, by the way, must be read on paper. Even if you should find it in another medium, don't bother to try. The physical object itself is a palpable element of the story in a way not even attained by the posthumous volume The Original of Laura, the heartbreaking spectre of the once-great Nabokov devolved into a shamelessly overpriced gimmick. The awareness of being manipulated by gimmicks is exactly what triggered my resistance here, in much the same way that I decline to succumb to any form of religious persuasion; and yet, like the calculated effects in Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors, they worked.

They worked because I let them, and I let them because, so help me, I wanted them to work. The same shadowy part of me that relishes Poe's flirtation with madness until he became its slave; that sees through the eyes of Raskolnikov just long enough to imagine justifying his act of murder, before recoiling in horror; that follows the narrator of The Blind Owl through his sanity-eroding surrealistic hall of mirrors--that shadow-self longs to be possessed utterly by something akin to oblivion, too alien to be evil, too absolute to be qualified.

Extravagant language? Yes, it is. And it must be to do it justice, even if justice might best be served by silent wild-eyed laughter.

House of Leaves is a story, or indeed several stories, of love, obsession, madness, myth, and mystery. Its subterranean stairway to hell is as fascinating and terrifying as the dreamscapes that afford us glimpses of the murky depths lying just beneath quotidian consciousness. Somewhere in those dark corridors there must be graffiti: C. Jung was here.

The book is also a complex, multilayered puzzle, an impossible fantasy in which nothing is accidental. Like its esteemed 1962 predecessor, the ground-breaking Pale Fire of Vladimir Nabokov (reviewed above), it tells a significant part of its story in the ancillary material: in this case, not only foreword, introduction, annotations, and index but also title page, exhibits, appendixes (poems, letters, news items, quotations, and more), endleaves, and use of color. It also employs the graphic format of certain pages in a way that makes me think of the abstract paintings of Mark Rothko: the content is present only to provide an occasion for the form. Is it necessary to read every word? Will I miss something if I don't, or does it amount to reading a passage of Lorem Ipsum and looking for meaning in it? I read every word.

I even found and compulsively marked what I believe were actual typos, as opposed to deliberate typos included for some elusive purpose. You couldn't have paid me enough to proofread this book, and I have proofread algebra, statistics, and chemistry books for money.

I lack the bravado to say I found all the clues and solved all the puzzles. I'd be happy to think I got better than half of them. But I do know why there are pages with inset squares of text within a wall of other text, why some text is printed in reverse, why there are pages with only one word on them, and why some pages look like the aftermath of an explosion in a type foundry. A linear reading is literally not possible. In fact, I'm tempted to suggest reading the backmatter before delving into the primary content because so much of it illuminates the main storylines--if illumination can even be spoken of in this context.

For a while after I had finished the book, I kept reading, kept looking, kept studying the exhibits--loath to close the covers before being certain that I had seen all there was to see, like a drunkard shaking the upended bottle for one last drop, like a stoner swallowing the roach.

And then--one long exhalation. I waited for my head to clear. It didn't. I think it took me three days for the inside of my brain to shrink back to its normal dimensions, and there are still furrows, cubbyholes, and (less benignly) tunnels that I don't remember noticing before. Is this a safe place to inhabit any more?

Was it ever?

Apr 10, 2013, 4:15am Top

Nice review. I'm glad you enjoyed the book and have recovered sufficiently to write the review.

Apr 10, 2013, 4:53am Top

Wow! I have to move this up the Tbr pile (I think ...)

Apr 10, 2013, 7:02am Top

How wonderful for you that you came across a book that could do this! All too seldom does a book fill you so completely. Your difficulty in confining it to six words was the first give-away that the book was something special.

Apr 10, 2013, 4:13pm Top

99: Thank you. I chipped away at it over more than a month and am still not sure I did it right, but there it is.

100: I hope to hear from you if you do. I didn't expect to like it, myself, and remain surprised at my response.

101: Yes, that's so. But the way I treated my six words wasn't a matter of difficulty. That was a straightforward attempt to convey the character and effect of the book.

Apr 10, 2013, 5:13pm Top

Well from the lengthy review I would say, "It worked".

Apr 10, 2013, 5:25pm Top


The six-word discipline has been good for my thought process. A few years back, I set myself the challenge of writing 100-word stories--real stories, with characters and a beginning, middle, and end, in exactly 100 words, not 99 and not 101. I found that it really sharpened my focus and my use of words, which I habitually fling about in profligate heaps.

The six-word reviews are an echo of the four-word film review challenge seen here, which I really worked at for a while. In the end, when it came to books, I had to give myself the extra 50% latitude or I just couldn't pull it off.

Apr 10, 2013, 5:36pm Top

#104 I set myself the challenge of writing 100-word stories

The word, "Drabble", was coined for such stories. I first came across the term at an event in the Irish Writers' Centre in the 1990s where they had a drabble writing competition.

When I was organising science fiction conventions and my co-chair died I instigated a writing competition in his honour. I thought it would be too difficult for people to write a story of exactly 100 words so I called it a "Less than drabble" competition. People had to write a story of no more than 100 words. It ran for three years. The first winning story was:

The fields were black and grey with ash and the dull red of smouldering fires. Thog the mighty thewed, son of Bod, surveyed the devastation astride his prancing warhorse.

“I will save you from this accursed dragon!” he declaimed to the downtrodden villagers.

A wise, greyhaired man pushed forward.

“You will need this,” said the wizard, producing a phial of clear liquid.

The hero curled his lip in scorn. “Thog the mighty thewed, son of Bod, needs no potion to slay a dragon!”

“No, you pillock! Tell her to drink it and never to go flying after she’s had a curry!”

Apr 10, 2013, 5:48pm Top

105: I know, but I won't use it. I am not calling anything I write a "Drabble." No offense to Margaret, but what an unpleasant name.

Apr 10, 2013, 7:40pm Top

I hadn't thought to do it myself, but the 100 word exercise would be good discipline in writing in terms of tightening up the language. Wow!

Edited: Apr 11, 2013, 5:51pm Top

Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain, by Simon Winchester (3½ stars)

Six-word review: I am not like other men.

Extended review:

For an American who reads as much British literature as I do and watches as many British dramas, I am very late in coming to a working grasp of the titled classes. Not only could I not have recited the hierarchy of hereditary peers from duke to baron but I had very little understanding of their role in the social system and its meaning to the history and present structure of society in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Simon Winchester's 1981 book has filled that yawning gap in my education. No matter that it is thirty years out of date, that many of the title holders and even the titles themselves will be gone by now, and that forecast effects of then-recent changes in tax laws and other reforms will already have played out, for good or ill. If I want to learn which ancient titles have gone extinct for want of an heir in the past three decades or what the Capital Transfer Tax has done to landholdings in England, I'm sure the Internet will tell me. Meanwhile, the same monarch sits on the throne, the same velvet-and-ermine robes and prescribed coronets wait in storage for the obligatory guests at the next coronation, and the House of Lords remains the only governmental body in the world in which membership can be conferred by right of birth.

The author may have told me more than I ever wanted to know about the lifestyle of the Earl of Kintore or the misdeeds of Lord Lucan, the unfathomably vast acreages held (then, if not now) by hereditary aristocrats, and the trend toward ennobling as life peers prominent members of the merchant classes and other distinguished figures; but no one forced me to keep reading. However little of the exhaustive detail I retain, I have gained a broad sense of a character-defining institution of what is in many ways our parent nation and yet has no counterpart in our culture. Winchester shows the drawbacks of privilege alongside its many blessings and effectively counters any vestiges of title envy that some of us might secretly harbor.

Apr 11, 2013, 5:55pm Top

I really enjoyed that review of HoL Meredy, it was worth the wait! I'm torn now between going back and re-reading it and moving on to his other books. I've always thought of it as a book that will benefit from a re-read every decade or so, after I'm a little older, wiser, and more widely read around mythology/philosophy/ cultural theory etc etc.

I was also interested in what you said about needing to read it in its paper form; I thought it had started out life as an electronic text, but I'm not sure where I got this idea from. It reminded me of this article I read a couple of months ago about what Danielewski has done with 'enhanced' e-books.


Apr 11, 2013, 6:27pm Top

109: Thanks very much, Stillman--that's a high compliment.

I know nothing about the history of House of Leaves, so I can't say you're wrong. In a way it would seem to lend itself to hypertext. But unless you can literally invert your screen and see multidirectional passages of text at the same time, view several pages at once, experience the visual and tactile sensation of paging backwards and in rotation instead of just seeing separate pages in succession, and so on, there is no way that an online reading could duplicate the effect of engaging with the hard copy.

Apr 11, 2013, 6:34pm Top

John Dies at the End, by David Wong (unrated)

Six-word nonreview: Reads like graphic novel without pictures.

Extended nonreview:

It isn't the fault of the book. I wasn't misled about its style or substance. It may be very good at being what it is. There are, I'm afraid, simply boundaries to the breadth of my taste, and judging by the first twenty pages, this work appears to fall on their far side. Enough other reading is awaiting my attention that I don't think I'll regret leaving this one to its more appropriate audience.

Apr 12, 2013, 11:44am Top

Hee hee. I came to that same conclusion at about that same point. I forget where I had seen the recommendation, but i tried it and then brought it back to the library very quickly.

Apr 12, 2013, 11:50am Top

#111 Your six-word review says it all.

Apr 12, 2013, 4:50pm Top

112, 113: Thanks. I'm very glad that mine is a library copy as well.

Apr 13, 2013, 3:42pm Top

But the title makes it sound so good...

Apr 15, 2013, 12:15am Top

Johannes Cabal the Detective, by Jonathan L. Howard (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Entertaining aerial adventure with clever necromancer.

Extended review:

Deliciously despicable Johannes Cabal, master of certain death-defying dark arts, returns for a second romp through improbable escapades fraught with peril. This time, with his soul newly restored by the devil, he is also plagued by unwelcome twinges of conscience. He is developing an interesting if inconvenient bond with Leonie Barrow, the policeman's daughter who crossed his path in book one (Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, reviewed above).

The dust jacket of my copy includes this quote: "The fellow has got all the charm of Bond and the smarts of Holmes--without the pesky morality." I can't see who said that because it's covered up by a sticker, but I like it. The title character also reminds me in some ways of Master Kao Li, the scholar with a slight flaw in his character, in Bridge of Birds; in fact, it feeds some of the same appetite for macabre fantasy, satire, wit, and a certain literate style that some are bound to find tedious. Having read so many books in which a similar style is used in all earnestness, I can't help enjoying it when delivered with tongue in cheek.

Apr 15, 2013, 1:24am Top

I enjoyed the first Johannes Cabal book and have the second waiting on the tbr shelves. Was thinking it might be a choice for the steampunk group read for the category challenge but wasn't totally sure if it fit there or not but it seems to have quite a few people tagging it as such.

Apr 15, 2013, 1:30am Top

117: Well, I don't really think it does, but I could see a case for it. If I belonged to a steampunk book group and this were on the list, I wouldn't try to disqualify it.

I'd like to read the third book, but it's still priced high on Amazon and my library doesn't have it. I'm wondering if I can find someone who'd like to trade it for something equivalent and dispensable in my library.

Apr 15, 2013, 12:13pm Top

I have the detective one on my shelf, should I read the first one - first? Or just skip it and go straight to the detective?

Apr 15, 2013, 2:28pm Top

Oh no. Read the first one before the detective one!

Apr 15, 2013, 4:58pm Top

Definitely read the first one first.

Apr 15, 2013, 6:09pm Top

thanks, will do.

Apr 15, 2013, 6:30pm Top

Follow-up to 118. It was pretty late when I posted that. I used "my library" to mean two different things in two sentences. Sorry. This is what I meant:

I'd like to read the third book, but it's still priced high on Amazon and the public library in my city doesn't have it. I'm wondering if I can find someone on LT who'd like to trade it for something equivalent and dispensable in my personal library.

Apr 15, 2013, 7:26pm Top

Meredy, thanks for the response. I managed to work out what you meant without the subsequent explanation so all is good. I probably won't include it (thus being able to read it sooner rather than having to wait) and it's not like I don't have alternatives.

Apr 19, 2013, 3:56pm Top

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (unrated)

Six-word nonreview: Present tense for 600 pages? No.

Extended nonreview:

Why didn't you tell me it was written in the present tense?

Oh, dear, you did? Was I listening?

I'm sorry, but I made it only to the second sentence. (The first was dialogue, which put me off right there.) Then I leafed through and saw that, sure enough, the whole thing is in the present tense.

Sometimes I can stand a present-tense narrative for the length of a short story, but most of the time, not. For 604 pages? No, sorry.

I'm interested in the subject matter, the period, the personalities. I'm impressed by the reviews I've seen of this book and its sequel. I expected to love it. But I can't suppress a gag reflex for that long. That's it for me.

Apr 19, 2013, 4:28pm Top

I probably would have had the same reaction. I don't understand what authors think it adds when they flout convention like that. I was very disappointed a while ago when a book I had been looking forward to reading turned out to have no quotation marks. I want to be immersed in a story, not constantly focussing on a stylistic quirk.

Apr 19, 2013, 5:55pm Top

That's really interesting Meredy, because I loved Wolf Hall. After reading your review I had to double check in case I was thinking of a different book, but no, that's the one. And do you know, I don't remember it being in first person; that usually annoys me too. So I had to go and check some excerpts online, and I found them really grating. And yet I loved the book so much when I read it, I barely even noticed it. Weird.

Apr 20, 2013, 10:07pm Top

Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, by Richard Fortey (4 stars)

Six-word review: Scientist reveals natural history's scholarly side.

Extended review:

Behind the vast galleries of exhibits at London's Natural History Museum, formerly part of the British Museum, is an even vaster labyrinth unseen by the public. Its halls and burrows and storage spaces house the millions of organic and inorganic specimens that make up the ever-growing collections gathered for study and classification by one of the world's major scientific institutions.

The author, a retired trilobite man, knows this world intimately. His years of employment in the paleontology section encompass the changeover from a traditional bastion of scholarly disciplines administered and populated by scientists to a grant-funded public attraction backed by crisp labs of white-coated computer operators. The legacy of the older model, whose passing clearly grieves the author, is preserved in the collections even as new information accumulates in other media.

Rich with anecdotes, character sketches, history, and detailed information about various zoological, botanical, and mineral specimens, including the complex and fraught sciences of taxonomy and nomenclature, Fortey's highly readable book claims only to be his own personal collection--his dry storeroom: an idiosyncratic accumulation of knowledge, lore, personalities, and memories garnered over a long career in the practice of science. Entertaining and informative are equally apt terms for this window on a world most of us will never see.

Apr 22, 2013, 2:59am Top

Monk's Hood: The Third Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters (3½ stars; genre: 4 stars)

Six-word review: Monastic sleuth investigates murder by poisoning.

Extended review:

By the third installment in the series, Brother Cadfael's approach to matters both sacred and profane is becoming predictable; which is to say, we are getting to know him. This development does not detract from the pleasure in watching him apply logic, skill, and a sizeable helping of intuition to a puzzling crime and also dispense his own measure of justice and mercy according to his understanding.

These books are small and do not delve deep, but they are not trivial either, examining as they do both the temporal and eternal questions that the good brother faces, both in his cloistered life following a soldierly career and in his missions into the secular world.

I enjoy the author's treatment of setting, secondary characters, and aspects of medieval life. In this story I particularly liked the glimpses of the lives of shepherds and their flocks, homely, fragrant details that contribute to atmosphere and verisimilitude. I never doubt the author's attention to authenticity and historical fidelity. The emerging picture of life in the Middle Ages is a significant element of the appeal of this series.

Edited: Apr 22, 2013, 9:03am Top

I'm so glad you enjoyed Dry store room!

I too have issues with books written in the present tense, but I did manage to read and enjoy Wolf Hall in spite of it. Normally though, if I flip through a book at the store and see present tense, back onto the shelf it goes. I've been told that many people find it more gripping, because "if a book is written in first-person past tense then you know the narrator survives." I just find it clunky and annoying though, and rarely see why the author is using it other than just jumping onto the latest literary trend. Margaret Atwood is one of the few exceptions; I think that she uses present tense effectively, and sparingly, to good effect.

Okay, rant over :-)

Apr 22, 2013, 4:37pm Top

Entirely by coincidence, last night I started the third Pendergast adventure, The Cabinet of Curiosities. The setup for the (so far) focal character is that she is at odds with the administration of the Natural History Museum that employs her: not only is her research not being funded but her budget is being cut. This is happening, it appears, because the institution is no longer run by scientists as a scientific institution but by promoters angling for funding with mass appeal that engages a comic-book mentality of dinosaur lovers, regardless of the real and potential value of less glamorous studies.

This is exactly the same picture painted by Fortey in Dry Storeroom No. 1, reviewed in #128 above--so much so that the Fortey book could have been the authors' source, but that their book preceded his by several years. Having his depiction of that endangered environment in mind makes this setting startlingly vivid.

Edited: Apr 26, 2013, 10:16pm Top

The Cabinet of Curiosities (Pendergast, Book 3), by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Wow, more creepy subterranean nasty business.

Extended review:

I think I'm catching onto a pattern here. This is the third mystery-thriller starring Special Agent Pendergast, and three out of three have involved (a) the Museum of Natural History in New York, (b) a mad scientist, (c) some kind of magic potion, and (d) underground tunnels with horrid things in them.

There are also, as before, some stalwarts and some dopes in the NYPD, a personable, vulnerable and yet strong young woman, and a likable, annoying reporter.

I guess if you have a formula that works, it's smart not to mess with it.

The LT series lists showing titles in sequence are a great resource. What I didn't realize, though, when I selected this book as the third in the series, is that apparently there were other titles between the second and third Pendergast books that carried on sequentially but involved other characters. So Nora Kelly had been introduced and her relationship with Bill Smithback developed in a non-Pendergast book that preceded this one.

That wasn't really a problem; the authors supplied enough backstory to fill the gaps. But this was a caution that I didn't think of in following a series--the idea that the series might branch and I might be missing story development if I mistakenly followed a single main character.

At any rate, as before, this one presented a fast-moving and suspenseful yarn with pluses and minuses that balance out in its favor, as long as you're in the mood for the gruesome parts.

Edited: May 1, 2013, 8:39pm Top

Mister B. Gone, by Clive Barker (2½ stars)

Six-word review: Dialogue between captive demon and you.

Extended review:

I've read and enjoyed a number of Clive Barker's novels. This one didn't come up to expectations. Maybe I just found the premise--that of being addressed in the present moment by a demon who is aware of you as a reader holding the book--a bit too coy and precious. I don't much care for the one-sided conversation as a storytelling device, whether it's practiced by Clive Barker, Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), or Albert Camus (The Fall). It requires too many phony-sounding contrived locutions of the "What's that you say? You don't believe me?" and "I'm sure you're wondering..." variety. Perhaps I'm just a hard case, but to me it wears thin after about two pages.

Moreover, this particular treatment seems to owe more than a little to Fredric Brown's classic short story "Dont Look Behind You," which, unlike this, really did chill my spine.

I'll give it points for several nice moments of X-ray vision that seem to expose the reader's self-doubt, narcissism, and innate depravity and for an interesting Great Secret, as well as for linking a considerable variety of consequences to the emergence of the printed word.

But I'm also going to deduct points for sheer sloppiness, which is as much the fault of the publisher (don't they hire proofreaders any more?) as of the author. The number of missed words, incomplete constructions, random punctuation errors, and failures of fact checking grew more irritating as time went on. Here are some examples (exact transcriptions):


As for the human populous, they either lay littered on the streets of the burned-out villages . . .

(page 138: should be "populace," a noun meaning "the inhabitants of a place," and not an adjective meaning "heavily populated")


That though the journey here had been long and that more than once I had despaired of ever discovering what purpose I served that here, under this roof, was a man who might relieve me of the soul-rotting fear that I served none at all: Johannes Gutenberg had dreamt of me.

(page 176: some punctuation needed among all those "thats")


"Why have you been scaring to my wife?" Gutenberg said. "She's always been easily frightened."

"I'm not imaging this!" Hannah yelled . . .

(page 202: delete stray "to"; change "imaging" to "imagining")


Underneath--why was I surprised--was the scaly skin that I had myself once met in the mirror, while from the base of his knobby spine a single tail, the massive, virile state of which suggesting he was a much, much older demon than he was an Archbishop.

(page 223: need a verb for the second portion of the compound sentence, probably right before the noun phrase "a single tail": emerged, swung, hung, something like that)


More annoying than any of these and their like were two references to Ares Grammatica that ought to have been Ars Grammatica. "Ars" means "art." "Ares" is the name of the Greek god of war. Because this occurs twice, it certainly looks like the author's error and not a copyeditor superimposing her own ignorance on someone else's work, but a proofreader ought to have checked it.

Low-level errors like these, especially in such quantity, are really inexcusable. It costs nothing in creativity or style to find and correct them--it's just a matter of attention and care. I'm being asked for my attention by the author and the publisher. They have shirked their obligation to the reader if they haven't made the necessary effort to clean up the text before they put it before an audience. Conscientious proofreading, once de rigueur for any respectable publishing house, seems to be one of many casualties of the capture of the author's keystrokes by means of electronic files--the shortcut to print that shortchanges only the reader.

They don't care if you like the book. They only care if you buy it.

I'm glad I didn't.

(Edited to correct rating.)

Edited: Apr 29, 2013, 4:28am Top

I loved your paragrah about errors.

Low-level errors like these, especially in such quantity, are really inexcusable. It costs nothing in creativity or style to find and correct them--it's just a matter of attention and care. I'm being asked for my attention by the author and the publisher. They have shirked their obligation to the reader if they haven't made the necessary effort to clean up the text before they put it before an audience. Conscientious proofreading, once de rigueur for any respectable publishing house, seems to be one of many casualties of the capture of the author's keystrokes by means of electronic files--the shortcut to print that shortchanges only the reader.

It captures my opinion perfectly. Were you peering into my mind and analysing my thoughts?

If you were, then thank you for expressing them in a much more succinct and erudite fashion than I could have managed.

ETA: I must hunt down "Don't Look Behind You!" Thank you for the pointer.

Apr 29, 2013, 8:58am Top

Aw I quite enjoyed Mister B Gone. It was no literary masterpiece, but I thought it was a lot of fun, and had a good bit of creativity going on.

Apr 29, 2013, 9:07am Top

>133 Meredy:: Which of Barker's novels did you enjoy? I have Weaveworld and Imajica on my tbr pile and need some encouragement to move them either up or out!

The book I'm reading at the moment has many similar errors to the ones you mention in your review. I'm wondering whether they are the fault of the author/publisher or the typesetter. Some such as the use of "birth" for "berth" and "coup" for "coop" would have passed a spellchecker but should have been caught by a human reader. Others are just typos (eg. "jsut" instead of "just") and even a computer should have picked these up, so I wonder if they were introduced during the typsetting process. Either way, I'm glad it's a library book because I'd be cross to have spent money on a hardback with this many errors. They do throw you out of the story when you come across one.

Apr 29, 2013, 9:19am Top

>136 Sakerfalcon: I haven't read either myself yet but know many people who rave about Imajica.

Edited: Apr 29, 2013, 5:46pm Top

136: I enjoyed both of them, even though both also had moments I didn't like. I was really caught up in Imajica while I was reading it. As I recall (somewhat vaguely, from a distance of many years), I thought it meandered off the track toward the end. Both of them were spellbinding nonetheless.

I really liked The Thief of Always as well.

Apr 30, 2013, 7:33am Top

Thank you Meredy! I'll try and get to one of them later this year. I have read The thief of always and liked it a lot.

Edited: May 1, 2013, 6:10pm Top

Death at the President's Lodging, by Michael Innes (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Talky but entertaining British murder mystery.

Extended review:

This first (1936) entry in the Inspector Appleby series is also my first novel by Michael Innes. LT posts led me to expect exactly what I got: a clever, articulate, and highly vocabulous detective story in the tradition of the Golden Age of mystery writing. The author amuses himself and the reader by playing with the conventions of the genre, including the very familiar trappings of a fictitious stand-in for Oxford University and the clichés of detective fiction, and by caricaturing the dons and their learned, windy speeches.

Two recent thought-provoking remarks by our jillmwo seem particularly apt in this context. In her reading journal (link) she writes:

Speaking entirely personally, I want to go back to the olden days of publishing mysteries when we had bodies found perhaps in the library but politely left without blood spatter or other indiscreet indications of pain or violence. Miss Marple, Monsieur Poirot--definitely more my speed.

This is a story written at that speed. And I, for one, felt some relief going in, knowing that the crime, however it might be committed, would be handled tastefully: a few drops of blood, perhaps, but no pools and no splatters. I wasn't looking for brutal realism but for diverting escapism. It's nice to know when you can trust an author for this.

The second and even more thoughtful remark appears in this present thread (above):

You're quite right that in a more satisfying era, detective stories were about re-creating the social order following the disruptive criminal act. I think it's a shame that we now seem to accord more visibility to the angst driving the criminal act than to the restoration of the balance.

Here she puts her finger on what is perhaps the key to the satisfying quality of old-fashioned detective stories: the return to equilibrium at the conclusion. Evil intent and evil action have disturbed the peace, but they have been found out and the perpetrator neutralized. All loss is not restored: lost life is gone forever. But justice has been served, and by simple human agency, meaning that it is within our power (even if the means and methods at times seem somewhat outside the range of probability). For a moment all is well, and we can believe in safety and order once again.

So why did I give this book only three and a half stars? On my scale, three stars are a decent mark. It does not aspire to be literature, however literary its style, and it does not achieve greatness on some cosmic scale, but it delivers what it promises, which is to me a book's most fundamental virtue.

I would read another by this author.

May 1, 2013, 6:14pm Top

Meredy, that is a beautiful posting about Death at the President's Lodging. You have basically said the book does what it says on the tin and does it well. That would also be my description of a three star rating.

You also say you would read another book by this author which I think says it all.

Your quotations and comments on "cosy crime" fiction is a great summary of the whole genre and has placed the work of Michael Innes in a particular category in my mind. I think I would enjoy his work and more importantly I think my wife would enjoy his work. She is very much a cosy crime reader and seldom ventures into the books of a new author lest the content be too brutal. It sounds like Ennis will be an author whose books I can buy for her without fear of a negative reaction.

Thank you for your very interesting posting.

May 1, 2013, 7:04pm Top

I don't read nearly as many mysteries as I used to, but I'm still actively acquiring Appleby books. I like them for the reasons Meredy mentioned above: the way Innes plays with the conventions of the genre, and knowledge that there won't be any gory surprises.

May 1, 2013, 7:29pm Top

I read Death at the President's Lodging last year and plan to read the next one this month.

I do like the slower pace as well, and the fact it's more a thought book, focusing on the mystery of how, why, when, rather than the forensics, if you will.

May 1, 2013, 7:33pm Top

Nice detailed review, Meredy! I've reserved a copy for whenever I can make time.

May 3, 2013, 7:16pm Top

The Risk of Darkness, by Susan Hill (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Every violent act has many victims.

Extended review:

That six-word review is really not a review so much as a statement of a major theme of the book. Not only is this third Simon Serrailler novel packed with violent acts, and especially violent criminal acts, but it is also an inventory of collateral damage. Even people at several removes from the perpetrators and their direct victims are seen to be harmed as a result of the antisocial acts of a few.

This is a powerful message.

In delivering that message through a gripping narrative, the book certainly succeeds. It held my attention through a very fast read of 374 pages.

Nevertheless, I came away dissatisfied yet again--even more so, perhaps, than at the end of the second book of the series.

This book reveals what should have been disclosed in the conclusion of The Pure in Heart, but wasn't: namely, who committed the abductions and murders of the missing children. However, we are left to wonder what the perpetrator actually did, and even more important, why. It took a whole third novel to close the case that occupied the attention of the (nominal) main character, Simon Serailler, throughout the second, and we are still left with major unanswered questions.

Perhaps the problem here lies in expectations. Beneath the title are the words "A Simon Serailler Mystery." To employ the label "mystery" is to invoke the conventions of a genre, and foremost among the traditional conventions of this genre is that the mystery be explained and the questions answered by the end. It would be fair to call these stories "crime novels," for they are certainly about crime, its effects, and the process of solving crimes, but they are not really mysteries in the usual way.

The principal character, Simon Serailler, doesn't even do any detecting or crime solving. Curiously, he seems to simply stand at the hub of a wheel while other characters, good, bad, and in between, spin around him.

An odd aspect of all three books in this series so far is that we are routinely shown the sensations, thoughts, and actions of numerous point-of-view characters but that there is an opacity in all of them. Secrets are alluded to but not exposed. We are told that the character remembers something, but not what it is that the character remembers. A troubling recollection, a persistent doubt, a disturbing association--these things frequently stay hidden. An inner narrative can't be called a character study if the key to a character's behavior remains oblique. Puzzles remain puzzles.

And that insight into what makes characters what they are, revealing why they do what they do, is to me one of the main pleasures in reading fiction. By withholding those revelations, the author is, in my opinion, denying me the payoff I expect in return for giving my attention to her story.

I picked up this book in haste when I made a quick stop by the library en route to an appointment where I knew I'd have some waiting time. I spotted it on the shelf and thought it would be better than a complete unknown. And it probably was. The narrative delivery, style, pacing, and all those other qualities are satisfactory. It is only that yet again it raises questions and then, frustratingly, obscures the answers. Yes, life is like that. But a mystery novel isn't supposed to be.

May 4, 2013, 7:28am Top

I read one of Hill's Serailler series, thought it very good and tried to read more and have been disappointed every time. I finally got so disgusted I said that's it - no more. I wonder if she continues to sell because people keep hoping.

May 5, 2013, 3:39pm Top

I'm currently reading Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog and squirming with impatience. Why am I even reading it?

That and mysterymax's comment at post 146 are reminding me of a recurring childhood experience. I was powerfully attracted by the fragrance of vanilla extract and the aroma of my mother's black coffee. Time and again I would attempt a tiny taste of one or the other, hoping fervently that this time the substance would prove to taste the way it smelled. It never did. I persisted long past the point when I should have known better because I so much wanted something to fulfill the appetite that those scents aroused.

May 5, 2013, 3:54pm Top

#147 the aroma of my mother's black coffee

You remind me of a scurrilous tale told me years ago by a member of the Smithsonian staff in Washington; it may go some way to explaining your childhood experience.

Greg said he'd spent some time doing field work in Costa Rica, where he formed the habit of buying coffee from market mammies on the side of the road, because that did taste as good as it smelled. When he got back to Washington he bought a packet of suitably aromatic Costa Rican coffee, and made up a batch with all the care at his command (having seen the care that went into his normal office pick-me-up, I imagine this must have been a ritual and a half!). The result was an absolute disaster. So some time later he was bemoaning his experience to a senior scientist, and got a memorable answer, to this effect:
"You bought coffee on the side of the road in Costa Rica and it was good?"
"And the same coffee bought in Washington was awful?"
"Did you ever look in detail at the coffee you bought in both places?"
"Easy. The stuff the market mammies sell has its fair quota of bits of dead cockroach, rat droppings and don't-ask in it, which gives the flavour. None of that stuff would be allowed into the U.S., so the coffee sold here in Washington is clean and lacks the flavour elements."

May 5, 2013, 3:58pm Top

Hers was pure Maxwell House, good to the last drop.

Thanks for the revolting story, hfglen. I think I'll go and read a horror story now to settle my stomach.

May 5, 2013, 4:02pm Top

Sorry pardon. I did say it was a scurrilous yarn. Evidently the problem was that your mother's coffee was pure Maxwell House ;-)

May 5, 2013, 4:14pm Top

> 147
It was liver for me. It just smelled so good.

May 5, 2013, 4:44pm Top

I was drawing an analogy, of course--namely, that I keep being tempted back to the aroma of certain works (works by certain authors) even though the actual experience is disappointing. I want a book to be what I thought these were going to be.

May 5, 2013, 5:04pm Top

I know. There are certain authors that I think I should like, and other people with similar tastes recommend, so I keep trying their books, but am always disappointed.

May 5, 2013, 5:05pm Top

I wonder if the cockroachy bits of novels are expunged from novels before they are imported into the US. ;)

May 5, 2013, 5:25pm Top

154: Wouldn't that be nice? I have a strong sense that fewer and fewer cockroachy bits are being expunged from anything these days, especially in the U.S. Publishers seem to be taking authors' manuscripts straight from their Word files to print without benefit of a cockroach filter, much less a thorough editing pass or the attentions of a conscientious proofreader.

It also seems to me (although this may be my bias showing) that more American authors write cockroaches into their work than they used to, not so much for flavor as that they can't tell a cockroach when they see one or don't see a problem with it if they can.

May 5, 2013, 5:31pm Top

Meredy, I am afraid the problems you describe are global. :-(

May 5, 2013, 6:05pm Top

I have an unpleasant feeling that the phrase "too many cockroachy bits" is going to serve me well in some number of future reviews. Thanks to hfglen for inadvertently supplying a useful, if unappetizing, metaphor and pgmcc for encapsulating it into an epithet.

May 5, 2013, 6:48pm Top

Teamwork, that's what it is all about.

May 6, 2013, 3:45am Top

#157 ROFL. Can I please use the phrase too?

May 6, 2013, 8:23am Top

We're gonna start seeing "TMCB" as a tag.

May 6, 2013, 8:45am Top

I might use it as a tag for any Romance books I accidentally happen upon. ;)

May 6, 2013, 11:30am Top

Totally descriptive of what one can find!

May 6, 2013, 4:19pm Top

Help yourself, folks, and welcome. It's one of those beautiful "how did I ever get along without this?" formulations. I'm almost looking forward to the next stinker just so I can trot out my ready-made ammunition.

Edited: May 9, 2013, 7:25pm Top

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis (unrated)

Six-word nonreview: Donated it to the library unfinished.

Extended nonreview:

Two days ago I posted on another thread that I was a third of the way through To Say Nothing of the Dog and wondering why I didn't quit. It's not that it lacks charm, I said, but it's so inflated with excess and repetitive verbiage that it's like trying to make a meal out of popcorn. Halving the words might have doubled the worth.

I decided to put it aside and start something else, just to see if I had any urge to come back to it and find out what happened.

I didn't.

Today I dropped it into the library's donation box along with Doomsday Book. I hope they'll both wind up in the hands of a potential fan who'll love them for all they're worth and not be bothered by all the vacuous verbosity.

There'll be no more of this author for me.

May 10, 2013, 6:18am Top

Again your six word review said it all.
Your donation of the book reminded me of an incident one Christmas when one of my wife's elderly aunts paid us a visit. She gave us a jar of jam saying, "Someone gave this jam to me but jam is very bad for you. I thought you might like it."
I admired her honesty.

May 10, 2013, 7:49pm Top

pgmcc - We call that kind of a gift a "Mrs. Linosi" due to a neighbor of my husband's grandmother back when she was a young mother raising children. Mrs. Linosi would bring over food or clothing and always say something disparaging about it, then give it to them. Pretty sure she was trying to be helpful and generous, but it made our Nana steam. :)

May 11, 2013, 4:57am Top

Mrs Lee I must remember that name, Mrs Linosi. We never named the type of gift but my wife's aunt's name was Doring. The family affectionately called her "Do Do".

May 11, 2013, 10:52am Top

meredy, you might find Willis' short stories to be more to your taste. Those, by definition, avoid the issue of "vacuous verbosity". You could look at either Miracle and Other Christmas Stories or FireWatch. That's where she garnered her real fame.

May 11, 2013, 4:35pm Top

168: Thanks, jillmwo, but I'm through with Connie Willis permanently. There are far too many authors whose work pleases me to go seeking out the work of one who disappoints.

(Unfortunately, I have read short stories that would have deserved that label. A 1000-word story can be twice as long as it needs to be. A ten-word sentence can be.)

May 12, 2013, 7:59pm Top

St. Peter's Fair, by Ellis Peters (3½ stars; genre: 4 stars)

Six-word review: Crime and intrigue challenge medieval sleuth.

Extended review: Brother Cadfael unravels the crimes and unmasks the culprits in this tale of misdeeds and mayhem in the neighborhood of a Benedictine abbey in 1139. His active participation in the pursuit of truth and justice makes for a livelier tale than its predecessors.

Several appealing characters return and a couple of interesting ones join the cast to add dimensions to the fourth in a series of short, lightweight, and entertaining mysteries.

May 13, 2013, 7:03pm Top

Reading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context, by Keiko I. McDonald (unfinished; not rated)

Six-word nonreview: Detailed analysis of sixteen Japanese movies.


It's no reflection on this book that I chose to set it aside for now. I did read the introduction and a couple of chapters, and I skimmed the rest. I'm sure it's a worthwhile read, just premature for me.

I borrowed it from the library in order to learn more about Japanese cinema, which I find difficult to understand. This is a textbook used in Japanese film studies. But I'm not ready for it--I don't have enough background in the culture and the history of Japanese filmmaking to set a sound framework for extended analysis of individual pictures.

Instead I'm going to read one of the books that the author mentions in her introduction: A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, by Donald Richie. Maybe I can come back to this volume later, when I've seen more than one of the movies it discusses.

May 16, 2013, 9:36pm Top

Hamlet, Revenge!, by Michael Innes (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Cerebral whodunit explores violence as theatre.

Extended review:

This is a fine and exceedingly British murder mystery set at an enormous stately home in the country, with a goodly array of stock characters and several singularly notable individuals. An ample supply of red herrings and other fish contrive to throw us off the scent of the guilty party or parties while still playing fair with the clues. Inspector Appleby ultimately delivers the solution with appropriate acknowledgment of the several sharp-witted bystanders who furnish key revelations at crucial junctures.

Because of the large number of characters and the complexity of the puzzle, I found the story slow to start and also a bit too busy to follow easily as it wound toward its final unmasking of villains. However, I enjoyed the chase and am still interested enough to go along with Inspector Appleby on further adventures.

Many works of fiction, almost irrespective of genre, have ideologies to promote, social evils to expose, or other axes to grind, whether central to the narrative or as issues raised incidentally along the way. So there's nothing inherently unusual in this speech of one of the characters on the subject of violence:

=====(Excerpt begins)

Gott hesitated, as if seeking some brief expression of what lay in his mind. 'All over the world today are we not facing a rising tide of ideological intolerance, and are not violence and terrorism more and more in men's thoughts? And this dressing-up of the lawless and the primitive as a ruthless-because-right philosophy or world-picture or ideology that must and will prevail--is this not something to haunt and hold naturally unstable men, whatever their particular belief may be? The modern world is full of unwholesome armies of martyrs and inquisitors. We bind ourselves together by the million and sixty million to hate and kill--kill, as we persuade ourselves, for an idea. Are we to be surprised if here and there an individual kills simply because he hates--and simply because he hates an idea?' (1961 edition, p. 249)

=====(Excerpt ends)

What's striking about it is that this novel saw print in 1937--before World War II--and yet it could have been written today. A very modern sentiment, but for the fact that we no longer express ourselves so elegantly.

Not so modern are the social attitudes of various characters and indeed of the narrative voice itself, especially as seen in the language used to refer to the man from India, Mr. Bose. This will bother readers who expect present-day habits of speech and thought to be reflected not only in writings of the early twentieth century but even in Shakespeare. I regret that it took Western culture so long to broaden its view of race and ethnicity, but I can't condemn older writers for failing to see past the ingrained attitudes of their time and place.

Much less commonplace is the perception of another one of the characters, a psychologist named Nave. In fact, I have not seen this understanding of the act of murder expressed before, and I have no idea if it is or ever was considered valid by knowledgeable authorities. I record it here because I found it thought-provoking and worth coming back to for further reflection:

=====(Excerpt begins)

'...nearly every murder is a manifesto--and nearly always a manifesto--so to speak--of self, a piece of exhibitionism. The criminal looks forward to his appearance in the dock as the martyr to his martyrdom--and for exactly the same reason: it is limelight, it is a supreme manifesto of self--nothing more.' (ibid., p. 188)

=====(Excerpt ends)

These rather philosophical ruminations on the part of various characters and, one presumes, of the author as well add dimensions to a traditional country-house murder mystery that, in my opinion, increase interest even as they slow the pace.

A reader whose latest viewing or reading of Hamlet is fairly fresh in mind will probably also find that familiarity with the play enhances enjoyment.

May 19, 2013, 3:43pm Top

If this were Facebook, I'd give that review a "Like".

May 20, 2013, 7:10am Top

Very nice review! I just finished Hamlet Revenge! myself. I agree. It starts slow, and I wished I'd reread Hamlet beforehand, but I did really really enjoy the cerebralness (yes, I make up new words) of the book and the beauty of the writing.

May 21, 2013, 1:24am Top

Not reading your review, because I fully intend to read that book, and I don't read reviews before I read the books, however, if you enjoyed it, you might enjoy Christmas at Candleshoe, the book I was whining about in my thread. I ended up loving the story because I fell in love with the characters and all the fun of the tale. The present tense, I'm still not so in love with, but I got used to it.

May 21, 2013, 2:17am Top

175: I saw your comments over there, and I've already ordered the book.

I read reviews before I choose a book, but then when I finish it I don't look at any further reviews until I've written my own. Sometimes finding out that someone has exactly the same take on the book that I do seems even more surprising than seeing that someone's reaction is the opposite of mine.

May 21, 2013, 11:46am Top

Yep, I like to write my review, then go see what everyone else said and whether I'm way out in left field or not with my views and reactions. Though I'm not nearly as expressive in my reviews as you are. I'm too lazy to pin my thoughts down to the page, I think.

May 21, 2013, 9:34pm Top

Spy the Lie: Former CIA Officers Teach You How to Detect Deception, by Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero, with Don Tennant (4 stars)

Six-word review: Experts reveal how they expose lies.

Extended review:

• Cultivate the ability to look and listen at the same time.

• Watch for clusters of deceptive behaviors and not just single instances.

• Learn to ignore truthful behavior.

• Be alert to nonanswers and avoidance of response to direct questions.

• Notice stalling tactics.

• Recognize attacks on the questioner for what they are.

These are but a sampling of techniques that the authors have incorporated into the model they teach in investigative settings from law enforcement to corporate security. The authors explain why each aspect of the model is used and how to apply it. The model is not intended to prove that the person being questioned is lying, but it sure does point to people and topics that warrant further attention.

This book is a fast, easy read that I found remarkably educational. In fact, I'd consider it worth a second read, since once I know what's coming I think I may find it easier to absorb and retain information the second time around.

I'm not involved in any kind of investigative activity and rarely have the need to question anyone in a situation where deception is a concern. Yet I found my awareness of deceptive behavior multiplied by some significant amount. As it happened, I finished the book yesterday, and today on NPR I heard a segment of an IRS official's hearing before the Senate in the matter of targeting conservative groups seeking tax exemptions. I almost laughed out loud to hear this person giving responses and evasions that could have come straight out of this book.

Interestingly, the authors anticipate and answer the charge that knowledge of their techniques will teach people to become better liars. The behaviors they've learned to spot, they say, operate on an unconscious and involuntary level and are very difficult to suppress, especially because the level of concentration that would take is pretty hard to sustain while you're also preoccupied with perpetrating plausible falsehoods. Even if you could manage some of them, others would give you away.

Remember, they don't regard any of the telltale signs as proof of deception but only as an indicator of where more attention is needed.

Even if all I've learned is how to hear politicians differently, I'll consider this a worthwhile read.

May 22, 2013, 7:18am Top

Nice review, Meredy. I enjoyed this book and have it on a shelf near my desk at home for easy access and reference.

By the way, my wife has joined a political party in the past two years and is hoping to stand for a local authority seat (local council) if not for the national parliament. In this context it is essential that I constantly reference Spy the Lie or else I would never know what my wife is telling me.

May 22, 2013, 7:25am Top

By the way, Meredy, based on various LT comments regarding the work of Michael Innes, your comments and reviews included, I ordered three of his novels for my wife (who loves cosy who-dunnits) and they arrived today. The books are:
Hamlet, Revenge, Lament for a Maker, and Death at the President's Lodging.

Before you ask, the answer is, "Yes!", I might have a little read of them as well. :-) While cosy crime is not my first choice for reading material I do enjoy the genre on the occasions I take the plunge.

May 22, 2013, 11:31am Top

178 - That book looks like a good one for hotel staff to read, too.

May 22, 2013, 4:43pm Top

179: Thank you. It was your comments, as I recall, that led me to read the book. Thanks for the recommendation.

180: These wouldn't do for a steady diet, but they do make a nice dessert.

181: One of the interesting features of this book is that it doesn't just lead you to notice signs of deception, it coaches you in how to deal with them without challenging the person and triggering defenses. As a result you may be able to elicit more information. I can think of a number of times when I wish I'd had that skill.

May 22, 2013, 8:18pm Top

Meredy and pgmcc, I would be very curious to hear how Spy The Lie came across your respective paths. Had you seen it reviewed somewhere or heard about it on a television program? Or was it just one of those serendipitous things?

May 22, 2013, 8:48pm Top

183: I read about it here on LT, and I think it was a post by pgmcc that initially caught my eye. I'd watched the TV series Lie to Me on DVD and had my curiosity aroused about how effective the characters' techniques were (which this book discusses, by the way). So I requested it from the library.

All my life I've been very easy to mislead and manipulate by people who are determined to deceive because I just always assume people are telling the truth. Habitual liars are much more likely to expect lies from others, I guess, than those who don't make a practice of it. I wondered if a book like this could actually change my perception. As I said, apparently it had an immediate effect, at least with respect to a Senate hearing broadcast on the radio.

Edited: May 23, 2013, 3:42am Top

#183 jillwo
It was a recommendation from a friend at work. She had spotted it in a nearby bookshop and read it. She found it fascinating and strongly recommended it.

Bottom line, it was someone partaking in that age old, and rapidly disappearing, practice of browsing in a bookshop and then using word-of-mouth to recommend her find.

May 23, 2013, 4:03pm Top

185: At least...at least...at least there are still bookshops. I hope I don't outlive that institution.

Whenever I'm in the area, I visit Bookshop Santa Cruz. I'm always happy to see that there are still plenty of books and plenty of browsers at this independent bookstore. I never come away without some intriguing find that I wouldn't have known to look for on Amazon.

May 24, 2013, 4:55pm Top

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (2½ stars)

Six-word review: Let's just say I wasn't impressed.

Extended review:

I appreciate the author's drawing attention to a topic that is probably underattended. I also found some of the anecdotes and alleged statistics interesting.

However, I was repeatedly bothered by what sounded to me like faulty logic and misattributions of causality, although I couldn't tell whether the specious reasoning lay in the cited studies themselves, in the conclusions the author drew from them, or simply in the incomplete and possibly lopsided reporting of them. For instance, members of Asian cultures were described as being more typically introverted than Westerners, but the behaviors described tended to sound (to me) more like the result of enculturation in a collectivist society than an introverted society. Similarly, I noted what often seemed to me like a failure to distinguish between shyness or fearfulness and introversion.

I was also irritated by what struck me as a preachy or moralizing tone in a number of places, and I found the chapter about parenting and teaching introverted youngsters especially hard to swallow. For example, a parent is advised to consider whether her child is more comfortable playing with older or younger children and find the child an agreeable, friendly, nurturing play group that meets that criterion. Are the other children not to be regarded as real people? Are they just toys to be supplied and arranged to one child's liking? What if my little retiring flower is too insecure to play with older kids and wants younger playmates, but your younger child doesn't particularly want to be recruited as a manageable plaything for my kid's entertainment?

The most valuable portions of the book, it seems to me, are those that point out how American culture in particular encourages and rewards extroverted behavior in educational, social, and professional settings and how so many have adopted protective coloration as pseudo-extroverts that the introverted population appears to be much smaller than it is. The recognition that some of us are just not well suited to learning groups, team projects, and presentations before audiences is something that I would like to be able to go back and hammer home to my children's teachers and my own workplace managers.

Nonetheless, I have to give the book a low overall rating as shallow, verbose, and scientifically weak. Its greatest effect, in my opinion, has been to raise consciousness of the subject matter; but I think it remains for another author to do it justice.

May 24, 2013, 6:14pm Top

I liked Quiet overall, especially the parts that you said you liked. I would like all teachers and school boards to consider her points about learning styles. My greatest reservations were about her attitude towards extroverts. It seemed like everything she said about extroverts was negative, while everything about introverts was positive.

May 24, 2013, 7:40pm Top

188: It did have that "us" and "them" feel to it, didn't it?--enough so that even though I am solidly in the "us" camp (introverts) with this one, I saw it as generally defensive if not divisive.

May 30, 2013, 8:07pm Top

The Leper of Saint Giles: The Fifth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters (3½ stars; genre: 4 stars)

Six-word review: Medieval monastery generates consistently satisfying mysteries.

Extended review:

Once again we have Brother Cadfael sympathetically befriending young lovers while seeking an elusive culprit in order to clear an innocent falsely accused. The pattern of unlamented victims is becoming familiar enough that it's getting pretty easy to predict which despicable obstacle to the happiness of others is likely to wind up in a coffin in Shrewsbury.

Nonetheless, there are surprising enough twists and turns, beguiling enough characters, and fascinating enough details of setting to keep me coming back. I regularly read a fair number of dense, heavy tomes; these quick, reliable puzzles in more than competent prose are a welcome leavening in my literary diet.

May 30, 2013, 9:49pm Top

The Brother Cadfael books are very similar to one another, and looking back, only a few of them stand out for me. Despite that, I enjoyed reading each of them. I read them pretty much as they were published, so there was enough space between each that the similarities weren't terribly obvious at the time.

May 30, 2013, 11:37pm Top

191: Excellent point, Sylvia. I happen to prefer to read (and watch) series in rapid, concentrated doses, but that approach does certainly tend to exaggerate patterns that might, when taken at a normal pace, simply feel like a pleasing consistency.

May 31, 2013, 9:15am Top

#190 By a curious coincidence, I read The Leper of St. Giles while away -- finished it about a week ago. While I agree with Meredy, i found the idea of disguising oneself as a leper to avoid wrongful capture interesting.

May 31, 2013, 3:23pm Top

193: The lepers' hospital did indeed furnish a number of the surprising twists and beguiling characters that I was referring to, as well as a bittersweet note at the end.

May 31, 2013, 10:56pm Top

Meredy, have you read any of the Sister Frevise mysteries by Margaret Frazer? Her mysteries are sound, and the villain is NOT predictable on the usual basis. I always have and always will love Cadfael best, but the Frevise novels are also very good.

May 31, 2013, 11:19pm Top

195: No, I'm not acquainted with them at all. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll check them out.

In the Cadfael mysteries, it's actually the victim that I'm finding predictable and not usually the villain. In fact, the villain of the one I just read seemed unlikely enough that I really felt sorry to see such an appealing character turn out to have gone wrong.

May 31, 2013, 11:22pm Top

Ah, well, it may be that the victims are predictable in this other series as well, but I'm usually pretty good at figuring out the killer and the motive, but not so much with Dame Frevise. Mind you, it isn't always comfortable. The main characters have a nice full roundness to them, and the author doesn't mind sacrifices!

Jun 3, 2013, 1:55am Top

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima (4½ stars)

Six-word review: Disturbing things happen in beautiful prose.

Six by six:

Noboru and his droogs administer retribution.

Wayward boy punishes his mother's lover.

Beauty and horror fondle each other.

Adolescent's fallen hero meets cold-blooded Zen.

Young gods callously abjure conventional morality.

Death goes whoring in child's guise.

Jun 10, 2013, 11:51pm Top

The Harper's Quine, by Pat McIntosh (2½ stars)

Six-word review: Well-intentioned first novel misses the mark.

Extended review:

This novel possesses a considerable amount of charm and some promising narrative potential. The setting is Glasgow in 1492, and the details of ordinary life in fifteenth-century Scotland are entertaining enough, complete with glimpses of social conditions, economics, politics, education, ecclesiastical life, language, clan rivalries, and even dentistry. The historical elements appear to be well researched, and the landscape through which the characters move is vividly depicted.

The problem is that this story is almost entirely lacking in narrative tension. There is no driving passion of any kind, the focal character has nothing at stake, there is nothing to fear, no important character is ever in any danger, and even the romantic component of the story proceeds without obstacle or impediment apart from an extremely minor tiff. I don't remember ever reading something called a "murder mystery" that felt more lacking in suspense in any regard; I could barely muster any curiosity about the solution. The overall effect is about as ho-hum as a white dinner roll served cold.

Moreover, there are too many characters with too little to distinguish them, and the legal business is difficult to follow. So when it comes to what is essentially a courtroom drama in the last portion, I hardly knew what was going on. I could see that the author had something like a "Where's Waldo" vision of a roomful of people each engaged in some pertinent activity, but it was too much to track all at once. The "whodunit" question is almost a matter of indifference, apart from a natural desire to see justice done, and the way that justice is done here seems arbitrary and contrived.

I did enjoy the language effects throughout, even though the author didn't trouble to interpret many instances of tongues other than English or even explain what "Ersche" was (I eventually figured it out). I knew a good many of the Scots expressions--e.g., bannock, usquebae, kirk, burn--but there were others unfamiliar to me, and context clues were often insufficient. There were also utterances in other languages, including Italian, that seemed important but that were left untranslated. For instance, after speaking with an Italian musician, a character reports, "I ask about his knife. He says he drew because he thought he saw something--an uomo cattivo, a ladro--in the kirkyard." Because this seemed like a significant statement of a witness at the time, I'd have liked to know what a "ladro" was, but the author did not see fit to reveal it--even though according to the text this statement was made by the person who was translating the Italian's remarks for the main character.

In sum, the proportion of weaknesses to strengths seems too high for me to give this book better than a half-hearted rating, even though I came to it optimistically and wanted to like it.

Jun 13, 2013, 7:07pm Top

I agree. The book had far too many characters. This was the title that got the women in the township library discussion group to start making lists of names. (In part, they had to understand that the fault was with the author and not the fault of failing memories.)

Jun 21, 2013, 4:10am Top

The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Lively, imaginative yarn about supernatural adversaries.

Extended review:

Despite the flat ending, this first novel is an entertaining ride.

A young woman named Myfanwy comes to her senses in a bizarre situation, lacking all knowledge of who she is and where she's been. The device of an amnesiac's being guided by written messages from her former self is nothing new, but the circumstances are fresh. Our character, who turns out to be a key figure in a clandestine security organization, must learn to inhabit an unfamiliar persona and navigate an extraordinary life without revealing her loss of memory to anyone. In the process she must understand and control her own supernatural abilities and match them against super-powered adversaries amidst political intrigue, deception and betrayal, and menacing manifestations of unnatural powers that threaten the nation and the world.

If this sound like comic-book material, well, there is a little of that here, but this is not necessarily a shortcoming. There's a pervasive light-heartedness and a feeling that the author is enjoying himself--and maybe he is, but that's still a pretty good trick for a first-time novelist to pull off. Even while dealing with the larger questions of memory and identity, the indoctrination of children, and the ethics of sacrifice for the greater good, The Rook never takes itself too seriously.

Nevertheless, the author is working pretty hard. He didn't accomplish his results thoughtlessly or by accident.

So for writing a spunky novel that held my attention from first to last and made me wish it would last longer, I'm inclined to be pretty forgiving of flaws.

That doesn't mean, however, that I won't mention some of them. Here are four:

1. Misleading premise. (I don't consider this a spoiler because the initial representation is never really explained. There's no dawning realization for the character. Instead the notion just sort of fades away as if forgotten.) The idea that there's been some sort of body transplant--that the former occupant of the body is gone and now there's a new one--is promoted throughout the first part of the book. And given a world with supernatural entities and fantastic rules, this might have been quite possible. But in fact all that's happened is that the character's memory is irretrievably lost and so she must start over with a blank slate. Knowing that doesn't really change anything other than the dramatic but unresolved element of seemingly having one "self" replace another in the same body.

2. Insufficient editorial attention. As so many authors do, this one will get a run on certain words that should not be repeated often because they call attention to themselves. An editor should catch that and call them out. (You can also run a word-frequency counter on an entire manuscript and pick up on words that have been overused.) Yet here they remain. For one example, documents are described as "teetering stacks" twice within three pages. For another, a character is far too often seen to be doing something "gingerly" (as an adverb, not an adjective).

Speaking of adverbs, here we have an author who isn't shy about using them by the bushel, no matter what they might have said in writing class.

3. Dialogue tags. Smooth handling of he-said-she-said tags is one mark of a professional. In this novel, dialogue tags have a distinctly amateurish flavor. Many of them, for example, are modified by adverbs. A random selection: wryly, blankly, anxiously, reprovingly, defensively, tiredly, gently, helpfully, tightly. Please, Daniel, do that lesson over again.

And while you're at it, Daniel, get rid of the "came" dialogue tags altogether:
came the distracted reply
came the tense answer
came the composed answer
came a firm voice
came a diffident voice
came the contribution

etc. On one page (425), I counted four of them.

Amazon's "Search Inside" makes it easy for me to find such examples. Software technology should also make it easy for authors and editors to find and correct many kinds of lapses that once were very tedious to catch (but not impossible; I used to do that sort of thing as part of my job). A little more diligence is called for, always remembering that the reader is making a large commitment of time and attention to the work and is entitled to the most polished effort that the author is capable of providing.

4. Lame ending. It's a problem that's hardly unique to this book. I can't even estimate how many novels I've read in which the author had a great story going and then seemed to just stop because he or she had no idea how to end it. I've seen it happen even with experienced pros. Nonetheless, the conclusion of The Rook strikes me as a cop-out and nothing else. Since a great deal of the satisfaction in reading all those pages and following all those characters is in having it end right, I have to take off points for this. I'd be giving it four stars otherwise.

And finally: two aspects that I really wish the author had handled differently. They're not exactly flaws, but I would call them disappointments.

•  The author introduces an interesting and appealing character named Shantay, and from the way that she engages with the focal character, Myfanwy, I expected her to have a much larger part in the story than she does. Her absence for most of the main action is a letdown.

•  Similarly (and misleadingly), the author introduces a character named Alrich by intercutting a few lines from his point of view, in italics, with a scene between Myfanwy and another character, as if the simultaneity were significant. This is the only character he treats in this way, and I thought it meant something. It turns out that Alrich too has a much smaller role than I'd expected--and hoped for--from the way he was introduced and from his backstory. It's as if the author set off in one direction with him and then later changed his mind but didn't go back and clean up the setup.

I still regard this as a worthwhile, enjoyable, and memorable read, and I will look for further work by this author.

Jun 21, 2013, 4:56am Top

Meredy, I loved your review. I don't know if I will ever read Rook as you have said it is good but then provided many examples of writing that caused you irritation or disappointment. Your review has intrigued me.

Jun 21, 2013, 11:02am Top

I LOVED The Rook. I highly recommend it. Despite some flaws it is a very entertaining and engaging book.

Jun 21, 2013, 4:36pm Top

202, 203: I enjoyed it too, and I hope that came across. I just expect an author to do a full, complete, and competent job before the press starts rolling. Some readers are more charitable toward authorial lapses than others.

What I didn't put into my review and probably should have is several examples of the book's imaginative quality, which is one of its best features, in that respect a lot like early Orson Scott Card. The author delivers throwaway lines that just have a "wow!" effect as you pause for a second before rushing on. Many of these have to do with the special powers that seem to be widely distributed throughout what looks like a normal population. Here are a few illustrations:

Excerpt 1 (page 65)

"Caspar, we will need something to tell people, and an Argentine woman who coughs up ectoplasm that turns into animals that chase people--well, that falls into the category of things that we are very specifically supposed to prevent people from finding out about."

Excerpt 2 (page 264)

"Ingrid, are all of Gestalt's bodies comning to the reception tonight?" Myfanwy asked, holding the mobile phone with her chin as she paged through the purple binder. She and Shantay were flying back to London, and she was trying to find the section that described the penalties for treason. She'd browsed through the section at one point and vaguely recalled a long list of punishments culminating with the guilty party being ritually trampled to death by the population of the village of Avebury, which seemed unlikely, or at least somewhat difficult to arrange.

Excerpt 3 (page 357)

Once in a while, a group of kids would sneak out to the nearest village, or try to. I mean, we were on an island, so it wasn't easy. Plus, as you can imagine, our teachers were well trained in the art of surveillance.

But for those who wanted a little kick, there was that girl whose hair would get you high if you ate it.

Or that guy who could trip you out if you let him touch your eyeballs with his fingertips, which I was never willing to try.

Jun 21, 2013, 5:06pm Top

I've gone back and incorporated those excerpts from post 204 into my review on the works page. That makes it more balanced, I hope.

It would not surprise me if some of the loose ends here were hooks for a sequel. If O'Malley does write one, I'll read it.

Jun 21, 2013, 5:54pm Top

Those extra bits do improve the balance in terms of word count. The really powerful comment is, ...a sequel. If O'Malley does write one, I'll read it.

Like your six word reviews, that statement says it all.

Jun 21, 2013, 6:07pm Top

Yikes, pgmcc, you're watching my word count? Does that mean I should too?

Jun 21, 2013, 6:14pm Top


I was going to use the term "column inches" but given that the LT comments threads tend not to permit multi-column formats I decided to obviate the possible annoyance of LTers who would only point out the inappropriateness of my word choice.

(Funnily enough, I do check the number of words in your six-word reviews.) :-)

Jun 21, 2013, 6:23pm Top

I do understand column-inches, though, and "picas" and "points" are still meaningful measures to me. Tell me, do you have a waxer in your closet?

One of my six-word reviews contained seven words, I realized a bit too late. I really had to struggle to knock it down to six. Glad I didn't try to get away with that, now that I know I have a watchdog. (You'd have called me on it, wouldn't you?)

Edited: Jun 21, 2013, 7:28pm Top

Tell me, do you have a waxer in your closet?

You have me on that one. What's a closet?

As it happens I did spot a seven word six-word review on one occasion, but I passed over it without comment as it was so poetic as it was.

Of course, we have the whole issue of constructs such as, "you're", "it's", "isn't", etc... and whether or not these count as one or two words.


On a more serious note, I have said it before and I will say it again, I think you demonstrate great discipline by getting your sense of a book into six words (or even seven). I admire the results of your effort and am impressed with how succinctly you can give the overall impact of a book.

Jun 26, 2013, 8:28pm Top

210: Thanks! Here's one more of O'Malley's throwaway lines that just made me smile:

"Checquy statistics indicate that 15 percent of all men in hats are concealing horns." (page 140)

No other mention, before or after--just that. He tosses off one-liners as if he had a bottomless well of them, despite the fact that many sound like the totality of original material on which some idea-impoverished authors might base an entire book. This is one reason why he, like Card, looks like someone to watch as he comes into his full strength.

Backtracking a little: like House of Leaves, Phillips's The Tragedy of Arthur is taking me a long time to review, although not for the same reason. I'm having a terrible time getting a handle on my six words. So right now I'm in arrears by two books.

Jun 26, 2013, 11:52pm Top

The Virgin in the Ice, by Ellis Peters (3½ stars; genre: 4 stars)

Six-word review: Comforting consistency characterizes Cadfael's culprit catching.

Extended review:

The Sixth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury, is a little more complex than its predecessors and hence more interesting.

The spirited young woman, her bold, handsome champion, one or more menacing malefactors, and at least one duplicitous transgressor are becoming familiar staples of the plot. This particular entry also affords us a very young hero-in-the-making, a tormented soul who counts himself among the lost, and a battle scene with considerably more sword action than we usually find in stories of men of the cloister. The plot skillfully evades predictability while still remaining solidly anchored in the physical and sociopolitical landscape of twelfth-century England.

Ample description also contributes to atmosphere and to a sense of vivid presence. The deep wintry setting of this episode raises gusts of frosty chill from the page.

In the course of the unfolding of a plot from the point of view of a medieval monastic, the author creates opportunities for fitting interludes of reflection and contemplation. These add depth to the storytelling as well as to the character. For example, this rumination in the thoughts of Brother Cadfael (page 90):

=====(Excerpt begins)

Well, they happen, the lightning-strokes of God, the gifted or misfortunates who are born into a world where they nowhere belong, the saints and scholars who come to manhood unrecognized, guarding the swine in the forest pastures among the beechmast, the warrior princes villein-born and youngest in a starving clan, set to scare the crows away from the furrow. Just as hollow slave-rearlings are cradled in the palaces of kings, and come to rule, however ineptly, over men a thousand times their worth.

=====(Excerpt ends)

This novel was published only thirty-one years ago. To me its style gives it a timeless feel. I'm glad I still have another fourteen to look forward to in the series.

Jun 27, 2013, 4:34am Top

Meredy, another interesting review and, not only a six-word review, but a six-word review with alliteration. Excelling ourselves today we are.

This has really set the bar high for your subsequent six-word reviews.


Jun 27, 2013, 12:17pm Top

The mysteries I truly love are not really because of the mysteries, but simply because I love spending time with the main character. I love hanging out with Cadfael.

Jun 27, 2013, 4:18pm Top

213: Thanks. I hadn't set out to do that, but when I got to the fourth C-word, I said, "Let's see if I can go all the way." The last two took me a lot of time. I won't be trying to repeat the feat. Sometimes we just have to retire the champions.

214: That's a nice way to put it. I do too. I've deferred watching the TV series until I'm all through with the books. I hope it depicts the character and setting in a similar way to what I've imagined.

Jun 28, 2013, 2:19am Top

I think you will like the TV series. Derek Jacobi is an excellent Cadfael. It's been awhile, I don't remember being as enamoured of Hugh (am I remembering the name right?) in the TV show, but I really did like all of them. In fact, they are what introduced me to the books. :)

Edited: Jul 1, 2013, 7:19am Top

Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, by Espen J. Aarseth (4 stars)

Six-word review: Alternative textual structures explicated as literature.

Extended review:

"Choose Your Own Adventure" books came along when my children were young readers. They reminded me of something that I had tried (unsuccessfully) to create on paper when I was about their age. The idea of virtual exploits with variable outcomes and only imaginary risks appeals to the armchair adventurer in many of us. Adult video gamers bear witness to the fact that this is not an appetite that ends with childhood.

Had I done so, I would have become an author of ergodic literature.

In choosing my own reading adventure myself a few months ago, I passed--without realizing its significance--a critical juncture when I chose the left fork in the road and purchased a copy of the 709-page House of Leaves (Danielewski). That work led me to go back for Pale Fire (Nabokov), which I ought to have read about 40 years previously, and to look up some amount of analytic and critical commentary.

I went on to read The Tragedy of Arthur (Phillips) and to reflect afresh on The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr (Hoffman) and Possession (Byatt), which are not ergodic literature as I understand it but which nevertheless partake of some of its unusual characteristics.

In this reading game, your score doesn't suffer if you take the steps out of order. But your experience of point C can be really different, depending upon whether it's preceded by point B or point D.

And that, in fact, is part of the point, according to author Aarseth.

To understand more about what I'd been reading and why (like the Navidson house itself) these works seemed to me much larger than their actual and metaphorical dimensions, I took a deep breath and plunged into Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.

Disclaimer: I'm not an academic. I earned my degree in English at a time when none of us had ever heard of word processing, and Internet Protocol (IP) hadn't been invented yet. Despite a 30-year career in publications, most of it in high tech in Silicon Valley, I'm more than a little out of my depth in reading this book. I make no claims for my understanding of its more esoteric content, much less for owning a suitable context or framework in which to place it. Any failure of comprehension and interpretation is my own and should not be laid at the author's door.

Several sources citing Aarseth's work on ergodic literature quote him as follows (page 1):

"In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text."

Some extend the excerpt to quote the next sentence (page 1):

"If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages."

This, I believe, is intended as description but not as definition. The characterization of a serious reader's engagement with a challenging but traditionally structured text as trivial tends to provoke a distracting surge of indignation that leads away from an understanding of the concept. Most literature that is worth reading involves a nontrivial effort on the part of the reader; but Aarseth does not mean to disparage conventional literature or the work of reading it. Rather, he is talking about a difference in the essential nature of the work.

It took me most of the book to arrive at a definition that I feel is warranted by the author's treatment of his subject, this formulation being my own and not the author's. Appropriately enough, it's phrased as a question and not a statement. At the bottom of page 114 I wrote in pencil:

Would it be correct to say that ergodic literature is literature that must in some sense be navigated by the reader, who must figure out how to do that as part of the reading process?

In the concluding chapter, on page 179 of 183, we come at last to this:

"The ergodic work of art is one that in a material sense includes the rules for its own use, a work that has certain requirements built in that automatically distinguishes {sic} between successful and unsuccessful users." In other words, there are rules for extracting something like meaning (or sense, or experience, or something else for which the signs and forms stand, as we extract meat from a nut) from the composition (or work, or program), and part of the reader's (user's) task is to figure out what those rules are.

I think it's worth dwelling on this matter of definition at some length because comprehension of the concept itself might be the most useful result of my reading of this book. (If something is interesting, it's automatically useful, although not everything that's useful is necessarily interesting.)

Other ideas prosecuted in the course of this relatively short but influential work are the meaning and, where applicable, interrelationship of text, of hypertext, of authorship, of narrative, of medium, and of reading. History, exploration, and analysis of aspects of postmodernist and posstructuralist literature, text-based adventure games, and multiuser dungeons (MUDs) figure prominently in the process. Allowing for the fact that this book was published sixteen years ago and that much of what we find commonplace now in experiencing computer-based media was either undeveloped or in its infancy, the author's detailed analyses and typologies furnish a revealing perspective, exactly as the title promises, on literature that bends or breaks the old rules and even on literature that doesn't.

If you enjoy the entertainment of watching a bravura display of mental athletics and you can muster some hard-headed persistence in following, dictionary in hand, several lines of thought pertaining to verbal works that you might not have known how to think of as literature, you may take away from this possibly novel experience something more than you anticipated going in.

Edited: Jul 9, 2013, 4:43pm Top

Still Life with Crows (Pendergast, Book 4), by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Gruesome monster chase in Kansas cornfields.

Extended review:

The Agent Pendergast series is turning into a guilty pleasure for me. I know what I'm getting (I'll have fries with that), and I couldn't handle it as a steady diet (need balance, need nutrition, need fresh green vegetables), but sometimes it's fun to take a little vacation (catsup, plenty of napkins, no dishes to clean up afterwards).

The mealtime analogy ends there, though, because you definitely don't want to be reading this one at the dinnertable.

In fact, there are some meals that may never again look quite so appealing.

Each of the Pendergast books so far, I've noticed, weaves some sort of social theme into the plot. Maybe this is for relevance and depth, maybe it's because the authors really want to get a message out and are using entertainment as a platform, or maybe it's just because exposed social ills get our revulsion reflexes warmed up for the gut-twisting details of the main story.

(Honestly, I don't know why I'm enjoying these things. Usually too much grue puts me right off and I abandon the book. I can't say that it's because it's done here with such taste and refinement. Perhaps it's more that I just can't take these yarns too seriously--subterranean homeless populations and urban drug addiction and poultry processing plants notwithstanding.)

At any rate, here we have Agent Pendergast sleuthing amid the alien corn in sun-baked Kansas while something awful is carrying off small-town citizens and leaving their horribly mutilated bodies in dramatically ritualized arrangements. His preternatural mental powers come into play once again as he divines the connection between present events and the blood-drenched site of a nineteenth-century massacre.

Typically, most of the secondary characters are paper cutouts; to call them cardboard would be to overrate their substance. But there are always a few of an interesting complexity, notably the conflicted young woman who becomes his temporary aide and one member of the local constabulary.

I've done some fairly heavy reading lately, and one or two of my slow-moving current titles involve focused brainwork. I raced through this paperback page-turner like the fast-food alternative it is, licking my lips and for a little while forgetting about my diet.

Jul 9, 2013, 4:45pm Top

217 Hmmm! Meredy, that six-word review was also quite alliterate, almost in a covert fashion.

I don't have much time tonight and I want to read the long review in detail. Firstly I need to get my dictionary and attempt to decipher the title of the book.


Jul 9, 2013, 6:07pm Top

219: Don't worry, you'll get a definition (more or less) within the review. Anyway, you've already read a prime example of the form, namely, House of Leaves. It's too bad Aarseth's work predates that novel; I'd have liked to see his comments on it. I found that each sheds light on the other.

Edited: Jul 10, 2013, 7:27pm Top

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel, by Anthony Horowitz (3 stars)

Six-word review: Sloppy editing mars adequate Sherlockian mystery.

Extended review:

I have to give this one two grades, just like a school paper: one for content (B-) and one for delivery (C-).

I've read a number of Sherlock Holmes pastiches (as well, of course, as the entire Conan Doyle canon), and this one holds up reasonably well as a mystery story. Interlocking puzzles are uncovered and solved in a manner befitting the great detective, while incorporating all the essential elements, from hansom cabs in the fog to Mrs. Hudson bearing a tray of tea-things. Mycroft, Lestrade, and even Moriarty make their appearances as Holmes traverses the extremes of London's social strata, never losing his footing in any of them.

If the principal figures seem to act a bit out of character, Watson too bumbling and worshipful and Holmes altogether too affable and good-humored, I'm inclined to be forgiving. It must be hard to reanimate someone else's dormant characters without lapsing into parody.

Far less pardonable, however, is the number and kind of entirely correctable errors in the text. Not only do we see grammatical errors in both narrative and dialogue, errors of a kind that simply do not occur among authors of Conan Doyle's time and place and level of education, but we find errors of ignorance that any self-respecting editor ought to have checked and caught. More subtly, there are matters of anachronistic style that appear so commonly in steampunk fiction and other narratives that purport to date from an earlier time, such as Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, that they scarcely warrant mention (but I'll mention some anyway).

It's the gratuitous mistakes, those that could easily have been caught and fixed but that no one bothered about, that perturb me the most. The author should have taken care not to make them in the first place (who can't look up the spelling of Balliol, for instance?), but none of them should have got past an editor.

In other words: too many cockroachy bits.


Grammatical errors

In addition to the comma errors rife throughout the text, we have many instances such as these:

Holmes: '...if anyone were likely to call your wife away from home, it might well be her.' (page 9)
- Holmes would have known enough to say "it might well be she."

Carstairs (a major secondary character): 'If this man is whom I believe he is...' (page 60)
- This character is too well educated not to know that "who" is the correct pronoun in this relatively formal construction.

I remembered Carstairs telling Holmes and I that Kirby's wife had a nephew, Patrick, who worked below stairs and supposed this must be him. (page 179-179)
- Three strikes in one sentence.

Possible anachronisms

It's my impression--open to correction, please--that the use of the expression "at the end of the day" to mean "in the final analysis" or "when it comes right down to it" is much more modern than the speech of Holmes's time. The author uses it twice, once in Watson's narrative and once in another character's dialogue, and it sounds out of place both times (page 65, page 129).

During the period in question--1890, Watson tells us in chapter 1--a six-day work week was still standard. The concept of a two-day "weekend" during which business came to a standstill would have been an alien one. The narrator goes further, however, and implies that even police activity halted over Saturday and Sunday and that the narrator himself was compelled to spend that time in a state of suspended animation:
I need hardly say that this made extremely unpleasant reading at the breakfast table on the Monday following Holmes's arrest.... The weekend had been and gone, two days in which I could do little but fret and wait for news.' (page 171)

Fact-checking failures and wrong word choices

'There were, in Boston at this time, a number of gangs, operating particularly in the south of the city, in Charlestown and Somersville.' (page 21)
- Charlestown is a neighborhood in the north, and Somerville (not Somersville) is a separate city to the northwest.

Watson: 'Horace Abernetty had hung his walls with many fine studies of local flora, as I recall.'
Holmes: 'My own memory is that much of the fauna depicted was of the poisonous variety, since you mention it.' (page 56)
- Watson and Holmes, both men of science, could not have failed to know that "flora" means plant life and "fauna" means animal life. The terms are not interchangeable, nor could Watson possibly have been making an error that Holmes was correcting.

'Did you now?' Lestrade let out a silent exclamation. (page 68)
- I don't think I need to point out the absurdity of a silent vocalization.

Speaking of dialogue tags, a number of them are equally absurd or inappropriate. Aside from the fact that we don't need speech continually characterized by verbs plucked from an exhaustive thesaurus--just give us "saids" and let us filter them out--some of the author's choices are jarring.
'We have both been following in the footsteps of the unfortunate wretch who has ended his days here,' retorted Holmes. (page 66)
'To my eyes, it could hardly be less plain if a pikestaff had been used as a murder weapon,' Holmes demurred. (page 69)
- The cool, confident, purpose-driven Holmes that we know and love doesn't speak by retorting and demurring. It almost seems as if the author were using those words without quite knowing what they mean.

Harriman has always kept his own council. (page 149)
- The author apparently does not recognize the difference between "council" and "counsel."

And so on. Confusion between inferring and implying. A doctor who diagnoses the cause of death as a coronary infection! A gun that cluttered the ground (not even to the ground) when someone struck Watson's arm. A shadowy figure who is a self-acclaimed criminal. Didn't anybody read this before it went to press?

I don't know what it means to say (as the dust jacket tells us): "For the first time in its one-hundred-and-twenty-five-year history, the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate has authorized a new Sherlock Holmes novel." What sort of authority does this imply? In my opinion they should have made it one-hundred-and-twenty-five and a half and given a decent copyeditor the time to do his or her job. Lacking that, what we have here is not a clean novel that can stand on its own merits but a tram ride for tourists who want to hit all the high spots of a Sherlock Holmes theme park.

Jul 17, 2013, 5:07pm Top

I'm now in arrears by three reviews: The Tragedy of Arthur, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and The Broken Teaglass. I mean to get at least one of them done before I add a fourth, or by the weekend, at least.

Jul 18, 2013, 7:52pm Top

I'm not sure if I'd be able to make it through Cybertext, but I'm glad you did. Your review will make it easier for me to explain books like House of Leaves next time it comes up. But right now I have two questions for you: Did you pick up any interesting reading ideas from the book? And did it menion Borges? I suppose his stories aren't quite ergodic, but they seem to have cut a path for a lot of what followed

Jul 19, 2013, 2:41am Top

223: Yes, he does, and I could quote the mentions for you, but you might get a better idea if you looked on Amazon and searched inside the text.

As for interesting reading ideas, well, maybe, but I'm not sure I have the courage to tackle Afternoon, a hypertext story by Michael Joyce (discussed here).

However, I actually played several of the very early text-based adventure games of the Zork variety (which I think were much more interesting than the later media-heavy GUI-based ones that leave nothing to the imagination). Rethinking those decades-ago experiences as an experiment in postmodern literature gives them a whole new flavor.

Jul 20, 2013, 11:36am Top

Oh cool! I'd not heard of Zork or Afternoon. I'm going to have to take a look at those.

Edited: Jul 21, 2013, 3:10am Top

The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault (3 stars)

Six-word review: Inventive premise, weak characters, lame ending.

Extended review:

This debut novel turns a once-groundbreaking approach to fiction inside out, with a premise that starts off seeming very original and ends up feeling like a gimmick that the author didn't know how to resolve.

The gist of the story is that two young people who work for a dictionary publisher discover that some of the examples of word use stored in the files cite a nonexistent source--and that when pieced together, the citations begin to tell a story. They soon realize that the narrative not only sounds as if it describes a real event but seems to have taken place right there in their workplace--maybe even involving some of the people they know.

Putting their heads together, Billy and Mona delve surreptitiously into the citations files and also into the personal histories of present and former employees, looking for the thread that ties it all together.

This device is a clever variant on the narrative structures of Nabokov's Pale Fire (the story is told in the footnotes to a long poem), Danielewski's House of Leaves (multilayered annotations and analysis combine to tell the tale), Byatt's Possession (secrets of long-dead characters seep out through their writings), and Phillips's The Tragedy of Arthur (the novel is positioned as a skeptical introduction to a supposed play of Shakespeare).

However, in this instance it amounts to a whole lot of not very much. The two main characters stumble onto the mystery, and they keep looking, and finally they find out the answer.

All right, then.

The characters themselves have very little appeal. The focal character, Billy, is far too lightweight to carry the novel, never mind (or so it seems to me) to have landed a job that some of us might have considered the ultimate challenge to our logical and linguistic sensibilities. He presents the sort of wide-eyed, slack-jawed appearance that belongs in a sitcom or comic strip and not in a silent cubicle composing terse, precise distillations of verbal essences.

His colleague Mona is so forgettable that five days after finishing the book I can't seem to remember anything about her.

Billy's secret illness is meant, I think, to lend a certain gravitas to his character, but in terms of plot it seems to be nothing more than a distraction.

It does, however, furnish an occasion for what I thought was the best passage of the book: his sister, a very minor character, explains to him why their parents simply can't stop making his favorite dessert every time he goes home, no matter how inappropriate to the occasion and no matter how well they understand, rationally, that he doesn't have to have it whenever he visits. She tells him that it's up to him to help them make the transition that will let them off the hook. Or she tries to. But he cuts her off and ignores her remarks, and that's that.

Several other minor characters, notably a neighbor who seems to know a surprising amount about the dictionary company for someone who never worked there, supply potentially interesting digressions that never amount to anything.

So what we have here is a balloon that doesn't get off the ground, a sparkler that fizzles out, a gift-wrapped box that turns out to be empty.

Meanwhile, if what you're really interested in (as some reviewers have earnestly claimed to be) is a behind-the-scenes look at how dictionaries are made, allow me to recommend these titles:

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester,
The Meaning of Everything, also by Simon Winchester, and
The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and its Critics, by Herbert C. Morton

These nonfiction works will give you much more than a glimpse of this remote, fascinating world without a go-nowhere plot that sounds good in concept but falters in execution.

Jul 22, 2013, 12:22am Top

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Not sure what I just read.

Extended review:

Most likely it was very good. But enigmatic, or so they say. Not that I'd know; maybe it's just me. I've read some fairly tough stuff in my reading career, but this one made me feel like a borderline idiot.

I followed the narrative, or thought I did--a frame tale with one Marlow being the narrator of the adventure and all his remarks being written down by his unnamed listener. I couldn't make out the reason for the use of this device in this instance. What would have been lost--what would even have been different--if the putative narrator had penned a first-person account of his experiences going upriver into the African jungle to find Mr. Kurtz? Why deliver it all as if second-hand? I don't see it.

As for the narrative itself, I am not accustomed to having any difficulty with nineteenth-century prose, American or British or even (translated) Russian, no matter how quirky, rambling, vocabulous, or convoluted. The half-crazed internal monologues of Poe's characters and Dostoevsky's haven't slowed me down. I can handle the archaic styles of George Eliot and Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorne, not to mention poetry of earlier centuries. There's nothing in Conrad's diction or syntax that I can't understand. I've read plenty of literature that goes for mood and atmosphere and allegorical meaning without actually having anything resembling what we'd think of as a plot.

And yet I'm holding my copy of Heart of Darkness, open to the two-thirds mark, where I'm rereading passages for the third or fourth time and asking: What is this really saying? What am I missing? What's going on?

Is it a ghost story? Are we supposed to take references to Kurtz's disinterred remains and his skeletal appearance as meaning what they seem to mean? I could make some sense of that, but the commentaries I've looked up don't seem to bear me out. I must have read it wrong.

Swallowing my pride, I've just been reduced to reading the entire SparkNotes summary and analysis, which are damned near as long as the book itself, and received very little enlightenment. Yes, that's definitely the novella I just read. Now I'm wondering what the story is about and what the SparkNotes are about, if they're not just about the evils of European colonization of so-called primitive societies and the looting of their treasures.

One thing I'll testify that it isn't is a character study. To me it seems to conceal more than it reveals, pointing with gestures and symbols and geographical landmarks to the places where disclosures of information ought to be but aren't. Is that the point? Is that the horror at the core? Is that why Eliot chose a line from this story as the epigraph to his poem "The Hollow Men"?

I concede defeat. I'll take my lumps for being too lowbrow for Conrad. But what I'd like to know is, what in the world was my high school English teacher thinking when he assigned it to a room full of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old American kids? I was reading Dostoevsky on my own then, for pleasure, but I didn't make anything of this. Fifty years later, I still don't.

Jul 22, 2013, 12:47pm Top

My husband bought Heart of Darkness for me when we were first married. He knew I loved reading classic books from that time. I tried and tried to read it, but couldn't penetrate past the first three chapters. It defeated me.

Hmm, couldn't seem to post this the first time, I'll try again and delete one if it duplicates.

Jul 22, 2013, 1:52pm Top

#228 MrsLee, now you've left us in a quandary. Is the above posting the second posting or is it the first posting? Also, when you were posting it the first time why did you add, Hmm, couldn't seem to post this the first time, I'll try again and delete one if it duplicates.?

Most perturbing.

By the way, was a book entitled, "Heart of Darkness" a suitable gift so soon after a wedding?


On a serious note, I have Conrad on my shelf waiting with all those other patient authors. I was thinking of starting his work with either, "Nostromo" or "The Secret Agent". My interest is piqued with this talk of "Heart of Darkness" which I have just downloaded from Project Gutenberg.

Jul 22, 2013, 2:46pm Top

I remember reading HoD in high school too. I don't remember if we discussed the frame-tale technique, although it's hard to see how we could have failed to do so. As I recall, we focused on the search to the exclusion of almost everything else. But then, as I recall hgh-school English, we tended to focus on the content of each book much more than on the narrative techniques, at least till senior year. I do not remember Conrad fondly. I think the other thing of his that we read was The Secret Sharer, but that one made no impression on me at all.

BTW, I read a book last year that reminded me superficially of HoD: Ann Patchett's State of Wonder.

Jul 22, 2013, 3:31pm Top

I don't recall The heart of darkness as being that impenetrable. Perhaps it's so obvious we can't believe the obviousness. It was written by a Victorian, for white men. What sort of ideas did Victorian white men entertain on the topic of Africa?

The first thing I'd point out is the framework of contemporary (19th century) racialism which had blacks (Africans) as the most primitive stage of human species. The white man evolved past that stage but actual Africans served to remind him both of the savage past, and of the terrible possibility that it continued to exist, atavistically, in the "heart" of even the most civilized. (The awful threat of the fall from grace which "going native" represented.)

Marlow's physical trip into the continent is doubled by a symbolic descent into psychological "darkness" such as reigns in the souls of savages, such as took command of the white man Kurtz (not an Anglo, btw--there's another instance of distancing), who wasn't always a monster, but was turned into one BY Africa.

It's a cautionary tale to white people (the best white people, such as the English) about what happens when you stoop to meddle with those below you on the evolutionary ladder. The modern note is struck by the shivery idea that something well hidden in us might resonate to others' overt brute savagery.

The biggest irony is that this deeply racist book has been (probably still is) taught as an indictment of colonialism.

Jul 22, 2013, 4:34pm Top

#231 Lola, your comments reminded me of H.G.Wells racial stereotyping in The Sleeper Awakes.

Jul 23, 2013, 11:02am Top

229 - That was my second, so the first apparently went to be posted on Mars or somewhere.

Considering the fact that my reading consists mostly of murder mysteries, and I tell him I read them to keep him on his toes, perhaps not so inappropriate? ;)

There was the one night about a year after our wedding when I turned my head to him in the night and said in a creepy voice, "You better be nice to me or I'm going to shoot you." Then I laughed creepily. I have no memory of this. Honestly. He lay there panicked trying to assure himself that we had no guns. Still, this will be our 30th year together.

Jul 31, 2013, 2:35am Top

Lament for a Maker, by Michael Innes (3½ stars)

Six-word review: Far-fetched murder puzzle with unguessable ending.

Extended review:

Most detective fiction strains the bounds of credulity a little bit, but this one does involve some breakage. Even though no supernatural elements are involved, I would place this tale pretty close to the boundary of fantasy.

That doesn't mean it isn't entertaining. The subtle connivance of the villain and victim, the characters of the witnesses, the increasingly complex theories of the successive narrators, and the atmospheric setting combine to create an absorbing and diverting narrative. I don't require my mystery reading to describe a sequence of events that could play out believably next door.

And this tale is anything but: set in a moody and menacing castle brooding over a snowbound Scottish landscape, it features a diverse cast of characters whose interaction is very much more complex than it appears at first, second, or third view. Wending our way to the conclusion takes us through some dark territory, dark but hardly featureless. I enjoyed the trip.

Jul 31, 2013, 3:47am Top


Again your reviews, both six word and extended, encourage me to read the novel, especially after your query about "near going".

I am not one to quote Wikipedia in an argument, but I find it does contain some interesting comments on the novels in the name of Michael Innes which are credibly cited. One that seems apropos in the context of your review is:

These abound in literary allusions and in what critics have variously described as "mischievous wit", "exuberant fancy" and a "tongue-in-cheek propensity" for intriguing turns of phrase.

Edited: Aug 13, 2013, 10:27pm Top

A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History, with a Selective Guide to DVDs and Videos, by Donald Richie (4 stars)

Six-word review: Painstaking contextualized explication of Japanese movies.

Extended review:

However little I may comprehend of Japanese cinema, it's a great deal more than it was two and a half months ago, which is when I started reading Donald Richie's book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film.

This was a very slow read for me, a few pages at a time, because that's about all I could take in at once. Some slight past exposure to the Japanese language was not enough to enable me to hold in mind a dense concentration of Japanese personal and place names, film titles (although all of them are translated), and theatre- and film-related terminology (despite an excellent glossary and a thorough index), most of which were new to me. I often felt overwhelmed by the foreignness of it, as well as having difficulty retaining enough information to follow detailed analytical comparisons among directors, genres, and movements.

Not surprisingly, this is often the way I feel when watching Japanese movies.

I persist in watching them, though, much as I persisted in reading this book, because even though I will never "get" the culture or its reflection in films, I know I will benefit from an enhanced appreciation. Being a lifelong-learner type, I regard this effort as part of my ongoing education and expect it to be rewarded in some small measure by being able to see things in both Japanese and Western films that I have missed before.

Luckily, I have apparently chosen an expert as my guide. In his foreword to the 2012 edition, Paul Schrader writes: "Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie."

Richie's survey of a century of Japanese filmmaking sets a social, cultural, political, economic, and historic context for the work of Kurosawa, Ozu, and a host of less familiar directors, showing their influence on one another, the reciprocal effects of exposure to Western cinema, pervasive themes that are characteristically Japanese (for example, the individual in conflict with a highly structured traditional society), and especially Japan's involvement and defeat in World War II. His explicatory commentary on numerous specific films elucidates the narrative and aesthetic traditions to which they belong--even when they are rejecting them--as well as their degree of fidelity to the social milieu and the directors' widely varying visions of it.

It has been gratifying to me to find the mystifying and seemingly impenetrable elements of Japanese film gradually becoming less so as I have worked my way through this book, lengthening my Netflix queue with an assortment of titles found in Richie's selective guide to DVDs and videos in the back of the book. Having some background on the Edo period and conventions of samurai movies explains a lot. So does knowing that some directors frame shots in a certain way, choose certain camera angles, use color or water in characteristic patterns, employ certain traditional stage techniques, and sometimes even include images just because they are pretty and not because they necessarily mean anything. A Japanese treatment of a Shakespearean drama offers one kind of cultural perspective; a bloodthirsty tale of gang warfare that is billed as an action comedy offers another.

I've decided that I will have gone far enough with this exercise when I can make, or understand, or at least recognize one true generalization about Japanese film. This may never be possible, but it is at least a definable goal.

In the meantime, I am enjoying a lot of variety in my movie-viewing experience.

Edited: Aug 17, 2013, 9:07am Top

Now, that sounds like a fascinating area of study. Because I agree that reading film criticism without being able to find the films on Netflix or the like is somewhat crazy-making. So my question to you is what film version of what Shakespearean drama? I'm always curious about Shakespeare.

Aug 17, 2013, 3:26pm Top

237: The one I was thinking of is Throne of Blood (1957), about which Richie writes:

Scriptwriters Hashimoto Shinohu, Oguni Hideo, Kikushimo Ryuzo, and Kurosawa himself move Macbeth to the foggy slopes of Mount Fuji. In the process they preserve and even further illuminate Shakespeare's saga. Called the best screen adaptation of the Bard ever made, it may be just that. With Mifune Toshiro as the general, Yamada Isuzu as his power-possessed wife, and superlative black-and-white photography by Nakai Asakazu.

That one happens to be in house right now, and I'll probably see it this weekend.

There are other Japanese adaptations of Shakespeare, notably Ran, Akira Kurosawa's version of King Lear.

The borrowings go both ways, though. Kurosawa, for one, has supplied storylines for a number of Hollywood pictures. I saw a Bruce Willis one recently, shortly after seeing the Japanese original (the violent "action comedy"--Yojimbo). The Western version was far inferior.

Aug 24, 2013, 5:50pm Top

With respect to reviews, I'm now in arrears by four books, one of them going back to May:

The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli (no working touchstone)
May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

I can't really account for my being so tongue-tied over those four. They have next to nothing in common, and I have something to say about all of them (well, maybe all but the Taylor biography). I'm considering just posting the promised six words about each of them to fulfill my commitment and then coming back to the rest of my comments in some indefinable future.

Aug 24, 2013, 7:26pm Top

Ok, here are my twenty-four words--well-chosen, I hope--to get me off the hook:

The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips

      Multiangled exploration of authenticity and artifice.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

      Light Jungian fantasy mirrors the psyche.

Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli (no working touchstone)

      Megastar's melodramatic biography makes soporific reading.

May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

      Grotesque characterizations paradoxically generate real feelings.

I also have drafts of reviews, or at least extensive notes, on all four of these, but nothing that's ready for prime time. Just a little OCDishness showing, I guess, in the fact that I can't bring myself to post anything as ragged as they are.

Aug 26, 2013, 9:17pm Top

I've just finished reading Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis, which covers the exhibit I saw in San Francisco four months ago. I started the book in April and have chipped away at it a few pages at a time, studying the paintings as I went along.

This is the first time I've actually read all the text from an art exhibit catalog, so I'm counting it as a finished book, even though it doesn't make sense to me to rate it and I can't say much in the way of a review.

The exhibit itself was wonderful. My son and I went twice, and we spent a long while both times in front of the famous Vermeer painting that gave the exhibit its name. I had seen it once before, in Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1995, and he had seen it in the Hague in 2009. We had also both enjoyed the movie of the same name, a fictionalized account of how the painting might have come about. The film is a piece of art in itself--a cinematic rarity in that nearly every scene looks like a painting in its own right.

Sep 3, 2013, 4:01pm Top

During the past three weeks I've polished off not one or two but four of my long, slow, nibbling reads, bringing my "currently reading" list down to three. One of those is primary, the daily bedtime book, which typically proceeds at 30 to 50 pages a night. At present that's The Cuckoo's Calling.

I have to say that, ready though I was to move on, having all of those books end at once leaves me feeling a little . . . discontinuous. I'd been reading the Lebovitz book off and on since Christmas and each of the others for several months. (David Lebovitz's blog is, by the way, the one and only blog I follow.) It's odd how a book you live with for a long while becomes a sort of anchor in your thoughts even if you're not spending much time with it.

I've started a new one for the living room: Bill Bryson's At Home (452 pages). For the bedroom, it's Camille Paglia's 673-page Sexual Personae, of which I've already read as much of the stunning chapter on Emily Dickinson as Amazon would let me sample. I feel confident in saying that my reviews of those two are a long way off and will probably not come at the same time.

Sep 3, 2013, 8:39pm Top

I have the same kind of reading method. Several books in different locations, each being read bit by bit. And every now and then a few of them end all at once, leaving me feeling that suddenly there's nothing to read. Sometimes I'll get engrossed in one of my drawn-out books, and it comes out of its niche and becomes my main read.

Sep 3, 2013, 9:47pm Top

Oh, I try to keep them all corralled in one place! But then I think of something off track and wander off and find another clutch of good books hidden elsewhere and the next thing you know, I'm shelving one set in favor of another.

Edited: Sep 4, 2013, 8:03pm Top

Six words apiece for the latest four:

The Sanctuary Sparrow: The Seventh Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters

      Monastic sleuth sees what escapes others.

Andersen's Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen (1923 edition; nth reread)

      Beloved childhood treasure still enchants me.

The Sweet Life in Paris, by David Lebovitz

      Semisweet valentine to Paris, with recipes.

English Eccentrics: A Gallery of Weird and Wonderful Men and Women, by Edith Sitwell

      Witty, eloquent appreciation of world-class oddballs.

I'm starting to see a kind of poetry in this.

Sep 5, 2013, 4:45am Top

I'm starting to see a kind of poetry in this.

You will be writing Haiku reviews next.


Sep 11, 2013, 11:07pm Top

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) (4 stars; genre, 4½)

Six-word review: Superior whodunit introduces appealing new detective.

Extended review:

I found The Cuckoo's Calling to be a very competent mystery, with enough going on to keep it lively, suspenseful, and entertaining. Rowling is a very good plotter, and she handled her adult characters well. I liked the interaction between the detective and his secretary, which could have been heavily cliche-ridden but wasn't.

Knowing the story of the Galbraith pseudonym and of Rowling's being outed as the real author, I kept an eye on the craftsmanship angle to see how a skilled, experienced author passed herself off as a novice. I couldn't help thinking that a few amateurish touches were included intentionally for the sake of authenticity; for example, on page 16 she uses the time-worn beginner's device of having a character view himself in the mirror as a pretext for including a physical description.

But there were few such instances. It's no wonder that reviewers of what they thought was a debut novel were impressed by how accomplished it seemed. In fact, she pulled off a number of effects extremely deftly and without letting any puppet strings show. I found very few faults indeed, somewhat surprising given today's lowered publishing standards.

I was unable to get through A Casual Vacancy. In the first hundred pages there was not a single character I liked. Here, I liked Robin Ellacott right away, and I quickly warmed to Cormoran Strike, with his odd name and odder history. The secondary characters included a considerable assortment of interesting and offbeat specimens, and there were enough candidates for the role of murderer that I really wasn't sure who the culprit was until the author let us in on it.

I hope this is the start of a series; certainly it seems as if the ending, while conclusive with respect to the present case, were a setup for a sequel. I'll be quick to get in line the moment there is one.

Sep 28, 2013, 2:47am Top

Four more minimalist reviews:

The Maniac: A Realistic Study of Madness from the Maniac's Point of View, by E. Thelmar

      Harrowing depiction of a crazed mind.

Notes for future reference:

Joyously Through the Days: Living the Journey of Spiritual Practice, by Les Kaye

      Lightweight guidance in everyday Zen practice.

The Devil's Novice, by Ellis Peters

      Pleasing variant on successful mystery formula.

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

      Literary geode: sparkling walls, hollow core.

If you should happen to want more than six words for any of these, please PM me.

Oct 19, 2013, 3:11pm Top

Continuing with six-word brevity:

At Home, by Bill Bryson

      Fascinatingly digressive history of domestic environment.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens

      Where religion's not destructive, it's irrelevant.

Touchstone, by Laurie R. King

      Slow, suspenseful build to explosive finish.

Nov 6, 2013, 4:22pm Top

The next four six-word encapsulations:

Dead Man's Ransom, by Ellis Peters

      Cadfael sponsors young romance, exposes murderer.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

      Brilliant exposition of the ubiquitous monomyth.

The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy L. Sayers

      Lord Peter plumbs rustic deep waters.

Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon

      Crackling technothriller coheres like a hallucination.

I notice a sharp decline in posted comments since I slacked off on the full reviews, although I do work at crafting the reviews-in-brief. Maybe I should resume writing the long ones?

Nov 6, 2013, 8:49pm Top

More words better. ;)

Nov 6, 2013, 9:04pm Top

Ha! Okay.

Nov 7, 2013, 4:08am Top

"Hear! Hear!" to Lola's comment in post 251.

Despite my silence I am still watching your six word reviews and mulling over whether or not "it's" should be counted as two words or one.



Nov 7, 2013, 3:43pm Top

I would definitely love to hear your thoughts on Campbell. He's one of those I really ought to read but haven't gotten to yet. Though, I did hear an interview with him on The Dead Authors Podcast so maybe I'm covered ;)

Nov 9, 2013, 7:42pm Top

Actually, fundevogel, if you can get the DVD that Campbell did with Bill Moyers back in the '80's, you might find it worthwhile. I think it was called The Power of Myth and the television series preceded the book that was published under that name. Perhaps, Meredy, you've read that one?

Nov 9, 2013, 8:14pm Top

I've watched the DVD series twice with friends. After each of the six parts, we spent about an hour discussing it. Great way to experience the series, in my opinion.

Edited: Nov 10, 2013, 8:45pm Top

I began Still Life, by Louise Penny, hoping I'd found an engaging new series. I'm abandoning it on page 22 because the writing leaves far too much to be desired.

A solitary example concerns a character by the name of Clara, introduced on page 4, where she is vibrating with impatience because someone is late, although we are told on page 5 that she finds it easy to forgive people. Here is an excerpt from page 8:

=====(Excerpt begins)

Slowly, meticulously, Peter Morrow picked at the knot, tugging the string until it came loose. Then he wound the old string around his palm as though winding yarn. Clara could have killed him. She was ready to shriek, to jump from her chair and shove him aside. To fling the pathetic bundle of string to the ground, and perhaps Peter with it, and tear the waxed paper from the canvas. Her face became even more placid, though her eyes had begun to bulge.

=====(Excerpt ends)

At no point has Clara been depicted as placid, and yet suddenly, after all this tension, we are told that her appearance becomes "even more" placid. While, grotesquely, her eyes bulge. A moment later, her face has turned purple. How is this "placid"?

And how is a bundle of string "pathetic," and what is the purpose of telling us this?

Sorry, but the misplaced semicolon on page 1, the awkwardly contrived-sounding descriptions, the too-numerous characters with all their little tags and labels, the jumpy characterizations, and the misuse of several words have exhausted my patience already, so I'm putting this one aside.

Nov 11, 2013, 3:32am Top

I feel your pain, Meredy.

Nov 11, 2013, 9:06pm Top

Didn't do much for me either, but I think we're in the minority around here. :)

Nov 12, 2013, 10:49pm Top

Jillmwo & Meredy, thanks for the heads up, I'll have to look into it.

Nov 23, 2013, 7:59pm Top

When I was a youngster, one of our favorite family activities was to play the then-familiar card game called Authors, which was basically "Go Fish" with the likes of Hawthorne, Tennyson, Longfellow, and Dickens in sets of four instead of numeric rank within suit. (Where else would you find James Fenimore Cooper on a peer footing with William Shakespeare?) Thus the face of Sir Walter Scott was more familiar to me than that of my own deceased grandmother.

Scott was, in fact, an icon of classic entertainment, an author whose works were among the staples of childhood and young adult reading, with their jousting knights in armor, their chivalrous deeds and dark intrigues, their acts of high valor and foul treachery, their political allegiances and divided loyalties, their spirited damsels and their swashbuckling heroes.

In ninth grade, when my classmates and I were assigned to read Ivanhoe, I met Scott like an old family friend. The affectionate greeting, however, was not returned with equal warmth. In fact, the language and substance of this novel were both so alien to me that I honestly don't know how I managed to read it at all.

In those days, meaning the end of the Eisenhower administration, Ivanhoe was required reading in public schools across the U.S. I can't imagine why. I didn't hate it--I never hated anything we read in school. I was a straight-A English student throughout my scholastic career and later made language the basis of my profession. But the necessary knowledge of British history and traditional social structure, command of an archaic vocabulary, and ability to parse the convoluted style and grammar of the early nineteenth century in another culture all seem like formidable obstacles to comprehension for young teenagers, even without the adult themes and conflicts, the violence, and the very disturbing vein of institutionalized antisemitism that prevail throughout the novel.

How many 14-year-olds could have been expected to get much of anything out of this? All else aside, how much knowledge of medieval England and its politics was any American highschooler expected to have? I'm amazed that there weren't dozens of more recent, more generally readable, and more culturally apt choices that were considered to be essential to the education of American young people. I got through it somehow, along with the rest of my ninth-grade class, but I missed all the adventure in a sea of confusing language, lost context, and bewildering names. What a shame that curriculum requirements, both then and now, should serve to foster lifelong antipathy toward certain works and toward reading in general when, now more than ever, literacy is an essential skill and severely weakened cultural bonds could use reinforcement.

In intervening years I have read quantities of British literature and older literature and older British literature, and I feel very much at home with it. I'm comfortable with both a nineteenth-century prose style and a medieval setting. Archaic vocabulary does not trip me up, and I don't mind protracted descriptions, windy commentary, or so-called author intrusion. Still, it took me a long while to come back around to Scott.

A couple of years ago I enjoyed The Bride of Lammermoor, followed by The Heart of Midlothian. After that it seemed to be time to revisit Ivanhoe. I finished it a week ago.

From my present perspective, Ivanhoe is a relic, not so much of the historical period of its setting (with which Scott admitted to having taken considerable liberties) or even of the literary era in which it was written (early nineteenth century) as of a period in our European-American cultural and educational history in which youngsters read romances such as Ivanhoe voluntarily and for pleasure. Those same audiences these days would be viewing action movies for which you don't actually need a vocabulary at all.

Or maybe those aren't the kids avidly watching car chases and explosions and splattering pixels of gore in first-person-shooter video games. Maybe they're among the considerably smaller number who play chess and Magic: The Gathering and Sodoku: a relatively privileged, nerdy set (privileged if only with the motive, means, and opportunity to do those things) who don't gravitate toward the lowest common denominator. In any event, their path to imaginative excitement and adventure is not via such printed words as these:

=====(Excerpt begins)

"I am indeed bound to vengeance," murmured Cedric; "Saint Withold knows my heart."

Front-de-Boeuf, in the meanwhile, led the way to a postern, where, passing the moat on a single plank, they reached a small barbican, or exterior defence, which communicated with the open field by a well-fortified sallyport.

"Begone, then; and if thou wilt do mine errand, and if thou return hither when it is done, thou shalt see Saxon flesh cheap as ever was hog's in the shambles of Sheffield. And, hark thee, thou seemest to be a jolly confessor---come hither after the onslaught, and thou shalt have as much Malvoisie as would drench thy whole convent."

"Assuredly we shall meet again," answered Cedric.

"Something in hand the whilst," continued the Norman; and, as they parted at the postern door, he thrust into Cedric's reluctant hand a gold byzant, adding, "Remember, I will flay off both cowl and skin, if thou failest in thy purpose."

"And full leave will I give thee to do both," answered Cedric, leaving the postern, and striding forth over the free field with a joyful step, "if, when we meet next, I deserve not better at thine hand."---Turning then back towards the castle, he threw the piece of gold towards the donor, exclaiming at the same time, "False Norman, thy money perish with thee!"

Front-de-Boeuf heard the words imperfectly, but the action was suspicious---"Archers," he called to the warders on the outward battlements, "send me an arrow through yon monk's frock!---yet stay," he said, as his retainers were bending their bows, "it avails not--we must thus far trust him since we have no better shift. I think he dares not betray me---at the worst I can but treat with these Saxon dogs whom I have safe in kennel. Ho! Giles gaoler, let them bring Cedric of Rotherwood before me, and the other churl, his companion---him I mean of Coningsburgh ---Athelstane there, or what call they him? Their very names are an encumbrance to a Norman knight's mouth, and have, as it were, a flavour of bacon. Give me a stoup of wine, as jolly Prince John said, that I may wash away the relish---place it in the armoury, and thither lead the prisoners."

His commands were obeyed; and, upon entering that Gothic apartment, hung with many spoils won by his own valour and that of his father, he found a flagon of wine on the massive oaken table, and the two Saxon captives under the guard of four of his dependents. Front-de-Boeuf took a long drought of wine, and then addressed his prisoners---for the manner in which Wamba drew the cap over his face, the change of dress, the gloomy and broken light, and the Baron's imperfect acquaintance with the features of Cedric (who avoided his Norman neighbours, and seldom stirred beyond his own domains) prevented him from discovering that the most important of his captives had made his escape.

=====(Excerpt ends)

That lengthy and randomly chosen passage depicting a tense, suspenseful escape is adequately representative of the flavor of the whole. I would be willing to wager that no reader in 2013, no matter how widely read and how well versed in older literature, would have difficulty understanding how daunting four hundred pages of the same would be to today's young reader.

Did I enjoy the book? I did. I was sorry when it ended. And naturally it is no fault of the author and no criticism of his literary tradition to anticipate that the present generation of readers will have little appetite for this work. Whether that should be so is irrelevant; the truth is that it is.

I wonder how much longer there will be readers outside of academe who can read it at all.

Nov 24, 2013, 11:40am Top

I often wonder, for the same reason, why Pride and Prejudice is assigned to high school students. It's too bad that 19th c. literature can't be taught in conjunction with history; I think that it would enrich the learning of both.

On a brighter note, at my children's high school, the English department has made an effort to read more contemporary literature in classes like Freshman English while keeping separate semester-long classes like Irish Literature and Early British Literature for students willing to commit to tackling books made more difficult by their context. And by more contemporary literature, I'm not talking about groaners like Lord of the Flies--more like Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, which was hugely popular.

Nov 24, 2013, 3:36pm Top

262: That's exactly what was so wonderful about my first major in college.

My first undergraduate college offered a series of courses called Humanities, part of the core requirements for all lower-division students and proceeding through upper division as electives and major courses. They all taught literature in conjunction with both history and philosophy. Humanities and Comparative Literature majors also had to meet a foreign-language requirement. This course of study was much richer than a straight English major. I loved getting the context and the perspective on the periods and cultures, as well as the acknowledgment that there is a great deal of overlap among the disciplines.

Unfortunately I was never able to complete it. I left school for a time, and eventually transferred to Boston University, where there was no such concentration. I took my degree in English and added as many electives as I could in those related fields, but it didn't feel the same because it wasn't integrated.

Nov 26, 2013, 3:13am Top

Last night I watched Akira Kurosawa's deeply moving masterpiece Ikiru (1952), and today I finished Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Lowland. Superficially they have nothing in common, but both deal with strong themes of the essential loneliness and isolation of intertwined lives. It's going to take a little time to collect my thoughts enough to generate some words.

Nov 26, 2013, 10:29am Top

I've heard lots of recommendations for The Lowland but no specifics. Anticipating your collected words.

Nov 26, 2013, 8:28pm Top

Christmas at Candleshoe, by Michael Innes (2 stars)

Perfectly silly story with a few amusing characters and some good lines, all very vocabulous and grammatical, but lacking any substance whatsoever.

There's nothing seasonal about it; Christmas is the name of a sculptor.

Just about anything that could constitute plot has been so thoroughly omitted that it seems almost deliberate and systematic. What remains of conflict and suspense and mystery has been either concluded offstage or left unresolved. It's almost as if Innes had written a longer and more complex novel, snipped out the excessive bits--the ruffles and embellishments and long-winded quirky dialogues--and then published those under this title, leaving the core of the novel on the cutting-room floor.

The only reason I give it any stars at all is that the writing at the sentence level is expert, within the style and character of its time and place, and there is some charm in the humor. I find lines like this irresistible:

"Lord Scattergood's florid complexion had deepened to a colour which might have attracted Titian when looking for a nice curtain to hang behind a courtesan."

But as for story, there basically isn't any. What we have in the way of bad guys never even come before our view but remain conjectural. The deus ex machina ending is so ludicrously contrived that it's hardly worthy of the name.

I'm going to recycle this one directly, not even passing by way of the library donation box.

Nov 26, 2013, 9:00pm Top

Vocabulous is a beautiful word! It is perfectly descriptive of the book.

Edited: Nov 27, 2013, 8:05pm Top

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (5 stars)

While the countercultural and protest movements of the 1960s were going on in the U.S., a political uprising mounted by the poor and advanced by student groups was wreaking violent disturbances in India. Although news of these events created no ripples in American media, their effects were felt at all levels of Indian society.

The Lowland begins with two brothers growing up in Calcutta at this time of political turmoil: one bold and impulsive, driven by principle, ready to risk all for ideology; the other--the elder--his cautious, dutiful follower and supporter. Their paths diverge as they come into adulthood, Udayan leading a secret life of commitment to the communist cause and Subhash seeking an academic career in the U.S., far away from all that ties him to his personal history.

When a family tragedy alters the course of life for everyone involved, Subhash assumes his brother's family responsibilities. Now, within the close confines of family life, three people are isolated by nature and by circumstance. Guilt, deception, loss, and pain create walls of separation far thicker than the cultural divide between their Indian upbringing and their present in a Rhode Island college town.

The Lowland is the story of Subhash, bound by duty and love to a future he would never have chosen; Gauri, a self-absorbed intellectual who is unable to give; and Bela, who copes with her essential aloneness by embracing it and using it to define herself. In quiet, reflective language the author traces the growth of alienation and self-recreation in each of her principal characters, showing how redemption, when it comes, is for those who dare to transcend the barriers.

Lahiri's prose is simple and strong, full of straightforward declarative sentences and sentence fragments, spare and unencumbered. Much of its power comes from restraint. Yet somehow, with lean brushstrokes, she conveys the evolution of the inner life of her characters, compassionately and unapologetically, with a masterly eye to the intimate, revealing detail. This, more than any particulars of story, is what makes The Lowland a five-star novel for me.

Nov 30, 2013, 6:26pm Top

Nice detail. Thanks for providing it! Sounds like one I'd enjoy when I'm up for something more serious than the latest whodunnit.

Dec 3, 2013, 2:49am Top

Sight Reading: A Novel, by Daphne Kalotay (3 stars)

Promising but ultimately disappointing novel that loses its way about two-thirds of the way through and never finds it again. An interesting and potentially dramatic configuration of characters and relationships, with music as a core theme and metaphor, fizzles out by trying to go too many directions with too many interconnections, ultimately doing justice to none of them.

I enjoyed what I learned about musicianship, both performing and composing, and (as always) I relished the back-home feel of a Boston setting, but I ended by feeling as if I had invested far too much of my time and attention for very little return.

My rating of three stars is arguably severe, but in my opinion a book that aspires to more should be held more accountable when it falls seriously short of the mark.

Dec 4, 2013, 1:09am Top

The Perfect Ghost, by Linda Barnes (3½ stars)

Linda Barnes is best known for her Boston-based detective series featuring Carlotta Carlyle. The Perfect Ghost is a nice detour for her. Her work is not highly literary, so it's never going to get four and a half or five stars from me, but I consider three and a half a very solid, respectable rating for this type of novel.

The writing half of a celebrity-biography team is left to carry on their joint project when her partner dies in a car crash. Shy, self-effacing, and ill at ease in interpersonal situations, she must somehow meet the challenge of interviewing and fact-finding while dealing with the aftermath of her partner's death. When she begins to discover discrepancies in her subject's story, it's up to her to figure out how to handle uncomfortable truths.

Even though I guessed the solution to the original mystery exactly two-thirds of the way through, I never pieced the whole puzzle together until the final wrap-up. In fact, if I were to make any complaint of this book, it would be that the answers at the end come too fast, tumbling over one another at such a rapid rate that I had difficulty following them. Barnes plays fair with her hints and clues and red herrings, so I'd say the problem is just in the pacing at the conclusion--the rapid-fire (so to speak) delivery of all the revelations crowding together so closely that it seems rushed and breathless, hard to absorb in the orderly way that it takes to reflect on and reinterpret what has gone before.

But I enjoyed the story, the characters, the glimpses of the hidden life of (fictitious) superstars, and the Cape Cod setting. Barnes typically takes some risks with her narratives, and this one is no exception. I think she pulled it off.

Dec 5, 2013, 11:10am Top

Meredy, you are very consistent in that you despise most of the books I see as special treasures! LOL, I gave Christmas at Candleshoe four stars and really enjoyed it. My review compared the feel and movement of the story to Shakespeare or Trollope. :)

Dec 5, 2013, 3:28pm Top

272: How odd, MrsLee. Do we like any of the same things? I was under the impression that we did.

Dec 6, 2013, 11:19am Top

I'm thinking that where we part company is over certain types of British humour? We like many of the same mystery authors, and classics, and Neil Gaiman. :) I'm judging by a very quick peek at your author cloud.

Dec 6, 2013, 4:03pm Top

I've yet to meet someone who knows Gaiman's work and doesn't like him.  Closest I've gotten to dislike is indifference. :)

Edited: Dec 12, 2013, 12:22am Top

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham (3 stars)

At the outset I expected very little of this novel. Having heard of it only as a movie,* one of any number of (presumably) lurid horror thrillers of the 1950s and 1960s, I was surprised to learn that a respectable novel was behind it. Seeing the book touted as a group read for October, I picked it up.

Right away I was interested in the serious themes. What happens to society when the laws and conventions that govern it are no longer possible to obey or enforce? when the vast majority of the population is disabled overnight? when groups formed for purposes of survival and mutual protection must reinvent the structures and processes that they have long since taken for granted? The bold premise of a world in which a scant few remain sighted and most of the rest have no way to fend for themselves offers room for broad speculation and philosophical exploration.

I was willing to overlook numerous apparent plot holes in the confidence that before the end the author would explain.

When there were just a handful of pages left, however, I could see that that was not going to happen.

In the end I was left with more questions than answers. Foremost among them: if the blinding comet passed overhead during the night, how about the half of the world that was in daylight when it happened?

What was the connection between the triffids and the comet? If people had made such an exhaustive study of triffids and what made them thrive, how could they not have learned at the same time what their weaknesses were and how to destroy them? What was the nature of the plague? What happened to the millions of blinded people, since there did not seem to be very many bodies lying around? I even wondered why, in England, not a single member of the aristocracy or the governing classes appeared anywhere in the book, not even when we were peering into posh apartments and stately country homes.

I was disappointed by the abrupt ending after a meandering plot and the author's failure to solve so many of the puzzles that arose in the story. It's not enough to say that the author doesn't explain because the narrator (a character in the story) doesn't know. As an expert on triffids, he should have known a good deal more than he told us. Also, by the time many years had passed, there ought to have been some word as to the fate of other nations.

For the letdown, and for the ten-year-old who speaks like a five-year-old, and for the apparent inability of mid-twentieth-century people to discover any method of communication other than face-to-face conversation, I give this book a harrumph and a three.


*Day of the Triffids, 1963: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055894/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2

Dec 13, 2013, 9:35pm Top

Ok, I need a good one for my 75th book of the year. If your tastes are at all like mine, what do you recommend?

Dec 14, 2013, 7:57am Top

I see that you have Destiny of the Republic on your Wishlist. That one would be an excellent choice!

Dec 14, 2013, 6:07pm Top

Thanks. I just put it on my library request list.

Dec 23, 2013, 8:11pm Top

@276 Ha! I have to admit what little I'd heard of Triffids always left me skeptical of the praise it gets. It just seemed an awful lot like people were trying really hard to find a sci-fi novel to praise, you know to counter that bias against genre stories, and in their desperation tried to convince us that Kilgore Trout was a capital "A" artist. Not the best move, especially when there really is excellent sci-fi to be had.

Dec 31, 2013, 1:01am Top

I've just put away my last book of 2013, bringing my total to 78 (at an average length of 331 pages): The Book of the Dead, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. It's the seventh in the Special Agent Pendergast series and the third of the "Diogenes trilogy," in which the chief antagonist is Pendergast's malevolent, hate-driven brother Diogenes.

Brimstone (3½ stars; genre: 4)

More than a whiff of the infernal realm infuses this series-within-a series; in fact, "the gates of hell" might serve as the theme of the trilogy, beginning with the seemingly inexplicable diabolical elements of a series of gruesome deaths. You don't have to be superstitious to think something supernatural could be afoot when a corpse is found horribly burned from the inside out, with what looks for all the world like a hoofprint scorched into the floor nearby. Here, Special Agent Pendergast teams with former NYPD lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta to track down a brilliantly calculating killer who is driven to recover an ancient family treasure at any cost.

Details of setting, history, and lore add a dimension to this gripping tale, lifting it out of the class of mere page-turner and meriting the extra half-star for a rating within the mystery-thriller genre.

Dance of Death (3½ stars; genre: 4)

For all his preternatural powers, innumerable skills, vast stores of esoteric knowledge, and apparently limitless material resources, Pendergast is overmatched by his maniacal genius of a brother, his Doppelgänger, his passionately vengeful other half. D'Agosta is Pendergast's down-to-earth Watson and the estimable Proctor his unflappable Jeeves as a complex scheme of murder and larceny unfolds, spiced with romances, vendettas, mistaken identities, kidnappings, and intriguing glimpses into the inner workings of a great museum.

Like its predecessor, this second installment ends on a cliffhanger. If you're like me, you'll want to have all three volumes in hand before you start the first one.

The Book of the Dead (4 stars; genre: 4½)

A bold escape from a maximum-security prison, exquisitely planned and timed to the second, is a highlight of this conclusion to the Diogenes trilogy. A secondary theme to this third volume might be the rending of veils of illusion, from a vulnerable woman who is not as helpless as she appears to a reversal of roles between victim and persecutor. A major public fiasco, an international chase, and a Tolkienesque climax sustain the suspense as intense action alternates with lush description and engaging characterization. The resolution of several subplots brings this novel to a satisfying close, even while setting the hook for the inevitable sequel.

I found these three Pendergast novels to be superior to the earlier offerings, with less formulaic plots (no chasing after fanciful monsters in underground tunnels; well, all right, not much--although the authors seem to remain fascinated by the deep, dark, enclosed places), the return of several appealing characters, more interesting factual or quasi-factual background, and a number of literary touches that add depth. Unlike the earlier entries, which I came to only in a certain mood and was able to put aside for months at a time, I raced through these three back to back. They whetted my appetite for whatever's to come next.

Luckily I already have The Wheel of Darkness on the nightstand.

Jan 1, 2014, 9:50pm Top

Best and worst reads of 2013: I've posted mine.

Best fiction and nonfiction

(Sorry, MrsLee.)

Edited: Jan 4, 2014, 3:12pm Top

Lest I leave any 2013 business unfinished, I'm posting short takes on my last three unreviewed books for the year just ended. Time to move on.

The Pilgrim of Hate, by Ellis Peters (3½ stars; genre: 4)

Six-word review: Penance and vengeance provide narrative twists.

Extended review:

While staying with a successful formula involving Brother Cadfael in solving murders and abetting young love against a backdrop of medieval politics and monastic routine, this tenth in the series introduces some fresh relationship dynamics that lend savor to the mystery.

Dissolution, by C. J. Sansom (3 stars; genre: 3½)

Six-word review: Cromwell's man investigates gruesome monastery slaying.

Extended review:

My level of confidence in the author's grasp of his material suffered right from page 1. Despite evidence of extensive research into the place and period, England in the early years of the Protestant Reformation, I was put off by a surprising lapse. Right at the top of the first page of frontmatter, between the map and the opening of chapter 1, the word "obedientiaries" is misspelled. (The first i is missing.) It turned out that this misspelling persists through many occurrences all the way through the book. It made me question the author's grasp not only of his setting and its terminology but of the English language--because the word "obedience" jumps right out of it, and the missing letter suggests that he doesn't see that.

I noted several misused words as well, although those looked more like editorial lapses to me.

With respect to research, moreover, I felt repeatedly that the author was swamping me with historical detail while not showing me what I needed to know about the characters and their relationships (something that's never a problem in, say, the Cadfael books, where it's all well integrated and subordinated). For instance, by the conclusion I felt that I knew almost as little about Shardlake, apart from his physical condition, as I knew at the beginning.

In the end I really wasn't all that thrilled or impressed. The plot seemed overwrought and at times confusing, and I didn't really take to any of the characters. The historical period does interest me, and I've read and seen enough to bring plenty of context to it. I liked the historical details, and I especially liked the way Shardlake's view of Cromwell changed, setting up some interesting possibilities.

Thanks to the encouragement of some enthusiastic readers, I will probably give the series another chance, at least through the second book. But I'm not in any great rush to get to it. The excitement just isn't there.

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, by Ian Mortimer (4½ stars)

Six-word review: Broad, detailed tapestry of 1300s England.

Extended review:

I enjoyed this book very much--one of many things I'd probably never have heard about outside LT. Approaching a depiction of life in fourteenth-century England as a travel guide, telling you everything you need to know to get along in that environment and understand what you see, makes the content feel very relevant and immediate.

I hope I retain some of the wonderful tidbits that are so plentiful in this book, such as that the "mystery" in medieval mystery plays refers not to their being about some sort of sacred mysteries of religious dogma, as I thought, but to the craftsmen's guilds that were required to put them on--because "mystery" was another word for "guild." The connection? (I had to look this up elsewhere.) The root of the word has to do with being initiated into secret knowledge--as a guild member would be--and the sense of it evidently evolved to mean any kind of hidden knowledge.

I am reminded of Bill Bryson's work in the way that this book encompasses a very generous scope and follows interesting digressions without ever losing track of the main themes, and keeps it all very lively and engaging while packing in the facts. If only history had been taught this way when I was in school.


There. That fulfills my pledge to review every book I've read in 2013, even if it's only six words. On now to 2014.

Jan 4, 2014, 3:12pm Top

Thank you for following my thread. Please join me in the new year:


Jan 4, 2014, 5:00pm Top

282 - LOL, I'm used to it now, Meredy, in fact I find it amusing and fascinating. :) Also enlightening, because reading what you so dislike about the books I love, helps me solidify why I love them.

See ya in the new thread.

This topic was continued by Meredy's 2014 reading journal.

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