Sunday, 26 February 2012

"Carte Blanche," by Jeffery Deaver

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I have been loaned this book by a friend (thanks, Bill!), who knows that I enjoy Jeffery Deaver's novels.  A couple of years back we were both lucky enough to attend a talk and signing that Deaver did, rather incongrously, in our local Devon library when promoting "The Sleeping Doll."  He gave an entertaining talk and seemed very charming for a man who writes about gruesome murders, so I am always interested in reading a new book by him (although I tend to prefer the Lincoln Rhyme series, and still think that "The Bone Collector" was his best).

In 2004, Jeffery Deaver won the Crime Writers' Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, and spoke in his acceptance speech about his love of Ian Fleming's Bond novels.  This speech led the Ian Fleming's estate to approach him about writing a Bond novel, and "Carte Blanche" is the result. 

Deaver's novel opens with Bond on an ill-fated mission in Serbia which pits him against amoral and ruthless Niall Dunne.  The events in Serbia are Bond's only lead to an attack that is planned later in the week - Incident Twenty - which promises to result in casualties in the thousands.  The investigation leads Bond to recycling magnate Severan Hydt, Dunne's employer, who at first appearance is a legitimate businessman - but Bond suspects that something more nefarious is going on, and trails him to Dubai. In a sub-plot, another intercept dredges up an old mystery surrounding the suspicious death of Bond's parents.

Bill would probably be a better person than me to write this post, as he is both a fan of Jeffery Deaver and Ian Fleming.  I come from the less knowledgeable position of having enjoyed Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme novels, but having read little Bond (I think I read a couple when I was a teenager, including "Casino Royale" which I thought was great, but don't have clear memories of them).  I enjoy the films, but have little knowledge of the original conception of Bond as written by Ian Fleming, so I am not qualified to discourse on how well Deaver's Bond compares to the original.

I hope that for readers like me, who aren't Bond fanatics, this novel will also work as a strong story. I enjoyed it as I enjoy Jeffery Deaver's crime novels, as he is very good at crafting an engrossing plot that draws in the reader.  For Bond fans, Deaver throws in all the Bond ingredients that I associate with the films: fast cars; gadgets; sexy women with whom Bond can variously get off or not quite get it on; kinky sociopaths and exotic locations (Serbia, Dubai and Cape Town).  Bond is suitably sexy, ruthless, and just damaged enough to take the edge off and show some humanity beneath the trained killer. 

It will be of no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I read this with Jeremy Northam - who read a couple of John Gardner's Bond novels as audiobooks - in my head as Bond.  However, now that the the Bond films are running short on Ian Fleming plots to adapt, Deaver's story is strongly plotted and compelling enough to make a future film (hopefully with Daniel Craig who, despite my initial misgivings, makes a great Bond).  And maybe, at some point, I should investigate some of Ian Flemings original novels...

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Martha Grimes and the old-fashioned mystery novel

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Last year I spent a while on a Jeremy Northam forum - which I haven't visited for a while, sorry guys - and I came to Martha Grimes because her detective, Richard Jury, was suggested as a good fit for a future Northam performance.  I was intrigued, so I thought that I would give her a go.  I think that she is American and lesser-known in the UK, so I resorted to Amazon marketplace to track her down and got the first few books in the series (postage costing more than the actual book).  I like mysteries, and I know people on Twitter and the forum who like her, so I was confident that I would enjoy them.

I read the first one a while ago - "The Man with a Load of Mischief" - and I have just finished reading the second in the series, "The Old Fox Deceiv'd" (titles that are taken from pub names).  I took a long time to read the second one, as I got distracted and lost interest.  I wanted to like them more than I did, and the character of Richard Jury hasn't really hooked my interest; perhaps I'm so used to the normal run of damaged detectives with broken marriages and alcohol dependency issues, that I can't adjust to a detective with no marketing gimmick.  Richard Jury is tall, handsome, has a natural charm with the opposite sex and loves an expanse of untouched, virgin snow - I find him pleasant but not especially memorable.  I will continue with the series in the future to see if it grows on me, but so far the main effect of "The Old Fox Deceiv'd" was to remind me how much I enjoyed Josephine Tey's "Brat Farrar" when I was a teenager.

I have been meaning to re-read some Agatha Christie, but my experience of reading Martha Grimes has made me a bit scared that I might find I have grown out of the old fashioned murder mystery.  I went straight from Enid Blyton's Famous Five and - my favourite - the Five Find-Outers and Dog to Agatha Christie, and her novels are so much a part of my own personal reading history that I would hate to find that I no longer enjoy her writing.  My husband says that he feels his attention span has decreased, and I'm not sure that mine hasn't also.  I'm a bit disturbed to wonder if my dwindling attention span has led me to lack the patience for a gentler, slower mystery.  I hope that isn't the case.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Rochester's Girls

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Someone with whom I am friends on Facebook had a link show to show that they were reading a "Guardian" article entitled "Why Women Have Sex." I thought that the article sounded interesting - depending on who you talk to, I either have an academic interest in the psychology of sex or I have a dirty mind (maybe both) - so I had a quick look.

I haven't read the whole article because I got distracted by one particular line.  According to the book that the article is about, there are 237 reasons why women have sex (very specific), but largely we are seduced by genetic benefits (a man with whom we could have cute and clever babies) or resource benefits (bugger what the babies might look like - I'll go on the pill -  because he has lots of money and a nice house).

I'm simplifying this, and actually it sounds like the book itself is an intelligent study that follows the groundbreaking work done by Kinsey, but the article itself is occasionally flippant.  And, of all the things that I could have taken exception to, I object to the writer's throwaway line that "Jane Eyre, I think, can be read as a love letter to a big house."

So here is where I get to the point of my title: I'm a Rochester girl.  That means I'm a little bit introverted, but stoic and resourceful (unlike a Heathcliff girl who, when crossed, is more prone to finding a nearby moor on which to bewail herself).  It also means that I don't accept that Jane loves Rochester's house more than Rochester himself.  I haven't read Jane Eyre for a few years so I don't think I can marshal a compelling analytical argument, but as a Rochester girl my entire being rises in revolt against her facetious comment.  My argument reduces to this: moody and taciturn he may be but, hell, I still fancy him.  The big house is a nice added bonus.

I think that I do have one analytical point to refute the writer's statement: if Jane only loves Rochester for his house, surely *spoiler alert* she would ditch the broken Rochester at the end of the novel when she realises that Thornfield Hall has been burned down?

Sunday, 12 February 2012

My 100th Post - a book giveaway! (N.B. now closed)

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

As this is my 100th post, I thought that it would be nice to do something to celebrate and to say thank you to people who have been nice enough to show interest in my ramblings.  And what better way to do it than with a book giveaway...

So, this is my invitation to my readers: in the comments of this post, please leave the author and title of the book I have reviewed on this blog that you would most like to read.  I'll pick someone next weekend on Sunday 19th February 2012, so you all have a week to think about it - look through old posts if you want to - and decide which of my reviewed books you fancy most.  I've been trying to think of a fair way to pick a winner, and I think most likely I will put names in a container and ask my husband to pick one.  This is possibly, of course, flattering myself that I have more than one reader and will have more than one entrant.  The winner will get that book sent to them by me (probably later in the month after my payday!).

Here are my ground rules:
  • My blog is non-profit making and for my own enjoyment and challenge, so the prize won't be anything fancy but will be the normal paperback copy of the winner's chosen book (or hardback if the winner's choice is not yet out in paperback).  
  • To be fair to other entrants and give everyone the same chance to win, please only enter once.  If I notice someone make multiple entries I reserve the right to omit them from the draw.
  • I'm not limiting this to UK readers, but if the winner lives abroad and I discover that airmail to them is horrendously expensive then I will send the book by surface mail.
  • I don't think I have written about anything that is out of print, but if I do find that the winner has picked something that I find hard to source then I will ask them to make a second choice.
  • For your own internet security, please don't put your address in your comment with your chosen book.  I will liaise with the winner through email, or private messages on Facebook or Twitter, to get their postal address to send the book. 
  • I will announce the winner in the comments after the giveaway closes, so if you decide to enter please check in with the comments after the closing date on the 19th February to see if you have won.  I might be trying to contact you....

    Good luck, and I'm interested in seeing if there is a most popular book that you would like to read for yourselves.  You could also include in your comment why you would like to read the book you chose, as I'd also be interested to know that (because I'm nosy about other people's reading).

    Saturday, 11 February 2012

    "The Dunwich Horror," by H.P. Lovecraft

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    When I mentioned a while ago that H.P. Lovecraft was a gap in my reading that I fancied exploring, I was loaned a copy of "The Dunwich Horror" by Beth of the excellent blogs "Upward Spiral" and "Things I Wish They'd Told Me."  As part of my wider New Year's Resolution to take control of my reading, I thought I'd start by reading books that I have borrowed and hadn't got around to yet - so I started with this one.

    This is a collection of short stories - unusual for me, as I read few short stories and tend to prefer novels - which comprises the following stories:
    • The titular story, "The Dunwich Horror"
    • "The Dreams in the Witch House"
    • "The Lurking Fear"
    • "The Thing on the Doorstep"
    • "Hypnos"
    • "The Outsider"
      "The Dunwich Horror" is probably the most substantial story in the collection in terms of length and the uncanny, while the later stories are shorter but still effectively creepy.

        The first story, "The Dunwich Horror," starts with some description of the country around Dunwich, and I found Lovecraft's description of nature particularly interesting.  Lovecraft's landscapes are paradoxically unnatural: nature is heightened and strange, claustrophobic and off-kilter.  The world of Lovecraft is a liminal one that is impinged upon by "elder things" who used to populate the earth and want to find a gateway back to reclaim their territory, or unknowable things from other dimensions which are discovered by men who covet forbidden knowledge: nature hides strange secrets.  His stories of old creatures beyond our imagining create a hind-brain unease; a primal fear of things unknown and unknowable: there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

        I found his stories more unsettling than I did terrifying, which suits me as I am too much of a wimp for terrifying.  Another thing: unsettling haunts for longer than terror, in the same way that cold, considered bitterness can strike at the heart more than the passing heat of impulsive anger. Lovecraft's stories create a state of unease by suggestion and creeping dread more than explicit description - and, when he does try to describe his horrors, he tries to put their strangeness beyond the reach of language.   In particular "The Lurking Fear" has a striking moment when the speech of one of his characters descends into hysterical, purple prose where madness overtakes sense. The best horror films build a sense of menace before showing the monster - it's interesting to think how horror works in writing compared to film, as it is such a visual genre - and Lovecraft's strength seemed to me to be in creating a smothering atmosphere of menace and dawning comprehension.

        His stories engaged my mind and my imagination to an extent that had me dragging down my old university reference books to find out more about him and his writing - a dangerous enterprise, as it started a bookslide on my over-stuffed bookcase - which is something I haven't felt compelled to do for a while.  He seemed sadly overlooked by my encyclopaedias of literature, so I resorted to Wikipedia (sorry). This intrigued me more, particularly the story of his unhappy and ill-fated marriage as I wondered how much this had inspired the twisted depiction of the marriage in "The Thing on the Doorstep."  This was always one of my failings as an academic: my tendency to be interested in deeply unfashionable and questionable biographical criticism.  As far as I am concerned, the author is far from dead: the mind that creates a world of imagination can be as fascinating as the work itself.

        I found H.P. Lovecraft fascinating so far: it's not like anything that I have ever read before.  I'm not a big reader of horror - being of a nervous and impressionable disposition - and my excursions into it so far have been restricted to Victorian ghost stories, vampire novels, Joe Hill's fiction and a few Stephen King novels (a Lovecraft fan, as I think is Joe Hill).  I've realised that Lovecraft is now out of copyright, so I have downloaded the few of his stories that I could get from Gutenberg for future reading.

        Saturday, 4 February 2012

        My New Year's Resolution progress

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        Just in case you didn't read it at the time, I wrote about my New Year's Resolution here.

        This week I bought 3 books, and borrowed 2 from the library*.

        So far it isn't going too well.

        *If anyone is interested, I bought:
        • An ex-library copy of Kate Atkinson's "Human Croquet"
        • A discounted copy of Matt Haig's "The Radleys," for which I have heard a lot of praise.
        • On a whim, a discounted copy of "The Longest Crawl," by Ian Marchant.  I had not heard of it before, but it is apparently a comic travelogue of a pub crawl for the length of England (I bought it because it mentioned a few places I know in the blurb).
        And I borrowed:
        • "The Coincidence Engine," by Sam Leith.  I've wanted to read it since it came out, because I was intrigued by comparisons that were made with the brilliant Douglas Adams
        • "The Hypnotist," by Lars Kepler.  I've also heard this was good and wanted to read it for a while - I almost bought a signed copy when we went to London last year, but got distracted by some obscure Tennessee Williams that I didn't have.

        Thursday, 2 February 2012

        "One Good Turn," by Kate Atkinson

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        Having read "Case Histories," I was in the mood to carry on to the next Jackson Brodie novel.

        "One Good Turn" takes place about 2 years after the events of "Case Histories."  Jackson Brodie is at the Edinburgh Festival to support his actress girlfriend, Julia, who is opening in a new (dreadful) play that he has been talked into financing.  In his eventful stay, Jackson witnesses a road rage incident and also finds - and loses again - the drowned body of a young woman.  Jackson gets further drawn into events, and he finds it hard to adjust to his unaccustomed role as witness and suspect.

        I have a strange relationship to Kate Atkinson's Brodie novels so far, and I have been trying to work out why.  I have a theory, but it is more a comment on my reading tastes than it is any criticism of Atkinson's style.  It comes down to my feeling that her style of storytelling is quite episodic; she jumps between different stories and character threads.  Now, I know that she is not unique in this and neither is it new - I remember being aware of Dickens changing focus between different sets of characters in "Bleak House" when I read it - but I find that the lack of central focus precludes my complete involvement.  When I start to become interested and involved in the story of a particular character, and then find that the next chapter has reverted to another strand, the book becomes easier for me to put down.  I normally find that I enjoy that chapter when I do read it but, because it doesn't focus on the character who has held me at that moment, I don't feel the immediate pull to read on.  Hence my feeling that I enjoy the books as a whole, while still paradoxically finding her books easy to put down.

        I also felt that this episodic structure doesn't allow for a focal figure: even Jackson Brodie doesn't seem to play an appreciably larger part in this novel than any other character (if anything, ill-fated author Martin Canning seems to get rather more page-time).  Atkinson makes up for the shortage of Brodie with the introduction of a new character, Louise - policewoman, single mother of a teenage son, owner of a collapsing house and elderly, ailing cat -  whom I found very appealing.  Louise is called out to investigate Jackson's discovery of the drowned woman, and she develops a little, wholly understandable (let's face it, he's Jason Isaacs) crush on Jackson.  Atkinson is particularly good at creating interesting, strong yet vulnerable, female characters and, of the many examples of this in "One Good Turn," Louise is my favourite.  This might be something to do with cat-owners solidarity, and I am slightly ashamed to admit that I found it harder to read the poignant sections about Louise's elderly cat than I did any description of human-on-human violence.  I'm a bit worried what that says about my personality.

        I think that I enjoyed this book more than "Case Histories" because, although I have made much about her episodic structure, I felt that the strands of this book came together more cohesively and effectively (but then, "Case Histories" was far more 3 different investigations that intersect rather than one narrative coming together).  I do have a copy of the next Jackson Brodie waiting to be read, but right now I feel like moving on to something else and returning to him a few books down the line....