Friday, 17 August 2012

"Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife," by Mary Roach

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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.

I recently raided my library for Mary Roach books after hearing her interviewed on "The Readers" podcast.  In her interview she came across as very intelligent, articulate and funny - all things that I like in an author.  I managed to get 2 of her books from the library: this one, also known as "Spook," and "Bonk" (she seems to favour snappy, one word titles).  On the basis of saving the best for last, I decided to read "Bonk" (about sex) second. 

Mary Roach's books cover a subject starting from her position of, I hesitate to say ignorance, so let's say general knowledge, and she inveigles her way into interviewing some of the experts in the field and asking the questions that we would probably all like to ask.  In "Six Feet Over" she investigates what we know or, more accurately, don't know about what happens to us after death.  She delves back into archives to find out about men who did experiments into weighing the body at the moment of death to find the soul leaving the body, or to find records of spiritualism and alleged ectoplasmic manifestations, and she goes to India to speak to experts in investigating alleged reincarnation cases.

It is rare that you will find me reading non-fiction, although, to be honest, I probably should read more of it.  I was drawn to Mary Roach because she came across so well and had such a great sense of humour,when she was interviewed.  Her book didn't disappoint me.  I love this subject anyway: I love a good ghost story, tales of local legends and hauntings, and occasionally buy the "Fortean Times;" when I was a teenager I bought a paranormal magazine for a few months until Dad stopped me getting it when I got totally freaked out by an account of a poltergeist haunting.  I was familiar with some of the ideas in Mary Roach's book, but also learned some things: it never occurred to me, for example, that spiritualism rose up at the same time that electricity was new, and to many people there seemed little difference between the fakery of the medium - it often was a show - and touring demonstrations of the wonders of newfangled electricity.  Both were mysterious and inexplicable to those who witnessed them as new phenomena.

It was also rare that a book makes me laugh out loud.  I often read funny books, but I am more a silent appreciator.  The bit that made me laugh so much involved - hopefully without spoiling it too much for those who might read it - a guy in a sheet and some cows and, in a variation on the experiment, a guy again wearing a sheet but this time in a cinema showing a porn film.  Her ability to investigate a subject with natural curiosity and intelligence and to find the absurd is very entertaining: if you like the sound of this experiment, then you will probably also like this book.  She also has a very funny footnote on the curiosity of cows.

I'm now about to start reading "Bonk," but with a little trepidation.  There was a bit of an "euw" factor in "Six Feet Over" - with tales of mediums concealing stretches of material in bodily orifices to then extrude (even the word has an "euw" factor all to itself) as supposed ectoplasm - which I suspect will be magnified in "Bonk." I've seen the Youtube video of a talk that she did - which should not be viewed by anyone of a nervous disposition or anyone under 18 - and I don't think that I will ever be able to look a pig breeder in the eye again.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

"Wicked Business," by Janet Evanovich

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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.

Last year I read the first in this series by Janet Evanovich, "Wicked Appetite," which I wrote about here.  As I love Janet Evanovich's books - although I prefer her Stephanie Plum series - I decided to treat myself to bed, book and coffee on one day of my week off.

In "Wicked Business," Lizzie's routine as a baker in Salem is once again disrupted by the arrival of Diesel and his delinquent monkey, Carl.  A man who has been thrown out of a window with a handprint burned into his neck - Wulf's trademark - indicates that Wulf might have a lead on one of the other SALIGIA Stones.  This time they are on the trail of the Luxuria Stone...

It occurred to me with this novel how similar the formula for the SALIGIA stories is to the Stephanie Plum series.  Lizzie is Stephanie, as out or her depth in the world of supernatural powers as Stephanie Plum is in her makeshift career as bounty hunter. Wulf is the equivalent of Ranger - dangerous and seductive - while Diesel, like Morelli, is the comparatively safer option but no less sexy; Lizzie's friend Glo, an erratic witch, fulfils the same quirky friend role as Lula, while the owner of the bakery in which Lizzie works is a little bit like Connie.  This is stretching the comparisons a bit, but you could even compare the social embarrassment of hanging around with a monkey who likes to give people the finger with having a crazy grandmother who breaks into closed caskets at funerals. 

I don't mind too much that Janet Evanovich's novels tends towards the formulaic, though, as I still find the formula entertaining.  In the SALIGIA stories, she adds a twist in finding a way to prolong the sexual tension between Lizzie and Diesel (if two people with supernatural powers get it on, then one of them will lose those powers).  I can't escape the thought that it might be worth it, Lizzie, even if you do lose your powers of finding enchanted objects and making great cupcakes....

Sunday, 12 August 2012

"Cold Grave," by Craig Robertson

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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.

I decided that I should dig into my review pile again.  It was complete coincidence that I chose to read another Glaswegian crime novel, this time courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

Craig Robertson's detectives are DS Rachel Narey and police photographer Tony Winter, who are in a relationship which they keep secret at work.  Rachel's father, who was also in the police force, now lives in a home and suffers from Alzheimers.  He is sometimes unable to remember who Rachel is, but he remembers and is haunted by the violent death of an unidentified young woman whose murder he was unable to solve.  Rachel sets out to try to solve this cold case and release her ailing father from its hold, and her re-opening of the nineteen-year old mystery sets in motion a further sequence of events.

I enjoyed the company of Craig Robertson's characters, and Rachel Narey's relationship with her ailing father was poignantly portrayed.  Tony Winter is also an interesting character who has a ghoulish fascination with his grisly work; he is a man who is always fated to see the aftermath but never the event itself.  Winter's photography seems to fetishise, or at least aestheticise, violent death at a remove from the victim.  This is one thing that I like about this novel; it has a complicated relationship at its heart - that of the relationship between detective and victim.  For Winter and Narey it is a complex one, in which the thrill of chase is tempered by moments of reflection when they remember the violent death of a person at the heart of their mystery.  It's almost like  - stick with me in this simile, as I'm not totally sure it works - the murderer is an exciting lover who they are pursuing and yet, occasionally, they pull themselves up and remember the pain of the victim, like an adulterer who has a sudden moment of guilt in thinking of the faithful partner at home.

This novel takes a more traditional whodunnit form than the novel by Anna Smith that I wrote about in my previous post.  This is my more normal crime preference.  However, I think I do have the crime malaise again.  Once again in this book, there was one point - I won't give away what, as it would be a fairly significant plot development - where I could clearly see the author being vague to allow the reader to go down the wrong path.  I like to read a crime novel for entertainment, and I don't like to be aware of the mechanics of the author's trickery.  When I do start to become aware of it, I usually take it as a sign that I need to move away from the crime genre for a few books.