Tag Archives: books

long long overdue review: “Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical”

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Title: Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical

Author: Rob Shearman

Pub: Big Finish, 2009

Genre: Short Stories/ Novellas

Awards Won: Shirley Jackson Awards, Edge Hill Short Story Readers Prize,  2010 British Fantasy Awards

 The first thing you should know about this book is that it’s exactly what a short story collection should be– rather like expensive chocolate truffles.  The best way to enjoy is to slowly nibble just one at a time, savoring the flavors  and the artistry.  Then, put the book down.  Wander off, cook, feed the cat, mail the letters, or do the laundry.  As you do, the memory of the story, the ethereal taste, will ghost just along with you.  Then, sometime later… an hour, a day, just as the flavor fades… you’ll come back and taste another– different from the first and yet just as exquisite.

The second thing you should know about this book is that it’s apparently impossible to review it without resorting to lyricism.   

Shearman’s narrative style is deceptively straight-forward.  No flowery flights of language.  He creates a world in just a few deft strokes, that we completely recognize as our own–

–just to pick one, the opening of ‘Your Long, Loving Arms’ introduces us to Steve: “In the end, it was the afternoons that were killing him.  The evenings were fine.  The evenings, he could cope with.  He wasn’t working in the evenings, it was true, but that was okay, lots of people didn’t work in the evenings. He’d play with Ben a bit, like a normal dad, might read him a bedtime story if Ben fancied it. Like a normal dad, and in a normal family too, he’d cuddle up with Cheryl on the sofa and they’d watch a spot of telly, and at last Cheryl would say that she’d best go to bed, she had to be up early in the morning. And he’d go with her, though he didn’t have to be up early, not any more” (87).   Simple enough, right?  and heart-breakingly recognizable in these days of unemployment and redundancy–

— then Shearman slips our world just a little bit sideways with a word, but ever so gently that it seems the only natural way to be.  So, our Steve, in an attempt to stem the tide of those lengthening afternoons, enlists in the Tree Scheme: “It was funny– after an hour or so you didn’t feel the stiffness in your arms.  First they numbed, then felt like something detached from the body altogether.  And when the breeze fluttered his leaves, Steve thrilled to it– the wind just teasing them, they didn’t seem so much blown about as stroked” (92).  You need to read it now, don’t you?

Hence why, though his stories are often nominated for Fantasy and Horror awards, they’re not really either, in the traditional sense– but in the sense that we are amazed and terrified by ourselves, reflected back in one of those mirrors where it’s just twisted enough that you recognize a stranger’s face in your own.  Plus, what the labels tend to set aside is the humor woven deftly into the fabric of these stories.  Not the burst into laugher in public kind– though you might, as I did, get asked what you’re grinning about, which you will find yourself utterly unable to describe– but that kind of communal recognition that life is a funny old thing, after all, but it’s ours.

Sitting here, writing this and flipping through the book to find my favorite to tell you about, I keep finding one favorite and then another and then another, but all for different reasons.  Each story’s narrator is unique and both exactly like someone you know and completely unlike anyone else at all–some through the delicacy of third person [including “Love Among the Lobelias,” “Roadkill,” and “Love in a Time of Sharing”] and some through the intimacy of first [including “Not About Love,” “Be of Good Cheer,” “14.2,” and “At the Crease”].  Tenderness, shyness, loss, loneliness, hope, cynicism, yes, and longing too– the stories are about love, after all.  And, along the way, perhaps just a tinge of that fear of love gone a bit (well more than a bit really, a very very lot) wrong, there’s “George Clooney’s Mustache.” 

The third thing you should know about this book is that picking a favorite story is too hard.

Go on then.  Here you are: http://www.bigfinish.com/ranges/love-songs-for-the-shy-and-cynical

Hi, Hannah

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Title: Birth Marks

Author: Sarah Dunant

Published: 1992

Series: The Hannah Wolfe Crime Novels

Summary: Hannah, back in London, is hired to find a missing ballet dancer, Carolyn Hamilton.  When Carolyn is found dead only days after, under the assumption of suicide, Hannah is asked to find out why.    What she uncovers, layer by layer, is a truth that reveals more about herself than she was looking for.

This book was lent to me, highly recommended, by a friend [thank you, Lisa!] who knows my love of mysteries, and my general Anglophilia, so I eagerly began reading it nearly as soon as it was in my hands.  I was hooked after the opening paragraph:

Mistake number one: I should never have sublet the flat.  Mistake number two was letting myself be taken in by appearances.  With a job like mine, you’d think I would have learnt by now.  But she had seemed such a shrinking violet, an anthroplogy student with so many religous books that she was clearly having trouble with Darwin.  Obviously somewhere over the last three months the evolutionists had struck back.  The kitchen smelt as if a dinosaur had died there and the bed looked as though it had been used to test out the survival of the fittest theory.  Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll   It had all happened here.  And I hadn’t had any of them.  Ah, these young people.  As a woman on the wrong side of thirty I could feel disapproval coming on.[1]

Hannah Wolfe’s strong narrative presence is a constant throughout the novel.  She was the reason I kept reading, as her desire to know the truth about the dead dancer fueled the narrative onward.  Hannah’s a professional private eye, and a darn good one.  After reading long series of cozy mysteries where the “detective’s” involvement must be contrived, it was utterly refreshing to have Hannah investigating because it was her job.  Hannah rather reluctantly takes the case because she needs the money and because it’s the better of several rather dreary alternatives.   

Also making a nice change is that Dunant’s novel is peopled with three-dimensional characters, who don’t exist soley to drop the detective a clue.  These characters’ lives continue on while Hannah is not around, and when we revisit them, events in which we’ve played little or no part have altered their willingness to discuss Carolyn’s life. Hannah’s connection to the case grows while she slowly attempts to bring the thusly divergent pictures of the lost Carolyn into focus.  And yes, I am attempting to review this without given away any of the clues that Dunant went to such effort to skillfully scatter throughout her pages.

Being a single woman on “the wrong side of thirty,” Hannah also finds herself particularly vulnerable to the choices that various characters, particularly Carolyn, have made about motherhood– leading us into the central theme of the novel.  This is where Dunant gives herself away as a serious novelist [which she has now become], rather than simply a weaver of mysteries. Hannah’s narration becomes replete with womb imagery (a little heavy-handed, frankly) and her scrutiny of Carolyn’s life and death become a reflection upon her own life’s choices.  Certainly, I think, most women can relate, at least in part, to Hannah’s conflicted thoughts about the single, career-driven, independent life she has (and enjoys) and the children/ marriage/ domestic life she both admires and fears.  However, the existential angst with which Dunant wraps this internal narration had me checking the copyright date.  Yup, I confirmed to myself, 1992 sounds about right– and it also explains some of the ‘decadant eighties big business’ overtones.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed Dunant and Hannah, and will be eagerly adding the other two novels in the series, “Under My Skin” and “Fatlands” to my TBR list.

Sarah Dunant’s official website: http://www.sarahdunant.com/

apologies

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Hi, folks–

I’m completely chagrined to see that it’s been since April– (April!!)– since I posted anything here.  Summer’s nearly over, and I miss blogging, but as the podcast has just taken off in an amazing way, along with other very nice things as well, so this has kind of slipped through my fingers. 

I’m updating my book lists here today, and I’m going to try to post up at least one thing a week for awhile, to get back into practice.  It should help a bit that we’ve started doing a book discussion group called Ark Between the Covers as a tangent with the podcast [check out the Facebook group HERE].  We’re beginning with Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in honor of its anniversary.  I’ve never read it (I know?! right?), so this should be interesting.

I’m also in the middle of reading  Birthmarks by Sarah Dunant (a good Brit detective story recommended and lent to me by a friend), Tangerine by Edward Bloor (previewing, as it’s the novel we’ll read as part of our new curriculum this year), and Blue Box Boy by Matthew Waterhouse (an autographed copy! a kind gift, and a really good read, especially for any classic Who fans).

While I get myself sorted out and organized over here, go and cheer on Lulumankiller at Life Under A Rock, as she does a really cool Read-a-Thon this weekend.  We loves her!

repost: Review of “The Shadow in the North”

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With Doctor Who reappearing on the BBC last week and on BBCAmerica next Saturday [April 17th] with Matt Smith as the new Doctor, I thought it would be appropriate to repost this review.  The movie below now stars 2 DW alumni. 

title: The Shadow in the North

from: PBS Masterpiece Mystery / BBC

based on: “The Sally Lockhart Mysteries”

by Philip Pullman

length: 86 minutes

I was predisposed to enjoy this because I liked Billie Piper as Rose in “Doctor Who” and one of the supporting actors (playing Jim) is Matt Smith, who is to be Doctor # 11. This is a nice opportunity to have them both in the same production. They do, indeed, do nice enough work, though the script is quite weak for Smith’s character. I have also already seen the first film in this series: “The Ruby in the Smoke” That one was ok—reminded me rather of Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” having an strong set-up and a weak finish (yes, I am aware that Dickens never finished the manuscript, but other authors have), along with a very obvious villain. However, I liked Sally, Jim, and Fredrick enough to keep watching and to look forward to the next one. I actually looked up the novels, but my library didn’t have them.

As for “The Shadow in the North,” it gains points for having a less obvious plot and a more complex group of supporting characters (Alistair MacKinnon & Axel Bellmann, particularly) than its predecessor. Unfortunately, Sally and the other main characters suffer for it—they don’t, frankly, get much to do. Poor Fredrick is reduced to appearing in a variety of unconvincing disguises and then (spoiler music, la la la la la) being killed just as he was getting interesting. The plot moves from clear realism through to the super-natural, though I would have liked to have the final “ghost” scenes better supported. They seem to appear out of nowhere.

(ok, personal rant here, nothing to do personally with Pullman’s work, but I HATE when authors kill off the romantic partners of their strong female characters just as they were about to be happy together. Why?? Why fall back on the idea that happily married/ affianced characters can’t be interesting? Why not let them be together & then work in the relationship’s ups and downs into the story. Diane Mott Davidson has done a lovely job of that. So, why make your main character broken and fragile, especially when the main thrust of the story is not her romantic entanglement, but actually the mysteries or adventures? Edna Buchanan, Patricia Cornwall, Philip Pullman… take note and stop it, already!)

Right, back on track (pun intended)—the idea of the deadly train engine was unusual and chilling, and the final set piece with Sally, when you don’t know what she is planning, is well done.

Overall: worth the watch, but mostly for Piper’s and Smith’s fans. 

For more, see below:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/shadow/

repost: review of “The Shortest Way to Hades”

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Title: The Shortest Way to Hades

Author: Sarah Caudwell

Series: the Hilary Tamar mysteries

Summary: A group of young London barristers, along with their former tutor Tamar, set out to investigate the suspicious death (deaths?) of one of their clients.  Half of the story happens in London, while the other half is in Corfu, Greece.

Once again, a fabulous and unique narrator.  Hilary Tamar is carefully written with intellectual language, elegant sentences, and a complete ambiguity about gender.  All of the other characters are clearly men or women, but Hilary is deliberately never defined.  Oh, there are clues, of course, but just when you think you have Hilary nailed down, something else slips in– and your ideas fold away.  People who review this book, like I am, often make a big deal about this, as it is so unusual, but I think the point that Caudwell is trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter to the story, so why include it?  And, she has a point. 

Ok, remember what I said a few posts ago about not like Literature ?  Well, I do like feeling smart about literature, I just don’t care, particularly, for reading it in my spare time.  The beautiful thing about Hilary, Cantrip, Selena, Timothy, Ragwort, and Julia is that they feel like an exclusive, academic club to which you, the reader, are also invited– meanwhile, you’re reading a mystery book.  I admit, I had to go back to my old copy of “The Odyssey” for a few of the more obscure references, but that’s what makes this worth the read– that plot elements of classical Greek literature play an essential part in the plot of the story.  Speaking of plotting– Caudwell’s plot construction is so tight, you don’t even realize what she’s done until the very end when every piece falls neatly into place.  If you don’t know your “Odyssey,” though, don’t worry.  The relevant passages are made clear enough without background reading.  Also, Caudwell thankfully DOES include a family tree at the front of the novel to help the poor reader keep track of the various members of the Jocasta clan.

Now, onto the dialogue, which is my favorite thing about this book & this entire series.  Each character speaks with a lovely, high-lettered way.  Other reviews have called their tone “ironic,” but I feel it is more Wodehousian– calling it irony takes away from the beautiful playfulness of the novel.  The interplay of each character’s speaking style, along with the “come on, gang!” element makes it feel like a more serious version of one of his best novels.  I actually read most of the dialogue aloud, just because it was fun to say. Cantrip’s speeches, in particular, stand out.  It’s a pity that Caudwell only wrote the 4 books in this series, a bit of short story, and one play.  We won’t get any more, either, because she died 9 years ago.  (I know, she was busy being a tax barrister and all, but it’s a shame).  For example, Hilary doesn’t want to grade final exam essays (I know the feeling).  She explains this as follows: “The suggestion had been made by some of my colleagues that I should participate in the marking of the summer examinations which in Oxford we refer to as Schools.  Much as I was honored by the proposal, I had felt obliged to decline: who am I to sit in judgement on the young?  Moreover, the marking of examination scripts is among the most tedious of occupations.  I had accordingly explained that the demands of Scholarship– that is to say, of my researches into the concept of causa in the early Common Law– precluded any other commitment of my time and energies.”  Now, don’t you wish you would write that way when turning down an assignment at work?

Overall: Anglophiles– you’ll love this series.  Nicely, too, you don’t have to read them in order. 

For more see below:

http://www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=4521

repost: review of 84, Charing Cross Road

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Title: 84, Charing Cross Road

Author: Helene Hanff

Series: She wrote a follow-up book called “The Duchess of Boomsbury Street.”

Pub: 1970

Randomly interesting thing: Helene Hanff wrote many scripts for “Ellery Queen” on television.

Summary: The book contains Helene’s correspondance with the booksellers of Marks & Co (especially Frank Doel) between 1949 and 1969. 

Oh, but it’s so much more than that, isn’t it?!  I’m not going to do a sensible review here because I just can’t.  Instead, I’m simply going to tell you how much I love this book.  My only complaint is that there are letters left out, and I want more!  I reread it once a year or so, and I really wish I could own a copy of this book as beautifully-bound as some of the tomes she describes.  Instead, I make do with a rubbish-looking Book Club edition from the library– but the words it holds, oh my. 

84, Charing Cross Road contains so many of my passions: really beautifully bound books, good literature, well-written letters (a dead art, really), and England.  As Helene and Frank become friends, their letters become more about their lives and their families, which gives us a lovely glimpse back in time.  I don’t know about you, but 1949 might as well be a different world for me.  When Helene first begins writing, looking to buy a few out-of-print books, England is still under severe rationing (can you imagine?), and the dollar to the pound exchange rate must have been something truly spectacular– at one point, she is offered a 100-year-0ld first edition for $6!  Frank’s England is also one of tiny, dusty bookshops with tall shelves and twisting ladders where beautiful, classical books wait to be discovered .  How gorgeous!

the Marks & Co shop at 84, Charing Cross Road-- sadly, they have long been out of business.  the Marks & Co shop at 84, Charing Cross Road– sadly, they have long been out of business.

 

Yes, there is a movie.  No, it’s not as good (despite having Judi Dench, Anne Bancroft, and Anthony Hopkins in it); how could it be?  The whole point of the book is their letters, which can’t be replicated in film-form.  There were also, according to wiki, radio plays.  These I have not heard.

Here, for just a taste, is one of my favorite letters from Helene to Frank:

sunday night and a hell of a way to start 1960

i don’t know, frankie–

Somebody gave me this book for Christmas.  It’s a Giant Modern Library book.  Did you ever see one of those?  It’s less attractively bound than the Proceedings of the New York State Assembly and it weighs more.  It was given to me by a gent who knows I’m fond of John Donne.  The title of this book is:

The Complete Poetry

&

Selected Prose

of

JOHN DONNE

&

The Complete Poetry

of

WILLIAM BLAKE?

The question mark is mine.  Will you please tell me what those two boys have in common?– except that they were both English and they both Wrote?  I tried reading the Introduction figuring that might explain it.  The Introduction is in four parts.  Parts I and II include a Professor’s life of Donne mit-illustrations-from-the-author’s-works-also-criticism.  Part III begins– and God knows I quote–:

     When as a little boy, William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a tree amid a summer field, he was soundly trounced by his mother.

I’m with his mother.  I mean, the back of the Lord God or the face of the Virgin Mary, all right– but why the hell would anybody want to see the prophet Ezekiel?

I don’t like Blake anyway, he swoons too much, it’s Donne I’m writing about, I’m being driven clear up the wall, Frankie, you have GOT to help me.

Here I was, curled up in my armchair so at peace with the world, with something old and serene on the radio– Corelli or somebody– and this thing on the table.  This Giant Modern Library thing.  So I thought:

     “I will read the three standard passages from Sermon XV aloud,”  You have to read Donne aloud, it’s like a Bach fugue. 

Would you like to know what I went through in an innocent attempt to read three contiguous uncut passages from Sermon XV aloud?

You start with the Giant Modern Library version, you locate Sermon XV and there they are: Excerpts I, II, and III,– only when you get to the end of Excerpt I you discover they have deleted Jezebel off it.  So you get down Donne’s Sermons, Selected Passages (Logan Pearsall Smith) where you spend twenty minutes locating Sermons XV, Excerpt I, because by Logan Pearsall Smith it isn’t Sermon XV, Excerpt I, it’s Passage 126. All Must Die.  Now that you’ve found it, you find he also deleted Jezebel so you get down the Complete Poetry & Selected Prose (Nonesuch Press) but they didn’t happen to select Jezebel either, so you get down the Oxford Book of English Prose where you spend another twenty minutes locating it because in the Oxford English Prose it isn’t Sermon XV, Excerpt I nor yet 126. All Must Die, it’s Passage 113. Death the Leveller.  Jezebel is there, and you read it aloud but when you get to the end you find it doesn’t have either Excerpt II or III so you have to switch to one of the other three books provided you had the wit to leave all three open at the right pages which I didn’t.

So, break it to me gently: how hard is it going to be to find me John Donne’s Complete Sermons and how much is it going to cost?

i am going to bed.  i will have hideous nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labelled Excerpt, Selection, Passage and Abridged,

      yrs,

h.ffffffffffffff

Do you see why this is a brilliant book and why you need to own it immediately?  Go.  Go straight to your independent bookstore (or B & N if you must) and buy it now.  You may thank me later.  After you have read it, come back and tell me your favorite bits.

p.s.  and have a box of tissues ready for the end, all right?

books I read because of a book blog

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Here we go with another post topic from Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW).

Unfortunately, my pile of unfinished grading is mocking me from the corner, so this one will be a quick pic answer.

What books have I read because I discovered them on a book blog?  Who introduced me to them?

 Courtesy of Matthew Stukus at http://todayiwassoawesome.wordpress.com I was introduced to the amazingness that is Terry Prachett.

I was a Pratchett virgin, but now Im hooked!

I was a Pratchett virgin, but now I'm hooked!

 
“Ulysses” by James Joyce– yes, THAT “Ulysses.”  I was drawn into the idea just in time for Bloomsday by Wandering Rox http://wanderingrox.wordpress.com/
Now I’ve covered two sections for the collective, and we’re making slow but steady progress through one of the most infamous novels in English.
We aint afraid of no seminal Modernist text! We ain’t afraid of no seminal Modernist text!

Well, that’s it for the moment, but I’m sure there will be more in the future (especially now that I’ve discovered some great new book blogs through BBAW.)