Saturday, April 30, 2011


So I tried to be invisible. It's surprisingly possible. -Angela Chase, My So-Called Life

Been out sick for the past few days and couldn't even enjoy the luxury of reading. Then house guests descended, and not being a particular fan of them, I've taken to lurking in corners and empty rooms. I hope I'll be back to regular programming soon.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters)

I like scaring myself through film and literature. So when my friend lent me a stack of books which included Sarah Waters' Gothic The Little Stranger but reminded me to save it for last, I didn't listen at all. Its eerie mood beckoned to me more than the other books and I went with it willingly.

The Little Stranger is told through the eyes of Dr. Faraday, a country doctor who finds himself called to Hundreds Hall to treat a young servant. Dr. Faraday has been to Hundreds Hall before as a young boy treated to a rare meal at the sprawling estate while his mother helped serve food, and the state of ruin that the ancestral home is in astounds him. There he meets the once-wealthy Ayres -- the aging mother who still clings to the ways of her class and her children, level-headed spinster Caroline and young war-ravaged Roderick. Dr. Faraday is drawn back to Hundreds Hall and the Ayres and soon he realizes that the estate's secrets and mysteries have only begun to stir.

Ms Waters sets the tone for The Little Stranger in such a confident and polished manner that post-World War II Britain becomes the perfect backdrop for the struggles of a slowly declining genteel family. There seems an overall greyness just haunting each scene that seeps through the pages. The Ayres are not an easy family to relate to, but there is something in their fragile state and their complex relationships towards each other that moved me. But let's not forget that this book is a thriller. Ms Waters uses seemingly mundane things (like scratches and stains on the wall) and creates chilling circumstances that can send shivers down the spine of any imaginative reader.

I can go on and on about the strengths of this book but I will have to stop myself in case I reveal too much. At its heart, The Little Stranger is a mystery in the vein of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, and it knows how to withhold its secrets until the final pages.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Classics for Pleasure (Michael Dirda)

I was very pleased when I found that my cousin left behind his copy of Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure. Mr Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Washington Post, and for a while now, I've had my eye on his collection of essays on book recommendations.

I'll be brief: If you're looking for a list that contains Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Dickens, then you should look elsewhere. Instead, Mr Dirda makes such an engaging and eloquent case for slightly-less-canon-but-nonetheless-essential-literary-reads that I am sorely tempted to go out and search for the works that I have not encountered yet (and there are a lot). Personally, I've been inspired to look for the epic Shanameh the Icelandic family sagas mentioned here. Mr Dirda's recommendations are arranged according to genre, from humor to epics to adventure, which makes reading the book quite smooth and seamless. For example: his category "The Way We Live Now" mentions a range that includes Petronius, Anton Chekov, José Maria Eça de Queiros and Zora Neale Hurston while his "Encyclopedic Visions" tackle Ovid, Ezra Pound, and Philip K Dick, among others. One moment you can be reading up on Georgette Heyer's Regency romances and then spend the next exploring HP Lovecraft's legacy to weird fiction. Mr Dirda's concise manner affords the reader a brief summary of what to expect from the featured authors, as well as occasional excerpts and the merits and the contributions of the work to the genre as a whole.

If there is anything that you will certainly take away from this, then it is the exciting compulsion to read every author and work that Mr Dirda recommends. Here is a massive TBR list for any reader. In the end, the pleasure is all ours.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Sevenwaters Series (Juliet Marillier)

After reading Juliet Marillier's Heir to Sevenwaters last January, I didn't know how obsessed I would be over the rest of the series. Thanks to a friend who shared with me the other four books, I spent the last few days just reading in my room. The series is such a lovely marriage of fantasy and romance that it really refused to let me go. Given that, I thought it would be better to share my thoughts on them in just one post instead of separately.

One great thing about reading Ms Marillier's Sevenwaters books is how each one features a different heroine so if you come across one, you shouldn't hesitate about starting with it. Though I started with Clodagh in Heir, I wasn't spoiled too much when I read Daughter of the Forest, the first of the series. It is a retelling of The Six Swans, set in what would seem to be ancient Ireland. It takes a familiar tale and infuses it with courage, heartbreak, and a host of memorable characters, and fans of romantic fantasy will be swept away by the epic movement of this tale. Sorcha's love for her brothers (and theirs for her) was the fulcrum of this story and as much as I enjoyed the unfolding romance that began towards the middle of the novel, I found myself constantly wondering about her brothers. I've read retellings of this story before, but I don't think I ever really contemplated how changed a man can be after going through that experience. Ms Marillier's treatment of this process really gave me pause, and even reduced me to tears a few times.

Another series favorite is Son of the Shadows, and mostly because I think its protagonist Liadan is arguably the strongest of Ms Marillier's heroines. Liadan led me down unexpected roads -- I wasn't really sure where the story was going at times but don't take that the wrong way. Liadan, a second daughter, finds her place in the world through her steadfastness, her generosity, and her political acumen, and follows a path 'outside of the pattern'. Friend and fellow book blogger Chachic once told me she enjoyed the first two books and I definitely agree. I love how Ms Marillier ensures that her characters are strong, capable women even if they don't vanquish evildoers with flaming swords. Even Fainne from Child of the Prophecy had her strengths, although I must admit that out of all the five books, this was the one I enjoyed least.

The last two books revolve around two of Liadan's nieces, Clodagh in Heir to Sevenwaters and Sibeal in Seer of Sevenwaters. Even from a young age, Sibeal has known that she is being called to be a druid. But during the summer before she has to make her vows, her mentor sends her to the warrior community of Inis Eala where she meets the shipwrecked Felix and a dangerous mission threatens to take her away from her quiet life. I am glad that I ended with Seer instead of Child because I enjoyed Sibeal and her adventures far better than I did Fainne's journey. In its own way, each Sevenwaters story has spurred me to look for more. Unfortunately, I seem to have come to the end. Still, I harbor the faintest of hopes that Ms Marillier will continue to write about Sevenwaters. As a new convert, I feel that there is so much more to explore.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag (Alan Bradley)

Flavia de Luce is now one of my favorite detectives: witty, unflappable, a force of nature. We met last year through Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and since then I've been eager to be part of her new adventures. Good thing it wasn't such a long wait until The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag. In this mystery, Flavia (always at the right place at the right time) meets famous puppeteer Rupert Porson, of the BBC's children show The Magic Kingdom, and his lover and assistant Nialla. Stranded temporarily at Bishop's Lacey, Porson and Nialla are entreated by the vicar to put on a show at the parish hall with Flavia as their helper. But tragedy befalls and it takes all of Flavia's abilities -- from her genius at chemistry to her amazing skills at snooping and deduction -- to get to the bottom of this murder.

One of my favorite things about reading Mr Bradley's books is how each one manages to take me to the fifties through the eyes of a small community like Bishop's Lacey by using accessible language. Flavia lives with her rather unique family in an old, sprawling mansion called Buckshaw, and while that would seem like a rather sheltered upbringing, it is Flavia's tendency to poke her nose in other people's business that allows other people's fears, troubles, and insecurities to come to the surface. Mr Bradley does a fine job of capturing this slice of life element and situate it clearly in post-war England. A highlight in The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag is the beginnings of television and how even in its early years it captures an era on the precipice of change.

But no matter how skilled a mystery writer is in capturing the times, he will ineluctably be judged by his ability to write a convincing whodunit. In that aspect, Mr Bradley and Flavia pass with flying colors. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag employs a lot of skillful misdirection but is able to conclude things in a clean and concise manner. The presence of Rupert Porson at Bishop's Lacey may seem random, but as in many well-written mysteries, there is more here than meets the eye. Flavia once again calls on her chemical expertise to solve this new murder but in the end it is her powers of deduction and observation that save the day. There are lovely character sketches here and there that continue to draw me into Flavia's world (not just the thrilling adventure she has each time a mystery comes in) and again, I'll be anticipating her next escapade.

NOTE: This review is done in response to the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Mary, Myra, and Fats at Gathering Books. This is actually the review that qualifies me to be a Level 3 Mythic Crime Buster with a total of six mysteries read. Challenge technically over, but I think I'll keep on until I've done eight books.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Sleight of Hand (Peter S. Beagle)

'It's in the telling, always. It's in the old, old telling,' so declares the author in "Oakland Dragon Blues," one of the stories in Peter S. Beagle's newest collection, Sleight of Hand. Mr Beagle is a master storyteller as evidenced by this gathering of thirteen tales of the fantastic, showcasing a wide range of settings and characters (from centaurs lost in New York to a cop helping a bitterly lost dragon to a very familiar magician before he meets a very familiar unicorn). The range alone already shows Mr Beagle's mastery of his genre, but the way he lets each tale unfold convinces me that he loses none of his genius no matter what he decides to tackle.

My favorites from this collection are "Dirae," Latin for the Furies, a visceral and heartbreaking look at modern monsters; "The Rabbi's Hobby," where a teenage boy and his rabbi work on an obscure mystery on top of studying Jewish law; and the titular "Sleight of Hand," where a bereaved wife and mother enters a bargain to keep Death at bay. Mr Beagle has always been one of those rare writers who can write contemporary fantasy as well as he tackles secondary worlds but this time he brought me to unexpected places. Take "Dirae." According to Mr Beagle, "In structure, language, and specific content, this may be the strangest story I've ever written(p209)." It is certainly darker than his usual tales, and the way he utilizes the tone and voice serves to mold a very unforgettable character born out of that darkness. One of the other stories I enjoyed was "Sleight of Hand." It is emotion-laden but never overwrought or sappy, in spite of how easy it is to let the story ooze with grief. There is real magic in these tales, in this telling, not mere trickery.

Looking back, I realize that I was drawn to the more contemporary tales in this collection, but that doesn't mean that the ones containing more traditional elements of high fantasy are any less effective. Fans of The Last Unicorn will be delighted to see a Schmendrick tale close the book, ending it on a poignantly familiar note. But there are no unicorns here, and the truth is, I don't mind at all. I have grown up loving Mr Beagle's work and with Sleight of Hand, I realize that I may have matured also in how I've come to appreciate his talent.