2017 Reading Challenge: A Book Set Somewhere You’ve Never Been But Would Like to Visit

As I work my way through the Year of Fun Reading I am finding it a bit tricky to keep my focus on finding a book that meets the category for the month as well as keeping to my own standard of that book being one in the speculative fiction genre.

This month, in which I was to read a book set somewhere you’ve never been but would like to visit, was particularly challenging. I mean, I suppose there are lots of fantasy worlds I would love to visit–Narnia, Middle Earth, or The Land (Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) spring to mind– but I wanted to keep the spirit of the challenge, which meant finding a speculative fiction novel set on Earth.

So. I browsed through some of the suggested titles, and, eureka, found one I thought would fit.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, Book 1), by Liani Taylor, is  an urban fantasy, set in modern-day Prague. So, seeing as anywhere in Europe is on my bucket list of places to visit, I figured this one might just work. And I love urban fantasy, so, bonus.

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Cool cover!

Karou is seventeen and attends school at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia, a private school for students of the arts. She has blue hair and interesting tattoos, and a secret: she has been raised by  half-human creatures called chimaera, the chief of which is a demonic looking being named Brimstone.

Brimstone is the Wishmonger, who barters teeth for wishes. He is her adopted father, who has raised Karou since she was a baby. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, and she longs to discover who she is and how she is connected to the chimaera.

Brimstone’s workshop is in another place, separate from Earth, which she accesses by going through a door that is opened to her from the inside, by the Gatekeeper, Issa, who is half-snake. These portals are all around the world, and Karou uses them when Brimstone sends her on errands to collect teeth from various traders and dealers.

Karou isn’t exactly sure what the connection is between the teeth and the magical crafting of wishes, which Brimstone makes into beads of various size, shape and power, but her questions are left unanswered, as do the ones about her own origins.

An encounter with the seraph Akiva in the streets of Morocco starts a chain of events that leads Karou to the answers she seeks, even though they are not necessarily the answers she wants to hear…

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I am always amazed at fan art. This picture of Karou and Brimstone was done by the talented Natalie Braconnot, on Tumblr.

Taylor is a New York Times bestselling author, with many books to her credit. This book (published 2011) is the first of a trilogy, all of which are available now. Her new book, Strange the Dreamer, which begins a new series, has just been released.

I will admit to feeling a bit conflicted about Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Taylor writes well, and the plot had enough twists and turns to keep me reading.

However….although I can see that this book would be very popular with a certain audience, I can’t say I loved it. Here’s why:

  1. It’s Young Adult. I didn’t realize that this was a young adult book until I started reading it. I know that young adult is one of the most popular type of books out there, especially when it comes to speculative fiction, but they are just not my cup of tea. I find the plots often revolve too much around teenage angst, which, while great for teenagers, is not too interesting to me. Too often the plots and character development can be a bit simplistic, as well. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a little better than some in the plot department, but I did find the characterizations a bit ho-hum at times. I also have a problem with the romance that is usually part and parcel of this genre, and is in the forefront here. In this book, Karou is seventeen and as the book opens she is recovering from a relationship gone bad. And although I know that there are many teens out there who are involved in sexual relationships I can’t help the jarring feeling I get when I read about these when they are presented like it’s no big deal. Call me a prude, whatever.  Karou gets involved with another partner, and things get quite steamy indeed. And all the while the voice in my head is saying, “She’s only seventeen!” There are certainly a lot of “paranormal romance” books out there featuring adult characters, and while I don’t particularly like those either, when they are aimed at teenagers I find it icky.
  2. Tropes. I, for one, am heartily sick of the warrior chick with the vulnerable heart trope. Although Karou has an interesting back story and is well fleshed-out, basically her character embodies this trope. I find myself getting bored by it, to tell you the truth.
  3. The world building. So, as I mentioned above, one of the main characters is the seraph, Akiva. Seraph is short for seraphim, and yes, he is supposed to be an angel. But not an angel in the Christian tradition, of course. For, as Karou is confronted with Akiva the first time, she recalls what Brimstone has taught her:

She’d heard the word before; seraphim were some high order of angels, at least according to the Christian mythos, for which Brimstone had utter contempt, as he did for all religion. “Humans have gotten glimpses of things over time,” he’d said. “Just enough to make the rest up. It’s all a quilt of fairy tales with a patch here and there of truth.” 

Ok, fine. Let’s dismiss all of religion, except use bits and pieces of it where convenient for the plot. And it is very convenient to have an utterly beautiful otherworldly being with wings and supernatural power for Karou to fall in love with.

I realize for the average reader, this dismissal of religion in general and Christianity in particular would not be a problem, but it irritates me.  Especially when it has to be dismissed to make a major part of the story work, as in this case. And doubly especially when the author dismissed all of the world’s religions as “myths” and then runs smack into the problem that her characters actually need some kind of religion or mythos of their own to make the story work. So, when Akiva and Karou discuss how Brimstone makes his wish-beads, Akiva says, in answering Karou’s question of why pain and not joy is necessary in the crafting of wish-magic, Akiva says,

“That’s a good point. But I didn’t create the system.” 

“Who did?”

“My people believe it was the godstars. The chimaera have as many stories as races.” 

Ok, so every Earth religion is a quilt of fairy tales, but the seraphim and the chimaera have their own stories and myths, which are….what? Fairy tales too? Or are they the truth behind the stories?  And if so, why?

This highlights the problem of the philosophy that says every religion is just as good as another. If it brings you comfort, go for it, in other words. Any religion will do. But if it brings you comfort and isn’t ultimately TRUE then what is the point?

This is a minor part of the plot and to be fair, Taylor builds just enough of the world of the seraphim and chimaera to make it work for the book’s purposes, which is to serve as a backdrop to the story of Karou and Akiva.

I guess what I’m saying is that sexy angels just don’t work for me.

I give this one two stars/five, with the caveat that I know a lot of people would probably like this more than I did. If you like young adult fantasy featuring Romeo-and-Juliet-type love angst, and it doesn’t bother you that a handsome, poster-boy angel is the love interest, you will probably like this book.

Next month: A book I’ve already read. Oh, so many to choose from! Tune in on the last Friday in the month of May to see my pick. 


 Other posts in this series: 

January: Book I Read Because of the Cover

February: Book I Was Excited to Buy or Borrow But Haven’t Read Yet

March: An Unputdownable Book

2017 Reading Challenge: The Unputdownable Book

I am working my way through my 2017 Reading Challenge , albeit slightly chaotically, and this month I decided to read a book that is said to be unputdownable.

I am trying, as much as I can, to choose books that are generally speculative fiction for the challenge. I do read any genre, pretty much, but my aim is to keep this blog focussed on Dark Ages history (relates to my work-in-progress historical fantasy book), a little bit about my own personal writing journey, some short stories, and book reviews or author interviews. I don’t want to widen the scope of the blog too far, if I can help it.

Over at the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog she has some suggestions for the books on the list, and this science fiction thriller was one of them. Perfect!

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This is NOT a book I would pick up because of the cover (see my first post in this Reading Challenge) but once you read the book the cover makes sense, stylistically.

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, was published in 2016, and is about a college physics professor, Jason Dessen, who is abducted and knocked unconscious. When he wakes, he finds himself in a place that is similar to, but significantly different from, the world he knows.

He quickly realizes that the people who greet him enthusiastically think that he is a scientist who has invented a machine that would allow him to explore other, parallel Earths, and they think he is the first person to come back to them after making such a journey. In this new world, the happy family life he has come from has evaporated. Here, he is unmarried; a driven, brilliant researcher who has is doing ground-breaking work in physics.

But that is not his life….or is it? Is the world he thought he knew not his life, and this one the true one? Who was the person who abducted him, and why? And how can he get back to the one life he wants above all others?

Oh, yes, this was unputdownable – which means that I would give myself a half hour longer here and there to keep going, because I had to find out what was going on. That’s as close to binge-reading as I can get these days. But it was a great deal of fun. It’s been awhile since I got quite so caught up in compulsive page-turning.

The physics behind the invention are a little over my head, to be honest, but Crouch does a good job of giving you just enough information to help you grasp the concept, but not so much you get lost in the weeds. For books like these, I want just enough tech-talk to know that such a thing might be possible in theory, and then I don’t worry about the hows. I do have a lot of admiration for authors who write science fiction, though, especially this type of “real world” science fiction. They have to know how it works to make it believable. I think Crouch succeeded in that task in this book.

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“…physics ARE coming…”? Hmm…Nope. Awkward.

The great thing about this book is that it is not just a science fiction thriller. There is some  thought-provoking philosophy in the story as well. Just before he gets knocked out, his abductor asks Jason, “Are you happy with your life?” This  question is the foundation of the book in many ways, and it is one that we ponder about our own lives as we see Jason’s attempts to get back to the life he wants.

The book also forces you to look at the consequences of the choices we make every day: to date that person or not, to take that job or not, to give up that opportunity for career advancement at the cost of your family life, or not. In the book Jason gets to visit several different versions of himself and the life he could have had, and it makes us wonder about what those “other” lives would be like in our case, as well.

Technically speaking, from a writing point of view, for the most part I had no issues with Crouch’s writing. He certainly knows how to keep you turning the pages! The only thing that began to wear on me after awhile was use of lots of short, choppy sentences.

For example, here’s a scene from the beginning of the book, just after Jason wakes up after being abducted and is getting debriefed about his experience.

“Let’s try a different approach,” Amanda says. “What’s the last thing you remember before waking up in the hangar?” 

“I was at a bar.” 

“What were you doing there?” 

“Seeing an old friend.”

“And where was this bar?” she asks. 

“Logan Square.” 

“Okay, can you describe…?”

Her voice drops off into silence. 

I see the El. 

It’s dark.

Too quiet.

Too quiet for Chicago.

Someone is coming. 

Someone who wants to hurt me.

My heart begins to race. 

My hands sweat.

I set the glass down on the table.

“Jason, Leighton is telling me your vitals are becoming elevated.” 

Her voice is back but still an ocean away.

Is this a trick? 

Am I being messed with?

The whole book is not like this, but there is quite a lot of it, and I did find it a bit tiresome in places. But this type of short sentence structure is one trick an author can use to keep a reader barreling through a story, and is particularly effective in this kind of thriller.

A well-crafted story, with high page-turnability, and which leaves you something to think about once you have finished. I give Dark Matter five stars.


Previous posts in this series: 

A Book I Read Because I Liked the Cover

A Book I’ve Been Dying to Read

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Reading Challenge: Cover Crush!

Here I am at the first book of my (fun) 2017 Reading Challenge, which I got from the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. I don’t suppose that the books have to be read in any certain order, but because I only had about a week and a half to read the first book of the year if I wanted to get one read in January, I didn’t have a lot of time to fuss around.

So I figured the easiest one to pick would be the first one on the list: a book I read because I liked the cover.

Now,  caveats abound on this one. First of all, I live in a small town, and I don’t have a book store to visit. And although there are a small selection of books in a few stores around town it seemed to me easiest to go to the library and pick a book from there. However, I quickly realized this was not such a great idea. I don’t know about your library, but mine is fairly small, and most of the books are lined up on the shelves, with a few scattered here and there on the tops of the bookcases or in special displays. And who’s got time to go through all the books on the shelves to look at their covers and find one I like? Not me! Although I did briefly flirt with the idea of picking the spine I liked the most….but that’s not really fair. Not a lot of books have much happening on the spine, although I will admit to being intrigued by a couple. So I limited myself to picking a book from the ones displayed in the library.

Secondly, even with the limited selection available, I got bogged down. I would find a cover I liked, but the description didn’t intrigue me. I realize that perhaps to stick with the letter of the law on this one I could have picked one of those, but with the short time I had to get it read, I just couldn’t pick a book I would have to force myself to read. So, it had to be a book with a cover I liked and that I thought I would enjoy.

Even so, this was a fun exercise. Without further ado, here is my choice for the book I read because I liked the cover:

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This one was sitting with a few others on top of the bookcase set aside for sci-fi/fantasy, and it attracted me right away. Ok, first of all because it was on top of the fantasy section, but the black and white picture with the hints of green drew the eye. The cityscape with the tunnel (?) underneath hinted at some subterranean goings-on, and I like stories about other worlds or civilizations under our own, found in the forgotten tunnels of subway systems or abandoned cellars or whatever.

The clincher for me was the man in the overcoat with a gun in one hand and what looked like a wand or stick in the other – probably a wand, due to the intriguing symbols spurting out from it.

Man in overcoat, city scape, a possible magic wand…oh, this was ringing all my Harry Dresden bells, and I love me some Harry Dresden! And when I picked up the book to look at it more closely, I saw to my delight I was right. You can see the byline on the top: “A potent mix of gangsters and magic…” (unfortunately the rest is cut off, but that’s enough to hook me).

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This is my favourite Dresden cover. Also mainly black and white. There seems to be a pattern here…

The description on the back begins:

Mick Oberon may look like just another 1930s private detective, but beneath the fedora and the overcoat, he’s got pointy ears and he’s packing a wand. Among the last in a line of aristocratic Fae, Mick turned his back on his kind and their Court a long time ago….

Oh, I was definitely in now. The Dresden similarities are many, of course, but I liked the 1930s twist and I especially liked the fact that this private eye is an exiled Fae, not a wizard. You might say I have a thing for stories featuring the Fae hiding among humanity, it’s the premise of my own novel.

Besides historical fantasy, urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres, so I took this home happy to delve into it and see if I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would.

And in a word, yes!

Oberon is a PI in 1930s Chicago, and he is given the case by a mobster’s wife to find her daughter, her real daughter, that is, because it is quickly becoming evident that the girl she thought was her daughter is actually a changeling – some kind of Otherworldly creature swapped for her real daughter at birth. The changeling is 16 now and starting to, well, change, and Mrs. Ottati wants her real girl back.

So really, it’s a historicial urban fantasy. I really couldn’t go wrong, could I?

Just like in the Dresden books, in this book most humans don’t know that they are occupying Earth with various supernatural creatures, but there are some who do, including the Ottati family, whose matriarch is a foreboding witch who, as it turns out, has her own reasons for aiding Oberon in his task.

The story is a great deal of fun, as we follow Oberon through the underbelly of 1930s Chicago, mobsters and all. The case is tricky, and he ends up having to go to the Otherworld to get some help and in the process ends up owing a favour to the Unseelies, which you know will come back to haunt him someday.

The book is firmly set in 1930s Chicago, referencing real-life figures such as Al Capone. Mick uses a lot of slang from that time period, which can be a bit confusing, but I didn’t mind it, as it helped to ground the story in that time period.

Through the first part of the book I thought that I was actually reading the second book of the series, as there was obviously a lot of backstory that Oberon hints at but isn’t explained. This was driving me slightly crazy as I really, really hate not starting at the beginning of a series (or a TV show, or whatever. Ask my hubby how many times I have forced him to rewind to watch the first minute of a movie that really didn’t matter anyway, but hey. It’s how I roll.).

It got to me enough that I had to stop part way through and find out how many more books came before this one, and lo and behold this is the first of the series. The Dresden books are like this a bit, too, there’s a lot going on before the first book that is eventually filled out in subsequent novels.

And speaking of Dresden comparisons, which you can’t really help, the one thing that I didn’t like much about this character and the magic system was his wand. It makes sense that Dresden has a wand (well, ok, a staff) because he is a wizard. But Oberon is Fae. Why does he need a physical object to do his “magic” – which mainly consisted of stripping or enhancing people’s (or his own) luck in order to make events move more or less smoothly (someone might trip when they are running after him, for example)?

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This is another cover for the book, from GraphicAudio. I don’t like this one nearly as much. You can see the pointy ears under his hat, but the coat’s belt makes it look like he has a tail. The tag line “A Mick Oberon Job” is bigger than the title. The whole thing is a bit messy, in my opinion.

I like the way the Marmell toyed with the Fae mythology and included glamour, and the twisting of luck, and their connection to the nature as part of the magic system. I think he could have gone further with this, though, to make it more Fae-like and less wizard-y.

There’s a references to vampires and a policeman friend of Oberon’s seems to be a werewolf (but this is just hinted at), but other magical creatures,  except for those familiar to English folktales such as kelpies, pixies, leprachauns and the like, do not appear in this story. So I’m not really sure why they are even mentioned, although I suppose they might come in handy for future books.

One other small negative – the language is a little rough at times. Quite a lot of f-bombs, especially from one of the mobster characters. It jarred me a bit. Aside from the profanity, was that word used commonly as a swear word back then? I suspect that it possibly wasn’t, but I’m not certain on that, so I’ll hold off judgement on the historicity of it.

I give this book three stars (out of four). I don’t mind that it’s a Dresden wanna-be, but in my opinion the author could have branched out a little further from the Dresden template and done a little more with his world to make it (and his hard-boiled wise-cracking main character) stand out a bit more from Dresden’s Chicago other than move it back to the 30s as opposed to Dresden’s present-day setting.

There’s three books in the series so far. I liked this one enough to pick up the next one to see how it unfolds. A fun historical urban fantasy read, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

 

Book Bingo: Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers

Quite awhile back I announced I would try to do a Book Bingo this year. I have failed miserably at it so far. And seeing as there are only four months left in the year, I’m under the gun, so to speak (or is that, under the B?).

Just as a quick reminder, I have set myself the challenge of filling in the middle row of the following Bingo card:

 

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It’s not like I haven’t done anything. I have read a short story collection by Canadian Tom Simon.  I will put up my review of that book sometime in the next month or so. Then I got distracted and well, forgot.

But I recently got renewed in my search for books to fill my card, because I read an absolutely spectacular book about by a Canadian author, and I realized it would fit as part of my Book Bingo! The book is Westlake Soul, by Rio Youers, and it was published by ChiZine Publishing in 2012. So, I now have two books that will fit on this card.And they are in the same line, under the “G”.  I’m on a roll!

It’s funny how some books come into your life. Most of the books I have read have been books I have chosen. Some of the rest are gifts, some are recommendations by friends, some are books read for my Book Club. But a few arrive in your life by magical means, maybe as a BookCrossing book, a book left behind on a bus, or won in a door prize.

This is one of these magical books. While I was the When Words Collide festival in Calgary last summer, I visited the book store, of course. I didn’t buy anything, I had too much to read on my plate already, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of adding one more book to that pile. But as I was going through the room I saw, off to the side, a bunch of books on a table with a sign, “Take one free for an honest review.” I glanced at them but kept on going. No time, and all that.

But I passed that table again and my conscience got the best of me. After all, soon (I hope) I will be entering the Published Authors Club and it will be me looking for reviews on my book on Amazon and other book sites. I am beginning to understand the importance of reviews and so I decided I should do my duty to my fellow authors and so I scanned the books on the table. There were a few books offered, but this one caught my eye. First of all, because it was small, and not too long (240 pages). And I liked the cover. And once I picked it up to read the back cover and reviews, I began to get more interested.

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So, I popped it in my bag and took it home. It sat beside my bed for a few months until last month, when I (sigh) picked it up to read it in order to get it over with and stop my conscience from bothering me.

Well. I devoured this book. Not exactly devoured, I suppose, this book is too thought-provoking and emotional to use that word, but wow. Every ringing review on this book’s cover is true, and then some. I hurried over to Amazon and gladly gave it five stars.

Westlake Soul is the name of the main character of the book, a young man who has been horribly injured in a surfing accident, and is now in a vegetative state. At least that is what it looks like from the outside. He is unresponsive and unable to react to the world at large. But inside his mind, he is absolutely all there, and in fact the accident has given him some “superpowers” in the form of a greatly increased intelligence and the ability to project himself out of his body to anywhere he likes, like a form of astral projection.

Oh, and he can talk with his dog, Hub, which makes this already-marvellous book even that much better. Just for fun, here is the link to the youtube trailer for the book. I don’t like the surfer-dude voice, Westlake is Canadian, after all, but still, you get a small feel for the book. The music definitely fits the melancholy nature of the book and Westlake’s cool vibe, though.

Like all superheroes, Westlake has an arch-nemesis, Dr. Quietus, the embodiment of Death. Westlake has beaten him into a corner for now, but he’s lurking in the background, ready to do his mischief. And soon Westlake realizes that something bad is coming, and he had better be prepared…

This book is a wonderful reflection on big themes of life, death, friendship, family and humanity. Pretty big subjects, but Youers handles them deftly with sparse but lyrical prose. The book is told from Westlake’s point of view which helps to really immerse us into his world.

I couldn’t’ help but wonder if Youers wasn’t inspired to write this book by the story of the “Ghost Boy” – the young Australian man who contracted a mysterious disorder which caused him to retreat into a vegetative state, but whose mind slowly returned, and due to his physical limitations could not communicate that to his family. There are similarities here to that heart-wrenching story, and the news of the “ghost boy” was being reported  in the couple of years before Westlake Soul was published.

But no matter how he got the idea, Youers has taken it and given us a beautiful book. It was nominated for a Sunburst Award in 2012 as one of Canada’s best speculative fiction books. I am amazed it didn’t win (if it did, it would have qualified for another square on my bingo card, heh). I’m really surprised I haven’t heard of this author, but like all Canadian authors, I’m sure he struggles to be heard over the  noise from our fellow writers to the south. The good news is he has a new book coming out in June 2017 with a major publisher (St. Thomas Press/Thomas Dunne Books) which I am looking forward to reading. It’s a supernatural thriller called The Forgotten Girl, and it looks really good! Hopefully he will start to get some recognition.

In the meantime, grab a copy of Westlake Soul and a box of kleenex (trust me, you will need it). As Hub would say, Dude, you have to read this book.

 

Year of Important Books: A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m not sure how I first stumbled across Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and began to eagerly devour the exploits of the famous private detective. Unlike the other books I have covered this year in my Year of Important Books series, this one was not a relic left behind from my older siblings’ childhood.

I must have got my first Sherlock Holmes tale from the library, whose hallowed spaces I visited once a week with my parents (the Edmonton downtown library) as well as numerous visits each week to our school library.

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I bought this just after I graduated University, so that I could have all the stories in one place. Now I have them all on my Kindle as well. No such thing as too much Sherlock here!

Needless to say, I quickly fell in love with these stories, and remain an avid consumer of all things Sherlock. I can’t tell you how many Sherlock books I have read – aside from the originals, I have read very many books based on the characters, some true to the characterizations as given to us by Conan Doyle and some way out in left field. I’ve read books about Sherlock as a child, and others about what happens after he retired. I’ve read books about Sherlock and Jack the Ripper, Sherlock AS Jack the Ripper, Sherlock and vampires, werewolves or other monsters, regular Sherlock stories set in the time and place the originals were set, Sherlock in America, modern-day takes on Sherlock…..etc etc etc.* A small hint as to my obsession with all things Sherlock is evidenced during the planning of the trip my husband and I took to Europe way back when. When  he asked me what was the one place I had to see on the Continent,  I answered, “Reichenbach Falls!”**

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One of the early illustrations by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, found in The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape to Holmes; these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

But it has been quite some time since I revisited the original stories, and so I was very happy indeed to open the first story, A Study in Scarlet, and begin to read again how Sherlock and Watson met and their first partnership in crime solving.

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One of the early illustration by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, from The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape to Holmes, these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

A Study in Scarlet was not Doyle’s first published work. A doctor by profession, he began writing stories as he waited for patients to arrive at his first independent practice which opened in Portsmouth in 1882. He struggled to find a publisher for his story at first, but eventually  A Study in Scarlet was published by Ward Lock and Co. and appeared in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1886. The sequel, The Sign of the Four, was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890 under an arrangement with Ward Lock and Co, but Doyle grew disenchanted with this publisher and the remaining Sherlock stories were published in The Strand Magazine, in serial form.  A Study in Scarlet was only one of four novels in the original Holmes canon, the other three being The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. The rest were short stories or novellas.

Doyle was a prolific author. Besides the Sherlock stories, of which he grew tired (he famously killed off his famous detective, only to have to resurrect him later because of public demand), he wrote many other short stories, other mystery novels,historical novels, and stage plays. He even collaborated with J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write the libretto of a comic opera called Jane Annie.

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Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914. Doyle was one of the best paid authors of his time. Aside from his literary fame, he is best known for his work to advance the cause of  spiritualism. Photo from Wikicommons.

But it is Sherlock who endures out of all of Doyle’s works. What is it about this character and these stories which fascinates so many people? I know there are reams of words written about this, and so I won’t go into too much depth here.

But I will tell you, generally, what the appeal is to me. First off, The Study in Scarlet begins with Watson, not Holmes, and I think this is a clue to one of the reason why these stories are so popular. This friendship between the two men is the heart of the stories, and it is ultimately what makes them work. This friendship is begun in this story, and it is a rudimentary one to begin with. Here Watson is more or less a foil to Holmes – a mirror in which to showcase Holmes’ intellect and skill. But Watson still has substance, even so. We learn of his back story, that he was wounded in the war, that he was a medical doctor, and that he enjoys a good mystery himself. After he is introduced to Holmes and they make arrangements to begin living together at 221B Baker Street, Watson and Stamford (the one who introduced the two) are walking back to Watson’s hotel, and are discussing Holmes and his “peculiarities”as Stamford calls them. In response to Watson’s question of how Holmes knew Watson had been in Afghanistan, Stamford replies,

“…A good many people have wanted to know how he finds things out.”

“Oh! A mystery is it?” I cried, rubbing my hands. “This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know.” 

Throughout the stories we see Watson observing Holmes, trying to figure out what makes him tick. Watson, of course, stands in for all of us, and half of the enjoyment of the stories is getting a chance to do this observing along with Watson.

A Study in Scarlet is, of course, a murder mystery. Which is another reason why I and so many others enjoy these stories. People love puzzles, and these stories are full of bizarre details that make the murders impossible to figure out until Holmes throws the light on what happened. For example, in this story you have a man dead in a deserted building by mysterious means, a look of horror frozen upon his face; the word “RACHE” written in blood upon the wall; and few clues as to how this could have happened. It’s a great deal of fun to puzzle along with Watson as Holmes exposes both the incompetent nature of the Scotland Yard police force and the eventual identity of the murderer.

The story is split into two parts, both seven chapters each. The first part is the initial meeting of Holmes and Watson, the discovery of the dead man, and the eventual unmasking of the murderer. The second contains five chapters of back story, and it is an abrupt break both in time and place, as it mainly takes place in America several decades before. This is  the “why” it happened, and it is inserted into the story without explanation, which makes it a bit odd until you realize what is going on. I remember reading this the first time and being very confused as to why all of a sudden the story jumped to the tale of the exodus of the Mormons to Utah and the man and girl they rescued along the way, but Doyle’s writing is compelling enough that you soon forget all about London and Holmes and get absorbed in the story. Eventually, of course, you realize that this is all a set-up to the murder, and then in the last two chapters the novel catches up to where Holmes and Watson have captured the murderer, and it finishes up from there.

I believe, if I remember correctly, that this is the only story in which Doyle handles this telling of the “why” of the crime this way. In subsequent stories either Holmes or some other character gives the details or they are discovered naturally along the course of the investigation – Doyle relies heavily on Watson’s asking questions of Holmes in order to do this. I think he probably discovered this was an easier way to give the readers these important details, and therefore did not have to use this type of awkward story break again.

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Do I love the new BBC version of Sherlock? YES. There are not enough words to describe how much I love this clever modern  take on the great detective. I especially love how the show takes the original stories and re-tells them, with all sorts of tiny details that fans of the stories would recognize. Acting and writing are superb in this series. 

Sherlock Holmes was not the first detective in literature, that honour goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin ( whose adventures began in  The Murders in the Rue Morgue), and Doyle himself acknowledged his debt to Poe’s character. But Doyle certainly struck a chord of unique genius when he created Holmes. Arrogant yet approachable, analytical yet passionate, intelligent yet flawed, Holmes himself is, of course, one of the main reasons why these stories are so popular. The great detective was modelled after someone Doyle knew, Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, whom Doyle worked under as a clerk. Bell was noted as a master at the observation of minute details which led to broad conclusions not immediately apparent to anyone else.

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The marvellous Hugh Laurie, the star of the TV series “House” .  The character of House was based on Holmes, and you will see many references to Holmes throughout the series, including his own “Watson” (Dr. James Wilson) and the fact that House lives at 221B Baker Street! I love that this show brought the character of Holmes full circle, back to his medical roots, so to speak. Photo by Chris HE, on flickr

 

Finally, the last great appeal to me of the Holmes stories is the setting. Victorian England, and in particular, London, with its gas-lit streets, pea-soup fog, opium dens, hansom cabs, squalor, and opulence, is a marvellous place to set crimes. Doyle’s details of London (as Watson describes it, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”) bring you right into this fascinating time and place. It is a wonderful marriage of character and setting.

I loved Sherlock as a child, and I love him still! It was so much fun to rub shoulders with him again, and it’s got me itching to read the other stories again.


 

*We discovered that to get to Reichenbach Falls, you had to go to the Swiss town of Interlaken, which is a lovely ski-resort town. There is a funicular that takes you up to the falls, which are spectacular. The best part was the spot marked on the trail leading up to the falls which marks the spot where Holmes and Moriarty fell to their deaths (…or did they…) in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Ok, it was the spot where Jeremy Brett filmed that scene in the great 1984-1994 BBC Holmes series, but still….

**I can’t give you an exhaustive list of all the Sherlock and related books I have read (I couldn’t even if I tried, there’s been too many), but I have to recommend two which I think are the best of the lot. First up is the series by Laurie King, the first book is called The Bee Keepers Apprentice. This book introduces the intrepid Mary Russell, a teenaged girl who meets Holmes in his retirement years and pairs up with him to solve crimes. Which makes it sound much more YA-ish than it really is. Great writing, great characterizations – King gives us Holmes as we know him in the Doyle stories but with the added wisdom of some years behind him. The best non-Doyle Sherlock books ever, in my opinion. Secondly I highly recommend Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes. This is the fictionalized telling of a real-life murder case in which Arthur Conan Doyle became involved, and it not only gives you a marvellous portrait of Doyle himself, it also portrays Doyle using the same methodology as Sherlock himself to solve a crime. Loved it!

Year of Important Books: Watership Down, by Richard Adams

This book, published in 1972, will forever be associated with the taste of malted chocolate Easter eggs in my mind. My parents had a tradition of giving us a small gift at Easter, often a book, and happily in Easter of 1975 I found Watership Down, by Richard Adams, propped up at the foot of my bed as I awoke on Easter morning. After searching through the house on the Easter egg hunt, I happily settled down with my new book and my favourite Easter treat – “robin’s eggs”, malted chocolate eggs covered with a hard candy shell, speckled to look like eggs.

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This book has seen a lot of love, as you can see. 

The other books I have read in my series thus far were classics long before I got to read them. With Watership Down I got in on the ground floor, so to speak, as this book has since become a literary classic, beloved by many. I’m not sure exactly why my mum picked this book for me, but I can guess at two reasons. One being that the cover featured a picture of a rabbit, which seemed to fit the Easter theme, I suppose.; and secondly, in order to forestall my never-ending quest to get a dog my parents had relented a few years previous and allowed me to keep the baby bunny the neighbours had given me. So naturally they would have assumed a tale about rabbits would appeal to me.

And they were right. As I ate my Easter candy and began to read this story of Hazel, Fiver, Pipkin, Bigwig, and the rest, I quickly got caught up in the tale and after that first reading went on to re-read it many, many more times.

Adams was born in 1920 in England, and yes, he is still alive! At the time of this writing in 2016 he is 96 years old. Watership Down was his first book. The genesis of this book, like so many of the others I have read this year, was in tales told to his daughters, who then begged him to write them down. But this beloved book did not have an easy time of it. Four publishers and three writing agencies turned down the book before Rex Collins took a chance on it and published it in 1972, and the rest is history. The book went on to win two of the most prestigious British book awards: the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

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Richard Adams reading from Watership Down at a 2008 exhibition of paintings by Aldo Galli, which illustrated a special anniversary edition of the book. Photo by Andrew Reeves-Hall

The book follows the adventures of a group of rabbits who leave their warren on the promptings of a prophetic rabbit named Fiver who has forebodings of disaster to come if they stay put. Hazel, the sensible rabbit who becomes the group’s steadfast and courageous leader, gathers the small number of rabbits who are willing to listen to Fiver’s warnings and together they leave the warren, heading for the hospitable terrain of Watership Down, some 4 miles away. Not a long journey for a man, but for a group of rabbits out in the open, without holes to bolt into at the first sign of danger, it is a long and harrowing trek, dodging men and their snares and guns, predators and even other rabbits. But through their journey the group becomes a tight knit group of companions, and arrive at Watership Down relatively unscathed. But danger lurks there, too, as they soon discover.

In a bid to obtain some does for their warren (the ones who leave with Hazel are all bucks), they encounter the strange warren of Efrafra, ruled over by the foreboding and dictatorial General Woundwort. Suffice to say that Hazel quickly realize their task will not be easy, and that they must draw on all their strength and courage, and a little rabbit trickery besides, to achieve their goal.

On the back of my copy of the book there is a quote from The Times in London, which states, “Mr. Adams wanted to write ‘a proper grown-up novel for children’, and this is what he has achieved.” This is a marvellous summary of this book. It is a children’s book, but it is so much more.

Right away, in the opening paragraph of the book, Adams grounds his rabbits in a realistic setting.

The primroses were over. Towards the edge of the wood, where the ground became open and sloped down to an old fence and a brambly ditch beyond, only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots. Not he other side of the fence, the upper part of the field was full of rabbit-holes. In places the grass was gone altogether and everywhere there were clusters of dry droppings, through which nothing but the ragwort would grow. A hundred yards away, at the bottom of the slope, ran the brook, no more than three feet wide, half-choked with king-cups, water-cress and blue brook-lime. The cart-track crossed by a brick culvert and climbed the opposite slope to a five-barred gate in the throne hedge. The gate led into the lane. 

The May sunset was red in clouds, and there was still half an hour to twilight. The dry slope was dotted with rabbits – some nibbling at the thing grass near their holes, others pushing farther down to look for dandelions or perhaps a cowslip that the rest had missed. 

There are many passages and details like this in the book – so many flower and trees and trees are named that at times I felt like I needed to stop and Google-search them all. But this realistic portrayal of a particular, small piece of British countryside, a hill in the north of Hampshire, England, where Adams himself grew up and obviously knew intimately, adds immediate realism to the more fantastical parts of the book – Adams’ imaginative take on rabbit society, language, and myths.

Adams researched the life and habitats of rabbits, and in particular pays credit in the introduction to Watership Down to a book by R. M. Lockley called The Private Life of the Rabbit as a book that gave him particular inspiration. Indeed there are times in the book where Adams quotes from Lockley’s book directly. Therefore the rabbit behaviour in Watership Down is very accurate and gives the readers a whole bunch of fascinating information about rabbits that they likely didn’t know.

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The book that Adams relied on for his research, by Welsh ornithologist and naturalist Ronald Lockley. Adams and Lockley were friends, and subsequently introduced Lockley as a character in Adams’ later novel, The Plague Dogs. 

But it is not just factual information about rabbits that Adams presents to the readers in his book, he invents a whole language (called Lapine), social structure, and mythology for rabbits as well. And this is what makes the book really come alive. In particular, the legends and tales of the rabbits’ legendary hero and founder, El-ahrairah, which are interspersed in the book, serve to make this rabbit society one with great depth and complexity.

There is no doubt that this book can be frightening and disturbing to children at times. The animated film based on the book, released in 1978, has been responsible for many a nightmare and complaints by parents, who thought they were taking their children to see a Disney-esque movie about bunnies. The rabbits in this book are in great danger, and some of them die. For myself, it was the depiction of Bigwig in the snare that really haunted me.

But the menacing figure of General Woundwort and his rule of the cowed rabbits of the Efrafra warren is the largest shadow that looms large over the idyllic life that Hazel builds for his rabbits at Watership Down, and the plot to best Woundwort and steal some does away from Efrafra is the highly entertaining and suspenseful climax to the book. I was just as caught up in this during my read of the book as an adult as I was when I was younger.

Interestingly enough, the BBC and Netflix are teaming up to produce a new animated mini-series adaptation of the book, to air in 2017, with actor James McAvoy as the voice of Hazel. Their hope is to do a faithful adaptation of the book but to tone down the scary parts which made the earlier animated film so disturbing to children. I am very much looking forward to seeing this, and will write a review on it once it airs.

I really enjoyed re-visiting this book again, and highly recommend it to upper elementary aged children and up.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Edwin: High King of Britain, by Edoardo Albert

Edoardo Albert is an historian and author, and this book (published in 2014) is the first one of a fiction series titled The Northumbrian Thrones. Other books in the series include Oswald: Return of the King, and Oswiu:King of Kings. Albert has also written other non-fiction history books, notably Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, co-written by one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project (the archeological dig that is ongoing at Bamburgh).

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The author, Edoardo Albert

In other words, this author is right up my alley, and I dug into this book with a great deal of relish. And he didn’t disappoint! Edwin: High King of Britain is a fascinating glimpse at this ancient king, written in an easily accessible and at times lyrical fashion, introducing us to a complex and interesting man and the times in which he lived.

Edwin’s reign fell a few decades before the events in my own trilogy. He was born in 616 AD and died in battle in 633 AD. He is an important king in Northumbria for many reasons, not the least of which being that he is the first Christian king of Northumbria. I will touch on this later.

The book begins with Edwin in exile. He was the son of Ælle, King of Deira (the southern part of Northumbria), and when Ælle dies, Æthelfrith, Edwin’s brother-in-law and King of Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria) takes over as King of Deira as well, being the first to unite the two kingdoms into Northumbria as a whole. Naturally Edwin is a threat to his claim on Deira’s throne, and so Edwin has been fleeing for his life, finding refuge at various places and finally ending up at the court of Rædwald, king of the East Angles, south of Deira. But as the book opens word comes to Edwin that Æthelfrith, known by the nickname the Twister, has convinced Rædwald to kill Edwin in exchange for treasure and almost as importantly, an alliance with the powerful Æthelfrith.

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I love the cover art of the book. This stylized boar is done in the fashion of images typical of Anglo-Saxon art of the times. 

Albert pulls us into Edwin’s world right away. One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is trying to drop readers into the setting and give enough of the backstory so that they can begin to have a sense of the world without being overwhelmed by dry facts and information. I like the way Albert handled this, it didn’t feel forced in an info-dump kind of way, and it got me immediately immersed into Edwin, his world, and the dilemmas he faced.

And there are plenty of dilemmas. Edwin is concerned not only for his own life, but also the lives of his sons, who as his heirs are in danger from Æthelfrith’s sword as well. He seeks a way to gain back the Deiran throne, and to remove the threat Æthelfrith poses. And once he succeeds and gains the title of High King of Northumbria himself, there is the challenge of keeping his throne safe from the threats of those who would claim it.

Edwin’s first wife, the mother of his sons, has long since died, and in appropriate kingly fashion he seeks an alliance with the powerful kingdom of Kent by marrying Æthelburh, sister of the King. And this introduces another challenge to Edwin – the introduction of Christianity into his kingdom, for Kent is a Christian kingdom, and his new bride a follower of Christ.

Accompanying Æthelburh on her journey north to her new home is Paulinus, a priest of the Roman Church and James, a deacon. They are determined to begin a missionary work among the pagan Northumbrians, starting with the King, for they know that if the King embraces Christ his people will likely follow.

This journey of Edwin from pagan to Christian is the heart of Albert’s book, I feel. Edwin understands the import of his decision, and he wavers for some time as he wrestles not only with his understanding of the new faith but the implications of casting aside the old gods. The story of Edwin’s conversion is chronicled in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and Albert dramatizes Bede’s account well. I enjoyed the way Edwin’s pagan priest, Coffi, was portrayed here. His disillusionment at the silence of his gods which led to his embrace of Christ fleshed out Bede’s story in a satisfactory way.

It is easy to look back at stories such as Bede’s in a cynical way. How much of what he said was truth, and how much was propaganda? When the King converts and his men convert with him, how much of that was real faith and how much political opportunism? By making Edwin, his wife and counsellors come alive in this story, Albert gives us a plausible and realistic picture of this most important moment of British history – when the Northumbrian kingdom began it’s first steps as a Christian one. I get tired of books that portray the introduction of Christianity as something negative, bringing  repression and disaster to a previously wonderful pagan world. Of course with change comes both the positive and negative, and I’m not interested in whitewashing history either. But surely the people that set aside their pagan faith did so for many reasons, and we can’t discount that for many, an important reason was their appreciation of that new faith itself and its message of love, grace, and forgiveness.

Albert is a good writer, and there is some lovely prose in this book, especially in some of the scenes where the experience of faith is brought alive, like this  account of Edwin’s baptism:

There, beneath the water, he had felt as if he were suddenly able to breathe again; as if a tight metal band that had been slowly constricting his chest as he grew older, tightening so slowly that he never even realized it was there, had been released. He had been a slave and he had never even known it. 

Besides this journey of Edwin from pagan to Christian, the other thing I really enjoyed in this book was the portrayal of Penda, introduced here as a warlord to King Cearl of Mercia. The early life of Penda is somewhat murky in historical accounts, and so I enjoyed this presentation of Penda’s life which gives a satisfying background to this most important King of 7th century Britain, a wily and powerful man  who is a worthy adversary to the Northumbrian kings.

If you are at all interested in a a well-written, entertaining and exciting history of an important king of Britain, Edwin: High King of Britain, will definitely satisfy.