January 15th, 2012


Books 1-3

1. CLEOPATRA. Histories, Dreams and Distortions, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. This was a fascinating read. Hughes-Hallett doesn't write so much on the history of Cleopatra -- much of which is veiled partly by mystery and partly by propoganda -- but the various perceptions and interpretations of her character. Indeed, how we perceive Cleopatra probably is more of a reflection on society and the various authors rather than her. A lot of information about her has been through the filters of propaganda: the Egyptian queen's and the conquering Octavius'. There have been many movies dealing with Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, ranging from drama to high camp. While there isn't much known historically about her, there were some tidbits mentioned I thought were interesting and surprising. One, while Cleopatra is often depicted as a femme fatale, she probably wasn't physically attractive (although she was almost certainly very charismatic). Also, the legend of her death by asps is probably not true (if it was snake bite, the author states, it was probably a cobra). There was one mistake and one thing that left me scratching my head. The mistake: when she's describing the famous movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, she describes the golden gown she wears as gold lame. From everything I've read and heard, the golden gown she wore was cloth of gold. There is a BIG difference between gold lame and cloth of gold. The thing that left me puzzled was the author also happened to mention another movie - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - that Elizabeth Taylor also starred in. Hughes-Hallett compares Maggie (the main female character in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof") to Cleopatra, and says that Maggie is a fast woman who tries to get another man's husband. Now a disclaimer: I've never seen the movie version of Tennassee Williams' work. But I've read the play and seen a staged version of it, and while it's possible the movie has deviated (a LOT) from the original play, from the movie descriptions I have read this characterization of Maggie seems a huge stretch, at best. Despite these setbacks this was still an informative and insightful read.

2. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. I finished this fast-paced book in one evening. The book, from what I read, got its start from the collections of actual photographs, and the story morphed from there. Jacob feels he is just an ordinary kid, a bit of a loner at school. He is close to his grandfather, and loved hearing about his fantastic stories growing up -- even if he questioned some of the elements of the stories. But after his grandfather's sudden death, Jacob finds a mysterious letter that sends him to a remote Welsh Island for summer vacation. His aim is to find out more about his grandfather's past, and he discovers that his grandfather's wild "fairy tales" were all true. For example, the children that Jacob's grandfather showed him in a collection of old photographs were not only real but are still alive. His life changes forever when he finds them.

3. The Good Guy, by Dean Koontz. Listened to this on CD. A very gripping story with some unexpected twists. Tim Carrier is an average guy, a mason, who enjoys his quiet life. One day, when enjoying a beer at his favorite bar, he is approached by a nervous guy who hands him an envelope stuffed with cash and the picture of a woman. Tim is told that he will "get the rest when she's gone." This guy leaves, and a short time later, another guy comes in and sits next to Tim. Tim quickly figures out this guy, Krait, is the actual hired killer, and Krait mistakes Tim for the client. Tim hands Krait the envelope with the money, but pockets the picture, and tells the assassin that this is a fee for not doing anything, and that he has changed his mind. Tim then sets off to find this mysterious woman to warn her that someone is out to kill her. Tim and Linda, a writer, wind up on the run as they try to keep one step ahead of Krait and try to figure out why someone wants her dead in the first place. Tim and Linda are a very likeable duo, and their banter is often darkly comic. Krait really steals the show. He is truly a scary villain, with a cold calculated demeanor only outmatched by his ego. There is one scene, which is extremely dark but funny, where Krait occupies a house he thinks will be empty for a while-- only to have a string of unexpected visitors.

Currently reading: Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Very, very good so far!)
reading a book

Books 132-134 (2011): The Slap, The Genesis Secret and Bloodline

Book 132: The Slap.
Author: Christos Tsiolkas, 2008.
Genre: Contemporary. Family Drama. Parenting.
Other Details: Paperback. 485 pages

At a suburban barbecue in Melbourne, a man slaps a misbehaving 4-year old child that is not his own. The novel is told from the viewpoints of eight people in attendance at the barbecue and chronicles the far-reaching effects of the incident upon this group of family and friends.

Even though this was quite an engaging read, I didn't really like the novel though recognised that it was attempting to address modern-day issues such as child rearing, discipline, drug use and adultery. I felt that it was basically a laddish take on the same kind of territory that Jodi Picoult has made her own including the multiple narrative viewpoints. While I found its crude language (and I can swear like a sailor at times) and casual racism unpalatable, I did recognise that both were coming from the minds and mouths of characters that I wouldn't really want to associate with in real life. It portrayed an Australia very far away from affable soap operas such as Neighbours.

Due to illness I was unable to attend the reading group meeting where The Slap was discussed but heard later that people either loved or hated it and the novel generated a great deal of discussion; something that is always welcome in a selection.

Book 133: The Genesis Secret.
Author: Tom Knox, 2008.
Genre: Conspiracy Thriller. Adventure.
Other Details: Paperback. 516 pages

Rob Luttrell, a war reporter recovering after nearly being killed in Iraq, is sent on a 'tame' assignment to Gobeckli Tepe, an archaeological site in Turkey. However, when the site is sabotaged Luttrell becomes caught up in dangerous situations. Meanwhile in the UK a Scotland Yard detective is trying to solve a series of gruesome ritualistic murders. The novel flips between these two narratives; though they eventually do connect up.

A highly engaging thriller with a fair few stomach-turning passages. The characterisations were not quite up to the standard of Steve Berry and some of the situations that the lead bloke got himself into made me want to give him a good shake. Also, although it raised certain issues liked to the early development of religion, I didn't feel the author really wanted to address these except in the broadest terms; more that the novel was about trying to shock the reader. Still in its own way proved a 'fun' read.

Book 134: Bloodline (Anna Travis 07).
Author: Lynda le Plante, 2011.
Genre: Police Procedural.
Other Details: Hardback. 496 pages.

"An ominous pool of blood but no victim' - cover tag line Bloodline

Under the watchful eye of Detective Chief Superintendent James Langton, DCI Anna Travis takes charge of her first major investigation since her promotion. However, it is unclear whether it is a missing person's case or a full blown murder enquiry as there is no body. There were lots of twists, turns and red herrings in this highly engaging police procedural. I love Anna Travis as a character, admiring her determination to uncover the truth. Overall I feel that this series goes from strength to strength and hope Lynda le Plante continues to write more of them.

Book #1: The Call of Cthulhu: 67 Tales of Horror by H.P. Lovecraft

This was an incredibly long book, which took me several hours of reading to get through. H.P. Lovecraft’s style is kind of like a mixture of Dante and Edgar Allen Poe (he even mentions both of them in one of this stories), in that the stories are often very complex and wordy, with a lot of description; I also noticed a few Jules Verne similarities in some of the stories (a few of the stories have definite similarities to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in that they describe the discovery of bizarre fantasy lands).

The book can be best described as an anthology of horror/fantasy/science fiction stories, which vary in length from just a few pages to the point when they seem more like novels in their own right. There seem to be a lot of recurrent themes in the stories; many of them end in the appearance of one or more horrific creatures, and there are several stories that deal with the concept of dreams, often describing them as actually taking place in some other land (in one story, a character is obsessed with exploring a fantasy land that he goes to in his dreams). I noticed several creatures or other concepts (for example, Azathoth) were mentioned in several of the stories, and a few of them actually have sequels at later points in the book; this is somewhat different to anthologies by authors like Poe and Stephen King, who write stories that are completely self-contained.

Some of the stories are very profound and hard to follow, mostly through being quite wordy and slightly overlong, but there were some that worked better and I found myself enjoying the book more as I progressed (the first twelve stories occupy almost half of the book due to their length), and I liked the stories that were more subtle (kind of “less is more”), where there was merely an impression of a monster; some stories are made very ambiguous, with characters giving the impression that the events could have been a dream or hallucination. Also, Lovecraft does not go into lots of explanations about why strange things are happening, you just accept that they are happening (Stephen King’s stories are similar, and in one of his books he does state that he hates having to explain why something happens); it’s just a case where the reader has to suspend disbelief and accept the events in the story.

This is definitely worth reading for anyone who enjoys horror, but particularly if you read books like The Divine Comedy and Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination and enjoyed them.

Next book: He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond
devil muse

Book 135 (2011): Horns by Joe Hill

Book 135: Horns.
Author: Joe Hill, 2010.
Genre: Horror. Modern Fable. Black Comedy. Christian themes.
Other Details: Paperback. 437 pages.

Ignatius Perrish wakes up after getting blind drunk to find that along with a raging hangover and headache that a pair of horns have begun to grow from his head. At first he tries to convince himself that it is a hallucination brought on by the drink. However, he soon discovers that he is able to influence people to reveal their darkest secrets and to give in to their repressed desires. At first he takes delight in this new devilish power before beginning to question their origin. We learn that Ig is himself a tortured soul since the rape and murder of his long-time girlfriend the previous year. Although never arrested for the crime he had been the police's only suspect. In the court of public opinion Iggy got away with murder and is almost universally shunned by the town folk. As praying to God for justice had proved fruitless, Iggy decides to use this new power to discover and punish the real murderer.

This turned out to be a very different novel than I had expected from its cover blurb and opening chapters. As it progressed it proved to be a more sober, gentle and uplifting work while retaining a certain grittiness in terms of its language and darkly comedic touches. Although horrific events do take place, its themes of sin & redemption, heaven & hell, God and the Devil led me to consider this a Christian fable similar to the TV series Reaper or Kevin Smith's Dogma.

I enjoyed it very much and look forward to reading more of his works, all which have been recommended to me by various friends.

Jo Hill's page on 'Horns' - with more detailed synopsis, excerpt and Iggy Perrish’s Rock Bible.
Dead Dog Cat

#10, 11, 12

Over the last few days, I've finished reading a few ebooks.

First was Osprey Fortress #88: The Mannerheim Line 1920 - 39 which talks about the fortifications that helped hold the Russians somewhat at bay during the Winter War. Somewhat interesting.

Second was The Dark Side of Disney which is about various naughtiness that the author has done in and around Disney World. Nothing is condoned, but much is described, such as ways to limit your spending at the parks. Having been to some of the places described, I found it amusing, but not all that helpful, at least to me.

Finally, there was Osprey New Vanguard # 29: German Armoured Cars and Reconnaissance Half-Tracks 1939 - 45 which I didn't find as interesting as I'd hoped. The photography was not the best, and the plates weren't as good as some other Osprey books have been.

Books 136-137 (2011): The House of the Wind and The Dark Mirror

These two novels were my final reads for 2011 up to the end of November. I did start a few books in December but to date they remain unfinished.

Book 136: The House of the Wind.
Author: Titania Hardie, 2011
Genre: Romance Historical/contemporary. Mystery.
Other Details: Hardback. 458 pages

In contemporary San Francisco, lawyer Maddie Moretti is in mourning following the sudden death of her fiancé. Her grandmother encourages her to visit Tuscany in order to connect to her ancestral roots and to find healing. There she becomes fascinated by the mystery of a ruined villa that had been destroyed centuries ago in a legendary storm on the Eve of St. Agnes. It has been known ever since as the Casa al Vento—the House of the Wind. In Tuscany 1347, Mia is a young woman who has refused to speak following the death of her mother. She now lives with her beloved aunt. One night a young couple seek refuge in their villa and Mia becomes fascinated by the radiant young bride who refuses to reveal her name.

I felt this was an excellent example of a novel in which contemporary and historical settings are skilfully interwoven. It is not an easy task but it is one that I felt Titania Hardie accomplished. She takes her time in developing her characters and settings, which may not be to everyone's taste but this pace suited my mood perfectly. Hardie also exhibits her extensive knowledge of myth, legend and esoteric symbolism with confidence and grace. She handles Maddie's bereavement with insight and compassion. I enjoyed it very much, appreciating it on various levels.

Book 137: The Dark Mirror (The Bridei Chronicles 1).
Author: Juliet Marillier, 2004.
Genre: Historical Fantasy. Scotland.
Other Details: Paperback. 670 pages.

Bridei is a young nobleman fostered at the home of Broichan, one of the most powerful druids in the land. It becomes clear that Broichan has long term plans for Bridei. Then Bridei's world changes forever when he discovers an abandoned child on their doorstep one MidWinter Eve; a child who appears to be one of the Fair Folk. Broichan is deeply wary of the child but Bridei insists that she be allowed to remain in the household. Thus, Bridei and Tuala grow up together, inseparable friends. However, as they grow to maturity other factors come into play that threaten to separate them forever.

This was my first encounter with Juliet Marillier's writing and I found that I was drawn very quickly into the rich world she was creating. The story of Bridei coming to manhood within the household of the Druid Broichan, had echoes of Arthur and Merlin as did the ongoing interaction with the old gods of the land and the Fair Folk. I was even more impressed when I reached the end of the novel and read her end notes that advised that this was a tale based on the life and times of the real-life Sixth Century Bridei I of the Picts.

I quite consciously took my time reading this novel, reading a little each night before sleep. It impressed me deeply and I certainly plan to continue with the Chronicles as well as her other writings. Her story-telling style just clicked with me and it is obvious from the many glowing reviews that her other writings are considered equally as good. It is a delight to discover such a writer.

Juliet Marillier's Page on 'The Dark Mirror'
ferris wheel

Books #1,2, and 3

On December 26th I saw the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo the movie and decided I simply HAD to read the books. I got the first book on the ninth and devoured it, then The Girl Who Played with Fire, and tonight I finished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. They are excellent reads.
 The books are one big mystery that all fit together like a 1,000+ pg puzzle. For all three books its slow going at the very beginning, but those hundred pages or so of information set you up for a wild ride. All of the characters are wonderful. Lisbeth is the most unorthodox heroine, but you easily become engrossed with her odd nature and Mikael Blomkvist compliments her wonderfully.
Lisbeth a techie-genius and Mikael a journalist get caught up in the mystery of a wealthy businessman's missing niece. It is incredibly complex, no description I could give would do it justice.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a convoluted plot, though I would warn that it can be a little upsetting at times.