Category Archives: The Book on The Nightstand

The books I read.

Book shopping in Bangkok

Every May, Neilson Hayes Library, the only English library in Bangkok that I know of has a book sale. Hundreds of books, most of them in good condition, some quite old and marked by the passage of time (and possibly some book-hungry bugs, judging by the intricate “designs” they left behind) await patiently on long tables under a big heat-trapping tent. Even at 11 in the morning it’s so hot that no matter what you’re wearing you’ll be sweating in no time. But that’s not a reason to stay away.

NH

I had waited for this particular Saturday for weeks. And to make things even better, the same weekend, Dasa, my favorite second-hand book store, had a 20% off of all books. I guess it’s not hard to imagine what I did. First I braved the heat and bought five books from the library sale, then I went and spent some time browsing in the air-conditioned interior of the book store where I bought 5 more. The great thing about Dasa is that they have a list of the books available that you can download and browse through before going to the book store itself. I did that, and went there with a list and I’m happy to say I was able to come away with all the books I hoped to find. There were more I would have liked to buy but I decided to save both my money and my energy for a future visit. Buying 10 books sounds romantic until you actually have to carry them around.

ten books I came away with a few westerns – I was able to finally find a good copy of Winnetou by Carl May, a book I read as a teenager and wanted to re-read again ever since. Also In the Desert by the same author sounded too good to pass by and so did One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus. I liked the historical fact One Thousand White Women was based on. From the Author’s Note:

“…the seed that grew into a novel was sown in the author’s imagination by an actual historical event: in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors. Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother’s tribe, this seemed to the Cheyennes to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man’s world – a terrifying new world that even as early as 1854, the Native Americans clearly recognized held no place for them. Needles to say, the Cheyennes’ request was not well received by the white authorities – the peace conference collapsed, the Cheyennes went home, and, of course, the white women did not come. In this novel they do.”

The Ruins by Scott Smith is a book I’ve been looking for since I heard it’s supposed to be a fine work of horror and now I can finally read it. And because I enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian I decided to get The Swan Thieves as well. I’m very curious to see if it’s just as good or maybe even better.

Tolstoy I also bought two very old books, which I was told were donated to the library by the son of an Indian doctor after his father passed away. You can see the stamp with the name on the first one, Tolstoy’s Twenty-Three Tales. I’m not a great fan of Russian authors (ever since I had to drag myself through Ana Karenina) but this made me want to give Russian authors another chance. Hopefully this collection of short stories will be more enjoyable.

I bought The Deerslayer, by James Jenimore Cooper because I’ve wanted to read it ever since I read The Last Mohican, and because it has a very nice looking hardcover. Just looking at that intricate design on the red cover makes me sigh with happiness. I’m very fond of old books.

I loved Joyce Carol Oates collection of short stories in Give Me Your Heart so when I saw The Female of the Species – Tales of Mystery and Suspense, I knew I had to have it.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier whispered of love and secrets and that sounds like a great combination (and, to be honest, I can’t remember if I read Rebecca so I thought this might be a good choice when I’m in the mood for a classic).

Hard Laughter by Anne Lamott, was a nice surprise. She’s an author Vishy told me about and I was curious to see if I would like her novel so I decided to take it home.

Have you read any of these books? Did you enjoy them?

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The Tawny Man Trilogy – Robin Hobb

For the last month or so, I’ve been caught between three books. I started Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell, thinking I’d take a break from trilogies for a while, then joined DolceBellezza for a read-along of Little, Big, by John Crowley which I abandoned after reading about 10% of the story on my Kindle (I blame the Kindle, naturally) before deciding I really can’t wait to find out what happens to Fitz and so went back to the next trilogy that follows him on his adventures.

I strongly recommend you read my review of The Farseer Trilogy before continuing with this one. I have tried to stay away from major spoilers – you’ll find more by reading the blurbs on the back covers of the books themselves.

TM1   TM2 TM3

After the end of the Red Ship Wars, Fitz disappears. His role in aiding the Farseer line seems to have been completed – the Outislanders commanding the Red Ships have been defeated, and the people of the Six Duchies are slowly rebuilding their lives. A new heir is to be born to the ruling house of the Farseers, and although King-In-Waiting Verity is no more, the future seems to run on a promising course again.
For fifteen years, Fitz lives in seclusion together with his wolf Nighteyes and later on, Hap joins them. He’s an orphan boy Fitz adopts as his own. Then, his old mentor, Chade, comes for a visit and brings dark tidings. Once again, the Farseer throne is in jeopardy and Fitz is required for a mission. He has to find the missing prince, Dutiful, and restore him to Buckkeep Castle before a delegation from the Out Islands arrives with his betrothed, Narcheska Elliania. After being at war for years, the marriage between the prince and the Narcheska is the key to a long lasting peace.

Book One is about retrieving prince Dutiful from the hands of his captors. This will once again bring together Fitz and The Fool who together with Chade, must act to bring Dutiful back alive. It will also be a time of loss – Nighteyes is dead. By the start of Book Two, Fitz is mourning the loss of his wolf companion but he doesn’t have time to do so for long as a new challenge presents itself – he must accompany the prince and the Narcheska to the cold icy island of Aslevjal, where Dutiful has to cut off the head of the dragon Icefyre and bring it to Elliania’s family if he is to win her hand in marriage.
In Book Three, a small group of people make it to Aslevjal. It’s a cold and dismal place, and finding Icefyre is no easy feat. They encounter an enemy and an unexpected friend, and when they finally complete their task, it’s not exactly as they planned. All I can say without giving away spoilers is that at the end everybody comes out with what they wanted.

The Fool has a much more active role in this trilogy. Although he remains a mystery, some details about his past emerge, enough to fit the puzzles of the story together but not all of them. His many faceted personality and ability to transform himself serves him well, as he has made a transition from King Shred’s Fool to rich Lord Golden, an exotic man with a penchant for flashy clothes and witty conversation. His friendship with Fitz will suffer, but like a wound, it bleeds and then closes, leaving them both with a new outlook on their relationship and bringing them even closer. As it was stated in The Farseer Trilogy, The White Prophet (The Fool) and his Catalyst (Fitz) can change the world and this they do, setting it on a new course.

I liked Book Three the best. The revelations, the decisions, the harsh conditions and challenges that Fitz and The Fool have to face made me read most of it during last weekend. Although I’ve enjoyed The Farseer Trilogy more, that could also be because it was a new story. Now, I feel like I already know the characters to some extent which made it possible to see ahead in the story, but I guess that is to be expected. There were enough turns and twists in the last book to satisfy the pickiest reader, even one with an appetite for drama like myself. I was happy for Fitz because in the end he got what he desired most even if it had to come with the price of one good friend and a lot of heartache. A little too convenient but it fit the story nevertheless.

If in The Farseer Trilogy I liked The Mountain Kingdom, this time I was intrigued by the customs of the Outislanders. Their world could not have been more different than that of the Six Duchies. According to their customs, men were raiders, going out to the sea to plunder other lands, while women owned the land passed on through maternal line. Women had the power to make the important decisions, and they were organized into “mothershouses”, each belonging to a clan, living in tight-knitted communities. Paternity was not an issue as children were seen as belonging to a house rather than to a man, and the women were the ones who choose their partner and how long they lived together.

As usual, magic was represented by The Wit and The Skill, two very special abilities that could allow people who possess them to bond with an animal (those people are called “Witted”) and to communicate and even influence and heal others or travel through special pillars to distant places for those who possess the gift of “skilling”. There are those who have either one or the other and those who have both. Thick, Chade’s aide, a “half-wit”, has strong skilling powers, and while he can be difficult at times, he can also be funny.

Another interesting aspect of the story is the presence of dragons. The Fool sees them as the only animal more powerful than man and he’s determined to do anything in his power to see them restored to earth. Without them, he thinks there is no balance and man becomes the most powerful creature, something he wants to prevent at all costs. I found the idea intriguing and I’m curious to see what will happen to the dragons in the next three books.

Now I’ll have to wait patiently for the next trilogy to be completed – “The Fitz and The Fool” is still a work in progress but I was very excited to find out from Goodreads that the second book in the trilogy is coming out this year and the last one in 2016. I’m really looking forward to reading them.

oncetimenine250 I’ve read this for the Once Upon a Time event hosted by Carl@stainlesssteeldroppings.

Read in: April-May 2015
My rating: 4.5 stars

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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Oskar is a young boy trying to come to terms with the death of his father in the 9/11 crash. His mother and grandmother are his only family now, or so he thinks. When Oskar finds a key in a vase in his father’s closet, he thinks it’s a thread whose end will bring about a much sought after answer. Whose key is it and what does it open? Will finding the lock bring something of his father back? Was he meant to find it? His only clue gives him an idea of where to start, although it’s a pretty wobbly start and there are months of puzzles ahead, waiting to be solved.

I wasn’t taken with the book at first. I thought it was trying too hard to do something clever, and then I realized I was trying too hard not to like it. Oskar seemed like a smart boy – inquisitive, always searching, but burrowing his pain deep inside, letting it out only for the briefest of moments in conversations with his mother and grandmother. Their interactions range from silly to heart-breaking seriousness in the blink of an eye, the words warm and comforting then sharp, leaving invisible wounds.

Somewhere halfway the story my perception changed – what seemed at first a jumble of events began to have a shape – of what, I did not know but at least then I began to feel confident things were going somewhere. I became fascinated with the apparent ramblings of a young boy and the letters sprinkled throughout the book, letters from his grandmother or grandfather and other people I couldn’t keep track of. But at some point it didn’t matter who wrote them but what was in them. Ramblings turned to life stories, turned to feelings, turned to tears in me.
The black and white photographs (ordinary things most of them, until the end of the book where some of them become so much more); the jumbled writing (I gave up on that, who wouldn’t, I wonder), the pages of numbers, crossed out words – all this make the book an interesting experience, almost as if the writer wanted to give the reader as complete an experience as possible. There’s Oskar’s cat, Buckminster, leaping in the air, two hands tattooed with the words YES and NO, and other pictures whose meaning I didn’t understand but accepted nevertheless. I loved how the whole book is a mix of locks, keys, doors, conversations that open you raw, light, shadows, handwritten letters, relationships and feelings, feelings, feelings.

Oskar’s quest does have an ending – dissatisfying as I thought it was, but some sort of closure. This book I felt, was not so much about him making peace with the death of his father as much as the reader being given the reason why things happened the way they did. Because in trying to have a look at Oskar’s father meant going deeper into the family history and having a look at Oskar’s grandfather, a man scarred so badly by war and a long lost love that he gave up a future because he couldn’t let go of his past. It’s as much a story about loss as it is about love and looking at it all through the eyes of a child.

Some of my favorite passages:

To my child: I’m writing this from where your mother’s father’s shed used to stand, the shed is no longer here, no carpets cover no floors, no windows in no walls, everything has been replaced. This is a library now, that would have made your grandfather happy, as if all of his buried books were seeds, from each book came one hundred.

It’s hard to say goodbye to the place you’ve lived. It can be as hard as saying goodbye to a person. We moved in after we were married. It had more room than his apartment. We needed it. We needed room for all of the animals, and we needed room between us.

The walls of the hallway were Nothing, even pictures need to disappear, especially pictures, but the hallway itself was Something, the bathtub was Nothing, the bathwater was Something, the hair on our bodies was Nothing, of course, but once it collected around the drain it was Something, we were trying to make our lives easier, trying, with all of our rules, to make life effortless.

She died in my arms, saying, “I don’t want to die.” That is what death is like. It doesn’t matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing. It doesn’t matter how good the weapons are. I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in March 2015

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About Bookcrossing and other bookish thoughts

bookcrossing22 Last Sunday I went to our regular bookcrossing meeting held here in Bangkok once a month. I’ve been to these meetings for a few years now and it’s one event I look forward to every month. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s quite simple: people go to bookcrossing.com to connect with other readers; they leave books in train stations and cafes and hospitals and hotels, or specially designated “bookcrossing zones”, any place it can be picked up by others – bookcrossers or not – but before they do that they register the book on the site and write a number code (BCID) which can be later entered on the same site and this way track the book on its journey. I have registered books this way and left them at hotels or gave them away to people. Some came to me from Vietnam and UK, some went to Cambodia, Germany and Australia. It’s always exciting to find an email which lets me know somebody has found one of the books I released and I can see how far the book has traveled.
A while ago one bookcrosser from London was coming through Bangkok on her holiday and joined us for a chat about books. She brought James Patterson’s novel Toys, which I look forward to reading as I haven’t read any of his novels before.

March books There were lots of wonderful books to choose from at our bookcrossing get-together. I got all three books of The Farseer Trilogy, a fantasy I’ve been looking forward to reading for months, and also The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, because with such a title, how could I resist? And because I had just visited my favorite bookstore, Kinokuniya, I had with me The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker, recommended to me by Pryia, and an English translation of The Pendragon Legend by the Hungarian author Antal Szerb. That should keep me busy for a while.

Right now I’m reading the Book 1 of the trilogy and I’m already a big fan. Not only do I like the main character, Fitz, but his ability to communicate with animals makes this even more appealing. I’m glad this is a trilogy and not one of those fantasy series that are still being written. Nothing wrong with those either but I don’t like to wait.
If you know any good fantasy series, please let me know. I’d love to read more and I’m just getting started.

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Best books of 2014

2014 was a good reading year. Fifty books read, forty-one reviewed, a few abandoned halfway through. This was a great year for horror books, and being my favorite category it will also be the longest.

BEST HORROR (I will include Gothic here as well.)

The Shining – Stephen King
This is the best horror book of the year. I’ve waited a long time to read it, don’t ask me why – maybe it was not the time, maybe some other book got in the way, but when the sequel, Doctor Sleep, came out, I knew the time had come so I read them both. The Shining was by far the best of the two. I still think about that fire hose with shivers down my spine.

Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice
I’ve read a few books from “The Vampire Chronicle”, back when I didn’t know this was a series, but “Interview with the Vampire” stands out. Not only did it make me love vampire stories even more, but it made me want to read the entire series, in order this time. And with the recent addition of a new book, Prince Lestat, it looks like my journey through the land of vampires won’t stop anytime soon.

The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions – a gem for fans of haunted houses stories. I don’t know why I didn’t review this one but I remember reading it and being lost in the story, just like the main character got lost in that old London house. And the creepy part is that I could see this being an entirely plausible thing.

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley is another book I had my eyes for a long time thinking “one day…”. That day came when I got a copy of The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. Both of them amazing books, the former for its story, the latter for the details about the writers and poets that were connected with Mary Shelley. I’d love to read them both again at some point.

House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill
Hailed as “Britain’s answer to Stephen King”, I must admit this time the description wasn’t just a catchy trick. Nevill’s book brought me not only hours of delightful reading but some interesting twists and good horror scenes as well. Plus, reading about stuffed kittens all dressed up and taking tea is really creepy, believe me.

The Rats by James Herbert
This was Herbert’s first novel and it packs a good story with some disgusting scenes, so if you’re squeamish I’d say don’t go there. But if you love a fast-paced story and are not afraid of the dark (and rats), by all means, go in. Don’t forget your flashlight, though.

Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson – horror in the Wild West. Short and to the point, this is one story I enjoyed a lot and I expect it won’t be the last Matheson book I try.

BOOKS ABOUT WRITING

On Writing by Stephen King is a second (or maybe third?) read for me and a great book I can see myself reading again. There’s a lot of detail about King’s life, how he came to write, how he printed his first newspaper, his childhood, the accident that nearly killed him, and how all this made him into the writer he is today. It feels more like a biography than a writing book but as I am fascinated by details about writers’ lives, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Plus, in case I haven’t mentioned this a hundred times already, King’s storytelling is the reason why horror is my favorite genre and he is my favorite writer.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is a lovely, inspirational book, with emphasis on how-to and many great tips and some interesting writing exercises. This book has a lot of heart and offers plenty of encouragement for writers. I’ve read this during NaNoWriMo last November and it got me through some rough patches. Perfect for when you feel like you could use a pep talk.

BEST FANTASY

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker is the absolute winner in this category. I loved both main characters and followed their story with a curiosity that never lost its pace. Beautiful writing, well-told story, great setting. I really can’t ask for more.

BEST BOOK/S PART OF A SERIES

This year I’ve read a few books that are part of a series. Robert McCammon’s “Speaks the Nightbird” and “The Queen of Bedlam”, the first two books in the Matthew Corbett series, were the ones I enjoyed the most. This historical fiction was amazing – great characters, good story and plenty of mystery. I’m very excited to read the rest of the books in this series.

AMAZING WRITING

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke, Volume I, Volume II and Volume III

From my review:

“It took me a while to get immersed into the nineteen century England, and the story was slow going at first. The omniscient narrator adds a lot of detail, and a somewhat annoying amount of lengthy fictitious footnotes which I read because I did not want to miss any detail that may come up in the story later on (I do like the explanations but preferred they were somehow integrated into the story itself). One can feel immersed in the time period, the language does a very good job of conveying the atmosphere, down to the Dickensian cast of characters very aptly named….”

Glaciers – Alexis M. Smith

From my review:

“At just under 180 pages, the book is nicely paced and the writing easy to read. Its melancholy tone and beautiful writing convey a sense of fragility that is both compelling and profoundly marked by sadness. It’s almost as if we know something dramatic is going to happen while at the same time we can’t hope but wish that Isabel finds the happiness she deserves.”

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

This is part of the review I wrote. While I may seem dissatisfied with the writing, it certainly was memorable.

“The writing is rich and intricate, perhaps a bit too much, like the lilies cloying the atmosphere with their perfume in The Bloody Chamber – at times I felt like being in a dense jungle without a machete to make my way through. While I can appreciate the opulence of the language, there were moments when I wished for a cleaner, less intricate way of telling the story.”

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye – A.S. Byatt

From my review:

“Byatt’s prose is anything but simple and in this last story its construction is intricate, layered, there are vivid descriptions of colors and smells, of sensuality, and it pulls the reader right in from the first sentence. It is also the kind of prose that you have to work for to fully appreciate, but the reward is well worth it.”

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

From my review:

“I was shocked to discover how much I liked the writing, for in admitting such a thing I would have to admit I liked at least an aspect of the book. I hated the very idea the book was based on, because for me it’s just a story of abuse, of a life torn out of its way. On the one hand I admire the way the words slide down the page so magically until they remind me of what they are saying and then a shudder of repulsion replaces that admiration. Is it possible to love the writing and hate the story? Perhaps this is after all, the ultimate allure of Lolita, this combination of style and story that can leave the reader fascinated and somehow feeling dirty at the same time.”

What wonderful books have you read in 2014?
Please leave a link with your comment so I may come and visit (and add to that never-ending TBR pile!).

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Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita readalong 1 I postponed reading Lolita for quite some time. I wanted to, yet something kept me back. Finally, when Vishy said he got the book from a friend (what a coincidence, so did I) and wanted to read it, we decided to do a read-along. His review can be found here.

I started reading Lolita with more than my usual curiosity. It was, after all, a classic. It was, after all, my first Nabokov, and it was, after all, a book about a subject I had heard and read just enough to fan my curiosity even more but not enough to know exactly what was going on. So I began.

Minor spoilers ahead!

Lolita From the first page Nabokov manages to establish closeness with the reader, like a friend who talks about an event that irreversibly changed his life. For better? For worse? We don’t know yet. The story begins with Humbert talking about his childhood – his distant father, dead mother, and the first girl he fell in love with. It’s a buildup. We are supposed to like Humbert; he is, without a doubt, very adept at portraying his early life in such a way as to make the reader sympathize. Poor Humbert, deprived of a mother’s love, in love with a girl who dies young, living his days dreaming of what could have been. Until he meets Dolores Haze, or Lolita as he likes to call her. Until then, Humbert, admirer of nymphets to such an extent that he goes to the park so he could be near them and see the girls playing, was too shy and possibly too afraid of consequences to approach them. But Lolita, she of the “tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures, from the blurry pinkness of adolescent maidservants in the Old Country (smelling of crushed daisies and sweat); and from very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels; and then again, all this gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, oh God, oh God”, she is not like all the others. From that moment on, Humbert plans his way to her. A boarder in her mother’s house, he warms (or worms, it works just as well) his way into the small family until fate very conveniently delivers the girl right into his waiting, lusty hands.

And Lolita? Well she is not the sweet innocent I thought she was, and her experience in certain matters was an unexpected twist in the story for me, but still, she was 12 years old and Humbert but a few years shy of 40. She flirts, and teases, and seems to want to be near Humbert until he is all she has left. Her mother’s death leaves her an orphan, and Humbert manipulates her into thinking life without him as her guardian could be very difficult. Lolita accepts the situation at first, but after a year of traveling and posing as the dutiful daughter during the day and unwilling mistress at night, Humbert finds things slipping through his fingers. He guards her jealously, and with just the right amount of bribes, promises and threats, manages to keep his nymphet, until she finally gathers the courage and breaks free. It does not end well. Not for Lolita, and not for Humbert, who writes his memoirs in prison, waiting to be tried for murder. Did he kill Dolores Haze, his Lolita? Yes and no. Her demise, tragic, like her life, may be the result of Humbert’s influence. I strongly believe that.

As for Humbert, I started the story liking him, or at least the way he wrote it. He knew what demons haunted him. He tried to stay away from them, or rather to indulge in his fantasy in such a way that no one would come to harm. He even got married.

“It occurred to me that regular hours, home-cooked meals, all the conventions of marriage, the prophylactic routine of its bedroom activities and, who knows, the eventual flowering of certain moral values, of certain spiritual substitutes, might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and dangerous desires, at least to keep them under pacific control.”

It didn’t work out. That was the moment I began to dislike him and it just went downhill from there.
I was shocked to discover how much I liked the writing, for in admitting such a thing I would have to admit I liked at least an aspect of the book. I hated the very idea the book was based on, because for me it’s just a story of abuse, of a life torn out of its way. On the one hand I admire the way the words slide down the page so magically until they remind me what they are saying and then a shudder of repulsion replaces that admiration. Is it possible to love the writing and hate the story? Perhaps this is after all, the ultimate allure of Lolita, this combination of style and story that can leave the reader fascinated and somehow feeling dirty at the same time.

These are some of my favorite passages. The first one I read over and over again, as I imagined it, not as the simple act it really is, but as something beyond that, the ordinary transformed by extraordinary words.

“I set out two glasses (to St. Algebra? To Lo?) and opened the refrigerator. It roared at me viciously while I removed the ice from its heart.”

“There and elsewhere. Hundreds of gray hummingbirds in the dusk, probing the throats of dim flowers.”

“And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.”

My rating 4/5 stars
Read in December 2014

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The Vagabond Vicar – Charlotte Brentwood

Christmas has come and gone but if you’re in need of some literary sugar to go with your morning coffee and those chocolate cookies you could give this a try. Perhaps you need something short and light before tackling that big chunkster that’s been sitting on your bookshelves for months now. If so, dipping into a bit of romance might be just the thing.

The Vagabond Vicar Young cleric William Brook, who dreams of preaching in faraway lands, has to contend himself with the position of vicar in a small village. Cecelia Grant, local beauty and artist, dreads the time when she will have to put her artistic dreams on hold in order to satisfy her mother’s wish that she marry into money. Two people unhappy with the decisions that have been made for them try to find their way out of their constraints but end up finding that those constraints might actually not be that bad. But does love conquer all?

Set in a small village in the Regency period, this is a good depiction of a time when a good reputation can be damaged by a secret, when young women pregnant out of wedlock are ostracized and being of a noble and rich family carries a lot of weight. Husband-hunting mamas, complacent fathers, condescending relatives, a society divided by money and social position, all these are present in the story, giving it an Austen-like aura. The dialogue is simple; the writing – while trying to be true to the time, is devoid of too many flourishes, which to be honest, I wanted more of; the story moves along at a brisk pace.

Normally, I’m not a romance fan. I like my stories darker, with more than a pinch of suspense and possibly with death lurking in the shadows. Drama, twists and sudden turns, secrets and dangerous situations, this is what I enjoy in a novel. Some purple prose doesn’t hurt either. While some of these ingredients can be found in The Vagabond Vicar, this is an easy to read, sweet and pretty straightforward novel. I would have liked to get to know the characters better, to have more details about William’s family and Cecelia’s mother, also the arrogant and careless Mr Barrington (according to the author, a sequel about Mr Barrington might be a possibility). There were a couple of twists at the end but mostly you can see where the story is going. Perhaps this forms the backbone of a romance novel, perhaps my love for horror has made me hungry for something more substantial to dig into. However, if you love a light romance story, you wouldn’t be wrong in choosing this little novel.

I got this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review. You can find more details on her website. The Vagabond Vicar is her first novel.

My rating: 3/5 stars
Read in December 2014

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The Dragonbone Chair – Tad Williams

The Dragonbone Chair I had wanted to read fantasy for a while but every time I stop in front of this particular section at the bookstore, I feel overwhelmed. Where to start? Most books there are part of a series and I don’t want to start a ten-book story only to give up after a volume or two, or worse, to find out book number six is not even out yet. My dilemma was solved when a friend gave me the first two volumes of Tad Williams’ “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”.

Simon (Seoman) is an orphan boy growing up in the castle kitchens of King John Presbyter, under the ever watchful eye of Rachel, the Mistress of Chambermaids. He’s awkward and feels out of place, until doctor Morgenes, a learned man at the court, takes him under his protection. But before Simon could learn about the art of magic from his tutor, the king dies, the court is plunged into turmoil, and Morgenes is killed, not before entrusting the boy with a sheaf of papers and helping him get out of the castle.

Simon decides to undertake a dangerous journey to Naglimund, where Prince Josua, whom he helped escape, is gathering forces to fight off the new king, his own brother, Elias. On his way he saves the life of a Sithi, one of the Fair Ones; makes friends with Binabik the troll and his wolf, Qantaqa; meets Miriamele, the new King’s daughter; has a few close encounters with death, and arrives at Naglimund, only to start on another quest. This time he must help retrieve a sword that could tip the balance in the coming war between Prince Josua and his brother. He is accompanied by a motley band – men, a troll, a wolf, and a few of the Fair Ones. Their path goes through mountains and ends up in a cave where they find the sword, but also a dragon, and some of the group do not survive.

It took me almost four months to finish this mammoth of a book. At 912 pages, not including the appendix, it was quite the undertaking. The only other book closer to this length was Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke with 1,006 pages which I read in January. One chunkster to start the year with, another one to end it.

Two hundred pages in, and I wished things would go a little faster. When it did pick up, little by little I began to realize this was so much like The Lord of the Rings that I started to match the characters – I found Gimli, Legolas, Saruman, Gandalf and even Aragorn. I also have a pretty good idea of who Frodo is. I liked The Lord of the Rings and by all rights I should enjoy this as well, but I find my enthusiasm greatly diminished if I can see where the story is going. Even some of the scenes were the same – a path going up the snowy mountains, a cave inhabited by the dead, a land guarded by a fantastic creature, a mirror that can show things to come. And to top it off, there was Ineluki, the Storm King, a great being from long ago whose dreams of power had changed him into a maleficent creature bent on ruling the world.

With the exception of a handful of characters, I could not keep track of the vast array of people described in the book. After a while I gave up on trying to remember who was fighting for whom. Some of the names were difficult to read – Heahferth, Gwythinn (I kept reading Gwyneth), Elvritshalla.

There were some things I did like – the mystery surrounding Simon’s parentage; the shadowy League of the Scroll, a secret organization Morgenes belonged to; the names of days and months, slightly altered but still recognizable (Tiasday, Udunsday, Drorsday; Novander, Decander, etc.); the religious undercurrent reflected in some of the names – Elias, Josua, Simon, the sign of the tree; and magic. It was fun to see Simon’s progress, from a humble scullion to an important character in the new world slowly taking shape. After him, Binabik and Qantaqa were my favorite characters. The troll has a very distinctive voice and his connection to Simon evolved into a beautiful friendship.
I can safely say I have mixed feelings about this book. The writing is beautiful, and I enjoyed reading about Simon’s adventures so perhaps it’s foolish of me to give up on the story now. Volume two is definitely slimmer and if I am to believe the author’s words at the beginning of book one, I should keep going. Yes, maybe volume two would make for a good start to a new year.

Author’s Warning:

The Qanuk-folk of the snow-mantled Trollfells have a proverb. “He who is certain he knows the ending of things when he is only beginning them is either extremely wise or extremely foolish; no matter which is true, he is certainly an unhappy man, for he has put a knife in the heart of wonder.

*

Dotor Morgenes:

‘Books’, Morgenes said grandly, leaning back on his precarious stool, ‘ – books are magic. That is the simple answer. And books are traps as well.
‘Magic? Traps?’
‘Books are a form of magic – ’ the doctor lifted the volume he had just lain on the stack, ‘ – because they span time and distance more surely than any spell or charm. What did so-and-so think about such-and-such two hundred years agone? Can you fly back through the ages and ask him? No – or at least, probably not.’

*

Binabik the troll:

‘Then, let us be considering knowledge like a river of water. If you are a piece of cloth, how are you finding out more about this water – if someone dips in your corner and then pulls it out again, or if you are having yourself thrown in without resistance, so that this water is flowing all through you, around you, and you are becoming soaking wet? Well, then?’

My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Read from August to December

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House of Small Shadows – Adam Nevill

House of Small Shadows This book starts with an intriguing passage from The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions, a very good story which is part of Widdershins, a short book that can be read for free at gutenberg.org. The passage sets the mood for the story to come, a story where disturbing imagery, intense emotions and glimpses of horrors only hinted at merge to create one of the best books of horror I’ve read and also one of the darkest.

The story begins with Caroline Howard visiting the Red House, famous dwelling of M.H. Mason, master taxidermist and puppeteer, whose work had been kept from the public for a long time. Catherine is sent to evaluate the amazing work that has been kept at the house following H.M. Mason’s suicide. It’s an art curator’s dream come true, a project that would bring fame to the small firm she’s working for, and one that would finally reveal to the world the work of an almost unmatched artist.

The Red House is like a museum, rooms of amazing creations that are unveiled one at a time, and while Catherine can appreciate the craftsmanship and can’t stop dreaming of the great opportunity before her, soon enough she realizes this isn’t just a house, but also the home of some strange people – Edith Mason, the taxidermist’s niece, an old lady guarding her uncle’s work with the zeal of a fanatic, living in a house full of exquisite dolls and amazingly well preserved animals, all existing as if in a separate world, a carnival of the grotesque; the housekeeper, Maude, a stout presence, at times acting like an automaton only to be heard sobbing at night.

Catherine is on an emotional rollercoaster from the start. Her own past, with gaps she struggled to fill with the help of therapists, is in itself a great mystery, and it all comes crashing when her boyfriend leaves her for a woman she hates. Desperate, clinging to her work, not wanting to disappoint Leonard, her wheelchair bound boss, she takes on this new task, determined to see it through, despite the fact that she realizes quite early on something’s not right about her new assignment. Her unexplained seizures, the disappearance of Alice, a childhood friend, the mother she never knew, all make her an unreliable protagonist in the drama enfolding at the Red House.

I know next to nothing about taxidermy but reading about rats and kittens being made to look like people, from their clothes to facial expressions, and the settings they were made to inhabit felt like visualizing a disturbing tableau where the artist went beyond creating something for posterity and reached that place where art marries a sort of madness that can repel and awe at the same time. I was intrigued by the details, and while Nevill doesn’t go into lengthy descriptions (or perhaps it was I who wanted more) he made me see it on the page. And I shuddered, and kept reading. It was unexpected, grotesque, horrifying, scary, wonderful. There’s a particularly disturbing scene where Catherine is running through the dark house, pursued by a voice giving a macabre description of how the process of preserving an animal is achieved.
There were quite a few other shockers, and while the story ends on a satisfying note, it also left me with questions, and no matter how much I would like those questions answered, it made me look at the book in a new light and appreciate it all the more. I had hoped there was a sequel. There isn’t. But in spite of the gloomy, dark, oppressive atmosphere of the book, I found myself fascinated with so many things – Catherine’s seizures, taxidermy, Edith’s past, Maude’s story, Leonard’s duality, even H.M. Mason himself. Nevill gives enough detail to satisfy and create good closure, but my appetite was never completely satisfied. The perfect kind of book – always leaving the reader wanting more.

Some favorite passages from the book:

Speechless, Catherine turned about. And saw red squirrels in frock coats paused in the eating of nuts upon the piano. She looked away and a fox grinned at her from the low table it stalked across. A company of rats in khaki uniforms all stood on their hind legs on parade on the mantel.
She turned again and came face to face with a crowd of pretty kittens in colorful dresses, jostling to get a look at her from inside a tall cabinet. Some of them were taking tea. Others curtsied.
A dog that watched Catherine with a single wet brown eye under a raised brow. In the sunlight that fell through the arched windows the dog’s ruby fur shimmered. The dog, at least, must be real.

*

Unmoving, Catherine looked at them for a while, nonsensically feeling her presence was an intrusion upon a moment of deep intimacy. She also felt the cold shock of carnal betrayal. A disgust at death. And grasped the horribly simple fact that someone could be alive, but go to the wrong place and then not be alive.

victorian taxidermy

photo source – the insane Victorian taxidermy of Walter Potter

*My rating: 4/5 stars
*Read in October-November 2014

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Writing Down the Bones (first published in 1986) – Natalie Goldberg

WDTB This was recommended to me by one of my NaNo buddies and it was the perfect book to read while trying to create my novel. November can be a stressful month – having to come up with fifty thousand words in thirty days can feel like a burden sometimes, so anything I can do to help me reach that goal is more than welcome.

Writing Down the Bones often takes a spiritual approach to writing. Natalie Goldberg makes parallels between meditation and writing, and they make sense. Writing is a lonely process, and so is meditation, but it’s not a book about meditation, or about running, it’s a book about writing (interesting how writers often compare running to writing – Murakami comes to mind).

She has an encouraging voice, she gives examples from personal life, she even gives some writing exercises that can be done in order to get creativity flowing. Her tips for getting down to work – making an appointment with a friend to discuss writing, rewarding herself with a cookie (or four), setting down time for writing, writing first thing in the morning, filling a notebook a month, and teaching a writing class, they all sound wonderful. As I read I began to tick off the ones I’ve tried and worked for me – the first is the best. The last I haven’t tried but it does sound like fun – learning while teaching. The cookies don’t work for me because I can have as many as I like and not feel guilty, and if I do feel guilty I eat them anyway. Too easy, too convenient. So is writing first thing in the morning and writing in that notebook (I do write sometimes when I’m out but since I only go out during weekends, that’s pretty limited). Trying to find a balance between being a slacker and having a schedule is the hardest thing.

Goldberg taught writing for years. She describes her experience during the classes, how she works with the students, and even shares samples from these courses and the poetry readings she has been to. I particularly liked this poem by Russell Edson because it’s funny and unexpected and I never would have thought writing about a toilet could produce such an interesting result:

With Sincerest Regrets

Like a white snail the toilet slides into the living room,
demanding to be loved.
It is impossible, and we tender our sincerest regrets.
In the book of the heart there is no mention made of plumbing.
And though we have spent our intimacy many times
with you, you belong to an unfortunate reference,
which we would rather not embrace…
The toilet slides out of the living room like a white snail,
flushing with grief….

This is a book I can see myself reading again and again. What Goldberg writes about may not be all new and if you’ve read any books about writing some things may even sound the same, but there are pages, passages, words, that strike a chord and I find myself going back and re-reading them.

Some favorite passages:

When we walk around Paris, my friend is afraid of being lost and she is very panicky. I don’t fear being lost. If I am lost, I am lost. That is all. I look on my map and find my way. I even like to wander the streets of Paris not particularly knowing where I am. In the same way I need to wander in the field of aloneness and learn to enjoy it, and when loneliness bites, take out a map and find my way out without panic, without jumping to the existential nothingness of the world, questioning everything – “Why should I be a writer?” – and pushing myself off the abyss.

When you accept writing as what you are supposed to do, after you’ve tried everything else – marriage, hippiedom, traveling, living in Minnesota or New York, teaching, spiritual practices – there’s finally no place else to go. So no matter how big the resistance, there is one day, there is the next day, and the writing work ahead. You can’t depend on its going smoothly day after day. It won’t be that way. You might have one day that is superb, productive, and the next time you write, you are ready to sign up on a ship headed for Saudi Arabia. There are no guarantees. You might think you have finally created a rhythm with three days running, and the next day the needle scratches the record and you squeak through it, teeth on edge.

Have you read any books on writing? Do you have any favorites?

*My rating: 5/5 stars
*Read in November 2014

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