Monthly Archives: August 2014

R.I.P. IX – intro post

RIP 9 badge My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep
As it is lasting, so be deep!
Soft may the worms about her creep!
Far in the forest, dim and old,
For her may some tall vault unfold-
Some vault that oft has flung its black
And winged panels fluttering back,
Triumphant, o’er the crested palls,
Of her grand family funerals-
Some sepulchre, remote, alone,
Against whose portal she hath thrown,
In childhood, many an idle stone-
Some tomb from out whose sounding door
She ne’er shall force an echo more,
Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!
It was the dead who groaned within.

(Edgar Allan Poe – excerpt from “The Sleeper”)

I’ve been waiting for this event to start for months now, but when I saw Carl’s post this rainy morning I still could not believe it. Surely, it’s not September yet, I said to myself and rushed to check the calendar. It may not be September but this doesn’t mean we can’t start early. This makes me very, very happy, because I’ve been choosing my books all year and watched them lovingly, wondering which I should read first. So I sat down to write this post to the sound of Sister of Night by Depeche Mode which is a dark, dark song, and perfect for the occasion.

If you’re new to this, R.I.P. is short for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, a reading event which takes place every year from September 1st to October 31st. During this time you can read anything from these categories:

Mystery.
Suspense.
Thriller.
Dark Fantasy.
Gothic.
Horror.
Supernatural.

You can also watch movies that fall into these categories and there’s even a read-along of “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson hosted by The Estella Society. I’m hoping to join if I find a copy of the book this weekend.
Many thanks to Carl for hosting this event – in its 9th year now, and may it go on for many more – and to Abigail Larson, the artist who created the gorgeous badges.

These are the books I would like to read, plus Frankenstein by Mary Shelley which I found on projectguttenberg.com and so I’ll be reading it on my tablet. I’m probably not going to be able to read them all, considering that two of them are short story collections (and quite chunky, too) but one can only hope.
Now, the question is, which should be first? Any suggestions?
Are you taking part in R.I.P. this year? What are you planning to read?

RIP pic 1






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On the Holloway Road – Andrew Blackman

After reading A Virtual Love last year, I made it one of my New Year’s resolutions to read On the Holloway Road, Andrew Blackman’s first novel who won the Luke Bitmead Award in 2008.

Because it was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I was a little worried that I might miss something important if I don’t read that one first, but decided to go ahead and read it anyway. Perhaps I’ll read Kerouac’s book one day, but I’m in no hurry.

On the Holloway Road The story follows Jack and Neil, two young men in their twenties who strike a friendship one night in London, on the Holloway Road. Jack lives with his mother and dreams of one day finishing his novel, a complicated story that he had been trying to complete for a while with no success. Neil is a drifter, a free spirit who takes things as they come, whose exuberance and joy for living are mixed with a carefree attitude and little thought to consequences. Neil lives in the now. Jack lives in the shadow of it. Both of them are united by a lack or purpose, of a tangible goal, until they decide to take a road trip in Jack’s car, follow the road, have adventures, see what might happen. But their dream of embracing the spontaneity of the unknown doesn’t quite fit with the regulations of the present. There are rules to be obeyed, and before long Jack breaks a few, which makes him constantly worry about having his driver’s license revoked.

Neil is exciting to be with. His brash actions, loud mouth and exuberant attitude make Jack feel like a pale copy of who he thinks he should be. Neil is the spark, the adventure, the unknown. He is a shooting star, a meteorite burning brightly before crashing to the earth, the flame that burns the moths attracted to its light. He wants something new, something fascinating, something that’s never been tried before, while Jack is just content to tag along in the hope that some of his friend’s enthusiasm for life will rub off on him. He admires Neil but he’s also a little afraid of him. Although he would like to be more excited about things going on around him, he feels he can’t. In a way, it felt like something was holding him back, what that was, I don’t know. Fear perhaps, of standing out too much, of breaking the rules, while trying in his quiet way small acts of rebellion against the system – not owning a cell phone or holding a job.
Over the course of their trip they discuss friendship, work, and that ever present issue, the purpose of life.

As I was reading I was wandering what will happen in the end, how long will the trip last, what revelation will they come to. Will they find a purpose, a solution, a conclusion, a job, maybe Jack will finally catch a break and finish that novel, perhaps even become famous, and will Neil finally quench that anger that seems to be burning inside him, making him restless and volatile? In a way, I dreaded the ending, because I knew my expectations were unrealistic, but I was unable to let go of hope, of something better for the protagonists after their modern day trials. I was not disappointed. The end came crashing, and it was fitting, even though I had hoped for something less heart wrenching. I had hoped that Jack would finally be able to shake that feeling of gloom and do something, anything that would lift him from the pit he seemed to be descending into day by day. I even think he managed to climb up halfway at least when he met Neil, but it didn’t last long. In the end, he was down even deeper.

On the Holloway Road is the perfect name for this adventure of self discovery, not only because that is the way the two protagonists take to get out of the city, but because even though the journey brings about some self discoveries, in the end I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all like the name of the road, hollow.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014






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Candide and Other Writings – Voltaire

Candide I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, and when I saw a copy at a library book sale I immediately grabbed it and added it to my TBR shelf. And because lately I’ve been reading a lot of slim books, I finally picked this one up and started reading. This book contains three stories: Candide, Zadig, and Micromegas, and also an interesting summary on the life and works of Voltaire (real name Francois Marie Arouet), whose rebellious nature and radical philosophical ideas made him famous.

“He never hesitated to use his personal fame to convince, provoke, and inflame where he thought necessary. He contributed greatly to the creation of modern forum of political/moral debate by fostering an environment of inquiry and interpellation at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so.”

Denounce, without being able to be accused of being an informer; bite, without cruelty; trample, without malice; kill, while maintaining the appearance of the most angelic innocence.

*

The first is the story of Candide, an innocent, well-mannered young man who lives in the castle of the noble Baron of Thundertentrunk in Westphalia and studies philosophy under the tutelage of Pangloss, who used to teach “the science of metaphysico-theologo-cosmologo-noodleology”. That is, he was a firm believer in the idea that there is no effect without a cause and that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds. This idea will follow Candide in all his many adventures, as he is rudely kicked out of the castle for inappropriate behavior towards beautiful miss Cunegund and travels across continents in the hope that one day he will be reunited with her.
Those adventures include a very painful encounter with the Bulgarians, natural disasters, finding unlikely friends in odd places, and killing in the name of love.

While the descriptions and some of those adventures may sound quite brutal, there’s an underlying layer of mockery that prevents the reader from taking things too seriously. Voltaire uses his great talent for satire to talk about religion, war, love, friendship, slavery, and the greed for money, among other things. He places Candide in the most brutal and uncomfortable situations, his only defense and ally his ideas instilled in him by his tutor, Pangloss. There were times when I didn’t know if I should laugh, cry, or be outraged, but it is clear that in this story Voltaire pokes fun at the injustice and corruption of the times.

Candide is just a simple man, neither exceptionally witty nor knowledgeable about the world, and sometimes wonderfully idealistic especially when it comes to love and placing his trust in his friends. The idea that drives him, to be reunited with his love, doesn’t turn out like he expected; in fact, in a vicious twist of fate, the very qualities he admired the most in miss Cunegund are lost and our hero is faced with an uncomfortable decision. But because he is such a positive character, he does what he thinks is honorable and finds contentment in living a simple life.

The whole story has a feeling of Arabian Nights about it, not only because of the astonishing reversals of luck and incredible adventures, but also because of the chapter titles that give a clear idea of what is going to happen. This feeling is even more prevalent in the next story, Zadig, which takes place in Babylon.

Zadig is a rich young man, wise and educated, kind-hearted and good looking, possessor of an array of fine qualities that make him respected and envied by his fellow men. In spite of all his many attributes, he finds himself in some very sticky situations, whether by the hand of envious people or trapped by his own beliefs. He is in turn the adviser of a king, slave, champion of the oppressed, and umpire of philosophical as well as commercial disputes. Still, his great talents are put to the test when he falls in love with queen Astarte, wife of the king, and he is forced to leave the castle for fear of being killed.

Once again Voltaire explores what it means to be human, and how a gifted man whose only purpose is to help others is in turn punished, almost killed, and in the end forced to run for his life. His tribulations seem never ending but one thing Zadig never does is to try and change his nature. In spite of his many misfortunes, he remains true to his own character, even if that almost always seem to turn out badly for him. This is a story similar to that of Candide, but also different. While it follows the same pattern of trials and tribulations the main character has to go through, Zadig is wise and lucky enough to recognize people’s intentions and to save his skin. The ending is a bit brighter this time as well, but the happily ever after doesn’t come easily. From all three stories, this is the most fairy-tale like.

Micromegas, the third and last story, was quite a surprise. Gone are the fairy tale/Arabian Nights influences that seem to heavily influence the first two stories, to be replaced by space. Using science fiction as a background, Voltaire tells the story of two beings – Micromegas, who lives on a planet that revolves around the star Sirius, and a native of Saturn, the Saturnian. They are huge beings by our standards and posses a much longer life span. In their conversations, they explore topics like the senses, colors, and time. They decide to travel together to see other places and they arrive on Earth.

Voltaire describes our planet as seen by the two travel companions. They judge its size and appearance, find it “ill-constructed” and “irregular” and decide that no “people of sense would wish to occupy such a dwelling”. They look for signs of life and can’t seem to find any at first, but when they try harder they discover a ship and try to communicate with the people on board, some of which are philosophers. The exchange that ensues is quite funny.

Under the shelter of philosophy, Voltaire explores once again universal issues – the passage of time, knowledge, wars over the possession of land, the nature of human soul, religion. Man is never satisfied with how much time he has, or how much land he has, or how much knowledge he has, but then neither are the two visitors. In spite their difference in size and life style, the visitors are astonished to discover they have quite a few things in common with the inhabitants of the strange shaped planet. But perhaps the most astonishing thing happens when Micromegas promises to gift them with a rare book that contains “all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things”. I confess I was curious when I got to this part and couldn’t wait to see what was in the book. It was opened in Paris, at the Academy of Sciences, but if you really want to find out what was in it you will have to read the story. All I can say is that it made perfect sense, and the story couldn’t have had a better ending.

This is my first encounter with Voltaire’s work. Behind references to famous philosophers – Locke, Leibnitz, Aristotle, and Malebranche, some of which I knew and some new to me, his work is made accessible by the universal themes he explores. His tone is in turn sarcastic and funny and sometimes biting. He’s not afraid to expose an injustice, punish an evil or poke fun at sensitive topics. His characters are not perfect but their nature, be it simple or wise, is tested to the limits. He sparks witty dialogues that underneath their academic knowledge hide social and political issues valid to this day. He made me wonder. He made me nod in agreement. And he made me realize that time has done nothing to the nature of man, that issues that were discussed and dissected more than two hundred years ago are still fresh today.

I leave you with some of my favorite passages:

“We have more matter than we need,” said he, “the cause of much evil, if evil proceeds from matter; and we have too much mind, if evil proceeds from the mind. Are you aware, for instance, that at this very moment while I am speaking to you, there are a hundred thousand fools of our species who wear hats, slaying a hundred thousand fellow creatures who wear turbans, or being massacred by them, and that over all the earth such practices have been going on from time immemorial?”

*

“How long do you people live?” asked the Sirian.
“Ah! a very short time,” replied the little man of Saturn.
“That is just the way with us,” said the Sirian; “we are always complaining of the shortness of life. This must be a universal law of nature.”

*

…“you see how it is our fate to die almost as soon as we are born; our existence is a point, our duration an instant, our globe an atom. Scarcely have we begun to acquire a little information when death arrives before we can put it to use. For my part, I do not venture to lay any schemes; I feel myself like a drop of water in a boundless ocean. I am ashamed, especially before you, of the absurd figure I make in this universe.”

*

“I have seen mortals far below us, and others as greatly superior; but I have seen none who have not more desires than real wants, and more wants than they can satisfy. I shall some day, perhaps, reach the country where there is lack of nothing, but hitherto no one has been able to give me any positive information about it.”

*

“The dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less wretched than we are. The Dutch fetishes who have converted me tell me every Sunday that we are all the children of Adam, blacks and whites alike. I am no genealogist; but, if those preachers say what is true, we are all second cousins. In that case you must admit that relations could not be treated in a more horrible way.”

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014






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The Time Keeper – Mitch Albom

The Time Keeper It’s been years since I read Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, but I still remember the book as one of the best memoirs I have come across. Its message of love, life, and acceptance in the face of death had left me in a state of melancholy for days, and having seen his latest novel, The Time Keeper, at a library book sale, I immediately grabbed it and began reading the first pages on the spot. But I didn’t finish it that day. I kept it, like a little treasure, to be savored later, after a chunky book perhaps. Weeks later I picked it up again and this time it didn’t take me long to go through it.

Mixing fantasy with religious elements and real life situations, the novel tells the story of Dor, the first man who began to measure time ever since he was young. From hours to days and months and then years, measuring time with sticks, then water, Dor becomes obsessed, and what started as a hobby slowly takes over his life. When his wife dies, Dor is punished to live his life in solitude, in a cave, haunted by the words of the people who, having perfected the measurement of time, complain of having too much or too little of it. After many lifetimes spent inside the cave, where time has stopped, Dor is sent back among the people to find and save two souls as a way to better understand his creation.

How do you save two people, one who wants to die because of a broken heart, and the other who thinks the future holds the key to a longer life span? How do you tell them that time is precious, that it can’t be turned back, that you have to make the most of it now? How do you tell them that broken hearts can mend and that money can buy so many things but never time? Will Dor succeed in his mission? Will he be able to make two people truly understand the meaning of time and in doing so, understand it himself? Or will he forever be punished to listen to the tormented voices complaining about something they can’t control?

Once again, Albom has tried to explore human emotions in a tale that seems magical and real at the same time. Fast paced, told in snippets that alternate between stories without getting confusing or losing focus, this is a story of time and a reminder that no matter what we do, time will run its course and it can’t be stopped.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in August, 2014






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A writing project, a new favorite author, and The Rats

I have been busy these past couple of months. I finished my first novel (started last year during NaNoWriMo), which made me very happy. The ending eluded me for quite some time but when it came it was perfect and worth the wait. Some things cannot be rushed, but they can’t be left unfinished forever, either. And with November just around the corner, I’m already thinking about novel number two.

I still managed to find enough time to read, even if only for a few minutes every night, though to be honest those minutes ran into an hour or more and there were many times when I looked at my watch to discover with astonishment that midnight had already come and gone. So I became great friends with instant coffee – a double edged sword, because while it served to wake me up in the morning, it also kept me up at night. But I’m not complaining, because I got to read some amazing books. I was planning to wait until September and read them as part of R.I.P., a challenge hosted by Carl from Stainlesssteeldroppings, but then they looked too tempting to wait that long. So I didn’t.

Speaks the Nightbird – Robert McCammon

A historical fiction novel placed in 1699 in The Carolinas, Speaks the Nightbird is a mystery that kept me turning all of its nearly 800 pages in quite a hurry. Matthew Corbett is a young clerk working for Magistrate Woodward. He is twenty years old, sharp of mind, and curious, a trait that will often land him into trouble. But these qualities are essential, for the work that needs to be done in Fount Royal, the town he and Woodward are traveling to, requires a mind able to untangle a case of witchcraft.

Speaks the Nightbird1

Rachel Howarth is a young widow accused of using the dark arts to kill two men, one of them her husband. Witnesses swear to having seen her perform unnatural acts, and the founder of the town wants nothing more than to see her burn at the stake. But in spite of the damning testimonies – as witnesses confess to all having seen the same thing – Matthew finds there’s more to the whole story and he starts investigating on his own, as Woodward falls ill and fights for his life.

The most intriguing part in the book was reading about the people of Fount Royal. It seems that the colonies, with their promise of a new life, had attracted a fair share of people who hoped that by leaving behind their old life, they could hide and forge a new one. The local teacher, the doctor, the traveling preacher and the rat catcher, a young actor, a servant, the smith, they all have their own secrets to protect and as Matthew begins to stir things up and makes connections, he is able to get to the heart of what is truly haunting the fledgling town. He finds treasure in an unexpected place, befriends a slave, travels through dangerous territory and barely escapes with his life on more than one occasion. He meets Indians, is attacked by a giant bear, and learns that truth requires the highest price, which he is willing to pay.
What made him an interesting character was not only his curiosity, but also his need to expose the truth. An orphan, Matthew grew up in an orphanage, and had very few friends. Magistrate Woodward chose him as his apprentice, and the two men had a relationship close to that between a father and a son. Woodward had his secrets, too, and Matthew heard snippets of them at night, when the magistrate was tormented by nightmares.

This was my first Robert McCammon book, and I loved it so much that when I finished reading it I went out and bought the second one. It’s the first in the Matthew Corbett series, with a total of five books released so far, out of the ten book series planned by the author. Two books down, three more to go, and as for the rest I’ll just have to wait patiently. If you’re curious, here’s an excerpt from the author’s website.

Speaks the Nightbird The second book in the series, The Queen of Bedlam, starts in 1702, three years after the first one. Matthew is now working in New York, a town in its infancy, and his employer is Magistrate Powers, a friend of Matthew’s old mentor, Magistrate Woodward.

Murder is haunting the streets of New York, claiming the lives of three respectable citizens: a doctor, a successful businessman, and Matthew’s old enemy, Eben Ausley, the manager of the orphanage where Matthew grew up. Eben’s murder piques Matthew’s curiosity, and once he sets his mind to discover the connection between the victims, there is nothing left to do but get to the truth.

Details from the first book come back now and then, but even so, I think it’s safe to say that you can well enjoy this book even if you haven’t read the first one.
The Masker – as the killer is named – proves to be quite a mystery, but Matthew is up for the challenge. With the help of a few friends, among them Marmaduke Grigsby – the owner of the local newspaper, and his granddaughter, Berry – an ambitious artist in the making, Matthew gets to work. His curiosity attracts the attention of a few notable people, one of them his future employer, Mrs Herrald, who runs an agency specialized in “problem solving”. It’s not long before Matthew discovers that the assignment he’s working on, establishing the identity of a mysterious elderly woman nicknamed “the Queen of Bedlam”, is connected with the Masker’s murders, and once again he’s right in the middle of things. Danger is not far off, and Matthew is yet again forced to use all his wits in order to escape alive.

As in the previous book, McCammon succeeds in setting up an interesting case quite early in the book, and then proceeds to throw doubt upon a few of the characters. Everybody has secrets, and as they slowly surface, it feels like a well constructed web with astonishing ramifications. Who is the woman nicknamed “The Queen”, and why does she always ask for the “King’s reply”? Why is the local reverend standing in front of Madam Polly Blossom’s whorehouse at night, crying? And why is a young and successful lawyer living his life as if in a hurry to get to the end of it? As Matthew begins to understand, he uncovers a plot of astonishing proportions, and makes a deadly enemy. The blood card, a white card with a bloody fingerprint, is left for him at his house, and Matthew knows what that means: a death vow given by Professor Fell, the person whose plans he has managed to ruin in his quest for the truth. And he also knows that the Professor’s threat is the reason why he can’t let people get too close, for fear they might be killed because of him.

I had to admit I liked Speaks the Nightbird better because of its setting and also the shadow of witchcraft under which the events took place. For the longest time I was not sure what to believe, and when the ending was revealed it was so unexpected and at the same time perfectly reasonable.
The Queen of Bedlam felt more like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, which is also fine, but it didn’t have the same impact on me. I would still recommend the both of them. I’m happy to say that Robert McCammon has just become a new favorite author and I’m eager to read more of his books.

The Rats – James Herbert

My first James Herbert novel was The Secret of Crickley Hall, a great story of a haunted house, and since then I’ve made a mental note to read more of Herbert’s work. After seeing this 2014 edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, I decided it was about time to get reacquainted with Herbert’s work.

The Rats
“The Rats” was James Herbert’s first novel, published in 1974. This novel is followed by two sequels, Lair and Domain, and I’m looking forward to reading both of them sometime in the future.

Reading “The Rats” reminded me of the time when I was reading Stephen King’s The Shining. Not since then have I felt so scared, but Herbert’s novel went further and made my skin crawl. The imagery is quite graphic, with detailed descriptions of people being eaten alive by a new species of rats, faster, bigger and apparently more intelligent than their ordinary cousins, the sewer rats. Herbert gives enough details about each of the victims to make them sympathetic to the reader, but after a few gruesome deaths I started to wonder if this was ever going to be more than an endless description of rat feast.

Enters Harris, a young teacher at a local high school, who takes one of his students to the hospital after the boy gets bitten by a rat. The boy dies the next day, and as more victims arrive at the hospital and then die a painful death, the city officials try to get to the source of the problem. Harris becomes involved in the operation, and gets to see the huge rats for himself while trying to protect the students from a rat invasion. It all sounds awful, doesn’t it? At just under 200 pages, the book is packed with enough action and detail to satisfy the appetite of any horror fan. I loved it.

The ending is a promise of more gruesome things to come, and I look forward to discovering them. My only regret is that there wasn’t a book with all three novels in it. That would have made me one very happy horror fan.






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