Monthly Archives: December 2014

The end is near

And I’m not talking about the world.

Today should have been the last day for our read-along of Nabokov’s Lolita. However, my co-host Vishy and I have decided to postpone it to next weekend, so if you’d like to join us, you still can. I have to admit I did finish the book but haven’t written a review yet – it’s hard to think about marshalling my thoughts into coherent words to express the beauty and perversity of this book at this time of the year.

I did however, spend some time in the kitchen for a traditional potato salad. My Thai writing still needs a lot of practice but I think you can guess what I tried to say with those butchered gherkins.

This year I’ve managed to read 50 books (not counting one which I abandoned halfway through). It’s been a good reading year and I discovered a couple of very interesting series, but more about this in a future post, next year.

Happy New Year to everyone, may 2015 be full of great surprises and amazing books!

Potato salad






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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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Flash fiction – The Bleeding Snowflake

In an attempt to take my mind off Lolita (Oh, Lolita! I feel sorry for you, poor corrupt child, but more on that in another post) I went over to terribleminds and found a new flash fiction challenge – the random title. Now I bent the rules a little and took my pick of the words given and came up with this title. Maybe it’s because December is here, and it’s hot, and today I saw a plastic Christmas tree, and it made me remember snowflakes. And maybe it’s because I do miss winter just a little bit, not too much, and in writing this I conjured up for a moment the feeling of holding a tiny snowflake in my hand.

*

In the great space that was the quiet night, the clouds gathered. They rumbled and grumbled and shook their great bulk. Then it was decided.

As with every year, this was not easy, the violent and suave separation, the letting go of the great whiteness only to be swept with the others, buried, dead, forgotten. What was it that made them fall year after year? And still, it must be done. The clouds were full and soon they would let their children fall and watch them float away from their great bulk and they would be burdened with sadness while their bellies became lighter and lighter, until they could float again, instead of being anchored towards the earth, forced to relinquish their treasure, their sweet, soft darlings who would float into the void below.

At the appointed time they stood dispersed across the great sunless sky and began to shake. The snowflakes fell with a great silent roar, leaving deep white wounds in the great clouds. And they continued their journey, swirled around by the melancholy breeze, their life but a glimpse, a whisper of white flurries, going to their doom. And one of them would be caught by tiny hands and marveled at and then squeezed, bleeding through tiny fingers that would remember its iciness for one brief second.






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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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NaNo thoughts and what else I’ve been doing in November

It’s been almost a month since I disappeared somewhere in the dark and exhilarating vortex that is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo but now that it’s finally over, I can come up and think about something else other than vampires, kings and queens, pirates, and the red dress my female character was wearing.

Some things I took away from my second year of doing NaNo:

– It gets easier, in a way, although it’s not really easy. Knowing I did it once made me confident enough that I could do it again. The first time around I had no idea if I could do it so the stress was higher.
– Less preparation meant I didn’t really have time to get acquainted with the idea behind my story. Last year I used the beginning from an earlier story I started some years ago (rewrote it completely but kept the idea), and a bunch of sticky notes I could go back to; this year I didn’t write anything anywhere, it was all in my head.
– Taking advantage of support early on instead of waiting until I was at the end of my rope was a great idea. Skype word races with NaNo buddies gave me the push I needed.
– Changing the writing space was good. Sitting on the couch with the laptop felt much more relaxed than sitting on the office chair at my desk which is actually an old dressing table. The mirror does distract from writing (I’m making a face at myself in the mirror as I’m writing this).

Although my reading has considerably slowed down in November, I still managed to read two excellent books– Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill. The former is a great pep talk for people who want to write, complete with some writing exercises and shared personal experiences. The latter is an excellent horror novel. Reviews coming soon.

I listened to some good music, Two Steps from Hell with Protectors of the Earth (think epic movies) and Coldplay with Lost (which was my NaNo song this year because it has a great rhythm).

I went to a book sale and came away with three books I can’t wait to start reading – The Christmas Train in particular, as I love to read Christmas themed books this time of year.

20141201_221512_7_bestshot

I also got a Kindle and have mixed feelings about it. While I suspected this moment would eventually arrive, I still feel like a traitor, even though I know I shouldn’t. A story is a story, no matter if it’s on a paper page or a screen, but rationalizing about it doesn’t make me feel better. Maybe it’s a question of getting used to it.

And finally, this coming weekend is the start of Lolita read-along I’m co-hosting with Vishy. If you haven’t made up your mind to join yet, there’s still time. You can post your review any time from the 27th to the last day of the year.






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