Friday, October 29, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Dial Press, 2008
274 pages

Though you've likely already heard this from many other people by this point, I must add my voice to the chorus: this is a really lovely book. It is funny, sweet, moving, and sometimes deeply sad. I think one of the things I appreciated most about it, though, was how the humour and healing were injected after the darkest moments; the dark parts were not glossed over, but they were moved past once they'd had their time. Some of the story seems a little improbable; I don't know how closely it follows what really happened on Guernsey and the other Channel Islands during the war, but I imagine many of the facts about life in an occupied territory were quite closely observed. I also imagine that some of the people during the Occupation handled themselves with the grace and aplomb of the Literary Society.

Juliet is the author of a successful series of humour columns, published throughout the war (World War II) under a pen name. She's working her way through a book tour now that the war is over, and stressing over what to write next. Simply put, this is the story, told in letters, telegrams, and a few journal entries, of how Juliet finds her next book topic. Underneath, it's a story of survival and grace under terrible conditions, of love of reading and literature, of how reaching out to strangers can have unexpected and wonderful consequences. It's also a story of a community grieving and trying to heal itself after deep hurts have been inflicted upon it.

The writing is skillful. I have come to the conclusion that I am extremely predisposed to like epistolary novels, but it's not always easy to give a full sense of character through letters only, or a full sense of plot without it coming off as contrived. Books that do it, and do it well, make me so happy. This one -- it's like unwrapping a gift. I prefer the slower storyline and reveal in an epistolary novel versus a regular novel, because in the regular novel I'm far more likely to become impatient with a slower pace. With letters, I'm happy to follow wherever the writer wishes to take me.

It's not so hard with these characters, as charming and full as they are. I dearly liked Juliet, and I missed many of the Society's letters when (small spoiler!) Juliet makes it to Guernsey. I was impressed with how large and diverse the cast of characters was, and how I was able to keep track of who was who and probably would have been able to even without names attached. They had distinctive voices and styles.

My only complaint is that there is one point, near the very end, when we switch from letters to a secondary character's journal, and I would much have preferred to see the events from the point of view of the participants themselves. So I was quite disappointed, but I think I understand how difficult it might have been to contrive for Juliet, for example, to have written about the events in a letter.

Overall, a really gentle and lively book, well worth its accolades. Very glad to have read it. Recommended to fans of war stories who are not really fans of gore; also for those who like epistolary novels, humour, and a slightly slower pace to their story.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Bantam Classic edition, 1986
924 pages

How does one review Sherlock Holmes? I mean, these are classic stories. And reading them, one recognizes why they are. Holmes is a compelling character, and the crimes he solves are improbable and often quirky; the stories themselves are generally short and satisfying. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is charming, sort of.

This volume I have encompasses the earliest Holmes stories from A Study in Scarlet to The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, which ends with the somewhat unmemorable "The Adventure of the Second Stain". I have been reading it for probably two years now, picking it up now and then when I need something diverting, and I was finding that I was having a hard time getting in to anything else with the gorgeous reef fish distracting me.

(Seriously, I did spend copious amounts of time just lying on our deck looking down into the water to watch the fish. It was tremendously relaxing.)

Let me state upfront, I am an unabashed Sherlock Holmes fan. He is an ornery bastard, cocky and arrogant, and sexist, classist, and racist in the ways a highly-educated Victorian bachelor gentleman could be. He insults Watson frequently and Watson, in awe as he is, just rolls over. So why do I love the man? I can't explain it. I think it's largely because he is so sure of himself, and both intelligence and a strong sense of justice are sexy. But even more, I think it is that I have such a crystal clear sense of his character, and did from A Study in Scarlet on. As a character he is complete and fully-formed and fascinating. And my final thought is that it's almost as if Watson infects me as a reader; I don't care that some of Holmes' deductions are based on the extremely ridiculous pseudo-science of physiognomy. I don't care that his opinion of women is generally obnoxious. I just want more. I love that he solves the crimes so easily, generally, and that he only wants the mysteries that have a little quirk or oddness to them, and that he has a slightly insecure need for applause.

Some of the stories are weaker than others, of course. Among my favourites are the classic funny "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" and the frankly frightening "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" -- combined with my absolute favourite, "Silver Blaze", I would say that these three consist of the must-reads of the canon. I'm also partial to "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" and "Five Orange Pips" is certainly creepy in its own right.

Before getting through this collection, I'd never read "The Final Problem" in which Holmes was to have met his match in Moriarty, and his demise. I'd thus never realized that Moriarty was only ever present in one story, and I kept waiting to meet him; I'd always built him up to be a much more consistent character across the canon. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that he only appears in one short story -- and not a very good one, at that, to be honest. It smacks of the worst sort of deus ex machina -- "Hey Watson, all these crimes I've investigated over the years, it was this dude running the show! Who I never mentioned before! And I've never mentioned that I think there might be some sort of ringleader! I've never even alluded to it!" And once they're over the Falls, Moriarty is done, though he certainly does cast his shadow over a few of the following short stories.

This surprises me a little, in that I'd heard that the stories following "The Final Problem" were mostly ridiculous and slapdash because Conan Doyle didn't really want to keep writing Holmes, but I actually found "The Final Problem" to be the worst of the group, where the one immediately following, "The Adventure of the Empty House" is actually pretty decent for a feat of narrative gymnastics in which you bring a character back from the dead. I don't dislike "The Final Problem" because Holmes "dies," but because of the way it's done. It's very much Doyle being done with his character and getting rid of him as conveniently as possible, and it comes across as lazy. I don't know if I would have found it to be as thin and see-through if I hadn't known there were more stories coming; but I can certainly believe I would have been shocked and appalled as a reader, because the "final" story really doesn't do the character justice. It's no wonder to me that Conan Doyle was forced to bring him back, and I must admit I think it serves him a little bit right for being so sloppy in the writing of "The Final Problem".

I have The Hound of the Baskervilles sitting on my desk at work, and I'm rather itching to get back to Mary Russell in Laurie R. King's wonderful series (though I do not like her treatment of Watson). The above short stories, save "The Final Problem", are the ones I recommend to first-time Holmes readers, as giving a sense of both the character and the author at his best. And I recommend everyone reading some Holmes at some point, because his influence appears everywhere in our culture. I wouldn't recommend reading this collection straight through, as it is MASSIVE and towards the end, especially, some of the stories start to run together. But as a pick-up-put-down diversion, I'm not sure Sherlock Holmes can be beat.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline
by Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins, 2002
162 pages

So, I picked this as our parent-kid book club read for October, thinking "It's a little scary and quite atmospheric for Hallowe'en!" Apparently I had no idea how right I was, as I had a number of parents say "We had to stop reading this! It was too scary!" and a couple who said, "We decided not to read this to our kids; we didn't want to deal with the nightmares."

And of course, the kids who did end up reading it loved it. But what can you do? I am not a book slave-driver. I am not going to make kids read books that frighten them. I am not going to make parents deal with nightmares; every parent knows their kid best. That is not really the reading experience I want to provide kids with. So, instead of focusing mostly on the book, we're going to focus on what scary is, and whether we like to be scared, and why some people like scary books and some don't.

I usually fall into the "don't" category myself, but I really liked Coraline. It definitely had its creepy moments, but as I was reading it in bright sunshine on a deck overlooking the Caribbean, I was able to deal with them reasonably well. And it is a kids' book, so it's not like the creepyness is overboard. And it's Neil Gaiman, so it's handled with panache.

Coraline (not Caroline, thank you very much) is bored. They've just moved into a new flat, and her parents are too busy to take much mind of her. School doesn't start for a week, and it's raining outside -- so it's time to explore. When Coraline opens a door that leads to a world that is the exact mirror image of her flat, she finds it's populated with mirror images of her parents, her neighbours, and the exact same black cat. Only things are not all they seem, and despite her other mother's promises to make Coraline perfectly happy, something just doesn't feel right. Perhaps it's the fact that the black cat talks in the other mother's world, or that everyone has buttons for eyes... or perhaps it's that when Coraline returns to her own world, she finds that her real parents seem to have disappeared...

I really enjoyed this story. The little girl off to rescue her parents, frightened but brave, reminded me a lot of the Miyazaki movie Spirited Away which is one of my favourite movies of all time. The setting is tremendously atmospheric, and the magic seems to have rules but they're not explained to us, nor to Coraline; she just feels things out and uses her ample wits to make her way through the world. Which is what life is like, I find, as much for an adult as it is for kids. I liked Coraline very much, and she felt genuine: kids that age do get bored, and the world seems grey and drab, and the adults seem too busy to care about the big problems, such as finding something to do.

This is definitely a recommended read, and I'd recommend it to anyone over the age of six. Of course, some of those people are going to find it too scary, and some of their parents will be rather vocal about how it's not appropriate for that age (sigh) but it really is; it provides lots to talk about, and if you have a reader who likes something a little spooky, then this is an excellent, beautifully written choice. Also: cats.

The cat yawned slowly, carefully, revealing a mouth and tongue of astounding pinkness. "Cats don't have names," it said.

"No?" said Coraline.

"No," said the cat. "Now, you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Still Life by Louise Penny

(enjoying Panama's rainy season)

If you were not already aware (and very few were) we've been away for a week. In Panama. It was a bird-watching thing, and a canal thing, and a beach thing, and a reading thing, and a no-computer thing, and a general "get the hell out of here for a bit" thing. We've been planning it for months, and then suddenly it happened, and it was really lovely. And one of the things that happened is that, in a small way, I started reading again. Not as much as I'd hoped for (I packed my allowed 8 lbs of books and only got through about 4 lbs of them), but enough that I'm going to have reviews for a couple of weeks, anyways.

Still Life
by Louise Penny
Headline, 2005
312 pages

The first book I read, started on the plane there, was Still Life by Louise Penny. This was a pick for my library-based genre book club, and of course fit the ticket as a mystery. Also, it's an award-winner, and it's Canadian. Plus, it helps greatly that I've been meaning to read this book for quite a while, and I'm very pleased to say that it doesn't disappoint.

The book, as many mysteries do, begins with a murder. It's a shocking murder because the victim was someone everyone loved, and even upon inspection appears to have been one of those genuinely good and decent people. There are red herrings, everyone's a suspect, and some are more suspicious than others. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surite du Quebec is called in with his team to investigate, and so begins Louise Penny's most excellent Three Pines Mystery series. This is a series that has been garnering a lot of attention in certain circles, and so I was really quite keen to introduce it to my adventuresome group of genre readers.

The characters, both the residents of the village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and the police officers called in to investigate the murder, are generally fascinating. Some are much more likeable than others. The cast is large and varied, a great ensemble. Some of them were immensely, immediately likeable -- I particularly liked Gamache, and his deputy, and Myrna the bookshop owner. Some of them were exceedingly difficult; here I'm thinking of Agent Nichol, a detective trainee who refuses to be trained. Actually, I had a fair bit of trouble with her character in that she was almost -- almost -- unbelievably dense for someone who is supposed to be good enough to be included on Gamache's team. I don't know if she shows up further down the line, though I can't imagine that things are left with her the way they were. Her insistence on ignoring guidance and refusing to take responsibility, and her complete self-absorption, not to mention her complete inability to read people, seems almost pathological. I wondered if maybe it was, or if she was set up as a foil to the murderer, or both; at any rate, I felt it was maybe a bit overdone, in that while she seemed to have shades of grey at first she kept creeping further and further into something that was almost farcical.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, often within the same paragraph. This can be a bit confusing, and occassionally I had to stop and wonder whose head I was in this time, and it's not always done particularly gracefully. Also, some of the philisophical discussions between characters, particularly towards the beginning of the book seems a bit long-winded and clumsy. That may partially have been me trying to get into the style of the book. Some of the later ones I thought were quite well done.

The mystery itself is really quite excellent. I had suspicions about most of the characters and it turned out that I was never actually on to the real killer; the red herrings are generally subtle though not always, and the clues do lead in the right direction if one picks up on them. It did not come completely out of left field. There's even a really masterful piece of misdirection midway through, but with that much of the book remaining one sort of figured it couldn't be over yet. I like that there is a definite showing of procedure; Gamache does some of the footwork, but he also does a lot of delegation. Some of the results of this we see, and some we don't. But we know that it's not just Gamache working on the murder case -- it's a whole team, which seems like it would be very true-to-life.

There's a fair bit going on in this book, mystery aside. There's marital strife, though a really beautiful relationship there, too. There's small-town community and the difficulties of it (though this book is generally much more positive on small towns than most Canadian fiction I've read). There's gay-bashing, there's art and discussions about what it is and is not, there's change and things not changing, maturity and immaturity. Being also that Three Pines is an Anglo village in Quebec, the book touches on the topic of Anglophone-Francophone relations, and I would be completely unsurprised if this series touches on that a fair bit more in the books ahead. The book is packed, and I'm looking forward to unpacking it tonight with the book club.

It's not exactly a standard cozy mystery, in that Jane Neal has a true personality and we actually do care that she was killed; and things are changed, forever, in Three Pines because of the murder. Those closest to Jane are going to be forever scarred, and some of them even damaged beyond repair. So it will be very interesting to see how this progresses in the next book of the series, A Fatal Grace.