Monday, October 29, 2012

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express
by Agatha Christie
Berkley, 2000 (originally published in 1933)
245 pages

Hooray, another conquest in our quest to read a bunch of Golden Age mystery novels! I am not doing so well with this quest; fishy is doing much better, but here, finally, is another one (the first, and only other, one I have read was Strong Poison, though I think The Big Sleep almost counts too; it's the right era, and a backlash against the original, tidy British cozies). Agatha Christie is such a giant of the mystery world, and still so very popular. I feel that reading at least one book by her is part of my ongoing quest to be a better librarian. And so we picked, with some help, the famous Murder on the Orient Express. Trains! Blizzards! Murder most foul!

Murder most incredibly complicated, more like. Let's see. The incomparable Hercule Poirot is on his way back to London after an unspecified but clearly successful investigation for the French army in Syria. He had intended to take the train to Stamboul and be a tourist for a couple days before continuing on, but an urgent telegram from London reaches him in Stamboul when they arrive, and he manages to squeeze passage on the remarkably full sleeping car, the Stamboul-Calais coach, thanks to his dear friendship with M. Bouc, the director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. And on the second night out, in the midst of a blizzard as the train is stopped by snow on the tracks, the inevitable happens: the man in the cabin next to M. Poirot is brutally murdered, stabbed twelve times, sometime between midnight and two in the morning.

It is inevitable because it is a mystery novel, of course, and Poirot knows it. In discussion with his friend M. Bouc:

"Ah!" he sighed. "If I had but the pen of a Balzac! I would depict this scene." He waved a hand.

"It is an idea, that," said Poirot.

"Ah, you agree? It has not been done, I think? And yet -- it lends itself to romance, my friend. All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never perhaps to see each other again."

"And yet," said Poirot, "suppose an accident --"

"Ah, no, my friend --"

"From your point of view it would be regrettable, I agree. But nevertheless let us just for one moment suppose it. Then, perhaps, all these here are linked together -- by death."

This is even before one of the characters petitions Poirot for help, in fear of his life. It made me laugh. I could almost hear the "dunh dunh duuuunh" after it. One cannot help but suspect that the little Belgian has good reason for his morbid speculation, though, if he keeps stumbling upon corpses all over the place. He can't even get away from murder when he's on a completely closed coach in the middle of a blizzard in the hinterlands of Europe.

We have here an archetypal cozy murder mystery: the victim no one much misses, the completely fantastic and impossibly complicated crime, and the completely closed circle of suspects, nearly all of whom seem to have secrets and be hiding some dastardly motive, the incomparable detective who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. The thing is, though I think Christie tries at least a bit, none of the characters are very likable. None of them, save the victim, are terribly dislikable either. They're just there, pieces of a puzzle for Hercule Poirot to manipulate and fiddle with until they slot into their proper places. And herein lies my biggest problem with this novel.

Now, don't get me wrong. I quite enjoyed it. It's a great puzzle. I was always on the verge of feeling I might have it, only to have Poirot poke a hole in my theory (as he does with the theories of his Watsons, M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine.) There were a few things I cottoned on to, and I think if I'd been more interested in reading the thing as a logic puzzle, as I am sure many Christie readers were/are wont to do, I could have taken notes and figured things out. I think this is Christie's attraction. It's quite fiendishly ingenious, and the solution is very neat and completely preposterous. Twisted, yet it emerges in such a way as to make perfect sense. So, very fun.

Fun, but not emotionally engaging, really. Poirot just doesn't have the attraction for me of, say, Sherlock Holmes or Brother Cadfael. The Holmes comparison is apt, because both are geniuses, and kind of unknowable in their genius. It's also unfair, because I've read so much Holmes and this is the first Poirot novel I've read.

The other problem I had was I was particularly excited to have a go at Murder on the Orient Express for reasons of setting. I have a rather romantic fascination with train travel, particularly back when train travel was the luxurious way to get around. I had a hard time, here, feeling the setting. There wasn't enough description, and I am not as familiar with the sleeper coaches of international trains as I perhaps wish I was. Even the snow and cold felt perfunctory, despite playing a critical role in the story. That said, I could see reading this book in the dead of winter with the snow flying thick in the air, and feeling a little more attached to where the action is taking place. I know there are movie depictions of this story; I'm pretty tempted, in this case, to have a watch, because I think this story is well-suited to that medium.

Emotional attachment to character isn't always a prerequisite for me to enjoy a book, and this is evidence. I enjoyed myself, but I am left feeling a little bit... unsatisfied. I do understand what people see in her work. I could definitely see reading more Agatha Christie myself. Next time, I'll be a little more prepared for the cardboard characters, and I will enjoy the story for what it is: a puzzle set out very skillfully in novel form.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 2 by CLAMP

Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 2
by CLAMP
Dark Horse, 2011
576 pages

It feels a little odd to review this as my first real review since my hiatus, because I'm not sure how much I have to say. Most of what I wanted to say about Cardcaptor Sakura I said in my review of the first book in this omnibus release. That all still stands, and if you haven't read it, probably best to go there first if you're interested in this series.

This volume wraps up the first main storyline, though there are plenty of loose ends, particularly in the relationships, to tie up at some point down the road. And the relationships do get more tangled, with misunderstandings, breakups, secrets, and surprises.

There is the typical silliness, but also some poignant moments, too. There are also a few storylines that barely make sense. There is one story in particular that just seems crazy to me, involving Sakura's great-grandfather... who never tells her he's her great-grandfather... why would you do that? Why would he deny himself the pleasure of knowing his great-grandkids better? It can't be her father's doing, since he's not insane. Also that story was way rushed, and one gets the feeling we never, ever come back to it, either. Very odd in a manga series that generally deals with relationships and complexity fairly well. Highly unsatisfying, and a low point in a volume that is mostly quite good.

It's an interesting experience reading the books, too, when I'm so familiar with the anime. There was another storyline that again seemed fairly rushed, this one involving a play Sakura's class is putting on for the school talent show, that was drawn out into a full episode in the anime series. It was a really well-done episode, and I'm afraid the manga counterpart rather suffers by comparison. Not as nuanced. This is actually true of the ending of this particular main storyline arc, too. While the ending of the manga made more sense to me, was definitely more clear, it was also WAY faster. Things happen without any pause for reflection, and then it's done. I wonder whether it would feel so anticlimactic if I had never seen the anime, where the events are drawn out over several episodes. Sure, I'm sure the producers were milking the manga to draw out what had clearly become a very successful series, but it actually worked; things felt more tense, like there was more at stake.

But perhaps I wouldn't have noticed that if I hadn't seen the anime at all. Hard to know.

The third volume is well out, and I've asked for it for Christmas. And now it's down in writing, so...

I continue to recommend this series, but definitely read them in order. I'm looking forward to seeing the next volume, as I'm sure there are several things that confused the hell out of me in the anime that will make quite a bit more sense in the manga. Or here's hoping, anyway.

Monday, October 15, 2012

perhaps an annotated list will do?

I have come to the reluctant conclusion that I am never going to catch up on my book reviews. So let's at least have a list, and maybe a few words, about the books I've read since... gulp... July? Really? Sigh. I have been reading, at least, sometimes re-reading, sometimes picking up things and dropping them, sometimes skimming through something so fast I'm not even going to bother putting it down here.

(On a personal note: since I've been away, smallfry has hit one year old and is now over six times her birth weight and everything is great. She loves reading, particularly anything with a rhythm. She also ate her first library book this week, full on chewing and swallowing the spine of a not-that-good counting book. I was so proud and also dismayed. At any rate, I'm also back to work, which I'd blame for the lack of blogging, except I've only been back a month. If anything, being back at work is getting me back to wanting to blog again.)

So, starting with the books I read shortly after Lakeland and moving forward to the one I've most recently finished:

Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon
Fun, Asian-inspired YA fantasy that I've been meaning to read for ages. Lightly romantic, very creative in most ways, and pulling on traditions I'm not as familiar with. Enjoyed, though they weren't as memorable as I might have hoped; good for a light, entertaining read but probably not a re-read.

The Story of Saiunkoku by Sai Yukino
Okay, this is not one book, but seven volumes of manga. And if you are a manga fan and haven't read this series, what on earth are you waiting for? Really, really wonderful, smart, funny, sweetly romantic, and beautifully well-drawn. Sometimes a bit predictable, but in a really good way, and sometimes unpredictable in a really good way too. Volume eight is out this month. I am purchasing it. I am actually purchasing the whole series, and I don't buy a lot of manga because it's so damn expensive to buy whole long-running series. It's that good. Have already re-read a couple of times and it hasn't lost its luster yet.

Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle by CLAMP
Unfortunately for this series it came after The Story of Saiunkoku. Still really enjoyable, but I haven't even finished it (I read from the beginning to volume 18) and I'm not in a big rush to get there. It's very involved, the art is great if occasionally a bit frenetic and stylized as to be expected from this group, the dynamics between the mains fantastic. I am a big Fai D. Flowright fangirl and would read several volumes of just him.

Sorcery and Cecelia and The Grand Tour by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Yes yes, I read Sorcery and Cecelia yet again. Still very fond. Finally made it through The Grand Tour and enjoyed that too, though it's really not anywhere near as good as the first one; I don't quite know why, because I can't pull out any major deficiencies. Will eventually make it to The Mislaid Magician and am hoping that it lands somewhere between the two as far as enjoyment.

Bird by Rita Murphy
I am really sorry I'm not going to write a full review of this, but I've got to get the slate cleaned. Really understated, a little deliciously creepy (but not too creepy for my faint heart) and just a fantastic all around read. Highly recommended for those looking for something short but well-written, should appeal to anyone from about grade three or four up. Consider it for a Hallowe'en read, even. It won't take you long.

Reaper Man by Sir Terry Pratchett
Okay, I am even more sad that I'm not going to write a full review of this, and so maybe that one I will get to, because it will be the first in my quest to read all the Discworld books that doesn't get the full review treatment. A surprisingly sweet, heartwarming story about everyone's favourite skeleton in a black robe. Also very funny. Also, Death of Rats. Enough said. For now.

Ill Wind by Rachel Caine (Book 1 of the Weather Wardens series)
Fast, highly entertaining and sexy read. I like Caine's world here, I like the comfortable paranormal plot, I love Joanne as the main character, and I liked the break-neck pace. I could see picking up the next book in the series, though I've got to be careful as this one kept me up well past my bedtime, when sleep is a very precious commodity around here. Felt a bit like eating a fast-food hamburger: not terribly good for you, but I couldn't regret it all the same.

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn
Reminded me why I like Sharon Shinn so much. Smart female protagonist who feels real, and makes stupid choices that make the adult me wince but would have made a lot of sense to the pre-teen me. Extremely realistic relationships and choices, and a plot that feels sensible while still being pure fantasy and has a lot to say about the way our world is. Writing very serviceable. Had a scene that was deliberately really troubling and it upset me a lot, but it was supposed to. May not be able to re-read because of that though.

Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn
After the above book, had to have more Shinn. This is also excellent: a very solid high adventure fantasy set in a very solid world. Again, characters feel really real, relationships make total sense, choices are not always correct but come from a reasonable place. This is the first in a series and I could totally see reading the rest of it, though I spoiled a bunch of it for myself by accident so that kind of sucks. Might try reading her newest book instead.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
It troubles me that I've never reviewed this here either, but I love this book. Have for a long time. Gets better on each re-read and I have finally buckled and bought myself a copy out of fear because the two library systems I have access to have one really crappy old copy between them. Also find that the Studio Ghibli movie, which is only vaguely related to the book, actually makes me enjoy the book more (I love the movie too, but for very different reasons.) This is a smart, funny, clever fantasy that I have read since my middle school days and will happily read again and again as a comfort book.

***

And there! Maybe this will allow me to start up again in a rather more regular fashion? I have started reading for my book clubs again (though for the adult club this month we're reading Stephen King, and I have already chickened out) and I'm also reading for myself somewhat more. It goes up and down, and I have to keep it light and I have to keep the pressure off myself, but I'd like to start blogging more regularly again.

Next step: take a look at my Google Reader. For the first time in months. Consider it marked as read...