Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book 9: The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie novels are the standard against which all other detective novels I read are measured. Within her vast collection, I prefer the stories featuring Hercule Poirot, with his mustaches, love of hot chocolate and omelets, and his "little gray cells", but in a pinch I will pick up a Miss Marple. I always find Miss Marple novels to be a little bit sillier, but they are generally still rather clever and I get a huge kick out of Miss Marple's calling female characters who tend to date/marry often "nymphomaniacs." (Seriously, nymphomaniacs are brought up in almost every Miss Marple novel. It kind of makes me wonder what was going on with Dame Christie.) Sadly, no nymphomaniacs appear in The Body in the Library, but it still managed to be a highly entertaining read.

The Body in the Library
begins with the corpse of a mysterious and unknown woman being discovered one morning in the library of a country manor near the English village of St. Mary Mead. The woman is dressed for an evening out in an evening gown and garish make-up, and has been strangled. The proprietor of the estate, Col. Bantry immediately falls under suspicion for the murder, but his wife, convinced of his innocence enlists the help of local spinster and amateur detective, Miss Marple, to help solve the case and clear his name and reputation.

This book was classic Christie fare. There are numerous suspects, both glamorous and crooked, all with motives and opportunities. The location shifts between an English country estate, a quaint village, and an expensive resort. The police bumble things up, and it comes down to Miss Marple to place all the pieces together and solve the mystery. It is comforting in its familiarity, though not entirely predictable. It is all things one expects from the queen of detective tales. Though I wish there had been a nymphomaniac.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book 8: Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

Grave Sight is the first novel in Charlaine Harris (of Sookie Stackhouse/"True Blood" fame)'s Harper Connelly series.

Harper Connelly is not your average twenty-four-year-old woman. As a teenager, she was struck by lightening and left with a spiderweb like scar on her right leg, a susceptibility to migraines, and the ability to locate and see the last moments of dead bodies. Harper has taken her unique, but genuine ability and made a career out of it. With her step-brother Tolliver by her side as a business manager and , she travels the country and helps people find dead bodies. Though many people they come across think of Harper and Tolliver as charlatans preying on the grieving and broken, and many others find their acceptance of payment for services provided distasteful, Harper prefers to see it just as a job, like any other. Except her job has some unusual benefits and dangers.

Harper is booked for what should be a quick appointment in Sarne, a small town in the Ozark region of Arkansas. A teenage boy from a wealthy local family has committed suicide in the woods outside town, his other-side-of-the-tracks girlfriend is still missing months later, and people are beginning to talk about what the boy may have done to her. The boy's mother is anxious to prove her son's innocence in the girl's disappearance so she calls Harper in to search the are for the girl's body. In just a couple of hours of searching the area, Harper finds the girl and sees that she was running away from someone and was shot. It seems to be a pretty simple case, yet there are some pretty big secrets in Sarne that are trying to find their way into the light. Tolliver and Harper get in over their heads in a mystery that threatens to not only embroil them in crimes that have nothing to do with them, but just might end their lives.

This is the third series by Charlaine Harris that I have picked up. I loved the Sookie Stackhouse series, which is more supernatural romance with elements of mystery. I did not really care for the Aurora Teagarden series, which was more violent/true crime based. I really enjoyed the first in the Harper Connelly series. Harris is an excellent storyteller and she seems to be at her best when weaving in elements of the supernatural. I have read better detective novels, with more surprising surprise endings, but I did not think less of this book or of Harris for not shocking me completely. It was really more about the journey than the destination with this book.

Harper Connelly is an excellent main character. Harris has a way of creating female protagonists who are manage to be strong and resilient, yet vulnerable. It is a characteristic that makes her characters seem realistic. The powerhouse, no-fear, balls-to-the-wall warrior princess character can be fun, but she is not a character I can identify with. And I cannot stand the poor, woe-is-me heroines. They are simply irritating.

Though I will admit, some of the corpse talk in the book (and the second one, which I will review as soon as I can) can be a little on the creepy side, I like how Harper not only does her job to get money, but as a way to help the dead. She says on more than one occasion that the dead want to be found, that they want the mysteries surrounding their deaths to be solved, and in this way, Harper is helping them, all the while treating them with the utmost respect. I look forward to spending more time with Harper and Tolliver in their interesting, if slightly macabre, world.

Book 7: Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

Shannon Hale has a talent for updating and filling out lesser-known fairy tales. She first did it with 2003's Goose Girl based on the Grimm fairytale, and now has done it again with "Maid Maleen", another Grimm tale in Book of a Thousand Days.

Book of a Thousand Days is written in the form a journal. The "writer" of this journal is Dashti, a ladies' maid in "The Eight Realms", fictional time and place loosely based on Mongolia around the time of Genghis Khan. Dashti is peasant from the mouintainous region of the realm, but after the death of her father and mother, she sets out for the city of Titor's Garden, hoping to find a job. The healing skills she has learned from her mother help Dashti to acquire a spot in a training school for ladies' maids. She learns how to read, write, and serve. She is to be placed in the home of the most powerful family in Titor's Garden as the maid of the ruling lord's daughter, Lady Saren.

Upon arriving at the grand home of Lady Saren, Dashti finds that all is in a state of upheaval and Lady Saren is frantic. Lady Saren immediately makes Dashti promise she will not leave her, no matter what. Dashti, it turns out, has agreed to accompany Lady Saren when she is locked in a tower for seven years. Lady Saren is being locked away because she disobeyed her father's orders by refusing to marry Lord Khasar, the evil ruler of one of the other cities in the Eight Realms. Lady Saren instead wishes to marry the leader of yet another one of the cities.

Dashti is rather comfortable when they are first bricked in. Though there are no windows through which she can see the sky, there is ample food in the cellar, a comfortable bed, a warm fire, a well full of water, and fresh milk is brought by guards everyday. As the days stretch into months, then years, the food supply is depleted by rats, and the ravenous and an increasingly unstable Lady Saren. Events outside of the tower lead to further fear and confusion. It reaches a point where the only option for Dashti's and the mentally and physically depleted Lady Saren's survival is to break out of their prison, and forge their way by creating new lives for themselves.

When thinking of young adult novels, most peoples' minds inevitably turn to pop culture phenomenon's such as Twilight or Gossip Girl. While these books/movies/tv shows are entertaining and addictive, they are also vapid. I think it is a shame though to dismiss this whole huge area of literature based on these texts, because there is a lot of young adult literature that is fantastic. Book of a Thousand Days represents what a female character can and should be. Twilight's Bella is a co-dependent wet rag, and Gossip Girl's Blair Waldorf is a scheming bitch, but Book of a Thousand Days' Dashti was wonderful. She is strong under pressure, resourceful in times of crisis, compassionate, and still realistically imperfect. She does not depend on her looks, her sex appeal, her money, her social rank, or her stone cold boyfriend. Prince Charming will not always be able to break the princess out of the tower. Dashti shows that when it comes down to it, there are times in which you just have to be your own hero.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Book 6: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

I loved this book. I bought a copy a few years ago at a used book store because I had heard really great things, and I started it a few times, but really had trouble getting into it. It should have really interested me right off the bat. I love detective stories, and I have always had a major interest in African history, but the start was very slow. My mom read it a few weeks ago and raved about it, so on my way home for Christmas I picked up the book on tape, and gave it a shot. (I don't know if books on tape break the Cannonball Read rules, but if it helps, I actually read the second half the book.)

Precious Ramotswe has always been a special woman. Born and reared in the African nation of Botswana, Mma Ramotswe is independent, kind, proud, and driven. After losing her mother to an accident at a young age, Precious was brought up by her father and her aunt. Both adults are very devoted Precious, and constantly encourage her learn about anything and everything that interests her. Precious's father spent most of his youth and early adulthood working in South Africa's diamond mines, but unlike many of his fellow miners, he saved up all of his wages, with which he buys cattle, a valuable commodity in Botswana.

The novel picks up around the time of Precious's father's death. Precious is in her thirties at this point, and as she is his only child and has devoted her adult life to caring for her father, she inherits his sizable herd of cattle. On his deathbed, her fathers bids Precious to use the money from the sale of the cattle to start a business. That is exactly her plan. She will buy a house, and start a small business, a detective agency. The first and only ladies' detective agency in Botswana.

The book is structured as a series of vignettes, some current, and some telling the histories of the characters in the novel. One section is devoted to Precious's father's time working in the mines. Another discusses Mma (the Botswana version of Ms.) Ramotswe's brief and volatile marriage as a young woman. But most of the chapters are devoted to the cases Mma Ramotswe takes on after opening her agency. The cases deal with everything from cheating husbands,odd doctors, missing dogs, to insurance fraud. There is one overarching storyline concerning a missing child suspected to have been abducted by witch doctors for sacrifice.

The book, though dealing with serious subjects such as the struggles of diamond mining, the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana, and child abduction, still manages to feel light and warm thanks to McCall Smith's deft storytelling abilities. Mma Ramotswe is clearly neither the most experienced, nor the best trained detective in literature, but she has common sense, natural intellect, a can-do attitude, and incredible amounts of confidence and optimism, all of which lead to her success. Mma Ramotswe is surrounded by an eccentric and often helpful group of friends, who provide both folly and humor. McCall Smith also does a beautiful job describing Botswana. Though McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe, and currently lives in Scotland, his sincere and deep connection with Botswana and its people manages to shine through in every line. It all comes together to make the book an incredibly fun read. After getting over the initial hump, I could not put the novel down, and when I had to put it down, I could not wait to pick it back up.

Book 5: Interred with their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell

I found Interred with their Bones in the high school Reading List section of my local public library. Going into that section makes me feel as though I am a bit of a creeper, but if I am blanking on a book choice, they often have some interesting ideas (that reach beyond the expected reading list choices like Jane Eyre and the Chocolate War.

Interred with their Bones
is a work of fiction, taking a whack at a mystery from history. It is stylistically similar to the DaVinci Code, except that it exchanges the works of DaVinci, for the works of Shakespeare.

Kate Stanely,a Harvard educated expert on the occult in Shakespeare, has ditched academia for a life directing Shakespeare's great works on stage. On the evening before the premier of the first play at the Globe, Roz, her mentor from Harvard, arrives at the theater and asks Kate to meet her later in the evening, saying she needs assistance with an important and mysterious task. When Kate goes to meet Roz, the woman is a no show, and Kate notices an ominous glow hanging over the skyline of London. After rushing back to work, Kate discovers that the Globe is on fire, Roz's murdered body has been found inside, and an extremely valuable and rare historical text is now missing.

It is now up to Kate to find the answer to the mystery which Roz died trying to discover. It is a journey that will take Kate to three different countries, and will place her in mortal peril again and again.

I like the idea of pretty much anything that will interest teens in reading or learning. Twilight? Sure, if it makes them actually pick up a book! The DaVinci Code? Why not? There is some (albeit not a lot of) actual art history involved. I was hoping that Interred with their Bones might be such a book, but sadly it is not. The premise is intriguing: a brilliant and brave female progtagonist is searching for what is the essentially the Holy Grail of Shakepearean lore, a surviving copy of Shakespeare's lost play "Cardenio." Along the way she teams up with a strong, and surprisingly sympathetic bodyguard. As they travel and change identities they are followed by a violent lunatic, more people are murdered (all murders mimicking murders from Shakespearean works), and Kate discovers the people she trusts are not always as they seem. It sounds fun, exciting, and vaguely intelligent, and it can be at times, but those times are too few and far between.

I think the biggest problem with Carrell's novel is not Kate's plotline, but instead, the second story she chose to attach. What second plotline, you might ask? Where is there room for a second story? There isn't. The book moves back and forth between the present, and Jacobean times. The plot in Jacobean times does not come up often enough to feel complete or fresh, but rears its ugly head just enough to take the reader out of the mindset of the Kate-story. I understand what Carrell was trying to do, give the book some more serious historical context, but it just feels tacked on and forced, and the sheer number of characters in a story that only comes up every hundred or so pages, leaves it more confusing than enlightening. It makes the pacing of the whole story feel off.

The other major problem I had with Interred with their Bones is that there was no solution to the mystery. Kate races along for over 400 pages searching for an answer, and just as it is within arm's reach it is destroyed forever. I felt like I had totally wasted my time. It is almost as though Carrell was not willing to commit herself to any of the possible answers, just in case she was wrong. But the beauty about a work of fiction, is that you can be wrong, and it is okay.