"....few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into [her] heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memories to which, sooner or later - no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover or how much we learn or forget - we will return." -Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Who and when is Thursday Next?

I'm not really one for Science Fiction. The only two Science Fiction books I've liked in my long reading career are The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is more dystopia than Science Fiction, and Kindred by Octavia Butler.  Although, come to think of it, The Handmaid's Tale is one of my all time faves.  And, now that I'm writing about it, I don't know that I've read many more Science Fiction books.  Maybe I do like Science Fiction?

Recently I jumped from two Science Fiction books under my belt to four.  It's not often a reader squares the number of books they've read in any particular genre, is it?  The verdict?  I loved my new finds.

The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book are the first two in the Thursday Next Series by Jasper Fforde.  I happened upon the first book as I did a search for books about Jane Eyre.  I didn't really know anything about the book, including its genre, but if it had Jane Eyre in the title, I figured it was worth a go.  I hit the daily double when I not only loved it, but found out it was the first in a long series of books.

Thursday Next lives in London in the 1980s.  It's not immediately clear what has happened to this world of ours, but things are different.  Time travel is common, though highly illegal.  Literature is one of the most important and hotly debated social and political issues of the time.  Genetic engineering has left some strange creatures walking down the sidewalk. And, England has been engaged in a land dispute over the Crimea with Russia for the last hundred years.

Our girl, Thursday, is a veteran of the war and is now a Literary Detective.  In the first installment, she is on a hot case that brings her face to face with her mortal enemy, Archeron Hades.  This guy is sick.  He possesses the power to change anyone's mind, he can't be captured on film and he delights in supremely evil acts. 

He has stolen a rare first edition and Thursday must get it back.  Their game of cat and mouse leads them both into the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, where they have the power to change the plot, based on their actions and interactions with the characters. I loved getting to know Mr. Rochester off script.

A few subplots play themselves out as we progress: Thursday's long lost love reappears; we encounter her father (whose name she has never known) who is on the run from the ChronoGuard and keeps one step ahead of them through constant time travel; and Thursday must make some big life decisions, like stay in the big city or move back home to Swindon.

There are instances when the Science Fictiony parts of the story are tedious for me, and a few bits about the time travel and politics get confusing to the point that I began to skim.  On the whole, though, it had everything I look for in a book: Jane Eyre, a strong female lead character, London and time travel.  I can't wait to get the next  Thursday Next from the library!

Do you have a favorite Science Fiction Book?

Photo credit: miss_leslie

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray is life itself

I'm not secretive about my love for Walter Mosley.  I love him.  I love him.  I love him.  So, one might be inclined to believe that I love everything about him.  Au contraire, mon frere.  Like any good relationship, my love for Walter Mosley means I have to take the good with the bad.  I have not loved everything he has written.  In fact, a couple of his books bothered me so much that I considered breaking up with him. 

Fortunately, I did not act hastily and I wrote off Killing Johnny Frye and Diablerie as some very annoying habits that I decided I could live with.  I'm not going to try to change him; I'm just going to accept him, flaws (and Johnny Fryes) and all.  Today, our relationship is not only intact, it is stronger than ever.

Case in point, his latest work: The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray. Ptolemy Gray has a secret. It has to do with a pirate, his treasure and the location of a whole lot of buried gold.  Unfortunately, ninety-one year old Ptolemy can't quite remember where the treasure is buried, or if it is even real, for that matter.

When we meet Ptolemy, he has seen better days.  His memory and reasoning skills are failing him.  He has lost everyone he has loved. To keep his feelings of loss at bay, he cocoons himself inside his home with all the stuff he has collected throughout his lifetime. His apartment is not a pleasant place, though. The plumbing doesn't work and it is stuffed to the gills with trash and mementos. But what's really tripping him up is that he can never be sure where he is and whether he's merely dreaming about the past or actually reliving it.  For Ptolemy, things have gone a bit haywire on the time-space continuum.

The only way Ptolemy gets by is a great-grand nephew that visits a few times a week to take him food shopping and use the toilet in a nearby diner.  As the story opens, this young man is murdered.  Ptolemy suddenly feels a connection to the outside, present-day world that he has not felt for the last few decades.  He feels responsible for bringing peace to his nephew's soul by finding his killer.  He must also find that treasure so he can take care of his nephew's family.

Ptolemy's only hope of making sense of all the memories, feelings and facts floating around in his head is a doctor he's heard about.  He meets with the doctor and enters into a classic Faustian bargain.  If Ptolemy takes the doctor's drugs, he will regain clarity, understanding, memory and reasoning.  He will also be dead within a week, and the doctor will take possession of Ptolemy's body for scientific research. Ptolemy decides that finding the treasure is worth his soul, so he goes for it.

What the reader experiences next is Ptolemy's journey through past and present, in which love, loyalty, justice and intellect don't need to conform to a linear construct of time. They just are, as we just are.  Through Ptolemy's odyssey, the reader has the opportunity to drink in the very meaning of life.

Does Ptolemy find the treasure?  Does good win out over evil?  Does the devil take Ptolemy Gray's soul? If you know Mr. Mosley, you can probably guess that the answer is not a simple yes or no, but somewhere in the "Gray"ish middle.

I love Walter Mosley, I loved The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray and I love side-stepping the time-space continuum, if only for a couple hundred pages.

What are your favorite tales of Faustian bargains?  What did you learn from them?

Photo Credit: David Shankbone

Friday, January 13, 2012

My brilliant friend Maisie

I love book series. I appreciate their pace. With the first book in a series I get to know a little bit about the character and the author begins to draw me in to what will hopefully be a lifelong relationship. As I read each subsequent book, I gradually get to know my new friend. What I especially like about a series is that I am shielded from the sadness that usually comes with the end of a good book because I know that with the next, I will get to spend more time with my pal. 

I sometimes ponder what my life would be like without Easy Rawlins or Precious Ramotswe, two of my favorite book series characters. They mean a lot to me. They are my teachers. They provide lessons on what goodness looks like, how to make a hard decision and live with the consequences, and how to learn from history. They also make me laugh.  A lot. I measure a book's worth by how much I would like to live in it. If only they would ask, I would kiss my husband goodbye and move in with Easy or Precious in a hot minute.

My latest series-love is Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. I have just finished reading the eighth (and at this point) last book in the series: A Lesson in Secrets. What can I tell you about Maisie? She comes from humble beginnings. Her father was a costermonger in pre-World War I London. What, prey tell, is a costermonger? Exactly!  This is why I love Maisie. She introduces me to all sorts of things that I wouldn't otherwise know about. And,  they are all worth knowing.

Her mother died at an early age and her father sent her into service. At her employers' home, Maisie not only worked hard, she also had the opportunity to discover a world of intellectual opportunities through the mistress' library. When she was caught reading books in the middle of the night, she was afraid she would be fired, but instead was offered the chance to be mentored by a great scholar.

While it may sound like a typical Cinderella story, it is most decidedly, not. Maisie's life takes many twists and turns, including a stint as a nurse in World War I. After the War, Maisie must regroup and put her life back together. She becomes a private investigator and psychologist. A large part of her success is the result of the careful cultivation and reliance on her intuition. Maisie doesn't solve cases on facts alone. She has feelings and understandings that go beyond what can be observed. Maisie possesses extraordinary ways of knowing.

Doesn't she sound brilliant?

The books aren't just about Maisie. They are about English society before and after World War I; the changing role and position of women in that era; and how people persevere in the face of devastating loss and poverty. Maisie Dobbs novels are about London and the English countryside and how new technologies (namely the motor car and the telephone) changed them both. They are also about those who have, those who have not and the consequences of injustice.

I hope you will introduce yourself to Maisie and become acquainted.  Please tell her Huff sent you.

Do you like book series?  Why or why not?

Photo credit: Author

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was not for me

GalapremiƤr av The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo i Katrineholm by katrineholmskommunDue to academic pursuits, I have been imprisoned in an ivory tower for these last two months. I was unable to engage in any activity not residing at the bottom of Maslow's triangle, including reading.

After fulfilling my sentence, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, was my first read. Given its popularity, I may not need to justify my selection, but now having read the book, I feel compelled to do so. The first reason I chose this book was that I was at the airport about to board a plane empty-handed, and the airport book store had a limited selection. I was also curious what all the hype was about, and I don't recall ever reading a book set in Sweden.

We quickly learn that our man, a journalist, has been convicted of libel for a story he wrote about a billionaire's shady business dealings. He subsequently leaves his job as publisher of the magazine and accepts a contract position to write the family biography of an aging tycoon. He will also be looking into the disappearance of the tycoon's niece which occurred some decades ago. The job pays handsomely and seems easy enough, so he sets about his work.

There are many layers to what goes on next. The family he is chronicling turns out to be harboring a number of awful secrets, including more than its fair share of Nazis and alcoholics. Some of these secrets just might play into the disappearance and suspected murder of the niece. Through a contrived series of events, our journalist teams up with an unlikely private investigator (who happens to have a dragon tattoo). Their relationship develops into both a professional one, in that they both become obsessed with solving the mystery of the disappearing niece; and a personal (and predictable) one, in that they could be falling in love, or something along those lines.

A couple other themes emerge in the telling: the unmitigated corruption of industry and its leaders, supported by the collusion of investigative journalists; and ethical quandaries faced by writers when they are provided with incendiary material by anonymous sources. 

The mystery is interesting. It spans six decades and involves an intricate web of characters. So, yes, I enjoyed the unraveling of the mystery.  But, the violence in the book is beyond what I wanted to endure. It is too much and it just keeps coming. It is gruesome, happens in unexpected places and frequent. I just kept thinking: please stop!

I've read that Mr. Larsson witnessed an extreme act of violence against a woman when he was young and spent some of his life trying to atone for not helping the victim. I applaud him for bringing the issue of the frequency and severity of violence against women to light, but enough already. 

The characters are the second problem I had with the book. In addition to the journalist and the girl with the dragon tattoo, there are a few other central players. Very few of them are likable, or even interesting. They lack depth and are fairly predictable. 

I can only recommend this book if you don't mind horrific violence, don't care much about characters and enjoy a good mystery. 

The original Swedish title of the book, translated to English, is Men who Hate Women.  This is a far more apt title, given its content. I guess the publishers didn't think American audiences could swallow it. Well, this one couldn't.

Did you like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Photo Credit: katrineholmskommun