2020 in Facts and Figures

I already posted my main 2020 in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021 posts a while ago — only on my new blog (separate post to come) –, but I held back on my 2020 reading statistics until the year was well and truly over.  And for all my good intentions when posting my mid-year summary back in early July 2020, the second half of the year continued pretty much in the same vein as the first half had begun; i.e., my statistics for the whole year are still a variation on the theme of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, 17 charts showing that 2020 was a year of reading Golden Age mysteries written by women (and following other Anglo-/ UK-centric reading proclivities); i.e. comfort reading galore … it was just that kind of year, I guess.

As a result, my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project progressed very nicely.  Luckily, as I said in my main 2020 in Review post, I also managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, and the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors: I read almost 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man — in fact, I even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men.  So there was at least some progress in other areas, too.  And I liked or even loved most of the books I read in 2020 — including most of the new-to-me books –, which of course was another huge plus; in a year where reading was my go-to source of comfort, at that: most of my ratings were 4 stars or higher and thus, above the rating that marks “average” in my personal scale (3.5 stars).

Still, in 2021 I’m going to make a fresh attempt to refocus on my Around the World reading project, in furtherance of which I’ve also created a Diversity Bingo that I’ll try to get through in the space of this one year (though if it takes longer, it takes longer); and I’ll also try to include more books from my Freedom and Future Library in my yearly reading again.

And now, without any further ado:

Greatest New Author Discoveries of 2020

Classics and LitFic
Bernardine Evaristo
Olivia Manning

Historical Fiction
Dorothy Dunnett
Jean-François Parot
Paul Doherty

Golden and Silver Age Mysteries
Josephine Bell
Moray Dalton
Molly Thynne
Christianna Brand
Anthony Gilbert
Raymond Postgate
Patricia Moyes

My Life in Book Titles

This is a meme I’ve seen on quite a few blogs towards the end of 2020; it was created by Annabel at Annabookbel.  You’re to answer the prompts, using only books you have read in 2020; without, if possible, repeating a book title.  I thought I’d include it in my yearly roundup — and to up the ante a little bit further, I decided to use only books I read for the first time in 2020.

In high school I was Unspeakable (John Bercow)

People might be surprised by (my incarnation as) Lioness Rampant (Tamora Pierce)

I will never be The Horse You Came in On (Martha Grimes), nor Resorting to Murder (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

My life in lockdown was like (a) Tour de Force (Christianna Brand) and (a) Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

My fantasy job is The Thinking Machine at Work (Jacques Futrelle)

At the end of a long day I need to be Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) (to my) Pilgrim’s Rest (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate being (around) Serpents in Eden (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

Wish I had The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)

My family reunions are (often with) Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)

At a party you’d find me with My Friend Mr. Campion (Margery Allingham), Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Emmuska Orczy), and other Bodies from the Library (Tony Medawar, ed.; Various Authors)

I’ve never been to Goodwood (Holly Throsby), Cherringham (Matthew Costello, Neil Richards), or At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

A happy day includes A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid) (of my own): My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)

Motto(s) I live by: To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey); and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

On my bucket list is Shakespeare’s Local (Pete Brown)

In my next life, I want to have The Grand Tour (Matthew Pritchard, ed.; Agatha Christie)

The Stats

Number of books started: 273
Number of books finished: 271
DNF: 2
Average Rating (overall): 3.9
Average Rating w/o Favorite Annual Xmas Rereads: 3.8

Note: The above chart includes my 6 annual Christmas rereads, which have a habit of slightly skewing my overall rating figures upwards; without these books, the number of 5-star books is reduced by 5 and the number of 4.5-star books is reduced by 1.

Note: “F / M (mixed)” refers to anthologies with contributions by both male and female authors, as well as to books jointly written by male and female authors. — “N / A” in the protagonist gender chart refers to Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who is deliberately created as gender-neutral.

Note: “Multi-ethnic” either refers to several persons (authors / protagonists) of different genders, or to one person of mixed ethnicity.

 

Agatha Christie / Matthew Pritchard (ed.): The Grand Tour

Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922

Agatha Christie’s letters, photos and postcards from the expedition to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada in which her first husband, Archibald, and she were invited to participate out of the blue shortly after the birth of their daughter Rosamund.  Lovingly edited by her grandson Matthew Pritchard, and amplified by the corresponding excerpts from her autobiography, the letters in particular shed an interesting sidelight onto the thinking and life experience of the budding future Queen of Crime (her second novel was published while the tour was under way), and to fans, the book is worth the purchase for her photos alone (she had rather a good eye for visual composition, too) … and for her surfing adventures, reproduced here in their full glory, and in both words and images.

24 Festive Tasks, Door 3: SUPER OFFICIAL EXCLUSIVE TASK 1 PREVIEW!!!

Reblogged from: Darth Pedant

 

CORRECTION: Cup Day is Door 3 this year, please pardon the goof and my further breaking of MbD’s spiffy formatting.

Please excuse the caps. It’s my first Festive Tasks guest post. I’m a tad excited. Ahem! This is a partial opening of Door 3, Melbourne Cup Day, because there’s no challenge in picking your ponies after the race is over!

Task 1:  Pick your ponies!  MbD Darth Pedant will post the horses scheduled to race; everyone picks the three they think will finish (in any order). 

Darth Pedant here. By dint of being a former pony (and possibly living in the correct country and time zone for the task), I’ve been asked to step in for MbD to announce the field for the Melbourne Cup, the Race that Stops a Nation. (That’s no joke. Australia literally declares State and National holidays for sporting events.)

The rules for the task are the same as last year:

Anyone playing the 24 Tasks of the Festive Season who wishes to participate in this task, pick your three favourites to place 1st, 2nd and 3rd and tell us in the comments below.  It’s not necessary to name them in order; as long as any of the three horses you chose finish in the top 3, you win!  Each person will receive one point for each horse they chose that finished in the top 3. A point will also be awarded to the person whose chosen horse came in last.

If anyone chooses a horse that’s been scratched before race time (rare), they may choose a replacement horse up until the deadline – please EDIT your original comment to choose a new horse; a new comment may, if there are a lot of participants, get lost in the shuffle.   Alternatively, you may name your three horses and a replacement choice right from the start – just make sure to specify in your comment which of your picks is the alternate.

The race that stops a nation begins at 3:00pm, November 5th Australian EDT.  This equates to:

USA EST:  11:00pm November 4th  (deadline: 10:30pm)
USA PST:  8:00pm November 4th  (deadline: 7:30pm)
EU CET: 5:00am November 5th  (deadline: 4:30am)
UK GMT: 4:00am November 5th  (deadline: 3:30am)

The deadline to submit your guesses will be 2:30pm AEDT on the day of the race (the 5th).

The winners will be announced as soon as results are in, and in the event that someone here guesses all three correct horses (their 3 come in 1st, 2nd and 3rd), that person will receive 1 free book – print or digital – of their choice, valued at up to $25USD.

Below are the horses in this year’s race, in no particular order (because the order kept changing when I refreshed the page, argh, why are sports?). It’s not as pretty as when MbD does it, but I did my clueless best with the fancy html template she gave me. (My best not to break it, that is. I partially succeeded. Yay.) Comments are not mine; I found them here along with the jockey silks and much more detailed horse bios. Or if you, like me, are utterly clueless about the world of horse racing, here’s a helpful guide written just for us, courtesy of MbD’s impressive Google Fu. (And by helpful I mean “helpful”.)

Cross Counter (GB)

W: 57.5KG
TAB Odds: $13

Why he can win: Proven world-class stayer who won the 2018 Melbourne Cup.

Why he can’t win: A likely 6-6.5 kilogram weight increase and history suggests it is extremely difficult to win the Melbourne Cup twice.

Mer De Glace (JPN)

W: 56KG (1KG penalty)
TAB Odds: $8

Why he can win: Damian Lane was so confident in his staying power and speed, he convinced the owners to have a crack at the Melbourne SC.

Why he can’t win: Will carry more weight than all but one of the past 12 Cup winners and has never been tried at 3200m.

Mirage Dancer (GB)

W: 55.5KG
TAB Odds: $26

Why he can win: Sir Michael Stoute has a very high opinion of him and he has some good form around some absolute stars..

Why he can’t win: Has a tendency to be placed in Stakes races, rather than winning.

Southern France (IRE)

W: 55.5KG
TAB Odds: $26

Why he can win: Has some form around gun European stayers Stradivarius and Kew Gardens.

Why he can’t win: The Melbourne Cup will be his first start in Australia.

Master Of Reality Silks

Master of Reality (IRE)

W: 55.5KG
TAB Odds: $17

Why he can win: Has elite staying form and with great stable.

Why he can’t win: Difficult to win the Melbourne Cup if the horse is first up in Australia.


Latrobe (IRE)

W: 55KG
TAB Odds: $17

Why he can win: Owner Lloyd Williams has won the Cup six times before, once in conjunction with trainer Joseph O’Brien when they triumphed with Rekindling in 2017.

Why he can’t win: His form this season has been patchy.

Mustajeer (GB)

W: 55KG
TAB Odds: $17

Why he can win: He was dominant in the Ebor and is racing in peak form as a 7YO.

Why he can’t win: The Ebor hasn’t supplied many Cup winners and he’s yet to be tried over 3200m.

Hunting Horn (IRE)

W: 55KG
TAB Odds: $26

Why he can win: He has form around the best horses around the world and will make his own luck

Why he can’t: He doesn’t win very often

Rostropovich (IRE)

W: 55KG
TAB Odds: $51

Why he can win: At his best, he is a top class performer, and he was only beaten five lengths in last year’s race

Why he can’t: He just doesn’t seem to be in the same form as he was 12 months ago

Twilight Payment (IRE)

W: 55KG
TAB Odds: $34

Why he can win: Has the right trainer/owner combination for Cup success.

Why he can’t win: Seven year-olds have won the Cup just 11 times in the race’s history.

Prince of Arran (GB)

W: 53KG
TAB Odds: $17

Why he can win: Horse thrives in Australia and ran a great 3rd in last year’s race.

Why he can’t win: Hard to imagine it can make up 3-4 lengths on the likes of Cross Counter as a seven-year-old.

Finche (GB)

W: 54KG
TAB Odds: $10

Why he can win: Horse with clear upside and is proven at the 3200m distance.

Why he can’t win: Query about an injury that ruled him out of the Autumn and has to make up 3-4 lengths on the likes of Cross Counter and Marmelo.

Raymond Tusk (IRE)

W: 54KG
TAB Odds: $17

Why he can win: Has produced a commendable effort behind another serious challenger in Mustajeer at York.

Why he can’t win: Will be his first start in Australia.

Downdraft (IRE)

W: 53.5KG
TAB Odds: $17

Why he can win: He’s progressive and has already shown some decent form in Australia

Why he can’t win: He has failed to show up at top-level in Europe and there is a query over that Moonee Valley Gold Cup form

Surprise Baby (NZ)

W: 53.5KG (1KG penalty)
TAB Odds: $13

Why he can win: He’s an in-form stayer and one of the top fancies for the Cup.

Why he can’t win: A local hope, he has a lot of competition from serious internationals.

Magic Wand (IRE)

W: 53.5KG
TAB Odds: $17

Why she can win: She’s has top class form in Ireland and the USA

Why she can’t win: The 3200m is a big query

Neufbosc (FR)

W: 53.5KG
TAB Odds: $201

Why he can win: Hard to make a case but that second to Kew Gardens is good European form

Why he can’t win: Has showed nothing this campaign to indicate he is going well enough to consider

Sound (GER)

W: 53.5KG
TAB Odds: $201

Why he can win: Does boast a 3200m win in Germany

Why he can’t win: He hasn’t shown enough in Australia to think he can be competitive in a Group 1 handicap

Steel Prince (IRE)

W: 52.5KG
TAB Odds: $34

Why he can win: Tough, consistent galloper who is proven at the track and over long distances. .

Why he can’t win: Yet to be tested against elite company.

Constantinople (IRE)

W: 52.5KG
TAB Odds: $7

Why he can win: Clearly has abundant talent and profiles very similar to last year’s winner.

Why he can’t win: Genuine query at the 3200m distance .

Il Paradiso (USA)

W: 52.5KG
TAB Odds: $11

Why he can win: Has form around gun European stayer Stradivarius, who was only beaten for the first time in almost two years on October 19 2019.

Why he can’t win: Has not win at Stakes level.

Vow And Declare (AUS)

W: 52KG
TAB Odds: $10

Why he can win: Consistent stayer who enjoys further distances as shown by his fighting second in the Caulfield Cup.

Why he can’t win: He still has to make the final field for the Melbourne Cup.

Youngstar (IRE)

W: 52KG
TAB Odds: $51

Why she can win: Her best form is right up to this and she has been to the 3200m before

Why she can’t win: She was beaten last year and is not in the same form this time around

The Chosen One (NZ)

W: 52KG (0.5KG penalty)
TAB Odds: $67

Why he can win: He is still a horse on the way up and he gets in with an excellent weight

Why he can’t win: The 3200m at top level is a query based on both his pedigree and the way he finished off the Caulfield Cup.

Who did you choose and how/why?  Tell us in the comments below.

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1983666/24-festive-tasks-door-3-super-official-exclusive-task-1-preview

Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Blackout! (And bingos Nos. 12 and 13.)

 

Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

Witih today’s call, I’ve blacked out my card, in addition to collecting my final bingos (nos. 12 and 13).

Somewhat to my surprise, after completing my books for my official bingo card at the end of September, I even managed to read enough extra books to put together a supplemental inofficial card throughout the month of October, so this year’s game has really exceeded my wildest expectations in every conceivable way!

 

My Official 2019 Bingo Card:

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week
Fourth Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

The Extra Squares / Card and Books:

13: Rex Stout: And Be a Villain
Supernatural: Jennifer Estep: Kill the Queen
New Release: Sara Collins: The Confessions of Frannie Langton
Genre: Mystery: Catherine Louisa Pirkis: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective
Romantic Suspense: Georgette Heyer: The Unfinished Clue
Terror in a Small Town: Ann Cleeves: Raven Black
Halloween: Agatha Christie: Hallowe’en Party
Monsters: Terry Pratchett: Pyramids
Shifters: Joan D. Vinge: Ladyhawke
Sleepy Hollow: Dennis Lehane: The Given Day
Film at 11: J.B. Priestley: An Inspector Calls
In the Dark, Dark Woods: Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
Free (Raven) Square: Various Authors: The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives
Grave or Graveyard: Kathy Reichs: Grave Secrets
Genre: Suspense: Tony Medawar (ed.) & Various Authors: Bodies from the Library 2
Southern Gothic: Sharyn McCrumb: The Unquiet Grave
Baker Street Irregulars: Joanne Harris: Gentlemen & Players
Darkest London: J.V. Turner: Below the Clock
Magical Realism: Joanne Harris: Chocolat
It was a dark and stormy night: Peter May: The Lewis Man
Full Moon: Edmund Crispin: Glimpses of the Moon
King of Fear: John Le Carré: Absolute Friends
Serial / Spree Killer: Steven Kramer, Paul Holes & Jim Clemente: Evil Has a Name
Classic Noir: Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train
Classic Horror: Matthew G. Lewis: The Monk

Note: With regard to the extra squares, I added the image for the relevant square for every book completed (= “read”); and I am using my “called” markers for the main card to indicate “called and read”.

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
http://themisathena.booklikes.com/post/1942220/halloween-bingo-2019-tracking-post

Halloween Bingo 2019: Tracking Post — Bingo No. 3 and Reading Blackout

* Triple Bingo Happy Dance *

Well, that went by much faster than I had anticipated … Many thanks to Moonlight Reader and Obsidian Blue for hosting this game for the fourth year in a row, bigger and better than ever before!

I’ll continue tracking my bingos of course — and since we now have so many more great squares than can possibly fit on one person’s card, I’ll just continue reading for a few of the extra squares that didn’t make it onto mine.

And I hope everybody else is going to continue / start collecting bingos soon as well!

 

Weekly Status Updates and Reviews:

First Week
Second Week
Third Week

 

The Books:

International Woman of Mystery: Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments – finished September 29, 2019.
Locked Room Mystery: Clayton Rawson: Death from a Top Hat – finished September 23, 2019.
Murder Most Foul: Michael Gilbert: Smallbone Deceased – finished September 13, 2019.
Psych: Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge) – finished September 17, 2019.
Read by Flashlight or Candle Light: The Lady Detectives: Four BBC Radio 4 Crime Dramatisations – finished September 20, 2019.

DeadLands: Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment – finished September 26, 2019.
Fear the Drowning Deep: Delia Owens: Where the Crawdads Sing – finished September 25, 2019.
Relics and Curiosities: Patricia Wentworth: Eternity Ring – finished September 10, 2019.
Dark Academia: James Hilton: Was It Murder? – finished September 1, 2019.
Modern Noir: Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones – finished September 21, 2019.

Ghost Stories: Nina Blazon: Siebengeschichten – finished September 1, 2019.
Gothic: Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor – finished September 9, 2019.
Free (Raven) Space: Agatha Christie: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories – finished September 7, 2019.
Truly Terrifying: Bob Berman: Earth-Shattering – finished September 12, 2019.
Amateur Sleuth: Priscilla Royal: Wine of Violence – finished September 5, 2019.

Cryptozoologist: Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! – finished September 18, 2019.
Diverse Voices: Toni Morrison: Beloved – finished September 22, 2019.
Black Cat: Jim Butcher: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – finished September 16, 2019.
Creepy Crawlies: Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Gods of Jade and Shadow – finished September 7, 2019.
Country House Mystery: Anthony Rolls: Scarweather – finished September 14, 2019.

Spellbound: Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown – finished September 6, 2019.
A Grimm Tale: Ellen Datlow & Terry Windling (eds.): The Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales – finished September 4, 2019.
Creepy Carnivals: Fredric Brown: The Dead Ringer – finished September 12, 2019.
Paint It Black: Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild – finished September 20, 2019.
Cozy Mysteries: Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery – finished September 19, 2019.

 

My Square Markers

 

Called but not read

Read but not called

Read and Called

Center Square: Read and Called

 

My Spreadsheet:

My Book Preselections Post: HERE

 

My Transfiguration Spells

Not used.

 

My “Virgin” Bingo Card:

Posted for ease of tracking and comparison.

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1942220/halloween-bingo-2019-tracking-post-bingo-no-3-and-reading-blackout

Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild


The first book of Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy and, while it started out enjoyable enough, another book that ultimately failed to live up to my expectations.  (It’s by no means awful, but it also didn’t entice me to continue with the series, however much the ending may have be trying to do just that.)

The book concerns a teenage girl from the slums who in the course of an anti-magician rally with fatal consequences — though not for herself — accidentally discovers that (drumroll …) she has magical powers herself and is henceforth sought out by the Magicians’ Guild who (1) want to make her one of their own and (2) even if she should refuse that rather unexpeted honor — all things magical ordinarily being perceived as something restricted to the country’s ruling families — have decided that in her own interest as well as for the common good, a clamp must be put on her magical abilities, which indeed quickly turn out to be destructive and beyond her own control (a control she can only be taught by a fully-trained magician).

The first part of the book, which essentially concerns the hide and seek game involving the magicians’ hunt for the protagonist, is sprightly enough — though even there the book is displaying its first unnecessary lengths –, but the second part, instead of kicking things into a higher gear, is riddled with lengthy and largely unnecessary exposition, and from the book’s mid-point onwards the plot is entirely predictable.  The world-building, too, is only so-so: hardly original — and it doesn’t become anymore so just by giving fancy names to ordinary everyday creatures such as farm animals, crops, or certain types of city buildings such as boarding houses, taverns and brothels –, and I am seriously sick of fantasy novels that believe they’re doing something clever by slightly altering the spelling and pronunciation of ordinary everyday names.  (The heroine’s first name is Sonea — pronounced Son-EE-a –; one of the magicians is called Dannyl (pronounced DANNyl.)

In summary, I miight have enjoyed this a good deal more if (1) it had been only about half (or at most, 2 /3) of its actual length and (2) the second half of the book had lived up to the promise of the first half, instead of delving into banal predictability.

Halloween Bingo 2019: The Third Week

Well, the third week really hit my bingo experience out of the ballpark this year — and not only Pbecause it finished with my first completed bingo; that was actually just the icing on the cake.  But it included no less than three absolutely knock-out fabulous books, plus a fourth that was almost as good — and the remaining three, though not quite reaching this level, were at least mostly enjoyable, all in their own particular way.  So without any further ado:

 

The Books

Sofi Oksanen: Fegefeuer (The Purge)

Based on everything I’d previously heard about this book, it took me quite a while to get up my nerve to read it, because I knew I’d be in for a fairly merciless game of psychological hares and foxes — which however, of course, meant that it would be a natural choice for the “Psych” bingo square.

Sofi Oksanen’s The Purge contrasts the early 1990s’ post-Soviet Union independent Estonia with that of the WWII and post-WWII era which had led to the country’s being swallowed up by the Soviet Union.  The setting in which this happens is the isolated farm where one of the novel’s protagonists, has been living almost all her life, and where at the beginning of the book the other protagonist — a young woman who is obviously on the run — suddenly appears, seeking refuge.  Although the two women have never seen each other in their entire lives (and the young refugee for all practical purposes is Russian rather than Estonian), it soon becomes clear that it is by no means an accident for her to show up in this place and none other.  What follows is a dance macabre style exploration of death, guilt, betrayal, running away from versus accepting responsibility for one’s own actions, and one (or two?) families’ entanglement with Estonia’s and the Soviet Union’s brutal social and political order in the second half of the 20th century.  This is an uncomfortable read, but it perfectly encapsulates the mental, psychological, political and social purge that every society will embark on both upon slipping into and upon freeing itself from a dictatorial system; and particularly in today’s political climate it comes highly recommended.

 

Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards!

And talking about books that ought to be read, today more than ever, this turned out to be yet another one, right on the heels of Oksanen’s.  The eighth Discworld novel and the first book of the Night Watch subseries — but first and foremost, an exploration of just how a political system can fail and slip into dictatorships right before everybody’s eyes. Whatever it was that motivated Pratchett to write this book exactly 30 years ago, in the waning days of the Cold War, it is eerily prescient and feels as if it were written this or last year; so exactly does it foretell recent events (particularly in the UK and the U.S., but by far not merely there).  There is, of course, also plenty of Pratchett’s trademark pith and humor, and plenty of lines that, at least in the first part of the book, will make you laugh out loud; but in the second half, more often than not your laughter is going to get stuck right in your throat.

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering about my bingo square attribution, it features dragons.  Plural — but one in particular.

 

Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery

Allingham’s first mystery, and it clearly shows off her talent as a writer from the start.  As in the first Albert Campion book (The Crime at Black Dudley) and several of the subsequent Campion mysteries, there’s an international “detour” — here: literally so — that is not in any way, shape and form necessary to the plot and that I could therefore have done without, and it’s no particular surprise that Allingham later chose a somewhat more flamboyant hero for the series she would come to write.  But for an afternoon’s (or in my case, morning’s) worth of entertainment this works very nicely indeed.

 

BBC Audio: The Lady Detectives

See separate post HERE.

 

Trudi Canavan: The Magicians’ Guild

The first book of Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy and, while it started out enjoyable enough, another book that ultimately failed to live up to my expectations.  (It’s by no means awful, but it also didn’t entice me to continue with the series, however much the ending may have be trying to do just that.)

The book concerns a teenage girl from the slums who in the course of an anti-magician rally with fatal consequences — though not for herself — accidentally discovers that (drumroll …) she has magical powers herself and is henceforth sought out by the Magicians’ Guild who (1) want to make her one of their own and (2) even if she should refuse that rather unexpeted honor — all things magical ordinarily being perceived as something restricted to the country’s ruling families — have decided that in her own interest as well as for the common good, a clamp must be put on her magical abilities, which indeed quickly turn out to be destructive and beyond her own control (a control she can only be taught by a fully-trained magician).

The first part of the book, which essentially concerns the hide and seek game involving the magicians’ hunt for the protagonist, is sprightly enough — though even there the book is displaying its first unnecessary lengths –, but the second part, instead of kicking things into a higher gear, is riddled with lengthy and largely unnecessary exposition, and from the book’s mid-point onwards the plot is entirely predictable.  The world-building, too, is only so-so: hardly original — and it doesn’t become anymore so just by giving fancy names to ordinary everyday creatures such as farm animals, crops, or certain types of city buildings such as boarding houses, taverns and brothels –, and I am seriously sick of fantasy novels that believe they’re doing something clever by slightly altering the spelling and pronunciation of ordinary everyday names.  (The heroine’s first name is Sonea — pronounced Son-EE-a –; one of the magicians is called Dannyl (pronounced DANNyl.)

In summary, I miight have enjoyed this a good deal more if (1) it had been only about half (or at most, 2 /3) of its actual length and (2) the second half of the book had lived up to the promise of the first half, instead of delving into banal predictability.

 

Joy Ellis: The Guilty Ones

Aaah, but what a joy to move from the week’s last so-so book to another absolute stunner!  I had every faith this was going to be the case, and Ellis delivers in spades — in a mystery that this time comes calling so close to DI Jackman’s home that in reality he would probably have had to recuse himself from the investigation.  (Obviously we can’t have such a thing in a mystery, but to give Ellis her due, at least she doesn’t duck the issue; and by and large she handles it more successfully here than a similar — albeit slightly less weighty — situation in an earlier book.)  I know that at least one other bingo participant is still looking to read this book, so I won’t say a word about the plot — and I only mentioned Jackman’s personal involvement because this is essentially the setup of the entire thing and we’re being told about it right from the start — but what I will say is that this book came very, very close to competing with Their Lost Daughters for the spot of my favorite installment in the entire series; and just when I thought I had figured it all out, Ellis kicked things onto a whole new level.  Brava!

 

Toni Morrison: Beloved

… and finally: The book that accompanied me throughout the week, bit by bit, in both audio and the print version.  And oh, what a writer the world lost when Toni Morrison died.  This wasn’t my first book by her, but it brought home her extraordinary qualities as a writer all over again: There isn’t a word wasted here; Morrison even makes every single sillable stand up and be counted, and each and every one of them comes from a place deep inside her and reaches out right to the reader.  The narration is not linear; every fact unveiled simultaneously shrouds two more in allusion and “rememory” too painful to be allowed to come to the surface; and both this and the changing viewpoints make for a canvas that requires time, patience, and the reader’s full attention to pull it out from its multiple layers of protection — and the complete picture, when it is finally out in the open, is one crying out with unbearable heartbreak.

Much as I enjoyed listening to Toni Morrison’s narration as a companion experience to the book, I would join those who counsel against relying on the audiobook alone if this is your first experience with the book: Morrison’s vocal performance essentially does the same as her writing, coaxing forth and simultaneously shushing bits and pieces of the story as they come up in the text, so it adds yet another layer of complexity to a book that, based on its story alone, already calls on the full engagement of the reader’s senses and awareness.

Whichever way you choose to experience this book, though — if you only read one book by Toni Morrison, by all means let it be this one.  She deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature for Beloved alone.

 

The Card

… as of today; with my “virgin” card below for reference:

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1956503/halloween-bingo-2019-the-third-week

Crowdsourced: More Books with a Difference — Fiction

You asked, Moonlight Reader?  To quote from one of my additional entries below:  “As you wish …”

Without any further ado:

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
When Lillelara added A Place of Greater Safety to her list, I could have kicked myself —  because Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books were definitely among the most impressive books I’ve read in the past couple of years.  (A Place of Greater Safety as well, but the Cromwell duology even more so.)  They’ve changed my perception of Cromwell from that of a ruthless schemer to an incredibly complex and astute person (and politician): perhaps still not somebody I’d have wanted to be around all the time, but definitely someone for whom I’m caring from afar and back across several centuries.  And I’m both looking forward to and dreading the release of book 3 (now apparently scheduled for 2020).

Ben Jonson: The Alchemist
Speaking of scheming, the best evidence (if such a thing was needed) that get-rich-quick schemes are not the invention of the likes of Ponzi, P.T. Barnum, Madoff et al. — they’ve always been around.  A ribald, laugh-out-loud satire that’s best experienced on the stage rather than on the page … Philosopher’s stone, anybody?

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael series
MbD has already listed this series’s first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, but really, the whole series is absolutely canon for me.  Peters condenses the complexities of the first English Civil War down to installments of roughly 200 pages, and she does so not only with great knowledge and insight but also with great empathy, through the eyes of one of literary history’s most engaging and worldly-wise characters.

Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night
And it’s the exact reverse here: I’ll be the first to get behind anybody’s adding all of Sayers’s writing to the list by way of a blanket reference, but the simple fact is that you haven’t really read Sayers until you’ve read Gaudy Night.  It’s the crowning achievement not only of her Lord Peter Wimsey series (and Wimsey / Vane subseries) but of all of her writing, not only until then — no wonder she was essentially done writing mysteries after this one.  MR rightly asked yesterday how come nobody has added Gaudy Night by name to the list, yet … it shall be so no longer!

Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express, Murder at the Vicarage, Crooked House, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Mousetrap
We already have “all of Christie” (minus Passenger to Frankfurt) and several individual titles on the list, and I swear I’ve tried to really keep a lid on things, but … look, I just don’t think I want to look at a crowdsourced BL list that doesn’t at least contain the above-named books as well.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451
My personal tetralogy of must-read dystopias consists of George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Orwell’s and Atwood’s books are already on the list.  I’d (very grudgingly) be willing to live without  Huxley (even though the opening chapter alone should send a chill down everybody’s spine, particularly in light of the recent advances in genetic engineering).  But Fahrenheit 451 just has to be included — it’s never been more relevant than today, and it completely blows my mind that it was written in the 1950s.

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger
I was initially going to include this in my first list, but took it off again after seeing that it was on the infamous published “1001 books” list.  Given that we’ve since clarified that this is not necessarily an exclusionary criterium, I’m happily listing it again: This is one of the funniest, most acidly satiric tough-love letters to one’s own country (packaged as a letter to a visiting foreign potentate) that you’ll ever come across.  Your laughter may be sticking in your throat a couple of times when you realize that you’ve just exposed your vocal chords to a razor blade hovering a nano-inch right above them, but even that won’t keep you from laughing out loud again and again on the very next occasion.

Louis de Bernières: Birds Without Wings
As book lists go, an exercise in contrasts vis-à-vis The White Tiger:  Just as panoramic in scope, just as searing to your various and assorted body parts, though in this instance, your guts (individually and collectively): a foray into early 20th century Turkish history as showcased in one particular community and by the friendship of two boys; Turkish-Greek (Muslim-Christian Orthodox) relations, Galllipoli, women’s roles, displacement, diaspora and all.  As gorgeously written as utterly devastating.  (Some of the characters, I’m told, resurface in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin — which I’ve yet to read, though.)

T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain
Like Adiga’s, Boyle’s sword is satire first and foremost, but there is a good deal of anger here, too:  Upper middle class gated community meets illegal Mexican immigrants — the quintessential Southern Californian culture clash.  This book, too, has never felt more relevant than today.

Edna O’Brien: In the Forest and Down by the River
O’Brien caused a stir and got herself onto her country’s censorship index with her Country Girls trilogy (and given 1960s’ morals, at least in  Ireland, that sort of figures), but it’s these two books by her that have left an indelible impression on me; on account of their topics (the prohibition of abortion — even in cases of incestual rape — in Down by the River, and a serial killing spree in In the Forest) and even more so because I’ve never before or since seen topics like these discussed in prose like O’Brien’s, with a brutal and yet lyrical immediacy that grabs you by the throat and never lets you go.

Bernard MacLaverty: Cal
If you only ever read one book on the (Northern) Irish “Troubles”, make it this one — simple as that.  Short and profoundly heartbreaking, and if afterwards you still don’t have a sense of what’s (been) going on there, you never will.

Heinrich Böll: Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) and Irish Journal
Böll’s two sides: One, an angry polemic on one woman’s loss of privacy, employment, security, and pretty much everything else as a result of a vicious tabloid campaign following on the heels of her being falsely accused of being a member of a gang of terrorists; the other, a humorous, upbeat and downright serene account of his life in Ireland (or at least, some of its episodes).  Böll at his best in both instances, and taken together they showcase both the breadth and the depth of his writing.

Bertolt Brecht: Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)
Brecht is best known for The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and, perhaps, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, but I’m not aware of any play that satirizes a demagogue’s rise to absolute power as trenchantly as this one, set in Chicago and written after Brecht had emigrated to the U.S. (There is no question that Arturo Ui is meant to be Hitler.)  Like all plays, obviously best experienced on the stage; and I swear Ian McKellen took more than a page out of Brecht’s book when transposing Richard III to a fascist version of 1930s Britain in his 1995 movie — characterization, set decorations and all.

Su Tong: Raise the Red Lantern (aka Wives and Concubines)
The first narrative actually by a Chinese author set in the world that I had previously only known through Pearl S. Buck’s novels; and it completely broke my heart.  (So did the movie starring Gong Li.)  It’s not easy being a rich man’s young minor concubine … in fact, it may clean drive you insane.

Amy Tan: The Kitchen God’s Wife
The Joy Luck Club is a good book, but it’s here, in her second novel, that Tan really gets up, close and uncomfortably personal with married life in early 20th century China.  Like most of her writing, partially informed by her own family’s experience, which adds ever so much more immediacy to the storytelling.

Colleen McCullough: The Thorn Birds
People may have watched the TV series for the romance (and, um, for Richard Chamberlain), but I’ll take any bets you like that you will read the book for the history, the sweeping canvas of Australia, and all of the characters — though there is, of course, only one Mary Carson, and that’s probably a good thing, too.

Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind
Speaking of romance tearjerkers, though … Look, I know, it’s racist to the core and Ashley is the wettest of wet towels (even if he’s played by Leslie Howard in the movie).  But Scarlett is a complete and utter badass, and that alone means she has every right to be on a list bearing that very word in its title; Rhett and Scarlett have more memorable lines of dialogue between the two of them than a whole other library’s worth of romance novels, and Mellie almost certainly is one of literary history’s most underappreciated characters.  (Also, Rhett Butler will of course always be Clark Gable.)

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Solitary Summer
MbD listed this book’s prequel, Elizabeth and her German Garden, but I think the two should be read together; and though I haven’t read everything by von Arnim yet I’ve read enough to know that her books are absolutely part of my personal canon.  Charming, witty, here also frequently contemplative — and way ahead of her time in terms of her insights on society.  (Also, there’s an obvious reason why she nicknamed her husband The Man of Wrath.)

John Mortimer: Rumpole of the Bailey
This has to be one of very few examples of storylines first developed for a TV series later being turned into book form and making their central character an icon both on the page and on screen.  Rumpole will always look like Leo McKern to me (it’s no coincidence that some of the book covers are cartoons mimicking him in the role, either); and I’ve learned more about common law criminal trials and about the differences between British and American criminal procedure than from many a textbook.  Also, the manifold ways in which Mortimer kept Rumpole from actually “taking silk” (i.e., becoming a QC — queen’s counsel — in his own right and allowed to first-chair trials), and thus keeping him safely in the disdain of his wife Hilda, aka “she who must be obeyed”, never cease to astound me.

Peter May: The Blackhouse
I’m fairly late to May’s books and, based on what I’ve read to date, I’d have no hesitation in blindly recommending the entire Lewis Trilogy and everything else he’s written that is set on the Hebrides as well.  As it is, I’m going to content me with one of the two books I actually have read so far, the first installment of the Lewis Trilogy.  (The other book by him I’ve read is The Coffin Road, which is every bit as good.)  Darkly atmospheric, gripping; just all around phantastic writing.

James D. Doss: White Shell Woman and Grandmother Spider / Tony Hillerman: Leaphorn & Chee series
Two  series focusing on Native American cops and making the most of their Southwestern U.S. setting and the culture and mythology of the Native people at their core: Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, I’ve been aware of for a long time (though not quite from the time of its actual beginning), but Doss’s Ute tribal investigator Charlie Moon, his best buddy sheriff Scott Paris and his shaman aunt Daisy Perika are fairly new to me, and boy am I glad I finally discovered them!  I’ve read all of Hillerman’s mysteries — those by him, not the sequels by his daughter, that is — and love (or at least like) most of them well enough to recommend the entire series; my favorites are probably some of the first books after Leaphorn and Chee were first lumped together (after having initially worked alone in three books each): Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, Coyote Waits, and Sacred Clowns, as well as the final book written by Tony Hillerman himself, Skeleton Man. — By contrast, I still have quite a bit of catching up yet to do with Mr. Doss, but he’s definitely a new favorite already, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of my journey through his catalogue.  Of the books I’ve read so far, Grandmother Spider and White Shell Woman are far and away the best.

John Le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes — who will spy on a spy; who’ll guard the guardians?  The eternal question, ever since rulers first figured out that it might be worthwhile keeping tabs on their friends and enemies, abroad as well as at home (and also keep tabs on the people keeping those tabs); and nobody before or since nailed it the way Le Carré does here.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold may have been his breakout success (and for a reason), but to me, in setting, characters, story arc and everything else, Le Carré’s writing will always come down to this one book.  Even Stella Rimington (former head of MI 5) grudgingly acknowledged that he gets it right … and even if he had written no other book at all, his would still be one of the most important contributions to the genre — and to a wider understanding how secret services operate –, for this one book alone.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Masque of the Red Death
Heaven knows I’m no horror fan, and Poe creeped the heck out of me when we read The Tell-Tale Heart way back when in high school.  While I acknowledge his mad genius, I admire some, but not all of his writing (The Black Cat is not a story I ever want to go near again in my life, and the Dupin Tales, though of course groundbreaking in terms of genre, leave me somewhat unimpressed from a storytelling perspective); but you’ll have to look long and hard to find another as spine-chilling portrayal, in the brief span of a short story at that, of a society literally partying itself to death in complete oblivion of the peril it has conjured right into its midst.

Stephen King: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
Even more than Poe, Stephen King is able to creep me out like nobody’s business, but even if you’re not into horror, if there’s one piece of fiction writing by him that I think everybody should read it is this one, for its middle finger salute to adverse fate if nothing else.  (Also, Edmond Dantès has nothing on Andy Dufresne.  And I’m saying this as a big fan of The Count of Monte Cristo.)

James Goldman: The Lion in Winter
Modern TV has discovered the Tudors as soap opera material (and there’s a point to that, obviously), but if there’s one family in the centuries-long history of the (immediately preceding) Plantagenet dynasty, it’s Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons, not coincidentally known as “the devil’s brood”.  If you don’t believe me, watch this play … or the movie based on it.  It gives a whole new meaning to the term “family feud” — and this all actually happened!

William Goldman: The Princess Bride
This, on the other hand, is a fairy tale.  (Or is it?)  Well, at least the best bits are; “S. Morgenstern” my foot.  This one is of course worth it for the one-liners alone (as is, again and even more so, the movie — the Goldman brothers really had a run in Hollywood).  And seriously, how can we possibly have a “favorite 500” crowdsourced list without this book on it?

Jules Verne: Mich(a)el Strogoff (aka The Tsar’s Courier)
One of the first adventure novels I was seriously hooked on; a ripping great yarn set in Tsarist Russia.  It helped that there was a TV adaptation when I was in my most impressionable years in terms of hero worship, but who hasn’t ever wanted to be chosen to carry a secret message from the Tsar’s Moscow court all the way to Irkutsk in Siberia, fight bandits and Tartars on the way and have all sorts of other adventures (romantic, with a killer partner, included)?

Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped
Before there was Michael Strogoff (for me), there was David Balfour.  Replace Russia by Scotland, and you had me at “adventure”:  Jekyll and Hyde came later, but neither it nor The Treasure Island has ever occupied even remotely the place in my heart that is firmly reserved for the adventures of David Balfour.  Als, note to Mr. Dickens: See, I really like your larger than life characters, but this little book is proof positive that you can deliver this sort of story in the space of a little less than 300 pages and even include a sea voyage and some nifty swashbuckling.  It doesn’t have to be a 950-page brick like Nicholas Nickleby

Giovanni Guareschi: The Little World of Don Camillo
Another book that I discovered via its TV adaptation, starring French comedian Fernandel as Don Camillo: The daily feuds of the local Catholic priest and his friend and rival, communist mayor Peppone, in small-town post-WW II Italy.  Cheeky, funny and an all-around feel-good book — and always with an upbeat, hands-on solution to whatever problem has arisen in the course of the narrative (even if occasionally a somewhat … unusual one).  If only all politics would work like that, village setting or not!

Francis Hodgson Burnett: Little Lord Fauntleroy
Yes, it’s sentimental (then again, so are The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, which tend to get somewhat more play when it comes to “must read” lists), and I know it’s not even a Christmas novel as written — it was only tweaked that way in the TV adaptation starring Alec Guinness and Ricky Schroder –, but it’s been one of my feel-good go-to books, around Christmas especially, since practically time immemorial.

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
Most people know it because it’s provided all except one of the song lyrics and feline characters for the musical Cats, but seriously, people — whether or not you are a cat person yourself, just read it, laugh and enjoy.  Eliot wrote this for his godchildren, and he obviously had a ball.  He also knew cats really, really well.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Letters from Father Christmas
Tolkien’s letters to his children, responding to their letters and wish lists to Santa Claus (Father Christmas) — do yourselves a favor and get the hardcover edition, which is illustrated with Tolkien’s own drawings.  This is where The Hobbit came from … and probably parts of Lord of the Rings as well.

Otfried Preußler: Die kleine Hexe (The Little Witch)
Otfried Preußler, in Germany, is sort of Frank L. Baum, Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll rolled into one — he is, or used to be, one of the most popular children’s authors for decades.  Many of his stories were inspired by the myths and legends of his native Sudeten region (today: chiefly in Poland and the Czech Republic); including this one, which has always been my absolute favorite.  Talk about a middle finger to adversity ending … —  Preußler was also the first author to whom I ever wrote a fan letter … in first grade, when I had barely learned to read and write!

Bill Watterson: The Complete Calvin & Hobbes / René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo: Asterix the Gaul
Hobbes forever. — And you couldn’t grow up in Europe when I was a kid without knowing about (and loving) Asterix and his village of crazy Gauls.

 

And since books that are on “those lists” are no longer absolutely taboo, I’m hereby also offering the following additions from the “I know they’re on all of ‘those lists’, but they’re canon to me and there’s nothing to be done about that” department:

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and Persuasion
All of Austen, really, but if I have to pick individual books, it’s always going to be Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.  Since Moonlight Reader has already added P&P, I’m obviously going to go with the other two.  Of course you can’t help but love Lizzy Bennet (and Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy, period), but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Austen’s quieter heroines; not least because they’re having so much more of a hard time sticking to their guns and they persevere nevertheless.

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre
Not the only badass among the Brontë sisters’ heroines, but however much I may like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Jane still takes the cake.  We first met when I was barely a teenager — I guess that kind of lengthy acquaintanceship is just a bit too long to upend, even by charracters from the pen of another member of the same family of writers.

Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford and North & South
It’s not hard to see how Gaskell and the Brontës (especially Charlotte) were friends.  But where CB kept things essentially to a personal level, Gaskell took it to a wider scope (also, I can’t read North and South without seeing Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton).  Her greatest jewel, though, is Cranford and the microcosm of its village life — nowhere else does Gaskell’s wit and insight into human nature sparkle as much as there.  Besides, how can you resist a book about a village where men are merely tolerated and nobody really dare dispute that women are the infinitely superior sex?

William Shakespeare: Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet
For obvious reasons I’m tempted to list half his catalogue, but even if you’re not into Elizabethan theatre at all, the three plays by the Bard that you absolutely ought to see are Macbeth, Richard III, and Much Ado About Nothing.  Since Tea, Stitch, Read thankfully already listed Much Ado, I’m going to stick with the other two — plus my personal favorite (after many meanderings), Hamlet.  Nobody does the ruin of a human being — and his complete entourage — as the consequence of a single destructive character flaw like Shakespeare, and these three plays are among his very best.

Alexandre Dumas (père): The Three Musketeers
We already have The Count of Monte Cristo on the list, and I totally agree with that of course, but I met M. Dantès at around the same time as D’Artagnan and his friends, and they’ve been an item in my mind ever since.  Besides, Artos, Portos and Aramis totally rule at wisecracking while swashbuckling.  So onto the list they go!

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck wasn’t on my high school curriculum, and that was perhaps fortunate, as no teacher had the opportunity to ruin him for me and I could discover him all by myself and in my own time.  My two “must read” entries by him are East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath; since we already have East of Eden, obviously I’m going to go with his pull-no-punches, kick-in-the-gut Depression Era masterpiece.

Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Williams named his fictional world “Dragon Country” and described it as an uninhabitable place of pain that is nevertheless inhabited — that’s really all you need to know about his plays.  These two hit me the hardest by far.

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence
Wharton won the Pulitzer for this novel, and even if perhaps she’d already deserved one a lot earlier, there’s no question that it’s justified here.  Social conventions were never so stifling, scheming never so vicious — and all hidden under a perfect, completely scratch-proof, shining veneer.  In equal parts chilling and heartbreaking.

Virginia Woolf: Orlando and A Room of One’s Own
The first of these, Woolf’s tongue in cheek but heartfelt love letter to Vita Sackville-West (also one of the most approachable among her novels), the other one her feminist manifesto.  It’s hard, indeed, not to recognize both Sackville-West and her beloved Knole in Orlando‘s title character and key setting, and this is one of the few books where both time travel and a gender swap really work for me.  A Room of One’s Own, on the other hand, contains the famous “anonymous poet(ess)” quote, but it shouldn’t be reduced to that — it’s really quite a trenchant analysis of the history of women’s literature, and much of it still rings very true today.

Aristophanes: Lysistrata
A sex strike to prevent a war … maybe we should revive that idea, what do you think?

Sophocles / Jean Anouilh: Antigone
Antigone has been one of my heroines ever since I first came across her story, and not even a French teacher who almost managed to ruin Camus for me (whom, in turn, I had to rediscover on my own after having graduated from high school) could muddy those particular waters.  In fact, in a way I’ve even come to love Anouilh’s version of the play just a tiny bit more than Sophocles’s original.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Huis Clos (No Exit)
L’enfer, c’est les autres — hell is other people.  I didn’t have to see this play to form that particular conviction, but Sartre really nails it — and all he needs is three characters and a stage set with three chairs and a locked door.

George Orwell: Animal Farm
Yes, it’s manipulative to the nth degree, yet, “all pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal than others” and “four legs good, two legs bad” are far and away no longer applicable to the communist dictatorships that Orwell aimed this at.  A worthy companion to his masterpiece 1984 (which is already on our list anyway).

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go
Ishiguro’s big theme is the unreliability of memory — and indeed, nobody does unreliable narrators like him.  He deserved the Lit Nobel for these two novels alone.

Thomas Mann: Doktor Faustus, as well as Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician) / Klaus Mann: Mephisto / Heinrich Mann: Der Untertan (Man of Straw, aka The Loyal Subject)
The Mann family’s individual and collective takedown of the Nazi regime and the society that made the Nazis’ rise to power possible.  Thomas Mann’s seducer (in the novel) and magician (in the short story; in both instances, an obvious parable for Hitler — with the novel’s Faustus standing in for the German people), aided and abetted by charismatic opportunists like Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, who mesmerized a people conditioned for centuries to obey and even slavishly adore authority without question, like the eponymous protagonist of Heinrich Mann’s novel.

E.M. Remarque: Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front)
In a sense, the prequel to the above-mentioned Mann family’s writings: the story of the lost generation bamboozled into joyfully rushing into the slaughter that would be WW I.  This will make you angry, and it will also break your heart (several times).

And with that, I’ll leave it for the time being … nonfiction additions (if we still have space for them) to follow tomorrow!

 

 

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Ngaio Marsh: Vintage Murder

The Pleasures of Revisiting a Neglected Entry in a Favorite Series

 

I spontaneously picked the audio version of this book yesterday as my book for “Snakes and Ladders” square no. 40, “characters involved in the entertainment industry”; realizing that I’d read it so long ago that I remembered little more than the (rather unusual) method of murder and the fact that it concerns a company of actors travelling in Marsh’s native New Zealand — the first of several novels set in her home country, and her second mystery set in the world of her main daytime occupation as a theatrical director.  And I’m glad that I decided to revisit this book; not only for some much-needed memory refresher (for one thing, the train journey opening the book’s events takes up much less space than I had recalled) but also because, upon revisiting it, I find that overall I like it considerably better than I remembered.

In many respects, this is signature Marsh: both landscape and characters fully coming alive on the page with seemingly little more than a few well-placed brush strokes and pieces of dialogue, great insight into the world of the theatre in general and actors’ psychology and modes of communication in particular, peppered with quotes from the great classic plays (in particular those of her and her main man, Chief Inspector Alleyn’s particular favorite, William Shakespeare), and plenty of misdirection, with “opportunity” [to commit the crime] being writ large as a key factor of the solution from early on.

However, this book — at least as much as Colour Scheme, written a few years later (where Alleyn returns to New Zealand incognito) — is also a welcome reminder that casual racism was not ubiquitous in Golden Age crime fiction: Not only do both books expressly feature positive portrayals of the Maori in general, and of key Maori characters in particular; in both books Alleyn also makes a big point of befriending these characters, and he displays a genuine interest in learning about their history and culture.  (Now if only Marsh had also  extended the same enlightened attitude to gays.)  And revisiting this book also reminded me that many of Marsh’s novels are subtle witnesses to the spirit of their time: In this one, for example (written in 1936), Alleyn and the local inspector (who has invited him to join the investigation) trade worries about the imminent outbreak of yet another war, and they reflect on the folly of their own generation’s going into WWI expecting it to be akin to one great party.

This is not quite the pinnacle of Marsh’s writing just yet, but she clearly was well on her way by the time she wrote this book — the fifth in her Inspector Alleyn series –, with one of her all-time best (Death in a White Tie, Alleyn mystery #7) right around the corner.

 

 

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Ngaio Marsh: Colour Scheme

16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 9 Reads — Winter Solstice Book Joker Bonus

Holiday Book Joker as Bonus Joker: A book set on Winter Solstice (or Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere)

One of my favorite mysteries from Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series, here served up in an unabridged reading by Ric Jerrom.  The story is set in Marsh’s native New Zealand and begins on Summer Solstice, which is Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and thus makes the book eligible for this particular holiday’s book joker.

The mystery is set at a spa hotel near a hot springs / mud pot / small version of Yellowstone National Park type of area, where a gentleman who has made one enemy too many (i.e., your classic Golden Age murder victim) one day is found to have fallen into a boiling hot mud pot.  (He may or may not also have been a German spy — the story is set in the 1940s — but this is one of the rare exceptions of a Golden Age mystery with that kind of angle that is blessedly devoid of “5th column” shenanigans, and where the war background is actually used skillfully to demonstrate how WWII affected daily life even in seemingly remote New Zealand.)  Also present at the spa is, inter alia, a star of the British stage and screen (unabashedly based on Sir Laurence Olivier) — secretary in tow — as well as, arriving on the day after the “accidental” death that very probably wasn’t an accident, a Mr. Septimus Small, whom none of the other denizens of the spa manage to figure out, and who soon inspires the wildest conjectures as to his identity and occupation.

Upon revisiting the mystery — thanks in no small part to Ric Jerrom’s excellent narration and portrayal of the characters — I found the story’s inner logic (and the path to the solution) decidedly more obvious than when I first read it a few years ago, but then again, this time I knew where the whole thing was headed and, consequently, I was not as distracted by minutiae as the first time around.

 

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