Halloween Bingo 2020: The Rest of the Game and Wrap-Up

Sooo, that’s another bingo game behind us already!  Many thanks to our game hosts for successfully moving the game from BookLikes to a new venue and organizing one heck of a game despite that venue’s built-in limitations.  I had a great time and would only have wished I could have participated more throughout the game (particularly in October).

As I had expected, RL started to run major interference by mid-September; and while initially I was at least still able to continue reading (even though I no longer had any time to compose update posts here on WP), by the beginning of October, even reading was essentially a no-go.  Just as well that I had powered through my remaining books by that time … otherwise, this would likely have been the first year in which I hadn’t made it all the way to blackout.

Anyway — here’s my blacked-out bingo card — gained after having had to wait for Doomsday (to be called … on the game’s very last day, at that: could there possibly have been a better conclusion to this year’s game?), with my “virgin” card below and my final spreadsheet at the end of this post:

 

My Master Update Post

 

The Game’s Final Books

… (roughly) in the order in which I read them:

 

Naomi Novik: Spinning Silver


Book 2 in Novik’s series of books updating classical fairy tales (though not, actually, a sequel to Uprooted — this one very much stands on its own ground): essentially, a blend of Rumpelstiltskin, Baba Yaga, and the English / British version of the elf lore, set in a fictional Eastern European country that is, however, very clearly inspired by Russia — down to the use of proper names, titles, and other terms, which are either downright Russian or a sort of pan-Slavic bowdlerization of Russian, Polish, or other Slavic terms.

Novik almost lost me during the initial scene-setting, which struck me as overly elaborate and wordy (she’s clearly her own greatest fan where it comes to the use of descriptive language or, for that matter, even “showing” instead of “telling”); but once the story got going, I was happy enough to come along for the ride, and there were enough innovative elements to keep me interested throughout.  It was probably a good thing that both the source material and the setting were entirely fictional, though (even if heavily borrowing from Russian and pan-Slavic elements), because I’m almost certain that if Novik had aimed for an existing historical setting (as she does in her Temeraire series), she’d have had me wincing at some point or other. — I may go on to read Uprooted or another fairy tale-based book by her eventually, but it’s not a priority, and after this first taste of her writing, I am even less eager to go anywhere near Temeraire.

 

The Medieval Murderers: The Lost Prophecies


This was a reread, which this time around I liked quite a bit better than when I first read it a few years ago.  The Medieval Murderers series of round robins are the perfect books for the “Relics and Curiosities” Halloween Bingo category, as their very concept consists in following one (supposedly cursed or unlucky) item through history, from its first use or appearance at some point in the (typically: early) Middle Ages to the present day (or beyond); so they have become sort of my go-to series for this bingo square.  Yet, in this particular instance I was sorely tempted to change my mind and assign the book to either the “Doomsday” or the “Dystopian Hellscape” square, as it ends with a scary-and-believable-as-hell doomsday scenario set in a post-climate-catastrophe future, with half the world (e.g., all of Africa and India) essentially burnt up and turned into a scorching, uninhabitable desert, and the better part of the rest half-submerged by the world’s oceans after the melting of the polar ice caps.  (It’s also a showcase for not extrapolating too noticeably from the political order at the time of writing, though, as it was written pre-Brexit and more or less takes Britain’s continued membership in the EU as a given … oh well.)

Like in all the books in the series, the individual sections of The Lost Prophecies (which concerns a book of doomsday prophesies compiled by a 6th century Irish monk) can, at heart, stand on their own, even though there are occasional cross-references; particularly, of course, to the “dangerous book”‘s mysterious origins.  Individually and collectively, the book’s various parts take the reader on a journey from 6th century Ireland to medieval Devon, late medieval Cambridge, the Tartar Steppe, rural England in Shakespeare’s times, and, as mentioned above, the doomsday world of the “dangerous book”‘s final prophecies.  As is to be expected in a round robin — and as is typically the case in this series, too — not all of the individual mystery sections are equally strong, and I’ve found my previous likes and dislikes essentially confirmed upon this reread, even if, as I said, I liked the book quite a bit better as a whole this time around.

 

A.S. Byatt: Ragnarok


Ultimately, I decided to go with Byatt’s take on Ragnarök for the “Doomsday” Halloween Bingo square, because let’s face it, doomsday doesn’t get anymore terrifying than in Norse mythology — and I am glad that Byatt, for one, didn’t try to humanize the Norse deities, as so many other authors do in their attempt to make them understandable to modern readers.  (You can easily do that to the gods of Greek mythology — and honestly, that’s one of the reasons why as a child I found them, and Greek mythology as a whole, much easier to understand than Norse mythology; but try to assign human characteristics and motivations to Thor or Loki and you’re instantly missing their intrinsic nature.)  By the same token, I found it intriguing that Byatt herself — as the “thin child” through whose eyes we are witnessing Ragnarök here is, as she herself confirms in the book’s afterword, an only thinly-veiled edition of Byatt’s younger self — was drawn so much to the Norse version of doomsday in her younger years.  Of couse, what with WWII persistently threatening to destroy her own world, on the one hand it’s easily understandable that she would turn to the kind of storytelling that centers on precisely this sort of catastrophe; on the other hand, the thoroughly alien and hard-to-grasp Norse deities don’t seem to be the very first, logical point of identification coming to mind.  All the more thought, however, Byatt clearly put into her approach to Ragnarök, and all the more the whole thing is to the benefit of the reader … even if, like myself, that reader still comes away preferring Greek to Norse mythology.

 

Sharyn McCrumb: The Ballad of Tom Dooley


Just as the Medieval Murderers series has, over the years, become my go-to series for “Relics and Curiosities”, Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad series is my go-to series for the Southern Gothic bingo square.  I’ve enjoyed all of the books from that series that I’ve read so far; none more than The Ballad of Frankie Silver.  This particular entry, while not a complete let-down, was thus a bit unexpected as it is the first time that I could not empathize with one of the major POV characters (which, I find more and more, is kind of crucial to my enjoyment of a book); not least because I thought her character unnecessarily clichéd.  And although McCrumb insists that — like in her other Ballad novels — the essential story is based on historic fact, she seems to have given in to conjecture here more than she usually does, which is something that I find problematic at least if, like here, it involves people who have actually lived, and have been a part of the events described, though not necessarily (or at least not demonstrably) in the way set forth by the author. — Research and faithful narration aside, however, McCrumb can still write rings around many another writer, and her scene-setting and ear for dialogue (both interior and exterior) is as flawless as ever here.

 

T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats


Original review HERE.

Additional separate post HERE — Macavity, Mr. Mistoffelees & Co. in all their feline glory still very much deserve a post of their own!

 

Michael Jecks: The Malice of Unnatural Death


I’ve been a fan of Michael Jecks’s Knights Templar series for a number of years now, and although he pretty much grabbed me with the opening scene of that series’s very first book (and never mind that that particular book did come across as more of a typical “early” book later on), I keep enjoying how much better the series gets the further it progresses.  I am not reading it in order (though I’ve read enough books at this point to have a fairly solid grasp of the two main characters’ overall story arch) — so far this hasn’t greatly bothered me, but I may find it more difficult to go back to some of the earlier books after having read this particular installment, which, never mind its occasionally gut-wrenching scenes, is a veritable page-turner and darned near perfectly crafted in virtually every respect.  It’s also the perfect Halloween (bingo) read, in that it combines a (medieval) mystery — set in Exeter and the main characters’ nearby Dartmoor home — with apparent elements of the supernatural; concerning, as it does, the activities of a necromancer — an assassin claiming to be in league with the devil and using powers bestowed on him by the devil in order to carry out his murders (in the dead of winter, at that).  All told, this was definitely one of the highlights of my bingo reads this year.

 

Ellis Peters: The Devil’s Novice


Another (re-re-)reread and, not just in its medieval setting, the perfect follow-up to Michael Jecks’s The Malice of Unnatural Death: The story of a young man professing an earnest desire to become a novice at Shrewsbury’s abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul and yet, soon revealing in his sleep that he is haunted by demons that will need to be exorcised before any decision about his future can be made — not just the decision whether he is meant for the cloister at all.

This is one of my favorite installments in Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series; I’ve revisited both the book and the screen adaptation starring Derek Jacobi numerous times … and I confess that petty li’l me always gets an extra kick out of seeing the odious Brother Jerome brought down a peg or three here when he is temporarily rendered incapable of speech.  (And I feel secure in the knowledge that not merely Cadfael but Abbot Radulfus shares that sentiment, so I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it, either.)

 

Alice Hoffman: The River King


This was, incredibly, my first taste of Hoffman’s writing — in hindsight, I’m wondering whether I should have started with her Practical Magic books after all (but then again, I might be wondering about the same thing in reverse — i.e., whether I should have started with this book — if I had).  Either way, I was a bit more underwhelmed than I had expected to be — with this book, at any rate: I”ve always been much less certain that the Practical Magic books are for me, and am even less certain about that now.

This is a murder mystery with supernatural elements set in a New England prep school: I found the main characters and the setting well enough executed, but I suppose I’m just too prosaically-minded to see what the supernatural elements added to the (by and large sordid, but hardly original) story — and Hoffman’s writing at times has a downright manipulative quality that I found more and more jarring the further I progressed in the book.  I also have a serious bone to pick with the ending, which doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the victims of bullying in this (the real, not the supernatural) world — in a book that clearly aims to send a message, that is just about the last sort of message I’d want to see.

 

Colin Dexter: The Dead of Jericho


Another comfort (re)read (well, its been that kind of year … and fall): It was more or less “six of this, half a dozen of the other” whether I’d use this book for the “Film at 11” bingo square and something from Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series for “Read by Flashlight or Candlelight” or vice versa, but I ultimately decided to go with the more obvious focus on the book as actually written here, simply because this book’s screen adaptation is one of the Morse TV episodes I care somewhat less for than the series as a whole.  The reason is that the screenwriters’ fiddling with the plot (which is present, to some extent, in all episodes of the TV series) in this instance creates a structure that is several degrees more serpentine than the already fairly convoluted plot of the actual book — which in turn, for a number of reasons isn’t my absolute favorite in the series, either, but as a writing exercise it’s still superior to the screenplay.  (No reflection on the cast: John Thaw, Kevin Whately, and Gemma Jones are all in great form.)

Another reason for my decision to pick this book for this particular square was that the audio version is narrated by Samuel West, who does an absolutely phantastic job, as he does for the entire series.

In keeping with the theme of this square, I made this listening experience as comfortable and laid-back as possible; starting while having a bath and finishing in bed — with my obligatory black(ish) Halloween bingo good luck cat by my side. — Thanks again to Lora who agreed to flip this square for my original card’s “Stone Cold Horror” … I’d never have found a horror novel set in winter on my shelves (nor been inclined to read it even if I’d found one, this year being what it is)!  You’ve got to admit … this was the much more “feel good” version:


 

Patricia Highsmith: Ripley Under Ground


This year’s Halloween Bingo buddy read — thanks again to Christine, BrokenTune and Lillelara for the fun of reading this book together!  Somehow, that seems to be the way Patricia Highsmith’s books are enjoyed best … Though I have to say, while I struggled with Strangers on a Train, I’m getting a complete and total kick out of Tom Ripley.  I mean, sure, he’s a psychopath, and it was slightly even more fun to watch him turn into the monster that he actually is in the first book … but it was still eye-rolling good fun to watch his antics in the arts world.  (He also seems to be one of the notable exceptions to the fact that, as a rule, I have to be able to empathize with at least one of a book’s POV characters, see above.  Which is a rule that of course also applies to Highsmith’s books — hence, in part, my response to Strangers on a Train — and c’mon on, you can’t seriously root for a psychopath … or can you?!)

 

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White


Thank God for writers like Wilkie Collins, who always provide(s) me with enough options to fill at least one horror-related bingo square without having to reach for a spell card … and still read something generally classified as “horror” (or “gothic”) without actually being scared out of my wits and unable to sleep afterwards.  In The Woman in White, it’s all in the psychology: At heart, this is more mystery than what we’d call “horror” today — chiefly concerning, as it does, the identity of the eponymous “Woman in White” and the goings-on in a house that, it turns out, she used to call her home — but one character (the odious Count Fosco) alone provides enough of a creep factor to satisfy the definition as “gothic” three times over, and most of the other tropes of the genre are present as well (mysterious lonely country estate, women in peril, doomed love, fire, etc.) — For those who may have struggled with Collins’s The Moonstone: This is similar in structure in that it, too, has several narrators, but none of them have quite as many idiosyncrasies as does Betteredge, in particular, in The Moonstone; and I also found The Woman in White somewhat more tightly plotted.

 

W. Stanley Moss: Ill Meet by Moonlight

The book I’ve wanted to read ever since I visited Anógia village, high up in the Cretan Mount Ida (or Psiloritis) massif, several years ago: The first-hand account of the WWII abduction of German Major General Heinrich Kreipe near his home in Heraklion, after which Kreipe was marched all the way up the mountain and, ultimately back down again to the southern coast of Crete and, from there, into English captivity in Egypt for the entire rest of the war.  I’ve posted about this before, so by way of background I’ll let that other post say all that is necessary … for purposes of this update, let me just add that “the book itself” is a ripping great read and then some; not just because it’s all true (what need for fiction if reality can write this sort of story?!), but also because Moss’s narrative style is tremendously engaging; affable and charming, understated, and straightforward at the same time. — And for anybody wondering just how fast friends he and Patrick Leigh Fermor (only incidentally his commanding officer in the venture) really were, I’ll give you just one excerpt; straight from Moss’s diary, which forms the backbone of the text, in this particular instance, from their first day in the cave (!) where their little group awaited the arrival of “Paddy” Leigh Fermor and the rest of their contingent:

“To remain here for a few days in comparative idleness will not be unpleasant.  I have with me the books which Paddy and I selected in Cairo to take with us, and among them there is something to suit every mood.  My literary companions are Cellini, Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Tolstoi, and Marco Polo, while in a lighter vein there are Les Fleurs du Mal, Les Yeux d’Elsa, and Alice in Wonderland.  Then there are The Oxford Book of Verse and the collected Shakespeare which Billy MacLean gave us on our last night in Tara [before starting on the mission] …”

Only a person whom Patrick Leigh Fermor considered a true brother in spirit would find it perfectly normal — even indispensable — to bring (a) any books at all, (b) so many books, and (c) these books of all the books in the world on a potentially deadly mission in enemy territory (as Crete was for the Brits in WWII) … not to mention, consider Baudelaire’s controversial masterpiece and Louis Aragon’s patriotic wartime poems to his muse Elsa something “in a lighter vein.”  (And, of course, this is only one of several passages in the book that literally had me do a double take.)

N.B.: I’ve since found out that above and beyond the passage quoted in my other post, Leigh Fermor actually did end up writing his own full, book-length account of that particular mission, too … guess what went straight into my online shopping basket once I’d made that discovery.

 

J.J. Connington: Nordenholt’s Million


This was a book I instantly knew I’d be saving for Halloween Bingo after I’d read its back cover blurb. And it proved chillingly topical for our times — it sort of describes the combined effect of Brexit (and Trump in the U.S.), venture capitalism, and a rampant, out-of-control biological pest coming together.  (As a minor but significant tangent, also throw in religious fundamentalism.)

In the book’s case the pest is a bacterium that destroys the chemical compounds in which plants ingest nitrogen; in other words, it’s a killer with the capability of destroying the world’s entire food reserve (not just plant-based — animals directly or indirectly (via their prey) feed off plants, too, after all) in the space of less than a year. In the crisis brought about by the bacterium’s spread, a businessman / venture capitalist “relieves” the inept government of the reins of power — first behind the scenes, ultimately overtly — and puts in place a scheme where 90% of the British population (and 99+ % of the world’s population) are condemned to starve, while the remaining 10% of Brits — all of them, of course carefully selected — are put to use in creating a new, utopian society, which alone is in possession of nitrogenated soil and can grow plants.  (When religious fundamentalism takes hold in that community of the “select few”, the leader of the cult is first publicly unmasked as a fraud and then, literally only seconds later, shot dead in full view of the crowd he has amassed.)

I was shocked to see that this book was published in 1923; after having read the first chapters, I’d have expected at the very least that Connington had seen Hitler’s “Enabling Law” and use of the press for propaganda purposes in action, but no … and yet, he foretells them with a frightening degree of accuracy, only on the basis of the British system (which, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the book does include adjourning parliament to avoid inconvenient questions. And yes, at the moment when the crisis hits, the future dictator is an MP himself, too … by way of a sort of lateral activity, with the ultimate aim of furthering his venture capitalist interests). The way in which Connington pretty much foretells everything we saw with Hitler, and everything we’re now seeing with the combined effects of Trump, Brexit, a venture capital-based economic system AND the pandemic is scary to the nth degree … I’m glad he only ever put his ideas into this book and didn’t, himself, set about putting them into practice.

Connnington was, incidentally, a chemist by training, so he clearly knew what he was writing about as far as the scientific elements are concerned.  In fact, he was even prescient enough to foresee the use of nuclear energy — it’s the energy on which his future, utopian cities are ultimately run.  (They also consist of buildings made of other materials than stone or concrete, not unlike the building materials that are actually used today.)

If, in the final analysis, I only ended up rating the book 3 1/2 stars after all, this is based on essentially three reasons, and all of them only truly materialize in the final part(s) of the book — though some of these issues already start cropping up about halfway through:

(1) In terms of social clichés and perceptions, Connington was, alas, very much a man of his times.  There’s no sugarcoating the fact that the book contains some glaringly racist passages (and it’s not unconscious racism, either — he clearly meant every word); and, similarly, his take on women and women’s role in society is … well, let’s say, at the very least problematic.  There’s a distinct element of misogyny; even if it’s not quite as blatant as the racism (and he may even have believed he was doing something “advanced” in expressly giving one particular woman more of an active voice / role in building that utopian society).

(2) Connington, like a fair number of his contemporaries, was in favor of euthanasia — which is a fact I only know because I’ve read Martin Edwards’s two books about Golden Age crime fiction; but even if I hadn’t known this going in, it would have been hard to miss here.  However terrifying the first half of the book, the more the narrative progresses, the more it becomes clear that the author himself doesn’t, fundamentally, seem to see anything wrong with starting from a “clean slate”, as it were, of hand-picked superior human material (although even he does seem to balk at the more horrific aspects of achieving such a “clean slate”).  I haven’t read anything else by Connington yet — except for one mystery short story, that is — and I’m willing to grant that, had he foreseen the extent to which the Nazis took their particular version of a “clean slate”, he, too, would have been horrified.  (He died shortly after WWII; maybe some of his final literary output can provide some guidance as to his thinking once the world had begun to learn about the unspeakable horrors wreaked by the Nazis.)  Still, it’s an unnecessarily jarring feature.

(3) The utopian society ultimately emerging from all the turmoil is presented only in the sketchiest of terms, in great contrast to the description of the destruction of the world as it had been known until then.  Granted, this wasn’t Connington’s focus, but the ending of the book still feels rushed; and I found it hard to envision how, even after the discovery of nuclear energy (for which not one but several scientists knowingly and selflessly sacrifice their own lives … really, Mr. Connington??), the whole thing is supposed to have worked out … especially without the least further social turmoil.  As Connington himself shows, human society doesn’t work like that — and it’s not just the “dumb, gullible masses” (whoever they are) who won’t be pacified by the “bread and games” approach forever.

Still, I am glad that I have read this book — and there were times when, in the first half especially, I very much felt like quoting huge passages verbatim and yelling at people: “Listen to this — and this is from a book published in 1923, for crying out loud!”

 

Julie Smith (ed.) & Various Authors: New Orleans Noir


This year’s final bingo book: an anthology of mystery short stories set in New Orleans, by some of the Big Easy’s best-known crime writers.  As is usually the case with such compilations, some of the entries struck more of a chord with me than others, but taken together, they definitely conveyed an image of how the city just might see itself — or at least, some of of its seamier sides.  In a way, it also proved as fitting a final Halloween Bingo book as Nordenholt’s Million (which I had initially expected to finish last): what I hadn’t known when I picked this anthology — but instantly learned from the introduction — was that this book was put together in support of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster aid.  And in a year largely dominated by a global pandemic, that seems as apt a way to conclude my Halloween Bingo reads as having to wait for the Doomsday square to be called in order to be able to record my full “called and read” card blackout.

 

Previous Status Updates:
Week 1
Week 2

February and Mid-March 2020 Reading Update

I never got around to doing this at the end of February, so what the heck … I might as well include the first two weeks of March, since that month is half over at this point already, too.  But then, February was such a universal suck-fest in RL that I didn’t even make it here for the better part of the month to begin with.  (Don’t even ask.)  So much for my hope back in January that things might be looking up …

So, lots and lots of comfort reading in the past 1 1/2 months; Golden and Silver Age mysteries aplenty, both new and from the reread department — but I also managed to honor Black History Month and advance my Around the World, Women Writers, and 221B Baker Street and Beyond reading projects.  In perhaps the weirdest turnout of the past couple of weeks, I even managed to include two “almost buddy reads” (reading books that others had recently finished or were reading concurrently — Patricia Moyes’s Dead Men Don’t Ski and Freeman Will Crofts’s The Cask) and, before vanishing into my February RL black hole, a real buddy read with BT of John Bercow’s excellent (though somewhat unfortunately-titled) memoir, Unspeakable.

 

Number of books read since February 1: 27
Of these:

 

Black History Month
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We Should All Be Feminists
Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing
Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)

 

Around the World
— counting only books by non-Caucasian authors and / or set neither in Europe nor in the mainland U.S.:
* The three above-mentioned books, plus
* Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World
* Mia Alvar: In the Country
* Matthew Pritchard (ed.), Agatha Christie: The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922

 

221B Baker Street and Beyond
Terry Manners: The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes
Keith Frankel: Granada’s Greatest Detective

 

Golden Age Mysteries
4 by Ngaio Marsh (all rereads): Overture to Death, Light Thickens, Dead Water, Death at the Bar
4 by Margery Allingham (2 rereads, 2 new): The Beckoning Lady, Death of a Ghost, Mystery Mile, Black Plumes
1 by Patricia Wentworth (new): The Case of William Smith
2 by J. Jefferson Farjeon (both new): Seven Dead and Thirteen Guests
1 by Raymond Postgate (new): Somebody at the Door
1 by Freeman Wills Crofts (new): The Cask

 

Silver Age and Other Mysteries
Patricia Moyes: Dead Men Don’t Ski (new)
Colin Dexter: Last Bus to Woodstock (reread)
Ellis Peters: The Sanctuary Sparrow (reread)
P.D. James / BBC Radio: 7 dramatizations (Cover Her Face, Devices and Desires, A Certain Justice, A Taste for Death, The Private Patient, The Skull Beneath the Skin, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman) — all revisits as far as the actual books were concerned, as was the dramatization of The Skull Beneath the Skin; the rest of the audios were new to me)

 

Other Books
John Bercow: Unspeakable (memoir)
Tony Riches: Henry (historical fiction)

 

Of all of these, the standout entries were:

Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)
A short but impactful novel tracing the coming-of-age of the son of a French father and a Burundian Tutsi mother, which coming-of-age is rudely interrupted when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda spills over into Burundi.  What starts out as an endearing but somewhat unremarkable read becomes a tale of unspeakable heartbreak in the final part, in which it only took very few pages for the book to completely skewer me.

Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World
Justice Sotomayor’s memoirs of her upbringing in the New York Puerto Rican community, and her unlikely, but doggedly pursued path to Princeton, Yale Law School, and ultimately, the Federal Bench — fullfilling a dream that had, oddly, started by watching Perry Mason on TV as a child.  I wish Sotomayor hadn’t finisihed her book with her appointment as a judge, though I respect the reasons why she decided to do so; and even so, hers is a truly impressive, inspiring story of overcoming a multitude of crippling conditions (type-1 diabetes, poverty, racism, and teachers discouraging rather than inspiring her, to name but a few) to chart out a path in life that even most of those who didin’t have to overcome any of these odds would not dare to aspire to.  Throughout the narrative, Sotomayor’s genuine empathy with and care for her fellow human beings shines through on many an occasion; not only for her family and friends, and for those disadvantaged by society, but for everybody she encounters — until and unless they rub her the wrong way, in whch case they will find themselves at the receiving end of a tongue lashing or two.  What particularly impressed me was that Sotomayor, though a staunch defender of Affirmative Action, repeatedly chose not to seek positions as a minority candidate but on a more neutral ticket, fearing she might unduly be buttonholed otherwise.  That sort of thing takes great strength and belief in the universality of her message.

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 then-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.

John Bercow: Unspeakable 
An impromptu boddy read with BrokenTune; delivered in Bercow’s trademark style and doubtlessly offering as much fodder to those determined to hate him as to those who regret his stepping down as Speaker.  I commented on the bits up to the Brexit chapter in a status update at the 70% point; the final part of the book contains much that Bercow had already said repeatedly while still in office, be it in interviews or from the Speaker’s chair; yet, while he doesn’t hold back with criticism of those whose stance he considers irresponsible, he is also scrupulously fair to all those who, he genuinely believes, are working hard to realize the political aims they consider in the best interests of theiri constituents.  In fact, the chapter about what, in Bercow’s opinion, makes a “good” politician, was possibly the most surprising inclusion in the book (and the book worth a read for that chapter alone), heaping praise (and in some instances, scorn) on a wide array of politicians of all parties, regardless whether Bercow shares their views or not. —  Even if no longer from inside the Houses of Parliament, I hope and trust Bercow’s voice will remain relevant and weighty in the months and years to come.

Patricia Moyes: Dead Men Don’t Ski
A huge shout-out to Moonlight Reader for favorably reviewing this book earlier this year and thus bringing it to my attention.  Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are a joy to be with, and like MR and Tigus (who has also read the book in the interim), I’ll definitely be spending more time in their company in the future.  What I particularly appreciated in addition to the delightful characters created by Ms. Moyes (and the rather cleverly-constructed locked-room mystery at the heart of this book) was the understanding she brought to the book’s setting in the German-speaking part of the Italian Alps, which is not only one of the most naturally stunning parts of the entire Alps but also a region fraught with a complicated history, which might have caused a lesser writer to glide off into easy cliché, but which Moyes uses rather skillfully in crafting her story’s background.

 Ngaio Marsh: Light Thickens
The final book of the Roderick Alleyn series and perhaps not everybody’s cup of tea, set, as it is, in Marsh’s “main” professional domain — the world of the theatre — and featuring a plot in which the murder only occurs at the halfway point, almost as an afterthought: and yet, upon revisiting the book, I instantly realized all over again why this (the first mystery by Marsh I’d ever read) was the one book that irresistibly drew me into the series and made me an instant fan.  This isn’t so much a mystery as a Shakespearean stage director’s love letter to the Bard, and to his “Scottish play” in all of its permutations; as well as to the Shakespearean theatre, and more generally, the world of the stage as such.  Roderick Alleyn (rather far advanced in his career and definitely not having aged in real time) eventually shows up to solve the inevitable murder, faithful sidekick Inspector (“Br’er”) Fox in tow and quoting Shakespeare with the best of them, but the stars of the show remain the actors themselves, the play’s director (whom those who read the series in order will, at this point, already have encountered in a prior installment), and ultimately, Shakespeare himself.  This may not be everybody’s cup of tea in a mystery … to me, it proved irresistible, the first time around as much as upon revisiting the book now.

Margery Allingham: Death of a Ghost
Unlike my reading experience with Allingham’s fellow Golden Age Queens of Crime Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, that with Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion series is a rather checkered one, where instances of true mystery reader’s delight repeatedly follow hot on the heels of groan-inducing forays into clichéd, implausible plots populated by cardboard characters, and vice versa.  That said, even upon my first read I considered Death of a Ghost one of the series’s absolutely standout entries, and that impression has only been confirmed and reinforced by revisiting the book.  Set in the art world and populated by a cast of fully drawn, quirky characters (some likeable, some decidedly less so), the book lives off Allingham’s acerbic wit, which is brought out to great advantage here; and although Campion tumbles to the probable identity of the murderer when we’re barely halfway into the book, Allingham easily maintains the reader’s interest by keeping the “how” a puzzle, and by tying in a further puzzle whose solution will eventually provide the motive for the murder.  If there is any letdown in the book at all, it’s in the murderer’s ultimate fate, but by and large, this is a superlative effort.

As a side note, I’ve also concluded that the audio versions of Allingham’s novels work decidedly better for me if read by Francis Matthews rather than David Thorpe.  I have no problem with Thorpe as a narrator of other books, but he takes a rather literal approach to Allingham’s description of Campion’s voice, making it come across almost as a falsetto, which in combination with his overly expressive narration as a whole tends to drive me clean up the wall.  Matthews’s delivery, by contrast, while hinting at Campion’s vocal patterns, is a bit more matter of fact overall (even though it still leaves plenty of room for characterization, both of people and of plot elements) — an impression that was swiftly confirmed when a search for further Allingham titles recorded by Matthews threw up a non-Campion mystery of hers, Black Plumes, which in turn also confirmed my impression that some of Allingham’s best writing is contained in books other than her Campion mysteries.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Overall, the past six (or so) weeks contained a lot of great books, regardless whether rereads or new to me.  The two most-hyped entries in the selection — Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Mia Alvar’s In the Country — proved, almost predictably (for me, anyway), those that I was least impressed with: they were both still solid 4-star reads, but both episodic in nature, with only some of those episodes engaging me as fully (and consequently, blowing me away as much) as, if I’d have believed the hype, I’d have expected the entire books to do.  (I know, I know.  4 stars is still a very respectable showing, and I wouldn’t give either book less than that … and considering that I’ve been known to one-star overly hyped books when called for, 4 stars is even more pretty darned decent.  Still … they both, but particularly so Homegoing, would have had so much more potential if they’d been allowed to spread their wings to the full.) — Of the Golden Age mysteries new to me, the standout was J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Thirteen Guests. Tony Riches’s Henry provides a well-executed conclusion to his series about the three first significant Tudors (Owen, Jasper, and Henry VII) — neatly complementing Samantha Wilcoxson’s novel about Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth of York, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen — and the two books focusing on Jeremy Brett and the Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series starring him as Holmes have given me the idea for a Holmes-related special project, which I will, however, probably only get around to later this year (if I get around to it at all, my RL outlook being what it is at the moment).

 

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Halloween Bingo 2019 PreParty — Question for 08/01 (Day 1): Mystery or Horror?

 

Mystery, definitely.

For one thing, I’m a total chicken — I can’t look at blood (not even, or rather, especially not my own, e.g. in medical procedures); and anything shocking, spooky, or otherwise unnaturally unsettling just has me running for the rafters.  That’s particularly true at night — which is when I’m doing a good deal of my reading — but basically, it applies 24/7.  So that not only rules out slashers and other forms of gory horror, but pretty much any and all forms of psychological horror as well.  The only stories typically classified as “horror” that I can go near are classics where I essentially know what’s going to happen from the word “go” (e.g., Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), or ghost stories (mostly classics as well) where the appearance of the ghost(s) is (1) in itself not overly unsettling, at least not in the way in which it is presented to the reader, and / or (2) tied to a larger point that the author is trying to make.  (E.g.  most of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, Charles Dickens’s The Signalman and — of course — A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, and Oscar Wilde’s hilarious send-up of the genre, The Canterville Ghost.)  Edgar Allan Poe is a special case … I do love some of his writing (e.g., The Masque of the Red Death and The Raven), but The Tell-Tale Heart creeped the hell out of me way back in high school, and that cat story (which shall remain unnamed in this post) … well, let’s just say once was once too often.

And then — well, I became a mystery reader all the way back in elementary school, and that was probably the most formative reading experience of my entire life.  It started with a series of books specifically targeting elementary school kids, whose (idiomatic) title went straight to my little smarta$$ jugular, challenging me to demonstrate I had what it took to solve them.  From there, it was practically guaranteed I’d move on to and love the Three Investigators series — by which time my mom had caught on once and for all, too, and in short order presented me with my first Agatha Christie — After the Funeral, which for that reason alone will always be one of my personal favorites.  And the rest, as they say, is history!

I’ve long stopped looking “just” for clever puzzles in mysteries, although that is still at least one of the things I want to see — it takes a lot of other things in a book to work well for me if I’ve solved the mystery early on and still end up liking the book.  But on the other hand, I’ll be just as unhappy if I can’t connect, on some level or other, with the main character (or if not them, at least an important supporting character) — or if I’m presented with shallowly drawn, cardboard or just flat out boring characters, or if the plot just ties one trope onto the next or is otherwise devoid of originality.  In other words, a mystery that works for me will always be more than merely the hunt for a killer (or other criminal, as the case may be) — it will be a complex blend of well-drawn, individual characters and an intelligent plot, and ideally the characters will also have some other (e.g., personal) challenges to deal with on their journey to the mystery’s solution.

Since I also love historical fiction (and nonfiction), historical mysteries are a particular favorite — provided they’re well-researched, such as Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series (a long-time favorite) and C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series (my most recent “must-read” series) –, but I’ve never lost my love for the Golden Age classics — next to Christie, in particular Sherlock Holmes and everything Dorothy L. Sayers, as probably everybody here knows — and am thrilled to also see Golden Age crime fiction above and beyond the eternal great ones making such a huge comeback in recent years.  Martin Edwards, the current president (and chief archivist) of both the Detection Club and the Crime Writers’ Association, may not be everybody’s cup of tea personally, but there’s no denying that his lobbying for the revival of Golden and Silver Age crime fiction has a lot to do with this, and I think he deserves huge plaudits on those grounds alone.  That said, P.D. James’s writing (and her Inspector Dalgliesh) also has had a special place in my heart for longer than I can remember … and I’m inordinately happy to have discovered many more great women crime writers and women detectives in recent years; most recently, Joy Ellis’s Jackman and Evans series (*waves to Jennifer*).

Oh, and for the record, the “I can’t look at blood” thing applies to mysteries as well, of course — which is one of the reasons why as a rule I don’t read serial killer books; nor any other mysteries where I know, going in, that the corpse or the crime scene will be described in gratuitously graphic terms.   [She said, side-eying J.K. Rowling for the second Cormoran Strike book, which definitely should come with a warning label attached.]  However, I am not at all opposed to grit and grime in a mystery’s setting — in fact, I particularly enjoy both classic noir crime fiction (with Raymond Chandler a particular favorite) and modern crime fiction that takes a look at the state of society, such as Michael Connelly’s and Ian Rankin’s books.

 

 

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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!

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1906574/crowdsourced-more-books-with-a-difference-fiction

16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Updates / Blackout

I’ve yet to read at least one book for some of the squares, but I’ve completed a minimum of either one book or one task for all of the squares, and in several cases, more.

 

 

The Markers:

Stack of Books: Books read

 

 

 

Red Bows and Ribbons: Other Tasks completed

 

The Squares, Books and Other Tasks:

Square 1: November 1st: All Saints Day / Día de los Muertos & Calan Gaeaf

Book themes for Día de Muertos and All Saint’s Day: A book that has a primarily black and white cover, or one that has all the colours (ROYGBIV) together on the cover.

Book themes for Calan Gaeaf:
Read any of your planned Halloween Bingo books that you didn’t end up reading after all, involving witches, hags, or various types of witchcraft –OR– read a book with ivy or roses on the cover, or a character’s name/title of book is / has Rose or Ivy in it.
=> Terry Pratchett: Carpe Jugulum
1 point.

Tasks for Día de Muertos and All Saint’s Day: create a short poem, or an epitaph for your most hated book ever.
=> Epitaph for 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight
1 point.

Tasks for Calan Gaeaf: If you’re superstition-proof, inscribe your name on a rock, toss it in a fire and take a picture to post –OR– Make a cozy wintertime dish involving leeks (the national plant of Wales) and post the recipe and pictures with your thoughts about how it turned out.
=> Bami Goreng
1 point.

 

Square 2: November 5th: Guy Fawkes Night & Bon Om Touk

Book themes for Guy Fawkes Night: Any book about the English monarchy (any genre), political treason, political thrillers, or where fire is a major theme, or fire is on the cover.
=> S.J. Parris: Heresy
1 point.

Book themes for Bon Om Touk: Read a book that takes place on the sea, near the sea, or on a lake or a river, or read a book that has water on the cover.
=> P.D. James: The Lighthouse
1 point.

Tasks for Guy Fawkes Night: Post pictures of past or present bonfires, fireworks (IF THEY’RE LEGAL) or sparklers. Or: Host a traditional English tea party, or make yourself a nice cup of tea and settle down with a good book to read. Which kind of tea is your favorite? Tell us why.
=> Tea and book
1 point.

Tasks for Bon Om Touk: Post a picture from your most recent or favorite vacation on the sea (or a lake, river, or any other body of water larger than a puddle), or if you’re living on the sea or on a lake or a river, post a picture of your favorite spot on the shore / banks / beach / at the nearest harbour.
=> Norfolk Coast / Rhine Valley at and near Bonn
1 point.

 

Square 3: November 11th: St. Martin’s Day & Veterans’ Day / Armistice Day

Book themes for St. Martin’s Day: Read a book set on a vineyard, or in a rural setting, –OR– a story where the MC searches for/gets a new job. –OR– A book with a lantern on the cover, or books set before the age of electricity. –OR– A story dealing with an act of selfless generosity (like St. Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar).
=> Kazuo Ishiguro: An Artist of the Floating World
1 point.

Book themes for Veteran’s Day / Armistice Day: Read a book involving veterans of any war, books about WWI or WWII (fiction or non-fiction). –OR– Read a book with poppies on the cover.

Tasks for St. Martin’s Day: Write a Mother Goose-style rhyme or a limerick; the funnier the better. –OR– Take a picture of the book you’re currently reading, next to a glass of wine, or the drink of your choice, with or without a fire in the background. –OR– Bake a Weckmann; if you’re not a dab hand with yeast baking, make a batch of gingerbread men, or something else that’s typical of this time of the year where you live. Post pics of the results and the recipe if you’d like to share it.

Tasks for Veteran’s Day / Armistice Day: Make, or draw a red poppy and show us a pic of your red poppy or other symbol of remembrance –OR– post a quote or a piece of poetry about the ravages of war.
=> Quotes and poppies
1 point.

 

Square 4: November 22nd and 23rd: Penance Day (22nd) & Thanksgiving (23rd)

Book themes for Penance Day: Read a book that has a monk, nun, pastor / preacher, priest or other representative of the organized church as a protagonist, or where someone is struggling with feelings of guilt or with their conscience (regardless over what).

Book themes for Thanksgiving Day: Books with a theme of coming together to help a community or family in need. –OR– Books with a turkey or pumpkin on the cover.

Tasks for Penance Day: Tell us – what has recently made you stop in your tracks and think? –OR– What was a big turning point in your life? –OR– Penance Day is a holiday of the Protestant church, which dates its origins, in large parts, to Martin Luther, who published his “95 Theses” exactly 500 years ago this year. Compile a catalogue of theses (it needn’t be 95) about book blogging! What suggestions or ideas would you propose to improve the experience of book blogging?

Tasks for Thanksgiving Day: List of 5 things you’re grateful for –OR– a picture of your thanksgiving feast; post your favourite turkey-day recipe. –OR– Be thankful for yourself and treat yourself to a new book – post a picture of it.
=> 5 things to be grateful for.
1 point.

 

Square 5: December 3rd and following 3 Sundays: Advent

Book themes for Advent: Read a book with a wreath or with pines or fir trees on the cover –OR– Read the 4th book from a favorite series, or a book featuring 4 siblings.

Tasks for Advent: Post a pic of your advent calendar. (Festive cat, dog, hamster or other suitable pet background expressly encouraged.)
=> TA’s Advent calendar.
1 point.

–OR– “Advent” means “he is coming.” Tell us: What in the immediate or near future are you most looking forward to? (This can be a book release, or a tech gadget, or an event … whatever you next expect to make you really happy.)

Bonus task: make your own advent calendar and post it.

 

Square 6: December 5th-6th and 8th: Sinterklaas / Krampusnacht (5th) / St. Nicholas Day (6th) & Bodhi Day (8th)

Book themes for Sinterklaas / St. Martin’s Day / Krampusnacht: A story involving children or a young adult book, or a book with oranges on the cover, or whose cover is primarily orange (for the Dutch House of Orange) –OR– with tangerines, walnuts, chocolates, or cookies on the cover.

Book themes for Bodhi Day: Read a book set in Nepal, India or Tibet, –OR– which involves animal rescue. (Buddhism calls for a vegetarian lifestyle.)
=> Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger
1 point.

Tasks for Sinterklaas / St. Martin’s Day / Krampusnacht: Write a witty or humorous poem to St. Nicholas –OR– If you have kids, leave coins or treats, like tangerines, walnuts, chocolate(s) and cookies in their shoes to find the next morning and then post about their reactions / bewilderment. 😉 If you don’t have kids, do the same for another family member / loved one or a friend.

Tasks for Bodhi Day: Perform a random act of kindness. Feed the birds, adopt a pet, hold the door open for someone with a smile, or stop to pet a dog (that you know to be friendly); cull your books and donate them to a charity, etc. (And, in a complete break with the Buddha’s teachings, tell us about it.) –OR– Post a picture of your pet, your garden, or your favourite, most peaceful place in the world.
=> Pet & peaceful garden
1 point.

 

Square 7: December 10th & 13th: International Human Rights Day (10th) & St. Lucia’s Day (13th)

Book themes for International Human Rights Day: Read a book originally written in another language (i.e., not in English and not in your mother tongue), –OR– a book written by anyone not anglo-saxon, –OR– any story revolving around the rights of others either being defended or abused.
–OR– Read a book set in New York City, or The Netherlands (home of the U.N. and U.N. World Court respectively).
=> Patrick Senécal: Le vide, part 1 – Vivre au Max
1 point.

Book themes for Saint Lucia’s Day: Read a book set in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland for the purposes of this game) or a book where ice and snow are an important feature.

Tasks for International Human Rights Day: Post a picture of yourself next to a war memorial or other memorial to an event pertaining to Human Rights. (Pictures of just the memorial are ok too.) –OR– Cook a dish from a foreign culture or something involving apples (NYC = Big Apple) or oranges (The Netherlands); post recipe and pics.

Tasks for Saint Lucia’s Day: Get your Hygge on — light a few candles if you’ve got them, pour yourself a glass of wine or hot chocolate/toddy, roast a marshmallow or toast a crumpet, and take a picture of your cosiest reading place.
=> Hygge!
1 point.

Bonus task: Make the Danish paper hearts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jur29ViLEhk

 

Square 8: December 12th – 24th: Hanukkah (begins 12th, ends 20th) & Las Posadas (begins 16th, ends 24th)

Book themes for Hanukkah: Any book whose main character is Jewish, any story about the Jewish people –OR– where the miracle of light plays a significant part in the stories plot.

Book themes for Las Posadas: Read a book dealing with visits by family or friends, or set in Mexico, –OR– with a poinsettia on the cover. –OR– a story where the main character is stranded without a place to stay, or find themselves in a ‘no room at the Inn’ situation.

Tasks for Hanukkah: Light nine candles around the room (SAFELY) and post a picture. –OR– Play the Dreidel game to pick the next book you read.

Assign a book from your TBR to each of the four sides of the dreidel:

נ (Nun)
ג (Gimel)
ה (He)
ש (Shin)

Spin a virtual dreidel: http://www.torahtots.com/holidays/chanuka/dreidel.htm
– then tell us which book the dreidel picked.
=> Dreidel pick: ה (He) – Kazuo Ishiguro: An Artist of the Floating World 1
point.

–OR–
Make your own dreidel: https://www.activityvillage.co.uk/make-a-dreidel, –OR–
Play the game at home, or play online: http://www.jewfaq.org/dreidel/play.htm and tell us about the experience.–OR– Give some Gelt: Continue a Hanukkah tradition and purchase some chocolate coins, or gelt. Post a picture of your chocolate coins, and then pass them out amongst friends and family!

Tasks for Las Posadas: Which was your favorite / worst / most memorable hotel / inn / vacation home stay ever? Tell us all about it! –OR– If you went caroling as a kid: Which are your best / worst / most unfortettable caroling memories?

Bonus task: Make a piñata (https://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Pi%C3%B1ata), hang it from a tree, post, basketball hoop, clothesline or similarly suitable holder and let your neighborhood kids have a go at breaking it.

 

Square 9: December 21st: Winter Solstice / Mōdraniht / Yuletide & Yaldā Night

Book themes for Winter Solstice and Yaldā Night: Read a book of poetry, or a book where the events all take place during the course of one night, or where the cover is a night-time scene.

Book themes for Mōdraniht: Read any book where the MC is actively raising young children or teens.

Book themes for Yuletide: Read a book set in the midst of a snowy or icy winter, –OR– set in the Arctic or Antartica.

Tasks for Winter Solstice and Yaldā Night: Read a book in one night – in the S. Hemisphere, read a book in a day. –OR– Grab one of your thickest books off the shelf. Ask a question and then turn to page 40 and read the 9th line of text on that page. Post your results. –OR– Eat a watermelon or pomegranate for good luck and health in the coming year, but post a pic first!.
=> Bibliomancy: William Shakespeare’s answer (9th line of p. 40 of the Complete Works, Illustrated Stratford Edition)
1 point.

Bonus task: Read a book in one night.

Tasks for Mōdraniht: Tell us your favourite memory about your mom, grandma, or the woman who had the greatest impact on your childhood. –OR– Post a picture of you and your mom, or if comfortable, you and your kids.

Bonus task: Post 3 things you love about your mother-in-law (if you have one), otherwise your grandma.

Tasks for Yuletide: Make a Yule log cake — post a pic and the recipe for us to drool over.

 

Square 10: December 21st: World Peace Day & Pancha Ganapati begins (ends 25th)

Book themes for World Peace Day: Read a book by or about a Nobel Peace Prize winner, or about a protagonist (fictional or nonfictional) who has a reputation as a peacemaker.

Book themes for Pancha Ganapati: Read anything involving a need for forgiveness in the story line; a story about redemption –OR– Read a book whose cover has one of the 5 colors of the holiday: red, blue, green, orange, or yellow –OR– Read a book involving elephants.
=> Henry Wade: Lonely Magdalen
1 point.

Tasks for World Peace Day: Cook something involving olives or olive oil. Share the results and/or recipe with us. –OR– Tell us: If you had wings (like a dove), where would you want to fly?
=> Spaghetti and tomato sauce
1 point.

Tasks for Pancha Ganapati: Post about your 5 favourite books this year and why you appreciated them so much. –OR– Take a shelfie / stack picture of the above-mentioned 5 favorite books. (Feel free to combine these tasks into 1!
=> Most and least favorite books of 2017.
1 point.

 

Square 11: December 21st-22nd: Soyal (21st) & Dōngzhì Festival (22nd)

Book themes for Soyal: Read a book set in the American Southwest / the Four Corners States (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah), –OR– a book that has a Native American protagonist.

Book themes for Dōngzhì Festival: Read a book set in China or written by a Chinese author / an author of Chinese origin; or read a book that has a pink or white cover.

Tasks for Soyal: Like many Native American festivities, Soyal involves rituals such as dances. What local / religious / folk traditions or customs exist where you live? Tell us about one of them. (If you can, post pictures for illustration.) –OR– Share a picture you’ve taken of a harvest setting or autumnal leaf color.
=> Carneval in the Rhine Valley — 11/11, 11:11 AM Kick off
1 point.

Tasks for Dōngzhì Festival: If you like Chinese food, tell us your favorite dish – otherwise, tell us your favorite desert. (Recipes, as always, welcome.)

 

Square 12: December 23rd Festivus & Saturnalia ends (begins 17th)

Book themes for Festivus: Read anything comedic; a parody, satire, etc. Books with hilariously dysfunctional families (must be funny dysfunctional, not tragic dysfunctional). Anything that makes you laugh (or hope it does).

Book themes for Saturnalia: The god Saturn has a planet named after him; read any work of science fiction that takes place in space. –OR– Read a book celebrating free speech. –OR– A book revolving around a very large party, or ball, or festival, –OR– a book with a mask or masks on the cover. –OR– a story where roles are reversed.
=> Dorothy L. Sayers: Murder Must Advertise
1 point.

Tasks for Festivus: Post your personal list of 3 Festivus Miracles –OR– post a picture of your Festivus pole (NOTHING pornographic, please!), –OR– Perform the Airing of Grievances: name 5 books you’ve read this year that have disappointed you – tell us in tongue-lashing detail why and how they failed to live up to expectations.
=> Most and least favorite books of 2017.
1 point.

Tasks for Saturnalia: Wear a mask, take a picture and post it. Leave a small gift for someone you know anonymously – a small bit of chocolate or apple, a funny poem or joke. Tell us about it in a post. –OR– Tell us: If you could time-travel back to ancient Rome, where would you want to go and whom (both fictional and / or nonfictional persons) would you like to meet?

 

Square 13: December 25th Christmas & Hogswatch

Book themes for Christmas: Read a book whose protagonist is called Mary, Joseph (or Jesus, if that’s a commonly used name in your culture) or any variations of those names (e.g., Maria or Pepe).

Book themes for Hogswatch Night: Of course – read Hogfather! Or any Discworld book (or anything by Terry Pratchett)
=> Terry Pratchett: Hogfather (buddy read)
1 point.

Tasks for Christmas: Post a picture of your stockings hung from the chimney with care, –OR– a picture of Santa’s ‘treat’ waiting for him. –OR– Share with us your family Christmas traditions involving gift-giving, or Santa’s visit. Did you write letters to Santa as a kid (and if so, did he write back, as J.R.R. Tolkien did “as Santa Claus” to his kids)? If so, what did you wish for? A teddy bear or a doll? Other toys – or practical things? And did Santa always bring what you asked for?

Tasks for Hogswatch Night: Make your favourite sausage dish (if you’re vegan or vegetarian, use your favorite sausage or meat substitute), post and share recipe.

 

Square 14: December 25th Dies Natalis Solis Invicti & Quaid-e-Azam’s Day

Book themes for Dies Natalis Solis Invicti: Celebrate the sun and read a book that has a beach or seaside setting. –OR– a book set during summertime. –OR– set in the Southern Hemisphere.
=> Ian Fleming: The Man With the Golden Gun
1 point.

Book themes for Quaid-e-Azam: Pakistan became an independent nation when the British Raj ended on August 14, 1947. Read a book set in Pakistan or in any other country that attained sovereign statehood between August 14, 1947 and today (regardless in what part of the world).

Tasks for Dies Natalis Solis Invicti: Find the sunniest spot in your home, that’s warm and comfy and read your book. –OR– Take a picture of your garden, or a local garden/green space in the sun (even if the ground is under snow). If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, take a picture of your local scenic spot, park, or beach, on a sunny day. –OR– The Romans believed that the sun god rode across the sky in a chariot drawn by fiery steeds. Have you ever been horseback riding, or did you otherwise have significant encounters with horses? As a child, which were your favorite books involving horses?

Tasks for Quaid-e-Azam: Pakistan’s first leader – Muhammad Ali Jinnah – was a man, but both Pakistan and neighboring India were governed by women (Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi respectively) before many of the major Western countries. Tell us: Who are the present-day or historic women that you most respect, and why? (These can be any women of great achievement, not just political leaders.)

 

Square 15: December 25th-26th: Newtonmas (25th) & St. Stephen’s Day / Boxing Day (26th)

Book themes for Newtonmas: Any science book. Any book about alchemy. Any book where science, astronomy, or chemistry play a significant part in the plot. (For members of the Flat Book Society: The “Forensics” November group read counts.)
=> Provisorially: Val McDermid: Forensics
1 point.

Book themes for Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day: Read anything where the main character has servants (paid servants count, NOT unpaid) or is working as a servant him-/ herself.

Tasks for Newtonmas: Take a moment to appreciate gravity and the laws of motion. If there’s snow outside, have a snowball fight with a friend or a member of your family. –OR– Take some time out to enjoy the alchemical goodness of a hot toddy or chocolate or any drink that relies on basic chemistry/alchemy (coffee with cream or sugar / tea with milk or sugar or lemon, etc.). Post a picture of your libations and the recipe if it’s unique and you’re ok with sharing it.

Tasks for St. Stephen’s Day / Boxing Day: Show us your boxes of books! –OR– If you have a cat, post a picture of your cat in a box. (your dog in a box works too, if your dog likes boxes) — or any pet good-natured enough to pose in a box long enough for you to snap a picture.
=> Cats in (and on) boxes.
1 point.

BONUS task: box up all the Christmas detritus, decorations, or box up that stuff you’ve been meaning to get rid of, or donate, etc. and take a picture and post it.

 

Square 16: December 26th-31st: Kwanzaa (begins 26th, ends 31st) & New Year’s Eve / St. Sylvester’s Day

Book themes for Kwanzaa: Read a book written by an author of African descent or a book set in Africa, or whose cover is primarily red, green or black.
=> Margery Allingham: Traitor’s Purse

1 point.

Book themes for Hogmanay / New Year’s Eve / Watch Night / St. Sylvester’s Day: a book about starting over, rebuilding, new beginnings, etc. –OR– Read anything set in medieval times. –OR– A book about the papacy –OR– where miracles of any sort are performed (the unexplainable – but good – kind).

Tasks for Kwanzaa: Create a stack of books in the Kwanzaa color scheme using red, black and green and post your creation and post a photo (or post a photo of a shelfie where black, red and green predominate).

BONUS task: Create something with your stack of books: a christmas tree or other easily identifiable object.

Tasks for Hogmanay / New Year’s Eve / Watch Night / St. Sylvester’s Day: Make a batch of shortbread for yourself, family or friends. Post pics and recipe. –OR– Light some sparklers (if legal) and take a picture – or have a friend take a picture of your “writing” in the sky with the sparkler. –OR– Get yourself a steak pie (any veggie/vegan substitutions are fine) and read yourself a story – but take a pic of both before you start, and post it.–OR– make whatever New Year’s Eve / Day good luck dish there is in your family or in the area where you live or where you grew up; tell us about it, and if it’s not a secret recipe, we hope you’ll share it with us.

MASSIVE HUGE BONUS POINTS if you post a picture of yourself walking a pig on a leash. (Done to ensure good fortune of the coming year.)

 

The Bonus Jokers:

Surprise, Surprise 1: Melbourne Cup

My “ponies”:

1. Marmelo
2. Almandin
3. Johannes Vermeer

2 bonus points (Johannes Vermeer)

 

Total Points, to Date:

30 points.

 

 

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1615040/16-tasks-of-the-festive-season-updates-blackout

2017: Favorite and Least Favorite Books of the Year

16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 10 – Pancha Ganapti – and Square 12 – Festivus

Tasks for Pancha Ganapati: Post about your 5 favourite books this year and why you appreciated them so much.

Tasks for Festivus: […] –OR– Perform the Airing of Grievances: name 5 books you’ve read this year that have disappointed you – tell us in tongue-lashing detail why and how they failed to live up to expectations.

I decided to create a joint post for my most and least favorite reads of the year — and I’m going to have to divide the “favorite” part into “fiction” and “nonfiction.” There is no way I could whittle the list down even further than these 10 books or treat some of them as “honorable mentions.”  That being said:

 

Favorite Books — Fiction

… in reverse chronological order of reading:

 

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger
A searing portrait of modern India, writ large on a colorful, chaotic, topsy-turvy and utterly depraved and amoral canvas, but told with a great sense of humor belying the distinctly perceptible underlying sense of urgency.

Audiobook splendidly narrated by Kerry Shale — if ever someone deserved the title of “the man of 1000 voices,” it’s him.

 

Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada
The spine-chilling portrayal of an honor killing in a small Columbian seaside town and the events leading up to and following it, told in barely 100 pages and essentially in reverse chronological order, with the actual killing occurring on the last pages of the book: a brutal indictment of false morality, backwardness, cowardice and ineffectuality, both social and individual.

 

Peter May: Coffin Road
Ostensibly a stand-alone, but actually more of an extension of May’s Lewis Trilogy, featuring some of the same characters but chiefly told from the point of view of an amnesiac scientist and an Edinburgh teenager in search of her missing (presumed dead) father.  Starkly atmospheric and so gripping it made me overlook the fact that it contains not one but two elements I don’t particularly care for: an amnesiac protagonist, and first person present tense narration of part of the story.  (Note to Ms. Allingham — see below, Traitor’s Purse: This is how you convincingly write an amnesiac protagonist in search of his own identity while making sense of a murder that he may or may not have committed himself.)

 

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
What can I say?  It’s Shirley Jackson — nobody does psychological horror like her; slowly and meticulously building from a slight initial sense of unease to full-blown terror.  I don’t know how often I will actually revisit this book, but I do know that it, and the ladies in “the castle,” will stay with me forever.

Also a great reading of the audio version by Bernadette Dunne.

 

Raymond Chandler: Farewell, My Lovely
Not quite on the level of The Big Sleep, but what a pleasure to revisit Chandler’s version of 1940s Los Angeles.  His books are all essentially of a pattern, so I can’t take too many of them back to back (or if so, it has to be in different formats; the way I revisited them for the Halloween bingo, with full cast audio adaptations mixed in), but it’s hard to beat the gut-punch quality of his imagery and language, particularly when rendered as splendidly as in this audio narration by Elliott Gould.

 

Favorite Books — Nonfiction

… again in reverse chronological order of reading:

 

Martin Edwards: The Golden Age of Murder
The early history of the Detection Club, told by its current president and first archivist.  Martin’s knowledge of both Golden Age detective fiction and the lives of its writers is downright encyclopedic, and he tells a multi-faceted story very compellingly.  At times I had the feeling that he was taking his own conjecture a bit too far (I will, e.g., have to explore Anthony Berkeley’s and E.M. Delafield’s writing for myself before I wholly buy into his theory about their relationship, what they may have meant to each other, and how it is reflected in their novels), and there were things, chiefly relating to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, that I was already familiar with, but by and large, wow, what a read.

 

Jennifer Worth: Call the Midwife
Yes, I know, I know, I’m late to the party and there’s been a whole TV series at this point.  And I’m sure the TV adaptation (which I’ve yet to watch) brings across the stories and the characters very nicely.  But there’s both an unflinching straightforwardness and a genuine warmth to the original literary version of these tales of midwifery in London’s mid-20th century East End that I wager will be hard to replicate in any screen adaptation — particularly if read with as much empathy, sense of humor and tasteful restraint as by the incomparable Stephanie Cole (who I would sorely wish would narrate many more audiobooks!)

 

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher: Woza Shakespeare — Titus Andronicus in South Africa
Man, what a trip.  Titus Andronicus is not, and never will be my favorite play by William Shakespeare, but having read this book, I’d give anything to be able to watch a recording of this particular production.

In the 1980s (when Apartheid was still in full swing) Gregory Doran (later: Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company) and Antony Sher decided to take this most violent and controversial of all the bard’s plays to Sher’s homeland, from which he had emigrated some 20 years earlier, wowing never to return (and even dramatically burning his passport).  This book reproduces the salient parts of Doran’s and Sher’s diaries written during the project, from the moment the project was born to the play’s actual run in Johannesburg and later, London and on tour.

Insightful, illuminating, dramatic and, particularly in the moments of greatest tragedy and misfortune, surprisingly and supremely funny — this is definitely one of those books that will stay with me forever (and not only because I happen to own it).

 

Robin Whiteman & Rob Talbot: Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden / Robin Whiteman: The Cadfael Companion
Shared honors for two simply gorgeously illustrated coffee table books full of facts and knowledge about medieval monastery life (Benedictine and otherwise), the healing arts of the medieval monks, and the plants they used.  Must-reads not only for fans of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series but for anyone interested in the Middle Ages, monastic history, social history in general, botany, medicine, and pharmacy.

Incidentally, a third book by this pair of authors — Cadfael Country: Shropshire & the Welsh Borders — provided, together with Ellis Peters’s own Strongholds and Sanctuaries: The Borderland of England and Wales, important information and stimuli for the “Welsh borderland” part of my trip to Britain in late July 2017, and will certainly be consulted again should I make good on my plan to spend some time in Wales proper some day.

 

Jackie Bennett, with photographs by Andrew Lawson: Shakespeare’s Gardens
A lavishly illustrated coffee table book-sized guide to the gardens Shakespeare knew (or might have known) both in Stratford / Warwickshire and in London, as well as an introduction to the gardens of the five Shakespeare-related houses in and around Stratford, with an introductory chapter on Tudor gardening in general.  The find of several great finds of my trip to [London, Oxford and] Stratford in mid-June of this year.  (And it’s even an autographed copy … as I only discovered when I unpacked the book back home!)

 

Least Favorite Books

… again in reverse chronological order of reading:

S.J. Parris: Heresy
This started well, but went downhill fast literally within a page of the first murder having been committed.  And I sincerely hope the real Giordano Bruno was not anything even remotely like the headless chicken that we’re being presented with in this book in lieu of the incisively intelligent, street-smart — indeed, supremely cunning — philosopher-scientist and sometime spy that anybody who had spent even an hour reading about the real life Giordano Bruno would have expected.

Utterly predictable and unengaging, never mind the author’s obvious amount of research into 16th century Oxford academic life.  Would she’d spent as much time thinking about her characters’ personas and motivations …

 

Margery Allingham: The Crime at Black Dudley / Traitor’s Purse
Shared (dis-)honors for my two recent reads from Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mystery series.  Both of the spy / international conspiracy variety that none of the Golden Age witers really excelled in, and Allingham’s plots (and characters) tend to be among the most ridiculous of the lot — as certainly exhibited here.  Thank God her Campion series also contains some genuine jewels, such as Police at the Funeral, The Case of the Late Pig and, particularly, the downright devious Death of a Ghost.  I hope my next exposures to Mr. Campion’s adventures will be decidedly more in the latter line again.

 

Val McDermid: Forensics
Possibly the disappointment of the year, even if I knew that McDermid’s background is in journalism and crime writing, not in science.  But she’s associated with a forensics program at Dundee University and her crime novels manage to transport forensic detail with what has so far sounded to me as a reasonable degree of accuracy, so, given that I like her crime writing in other respects, too, my anticipations for this book ran fairly high.  Alas, what I got was a frequently manipulative piece of investigative journalism and true crime writing, whose actual scientific contents was on the super-light side and entirely third-hand, with frequently not even a chance given to the reader to verify the precise source of a given statement or piece of information.  I do hope Ms. McDermid will turn to crime fiction again in her next literary ventures … her crime novels show just how much better than this she can really be.

 

Simon Brett: An Amateur Corpse
My first book by Simon Brett, and again, from a former president of the Detection Club I would have expected better.  This novel wears its 1970s setting like a stifling cloak; it hasn’t aged well at all and, what’s worse, I didn’t take to the protagonist at all, either (an actor in the throes of a midlife crisis); neither as far as his attitude towards women nor as far as his attitude towards amateur theatre productions was concerned — in short, he struck me as a mysogynistic snob.  I may give the series another chance at a later point, but it certainly won’t be anytime soon.

 

Patrick O’Brian: The Final, Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
I love O’Brian’s Aubrey / Maturin series and raced through the whole 20 books at breakneck speed earlier this year, but by God, this particular  publication (I won’t even call it a “book”, because it isn’t) has to be one of the most blatant exercises in the exploitation of an author’s literary legacy under the sun.  Patrick O’Brian died when he wasn’t even halfway into this story — but instead of letting things rest, because this really is not anywhere near a completed novel, his publisher went and released the puny few initial chapters as a “book” in its own right.

My sincere advice to all newbie readers of the series: Spare yourselves the trouble of looking into this one; it’s not worth it — not for all the enjoyment of O’Brian’s writing.  Blue at the Mizzen, O’Brian’s last completed Aubrey / Maturin novel, has a very satisfying conclusion — content yourselves with that and just take it as read that “they lived happily ever after.”  Or, well, maybe not entirely happily as far as Stephen Maturin is concerned.  But then, he probably wouldn’t know what to do with himself if ever he were entirely happy; he’s just not that kind of person.  And Jack Aubrey couldn’t possibly be any happier than he is at the end of Blue at the Mizzen.

 

Least Favorite Books – Honorable Mentions

Chris Bohjalian: The Sandcastle Girls
Not an entirely bad book, but boy, this could have been so much more. Ostensibly, it deals with the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey in the middle of WWI.  What we really get is — at least chiefly — the love story of an American volunteer nurse trainee who has accompanied her father on a humanitarian mission to Syria and an Armenian refugee who, having concluded that his beloved wife is one of the 10,000s of victims of the death march through the Syrian desert to which the Turks exposed their Armenian women and children captives, falls head over heels in love with the aforementioned Western nurse trainee.

Oh, sure, there are bits about the genocide as well (and Gallipoli, too, for good measure), but for many of these parts the reader isn’t even right there with the characters but learns about them second-hand and in hindsight; and the ending is incredibly soppy — and while it’s obviously intended as a happy ending, a look beneath its shallow surface reveals that some characters’ happiness comes at the greatest of all costs to another … and at least one of those living happily ever after even knows about this, and nevertheless doesn’t do anything about it (and if I hadn’t stopped caring about that person long before I reached the end, that bit alone would have been the absolutely last straw for me.)

 

Georgette Heyer: Death in the Stocks
Georgette Heyer’s books are hit and miss for me; this was definitely the most “miss” of the miss books to date.  It’s got a nicely-drawn atmospheric beginning, but that doesn’t last  for more than a few pages, and I didn’t take to any of the characters; certainly not the “bright young things” and “good old chaps” at the center of the story — nor even really Inspector Hanasyde, who is being introduced here.  Also, the “who” in whodunnit has a likely candidate from early on, even though the “how” is a bit out of left field.

I’m not planning to read the entire Hanasyde series, just one or two more (those that have the most direct ties to the subsequent Inspector Hemingway books, which overall I prefer); and — but for the odd stand-alone — I think that’ll conclude my foray into Heyer’s crime writing.

 

 

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CADFAEL

 : Sir Derek and the Chronicles of a Truly Rare Benedictine

When the decision was made to produce for TV several episodes from her mystery series about Brother Cadfael, that 12th century crusader turned monk turned detective who has been, ever since his creation, one of the most compassionate and unusual sleuths of literary history, novelist Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) was not entirely happy. In fact, as the series’ star, Sir Derek Jacobi, explains in the extra footage provided on the now-released DVDs, Ms. Peters had very mixed feelings about giving up her brain child and entrusting it to other people who went about cutting and adjusting everything, from the story lines themselves to the way the protagonists speak, to the necessities and limitations set by the new medium. But she eventually acquiesced and at one point promised that “the next one I write, I’ll make sure it’s easier for you all to film.”

While the thirteen episodes that were eventually produced are, thus, not entirely true to the individual Chronicles they are based on, they are closer than many other movie or TV versions of famous works of literature. Most importantly, they maintain not only the core story lines but also the historical authenticity, atmosphere and spirit set by Ms. Peters‘s books in a marvelous fashion; portraying, like the novels, vividly and with great care for detail medieval monastic life as well as a society caught in the middle of a civil war (that between Empress Maud and King Stephen for the throne of England), with shifting allegiances, intrigue, favoritism and again and again, innocent victims caught between the front lines.. And Sir Derek Jacobi brings both the wealth of his experience and skill and all of his own shrewdness, intelligence, sense of humor and empathy to the role of the medieval Benedictine sleuth and thus truly becomes Cadfael – for the thousands of new fans who are discovering the series through its enactment for TV just as much as for us who loved the books before they were ever transposed to a visual medium: Due to his experiences as a crusader endowed with a keen sense of reality, a certain world-weariness and a deep sense of morality alike, he not only understands the letter of the law (both divine and worldly) but more importantly, also the deeper implications of the same, and always finds a way to apply the church’s teachings in a truly Solomonic manner, and to arrive at solutions that are as just as they are compassionate and pragmatic. – A tremendous cast of supporting actors rounds out an overall excellent production; to mention just a few, Julian Firth as the ambitious and narrow-minded Brother Jerome, Terrence Hardiman as Abbot Radolfus and first Sean Pertwee (episodes 1 – 4), then Eoin McCarthy (episodes 5 – 9) and Anthony Green (episodes 10 – 13) as Under-Sheriff Hugh Beringar, who joins Cadfael in his investigations whenever, as is so often the case, these transcend the world of monastic life and require the administration of secular justice as well as clerical insight. Several episodes also feature noted guest stars, such as Kitty Aldridge as Judith Perle and Crispin Bonham-Carter as Miles Coliar in The Rose Rent.

Derek Jacobi as Cadfael:

The episodes are not entirely in the same order as the books; however, as most of the cross-references between the books have been eliminated in the screen versions, this is no great harm (although the lacking cross-references are probably one of the things avid readers of the books will find missing). The DVDs also provide background information on Ellis Peters, Sir Derek Jacobi and a number of the individual episodes’ other actors. The televised episodes are, in the order of their original broadcast:

Cadfael: The Complete Series 1 (UK)Quill-Inkpot Review Icon One Corpse Too Many (the second Chronicle)

King Stephen lays siege to Shrewsbury Castle and, finally victorious, orders the surviving defenders to be executed. But then there’s an extra corpse, who clearly wasn’t executed. Whodunnit – and why?

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Sanctuary Sparrow (the seventh Chronicle)

A young singer is accused of robbery and murder and, hunted by a mob, seeks shelter in the Abbey.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Leper of St. Giles (the fifth Chronicle)

A leper’s grim fate is unexpectedly intertwined with the story of an orphaned heiress, due to be wedded for money’s sake to a despicable old baron, and her lover; who is everybody’s favorite suspect when the groom turns up dead.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon Monk’s Hood (the third Chronicle)

Cadfael’s and Shrewsbury Abbey’s honor is at stake when a guest is found poisoned by Cadfael’s own potions … and the sheriff’s sergeant over-eagerly jumps to the wrong conclusions.

Cadfael: The Complete Series 2 (UK)Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Virgin in the Ice (the sixth Chronicle)

After the sack of Worcester by Empress Maud, a nun, a young nobleman and his sister get lost in the Marshes. Cadfael rushes to the rescue – and meets a messenger from his own past!

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Devil’s Novice (the eighth Chronicle)

The Abbey accepts a novice with a troubling zeal for monastic life (but not its virtues), who may or may not be connected to the death of a cleric traveling through his home village.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon A Morbid Taste for Bones (the first Chronicle)

The monks mount an expedition to Wales to retrieve the bones of a local saint after a young monk claims to have seen the saint in a vision in which she asked that her bones be brought to Shrewsbury. The mission runs into serious trouble when the local lord, who has opposed it, is found murdered.

Cadfael: Series 3 (Australia)Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Rose Rent (the thirteenth Chronicle)

A grieving young widow, beset by suitors, gives her house to the abbey for a single rose’s annual rent. But her gift of beauty turns bloody when the emissary delivering the rose, a young monk, is found murdered.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon St. Peter’s Fair (the fourth Chronicle)

While traders arrive from near and far, townsfolk claim a share of the Abbey’s dues from the annual fair. Then a merchant is found murdered – but there’s more to this than meets the eye!

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Raven in the Foregate (the twelfth Chronicle)

Cadfael must solve the mystery behind two deaths; one of a young woman who (unsuccessfully) sought his spiritual advice, the other of the priest to whom Cadfael sent her: the new priest in Shrewsbury’s foregate, an ambitious, power-hungry cleric in direct allegiance with King Stephen.

Cadfael: The Complete Series 4Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Holy Thief (the nineteenth Chronicle)

Competitors for the possession of St. Winifred’s relics show up in Shrewsbury! Then the holy bones disappear, a monk is found murdered – and a tonsured troubadour finds his lady love.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Potter’s Field (the seventeenth Chronicle)

The discovery of the bones of a woman in a field once belonging to a potter turned monk leads Cadfael to unveil a harrowing tale of love, loss and a deadly wager.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Pilgrim of Hate (the tenth Chronicle)

A cripple, his sister and two brothers on a painful pilgrimage meet at the Abbey during the annual feast of St. Winifred. Soon, the question arises whether religion is primarily penance or faith in God’s love of mankind.

    Derek Jacobi & Sean Pertwee as Cadfael & Hugh Beringar

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: ITV (1994–1998)
  • Directors: various
  • Executive Producers: Ted Childs / Rebecca Eaton / Rob Pursey
  • Screenplay: various
  • Based on the novels by: Ellis Peters
  • Music: Rob Pursey
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: various

 :

Robert Cavanagh as Olivier de Bretagne (Cadfael)Recurring & Key Cast
  • Derek Jacobi: Brother Cadfael
  • Sean Pertwee: Hugh Beringar (episodes 1 – 4)
  • Eoin McCarthy: Sheriff Hugh Beringar (episodes 5 – 9)
  • Anthony Green: Hugh Beringar (episodes 10 – 13)
  • Terrence Hardiman: Abbot Radulfus
  • Michael Culver: Prior Robert
  • Julian Firth: Brother Jerome
  • Mark Charnock: Brother Oswin
  • Peter Copley: Abbot Heribert
  • Albie Woodington: Sergeant Warden
  • Raymond Llewellyn: Madog
  • Gábor Urmai: Jehan
  • Sarah Badel: Avice of Thornbury
  • Robert Cavanah: Olivier de Bretagne
  • Mary Miller: Richildis
  • Michael Grandage: King Stephen

 Derek Jacobi & Sean Pertwee as Brother Cadfael & Hugh Beringar  :

Links

  Derek Jacobi & Sean Pertwee (Cadfael & Hugh Beringar):

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Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael’s Penance

Brother Cadfael's Penance - Ellis PetersCadfael’s Conflict.

Witness if you will, reader, the Chronicles of one Brother Cadfael of the Benedictine abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, Shropshire: witness the twenty adventures of this most unusual monk, herbalist and former crusader, occurring between the years of Our Lord 1138 and 1145, in the middle of the devastating civil war between Empress Maud and King Stephen for the English crown. Witness, reader, how this rare Benedictine’s “practically miraculous” powers of deduction (Booklist) helped him solve mysteries such as that of the unfortunate violent death of a Welsh lord who sought to prevent the relocation of the sacred bones of his village’s maiden saint to no other place but Shrewsbury’s very own Benedictine abbey (“A Morbid Taste for Bones,” the first Chronicle); the long-held secrets hidden under the rags worn by one of the unfortunate residents of Shrewsbury’s leper colony, and that ill-fated soul’s connection to a fair young bride come to Shrewsbury to be wedded at St. Peter and St. Paul, only to find her groom – himself a brute in a gentleman’s clothes – murdered only shortly after their arrival (“The Leper of St. Giles,” the fifth Chronicle); and a woman’s earthly remains, found in a field bequeathed to the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul by a potter who, struggling between the callings of a husband and those of a servant of the Lord, had relinquished his marital vows in favor of those to the church (“The Potter’s Field,” the seventeenth Chronicle).

Pause however, reader, before proceeding to this twentieth and last Chronicle, if you are not familiar with all accounts of Brother Cadfael’s previous extraordinary ventures. Pause, I say, and seek out the Chronicle entitled “The Virgin in the Ice,” which is the sixth in order and takes place in the winter of the year 1139. For in that report you shall encounter not only certain persons important to the events you must expect to learn about in this last Chronicle, duly referred to as “Brother Cadfael’s Penance,” but you shall also learn about certain details about Brother Cadfael’s past, and the life he led among the defenders and the residents of the Holy Land in the year 1112. And while it is true that the essence of said facts, insofar as indispensable to the telling of this present and final Chronicle, will again be revealed to you as you progress through this present account, trust me if I tell you, reader, that your enjoyment and understanding of this final Chronicle will be greatly enhanced by having acquainted yourself with the full revelation of said facts, events and personae, as encountered in said prior Chronicle. At the very least, reader, accept my humble suggestion that you seek out the visual representation of said prior Chronicle, equally referred to as “The Virgin in the Ice,” which is part of the most excellent productions also entitled “The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael,” created in the past century’s last decade.

Thus prepared, proceed then to this last Chronicle, which takes place in the year 1145, when a conference was held in the great city of Coventry, presided over by none other than the mighty archbishops of Coventry, Winchester and Ely, to bring an end to England’s bitter civil war. And Brother Cadfael is in attendance; not, however, because he has been called upon to lend his services to the cause of diplomacy, which regrettably is a foregone conclusion between enemies as deeply opposed as Maud and Stephen, but to make inquiries about a certain young knight named Olivier de Bretagne. For said knight, of Syrian extraction and near and dear to Cadfael’s heart, has been captured in a struggle following his noble lord’s fiat to abandon their allegiance to the empress and join the king’s forces instead, and he is now held without any offer of ransom, which is unheard of in the customs of war. And while Cadfael sojourns in Coventry, a haughty nobleman, who has played a most dubitable role in the change of allegiance of the forces of his and Olivier’s liege, is found murdered; found by none other than Olivier’s brother-in-law, Yves Hugonin, himself barely out of a boy’s clothes and now a liensman of the empress, and readily declared the crime’s chief suspect. Thus facing the unfortunate concurrence of two duties of worldly allegiance – to locate Olivier and to clear Yves’s good name – Cadfael must realize that those worldly duties irreconcilably collide with that owed to his monastic community. For he is bound to his abbot not to stay away from Shrewsbury for longer than is necessary to attend the truce conference, after the end of which he is to return to the abbey instantly, or break his vows; and unable to complete either of said two worldly duties in time to comply with that owed to his abbot, break his vows he feels he must. Yet, it is with a heavy heart that Cadfael does so, and casts himself out of the Benedictine community which has been his home and family for over twenty years, to follow a calling stronger than even that of the Holy Church; thus opening the conflicts of his heart to you, reader, more than he has ever done before.

“Brother Cadfael sprang to life suddenly and unexpectedly when he was already approaching sixty, mature, experienced, fully armed and seventeen years tonsured,” his chronicler Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) wrote in a 1988 introduction to the 1979 short story collection “A Rare Benedictine,” set in 1120 and compiled after the success of the first Chronicle to shed light on Cadfael’s entry into monastic life. Would that she had had more time on this earth to bring us further accounts of his adventures! Sadly, this was not to be the case. But as things stand, she could not have left us with a better conclusion to his exploits. Rest in peace therefore, Mistress, and may you have many pleasant conversations with Brother Cadfael, wherever you have encountered him since!

 

Favorite Quotes:

“The voices of cold reason were talking, as usual, to deaf ears.”

“In the end there is nothing to be done but to state clearly what has been done, without shame or regret, and say: Here I am, and this is what I am. Now deal with me as you see fit. That is your right. Mine is to stand by the act, and pay the price.
You do what you must do, and pay for it. So in the end all things are simple.”

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Ellis Peters: A Morbid Taste for Bones

A Morbid Taste for Bones - Ellis PetersThe first Chronicle of a truly rare Benedictine’s adventures.

In a number of visions, a young monk of the Benedictine abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Shrewsbury believes he has encounters with St. Winifred, in her earthly life a girl from a remote Welsh village decapitated by an evil-spirited nobleman. The saint, Brother Columbanus claims, tells him she is unhappy with the lack of care and dedication her grave receives from the local village folk, and wishes to be relocated nowhere else but to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. After a heated discussion over the appropriateness and dangers of such an excursion, the monks decide to mount an expedition to Wales to save the maiden saint’s bones.

Thus begins the first of what would ultimately come to be twenty Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, former crusader turned herbalist monk living in the 12th century world of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. Predictably, the monks are anything but welcome in Wales – not only are they emissaries from an English abbey, which in itself would be bad enough already; they also seek to take what village folk consider their greatest treasure and, more importantly, the village’s holy protectress. When wealthy squire Lord Rhysart, who has led the village in opposing the monks’ mission, is found murdered, the monks quickly find themselves implicated. Cadfael, of Welsh descendance himself but now part of a mission from an English abbey, finds himself between all lines of allegiance in trying to find Rhysart’s murderer; but find the murderer he must, to ensure the success of his brothers’ mission and their safe return home. And it will take all his world-wisdom and all his understanding of the divine to unravel the mystery.

Like the nineteen Chronicles that would follow it, “A Morbid Taste for Bones” is rich in plot lines and subplots and demands the full attention of any reader intent on solving the mystery together with Brother Cadfael. Set in the time of the civil war between Empress Maud and King Stephen for the throne of England, Ellis Peters’s acclaimed series vividly and with great care for detail portrays medieval monastery life, as well as a society caught in the middle of a civil war, with shifting allegiances, intrigue, favoritism and again and again, the innocent victims caught between the front lines. More than once, the story lines also return to the animosities between Welsh and English that are at the center of this first Chronicle. In Brother Cadfael, Ms. Peters (a/k/a Edith Pargeter) created one of the most engaging detectives in literary history. His experiences as a crusader have left him with a keen sense of reality, a certain element of world-weariness and a deep sense of morality, not only understanding the letter of the law (both divine and worldly) but more importantly, the deeper implications of the same, thus enabling Cadfael to apply the church’s teachings in a truly Solomonic manner, always coming to solutions which are as just as they are compassionate and pragmatic.

To the novice who has just recently discovered the series, it probably makes sense to read the Chronicles in order, because they contain a number of cross-references and the cast of recurring characters is successively enlarged – Under-Sheriff Hugh Beringar for example, Cadfael’s trusted worldly sidekick, is not introduced until the second Chronicle, “One Corpse Too Many.” But even for those who are coming to “A Morbid Taste for Bones” only after already having read one or more of the other Chronicles there is plenty to enjoy, and it is sure to be fun to discover how it all began.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all made the same under habit, robe or rags. Some better made than others, and some better cared for, but on the same pattern, all.”

“It’s a kind of arrogance to be so certain you’re past redemption.”

“God, nevertheless, required a little help from men, and what he mostly got was hindrance.”

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