Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Read: 13 May, 2017

A young and inexperienced girl suddenly finds herself married to a widower twice her age. Right from the start, the relationship is utterly unequal – by age, by class, and by knowledge. While the girl struggles to find her place as mistress of a great house, she finds enemies in every servant, every neighbour.

This is something of a slow burn story, a “psychological horror” that relies far more on building a creepy atmosphere than on any overt sorts of scares. And du Maurier does it so very well.

Not only is the narration itself beautiful and poetic, every word has a place, every nuance and connotation and evoked imagery is used to great effect.

Du Maurier does an amazing job of controlling the tension in every scene. The most memorable example of this is the preparation for the costume ball, where it’s immediately obvious that disaster is coming. It’s even fairly obvious what that disaster will be (at least in its generalities). But du Maurier holds back, building and building the tension by describing how very happy the protagonist, and how very much she is not anticipating what we know is about to happen to her. I could hardly breathe through that entire, rather lengthy scene.

The characters are all – down to the very last speaking part – alternately monstrous and sympathetic. I hated Maxim, I sympathised with Maxim, I hated Maxim. My heart broke for the protagonist, I found her insufferable, my heart broke for her. The same again with Rebecca, with Mrs Danvers, with Favell… And it was all seamless, without any inconsistency in their characters.

This is, quite simply, what a masterfully written novel looks like. It may not appeal to everyone, particularly those who don’t enjoy the slow burn type or who have some sort of weird, quasi-inhuman aversion to gothic trappings, but it is a good novel.

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William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

The Magicians #2: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Read: 25 October, 2016

Ever in search of his next adventure, Quentin sails out to Fillory’s far reaches to collect back taxes – a simple enough task that lands him back on earth with no way to return.

In the last book, the narrative followed Quentin fairly closely. Here, however, our time is split between the present, where Quentin & co quest to save magic in the multiverse, and filling in Julia’s doings between Quentin leaving for Brakebills and their reunion.

The back-and-forthing is an annoying narrative style and I hate it. I’m not sure what Grossman might have done differently, given the important information that Julia’s storyline gives us, but it’s irritating to start getting into the groove of one storyline only to be ripped out of it at every chapter end. I was enjoying both, but the transition pain was just too frequent.

Julia’s story is an interesting one. It’s much more rushed than Quentin’s in the first book, but it resonated for me in a lot of ways. It certainly wasn’t an easy read, though, as it’s clearly modelled on addiction (and includes symptomatic behaviours and great heapings of depression). Unfortunately, it goes even further and includes rape. (SPOILERS: Why was the rape necessary? In similar positions, rape was never on the table for Quentin, so why did Julia’s ‘price to be paid’ have to be this? Grossman could have done anything to Julia to bring her to her lowest, and he chose the easy route of having her raped. I’m quickly losing patience for rape being the default bad thing that can happen to a female character, especially when male characters in identical situations are almost never raped.)

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The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

Read: 23 October, 2016

The Rabbi’s Cat is a slow, meandering snapshot of life in an Algerian rabbi’s household, as narrated by his pet cat. The cat begins to speak, and so the rabbi must prepare him for his bar mitzvah. The family gets a visit from cousin Malka and his pet lion. The rabbi must pass a dictation test to determine his rabbinical placement. The rabbi’s daughter marries, and the whole household goes to Paris to meet her new in-laws. Things happen, the characters talk and feel and live, and issues are resolved after a fashion, enough to make way for the next. I wouldn’t be surprised if each chapter had originally been published serially.

I picked this book out at the library, knowing absolutely nothing about it, because the cover looked interesting. Unlike the last time I did this, this time was actually a very pleasant surprise.

The artwork is beautiful. It has a lot of character, and it shifts with mood to enhance the storytelling. As I’ve been trying to read some more superhero comics, which tend to favour a more “realistic” style (albeit with idealised bodies), this kind of expressive artwork has been missing.

I also found that the style reminded me a lot of the French comic books that I used to read as a child. I felt very vindicated when I found out that the artist does, in fact, belong to the French graphic novel tradition!

The story itself is delightful. Most of the characters are fairly archetypal, but we spend a lot of time getting into the rabbi’s head. He’s a complicated person who is seen wrestling with his faith. In the beginning, it’s more intellectual, as he tries to teach the cat in preparation for his bar mitzvah and they argue theology. Later, when his daughter marries and he feels abandoned, it brings his grief over his deceased wife back to the forefront. It’s very touching, often funny, and so very human.

The novel had a somewhat mythic feel to it, particularly where the animals were involved. It read a bit like a parable, making its Jewishness all the more palpable.

I really enjoyed this one. It was cute, and heartwarming, and entertaining. The cat was amusing, and the storytelling was very well adapted to its medium.

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Bruno Courrèges Mystery #5: The Devil’s Cave by Martin Walker

Read: 8 September, 2013

Whenever I get to see my dad, we usually have fun trading book recommendations – almost always mystery series because it’s our biggest genre overlap. This summer, he sent me home with a copy of The Devil’s Cave.

Though I generally prefer starting a series at the beginning, it was the only one my dad had with him. Even so, I didn’t get the impression that it matters too much, as the narrative is reasonably self-contained (barring the odd, rare references to past events and character histories).

Bruno, the investigator, is a fun character. He is very down-to-earth and his mandatory eccentricities (all investigators require eccentricities, it’s like a law of the mystery genre) are quite fun – he is obsessed with food, cooking delicious meals at least ever 50 pages or so, and he is very involved with his community. Unlike the usual “doing it his own way / lone wolf” investigator, Bruno teaches sports to local kids, stops by the weekly market to chat with shoppers and stall holders, and must balance the needs of the investigation with his social calendar. It makes for a very refreshing change.

The cooking was also quite fun to read about. Walker uses enough detail to allow me to recreate a few of the dishes (with my own modifications, of course), much to my family’s delight. So far, I’ve had success with the fried/broth rice and the beer chicken.

The mystery itself was a lot of fun. My favourite type of investigator narrative is the one where the reader is privy to all the clues and is able to guess at the resolution, essentially pitting her/his deductive powers against the investigator’s. That’s exactly what happens here, and yet Bruno still surprised me often with his inventiveness and his ability to think two steps ahead of the baddies (all the while playing with the “rules” of the genre).

The setting, of course, is quite idyllic, with characters to match (though not lacking in complexity).

I’ll definitely be seeking out more from this series, and I highly recommend it.

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Maigret et le marchand de vin [Maigret and the Wine Merchant] by Georges Simenon

Read: 21 July, 2009

According to my dear ol’ mum, bless her French book-reading heart, there’s an entire series of Maigret detective novels. For my own part, I’ve only encountered this one, so I’ll have to take her word for it. In this episode, the owner of a wine distribution company has been murdered and Jules Maigret is called in to investigate.

Le marchand de vin is rather different from many of the detective novels I usually read. For one thing, it’s an actual detective novel – in that the person doing the investigating is a detective in the police force. This introduces a rather different dynamic than I’m accustomed to. My detectives are usually sucked in to a mystery, often reluctantly, and half the story is trying find some way to convince the authorities to serve justice. But here, Maigret has the benefit of the authorities being on his side, but he’s also constrained by this. There are rules to follow, and tactics that are simply off-limits.

I enjoyed how dependent this novel was on conversation. The focus was very little on the discovery of clues, but rather on the interactions between Maigret and his various witnesses and suspects. The whole book reads more like a play than anything else. As a result, character development is emphasized, but also somewhat more subtle. We’re rarely told what characters are feeling, but are left to guess based on their verbal responses. This is fairly common in French literature, but I read so little of it that it made for a refreshing change.

As far as the mystery itself goes, it’s fairly run-of-the-mill. It’s written from a local’s perspective, so it doesn’t have the charm of otherness that Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now had, for example. Maigret is not especially “quirky” like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. In other words, there’s no gimmick to the story. It’s just a plain detective story, albeit of a higher calibre than most. It’s well worth the read for fans of the genre, if only for exposure to how good an ordinary detective without some extraordinary selling feature can be.

Gaius Ruso Mystery #3: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Read: 4 October, 2009

When Gaius Petreius Ruso receives a strange letter from his brother, he has no choice but to return to Gaul. Once there, however, he discovers that he has been tricked and he’s about to find out just how dangerous “civilization” can be.

We’ve seen quite a bit of Roman-occupied Britain, but now we get a glimpse of Ruso in his own environment; and this presents its own whole set of dangers. Once again, Downie is able to stay faithful to everything I love about the series without making it seem like just another replica.

I was a bit concerned when Christianity was introduced to the story, as Tilla spends time with Christian slaves. Books with Christian subplots so often devolve into apologetics either for or against the religion. I was practically holding my breath through the whole novel! But Downie manages to handle it with great finesse, simply including it as she does other historical details, and remains blessedly non-partisan.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #4: A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

Read: 24 June, 2010

Adelia Aguilar has been enjoying a simple life with her daughter and friends, but King Henry II has come for her again. This time, he needs her to accompany his sister, Joanna, to Sicily. To ensure that Adelia returns when the task is completed, he keeps her daughter in England as a hostage. As the procession makes its way, strange things start to happen and Adelia is suspected of witchcraft.

There isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t been said for the last three books. If you’ve enjoyed the last three, you’ll enjoy this one too.

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Curse of a Winter Moon by Mary Casanova

Read: 20 March, 2009

Twelve-year-old Marius has been burdened with the care of his little brother, Jean-Pierre, ever since their mother died in childbirth. But Jean-Pierre was born on Christmas Eve and the villagers believe that he carries the mark of the loup garou – the werewolf. With the longest night of the year approaching and the villagers thirsting for heretic blood, will Marius be able to protect his little brother from the clutches of the Catholic Church?

POSITIVE: The story is short and reasonably entertaining. It’s obviously written for children in the 10-14 age range and makes for a great introduction to the Inquisition and schism between the Catholic and Protestant Churches. I could definitely see quite a few teachable moments scattered throughout the novel.

NEGATIVE: However, there just didn’t seem to be that much of a point to the story. I never felt swept into the story, or even that I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. There just wasn’t much enthusiasm in the narrative. Admittedly, it could just be a subjective conflict with the narrative style, but I usually get swept into stories – even poorly-written ones. The ending fellt a little arbitrary as well.

Overall, I really can’t say that anything was bad about the story, it just didn’t take my interest. It’s a shame because the subject matter is definitely up my alley. As I said above, it’s worth reading if only for the teachable moments. It’s short enough that it doesn’t really need more of an argument than that for its usefulness.

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Druids by Morgan Llywelyn

Read: 12 March, 2009

When Ainvar’s grandmother gives her life to save her tribe from starvation, he begins his journey to learn the true meaning of sacrifice. Along with his “soul friend,” the warrior Vercingetorix, Ainvar must find a way to end Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.

POSITIVE: Great plot and a fantastic pace. After a painful beginning, this novel quickly became an exciting page-turner.

NEGATIVE: Unfortunately, this great story was burdened with several narrative issues. Right from the start, the reader is met with page after page of unnecessary exposition. Exciting scenes would be broken up by dull interludes explaining the meaning of this or that ritual or detail. The choice of the first person narrative may also have been a mistake as there is no clear perspective or reason for the telling of the story (at one point, Ainvar says “I must remember to ask Menua,” despite the fact that Menua has already died from the narrator’s perspective). Finally, I have to mention the scene where Ainvar looks into a mirror. He describes the “young man staring back at me” as:

“He had an elegant narrow head with a long skull suitable for storing knowledge. The eye sockets were deeply carved, the cheekbones high, the nose prominent and thrusting. It was a strong clear timeless face full of contradictions, brooding yet mischievous, reserved yet involved. Fathomless eyes and curving lips spoke of intense passions carefully suppressed, concentrated in stillness.”

Who, I ask, would ever write in this way about themselves? It’s just silly.

Overall, I would say that this book is worth the read, especially for people with an interest in historical battles or the history of Gaul. That being said, readers should be prepared for a less-than-fabulous writing style and an incomplete mastery of the first person narrative.

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