e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Archive for the tag “book review”

One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun tr.Jung Yewon

Korean literature is new to me. I’ve just bought this book and look forward to reading it. I don’t generally go for romance, but this sounds intriguing.

My thanks to the author of blog Word by Word for drawing my attention to it.

Word by Word

oe-hundred-shadowsEthereal, dream-like, accepting of their fate. South Korean working class literature.

Two young people work in an electronics market and slowly develop a friendship.

We meet Eungyo as she is following her shadow, causing her to become separated from the group she is with. Mujae follows her and stops her. Shadows rise and seem to lure one to follow it, something that others try to prevent, for it feels death-like.

Although it is never explained the constant mention of human shadows and their various behaviours provoke the reader’s imagination to ascribe meaning. Ill health and approaching death cause it to rise, and perhaps thoughts, reaching the limit of what one is able to endure. One shouldn’t follow it.

Their bond is formed as the environment within which they work is threatened with demolition. There is a subtle interdependency between the market traders, repairing and selling electronics, so when people who…

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Holmes and Watson revealed

Holmes and Watson cover artI enjoyed this book. It is well written and scholarly without being pedantic or heavy.

However, I did find it odd reading a biography of people who don’t exist. For instance, as many biographers do, Ms Thomson speculates on what her characters were doing in the times not covered by the published stories. For real people this attempt to fill in gaps makes sense – they must have been doing something. But for fictional characters the true answer is ‘nothing’, and most of the time their creator probably didn’t give the question any thought.

Reading this book has made me want to know more of the real facts and I hope to find a good biography of Conan Doyle in the nearish future.

I recommend this to anyone who enjoys the Holmes stories and who likes a stylish, fictional biography. If you haven’t read any of the stories you’ll miss out on a good deal of the references and nuances, so I suggest you get a few of them in before starting Ms Thomson’s work.

Cover art from goodreads.

Secondhand serendipity

I recently went to Crimefest, and had a really good time. Among the many tables dedicated to books is a swap table. Browsing through the books left for swap I saw one with ‘Johnson County Library’ and a bar code on its cover.3026099

My first reaction was that someone had left their library book by mistake; then I opened it and inside was printed ‘Withdrawn from Johnson County Library’. So it was the result of library weeding and it was OK to take it.

The book was Daughter of Deceit by Patricia Sprinkle, an author I’d not heard of. I’m not sure if her work is available in the UK – Johnson County sounds like it’s somewhere in America.

I really enjoyed it. I’m so glad that someone at Crimefest left it. Now that I’ve read it I feel honour bound to pass it on to one of the local secondhand bookshelves so someone else can enjoy it too.

It is set among the very rich in Atlanta. Not an underworld setting – well-mannered, well-dressed women living in beautiful houses in a lovely town. Like my own, less wealthy, neighbours they spend their time raising families and raising funds for good causes. The mystery, when it strikes, is all the more shocking for being in such a society.

A middle-aged woman deeply into genealogy is called upon to help a woman neighbour whose world has been turned upside down by the discovery that her late father may not have been related to her at all. How did he really feel about her? Is she entitled to the wealth she’s inherited? And, to top it all, did she really shoot her husband?

I will certainly look out for more of Ms Sprinkle’s work.

Cover art from Goodreads.

Reading a book so new it’s not out yet – ‘Amok’ from Solarwyrm Press

amok cover artI recently reviewed Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction – edited by Dominica Malcolm on Goodreads, but since I don’t know how to connect this blog with Goodreads I’m reposting it here as I think the book is worth writing about.

It is a rich collection of twenty-four stories; rich in diversity of setting, of speculative ideas, and of character.

There are a lot of stories here that I loved and only a couple that didn’t appeal to me. There were also a few I felt could have been shortened – but this might just be a reflection of my dislike of description.

The editor defines speculative fiction as

real world settings in the past, present, or future, with science-fiction or fantasy elements.

and the stories chosen reflect this closely.

The settings are spread widely in the Asia-Pacific area and move from the present to the not very distant future. However, the science-fiction and fantasy elements are all in residence on variants of modern Earth; there are no alien planets or sword-and-sorcery fantasy cultures – though there is some sword-without-sorcery.

This doesn’t mean the ideas are limited. The story-worlds described may be recognisable as derived from ours or from our folklore, but each has one or several differences that fuel the events. Some of them are very way out, but some are horribly possible. How do people deal with making a cupid, quarrelling over a mountain of rubbish, half the world disappearing in a flood, or a special dimension for healers? Even the vampire and the mermaid have unexpected features.

Though the speculative ideas are central to the stories, these are basically tales about people. In them we meet, as central characters, parents and grandparents, a blind schoolboy, students, a shopkeeper, a soldier, a gangster, a couple of ghostbusters, a kung fu master, and several pairs of lovers. Even the moon rabbit and the garden ornament are ‘people’.

Some face a variety of enemies – among them an empire building European, a Filipino aswang, big corporations up to their usual (and unusual) evilness and a sea-witch.

Others have to deal with the aftermath of a major war, the pain of losing a child, their own inability to believe the unlikely, and love lost in some odd ways.

All lovers of speculative or quirky fiction should find something for them here.

Expected publication: April 30th 2014 by Solarwyrm Press.

‘In Pale Battalions’ by Robert Goddard

0385339208Robert Goddard has written many books and has a large following who like his style and the twists and turns of his complex plots.

This book follows a similar pattern to many of his books — a secret from the past will finally be told. Characters go to great lengths to keep or uncover the secret concerned, and when they do the result is not what it seems.

This particular story has less obvious excitement and dashing around than some of his others, but the background is the First World War and there’s plenty of war and gore there for any book.

The story is told using flashback on flashback, but the stages are clearly marked and it’s easy to follow. The setting is that of the minor aristocracy from which class the main characters have sprung. As the life and mysterious death of Captain John Hallows are discovered by his daughter and grand-daughter, the number of memories and events that are not what they seem multiply.

Leonora Galloway, Hallows’ daughter, is seeking not only knowledge of her father, but also explanations for her own life and her bitter upbringing. Several times she seems to have the answers only to find another secret behind the first one.

In my opinion this is one of Goddard’s better books. With less high drama it is able to concentrate on subtle dangers and prices paid for knowledge. In particular, the author explores the parent/child relationship in various guises — natural, step, good, indifferent and actively wicked.

Any reader who likes a well-written tale with empathetic main characters and several twists in the tail should enjoy this.

The title of the book comes from a First World War poem by Charles Sorley which starts:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.

Cover pic from Kirkus.

‘The Hippo with Toothache’

This book, subtitled Heart-warming stories of zoo and wild animals and the vets who care for them, contains a hipponumber of anecdotes told by zoo and wildlife vets. The memoirs are grouped in subjects, each one introduced with a short chapter by the editors, Lucy H. Spelman and Ted Y. Mashima.

The stories are ‘in their own words’ tales and as one might guess they vary considerably in style and quality of writing – the contributors are working vets not writers. All of them are more detailed than they would be if written by a journalist or other non-vet, and it is in the detail that a lot of the interest lies; the best ones give the feeling of peering over the vet’s shoulder while the patient’s ills are diagnosed and treated. Even the ones that read like a report rather than a story have the frisson of authenticity.

My knowledge of the veterinary world has been greatly expanded. I didn’t know that moray eels could mope, or that a goldfish might need surgery, or that a rhino could suffer sore feet, or that any of these things could be and would be dealt with in a day’s work by anyone.

Whether tracking a herd of elephants in order to treat an injured one, caring for a stranded dolphin, or getting an orphaned fawn back on its feet and into the wild, these people go to extraordinary lengths to help their fellow creatures.

Cover pic from Amazon.

30 Day Book Challenge

So far I haven’t taken much notice of the various blogging challenges – not because they aren’t interesting but because I don’t think I could follow them properly.

However, I’ve now found one I could try. It is the Thirty Day Book Challenge.

There are thirty questions to be answered, at the rate of one a day if possible. I doubt if I could keep up that pace, particularly not while I’m moving house, so I will endeavour to do one a week starting tomorrow.

I found a useful list of the questions and other interesting stuff on a lovely blog called Snobbery. The link below will take you there.

30 Day Book Challenge.

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Earlier this year I read this beautifully written and illustrated book by Edmund de Waal. When the author inherited a collection of netsuke from a great uncle, he felt he had to know the history of the collection in his family. So this book combines family history with an examination of changing taste and art appreciation.

From it I’ve learned new ways of looking at and thinking about three dimensional art. I would never have thought to look at a pot or building and work out how much of the world it displaces, nor to look for

… the play between discretion and opulence, a sort of breathing in and breathing out of invisibility and visibility.

The language is rich and the descriptions, instead of flat statements, relate the items or rooms to their owners – as in describing a renaissance bed owned by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of the author’s great-grandfather and the original purchaser of the netsuke.

… a lit de parade also hung with broderies. A high canopy with putti embowered in intricate patterns … a bed from which to rule a city state. What kind of young man would buy a bed like that?

Thus we learn a great deal about Charles’ character as a youth.

I love the descriptions of scholarship:

… a mad expense of days unspooling in the dimness of Periodicals.

and later in another library

… my stack of Gazettes builds around me, a tower of new questions …

The chapter about the rich dropping in on a series of salons on their way to purchase more pictures, furniture or bibelots for their collections reminded me of teenagers checking Twitter or Facebook before setting off on a shopping trip. Social networks on the web may not be much of a replacement for erudite conversation in a fashionable salon, but they probably fulfill much the same function.

From fashionable 19th century Paris the netsuke and their vitrine (a glass-panelled display case) travelled to fashionable Vienna as a wedding present to Charles’ cousin, Viktor von Ephrussi and his bride Emmy. Here too is a life of luxury and the best society.

The nesukes’ successive owners are not aristocracy. They are bankers and work hard to earn their luxuries.

But they are Jewish bankers and in the 20th century tragedy, fuelled by racism, awaits them and their lifestyle. The first world war and the following collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire costs them money. The second costs them everything. Fortunately many of the author’s relatives escape to Britain or America where they rebuild their lives on a more modest scale.

The netsuke returned, temporarily, to Japan with Great Uncle Ignace, before arriving in their current home in Britain. They have outlasted generations of owners, the collapse of empires, changes in fashion and several long journeys. They are still together, amusing, beautiful and full of variety.

A nomination from Somersaulting through Life

Many thanks and a bunch of metaphorical flowers to the delightful blogger at Somersaulting through Life, who has nominated me for a Kreativ Blogger award. Somersaulting TL is a fascinating blog. I hope my lovely readers will follow the link and enjoy.

There are a few rules to follow to qualify for the award. Details can be found here http://somersaultingthroughlife.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/for-all-of-you-delightful-readers/ . After thanking the person who nominated, I have to nominate six more and let them know, and tell everyone ten things about myself.

My six nominations with reasons are:

The Mad Hatter for his appreciation of the crazy and funny in literature.

Two Gallants who have a selection of pictures and some lovely writing.

D F Barker – Restless Art who gives us poems and beautiful paintings.

Letters from a Briton where there is a lot of good stuff about the pagan world.

Farm Lane Book blog for a variety of informative and well thought out reviews.

Lizzy’s Literary Life with reviews and comments on a reader’s life.

The seven ‘about’ things I gave a few posts ago still stand: I love gardening, travelling by train, the theatre, classical music and Japanese food. I do a lot of walking, and quite a lot of cooking. I can add that I belong to a book group, which I find really stimulating, go swimming in the summer and enjoy exhibitions, fairs and similar events.

Kreativ Blogger

Rose Tremain’s ‘The Colour’

cover pictureI’ve just finished this book, and although I found it a page-turner and agree with other reviewers that it’s wonderfully well-written, I’m still not sure I actually like it.

The word that springs to my mind to describe it is ‘relentless’. Incident follows incident, interspersed with very detailed descriptions of the landscape of the action. At times I wanted a pause.

It is set in the New Zealand gold rush of the mid-19th century. The central characters, Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, are recent immigrants from England who find the new country harder to deal with than they expected.

First they try farming, and this is a struggle but may succeed. However, following the discovery of gold on their land, first Joseph then Harriet abandon farming and set off for the gold fields. Even when they achieve wealth, they haven’t arrived where they wanted or expected to be.

Their story is intertwined with two others: of a richer family whose child has a Maori nurse, and a Chinese gardener who intends to return home to Heron Lake in China when he is rich.

These multiple points of view give variety, and allow the author to explore different motivations. Showing how an individual’s actions stem from their life experiences and character is something Rose Tremain is very good at. We feel we understand where each of her people is coming from and why they often do apparently stupid things.

Above all this is a novel of landscape. The farming land, the effect of the gold rush on the wilderness, the inner landscapes of emotion and memory, the social landscapes of both England and New Zealand all interact with each other and with the almost malevolent weather.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes brilliant prose telling an exciting story, and also to anyone with an interest in the byways of history.

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