Category Archives: Reading challenges

Only one more day of 2012!

We’re staring 2013 in the face.

I don’t usually write about my problems here, mostly because I don’t have much that’s fresh and insightful to say about the subject. But the end of the year seems to be the traditional time to evaluate our lives and make plans to improve them.

And what did I accomplish in 2012? I started off with grandly overambitious plans – “finish writing at least two books; be thin; live in a tidy house; rebuild my savings account; learn to draw; and, for the heck of it, finish several reading challenges.” It’s been a sobering year.

My house is as messy as it’s ever been, possibly worse. I’ve gained five pounds. I don’t have the free time to concentrate on drawing. The reading challenges petered out midyear, largely because I found other topics to post about, so I don’t really care about that failure. Have I succeeded in anything?

My main accomplishment, one I didn’t realize I was facing a year ago, has been to keep my mother out of the hospital and the nursing home, living quasi-independently in her familiar house with her familiar belongings and as many of her familiar routines as she feels up to bothering with. And it’s stressful for everyone involved, and pretty time-consuming.

But what about my January pipe dreams? Well, there’s writing. Writing fiction is something I’ve made progress on. No, I haven’t finished two books in the past year. In spite of my high hopes a month ago, I haven’t even finished one; it turns out that my mother now gets very upset by the prospect of Christmas (with all the things she feels she ought to do and can’t do), so upset that soothing her leaves me emotionally drained for most of the day. So that will have to be factored into future plans: December is a washout.

Even so, I’ve learned a lot – partly by participating in Friday Fictioneers and the 100 Word Challenge for Grownups – about writing: structuring plots, developing characters, keeping a story moving. Well before spring I really should have the current fantasy-in-progress rough draft written. (Pause for cartwheels.)

The score for the year? I guess I’m keeping up with the absolutely essential top-priority things. Almost top-priority, not so good. Tomorrow I’ll inflict a post on you about where I go from here.

(On a different subject, I just got home this afternoon from a two-day trip – my husband and I decided to give each other a mini-vacation for Christmas. I think I’ve caught up on all the comments people made on my posts while I was away; I know I have dozens and dozens of your posts to read. I’m looking forward to them, but it will take a while to get through them all. You may still be getting comments in February 😉 )

Advertisements

Vintage Mysteries: Sinister teacups

Review: The Peacock Feather Murders
by Carter Dickson

A keeper? Yes – a sinister setup
and tight plot full of surprises

Now, this is a locked room mystery.

First, Scotland Yard receives a letter warning them about funny business to come, giving an address and date. It’s almost identical to a letter they received two years ago – and that time there was a very strange murder that hasn’t been solved yet. Back then, a famous antique collector was found shot to death in an empty house. Ten valuable majolica teacups – they look like they’re painted with peacock feathers – had been set out on a table nearby.

Chief Inspector Masters isn’t going to stand for a repeat, so he sets a watch on the house. No one lives there; it’s for sale. Young Sergeant Bob Pollard gets keys from the realtor and searches the building. After that, he knows for sure it’s empty except, maybe, for a locked room in the attic. Pollard hides and waits, while more policemen watch the front door from the house across the street. Late in the afternoon Vance Keating – an acquaintance of Pollard’s – comes to the house, climbs the stairs, and lets himself into the attic room.

Before long Pollard hears a scream and two shots. He rushes in and finds Keating dying from a shot in the back of his head and another shot from behind that broke his spine. An old-fashioned six-shooter lies on the floor nearby. There are powder burns around both wounds, so Keating must have been shot from a short distance.

And there’s nobody in the room except Keating and Pollard. Nothing there at all except a table covered by a cloth worked with gold thread in a peacock feather design, and ten black teacups arranged around the edge of the table. Keating was murdered, and the police themselves can testify that nobody was in the room to kill him.

That’s only the start, of course. But from the very beginning, Chief Inspector Masters is not a happy man. He never approves of impossible murders, and he’s haunted by them. Still, where you find Masters and an impossible crime, you know Sir Henry Merrivale will turn up to figure out exactly what really happened. H.M. grumbles his way through the investigation while Masters nearly gets arrested for – apparently – assaulting an uncooperative witness; more mysterious notes arrive; and one of the suspects gets entangled with a truly gruesome piece of furniture.

And the end? Was there any doubt? Sir Henry explains everything, Masters arrests the guilty parties, and the world makes sense once more, except for the mysteries of human motives – which are too much for even H.M. to unravel.

Vintage Mysteries: Too many eyes

Review: The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
by Erle Stanley Gardner

A keeper? A little out of focus, but yes

Where to start? Maybe I should tell you about Perry Mason’s new client, Pete Brunold, a one-eyed man who’s so concerned about how he looks that he has a whole wardrobe of custom-made artificial eyes. Now somebody has stolen his “hangover” eye and replaced it with a cheap fake…

But this story really starts twenty-odd years earlier, around 1910, with a traveling salesman (our friend Pete) and an innocent country girl. When he gets word about their coming baby, he grabs the next train to hurry back and marry her. After the train wreck, he spends months in the hospital, and by the time he’s able to try again to reach her, she has vanished. In other Perry Mason mysteries, this background would influence everything that happens in the story…not this one, though.

But let’s get back to the present day of 1935. Mason’s new client is worried that someone will use the stolen eye to frame him for a crime, but never mind that. Mason has yet another new client; this one’s a spoiled brat of an embezzler, but Perry feels sorry for his big sister and takes the case. Next thing you know, Hartley Basset (the embezzler’s boss) is found dead, clutching a glass eye. And the boss’s stepson’s wife – yes, the relationships are getting confusing, aren’t they – was knocked down by a masked, one-eyed man running out of the room where her, um, stepfather-in-law lies dead. (In a few more pages, she’ll disappear from the story.)

When Mason first sees the body, there’s no gun in sight – but soon afterwards, when the police arrive, there’s a gun lying near Hartley Basset’s empty hand, the one that’s not full of glass eye. And he’s lying on another gun. Oh, and he has a third gun in a shoulder holster…

Not long after that, Pete Brunold and Sylvia Basset (Hartley’s widow, and Pete’s girlfriend of twenty years ago) are both on trial for murdering Hartley. Since they’re Mason’s clients, we know they aren’t guilty. But that’s about all we can be sure of as the story twists and lurches from one situation to another. By the end, there are too many glass eyes, too many guns, and way too many criminals of various sorts for me to keep track of exactly what did happen.

But if you want to know the technical ins and outs of making artificial eyes using 1930’s technology, this is an excellent introduction.

Mystery and Suspense Challenge: Where’s the body?

Book Review: One Virgin Too Many
by Lindsey Davis

A keeper? Yes

If you’re a private detective (newly rich because it turns out you’re also a natural born tax auditor), what do you do when a poor little rich girl, about six years old, turns up – escorted by some of the family slaves – to announce that one of her relatives wants to kill her?

If you’re Marcus Didius Falco, and you already have enough problems making sure your own nieces – whose father, your no-good brother-in-law Famia, was recently and shamefully executed by a lion – are being taken care of, you just might pat her on the head and send her home. And then worry about it for days afterwards.

Not that little Gaia Laelia is Falco’s only worry. There’s his brother-in-law, Aelianus the twit, who has decided to become respectable by joining the priesthood of the Arval Brethren – and promptly stumbles over a body. Except when Aelianus takes Falco to investigate, there’s no body anywhere to be found. On the other hand, there seems to be an awful lot of blood-soaked grass…

And then there are the geese. Now that Falco has money, Emperor Vespasian has finally promoted him to the equestrian class, and given him an official job: Procurator of the Poultry, responsible for the sacred geese and the augurs’ chickens. There are probably more embarrassing responsibilities for a Roman citizen to be saddled with – but not many, and none noisier.

But what about Gaia? Could she really be in danger? Falco’s eight-year-old niece Cloelia has met her; they’re both among the candidates to be chosen as the newest Vestal Virgin. And Cloelia seems to think there was something wrong about Gaia’s family. It’s almost impossible to investigate, though. Gaia’s grandfather is the retired Flamen Dialis, former high priest of Jupiter, who doesn’t quite seem to realize that he’s retired; he expects total deference from everyone.

And getting back to Aelianus, it’s pretty hard to investigate a missing corpse, but Falco manages to dig up evidence that there really was a murder. More than a murder: it almost sounds as if a woman invaded the grounds of the Arval Brethren and killed the victim as if he was a bull intended for sacrifice. And, oh yes: Gaia seems to be missing.

Falco being Falco, he eventually proves that there’s one killer at fault in all the strangeness. He even locates little Gaia, still alive. Of course, Falco being Falco, his heroic rescue leaves him head down in the depths of a well with his tunic over his face, clutching the terrified child while being hauled up bare-bottomed to the snickers of his best friends…

Book reviews and Regency mayhem

Annnd – it’s a twofer! Just because I recently finished reading two books involving catching criminals that are more or less based on the Regency Romance.

I enjoyed both of them, mostly, but I think one approach worked a lot better than the other. So let’s see what we can figure out about what works and what doesn’t in telling a story, while we’re at it.

Review: Maggie Without a Clue

A keeper? Fer sure.

Speaking of Regency romances, somebody has to write them. That’s how Maggie Kelly makes her living. She’s a modern girl in modern New York, but her workdays are spent inventing mysteries for Alexandre Blake, Viscount St. Just, and his sidekick Sterling, to solve in London in the days of the Napoleonic Wars. She’s good at creating lifelike characters, so good that St. Just has decided to take charge of his own destiny. Three books ago, he and Sterling poofed into three-dimensional, solid, independent life in Maggie’s living room.

A period of adjustment followed.

By this story, the situation has kind of stabilized. St. Just has recognized that, in this world, he’s not independently wealthy, and he’s correcting that little problem by organizing street theater and starting a modeling career (since, like any good romantic hero, he’s dramatically handsome). Sterling has accepted twenty-first century technology and fads with great enthusiasm. Maggie has gritted her teeth about sharing her small apartment with both of them. Oh, and St. Just (who has accepted the alias of Alex Blake, Maggie’s English cousin) keeps solving crimes, annoying Maggie’s semi-boyfriend police detective Steve Wendell immensely.

Ah, but at least one part of the situation is about to improve! Poor old Mrs. Goldblum, who lives across the hall from Maggie, has offered her apartment to Alex and Sterling, since she has to hurry off and take care of her sick sister. Or is that an improvement? Never mind that Maggie’s friend Bernice has just found her husband – the one she thought drowned almost seven years ago – dead in her bed, and the police consider her the obvious suspect; what about the thugs who keep roughing up Sterling and searching Mrs. Goldblum’s apartment for something or other?

Alex intends to assert his independence from being only what Maggie wrote him to be. Also, he isn’t about to let Bernie get railroaded, and he’s definitely not going to put up with his new home and his old friend being attacked. He is, after all, the hero.

But what will his new independence do to his budding romance with Maggie?

I enjoyed this one. The mystery was pretty well worked out – including unexpected discoveries about Mrs. Goldblum, who isn’t all that poor and helpless. Maggie’s romantic tug of war between Steve and Alex continues; her friends and enemies are a colorful crowd who keep the story moving; Sterling’s and Alex’s adjustment to life in the real world and the current day is well handled.

Review: The Masque of the Black Tulip
by Lauren Willig

A keeper? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Once upon a time, back around the beginning of the twentieth century, the Scarlet Pimpernel helped to protect England from the French under Napoleon. Turns out he had help; a whole team of helpers with various color-coded code names. Lauren Willig is out to tell us all about their adventures undercover.

But so much for what’s happening around about 1800; what’s happening today? Well, there’s this American graduate student who’s researching the Pimpernel’s assistants, and she’s just found some new information.

But meanwhile, Miles Dorrington is hot on the trail of that notorious French spy, the Black Tulip, while keeping a protective (not romantic! absolutely not!) eye on Lady Henrietta Selwick. After all, he promised Hen’s brother, his best friend, that he’d take care of her, even if it means spending the evening at Almack’s. And at Almack’s, Miles stumbles across suspicious behavior that sends him into the slums of London after – maybe – the Tulip.

Oh, by the way, in our time that graduate student is having an awkward time dealing with Colin Selwick, who controls access to the long-lost correspondence that should clarify what the Pimpernel’s assistants were up to.

Meanwhile, Hen corresponds with her friend Amy in code – for both of them are involved in the Pimpernel’s circle too. She also goes into childish snits that might be appropriate for a sixteen-year-old high school student, but seem odd for a twenty year old brought up in a time when, we’re told, polite, formal behavior was important. And she gets caught – by Miles – hiding behind a bush in Hyde Park to spy on him when he takes the seductive Marquise for a drive.

Eager to find out what happens next? Sorry, time to check up on the modern characters again. They may be dull beyond words, but we can’t expect you to keep reading about all these old-timey folks that you can’t identify with, right? (Turns out that I really, really hate stories that try to split your attention between two completely different casts in two different centuries. Ahem.)

Well, eventually we find out, kind of abruptly, who is and who isn’t a spy. And the obvious couple admits they’re in love, after finding themselves compromised and having to elope, but okay, we’ve spent enough time in each of their heads to know they really want to get married anyhow. Oddly, I actually did enjoy the Regency parts of the book – maybe because they were so over-the-top. I hated being dragged back to the present day for no discernible reason, though. And I don’t know that the Regency story would hold up to re-reading; the characters had a tendency to lurch from situation to situation without much thought about what they were doing.

* * *

So – what works? First off, throwing yourself wholeheartedly into your story without worrying whether or not it’s silly. Both books feature overdone characters and situations; that’s a large part of their charm, and the weakest parts of the Black Tulip seemed to be included to assure us that the Regency story had some evidence to back it up. Second, give some thought to who these characters really are, and make them behave as if they have some idea of who they are, too. And if you can squeeze it in, let their personalities develop a bit without changing into somebody unrecognizable. Okay?

Classics Reading Challenge: The first blogger?

Review: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
(translated and edited by Ivan Morris)

(A keeper? Yes, yes, yes.)

Such a strange book. About a thousand years ago, the woman we remember as “Sei Shonagon” (Sei was her family name; Shonagon was a rank or job title – so it’s a little bit like knowing her only as “Assistant Director Johnson”) worked as a lady in waiting to the Empress – well, one of the Empresses – of Japan. (Emperors of the time routinely had several wives, plus various ladies of lower status.) “Her” empress gave Sei Shonagon a supply of blank paper, and she used it to record her experiences and opinions, things she saw and did and thought and said.

Notice all the parenthetical explanations I had to stick into that first paragraph? Well, let’s get the most annoying flaw of this book out of the way right now: Sei Shonagon lived in an alien world. Many of the details of her daily life make no sense at all to us, without explanations. And, in the Ivan Morris edition, we certainly get explanations. Footnote after footnote…many of them are interesting in themselves, all of them are informative, but there are So. Many. Of. Them – a total of 584 footnotes for 264 pages.

Actually, if you don’t already know something about Heian Japan, you should probably start by reading through the Appendices, which will introduce you to the basics of Sei’s world. The drawings of houses and clothes – so important to her, and so different from what we’re familiar with – are particularly useful.

By this time, you’re probably wondering if it’s worth your time to bother with the Pillow Book. Yes, it is. Not every writer can make you care about ancient gossip and scandals; Sei Shonagon can. (Maybe it helps that, to her, all of this involved cutting edge fashion and life-or-death politics.)

More than anything, reading the Pillow Book is like reading a really good blog, one where you never know what the next post will focus on. There are lists – often funny – of things she finds offensive or beautiful or embarrassing.  There are odd little incidents involving people she knows and likes or dislikes. She gives us vivid short stories, probably fictional, about the adventures of young men at court, or tells us how the court ladies built a snow mountain and made bets about when it would melt away – and then tried to manipulate the results.

And, just when we’re overcome by the strangeness of her world, she gives us something universal: “Adorable Things:….One picks up a pretty baby and holds him for a while…he clings to one’s neck and then falls asleep.”

Time moves on, even on the Discworld

Review: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

A keeper? Definitely

Of course, sometimes time on the Discworld moves backwards. Or sideways. Or does a loop-the-loop.

We first met Sam Vimes, back in Guards! Guards!, when he was in charge of the last guttering remnant of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch. By the end of that story, the usual shreds of order had been restored, and Sam had met his Sybil, otherwise known as Lady Rankin.

It’s been a few years. Watchmen of all shapes and sizes, from Buggy Squires the gnome to Detritus the troll who uses a siege crossbow as a hand weapon, patrol the streets. Lord Vetinari, who could give Machiavelli a few helpful tips, rules by keeping all the city’s factions thisfar from one another’s throats. And Sybil Vimes is the Duchess of Ankh-Morpork; that goes with being married to the very reluctant Duke.

Vimes is still a cop, though – first, last, and all the time – and he’s not about to miss chasing a crazed mass murderer across the rooftops just because he’s got a pile of administrative paperwork. He almost has Carcer the monster in his grip when they both plummet through a skylight into the dangerously magical Library. And time skids.

Once upon a time, Sam Vimes was a wet-behind-the-ears rookie. Once upon a time, Vetinari was a dangerously devious teenager. Once upon a time, Mrs. Rosie Palm, the well-known employer of, er, seamstresses (hem, hem) was young and pretty. Once upon a time, everything was on the brink of going disastrously wrong. Can the grown-up version of Vimes cajole, bully, and inspire history into going the way it ought to turn out, and get back to his Sybil before their son is born? Does the lilac bloom in spring?