Saturday, October 31, 2009

Co-review: Murder on the Orient Express

In celebration of Halloween, we chose a classic mystery by Agatha Christie for October's co-review. I can't think of any authors who have been more prolific than Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime who helped shape the modern mystery. Her classic who-done-its often include a brilliant yet unassuming private detective whose keen powers of observation and deduction culminate in a surprise conclusion where the murderer is revealed to the astonishment of all. Sound familiar? Yeah, it's pretty much your standard murder mystery template. But unlike Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Christie's work doesn't center around any single character, though she does have a couple of favorites who get a lot of air time.

Murder on the Orient Express features Christie's famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. When a passenger train gets stranded in a snowbank in Yugoslavia, one of the passengers is murdered in the middle of the night. Knowing the murderer must still be on board, the railway director entreats his friend Poirot (who happens to be traveling on the same train) to solve the crime. The majority of the novel consists of the various passengers offering alibis and evidence while Poirot sorts through the confusing mess to uncover the truth. It is a puzzle of logic and deduction for the reader as well since reserving the great unveiling for the end gives us a chance to develop our own theories along the way. And be forewarned that since this is a co-review, we can't promise not to give away any spoilers!

Caren: It's been many years since I've read an Agatha Christie novel, so it was fun to go back and revisit one of the classics. The most obvious difference from modern mysteries was the absence of action, violence, and nail-biting suspense. Instead, it was all about laying the information out for the reader to sort through and see if we could figure it out on our own. We weren't allowed much access into Poirot's mind so we had to rely on our own powers of deduction. But I have to admit that I didn't even bother trying to figure it out myself. I knew there would be an unexpected twist at the end, so I just decided to take the lazy route and wait for Poirot to spell it out for me. What about you, Jenny? Did any of the characters seem more suspicious to you than the others?

Jenny: No, in fact I kept thinking how strange it was that everyone was so devoid of suspicion. Of course, you realize why at the end and it starts to come together as more and more characters have a link to the Armstrong kidnapping/murder. Very different from modern mysteries. The other big difference I saw was the stereotypes that were used, like "women are hysterical" or "Italians like to stab with knives". Those kinds of statements in modern novels would be used to show how non-politically correct a character was. In Orient, they came across as completely normal. It was interesting to me to see how much our society has changed just from what we can read in a mystery novel.

The way the book was organized was very interesting. The crime section was first, then the testimony of each passenger, then the re-examination of evidence and testimony, then the grand unveiling. I would be interested to see if that's how all of Christie's novels are written. You can't beat Poirot for cleverness though. That guy has it together.

Caren: It's been a while, but I don't think Christie employs this same format in all of her novels. Some of them have multiple murders with suspense building the entire time, if I remember right. But they all include the grand unveiling at the end.

Good point on the stereotypes. Definitely written in a different time! There were some other things too that didn't fit with a contemporary audience. Some of the clues Poirot picked up on meant nothing to me -- like when he identified Miss Debenham as having spent some time in America because she referred to a telephone call as "long-distance." There were also times that Christie deliberately withheld information from us, and I thought that was a little unfair. For instance, the detail about the bolts on the even numbered rooms being in a different location than the odd numbered rooms. I don't mind if I'm not as smart as the guy solving the crime, but I do think it's only fair that I get the same information he does. Or at least a hint.

I had a hard time believing that these people were all capable of murder. It made for a good story, but it was hard to imagine some of them actually being able to stab another person. That's just so brutal, and they didn't seem twisted enough by revenge to be capable of it. But maybe I'm just looking at it through contemporary mystery eyes again.

What did you think of them all getting away with it in the end?

Jenny: Oh no, I agree with you on that point. I hardly think every single one of the characters capable of stabbing someone. And you're talking about people who were involved in the Armstrong household, not direct relatives or people I would think could hang onto that kind of fury and be part of such a nefarious plot. I think Christie probably thought it would make a good story and show off Poirot's skills and didn't think too hard about their motivation.

I have a hard time with endings like this. My innate sense of justice feels annoyed when people get away with murder (pun intended). Did Ratchett/Cassetti deserve to die? Yeah, probably, but it wasn't those people's jobs to carry out his sentence. Now they have to carry around what they did and know that they got away with it. I couldn't live like that.

All that said, this book isn't a moral thinker. It was written as a romp and that's what it is. See the famous Poirot solve a murder case while stranded on a train! See Poirot use his powers of deduction to discover the hidden identities of possible murderers! I think I prefer a protagonist that isn't quite so infallible. Now that I think about it, though, we are a product of our generation and the literature and entertainment of our time. I bet in the 30's (when I think this book was published) this was exactly what people wanted to read. Otherwise Christie wouldn't have been the best at what she did.

Caren: Yes, it's a fun romp, but I do think that Christie was also trying to nag our moral conscience. From what I remember, she has quite a few novels that deal with uncomfortable ethical dilemmas like this. But I agree with you, it's not so well-developed that I'll be losing any sleep over it. Still, it's nice to know that even something written that long enough and filled with cultural references of the time can still hold some appeal today. It might not get your palms sweating and your heart racing, but it's still a fun murder mystery without the side effect of nightmares afterward. Which, in my opinion, makes it great for young teens who are getting introduced to the mystery genre but are still too young for the intensity of contemporary writers.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thursday Next sequels

I've been interested in reading Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next sequels since Jenny and I co-reviewed The Eyre Affair back in May. But I could never seem to get my hands on the next one. So when I was recently in the library and found all of them together, I had to snatch them up. Guess what I've been doing for the last month?

So far Fforde has written four additional books about Thursday Next. Some have more action and mystery than the others, but they are all creative and fun to read. Lost in a Good Book begins with Thursday enjoying marriage to Landen Parke-Laine (her reconciled love from The Eyre Affair), and the revelation that she is newly pregnant. When the Goliath Corporation eradicates Landen in order to blackmail Thursday into releasing their agent Jack Schitt from Poe's The Raven (where he was imprisoned during The Eyre Affair), Thursday begins to search for a way to get back into fiction again. She enters the BookWorld and joins Jurisfiction -- the organization that maintains order within fiction -- as an apprentice to the one and only Miss Havisham. In the meantime she faces another enemy, Acheron Hades' sister Aornis, saves the world from being turned into mysterious pink goo, and releases Jack Schitt only to be double-crossed by Goliath and still left husbandless.

In The Well of Lost Plots, Thursday decides to take refuge away from Goliath in the BookWorld, where she continues her Jurisfiction training and awaits the birth of her baby. There is less action in the first half of this book as she discovers all the oddities of the BookWorld. Fforde's imagination is limitless and it's sometimes hard to keep straight all the aspects of the world of fiction. But it rarely felt tedious and his wit kept things interesting even when the action was a little slow. Thursday faces some Aornis-imposed personal struggles with Landen's eradication, but is helped through them by Granny Next -- a delightful character who first appears in Lost in a Good Book. The second half gets more interesting as Thursday uncovers a greedy plot that would end up destroying libraries all over the world, and has to use her own wit and BookWorld connections to put an end to it. In the end she is appointed Bellman, the head of Jurisfiction.

Something Rotten begins over two years later. Thursday now has a 2-year-old son, Friday, and is getting tired of the BookWorld and returns home to Swindon. Goliath is trying to become a religion and promises to uneradicate Landen in exchange for her forgiveness, a process that doesn't quite go through without a hitch. In the meantime, a fictional character is trying to take over the world beginning by establishing himself as England's tyrant, Hamlet has undergone a hostile takeover and is now The Merry Wives of Elsinore and only an illegally cloned Shakespeare can possibly sort out the mess, a famous assassin is trying to kill Thursday, and Thursday has to save the world by leading the Swindon Mallets professional croquet team to an unlikely victory in the SuperHoop. Despite a few minor inconsistencies in the text, this was probably my favorite of the sequels. There are some great revelations and surprises, lots of loose ends tied up, and more action with the many subplots involved. The series could have easily ended very satisfyingly with Something Rotten.

But it didn't. First Among Sequels continues the story -- a little unnecessarily if you ask me. But it's still fun and is a little bit of a departure from the previous ones because it narrows the gap between the imaginary literary sci-fi world that Fforde has created (where something like SpecOps and the ChronoGuard could exist in the first place) and the real world that we live in. It takes place fourteen years later with Thursday in her early 50's, SpecOps disbanded, and interest in books falling in place of reality TV shows like "Whose Life Support Do We Switch Off?" Thursday is continuing to work in both literary detectives and Jurisfiction, albeit on the sly since she was supposed to have given both up years ago. As a mother, she faces the daunting task of trying to motivate lazy sixteen-year-old Friday who is resisting his destiny of joining the ChronoGuard. In the fictional world she meets with frustration and opposition from her own fictional counterparts in the badly written Thursday Next series. And in both worlds, she has to fight a movement to eliminate the classics and turn them into reality book shows where the readers get to vote off characters and decide where the plot will go. The ending is definitely left open for another book, so we'll have to wait and see where Fforde takes it next.

Overall, this was the most fun I've had reading a series in a long time. Fforde seems to know just how much he can use his jokes before they start to get stale, and moves on to something fresh and interesting before we get tired of them. I admire an author who can take his cleverness to new heights with each book, and Fforde succeeds in that. Also, it seems like usually sequels incorporate more sex, violence, and bad language than the original, but this wasn't the case with the Thursday Next sequels. In fact, if anything the language was less strong than the first and that is a great selling point to me. One thing the sequels lacked was a really strong villain. Acheron Hades was a great villain in the The Eyre Affair, but there's no one of his caliber in the other books. I think that makes them suffer a bit as mysteries (which is where they are catalogued), but they are still so fun to read that if you can get over that you'll still enjoy them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

An author to watch

It's pretty rare that I get to read a book before it's published, but I got that opportunity recently. Mark Foster is a doctor and an old college friend of mine who just wrote his first book and now it's online for anybody to read. To endorse Mark's writing, I'll divulge the top-secret information that we used to play in a band together. He wrote the songs and played guitar, we had some other buddies who played instruments and I played the violin. Yeah, we were pretty cool. Okay, so we were kinda dorky but what wasn't dorky was Mark's songs. He wrote the most beautiful lyrics, more like poetry set to music. Well, except for The Wookie Song. That one was just silly, but we had a good time.

I think Mark has enormous potential, but he has had trouble finding an agent to represent him due to the fact that his book doesn't have enough sex in it. He's taking the unique approach of putting his book in its entirety online for anyone to read and comment on. In my opinion, Mark deserves a shot at having an editor take a look and see what comes of it. Plus, I think he needs to write some more books so if you all read it and tell him what you think it'll push him in that direction.

Go read the book and Mark's bio here. He includes links to some of his short stories as well. You can also follow a link to his brother's website, enormously talented musician and songwriter Jeff Foster. Lots of good stuff on that there website. I don't want to tell you too much about the book so you can have fresh eyes when you read it, but I will say it's a medical drama. Go check it out while it's free for the reading and tell him what you think.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Meeting Linda Ashman

The Bookies is a bookstore in Denver that I don't often frequent due to the fact that I love The Tattered Cover so much and The Bookies is in a part of town I don't find myself in very often. I do get their newsletter, mostly for curiosity's sake and to know when they do their amazing sidewalk sales. When the September newsletter came and it said that Linda Ashman, children's book author who I've raved about in the past, would be signing books there on a day when I was also going to be within a few miles of the store, I couldn't pass it up.

We arrived ten minutes early for the signing, but Linda Ashman was already there, ready and waiting to sign some children's books. My mother-in-law gave each of my youngest three daughters a book of hers for their birthdays this year, so we brought those along to get them signed. Some of my girls were more timid than the others, but Ashman was so cute with each of them. My six-year-old had questions about being an author and they chatted a bit about ideas and where they come from. Ashman had a copy of the preliminary sketches the illustrator did for her new book, Creaky Old House, which I found fascinating. She and I talked a bit about writing and the publishing process and she was delightful and interesting.

Ashman's husband and son were there too and my husband and I chatted with Jackson, her son, about his favorite books and his interests. Jackson blogs about his favorite books and I was totally impressed that this eleven-year-old could express himself in writing so well. My poor kids will now have extra pressure from their mom to do more writing. I thought it was sweet that her family would be there to support her while she did signings.

The whole encounter was such fun and now we have a copy of Creaky Old House, which is just as charming as her other books. My only regret is that I didn't buy Come to the Castle as well, but there's always next time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

These Is My Words

Nancy E. Turner's These is My Words is the captivating story of Sarah Agnes Prine, a young woman living in the Arizona Territories in the late 1800's. It is told as a diary that begins when 17-year-old Sarah moves with her family to Texas. Along the way they are attacked by Indians, their horses and livelihood are stolen, and they face other horrors -- including a brutal attack on Sarah's friends that only ends when young Sarah shoots and kills the two men (the first killings of many in her rough life on the frontier). Shortly after arriving at their destination, Sarah's father dies and they decide to return to the Arizona Territories. This time they travel with a large wagon company accompanied by soldiers and led by a Captain Jack Elliot (whom she is equally fascinated and repulsed by because of weird prejudices that don't make sense but you can only hope she'll get over them since he seems to be a pretty neat guy).

Sarah's mother sinks into a deep depression and can barely function, so Sarah assumes a role of leadership and control over her little surviving family. She is fiery and has a strong backbone, with a maturity and fearlessness beyond her years. But she is also full of insecurities with hopes and dreams just like any other young woman her age, and it is easy to love her and admire her and be swept up in her story. She longs to be educated but never had the opportunity beyond learning to barely read, so she reads whatever she can get her hands on and over time her spelling and grammar improve. (I've heard some readers complain that her spelling and grammar are a barrier in trying to get into the story, but I wouldn't know because I listened to the audio version. Which was fantastic, by the way: Valerie Leonard did a great job bringing the narrative to life.)

Once they arrive back in the territories, she helps her brother and his wife get settled near Tuscon and then marries a family friend who has started a large horse ranch nearby. Soon she finds that marriage isn't quite what she'd hoped it would be, but the untimely death of her husband spares her the years of misery that would otherwise have come. Not that she much likes her new role of young widow with a baby to protect and a large ranch to run by herself, and there are plenty of scary and stressful moments. But there are wonderful people who come into her life, including the kind and dashing Captain Elliot whose nobility and cleverness and kindness makes him an immediate favorite -- with the reader, that is. Sarah spurns his attentions, having been soured on men after her first husband turned out to be such a jerk. But eventually he breaks through her defenses and there are some very sweet and romantic moments as their love blossoms in spite of herself.

Eventually they marry and begin the kind of marriage and family life that she had always dreamed of. It is full of the hardship and sorrow that you would expect, but also many sweet and funny moments and through it all their deep and abiding love shines through and they have a happy life together. And over the years Sarah grows into a strong and refined woman; shaped through a life full of love, sorrow, heartache, and joy.

This was Turner's first novel, but I understand that she's written more about Sarah since, so I'm anxious to get a hold of them. It was pretty long, but full of action and detail that brought the world to life and made me long to see the Arizona Territories from 100 years ago. (And if you know how I feel about Arizona, that's saying something!) So while the diary style has never been my favorite, I never got bored, and in fact kept trying to find chores to do so I could keep listening. It was full of interesting characters that made me laugh and cry right along with them, and gave me a fresh appreciation for the strong women like Sarah who helped shape this country behind the scenes. Some of the material is definitely for a mature audience, so be forewarned that it's not exactly Little House on the Prairie. But if you are in the mood for a great story and fascinating characters, this one gets a hearty recommendation!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A birthday shout-out

Caren's birthday is this month and in honor of that, I'm going to tell a story on her. About a million years ago when she and I were newly married to our husbands, the whole family went on a camping trip up in the mountains. That night as we all sat around the fire, Caren said she would tell us a story. Now, as a preface, I have no idea how I managed to get that far in life without ever having read The Sneetches and other stories by Dr. Seuss, but I hadn't. When Caren recited What Was I Scared Of? from memory, in the dark, in the woods, I don't know if I've ever been more scared. She terrified me with that story and the ending took me by such shock that the whole night is seared in my memory.

Every time I read What Was I Scared Of? to my kids, I try to make it just as surprising and suspenseful as I heard it for the first time so long ago. The shock has since worn off for them, but I still love to pretend like it's the first time they've ever heard it. It's the perfect spooky story and the ending always feels absolutely right. It remains one of my favorite stories of all time. Happy birthday, Caren, and thanks for scaring the bejeepers out of me and impressing me with your memorization skills!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

This is the conversation I have imagined between author Seth Grahame-Smith and his buddy on the concept of writing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Seth: What is up with women and Pride and Prejudice? They drool all over themselves when anything to do with that book comes up.
Buddy: Dude, I know.
Seth: You know what would make that book appealing to men? Zombies. Lots of 'em. And make the Bennett sisters kick-butt warriors in the battle against the zombie infestation of England. That would be hot!
Buddy: Dude! Awesome!

And so he wrote the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: with ultraviolent zombie mayhem. Believe me, there is plenty of zombie mayhem. Grahame-Smith said in an interview I read online that the book is 85% Austen and 15% Grahame-Smith. I can believe that. The added parts are obvious and the essential story remains the same. The difference is that England is troubled by a constant zombie problem that has no near resolution and the Bennett sisters have been trained by their father and a Chinese martial arts master to battle against the unmentionables. So you know, pretty much the same.

Grahame-Smith's concept works, if you can buy the idea of adding zombies. You can picture Elizabeth Bennett doing martial arts and Catherine de Bourgh being the country's most formidable female warrior against the unmentionables. The book is funny at times, especially anything to do with Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. It definitely feels like it was written for a male audience (who Grahame-Smith has said he wrote the book for), but who is actually going to read this book? Most likely women. I mean, it's still Pride and Prejudice and it still has the language of an Austen book and the love story is the same. If I'm right and it's mostly women who will read it, there are far too many jokes about the male anatomy and people vomiting and beating hearts being ripped out of chests to appeal to a female audience. In fact, there are only about three jokes that are recycled throughout the book. Maybe that would work better in a movie, but it's glaringly repetitive in the book.

Speaking of a movie, I also read online that the book would possibly become a movie in the future. If so, it will most likely be the first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to get an R rating. 'Cause there's lots of gore. Oodles. I can imagine that will be when the men turn out in droves. That's not saying that all men love gore or that women are incapable of enjoying zombie flicks, but I don't think I'm wrong by saying it's slanted towards one gender. And that's fine too. But I doubt their Mr. Darcy will hold a candle to Colin Firth or Matthew MacFayden. I'm just sayin'.