Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"And be a Villain" by Rex Stout

It wasn't until I was about half through that I realized I'd read And be a Villain once before.  It seemed a bit familiar, but a lot of Nero Wolfe books seem familiar because I've seen the TV show versions of a bunch of them, and I can't always remember just which books they used for the show.  But nope, I'd read this one a few years ago.  Fortunately, a Nero Wolfe mystery is always worth re-reading!

And be a Villain concerns the murder of a guest on a radio talk show, right when the show was airing live.  It's people with Stout's usual vibrant guest characters, and as always, Wolfe is brilliant, Archie is quippy, Inspector Cramer is cranky, and I have absolutely no idea who the murderer is until Wolfe does his big reveal.  

Whenever I want a quick pick-me-up, a Nero Wolfe mystery is a sure thing, and I don't need Archie to give me odds on it to know I'll enjoy it.

Particularly Good Bits:  On such occasions he always insisted that a red wine and a chilled white wine must be among those present.  Usually they had no takers, but this time there were two, Miss Koppel and Traub, who went for the Montrachet; and, being strongly in favor of the way its taste insists on sneaking all over the inside of your head, I helped out with it.

"Archie doesn't like him, and I have learned that it is always quite possible that anyone he doesn't like may be a murderer."

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate it:  PG because it contains some swearing and revolves around murder, but nothing is graphic.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen (again)

I'd planned to reread Pride and Prejudice this year to celebrate its 200th anniversary, but I expected to do it in a few months, since I just reread it last June.  But while visiting my parents earlier this month, I discovered that my dad had purchased an amazing, leather-bound copy, and I couldn't help but read it.  And take a bunch of pictures of it, just for fun.

I discovered an advantage to rereading it so soon after my last time through:  instead of being completely swept up in the story, I was able to look at it with more of a writer's eye and notice some of the amazing things Jane Austen does in this book.  I'm only going to mention a few, as obviously you could spend an entire college semester studying Pride and Prejudice, and I don't have that much space here.  Or time.

The first thing I noticed was the magnificent way Austen wrote Darcy's first scene, that infamous dance where he snubs Lizzy.  I've always thought he was unpardonable there, not just to her, but to the whole assembly.  But Austen actually wrote his words so that they mean one thing to him, but appear to mean something else, especially the first time you read them.  Once you know the character, you can understand better what he means here.

Bingley tells Darcy to dance, and Darcy replies, "I certainly shall not.  You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner.  At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable.  Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with" (Chapter 3).

It seems like he is saying that no one at the assembly is good enough to dance with him, doesn't it?  But when you know that Darcy has trouble making small talk with strangers, you can read this very differently.  It would be insupportable, not because the people are beneath him, but because he would be so miserable trying to be someone he is not, and that is why it would be a punishment to him to dance with anyone but Bingley's sisters.

(Of course, then Bingley suggests Darcy dance with Elizabeth, and here Dancy does come off as very rude -- he says she's not handsome enough to tempt him, meaning tempt him to be sociable with a stranger when it's not his nature to be so.  Which is a put-down, no question about it -- I can't excuse Darcy here.)

Another thing I noticed was how Austen absolutely tells us that Charlotte Lucas is willing to marry for comfort rather than love, and yet we are still as surprised as Lizzy when Charlotte accepts Mr. Collins.  She tells Lizzy early on that she thinks "Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.  if the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least.  They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life" (Chapter 6).  After a pronouncement like that, should we be surprised that Charlotte accepts Mr. Collins?  And yet, we are, because Mr. Collins is so very ridiculous that we share Lizzy's belief that he's too silly for anyone to be happy with.  Charlotte goes into her marriage very deliberately, however, and seems to be as happy as she expects to be -- not living in the felicity we imagine for Bingley and Jane or Darcy and Elizabeth, but quite sanguine nonetheless.

Finally, I was struck by part of Mr. Bennet's argument for Lizzy to refuse Darcy's offer of marriage.  He says, "My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life.  You know not what you are about" (Chapter 59).  I found that so sweet, that he is trying to prevent his daughter from having a marriage like his -- he is acknowledging his mistake in marrying a woman so unlike himself, and trying to get Lizzy to learn from it.  I feel very sorry for Mr. Bennet right there, more than I do anywhere else in the book, and I think it's the best window we have into his character, this moment of truthfulness about what his life is like.  Two little sentences, but Austen uses them to convey so much.

I shall close with just one more quotation, my choice of a Particularly Good Bit from this reading:

"Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure" (Chapter 58).

Not always the wisest course, but certainly one that would keep a person from wallowing in bitterness, and I like the way it's phrased.

This is my second entry into the "Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge" over on

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate it:  PG.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Garment of Shadows" by Laurie R. King

When Garment of Shadows opens, Mary Russell wakes up alone in a strange room, wearing strange clothes (okay, unfamiliar — she has a habit of wearing “strange” clothes, you know), and with no idea how she got there. Or who she is.
I will admit here and now that I am a fan of amnesia stories. I love Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. And While You Were Sleeping is one of my favorite movies. I will also admit that a lot of books involving amnesia are trite, overwrought, and cliched. It is my opinion that Ms. King has avoided all those pitfalls.
Anyone who has read a book or two (or ten) in this series knows that Mary Russell is not a woman who is easily discombobulated. So when her inability to recall her identity or past sends her reeling, it has a similarly disorienting effect on readers as well. I whipped through this book at all possible speed, nearly as anxious as Russell herself for her memory to return. And I think my favorite aspect of this book was watching Sherlock Holmes watch his wife reconnect herself, puzzling piece by puzzling piece.
I’m having a hard time figuring out a way to describe this book’s plot in ways that don’t spoil it completely, so let me just say that it involves French colonists, two dear friends of the Russell-Holmeses, and a lot of middle-eastern political intrigue. The ending surprised me with a very unforeseen plot twist that had me rereading a few paragraphs and saying, “What?! Really!?! No!!!” in a way that warranted every bit of that seemingly superfluous punctuation I just used.
All in all, a very satisfying addition to this series, and one that returns it to a more serious tone after the recent, lighter-hearted jaunt that was Pirate King.
(Originally posted on Novel Book Ratings on Nov. 27, 2012.)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Literary Heroine Blog Party -- 2013

Click here to attend the party and enter the fabulous giveaway!

1. Introduce yourself! Divulge your life's vision, likes, dislikes, aspirations, or something completely random! 

Hi, I'm Hamlette, I'm 32, I have 3 kids (ages 1, nearly 3, and 5), and this is my first time attending the Literary Heroine Blog Party!  I'm currently homeschooling my kids and writing my sixth novel.  I love books, movies, and history.

2. What, to you, forms the essence of a true heroine? 

A heroine should know what she likes and does not like, and be willing to stand up for what she believes.  But she also needs to be able to change and learn from her experiences, not just either run away or refuse to budge.  And she needs to be supportive of her significant other -- not pushing him to be or do what she wants, but encouraging him in whatever way she can.

3. Share (up to) four heroines of literature that you most admire and relate to. 

Only four?!?!?  And only heroines.  Hmm.  Okay.  Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  Anne Shirley from the Anne of Green Gables books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  Mary Russell from the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books by Laurie R. King.  Jo March from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Incidentally, my first daughter's middle name is Anne, and my second daughter's middle name is Jane, named after my two favorite literary heroines.

4. Five of your favorite historical novels? 

If by "historical novel" you mean novels set in a time other than the present day, then they are:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas,  Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

5. Out of those five books who is your favorite main character and why? 

Jane Eyre.  She's intelligent, wise, and stubborn.

6. Out of those five books who is your favorite secondary character and why? 

Sherlock Holmes in The Beekeeper's Apprentice.  He's also intelligent, wise, and stubborn.

7. If you were to plan out your dream vacation, where would you travel to -- and what would you plan to do there? 

If that means I have to limit myself to one place, I would go to Alaska and see the Northern Lights.  I've dreamed of going there and seeing those ever since the first time I watched the John Wayne movie North to Alaska (1960) as a child.

8. What is your favorite time period and culture to read about? 

The WWII era.

9. You have been invited to perform at the local charity concert. Singing, comedy, recitation - what is your act comprised of? 

Singing "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything" while wearing a pirate costume.

10. If you were to attend a party where each guest was to portray a heroine of literature, who would you select to represent? 

Anne of Green Gables.  I look good with red hair.

11. What are your sentiments on the subject of chocolate? 

The darker, the better.  And the more, the merrier!

12. Favorite author(s)? 

Raymond Chandler, Thor Heyerdahl, Laurie R. King, Jasper Fforde, Alexandre Dumas, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Robert Ludlum, J. K. Rowling -- there, that's ten, I'll stop.

13. Besides essentials, what would you take on a visiting voyage to a foreign land? 

A camera, a journal, a blank notebook, and lots of pens.

14. In which century were most of the books you read written? 


15. In your opinion, the ultimate hero in literature is… 

Robin Hood.

16. Describe your ideal dwelling place. 

The house we live in right now, Tir Asleen.  Only less messy.

17. Sum up your fashion style in a short sentence. 

If it's not comfortable, I won't wear it.

18. Have you ever wanted to change a character’s name? 

A character in another person's book?  I don't think so.  A character in something I'm writing?  Absolutely.  But they don't always acquiesce.

19. In your opinion, the most dastardly villain of all literature is... 

Wow.  That's a toughie!  I'll go with Sauron from The Lord of the Rings -- he has no redeeming qualities.

20. Three favorite Non-fiction books? 

Other than the Bible?  Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.

21. Your duties met for the day, how would you choose to spend a carefree summer afternoon? 

Writing, writing, writing!  With an iced coffee and a candle for companions, and no interruptions.  Bliss.

22. Create a verbal sketch of your dream hat - in such a way as will best portray your true character. 

A well-worn, comfortable cowboy hat.  Dark brown, with a leather band.  Not too broad, not too high.

23. Share the most significant event(s) that have marked your life in the past year. 

My husband and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary last June!  And my brother, his wife, and their baby moved nearby, which has been such great fun.  Other than that, this past year was blessedly uneventful.

24. Share the Bible passage(s) that have been most inspiring to you recently.

"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you." (John 14:27a)  That's been very important to me for almost two years now.

Monday, February 11, 2013

"The Princess Bride" by William Goldman

This is my first reread of The Princess Bride in over a decade.  I read it twice back when I was in college, and I have seen the movie dozens of times, of course.  In fact, until a college friend gave me the book for Christmas, I wasn't even aware there was a book!  Much less such a fun one.  Goldman  also wrote the screenplay for the movie, as well as for other movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  

The great thing about this book, to me, is the off-beat humor.  If you've seen the movie, you know what I mean.  Nearly all the best lines in it come straight from the book, like "I'm not a witch, I'm your wife!" and "No -- to the pain!" and "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father -- prepare to die."  And, of course, the incomparable "Inconceivable!"  If I started listing all the particularly good bits in this book, I would basically just be doing a good parts version of the book, chapter by chapter.  Amazing stuff.

About the idea of the "good parts version."  Goldman's conceit is that he is condensing a book by a guy named S. Morgenstern, cutting out the boring parts so we don't have to wade through page after page of Florinese history.  But he totally made up the whole book, don't be confused by him the way I was the first time I read it and went around trying to find a copy of the Morgenstern original.  It's a hilarious way to frame a story, totally unique and awesome.

If you have been living on an iceberg for the past 30 years or so and do not know the story line, here it is, briefly:

Buttercup is the most beautiful woman in the world.  She loves Westley, a poor farm boy.  He leaves to seek his fortune in America, but the ship he is on is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never leaves survivors.  Buttercup's grief consumes her, but eventually she agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck, warning him she will never love him.  Then she gets kidnapped by a giant named Fezzik, a wizard of a swordsman named Inigo Montoya, and a midget genius named Vizzini, and that's when the fun really begins.

I said I couldn't quote all the Particularly Good Bits here, but I will post one, my favorite this time through:

" is many things, none of them logical."

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate it:  PG-13 for violence and some strong language.

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Vanished" by Irene Hannon

I really liked this book quite well for the first 257 pages.  And then, on page 258, the main character decided to do something so brainless that I lost all respect for her, and felt we could never be friends.  It wasn't something wrong, just stupid, but I actually set the novel aside for a day or so because I was so disgusted.  I'll get back to that in a minute.

Vanished is about a newspaper reporter, Moira Harrison, who gets lost while driving in a thunderstorm, hits a pedestrian, and then the pedestrian vanishes very mysteriously.  Moira hires private investigators to find out what happened, and finds herself very attracted to one of the investigators.

I did like several things about this book.  I liked how naturally the characters' faith was integrated into their lives -- no one came off as preachy or artificial.  The plot was intriguing.  And the characters were, on the whole, likable and believable.  The dialog was fine, except for the occasional tendency to weasel background information into a conversation that might have been better left to the narrator.  

But then the author drained Moira Harrison of all intelligence and common sense and sent her barreling into obvious danger.  And I'm afraid I found that to be all-too-convenient, a way of furthering the plot that was totally out of synch with the character's previous behavior.  I started feeling like I was reading one of Kathy Reichs' early books, where the protagonist blithely waltzes into danger with both eyes deliberately closed.  And I realized that I really don't like stupid characters, especially when they're intelligent most of the time, but then do something glaringly nonsensical.  Sure, I understand that putting your protagonist in danger is an important part of a suspenseful story.  But plenty of writers, like Raymond Chandler and Robert Ludlum and Laurie R. King, manage to let their characters get in deep trouble without making them do something obviously dumb.

So anyway, perfectly acceptable book, but not one I'll read again. 

If This was a Movie it Would be Rated: PG-13 for scenes of suspense and violence.  No bad language, no risque scenes!