Honoring the artists

The birthdays of two of my favorite authors are side-by-side and I simply can't pass them by without mentioning the great artists: Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery; born November 29, 1832 and November 30, 1874 respectively, both these authors are the main reason I began reading and basically shaped my future reading choices.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was an American author. She wrote many books the most famous of which was Little Women. The first book of hers which I read was An Old Fashioned Girl. Simply put, I loved it. I was 14 when I first read it, and the romance between Polly and Tom was heart-rending for me. Now, re-reading it, I still enjoy it. The characters are all slightly idealistic, and Louisa Alcott often preaches and moralizes in her novels, but the softness and warmth with which she does it touches your heart. The world may be one that never existed, but you feel like it should be cherished nevertheless.

When I read an author I like, I become bent on a mission to read all the books they ever wrote. Well, with Louisa May Alcott I pursued that mission and read many of her books (including the Little Women series that has 4 novels). She also published under the name A. M. Bernard, books such A Long Fatal Love Chase, which I still have to read. Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom are my favorite books by Louisa May Alcott.

As her birthday is coming up I decided to finish The Portable Louisa May Alcott that I had started quite a while ago. It contains some of her short stories, some novellas and parts of her other novels and plays. Moods is contained in full in the book with changes made from the text that was first published. This version is the unedited original version which Louisa May Alcott had intended to be published. My next post will be a review on the book.

Now anybody that follows my blog or me on Twitter should know that I am huge L. M. Montgomery fan; practically a fanatic. Up to date, only one book of hers remains unread by me (A Tangled Web) and some of her short stories. Some day, I hope to have a collection of all of her books.


The first book I read was the famous Anne of Green Gables, but skipping that experience I want to go straight on ahead to when I read Emily of New Moon and its sequels. I can't tell you how much reading those books meant to me. I've re-read them more times then I can count; the first book has become worn and is falling apart, but I can never part with it. As I've already written about L. M. Montgomery numerous times, and have reviewed some of her best books, I won't begin again here (you can see all my posts on the author HERE and the writer's page for more information).

The two authors have obvious differences.  For one, Lucy Montgomery wrote mostly children's literature whereas Louisa Alcott dabbled more in young adult. Yet, in my opinion, the styles of both were somewhat similar. They both had this idealistic vision of life, a reality in which good was dominant and all the characters see the beauty in life. To strive towards being 'good' is the focus point of both artists and something most of their characters eventually achieve.

Louisa May Alcott, it is true, showed the temptations in life more, and the battle which some characters faced (hence her novels are more young adult). She was also more religious in her novels than Montgomery. Montgomery on the other hand never actually showed the bad side of human nature, and even her tragedies were beautified with a sort of light (the death of Judy Plum in Pat of Silver Bush is sad, but not depressing). Louisa May Alcott showed tragedy, and made us feel it along with the character (Beth's death in Good Wives, and some of the scenes in Moods are extremely heart-rending). Both great writers.

Nemesis

Rating: ***
When Miss Marple's old acquaintance, Mr. Rafiel, dies she is never more surprised in her life when she gets a letter from his lawyers with a proposition for her. She is to undertake a task for Mr. Rafiel, without any clues as to what that task is; if she completes this task, she will gain twenty thousand pounds. Miss Marple intrigued, agrees somewhat doubtfully and immediately she is taken on a journey where little by little, the clues fall into place and she comes closer to solving the mystery.

This mystery was slightly disturbing to read. Agatha Christie treats the cases of rape and assault in a way I found appalling sometimes. The case of crimes committed by delinquents and  mentally unstable people is a major factor in this novel and lends an eerie and depressing atmosphere to the whole book. Basically, I felt the whole case along with the motive was too disquieting to read. One expects emotions such as hate, jealousy, lust, greed and revenge as being the cause of murder, but when it's love, it makes it much more darker. I don't know, perhaps I'm the only one who felt this way, but the novel left me sad.

Agatha Christie wrote quite a bit about the mentally unstable and referred a lot to the psychological theories new in her time. Many of her novels dealt with mental abnormalities and with dysfunctional relationships. She never shied away from discussing things such as sex and unwanted pregnancies (although she mostly blamed the girls or how girls didn't have proper mothers to look after them anymore!). This novel is one of the queerer ones and actually, the plot has some similarities with Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple's final case.

Mentions of known characters in this novel include Mr. Rafiel, who appears alongside Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery, Raymond and Joan, Miss Marple's nephew and his wife, and Sir Henry Clithering, an old acquaintance of Miss Marple.  Cherry Baker, Miss Marple's helper, also appears in this novel.

Some Miss Marple

At Bertram's Hotel, and A Pocket Full of Rye; two mysteries starring Miss Marple:

 "Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?"

These words are the secret behind Miss Marple's ability of solving murders; human nature is the same everywhere and she is adept at recognizing it for what it is. Like all of the author's famous amateur detectives, Miss Marple often finds herself in the middle of a murder. In A Pocket Full of Rye it is through her maid Gladys that she becomes connected with the poisoning of Rex Fortescue, an old business man who had recently married a young and beautiful wife. The whole drama centers around the family. In At Bertram's Hotel, Miss Marple is again confronted with crime when she comes to holiday at Bertram's Hotel - the last place you could imagine murder to happen.

Rating: ****
I don't really enjoy a Miss Marple mystery, but A Pocket Full of Rye was different. I was left saddened by the outcome in more ways than one. The identity of the murderer, his (I say his for convenience) method of committing the crime, his heartlessness and the cruelty of fate, all moved me to tears. I felt so much for all the characters - Gladys, the unattractive, eager maid always hoping for romance; Pat Fortescue, the awkwardly attractive and charming wife of Lance Fortescue who has faced a lot of misfortune in life; and the plain daughter, Elaine Fortescue - they were drawn with such care that I felt like I knew them. Agatha Christie is so good with those little details in a character that you sometimes exclaim "Exactly! That's exactly how it is! How does she KNOW?!"

It was an unresolved ending which made the book so much better. The crime is solved, but we are left to wonder over the fate of some characters, and the harshness of the reality of others. I'm being very cryptic, but I don't want to give anything away - a murder mystery loses so much when you know what happens.

Rating: ***
As for At Bertram's Hotel, what attracted me was the atmosphere of Bertram's Hotel. I can see why the hotel would be so popular among Americans and all who want to experience Britain as it was! I myself felt tempted to hop in a plane and book a room at the hotel......any experience of that kind would be awesome. Miss Marple comes to Bertram's Hotel to relive some memories of her own long forgotten past; but in her heart, she knows that the past is something best left behind. Although all Agatha Christie's books turn out to be murder mysteries, the murder in this book comes quite late in the novel and isn't the big draw of the plot. What is played up the most is Bertram's Hotel itself and its old world charm. We also have a huge thieving racket going on in the background which somehow or other leads back to Bertram's Hotel.

Kidnapped

It shows how clueless I am, and how much the My Blind Date with a Book feature will help me, when I don't even know that Robert Louis Stevenson is actually the author of Treasure Island! Of course, I know the book (haven't read it) and have seen the movie, but I didn't know who had written it, so that when I picked up Kidnapped by Robert Stevenson, I had no idea who the author was. So, you see, this new feature is already working at exapanding my knowledge!

Kidnapped follows the adventures of young David Balfour across the Highlands of Scotland. It involves some historical facts and figures, including a controversial murder case; by chance "Davie" finds himself caught up in the mystery.


Starting off, I didn't enjoy the novel; but eventually, it caught my interest and I found the reading light and easy. The novel was in the first person with David himself telling us his story. As a young boy of 17, he unexpectedly finds himself the heir to an estate. Unfortunately, his greedy uncle manages to get rid of him and from here begin David's adventures. Tossed in the high seas, shipwrecked and later running for his life across the Highlands with his new friend Alan Breck, David Balfour experiences more life in one year than he did in all his other seventeen.

What made the story for me was the friendship between Alan Breck and David Balfour. It was portrayed so naturally, with all its ups and downs and actually caused me to laugh quite a bit. The youth and emotions of David Balfour as he continues his journey were drawn realistically; he seemed like the 17 year old boy that he was, coping with the situation he found himself in.

Set in the Highlands, the whole atmosphere of the book has a mystical quality to it, with stories of fairies and superstitions a natural part of it; the people in the Highlands have a feel for their land - almost as if they were one with it. I love stories about the Highlands, and the bravery and loyalty shown by its people is often read about.

I enjoyed the book, and might even pick up a second adventure novel by Robert Stevenson. On the whole, I would rate this (see HERE for my ratings) number 3: First date was OK. Second may or may not happen. Having rated it, I still have to say that I'm not sure if the Adventure Novel is a genre I like. To find out, I'll have to read other books by different authors. Recommendations anyone??

My Blind Date with a Book

Hey everybody!

I'm starting this new feature on my blog through which I will discover and read books that are outside my comfort zone. My idea is to pick books at random from the bookstore; authors I don't know, titles that are not familiar and most importantly: without reading the summary at the back. Hopefully, I will discover new authors I like, and get my hands on some contemporary literature. In My Blind Date with a Book feature, I will rate the books according to the following, listed from my worst to best experience with each new author:

1. Hated it. No second date possible;
2. Shouldn't judge by first impressions. Giving it a second chance;
3. First date was OK. Second may or may not happen;
4. Enjoyed it. Second will probably happen;
5. Looks like the development of a serious new relationship;
6. Serious, stalker mode. Will look for all books by author.


By doing this, I hope to expand my reading to more authors as well as different genres, maybe even picking up some foreign books! I am so excited to get started :).

Bookshop goodies



I've gone to the old bookshop again.......... and bought loads and loads of books. Well, only as much as my budget allowed, but I finally decided to buy some contemporary literature (OK, it's only ONE book).

First off, I've constantly read about Haruki Murakami and his great books on my twitter feed. I was so excited when I spotted one of his books at the old bookshop, and instantly bought it! It's the only one I've found so far: The Elephant Vanishes.

Next up is my first pick for the "My Blind Date with a Book" post I'm starting. I saw Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (I don't know the author) lying on a bookshelf and without reading the back cover, I decided to give it a try.

Then, since I'm trying to become politically more aware (you'd be surprised how little I know about the political climate of the world :$), I picked up a book by the political thinker Noam Chomsky. It's a bit different from my normal reads, but I've read his theories on language and since I'm expanding my range in reading, why not? The book is a series of "Conversation on US Power in a Changing World" called What We Say Goes.

Finally, there are just a few Agatha Christie re-reads I picked up for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Carnival, and a new Georgette Heyer book, A Civil Contract.

Frankenstein

Gothic and horror, everything I thought I didn't like. Apparently, I do - in small doses. Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, and The Woman in White all have one thing in common: making the unrealistic credible.

Frankenstein tells the story of Dr. Frankenstein and the nameless creature to which he gives life. The vilest of all beings, it has only one purpose: revenge on its creator. The novel deals with the concept of the limits of knowledge; what Man can accomplish is not necessarily what he should accomplish; Or as is more popularly said, some things are for God alone.

The style of the novel is in the form of a long letter, with the writer giving the story in Dr. Frankenstein's own words. The writing is crisp and direct with the narrator never deviating from his recital. Dr. Frankenstein tells his story to his new found friend, Walton, whom he meets at the extremities of the north pole. Freezing and half dead, Dr. Frankenstein, in the manner of the Ancient Mariner, tells his tale to those who are going down the same path he did: the obsession to make a great scientific discovery that will change history forever, and in the process forgetting all else.

The book has a lot of different influences. One of these is from Milton's Paradise Lost. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the author's husband, also had an impact on the story with many actually citing his reaction to their child (who later died) as the inspiration behind the creature. Shelley also suggested many changes in the text and adds many of the poetry extracts. But the continued reference to Milton's Paradise Lost was the biggest influence, with Frankenstein's creation (who never actually has a name besides 'wretch' or 'fiend') actually identifying himself with Satan. Born as Dr. Frankenstein's Adam, he is much closer to the fallen angel, desiring revenge from his creator - except that he is alone in his fallen state.

Having created a horror, Dr. Frankenstein not only must live with the consequences of his creation's actions, but he must deal with an even more pressing problem - should he create another creature as a companion to this monster? On the one hand he is responsible to it, but on the other, he is responsible for what this creation might do to humanity. His dealing with this issue was intriguing because both arguments - to create another or not to create - were reasonable.

It have to admit I was a little saddened when I read the story on the Turkish merchant and his daughter. Consider the following text from Frankenstein,

She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion (Christianity) and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Muhammad.

It shows how far back such ideas of Islam go and how uninformed people were then, and still are about what exactly Islam does teach.

Evil Under the Sun

Rating: **
Murder seems to follow Hercule Poirot wherever he goes. Vacationing at the Jolly Roger on Leathercombe Bay, the private detective instinctively feels the presence of evil - a sense of impending doom. Most of the guests center on Arlena Stuart, actress and seductress of men, as the cause of all the tension. Later, when she is found strangled, not many mourn her death.

This is not one of my favorite mysteries by the Queen of Crime. It lacked both drama, and a suitable plot twist. But one thing that I learned on re-reading this novel was the author's methodology. She uses mainly two devices which either help or deter us in solving the crime. First are the various hints which are supposed to lead us to the murderer and are therefore significant. You learn to look out for any seemingly unnecessary stories about characters, or some prolonged conversation which is intended to show us some hidden mystery; but side-by-side to this, we have misleading hints that seem significant, but some part of the information is withheld so that we jump to the wrong conclusion! She, as always, remains superb at misleading, but we eventually realize that the clues were always there to find.

Agatha Christie's characters are never successfully portrayed on television. This is because they are not fully developed, round characters. She has a tendency to stereotype and that is where I think the difficulty arises. Agatha Christie normally categorizes her characters into various types. But people are more than just types, we have to look at them from so many angles and even then we only manage to catch a glimpse. This book had a lot of her normal characterization, for example, we have the typical American couple with the talkative wife and the compliant husband (the same type of talkative American is portrayed in Murder on the Orient Express), we have the quiet, inexpressive Englishman who shows no emotion over the death of his wife, and finally, the nice, slightly pretty wife who has 'brains', a college education and hence no sex appeal!

Nevertheless, some of her characters are unique and fun to read about - I liked the depiction of Arlena Stuart as a man-crazy woman, who was actually to be pitied (read and find out about the reality of her personalty!), and of Rosamund Darnley, a successful business woman, who feels the lack of a husband and children.

Colonel Weston appears in this novel, an old friend of Poirot's, he had previously appeared in the novel Peril at End House. Mrs. Gardiner also mentions one of Poirot's previous cases Death on the Nile. I love the whole illusion of a separate world that Agatha creates with her reappearing characters, and references to old cases.

The Three Musketeers

D'Artagnan, a young Gascon youth, sets out from his village with the hope of joining the regiment of the King's Musketeers. As soon as he arrives in Paris he gets into trouble, first entangling himself in one, then two and finally three duels, all in one day! And with men from the very regiment of Musketeers he had hoped to join! But his adventures don't stop there; before long, he becomes involved with the affairs of the Queen, Anne of Austria, herself and must enlist the help of his fellow Musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Together, the four friends journey through France escaping from the nets of the Cardinal and his dangerous spy, Milady, while all the time fighting duels at the slightest provocation.


I love the summary given at the back of the Wordsworth edition. It describes the book perfectly,

"One of the most celebrated and popular historical romances ever written. The Three Musketeers tells the story of the early adventures of the young Gascon gentleman. D'Artagnan, and his three friends from the regiment of the King's Musketeers - Athos, Porthos and Aramis.


Under the watchful eye of their patron M. de Treville, the four defend the honor of the regiment against the guards of the Cardinal Richelieu, and the honor of the queen against the machinations of the Cardinal himself as the power struggles of seventeenth-century France are vividly played out in the background.


But their most dangerous encounter is with the Cardinal's spy, Milady, one of literature's most memorable female villains, and Alexandre Dumas employs all his fast-paced narrative skills to bring this enthralling novel to a breathtakingly gripping and dramatic conclusion."

The characterization in this novel - especially of Milady and Athos - was so good that I actually wanted to meet the characters! The movie on The Three Musketeers does not do justice to either character. Milady reaches depths of evil and horror which aren't shown in the film. All we see is an ambitious young woman who despite what she does, loved someone once and wasn't truly evil. But in the novel, the description of Milady and the suppressed animal within, how she is able to ensnare anyone while putting on an act, her ability to sense every weakness in man - all are so wonderfully drawn. As for Athos, he is shown as the true nobleman that he is, and his quiet way of handling even the most alarming of situations makes him particularly attractive while at the same time remaining mysteriously charming. Though not the hero of the novel, he is the most important character and the leader of the Musketeers; Keith Wren, in his introduction to The Three Musketeers sums it up when he writes,

"For Dumas - and for us - it is the three musketeers - Athos, Porthos, Aramis - who represent the fantasy of eternal youth, a refusal to compromise with the greyness of the modern world, the glorification of the undying spirit of adventure."

I keep forgetting that The Three Musketeers is historical fiction. The Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII and Queen Anne were actual historical figures, as was the Duke of Buckingham and his murderer, Felton. Alexandre Dumas has fashioned a unique story with these real live characters. It was rumored that the Duke was in love with the Queen of France (this is also mentioned in The King's General), and in this novel the flirtation was embellished, with Queen Anne and the Duke having many secret meetings. The various love triangles in this novel make for a lot of intrigues, a lot of duels, and most of all, a lot of jealousy!

The Moving Finger

Rating: ****
Jerry Burton, a pilot, and his sister Joanna move to the small village of Lymstock. The visit, which is to last some months, is undertaken for Jerry's health. Recovering from a severe back injury, a result of his plane crash, he is advised by his doctor to take a break from stress and enjoy the relaxations of a small gossiping community. But Lymstock is hardly the place for a recovery when a few days after their move, the siblings receive a malicious anonymous letter; the letters have been going around the village for some time.

I loved the ironic humor with which Jerry and Joanna carried out their conversations. The inhabitants of Lymstock are gentle, simple people, and the humor with which Jerry and Joanna receive their comments made me laugh!

It's the letters, sir. Wicked letters - indecent, too, using such words and all. Worse than I've ever seen in the Bible, even.' says Mrs. Baker

Passing over an interesting side-line here, I said desperately.......

The ironic comedy ends the moment that the first anonymous letter hits home - a suicide occurs and all of a sudden the letters have taken on a more serious aspect. The first half of the book is occupied with finding out the identity of the letter-writer and in that search we become acquainted with an interesting assortment of characters. I especially liked Megan Hunter, Mrs. Symmington's unwanted daughter, who had trouble fitting in and finding herself. She seems an awkward, overgrown child and the make-over scene is something to look forward to!

When the murder does come, it doesn't hold center stage interest for me. Not because it wasn't well written, but because I was more interested in the developing relations of Jerry and Joanna with the people in the village and how they settled in with life in a small village. I was also surprised to find Miss Marple coming in at the end to solve the crime. I had practically forgotten that she was in this novel because of the small role she plays. I would have liked it better if Jerry Burton had been the one to solve it (which he comes close to doing).

Mrs. Dane Calthrop also appears in this novel. I don't know why, but her character always intrigues me. See my Agatha Christie page to read more on her and her husband.

The Mysterious Mr. Quin

A collection of short stories featuring the connoisseur of art and drama Mr. Satterthwaite and his friend, the mysterious Mr. Quin.

Rating: *****
Life has passed Mr. Satterthwaite by, something he regrets every day. But being just an observer has given him a certain skill - the skill to feel when a human drama is at hand. His experience has enabled him to sense the tension in the air, the unique commingling of events that forebodes some crisis. In all these short stories, Mr. Satterthwaite enters at the important moment. But although he can see it, it is the appearance of Mr. Quin that focuses his judgement. Adroitely yet subtly, Mr. Quin just comes and goes; he has the magical touch of drawing out what we all know - the facts - and guides those present, in each of these stories, towards solving the mystery.

A unique collection of detective stories. We never know who Mr. Quin is. An enigma, perhaps the hand of fate, or the spokesman of the dead, the role he plays is crucial. While reading, I eagerly waited for his appearance, for his guiding hand, and his effect on Mr. Satterthwaite. Besides being the force behind his friend, he was also the force driving us to read on. The stories are mysterious, intoxicating and eerily interesting. Mr. Quin permeates throughout the novel.

Description of Mr. Satterthwaite in The Coming of Mr Quin, the opening short story,

Mr Satterthwaite was sixty-two - a little bent, dried-up man with a peering face oddly elflike, and an intense and inordinate interest in other people's lives. All his life, so to speak, he had sat in the front row of the stalls watching various dramas of human nature unfold before him. His role had always been that of the onlooker. Only now, with old age holding him in its clutch, he found himself increasingly critical of the drama submitted to him. He demanded something a little out of the common.

There was no doubt he had a flair for these things. He knew instinctively when the elements of drama were at hand. Like a war horse, he sniffed the scent.

and Mr Quin,

This was Mr Quin's doing. It was he who was staging the play - was giving the actors their cues. He was at the heart of the mystery, pulling the strings, making the puppets work. He knew everything...

Besides the mysterious main character, I love this book for the various insights Agatha shows into characters through Mr. Satterthwaite. He has the gift of reading character and I find the medley of human being in her novels rather interesting.

I finished this book so fast because I couldn't put it down and on the other hand, I wanted to savour each and every case, every word so I often went back to re-read a page. Torn between two opposites, I sat up until after midnight finishing the book!