Sunday, 26 February 2012

Hallowe'en Party - Agatha Christie

To go with a week when I had less time to devote to reading I handily decided to read a slightly shorter book.  We have a selection of Agatha Christie's Poirot books which I have been working my way through.  Hallowe'en Party is the final one of the slightly random set.

In case there is anybody that doesn't already know this, the Poirot books are murder mysteries based on the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.  This particular book is based in a small village and the events that occur at, funnily enough, a Halloween party.  A girl boasts about having witnessed a murder and then later becomes a victim herself.  The noted detective novelist Mrs Oliver heard the boasting and decides to call in Poirot.

Mrs Oliver is a very amusing character who it would seem is a tongue-in-cheek representation of Agatha Christie herself.  She carries with her the great belief that all crime fiction fans develop, that murder is like in the books and a black-and-white matter.  Between the books I have read and the TV shows I watch I fall into this category myself sometimes.  But the only mysteries I consistently fail to even vaguely guess the answer to are the Agatha Christie ones.

I enjoyed reading Hallowe'en Party and seeing how the story developed.  The plot has many different pieces, most of which refer to seemingly unconnected events.  This makes things quite complicated but somehow not too difficult to follow, although I did get some of the women muddled up a few times!

Overall I found it quite nice to read something a bit lighter after a 750ish page fantasy book.  Not sure I should really be describing a murder book as 'light' but never mind.  Think I'm trying to say that it was an easy read and not too heavy going.  Now that I've finished all the Poirot books that we own I suppose I'll have to head to the library or buy some more, because I'm definitely not leaving it there.  They're just far too interesting to do that.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Hero of Ages - Brandon Sanderson

It took me a little over a week to read The Hero of Ages and then another 4 days before I've sat down to write about it.  Even now I'm struggling to write anything.  I'm not entirely sure why that is, but it is at least partly down to how big the story was in terms of detail and plot.

The Hero of Ages is the final book in the Mistborn trilogy and starts a year on from where The Well of Ascension finishes.  The story is split over several locations, generally switching between each city at the end of a chapter.  Sometimes this was a little frustrating as I wanted to keep reading about a particular place, but it meant that the stories ran in roughly the right time and gave more perspective on events.  It did make me confused occasionally though, as I kept forgetting the names of the cities and had to rely on which characters were there to work it all out.

I really enjoyed the storyline, which is saying a lot as this book has one of my least favourite 'types' of ending.  But it was done so well and it felt so right that it very much added to my experience of the book rather than spoiling it.  The way that everything from the three books came together made for a very interesting read, and it wasn't just the big storylines from the earlier books that made a difference.

One thing that I always appreciate in books and films is when a seemingly innocuous comment or event turns out to have great significance.  The Hero of Ages has a plot of its own, but many events and discoveries actually serve the purpose of explaining earlier events, or helping you to view them from a different perspective.  Combining the explanations with the off-hand mentions makes for very powerful narrative.  At one stage I actually commented to my husband that I really enjoyed the random little comments that were being made about something.  Somehow he managed not to react, as a few chapters later it turned out not to be such a random comment after all.

As with the earlier books, each chapter starts with a segment from a book written in the Final Empire, this time written by the Hero of Ages.  The segments serve to sum up events that have happened and fill in the gaps in acquired knowledge.  I actually want to re-read the chapter starters now that I know what happens so that I can really appreciate the careful selection of words.

I couldn't really say what my favourite part of the book was.  The character chemistry was again really good, and seeing how they all dealt with stress in different ways was interesting.  And of course I loved the way that everything was important.  I think that there are probably small parts of individual elements that I would say I wasn't so keen on, but everything fits together so well to form a clever and engaging story that I couldn't rate one thing higher than another.

It's very rare that I leave a fantasy world behind satisfied about loose ends having been tied up and the way in which it was done, but it has happened here.  I hope to read the books again some time so that I can fully appreciate the way that the characters and plots develop.  Of course with the current length of my 'to read' list it there might not be an opening for a while.  Some books are just worth making the effort for though.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Iron Hand of Mars - Lindsey Davis

I started this blog to encourage me to spend more time reading and to put more effort into 'getting into' books.  I think that with The Iron Hand of Mars I may have just achieved this.

The first time I started reading this book was a fair while ago - I think it was last year but I'm not certain of that.  I think I read the first 30 pages 3 times and then on my last-but-one attempt made it to around page 70.  And yet this was the book that swept me up.  I started reading it on Sunday evening (admittedly skipping the first 30 pages that I basically know off by heart) and didn't want to put it down to go to sleep.  My lunch break on Monday was full of reading and I then spent almost the entire evening in the same way, thankfully finishing not too long after I had planned to go to sleep.

So after that great build up, what is the actual book?  The Iron Hand of Mars is the fourth book in the series about an investigator called Marcus Didius Falco, who lives in Rome.. in the year AD 71.  This particular story starts in Rome but travels across the empire to the hostile borders in Germany.  Helpfully a map is provided at the start of the book so you can easily translate the Roman names for areas into modern day countries.  A guide to characters is also provided at the start.  I find it more fun to read this afterwards as it reminds me of things that have happened in the book, but I'm sure it's a useful reference point if you spend more than two days reading it and forget who people are.

The plot revolves around an 'errand' for the Emperor and the dangers that Falco faces in trying to complete it.  As much as I enjoyed the story, that isn't what got me hooked/obsessed.  The world in which the plot is set take part of the credit for that.  I feel that I know very little about the Romans (other than the small trivia pieces you learn at school) and so I can't vouch for historical accuracy or inaccuracy, but this definitely feels real.  The little touches are put in about how the society operates and the references to historical events all go towards making a very believable setting.

But more believable than the world in which they are set are the characters themselves.  In a setting so famous as Roman times it would be very easy to fall into the trap of pigeon-holed, stereotypical, shallow characters.  These people are anything but that.  On the surface Falco seems to be entirely self-centred and carry no moral values.  Digging deeper though he sometimes cares a bit too much about other people and even the fate of the Empire.

The role of Camillus Justinus in the story was particularly engaging, a young soldier moving quickly through the ranks and trying to find out for himself what the boundaries should be.  And then there is his sister Helena Justinus, perhaps the most real character of them all.  She is strong-willed and sharp-witted, but somehow mild and caring at the same time.

Even better than the characters themselves are the relationships and conversations between them.  More than once while I was reading I burst out laughing at a quip that one of them had made (much to my husband's annoyance).  I've said before that good chemistry can make a book for me, and this was certainly the case here.

You may be wondering, with all that I've praised the book for, why I found it so hard to get started.  I think that it was a burn-out.  Previously I have tried to read the next book in the series as soon as I've finished one, and in each case I've stuttered at the start.  It's hard when you have fully immersed yourself in a world to step back and start from scratch.  So this time I will switch to a different book first before heading back to enjoy the world of Falco and Helena.

If you haven't encountered the series I would really recommend giving it a try.  The Silver Pigs is mostly a scene-setter for getting to know the characters, you should read Shadows in Bronze as well before judging if you like it or not.  In my opinion it is definitely worth it.

To finish, I feel I should mention that I know have a strong desire to go out and buy a good quality pottery serving dish.  It's amazing what a book can do to you.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Hogfather - Terry Pratchett

And now for something completely different!  I have slowly but surely been working my way through the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett for a while now, and this is where I'm up to.

Like all books in the series, Hogfather is set in the fantasy Discworld and doesn't take itself too seriously.  As is immediately obvious from the front cover, the main subject of parody in this book is Father Christmas and Christmas in general.  The main characters to be featured are Susan and Death, while many other Ankh-Morpork regulars such as the Wizards and the Watch also make appearances.

Susan is one of my favourite characters, because she has a constant battle between the 'family business' and trying to lead a 'normal' life.  The different perspectives she and her grandfather have on the world make for some interesting and amusing conversations.

The story focuses around Hogswatch and the problems it would cause if the Hogfather were to, er, 'disappear' on a permanent basis.  In the process it manages to poke fun at almost every part of the commercial side of Christmas, from the over-eating to the shops cashing in.  Bogeymen and Tooth Fairies get a lot of page-time too.

Did I enjoy it?  Yes of course.  I haven't yet read a Discworld book that I haven't enjoyed.  Several people remarked as I was reading the book that it was one of the better ones in the series.  Although it's not my favourite so far I really liked the concept of the story and the way it was played out.  And as I mentioned before, I love the chemistry between the characters.

The Discworld books are written such that you could pick up any of them to start reading, but you definitely get more out of the references made if you've read the earlier books.  In this case, knowing Susan's back story would be a big help to avoid confusion!

If you want some light-hearted relief, and enjoy looking at things in a different way, then I would absolutely recommend reading this book.