Sunday, February 23, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”

Set at Styles Court, an Essex country manor, this is Agatha Christie’s first published novel, and introduces the one and only Hercule Poirot. (Interestingly enough, the saga of Poirot comes full circle, as Styles is also the setting of “Curtain”, Poirot’s last case).

My entire childhood consisted primarily of reading, and while I am terribly fond of many writers and their works, growing up, I went through three phases in particular - Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse; I mean I read (and re-read) everything that these authors ever wrote.

In this first ever creation by Christie, I recently re-visited that brilliant unfolding of mystery/crime writing that very few people can even attempt to imitate. Wealthy widow Emily Cavendish marries a much younger man, Alfred Inglethorp, whom everybody in the family immediately dismisses as a fortune hunter; a suspicion which appears to be justly based, when she is killed by strychnine poisoning. Enter Poirot, who meticulously (of course!) goes through all visible clues and invisible events to recreate the fateful day.

As far as the characters go, I have to say, I really liked how everyone is so believable, so tangible. It not only adds a lot to the reading experience when you empathize with a person so completely, the final denouement also comes as a greater shock when someone you were with all along, is revealed to be a killer.

The best part of this story - as with all of Christie’s storytelling - was that we are privy to all the clues all along, just like everyone in the story. Nothing is ever a secret, closely-guarded till the grand reveal - no, we are always given equal opportunity along with the characters themselves, to work it all out. And that is truly brilliant - to show all your cards right from the start, and still pull the rug from under the reader’s feet.

The final revelation came as quite a shock … I did suspect the person at one point; then again, other than Poirot and Hastings, at regular intervals I suspected everyone, so I guess that’s really not saying much.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Before the Poison”

You know those books you read, where, when you are going to sleep at night, you cannot wait to wake up, so that you can continue reading again? Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison, the story of Grace Fox, who was hanged for poisoning her husband Dr. Ernest Fox, was one of those books for me!

Taking a break from his hectic Hollywood life, Chris Lowndes returns to his native Yorkshire to his newly purchased Kilnsgate House. What his enthusiastic real estate agent omitted to tell him about this ancient house with a history, becomes an obsession with Chris, and takes him on a journey to uncover the truth of what happened nearly 60 years before.

The narrative, which interspersed the events of 1953 and the subsequent “Famous Trials” series by Sir Charles Hamilton Morley with the current events set in late 2010-early 2011, made for a very interesting read.

Of course I have to comment on the setting - always a huge factor for me. I absolutely loved the fact that we travelled back and forth such locales as beautiful rural English countryside and fascinating French cafes!

As far as characters go, with the exception of Heather (who got on my nerves from quite early on in the story) I liked everyone. As Chris Lowndes delves deeper into a decades-old story and - through his interviews with such people as Wilf Pelham, the neighbour, Sam Porter, the lover and Louise King, the granddaughter - brings Grace Fox back to life, I grew to like, admire, and really feel for the absent heroine of this story. The rebellious child who got thrown into adult life - not just a life with its mundane obligations of family life, but as a Queen Alexandra’s nurse, as revealed in her wartime journals of Dunkirk, Singapore and Normandy - had so much to live for, yet so much to live through.

More than a mystery, this story was a crime / drama. As I later realized, this was not so much about the actual murder, rather it was the story of what happened before the poison. Matron’s final address before the Sisters went back to civilian life was so poignant, and such a pointed precursor of things to come.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Madame Bovary”

“When she knelt on her Gothic prie-Dieu, she addressed to the Lord the same suave words that she had murmured formerly to her lover in the outpourings of adultery”. For me, this sentence quite summed up the heroine of Gustave Flaubert’s story of Emma Bovary, the woman who tried to live out all facets of her life based on a romance novel. It speaks volumes that upon her return from riding with Rodolphe Boulanger, with whom she goes on to have her first extra-marital affair, the first thing she does is “recall the heroines of the books she had read”.

As far as the character of Madame Bovary goes, I have to say, I was neither very interested nor very impressed. To be very honest, I think at some point I felt that had this been an adulterous woman who wielded some power or sway over her various conquests, it would have made for a better story. Because Madame Bovary is so given to weeping and wilting over relations that do not even have the remotest justification to begin with, I was getting a bit tired of her dramatics. While I could certainly see the effect of a clash between romance novels and harsh reality on a young and sheltered mind, I could not get behind the very desperate and servile affectations she brought into every relationship.

That said I still could not stop reading this book for the sheer power of its rich narrative. Through the romanticized eyes of a disillusioned woman, we travel back to beginning-mid 19th century France, and experience rural French life, with all its regular people and their mundane jobs and their harmless gossiping and harmful plotting … and that, for me, is what makes ‘Madame Bovary’ (I read the translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling) such an unforgettable reading experience.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “A Dirty Job”

This is this author’s 3rd book I am reading in as many months … Christopher Moore must be doing something right! “Beta-male” Charlie Asher is a second-hand store owner by day, and a death merchant by night. How he quite accidentally came upon that second job, and how he subsequently managed to live through the extreme dangers that come with such a job, form the unique story of A Dirty Job.

The best part about this story is its capacity of being a strange tale, primarily morbid or even grotesque in its theme, yet remaining funny in its telling at all times. Death merchants, soul collection, sewer harpies, squirrels in ball gowns, and even hell hounds come together in this tale that still manages to make me laugh.

As far as characters go, I really liked every one of them. Minty Fresh, the first death merchant that Charlie meets, and who sticks by him - sometimes against his wishes! - to the very end; Jane Asher, Charlie’s gay sister, who is honest to the point of rudeness, yet will do anything to keep her family safe; Lily, the goth teenager, one of Charlie’s employees and the only one who knows Charlie’s secret; and of course, Mrs. Ling and Mrs. Korjev, the women who alternately take care of Sophie, and from whom the little girl comes to learn that either “the White Man is a Devil” or “our hearts are full of sorrow”.

If there was one thing that I did not like as much, it was the silliness surrounding The Morrigan. Babd, Macha and Nemain are denizens of the underworld, and built as a formidable enemy; their evil powers constantly held as a threat to all of humanity, should souls not be protected as scheduled. Yet, most of the time we see them quarrelling over petty matters, or - worse - indulging in cheap sexual fantasies. Moore could have left this one section free of all comedy.

Barring that one small issue, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to my next.