Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mark of the Lion [Review]

Title: Mark of the Lion

Suzanne Arruda (official web site)

Copyright: 2006, New American Library, New York (Paperback, ISBN: 0451219589)

Genre: Mystery

Length: 338 pages

Summary: Jade del Cameron, a female ambulance driver in World War I, promises her beloved, as he dies in her arms, that she will find the brother she didn't know he had. The quest takes her first to London and then to British East Africa where she rapidly becomes involved with multiple murders. Del Cameron is not untouched by her experiences in the trenches of the war, but as the daughter of a rancher in the American Southwest, she is also competent in the outdoors as well as an excellent shot and well-suited to the hardships of life in Nairobi. The first two thirds of the book are a slow buildup but the safari in the final third provides the real adventure and color.

The writing itself is fairly standard in terms of style and I didn't pick up on any particular themes or intent by the author to draw parallels of any special sort. Perhaps some level of recognition of the racism of the period and place, as Jade herself is considered to be of mixed heritage.

Extract: Hours later a high pitched shriek of terror roused the camp. Jade jumped up with the instantaneous readiness that came from long experience , heightened by her dream. She snatched up her rifle and undid the tent flap, leaving Madeleine to turn up the lantern. Then she raced towards the screams, oblivious to the ache in her left knee. Avery emerged bare chested, pulling the suspenders over his shoulders as Jade ran past his tent. Excited voices, some nearly hysterical, guided her to the porters' quarters where men waved blazing firebrands in the pitch blackness.

Also Relevant: I must admit that I am torn by this novel. While not the author's first published title (she has extensive experience in writing for children), it is her first adult novel and her first mystery. Naturally, as a debut novel in a series, the author spends time introducing us to the characters who may people future novels in the series. The pacing of the tale didn't bother me so much as the witchcraft element (or what others have called the paranormal aspects of the book). Arruda explains in an afterword that the premise of the book is based somewhat on a short story by Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, but that's hardly justification. In the same afterword, she confesses that Jade is an amalgam of Beryl Markham and Osa Johnson, both female adventurers of the period. The chief triangle of tension in the book exists between Jade, the witch and a dashing older man who pursues Jade romantically. (Don't worry -- that romance is played very low key in the book).

I did like its unexpectedness in terms of plot and I did like the character of Jade. But reading the novel was very similar to watching an old Hollywood flick about Africa -- something vaguely like Mogambo or King Solomon's Mines. I wouldn't object to reading other installments in the series (at present, Stalking Ivory and The Serpent's Daughter). I just hope the other installments avoid the kind of 'woo-woo' aspect.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Collector's Edition

I got home last night, following three days of acting as ringmaster for the Annual Conference, and my husband pointed to my reading chair and said, "A book came for you". "It did?" was my befuddled response, trying to think what I might have ordered when I still had to finish Mark of the Lion for my library book group's discussion in two days. I opened up the plastic and bubble wrapped package to discover a beautiful collector's edition of Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford.

This volume had a red cover with a black box on the spine with the book's title in gold. It was safely ensconced inside a slipcase of bright contrasting blue. I coo-ed over the thing and sighed happily. It is both a good book and a lovely one, a joy to read. The bookseller had been entirely accurate in describing its condition. I was a lucky woman. Had I the energy, I would have done one of those goalpost happy dances that football players do after a touchdown.

Back when I was eleven and reading Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl, I had come across the sentence. "How does the new book come on?" asked Polly, sucking her orange in public with a composure which would have scandalized the good ladies of "Cranford." It took me years to discover that it was a literary allusion to this book which I could only find published in the form of an Oxford Classic paperback. I had chortled enough over it to know that I wanted it in hardcover (since those last longer) but I couldn't find one until I learned that at some point the Folio Society had sponsored a collector's edition. Real-life distractions kept me from tracking one down until recently. With the attention given recently to the BBC dramatisation with Judy Dench (and which will be shown in the States in May), I wanted to re-read the original. Don't you know, Alibris serendipitously had a few listed and I picked the best of the lot. Beautiful and with an Introduction written by Susan Hill.

If you are unfamiliar with Cranford, it is a series of loosely connected episodic tales of an English town primarily largely populated by women. It is a small community of middle-aged and elderly women who react to change, usually with some trepidation. They adhere to the idea that there are set and proper ways of conducting daily tasks and that one is poorly served by disruption of the tidy patterns of life, reflective of English attitudes in the transition between agrarian and industrial eras. Miss Mattie and Miss Deborah welcome a young single relative, Mary Smith, into their home and it is through Mary's gentle observation that we see the nature of this society. Cranford is both humorous about and forgiving of the narrowness of the small village, illuminating the emotional bond in the community. A modern literary analogy might be the town of Mitford, created by Jan Karon. Mitford is the home of exiles (retirees, the truly elderly, foster children, etc.) from our own fast-paced society and Cranford seems to me to be something of a precursor to that community. It too has that sense of superfluous citizens being set aside or apart.

More on this later. I do still need to finish the book for tomorrow night's book discussion. Meanwhile, Sharon at ExLibris, Melanie at Indextrious Reader, and Tara at Books and Cooks also have read and blogged about the book/dramatisation recently.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Working The Conference

My quote for those who may check this page while I'm off working this year's Annual Conference is the following:

Armageddon never comes when you could really use it.

-- Mindy Glazer

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My Poor Deprived Children

I must have been a bad mom because I never realized that my sons needed one of these. I feel sure that this is what will prevent their achieving their full potential in life. Boys, will you ever forgive me?

According to this Engadget entry, it takes six D cell batteries to make it sing.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What I'm Reading Right Now

I have been reading Ross King's The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade The Gave The World Impressionism. King focuses on three personalities (Messonier, Manet, and the Emperor Louis-Napoleon) in constructing the story of a cultural shift that we take for granted. Messonier was an artist, an entirely successful artist of his time, who focused on precision and exact realism in his work. Manet was not yet well known or even particularly well-regarded for the most part. In 1863, his most important contributions were still before him.The emperor wielded power without any particular competence but did seem to understand the powerful relationship in French society between politics and culture when applied to art. Each represents a particular worldview; the jostling of the three for position and the reaction of the wider public to the works on view drove a change in the nineteenth century that fostered modern art. None of this is news, I am sure, but it provides material for interesting reflection.

King writes of the larger landscape of artistic thought as well as the ordinary anecdotes of life that illustrate the individual characters of the various players. There was a common expectation that works of art would depict morally uplifting tales of history or classical literature rather than the ordinary life of peasants or urban dwellers. Manet and a coterie of others turned to their own time period for new subjects. King captures the excitement and energy of change through the historical events of the day that influenced the artistic works as well as the economic importance of the juried salons to the artists themselves.

I'm only about a third through the text. Some artists' names such as Ingres, Whistler, and Courbet are familiar to me. Others such as Cabanel and Fantin-Latour are less well-known. My chief problem, I believe, is that I need more uninterrupted blocks of time to make progress through this. I don't gain much from non-fiction in mere 20 minute intervals.

What Time of Day Am I? [Humor]

You are breakfasty, like a pile of pancakes on a Sunday morning that have just the right amount of syrup, so every bite is sweet perfection and not a soppy mess. You are a glass of orange juice that's cool, refreshing, and not overly pulpy. You are the time of day that's just right for turning the pages of a newspaper, flipping through channels, or clicking around online to get a sense of how the world changed during the night. You don't want to stumble sleepily through life, so you make a real effort to wake your brain up and get it thinking. You feel inspired to accomplish things (whether it's checking something off your to-do list or changing the world), but there's plenty of time for making things happen later in the day. First, pancakes.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Silent in the Sanctuary [Review]

Title: Silent in the Sanctuary

Author: Deanna Raybourn (her blog)

Copyright: 2008, Mira,Books, London UK

Genre: Mystery

Length: 560 pages

Summary: A sequel to Silent in the Grave, this book opens with Lady Julia Grey and her two brothers being called home from Italy by their father, to Bellmont Abbey, a former monastery. It is the holiday season and Lady Julia returns to find that a mixed party of family and friends have gathered together for Christmas. The family is in fine fettle but throughout the Christmas celebration, we have sightings of ghosts, stolen family jewels (is it a kleptomaniac aunt or gypsies as reputed?), secret passages, and several mismatched couples, one of which consists of Nicholas Brisbane and a Dresden doll of a fiancee. A snow storm isolates the Abbey, and the groundwork is laid for a classic style English country-house mystery. When a murder occurs, the Earl March is dependent upon the two of them, Julia and Nicholas, for a solution to the murder. Just as in the previous book, the pacing is good and the final third of the book is twisting and tangled. The entire story is told through Julia's viewpoint and she is delightfully fallible in some of her assumptions.

Extract: I seated myself and sighed. There are few greater pleasures in life than a devoted butler. I counted myself very fortunate to have secured the services of Acquinas. I had offered him an outrageous sum to leave his previous employer, an act that had stricken me from that particular hostess' guest lists for eternity. It was a small price to pay for such competence, I reminded myself as he served a generous portion of the delicious kedgeree.

While I ate, Acquinas busied himself at the sideboard. I had just popped the last piece of buttery toast into my mouth when I had a thought.

"Acquinas, did Uncle Fly and Mr. Snow spend the night, or did they return to Blessingstoke last night?"

Also Relevant: Mira Books is an imprint of Harlequin, best known as a publisher of romance novels. Before anyone sniffs in disdain, let me say that while Silent in the Sanctuary certainly has paragraphs redolent of a bodice-buster, Deanna Raybourn demonstrates a capacity for twisting a variety of plot threads into a surprisingly plausible (if not entirely realistic) mystery. She also delivers her tale with a certain flick of wittiness that many modern writers sacrifice in the interests of creating more realistic detectives. Certainly, Lady Julia is not the Victorian female equivalent of Sherlock Holmes in solving mysteries; she makes mistakes. She botches it now and again, even when trying to follow a phantom through the halls of her ancestral home. Even if she retrieves missing jewels through mishap rather than ratiocination, she is not incompetent and she is rather likeable. I would like her even more if she could quit breathing quite so heavily every time she's within a foot of Nicholas Brisbane, but as a fun, light read, one could do worse than this one.

JenClair did a brief review of Silent in the Grave here; numerous characters from that first book reappear in this one. I would imagine that they will reappear in the third book in the series, Silent in the Moor (due out in 2009)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Video - Frozen in Time

Isn't that amazing? I wish I had been there to see it.

Update: Because Mary asked in the comments for some background on how this was actually accomplished, I did a quick Google search and came up with the following two links from the sponsoring organization, Improv Everywhere:

Who they are and what they do
Background on this specific event Let me warn you that this page will load slowly because of the numerous photographs included on the page.