Sunday, February 1, 2015

Currently Reading: Dark Heavens Trilogy

image by Alejandro esCamilla via unsplash

So school started again (yikes!) and was generally a bit of a shock to the system.

But one good thing: access to the school library again. AND... a whole lot of brand sparkly never before read books.

Including (drumroll!) the last two books in Kylie Chan's Dark Heavens Trilogy. I read White Tiger last year. It was sufficiently intruiging for me to be excited when I saw the new ones had arrived. And then I absorbed both Red Phoenix and Blue Dragon in one weekend.

I don't usually speculate much about authors' private lives. But as I read these novels - in which the heroine is an Australian living in Hong Kong - I got the feeling that the author may have been an Australian, well, living in Hong Kong. And having checked out Kylie Chan's biographical notes, I find that I was right. Which is always cool. Besides which, it just tells you how chatty and "real" the background to these novels really is. Kylie also shares some other biographical details with her heroine, but I will leave those for you to find out. No spoilers!

Other than that, the covers (I feel) say it all: Immortals, Martial Arts, Gods and Demons. Yep, sounds good.

So the heroine, Emma Donahoe, wins a prize for having a cool surname and also being one of the few heroines of regular girl appearance, i.e. not looking like a super-model. She starts working as a live in nanny for Simone, the daughter of a wealthy and mysterious Chinese "businessman". Simone also has a well dressed black American bodyguard called Leo and a lot of wealthy and mysterious "aunts" and "uncles" who appear and disappear at irregular intervals, bringing mysterious danger in their wake. Hah, like this "cover" is going to last long!

She finds out (obviously) that she is entirely surrounded by immortals, Martial Arts, gods and demons. Told you the covers were relevant. And she also finds out that even though she looks like a regular young woman, her insides are far more... complicated. And awesomely kick-a#$.

But of course the demons are out to get her, Simone, John, Leo and everyone else in their fledgling family. And of course there is a lot of romance lying in wait around the mysterious corners of Hong Kong's illustrious streets.

The prose reads super simply, to the extent that it was almost jarring for the first fifty or so pages. But the wealth of detail pulled through, and left me utterly absorbed in the story world. A massive cast of characters can be difficult to keep track of, but since I read most of the trilogy in one weekend it wasn't too problematic. And the characters are so very colourful that I think you'd remember them even over a longer period.

This is an idealized romantic adventure. Don't expect gritty realism. But do expect a lot of fun and not too much emotional trauma, even in the dark scenes. Which is a win from my point of view. It is also refreshing to experience a fantasy world steeped in non-Western tradition. Just for a change.

The only thing I found disappointing was the ending, which is not an ending. Come on, Mrs Chan! Just give us closure and move on! But I find that there are a further two trilogies using the same character set-up. 

This happens to be a pet hate of mine: I would rather discover a new world, new characters and new problems. But since Dark Heavens was so much fun, I might be persuaded to give the new trilogies the benefit of the doubt. Just this once.

yours martially 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Currently Reading - Evil Under the Sun

image by Alejandro esCamilla via unsplash

I am a massive Agatha Christie fan. I own most if not all of her 80 something detective novels, mostly brought second hand for R10 or R20, somewhat the worse for wear. Well, actually it might be a bit unfair to single Agatha out - I basically love all of the classic murder mystery writers, with all their attendant bits and pieces. Murder mystery birthday party? Tick. Avid murder mystery series watcher? Tick. And look at that time I wrote a murder mystery novel inspired by (among others) Dame Aggie...

So although this one is another re-read, it also represents probably about 6-8 comforting bath and bed re-reads over the holiday period. Fair enough?

Evil Under the Sun, by Agatha Christie, was published in 1941. The battered Pan edition I read came out in 1963 and is graced with the following subtitle: "Hercule Poirot on holiday - with a strangler as a fellow guest". Also draped tastefully across the front cover are a pair of scissors, a broken pipe, a button, some green cardboard (or is it seaweed?) and some sea sand and pebbles. This of course follows the comforting and slightly coy habit in detective novels from a certain era of portraying a selection of "clues" on the cover, rather than a luridly tasteless corpse. Very charming, very mannered. Very misleading as well, if you fall into the trap of assuming that those depicted are the most important and least fishy of the myriad clues provided!

(I am laughing in the picture because of the antics of the photographer, not the contents of the novel!)

Anyway, this isn't one of Agatha Christie's most well known works, but it is a classic of its kind. Fluffy as a summer pudding, with absolutely no mention of the war which must have been dominating everyone's thoughts and efforts at the time of publication, you can see why it met with a largely positive reception when it came out. Although I don't think it's one of her absolute best, there is never a moment of doubt: you are in the hands of a master.

It takes place in a fancy seaside hotel, which is located - conveniently - on an kind of large promontory, which gets completely cut off from the mainland at high tide. Even a master needs some way of limiting the pool of suspects. That being said, she does cheat a little by introducing suspects in sailing boats and a whole *gasp* drug element (you'll see). Tsk, Agatha, tsk tsk. However, the main thrust of the novel remains classical, so don't worry.

The story revolves around Arlene Stuart/Marshall, that lovely but man-mad actress, at the Jolly Roger Hotel on holiday with her husband Kenneth Marshall and stepdaughter Linda. They meet Rosamund Darnley, Kenneth's childhood friend. They also, apparently by accident, find Patrick and Christine Redfern as fellow guests.

Unfortunately for someone, Hercules Poirot is also a guest at the Jolly Roger. He watches the progress of Patrick's infatuation over Arlena with grave apprehension, and agrees with nervous Reverend Lane: "don't you feel it in the air? All around you? The presence of Evil."

The novel is sprinkled with the usual cast of characters. Mrs Brewster, the mannish spinster. Major Barry, the boring teller of endless campaign stories. Mr and Mrs Gardeners, the pleasant Americans. Mr Blatt, the annoyingly jolly sailor. There are enough twists and turns to satisfy the most ardent red-herring hunter. Details of timing, mirror placement, bath water running out, the scents in a hidden cave... all the little touches which make a mystery so satisfactory and absorbing.

And no-one - least of all the discerning reader - is surprised when Arlena is found... murdered!

The novel is beautifully structured, with the first clues appearing - only in retrospect of course - from the very first chapter. A few dodgy moves, perhaps, in introducing new information very near the end, but generally the rule of "hide nothing" is observed. Hercules Poirot is on form, and the long denouement is comforting. As always, justice is fulfilled.

This one is definitely re-readable, even if you remember the plot. It will, unsurprisingly, go onto my Agatha Christie rotation for holidays and times when things get tough.

yours sleuthingly