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

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Currently Reading: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

image by Alejandro esCamilla via unsplash

I read a lot of books. Seriously, a lot. The school librarian allows me to take out as many as I can carry each week (teacher perks!). Kids give me funny looks when they see the weekend pile on my desk.

Now before you think I'm bragging, very few of the books I read are brainy books. Their authors probably didn't win any Nobel prizes. I've studied literature. Literature is okay. What I love is a rattling good story. One that I am eager to pick up and unwilling to put down.

But one of the things I realised, looking back on 2014, is that I can't actually remember all the books I've read. Some made a big impact, but I can't quite remember the name. Others had catchy titles but were boring on the inside. And I'd quite like to be able to look back and see some of them. Maybe even reread one or two.

So, here on Daydreaming, I am going to try keep an (incomplete) record of some of what I read, love and hate.

The first one is a bit of a cheat, because I actually read it for work (as you can see by all the sticky notes below: can anyone say #bookselfie?). However...

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is one of those books which you read really quickly and then get stuck thinking about for the next few months. I read it first a few years ago, loved it, and recently revisited it when we decided to do it as a setwork with our grade 9s this year. It made a big splash when it first came out, and won lots of awards and things.

In the novel Mark Haddon has lovingly portrayed Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15 year old boy with a difference. Well, lots of differences really, some of which (like not eating anything brown or yellow, or really really not liking anyone to touch him) make it quite difficult for him to manage in ordinary society. But he likes animals - probably since their emotions are much easier to understand - which leads him onto his great Odyssey: solving the murder of Wellington the dog.

As numerous people have said, all over the internet, this is not a book about disability, but about difference. This is not just good publicity. It's true. Christopher's adventures might seem trivial when I just tell you about them (in one episode he succeeds, with enormous difficulty, in buying a train ticket), but from his point of view they are nothing short of heroic. I identify with that. Some mornings, it seems heroic to get out of bed. And if you have an aversion to people touching you, why shouldn't conquering the tube station be utterly valiant?

However, The Curious Incident isn't just a serious book. Although it is deeply sad at times (investigating Wellington's death leads Christopher to make all sorts of tragic discoveries), it is also profoundly funny. And not in the "one liner" way that makes you laugh and then forget about it. It is funny in a way which makes you laugh at yourself, at the weird things that we do so often that we forget they're weird. Christopher is one of the best "innocent" narrators I've ever read. He reports incidents with a deadpan, often uncomprehending exactitude, revealing absurdity after absurdity in modern life, some of which we are forced to recognize in spite of the fact that he doesn't understand them at all.

Also, I think Ed Boone is one of the most outstandingly realistic good fathers portrayed in fiction ever.

By the way, Christopher is happens to be extremely intelligent, in the mathsy-sciencey sense. How can a Maths teacher not love a novel with a mathematical proof in the appendix?

Okay, so I enjoyed this book. Perhaps too sad to get onto my "read every year" shelf, but one of those novels which you come out of... slightly different than you were before.

yours literately.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Reflections 2015

photo by Dominik Martin via unsplash

The year ahead is a teacup waiting to be filled. Adventures are brewing, though we're not entirely sure what flavour they will be yet...

Some of the aromas of the year can be predicted. Others - well, we'll just have to wait and see.

yours reflectively