Saturday, 17 November 2012

Review: Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night

Dorothy L. Sayers

Hodder and Stoughton, 2003 (1935)

When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the "Gaudy," the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obsentities, burnt effigies and poison-pen letters -- including one that says, "Ask your boyfriend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup." Some of the notes threaten murder; all are perfectly ghastly; yet in spite of their scurrilous nature, all are perfectly worded. And Harriet finds herself ensnared in a nightmare of romance and terror, with only the tiniest shreds of clues to challenge her powers of detection, and those of her paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey.

I am reasonably rubbish at putting books down once I've started them - some strange compulsion towards completion, I guess - but this one quickly fell foul of being written by a highly-recommended author and yet failing to deliver in the first few chapters. Disappointment almost turned it into a DNF, but I decided to give it one more chance.

I'm glad I did, because Gaudy Night has a lot of elements that I enjoy: crime fiction, for a start, and set in the 1930s. Setting-wise, it also benefits from taking place at an Oxford college (fictional, but surrounded by those that exist in real life). Poison-pen crime set in academia is a bit niche, but it's a niche I wish was bigger.

So - why the almost-DNF? Gaudy Night opens with an introduction to Harriet Vane, one-time student of Shrewsbury College and now crime writer (there were, I feel, shades of Ariadne Oliver here). In the past, Harriet was saved from the death penalty after being accused of killing a man, her saviour being none other than Sayers' famous detective hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. Harriet is off to a school reunion weekend, which she is dreading. What follows is a wonderfully bitchy, minutely observed rendering of the reunion, right up to the point that Harriet discovers an anonymous note in the sleeve of her gown.

The writing and the detail were both brilliant, and yet I was frustrated with the lengthy musings and conversations, given the fact that I was expecting a crime novel. Whilst the reunion, with all its social etiquette and host of characters, was interesting, a lot of these characters never appear again. And even when Harriet does discover the anonymous letter, she doesn't do anything about it and simply throws it away. Instead, she goes home to London, where the book seemed to stall momentarily as it waited for the phonecall from Shrewsbury to report (gasp) a spate of poison pen letters - and would Harriet, with her experience of criminal procedure and her existing relationship to the college, be prepared to advise?

From here, the book began to improve. Harriet decamps to Shrewsbury, and the investigation begins. There are a lot of characters, mostly the female dons (Shrewsbury is a women's college), who were sometimes difficult to keep track of, plus a smattering of domestic staff, students, and men from a nearby college. The perpetrator begins by sending cruel notes, but this escalates into sabotage, vandalism and physical attack, as the staff begin to suspect each other, and tensions run high.

Harriet calls in Lord Peter to help, at which point the book descends into a sometimes-tedious subplot of Peter being in love with Harriet, and Harriet refusing his (numerous) proposals of marriage. There is a lot of musing on marriage in general in Gaudy Night, and a separation of the women along the lines of those who are married (and therefore removed from scholarly life and tied to a husband and children) and those who are not (thus, able to pursue their independence and scholarly interests). The book also discusses women's education and the continued opposition to its credibility during this period of time, and some of the men at Oxford are characterised as being opposed to women being awarded degrees. Part of the reason that Harriet, rather than the police, is called in relates to the desire not to besmirch the fragile public image of women's education with stories of the poison pen letters.

The action increases towards the end of the book, as you might expect, and various red herrings and possible suspects are thrown up (my guess ended up being quite wide of the mark!). This went some way to redeeming the novel after the slow start and the odd patches in the middle that didn't seem to move the story along particularly. (One lengthy chapter details Peter's visit to the campus, in which he engages various members of staff in dinner conversation in order to subtly evaluate their characters, yet his motives are obscured and the conversations as a result are pretty tedious.) I'm very glad I continued with Gaudy Night - the feminist musings and the academic backdrop were interesting, and once it got going the criminal element was solid. Yet I felt it could have been half the length and just as effective.

(In addition, the edition I read was absolutely riddled with spelling errors and punctuation that was either missing, wrong, or doubled. There were numerous instances of missing speechmarks, double commas, and a couple of times when "?" and "!" were transposed, turning exclamations into questions and vice versa. While this didn't affect the story, it was incredibly frustrating to read!)

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Exit Roth: "I have dedicated my life to the novel."

This weekend, it emerged that Philip Roth - probably my favourite author - is no longer writing novels. Nemesis, published in 2010 and currently sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, is apparently Roth's last book.

As Robert McCrum writes in this short article, its not beyond Roth to have "one last piece of literary magic" up his sleeve, but at 79 and with dozens of novels to his name, it seems fair to take Roth at his word for now.

I was first introduced to Roth's books as an undergraduate, when I took a Jewish-American lit module as part of my degree (taught by my absolute favourite lecturer at the time, and still the best lecturer I have ever had the pleasure of being taught by, Dr. Abramson, who is now retired). We read Portnoy's Complaint, and my housemate and I, who were in the same class, spent most of the week we'd been given to read it reading out the rudest bits to each other. (For the record, I think the most-repeated section was the part where a young Portnoy masturbates into a joint of meat, which is later served to the rest of the family by his unsuspecting mother.) But apart from being gloriously funny and rude, it also made me want to run out read all of Roth's other novels.

Over the last few years, I have read a small number of them, against the backdrop of so many more than I have yet to read. (Of the 27 novels of Roth's, excluding collections and non-fiction, I have read 12.) Some of my favourite books of all time are on that list: The Plot Against America being the most obvious, but not discounting The Human Stain, Everyman, American Pastoral, and a raft of others that it has been (mostly) nothing but a joy to read.

Roth says he has stopped writing in order to be able to reread his favourite novels. I still have a long way to go until I come anywhere near to needing to embark on a reread of Roth to satisfy my love of his work - those other 15 novels should keep me busy for a long time - but I can't think of many writers who I have enjoyed so much as a reader, and it'll be shame to see him leave the field. I learned a lot from Dr. A in those Jewish-Am Lit classes, but I think my appreciation for Philip Roth is the most enduring legacy. Apart from knowing how to pronounce "Chaim" correctly, maybe... (And that whole Woody Allen thing.)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Review: Twisted, Laurie Halse Anderson


Laurie Halse Anderson

Hodder Children's, 2008 (2007)

Seventeen year old Tyler is totally enjoying his position as high school Alpha male after years of being 'the geek'. But then Bethany - rich, blonde, beautiful and the girl Tyler wants - is the victim in a teenage sex scandal, and somehow Tyler is nailed as the prime suspect. Tyler knows he had nothing to do with it, but when everyone - including his hard-nosed father - believes he did, Tyler starts to spiral into a nightmarish, paranoid state of mind. He is desperate to find a way out of the mess he's in... Will he have the courage not to take the easy option?

Tyler is seventeen and lives with his younger sister Hannah and their parents. His dad is a bit of a control freak, and obsessed with his job and impressing his well-to-do boss, Mr. Milbury. Before the summer, Tyler pulled a prank at school and ended up being put on probation, spending his summer doing community service and further souring relations between him and his dad. When he returns to school, Tyler finds he has caught the attention of pretty, popular Bethany Milbury, but this is far from being a straightforward romance. Instead, a drunken party leads to Tyler being accused of something he didn't do - but he finds it difficult to convince anyone of his innocence.

I found Tyler to be a sympathetic protagonist from the start. His voice is convincing, and I found him likable as a guy who did one stupid thing, got caught, and is trying to figure out how to fix his life. His parents don't trust him, he has one good friend (who just happens to be in love with his sister), and the sense of meaning and purpose that he appears to have carved out whilst doing his community service among a group of janitorial staff is set to disappear as soon as school starts again.

The book really gets into Tyler's head, which makes it that much more frustrating when he falls under suspicion after the party. Having done the right thing, the plot veers away from a neat and tidy solution and instead stretches Tyler to the limit, not least because his own father seems intent on protecting his own reputation rather than standing up for his son. The fact that Twisted is not neat is one of its strengths, and something I find appealing in YA fiction in general.

There are some big issues being dealt with in Twisted - suicide and sexual assault being two of them - but I didn't feel like this was an ISSUES BOOK. The idea that Tyler is a normal enough guy, who is protective of his sister (and points for what felt like another good portrayal of sibling relationships) and stands up for his friends and panics when a hot girl invites him to a party, made Twisted feel more powerful. Tyler isn't perfect, and he isn't evil, he's mostly just a boy becoming a man without a handbook to tell him how.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Bought from Oxfam bookshop, Kings Heath.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Showcase Sunday

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

A few exciting things this week from the library (Goodreads links below images):

Heist Society - Ally Carter

I read the first Gallagher Girls book a while ago, and found that although the cover made me want to throw the book out the window, the book itself was really fun. This is the first book in another of Ally Carter's series, and I've heard some good things so I'm hopeful this will be entertaining!

With Lots of Love from Georgia - Brigid Lowry

Follow The Blue was one of my stand-out YA books that I read this year, so when I saw another of Lowry's books in the library I snapped it up! This looks like quite a short book, but it promises lists... and I do like lists.

Down Under - Bill Bryson

I haven't listened to an audiobook since I was young (for some reason, I was obsessed with Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and would take the audio cassette out of the library on numerous occasions), but I have a longer train journey onto campus now, so I thought I'd give it a go. This one jumped out at me at the library, mostly because I recently read another of Bryson's travel books (The Lost Continent) and was eager to try another one. This one follows his trip around Australia.

Reviews posted this week:

...And That's When It Fell Off In My Hand - Louise Rennison (7.5/10)
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding - Agatha Christie (5.5/10)
The Serpent's Daughter - Suzanne Arruda (From the Vaults: 3/5 stars)

Thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

From the Vaults: Review: The Serpent's Daughter, Suzanne Arruda

The Serpent's Daughter (Jade del Cameron #3)

Suzanne Arruda

Piatkus, 2011 (2008)


Joining her mother for a holiday in the ancient port city of Tangier, American adventuress Jade del Cameron expects their trip will be far less dangerous than her safaris in East Africa. But soon after their introduction to a group of European tourists, Dona del Cameron goes missing-victim of an apparent kidnapping-and, shockingly, the French authorities seek to arrest Jade for the murder of a man whose body she discovered in a series of ancient tunnels. Now, Jade must call upon her friends to find her mother and expose the true villains, who have every intention of bringing about her own destruction...

I picked this book up originally anticipating a light, quick read. This was my first Jade del Cameron book, one which finds Jade in Morocco, attempting to solve her mother's kidnapping and becoming embroiled in a smuggling plot, murder, and the supernatural traditions of an ancient tribe along the way.

Jade's character is strong and entertaining, and kept me reading even as the plot seemed to slip away in some places. The kidnapping plot and the parallel mystery involving the amulet involved the same adversary, and yet the link between the two at times seemed convoluted, with perhaps one too many coincidences or leaps of faith. While Jade and her mother do discuss the 'how' and 'why' briefly at the end of the book, I was hoping for a broader, Poirot-style denouement at the end.

That said, I'd be interested to read the two previous del Cameron books, and as a light mystery this was enjoyable.

Original Goodreads rating: 3/5 stars

Book source: Bought.

From the Vaults is an attempt to resurrect those book reviews I wrote and published on Goodreads before I started Bibliotekit. They tend to be quite short, but I hope they might highlight some good books I picked up in the last couple of years!