Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Recent Reads...

Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin
I recently spotted an article on the Guardian website titled The Artists' Artist: Crime Writers Five crime writers nominate their favourite living author in their field. There are several very good looking tips including one from Ann Cleeves recommending a Swedish author’s first book, Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin. I immediately checked the catalogue of my local Rockport Public Library and there it was on the shelves and available for borrowing. I scurried over to the library forthwith, borrowed the book and was just about glued to it from beginning to end.
It is a slightly unusual mystery/crime novel in that a conventional style “detective” is not part of the story.  The plot unfolds in the present - in this case the mid 1990s - and in many “glimpses” into the past.  The scale of this novel is exactly human and is so familiar to the reader because of its understated ordinariness.  The island is a co-character in the plot and provides both continuity and a wonderful almost dream-like atmosphere that one associates with childhood memories of glorious summers by the sea.
I hate to talk about the plot because I wouldn’t want this little review to be a spoiler for the real thing.  But what I can say is that Johan Theorin manages to create for the reader a very gentle but relentless momentum to his unfolding story. I found so much more than just a “who-dunnit” in this unique book. I discovered (yet again) the magic of the memories of childhood; the slow healing of terrible loss and pain; the frustrations of the frailty of aging and the the power of love and reconciliation.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Recent Reads: The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester.

This is a marvelous little book of just 110 pages including “suggestions for further reading” and the index. Simon Winchester is a superbly interesting, informative and readable writer and this book is no exception although the title may be a little misleading.  We do learn a little about the very real girl who was in part Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but we learn far more about the man behind the Carroll nom de plume: Charles Dodgson. In particular we learn about Mr Dodgson’s obsession with the then brand new art and science of photography. Charles Dodgson mastered the then extremely difficult techniques of preparing for, photographing, developing and producing prints that were every bit as good as professionals of the day. And he did this as a hobby whilst continuing to teach mathematics at Christchurch College, Oxford. 
Simon Winchester has no time for pondering the obsessions many of Dodgson’s biographers regarding Dodgson’s perceived “interest” with young children. Instead we learn that Dodgson’s almost idyllic early childhood combined with his love of the science of photography equipped him to become a natural and enchanting teller of fantastic tales that both children and adults have adored ever since.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Recent Reads: A Touch of “Chain Reading...”

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie & The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag: both by Alan Bradley.
Oh Joy! a perk of starting a series with the third and most recently published novel in a series is that one can nip back and enjoy the first two.  Whilst galloping through A Red Herring Without Mustard I was enjoying the novel immensely but I knew I was missing much of the detail and history in the blur of excitement.  Now that I have read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and segued straight into The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag,  my enthusiasm for Alan Bradley is undiminished and I find his writing is as good for me as a week at a rejuvenating spa might be! 
I have also learned a lot about the world of Flavia de Luce, our protagonist. For instance the family retainer, Dogger (full name: Arthur Wellesley Dogger), is not in fact ancient but is a survivor of a lengthy imprisonment in prisoner of war camps in south east asia as well as suffering the infamous Death Railway forced labor march between Thailand and Burma. So, in the 1950 setting of the novels, Dogger is only five years removed from those harrowing ordeals, and no wonder he appears often to be aged well beyond his years as well as being an obviously immensely intelligent man struggling with what was then known as “shell shock.”  One of the most touching details of the novels is Flavia’s almost wordless moments of sitting or just being with Dogger and without the need to spell it out you know that Mr Bradley conveys almost magically the deep balm that they both provide for each others’ souls.
Meanwhile Mr Bradley has such fun dipping into his encyclopedic  knowledge of the “golden age” British crime writers style and mannerisms, and then creating these delicious confections of plots, characters, dialogue and post war (World War II) nostalgia seasoned with down-to-earth grittiness. I particularly am fond of Gladys, Flavia’s trusty old BSA bicycle.  Gladys is not only an object, she is also a character thanks to Flavia’s wonderful imagination, “Gladys’s tires were humming that busy, waspish sound they make when she’s especially contented.” (From the Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, page 56 of the US hardback 2010 edition.)
If you want to spend a few hours raising your spirits and refreshing your outlook on life I suggest a little acquaintance with Ms Flavia de Luce!

Friday, June 24, 2011

VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization | Video on TED.com

VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization | Video on TED.com

TED Talks are a great web resource. I confess that I first discovered the site by skimming through the weekly Viral Video Chart at http://viralvideochart.unrulymedia.com/ which can too frequently, for me, be an exercise in egregious attention deficit time wasting. Anyway a while ago I stumbled upon Ken Robinson’s wonderful talk Changing Educational Paradigms http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html and I instantly became a fan of the TED Talks website.
I have featured a brief talk by V.S. Ramachandran, the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. I find him very compelling. His presentations are not glitzy or full of high tech media materials. His passion for his subject matter along with his precise content organization enthralled me and helped to make sense of a subject, neurology, which I would ordinarily have thought was “beyond” my powers of understanding.
I chose V.S. Ramachandran’s presentation above because it was both excellent and brief. Check it out and you too will be a fan of TED Talks!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Recent Reads: from the front lines!

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
This is less of a review and more of a “dispatch from the front lines” as I’m only about one third of the way through this wonderful book.
I think this is the 3rd Flavia de Luce novel in the fiction section of the wonderful Rockport Public Library. I have resisted dipping into these delightful books largely because of a prejudice of mine: generally I have stayed away from novels set in Great Britain that are by authors who are non-British.  Thankfully Mr Bradley has provided that “on the road to Damsacus” moment that has shown me what a load of old piffle my snooty attitude has been.
Alan Bradley is from Toronto, Ontario and now, after a long career in broadcasting and teaching, is “retired” and seemingly writing more that full time from his home in British Columbia, Canada.  He seems to have read and stored away in his mind every mystery/crime fiction novel between Arthur Conan Doyle and Barbara Pym and also to have read and retained every “classic” piece of children’s adventure literature from Robert Louis Stevenson to Enid Blyton and beyond. Not only has he done this but he has the most wonderful ability to channel the spirit of the fiction in Girls Own Paper via the likes of Angela Brazil.
Of course, it’s one thing to read but entirely another thing to write.  Alan Bradley has tremendous fun creatively snatching snippets of style from many of the above sources, or at least I suppose he has!
The result is a rip roaring tale narrated by the eleven year old Flavia de Luce, the youngest of three daughters of a widowed ex army officer and now full time philatelist who has inherited the family estate consisting of a decaying stately home with a very few elderly retainers.  Mr Bradley gives clues that the time period is between 1948 and 1951.
Flavia shows robust signs of being just as eccentric as her father and late mother, Harriet who died ten years previously in a climbing accident in Tibet.  She has taken ownership of her great uncle Tarquin’s laboratory, situated in a remote wing of the house, and is well on the way to becoming an avid amateur chemist.  She is precocious but extremely endearing to the reader.  She has a strong propensity for getting mixed up in all sorts of adventures, many of which involve assistance from the local constabulary in this fictional bucolic, decaying segment of a county in deepest rural England.
Enough said - I must get back to Flavia’s fabulous yarn!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Recent Reads

I’m very pleased to relaunch Barrie’s Blog with this “Recent Reading” page.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell can hopefully be found in the non-fiction section of your local public library (Dewey Decimal category: 996.9). It is a history of the Hawaiian Islands from the arrival of the first New England missionaries in 1823 until the annexation of the islands by the United States in 1898.

Ms Vowell is a vocal performer. She frequently can be heard on National Public Radio. In this side of her career she is witty, an excellent story-teller, engaging and intelligent. This is the second of her books I have read and I can report that her writing - in book form - demonstrates all her qualities as a performer plus an ability to convey empathy for both her heroes and villains alike. In Unfamiliar Fishes the “hero” is Hawaii itself. Her villains, as I see it, are human greed, xenophobia and many other “base” qualities of those who have inhabited, visited and lived on these islands from the mists of its early history until now.

Ms Vowell is unafraid of revealing her personal bias but she is also unafraid of empathizing with both people and ideas that are obviously not her cup of tea.

She shows us that she has researched widely and deeply to write this story but she tells us the story not in a staid scholarly manner, but as if she and her reader were having a delicious tropical drink in a cafe on one of Hawaii’s beaches and just chit-chatting away the time.

I’ll say no more. I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of reading this book for you. I’m sure you have already guessed that I am a huge fan of Ms Vowell’s performing and writing!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Recent Reads

The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah

Ms. Hannah is the queen of the first person dialogue. Her characters speak directly to you with passion and wit, and they draw you in to their worlds with the momentum of a runaway train. You are going so fast that you pick and choose characteristics, tics, moods and motives which at first seem straightforward and unequivocal. Only there is a clever catch. Maybe you’ve presumed wrongly; maybe you have assigned more weight to a verbal “turn of phrase” than you should have; maybe you should reassess what you have assumed and take a somewhat more relaxed look at the big picture? At some points the central characters appear almost like clones of each other, but are they? Ms. Hannah’s skill is in her nuanced portrayal of reaction and emotion. You know there is something going on in the text that you cannot quite grasp, just like an itch you can’t scratch. Mercifully she does turn up the lights at the conclusion and lets you see the cast sans makeup! A superb read.