#ThrowbackThursday: It’s a Mystery

This is a post from eight years ago, July 8, 2012, from my old blog over on Blogger. Still valid. Hmm, I think I could start rereading those M. M. Kaye mysteries again; I’ve probably forgotten whodunnit by now.

It’s a Mystery

mysteries

I really like mystery novels. It’s a little odd, that, as I loathe and abhor violence, and you pretty much can’t get any more violent that murder. But for some reason, reading about cranky old rich men being offed for their money doesn’t disturb me, probably because it’s not a fate that’s likely to ever befall me – I’m not a man, will (alas) probably never be rich, and as for being cranky and old, I’m hoping to stave those off for a while yet.

Actually, there is a weird sense of safety in reading murder mysteries – the kind I like, anyway, which are the English cozies, preferably the genuine “Golden Age” article à la Agatha Christie & Co. They’re set in a proscribed circle of people, in a time and place far removed from my own reality, and the sleuth always finds out whodunnit, so justice is served and peace restored. And if the story includes a charming romance between a pretty young girl and a handsome young man (amateur detective, part of “the Force”, or simply mysterious stranger, I’m not picky on that), then my satisfaction is complete. Ah, escapism.

However, there’s one thing that strikes me as being a genuine mystery, in reading mysteries. It concerns those aforementioned charmingly beautiful young girls. In addition to being charming and beautiful, they are usually also quite intelligent – it’s part of what makes them so well suited for being a focal point of the story. They see the clues, they sense that something is wrong, they shiver in the cold draft emanating from the sinisterly-left-open window and jump when the soft-footed tabby cat silently brushes by them in the darkened room where they sit, thinking about the handsome young man who is so disturbing to their tender feelings but might still be the murderer. They even almost solve the mystery, usually. However, they seem to be afflicted by a peculiar disability.

See, it’s like this: whenever one such girl is told, usually by said handsome young man of chiselled brow and masterful demeanor, that she should not, under any circumstances, tell anyone of her suspicions (which she has just voiced to him in the darkness of the night, leaning on the balcony railing overlooking the rose garden) – or, alternatively, that she should not, whatever else she may do, leave the house without informing him of it (this is usually accompanied by a look of more than usual seriousness from the grey/brown/deep-blue eyes of said handsome gent) – somehow or other it seems to cause the girl’s brains to trickle out of her pink and shell-like ears. Or something like it.

Because as soon as a directive of this kind is issued, the girl is guaranteed to do the very thing she was told not to do. She hears the command, fully agrees to it, but somehow always figures that it must not apply to Mrs White (who is, after all, only the cook), or Colonel Mustard (who is surely too pukka sahib to have done anything so sordid as commit the murder), with the inevitable result that she spills the beans to and/or leaves the house in the company of the murderer him- or herself. Of course, as anybody could tell her, it directly leads to her undergoing several pages’ worth of hair-raising suspense, being menaced by said murderer in the kitchen/conservatory/ball room with the revolver/rope/lead pipe while he or she monologues about his or her reasons for committing the murder and gleefully prophecies that no one will ever find the girl’s body, foolish thing. All of which she could have avoided if she had only paid attention to what she was told.

So what do you think – auditory processing disorder? Something that affects only one very small part of what she’s hearing? Because it can’t be stupidity; the whole rest of the book establishes very clearly that the girl in question is not stupid.

Ah well. It doesn’t really matter all that much, because, fortunately, in the nick of time, just as the murderer is about to pull the trigger/tighten the rope/swing the lead pipe, he of the chiselled features comes bursting (or, alternatively, stealthily creeping) through the french doors, incapacitates the villain (having taken careful note of the monologued confession which clears up the remaining questions about the murderer’s guilt), then roughly pulls the girl into his arms while angrily exclaiming “Don’t ever do this again, darling!” and presses a hard kiss on her trembling lips, thereby removing the last vestiges of doubts that the girl had about her feelings for him, and/or making her realize for the first time why she always went weak at the knees whenever he glared at her (which she had previously taken for a sign of dislike). D’oh. The End.

Life, the Universe, and Mysteries. It’s a mystery, what?

Midnight of the Year

Steve is giving me dirty looks, guilt tripping me because I haven’t posted anything on this blog in, like, forever.

Steve and coffee mug and dirty look

Well, my excuse is that I was sick over the holidays. Two nasty bouts of flu in the space of a month. And then, somehow, I just didn’t get back on the horse…

Steve’s having none of it (stuffed bears can be so demanding!). But there I was yesterday, looking out the picture window at the view of the lake, a thick white cloud hanging so low over it it feels like I’m sitting in a kettle with the lid clapped on.

The cosiness of December has given way to cold, muck and dreariness, and it feels like I haven’t seen the sun or the blue sky in weeks. (“There is no sun. … There never was a sun,” said the Witch. “No, there never was a sun,” said the Prince, and the Marsh-wiggle, and the children…) All I want to do is to curl up on the couch with my fluffy reading socks on my feet and my fluffy reading blanket over my lap, reading a fluffy novel.

And then it all of a sudden struck me: maybe that’s just what we’re meant to do this time of year? Maybe so many of us feel tired and unmotivated in winter because it’s the time when we’re supposed to sleep. This is, in fact, the midnight of the year.

Winter splinters

Or, rather, winter solstice is midnight. I learned in Physical Geography class some years ago that the hottest time is actually just after the zenith, and the coldest immediately after the nadir. So, the hottest time of day is around 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, and the coldest time of night an hour or two after midnight – once the temperature has had time to catch up with the amount of sunshine the earth got (or didn’t get, as it were). If you correlate the cycle of the year to the hours of the day, then right now, January 18th, is about 1:50 AM.

Lake in shades of grey with lid on

And what else are you supposed to do at Ten-to-blinkin’-Two in the Morning other than sleep? Human beings are diurnal – we’re awake in the day, and sleep in the night. At least that’s what we’re designed for, notwithstanding Mr Edison and his light bulb which screwed us all over with its perpetual artificial daytime.

And so maybe that craving for fluffy socks and blankets and books is, in fact, quite normal and healthy, and ought to be indulged as much as possible. You know how, when your kids get up in the middle of the night, you roll over and just sort of grunt at them “Go back to sleep!”? Like that.

So bring on the socks and blankets and Pride and Prejudice. I’ll talk to you in the morning – umm, I mean in spring.

Life, the Universe, and the Midnight of the Year. See you when the sun comes up.

In Defense of the Detective Novel

My friend E. L. Bates just wrote this quite excellent piece on the value of detective fiction. I agree with everything she says – and her point about the timeliness of detective novels is an interesting one. Check it out and see what you think.

StarDance Press

This essay came out of some thoughts I had on detective novels and their function in society. I’m not sure any of it is terribly earth-shattering–I’m fairly certain it’s all been said before–but it was important to me, so I wrote it all out, then decided it was worth polishing and sharing. So here it is.

Truth, justice, mercy. All very big, abstract concepts that can be hard to wrap our heads around in concrete terms. What is truth? How do we balance justice and mercy? To whom do we show justice, and when is mercy appropriate? If I were to tell you I was writing a story exploring these concepts, you might reasonably expect some weighty, literary piece of work, with dense prose and a somber tone. What you might not expect would be a detective novel.

Yet it is in mystery stories that I have had some of…

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Required Reading

3268My friend over on Jangled Nerves just let off a blog post on classics – based on yet another post, here, that details “16 Books Every Teenager Should Read in 2016”. So, I toddled over to that post and checked out this list of required reading. I mean, I’m not a teenager – haven’t been one in quite some time (sorry if that bursts a bubble for you) – but if there’s a list of must-reads, I want to know what it is.

And you know what? Of that list of sixteen books, I’ve read all of five, or maybe six. One (or two?) I read under duress, aka Literature Class in school, the other four I read because I loved them. And I pretty much know the Cliff Notes version of several others, which is enough to tell me that I’m not, in fact, interested in reading the full-length feature.

I actually find myself rather annoyed at the title of that original post. “16 Books EVERY Teenager SHOULD Read”. Why on earth should they? Because these are good books? Good grief, if that’s the reason, picking just sixteen is ridiculous. But what’s more, this list is highly subjective. For one, it’s quite US-centric – Gone With The Wind tops the list, but it’s one of those Cliff Notes books for me. No, I haven’t seen the movie either, because frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn about that story. For another, it’s a girl’s list of books. Sense and Sensibility? Jane Eyre? Fabulous books (they are, of course, on the list of four that I read for sheer pleasure*), but I can just see giving them to 16-year-old boys to read. 19th-century emo chicks mooning over romantic heartbreak – “Oh, Willoughby, Willoughby!” and “Reader, I married him…” – just kill me now. This, coupled with horrifically disturbing weirdness like Kafka’s The Trial (see “reading under duress”, above), is what’s chiefly responsible for turning many, many teenagers off books for life. Thank you, high school English class.

It’s not that I have a problem with this list of books per se – they’re great books, from what I hear. It’s not even that I disapprove of suggesting books for people to read; far from it. No, it’s the dogmatic headline, the “Thou Shalt Read This” that gets my goat. Because like every really voracious reader, I want to make up my own mind on what to read. And I think teenagers should be making up their own minds, too.

I never filled my children’s plates with food and then insisted they finish every last bite. I did (and still do) insist that they eat some vegetables with their dinner – but I don’t cook them spinach, because I know they hate it. I quite like cooked spinach, thank you very much, but if the kids would rather have it raw with salad dressing, so be it. There is no law that says “Thou Shalt Eat Thine Spinach Cooked”, nor is there one that says “Thou Shalt Read Kafka”. There are far too many good books in the world to force people to read according to a predetermined list. The ticket is to offer the veg, to suggest the book titles. I love Jane Austen – but if you don’t, why not read Sir Walter Scott instead? Ivanhoe is a darn good yarn.

Life, the Universe, and Books You Ought To Read. But only if you really want to. When you’re done all those other great books you’re reading at the moment. And the ones your friends suggested. And that one that just jumped at you from the bookstore shelf. And… Ah, never mind – just keep reading. And let me know when you hit on a good one, I’ll add it to my list of books to check out. I might get to it when I’m 80.

*PS: the other book from that list, the one I’m not sure if I’ve read or not, is Death of a Salesman – I remember being forced to read some kind of weird gloomy drama in undergrad English class; it might have been that. You can tell it made a big impression on my life. The other two I loved were, of course, The Horse and His Boy, and The Hobbit.

Reading Break

IMG_20151230_092227A friend of mine posted a meme on Facebook on Sunday. It went something like this: “Enjoy your last pyjama day. Tomorrow, we have to go back to adulting.” Sigh, yeah. Adulting. That’s where you have to get up in the morning, get dressed, and be responsible. You can’t just stay in bed all day and read books.

What, that’s not how you spent your holidays? I sure did. I had a great reading break. (That, my dear college students, is a break for reading, not from reading. Just in case you were confused on the matter.) Okay, maybe I didn’t stay in bed all day. I got up. I put on my house coat and slippers – sometimes even my leggings and a big T-shirt – and I went downstairs. And then I sat on the couch, and read books all day. It was awesome.

Even as a kid, that was what I loved most about school holidays, the freedom to indulge in fiction first thing in the morning. And I use the word “indulge” consciously: I was raised with the attitude that reading is indulgence – it’s being a couch potato, something for rest and relaxation in the evening and on days off, not something you do on a normal school or work day in the middle of the day. So parking my rear on the couch and vegging out with a book feels very holiday-ish and self-indulgent. [Heh – “vegging out” – “being a couch potato” – what’s with all those derogatory references to vegetables? The English language seems to be rather biased towards carnivores.]

I really had planned on doing a few other things during the holidays, as well – like maybe excavate my workshop and make some pottery; or go hang out with friends. But it all fell by the wayside. The people I did hang out with quite extensively were Sharan Newman‘s Catherine LeVendeur and her cousin Solomon of Paris, ca. AD 1145. (It’s a really excellent series; I’d highly recommend it if you like historic mysteries – I haven’t read anything this well-researched since Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael. Unfortunately, the earlier books are from the early 90s, so not as easy to find; I had to get several of them by Interlibrary Loan. But they’re well worth the effort.) And when I ran out of Catherine books to read, there were a couple new Shanna Swendson ones – e.g. the third in her Fairy Tale series (that’s the one on my Kobo, on the top of the stack). From 12th-century France to 21st-century New York with rogue fairies running amok – what’s not to like?

So, yeah. I had a good vacation. The house went to pot, we spent days eating Christmas leftovers (isn’t that the whole point of Christmas dinner, to have leftovers?), I didn’t talk to any of my friends – but I read my fill. For a little while, at least.

Life, the Universe, and a Reading Break. Do I really have to go back to adulting now?

Reading Habits

books (1)There’s been a fun reading quiz going around the blogosphere (last to pick up the challenge: Kate and Zach), and even though I wasn’t specifically named by anyone, I’ll pick up the gauntlet anyway. I’m also not going to peg anyone else, in a “Tag! You’re It!” fashion, but if this is something that looks like fun to you, consider yourself tagged.

The quiz is about your Reading Habit. Okay, yes [scuffs shoe in the dirt], I’m afraid it’s true. [Mumbles:] Hi, I’m Angelica. I have a Reading Habit. [Everyone:] Hi Angelica!

Uh, wait – Reading Habitsss, plural? Not Habit, singular? Oh. Well, yes, I have those too. Just forget what I said earlier, about my, umm, habit. Who, me, addicted to books? Naaah.

Okay, here goes. THE TRUTH ABOUT AMO’S READING HABITS:

books (5)You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next?

Simple: I look at the pile and go “What do I feel like reading?” And that’s what I read.

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or commit?

Quit. Why on earth would I read something I’m not enjoying? Oh, because I might want to find out how it ends? Okay, here’s a secret tip: it’s a book. You can flip to the last chapter, and get the lowdown without wasting your time on inflicting pain on yourself…

The end of the year is coming and you’re so close yet so far away on your GoodReads challenge. Do you quit or commit?

GoodReads challenge? What GoodReads challenge? Oh, is that one of those “I’m going to read 100 books by the end of the year” things? I had enough required reading in university; I don’t set myself “goals” for my reading. I read what I like when I like it. Isn’t that the whole point of reading?

books (2)The covers of a series you love DO. NOT. MATCH. How do you cope?

Umm, I think the only matched set of books I own is Austen (see picture) – or rather, one of the sets; the other Austen one(s) are mismatched too. I buy most of my books second hand or else piecemeal. I mean, I like matching books, but it’s obviously not a high priority…

Everyone and their mother loves a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?

Hah. It’s probably snarky of me, but if everyone and their mother loves a book [movie, singer, TV show, clothing style] then by definition I’m suspicious of it. So what “everyone” thinks has at best a negative influence on me. [Exception: I read Harry Potter just to see what the fuss was about, and to my great surprise got hooked. But then, it’s a great story.] As for who I share those feelings with, I have more than one family member and friend who has the same snobbish attitude, so there is never a shortage of people with whom to commiserate and share recommendations for really good books.

You’re reading a book and you’re about to start crying in public. How do you deal?

I don’t usually read in public… especially not anything likely to make me cry. But that’s because I’m not out in public a whole lot.

A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a summary on GoodReads? Cry in frustration?

Re-read. Or re-skim. (Yes, that’s allowed. There’s no book police that says you can’t skip through a book. Really!)

books (4)You don’t want ANYONE borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people “nope” when they ask?

I don’t usually have issues with people borrowing my books, because my friends who are readers also take care of books and will return them to me. But if it was a person I wouldn’t trust with my darlings, I’d have two words for them: Public Library. And I’d wrap up those words in some polite phrasing of not wanting to lend my books because I might just get a huge urge to read that particular volume in the next two days, so, sorry…

You’ve picked up and put down five different books in the past month. How do you get over the reading slump?

Reading slump? What’s that? Sort of like an eating slump, where you really can’t get into eating lunch, and you force yourself to eat some chocolate cake because eating is a virtue and must be carried on?
Pardon my sarcasm. But these questions are bringing up something really interesting: there is an underlying attitude here that reading is a virtue, something one ought to do. In my world, shaped by my upbringing, reading is an indulgence, something you get to do. No lists of “so many books of required reading”, no forcing yourself through a book you hate – and no “reading slump”… (I think there’s a full blog post in here somewhere.)

books (3)There are so many new books coming out that you are dying to read! How many do you actually buy?

Those same two words again: Public Library. My local one has this awesome feature that they’ll buy just about any book you suggest (if it’s available through their usual channels). You might have to wait half a year for them to get and process it, but you can get to read it eventually. And then, if I read it and absolutely love it, I’ll go buy a copy to keep.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

Depends on what it is. If it’s a new fiction book in a series I love, it usually doesn’t even make it to the shelf before it gets read. Non-fiction, again, I’ll likely get it from the library first, and then I’m on a time limit before I have to return it, so I better get to it right away… or else I just take it back unread and it can sit on the library shelves until the urge to read it strikes again.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and my Reading Habit. Habits, sss! What about you?

The Power of Story Part II, or, RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

IMG_20150312_204516For the second time in as many weeks, the nerd world is having to say goodbye to one of its Greats: Sir Terry Pratchett passed away today from Alzheimer’s disease. Leonard Nimoy had reached a good old age; Terry Pratchett was still comparatively young – only 66.

But his passing, too, was not unexpected; the disease had been claiming him bit by bit for nearly eight years now. Alzheimer’s has a way of doing that. I think for the bereaved, the mourning has often been done long ahead of the time they actually die, because the person you love has already gone. That’s what happened with a relative of ours – she spent the last ten years of her life slowly disappearing. The real grief was the point of realising that she was no longer who she had been, years ahead of the time of her actual death.

With Terry Pratchett, as a reader and fan I found that that point of grief (which is, of course, no comparison to the grief his family feels – but still is a reality) occurred last summer when I read his last book, Raising Steam. It was sad. To me, Raising Steam feels like a book that was ghost-written by someone who is trying to write like Pratchett, but isn’t making it – almost like a fanfic of his work. The voices of the characters are wrong, the world seems off, the plot is – I’m sorry, I have to say it – lame. In fact, I found it hard to believe this was really Pratchett writing – I kept checking online to see if there wasn’t some indication that this was the work of a ghost writer. It wasn’t.

And the only reason I felt that way is because I’ve read every single other Discworld book of his, and most of his other novels as well, from The Carpet People onwards, and I’m so familiar with the way he wrote before the disease took it away. Pratchett was brilliant, sparklingly, amazingly brilliant. He could go from laugh-out-loud funny to smack-you-between-the-eyebrows profound in the same sentence – or even better yet, footnote. His footnotes are an art form in itself. I propose that we coin a new phrase in his honour: how about “pratchetting a footnote”? Hilariously witty non sequiturs which manage to pack a little bit of sharp truth into a paragraph squished at the bottom of a page. And more often than not, the footnotes have footnotes, themselves. Nobody wrote footnotes, sub-footnotes, and sub-footnotelets like Pratchett.

However, what he excelled in above all was character creation. On Twitter this morning, someone said they are not just mourning the loss of Terry Pratchett, but of his characters. My reaction to that was surprise. Pratchett’s passing is sad – but his characters, to my thinking, gloriously live on. He created Sam Vimes, Captain Carrot, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Tiffany Aching, Lord Vetinari, Rincewind, the Librarian, DEATH (how could I forget Death?), the Wee Free Men (Och! Crivens!)… so many, many others – and because he created them, they will always exist. The Power of Story does not wane with the passing of its creator. Whenever I choose, I can pull one of Pratchett’s books off the shelf, immerse myself in the world he created, and associate with the people who sprang from his imagination. Whenever it suits me.

And that reminds me of one of his oh-so-quotable lines from the opening scene of the book that is one of my favourites of his, Wyrd Sisters. The setting: a violent thunderstorm on “dark, rain-lashed hills”.

“In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?’
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday.'”

Mishmash

The problem with blogging is that there comes a point when you feel the pressure to produce something. To come up with erudite, witty, cohesive pieces of writing on a regular basis because you figure that your readers expect it of you. (That’s on the assumption that you have readers. Let’s hold onto that illusion, shall we?) Well, I’ve had quite a few ideas for posts this past week, but I just didn’t get around to solidifying them in writing. And as with many things in life, if you don’t strike [the keys on the keyboard] while the [literary] iron is hot, you lose it.

But then it occurred to me that there’s no reason it always has to be cohesive, erudite or witty, never mind profound. Sometimes, life is made up of little bits and pieces, the mosaic of existence. So today, for your edification, amusement or wastage of time, here is a mishmash of matters – just some stuff going on in my life or going through my head.

IMG_20150309_094127a) I just finished reading Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. (Thank you, E. L. Bates, for recommending it!) That is one fantastic book. I’m so glad I only read it just now; the sequel (Shadow Scale) is coming out tomorrow, so I don’t have long to wait for hearing more about Seraphina and her world.  I bought the Kindle version, which happens to be on sale at the moment, and then I got a paper copy out of the library because a real book is still so much nicer to read. I’m not going to write a big review; others have done that. But just one point: the book is full of dragons who all have Asperger’s. It’s awesome.

b) Spring has hit in full force, more than a month earlier than we got it the last couple of years. Canada is, literally, polarised right now – while here in the West we’re scrambling to get our rear in gear and start our seedlings, the East is buried under a white blanket. Pretty soon we’ll have to start talking about the East Pole and the West Pole… So on that note, I’ll have to get myself out into the garden today, resurrect the beds from their winter slumber, and get the radishes, lettuces, peas and kohlrabis into the ground.

c) Steve says hi.

Life, the Universe, and Today’s Mishmash. I’ll tell you more when I think of it.

It’s Another Book!!

CatMouse_CVR_XSMLAnd here it is, the moment you’ve been waiting for: IT’S ANOTHER BOOK! CAT AND MOUSE, Book 2 of The Septimus Series, featuring further adventures of Catriona, Guy, Bibby, and Sepp – and introducing Cat’s best friend Nicky! Also introducing a whole lot of mice, a number of cats (one of them with only three legs), and more people who are going to be pretty important – but I’m not telling you too much about them yet because that would be giving things away.

Here’s the official blurb:

A silent young boy, a man like a rat, and a plague of mice—Cat has her work cut out for her.

It’s hard enough for Catriona, an ordinary modern woman, to get used to living in a magical medieval world, even without having mice pop up at every turn. Good thing Cat isn’t as squeamish about rodents as her friend Nicky, who has her own issues to cope with back in the regular world. What does the man with the twitchy nose want with young Ben, Nicky’s ward? And does the mouse plague back in Ruph have anything to do with the new apprentice Cat’s husband has taken on—the boy who won’t speak?

This book is now available:

on Amazon.com and .de for Kindle and in print

Amazon.ca for Kindle (print hopefully coming soon)

Smashwords for all other ebook formats

Createspace in print

CAT AND MOUSE – go get it now!