April 2008

Another review: Ruth E. Weissberger’s
The Cure for Remembering: A Dr. Nora Sternberg Mystery

A medical mystery which I gave four stars from five.

Booking Through Thursday

Do your reading habits change in the Spring? Do you read gardening books? Even if you don’t have a garden? More light fiction than during the Winter? Less? Travel books? Light paperbacks you can stick in a knapsack?

Or do you pretty much read the same kinds of things in the Spring as you do the rest of the year?

No, my reading habits don’t change. I live in a block of flats so I don’t have a garden. Funny thing is, though, that I graduated as a horticulturalist in the early ninties.

I do tend to reread more during the summer, though.

This is a mystery set in the Ancient Egypt and the start of the ruling period of the only female Pharaoh Hatshepsut whom Doherty calls Hatusu. The main character is the chief judge of the Temple of Two Truths and a priest of Ma’at, Amerotke.

The book starts with Hatusu who is waiting for his husband Tuthmosis II to return from battle. Someone is blackmailing the Queen. Then the scene shifts to Tuthmosis II tomb which is desecrated by a group of Amemet assassins and a witch.

Then the young Pharaoh comes back in his barge, goes to the temple of Amun-Ra, falls down on convulsions, and dies. Narrative switches to Amerotke who judges and couple of other cases and then sits in judgment of the Pharaoh’s case.

It turns out that the guards found a viper underneath the Pharaoh’s seat in the barge and the Pharaoh has a snake bite on his heel. The chief of the Pharaoh’s bodyguards, Meneloto, is accused of negligence although he of course says that he checked the barge thoroughly before it left and there were not vipers on-board at that time. More witnesses are brought in and Amerotke becomes convinced that the viper which had been found on the barge couldn’t have been responsible for the Pharaoh’s death. He adjourns the court for the day and Meneloto is put under house arrest.

The case is more complicated because Amerotke suspects that his beautiful wife Norfret has had an affair with the chief of the bodyguards. Nevertheless, Amerotke is determined to judge fairly. However, during the night the assassins attack Meneloto’s house. Meneloto manages to escape but everyone else assumes that his friends have helped him to escape. Shortly afterwards, Amerotko is summoned into the royal circle where there is a power struggle going on between the Queen and the Grand Vizier about who shall be Regent to the five-year-old son of the Tuthmosis II who is the current Pharaoh and in effect rule Egypt. During the council one of the men is bitten by a viper and he dies almost instantly.

During Tuthmosis II’s voyage back to Thebes he stopped at Sakkara and took only three people with him. The man bitten by the viper was one of them and Amerotke finds out that one other of the three people was killed. Now it’s up to Amerotke to find out who is behind the killings and why. At the same time, Queen Hatusu is fighting bitterly to keep her position as the stepmother of the child Pharaoh. There’s also a subplot about catching local tomb-robbers who seem to be able to enter a sealed tomb without disturbing it.

Amerotke is a good-natured point-of-view character who does his duty. His slave is a dwarf Shufoy who sells amulets during the day when Amerotke is at the temple. Shufoy’s nose has been cut off because he was found guilty of a crime. However, Amerotke knew that Shufoy had been wrongly accused and therefore bought the dwarf to his service. Shufoy is a more colorful character than his master. Amerotke’s wife and two sons appear also but only in minor roles.

Hatusu is a minor POV character and I found her to be disappointing. She seems far too malleable and insecure for her role as the chief wife of the Pharaoh. And when she starts to grow a backbone later in the book she’s unfortunately not a POV character anymore. I was also rather surprised at how quickly she gave in to a blackmailer.

For a short book, Mask of Ra has lots of unnecessary details and I felt that Doherty was just showing what he had found in his research. Unfortunately, the research either wasn’t through enough or he decided to change some thing. The gods have been simplified and some of them even changed completely, and the characters seem to have strangely modern mindsets.

It seems to me that in many historical fiction books, the more educated and the more upper-class a character is the more modern his or her worldview is. Peaceful in a warrior-culture, egalitarian in a culture based on rigid castes or classes or sexism or racism, anti-slavery in a slavery-based culture, monogamist in a polygynistic culture, in favor of social movement in a culture where that’s just not possible, and/or agnostic or atheist or even monotheistic in a polytheistic society. Unfortunately, Doherty falls into this trap: Amerotke is a high priest and yet he openly befriends his slave, has only one wife, and has a dedicatedly modern attitude when faced with the big reveal near the end which would have shaken up anyone who is from his culture (and indeed did shake up other characters who knew about it).

The mystery itself flows smoothly but do not expect historical accuracy.

Booking Through Thursday

I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

Most of the time it’s perfectly possible to follow the plot and understand the scene without knowing what a certain word means. In those cases I usually just continue reading. However, a couple of times a year I do come across an unfamiliar word and just have to know what it means. Then I look it up on one of my dictionaries. It’s far more likely, though, that I come across some cultural reference which I don’t fully understand and look that up in Google. I’m also more likely to look up an unfamiliar word when reading history or historical fiction than any other genre.

This time the main characters from the previous book, Nita who is the POV character and her good wizard friend Kit, are vacationing with Nita’s family by the sea. Nita and Kit find out that many of the whales are also sentient and have wizards among them. They save a whale and find out that she’s actually a wizard and she’s in trouble. Nita and Kit agree to hear the problem and S’reee tells them that the Lone Power has been chained to the bottom of the ocean. However, the spells are starting to loose their power and now the Lone Power has is encouraging all sort of problems for the sea: poachers, pollutions, earthquakes. If the spells aren’t renewed soon, the Lone Power will get free and used destructive earthquakes against everyone.

Nita and Kit agree to help. They come to learn a lot about the wizard world under the waves. Because many of the wizard whales have been slaughtered by human hunters Nita and Kit agree to participate in the Song of Twelve which should renew the Lone Power’s bindings and calm some of the troubles at sea. But before that can be done Nita and Kit have to be transformed into whales, get to know some friends and some enemies as well, learn the Song, and, worst of all, deal with Nita’s parents and younger sister. Nita’s sister, Dairine, is increasingly interested in her sister’s odd comings and goings and their parents are even more interested. Nita doesn’t want to lie to them but what choice does she have?

Deep Wizardry is a fine sequel to the previous book. The underwater world and the whales and sharks are very well developed and described. There are also lots of information about the sea and pollution but they don’t feel like info dumps. Indeed, it feels quite natural for the whales to educate humans about their problems.

Kit and Nita are quite likable characters although I happen to like Carl, Tom, and Macchu Picchu the most. I also liked how Dairine did matter of factly things that are apparently today allowed only for boys: reading X-Men comics (which, alas, the translator didn’t know), wearing Star Wars pajamas, and dreaming of becoming a Jedi.

The final book in the Corwin saga starts with Dara appearing to Amber with commands to the Amberites. Even though they are skeptical at first, soon Corwin is galloping toward the Courts of Chaos. And what is hanging in the balance is no less than the fate of Amber and all of the Shadow worlds. However, the series doesn’t end with a huge battle. Yes, there is a battle but somewhat earlier and Corwin doesn’t really have a part in it.

For me the Courts of Chaos doesn’t have as a satisfying ending as it could have had. We finally find out to whom Corwin is telling his tale and that’s an anticlimax. All the earlier plotting is really revealed to be much simpler than it was represented earlier. That’s quite possibly intentional, though; usually plots turn out to be simpler in reality than when you’re trying to figure them out. 😉

Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoyed the first Amber series. It just didn’t end with a bang but neither did it end with a whimper, but more like “That’s it? I want more!” The ending was also far more, well, sugary than I had remembered. (I thought that the whole crossbow-thing was the end.) I would have preferred for the siblings to continue their rivalries. Then again, just because Corwin is feeling brotherly towards the others doesn’t necessarily mean that his siblings return the feeling.

Apparently, Manna from Heaven has Amber short stories. Unfortunately, the only version available here is almost 30 euros and I consider that to be too high for a book with less than 200 pages.

Booking Through Thursday

Pick up the nearest book. (I’m sure you must have one nearby.)
Turn to page 123.
What is the first sentence on the page?
The last sentence on the page?
Now . . . connect them together….
(And no, you may not transcribe the entire page of the book–that’s cheating!)

The banquet ended in chaos.
“What are they searching for?”

Hmm. This could well be even a start of a book. The book is Paul Doherty’s The Mask of Ra which is either the next or the book after the next which I’m going to read so I haven’t yet started it.

This time the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey gets a case because of a coincidence. He and his Scotland Yard friend Charles Parker are eating in a restaurant and talking about doctors and crimes. A doctor sitting in the next table overhears them and tells them about his own mystery case which he is convinced is a murder. Unfortunately, he couldn’t prove it.

The young doctor Carr tells the duo about his patient Miss Dawson. The old lady had been suffering from cancer but despite this she had been relatively strong and the doctor had expected her to live for quite some time. Instead, she had mysteriously died. The doctor had performed an autopsy on her but in vain. The unmarried old lady had lived together with her grand-niece, a nurse, and a couple of servants. The doctor suspected that the niece had somehow killed the old lady. She was so afraid of dying that she hadn’t wanted to make a will, although she did intend for her grand-niece to inherit her. The grand-nice Miss Mary Whittaker did inherit her so there doesn’t seem to be any reason for her to kill the old lady. So, who did it and why?

Lord Peter takes an interest in the case and starts to investigate. Or actually he sends Miss Climpton to the town where the suspected murder occurred. Miss Climpton is a middle-aged woman whom Lord Peter has hired to question women who might not speak as readily to men. Miss Climpton has also the freedom to investigate people without having any official status so the people don’t know that she’s investigating them. So, the perfect intelligent gatherer! So, she travels to the town and the two men start to investigate at their own ends. Miss Climpton sends her employer letters to tell about her progress while the plot thickens…

Unnatural Death seems to have more complicated plot than the previous Sayers books and it seem also a bit contrived although as entertaining as ever. Miss Climpton is a funny new character and I hope that she’s going to be a recurring character. She’s very chatty and friendly. When things start to clear up, it came to me as a complete surprise.

Booking Through Thursday

When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)
Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?

Well, my first thought is boring. Navel-gazing, endless talking and nothing ever happens.

This, I believe, is quite a common view of books I Don’t Read. 🙂 Because it they had the chance of being good I might read them. I also think that some, if not all, of Literature isn’t to my taste simply because the people who have chosen them are very different from me. They tend to be older, of different gender, of different wealth level, from a different country, not to mention speaking a different native tongue. Sure, there are some Finnish books that are considered classics but, well, most of them depict a by-gone (and romanticized) era which doesn’t have much to give me.

On the other hand, I’ve read a few Shakespares, although I prefer Finnish translations, and I like Cantebury Tales. I’ve read Homer’s Odysseus and a smattering of other myths. My brother battled through Moby Dick.

I fully intend to continue to read mythology and probably the rest of the Shakespeare’s plays.

This is the book that turns many of the things that we’ve learned in the previous books into their ear. Corwin is, of course, in the middle of everything racing thither and yon mostly in the Shadows. We learn some things about Dara, Brand, and the other characters. But are the people telling these things really trustworthy? We are also told some things about what the various plotting factions are doing but can we trust this info either? We just don’t know. If we can trust it, some things are becoming clearer.

However, I can’t really trust any of them and I’m occasionally struck by Corwin’s desire to trust his siblings even though he thinks all the time that he can’t trust them. I was also a bit disappointed that so little came from their ancient rivalries. Centuries of hating or at least disliking each other is thrown away with a hand shake and: “I guess you’ve changed”? If I had been born and raised to expect the worst from my siblings I probably wouldn’t have been able to shake it off so quickly.

Of course, Zelazny isn’t writing a fat fantasy and I’m actually happy to be spared of hundreds of pages of angsty introspection of “should I trust him or not”. Just seemed a bit quick, that’s all.

On the other hand, I’m not entirely happy with the way he keeps changing the rules. In the first book Corwin thinks that he can’t takes his troops with him through the Trump. However, in the next book the solders are moved with the use of two Trumps and by this time it’s an established fact of moving. Horses can go through, too. Now, of course, in the first book Corwin might just not have the time to move the soldiers. However… I didn’t get that impression. So, Zelazny thought it would be cooler (not to mention easier for the plot) to change it. The problem is that the reader can never know what “rule” is going to be changed next. And now with the Pattern, well, shouldn’t one of the intrepid explorer siblings have found out the truth before now?

But it’s also a clear sign of the strength of Zelazny’s writing that (at least this) the reader starts to think of these things instead of just dismissing it as “just fiction, of course it doesn’t make sense”. Amber is a fascinating setting.