Monday, July 24, 2006

John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost, 1969. The House with a Clock In Its Walls, 1973.

A space back, I read the Wikipedia entry on Bellairs. I have read the children’s books many, many times--they’re some of my favourite books for children, or rather, for me as a child (and, at that, as one who’s not entirely grown up)--but was astonished to come across a reference to The Face in the Frost, a book for adults that I’d not heard of.
Various folk on Wikipedia write:

Bellairs undertook The Face in the Frost while living in England and after reading J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings; in the upshot, it is not much like that book, save for the fact that it shares the idea of a wizard who is palpably human and not a literary stereotype. Bellairs said of his third book: "The Face in the Frost was an attempt to write in the Tolkien manner. I was much taken by The Lord of the Rings and wanted to do a modest work on those lines. In reading the latter book I was struck by the fact that Gandalf was not much of a person--just a good guy. So I gave Prospero, my wizard, most of my phobias and crotchets. It was simply meant as entertainment and any profundity will have to be read in.

I placed a hold on the book when I read of it in Wikipedia, and the hold died because the book could not be found. I had forgotten that I agreed to the idea of placing an ILO (interlibrary loan request) to get a copy of the book--it had been so long!--and was thrilled to find the book when I went into the Dundas branch to pick the ILO up.

I read it yesterday afternoon. It’s very obviously an adult’s book; the death, and the killing, are more gruesome than I’d let even a teenager near. It shows the odd fascinations of Bellairs’ mind: the description of the wizard Prospero’s house bares an eerie resemblance to the house at 100 High Street, as do many of the unusual contents (oh, to live in such a shifting and intriguing place, never less than bursting with new things rushing to the fore).

The plot is typical of Bellairs’ work. I find his endings seem to skip a step, just before the very end, and this one left out more than I would have liked. Prospero and Roger Bacon are fun, interesting characters. It’s a book well worth reading, if you like Bellairs, and if you can find it. One I’d like to own, I think, though I doubt I’ll find it.

The allusions were what struck me the most; he borrows imagery flagrantly, but basically cites his source. The story of the Witch of Endor is incredibly important, but while obvious in the imagery and references to the story, the story itself is woven deftly into the plot. I was thrilled to read this book.

I promptly read The House with a Clock In Its Walls, and was surprised by how adult it seemed. Some of the events of that book still freak me out! I remembered it as a pleasantly unnerving superstitious suspense novel, but it is a spooky, spooky book. It was neat to read it after the other, and get some sense of how it was adapted from an adult novel into a children’s book. I’m going to have to read some more of Bellairs yet because of the ILO showing up after having been forgotten; I think I’m going to quite enjoy that. And, after all, how can one dislike reading books illustrated by the delightfully creepy pen and ink drawings of Edward Gorey?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts, 1994.

Nouwen’s meditation on the Eucharist was a useful thing for me to read. He says a number of things that are quite akin to my own thoughts about the importance of the Eucharist, ideas of inclusivity, and the challenges that the Eucharist offers, but he thinks about these things in quite different ways. I found it fun to learn how he approached the ideas, what stories he used. The story of the road to Emmaus is the basis for an extended meditation, and it made me begin to re-evaluate that story and my own conception of it. So, I was challenged to think more about the Eucharist from a different perspective, but the book also talked me out of making an idol out of Nouwen, given my differences from him. A useful thing indeed to happen when one reads a lot of one author at a time.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

David L. Robbins, War of the Rats, 1999.

I picked this one up after reading Liberation Road. The plot of this book will be familiar territory for some: twisted and turned around, it became a good chunk of Enemy at the Gates.

The story is that of a Russian sniper, Zaitsev, who becomes involved in a sniper battle against the German expert sniper König. It’s a decent book, but makes sense as the basis for a movie; it’s neater than the history it portrays, and is interesting principally in so far as it attempts to capture what life was like in Stalingrad, before (and, briefly, after) the Russian rescue of the city. The book was a nice quick read.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, The Book of the Dead.

The sequel to Dance of Death, it was nice to return to this quick read (less than 24 hours, one late night, but no reading during my work day). An enjoyable yarn, totally implausible, but making me remember far too much of when I wanted to be an Egyptologist. At any rate, this one may be the last of the Pendergast novels; I think it’s a decent though far too obvious an ending.

Short version? Picks up right where Dance of the Dead left off: Pendergast in prison, D'Agosta working to bust him out, the evil brother Diogenes up to no good--and of course, all set at the American Museum of Natural History (wikipedia summary of museum here). The stories those walls could tell--how many murders, beasts, evil spirits, etc., have wandered through those 46 acres of downtown New York in the world of Preston and Child? Ah well. The story revolves around an exhibit being opened to restore the Museum to the good graces of the public: an exhibit of the tomb of Senef, supposedly a vizier to and regent for Thutmose IV. I can't actually think of anything else about the plot to write without giving things away.

Entertaining, overly contrived, but a fun bit of pulp. The most fun thing about these books is the imagined exhibits themselves; Preston and Child should go into the museum curator business. They populize well.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Kate Charles, Evil Intent, 2005.

A newly ordained, newly appointed curate enters life in a parish not sure what to make of female clergy: some of the parishoners won’t so much as shake her hand, the rector’s wife feels usurped in role—and is also worried that a romantic takeover of her husband’s affections is in hand—and the rector wants to use her to do the jobs he doesn’t want to do. (No concept of team ministry. Baffling to a Canadian church fellow like myself.) Making matters worse, a good chunk of the deanery’s priests seem to be against women joining there number, and Callie’s ex-fiancé just happens to be placed as curate in the next parish over. Thank heavens for her good friend, a chaplain at the hospital--who’s promptly accused of murdering another priest with his own stole.

Machinations abound in this relatively entertaining murder mystery. For my taste, there’s a bit too much of Callie’s romantic life and uncertainties, but the book loses all the appeal it has with its deus ex machina ending—far too neat, tidy, and convenient.

Convenient is not a word I care for in the realm of mysteries. I was disappointed that an otherwise well-written book should collapse so dramatically at the end.