Amateur Night

By Kathrine K. Beck Marris

Apparently, in Book 1 (which our library doesn’t have) Jane da Silva gets stuck with the detective agency of her rich, but dead uncle. Only if she fixes a really hopeless case, she’ll inherit the money. This book is about her second attempt.

  • Author: Kathrine K. Beck Marris
  • Title: Amateur Night
  • Pages: 279
  • Published: 1993
  • Publisher: The Mysterious Press
  • ISBN: 0-89296-480-4

K.K. Beck Marris is not popular, it seems. While I read a paper copy, a quick web-scan shows that her works are pretty exclusively e-published nowdays. That means the books are quite cheap, but whether that’s enough to garner sales…

The problem is, ‘Amateur Night’ is not really good. It’s moderately well-constructed, with passable prose, and a decent protagonist. However, even if you add everything up, you still end up several points short of ‘good enough’.

The plot centers around Jane da Silva, who has to prove worthy of her uncle’s inheritance by solving a hopeless case — i.e., getting a convicted murderer out of quod because he didn’t do it, even if everyone else thinks he did.

She selects the case of a certain Kevin, a junk who ran into a pharmacy with a gun, ran out without the gun and left a dead woman. Cleverly, he didn’t do it, but… No, that would be a spoiler.

The opening chapters are pedestrian; the rest of the plot develops with all the vim and vigor of a snail stuck in molasses. Nothing much happens, it seems, despite another murder and an attempted murder.

Almost every character is, in potentio, interesting and engaging, but they all fall flat on the floor, from the curious Art Deco tenement building owner to the artsy stripper.

In the end I started skipping, and skipping, and then skipping even hard, only backtracking from a misguided sense of duty. I certainly won’t check Kathrine’s work out again.

The Two Towers

By John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

Right. We went to see the movie adaption of The Two Towers yesterday, and now I’m going to post my second combined  book/movie notice here. I am not angry, just disappointed. And not completely disappointed in the movie, just disappointed with certain parts of the movie. Parts of it were, in all honesty, excellent.

  • Author: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
  • Publisher: George Allen & Unwin
  • Published: 1986 (1954)
  • Pages: 442

I have at least three English editions of Lord of the Rings on my shelves, but I didn’t choose to give the particulars of this one without premeditation. It was my first copy. Previously, I had borrowed both Dutch and the English versions from the local library. I didn’t like the book at the time. Possibly because The Two Towers, together with the (remaindered at the time) appendices, was the only volume available. Yes, that’s right. Dutch public libraries have a penchant for buying Part Two of Three of anything — or Part 3, 5, 6 and 7 of eight, for that matter. But, retournons a nos moutons, I entered the 1986 paperback edition of Two Towers in the little unsorted list above. That was my first copy, as I said. I bought all three volumes in one audacious move, even though I couldn’t afford it, and had to borrow money from my mum. In 1986 I was about sixteen years old, I guess. For two weeks I was off the map. I severely harmed, if you can believe it, my English marks, because my teacher didn’t want to believe that ‘dale’ was a word. Anyway, I’ve read Lord of the Rings about six times since then, which is not as often as some, but more than most people on this swiftly moving clod of earth, and every time I reread it, I discover new nuances, new joys, and gain a deeper appreciation of Tolkien’s work. I don’t consider myself a fan — after all, my Sindarin is a joke. But I know the book. I’ve got a handsome three-volumes-in-one bound copy printed in a nice, large letter on unfortunate paper, and my wife has the great three-volume hardback on cream paper.

I went to the first movie with some trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised. So many details were just right, from Hobbiton, which I, being a soppy old fart and a sucker for children, particularly liked. I hated the transformation of Galadriel, and I nearly fell from my chair laughing at the Star Wars antics between Gandalf and Saruman. Really — how close can you get to the Compleat Jedi Knight?

Having heard something about the second movie beforehand, I went to the movieplex with more than trepidation. I felt as if my shoes were weighted down with lead slabs. I feared the rape of Faramir with a bitter, cold fear.

And I was right. While there are many places in the movie adaptation of ‘The Two Towers’ that are bad, ill-conceived or ludicrious, I feel
that Faramir would stand a pretty good chance if he tried to mulct
Jackson for substantial damages because of defamation of character.
Faramir — the perfect British Officer. The gentle, intelligent, underrated little brother of Boromir. Whose name alone promises that the bearer will play cricket. He never tried to take the bloody ring to Denethor. Never. And he didn’t wear that ugly little pencil-stripe moustache either. Nor did he look like a particularly mousy weasel. The Osgiliath episode is a filthy lie, and when I buy the DVD, I won’t watch it.

Enough! Other failings of the movie: Gimli is far more of a hero than a comic foil, and while the dwarf jokes didn’t all grate on me, not even the ‘tossing joke’, I really hated it when he wasn’t able to look over the rampart. And dwarves, Tolkien notes especially, are made for endurance. To pervert that to sprinting, is silly. And ignorant. The way the plot was tortured around the escape of Pippin and Merry, the banishment of Eomer, that was bad too. Sam’s voice-over near the end was very close to badness. That Theoden didn’t stay old when he came out of under the influence was bad, too — had he stayed a graybeard, his charge here, and his future charge in the Pelennor fields, would have been far more impressive. The silly staff-pointing at Theoden and the chat between Gandalf and Saruman at the time was actually damaging. How can Gandalf now rob Saruman of his colours at Orthanc? Tell me that! And I have a very, very persistent fear that Arwen will indeed have gone, and that Aragorn is stuck with Eowyn. After all, Eowyn is far too good for Faramir, in the movie.

Good points, points where the movie is better than the book: especially the depiction of the women and children of Rohan. I admit that I freely cried when the small boys were armed and helmeted, and that I cried again during the shot of the women and babies when the orcs cracked open the doors of Helm’s Deep. (Sedom, the main protagonist in the fantasy novel I should be writing instead of this review, was indignantly shouting at me that the silly Rohirrim had a thousand fine, young, strong, trained women at their disposal, and should use them. I think he was right.) There were more good points. Grima Wormtongue was very well done, I felt, and the scene where he was advising Theoden was positively Shakespearean, and I mean
that as a compliment. Much to my surprise I liked Gollum very much.
His facial expressions were so strong, so surprisingly strong. His
externalized inner battle between Smeagol and Gollum was better on
screen than in the book. The breaking of Orthanc was uncannilly
exactly like my own imagination.

As for the book; I’m rereading it right now. Again. The English is stilted in places, and old-fashioned. And very, very beautiful. I sometimes feel that there’s too much of a King James version influence. But the heroes, always excepting Aragorn, are so much more heroic, and, at the same time, so much more consistent in the book, that the book still wins. Which is fortunate, since it’s so much more convenient to read a book than to watch a movie.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

By J.K. Rowling

Last Sunday, I went to see the second Harry Potter movie. One is a father of three, or one isn’t — I am, and I had to go. So, having come back from the experience with a first-of-a-lifetime experience, I grabbed the book, and decided to do a double notice. I hadn’t been able to read a real book this weekend anyway, being afflicted by a nasty bacterial infection.

  • Author: J.K. Rowling
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Published: 1998
  • Pages: 251

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (laughably inaccurately translated into Dutch as ‘Harry Potter en de Geheime Kamer’ — literally ‘the Secret Chamber’) is the weakest book of the series. The movie is the first movie I’ve seen in years (which doesn’t say much, since I think I’ve seen maybe twelve movies in the past four years) that was really, atrociously,  inexcusably bad.

The plot, such as it is, is merely a rehash of the first book, with different gadgets, gewgaws and gizmos’s, but very samey all the same. Of course, there are a couple of nice new characters. Dobby is interesting, Ron’s father is delightful and Gilderoy Lockhart is an invention.

These characters come over very well in the movie, too. All the other dads chuckled appreciatively when Mrs Weasley put her husband down over his enthousiasm for the boys’ exploit with the car. Dobby is very well animated, moves with a beatiful fluidity. (Fawkes, on the other hand moves like a Kentucky fried chicken on strings.) And Lockhart has been perfectly cast.

So far, so good. However, where the book presents at least a basic continuity, the movie possesses none. Scene after scene appears to have approximately twenty seconds cut from the beginning, ensuring that you never quite now what the people on the screen are expostulating about.

And expostulate they do. There’s very, very little dialogue that doesn’t sound stilted, with as an absolute pit-deep depth the bit where Mrs Weasley tells everybody that they can only go to Diagon Alley. Yuk. And Yech.

The confusion about the story line starts there, or rather when Harry arrives in Misbegotten Alley, where, in the movie, he doesn’t overhear Lucius Malfoy. Why go there, then? Just to show that they can do a dark-side Dickensian London, too, not just the bright Anton Pieck London? Probably.

The movie consists of a lot of unconnected scenes that do not manage to tell a story; I had the impression I was looking at someone’s holiday snapshot album. You know the experience — “Here’s a picture of me doing the Quidditch match. Why? You know, it’s just something I do, dontcherknow. And here’s the picture of Hermione as a cat. Isn’t she a real hoot? We nearly died laffing. And this is old Albus’s room. And that a pretty bird. Only it died. Look!”

A snapshot album — perhaps a wizardly one, with moving snaps — but certainly not a movie, not a story. And the book is, emphatically, a story. Not a terribly good story, but told with a smoothness unequalled outside pulp trash.

The Lord Peter Wimsey Companion

By Stephan P. Clarke

Yesterday, in an imposing carton that my kids are using up to create jewelry and photo mountings, my copy of the Lord Peter Wimsey Companion (LPWC, because I can be lazy if I want to, and have to take some care with my wrists) arrived. I don’t claim to have read its 773 pages yet, but I’ll be dashed if I don’t give it a notice.

  • Compiler and editor: Stephan P. Clarke
  • Publisher: The Dorothy L. Sayers Society
  • Published: 2003
  • Edition: Second, first printing
  • Pages: 773
  • ISBN: 0-9518000 8 6

A noble book is a like a song to my soul — the original, in Lord Peter Views the Body, the story of Uncle Meleager’s Will, has this about an old book. But a new book works just as well, if it’s a book like the LPCW.

Don’t be fooled by the meager pagecount — only 773 pages, which, surely, cannot do justice to all the allusions and context the Lord Peter Wimsey books contain. These are larger-than-A4 pages. And the print is very small.

Inside the book you find information on anything that might be obscure in the LPW books — books that since they were first published seventy years ago might be supposed to contain a lot that was clear at the time but is dark at present. There are maps (for instance of Talboys or Pym’s), explanations of the constant allusions that are the result of the novelist’s habit, notes on popular culture of the thirties and cross-references for characters, places and other items worty of note appearing in the books.

The latter I consider superfluous; I know the books by heart, so I don’t need to be reminded about Bill Thoday, for instance. But the maps are a delight. And, being comparatively (to DLS, that is) illiterate, I never knew how much was quotation, and whence the quotations came.

It’s a pity, though, that the contributors haven’t been able to trace some of the famous phrases that I’ve always considered quotes — phrases like ‘I have no information on that point’, that occur both in Gaudy Night and in the Unpleasantness in the Bellona Club have a ‘quoty’ ring to them.

Did I need the ten lines on Karl Marx — no — but I did need the explanation on ‘Marx said that man…’. (p. 385). And so the book is like a singularly rich beach, every ten grains of sand one of gold. I wish there were a like companion to Wodehouse. And to Martin Lodewijk’s Agent 327.

Hangman’s Holiday

By Dorothy L. Sayers on Wednesday January 15, @10:07PM

I knew I’d read the word bromide somewhere, and still I couldn’t get it right in a silly intelligence test that tests English, or more accurately, Latinate English vocabulary. But how can this bit of trivia be relevant to a book notice of Hangman’s Holiday? Simple — this is the book where I read the word. Second story, page 41.

  • Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Publisher: New English Library
  • Published: 1974 (1933)
  • Pages: 188

Dorothy L. Sayers is, of course, the second-most famous author of mystery novels and short stories: Agatha Christie is the most famous of the breed. But DLS’ books are often deeper than Christie’s, and very often more literate, too. This means that DLS’ novels are not for everyone; she expects you to be able to read enough French to know the difference between a masculine and a femine article (in the story ‘The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question’ in Lord Peter Views the Body). And, apparently, scatters words like bromide through her texts. I, for one, am glad of that: most of my English vocubulary seems to originate from her books.

What of the collection under advisement? DLS’ short stories always bordered a bit on the fantastic, not to say on the improbable. While most novels fit neatly into a Lord Peter Wimsey timeline, stories like ‘The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey’ don’t seem to fit. That, however, has very little to do with the quality of the stories on their own, and Hangman’s Holiday contains several of my favourite stories, such as ‘The Image in the Mirror’ or, again, ‘The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey’.

Both ‘The Queen’s Square’ and ‘The Necklace of Pearls’ are Christmas stories, and I’ve never been very excited by them. That’s it for the Lord Peter stories; but then we get to the Montague Egg stories. I must confess a weakness for this commercial traveller in wines and spirits. He is cheerful and bright, and, as it were, always on the spot.

We have ‘The Poisoned Dow ’08’, ‘Sleuths on the Scent’, ‘Murder in the Morning’, ‘One too many’, ‘Murder at Pentecost’ and ‘Maher-shahal-hashbaz’
with Montague Egg here. Especially ‘The Poisoned Dow ’08’ is a favourite, with its very clever murder weapon and finely drawn character, even of the victim.

The final two stories in the collection are ‘The Man Who Knew How’ and ‘The Fountain Plays’. These are very much also-rans, keeping an uneasy middle ground between mystery and horror. I like horror, sometimes, some kinds, but I’m not really fond of these stories.

It’s hard to be fresh about the stories in this collection: not only have they been around for seven decades, I first read them about ten years ago, and I guess there hasn’t been a year since that I didn’t re-read them. I will probably re-read them again, and again until the paperback falls apart. And then I’ll buy a new copy. But I will generally stop two stories before the end of the book.

Carry On, Jeeves

By P.G. Wodehouse

“I was sent by the agency, sir,” he said. “I was given to understand that you required a valet.”
I’d have preferred an undertaker; but I told him to stagger in.

  • Author: P.G. Wodehouse
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Published: 1980 (1925)
  • Pages: 235
  • ISBN:: 0 14 00.1174 9

Carry On, Jeeves is a collection of Jeeves and Wooster stories; what’s more, it’s the collection of the first Jeeves and Wooster stories. The first story is the one where Jeeves enters the employment of Bertram Wooster, and the other stories give us the details on the various episodes Bertie keeps referring to in the rest of his works.

It’s in this book that we learn how Anatole came to enter the employment of Aunt Dahlia (Clustering round young Bingo), where we see Bertie being sentenced to a fiver by the beak of Bosher Street (Without the option), where the engagement with Florence Graye falls through (Jeeves takes charge) and finally the gastly entanglement with the Girl’s school (Bertie changes his mind).

The stories are clearly quite early; the extreme fluency that is such a hall-mark of the later Jeeves and Wooster stories is not really there, especially not in the stories that are set in New York; but there’s also a freshness about many situations (like the memoirs that should be stolen; an idea that Wodehouse has reused later, in Summer Lightning).

The one story I do not care for at all is the last one: Bertie Changes his Mind. It’s written from the viewpoint of Jeeves, and that might sound interesting, but it isn’t really. I much prefer to view Jeeves through the eyes of Bertie, who is a far more fluent prattler. A long stretch Jeeves is extremely tiring.

Anyway, if you’ve never read a Jeeves and Wooster story before, you start here, because the events depicted in this volume are referred to time and again in the later works. Those books are readable enough in their own light, and you work out what happened soon enough, but the joy of recognition is particularly pleasant.

The “Spectator” has, on the occasion of the republication of Wodehouse’s complete works (in hardback, but sadly unavailable in the Netherlands) published a very fine article: The music of the language by Philip Hensher. He argues that Wodehouse’s mastery lies in his mastery of the language; and that is true. But there’s more. The fine men and women that people his books are just as sheerly enticing.

Cutting the Sweetness

By Peta Tayler

Another one that goes back to the stack… I like the premise of the book. According the little library card stuck in front, it’s about a middle-aged woman who’s caught in a boring marriage. A pregnant 17-year old barges in and gingers up stuff. A situation ripe with pregnant possibilities, and my imagination was fired.

  • Author: Peta Tayler
  • Publisher: Headline
  • Published: 1996
  • Pages: 282
  • ISBN: 0-7472-1705-X

Perhaps last week (the second week of January 2003, for the record) was a better week for writing than for reading. This isn’t the only book I returned to store. I didn’t finish The Code of the Woosters, either, but that one is still on the to-read, or more accurately, the to-read-again stack. I only discontinued reading the Master’s immortal prose because I acquired Carry On, Jeeves, whereas I quit reading this book because I plain didn’t like it.

The first few pages are a bit turgid, but not devoid of imagination. The setup of the situation is adequately done: woman has married a dry, boring accountant. Accountant is fired from his job, and masks that by going to the library and hiding there. Woman has a small job on the side and enjoys that.

Everything is ready for the appearance of the promised pregant 17-year old, who, if I’d written this book, revitalizes the marriage in no uncertain way.

Except that that doesn’t happen. A lot of intrigue and stuff going on, ending with a divorce. Blech. Not imaginative at all. All books where the wife is shackled to a boring accountant-type end with divorce, and her settling down with a happy new relationship, leaving the man behind in the doldrums. It might be realistic, but it’s not interesting any more.

So I’ve put this book away, and taken up something else.

Blood Relation

By Andrew Taylor

(review by Irina)

Yet another part of my Quest for the Ultimate English Mystery Novel. I actually realized when I was on page 15 or so that I’d read it some years ago, but could only remember one scene – not a good sign. Not that the book is at all bad, just not memorable.

  • Author: Andrew Taylor
  • Title: Blood Relation
  • Published by: Victor Gollancz, London
  • Year: 1990

It turns out that this isn’t Andrew Taylor’s first novel by far, and that he’s even written some more books with the same protagonist. I’d probably pick them up in the library or buy them second-hand for one euro or less as a nice undemanding read when tired or miserable.

There’s nothing actually wrong with the book. The plot is interesting, the background well thought out (and means more to me than the previous time I read it, because large parts of it are set in the publishing world; I hadn’t started writing seriously then), the good guys are likeable, the bad guys are hateable, the in-between guys are ambiguous, just as it should be. It’s not even so predictable that it becomes boring: the ending has a nice unexpected twist that makes everything fit.

It’s set comfortably in England (and partly in Wales), without the foreign local colour that seems to be fashionable but tends to put me off when I pick up a book. The conversations are natural. There’s human interest.

But it doesn’t have “a certain je ne sais quoi” and, frankly, je ne sais quoi.

Mediaeval Latin Lyrics

By Helen Waddell

Not having benefitted from a classical education, I have never been able to teach myself enough Latin to read anything but the simplest books a vue — the Legenda Aurea or the Vita Karoli Magni and the easier bits from the Colloquia. So, when the Holy Nicholas of Myra presented me with a bilingual compilation of Medieval Latin verse, I was tickled to death.

  • Author: Helen Waddell
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics
  • Published: 1962 (1929)
  • Pages: 352

And not for nothing. Finally I have a compilation of Latin verse where even I, with my meager knowledge, can correct the translator. When Ausonius writes olim regum et puerorum nomina, it is surely essential to get the contrast that is caused by the juxtaposition of kings and children in the translation, and not merely give up with “once bewailed names of kings.” The Dutch translation that springs to mind is “eens de namen van koningen en kinderen”, but I have to admit that I cannot so readily phrase that in alliterating English.

There are other places where Helen Waddell, who is otherwise about as far above my touch as a person can be, is busy rhyming instead of translating. A pity, since I now cannot use the volume as a crib to aid my own imperfect understanding.

The usefulness as a crib is further diminished by the printing of the Latin text in a slightly smaller font than the translation. It does not succeed in its apparent goal of focusing attention on the English, and means that English and Latin line up even worse than usual. Add to that that English is usual wordier, and the outline of the problem will be clear.

As to how her translations fare as poetry in their own right: even though they do not always accurately transfer the sense of the original, they are nice, as poems go. But I do think that the original authors generally produced a stronger bit of poetry, with more meaning, oomph and espieglerie to it. Even if they wrote in a timid, half-articulate Latin, as Helen Waddell reminds us in the preface.

Of course, in the end, this is a very famous and very class compilation that I just happened to stumble against (or rather, that Sinterklaas) stumbeled against — and criticism about seventy years after the fact is a bit silly. But I’m still glad I caught the kings & kids’ names.

Errantes silva in magna et sub luce maligna
inter harundineasque comas gravidumque papaver
et tacitos sine labe lacus, sine murmure rivos,
quorum per ripas nebuloso lumine marcent
fleti, olim regum et puerorum nomina, flores.

Summer Lightning

By P.G. Wodehouse

This is the third Blandings Novel, and a treat I’d saved myself for when I thought I’d really need it.

  • Author: P.G. Wodehouse
  • Publisher: Herbert Jenkins
  • Published: 1929
  • Pages: 318
  • Alternative title: Fish Preferred

I know I’m a strange kind of fish — there’s no use denying it. There are a few books I know I’m going to like that I only read small pieces from. A chapter here, a chapter there, saving the real treat for some other time. This is what I did with Summer Lightning. However, feeling rather miserable with one thing and another, I figured the time had come to allow myself a long draught of the Master’s tonic.

Which, in itself, means that by know you know what I think of this book. It is, as Plum acknowledges in the preface, the familiar old story with the all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names.

But how does the book stack up qua book, instead of as a warm bath?

Pretty well, actually. Even if there’s no doubt about the eventual rejoining of the various sundered hearts, there’s a lot of genuine suspense — will the infernal Baxter manage to insinuate himself in Blandings Castle again, will we hear the story of Gregory Parsloe and the prawns, and, finally when lover B engages lover D, will A and C reciprocate? It is a testimony to Wodehouse’s talent that one never loses track of the developments, because they are as complex as in any C18 French comedy.

No words of mine, a mere L2 speaker of the language can do justice to Wodehouse’s polished English. Suffice it to say that I have seriously thought of dedicating my own book (GUI Application programming with Python to Wodehouse, because he has taught me real English. (That’s not to disparage the efforts of my high school teachers, but they, too, will know what I mean.)

Shall I give an outline of the story? Or will you rush out to your nearest second-hand bookshop and secure yourself a copy? Or perhaps splash out on a new printing (but take care and don’t buy those horrible Penguin pockets that are printed with ragged right edges, the ultimate insult).

Right, a short summary, then. Ronnie Fish, son of Julia Fish, is engaged to the chorus girl Sue Brown, daughter of Dolly Henderson, erstwhile fiancee of Galahad Threepwood, the brother of Lord Emsworth. Meanwhile, Hugo Carmody is engaged to Millicent Threepwood.

Needless to say, Sue is unsuitable for Ronnie because she’s a chorus girl, even if her father was captain of the guards, and Hugo is equally ineligible because he hasn’t got a bean.

And Galahad Threepwood is writing a book about the daring exploits of the English gentry in the 1890’s. The same English gentry thirty years later is not amused by the prospect.

Oh, and Emsworth is potty about his pig.

Buy this book and visit The Junior Ganymedes for the Wodehouse FAQ and other goodies. Do yourself the favour.