Monthly Archives: December 2012

19) A Study in Scarlet

By: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Date Finished: 12.27.12

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Many years ago, I read a few Sherlock Holmes stories and enjoyed them, but I had no notion of the larger narrative or the intricacies of the Holmes/Watson relationship.  Off and on, I’ve considered reading further, but nothing ever came of it.  However, given my more recent and passionate love of the Sherlock Holmes movies and the BBC show Sherlock combined with my disdain for CBS’s Elementary, I felt I could no longer put off reading the source material.  Naturally, I had to start at the beginning with A Study in Scarlet.

Oh. My. Goodness.  I can hardly think of a more enjoyable reading experience – it is truly riveting.  Part One is basic enough, explaining how Watson came to share a flat with a perfect stranger and his attempts to reconcile Holmes’ idiosyncrasies resulting in his somewhat accidental tagging along with Holmes on a case.  I spent much of the first part congratulating Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (the creators of BBC’s Sherlock) on a brilliantly rendered adaptation.  Some of the early dialogue was used verbatim in the show and sounded completely normal for present day.  I marveled and appreciated the modernity of Doyle’s prose – both for his time and for ours.  This part was pleasant and interesting, and then ended so abruptly.

At first I was irritated because Part Two introduced a completely different setting, pace, and tone.  I had to set it aside for a while before trusting that Doyle wouldn’t lead me astray.  Boy, was that late-coming faith warranted.  This part gives an incredibly detailed account of how the case began, long before the players were even introduced to one another.  It’s a fascinating tale and extra heart wrenching because I’d had a glimpse of the outcome.  It could have been such a beautiful triumph, but I knew it was going to take a turn for the worse, I just didn’t know how.  I read with my stomach clenched and my heart pounding, yet I couldn’t tear my eyes away.  The whole feeling was marvelous.  I thought I’d been invested in characters before, but never like this.

Part Three returns the reader to London where Holmes and Watson wrap up the case to a satisfying conclusion.  Throughout the book, the suspense builds to just the right moment and there are wonderfully funny moments sprinkled in.  The prose is easy to read, but not watered down in the least.  This story alone is an exquisite masterpiece and worthy of all the attention it has received over the years… even the less successful adaptations.

At the end of the day: Really, really, really for me

18) Fairest

Companion novel to Ella Enchanted

By: Gail Carson Levine

Date Finished: 12.24.12

by Gail Carson Levine

Axa has the most beautiful voice in a country that values singing above all else — except for physical beauty, and that is where Axa is lacking.  Severely.  Abandoned as an infant, she is raised by a generous innkeeper and his family until chance takes her to the palace for the king’s wedding.  In no time at all, Axa is swept up into the circles of court life, elevated to lady-in-waiting for the new queen, and, almost as abruptly, accused of being an enemy of the kingdom.  But there’s a true threat to the kingdom and only Axa knows enough about it to prevent a revolution.

I think companion novels must be the hardest to write.  In theory, they’re a good idea, especially if the original book feels complete, but so far I haven’t had much luck with them.  References to the first book are forced, especially if the characters don’t physically appear, and it’s disappointing when the second main character isn’t as strong as the first.  Axa is no Ella.  She’s shy, painfully naive, and so obsessed with beauty that it drags down the plot (even though beauty is the plot).  Ella was clever, witty, and proactive — traits I believe Axa could have possessed to some degree without compromising the character.

The book left me with a whole heap of questions, and not the good where-do-they-go-from-here questions.  Consistently, the relationships were confusing and not believable.  It was a decently good story except that it felt crammed into a fairy tale where it didn’t fit.  I guessed from the title it was meant to be a “Snow White” adaptation, but for a long time thought I had ended up with a humanized version of “The Ugly Duckling” instead (which it essentially was).  Then, without warning, it was “Snow White” and in the most obvious ways.  Reaching this point, many of my why-did-that-even-happen questions were answered — that element/event exists in Fariest because it exists in the story of “Snow White”.  Somehow, that’s not a satisfying answer.

Similarly, an agenda (ineffectively) permeated the story.  There’s the lesson I’m supposed to pull from it — the pursuit of beauty is damaging — and the lesson I actually pulled which was… nothing.  It just didn’t resonate.  I could read this to a room of fifth grade girls and have a nice, stock discussion about beauty and perception, but I didn’t find the text itself compelling.

It’s a shame too, because I know Levine is an excellent writer.  The way she worked the “Cinderella” tale was inspired and one of the better fairy tale adaptations I’ve encountered.  Sadly, she lost it in the companion novel.  Even so, it’s a quick read with a good arc and some interest in a first read.  It’s fine for a rainy day, but where Levine’s Ella Enchanted is, well, enchanting, Fairest falls flat.

At the end of the day: Not for me

17) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

By: Ransom Riggs

Date Finished: 12.20.12

By Ransom Riggs

Sixteen-year-old Jacob Portman has long given up on the dream of an extraordinary life.  Stuck in the family retail business in Florida, he lacks pretty much any ambition until his grandfather is killed by an unknown creature.  With his dying words, Grandpa Portman sends Jacob on a quest to find the remnants of his old life in Ireland.  Jacob’s not sure what he expects to find on the all but deserted island, but he soon learns that his grandfather’s unbelievable tales — and photographs — of children with peculiar abilities could be real.  In a mix of present day and an impossible past, Jacob breaks out of his apathy to uncover his grandfather’s secrets.

The style of this book is wonderfully familiar, yet stands on its own.  It has recognizable elements taken from the Hero’s Journey and bears the markers of a fantasy novel, but is decidedly modern.  It’s partially a coming-of-age novel that happens a few years after the main character should have come of age and the transition from apathetic teenager to epic hero is slow, subtle, and not fully realized at the end of the book — a more realistic process than your typical fantasy hero to fit the contemporary setting.  But while it feels like several books I’ve read before, it takes its own shape and somehow transcends archetype.  Also, the books I’m reminded of do not resemble one another — a successful melding of genre and style.  If Riggs has taken ideas from other novels, he cast a very wide net and fashioned something completely unique.  And let’s face it, all stories are stolen to some degree, so at least he had the respect and creativity to go somewhere new.

However, stealing ideas from the photographs didn’t serve Riggs as well as I had hoped.  If you stand in a bookstore and select a book by its cover, this one certainly stands out.  When I discovered there are more pictures integrated into the plot, the book was irresistible.  Unfortunately, the inclusion of the photos were like tearing down a curtain that served to hide an illusion.  Riggs called so much attention to them that they didn’t come across as illustrations as I had expected.  The pictures spoke volumes on their own and I wished the explanations had been minimized.  As it is, it’s a bit obvious that he constructed the story around the photographs, which isn’t a problem in itself because the story is a good one, but he showed his hand a little too clearly when he came to each picture.  Perhaps the writing was no different than if he used illustrations, but it felt off because illustrations are drawn from the descriptions and in this case, the descriptions were extracted from the pictures.

That aside, the story is a compelling one.  It is wonderfully paced and has the right balance of surprise and predictability.  A blurb on the cover specifies that this is his first novel, which, though I hate to say it, can be felt a bit (mostly just my irritation with the photos, I think).  Even so, it is well-polished and features a strong voice.  It may be his first novel, but I am keeping a close eye out for the second.

At the end of the day: Really for me

16) Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars

Edited By: Rob Thomas

Date Finished: 12.04.12

Edited By Rob Thomas

“Annoy, tiny blonde one, annoy like the wind.”
(Veronica Mars, S.1Ep.10, “An Echoll’s Family Christmas”)

And, yes, I realize this leaps far over the line of nerdiness again, but I couldn’t resist.  Neptune Noir is a collection of essays about the show Veronica Mars edited by the show’s creator, Rob Thomas.  I only recently discovered the show and was am completely hooked.  This is quality television, only most people I talk to have seen pieces of it and that was years ago.   Now, I’m the type of person who likes to discuss what I read/watch and I thought this book might give me the conversation I craved.  Also, I was intrigued by the concept of a pop culture essayist because it seemed paradoxical, and still does a bit.

The essays were hit or miss — which is to be expected, of course — but there were more misses than I had hoped.  A few were incredibly thoughtful and I was glad for the perspective, but several fell flat.  What made the book worthwhile were the introductions by Rob Thomas.  He wrote an intro for the book as a whole and then a couple paragraphs before each essay which were wonderfully revealing.  How I would love if he had written the entire book!

A glaring oddity is that Neptune Noir came out between Season 2 and Season 3, which was a somewhat surreal experience.  For one thing, it saddened me to hear the eassayists predict a long life for the show when it only survived one more season.  Also, some pretty big character changes happened in Season 3 which were (generally) for the good of the show, but several essays would have been a great deal more complicated to write had they needed to factor in the third season.  It worked for what the writers knew at that time, but I felt a bit omniscient reading it from the future.

Needless to say, this is not a book to read unless you’ve seen the show.  And honestly, even if you love the show, this is a book to check out from the library and read just the Rob Thomas parts.

At the end of the day: Not for me