Book Review: The Circular Staircase

Title: The Circular Staircase
Author: Mary Roberts Rineheart
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Year of Publication: 1908
Goodreads Rating (Avg): 3.66
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Mild Spoilers

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Plot Description: A spinster aunt, her inseparable companion, and her adoptive children (niece and nephew) rent a house in the country for a few months. Almost immediately, there is a murder in the house – the son of the owner is dead. What’s more, the servants believe the house is haunted, due to mysterious noises and intruders who somehow manage to get into the house no matter how many windows are barred, how many doors locked, and how many armed men keep watch.

This made for an enjoyable read, although I was under the impression that I was reading an Agatha Christie novel from start to end. The same thing happened when I read “The Man in Lower Ten,” although in that case I figured out halfway through the book that it was a different author.

It’s hard to imagine a book written a hundred years ago managing not to sound entirely too alien, but I guess this explains all the constant hysteria on the part of the women in the book. I’m rather glad that the female characters – and specifically, protagonist Rachel Innes – dominate the storyline entirely. Lady’s maid Liddy and niece Gertrude also play significant parts in the novel, and the book tends to focus on their perspectives and interests, as well as those of the numerous interchangeable (mostly female) servants and the delicately ill Louise Armstrong.

It is quite annoying to watch these women hear strange sounds in the night and then immediately rush into their rooms and bolt the doors, rather than go out and catch the culprits red-handed. It’s equally annoying that on the few occasions where they actually go out to try and catch the culprits red-handed, they faint with amazing promptness at the slightest whisper of contact with said culprits. All this serve as narrative devices that stretch the mystery out, and while they may have been believable plot devices in Rineheart’s head, they’re rather pathetic plot holes now.

The book rushes headlong through numerous twists, some of which would be easily guessed by a veteran reader of detective fiction. To be honest, I was more interested by Rachel Innes – her nosiness and spirit for adventure, despite the ever present danger of spontaneous fainting. Miss Innes is exhilarated by the prospect of going on an adventure involving midnight grave desecration and mischievously enjoys Liddy’s confusion at finding her mistress’ boots covered in dirt and smelling of the graveyard.

The description of Thomas Johnson (“the Armstrongs’ colored butler”) was something else I found interesting:

“Mrs. Watson had been glad enough, I think, to turn Louise over to our care, and Thomas went upstairs night and morning to greet his young mistress from the doorway. Poor Thomas! He had the faculty–found still in some old negroes, who cling to the traditions of slavery days–of making his employer’s interest his. It was always “we” with Thomas; I miss him sorely; pipe- smoking, obsequious, not over reliable, kindly old man!”

A perspective from the 1900s, written by a white woman, telling of the more “benevolent” conceptions of race and of black people in those days. At any rate, “poor Thomas” did not survive the novel – he had a heart attack upon seeing what he thought was a ghost, and died hiding in a cupboard. “Poor Thomas” was a complete narrative device – one dimensional and existing to enhance parts of the mystery through his actions, all of which were born of selfless devotion. I particularly dislike his thieving employer for having caused Thomas’ death – the man had faked his death, and then returned to search the house for his ill gotten goods, causing Thomas to assume that he’d seen a ghost.

I enjoyed this book much more than I did The Man in Lower Ten, quite possibly because this story wasn’t being narrated by a pompous prat of a man who seemed incapable of telling women apart, and incapable of assessing the female personality on any grounds except that of physical attractiveness. Rachel Innes is a great narrator and protagonist, her inquisitiveness and nose for adventure giving fresh breath to what would otherwise have been a very stuffy enterprise indeed.

Next Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #5 – The Black Circle

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Book Review: The Man in Lower Ten

Title: The Man in Lower Ten
Author: Mary Roberts Rineheart
Year of Publication: 1909
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.58
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

Plot Description: A mystery novel involving a murder, a theft, two cases of switched berths, cases of mistaken identity, a train crash, multiple women that the protagonist cannot distinguish properly between due to a condition known as casual-sexistitis, dated English, and an idiot who thinks he’s in love.

[Insert Spoiler Alert here]

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This book appeared in my collection of Agatha Christie novels, and I began to read it under the assumption it was by Christie herself. Being an old mystery novel by a female author, I suppose someone somewhere found it easy to confuse them. Even the title sounds like something Christie would have come up with.

Unfortunately for me, I carried forward my Agatha Christie mindset even after discovering my mistake. With Christie, the secret to solving the murder is to pin it on the least likely character. In this case, that character was Alice West. I now understand what a review of Christie that I read recently meant when it said that she showed no compassion for love interests. In this novel, the real twist would have been if Alice West was the murderer, but as the love interest for multiple characters (seriously, they’re all trying to get married to her) she was spared that dubious honour.

Having cut my teeth on my local library’s entire collection of Nancy Drew books, I have long been a fan of good mysteries. I even had a fanatic phase where I read only Agatha Christie. And to me, this was a very middling book. Poor, even, considering that it falls neatly into the classic format of too many crimes, confusion in the dark, person who was attempting to commit one crime finding a different crime already committed, and so forth. In the end, there was no real twist. The murderer is already dead, the beneficiary of the theft also already dead. Lots of dead people, no prosecution, and this is what passed for a “happy ending” in 1902. You know, so long as Whiny McWhiny gets to marry a girl ten years younger than he.

Indeed, romance is the weak point for many of the older novels I’ve read. Or perhaps it feels that way to me because of how different their patterns of courting were. Very little emotion is expressed, especially on the part of the women. They could all be replaced with walking, talking mannequins and I doubt anybody would notice the difference. Sex is barely ever even hinted at, except in the form of actual babies or pregnancies. What is mystifying to me, under such circumstances, is how these women managed to gain any semblance of a satisfactory sex life when they never actually talked about it, and pretended not to even think about it until the day they were married.

Against this backdrop, those rare expressions of emotion sound odd, forced and unnatural. Too much exposition is needed to explain it to the reader, because the author, the reader, and the characters themselves are all completely emotionally stunted.

Or so it seems to me, who am as outsider as it gets. Seriously, the only person in this book who is not white is Euphemia, Whiny McWhiny’s “colored” housemaid. I can’t imagine what character or role I’d fill, where I to have lived in the time and place this book is set in.

Perhaps the people living during that time had their own ways of knowing, their own little understandings. But as we all know, silence is how most forms of oppression thrive, and God forbid any of us return to such a time.

The writing was messy and scrambled, as though the author were piling misdirection upon misdirection. It made it hard to keep reading, and the casual sexism of the protagonist made it even harder. The coincidences that keep piling up – the idea that a girl, her fiance, fiance’s sister, fiance’s wife, fiance’s father in law, her boyfriend’s business partner (who is also her uncle’s lawyer), the accomplice of the forger that her uncle, boyfriend and boyfriend’s business partner are litigating against, forger’s girlfriend, and a random private detective should all be on the same goddamn train – well, that was the icing on the cake.

Told you it was hard to read.

That being said, this was apparently M.R.R’s debut novel, so a lot may be forgiven. I find the life of the author far more intriguing than her work itself – she wrote to support her family, singlehandedly renovating their house, among other things, with the money she received from her writing. She may have been fond of poking fun at traditional detective novels written from the masculine perspective, and spoke out about her radical mastectomy and cancer diagnosis more than a century before Angelina Jolie did. It says nothing positive about our society that Jolie’s decision to discuss her procedures caused as much of a stir as Rineheart’s did.

Next: Daytime Divas – Pilot

Book Review: Discworld #1 – The Colour of Magic

Title: The Colour of Magic
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1983
Series: Discworld; Rincewind
#: 
1; 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.94
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Not Spoiler Free

The Colour of Magic

Plot Description: A failed wizard named Rincewind is hired to take a Tourist from the Agatean Empire (situated on the Counterweight Continent) around Ankh Mopork. Unfortunately for Rincewind, who is a certified coward (and proud of it), Two Flower happens to have a knack for getting into adventures and cheerfully facing Death.

Along with Two Flower is The Luggage, a sapient wooden trunk that runs along on hundreds of little legs all by itself. The Luggage has the ability to store everything neat and dry, and also a penchant for eating anybody and anything that seems to threaten its master. The Luggage quickly seems to realize that Rincewind’s lack of prowess in wizardry is beaten by nothing but his ability to get out of dangerous situations unscathed. Lord Vetinary, Patrician of Ankh Mopork, comes to the same conclusion, and poor Rincewind is pressganged into the role of bodyguard as a result.

A long time ago, people used to believe that the world is flat and round, like a disk, and that the sun orbited the Earth. Even longer ago, people believed the world was held up by a turtle, or by four elephants, or by a Titan who was serving a life sentence.

In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
See…
Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.
In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.
Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and startanned shoulders the disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.
Astropsychology has been, as yet, unable to establish what they think about.

This is the Discworld, which is shaped like a disk and orbited by two suns. It is held up by four elephants, who in turn stand on the shell of a mighty turtle called Great A’tuin. Terry P. explains it by saying that in a world of multiverses and parallel universes, the Discworld exists so far away on the probability curve that we can’t really see it – but since the probability curve does go that far, then it probably exists. And since it constantly balances on the point of probability, its existence could easily be wiped out.

It is said that when a wizard is about to die Death himself turns up to claim him (instead of delegating the task to a subordinate, such as Disease or Famine, as is usually the case). Rincewind looked around nervously for a tall figure in black (wizards, even failed wizards, have in addition to rods and cones in their eyeballs the tiny octagons that enable them to see into the far octarine, the basic colour of which all other colours are merely pale shadows impinging on normal four-dimensional space. It is said to be a sort of fluorescent greenish-yellow purple). 

This is why the Discworld works on magic, and this is why Magic is so important to this world. Now that I’ve explained all the secrets of the Discworld, I will let you in on one final secret. There is a colour of magic, and that colour is known as Octarine. It is invisible to the naked eye, but if you could see it, you’d identify it as a sort of fluorescently green-ish yellow purple.

I sound daft, don’t I? The truth is, after weeks of reading nothing but Discworld, I’d be prepared to bet everything that I have that the world I’ve been reading about is far more real than the one I’m living in. Such is the magic of this world, which is like a reflection of ours when seen in a convex mirror. Or perhaps a concave mirror. Or perhaps just a very old mirror that has turned wavy with age. It’s the same and yet it’s not. It’s been coloured in with magic where all the grey bits ought to go in our world. What’s ridiculous to us is perfectly sane to them, and notions of economics and insurance wreak havoc in their world.

Satire is a weapon in the hands of a master, and Terry P. is undoubtedly one of those masters.

“It was all very well going on about pure logic and how the universe was ruled by logic and the harmony of numbers, but the plain fact of the matter was that the disc was manifestly traversing space on the back of a giant turtle and the gods had a habit of going round to atheists’ houses and smashing their windows.”

This being one of his earlier novels, Terry P. stands out more as philosopher than comedian, which I believe is one of the reasons why a great many first time readers get put off by this novel. He examines everything as though the secret of the universe lies under it, and in many instances, he’s completely right.

He also takes subversion of tropes very seriously, and this makes for a good combination in the company of caricature. Rincewind is a wizard who has never shown the least bit of magical talent. Two Flower is the typical tourist, completely oblivious to everything going on around him, being taken for a ride, and yet somehow coming unscathed out of each adventure. The Heroes are all brawn and completely dimwitted, the goals of their lives being booze, hidden treasure, slaying whatever is evil, and overcoming insane odds. Oh, and getting the girl. When he reduces tropes to their completely literal essentials, one sees why those tropes were stupid to begin with.

I wouldn’t recommend The Colour of Magic to someone who has never read Terry Pratchett before, but once you’ve read some of his other books, I think you’ll find that The Colour of Magic helps with all those unanswered questions, like “What in the world is ‘hubwards’?” or “What happens if you fall off the edge of the disc?”

If on the other hand, you’re not a Terry P. fan (yet), but love philosophy, magic and fantasy, then this is definitely the book for you.

Next: Discworld #2 – The Light Fantastic

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Title: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Year of Publication: 1953
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.95
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

“When they give you lined paper, write the other way.” – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Some Spoilers are Inevitable

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Plot Description: Guy Montag is a fireman, and as everyone knows, the role of firemen is to set fire to houses. And to burn books. The houses that have fire set to them are usually the ones harbouring books.
In Bradbury’s dystopic vision of a future, books are banned, and it’s not like any normal, sane person would want to read them anyway. That’s what a futuristic version of television on steroids (and possible crack cocaine) is for – to keep you entertained and happy… and free of questions.

Fahrenheit 451 is a much reviewed classic, so I doubt there’s much I can add to the collective discussion on this book. I read it as part of a Banned Books Club, although I skipped the scheduled discussion of the book because I had better things to do that day.

I loved this book, but it did not mesmerize me or haunt my soul in the way many other books have. Perhaps it’s because (to quote Mia Thermopolis) there just weren’t any girls in the book. I mean, there’s Mrs. Montag, who is a tired stereotype of the housewife who does nothing but watch TV and pop pills a lot. There’s also a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who is the reason Montag starts questioning the things he’d (sort of) always taken for granted in the first place. And… um, that’s about it, unless you count the brave lady who chose to commit suicide alongside her beloved books.

“You’re not like the others. I’ve seen a few; I know. When I talk, you look at me. When I said something about the moon, you looked at the moon, last night. The others would never do that. The others would walk off and leave me talking. Or threaten me. No one has time any more for anyone else. You’re one of the few who put up with me. That’s why I think it’s so strange you’re a fireman, it just doesn’t seem right for you, somehow.” – Clarisse, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I guess you don’t really expect many main characters in a story that is essentially one man’s internal monologue spread over an entire novel – with the exception of that one other man’s glorious monologue where he debates books against books and gives every book reader instant multiple orgasms.

Even so, I wonder what this book would have been like if either Guy or his boss (or both) had been women. (“Probably a lot more niche,” says the sarcastic voice in my head.)

Fahrenheit talks about a lot of things while expertly driving the plot along a single line. None of those other things can even be classified as sub-plots or side-plots. They’re just peripheral sentences that achieve what paragraphs and pages devoted to world-building in other books never manage to satisfactorily do. Like the fact that there’s a war going on outside the world all of these citizens have locked themselves into.

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.” – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Bradbury’s biggest message is obviously about censorship and refined art of banning books. I was truly astounded at the rationale that had been given for the banning of books – all books. It is, in fact, most unlike any of the reasons ever given for censorship till date – “this isn’t what our culture/ religion is all about”, “it promotes dissent/ treason/ threatens the sovereignty of the state in some manner” etc.

No, the world of Fahrenheit banned books because they offend. Anything anywhere is always bound to offend someone.

“There was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.” 

And this is so pertinent in today’s context, especially when it comes to political correctness (which I am a big fan of), and to what extent appropriateness of free speech can go. It’s pertinent in the face of growing awareness of how even everyday language normalizes disadvantages and marginalization, of how it promotes already entrenched power disparities. People who like to be able to say offensive things without being called out dislike the “PC-police”, calling them the sentinels of Censorship.

But political correctness is not censorship – primarily because the majority of the PC police don’t actually have the power to censor anything. What they are capable of instead is fostering debate, and encouraging people to question the things they do and why they say some things in a certain way. And that is precisely what the Fahrenheit regimes try and put an end to – any form of questioning.

 He also discusses superficiality – probably influenced by a growing television culture of the time. I highly doubt that he could have predicted today’s smartphone culture – after all, even in his version of the apocalypse, all we had were wall to wall television that we could speak to sometimes.

The book speaks about autocratic regimes, and the message sent across is the same one you’d get if you’re reading The Hunger Games. Near the end of the book, the cops chasing Montag lose his track, but need to make it look like he didn’t get away. An innocent civilian who’s breaking curfew is targeted and shot dead on live TV, and they announce that they got Montag. Autocratic regimes like stories end right. They need their happy ending, so they can show it to everyone else and thereby prevent a revolt in District 11. Banning books and distracting people with television on steroids allowed the government full control of the information channels – they could now craft whatever story they wanted to, and no one would wonder.

These dystopic books broadcast similar morals from the last pages of their books. Don’t go in for mass digitization. Don’t always accept the official story without question. Don’t ban books. Books are our friends. But each of these books invariably get reviewers who question the premise, the plot, the characters, and the dystopic vision itself as being senseless.

What’s funny though, is that in comparison to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the opposing Goodreads reviews for Fahrenheit 451 were a LOT milder.  

Next: Book Review – Bhimsen by Prem Panicker