What’s in a Name 6 Challenge Wrap-up

I’ve completed the What’s in a Name 6 Challenge at Beth Fish Reads!

2013 what's in a name 6

The goal was to read 6 books, one in each of the categories below. Here’s what I read:

  1. Up or down (or equivalent): Niccolò RISING by Dorothy Dunnett
  2. Something you’d find in your kitchen: The CRYSTAL Cave by Mary Stewart — I was thinking fancy crystal glassware here
  3. Party or celebration: The WEDDING of Zein by Tayeb Salih
  4. Fire (or equivalent): FIRE and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
  5. Emotion: LONESOME Dove by Larry McMurtry
  6. Lost or found (or equivalent): They FOUND Him Dead by Georgette Heyer

My favorite read for this challenge was probably Fire and Hemlock, although Lonesome Dove and The Wedding of Zein were also very good. On the other hand, I couldn’t stand Niccolò Rising! But I like this challenge because it’s completely based on titles rather than content, which is pretty unique among reading challenges. Hopefully it will continue next year, in which case I’ll most likely sign up!

Review: They Found Him Dead

They Found Him DeadGeorgette Heyer, They Found Him Dead

This book begins, as so many classic British mysteries do, with an ill-fated party at an English country house. Silas Kane is celebrating his 60th birthday, but many of his guests aren’t in a particularly happy mood. His heir, Clement, is desperate to get his hands on a piece of the older man’s fortune — especially because his beautiful but materialistic wife, Rosemary, is threatening to leave him. Meanwhile, Silas’ neighbor and business partner is eager to interest him in an investment opportunity, but so far he has stubbornly refused to consider the deal. So when Silas is discovered dead the day after the party — having apparently fallen over the cliff where he habitually took a walk every evening — there is no shortage of suspects to consider. And when Clement is shot in the study shortly afterwards, it seems clear that a murderer is at work. Once again, Inspector Hannasyde of Scotland Yard must untangle the various motives in play and discover the identity of a ruthless killer.

I’ve been steadily working my way through Heyer’s mysteries, and this book is a typical example. I always enjoy Heyer’s witty dialogue and hints of romance, although in this book the love story is very peripheral to the main plot. The mystery itself is fine, though there’s nothing particularly surprising for those who read a lot of detective novels. As always, the strength of Heyer’s books is her characters, and there several great ones here, from the self-absorbed Rosemary Kane to the exuberant young Timothy Harte, who is overly eager to assist the police in solving the murder. I should note, however, that while Inspector Hannasyde is a recurring character in Heyer’s mysteries, he is definitely not the protagonist; each individual book tends to revolve around the victim and the suspects much more than around the detective. Anyway, I definitely liked this book overall, but there’s nothing that makes it particularly stand out to me.

Review: Niccolò Rising

Niccolo RisingDorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising

In 15th-century Bruges, commerce is intimately linked to power: the more astute and skillful the merchant, the greater his position in society. So while nobility and ancient bloodlines are still important, ordinary men and women have unprecedented opportunities to raise their social standing. This novel follows the fortunes of Claes, a dyer’s apprentice whose easygoing demeanor disguises an extremely shrewd mind. Among his friends and employers, Claes is regarded as little more than the village idiot, which makes it all the easier for him to obtain useful knowledge simply by keeping his ears open and his mouth shut. When he learns about a risky business opportunity that could result in a huge payoff, Claes doesn’t hesitate to act on the information. But his quest for riches causes him to offend some powerful people, including a Scottish nobleman who has both financial and personal reasons to hate Claes.

Dorothy Dunnett is one of those authors I really want to like. I’ve heard great things about her books, and I love well-written historical fiction, so I thought she would be right up my alley. But when I tried the first book in her Lymond Chronicles a few years ago, I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I was hoping that this book from a different series would work better for me, but unfortunately it didn’t. My first problem was the number of characters; there are too many people to keep track of, and there’s a lot of hopping between different points of view. Secondly, I couldn’t figure out what was happening for a large portion of the novel. Dunnett likes to allude mysteriously to things instead of describing them directly, which I found incredibly frustrating. I didn’t understand even the main plot until the book was almost over! I think Dunnett’s intention was to build suspense and then have a big reveal at the end, but in my opinion, the resolution didn’t make up for the hundreds of pages of confusion I had to endure first. I did enjoy the setting of late medieval/early Renaissance Bruges, but I wouldn’t recommend this slog of a book to anyone!

Review: Fire and Hemlock

Fire and HemlockDiana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock

College student Polly believes that she has led a completely ordinary, uneventful life. But while packing for her return to school after a vacation, she begins to contemplate a photograph that has hung on her bedroom wall for years. As she looks at the photograph, she slowly begins to remember a different version of her past — a past in which her closest friend was a talented cellist named Thomas Lynn. In this alternate timeline, Polly met Tom when she was a little girl, and they quickly struck up a friendship, writing letters to each other full of strange and magical events. But when their made-up stories started to happen in real life, Polly knew that something sinister was at stake. Now she must sift through her rediscovered memories in order to save Tom from seemingly certain doom.

This is a book that I really liked overall, but I have a couple of major nitpicks. First, I love Diana Wynne Jones’ style; I’ve read a few of her books and enjoyed them, but I really need to seek out the rest of her work! I also really like the concept of the book: basically, Polly has two sets of memories and has to figure out what that means. It was a really interesting idea to explore, and I think it was executed very well. My biggest quibble is the ending, which I don’t think works at all. Polly realizes why she has the dual memories, figures out how to save herself and Tom, and then it just kind of happens with no real explanation. What happens to the baddies? What will Polly and Tom do going forward? There are a lot of unanswered questions, and that bugs me. My other problem with the book was the romance; I just found it really icky that the hero was so much older than Polly and that he basically had his eye on her since she was a child. I can see where DWJ was trying to go with it, but it did not work for me. Still, this is a book I would definitely recommend overall, especially to fans of retold fairy tales.

Review: The Crystal Cave

The Crystal CaveMary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

This novel, the first installment of Stewart’s Arthurian saga, reimagines the story of Merlin, legendary wizard and mentor to King Arthur. Merlin is the illegitimate son of the king of South Wales, a status that brings both privileges and dangers. He never goes hungry and is able to study with tutors, but he is also a target for anyone who might wish to succeed the king or seize power. When the king dies, the ensuing struggle for the throne puts Merlin in grave danger, and he decides to flee the kingdom. At age 12, with no name, no friends, and no particular skill with a sword, Merlin must learn to survive in a hostile world. He also begins to learn that he possesses unusual abilities — powers that enable him to see into the future and foretell the coming of Arthur, who will eventually become king of a united Britain.

I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s novels of romantic suspense, so I was excited to acquire her first three Arthurian books at a library sale a few years ago. But I have to admit, I was a little disappointed by this book. It’s well-written, and the historical insights into Roman Britain are fascinating…it just moves so slowly! It seems like the first hundred pages of a not-very-long novel are just about Merlin as a child in the king’s home, where nothing much happens to him, and he spends all day hiding in the ruins of the underground plumbing system. Once he leaves South Wales, the story picks up, and I quite enjoyed the descriptions of battles and political maneuverings among the various claimants to the British throne. I’ll read the remaining books because I already bought them, but I wasn’t as excited by this book as I’d hoped.

Review: The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories

The Wedding of ZeinTayeb Salih, The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories (trans. Denys Johnson-Davies)

This very short book contains two short stories, “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates,” as well as the novella “The Wedding of Zein.” All three works portray everyday life in a Sudanese village, but from varying perspectives. “The Doum Tree…” is about a sacred tree that is threatened when outsiders want to cut it down to make room for a new agricultural system. “A Handful of Dates” portrays a young boy’s disillusionment as he realizes that his grandfather isn’t as heroic as the boy once thought. And in “The Wedding of Zein,” the village laughingstock is about to be married to a beautiful and much-desired woman; the varied reactions of the townspeople to the news reveal subtle tensions within the village.

Before giving my thoughts on this book, I must admit that I know next to nothing about Sudan. I wasn’t even aware that its population spoke Arabic until I saw “translated from the Arabic” somewhere on my copy of the book! So I was very interested in reading these stories and broadening my horizons a little bit. Interestingly, my first impression after reading this book was that it could have been set in any number of places: the  country’s major conflicts of the last several years, including the secession of South Sudan, are not mentioned at all. Yet I did get a sense of the country’s Islamic culture and traditions, as well as its incorporation of progressive ideas in the realms of medicine and education. I found my glimpse into this foreign (to me) culture extremely fascinating. But I really liked the book’s focus on universal themes like love, family relationships, and the intricacies of village life. All in all, I found this book very easy to read and would definitely consider reading more by Tayeb Salih.

Review: Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtryLarry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

This epic Western tells the story of a group of cowboys who decide to drive a cattle herd from the small town of Lonesome Dove, Texas, to the wilds of Montana. Leading the outfit are former Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae, whose prowess in fighting Indians has made them legendary throughout the Wild West. They take a small group of cowboys with them on the journey, including several men who served with them when they were the only law in Texas. One woman also accompanies them, a prostitute named Lorena who has fallen in love with one of the cowboys. The book follows this group on its journey north, describing the various perils the cowboys meet along the way, including bad weather, hostile Indians, and a growing despair as they confront more and more suffering.

This is the first Western I’ve ever read, although I’ve seen and enjoyed several John Wayne movies. But I definitely think this was the right novel to start with, as it seems to encapsulate the entire scope of what a Western should be. I was especially impressed with the descriptions of the country, its weather and its wildlife. I honestly did feel transported to another place and time. The character development is also very well done; every person encountered in the book seems clearly delineated, with his (or her) own goals, fears, and desires. In a book this long, so much specificity is quite a feat! I especially enjoyed the depictions of women in the novel; I was amazed to think of what a hard life they must have had in such unsettled, lawless country. My one complaint about the book is that it’s extremely long, which made it hard for me to find the motivation to read it. It’s also quite heartbreaking in places…I don’t want to spoil anything, but a lot of people die throughout the course of the novel. But overall, I was very impressed with this book and would definitely recommend it!