Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Heroines Who Rock

After a long absence caused by too much work, too many commitments and just a smidgen of lack of enthusiasm for blogging, I’m back (at least for a while) and ready to engage with this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, as set by the Broke and the Bookish……..my top ten literary heroines.

It’s a sign of the historic male-centric nature of literature (or maybe just my own reading preferences) that, whereas a list of ten literary heroes would just trip off the tongue, a list of heroines has given me much pause for thought and contemplation.  It probably has something to do with the books I’ve read or, more importantly, not read - for example, I have always tended to avoid the likes of Austen and the various Brontës.  I also believe that, unlike the male hero, for whom there is a philosophical template of the central character who faces challenges, whether physical, mental or emotional and who overcomes them by facing them and doing “the right thing”, there seems either to be a relative lack of female central characters who fit this model (at least until recently) or a lack of a recognisable template.  In any event and in no particular order, here is my list of literary heroines, at least according to my lights.  One note: although I have nothing against her, I’m not including Hermione Grainger on a point of principle.

By the way, if you haven’t already done so, please feel free to enter my Literary Blog Hop Giveaway by clicking here.

1.         Matilda.  Confession time: Matilda isn’t my literary heroine, she is mini-Falaise’s first real literary heroine.  To me, Roald Dahl’s magical little girl is an irritating know-it-all who could do with a good metaphorical squashing.  To mini-Falaise though, she is the girl she wants to be.  Play-time in our house currently tends to involve her being Matilda, Mrs Falaise becoming Miss Honey, mini-Falaise’s invisible friend, Lavender and me being relegated to Un-named Child in Matilda’s class.

2.         Lady Macbeth.  OK, I know this is a little perverse as she is generally held up as one of Shakespeare’s villains and she did, after all, egg her husband on to commit regicide but, hey, what’s a little murder between friends?  More importantly to my mind, she was an incredibly strong (if evil) female character at the very beginning of the 17th Century, when most female characters would have been passive characters to whom events happened.  Not something one could say about the Lady.

3.         Mary Poppins.  She supercalifragilisticexpialidociously makes this list for two reasons.  Firstly, her saccharine sweet screen version both keeps mini-Falaise entertained now and again on DVD and, secondly, her less sickly novelistic incarnation introduced the stuffy Edwardians to the idea that children should, just maybe, be both seen and heard from time to time, in contrast to the views of their Victorian forefathers.  To be honest, there are times I wish that genie had been kept firmly in the bottle but, on the whole, it’s a good thing!

4.         Mrs Justice Phyllida Erskine-Brown.  If you are not an aficionado of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey books (and if not, why on earth not?), this may be a new one for you.  Through the series, the young Phyllida Trant survives the tender mercies of a pupillage with, and later marriage to, the weaselly and wet Claude Erskine-Brown, the outdated customs and views of the English Bar of the ‘70s and ‘80s and a number of court room and chambers clashes with Rumpole to become firstly, a QC, later a Recorder and, finally, a High Court judge.  Bright and feisty, she also has the advantage of having been played on TV by the lovely Patricia Hodge.

5.         Eowyn.  Despite my almost unbounded admiration for him, I can’t deny that Tolkien wasn’t so good on the female character side.  Not only are they pretty lacking in number, but they’re not exactly heroine material.  Indeed, Hollywood had to spice Arwen Evenstar up pretty heavily for the LotR movies to get any kind of gender balance in there.  The shining exception to the Tolkienian rule, however, is Eowyn, the hard-riding, ass-kicking daughter of niece of King Theoden of Rohan.  Indeed, so tough is she that she manages to kill the mighty Witch-King of Angmar.  Yeah‼!

6.         Tinkerbell.  She may be a little bit spiteful, a little bit prone to jealousy and a little bit flighty but she’s a spirited little fairy and her loyalty to Peter Pan is fierce.  I’d much rather mini-Falaise wanted to emulate her than the prematurely-middle-aged and slightly dull Wendy.

7.         V.I. Warshawski.  If I’m honest, the heavy-handed ‘80s feminism of Sara Paretsky’s series can get a little much but V.I. Warshawski, Chicago’s finest female private investigator, never gets stale.  She’s tough, smart and very independent.  In short, she rocks.

8.         Lyra "Silvertongue" Belacqua.  She’s her own girl, she’s sparky and she can use an alethiometer.  She knows what she believes and she’s the star of the His Dark Materials trilogy.  We like her.

9.         Irene Adler.  OK, so she’s not really a heroine.  In fact, she’s more of a villain.  And she only actually appears in one short story.  But, tell me, how cool must the woman be who can gain the respect (and even a little bit of love, maybe?) from the cold and, frankly, pretty misogynistic Sherlock Holmes?  So she makes this list - after all, it’s my list, my rules.

10.       Thursday Next.  Thursday gets the nod for the final spot on my heroine’s roster for managing to keep it all together whilst dividing her life between two different worlds, being a Jurisfiction agent as well as SpecOps, having a pet dodo and keeping her marriage going despite the fact that, for at least part of the series, her husband doesn’t actually exist.  She takes multi-tasking to the next level.  And she’s pretty cool.  And unlike Lady Macbeth, Tinkerbell and Irene Adler, she’s unmistakeably a heroine.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Literary Blog Hop Time - Come And Get A Book While They're Hot!

Seeing as I’m giving away free books, I’m sure no one will mind that my entry to the latest Literary Giveaway Hop, run by Judith at Leeswammes' Blog, is just a couple of days late.  As with my previous hop giveaways, I’m offering each of two of you a book of your choice from the list below.  The rules are simple - all you have to do is to read the list, choose which book you’d like to receive if you win and leave a comment below, telling me your choice and leaving some way of getting in touch with you.  The deadline for leaving comments is 6:30 a.m. on Thursday 1st November, the chosen hour being the time when mini-Falaise is likely to rouse me from my slumbers.  I'm happy to deliver to anywhere Amazon does!  If you haven’t already done so, I’d also recommend you visit the other participants in the hop and see if you can gather up more from this instalment of the hop.

And, so to the list.  I was torn between two themes for this instalment - books written by fellow graduates of my old university and books about food.  In the end, I’ve gone for the former, in part because Oxford has produced so many authors that it won’t take me much effort to come up with a list of ten and, given the lack of time I’ve had to blog over the past couple of months, time is very much of the essence for me.  So, here are the ten books written by Oxonians from which you may choose:

1.         The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  It’s a classic, the film is soon to come out and Tolkien was not just an Oxonian but a fellow Exonian to boot so what more excuse could I need to offer one of the great children’s novels of all time.  Really, you should read it; you know it makes sense.  I’ll tell you what.  Seeing as how, deep down (verrrry deep down), I’m a kind and generous soul, if you’d prefer The Father Christmas Letters by the great man, you can choose that instead.  After all, it’s less than two months away now!

2.         The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.  Having claimed the distinction of having been at the same college of Tolkien, I’m going to double down on specious connections by pointing out that Mr Pullman is also an alumnus of Exeter College and offering you the first volume of his wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy.  It’s even more appropriate for this list as it is part set in Jordan, a fictionalised Oxford college.

3.         The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  Now, I bet you were thinking I’d put C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s fellow Inkling, into this list but I bet you didn’t think it would be The Screwtape Letters, his epistolary Christian novel, in which Screwtape gives a novice devil, Wormwood, a set of advice on how to tempt human beings into sin.

4.         Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.  Really straining my claims to fame, Evelyn Waugh and I were at the same prep school, albeit several decades apart.  Brideshead is probably his best-known novel but, if truth be told, is neither the best nor my favourite of his works.  Nevertheless, sticking with the Oxonian theme, feel free to choose it.  But, if you prefer, you can go for the Sword of Honour trilogy or Scoop, both, in my humble opinion, much better novels.

5.         Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.  A Lord Peter Wimsey detective novel set in Oxford, this fits right into my theme as well as being a favourite of mine.  It’s a good one, trust me.

6.         The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.  Apparently this was his only novel and a pretty good one at that.

7.         Stamboul Train by Graham Greene.  Although nominally a novel, it’s really a collection of linked short stories, telling the tales of a number of passengers on a trip on the Orient Express.  It’s also one of my favourite Greene books.

8.         The Wimbledon Poisoner by Nigel Williams.  A hilarious novel about a solicitor from Wimbledon who decides to poison his wife, with unexpected consequences, I can thoroughly recommend this one.

9.         The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré.  The structure of this novel is that of a series of reminiscences by Ned, a former senior member of the Circus, le Carré’s fictional MI6.  Like Stamboul Train above, it’s more akin to a series of short stories.  For those who don’t like spoilers, this reveals the identity of the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the ending of The Russia House.

10.       Watership Down by Richard Adams.  Confession time: when my mum took me to see this at the cinema I cried.  Real tears and everything.  Anyway, it’s a true classic of children’s literature and if, like me, you have the misfortune to be in possession of a small person, you owe it to both them and yourself to introduce them to this…..and then cook them rabbit stew for tea.

Now, you know what to do.  Leave a comment below and go and check out these other fabulous giveaways!

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Read in a Single Sitting
  3. Ephemeral Digest
  4. My Devotional Thoughts
  5. Devouring Texts
  6. Tony's Reading List
  7. Nishita's Rants and Raves
  8. Too Fond
  9. The Parrish Lantern
  10. Kristi Loves Books
  11. The Book Club Blog
  12. Sam Still Reading
  13. Silver's Reviews (USA)
  14. Bibliosue
  15. Heavenali
  16. Under My Apple Tree
  17. Misfortune of Knowing (North America)
  18. Lena Sledge's Blog
  19. Lost Generation Reader
  20. Seaside Book Nook
  21. The Relentless Reader
  22. Rikki's Teleidoscope
  23. Monique Morgan
  24. That READioactive Book Blog
  25. kaggsysbookisahramblings
  26. Ragdoll Books Blog
  27. Kate's Library
  28. The Book Garden
  29. Uniflame Creates
  30. Curiosity Killed The Bookworm
  1. Ciska's Book Chest
  2. The Book Divas Reads
  3. Alex in Leeds
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  5. Bluestalking (USA)
  6. Fresh Ink Books
  7. Sweeping Me
  8. Giraffe Days
  9. Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book (USA)
  10. Books Thoughts Adventures (USA)
  11. emmalikestoread
  12. Colorimetry
  13. Page Plucker
  14. Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity
  15. 2606 Books and Counting
  16. Book Nympho
  17. She-Wolf Reads
  18. The Little Reader Library (Europe)
  19. Booklover Book Reviews
  20. Dolce Bellezza

Monday, October 15, 2012

2,486-2,479: The Dr Siri Paiboun series by Colin Cotterill

One of the joys of owning a Kindle is the regularly refreshed £2.99 or less offer on Amazon.  Not only does it give one the occasional rush of snagging a book from the TBR list at a bargain basement price, but it also throws up hidden gems that would otherwise slip beneath the radar.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri Paiboun series of detective stories is just one of these.  Set in 1970s post-independence Laos, I am genuinely surprised that they are not much better known amongst lovers of gentle, slightly humorous detective fiction.  I could probably best describe them as a little bit like Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels but but less gentle and more detectivey and funny.  And set in South East Asia rather than Southern Africa, obviously.

Dr Siri Paiboun, the hero of the eight (to date) books in the series is a 70-something, French trained doctor who has spent much of his life as a Communist insurgent in the Laotian forest, fighting first against the French colonialists and then against the corrupt Royalist and US-backed regime.  Cynical, wise and not remotely ideological, his hopes of a comfortable retirement in Vientiane have been dashed as the new Pathet Lao government decided they needed a national coroner and promptly appointed Dr Siri, despite his total lack of training as a pathologist.

Unlike most fictional pathologists and forensic scientists, Siri is hampered by the poverty of 1970s Laos and a serious lack of equipment.  His team comprises Nurse Dtui, a “larger” lady, hooked on forbidden Thai celebrity magazines and Mr Geung, a Down’s Syndrome adult whom Siri is painstakingly trying to teach to read.  The series opens with The Coroner’s Lunch, in which we are introduced not only to Siri and the team but also to some of the other recurring characters in the series - Judge Haeng, Siri’s boss and nemesis, Civilai, a member of the ruling politburo and Siri’s best friend, and Phosy, a police inspector.

Siri also has a secret.  You see, his body is occupied by the soul of a 1,000 year-old shaman, Yeh Ming and so he frequently has visions of the spirit world that help him in his quest for justice.  This spiritual element, derived from traditional Laotian beliefs form a central theme to the books as Siri doesn’t only benefit from his spiritual alter ego but is often endangered by the evil phibon spirits that are trying to kill Yeh Ming by destroying his physical host - Dr Siri.

As the series progresses, the lives of the central characters develop and new characters join the crew including Madame Daeng, 60-something former spy and the best noodle seller in Laos, and Auntie Bpoo, a middle-aged transvestite fortune teller - yes, really.

Between them, the murders they solve range from that of a Party - member’s wife to the female victims of a serial killer and three young women, each stabbed with an epée - a weapon almost wholly unknown in Laos.
As well as being solidly crafted detective stories, there is an authentic sense of place to them which isn’t particularly surprising as Colin Cotterill has spent much of his adult life living and working in the Mekong Delta region.  He also examines the effect of the Communist takeover on the country and the impact of it on the fate of the Hmong, one of the main indigenous tribes and, in Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, he takes the reader on a short but unpleasant trip to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. 

The real joy of the books, however, is the interaction of the main characters and their growth through the series.  Siri, Madame Daeng and Civilai, in particular, come across as teenagers trapped in senior citizens’ bodies, with their disrespect for authority and their proclivity for practical jokes.

Having acquired the Coroner’s Lunch from the Amazon £2.99 or less section, I’ve bought and read the remainder of the series in very quick succession and am now in the invidious position of having no more to read until the publication of The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die next year.  If you’re a detective story fan and you haven’t tried these, I’d recommend you do so as they are strangely addictive.  The full list is:
1.         The Coroner’s Lunch
2.         Thirty-Three Teeth
3.         Disco for the Departed
4.         Anarchy and Old Dogs
5.         Curse of the Pogo Stick
6.         The Merry Misogynist
7.         Love Songs from a Shallow Grave
8.         Slash and Burn