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What We've Been Reading

Jasper Fforde - The Eye of Zoltar

Fran Recommends:

One thing you can count on when you begin a Jasper Fforde book is that it will be chock full of memorable characters. And surprises.

The Eye of Zoltar, the third in The Chronicles of Kazam series - following The Last Dragonslayer and The Song of the Quarkbeast - runs off in several directions at once, and they're all fascinating. Jennifer Strange, indentured orphan and manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management, has already accomplished a great deal, but her skills are put to the test when The Mighty Shandar (who never gives refunds) insists that she find the missing Eye of Zoltar, a powerful magic gem. Of course, no one knows where it is or if it even really exists, but Jennifer must find it or a horrible fate will befall Colin and Feldspar, the last dragons.

I can't say more without giving too much away, except that we get to meet a whole new set of people. Jennifer's only companion is Perkins; the rest of the crew must stay home. But the people that Jennifer and Perkins meet along the way, including a spoiled princess, an intrepid guide, and various hungry beasts, will charm you to no end.

I had been afraid The Eye of Zoltar would complete the series but no, this opens the doorway to an incredible adventure, and I can't wait to see what comes next. My only regret is that there wasn't enough Quarkbeast in it, but I feel confident that in upcoming books, there will be plenty of Quarkbeast action.

If you're looking for a fun, fantastical series, this is it. Ignore the fact that it's considered Young Adult (unless you are a young adult, in which case, carry on), and simply immerse yourself in the fabulous, magical world that Jasper Fforde has created!

Agatha Christie - Sad Cypress

Amber’s project for 2014: My 52 Weeks of Agatha Christie. Here’s her explanation.

Series: Poirot 

Summary: How Will Poirot go about proving the innocence of a woman on trial for her life? By using his little grey cells of course! While Elinor Carlisle seems to be the only one with the means, motive and opportunity to commit the murder, Poirot is convinced there is something more going on than meets the eye. 

Review: Sad Cypress, I think, is a serviceable mystery novel - good but not outstanding. But let's face it  = Christie's not-so-good ones are often better than some others' best efforts! For me, the book just seemed a bit cluttered with unnecessary red herrings which slowed the story down. Plus, in order to follow The Rules Of Fair Play, the audience needs to know a small but crucial botanical fact to solve the mystery before Poirot, which I thought a bit unlikely. In any case, it was a solid effort.

One other issue I had with the mystery involved was how our victim, Mary Gerrard, was poisoned (I am not spoiling anything, I promise). There was no way the murderer could guarantee Mary Gerrard would be the only one to ingest the poison. This seems like a small detail to worry over, but it is uncommon to find such an incongruity in the plotting of a Christie mystery (and to be honest, it needs to be pretty big for me to spot!). 

Due to her background and experience, it feels a bit odd for a mistake like this to occur in one of her books, but I suppose anyone with a lengthy series is bound to make a mistake every once in a while. During WWI, Christie volunteered as a nurse in hospitals for thousands of hours and even qualified as an Apothecaries’ Assistant and mixed medicines in a dispensary. A rather famous incident occurred during this time to Christie; she evidently worked under a pharmacist who carried a lump of curare around in his pocket. He explained to her how it was used and why he carried it around...because it made him feel powerful (not sure I’d want him mixing my medicines). This work gave her a formal background in drugs/toxins and their delivery methods. In addition, by the time she’d written Sad Cypress, Christie was twenty years into her writing career, where she’d devised all kinds of clever means of administering poisons to her victims. So I guess that’s why Sad Cypress feels so lack luster - the use of the toxic agent was genius but its dispersal method was highly disappointing and questionable.

In this vein, I realized I’ve been writing this blog for thirty-eight weeks now (so close to completing a New Years resolution!) which got me thinking about how often I have read a Christie which featured a poison somewhere within it’s pages. I did some math and came up with completely jaw-dropping numbers! I didn’t realize how pervasive her use of poisons/drugs/toxins was...Forty-three out of her sixty-eight mysteries contain someone murdered by poison, almost killed by poison and people we suspect might have been poisoned (not counting her short stories, plays & Westmacott novels). Seriously! This translates into sixty-three percent of her books featuring poison! Which is rather staggering, since to me at least, their use hasn’t felt repetitive or monotonous, perhaps due to the vast number of poisons used and motives behind why the person was killed.

Another interesting feature of Sad Cypress is the fact that Christie borrowed the title from a line in a Shakespearian play, Twelfth Night to be specific, which opens up an interesting question about Christie, which I can’t seem to find a definitive answer for, so go with me for a second. 

Whenever I talk to authors, they are forever saying: write what you know, write what you love, write about things you enjoy. And if you’ve read this blog for a while then I think you may have deduced that I am a fan of Harry Potter, Star Wars & Trek, Lord Of The Rings and the Marvel franchise (oops, that’s next week's blog). In Christie’s writing, you can understand how the prevalent use of poisons links up to her background in nursing and pharmacological work - writing what she knows. Even more pervasive in her canon, what she loves, literature (and a keenness on nursery rhymes), one author stands out of the crowd. I’ll give you a hint: he’s the only author to have outsold Christie! Give up? William Shakespeare. 

She snatched four book titles from lines in his plays - Sad Cypress (Twelfth Night), The Mousetrap (Hamlet), There Is A Tide (Julius Caesar) and By The Pricking Of My Thumbs (MacBeth) - technically there is a fifth ,Absent Spring (Sonnet 98), but it was not a mystery and published under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Beyond the titles, Christie often referenced Shakespeare to help enhance the atmosphere she was trying to create in a particular book. In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, when the murder victim was discovered, one of his relatives quoted Lady MacBeth, “Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”. Which helped intensify the horror of a slit throat and the bloody scene of the crime (and this quote was a key to solving the mystery). In The Pale Horse (which, by the way, is a Biblical reference to Revelation 6:8; and the only single book to have outsold Christie’s canon) she uses Macbeth again, only this time she invokes the three witches to help foster an eerie and malevolent atmosphere around the three woman at the heart of this mystery. All told, I have read references to Macbeth (obviously), Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet and Othello so far (funnily enough I haven’t run across any references to a comedy yet...). 

While she did quote other authors from time to time, pillars such as Longfellow (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas), Blake (Endless Night), Flecker (Postern Of Fate) or Fitzgerald (The Moving Finger), Shakespeare quotations by far outstrip all the others, thus fueling my idea that Christie may have been a bit of a fan of The Bard!

On a complete side note....Interestingly enough Shakespeare himself was no slouch in the poison department either! Twenty-one percent of his plays feature someone being poisoned (this number doesn’t include the histories since well, they are based loosely on fact) Anthony & Cleopatra, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Cymbeline (again no comedies contained any sort of poisonings, just as Christie doesn’t reference the comedies in her works - or hasn’t as far as I have read. But I suppose if the Bard couldn’t make poisoning funny I don’t think anyone could). The percentage goes up to twenty-five if you include A Midsummers Night Dream for the sheer number of main players who were drugged (which granted is a bit of a stretch, but then we at least put one comedy on the board). All two hundred-thirty-nine years-ish before the mystery genre was founded!

Favorite Quote: 

“Fine feathers make fine birds.” (pg. 14)

“If a doctor had told her to go and get the skin of an alligator she would have murmured automatically, “Yes, Doctor,” and glided obediently from the room to tackle the problem.” (pg. 55)

Random Fact: While the mystery of Christie’s life revolved around her missing ten days in 1926, no one disputed her death in 1976 fifty years later. Similarly the largest controversy surrounding Shakespeare centers on the authorship question, whether or not he was the actual author of his plays (personally it doesn’t matter to me who wrote them, it just matters that they exist! I doubt this mystery will ever be solved since all of the main players have been dead for centuries). But did you know there might be a bit of mystery around his death? 

The theory asserts that Shakespeare was murdered by his son-in-law for his money. This theory stems from three interesting facts we know for certain. Evidently, Shakespeare's younger daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney, the black sheep of an old and respectable family. One month before his death, Shakespeare had a Will drawn up which states that he was in perfect health for a man of fifty-two. Then he altered it a few weeks later while on his death bed, leaving Judith and her children only a small sum upon his death and entailed away the rest of his estate to Susan his eldest and her kids (Quiney was in the Will prior to this point but his name was crossed out and replaced by Judith’s). 

This is where speculative conclusions are drawn; that for some reason Shakespeare threatened to cut Quiney out of the will thus propelling him into action. On the night Shakespeare took ill, he’d been out carousing with his friends Drayton and Ben Johnson, drinking rather heavily and fell asleep (or alternatively passed out) under a shrub. The theory states that sometime during this night, Shakespeare was slipped the poison which killed him. Sounds a bit like a Christie novel doesn’t it? Or perhaps one of his own plays, if a poison was administered through the ear...

This particular theory is just that - a theory; no one has successfully been able to obtain an order for exhumation for his bones. Since his request to remain undisturbed is written plainly across his grave, “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”.

I think the reason why this theory (which has been around since the seventies) isn’t as well known is due to the fact it is over shadowed by the truly controversial death of Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe, who, unlike Jim Morrison, Elvis or Andy Kaufman, may really have faked his own death (which would have been much simpler to do back then). 

One last side note, did you know there is a theory which maintains that Jane Austen might have been murdered? Arsenic poisoning is the theory put forth in the book The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen.

Cheating: Nope no cheating! I sincerely want to get to the UK where I truly long to see a Shakespearian first folio in the flesh so to speak! There are a number on exhibit and I am determined to see one!