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What We've Been Reading

Preston & Child - Blue Labyrinth

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Fran Recommends:

This is the time of year when I generally go into my reading slump, which is not necessarily a bad thing since I’ll have to come up with my Best Of lists soon, and we all know how long those can be for me!

However, I picked up Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s latest “Pendergast” book, Blue Labyrinth and it was just the book I needed to read right now.

I don’t want to go into too much detail. If you’ve read the series (and you should), then I can tell you that Blue Labyrinth starts off with a dead body deposited at Pendergast’s front door, followed by a car chase that leaves Proctor badly injured and the Rolls quite possibly beyond repair.  And that’s just the opening chapter!

Many of our old friends are back, and it’s good to be back in this world, even if what being thrown at Pendergast is both disturbing and, oddly, a relief. The case Acosta has taken up is equally intriguing, and of course it takes Pendergast’s insight to make sense of what’s happening there.

I think one of the best things about this series, in addition to the characters and the intricate and astonishing plots, is the sprinkling of scientific and historical tidbits. Pendergast is one of the greatest repositories of arcane knowledge that I’ve ever encountered, and Preston and Child throw in sparkling gems with off-handed casualness that is just delightful and educational.

Always interesting, consistently entertaining, and strangely educational. What more do you want from a thriller?

Agatha Christie - The Hollow

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

Series: Poirot

Summary: Lucy Angkatell and her husband are hosting a weekend party for her family at her home, The Hollow. However it is a recipe for disaster as many family gatherings are, unrequited love, extramarital affairs, an ex-lover, hero worship, anxiety and rejection are all bubbling under the surface of the seemingly placid gathering. The hidden turmoil boils over just a moment before Poirot enters The Hollow, leaving him in an awkward position of investigating a murder scene instead of partaking in lunch.

Review: Did you know playing cards have been around since around the ninth century? Who knew? Well I suppose you guys did, because you're smart - but I didn’t! The Chinese are widely believed, by people much more learned than myself, to have invented them. These same very smart people think they spread via the Silk Road (it should be noted, the spread was very slow because the original decks were very ornate and expensive so usually only royalty or the very wealthy had access to the packs) to Egypt. Where history gets a mite hazy - we know cards made it into Europe but no one is quite sure how. Some say Marco Pollo, gypsies, Crusaders or traders brought these decks into European courts for sport. It wasn’t until someone got a bright idea to make woodcut copies did the decks catch on with the unwashed masses, so to speak. 

Then somewhere in fourteenth century Italy, the playing card morphed into what we think of Tarot today (now there are many places which treat tarot decks just like regular playing cards - France and Italy for instance - or use regular playing cards for tarot readings). What I find interesting is the deck most often seen, used and imitated has only been around since 1909, the Waite-Smith tarot deck (there are a crap load of variants on this deck’s name so I am going to choose one at random and stick with it). The booklet included in the deck interpreting the cads was written by A.E. Waite, who later wrote a more comprehensive guide. The big deal of this deck is it was only the second fully illustrated set of tarot cards and the first mass produced set. While you may not recognize the name of the deck or had your fortune read chances are you’ve seen the art Pamela Colman Smith created for them.

The Waite-Smith deck is by far the most famous in Pamela’s portfolio, yet it is only one small part of her career. Beyond the deck Pamela did illustration work for Bram Stoker, William Butler Yeats and Ellen Terry - she also contributed her art to the suffragettes in Great Britain. She wrote and illustrated children's stories, created her own magazine (albeit short lived) and her paintings were influenced in later art movements (she was inspired by the music she was listening to while creating them). In 1907 she was the first painter ever to exhibit her work at Alfred Stieglitz’s The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (aka 291) which up until that point had only displayed avant guard photography (which furthered both the artist’s and galleries cachet). I seriously would have loved to meet this woman - however she died in 1951.

Why on earth is this relevant? Zena Christow, John’s young daughter uses tarot in order to read her father’s fortunes in the cards (and I like history so there you go). Out of the mouths of babes as the old saying goes, in this passage Zena foreshadows her father’s death for the audience, which I was completely relieved to read, as I did not like John Christow. 

Unlike Major Bletchley from N or M - who was specifically written to be one of the most thoroughly detestable characters in the Christie Canon - John Christow isn’t completely repugnant. He is just flawed in such a way that made me dislike him enough to hope he would meet with a grisly fate in a few pages, but I still wanted Poirot to find justice for him. With John, you can admire Christie’s skill in creating such a balanced character who is both a villain and victim. When the killer is finally unmasked, you find yourself admiring John Christow just a little more than you thought possible one hundred and ninety-one pages earlier. The metamorphosis or manipulation of your feelings is what makes this book worth reading. The other bits about our absent-minded hostess, and thwarted and discovered love affairs add a bit of spice to the dish - but the meat of this book really is Christie’s deft warping of her reader’s understanding of John Christow. (Now mind you if you’ve seen the play but not read the book you may not agree with my assessment - since more often than not John Christow is made out to be a complete villain, i.e.. no redeemable qualities - in the book he is far more nuanced. So to be completely domineering you should read the book tout suite!)

In addition to John’s murder, Christie also used this tarot scene as a clever way to introduce/foreshadow all the house party participants who would be suspected of the murder. This scene is not the only bit of foreshadowing used in the book, it is just the most important (I think). However this book can be used as a guide for writers as a how-to on using this literary device since it is used so often through out The Hollow. What I admire most about Christie’s use of foreshadowing in the book is it never feels clumsy or always overtly obvious. You can pass it by on a page without it leaping out at you - until the foretold event comes around and sit back and think, “Hey! I see what you did there!”. But here’s the thing, the book never felt repetitive to me. Christie twisted the situation enough so it seemed new, while still recognizable for what it was. Which is why I think it would make a great work for a budding writer to study. 

I cannot say this book is an absolute favorite within Christie’s canon of works; I can say this is a book I hold in the highest of regards (the best of the best pot roast I ever tasted). I just want to pull The Hollow apart like a piece of taffy - to figure out how exactly Christie pulled off foreshadowing so may events so seamlessly in one book. It really astonishes me how well it all worked!

Favorite Quote: 

“The ingredients of the pudding are not promising.”(pg. 8)

“These Things happens to other people...They can’t happen to us.” (pg. 116)

“Her mind went round and round a trapped animal.” (pg. 34)

Cheating: Can you believe it is almost Thanksgiving? Seriously, where did the time go this year! Can you believe I have actually made it 47 weeks without cheating? Neither can I!

My 52 Weeks With Christie: A.Miner©2014