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What We've Been Reading

Gail Carriger - Curtsies & Conspiracies
Sophronia fought against her parents sending her away to finishing school, now she cannot imagine being anywhere else. Just as her mother imagined, Sophronia is learning how to dance, pour tea and curtsey as any proper lady should. However the other classes offered at the floating school (did I mention the school is located on a dirigible?) are a bit more exotic…poisons, self-defense, information gathering and reconnaissance. Ultimately, her finishing, should she pass all her exams, will turn out a fine polished young spy into society.

The school is all atwitter when a trip to London is announced by the headmistress. Sophronia suspects the reasons for this sudden excursion are far more complicated than meets the eye, since it doesn’t make sense that the school would uproot itself merely to witness a historical event, no matter the supernatural implications. Adding to the excitement is a debut ball, several kidnapping attempts and a flamboyant vampire. Well things are about to get very interesting!

For those of you who have read the five books in the Parasol Protectorate series, this is a very interesting YA series, as they are a prequel to those books. You get to meet Genevieve Lefoux as a precocious ten year old and Lady Sidheag Maccon and begin to understand how she was able to lead a werewolf pack as a human. I found it great fun to meet these characters again and learn more about their origins.

For those of you who have not read anything in this universe before, never fear! While it is set in the same world and has a few carry-over characters, you do not have to have any knowledge of them in order to understand and love this book. Carriger does a great job in setting the reader up for success, without her writing becoming formulaic.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is charming, witty, humorous, adventurous and filled with intrigue. I found that the notion of women out in society (high or otherwise) would make excellent spies during this period, with a bit of training, since ladies’ intelligence was often overlooked, and the school helped them to take full advantage of this flaw in society. I also enjoyed the fact that while there are many strong male characters, Sophronia never relies on them to save the day. Rather she relied on herself and her training to figure out what is afoot and to thwart other people’s machinations.

I would suggest reading Etiquette & Espionage, the first book in the series before you start on this one, as it will give you a firmer grasp the complexities in this installment in the series. I would recommend this book to any female 14 and above, or very open minded males of the same age (but this I think is mainly aimed at the female audience).

Don't forget to reserve your copy of Waistcoats & Weaponry due out this November!

Agatha Christie - The Pale Horse

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

Series: Ariadne Oliver

Summary: It starts with a priest, who hears the last confession of a dying woman unlike any he’s heard before. The woman gives him a list of names of connected somehow to wickedness; before the Father can do anything about the list, he is brutally murdered. The investigating office finds the list and discovers most of the names on the list belong to people who have recently passed away, seemingly of natural causes. The police surgeon is not so sure.

At the same time, through a series of crazy random happenstances, Mark Easterbrook becomes involved in the investigation. Discovering the deaths all seem to revolve around  something called The Pale Horse, “Revelation, Chapter Six, Verse Eight. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed him...” (pg. 209). Mark, not one to believe in the supernatural, decides to look for a more concrete solution to how the people on the list really died...

Review: This book, like many before it, is a fantastic read. One which contemplates the nature of evil; not in a preachy way, more Shakespearian in feel. Through this contemplation on the nature of evil, Christie creates a clinging sinister atmosphere on each page of the book, making you almost believe she will write her first supernatural solution to a mystery novel, thus breaking the Rules of Fair Play. Once again, Christie does a wonderful job playing with her audience’s comfort levels and preconceived notions about things we cannot always explain satisfactorily. 

I really loved this book, again not overly surprising. However just like the Miss Marple in The Moving Finger, Ariadne Oliver plays a very small role in the narrative (however larger than Marple in Moving Finger). Actually, it's a deus ex machina role for Oliver which provides Mark Easterbrook with the inspiration for the solution to the mystery, which I found slightly disappointing as this is the only independent encounter with Oliver outside of the Poirot series.  This is really such a small thing it did not perceptibly diminish my enjoyment of the read, just something to know going into the book.

Speaking of a menacing Shakespearian feel to a novel.....How many of you out there have seen a performance of The Scottish play? You know the one I mean, the name that thespians do their absolute level best not to say on stage (or anywhere else for that matter). Have you ever given any thought to how the three witches in the beginning of the play are represented? Often the actress dressed up to look like old crones with hooked warty noses, long black robes, conical hats and black cats, seemingly almost unhinged in nature uttering their prophesies for Banquo and his fellow general, more akin to monsters than women. Did you ever think this is a very safe way of portraying evil?

David (minor character from Pale Horse) a thespian during his college years had a different idea of how to portray the three, “I’d make them very ordinary. Just sly quiet old women. Like the witches in a country village.” (pg. 33). I say I have to agree with David on this point, and subsequently Christie since she is the one who penned the book (and Fran who also things this would be brilliant staging). Done right this could lend an extra layer of malevolence to the three witches scenes. Why? In general we want to be able to identify evil at a glance, we want the stereotypical indicators, we want to Know who to watch out for. Portraying evil as ordinary means it can creep or seduce its way into our lives without our noticing, making it difficult to ward ourselves against. 

This is one reason, I think, serial killers or rapists haunt our imagination, since more often than not they look ordinary. Sometimes they are even charismatic or charming in their way, the ones who have been caught and shown on the news don’t seem to have any one trait to identify them as serial killers. No twitch, sign or limp identifies them to the police and the public as a dangerous individual. Profilers, psychologists and police officers who have extensive training can, through psychology and experience, identify a killer, but not by a birthmark. This is one underlying reason why they seem to be so difficult to catch. But I digress.

This idea of ordinary evil is what makes The Pale Horse such a singular sinister book! (btw if you want to see a really great version of The Scottish Play, click here. Patrick Stewart plays the lead and the three witches are seriously eerie/creepy!)

Favorite Quote: 

 “The dishwashers, the refrigerators, the pressure cookers, the whining vacuum cleaners. 'Be careful,' they all seem to say. 'I am a genie harnessed to your service, but if your control of me fails...'” (pg. 1)

 “It came to me suddenly that evil was perhaps, necessarily always more impressive than good. It had to make a show! It had to startle and challenge! It was instability attacking stability. And in the end stability will always win.” (pg. 3)

 “Why is it that anybody who was a kitchenmaid or an ugly old peasant never seems to get reincarnated? It’s always Egyptian princesses or beautiful Babylon slaves. Very fishy.” (pg.67)

 “Always envisage the worst. You’ve no idea how that steadies the nerves. You begin at once to be sure it can’t be as bad as what you imagine.” (pg. 143)

Interesting Facts: **Spoiler, Kind Of** While I reveal the murder weapon this will not give you the delivery method or the culprit!**

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You have killed my father; prepare to die!””

Alas, while I cannot relate Christie yet to this quote (I am hoping for that day), The Pale Horse does contain a slightly more sinister similarity to this 1987 film classic. In The Princess Bride (I am speaking of the movie here not the book, as I have not read it yet, blasphemer I know, and Fran has sternly scolded me) Vizzini (played by Wallace Shawn) claims, “What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly into liquid and is among the more deadlier poisons known to man.”. It's the perfect poison for a battle of wits or for the occasional mysterious murder. Happily enough this poison is completely fictional in origin, a poison like that would be disastrous if obtained by the wrong person...

While The Princess Bride relies on a fictional poison to move the story along, Christie decided to use a real poison in The Pale Horse. And just like in The Princess Bride, this poison is orderless, colorless, tasteless, difficult to trace, hard to diagnose and dissolves easily in liquids. A perfect poison Thallium is, so to speak. A poison Vizzini would have loved to use for the same reason, and one which would have been fatal to The Man In Black (aka Westley) because you cannot build up an immunity to it. But I digress.

Thallium is a highly toxic metal and like arsenic was once used as a rat poison and in some medicines (Seriously there has to be some sort of symbolism to the number of people poisoned by something meant to kill rats...). If administered in large enough doses, thallium can kill with in 24 to 48 hours after it is administered. Generally poisoners seem to use it as a slow acting poison (doling it out in small doses) because the symptoms mimic a plethora of other ailments, so when death occurs it appears to be natural causes. The one tell possessed by this poison? Rapid, clumpy and generally large hair loss by the person being poisoned (well, and lab tests should have the poison be discovered in time).

Christie’s description of the plethora of symptoms in Pale Horse is so good, it is credited with saving two lives. In 1975, a woman sent a letter to Christie stating she figured out her husband was poisoning her with thallium after reading the book. Second, a hospital nurse in 1977 diagnosed a baby’s illness (due to thallium) after reading the book. Most astonishing Pale Horse is credited with stopping a serial killer called The Teacup poisoner. Graham Fredrick Young was convicted in 1972 for murdering two of his fellow co-workers while poisoning seventy other people in the factory where he worked. In this case Pale Horse was read by a doctor consulting for Scotland Yard (so the story goes) who correctly identified the poison due to Christie’s book. 

On a complete side note the absolutely best treatment for thallium poisoning is a pigment called Prussian Blue (taken in pill form). It is even better than activated charcoal in removing the heavy metal from the victim's system - due to the complex chemical nature. Not sure what Prussian Blue is? It is the pigment used to make blueprints, well, blue! It is also one of the colors which makes Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night so vivid. It was one of the very first synthetic pigments to be created, around 1706. I does make me wonder who on earth first thought giving someone with heavy metal poisoning a pigment used in paint? But that is a question for a different day! (FYI do not eat blueprints if you think someone is poisoning you. Seriously, there is lab grade Prussian Blue without the other chemical associated with paper & paint! You wouldn’t think I’d have to say that, but the Darwin Awards undermine the theory that common sense is possessed in equal parts in every human!)

Christie is often called the Queen of Poisons and The Pale Horse I think is one of the jewels in this crown. While iocane powder from The Princess Bride came just at the end of her writing career I am sure she could have done justice to it!

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