BTT: Quirky! & Huh?

This week's BTT question:

Sometimes I find eccentric characters quirky and fun, other times I find them too unbelievable and annoying. What are some of the more outrageous characters you’ve read, and how do you feel about them?

Not an easy one, this. I really have trouble remembering characters I read in books. But I'll try anyway.

  1. Hercule Poirot. That's the first name that came to my mind. I've been reading too much Agatha Christie over the last month and I'm almost getting used to Poirot's strange behaviour. But he's definitely one of the most quirky (and funny) characters I've seen.

  2. Luna Lovegood. One of the most eccentric and yet one of the most likeable characters I've ever come across. You only need to read the Harry Potter series to know what I mean.

  3. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Now that I'm talking about the Potter series, how can I miss Hogwarts' very, very strange Headmaster? I mean, if he doesn't make it to this list, then who will? ;-)

  4. General MacKenzie "The Hawk" Hawkins I didn't much like the two books -- The Road to Gandolfo and The Road to Omaha -- in which the Hawk made an appearance. But there's no denying the fact that he is one of the craziest characters to have lived within the pages of a book. unlike the other three characters I've mentioned, I'll put General Hawkins in the "unbelievable and annoying" category.

That's about all I can think of right now. Maybe I should do this meme next week, so I get enough time to remember some more characters, but I've already missed last week's BTT, and I don't want to miss another one this week. Here's my reply to last week's question.

What's your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller... whether they've read them or not, everybody "knows" those books. I'm talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, "Huh? Never heard of it?"

Mark Haddon's touching book about an autistic child, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time always brings that kind of reaction when I mention it. The closest that anyone got to placing the book in the literary world was when a friend asked me if it was a Sherlock Holmes story. At least he got the source of the title right! :-) (The title was taken from a sentence in Silver Blaze, a short story featuring Sherlock Holmes).

Another book that gets that reaction is Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Every time I mention that book, people try to correct me, saying it's a Spielberg movie and not a Crichton book. Ditto for Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Nobody seems to know that Conan Doyle first thought of the word "Jurassic Park", which Crichton used in his book that was finally made into a Hollywood movie.

Considering the popularity of The Da Vinci Code, I'm always surprised to find that very few people have read -- or even heard of -- The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Both the books cover very similar topics and (at least in my opinion) The Rule of Four is almost as good as (if not better than) Dan Brown's best-seller, but it is the Da Vinci Code that everyone talks about. I guess the lack of controversy is why The Rule... isn't as famous.

Review: Dumb Witness (Agatha Christie)

Emily Arundell is a rich woman whose fortune will go to her nephew and nieces on her death. When they come visiting their aunt, Emily falls down the stairs in what is apparently an accident, but she suspects otherwise and writes to Hercule Poirot, asking him to meet her. The letter gets delayed by some time and by the time Poirot visits her, she has already died of natural causes. When her will is read out, everyone is shocked to find out that Emily had changed it so that all her wealth went to her companion, Mrs Lawson and the relatives get nothing. Poirot's investigation leads him to believe that the "accident" was caused by a string tied across the staircase to trip Emily who was in the habit of walking around the house at night.

The title Dumb Witness refers to Emily's dog, Bob who was supposed to have left a ball at the top of the stairs which caused Emily to trip (Poirot later proves that this wasn't the case). The dog has very little to do with the story except for this incident and is there in the book for little more that for displaying Hastings' great affection for dogs -- Bob becomes Hastings' pet at the end of the book.

Rich old lady, young relatives desperate for money, so-called accidents, poisoning -- it's a typical Agatha Christie story, but one that perhaps fails to maintain the high standards that we have come to expect of Christie. The book seems too slow and the solution a bit too obvious. There are a couple of details that don't fit in. For example, how is it that Mrs Lawson can notice the initials on the suspect's brooch and still not be able to see that she was hammering a nail onto the staircase? And how could Hastings -- or anyone for that matter -- forget something that we were all taught in primary school -- that a mirror always interchanges the left and right sides of the image? This slight on Hastings' intellect -- in spite of its ridiculously low standards ;-) -- isn't something that can be explained that easily.

My Rating: 5/10

Review: The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie)

A serial killer, who calls himself ABC, writes to Hercule Poirot before each murder telling of the time and place where the murder will take place. Poirot and the police start working together to catch the murderer, but they are unable to stop him on the first three occasions. The killer apparently has no motive and kills at random, based on the names of the people. He has killed Alice Ascher of Andover, Betty Barnard of Bexhill-on-Sea, and Sir Carmichael Clarke of Churston and the only connection between the murders is the first letter of the names of the victims and the places are in alphabetical order and beside each victim an ABC railway guide is found.

When Poirot receives the challenge for the 'D' murder, he teams up with the police and the friends and relatives of the first three victims to stop the killer at any cost. Even though they fail to prevent the murder, they manage to catch the killer, who is called Alexander Bonaparte Cust. He confesses to the crimes, but has no idea how or why he comitted them. Poirot's explanation of how a man could kill four people without knowing how he did it forms the ending of what is perhaps the best Hercule Poirot mystery I've read so far.

People who like to solve mystery themselves while they're reading are probably cursing me for mentioning the name of the killer in this review. Don't worry, that's not a spoiler. That name is mentioned right at the beginning of the book and we know all along who the main suspect is. Poirot is the one in the dark throughout this book.

Christie has deviated from her usual style here. Instead the "who did it?" aspect of the mystery, the psychology of the crime has been given more prominence. Usually it's the crime/clues/suspects/motive/alibi formula that is used. Here Poirot doesn't have any suspects and has to rely on understanding the mind of the murderer to prevent the next crime.

Another one of the reasons why I loved this book was because Poirot's famed little grey cells were really stretched to their limit and most of the time he looked totally helpless. Serves him right for ridiculing poor old Captain Hastings all the time. This is one of those rare occasions where Hastings' common sense comes in more useful than all of Poirot's little grey cells. ;-)

My Rating: 10/10.

Review: Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris)

"Thrillers don't come any better than this...", says Clive Barker from the back cover of this book. "A virtual textbook on the craft of suspense..." That one's from the Washington Post. Now, I'm not the one to judge a book from the blurbs on the back cover, but having read the book, I must admit that these words of praise are well deserved.

Less than three weeks ago, I finished Red Dragon, the first book of the Hannibal Series that introduced Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Then, I had written that although I didn't find the book outstanding, I still would love to read more from the author. Turns out that I was right. Silence of the Lambs is creepier than the first book, with another psychopath, Jame Gumb taking over from Francis Dolarhyde as the serial killer on the run. And I liked this one better than the first book.

Set ten years after the events of Red Dragon, Dr Lecter is still in his cell in the mental asylum, Jack Crawford is still running FBI's behavioral science unit, but Will Graham doesn't make a comeback. Curiously, the person who investigates the serial killings this time is a trainee, Clarice Starling -- which means you get to see a totally different approach to the investigations as compared to that of the highly experienced Graham. Starling's Nancy Drew-ish methods -- looking for clues, fingerprints, talking to experts -- contrasts sharply with those of Graham's -- less of legwork, more of thinking and getting the feel of the crime. Makes me kind of wonder if consulting Lecter would have been of any use in this case had he not known the identity of the murderer beforehand.

Apart from the style of the investigations, Harris has also changed the way he presents the killers. True, both of them have been shown as extremely evil. But in case of Dolarhyde, Harris explains the troubled childhood that changed him into a monster and there are times when you feel that he might yet give up his "Red Dragon" identity. Gumb is simply shown as a thoughtless killer, whose kind treatment of his pet dog is in sharp contrast with his cruelty towards other human beings -- he calls his dog as "precious" and "darling" while he calls his victims "it" and "that thing" -- which probably makes you hate him even more.

Hannibal Lecter was the character I was looking forward to seeing in this book. But yet again, as in Red Dragon, he is kept in the shadows for most part of the book, even as he manipulates everyone else around him. We are told almost nothing more about his background, which only increased my curiosity about this enigmatic character. And with him on the loose now (he escapes towards the end of the book), I can only expect the sequel, Hannibal, to be as interesting -- no, more interesting than the first two parts.

My Rating: 8/10.

Related Posts:

Red Dragon (Thomas Harris).

Other Reviews:

Between the Covers (Rating: A)

Review: Lord Edgware Dies (Agatha Christie)

The famous actress Jane Wilkinson keeps telling anyone who will listen that she'd like nothing better than to take a taxi to the house of her estranged husband, Lord Edgware, and murder him. She also pleads with Poirot to convince Lord Edgware to divorce her, only for Poirot to find that Edgware had already agreed to divorce. Soon after that Edgware is found murdered and many witnesses claim to have seen Jane Wilkinson actually taking a taxi to Edgware's house and meeting him. Poirot, unable to accept a straightforward solution to this case, starts looking for another explanation.

Poirot finds out that it was a young actress Carlotta Adams who took the taxi to Edgware's house and she was doing so to win a bet. But before he can ask her who challenged her for the bet, she's found dead. Another man, tries to speak to Poirot about his suspicions, but he too is murdered before Poirot can speak to him. Poirot has a nice cast of suspects here -- the wife who's declared that she wants to kill her husband, the nephew who inherits the uncle's property, the daughter who hated the father. And every single one of them has an excellent alibi.

I always try to guess the identity of the criminal when I'm reading an Agatha Christie mystery novel, but this time I was totally baffled. Every time I suspected someone, that person either died or disappeared. The murderer nearly got away, but luckily for Poirot, a remark made by a passer-by to his friend as they walk past Poirot on the road put him on the right track.

My Rating: 7/10

BTT: Let's Review

This week's BTT question (suggested by Puss Reboots):

How much do reviews (good and bad) affect your choice of reading? If you see a bad review of a book you wanted to read, do you still read it? If you see a good review of a book you’re sure you won’t like, do you change your mind and give the book a try?

Well, that depends. If I read a bad review of a book by one of my favorite authors, or a good one for an author I don't really like, I wouldn't take much notice of the review. But when it comes to newer authors, then reviews generally do influence my choice.

Usually, though, it's the other way round with me and reviews. I read reviews on blogs after I've finished reading the book so I can see how other people felt about the book. That way, there's no risk of coming across spoilers and I won't have unreasonably high (or low, in case it got bad reviews) expectations of the book. :-)

Review: The Fourth Protocol (Frederick Forsyth)

Kim Philby is a former British intelligence officer who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963 after he was revealed to have been spying for the KGB. Now a retired KGB officer, he prepares a memorandum for the General Secretary (or the Soviet president) about the possibility of formation of a Marxist-Leninist government in Britain after the general elections of 1987. Philby and the General Secretary then hatch Plan Aurora, which involves smuggling of a small atomic bomb into Britain and exploding it near a US air base to turn public support in favor of the Labour Party. Once the Labour Party is in power, the "hard left" faction in the party would take over from the moderate left leaders.

The "illegal" agent, Valeri Petrofsky is sent to Britain to accopmplish this mission and the parts of the bomb are sent by different couriers so that it can be assembled there. One of the couriers is attacked by thugs and taken to hospital where he decides to commit suicide to avoid questioning about the polonium disc that he was supposed to deliver to the Soviet agent. MI5 agent John Preston, who investigates the case finds that polonium is used in the initiator of an atomic bomb. Preston's search for Petrofsky forms the rest of the story.

The title of the book refers to the protocol of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (1968) that prohibits smuggling of atomic bombs or their parts into other countries and exploding them there. Like in most of his books, Forsyth blends facts with fiction to make the story sound credible. For example, Philby really did exist and the description of his life until the late 1960s is mostly accurate; the rest of it came from Forsyth's imagination.

In the style typical to Forsyth's books, a major portion of the book explains the working of the intelligence agencies involved (KGB, MI5 and MI6) and the politics that leads up to the plot. It is only towards the ending of the book that the pace quickens up a little and the biggest twists in the story are not revealed until the final few lines of the book.

My Rating: 7/10

Other Reviews:

Between the Covers (Rating: B)

Review: Poirot Investigates (Agatha Christie)

The problem with Poirot Investigates is that it takes away the whole point of reading a Hercule Poirot mystery. In a full length Poirot novel, Christie gives us all the clues we'll need to figure out the mystery. The challenge is to recognize these clues, sort out the "real" clues from the red herrings and find the answer before Poirot reveals it. But with a short story collection like this one, we hardly get any time to make up our minds about what's going on and before we know it, the story comes to an end.

One of the stories in this book, The Million Dollar Bond Robbery was what got me interested in Agatha Christie's books back in my school days. We had this reading excercise in which we were given the first half of the story which contains the background of the crime and Poirot's interrogation of all the suspects. By the end of the hour we had to write down whom we suspected and why, after which our teacher read out the last part of the story. The whole thing depended on whether or not we could read the significance of the reply of a suspect to one completely innocent looking question from Poirot. After that I started looking at Christie's books as on long puzzle with the clues scattered across the book. Most of the time I do get it wrong, but it's great fun to try and guess the ending while I'm reading the book.

Unfortunately, on reading the same story in this book, I found that the story we were given back in school was not the original. And worse, the original did not actually contain any clues about the crime. The clue was added into the story we were given in school so we could have a go at solving it. So much for the story that converted me into a Christie fan! :-( Most of the other stories in the collection too are like that; we have to wait until the end of the story to know the details of the crime. There's not much of a chance to solve the crime ourself.

This is the first Hercule Poirot book I've read that is narrated in first person by Poirot's friend, Captain Hastings. Until now, I have been seeing some similarities between Poirot and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. But with Hastings as his sidekick, Poirot's and Holmes' similarities become even more glaring. Extreme intelligence, incredible vanity and total lack of respect for his sidekick's intellingence makes Poirot look very much like Holmes. It makes me wonder if Agatha Christie wrote the Poirot/Hastings stories as a tribute to the Holmes/Watson mysteries.

My Rating: 4/10

Other Reviews:

The Relentless Pursuit of Cold Shivers (Rating: 3/5)

Yaaay!!! I'm done with my first book of the new year. Not very impressed with it, though. Now there's a bunch of Agatha Christies waiting to be read; all of them are narrated by Hastings. I hope they aren't as disappointing as this one.

BTT: May I Introduce... & Anticipation

This week's question from BTT:

  1. How did you come across your favorite author(s)? Recommended by a friend? Stumbled across at a bookstore? A book given to you as a gift?
  2. Was it love at first sight? Or did the love affair evolve over a long acquaintance?

My earliest favorite author was Enid Blyton. One of my cousins got me five Enid Blyton books when I was nine years old, and those were the first books that I read. And yes, it was love at first sight. I couldn't stop reading until I had finished all five books. Another author that I liked instantly was JK Rowling, and this time I was reading on a friend's recommendation. Others like Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie too fall into the love at first sight category.

There are a lot of authors that I didn't immediately like but over time they have become favorites, John Grisham and Sidney Sheldon, for example. They're authors that I came across in the library and although I didn't like their books immediately, now they are among my favorite authors.

I missed last week's BTT question, so here it is:

What new books are you looking forward to most in 2008? Something new being published this year? Something you got as a gift for the holidays? Anything in particular that you’re planning to read in 2008 that you’re looking forward to? A classic, or maybe a best-seller from 2007 that you’re waiting to appear in paperback?

I hardly ever read according to a plan, so there aren't too many books that I'm specifically looking forward to. But if I were to mention one book that's being realeased this year that I'm looking forward to, that will be The Solomon Key, Dan Brown's next book. I loved his first four books, and am hoping this one's as good as the others.

I also came across an Excel spreadsheet containing the list, 1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die here. It's a list taken from the book of the same name by Peter Boxall. I've read 20 books from the list, and according to the spreadsheet I must read 18 books a year if I want to finish all the books there. Maybe I'll try to read a few books from that list this year.