Tag Archives: brain candy

Letter G, Letter G, Letter G, Letter G – there will be an answer…

The letter

brings you today’s post. G is for Genre.

I’ve discussed genre before a couple of times and noted that part of what makes a book great is the subversion of genre, or blending genres (example: Joss Whedon’s Firefly series). That being said, booksellers and publishers classify books by genre because then people have some idea what they are getting. People decide they like or dislike various genres, thus saving themselves the bother of perusing those shelves at the local library or bookshop. I, for example, don’t bother looking at the Romance or Horror sections of any bookshop. My friend the Restless Teacher avoids the Science Fiction section along with the Fantasy section (should they be separate items). I like the genre sections of bookshops and libraries because sometimes, I just want a straightforward crime story, and if I look in the mystery section, I’ll find one. Problem solved. Well what to read next solved, the mystery itself may take a little longer.

I also read science fiction, but this is less of a fall-back category for me as I find that this genre has a significant range in it and I don’t like all aspects of its range. Some SciFi books feel like poorly disguised romance novels with a little space travel thrown in to fit the genre. You may recall that I’m a rocket scientist — I find some SciFi books are just not interesting because of the lack of science/technology or the poor science/technology in them. SciFi books are idea books. Crummy concept = crummy book. Thus I am more cautious about the SciFi genre, though I’ve been getting back into it in the last year or two.

Mysteries are my fall-back, a comfortable genre that I can usually count on for brain candy. I like finding new authors and reading through their backlist. Over the last couple of years I’ve worked through Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott books, Stephen Booth’s Cooper & Fry set, and David Hewson’s Nic Costa series. I don’t always read everything an author has written — sometimes I stop after one or two. I’m not a fan of Martha Grimes, for example, I couldn’t get past the first few of her books that I read.

I also like speculative fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. Historical fiction is seldom separated out from the general fiction or literature section in libraries and bookshops. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it with its own spot on the shelves. I’m not sure why that is. Of course you can have mysteries with an historical setting (Ellis Peters pops to mind), and thrillers set in the past, and romances with history as a backdrop, so maybe a setting in the past isn’t enough for a separate section. Fantasy and speculative fiction often get blended in with SciFi as SFF. I’ve ranted in other places about why this should not be so. I can see speculative fiction and science fiction getting along better than SciFi and Fantasy. I’m not sure at all why fantasy get’s put in that category. If someone has an explanation, I’d be happy to hear it.

All that to say, genre sometimes determines what I’m going to read next. I look for books that are similar to others that I’ve liked. At the same time I recognize that genre blending or genre twisting can make a book great — so classifications as issued by publishers or booksellers or librarians don’t always reflect the potential a book has.

What genres do you like? Why?

[The title of this entry probably means you’ve all got Mother Mary running through your head. Sorry about the earworm, I’m just passing it on.]

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Seasonal Books 2: Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher is not on my List of Some Books I’ve Read 3 Times or More, though I have indeed read it three times or more. Representing Ms Pilcher’s oeuvre on the List in Question is Coming Home, which I discussed during Historical Fiction Week. I do, however, have to mention Winter Solstice here because it is so obviously a seasonal read. Much of the action happens before Christmas and the book ends before Christmas Day, but Christmas and the true celebration of that holiday is pivotal to the action in the book.

Because a Christian celebration is pivotal to the book you might think that the theology of the book is what makes it appealing to me. There’s some theology, but I’m afraid it is pretty far in the background. Some might find the theology in the book pronounced. I thought not. Oh, it is there, but it is a weak tea sort of theology, nothing robust at all. It is too bad, because there is potential for a bit more. I frequently read Winter Solstice at this time of year, not for the seasonal cheer, but because of a particular scene or two in which a guest or stranger arrives at a house and finds an unexpectedly warm welcome. This sort of theme recurs through the book. This theme is very theological, and much more robust than the explicit weak-tea theology in the book. The book also captures the darkness of the season well, along with the pleasure of a well-lit room viewed from a dark street. It is a nice bit of brain candy for the winter.

Today is Santa Lucia, and I did attempt to think of a book that connected with the festival. I thought of Coming Home (which led to Winter Solstice) because in the opening scene two friends leave school for the Christmas holidays after eating saffron buns. Saffron buns are a large part of celebrating Santa Lucia, even when we are slightly cheeky and call them eye-ball buns. The Norwegian taught us how to celebrate  Santa Lucia and so I lift a (unfortunately imaginary) glass of mulled wine in her direction and say Happy Santa Lucia!

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Mysterious Authors: UK vs USA

In the spot-the-trend category you may have noticed that all the mystery writers I’ve talked about in the last week and a half have been British. I don’t read mysteries from the UK exclusively, but I do tend to favour them over mysteries from the USA. I’m not sure why this is so. As I write this blog post, perhaps the half-formed (half-baked?) theory living in my head regarding this preference will become clearer.

The first possible contributing factor to my British preference is the fact that I lived and went to school in Greater London for almost a year when I was 7 (I turned 8 about a month before we came home to Canada). This was a formative year in my reading life, as it is for many children. I was just nicely into the read-anything-you-can-find stage, and what I found were mystery stories by Enid Blyton. It is possible that my current reading habits are influenced by nostalgia for the Famous Five, or the Secret Seven, or (best of all in my view) the Adventure series.

I do read some USAian mystery writers, but none of them so far have rated either collecting or re-reading. I usually take them out of the library, or borrow them from someone, or buy them second hand and dispose of them the same way. I’ve read Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell,  Kathy Reichs, Linda Farstein, Sue Grafton & Jane Haddam to name a few. Most of these books were all right, but I didn’t exactly run out and get everything by the author. In a couple of cases I made a clear decision never to read anything by the author again. On a more positive note, I recently read through all the Judge Deborah Knott books by Margaret Maron; they were very enjoyable. Maron I might even collect if her books were readily available in Canada. Fortunately the library has them. I think one thing that Maron does (that the others listed do not do) is create and sustain an interesting character who changes and develops through the series. I like this in an author whether from the US or the UK

One other thing I’ve realized is that I quite like police procedurals as a sub-set of the mystery genre, but I haven’t encountered many USAian mysteries of this type. I am possibly not looking in the right places. UK mystery writers seem to crank out police procedurals with abandon, and I’ve had no trouble finding them at all. In fact one USAian writer, Elizabeth George, who DOES write a mean police procedural sets her stories in the UK! Does the US system of policing not lend itself to detective stories? There  seem to be a lot of TV police mystery series set in various US cities, why not books? Perhaps I’ve just not been looking in the right places or at the right authors.

Finally, I think there is a difference in tone between UK and US writers. The books have different accents. It is hard to describe the difference, but you can hear it. I like the sound of the (writing) accents that come from the UK.

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British Men Who Write Mysteries 1: Dick Francis

Last week I talked a lot about detective fiction/mysteries that were written by British Women. My list of Books I Have Read 3 Times or More also includes two British Men who write mysteries. One is a Dead British Man, the other a British Man Living In Canada. Let’s start with the dead guy.

Dick Francis wrote a lot of detective fiction about horses and horse racing. The one of his I’ve read 3 times and that I like best is called Proof and it is about a wine merchant. Don’t worry, there are horses in the book, but it doesn’t centre around racetracks or training stables in quite the same way as some of his others do. There is lots of information in the book about wine and whiskey along with a very nice little mystery to be solved. I quite like this one. I’ve still got my copy.

There are two other books by Francis that I’d recommend: To The Hilt and Decider. All three of Proof, To The Hilt, and Decider have really interesting lead characters who aren’t jockeys or trainers. To The Hilt is more about painting and banking than horses (though there are always horses somehow), and Decider is about an architect who also has six small sons. Of these three I think Proof is the best, but the other two stand out among Dick Francis books as being a cut above the rest. Most of Dick Francis’s work is what I call brain candy — amusing and usually well-constructed mysteries. They aren’t solid food, but satisfy the (mental) sweet tooth.

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Finding History: Houses of Stone

Every time I move I have to purge books. My friend the Constant Reader benefited most from the last book purge motivated by a move — she took away bags and bags of books. Every time I move, I look again at Houses of Stone by Barbara Michaels. I think about ditching the book. Then I re-read it and keep it. Why, you might ask, would I keep such obvious brain candy?

Barbara Michaels is a pseudonym under which Dr. Barbara Mertz writes gothic romances. Dr. Mertz has a PhD in Egyptology, earned in 1952. She found that she could make a living as a writer, but not so much as an Egyptologist. Sigh. Dr. Mertz also writes mysteries under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters. Of the Peters books, I enjoy the Vickie Bliss books best, as well as the first 3 or 4 of the Amelia Peabody books. (I can’t read the rest of Peabody, not sure why.) I’ve always enjoyed books written by this author under both names. I’ve been reading them since I was in high school and first encountered Crocodile on the Sandbank. Why do I keep Houses of Stone? Because it is a book about a female scholar who haunts used book shops and there makes a Discovery that will Make Her Name in the world of academia. Isn’t that the dream of us all?

I didn’t realize when I first read Peters/Michaels that Dr. Mertz was an academic, nor that I would become one of those. I thought it might be cool to have a doctorate when I was in high school, but also thought it might be a bit far-fetched. And possibly impractical. Now that I’ve earned my doctorate I read Peters/Michaels differently. I also secretly collect possible pseudonyms to use for my future career as a novelist since it seems that careers in academia are impossible to come by.

How on earth are bits of brain candy by Peters/Michaels connected to historical fiction? MPM (Dr. Mertz’s way of referring to all the names she writes under) uses history in her books in a couple of ways. She sets books in the past — the Amelia Peabody books are set in the 19th century. She also uses the past in her books set in the present. Usually the main character has to uncover some Secret Of The Past in order to resolve the mystery in the present. Thus all MPM’s characters do historical research of some kind. They find history. I like this kind of book as well — witness the other book about finding history I’m obsessed with, Possession. Looking for secrets from the past appeals to me. There are probably good reasons from my personal history that this is so, but I think loads of people find this sort of thing appealing. Why else would hideous books like The DaVinci Code sell so well?

Findings of the week so far: I like historical fiction, particularly History-With-A-Twist and books in which people Find History. Food for thought.

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