29 September 2007

Book Review: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Ivanhoe More than a century after the Battle of Hastings, the Saxons and the Normans still aren’t getting along. In Yorkshire things aren’t improved by the meddling of Prince John, who takes it upon himself to find an advantageous, Norman husband for the Saxon princess Rowena. This is not at all to the liking of her guardian Cedric, a proud Saxon who wants nothing to do with the invaders - and to marry his ward to Athelstane, another descendant of Saxon royalty, in the hope that the two together will form a powerful figurehead for a Saxon rebellion. So determined is Cedric, in fact, that he disinherited his own son when that young man began to entertain hopes of marriage to Rowena, and to acquire Norman ways. Now he’s back from the Crusades in the guise of the Knight of Ivanhoe, and his reappearance sparks a collision of the various plans that are afoot. John’s plot to usurp his brother’s throne; Cedric’s schemes of rebellion; Maurice de Bracy’s plan to seize Rowena for himself and Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert’s similar designs on the Jewess Rebecca: all come together in a castle siege, which will only be lifted with help from some unexpected quarters.

I finished this book a week ago and have been mulling over it ever since, trying to work out what to say (and, yes, catching up on my backlog - still). It’s the first book I’ve read by Scott and I will be on the lookout for more. The various schemes all intersected neatly and the action could be quite thrilling. The cast of characters was enormous, and while there were moments when I had to pause to remind myself of just who someone was, other were wonderfully memorable. Like Athelstane, a descendant of Ethelred the Unready, who inherited his ancestor’s nickname due to the length of time it took him to make up his mind about anything - except if there was food involved. And I loved Rebecca: smart, courageous, principled, and the antithesis of the wilting damsel in distress. Plus any novel the features Robin Hood and company is bound to be fun; I had to laugh at Friar Tuck protesting too much over the fine victuals that just happened to be in his hermitage.

But it’s not perfect. The dialogue tended toward the archaic and could be challenging to read. The character of Isaac, Rebecca’s father, was funny for a while, with his dithering and the way his wealth varied according to who he was talking to, but he quickly began irritating me. I wished he’s just stop whining and put a sock in it. And one thing that bugged me all the way through was the negativity with which the Jews were regarded by most of the other characters. It wasn’t universal, and it was historically accurate, but I still found it hard to tolerate for long periods at a time. And I have to admit to being a trifle horrified when I discovered that Ivanhoe had been christened Wilfred. Wilfred? No doubt a decent enough name in the twelfth century, but these days it doesn’t exactly say ‘dashing hero’, does it?

Rating: B-

28 September 2007

Is this a Sign that I Read Too Much?

Lately I’ve been noticing an odd phenomenon. And I don’t mean the weather, which keeps threatening to forgo spring altogether and launch right into summer. Less than four weeks from the end of winter, and there’s already been a number of days of thirty degrees or more; it’s probably hotter here than in a lot of places that have only just started autumn. And I recently had to prise myself out of Dragonfly in Amber to plant some frangipani cuttings which had started sprouting leaves while lying in a heap on the patio.

No, what I’ve noticed is that most of what I read reminds me of something I’ve read - or several somethings. Given that for the past five years at least I’ve averaged between two and three books a week, this probably isn’t surprising. But I’m still reminded of You’ve Got Mail when Meg Ryan’s character comments on things in life reminding her of things in books, and asks if shouldn’t it be the other way around? So if it’s a sign of reading too much when the real world begins reminding you of the fictional one, what is it a sign of when the fictional world begins reminding you of itself - and with alarming regularity, at that?

In the past month or so:

Rebecca reminded me of the Thursday Next series, since Jurisfiction had the Mrs. Danvers clones and Rebecca had Mrs. Danvers.

Governors’ Wives in Colonial Australia made me think of North-west by South, as both featured Jane Franklin, the wife of a former governor of Tasmania.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman recalled The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because both authors acknowledged mid-novel that they were novels, and paused in the narrative to reflect on the writing process. And Tess of the D’Urbervilles, because Sarah’s father similarly sought to push his daughter beyond her class on the strength of once-great ancestors. And The Dinosaur Hunters, since Charles was a hunter of, if not dinosaurs, then at least of their aquatic predecessors.

Since The Thieves’ Opera was about Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard, it reminded me of the books where I first heard of these eighteenth-century crooks: A Conspiracy of Paper and Dracula, respectively.

Human Croquet put me in mind of the other Kate Atkinson I’ve read, Emotionally Weird, since both included a mysteriously-appearing dog. Also Shylock’s Daughter, thanks to the time travel-and-Shakespeare thing. (Or should that be apparent time travel-and-Shakespeare thing?)

The Shape-changer’s Wife made me think of some of Jo Beverley’s romances, if only because of the mention of a character named Maloren, which is only one letter off Malloren.

The Last King of Scotland is irritating in that I still can’t think what it reminds me of. There’s something about the situation of the main character looking back over the past from the safety of an island that strikes me as familiar, but a skim through my reading lists has failed to jog my memory. Perhaps it’s something I read before 2004. Or perhaps I’m imagining it. What I’m not imagining is that its dodgy South African pilot put me briefly in mind of The Poisonwood Bible.

How to Kill Your Husband (and other handy household hints) reminded me of Behaving Badly, a comparison which didn’t do it any favours.

And of the books I’m currently reading, Sentimental Murder reminds me of The Thieves’ Opera, being more eighteenth-century true crime, and something else. I can’t think what; but I know I’d heard of the crime in question, and Sentimental Murder was on my woefully incomplete list of must-reads, so I’d obviously heard of it somewhere. And with me, ‘somewhere’ almost invariably translates to ‘in a book’.

Am I the only one this happens to?

27 September 2007

Book Review: Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

Dragonfly in Amber Twenty-three years after she vanished through a stone circle into another time, Claire Randall is back in twentieth-century Scotland. With her is her daughter Brianna, who believes her father to be the late historian Frank Randall, and has no idea of the truth: that her mother is a time-traveller, and she herself is the daughter of an eighteenth-century Scottish outlaw. In Inverness Claire seeks out Roger Wakefield, who is happy to carry out a spot of historical detective work on her behalf - especially if it means seeing more of Brianna. But the simple task of discovering which of a group of men survived Culloden becomes more complicated when he notices a few little oddities. Meanwhile Claire prepares to tell her astonishing story, and to show them the one piece of evidence that can prove its truth beyond doubt.

Claire’s narration picks up after Cross Stitch left off: with her and Jamie Fraser in France in 1745, searching for a way to avert Culloden by stopping the rebellion before it starts. It’s a delicate and risky business, getting close to Charles Stuart by pretending to support his cause, while in reality trying to suppress it (incidentally, just as Roger told Brianna, Charles Stuart really did abandon the battlefield in such a hurry as to leave his picnic set behind.) But they’re sure they can succeed; after all, Frank Randall’s ring remains on her finger, even though one of his direct ancestors was prematurely killed, which means that they have already succeeded in changing history - or have they? Then Claire secures the enmity of the Comte St. Germain, rumoured black magician and all-round bad news; a few more branches of Frank’s family tree turn up; and the Duke of Sandringham decides to start meddling. Suddenly the question of whether the past really can be changed, or whether those trying to do so are as helpless as a dragonfly trapped in amber, becomes the least of their concerns. And after being forced back to Scotland, they discover that their only hope of saving the clansmen at Culloden may well be to become Jacobites in truth, and see that the rebellion succeeds. Only one thing is certain: that the love Jamie and Claire have for each other can survive anything - even separation by more than two hundred years.

This book is partly responsible for my still being slightly behind in my blogging: once I picked it up, it was very hard put down, and I certainly couldn’t tear myself away from it for a mere book review. Once I got into it, that is. Cross Stitch was all first-person and finished in the eighteenth century, so when I opened this and found it was third person in the twentieth century, I was a little disoriented and for a moment even wondered if I had the right book. But, no, this was book two, and I soon got used to the idea that the continuation of the eighteenth century would have to wait a while. The process was greatly helped by the mystery of Claire’s reappearance and her request, and by the presence of Roger Wakefield. The little boy who briefly appeared in book one has grown up to be just adorable, and it was fun watching him battle with his late father’s lifetime accumulation of paper and his relentlessly marriage-minded housekeeper. And once Claire resumed her tale, I was glued to the page - all nine-hundred-plus of them. (I’m sure it didn’t seem that long. I guess pages fly when you’re having fun.)

And in spite of the high stakes, the danger, and the certain knowledge that it all ends in failure and separation, there’s a lot of fun. At some points I was laughing out loud, like Jamie’s improvised use of a rock-solid sausage as a weapon - and his thriftily keeping hold of it during his subsequent flight and having it cooked up for dinner. But the greatest attraction was the characters. The cast was large, but I never got muddled; they’re all individuals and most leapt off the page (Brianna didn’t quite spring to life, but maybe in the next book). As well as the enjoyment of meeting all the newcomers, and returning to a few old favourites, there was also a wonderful chance to see the good side of a bad character. After this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the key to a truly memorable villain is not just the vileness, but the degree of normality mixed with it. Best of all, I got to spend more time with Claire and Jamie. He is just as wonderful in this book as the first - and with just as much of a tendency to infuriating stubbornness. Claire has a truly enviable knack for thinking on her feet, and I really wish I shared it. Once again they showed their willingness to do anything for each other; and when there was nothing more that could be done and history forced them apart, I was scrambling for the Kleenex.

The eighteenth century threw up a few twists for the characters from the twentieth. One has me itching to read book three. One took me by surprise and had me rushing for my copy of Cross Stitch to see how the clues had been planted. (Answer: very subtly.) And one I saw coming a mile off, and I couldn’t think why Claire didn’t spot it also. It was a little disappointing that someone usually so observant should miss something that I thought was obvious. But it did at least clear up something I’d been puzzled by since book one. And be warned - it does get gory, and there’s a high body count by the end.

Rating: A

22 September 2007

Book Review: How to Kill Your Husband (and other handy household hints) by Kathy Lette

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #18

How to Kill Your Husband Ever since university, Cassandra, Jasmine and Hannah have been the best of friends. But that friendship threatens to break apart when Jazz is arrested for the murder of her husband. David Studlands was a doctor who toured the world’s trouble spots treating the poor. He was also a philandering cad who had mortgaged the house out from under his wife and son to fund his research. Now he’s disappeared off a beach on the other side of the world, and Jazz’s ex-con toyboy has dumped her right in it. Desperate to prove her innocence, Jazz sends Cassie to tell her lawyer the whole story, from the disastrous twentieth anniversary dinner onwards. Along the way it’s not only Jazz’s relationship which suffers; Cassie and Hannah also see their marriages begin to fall apart. And whether Jazz gets off or not, their friendship may never be the same again.

I had high hopes for this book, but unfortunately they weren’t met. It was a good premise, but my interest soon flagged in the face of a whole lot of the characters gossiping about their marriages and sex lives. (Is this really what it’s like to be middle-aged and married? If so, I’m glad I’m perpetually single.) When Jazz found out just what her husband had been up to behind her back she got angry and bitter, as you would, but I quickly got fed up with her incessant bitchiness, which was directed not only at David but others as well. Hannah had little part to play in the first two-thirds of the book; and while there were a few genuine laughs, I didn’t find it that funny overall. The one-liners were laid on with a trowel, to the point where I thought, “Okay! I get it! You’re witty! Now can we please move on?” And Cassie was one of my pet literary peeves: the chick-lit wimp. She freely admitted she had no spine, agreed with whatever Jazz and Hannah said, even when they contradicted each other, and let her husband relegate all the housework to her. I began to wonder if there’s not some bizarre law of the universe preventing the creation of chick-lit heroines with backbones. (Then I remembered the fantastic Behaving Badly by Isobel Wolff, which suggests that there’s not.)

It did have its good points, though. There were some quite wonderful moments towards the end, when the various dastardly men and unscrupulous rivals (those still alive, at least) got their comeuppances. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Cassie confronted her boss and couldn’t help but be pleased for her (both because of the successful outcome, and because she discovered her spine). I also liked Jazz’s various ideas for, not so much committing murder, but increasing the risks in her husband’s already risky lifestyle (mis-sized bulletproof vest, for example). While for me it was only an average read, someone who’s had experience of the whole marriage-kids-middle age thing might like it and relate to it more.

I’d hate to write off an entire genre. So ... all recommendations of chick-lit books without wimpy main characters will be gratefully accepted.

Rating: C

Book Review: The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden

Book to Movie Challenge #1
Armchair Traveller Challenge #3

The Last King of Scotland To someone who grew up dreaming of adventure, a village in Uganda sounds like an ideal place to take up work as a doctor. The reality, however, might be something else, as Nicholas Garrigan realises even before he reaches Mbarara. The local military is corrupt and the British embassy wants the new government employee to do some ... er, observation for them. Nevertheless, Garrigan stays, loving the place and the challenge of practicing medicine in the tropics. Then the government is toppled, and a charismatic soldier named Idi Amin seizes power. Amin is fascinated by all things Scottish, even going so far as to style himself the ‘Last King of Scotland’. After a chance meeting, he is taken with the idea of having a Scot as a personal physician, and makes Garrigan an offer on the spot. Following his return to the city, he becomes entranced by his new boss’s charm, even as he is terrified by his occasional outbursts and horrified by the brutalities of his regime. By the time he realises just how far in over his head he’s gotten, the borders are closing and escape may well be impossible.

This is my book number one in the Book to Movie challenge, and one whose corresponding movie I haven’t seen. So, no comparisons. What I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed the literary version. This was in spite of the various gruesome and/or disturbing bits; Foden doesn’t pull any descriptive punches and I now know rather more than I wanted about tropical diseases and the effects of shrapnel.

It takes a while for the title character to appear, but it’s time well spent. Garrigan’s early years at Mbarara, plus his recollections of growing up in Fossiemuir, set the stage for the rest and make it believable. By the time he’s mired in the increasing chaos of Amin’s reign, the reader has already seen his childhood fascination with exotic adventures, his indecisiveness, his poor judgement plus a certain blindness when it comes to people. It is all these things that keep him in Uganda long after other Westerners have bailed out, and without them he would have looked like an idiot. As it was, he came across as intelligent man who was also a weak one, plagued by a few disastrous flaws. It was hard to truly like him as a person, but his observations made him an entertaining narrator. The towns and countries of Uganda sprang to life on the page, and it wasn’t the stuff you’d see on a package tour; he spent a lot of time in some quite run-down areas. (Ergo, another brilliant choice for the Armchair Traveller Challenge.) I could see why he found Amin so captivating, even if I didn’t experience the effect myself. There were moments when it was almost possible to think that he sounded reasonable, though the impression never lasted. Perhaps I’m too cynical to accept the surface of things the way Garrigan does. That being the case, I thought the book worked better as a portrait of Uganda under Amin, than of Amin himself.

Rating: B+

20 September 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Sunshine and Roses

The reverse of last week’s question: Imagine that everything is going just swimmingly. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all’s right with the world. You’re practically bouncing from health and have money in your pocket. The kids are playing and laughing, the puppy is chewing in the cutest possible manner on an officially-sanctioned chew toy, and in between moments of laughter for pure joy, you pick up a book to read....

What is it?

The ‘sunshine and roses’ feeling isn’t one I’m particularly familiar with, at least not for long enough at a time to go hunting for a book. So I can’t speak from experience on this one. But I suspect I would steer clear of anything gloomy or depressing (unless it was favourite, say Wuthering Heights). Probably in a really good mood I could read anything; but maybe it would be something I’d been looking forward to, or something I’d loved and wanted to reread.

16 September 2007

Book Review: The Shape-Changer's Wife by Sharon Shinn

R.I.P. II Challenge #1

The Shape-Changer’s Wife Aubrey’s great desire is to learn as much about the art of wizardry as he can. To that end, his teacher Cyril dispatches him to the famous shape-changer Glyrenden, to learn how to alter his form at will. But when Glyrenden finally returns to his dust-laden castle in the forest he seems disinclined to teach Aubrey much of anything, and frequently leaves him to his own devices while he travels the kingdom in the service of wealthy patrons. During these times, he is left alone save for his master’s strange servants and equally odd wife. Lilith puzzles him: she obviously dislikes her adoring husband, speaks little, barely eats, never shows any sign of emotion and is petrified of fire. She is not like other women and is strangely insistent on this fact. Long after he has given up on being taught what he wants to know, and joined the other residents in dreading Glyrenden’s return, Aubrey stays that he might work out why she is so different to anyone else, and why she will not leave. For Aubrey is in love with the wife of another man - of a powerful wizard he knows will crush him if given half a chance.

It’s a shame I have so much else to do and read, otherwise I’d be tempted to read this again before returning it to the library. Once Lilith’s secret was revealed a lot of things made sense, and I’m sure there were more clues which I overlooked. The whole thing carried the air of an ancient legend, from the setting at some indeterminate time in the past in an unspecified location to the epilogue giving the alternate theories of what had happened afterwards. At first I thought it was some version of England, since Aubrey’s former master resided at a place called Southport; but further geographical references dispelled that notion. Aubrey was a great characters; it was refreshing to meet a wizard and scholar who didn’t live for dusty tomes and magical experiments, but loved getting about and socialising. I also liked the way he didn’t wait around for the answers to be provided by other people, but actively went out to try things for himself. Although he is initially enthralled by Glyrenden, it doesn’t take him long to share the dislike of him held by the other members of the household. The faintly gothic atmosphere made it perfect for the R.I.P. 2 challenge, just as I’d hoped; even the setting was perilous, with the constant threat of being entangled in ivy or suffocated by dust. (Made me feel much better about my own domestic skills - or lack thereof.)

There was only one problem with this book: I wanted more!

Rating: B+

15 September 2007

Dancin' Fool's Meme

Dancin’ Fool tagged me for this ages ago but I have only just gotten round to doing it! But I did have a. a backlog of reviews due to my computer being out for nearly a week; b. midsemester exams; and c. a pile of library books up to my knee. (Though that last isn’t quite so dire a circumstance as it might sound, me being vertically challenged.)

1. If you could have super powers what would they be and what would you do with them? (Please feel free to be selfish, you do not have to save the world!)
Time travel. No - invisible time travel. I could pop back into the past to check out anything I was curious about; and since no-one would be able to see me there’d be little danger of me screwing up the time-space continuum. I’d hope.

2. Were you to find your self stranded on an island with a CD player ... it could happen ... what would your top 10 blogger’s island discs be?

1 - the Beatles
18 Singles - U2
American Idiot - Green Day
Black Fingernails, Red Wine - Eskimo Joe
Echolalia - Something for Kate
Hot Fuss - The Killers
Odyssey No. 5 - Powderfinger
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea - PJ Harvey
Tea & Sympathy - Bernard Fanning
What’s the Story Morning Glory - Oasis
Okay, so the compilations might be cheating a little ... but it’s easier than choosing just one!

3. If you were a smell what would it be?
Frangipani.

4. What bird would you most like to be?
Something that looks good, something that can really soar, something not likely to get shot at ... peregrine falcon, maybe?

5. If you were a bird whose head would you poo on?
Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd. It might make him look a little less like a perfect, blandly smiling school prefect.

Are there any foods that your body craves?
Sweet, juicy fruits. (Only a couple more months till mango season!!)

What's your favourite time of year?
Here, winter. (But in a colder climate, autumn.)

What's your favourite time of day?
Sunset. We get some gorgeous ones here.

If a rest is as good as a change which would you choose?
A change! Because nothing ever changes and I’m tired of resting.

If you could have a dinner party and invite any 5 people from the past or present who would they be? (Living or deceased.)
Jane Austen, Richard Feynmann, Elizabeth I, Gerald Durrell, William Shakespeare. I’d just have to hope that Richard didn’t play any of his infamous practical jokes on Elizabeth.

Now, who to tag? Since it’s nearly midnight, I think I’ll just say: TAG! You’re it.

13 September 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Comfort Food

Okay ... picture this (really) worst-case scenario: It’s cold and raining, your boyfriend/girlfriend has just dumped you, you’ve just been fired, the pile of unpaid bills is sky-high, your beloved pet has recently died, and you think you’re coming down with a cold. All you want to do (other than hiding under the covers) is to curl up with a good book, something warm and comforting that will make you feel better.

What do you read?

(Any bets on how quickly somebody says the Bible or some other religious text? A good choice, to be sure, but to be honest, I was thinking more along the lines of fiction. Unless I laid it on a little strong in the string of catastrophes? Maybe I should have just stuck to catching a cold on a rainy day….)

Well, it definitely wouldn’t be the Bible, our house not being equipped with one! But I’ve got plenty of other choices. First, there’s romantic comfort reading: happy ending guaranteed. Or cozy mysteries; a bit of a puzzle to distract me and the knowledge that things will work out for pretty much everyone except the corpses. Or a historical or fantasy novel, something that can transport me to a totally different time/world/whatever. Or something funny, like Janet Evanovich or Gerald Durrell or Douglas Adams or Ben Elton, that has a good chance of making me laugh - or at least smile. Or a trip back to my young(er) days with Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder or The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. The last is actually 5 books in 1 volume, so it would keep me going for a while!

Actually, it occurs to me that the bulk of what I read could be classified as comfort reads. My fondness for reading only turned into the current full-blown obsession when I needed something to fill the void that for a normal person would be occupied by a social life. No matter how stultifyingly dull real life is, I always have my books to come home to. If I’m unhappy, escape is usually within arm’s length; and there’s an almost endless array of other places and other times and other lives that I can visit for a while. And books make wonderful companions: ever-present and always reliable.

Book Review: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Human Croquet By 1960 the once-great Fairfaxes have dwindled to a dysfunctional family living in a house on the suburban estate built over their former lands. Sixteen-year-old Isobel pines for Malcolm Lovat while her brother Charles collects stories of the unexplained. Their aunt Vinny gives what little affection she can muster to her horde of cats and the loutish lodger. Their young stepmother Debbie fights ineffectually against mess and paranoia, becoming convinced that inanimate objects are moving when her back is turned. And their father Gordon drifts around in the midst of it all. The two teenagers puzzle over the central mystery of their lives: what became of their mother Eliza, and why, after she left, their father vanished for seven years before bringing Debbie back from New Zealand. Neither one realises that the answer - or is it only part of the answer? - is somewhere in their memories, if they could only find it. Meanwhile Isobel is dealing with a mystery of her own - why does she keep dropping out of the present and into random points in the past? And why do none of the people in the past seem to mind that she’s there?

For the first three-quarters of its length this was a great read. Initially I wondered how a sixteen-year-old could have a narrating style like that, until it was mentioned that she spent a lot of time reading, at which point I decided it was entirely possible. It was full of delightful, subtle literary references, such as her description of the domestically-challenged Debbie as a ‘bleak housekeeper in hard times’. Charles made a kooky addition to the family, with his obsession with all things weird (like the disappearance rate among people crossing fields) and his amateur-detective attempts to salvage remnants of Eliza from about the house. And certainly pieces of Eliza’s life had a habit of turning up in unexpected places. Debbie was just as odd; not only did she suspect the crockery of moving, but believed everyone around her had been replaced with robotic replicas, and her general ditziness made me glad she hailed from the other side of the Tasman. In fact she reminded me of a guy I went to high school with, who once seriously claimed it was possible that, if absolutely no-one was watching, the flagpole out the front of the school would dance a jig on the lawn. And there was an element of mystery not only from Eliza, but the early depiction of the legend surrounding a much earlier Fairfax wife.

Then it suddenly went off the rails. Isobel’s decade-hopping became a full-blown Groundhog Day-style timewarp, before all the weirdness was explained away in a manner which had me mentally shrieking, “CHEAT!”. Only that wasn’t the end of the weirdness; it returned briefly and for no apparent reason. There was also a story about events in the past which ended with a twist revealing that it wasn’t the whole truth. I wound up abandoning all efforts even to wonder what was real and what wasn’t and after finishing the book still didn’t have a clue. Although it did reveal the answers to the mysteries, as well as several things more shocking, the end spoiled the whole book for me. Nor did I like the way in which things Isobel thought of as potential plot devices subsequently appeared for maybe-real. It made them seem like - well, mere plot devices to hurry the book to an end.

Rating: C

Book Review: The Thieves' Opera by Lucy Moore

The Thieves’ Opera In London in the early eighteenth century, two men from - apparently - opposite sides of the law rose to similar heights of fame and notoriety. Jack Sheppard started out as a reasonably well-behaved apprentice, until he found himself with nothing much left to learn and two years to wait until he could begin to work for himself. In his boredom he turned to a life of crime in the form of housebreaking. But his real celebrity came from his multiple dramatic escapes from various London prisons, including the cells of Newgate. The poorer sections of the populace loved seeing the authority of the rich being so boldly flouted, and Jack became a hero.

Jonathan Wild styled himself ‘Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland’. He set up the Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property, reuniting people with their pilfered possessions, and sent numerous criminals to the gallows. London’s wealthier residents were so pleased with this service that they didn’t look too closely at the man who provided it. Wild had abandoned a wife and son in Wolverhampton, and after reaching London spent four years in a debtors’ prison. There he became acquainted with a sizeable portion of the underworld; and after being released and briefly apprenticed to another thief-taker, it was easy enough for him to take control. He recruited and trained thieves, and had no compunction about turning them in when it suited him. Meanwhile he presented himself to his clients as merely a middleman facilitating contact between them and the thieves - for a price, which was invariably more than the item’s black market value. Things went well until Jack Sheppard began his criminal career; caring nothing for authority, he threatened Wild’s stranglehold on the London underworld. A furious Wild became hell-bent on seeing his nemesis swing; but by the time he finally did manage to get him to the gallows Sheppard had the support of the populace, who didn’t look kindly on the man who had impeached their hero.

I’ve been rather fascinated by Wild since meeting him in fictional form in David Liss’s fabulous A Conspiracy of Paper. How could someone manage to play both sides of the law so well, and for so long? The answer turned out to be quite simple: brains, ruthlessness, and four years with little to do except help fellow inmates get around the law. I discovered the history of Jack Sheppard more recently, through a reference in Dracula. Put the two together, and you have an interesting book with plenty of detours through the crime and justice (after a fashion) of the early eighteenth century. These tangents added to the main history, which was a tragic one not just because it ended in both their deaths, but because of the sense that they could have had equal success with a longer life expectancy on the right side of the law. Or then again, maybe not; Wild does seem to have had a taste for the low life, if the contents of his cellar - excavated in 1844 - are anything to go by: implements of torture and human remains. It says a lot about the parlous state of law enforcement at the time, that he was a necessary part of it. And it’s ironic that the standard police technique of dividing suspects and encouraging one to flip on the rest was developed by a criminal mastermind.

There’s more information about Jonathan Wild than Jack Sheppard; understandable, given the former’s much longer career. When the latter appears, his exploits are audacious, ingenious and even comical; it’s easy to see how he acquired such great and lasting fame.

Rating: B

11 September 2007

Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea Off the coast of South Carolina is the island nation of Nollop, named in honour of Nevin Nollop, author of the sentence the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The inhabitants of the island use technology as little as possible and have elevated the English language to an art form. Communication is done by letter and Nollop is admired to the point of worship. So much so, that when the tile bearing the letter z falls from the monument to Nollop in the town square, the island council interprets it as a sign that Nollop’s ghost wishes them all to expunge z from the language. No-one over the age of seven may use it in speech or writing unless willing to face a punishment that could be as severe as banishment - or worse. Young laundress Ella Minnow Pea initially accepts the challenge of the new era, but her cousin Tassie is less sanguine. As more letters are banned and more people leave, Ella too begins to have her doubts. Their only hope for the survival of language on Nollop comes from Nate Warren, a mainland historian of all things Nollop, who suggests coming up with another sentence using all 26 letters - one shorter than the original. For if a mere mortal can do what Nollop did, and do it better, it will prove that he is not a god, and that the tiles fell simply because of the effect of gravity vs. old glue. An underground resistance movement springs up to attempt just that, but can they succeed before the deadline imposed by the council?

I’ve wanted to read this book ever since first hearing about it. I know there’s a novel that was written entirely without the use of the letter e, but one that keeps losing letters progressively? That must be quite an achievement - and it is. It helps that the first few letters to go are relatively uncommon ones, and that the Nollopians are prone to creating words at will (like humongolacity or vocabularian) and use a style that allows for creative constructions. Even after the loss of d it’s surprising how readable the book remains, and just how many letters can be lost before things get really unusual. But eventually - once the remaining islanders are obliged to resort to phonetic spelling - it becomes very difficult to read.

Using an epistolary form - with a few council proclamations thrown in - is really effective in showing how the reductions in the alphabet constrain the islanders. But between the verbose, formal style of the letters and their progressively shorter length, the characters writing them felt a little flat. I liked them well enough, but didn’t connect with any of them. Nevertheless it was a good and wonderfully imaginative depiction of what can happen to a society when the few decide to exert stringent control over the many. Nollop transforms from an idyllic island to a country of spies and suspicion, and if its freedoms can’t be restored it faces a short life expectancy. And if you don’t run out of time like I did, there’s the added fun of trying to come up with your own pangram (i.e. sentence containing all 26 letters) that shorter than Nollop’s original.

Rating: B

Next Week's Headline?

It could happen....

Southside bookslide

A Brisbane university student was treated by paramedics yesterday after being injured in a freak bookslide. The woman, 23, was found trapped beneath dozens of books in a variety of genres. Inquiries revealed her to be a book blogger engaged in five simultaneous reading challenges, each involving books present at the scene. Authorities are yet to determine the exact cause of the bookslide, but it is believed that the latest challenge, coupled with excessive library borrowing, caused her TBR pile to become overloaded to the point of collapse.

A Queensland Health spokesperson has advised heavy readers to exercise caution. “There are no treatment facilities in south-east Queensland as book addiction is a relatively rare problem,” she said. “All we can do is advise sufferers to stack books no higher than thirty centimetres, keep their spine straight when moving large loads of books, and consider seeing a psychiatrist if symptoms persist.

“But only if they can afford to do so privately - the public waiting list is longer than War and Peace.”



Book Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

The French Lieutenant’s Woman The seaside town of Lyme in 1867 holds two attractions for Charles Smithson: Miss Ernestina Freeman (a draper’s daughter, true, but a wealthy draper’s daughter) and the fine fossils to be found in the rocks about the cliffs. Although Tina’s father doesn’t care for Charles’s veneration of Darwin, he does care for the baronetcy to which he is heir presumptive. So Charles comes to Lyme, where Tina is staying with her aunt and planning for married life. He is content with his two loves until fate engineers a series of meetings with a local curiosity. Sarah Woodruff is known as ‘Tragedy’ in polite circles and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ in others, and holds the thankless post of companion to Mrs Poulteney. The story around town is that she was a governess seduced and abandoned by a French sailor, who later turned out to be married, and that she haunts the shore watching for his ship to return.

But was she, and does she? As Charles is irresistibly drawn to her, he begins to wonder just what her nature and background really are, and what it is that drives her to set herself apart from other women. Not even local disapproval and the warnings of Dr. Grogan can deter his curiosity. But in his fascination with Sarah, he fails to see the trouble brewing right under his nose. His valet is in love with Ernestina’s maid, and has no intention of remaining a servant all his life. Sam’s ambition is a firm foothold in the haberdashery business, something which will cost far more money than he possesses. But he knows more of the goings-on of three households than Charles thinks, and is sure that he can get that better life for himself and Mary - if he only plays his cards right.

I haven’t said much about the title character, because she is still something of a mystery to me. (There was, alas, no epiphany on the second reading √† la The Riders.) Was there something wrong with her mind, or was she sane and working off reasons of her own? I know how tempting it is, when you don’t fit in, to opt for defiance and be different in ways of your own choosing and control. It’s easier to bear being an outcast if it’s the result of your own choices rather than the imposition of others; and it’s a fine way of saying ‘Screw you; I never wanted to be like you anyway.’ But whether Sarah’s brain works anything like mine would take another reading to decide. (A measured, thoughtful one, not speeding through the pages for five minutes in every thirty as a study break.) I might still be puzzled by her, but I felt a connection to her as a fellow outsider.

It was the style which first drew me to this book; I came across an excerpt in a trial AST exam in Year 12 and was intrigued by the notion of a novel from the twentieth century written in the manner of one from the nineteenth. It didn’t disappoint then and I still love it now It’s got the rolling sentences and love of words of the Victorian era with the opportunity to slip in references to things post-1867, like describing Mrs. Poulteney’s laudanum habit as a ‘Victorian valley of the dolls’. The imitation goes so far as to include authorial intrusion, literally: Fowles himself appears in the book, at one stage watching Charles while contemplating what to do with him. Like Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he freely admits that it’s all unreal, and even digresses into a discussion of the writing process and the habit some characters have of escaping the control of their creator. This style allows for descriptions of life in the nineteenth century and comparisons between the time of the book and the time of writing; and means that obsolete words can be explained without the presence of the explanation seeming unnatural.

As well as the style, it is the characters that make the book. At its centre, Sarah is seen as something different by each, even as she resists looking too closely at herself. Charles is in one way ahead of his time - he accepts without doubt Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution. Yet in others he is almost too much a man of his time; and it is, ironically, his efforts to behave as gentleman in one regard that sink his hopes of being able to do so in another. There is no real change in Ernestina over the course of the book, simply a slow revealing of her true character as Charles began to realise it. But she was aware of her shortcomings, so there is at least the hope that, one day, she might change. Mrs. Poulteney was almost comical in her straitlaced snobbishness, ruling her household with an iron fist without ever realising how easily others could manipulate her. And although Sam uses devious means to get his start in life, it is hard to really see him as a villain. This is a book without black-and-white characters, but ones well-rounded with shades of grey. That and the style make it a book to be read and savoured many times over. Just watch you don’t trip over the endings: there are four. One in Charles’s imagination; one in Fowles’s; and two that are possible - although reading them, you can’t help knowing which is the more likely.

Rating: A

09 September 2007

Book Review: Governors' Wives in Colonial Australia by Anita Selzer

Non-Fiction 5 Challenge #4

Governors’ Wives in Colonial Australia Although it’s considerably shorter, Australian history has something in common with European history: a preponderance of men. Seeking to redress that imbalance, this book details the colonial lives and works of five pre-Federation (1901) governors’ wives, one from each state except Queensland (as insufficient records survive to write about a Brisbane vice-regal wife). It looks at how these women carried out their duties at the centre of high society, while following a pattern of perfection laid down on the other side of the world.

It’s always interesting for me to read about a part of history that I don’t know much about (or even thought much about). And reading about Australian history makes me feel a little less guilty for knowing so little about it, and finding it so dull compared to that of Europe. It turned out to be more biography than history, but it was still a chance to absorb more information so I didn’t really mind. What did bother me was the style in which the book was written; at the beginning it reminded me awkwardly of a really long high school essay.

By the end I decided that it wasn’t a book so much as a feminist thesis organised and sold as one. It felt like it had been written for love of the theme (comparing and contrasting governors’ wives with each other and the Victorian feminine ideal) than for love of the subject. As such it compared badly with the two other non-fiction works which overlapped this in reading time, which simply told tales of people and objects and managed to entertain in the process. It didn’t help, either, that any mention of Jane Franklin made me think of Nancy Cato’s novel Northwest by South, about John Franklin’s governorship and later (doomed) search for the Northwest Passage. The comparison didn’t do the non-fiction any favours.

There was, naturally, an imbalance toward the later wives, such as Audrey Tennyson (South Australia) and Elizabeth Loch (Victoria); more information has survived from the end of the century than from earlier. With Jane Franklin (Tasmania) I was able to fill in the gaps from the novel, but I was left wanting to know more about Eliza Darling (New South Wales). My favourite was Mary Anne Broome (Western Australia), the one who fit the feminine ideal least. As a widow with two children she married a man who was eleven years her junior (and a New Zealand sheep farmer, to boot), then continued her whole life to earn her own income through her writing. The ‘Paid Work’ chapter was dedicated almost entirely to her, which made up for the comparative lack of detail elsewhere. I don’t know where you’d find copies of her books today, but I would like to read more about her life. She and her husband Frederick adored each other, and she once wrote that he ‘possesses such extraordinary and revolutionary ideas on the subject of cooking, that I am obliged to banish him from the kitchen altogether.’ As this related to an incident in which he exploded a bottle of yeast all over the ceiling, I can only imagine what those ideas might have been.

Rating: C

08 September 2007

Book Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie As Miss Brodie never fails to remind her students, she has reached the prime of her life. And she is determined that, before they transfer from the Junior school to the Senior, they shall receive all the benefit of it. So while the girls dutifully hold their history or mathematics books open in front of them, Miss Brodie prattles on about everything from skin care to her admiration for the organisational abilities of Mussolini. This doesn’t sit well with the powers that be at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, who have noticed that the ‘Brodie set’ are well-informed generally but largely useless academically. And being the 1930s, her opinion of continental dictators and her entanglement with the singing master incur even more disapproval. But it is Miss Brodie herself who inadvertently engineers her downfall, when she attempts to use one of her old girls as a proxy to achieve what she cannot. Only then does the headmistress finally persuade one of Miss Brodie’s girls to betray her.

Jean Brodie, with her name-dropping and peculiar obsessions, is a memorable character, but I can’t say the same for most of the others. It’s been less than a fortnight since I read it (I’m quite backlogged), but even though they were enjoyable at the time many of them are blurring in my memory and I can’t even remember all their names. But then, there wasn’t much time to get to know them; it’s a very short book that I read in a single day. It felt short, too; there was quite a bit of repetition so the actual content was really even less than its one hundred and something pages. (Even the review is short; I find myself uncharacteristically lost for book-related words.) There was a bit of a mystery surrounding the identity of the girl who betrayed her which kept me turning the pages, but when it was revealed it wasn’t overmuch of a surprise. The biggest question, for me, was whether eleven- and twelve-year-old girls would be as preoccupied with sex as the Brodie set were. Then I remembered certain girls I went to primary school with and realised that yes, they would.

Rating: B-

07 September 2007

Book Review: Buried Treasure: Travels Through the Jewel Box by Victoria Finlay

Buried Treasure For thousands of years humans have had a fascination with the pretty and/or sparkling things produced by nature. They have hunted them, collected them, built up stories around them, and turned them into beautiful and priceless pieces of art and jewellery. This book takes a tour along the Mohs scale, from the soft glow of amber to the glittering hardness of diamond. It wanders across the facets of each jewel in turn: ancient myths, famous examples, tales of history and adventure, and the use which the modern world has for it. However much you might know about jewellery, gemmology or treasure-hunting, you will have learned a whole lot more by the time you finish this book.

I borrowed it on impulse from the library, and was very glad I did. I have bits of rock collection dotted all over the house, and a particular fondness for ones that have been polished, drilled, and threaded onto wire, so it was right up my alley. It was just as interesting and entertaining as I expected, and even more informative. I never knew, for instance, that part of Caesar’s desire to conquer Britain was his passion for pearls, which Britain’s rivers once had in abundance. The history of jewels has it all: banishment, betrayal, crime, corruption, reversals of fortune, clever ideas, cleverer marketing, and a generous dose of mystery. The Amber Room - created in Prussia, gifted to Russia, taken by Germany - has been lost for more than sixty years, destroyed in a fire ... or perhaps not, depending on who you listen to.

The stories here are almost enough to make you want to set out treasure-hunting yourself - at least until common sense returns with the realisation that it involves bad weather, hard work, a lot of dirt, rough towns in the middle of nowhere and the need for sensible shoes. All for no guarantee of success. No wonder people have searched for alternatives, like the inventor of fine artificial emeralds, who tried to make diamond at age fifteen and blew out the windows of the house next door. Or the bloke from Lightning Ridge who grows low-grade opals in his garden shed. Of course the precise ingredients weren’t provided, which has me awfully curious and wishing I knew more (well, anything) about outback geology. What I most liked about this story was his refusal to try to improve them, or let anyone else in on the secret, lest it ruin the town. (Believe it or not, I, the confirmed city slicker, have once upon a time been to Lightning Ridge and noodled through the mullock heaps - and sadly found nothing but dirt.) Also fun-sounding was the town of Whitby (famous for jet) and it’s twice-annual inundation with Dracula fans. The chance to parade around in a Victorian dress without looking like a (total) freak? Sounds great! And this is only a small sample of what the book contains.

About the only thing that could have improved this book would have been the inclusion of more than just nine jewels (amber, jet, pearl, opal, peridot, emerald, sapphire, ruby, and diamond). Perhaps turquoise or amethyst, both of which have at one time occupied the ring on my right hand? (I bought it in a charity shop for $4, set with a turquoise which eventually fractured and was lost. Later, I visited Phnom Penh, where jewellers have stalls at the markets. After arranging to have the empty ring mailed to me I had it reset with amethyst for around another $4. Not bad at all.) Or moonstone, or even fluorite like in my favourite earrings. But more chapters would have meant an even heftier book than it already is. Another thing was the chapter on Ruby. The author actually went to the effort of visiting the ruby mines of Burma; and while I admired her nerve in visiting such a potentially risky location, my conscience did not like the idea of the generous bribes to the military regime that were necessary to get in.

Rating: A

06 September 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Goldilocks

Okay, so the other day, a friend was commenting on my monthly reading list and asked when I found the time to read. In the ensuing discussion, she described herself as a “goldilocks” when it comes to reading – she needs to have everything juuuuuust right to be able to focus. This caught my attention because, first, I thought that was a charming way of describing the condition, but, two, while we’ve talked about our reading habits, this is an interesting wrinkle. I’d never really thought about it that way.

So, this is my question to you – are you a Goldilocks kind of reader?

Do you need the light just right, the background noise just so loud but not too loud, the chair just right, the distractions at a minimum?

Or can you open a book at any time and dip right in, whether it’s for twenty seconds, while waiting for the kettle to boil, or indefinitely, like while waiting interminably at the hospital - as long as the book is open in front of your nose, you’re happy to read?

Goldilocks? Me? *ROTFL* I don’t read while showering, walking, or in a lab class (no matter how much time I have to spend waiting for things to finish centrifuging). Other than that, as long as I have enough time to read a few paragraphs I’ll dive right in. I will happily read in anything from silence to the chaos of a class full of undergrads in a mid-lecture break, or a peak-hour train. I’ve become very good at tuning out background noise so it doesn’t bother me; reading actually helps in the tuning-out process. Good on the train, not so good when my mum is telling me to do something (which needless to say is unlikely to get done without a degree of nagging)!

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776