31 January 2008

Better Late Than Never . . .

You know you need to get your blog reading organised when it takes you more than a month to realise you’ve been tagged for a meme!

5 things I was doing 10 years ago
1. Getting ready to start my second year of high school.
And probably....
2. Hoping I could get braces soon (seriously).
3. Sweltering.
4. Being annoyed by my fringe, which I was six months into growing out.
5. Reading!

5 things on my to-do list today
1. Putting out the garbage.
2. Ironing.
3. Doing a test run in cheap cotton of my first attempt at drafting my own sewing patterns.
4. Writing reviews.
5. Reading!

5 things I would do if I were a millionaire
1. Pay off my HECS debt (student loans).
2. Pay for all the improvements needed around the house.
3. Travel around Europe.
4. Invest!
5. Go to the RSPCA and adopt a cat or two.

5 things I'll never wear again
1. School uniform.
2. Short dresses/skirts/shorts (I am no longer that thin!).
3. High-waisted jeans.
4. Tie-dye anything.
5. Scrunchies.

5 favourite toys
1. My computer!
2. The sewing machine.
3. My portable CD player.
4. Fine-nosed pliers (in conjunction with wire, beads etc.).
5. My library card!

If there’s actually anyone out there who hasn’t done this, consider yourself tagged.

What’s in a Name? Challenge

What’s in a Name? Challenge It finally occurred to me the other day that after restocking my TBR box at the Bookfest I might actually have books to fit all these categories! And sure enough, I do, so I am finally joining up. Five challenges before the end of January - overcommitted? Who, me?

Colour: The Ebony Tower by John Fowles
Animal: The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth
First name: The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
Place: The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Weather event: Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffmann
Plant: Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Royalty Rules Challenge

Royalty Rules Challenge The Magic of Ink has a wonderful idea for a challenge: A royal theme! From 1 Feb to 30 April, the challenge is to read from two to four books that somehow feature a royal (real or otherwise). I’ve decided to take the middle road and read three:

William’s Wife by Jean Plaidy (Mary II)
Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (The Queen of the Nile)
Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (Richard III)
Which should be, er, royally entertaining!

Book Review: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

2008 TBR Challenge #4

The House of the Spirits The house is occupied by the del Valles and their children, from green-haired Rosa the Beautiful to Clara the Clairvoyant, who goes nine years without speaking before marrying her dead sister’s fiancé. Under Clara’s reign the house is filled with ghosts and people, before it fades into a decline in the days of her daughter Blanca and granddaughter Alba. As the years pass the house witnesses the changing fortunes of the family: Births, deaths, marriages, accidents, curses, and finally a revolution that throws not just the house but the whole country into turmoil.

Between the buying and the reading I came across some not-so-flattering reviews by other bloggers, which was why I chose it for the TBR Challenge; I figured that if it was as dull as all that, I might need that extra bit of motivation to get through it. I still had hope, though, and for a good while it seemed that it was reasonably well-founded. The characters were eccentric and mostly likeable, the story was entertaining enough and the pages turned quickly. The crash came at page 300; after three days without touching it, I picked it up, read the next sentence and realised I could not remember how the just-born Alba was connected to the others, or what her mother’s name was. Not a good sign. I flipped back a couple of pages to refresh my memory, but it was all downhill from there. My early momentum was lost and the realisation of how little had stuck in my memory led to the realisation of just how little I cared. If not for the challenge I might have ground to a halt completely and forgotten to keep going.

It wasn’t bad, exactly, just ... easy to stop and difficult to start. The characters all felt distant, as if it were more a chronology of events than an attempt to breathe life into these fictional beings. Nor did it help that the foreshadowing was so heavy as to be almost fore-announcing; since I’d been told so much of what was going to happen, why keep reading? Especially since it seemed obvious it would all be bad, which it was: Imprisonment, torture, murder, rape, mutilation, exile, unhappy marriages, a shrinking curse ... how depressing. Good thing Jennifer Crusie’s on the challenge list; I need to cheer myself up.

Rating: C-

30 January 2008

Book Review: A Season for the Dead by David Hewson

A Season for the Dead Historian Sara Farnese is studying in the reading room of the Vatican library when an old colleague approaches her with a crazed look, a gun, and a bag containing a fresh human skin. But before he can finish whatever he’s trying to tell her, a jumpy Swiss guardsman opens fire. The Rome police department’s resident misfits, Detectives Nic Costa and Luca Rossi, hear the commotion on a scanner and rush to investigate, even though the Vatican is outside their jurisdiction. And since there’s nothing to prove the skin’s owner wasn’t murdered in Rome proper, why not follow the lead that Sara thinks she’s deduced?

What they find drops them into the middle of the case of a serial killer who’s only just getting started. Each victim is killed in the manner of an early Christian martyr, and they all have something else in common. With zero useful clues, the police have only Inspector Falcone’s machiavellian (and potentially deadly) plan, and the remote hope of extracting something from Sara, who has reacted with eerie coolness to the gruesome murder case unfolding around her. Or will a corrupt and desperate cardinal reveal what he knows in return for safe passage back to America?

I learned something about series by reading this. Start with a later book, and unless the series is heavy on the continuity you should be fine. Going back afterwards doesn’t work nearly so well, especially if you start thinking about the second book, and then start remembering the second book. That’s what I did, and recalled enough about how number two started to have a horrible idea of how number one would end. But that turned out not to hamper the suspense too much, as one thing I would have suspected anyway and the other didn’t happen in the way I thought it would. Nor did it slow the rate of page-turning. I’m glad I’m not in the habit of biting my nails, because if I was they’d be wrecked; there were points where I wanted to shout at one of the characters ‘Don’t do it! Don’t you know that being noble in a thriller greatly reduces your life expectancy?’ (And speaking of biting, this may not be the best book to read over lunch; some of those martyrs met quite gruesome ends.) Needless to say, the villain was a psycho; yet once they’d started the method and the goal made a certain twisted kind of sense. The actual triggering, however, I didn’t really buy; how could the instigator have known that that cozy little conversation would have anything like the desired effect? Fortunately the other characters make up for this. Some are decidedly eccentric (like the pathologist who decides to stage a skinning demonstration using a fresh side of pork in the middle of a crowded restaurant) and many are quite insightful when it comes to the people around them. And none of them emerge unscathed, which in The House of the Spirits makes for dreary reading but here fits perfectly.

After I’ve taken a bit of a break from thrillers I’ll have to re-read The Villa of Mysteries - and in the meantime, daydream about being let loose amongst the treasures of the Vatican library for, say, a year. Or several.

Rating: B

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

888 Challenge #3

The Thirteenth Tale Margaret Lea has never read anything by Britain’s most popular living novelist, Vida Winter. That changes after she receives a letter from Vida, who’s read one of Margaret’s biographical essays and wants her to write a full-length book - about her. It could well be the chance of a lifetime, for Vida has given as many versions of her early life as she has interviews, and to be in possession of the truth would be quite a coup if Vida will actually reveal it. Soon afterwards, Margaret find a book by Vida Winter in a locked cabinet in her father’s antiquarian bookshop. It’s value derives from the fact that almost all copies of that edition were recalled when it was discovered that a mistake had been made: It was called Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation but in fact contained only twelve.

As Margaret devours all of Vida’s works, the thought stays with her that she might be able to uncover the missing thirteenth tale. But when she arrives in the wintry wilds of Yorkshire, the ailing Miss Winter makes it clear that her story will be told one way: Her way. No questions, no leaping ahead, just Margaret obediently listening to her tale of unhealthy relationships in the maybe-haunted tumbledown house called Angelfield. When opportunities arise Margaret goes investigating on her own and uncovers more mysteries. Is Vida’s home also haunted? Why did the Angelfield governess disappear without a trace? What are the origins of Aurelius Love, who was once upon a time a baby abandoned on the Angelfield estate? And how much of the truth is Vida actually telling?

If ever there was a perfect novel for bibliophiles, it’s this. A love of books permeates the whole: Margaret had spent her whole life surrounded and comforted by books. Vida had made a career out of writing them. The latter’s life story is unfolded largely in the library. The many mysterious things included a story missing from a book, a page from a book, and a secret hidden in a library. And this:

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”
It would be hard not to love a book narrated by a character who loves books as much as does Margaret, even if it wasn’t so entrancing as this. I was a little jealous of her, actually, for being able to bury herself in books and ignore the rest of the world. And I was in awe of her for successfully leaping to the solution to the mystery; it was something I doubt I would ever have thought of. Vida was an interesting character, not easy either to like or dislike but a clever spinner of stories, and once the story of Angelfield is completed I could understand why she was so reluctant to reveal the truth. The way in which she told her tale gave a Gothic atmosphere to the mysteries at Angelfield, with horrors hinted at or implied and the reader’s imagination left to provide the rest. It wasn’t until Margaret hit upon the truth that I realised just how skillful she had been. And when the truth was finally out, there was just enough of the supernatural left to satisfy those who were glad to hear Vida announce that she was going to tell a ghost story.

Thankfully Margaret believes in finishing a story by tying up all the loose ends, accounting for the fates of all the characters from the long-lost governess to the cat, as well as the thing which started it all - the thirteenth tale.

Rating: B+

24 January 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Huh?

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?”
Here it where it would help to have completed my LibraryThing catalogue - and to have all my favourites in my possession! After poring over my records for the last few years, I’ve concluded that I have a tendency to be quite un-obscure in my reading. It took quite a hunt to find something that might qualify as both ‘favourite’ and ‘unheard-of’, but I finally hit on an answer - a series of them, in fact, of which I haven’t been able to lay hands on for some time: the Jonathan Argyll series by Iain Pears. And Italian setting, art history, and fun mysteries with an unlikely sleuth who has a knack for getting himself into pickles. (Mental note to self: when at the library, start looking under ‘P’ more often.)

19 January 2008

The Chunkster Challenge

The Chunkster Challenge The TBR Challenge is progressing nicely and the 888 Challenge is in the hands of fate and the council library, so I’m signing up for a third! I’ve had my eye on this one since before the Bookfest, but didn’t have a sufficient number of suitably enormous books on hand.

Which isn’t the case anymore. (Buy doorstopper-size books just for a challenge? Who, me?)

Post-Bookfest I have more than enough, and have made it an even better challenge by choosing the four biggest:

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr - 804 pages (overlap with 888 Challenge)
The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman - 882 pages
Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes - 901 pages
And the biggest of them all:
Shogun by James Clavell - 1243 pages (!)(overlap with 888 Challenge)
3,830 pages in total, plus a spur to finally read Don Quixote which has been in my TBR pile for, um, five years. Perhaps I ought to read that first....

The Literary Highlight of the Year

2,000,000 books displayed in 2 halls of the convention centre across 72 hours over 8 days, plus 6.5 hours of browsing while spending $58 on 52 books before lugging the resultant 13kg load home, can only add up to one thing: It’s Bookfest time again! They call it the biggest book sale in the world, and since the proceeds are all for charity it’s the perfect excuse to load myself up with as many books as I can carry.

It wasn’t as well-organised as in previous years. The Unpriced (i.e. dirt cheap) section had no separate table for Penguins, there were fewer rows of books along each side of the Paperback Fiction tables, no crates of books at the back from which to replenish the tables, and two tables of Unsorted Books that no-one had bothered to categorise. (And when I say table, I really mean two rows of tables side by side forming one giant surface.) There were no price guides posted, either, but that didn’t matter as it’s purely theoretical and in practice all books are fifty cents. The emcee who usually calls out requests for books and stray family members was absent, replaced by the same songs playing over and over on a 45-minute loop until someone had mercy and shut it off. And all sections were short on classics.

After the Bookfest But any shortcomings in the halls weren’t really reflected in the haul; I bought only 5 fewer books than last year. As ever, it included plenty of books that I wasn’t looking for and lacked plenty that I was. I managed just 5 books for the 888 Challenge, doing little better in the whole Bookfest than in one branch of the library; though I could have brought home more if I hadn’t found most of them in the High Quality section, where I lacked both the money and the space to buy any more than I did. But I am very much looking forward to crossing off Every Dead Thing, The Angel of Darkness, Runaway Jury, Shogun, and Cocaine Blues (the more so since the last one isn’t in the library; I was thrilled to find it). I finally managed to get hold of some Anthony Trollope; not the one I wanted, but the first of the Barchester novels, and how rare it is to find the first of a series at the Bookfest. Even greater good fortune attended my discovery of the first two of a three-volume complete collection of Sherlock Holmes (handy since I also bought Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-per-cent Solution which references Holmes).

Elsewhere my luck didn’t hold. I found only one Agatha Christie (the ending of which I remembered) and the only Ngaio Marsh was multiple copies of one I’ve got (they were curiously well-supplied with copies of Jeffrey Archer’s A Quiver Full of Arrows and le Carre’s The Russia House, too - though one fewer of each by the time I’d been through). There were plenty of copies of North and South ... by John Jakes, and I found Northern Lights ... by Nora Roberts. No Elizabeth Gaskell and Philip Pullman, alas. (I had thought that after so much wanting to read the Gaskell N&S last year, and not finding it, that this year - after having borrowed it from the library – I’d be tripping all over copies, but no.) And still no Lolita.

The Haunting of Toby Jug Another author there was a lot of was Dennis Wheatley, whose works I noticed because I’d first heard of him only last week, in a documentary about the ploys used by the British to mislead the Nazis during WW2. Wheatley was one of their generators of ideas, though was of limited use as he favoured the outlandish and impractical - and his style of writing sounded equally bizarre, albeit very successful. After inspecting a few donated paperbacks, I can say that his books really were the B-grade horror stuff that I’d expected. My personal favourite was The Haunting of Toby Jugg - a tale of Black Magic. (No, I was not tempted, not even for fifty cents and the off-chance that it might fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. And there was no indication as to whether the name was a crockery-inspired pun or merely an unfortunate coincidence.)

Between the avid book hunting and the fun speculations such as: Did any of the myriad copies of The Anti-Cancer, Anti-Heart Attack Cookbook come from deceased estates? Were all those books on making money donated because the previous owners got rich and no longer needed them, or because they didn’t work? Who would buy copies of the Guinness Book of World Records that’re older than I am? How is it that they have seemingly every book ever published by Robert Ludlum, except The Bourne Ultimatum, which I need to complete the trilogy? And did the Book of Mormon end up on the Humour & Oddities table by accident or design? Those six and a half hours passed in no time - although the walk home from the station seemed to take forever. But all the aches and pains were worth it to enjoy the highlight of any booklover’s year, and come next January I’ll be doing it all again.

18 January 2008

Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

888 Challenge #2

To Say Nothing of the Dog The year is 2057, and the bane of Oxford’s time-travelling history department is Lady Schrapnell. She’s rebuilding Coventry Cathedral and is a big fan of details, which have to be collected by someone - or rather, a lot of someones. A whole history department full of someones. For Ned Henry, this means trying to ascertain whether the bishop’s bird stump was present during the cathedral’s bombing in 1940, but the slippage keeps getting in the way. The result is a bad case of time lag, and since Lady Schrapnell doesn’t believe in time lag, Mr Dunworthy sends him to 1888 to recover.

While he’s there, Ned is meant to correct an incongruity - return a cat that fellow historian Verity Kindle brought forward to 2057. Unfortunately, Oxford then concludes that removing the cat did not create an incongruity, but that taking it back could well alter the course of history. Now Ned and Verity have to make sure that Lady Schrapnell’s airheaded ancestress Tocelyn goes to Coventry on the right day, has her life changed by the experience (and the bird stump), and marries the right man; but with her diary rendered illegible by water damage they have no idea when, or how, or who. Nor do they know how to determine the location of the bishop’s bird stump, either during the air raid or in 2057. Or the other mystery - if the net is supposed to shut down rather than create an incongruity, why did it let Ned (and the cat) through at all?

The drama of the first book in the series is largely left behind here (well, except for the possibility of the collapse of the space-time continuum), but the fun remains from beginning to end. As the title suggests, it does reference Jerome K. Jerome; Ned travels downriver as one of three men in a boat (to say nothing of the dog) after hitching a ride with Terence St Trewes and his bulldog Cyril, and helping to rescue Terence’s tutor, the absent-minded, fish-loving Professor Peddick. There are also nods to The Taming of the Shrew and the mystery novels of the 1930s, Verity’s usual province. She and Ned even lift a strategy right out of the pages of a Dorothy L. Sayers novel - happily for me, one I’ve read. The narration was Ned’s, and it was impossible not to feel for the guy; in over his head in a strange time, and caught between the twin horrors of Lady Schrapnell in one century and Mrs. Mering - who in manner greatly resembled her - in another. (And after the Rescuing Rose debacle, Isabel Wolff should have read chapter 1 to see how to do self-delusion well.) The animals had personalities of their own, the humans were all varying degrees of eccentric, and the scientific aspect made for interesting if occasionally mind-bending reading. (Though I’m still not sure how Ned worked out what the consequences would be if the incongruity was left uncorrected.) I frequently broke into giggles while reading, and couldn’t possible choose a favourite part or person.

And now I really want to read Three Men in a Boat.

Rating: A

Book Review: Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh

Death at the Bar At the Plume of Feathers inn, someone has committed what looks like a perfect crime. The victim died of poison ... but there was none in their glass, and the other possible murder weapon couldn’t have been tampered with. To complicate matters further, the poison in question was in a bottle locked in a cupboard - and there was a bar full of witnesses to testify that no-one had been near it all evening. It’s up to Inspector Alleyn to work out which of the half-dozen people with motive did the deed and how - before they decide to poison someone else.

At first the crime seemed highly ingenious, but of course there were a few flaws which allowed for the triumph of the even more ingenious process of solving it. As usual, Marsh set up all the clues so that I finished the book feeling like I could have - and indeed should have - been able to spot the killer, if only I’d remembered that one crucial clue ... There was also a nice dramatic turn to events before the end. The only thing I can think of to grumble about was that the descriptions of the crime scene were confusing. While reading it I mentally reassembled the Plume of Feathers several times to accommodate my various notions of how it all fit together.

Rating: B

Booking Through Thursday: Let's Review

This week’s question is 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?
Reviews, particularly online ones by other bloggers, have done a lot to expand my Wanted list, but more by alerting me to the existence of interesting-sounding books than by making up my mind as to whether to read a certain book. The vast majority of these I’ve yet to stumble across and read; and when I do, I don’t remember specific reviews, I just have an idea that I read somewhere that that’s quite a good book. Offhand and after midnight, I can think of three books I grabbed on sight because I’d read good things about them: The Alienist and Doomsday Book (bloggers’ reviews) and The Book of Lost Things (newspaper). And in every case, the reviewers were right.

Beyond that, reviews don’t influence me a great deal as my primary criterion is that a book sounds interesting. A bad review of a book I’ve already decided I want to read won’t change my mind, partly because I know from reading so many reviews that people’s tastes vary, and partly because I’m just stubborn. And if I’m convinced I won’t like it, no-one’s opinion is likely to change my mind. But if I’m undecided about a book, a review might make me more likely to read it or pass on it.

15 January 2008

How Organised Am I?

One of my big plans for 2008 was to be more timely in my completion of challenge reads, and so far I’ve managed to surpass my expectations. Fifteen days in, and I’ve already finished three of my TBR Challenge reads, plus 300 pages of the fourth. Even better, I went to the library last week and found not one, not two, but four books from my 888 Challenge wishlist. I would have been able to borrow three more, too, if I’d only been able to carry them, but a 2.5L container of sunscreen does rather weigh one down. Still, I’ve got my fingers crossed that it’s a sign of good luck to come, especially since tomorrow is ...

... the BOOKFEST!! Weekends are busy, Monday was hot, and today it rained, so I settled on tomorrow for my annual pilgrimage to literary cloud nine. I’m taking a list of books needed for the challenge, and this year I’m being extra cautious and making some notes as to which books I already have, so there’s no chance of inadvertently doubling up.

I’ve also made good headway in creating a list of all my books on LibraryThing. At least, I’ve noted down the ISBNs of most of the books I own (and the titles of those too old to have them) but it will be the work of days to enter them all. (And to work out which books can’t be found in the databases, since I went around my shelves and stacks of books in largely random order and neglected to make any notes as to which books the ISBNs belong to.) Add to that the 50 or 60 I’ll likely lug home tomorrow, and I’ll be entertained for a while.

But best of all: I am completely up-to-date with my reviews! And I intend to stay that way ... as much as possible.

14 January 2008

Book Review: The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum

The Bourne Supremacy With his identity - if not his memory - recovered, the man once known as Jason Bourne has settled down (more or less) into New England academia. Needless to say, all that’s about to change, for there’s a new assassin operating in Asia - and he’s calling himself Jason Bourne. A few people in the intelligence services have come up with a cunning plan: use the original to catch the impostor. Feed him a carefully-selected pack of lies, snatch his wife and set up conditions for her return, make him snap back to his old ways. Then just sit back and wait for the assassin to be delivered. Simple.

Or not. An underestimated Marie escapes in Hong Kong, jeopardising the plan, and Bourne starts devising some plans of his own - as does the impostor. MI6 has a traitor in the ranks, and if things don’t work out a large portion of the Far East could be plunged into chaos.

I must not have a mind geared toward politics and economics, because I’m a little vague on just how the disaster would ensue. Something to do with the future handover of Hong Kong, a crime lord in Beijing and an assassin being used to knock off anyone who might stand in the way ... and some economic considerations I can’t really recall. I also couldn’t work out whether ‘taipan’ was a term applied to gang bosses, or to any successful businessman, legal or otherwise. (And were they named after the snakes, or vice versa? Or were both named after some other source?) I eventually gave up pondering too much, figuring that it wasn’t really the sort of book you need to read with your brain engaged. Nevertheless, I still couldn’t help wondering just how Marie managed to fool the doctors so well, or marvelling at our hero’s almost multiple-personality switches of identity. Reading it does require a sizeable suspension of disbelief. In spite of this I enjoyed seeing Marie outwit the men and Alexander Conklin get a chance to redeem himself after his poor judgment rendered him one of the bad guys in the first book.

Rating: C+

Book Review: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

2008 TBR Challenge #3

Sophie’s Choice In the summer of 1947, a young southern writer - known only by the nickname ‘Stingo’ - moves into a pink boarding-house in New York City. There he plans to write his first novel, a bound-to-be-blockbuster of Tidewater Virginia. He’s soon distracted by the opportunity to be the third wheel in the strange relationship being carried on upstairs between Nathan Landau and Sophie Z. The former is a charming bully, the latter a survivor of Auschwitz. Stingo is entranced by her beauty, but also by her story, which she gradually reveals to him in not-always-truthful bits and pieces. Eventually he manages to piece together her tale, including the thing she never told to anyone else - the choice she had to make.

After finishing this book I was amazed. I looked it up on Amazon, and sure enough most of the reviews were 5 star; in fact, of over two hundred only 21 were 3 stars or fewer, placing me squarely in the minority. This is, as I believed, a much-acclaimed and raved-about book, yet it is a book I think I must have been mad to continue reading. I only persevered because I thought, given how great it’s meant to be, the choice of the title would be a stunning compensation for all that went before. It wasn’t.

How did I loathe thee? Let me count the ways ... The narrator was mildly entertaining at first, until I realised he was utterly incapable of keeping either his mind or his pen out of the gutter. He was obsessed with sex - his and everyone else’s - and happily took long detours away from Sophie’s story to chronicle his attempts to get it. Every female he knew was either a dog or a potential source of it, and he worked it in at seemingly every opportunity - frequently, gratuitously, and vulgarly. He was also a fool for becoming involved with Nathan and Sophie when any sane person would have kept well clear of such an impending disaster zone, and a pretentious git for his habit of throwing around words that sent even me running for the dictionary. I wished there could have been a way to tell the story without his presence. Then I started wishing Styron had chosen to write about Wanda instead. She was a far more interesting and courageous character than ineffectual, passive Sophie could ever hope to be, and one of the extremely few things I actually liked.

I kept (idiotically) hoping the nature of the choice would be dramatic enough to redeem it somewhat. Objectively, it was: about the worst one anyone could be faced with. Subjectively, it bombed. The whole scene fell terribly flat and was followed, not by Sophie’s reaction, but by an attempt to psychoanalyse the man who forced her it make it. But the worst thing, for me, was by far Stingo’s one-track mind. It was utterly tasteless and left me feeling almost as if I needed to disinfect my brain. Part of me is actually tempted to commit the ultimate sacrilege: shred the damn thing into the compost where it might do some good, and where no-one else will make the mistake of reading it. If not for Wanda, it would have scored a big fat E (perhaps for Execrable).

On the bright side, though, there’s still 50 weeks of the reading year left and things can only go up from here.

Rating: D-

Book Review: Cat o’ Nine Tales by Jeffrey Archer

888 Challenge #1

Cat o’ Nine Tales The nine tales of the title are all based on stories Archer gathered while doing time for perjury. So naturally they are tales of crime, and of crime that hasn’t paid ... in the short term, at least. The Commissioner tells of a career conman whose attempts at blackmail earn him a promotion he can’t refuse - but wishes he could. A chess piece in The Red King sees another con artist play two brothers against each other, only to get done for the wrong crime. The Alibi sees a man set up what appears to be a perfect alibi, while the protagonist of Don’t Drink the Water devises a seemingly perfect crime - and neither goes quite as planned. In addition to these, there are three more stories unlinked to Her Majesty’s prisons, including my favourite The Wisdom of Solomon, in which a gold-digger’s plans backfire.

It’s been years since I’ve read any of Archer’s short stories, or indeed any Archer at all, and it was good to get reacquainted. This was just as good as any of his other collections, with the difference (I think) that all the stories here are based on reality, which I don’t recall being the case with the other books. (Impossible not to wonder where embellishment ends and reality begins.) The beauty of these tales is in the clever plotting and twist endings; I’d love to have ideas like those (I’ll pass, though, on going to jail to get them). What I found interesting was that some of the stories contained enough details that an enterprising reader could conceivably attempt to replicate the scams - if they could only find a way to avoid the characters’ pitfalls. I wonder if anyone will?

Rating: B

Book Review: Britain A.D. by Francis Pryor

Britain A.D. The arrival of the Romans civilised Britain. Their departure reduced it to chaos. The place then got taken over by invading Angle and Saxon hordes. Right? According to this book ... no. The argument it lays out is one in favour of a continuous native British culture, which remained little changed during the centuries of Roman occupation - and against the idea of post-Roman invasion. Rather, the similarities between the post-Roman British culture and that of the Saxons was the result of the willing exchange of ideas across the Channel. The book also looks at the legends of King Arthur and how they may have come into being.

I’m not sure whether it was the book or just the fact that I had to read it in a hurry to get it back to the library on time, but I recall more a general idea of the contents, than the actual evidence used to support them. Nevertheless, that general idea was very interesting and set me wondering what else I’ve learnt from encyclopaedias might not be entirely correct. I can’t say whether the supposed post-Roman collapse of civilisation was one of the fixed notions of history I’d picked up previously (perhaps very vaguely, since it seemed neither strange nor familiar) but the waves of European invasions is something I’ve long known of. Or perhaps believed would be a better word; the argument against their ever having occurred is not just persuasive but logical. It’s gotten me very interested in reading more about the period, to see if anyone else agrees, and it’s made me more determined not to accept things just because they’re in a book, but to consider the evidence for myself. Even if it might be a touch on the academic side, this is a must for anyone with a love of history.

Rating: B

Book Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

2008 TBR Challenge #2

Cranford High society in the little village of Cranford is dominated by women; the gentlemen are apt to spend a lot of time away. The result is revealed by a frequent visitor to the village. She watches them all: efficient, managing Miss Jenkyns and her timid sister Miss Matty; patient Miss Jessie; and the rather high-and-mighty Mrs Jamieson, and the rest. And over the years she accompanies them on such adventures as Cranford has to offer, from deaths, marriages and bankruptcies to burglars, magicians and even a headless ghost.

The most noticeable characteristic of Cranford is its near-total lack of plot. There are some threads that span more than one chapter, but essentially it is a series of events sharing location and narrator and separated by indeterminate periods of time. Yet it works beautifully. Miss Mary Smith’s sharp observations bring the town and its residents to memorable life (Mrs Jamieson’s horror at the egalitarian ways of her titled relation particularly sticks in my mind). The chronology was hard to pin down and I soon gave up trying to work out how much time had passed between one chapter and the next. And I came to decide that it didn’t much matter; Cranford seemed a place where things carried on in their own way, without being much influenced by outside events. It has a character and charm all its own and is well worth a visit.

Rating: A

12 January 2008

Friday Fill-In #54

Friday Fill-In

1. My favorite reading week of 2007 was polishing off a towering stack of Harry Potters.

2. I’m most tempted by the chance to slack off and read.

3. Today I want to know where I can find high heels that fit my tiny feet.

4. The last thing I took a picture of was the new and improved backyard.

5. You and I have memories we wish we didn’t.

6. The most recent movie I’ve seen that I really enjoyed was Stardust. (Which is the most recent movie I’ve seen, period.)

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I’m looking forward to starting to catalogue my books on LibraryThing, tomorrow my plans include catching up on reviews ... again ... and Sunday, I want to devise a 100% guaranteed foolproof, Chancellor-proof phonetic pronunciation guide to my name so that I can register for my upcoming graduation ceremony!

Book Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton

The Man Who Knew Too Much A stroll through the countryside turns nasty for Harold March when a car crashes mere metres from where he stands. Fortunately Harold is sharing the riverbank with a new acquaintance. Horne Fisher knows something about everything; knows too much, in fact, for with his mind he can’t help but see the ugly reality of murder concealed behind the ‘accident’. So begins a series of eight stories in which Fisher’s remarkable breadth of knowledge proves too much for various criminals to outwit. The book also contains four other tales. In The Trees of Pride a mysterious disappearance is somehow connected to a stand of supposedly murderous trees. The Garden of Smoke tells of a death among the roses. In The Five of Swords a duel turns out to be more than it seems. And The Tower of Treason features a most unusual murder weapon.

For the most part, these stories are not structured like the Father Brown mysteries, where the clues are all there and visible, just waiting for the reader to put them together ahead of the detective. (Not that it would have helped me much if they were!) Nevertheless they are interesting reading, even if the content tends to the political (made worse by Harold March’s career as a journalist) and if the bad guys largely fail to get their just deserts due to the need to give way to the greater political good. Since mystery stories are supposed to be about getting the villains, that got frustrating.

I preferred the additional stories at the end of the book, particularly The Trees of Pride. Creepy, supposedly carnivorous and/or poisonous trees ... wonderful!

Rating: B-

11 January 2008

Book Review: The Mesmerist by Barbara Ewing

The Mesmerist Now that she’s in her forties, Cordelia Preston’s acting career is all but over, as is that of her best friend Amaryllis Spoons. After an ignominious exit from a third-rate tour of Hamlet in which they were to be replaced by an elephant, the workhouse looms in both their imaginations. Then Cordelia has an idea that will secure not only their futures, but those of Rillie Spoons’s mad mother and her murder-obsessed companion Regina. With the aid of her aunt’s former mentor, Monsieur Roland, she combines her two inherited talents and sets up as a Lady Phreno-Mesmerist. Business quickly booms; mesmerism is all the rage in early-Victorian London and its practise by a lady is a novelty. But just when they have all the success they could wish for, it all falls apart. Cordelia has something more in her past than treading the boards, and that something more has come back to bite. Then a prominent citizen is murdered, and Inspector Rivers of the recently-formed detective division is anxious to get the papers off his back by doing whatever it takes to catch the killer. Cordelia is called as a witness before the coroner, and a scandal promptly ensues. For Cordelia is not eager to talk; and while a lady mesmerist is one thing, setting up a business without the aid of a man and daring to dispense advice to young ladies about wedding nights is entirely another.

Although there is a corpse, this is as much a straight historical novel as it is a mystery: the body doesn't appear (not in lifeless form, at least) until halfway through the book. And, unusually, Cordelia’s past is revealed early, so there’s no mystery there. Once the corpse is actually produced, though, there’s an investigation complete with police and the puzzle is not only whodunit, by why Cordelia won’t speak about what she may or may not have seen that night. It does take a while to get going, but the story is so interesting that the pace an atmospheric stroll rather than a dull drag. The historical setting was well done and ranged from cheap actors’ hangouts to the homes of the nobility, and I’d like to learn more now about mesmerism and hypnotism. I liked both Cordelia and Rillie; they had a great friendship and were, for their day, quite audacious in their plan to stay out of the workhouse. I enjoyed watching their growing success and thought it a wonderful change to see a pair of middle-aged women in a novel’s starring rôles (I can’t remember the last time that happened). It was impossible not to be moved by the events that followed the murder, and there were more than half a dozen characters that I hoped would get a happy ending. This is a book that will keep both the historical fiction and mystery fans happy.

Rating: B+

10 January 2008

Booking Through Thursday: May I Introduce . . .

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?

This is a challenging question to answer, since when it comes to events I have a mind like a sieve. I do remember that my mother gave me my first Nancy Drew for my eighth? ninth? birthday (see what I mean?), which event I blame for my ongoing mystery novel/tv crime show addiction. I think she introduced me to Agatha Christie and Jane Austen, too. I got hooked on Janet Evanovich after a recommendation from a classmate in high school and finally discovered Tolkien after seeing the first film adaptation. (I think Ben Elton was a recommendation too.) Beyond that I think most of my favourites have been stumbled across at the library, the Bookfest, or other people’s blogs. And for the most part, the affection was quick to develop.

Book Review: Rescuing Rose by Isabel Wolff

Rescuing Rose Agony aunt Rose Costelloe’s life has taken a nosedive. Her husband of seven months has run off with their marriage counsellor - ironically, on the day her book on marriage success was released. She’s moved out of their house into a place of her own, whose mortgage she can barely afford, and her job could be in jeopardy unless she fulfills her new editor’s demands for more sex-related questions in her Ask Rose column. Luckily her two best friends - co-dependent twins Bella and Bea - come up with a sensible idea: take in a lodger. So Rose ends up sharing house space with Theo, a bespectacled accountant with a passion for astronomy. When not worrying about whether she’s given a home to an axe murderer, Rose is trying to salvage her career and get over Ed, as well as coping with the twins’ dating disasters, a cross-dressing ex, a two-timing assistant and a pet mynah that has suddenly decided to start talking. Her life is in chaos, but who’s going to offer advice to an agony aunt?

I know I pretty much swore off chick lit a few months ago, but I always intended to make Isabel Wolff the exception, as I loved Behaving Badly. Seems like either that or this was an aberration; Rescuing Rose was nowhere near as good. Or, in fact, good at all. First-person narration by a hard-to-like character is bound to be tricky, and here fails dismally. Rose is much more than that old cliché, someone who can give advice but can’t take it. She is self-delusional and painfully transparent; it’s so obvious that she’s lying to herself as well as everyone else. She doe things like drive past her ex’s house while vigorously agreeing with another agony aunt on the radio, who is at that moment advising a caller against doing the same thing. She’s prone to jumping to conclusions about people, and if others don’t agree, well, that’s because they lack an agony aunt’s ability to read between the lines. And at 39, she’s definitely old enough to know better. I don’t know what Theo saw in her - or what she saw in Ed, who must surely be one of the biggest jerks in the genre.

About all I can say for it is that the plot was okay and the hero was a total science geek.

Rating: D+

Book Review: Three-Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

2008 TBR Challenge #1

Three-Act Tragedy At a seaside party, one of the guests collapses and dies. Foul play is considered; but with neither means nor motive apparent the idea is abandoned. One person is not convinced, and invites all the suspects to another dinner party. This time, however, it isn’t one of the guests who dies, and there is no question as to whether or not it was murder. Hercule Poirot, a witness to the first death, is persuaded into investigating by perennial observer Mr Satterthwaite, but is very much perplexed. For to account for the second death, and later the third, he must explain the first - a murder which no-one had a motive to commit, from which no-one benefited, and which no-one was physically able to carry out.

I undertook some idle speculation as to who the killer might be, and did wonder if it mightn’t have been X; but I didn’t make a firm guess, which was unfortunate because X turned out to have done it. I didn’t have a clue about the motive or the method, the latter of which was at the same time clever yet almost disappointingly simple. The mystery motive was ingenious, and I - like Poirot - had never seen it before (but did see it again on the ABC on Sunday night). Apart from that, the most interesting aspect of the book was the killer’s attempts to cover their trail from the second murder on. Since the second crime was committed offstage, the various suspects appeared mostly just at the beginning and when being interviewed in sequence prior to the denouement. Far from my favourite Christie; but still worth reading, for I’ve always liked Mr Satterthwaite.

Rating: C+

Book Review: Marley & Me by John Grogan

Marley & Me When you’re recently married and living in Florida with a wife who can’t even keep houseplants alive, what’s the logical addition to the household? If you’re John Grogan, it’s a dog. Not just any dog: a big, boisterous, boneheaded Labrador with a phobia of thunderstorms. Of course, Marley doesn’t start out big; but it quickly becomes apparent that the new puppy has boundless energy and a considerable appetite for the inedible - and that thing about storms, a frequent occurrence in subtropical summers. Despite his many flaws, and the rapidly-mounting repair bill, Marley becomes a part of the family, following his owners through more than a decade of domestic ups and downs. He may be attention deficit, neurotic, or the canine equivalent of certifiable, but Marley has qualities that humans would do well to cultivate: unswerving loyalty, unconditional love, and a great enthusiasm for life and the simple pleasures it holds.

The best surprise under the tree (or rather, in the absence of a tree, on the kitchen bench) on Christmas Day was this. Marley might be billed as the world’s worst dog, but it’s impossible not to love him. For one thing, he’s cute; and for another, he adores his owners as much as they do him. He’s not just man’s best friend, but the whole family’s. I’m actually not much of a dog person, but I can relate to the experience of living with a much-loved but frustrating pet with a destructive appetite (having once owned a rabbit my mother swore was a reincarnation of either a garbage disposal or Harry Houdini). Despite the obvious differences in species and size, I could see occasional bits of Coco in Marley - including the ability to look totally innocent. At times Marley’s antics had me simply howling with laughter (pardon the pun) and, yes, I was reaching for the Kleenex by the end. If there’s anyone left who hasn’t already read this - what are you waiting for?

Rating: A+

04 January 2008

Book Review: A Doll's House and other plays by Henrik Ibsen

A Doll’s House and other plays In A Doll’s House, perhaps the most famous - and at the time, most scandalous - of Ibsen’s plays - the doll is Nora Helmer. Indulged by her husband, who treats her as a decorative and none-to-bright ornament, she has concerns which he knows nothing about. When scandal threatens the family, the doll finally decides to think for - and of - herself. The League of Youth is a political comedy in which the charismatic Stensgard throws himself into local political manoeuvring, beginning with the founding of the League. But before the campaigning can get underway, the characters end up at increasingly tangled cross-purposes. And in The Lady from the Sea, a mystery form as the past comes back to haunt Ellida Wangel, who grew up on an island and cannot bear to be far from the ocean.

As it turned out, the plays appeared in the book in reverse order of preference. First was The League of Youth - more politics! I can’t think, offhand, of any author who’s managed to make politics interesting, and Ibsen was no exception. The more farcical aspects of the plot were amusing, but it’s telling that I had to check the book to remind myself of the main character’s name. A Doll’s House won me over by the end with a fine appeal to my feminist instincts, but it took me a while to warm up to it. Yes, Torvald Helmer was a bit of a jerk who treated his wife like a child; but she let him do it and happily played along with his infantilisation of her. She also struck me as silly and spendthrift, and even though she found a backbone I still had doubts about her ability to survive on her own. My favourite was The Lady from the Sea. I like a bit of a mystery, although this one didn’t end the way I thought it would (I think I’ve read too many ghost stories).

Rating: B

03 January 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Anticipation

Last week we talked about the books you liked best from 2007. So this week, what with it being a new year, and all, we’re looking forward….

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 don’t keep track of what books are due for release, but I hear there’s another Stephanie Plum on the way, so I’ll be looking forward to that. And after the cliffhanger ending of the last one, I hope there’s another Thursday Next en route, too.

The TBR Challenge list in the sidebar is about as far as my reading plans go, since the books I got for Christmas have already been polished off (reviews forthcoming). And the handful of other books I have lying around too; but I believe my TBR pile is now below two dozen. But not for long - week after next is the BOOKFEST!!! My annual buy-as-many-books-as-I-can-carry expedition, with the good excuse of its all being for charity. The 888 Challenge selection is just the start of my wish list of books to stumble across in 2008.

And I plan on re-reading Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and maybe one or two others.

01 January 2008

The Reading Year That Was: 2007

It’s the early hours of New Year’s Day and I had a thoroughly unexciting evening (at home, since Brisbane turned on miserable weather. I wonder if the fireworks went ahead? The ones on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts were cancelled due to wind). Plenty of time to catch up on my HUGE backlog of reviews and look back on the books of 2007....

I’ve already posted on this after a fashion, in last week’s Booking Through Thursday. 136 books total for the year (and as many reviews ... well, almost), well down on last year. As I intended. But that only touched on the best books of the year. Although I failed to keep records of grades (I kept meaning to compile a list, but I was my usual absent-minded self and kept forgetting) I can’t produce any statistics, but I strongly suspect that if plotted on a graph they wouldn’t even remotely resemble a bell curve. Lots of As, as I recall, but only a very few Ds. But then I never expected a bell curve, since I’m predisposed to like any book I open.

(Mental note to self: in 2008, keep a list of grades given. Should make next year’s retrospective much simpler.)

Seven challenges, five overlaps, thirty-four books total - exactly one-quarter of the books I read for the year. (And as for another little goal I might have mentioned somewhere ... something about new-to-me authors ... let’s just not mention that, shall we? And agree that 20 is better than none?)

And the 136 were:

General Fiction: 31
Mystery/Thriller: 21
Non-Fiction: 20
Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror: 18
Classics: 17
Historical: 8
Short Stories: 5 collections
Romance: 5
Re-reads: 9
Plays: 2 collections
Historical, Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror, Classics, General Fiction, Re-reads all upon last year, Plays holding steady and everything else well down (naturally, given that I read 43 more books last year!

The 888 Reading Challenge with a Twist

I didn’t originally intend to sign up for this challenge, as I never know in advance what books I’ll get to read each year; it all depends on the availability at the Bookfest and the library. But then it occurred to me that I could put my own spin on it: instead of a list of books I must read, I could compose a list of books I will read if at all possible and let serendipity take care of the rest. If I can track them down, great; if I can’t, it doesn’t matter. A pressure-free challenge with the added fun of testing fate!

1. The Collections
Books composed of short stories

Cat-o-Nine Tails - Jeffrey Archer
The Ladies of Grace Adieu - Susanna Clarke
Ghost Stories - Charles Dickens
In a Glass Darkly - J. Sheridan le Fanu
Life’s Little Ironies - Thomas Hardy
Fragile Things - Neil Gaiman
Smoke and Mirrors - Neil Gaiman
Waifs and Strays - Charles de Lint

2. Eighteen Hundred and Something
Books that have withstood the test of time

Shirley - Charlotte Brontë
The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
She - H. Rider Haggard
Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy
The Aspern Papers - Henry James
Indiana - George Sand
The Way We Live Now - Anthony Trollope

3. A Little Light Reading
Books that are fun to read

Welcome to Temptation - Jennifer Crusie
The Big Over-Easy - Jasper Fforde
Lola Carlyle Reveals All - Rachel Gibson
Under the Greenwood Tree - Thomas Hardy
Austenland - Shannon Hale
Three Men in a Boat - Jerome K. Jerome
The Man with Two Left Feet - P. G. Wodehouse
The Trials of Tiffany Trott - Isabel Wolff

4. Next, Please
Books that are next in a series or sequence

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish - Douglas Adams
Seeing Redd - Frank Beddor
The Angel of Darkness - Caleb Carr
Venus in Copper - Lindsay Davis
Cat in a Midnight Choir - Carole Nelson Douglas
Voyager - Diana Gabaldon
Rosa and the Veil of Gold - Kim Wilkins
To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis

5. The Rest of the World
Books set in the past of a country outside Britain

Shogun - James Clavell (1600s Japan)
Cocaine Blues - Kerry Greenwood (1900s Australia)
Imperium - Robert Harris (100s BC Rome)
Jerusalem - Cecelia Holland (1100s and guess where?)
Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry (1800s America)
The Honest Courtesan - Margaret Rosenthal (1500s Italy)
Perfume - Patrick Süskind (1700s France)
The Book Thief - Markus Zusak (WW2 Germany)

6. Screen First, Page Second
Books I’ve seen an adaptation of

Bleak House - Charles Dickens
A Room with a View - E. M. Forster
The Quiet American - Graham Greene
Runaway Jury - John Grisham
Seabiscuit - Laura Hillenbrand
Practical Magic - Alice Hoffman
The Cider House Rules - John Irving
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

7. Things that Go Bump in the Night
Books that are mysterious, spooky, or just plain weird

Every Dead Thing - John Connolly
Neuromancer - William Gibson
The Woman in Black - Susan Hill
The Boys from Brazil - Ira Levin
Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake
Gormenghast - Mervyn Peake
Titus Alone - Mervyn Peake
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

8. We Meet at Last
Books I’ve been wanting to read for ages

Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Like Water for Chocolate - Laura Esquivel
The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Euginedes
The Crimson Petal and the White- Michel Faber
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon
Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
Northern Lights (a.k.a The Golden Compass) - Philip Pullman
The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Book Review: The Goldsmith's Wife by Jean Plaidy

Armchair Traveller Reading Challenge #6

The Goldsmith’s Wife The goldsmith’s wife starts out a mere mercer’s daughter, one whose extraordinary beauty quickly begins to get her into trouble. Anxious to see her become the responsibility of someone else, her father pushes her into marriage with the eminently respectable Will Shore. Married, Jane will be safe from scoundrels like Hastings, a courtier who had plans for her that didn’t include asking her permission. But outgoing, outspoken Jane chafes under the dull routine of being a respectable wife, and after only a few years of marriage leaves her husband in favour of another man: King Edward IV. Her wit and good heart make her the darling of both the court and the public; and coached by Elizabeth Woodville (who accepts her husband’s affairs as the price of her throne) she secures her position as Edward’s favourite mistress, to whom he always returns. But nothing lasts forever, not even kings. After Edward’s death Jane knows she should retire from court life, but can’t bear to leave - not when the court includes the late king’s stepson, Dorset - and an older and wiser Hastings. She also knows she shouldn’t meddle; but when the position of young Edward V is threatened, she can’t help herself, even if it means going against the coldly practical Richard III.

I had never heard of Jane Shore before reading this book. Her rise and fall make a remarkable story - all the more so because she lasted so long at court, despite a notoriously fickle king and a tendency to interfere. She could be the model for the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, for all her meddling was done with the very best of intentions and for other people’s sakes. In some cases she was almost too soft-hearted; if she could only have ignored the princes in the tower she might have ended her days happily. But then she wouldn’t have been Jane. Her kindness made her likeable, but she also came across as rather foolish; following her heart when her head was offering by far the wisest choice and always thinking that there would be someone to provide for her and better days ahead. She was also, for someone so willful, very susceptible to domineering men and prone to doing whatever they asked of her - even treason.

The flaws of the main character, even when added to a few melodramatic moments, couldn’t detract too much from the opportunity of discovering a new piece of history. It was not only Jane’s story, but that of the court itself during the transition from the newly-restored Edward IV to the takeover by Henry VII. The most interesting figure was Richard of Gloucester; I’m always curious to see how an author will portray one of the most infamous of English kings. Very well, in this case; not the monster of Shakespeare, but a sober man devoted to England but with no clue how to win the affections of its people. Not a murderer, either; a different explanation is offered for the disappearance of the two princes (though still not one to top that in Elizabeth George’s story I, Richard).

You do need some knowledge of fifteenth-century history going in; there are no dates given and it took a few dozen pages for me to calculate that it opened c. 1469. It also makes it easy to spot the foreshadowing, which if you know what’s coming takes on a tint of irony. And one thing puzzles me: near the end of the book, one of the princes was looking forward to the prospect of a reunion with someone who, I’m quite sure, died before they were imprisoned. Surely he would have known? Or am I getting my dates muddled?

Rating: B

Book Review: The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

The Constant Princess The youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella knew her destiny from a young age: she was to become Princess of Wales and then Queen of England. Accordingly, in her early teens she leaves the glorious palace of the Alhambra for the cold and comparative dinginess of the English court. Her new home is ruled by a former rebel with rough manners, backed by his dragon of a mother; and her new husband is studious and awkward. Despite these shortcomings Catalina of Aragon finds a great deal of happiness with Arthur, planning how they will rule the kingdom when it becomes theirs. Then tragedy intervenes and leaves her widow with only half her dowry paid, unwanted by either England or Spain. Through the poverty and power-plays that follow, Catalina clings to one hope: that the lie she has told will give her a chance of becoming Katherine, Queen of England some other way. Any other way.

I know where I’m going next time I’m at the library - straight to the history section. There’s a few things in here I’d like to read some historians’ perspectives on. Henry VII’s plans for her after the death of Arthur, for instance, or the Battle of Flodden (she wasn’t mentioned in the documentary I saw a few weeks ago, but then that was only about the battle, not the march). I’d also love to read a non-fiction biography of her. Usually the name ‘Katherine of Aragon’ conjures an image of the dull, middle-aged woman who tried to hold her throne against Anne Boleyn. Here she is teenager and young woman who could take her place alongside Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Tudor in terms of ambition. Convinced that her accession to the throne is God’s will, and unwilling to take the reduction in rank that would follow a return to Spain, she’s happy to scheme as much as necessary. In a way her tenacity is admirable; but at the same time the lengths to which she’ll go are a little unnerving. Her story as presented here is almost a coming-of-age tale, following her progress from pampered young Infanta to a queen and a woman able to see where her parents went wrong in their reign. The pace derailed in the last part of the book, skipping through - and over - the years much more rapidly; and I would have liked to see Katherine with Mary, her only child to survive infancy. But the book redeemed itself by finishing in just the right place.

Rating: B

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book The Oxford University of 2054 has a new way of studying history: first-hand. And the Head of Department’s holiday absence has just given his deputy the chance he’s been waiting for. The Middle Ages risk assessment is downgraded, zero tests are run, and Kivrin Engle, a lone female undergraduate, is about to go back to Christmas 1320. Her tutor Mr Dunworthy is worried sick, especially when he gets a hint that the drop didn’t quite go properly, but soon has little time for thinking of his student: the lab tech collapses before he can say what went wrong, and a jumpy NHS locks the town into quarantine for the duration of the ensuing epidemic. Montoya the archaeologist is desperate to get back to her dig, the visiting American bell ringers are very unhappy about the enforced change of schedule, a colleague’s great-nephew has dodged the barricades, Dunworthy’s secretary is anxious about the rationing of supplies, and William Gaddson’s overbearing mother has come to stay. Basingame is uncontactable, and Gilchrist is being infuriatingly stubborn.

Kivrin thought she had prepared for everything. From languages to manners to horseriding, she had studied everything, and been immunised against every disease Dr Ahrens could think of. But that doesn’t stop something going wrong. Living towns look very different to ancient ruins and names change over time, so she can’t be certain where she is. Nor can she be sure of being able to stay there. And it soon becomes clear that she’s not when she was supposed to be, either. Which means that Oxford might not be able to retrieve her, and she is faced with the prospect of having to make a life for herself in an unfamiliar time - if she can survive.

How tragic am I? If you want to know how I spent Christmas, look no further. I’m not sure of the precise page tally, but it was over five hundred. (I guess it’s nice to see that a small, insular family has one advantage - there was no reason for anyone to object.) Good way to spend the day, though. Kivrin’s portion of the tale - which she jokingly called the Domesday Book - was packed with historical detail; I would love to know enough about a historical period to describe it that well. The dynamics of the family she found shelter with showed that some things never change. But no matter how well she handled the crisis she found herself in, the real hero of the piece was not her but Father Roche. Reviled by the lady of the manor for his illiteracy and superstition but is nevertheless about as close as it comes to a saint.

The twenty-first century thread was even better, a wonderful mix of drama and comedy with a clever and colourful bunch of characters. There were no complicated explanations of how time travel was possible - even the scientists weren’t entirely sure - and the potential problem of changing the past was neatly taken care of. And I had the satisfaction of realising where the epidemic virus had come from before any of the characters did. Unfortunately there was a point where I was jolted out of the book so completely I actually put it down and went in search of a dictionary and encyclopaedia. The epidemic was caused by a virus, but when Badri developed pleurisy the doctor ordered a test and a treatment exclusive to bacteria. The sudden change of microbes had me dashing to see if pleurisy could the result of a secondary bacterial infection, rather than the influenza like I’d initially assumed, but neither book specified, and nor did the novel. My other quibble was the matter of Basingame. It looked like there was a mystery being set up: a lot of time was put into searching for him, no trace was found of him, and as Montoya said, who goes fishing in Scotland in December? Whatever the mystery was, it was never resolved: they never found him!

Rating: A-

Book Review: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders To repair an old wrong, George Melbury had long determined that his daughter Grace should marry his neighbour Winterbourne’s son. To make the gift as valuable as possible he gives her the best education he can afford. He sees his error, however, when at last she returns home more fitted for life in a large town than the obscure village of Little Hintock, and is caught between his old vow and his ideas of what’s best for Grace. She is content to do whatever is wished of her, though Giles Winterbourne is as much in love with her as ever. When the disaster that has long been looming over Giles falls, Melbury sees a way out in the form of local doctor Edred Fitzpiers. The actions of various characters - Melbury, Grace, Giles, Fitzpiers, Mrs Charmond, Marty South - all intersect in such a way as to ensure that happiness seems without the reach of all.

I think I would have liked this book better if I had liked the heroine better. Caught between two classes, she could have been interesting as she tried to reconcile her own wishes with those of her father. But Grace didn’t seem to have much by way of wishes and was largely content to do whatever was thought right. And such opinions as she did have were terribly prone to vacillation and never agreed with circumstances. Finally, a few of her bad decisions stuffed the ending for me even though with Hardy disappointment for all was pretty well assured from the start.

That’s not to say I didn’t like it; I did, even if I preferred Marty South to Grace Melbury. The village of Little Hintock was surrounded and insulated by the forest, which came to life on the page, without seeming claustrophobic. Other places were mentioned, and even seen, but it was hard to imagine that they could have anything to do with Little Hintock, which seemed a cozy world unto itself. Fitzpiers was well-drawn, as befits a character originally intended to have been the title one. As it is he remains central - it is his presence and actions that precipitate the events of the book - but it is the natives of Little Hintock who form the heart of the story. As such the ending is fitting, leaving those who remain to get on with their lives after Fitzpiers’s disruption. Not a happy ending, but one that carries a sense of inevitability thanks to the intricate interweaving of people and events, cause and effect which is the best thing about the book.

Rating: B

Book Review: The Planets by Dava Sobel

The Planets From the days of the earliest astrologers to those of the latest satellite fly-bys, the planets that make up our solar system have fascinated mankind. Legends have been built up around them, assumptions (sometimes bizarre) have been made them, and gradually science has followed story to chart and label and analyse. Equal parts science, history, and personal essay, this is a tour from the sun to Pluto and beyond, through the science and mythology of each of the planets; and the educated professionals and rank amateurs who discovered and observed them.

I stumbled across this in the library and borrowed it because I thought I should read more science (seeing as I’m meant to dedicate myself to the stuff for the next forty-odd years). On the whole I’m glad I did. The personal-essay aspect adds a conversational tone that makes for easy reading and the history and mythology are interesting. (Oh, and there’s some good scientific facts in there, too.) I was particularly taken with the naming conventions for various solar system features, relying as they do on legend and literature. What took the book down a notch or several were the chapters on Mars and Uranus. The former was entirely a first-person narration by a lump of Martian rock in a museum, the latter a fictional letter from Caroline Herschel (sister and fellow-astronomer of William) to American astronomer Maria Marshall. Being so different from the style of all the other chapters, they jarred; and the formats struck me as affectations. Effective at conveying information, but still annoying. Though if you have an interest in science or history it is still well worth reading.

Rating: B-

Book Review: Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Mythago Wood George Huxley was obsessed with the nearby Ryhope Wood. After his death, his younger son Steven returns from his post-war convalescence in France to find that his brother Christian has followed suit. Soon Steven learns what manner of place they have been living near: a forest in which space expands and time contracts, and legends spring to life in the form of mythagos. It in one of these that Chris is searching for, a red-haired warrior girl, a replica of the one he loved and lost. In his absence, just such a girl appears to Steven. But is she Chris’s mythago, or his? And if Chris finds her, will he care which?

When Guiwenneth is taken from him, Steven enters the wood in pursuit. He joins forces with Harry Keeton, a pilot who encountered a similar wood after being shot down over France and has his own reasons for wanting to repeat the experience. Together they track Christian to the very heart of a forest that doesn’t want them there, haunted by the embodiments of myths past and present, friendly and hostile. Most malevolent is the mythago George long sought, the oldest myth of all: the Urscumug.

Once again, I found myself closing a book and wondering why I wasn’t blessed with an imagination like the author’s. I guess I should be glad that such imaginations exist at all, and that I get to read the results. This one reminded me of my high school Psych classes; the mythagos had a Jungian air about them. The forest seemed to have to dig them out of the collective unconscious by way of whoever spent enough time there to be used as a source (the trouble being, of course, that once the mythagos took on a life of their own it was hard to tell whose was whose). With the whole of history to choose from, the wood didn’t stop at just standard mythological figures, but could produce anything that had fallen into legend - castles, knights, cavaliers - or out of legend - fragments of stories that had been lost to time. The whole of British history, that is; few if any of the mythagos were unconnected to Britain. (So did the wood Harry found himself in produce distinctly French mythagos? How did these ‘ghost woods’ select culturally-specific mythagos to bring to life? And did Steven or Harry produce the mythagos they saw?)

Unfortunately, the book didn’t say. And it left me wanting more story, as well as more information. Turns out it’s the first in a series, the rest of which has gone straight on the Wanted list and will hopefully include more about Ryhope Wood. It was almost a character itself - certainly it seemed possessed of a mind of its own. It was plausible that it should have remained a mystery for so long, for it appeared normal from the outside and did its best to make sure no-one got too good a look at its inside. And who would tell a story so mad?

Rating: B+

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