29 February 2008

Roll Up, Roll Up for the Eponymous Reading Challenge!

** STICKY POST **

One of my favourite things about book blogging is the existence of reading challenges. I’ve considered several ideas for running my own, but have only recently hit on one that no-one else has thought of. So I am striking while the idea is still unclaimed and celebrating books that share names with their characters with

The Eponymous Challenge

Here’s how it works:

The challenge will run from 1 March to 31 May, 2008.

During that time your mission should you choose to accept it is to read 4 books whose titles are the name of one or more of the characters (e.g. Evelina, Oscar and Lucinda); or a description of one or more of the characters (e.g. The Merchant of Venice, Sylvia’s Lovers).

Non-fiction books and overlaps with other challenges are welcome, as are books named after four-legged characters.

Once you’ve chosen your books, choose a colour scheme....

Pink
BlueGreen

(200 x 87)

... post your list, and add a link to it with Mr. Linky below. I can’t wait to see how this works out!

1. Between the Covers
2. Maria (A Book Geek)
3. Becky (Becky's Book Reviews)
4. Charlie (Off the Shelves)
5. Joy (" Thoughts of Joy...")
6. Callista (SMS Book Reviews)
7. Nicole B.
8. Lena
9. Samantha (Bookminx)
10. Fleurdesel
11. Karen
12. Mandy
13. Tara
14. trish
15. Andrea
16. Mo (Inside Mo's Mind)
17. Myrthe
18. Poodlerat
19. Suzi Qoregon
20. Lynne (Lynne's Little Corner of the World)
21. joanna
22. Amy( The Sleepy Reader)
23. jlshall
24. Ms Alex
25. cafeshree
26. Kim
27. Gaelle (Proust's Madeleine)
28. Juli (Can IBorrow Your Book)
29. Lizzy Siddal
30. loey
31. 3M
32. raidergirl3
33. bethany canfield
34. Esther (Connect the Plots)
35. Ramya
36. Kim- page after page (wrap- up)
37. Lizzy Siddal (Reviews and wrapup)


Booking Through Thursday: Heroine

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one ... I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)
Where to start? In random order:

Thursday Next gets to dive right into all sorts of good books (hard not to be jealous of that!) and is capable of dealing with even the stickiest (or most outlandish) of situations. She’s definitely someone you’d want to have around in a book-related crisis.

Claire Randall from the Outlander series. She’s one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered, and lives as vividly in memory as she does on the page. Anyone who can adapt to the harshness of eighteenth-century life and warfare would win my admiration; Claire’s courage, humour, quick thinking and love for Jamie have fixed her as one of my all-time favourites.

I’ve seen her mentioned a few times so far and have to agree: Jane Eyre. I love seeing the quiet, downtrodden child grow up and triumph, I love her adherence to her principles, and I love that Mr. Rochester loves her for her mind. I’m weird that way. I’d far rather be considered smart than pretty; and I’d rather not be thought pretty at all, than to have someone notice my looks without giving a thought to the brain behind them. To me, what Jane finds at the end of the book really is true love.

And finally and most predictably ... Elizabeth Bennet. How can you not love a girl who’ll tell even the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh exactly what she thinks of her? That scene is one of my favourites ... and that book is one I must re-read at the first opportunity!

They’re the ones that spring to mind at midnight-ish, and I’m sure that by tomorrow morning I’ll have thought of at least four more!

Or, by the time two minutes are up! How could I (almost) forget Hermione Granger? She shares my approach to problem-solving: When in doubt, find a book.

26 February 2008

Excuses and Two Quizzes

Nearly two weeks without posting! And I can only blame my ISP for some of that, since I’ve been reconnected for nearly a week. I’ve gotten a bit out of the habit of writing, and found it easy to be distracted by other things: Reading; sewing; starting to knit a shawl when the temperature was hovering unseasonably around the mid-twenties; draping myself in front of the aircon when the temperature spiked to 40. Fortunately I’ve got plenty of time to drag myself back into the habit of reviewing; I’m now into not one but TWO Chunkster Challenge books; it will be a while before either of those are finished!

But if I haven’t been writing, I have at least been keeping up my blog reading, and found these two quizzes. The first came from Book-a-Rama:

What Be Your Nerd Type?
Your Result: Literature Nerd
 

Does sitting by a nice cozy fire, with a cup of hot tea/chocolate, and a book you can read for hours even when your eyes grow red and dry and you look sort of scary sitting there with your insomniac appearance? Then you fit this category perfectly! You love the power of the written word and its eloquence; and you may like to read/write poetry or novels. You contribute to the smart people of today's society, however you can probably be overly-critical of works. It's okay. I understand.

Artistic Nerd
 
Science/Math Nerd
 
Social Nerd
 
Gamer/Computer Nerd
 
Drama Nerd
 
Anime Nerd
 
Musician
 
What Be Your Nerd Type?
Quizzes for MySpace

No surprises there! And from Reading Adventures:

You Belong in Paris
Stylish and expressive, you were meant for Paris.
The art, the fashion, the wine!
Whether you're enjoying the cafe life or a beautiful park...
You'll love living in the most chic place on earth.

*Sigh* ... if only I wasn’t so linguistically challenged! (Read: a complete dunce at foreign languages.)

123 Meme

Aarti tagged me for this quick little meme, which is just as easy as the name suggests.

The rules are:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages)
2. Open the book to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence
4. Post the next three sentences
5. Tag five people
The nearest book was The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, which at the time of tagging I was reading for the Royalty Rules Challenge. Sentences five, six, and seven on page 123 are:
For the rest of the evening Grant pottered happily through the history books, collecting heirs.

There was no lack of them. Edward’s five, George’s boy and girl.

(The main character begins to realise just how many people stood between Richard of Gloucester and the throne.)

If there actually happens to be anyone not yet tagged for this ... you are now!

Book Review: Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

What’s in a Name? Challenge #1

The Girl in Hyacinth Blue In a teacher’s house hangs his greatest secret: A painting of a girl dressed in hyacinth blue, caught in an idle moment by a window. He is trapped between the urge to share the beauty of (maybe) a lost Vermeer, and to atone for the ugliness of its acquisition. From there the tale works its way back through time, visiting some of those who have loved and lived with the painting, and whose lives have shifted course beneath the girl’s abstracted gaze. A Jewish family keeping Passover in 1942; a couple about to say goodbye to their only daughter; a French diplomat’s wife longing for Paris; a woman in the middle of a flood who finds the painting and a baby and longs to keep both; and her secret benefactor. At last it reaches the artist himself, and the chance moment that inspired its creation.

Read. This. Book.

Okay, I’ll be more specific. I ploughed through this in a couple of days, eagerly turning the pages because I was impatient to read more. Then once I’d finished I wished I’d read it more slowly so that it wouldn’t have been over so soon. I still can’t quite decide whether it’s really a novel or a linked sequence of short stories; in that respect it reminds me of The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing; dreadfully unfortunate given that that merited a D- (I think) while this is a case of literary true love. The writing is beautiful, the scenes of Dutch life delicate and clear on the page, and the descriptions of the painting will have any art lover salivating. You can just see the brushstrokes creating the texture of the basket, and the way the colour shifts with the light. If you’re so lucky as to have a Vermeer somewhere nearby it would be enough to make you want to rush out and visit it.

It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Girl with a Pearl Earring; it was interesting to note that here once the family moved in with Maria Thins, Vermeer hardly painted at all due to the poor light - yet that is the house where the other novel was set. Both are good, but this is the better of the two; only this left me with the feeling of holding something precious. I have to say, however, that some of the Dutch names give one a certain pause for thought - of the ‘145How on earth do you pronounce that?’ variety. As I’m sure there must be a reasonable number of manageable Dutch names available for use, that is the only thing that keeps it from perfection.

Rating: A

25 February 2008

Book Review: A Matter of Honour by Jeffrey Archer

A Matter of Honour In 1966 carbon dating reveals a minor icon in the Winter Palace to be a fake. Rather to his surprise, the head of the KGB is ordered by Brezhnev to spare no expense in retrieving the original. This isn’t for the sake of the painting, but for a document believed to be concealed inside it; one which two countries would do anything to lay hands on and which will be useless if not found within a month. A couple of weeks later, Adam Scott inherits an envelope which his father’s will warns should only be opened on condition that no word ever be breathed of its contents. Adam hopes said contents will clear the taint of reputation that drove both father and son to resign from the army. Once translated, the papers lead to a Swiss bank vault containing a minor Russian icon, and propel him into murder, mayhem, and a chase across Europe with a ruthless KGB agent at his heels.

This book is notorious in our house. I brought it home nearly seven years ago and after reading it, lent it to my mother. One afternoon she decided to read “just one more chapter” - and finally put it down when she finished it twenty-three chapters later. It’s not a book to read on public transport - I tried that myself recently and if I’d been travelling alone could well have missed my station - and is probably best left for a free weekend. All the ingredients of a first-rate thriller are there - the fate of the free world at stake, a tight deadline, a homicidal and well-funded opponent, an innocent bystander dropped into the middle - and they all come together beautifully, with enough grounding in historical fact to make it seem plausible (while you’re reading it, at least). The chase takes a while to get started, but since Adam and Romanov are in the same book it’s obvious they’re going to cross paths eventually ... and until that happens, that deadline just keeps getting closer. Hero and villain are a well-matched pair; both smart, tough, and adept at using whatever - or whoever - comes to hand (the difference being that one favours subterfuge and the other violence).

Despite the life-or-death stakes there’s still room for levity among the secondary characters, particularly an endlessly talkative mustard salesman. My favourite of all was the closest thing the book has to a heroine: Robin Beresford, a double-bass player who has a flair for deception and the balls to stand up to Romanov. One point greatly puzzled me until I looked it up (turns out that, yes, it is possible to put the Union Jack upside-down). And I’m a little ambivalent about the ending. On one hand, it was fitting, but on the other, I wished it could have been a certain someone else who did it. (Which is terribly vague and unhelpful, I know, but I do hate to give too much away!)

Rating: A-

12 February 2008

Book Review: Crazy for You by Jennifer Crusie

2008 TBR Challenge #5

Crazy for You Quinn Mackenzie has an unexciting life, teaching high school art classes then going home to school sports coach Bill Hilliard, who’s a lovely man even if he is fond of beige. Her chance at a change arrives in the form of a skinny stray dog that she wants to keep. For Bill, however, it’s loathing at first sight, and when he gives her an ultimatum Quinn chooses the dog. Her desire for something new proves to be catching. Her best friend Darla decides she wants more excitement in her life, but can’t convince her husband Max that things aren’t fine as they are. Max’s brother Nick’s quiet lifestyle is being disrupted by the need to get between Quinn and an increasingly divorced-from-reality Bill; not that he minds too much, as he wants to help his best friend. Actually, he wants his best friend, even if she is his ex-wife’s sister. Bill’s coaching performance has taken a nosedive, so the sports-obsessed principal isn’t happy; nor is he pleased when one of his teachers comes out of the closet - along with Quinn’s mother. Sanity has to return sooner or later - doesn’t it?

Second time around this is just as funny as the first. Ordinary people living ordinary lives can seem hugely entertaining in the right hands. The characters are just quirky enough, and Bill and the Boy Principal make a suitably unpleasant combination. Bill is all the more unnerving because he seems like such a nice guy, loved by the whole town, and the situation Quinn finds herself in is just so possible for anyone. I really wanted to see Quinn and dog get a happy ending - and for Quinn to realise that the real Mr Right had been under her nose all along - but it has to be said that she could almost be the poster girl for what not to do when faced with a stalker. I couldn’t help thinking, Sure, he was a nice guy - emphasis on was, as in past tense, but just CALL THE COPS! But it was still a great read. The chemistry between Quinn and Nick practically crackles off the page (though stylistically a few more full stops wouldn’t have hurt); and after their years of friendship it’s easy to see them settling happily down complete with neurotic dog.

Rating: B+

11 February 2008

Book Review: The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere

The Tomb of Agamemnon The tomb of Agamemnon - and possibly also Agamemnon himself - exists only in legend. Not that that stopped nineteenth-century archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann claiming to have found it (and its mummified occupant) along with the burial sites of various other Homeric figures. Schliemann’s application of mythology to archaeology was only one of the faces put on Mycenae along its journey from ancient supremacy to modern tourism

Before picking up this book I’d never heard of the (so-called) tomb of Agamemnon, and of Schliemann only as the excavator of Troy. The most fascinating thing was the description of Victorian methods of archaeology. They were actually somewhat horrifying, with crews being ordered to dig down to the layer of interest with blithe disregard for any relics that might be in the way, and the hastily-gathered evidence being forced to fit the legends. Not to mention the wholesale removal of anything of interest, from which Mycenae was saved only by virtue of its ruins being constructed of blocks too large to move. Schliemann himself sounds to have been little more pleasant than his methods, more adventurer than scientist, and it was he who linked the notion of a ruling class of Aryan Greeks to a certain ancient Mycenaean symbol - the swastika. Needless to say, the idea of an Aryan Greek master race evaporated after the Second World War. People seem to have had a hard time deciding quite what to make of Mycenae, but the account of their varying ideas makes for interesting reading.

Rating: B

09 February 2008

MWAH!

Many thanks to Heather at The Library Ladder who has kindly given me one of these:

MWAH!

This is a quote from the original smoocheree:

"So, the point (and I do have one) to this post is motivated by my desire to hand some of that love and kindness back around to those who have been so very, very, very good to me in this bloggy world. My hope is that those who receive this award will pass it on to those who have been very, very, very good to them as well. It’s a big kiss, of the chaste platonic kind, from me to you with the underlying ‘thanks’ message implied. I really do appreciate your support and your friendship and yes, your comments. ... Mwah!"

And now I get to pass it on! After much deliberation, the cyber smooch is going out to:

Bookfool at Bookfoolery and Babble for her consistent good humour.
Aarti at BookLust for writing thought-provoking reviews.
T Y at The Lit Connection for introducing me to the fun pastime of selecting dream casts for hypothetical film adaptations.
Marg at Reading Adventures for always making me smile.
Simon at Stuck in a Book for making it fun to read about books outside my usual reading range.

Just five of the many wonderful readers whose blogs I love.

08 February 2008

Friday Fill-In #58

Friday Fill-Ins

1. I’m looking forward to seeing the new stage production of The Phantom of the Opera.
2. Venice is a place I always wanted to visit and haven’t made it there yet.
3. I’ve fallen in love with books! Big surprise there.
4. Six of one, not enough of the other.
5. Addiction comes in two forms: Hardback and paperback.
6. The debates I have with my mother crack me up!
7. And as for the weekend, tonight I’m looking forward to braiding my hair, tomorrow my plans include see #1 above and Sunday, I want to start sewing on a borrowed machine!

Booking Through Thursday: But, Enough About Books

Okay, even I can’t read ALL the time, so I’m guessing that you folks might voluntarily shut the covers from time to time as well… What else do you do with your leisure to pass the time? Walk the dog? Knit? Run marathons? Construct grandfather clocks? Collect eggshells?
I have to admit ... not a great deal. I’d like to be able to say learning to make my own clothes, but the sewing machine died on Tuesday. I’ve been known to dabble in all sorts of creative endeavours - painting, drawing, embroidery, knitting, crochet, jewellery-making, etc, but not much lately. (Although I must remember to hunt up some shawl patterns before it starts turning cool.) I do (or try to do) the puzzles in the Courier-Mail every day. I do watch television, but I usually read while doing so; and starting tonight (technically now last night) I make the occasional valiant attempt to make sense of Lost. And I’m starting my preparations for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

Book Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes This first of a three-volume collection reproduces the original magazine publications of Conan Doyle’s stories from A Study in Scarlet to Holmes’s apparent death. (From which he had to be resurrected to appease the mourning public.) The cases range from murder to the most baffling of non-criminal mysteries, but they all share the unique methods of the detective. Nothing is too small for Sherlock Holmes to notice, and his deductive abilities leave both Watson and the police far behind.

The idea of reproducing the originals is an interesting one, but hard on the eyes; you need small type to fit two columns onto and ordinary-sized page. That inconvenience aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to become acquainted with the great Sherlock Holmes at last (and with his brother Mycroft, last seen haunting Thursday Next). In a (very) few instances I was able to grasp the significance of clues before Holmes revealed his reasoning, but much of the time I was as at sea as the police. Everything made perfect sense once explained, even seemed obvious; and I’d love to be able to exercise such brainpower myself (but I suspect modern life has made picking up clues from appearance much more difficult that it was). The time period of the writing also makes itself felt with touches of Victorian melodrama; some stories have links to vengeful Mormons, the KKK, Indian jewels and Australian bushrangers. Despite the best efforts of his biographer Watson, Holmes does seem rather inhuman; just a vessel for that remarkable mind. But then, does anyone read these stories for the character development? It’s all about the deductions.

Rating: A-

Book Review: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

888 Challenge #4

The Quiet American The quiet American is now quiet indeed, silenced forever by a rusty bayonet and the mud of the river. The French police in Saigon have a number of questions for British journalist Thomas Fowler, who was befriended by Pyle after the latter arrived with a head too full of ideals and good intentions to hold much good sense. Fowler’s not saying much to the police, but for the reader he detours back through the history of his acquaintance with Pyle. Soon the reasons emerge why someone might have wanted him dead, for not only was he trying to marshal a force to take on both the French and the Communists, but he cost Fowler his Vietnamese mistress.

For the first time in ages, I’ve run into a reviewer’s nightmare: A book about which I can think of very little to say. The two main characters were well-drawn, but apart from Phuong and General The I’m already having trouble remembering the others. Early on I had to stop and think about what was up with all the fighting, but I have my poor grasp of twentieth-century history to thank for that. The most fun to be had in the reading - since it’s really not a cheerful book - was keeping up a running comparison to the movie (and noting things like, They got the wrong colour dog). Perhaps it would have been more suspenseful if I didn’t remember exactly what it was that Fowler wasn’t telling. (The movie, by the way, turns out to have been a very good adaptation.) Still, the main characters alone make it worth reading.

Rating: B-

04 February 2008

The Eponymous Reading Challenge

Eponymous Challenge

One advantage of devising your own reading challenge is you get to be the first one signed up! For my first (and hopefully not last) challenge my selections are:

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Arabella by Georgette Heyer
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (overlap with the Royalty Rules Challenge)
The Warden by Anthony Trollope


Eva's Book Meme

Eva at A Striped Armchair has devised the following bookish meme, and after being tagged by Aarti I have finally posted my answers:

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?
I would have said Atonement, if I hadn’t seen it panned recently! (Annoyingly, I can’t recall where.) So I’ll have to say ... Matthew Reilly. I know his books are hugely popular and successful, but I can’t shake the notion that they’re just the paperback versions of brainless action movies.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?
Eva mentioned Henry Tilney, which gave me the following idea: Conjure up Henry, Mr Darcy, and Captain Wentworth and whisk them off to a Regency ball. I would wear out my slippers and doubtless cause a fine scandal by dancing with each of the aforementioned gentlemen far more times than is proper. I’d just have to hope that Mr Darcy was in an obliging mood - or perhaps take along Colonel Brandon or Mr Knightley instead.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?
Probably a really tedious textbook on political science or economics or something equally dull. If you’re talking fiction, The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I’m not one for quitting on a book but I only lasted a handful of pages.

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it?
This is one book-related thing I haven’t done.

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to ‘re-read’ it that you haven’t? Which book?
While checking off those of Angus & Robertson’s Top 100 I’d read, I ticked The Other Boleyn Girl, only to realise later that it was the one book of the series I hadn’t read.

You’ve been appointed Book Adviser to a VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (if you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead of personalise the VIP)
Probably a book of short stories, so there’s not too much to read in one go.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?
In the hope that reading comprehension would lead to everything else, Italian. I am deplorably monolingual but would love to know another language, and Italian would be a much easier accent to manage than French or German.

A mischievous fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?
Can I have all Jane Austen’s novels in a single volume and count that as one?

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art - anything)?
Ahh, cover art. That on even recently-published books that I read rarely match those on Amazon, and I eventually realised why: Most of the books we get down here are British editions. You’d think the number of textbooks I have with THIS EDITION NOT FOR SALE IN THE US emblazoned on them would have tipped me off sooner, but no.

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead - let your imagination run free.
My dream library is a single room that spans two floors, like you see in English country houses (I wouldn’t mind having the rest of the country house too :-). On each level three of the walls are lined with wooden shelves, which go up only as high as I can reach (I wouldn’t want to be forever up and down ladders, especially if I was wearing a long skirt) and are recessed into the walls, so the tops don’t get dusty and they can go all the way to the corners. Above the shelves the walls are done in light green wallpaper. The ground floor has a fireplace, comfy chairs and ottomans, and a chaise longue so I can put my feet up. There’s tables dotted about, lamps with stained glass shades, and Oriental carpets on the polished wooden floor. One section of shelf stops short of the floor to make room for a custom-made writing desk (drawers on the left); the shelf immediately above is divided into pigeonholes and the higher ones used for reference works and books relevant to whatever I’m writing. Up a spiral staircase is the first floor, ringed by a gallery with a wrought iron balustrade, and with suitably spaced chairs and lamps. Non-fiction is stored on the ground floor, along with my TBR books which are no longer packed into a box, but stacked haphazardly on specially-reserved shelves. Classic and general fiction are arranged alphabetically by author on the first- and then the remaining ground-floor shelves, with plenty of spaces for new additions. The books are much the same as what I have now: A mix of paperback and hardcover, old and new. The fourth wall of each floor has floor-to-ceiling windows with French doors; the lower pair leading out onto a rose-lined terrace and the upper to a private balcony - both with chairs to relax and read in. At night the green velvet curtains are drawn to create a cozy hideaway for me and two cats. And the finishing touch: One of those bookcases conceals a secret doorway!

(And now it’s back to reality and the need to rearrange the shelves in the spare room to make way for the overflow from the shelves in the family room, and the certain knowledge that before too much longer I will be forced to ... cull.)

And the final portion of this assignment is to tag four others:

In Spring it is the Dawn
My life in Books....
Nose in a Book
Slipping in the Rain

*And, for extra credit, if you leave a comment letting Eva know you’ve done the meme with a link to the post, she will give you some link love via a big list of who’s participated. Additionally, if you link back to her original post, she will enter you in a drawing to win The House at Riverton. If you’re an American, this is especially exciting since it isn’t going to published until April. ;) To be in the drawing, you must have posted the meme (and commented) by February 5th, which is when she is holding the drawing.

Book Review: The Collectors by David Baldacci

The Collectors Roger Seagraves keeps a collection of mementos from all the people he’s killed, first as a government assassin and now as a self-directed ‘troubleshooter’. Before his sudden death, Jonathan DeHaven collected rare books - including one so rare he shouldn’t have been able to possess it. Annabelle Conroy has wound up a collector of lost chances, but there’s one she’s not going to let get away, not even if it means staying in the States after pulling off the con of a lifetime. And the Camel Club seems to collect trouble. It’s Caleb Shaw who finds Jonathan’s body in the Library of Congress and soon all four are in full conspiracy-theory mode, tracking down connections to a murdered politician and a shifty defence contractor. Meanwhile Annabelle and her crew are about to swindle millions out of a casino king with the potential to make Roger Seagraves look positively pleasant in comparison.

This is the sequel to The Camel Club and obviously the second in a trilogy. Fortunately it’s only one thread that’s not tied up at the end, making it much less frustrating than First Among Sequels; you want to know what happens next, but you didn’t feel like the story’s been chopped in half. The members of the Club were as enjoyable as ever, all ageing and eccentric but still a match for whatever villains Washington can offer. Said villains are obvious from the start, but the reader is still kept guessing as there’s no clear reason for the choice of victims, as well as the puzzle of how Annabelle fits in and what a copy of one of the world’s rarest books was doing in Jonathan’s vault. Books and their guardians are central to the case, including the Library of Congress’s Rare Books Room, which sounds like a place where I could happily lose myself for months on end.

There is a downside, however: The dreaded infodump. And in dialogue, no less, making the characters sound like they’ve swallowed the product manual. But it’s confined to the first third of the book, and it’s worth persisting to see more of the central characters. They’re all outcasts and misfits who would probably be quite lonely if not for each other, and one of the things I like most about the series is the way in which they gradually accumulate new friends. In the first book it was Alex Ford; here it’s Annabelle. She might be a career criminal but she’s got a good heart (and really, no-one could argue but that Jerry Bagger deserves to be taken down).

Rating: B-

03 February 2008

Book Review: The Messenger by Markus Zusak

The Messenger In nineteen years of life, Ed Kennedy’s greatest achievement has been convincing a dodgy cab company he’s 20. That changes when he foils the getaway of a bank robber (with a little help from luck and his friend Marvin’s wreck of a car). One day he gets an Ace of Diamonds in the mail. No explanation, just three addresses and three times. When he gets around to investigating he realises that each house contains someone in need of his help. Two of his tasks are heartwarming, but the third is a lot less pleasant. As he progresses, more aces arrive. The tasks follow a similar pattern, but the clues get more obscure, and there are several people out there who are going to be really not happy if he fails to deliver. The arrival of the Ace of Hearts makes things even more complicated; this time it’s not strangers who are to be the recipients of Ed’s ‘messages’, but his own three best friends.

You know a book is good when you resent the call of the evening news, and dinner, for parting you from it. That was how I felt about The Messenger. Ed was such a wonderful character. He was a no-hoper surrounded by no-hopers, with little future and perfectly aware of his failings. Yet he was far from unintelligent - his bad grades were the result of spending too much time reading and too little studying - and his acquaintance with literature showed in the quality of his narration, which had both moments of lyricism and a feeling of immediacy, as if he were telling you the whole thing while sitting on his front porch. He procrastinated over the delivery of his messages and doubted his ability to get them right, but I was sure he’d manage; for surely no-one could be so devoted to his ageing, malodorous dog and not be kindhearted enough to respond to even a cryptic appeal for help. I liked that Ed himself wasn’t exempt from the list of recipients, but my favourite message was the next-to-last, where he discovered a new side to his tight-fisted friend Marv. The puzzle of who could be behind the carefully-constructed strangeness of Ed’s mission gave it a touch of the mystery novel, and when the answer was revealed it reminded me strongly of another book (which I can’t name without creating a spoiler). As regards the implication for the characters of that fact, I preferred the ending of The Messenger to the other.

As fabulous as it was during the reading, once I’d closed the book the warm fuzzies suffered from a swift dissipation. Because the unfortunate truth is, that not even the most uplifting of novels can leave much of an impression on my cynical heart, or make me hope that a book can change anything.

Rating: A

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