31 March 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

Admission of ignorance and temporary mystification are vital to good science. It is therefore unfortunate, to say the least, that the main strategy of creation propagandists is the negative one of seeking out gaps in scientific knowledge and claiming to fill them with ‘intelligent design’ by default.

From The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, p. 126.

30 March 2009

Book Review: Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich

Plum Spooky Stephanie Plum’s luck takes a worse turn than usual when a monkey is left on her doorstep. Carl’s owner is on her honeymoon, Steph’s been singled out for petsitting duties, and Carl has mastered the art of at least one piece of sign language - involving just one finger. On top of that, her cousin Vinnie will be in dire financial straits if she doesn’t bring in Martin Munch, a vertically-challenged genius who pinched a piece of advanced technology from his former employers, Lula’s engagement is heading for disaster, and Morelli’s house has been infested by his brother Anthony. Into the midst of all this chaos walks Diesel, international man of mystery or local nutcase (one or the other). If he’s to be believed, Munch is in cahoots with Gerwulf Grimoire, who wants the stolen magnetometer to further his plan of world domination via weather control and has a nasty habit of leaving corpses in his wake - ones with broken necks and handprints burned into their skin. Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it in the Barrens, an area of winding dirt roads and more or less crazy inhabitants. Among these is animal rescuer Gail Scanlon, who managed to call Stephanie for help after being grabbed by Wulf. Gail is the sister of Munch’s late former boss, and her latest animal acquisition is a bunch of ... monkeys. Carl’s pleased, but Stephanie’s not, particularly when she learns that as much as she wants to get her hands on Munch, he wants to get his hands on her - and not in a good way.

I don’t think this could read without having previously read Fearless Fourteen, but it can stand alone among the other between-the-numbers novels. I have clear recollections of only one, and had no trouble keeping up. It was a good piece of light entertainment to sustain me through an election weekend, even if it was more giggle- than laugh-out-loud funny. In fact the moment of greatest hilarity was nothing to do with the main plot, but karma coming to bite Anthony in the butt ... literally. Diesel’s sort of cute in an annoying way but I don’t think he compares to Morelli and Ranger; and is it just me or is this series becoming reminiscent of the Sookie Stackhouse books in the way men keep getting added? (Morelli, Ranger, Diesel ... Bill, Eric, Alcide ... I hope the Plum books don’t get to four; that would be ridiculous.) Speaking of ridiculous, the scientific explanation of Wulf’s schemes struck me as highly implausible, though not so much as no explanation at all would have done.

On the upside, I enjoyed seeing another part of the Morelli family, and the source of the conflict between Lula and Tank was comical in its incongruity. The Barrens made a suitably eerie - and mad - location; I liked being introduced to another part of Stephanie’s Jersey (but was the Jersey Devil just an urban legend after all, or was it really hanging around?) It’s not a book to read with your brain engaged, but switch it off and just go with the craziness, and you’ll have a good time.

Rating: B-

Book Review: Word Histories and Mysteries by the Editors of the American Heritage Dictionary

Word Histories and Mysteries Throughout its history English has absorbed great numbers of words from other languages, often adapting or modifying them in the process. The methods - and sources - by which new words have been acquired are numerous, and a representative sample are displayed in this book. Here you can discover the relationship between caprice and hedgehogs, why vixen is unique, how the current meaning of internecine arose from a mistake made by no less a personage than Samuel Johnson, and the connection between hello and The Simpsons’ Mr Burns.

I rarely visit the library without strolling through the 420s in the hope of finding books like this. Having a great fondness for the sprawling mass of words that is my only language, I’m always keen to learn more about its history. (If I had any talent for languages other than my own, I might have considered studying linguistics.) The explanations given of how various words have developed or been transformed are easy to follow, and there’s a helpful glossary listing all the technical terms used, with references to examples used in the book. Because the aim was to cover the broadest possible range of routes by which new words have entered the language during its long existence, there’s no real focus on the English of one particular country. There are words from all over the world. And there’s a variety of incidental information to acquire, from ancient mythology related to the names of the days of the week to inventive English hangmen to feudal Japanese culture. History and words - two of my favourite things!

What I would love to know more about now is how linguists go about reconstructing long-dead languages such as Proto-Indo-European from words in descended tongues. I need another book....

Rating: A

28 March 2009

Book Review: Rosy is My Relative by Gerald Durrell

Rosy is My Relative As surprised as Adrian Rookwhistle is to learn that an uncle he’s met only once has left him £500 and an alcoholic named Rosy, he’s even more astonished to discover that Rosy is an elephant. Initially horrified, he swiftly comes to see in this odd bequest the chance to have the adventure he’s always dreamed of. So he sets out to walk with Rosy to the south coast and offload her onto the first circus he can find. Fortunately Rosy is a good-natured creature who adores Adrian almost as much as she does booze, but she has a lamentable tendency to terrify the wits out of horses. Whether they’re pulling hansom cabs or riding in the Monkspepper Hunt, the result of their meeting Rosy is invariably disastrous, and it soon becomes clear that escorting an elephant through the countryside is not a job for those of an anxious disposition - which Adrian is.

After fleeing the ruins of Lord Fenneltree’s party Adrian and Rosy hide out at the Unicorn and Harp with the Filigrees - Peregrine, who’s had as many past lives as he has hot dinners, and his efficient daughter Samantha, who takes a dim view of Adrian’s plan to sell what amounts to his only living relative. With the law on their heels they make for Isle of Scallop and embark on a short but spectacular (for all the wrong reasons) theatrical career which lands Adrian in court. Only a diminutive, cherry brandy-loving lawyer and a permanently confused judge stand between Adrian and the elephant - and the girl - he’s come to love.

I have to say I’ve always preferred my animals small and furry, but Rosy is simply adorable. Even when she’s leaving ballrooms and theatre stages in ruins you can’t help loving her. The destruction isn’t intentional - she’s just overenthusiastic in her love of performing and of people (and of picking people up and dancing with them ... which not everyone appreciates). And the human characters are just as endearingly odd as a drink-swilling pachyderm. Samantha is the only truly normal one among them; and I don’t think any words of mine could do them justice. I loved them all, especially Lady Fenneltree (who had “eyes like those of a particularly maladjusted python”) and the doddery old judge who kept getting sidetracked from the case into such thorny questions as whether elephants can slide on parquet. Answer: They can, and that is an image which will stay with for a considerable time.

The story is filled with memorable moments, and memorable characters. You know that wherever Rosy goes disaster will follow, but you still hope Adrian will change his mind and keep her. Certainly there’d be no shortage of adventure with her around! No lack of laughs, either - this is another of those books to avoid reading in public unless you want to make a spectacle of yourself howling with laughter. From the oddball names to the madcap antics, it’s pure comedic chaos from beginning to end.

Rating: A

Book Review: The Night Manager by John le Carré

What’s in a Name? 2 Challenge #3

The Night Manager In a hotel foyer in Switzerland, night manager Jonathan Pine comes face to face with Richard Onslow Roper. Dicky Roper is the worst man in the world - or so Jonathan was told in Cairo by a woman named Sophie, shortly before Roper had her killed. In London, Leonard Burr and his small intelligence agency have their eye on Roper, and Burr’s agency likes to take a hands-on approach. Because of his army background, his lack of ties, and his prior connection to Roper, Jonathan is the perfect candidate for recruitment. Burr and his team will set up a series of events which will lead to Roper feeling very well-disposed toward Jonathan, and in return will receive the information they need to nail Roper for a massive drugs-for-arms trade he’s planning. Roper gets a jail term, Jonathan gets a new identity, and almost everybody’s happy.

Or that’s the plan until things start going wrong. An informant vanishes. Jonathan is taken to Roper’s island hideaway and installed as a well-kept prisoner. The Pure Intelligence powers that be decide that such a large operation should not be left in the hands of such a small agency, and suddenly the men who devised the plan can’t find out anything about it. Burr’s colleague Rex Goodhew is going in fear of his life, and Burr’s man in the field is in danger of losing his, the more so as he’s having a hard time keeping his thoughts off Roper’s girl. If Jonathan’s wits can’t save him, Burr’s last-ditch scheme will have to.

Not quite a quarter of the way through the year, and I am already halfway through this challenge! (We’ll just ignore the fact that I haven’t started a single book for several other challenges...) Not only did I enjoy The Night Manager, I also succeeded in keeping track of all the turns of the plot and finished it devoid of the post-le Carré confusion from which I often suffer. Which is not to say that it’s straightforward; just that the convolution is manageable. I liked Jonathan and hoped he’d emerge relatively unscathed and perhaps with the girl to boot (though I couldn’t entirely understand what he saw in Jemima, besides the obvious). Such an ending never seemed likely, as the villains consisted of not only Roper and company but all the desk-bound espiocrats who were perfectly happy to sacrifice Jonathan to secure their own ends. Not one of them was intrinsically evil; they just happened to have aims which put them at odds with the forces of law and order. One of the things I most enjoyed was seeing Burr and Goodhew launch themselves into cunning and creative action in order to save their operation.

I also loved the fact that the characters had such distinct manners of speaking. This is something I’ve seen advised in a lot of articles I’ve read about writing, but I’ve seen few such clear examples. But I think my favourite part was the ending - all loose ends tied up, but nothing simple about it.

Rating: B+

26 March 2009

Book Review: A Maggot by John Fowles

A Maggot Five travellers ride through the countryside and put up at a village inn. An uncle, a nephew, and their servants - or so they seem; it quickly becomes obvious that not one of them is what they appear. In the morning they leave, and nothing more is heard of them until one turns up dead. Whether the cause is suicide or murder isn’t clear; but it is clear that someone rich and powerful is determined to find the man who called himself Mr Bartholomew. A lawyer, Henry Ayscough, is sent to take depositions from all the witnesses he can find, and thus proceeds to piece together the truth of what occurred. Or rather he intended to arrive at the truth, but instead finds something far beyond anything he could have imagined.

I really enjoyed the first part of this book, while the five travellers were still together and the mystery was being set up. Each new piece of information about them only added to the puzzle, and answers generated more questions. After the death the style of writing made a curious shift - the straight Q-and-A of Ayscough’s depositions were recorded verbatim. I mean that literally - there was no narrative, just question-answer-question-answer for pages on end. Unusual, yes, but not hard to read once I got used to it, and while a good amount of light was shed on the five and their purpose the mystery only deepened.

And then the plot careered off course and plunged into bizarro world. I haven’t been so utterly baffled by a plot since I watched Mulholland Drive, and there at least illumination arrived the same evening. I still can’t make sense of this. As much as I hate to give spoilers, I can’t see any way to properly review the flaws without doing so - an unfortunate consequence of the biggest cracks appearing closest to the end. If you don’t want to know how it ends, stop reading now.

Once Jones, alias Farthing, told Ayscough of what he had observed up in the hills, I immediately began to suspect that the woman Bartholomew and his servants met was from the future. But it didn’t stop there. Turns out there were three time travellers who were actually just one time traveller, and they/she came in a spaceship that hovered in a cave without visible means of support or access. They/she weren’t/wasn’t from any old future but a Utopian one, which may have been in this world or the next one; either way, it was strongly implied that Bartholomew went there and may have originated there (in which case you’d wonder that his parents never noticed anything odd). And this entire farrago was aimed solely at the conception of the future founder of the Shaker sect of Christianity.

What the --?

I really can’t imagine that Ann Lee and the other real persons whose names were employed in this piece of pure and outlandish invention would appreciate it. Even worse, the whole thing was just too fantastic to accept. I think I have a strong ability to suspend disbelief, but here disbelief crashed to the ground and gave itself concussion. The obviously genuine account of events was impossible to credit, and there was no plausible alternative explanation, as much as Ayscough tried to find one (and I got very tired of Ayscough’s bullying interjections when questioning people). Not to mention the unanswered questions about the death, and the fact that Utopia looked really boring. The only way I got through the last hundred pages was by thinking of how much fun I’d have roasting it later.

If you’re wondering about the title: ‘Maggot’ was the word used for the spaceship by a baffled resident of the eighteenth century, at which time the word also meant a whim or fancy, which according to the introduction this whole thing is. However, the name inevitably conjures images of a little white grub - something to avoid.

Rating: D+

24 March 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

But these other matters were altogether more terrifying, because they were intangible and inexplicable, incapable of proof and yet so deeply affecting. I began to realise that what had frightened me most - and, as I investigated my own thoughts and feelings that morning, what continued to frighten me - was not what I had seen - there had been nothing intrinsically repellent or horrifying about the woman with the wasted face.

From The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, p. 85.

23 March 2009

Weekly Geeks: Historical Fiction

Weekly Geeks

Is there a particular era that you love reading about? Tell us about it - give us a book list, if you’d like. Include pictures or some fun facts from that time period, maybe link to a website that focuses on that time. Educate us.
I love history and historical fiction - it it’s set any time before WWI, I’ll read it. As much as I enjoy reading about times and places with which I’m not familiar, I also love anything about:

Ancient Rome: My fascination with the Romans began with a history book my parents inherited from my grandmother. We got a whole bunch of Time/Life books about various civilisations and eras, and I used to browse through them at random (when not reading dictionaries or encyclopaedias). I find them endlessly interesting, not only for the heights of civilisation they reached so long ago, but for the scale of the collapse which followed.

Links:
A directory of links to information about Ancient Rome
An Illustrated History of the Roman Empire from the early republic onwards

Book list:
The Falco series by Lindsay Davis
I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves (note, though, that his depiction of Livia Drusilla as a murderous bitch who offed half the family is not supported by history)
Imperium and Pompeii by Robert Harris
The Libertus series by Rosemary Rowe

The Wars of the Roses: High school English turned out to be good for something after all. In Year 10 we did Richard III, Shakespeare’s tale of a king as hideous inside as out. Shortly thereafter, I read somewhere that, far from being a hunchbacked monster, Richard was actually accounted good-looking. With that one inconsistency began an abiding interest in the last of the Yorkist kings and the way in which he has been portrayed by history. My addiction to things fifteenth-century was slow to develop but I am now hooked and always on the look-out for more books.

Links:
An overview of the people and battles of The Wars of the Roses
The Richard III Foundation - the opposite perspective to Shakespeare’s

Book list:
The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman
The Goldsmith’s Wife by Jean Plaidy
Katherine by Anya Seton (actually set in the period immediately before the Wars began)
Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V by William Shakespeare (who, writing in the time of Elizabeth I, naturally had a pro-Tudor bias)
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (not, strictly speaking, historical)

Georgian Britain: Last year saw my NaNoWriMo debut with a novel that had been percolating in my brain for several years. It began when I decided to - as a fun challenge - write a mystery novel. Making it historical was a good excuse to read lots on one of my favourite subjects, and I picked the eighteenth century simply because I wanted a period not done to death (like Victorian or mediaeval) and that was the first one that came to mind. In the time it took to cook up the eventual (and vastly more complicated than planned) plot, I fell in love with everything Georgian.

Links:
Links to Eighteenth Century Resources on every topic imaginable
The Georgian Index - a directory of information about Georgian and Regency England
Online versions of contemporary writings at Eigtheenth-Century Studies

Book list:
Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
The Outlander and Lord John series by Diana Gabaldon
These Old Shades and Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer
A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

Do you have a favorite book that really pulled you back in time, or perhaps gave you a special interest in that period? Include a link to a review of it on another book blog if you can find one (doesn’t have to be a Weekly Geek participant).
For how I acquired my special interests, see above. For reviews of absolute favourites, see:

Ancient Rome: I, Claudius by Robert Graves

10Thirty
Resolute Reader
The Wars of the Roses: The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman
Christine’s Reading Corner
Devourer of Books
Georgian Britain: A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss
Paper Frigate
Prettier Than Napoleon

A member of your book group, Ashley, mentions that she almost never reads Historical Fiction because it can be so boring. It’s your turn to pick the book for next month and you feel it’s your duty to prove her wrong. What book do you pick?
This is a hard question for me to answer. I’ve read a number of novels by Henry James - voluntarily - so I have a high tolerance for what many others would consider stultifying dullness. Ergo, I’m not much of a judge of what other people may or may not find boring. And realistically, I’d tailor my choice according to what Ashley usually liked to read and try to choose something that would appeal as much as possible to the other members of the group.

Choosing blind like this, I will - after much deliberation - settle on A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss. Plenty of twists and turns, and plenty of fodder for discussion.

21 March 2009

Guest Blogger: Kristin Callender

The Truth Lies in the Dark Good karma ahoy! Tonight I’m handing over to my first-ever guest blogger.

Hello reader and fans of Between the Covers. I am Kristin Callender, author of The Truth Lies in the Dark. Thank you C. for hosting this blog and having me as a guest. And of course, thank you all of you for taking the time out of your own busy lives to be here with me (virtually).

The Truth Lies in the Dark is a mystery about a woman who lost all memory of her life as a child and then finds out that there is a dark secret that everyone in her life has known and kept from her, even her loving husband. If Amanda continues her journey to unlock the mysterious secret she could loose the only life she has known, but if she stops she will never know her true identity. What will she do? Who can she trust? By the end she will have to answer the most important question of all. Who is there is to help her and who is there to make sure the truth remains...in the dark?

This is my first book and I am excited to share it with everyone. It is challenging and rewarding writing, getting published, and then marketing a book. I have been asked what the hardest part of the whole process is. I usually answer with, whatever part I am currently involved in.

When I was writing The Truth Lies in the Dark my biggest challenge was finding time to just sit and get the story out of my head and onto paper. With four children, a husband, part time substitute teaching, the house, bills, etc...time, especially quiet time is rare.

Then, when the writing was done I had no idea what to do with this 250+ page manuscript. I knew nothing about how to find a publisher and had to do a lot of research to find out everything I could before I submitted it to any. Then the waiting became the hardest part. Publishers are overwhelmed with submissions and it takes a long time to get any response, and most of the responses you get are rejections. I was so excited when my publisher offered me a contract.

Thanks to Joe and Ardis at Bluewater Press, LLC, my book was going to be published. I thought that all of the hard work was behind me. Then I learned what my next step in the process was, marketing and promoting. This is where I am now with The Truth Lies in the Dark, and I have to say that it is the most challenging part. It takes a lot of time and energy to get a book noticed in a sea of great books. That is why I am so thankful for blogs like Between the Covers. They bring the readers and writers together from all around the world and allow them to share their stories and opinions with each other.

I have even more reason to be proud of my book. My oldest son, Michael painted the portrait that was chosen to be the cover. Some friends of ours suggested that his painting of New York City at night would make a great cover for The Truth Lies in the Dark. I took some pictures of it and sent them to my editor and he loved it. Michael is a talented artist and I am so proud to be able to share the amazing accomplishment with him :)

Once again I want to thank you for your time and I hope that you found what I have shared interesting or inspirational to your writing. If you would like to see where my Book Blog Tour is heading next or see where I have already visited you can go to my website. It is long, but worth it when you get there ;) http://sites.google.com/site/kristincallenderbooks

The Truth Lies in the Dark by Kristin Callender is available on www.amazon.com/Truth-Lies-Dark-Kristin-Callender/dp/1604520140 and is the 'Featured Book of the Month' on www.bluewaterpress.com.

Book Review: Lord John and the Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon

Lord John and the Hand of Devils In Lord John and the Hellfire Club, a young man is killed in a premeditated attack made to look like just another knifing in the streets of 1750s London. Asked to investigate by a friend who happens to be a relative of the dead man, Major Lord John Grey uncovers a link to Francis Dashwood and his notorious gatherings at Medmenham Abbey. But in a circle devoted to every type of debauchery, what could someone so desperately need to keep secret? Lord John and the Succubus see life in the Seven Years’ War take a ghostly turn. A couple of mysterious deaths fan rumours of a succubus loose among the English and Prussian camps and soon the men are afraid to sleep - hence in no fit state to take on the French should the French decide to attack. Charged with the task of getting to the bottom of the matter, Lord John is convinced there is an earthly explanation - possibly one connected to the attempted kidnapping of the Princess Louise’s son. Meanwhile the locals are convinced the culprit is the burgermeister’s recently-deceased mother, and a young soldier guarding a bridge is plagued by the sound of crying in the night though there is nothing and no one that could be responsible. There’s also the question of whether Prussian officer Stephan von Namtzen has quite the same interest in Lord John as John has in him. In Lord John and the Haunted Soldier, an accusation of negligence in the matter of an exploded cannon leads Lord John to suspect sabotage - and of more cannon than one. The likeliest target of sabotage is the cartridges, which are filled with gunpowder manufactured by a consortium that includes John’s half-brother. The question is not only who, but why. Would anyone really produce canisters of too-fine gunpowder in the hope of killing one artilleryman? And what happened to the woman with whom the victim had eloped?

Before reading these stories, it would doubtless help to have read the two Lord John novels and the first two or three of the Outlander series. But since the short stories all fit in between the longer ones at various points in the fictional chronology, it can still be a little confusing trying to keep track of what comes before and after what. And I only read the two Lord John novels last year!

The first mystery is the only one really short enough to be called a short story (as opposed to novella), and given that this is Diana Gabaldon it feels rather stunted in its brevity. The solution had an air of falling into John’s lap but it at least left no loose ends and the villain met a most satisfactory end. Succubus was my favourite of the three, with an edge of eeriness and a spooky twist. The burgermeister and his method for defeating the demon, Lord John’s difficulties resolving multilingual disputes, and the awkward condition in which one of the bodies was found (hint: he was with a prostitute when he died) lend laughs to a life-and-death situation. And I was pleased to see the reappearance of Tom Byrd, the opinionated valet who I’m sure would enjoy detective work much more if he could find a way to keep his employer well-rested, well-fed, (relatively) sober and immaculate in the process. I just wish I could remember the details of the section of another book of which the spooky twist reminds me.

I’m still not entirely sure who the haunted soldier is, given that Lord John himself is the only character of any significance to lay eyes on a ghost. Unless the word is being used metaphorically; then I know just which obsessive is referred to. The villain in this one was really creepy (though nowhere near the Jack Randall league) and, without giving too much away, I felt a certain character was better off dead than near him. Also without spoilers, I wanted to know a bit more about what became of several others. One thing I did enjoy was seeing John’s cordially loathed sister-in-law turn out to be far more human than he had always imagined.

This book has given me the most delightful new word: absquatulate. An anachronism, as it turns out, but who cares? It’s fabulous!

Rating: B

19 March 2009

Library Loot

Library Loot











The God Delusion
Word Histories and Mysteries
When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Queen of Fashion
Plum Spooky
She
The Thin Man
The Forgotten Garden

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins
Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus - Editors of the American Heritage Dictionary
When You Are Engulfed in Flames - David Sedaris
Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution - Caroline Weber

Plum Spooky - Janet Evanovich
She - H. Rider Haggard
The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett
The Forgotten Garden - Kate Morton

How’s that for variety?

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Alessandra.

Booking Through Thursday: Worst Best Book You’ve Ever Read

Suggested by Janet:

How about, “What’s the worst ‘best’ book you’ve ever read — the one everyone says is so great, but you can’t figure out why?

I absolutely loathed Sophie’s Choice - I really can’t think why I kept on reading it. The narrator’s inability to keep his mind out of the gutter disgusted me, and I really wish my mind had a “delete” button. I couldn’t even finish Looking For Mr Goodbar; talk about tedious. I skipped ahead to see if Theresa would do something other than get high and pick up men, but she didn’t so I quit and didn’t care whether she got killed or not.

On the local front there was The Girl Most Likely, a Brisbane book that got raved about several years ago. I don’t generally read (or care for) chick lit but decided to read it to see what the fuss was about. And I hated it. Largely because of the spineless heroine and the party where she a. told a pack of improbable lies to make her life sound more impressive, and b. got so blind drunk that the next morning, she couldn’t remember if she had or had not had sex behind the barbecue with her host’s 17-year-old brother. Who she had, the year before, tutored in Year 10 modern history.

Eeeww!!!

Edit: As Gautami’s post just reminded me - The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho was simply dreadful. It inspired me with nothing more than a desire to dump it in the returns chute as swiftly as possible.

17 March 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

As a further desperate precaution, Burr opened a decoy file for Jonathan, gave it a fictitious name, fronted it with the particulars of a fictitious agent, and surrounded it with a conspicuous secrecy, which he hoped would draw the eye of any predator. Paranoia? Rooke suggested.

From The Night Manager by John le Carré, p. 54.

16 March 2009

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Historical Fiction Challenge

A reading challenge finished with more than two weeks to spare - that must be a personal record! (Whether I can do as well or better in all - or any - of my other challenges remains to be seen.) The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge was a success on all fronts as I thoroughly enjoyed everything I read:

Pompeii - Robert Harris (A-)
To Shield the Queen - Fiona Buckley (B+)
Slammerkin - Emma Donoghue (B+)

Thanks to The Royal Reviews for hosting this challenge.

Weekly Geeks: Worst Movie Adaptations

Weekly Geeks

The recent release of Watchmen based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore got me thinking about what I thought were the worst movie adaptations of books. What book or books did a director or directors completely ruin in the adaptation(s) that you wish you could “unsee,” and why in your opinion, what made it or them so bad in contrast to the book or books?

I can’t think of any particularly bad cinema releases, probably because I don’t see many. So I’m going to follow Maree and mention a couple of tv versions of Agatha Christie novels - both Marples.

At least, both Marples in tv-land. She didn’t appear in either of the books. The Sittaford Mystery was atrocious enough - not only did they change the killer’s motive, they changed the killer. There was a bunch of other stuff that didn’t seem familiar, but it had been a while since I’d read the book so I can’t be sure. I have a copy in my TBR box but I want to wait until I’ve forgotten most of the tv version so I can remain in blissful ignorance of any further gratuitous alterations.

Unfortunately when I discovered that the ABC was about to screen an adaptation of Ordeal By Innocence, I had the bright idea of re-reading the book beforehand to refresh my memory. Never again. (Note to self: Blissful ignorance, remember?) The writers wrecked it utterly and I could identify every bit of damage.

First, of course, they put Miss Marple in where Miss Marple never appeared.

Then they invented another character, and a secondary crime, out of nowhere and for no apparent reason.

They changed the identity of the second victim. And they made the guy who should have been killed so obnoxious I was looking forward to his demise, and disappointed when he lived.

But far worse than all these, they destroyed the character of Arthur Calgary. In the book, he was a perfectly competent investigator who needed no help from little old ladies. In the adaptation, he was reduced to a stereotypical bumbling nerd, complete with stereotypical dorky glasses, as if by gaining a science degree one automatically cedes all dress sense and social skills. Being possessed of a science degree myself, this is guaranteed to drive me nuts. (Okay, I might not be much in the social skills department, but I do not stumble over my words when I speak and I am always well-dressed.)

Really, folks - if you don’t like the way it’s written, don’t bother adapting it!

14 March 2009

Book Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge #3

Slammerkin Leading a drab, miserable life in two rooms of a London cellar, slighted in favour of her half-brother, Mary Saunders dreams of colour and fine clothes. Offered a choice between going into service or being apprenticed to a dressmaker in her mother’s home town, she refuses both, wishing instead to make her own way and be beholden to no one. This decision leads her into prostitution at the age of fourteen, walking the streets with her new friend Doll and decking herself out in the brightest colours she can find. When a bad cough and a harsh winter conspire to lead Mary to the Magdalen Hospital she learns, to her surprise, that needlework is something for which she has both a talent and a love. But that streak of independence and ambition brings her back to the Rookery - from which she is very soon on the run, with a debt and a ruthless killer behind her.

Having nowhere else to go, she buys a plain dress and takes a coach to Monmouth. There she plans to pose as an orphan and throw herself on the mercy of her mother’s old friend, taking up the apprenticeship she had once refused. She plans to stay only until it is safe to return to London, and to loathe the town that is so much smaller than she had imagined. But just like in the Magdalen, Mary finds herself settling into the ordinary life she never wanted. Under Jane Jones’s tutelage she learns to embroider, to appreciate good cloth and good tailoring, to see the shabbiness of the gowns she had once worn and thought so fine. The Joneses and their servants Daffy and Abi come to feel like family, and Monmouth to feel like home. The nursemaid Mrs Ash, however, takes against Mary from the start and is determined to find proof of her wickedness; and a piece of Mary’s past is closer than she thinks. Coupled with the rebellious spirit she just cannot quell, these things can only lead to disaster.

I’m a sucker for all things eighteenth century, so I loved this from the start. The people and places are still vivid in my mind, along with the small wonders of life among the London poor. Mary’s character is almost directly opposed to my own - in her position, I’d have jumped at the chance to learn dressmaking in Monmouth, and I’d have known my place once I got there - but I did feel sympathy for her, even if I didn’t always like her or understand her adherence to her impossible dreams. That sympathy began seriously to waver in the final third of the book, as she once again sabotaged her chance to stay in a place that, at heart, she didn’t want to leave. Either she was essentially a decent person, in which case she was a fool; or she was irredeemably flawed by vanity and ambition and thus unlikeable. The final chapter, and the fact that many of her snide thoughts were accurate (mutton dressed as lamb isn’t a good look in any era) saved her and the novel from any great fall in my opinion. It also helped that the Monmouth section of the book was told from multiple viewpoints, so that I wasn’t constantly in Mary’s head.

There’s a real murder case at the heart of it, one with no information remaining about preceding events. With little more than the bare facts of the crime to work from, it’s remarkable how convincing a story has been woven to lead up to it. People and events all inadvertently conspire to ensure that no other ending is possible. And the clothes...! The aspect of Mary I could most relate to was her hankering after gorgeous garments and brilliant colours (Aside: Mary first prostitutes herself for a red ribbon; the English hardcover edition, which I own, has a built-in bookmark of red ribbon. Isn’t that a lovely touch?). The clothes and fabrics are mouth-watering: slammerkin, sack, robe à la française; satin, velvet, paduasoy, taffeta, tabby, gauze ... Today’s synthetics seem hopelessly bland in comparison; and if far more practical, the garments they form feel sadly lacking in elegance.

Rating: B+

Book Review: Raising the Dead by Andy Dougan

Raising the Dead Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in 1818. The same year saw a real attempt to bring an inanimate body to life. The corpse was that of the murderer Matthew Clydesdale, fresh from the gallows, who was taken to the Glasgow University School of Anatomy to be dissected - and, first, experimentally zapped with electricity. The man with the galvanic battery, Dr Andrew Ure, thought that it you could only apply a sufficient shock to the right nerve, it would be possible to restart a stopped heart. His experiment on Clydesdale failed (and Ure seems not to have given much thought to the legal consequences of success); but was part of a long history of scientific tinkering with the applications of electricity to the human body. From the Greeks and Romans and their electric eels to the men who, like Victor Frankenstein, thought that electricity was the source of life, Raising the Dead provides an illuminating introduction to the history of galvanism.

The subtitle The men who created Frankenstein is not entirely accurate. The Clydesdale experiment, around which the book is centred, took place months after publication of the novel - which never specifically said that electricity was used to animate the monster (though it certainly was implied). It was another, German scientist, Karl August Weinhold, whose stomach-turning animal experiments convinced him that electricity created life, who most likely inspired Mary Shelley’s nightmare and gave rise to the famous horror story.

At just 201 pages of well-spaced type, this really is just the tip of the galvanic iceberg. It reminds me of one of those rivers that make great loops to either side before returning to the main course - while always coming back to that one day at Glasgow University, it takes detours through the topics of university politics, body-snatching, historical theories as to the source of life and prior studies of veins and nerves, the rivalry between Volta and Galvani, the writing of Frankenstein, and later scientific advances. As a brief overview it’s informative, entertaining, at at times amusing (though I really could have done without knowing what Weinhold’s experiments involved). The relation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s youthful antics includes a memorable image of a tutor being blasted away from a doorknob by an electrical discharge; and more eccentric still is the twentieth-century mad scientist who “built his own heart-lung machine out of assorted components including a vacuum-cleaner motor, radiator tubing, an iron wheel and 60,000 shoelace eyes.” But I found the most interesting fact to be that Andrew Ure devised a plan for what would in effect have been an early defibrillator - and never got around to building it.

Rating: B

13 March 2009

Weekly Geeks: A Quote a Day #7

One final piece of Jane:

The parties stood thus:

The two mothers, though each really convinced that her own son was the tallest, politely decided in favour of the other.

The two grandmothers, with no less partiality, but more sincerity, were equally earnest in support of their own descendant.

Lucy, who was hardly less anxious to please one parent than the other, thought the boys were both remarkably tall for their age, and could not conceive that there could be the smallest difference between them; and Miss Steele, with yet greater address, gave it, as fast as she could, in favour of each.

Elinor, having once delivered her opinion on William’s side, by which she offended Mrs Ferrars, and Fanny still more, did not see the necessity for enforcing it by any farther assertion; and Marianne, when called on for hers, offended them all by declaring that she had no opinion to give, as she had never thought about it.
- Sense and Sensibility, p. 228-9

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12 March 2009

Weekly Geeks: A Quote a Day #6

It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue to either body or mind; - but when a beginning is made - when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt - it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more.
- Emma, p. 186

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Booking Through Thursday: Movie Potential

What book do you think should be made into a movie? And do you have any suggestions for the producers?

Or, What book do you think should NEVER be made into a movie?

I love this question - I’m one of those people who has a mental film reel running in their head as they read!

I recently re-read Far From the Madding Crowd and thought about how much I’d love to see an adaptation. I’m sure it’s been done before, but the BBC could do it again, couldn’t they? Or some other classics, like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Woman in White, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Three Men in a Boat, etc, etc, etc. Lindsay Davis’s Falco series and Iain Pears’s Jonathan Argyll series would make entertaining films. Or A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss. Or the half-dozen other titles that will occur to me ten minutes after I switch the computer off.

As for books to be barred from the screen ... I do think truly enormous books - like Sharon Penman’s re-creations of history - are best left alone, because of the huge amount that would have to be cut or compressed to squeeze them into two or three hours. The rumour of a forthcoming adaptation of Cross Stitch (Outlander to my American readers) has me worried for just this reason. And mystery novels - Agatha Christie, say - should only ever be adapted if the writers don’t alter the little things like, oh, the identity of the killer, the motive, the identity of the victims, the nature of the characters ... it’s going to be a while before I can read Ordeal by Innocence or The Sittaford Mystery without thinking of the on-screen butchery.

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher It was a classic murder mystery setting: a country house, its gates locked for the night, a limited pool of suspects within. Only this was real. On 30 June 1860 someone took three-year-old Saville Kent from his bed, murdered hm, and dumped the body down the garden privy. One of nine people must have done it - the parents, the four elder half-siblings, the nurse, the cook, the housemaid - and the newspapers were filled with theories, but nobody had any proof. When the local police failed to make headway London agreed to send a detective. Jonathan Whicher was one of Scotland Yard’s brightest employees, but Road Hill House was not one of the back streets of the capital. The well-to-do not just of Road but the entire country were scandalised by the way that Whicher subjected the family to the same interrogations and searches as the servants, and everyone was appalled by the thought of the sanctity of the home being invaded and inspected. Called in too late and pushed into making an arrest too soon, Whicher failed to come up with the proof to secure a conviction, and set off the beginning of the end of his career. Not for many years would evidence come to light suggesting that the suspicions of Mr Whicher had been correct.

History, mystery, and numerous references to detective fiction - what’s not to love? When I read a review of this book in the Courier-Mail last year I knew I’d enjoy it, and I did. It endeared itself to me at the start by providing a family tree and neatly-organised list of the dramatis personae and carried on from there. As well as the events at Road Hill House and the subsequent investigation, it details the public response, the early history of the police force and Scotland Yard, and the way in which the case was reflected in works of fiction. After the Kent case numerous novels appeared containing similarities to real or conjectured facts - and occasionally flat-footed, intrusive detectives. The book is peppered with quotes from, among others, Bleak House and The Moonstone, which I must soon read and re-read, respectively.

Although Sherlock Holmes wasn’t much cited he did spring to mind - the policing ideal of the day was an officer as much robot as human, who would notice everything without ever letting bias, false assumptions, or any other error get in his way. And in the days before so much as fingerprinting, memory and observation formed a sizeable part of the detective’s arsenal. Road Hill House contained so little concrete evidence that even the precise cause of death was uncertain; the titular suspicions were formed on the basis of personality and prior events - to get at which, of course, the past of the entire family had to be dug up and turned over in a manner now commonplace. From some of the journalism and correspondence quoted, it seems clear that it wasn’t the invasion of privacy that so incensed people, so much as the invasion of middle-class privacy by one whose originated among the great unwashed. (Oh, the horror! And who cares about the servants, right?) If it hadn’t been a matter involving life and death, it might have been amusing.

The history concludes with enough information about the later lives of those mostly concerned to make for a satisfying ending without dragging on too long. And there’s an Australian connection - a large number of them emigrated. As a southerner living in Queensland (a significant portion of whose population believes the place to be the centre of the known universe) I greatly enjoyed reading the descriptions of Melbourne and Brisbane. The latter was referred to by its contemporary epithet “the Paris of the Antipodes” while the latter was described as “a sprawling, makeshift town which served as the capital of the north-eastern state of Queensland.” Not was - merely served as. Love it! And as for Whicher’s conclusions - in one, at least, he was proved correct beyond doubt; for the rest ... I’m inclined to think he was correct.

Rating: A

Book Review: Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

Cider With Rosie This memoir recalls 1920s life in an obscure English village, in a house dominated by sisters. There were brothers present, certainly; but they faded somewhat in the face of the chaotic whirl set up by Marjorie, Dorothy, and Phyllis. Outside the house there was school (in two rooms), eccentric villagers and their wayward animals, and the area’s natural wonders (or in the case of the rains which flooded the kitchen, natural torments). Later, of course, there were girls - including Rosie with her jug of pilfered cider. And presiding over it all was the Lee family’s erratic, scatterbrained mother.

I’d long known of this book without having the foggiest notion what it was about - in fact, until I actually had a copy in my hands I didn’t even know it was non-fiction. It’s a short but sweet read and paints an appealling picture of life in what really sounds to have been a cold, damp backwater. (But then, it’s England, so “cold” and “damp” probably go without saying.) There was a darker side to the place too - crimes committed, crimes planned, crimes dealt with by the village and never referred to again. And all of it is described with a magnificent flair for words:

The grass was June high and had come up with a rush, a massed entanglement of species, crested with flowers and spears of wild wheat, and coiled with clambering vetches, the whole of it humming with blundering bees and flickering with scarlet butterflies.
Still, I couldn’t shake the thought that had I known the author as a child, I’d have thought him an obnoxious brat.

Rating: B

11 March 2009

Weekly Geeks: A Quote a Day #5

He stepped to the door, rejoicing at that moment in having the means of immediate communication, and opening it, found himself on the stage of a theatre, and opposed to a ranting young man, who appeared likely to knock him down backwards. At the very moment of Yates perceiving Sir Thomas, and giving perhaps the very best start he had ever given in the whole course of his rehearsals, Tom Bertram entered at the other end of the room; and never had he found greater difficulty in keeping his countenance. His father’s looks of solemnity and amazement on this his first appearance on any stage, and the gradual metamorphosis of the impassioned Baron Wildenheim into the well-bred and easy Mr Yates, making his bow and apology to Sir Thomas Bertram, was such an exhibition, such a piece of true acting as he would not have lost upon any account. It would be the last - in all probability the last scene on that stage; but he was sure there could not be a finer.
- Mansfield Park, p. 169

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10 March 2009

Book Review: The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

The Lace Reader It takes the disappearance of her Great-Aunt Eva to get Towner Whitney back home to Salem. She’s avoided the place for fifteen years, ever since her twin sister Lyndley’s death and her own committal to a mental hospital. Now she returns to a house that feels like Eva is still in it - only Eva is dead, floating in the harbour well away from the area where she used to swim, and Towner stands to inherit almost everything if she will stick around to see to the care of her blind Aunt Emma.

As much as Towner wants to run back to California, she stays, confronting her eccentric mother May, who rarely leaves the island where she hides women fleeing abusive men, such memories as she possesses of the time before Lyndley died, and the images that like all the Whitney women she can see in pieces of lace. Two other reasons to remain are detective John Rafferty and his latest case, the desperate search for a missing teenager. Angela Rickey is a runaway who joined the cult run by Cal Boynton, Towner’s uncle whose abuse cost Emma her sight, and who might just have killed Eva. When Towner tries to help Angela it puts both of them in danger, for Cal isn’t fond of his niece and if there’s one thing his followers love it’s a good witch hunt.

How do you read a book whose main character tells you on the first page that she’s a liar who cannot be trusted? I tried maintaining a degree of scepticism but soon gave that up as I was drawn too far into the story to do anything other than just keep turning the pages. Honest or not, Towner is an engaging character and the mystery is there from the start, and it gets progressively more complex - it contains far more twists than can be mentioned without spoilers. There are enough other characters around her to give the truth to much of what she says and the women are fantastic. It’s a shame Eva didn’t have a larger part in the novel as she sounds like a character I’d love to spend time with (and how wonderful would it be to step into the book and into her tea room, to get a lace reading and see the coterie of women who wear purple coats and red hats as a sign of their refusal to age quietly?) Ann Chase, the town’s leading witch, scares off Cal’s crazies by “cursing” them - i.e. quoting a fragment of Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin. May was never much of a mother but she’s dedicated to improving the lives of the women who come to her for help, training and employing them as lacemakers and standing up to the men who come looking for them - husbands and police alike, with a shotgun if necessary.

Best of all, it turned out to be one of my favourite sorts of books - one where the heroine saves the day and herself without assistance from a man. In this case, saved Angela and Angela’s unborn child, too. It was only Towner’s intelligence and nerve which got them to safety. And I loved the excerpts from Eva Lace Reader’s Guide which prefaced each chapter. It really seems as if, were you to thread them together in order, you could have a go at lace reading yourself. Not only is the process described, but a few pieces of attendant folklore as well.

However, the ending threw up a few twists too many for my liking. Every good protagonist needs obstacles to overcome, but I felt those heaped on Towner were excessive, and wondered about the possible future of someone so damaged. And the touch of the paranormal broadened to the point of stretching my credibility. Overall, it’s a book I’m glad I read. (And now I’d love to try my hand at making lace!)

Rating: B

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

“Naw, my dear,” said the driver. “Wales is where England runs out.”

From Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue, p. 137.

Weekly Geeks: A Quote a Day #4

Everybody has their taste in noises as well as in other matters; and sounds are quite innoxious or most distressing, by their sort rather than their quantity. When Lady Russell, not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon, and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men, and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint. No, these were noises which belonged to winter pleasures; her spirits rose under their influence; and like Mrs Musgrove, she was feeling, though not saying, that after being long in the country, nothing could be so good for her as little quiet cheerfulness.

Anne did not share these feelings. She persisted in a very determined, though very silent disinclination for Bath; caught the first dim view of the extensive buildings, smoking in rain, without any wish of seeing them better; felt their progress through the streets to be, however disagreeable, yet too rapid; for who would be glad to see her when she arrived? And looked back with fond regret to the bustles of Uppercross and the seclusion of Kellynch.
- Persuasion, pp. 132-3

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09 March 2009

Weekly Geeks: A Quote a Day #3

Jane in defence of the novel:

Alas! If the heroine of one novel may not be patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection or regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reveiwers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers; and while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogised by a thousand pens, there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. ‘I am no novel reader; I seldom look into novels; do not imagine that I often read novels; it is really very well for a novel.’ Such is the common cant. ‘And what are you reading, Miss –––––?’ ‘Oh! it is only a novel!’ replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of it varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.
- Northanger Abbey, pp. 24-25.

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08 March 2009

Weekly Geeks: A Quote a Day #2

Since it was a newspaper review of the new annotated Pride and Prejudice which suggested the theme, and since I’ve just watched the first part of Lost in Austen, tonight’s quote is from ... guess where?

“ ... However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty they were.”

“And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”

“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.

“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Every thing nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”
- Pride and Prejudice, pp. 39-40.

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Book Review: No More Dying Then by Ruth Rendell

No More Dying Then When John Lawrence vanishes from a park near his house, it looks to be a stand-alone case. Then his mother begins receiving anonymous letters from someone claiming to have abducted not only John, but Stella Rivers as well. Despite the obvious differences - a five-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl, the son of a loving single mother and a girl largely ignored by a mother and stepfather absorbed in each other - the cases are now united. This means double the pressure for Chief Inspector Wexford, who has so far failed to find Stella and doesn’t want to fail again.

His chances look grim when doubts are cast on the letter-writer’s claims, and when a suggestion emerges that Stella’s stepfather Ivan Swann, usually indolence personified, might have roused himself sufficiently to get rid of her. To make matters worse, Inspector Burden’s thoughts are miles away from the job - and firmly centred on Gemma Lawrence.

The thing I liked best about this book was the ending. The cases were resolved in a way (or in ways - I’m not about to give away whether they were connected or not!) unlike the usual cut and dried and off to jail. And entirely beyond my own deductive abilities; I think I’d do better simply to give up all hope of solving crime novels for myself. (But where would be the fun in that?) Much to my relief, I liked Wexford much better than I did in The Best Man to Die - he was far less cantankerous here. And I enjoyed the eccentrics among the characters - Stella’s silly besotted mother and bone-idle stepfather; the doctor who doodles body parts on whatever comes to hand; the petty crook turned informant who calls himself Mr Casaubon and thinks George Eliot was that bullion thief with whom he was once acquainted. What I didn’t like was Inspector Burden; I wished Wexford would borrow a move from NCIS and give him a smack on the head to knock him out of his idiocy. It was almost painful to read about an intelligent man being such a self-deluding fool. Sure, she’s fun for now, but she is So. Not. Your. Type. Wake up!

This was hard to assign a grade to - everything on the Stella Rivers side of the plot was good, everything on the John Lawrence side tended to annoy. Which side outweighed the other? In the end I decided that avoiding frustration trumped entertainment.

Rating: C+

Book Review: Pompeii by Robert Harris

Historical Fiction Challenge #2

Pompeii Marcus Attilius Primus is having a rough start to his new job as aquarius of the Aqua Augusta, and it doesn’t help that his arrival in Misenum coincides with strange omens. His predecessor Exomnius has vanished into thin air. Attempts to dig a new spring fail when the water is repeatedly sucked back into the earth. The weather is odd, with air and sea alike deathly still while tremors appear on the surface of a glass of wine. His overseer, Corax, makes no secret of his resentment at having to take orders from a pretty boy from Rome. Then, in the space of a few hours, the Augusta’s water supply takes on a stench of sulphur and dries up. In a drought, in the middle of a scorching summer, at the height of the tourist season, a quarter of a million people around the Bay of Neapolis are left without fresh water.

Knowing that the fault must lie along a particular five-mile stretch of the aqueduct, Attilius seeks the help of the admiral Pliny, asking for a ship to take his crew across the bay. By a stroke of ill luck, they arrive in Pompeii on a public holiday - and the aediles who rule the town see no point in helping fix a problem that doesn’t affect them, especially without a cast-iron guarantee that they won’t have to foot the bill. Desperate to meet Pliny’s two-day deadline, Attilius has no choice but to accept the assistance of Ampliatus, a former slave turned shady property tycoon who can see the PR value in restoring the water supply. Ampliatus is already his enemy, and he has no use for men he can’t corrupt - men like Attilius, who is certain that his new benefactor has something to do with Exomnius’s disappearance. But before he can solve that mystery, or give more thought to the subject of Ampliatus’s beautiful daughter Corelia, he must find and repair the break in the Augusta’s main line, somewhere at the foot of Mt Vesuvius. What he doesn’t realise is just how much of a threat Ampliatus considers him to be - or how close Vesuvius is to exploding.

After finishing Pompeii I went to my TBR box in search of a nice relaxing murder mystery. Seriously, reading this was stressful. A good man standing alone against obstruction, corruption, and a potentially career-ending disaster, engaged in a race against time, and with the whole scenario centred around one of the most terrifying events Mother Nature has ever dished up, is a recipe for an edge-of-your-seat read. Attilius was a great hero - honest, hardworking, a good leader even when the men under him didn’t make it easy, proud to be continuing the family tradition of working on the aqueducts and with a real love for the science behind his profession. And vertically challenged! I knew just how he felt when, despite being a poor rider, he was pleased to get on horseback because of the extra height it gave. Long before he began to suspect that something catastrophic was about to occur, I desperately hoped that he’d survive. Corelia, too. She occasionally acted first and thought things through later, which is usually not my favourite trait in heroines, but I happily forgave her because she did so in the interests of saving other people’s lives. And it was good to see that life with Ampliatus as a father hadn’t crushed her spirit or quelled her integrity.

Theres a fine variety of antagonists. Corax loathes Attilius on principle, being younger and an outsider. Ampliatus is thoroughly bent, with the understandable acquisitiveness of someone who once had nothing and no scruples as to how he fills his coffers and pays for the ostentatious lifestyle he thinks he ought to maintain. The town’s aediles aren’t villains per se, but a shining example of petty bureaucracy and its attendant red tape. But the star of the show, whom not even Ampliatus can outdo, is nature’s fury. From the first horrible realisation of what’s about to happen to the final blast that swamped the town of Pompeii, the eruption appears in all its destructive glory, and it’s easy to feel the fear of those caught up in it (and I felt rather sorry for Pliny’s secretary, dragged out to sea in a hail of pumice to take down his master’s observations. Good thing for science, though). There’s even volcano-themed quotes from scientific texts at the beginnings of chapters to give a picture of what was going on beneath the earth.

Much to my irritation, one picture not provided was a map. Numerous locations mentioned, but no map. Knowing only that Pompeii was near the water and Vesuvius was near Pompeii, I drew my own map from images online and left it tucked in the front of the book for next time. And the ending was of a sort not my favourite, but it worked well here.

Rating: A-

Weekly Geeks: A Quote a Day #1

Weekly Geeks

One of my favorite Weekly Geeks last year was: A Quote a Day. This will have you pulling books off your shelves and Googling for your favorites. It also means a post a day for the next week - or as many as you can do. Quoth Dewey:

You may want to come up with a theme, such as favorite passages from books, author quotes, political quotes, quotes about books or reading, humorous quotes, whatever. Or you may not want a theme at all; maybe you just want to gather up seven assorted quotes that appeal to you. You may want to start each of your posts of the week with a quote, or you may want to give quotes posts of their own in addition to your regular posts. It’s all up to you!

Signing Mr Linky this week means you’re committing to posting a quote each day for a full week, starting on the day you sign up. You can postdate your quote posts so they appear automatically if you can’t get to your blog each day.

The new annotated Pride and Prejudice was reviewed in today’s paper - I’m suffering from a bit of booklust at the moment! - so naturally the theme for the week’s quotes has got to be Jane. I’ll start off with one from a letter of 1811, and follow with one from each of her six best-known novels.

I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.


07 March 2009

Book Review: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Victorian Challenge #2

Far From the Madding Crowd When Bathsheba Everdene inherits her uncle’s farm, she decides to fire the untrustworthy bailiff and run the place herself. The other farmers in the district soon become accustomed to seeing her buying and selling alongside them, but a woman with a face and presence like Bathsheba’s can’t avoid trouble for long. A thoughtless prank, born of recklessness and vanity, earns her the notice of her neighbour Farmer Boldwood, whose interest swiftly turns into obsession. Guilt and a sense of duty compel her to accept his courtship, and leave her torn when she meets and falls for the dashing Sergeant Troy, who has reasons for pursuing her that have nothing to do with love. When circumstances bring about a renewal of Boldwood’s addresses the scene is set for a tragedy.

Through her vagaries of fortune Bathsheba has one true friend on whom to rely. Gabriel Oak was once, in a small way, a farmer himself, before ill luck reduced him to the position of shepherd on Bathsheba’s property. Dazzled by her at first sight, he hasn’t let her refusal of his clumsy proposal deflect him from his course of quiet devotion. Patience is a virtue, and his might just be rewarded not only with one of the local farms, but with Bathsheba herself.

It’s been six years since I first read this, and in that time I somehow managed to forget almost everything about it. How could I? I love this book. Don’t let the fact that it’s Hardy put you off. There is an element of tragedy, but it by no means dominates the book, which is for the most part a rural idyll and a thoroughly charming one at that. Weatherbury is a place where the pace and habits of urban life have not intruded, and the plot unfolds in a suitably leisurely manner. (In fact, Henry James criticised it for being slow and overpadded with words, which is a bit rich coming from him - he was far more long-winded than Hardy ever was.) It covers a span of some half a dozen years, but it feels like less; the fictional time slides by just as its real counterpart is prone to do. The impression is reinforced by the fact that the chronology is off - Bathsheba doesn’t age as she should.

Bathsheba Everdene has one of the best entrances in literature - perched atop her worldly goods on the back of a wagon, using the driver’s temporary absence as an opportunity to admire her reflection in a looking-glass. This unconventional spirit carries her through her establishment of herself as an independent woman conducting her own business; but it also brings her suitors who aren’t good for her, and only after time and tribulation quieten her does she land the one who is, which is perhaps a further tragedy. Bathsheba at the end of the book might be older and wiser, but she is also more subdued and less independent. (And in further answer to a recent Weekly Geeks - while her experience doesn’t completely match that of her biblical counterpart, the name is very apt.) She’s a memorable character and surely like nothing the denizens of Weatherbury had ever seen before - it’s no wonder she had her admirers so spellbound.

You can’t really blame her for the events regarding Boldwood. She acted without thinking, but the results were beyond what anyone could have foreseen. The life of ease and worship he offered her would never have suited her active temperament, but I still felt so very sorry for him; and though his obsession with Bathsheba paved the way for her own contentment I wished he could get over her and find someone else with whom he could be happy. Nor can you condemn her as an idiot for being swept off her feet by Troy, a dashing cad á là Wickham whose charm is embellished by a red coat and a handsome face. Unlike Wickham, however, Troy does have a heart - it just happens to be disposed elsewhere. And really, without these disasters would Gabriel ever have stood a chance?

He’s the least prepossessing of her suitors, with neither face nor fortune but only his character to recommend him. And it’s that character that makes this such a lovely book to read. He loves her in spite of her faults, looks after her as best he can, makes her see sense when possible, and lets her make her own mistakes when he must. Romantic devotion and pragmatic logic seems an odd combination of traits, but they suit Gabriel perfectly.

All the other villagers who feature are appealing - in fact Troy is the only person it’s hard to like. From the ancient and toothless maltster, to the self-effacing young man with a shrewish wife who’s forever known merely as ‘Susan Tall’s husband,’ to the boy named Cain because his mother got her Bible characters muddled up, they’ll leave you with a smile and the same warm feeling that induced me to sign up for the Classics Challenge after finishing.

Rating: A

Personal Bible Reading Challenge: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus

Someone please tell me that Leviticus (and the later chapters of Exodus) is as boring as it gets. An abridged version would feel like cheating, but I’m still itching to clear out all those redundancies and thinking wistfully of how much less tedious a trimmed-down edition would be. Well, I am calling it a challenge . . . The genealogical listings of Genesis weren’t so bad - all those exotic names have a lovely rhythm to them, as does after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations, a repetition I didn’t at all mind. But the finicky, long-winded details of the construction of the tabernacle and contents drove me nuts. For someone who had earlier expressed a preference for altars of earth or unhewn stone, the Lord demanded an extravagant array of precious metals and fine cloth (the former stolen from the Egyptians on the eve of the exodus, perhaps?). And all that ram- and bullock-butchering! In a Middle Eastern summer, that tabernacle must’ve stunk.

Aside from the bouts of eye-glazing dullness, the most challenging thing has been trying to get the scientific part of my brain to shut up. I read the opening verses of Genesis, it’s saying, No way!. I arrive at the Red Sea, and it begins chuckling at the notion of a wind that’s strong enough to move oceans yet doesn’t blow anyone away, and wonders if it’s possible for nature to produce a bi-directional tsunami (and then thinks of the parting of the tomato soup in Bruce Almighty). Moses heads up Mount Sinai, and it starts scouring my memory for any knowledge of ancient volcanoes in the Middle East. Leviticus prescribes the same treatment for leprosy and rising damp, and it gapes at the absurdity. I make a constant effort to treat this as I would any other mythology, but when the writing is difficult to enjoy, and the religion in question is still alive and kicking, it’s hard to just go with the story. The knowledge is ever present that these are not dead myths from a world long gone, that countless people still worship this deity who regarded as righteous people willing to hand over unconsenting women under their authority for the use of men (Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Lot - I found it absolutely sickening). I promised to keep an open mind, but I cannot forget the position I’m coming from - that of a lifelong atheist who holds several strong values to which the Bible and/or some of its adherents are staunchly opposed. All I can do is try not to let my irritation and distaste obscure the good that is in here.

And there is some good. If you could take the rules of Leviticus and weed out the irrelevant, the intolerant, and the misogynistic, you’d be left with a set of sound common sense which, if applied by everyone, would make life much more pleasant. Along with their less appealing traits, there are characters who display admirable quantities of patience, ingenuity, leadership, and courage. And while I may have zero faith myself, it’s easy to see how people fell under the sway of these stories and the god of which they tell. The lure of a place among the chosen and better things ahead for those who believe and obey, the threat of ostracism and exile, defeat and death, for those who don’t - in a world of poverty and survival in numbers, what other choice would you make? Even if your new god demands unquestioning faith from his followers, yet does not himself put much faith in them, not trusting them not to abandon him if exposed to the gods of any other people. (It strikes me that God has a serious god complex.)

By the time I was halfway through Exodus there was an unexpected side effect - I have become very curious about how these books came to be written, and when and by whom, and how they were put together in this way. What earlier legends were there which might have formed the origin of these new myths? What evidence is there for the historical veracity (or lack thereof) of the people and events depicted? And sardius, ligure, stacte, onycha, galbanum, shittim wood - what are these things whose names have died out of the language? There’s a whole new world of things to be learned, and I can’t wait to get started.

What I’ve learned so far: the origin of the terms ‘Jacob’s ladder’ and ‘burning bush’; the number and nature of the plagues of Egypt; what the ark of the covenant was; what Passover commemorates.

Blog Improvement Project: Task 5 (and 4.1)

Blog Improvement Project

When I found out that March would be social media month with the B.I.P., I began looking forward to six weeks off. Certainly a holiday was needed as the amount of time spent on Task 4 meant putting reviewing and blog reading on hold. But then Task 4 took longer than two weeks, so I decided to participate this week in order to post an update on the last task.

It’s almost done! All reviews have been added to the index pages, all formatting has been standardised and double-checked. And best of all ... my About Me page is up. I was a JavaScript tyro with no clue as to whether what I had in mind could even work, but it did and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the results. Admittedly I took the script from an answer to someone else’s question in a coding forum, but the idea of combining it with an image map was all my own, as was the customisation involved. (I’m feeling very proud of myself just now!) The only thing left is to add links to the cross-references made in various reviews.

On to the social media. For me, Blogger is it - it would take too much time and use up too much of my monthly download limit to keep up with a Facebook or MySpace or Twitter account as well as this, and I wouldn’t use any of those sites anyway. I take great satisfaction in not following fashions or running with herds, and their enormous popularity is, to me, an excellent reason not to join. (Yes, I joined the blogging bandwagon - because I wanted to slow my rate of reading so as to give more thought to what I read rather than just charging through the chapters. Reviewing books online was the first idea for doing so that occurred to me.) So I’ve taken inspiration from the comments again and done some investigating of the social networking potential of LibraryThing.

I’ve been on LibraryThing for over a year, having bought a lifetime membership as a post-graduation present to myself. My intention being to create a catalogue in case of natural disaster (a storm taking the roof off, for instance) I hadn’t considered this aspect of it before. The first thing I did was add my URL to my profile - you never know, someone might read it. I’ve begun watching a few of the discussion groups in case I ever feel like posting something. And I’ve made a firm mental note to drop by occasionally to post excerpts from reviews here with a link to the full version.

And now I really must get my latest acquisitions added to my catalogue!

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