31 January 2007

Book Review: Liza by Ivan S. Turgenev

Winter Classics Reading Challenge #3

Liza In spite of the title, Elizaveta Mikhailovna is not the main character in this book, but rather the hub around which the other characters revolve. The role of protagonist appears to be filled by her would-be suitor Fedor Ivanovich Lavretsky (at least his is the only family history related through four generations of detail). But to get to Liza, he must negotiate his way past his rival Panshine, her mother, her great-aunt, and a ghost from his past who turns out not to be so ghostly after all. Naturally events all end up in a hopeless tangle, and it is Liza’s quiet determination that provides the answer, when she takes the only action that she can.

At first I was puzzled by the fact that Liza remained a peripheral character, until I realised that the character most central to the plot didn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist. Even then I was still frustrated by a lack of insight into her personality and her deep religiosity. But once Turgenev got around to describing her upbringing, she and her beliefs made perfect sense and the ending became inevitable. And while certainly not a happy one, it did relieve me of my apprehension that it would turn into a morality tale, with Lavretsky’s long-lost faith restored, etc, etc. After reading Fathers and Sons I should have known that things wouldn’t turn out so black and white.

I think my favourite thing about Liza is that I found what I had been looking for: a Russian novel mercifully lacking in philosophy and politics. There was a token gesture in the form of a brief debate between Lavretsky and Panshine, but nothing too mentally taxing. The whole was a thoughtful tale about characters that may not have been hugely likeable, but were thoroughly human.

Rating: B

30 January 2007

Book Review: The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

The City of Falling Angels After its defeat by Napoleon, Venice began to fall into disrepair. So much so that in the 1970s, a sign had to be posted outside one church warning passers-by to ‘Beware of falling angels’: the facade was crumbling so badly that chunks of cherubim were dropping onto the sidewalk. Destruction of a different kind occurred on 29 January 1996, when a fire gutted the centuries-old Fenice Opera House. John Berendt chanced to arrive three days later, keen to see the city without the hordes of tourists. Observing the aftermath of the fire made a good excuse to stick around, which he did, chronicling the rebuilding, the hunt for answers (and convictions), and the in-fighting in the various charities dedicated to preserving Venice. Since Venetian bureaucracy moves at snail’s pace, he had plenty of time to get to know the locals. The result is a travelogue that’s not really about Venice but the Venetians, past, present and honorary.

Berendt must have a gift for drawing out the eccentrics of every city he visits. First Savannah (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and now Venice. People like Ralph Curtis, descendant of American expats, who likes to listen to tape recordings of Apollo missions and dreams of getting the world’s governments to hand over all copies of their nuclear firing codes to be blasted off to Mars. Or Massimo Donadon, the Rat Man of Treviso, who made his fortune with gourmet rat bait - a story he cheerfully recounts to his tablemates during a gala dinner.

But in with the comedy there is also tragedy. From dodgy dealings over the estate of Ezra Pound’s mistress Olga Rudge (if half the stories are true, Jane Rylands deserves a good dunking in the lagoon) and a battle royal between the two sons of a master glassblower, to the heartbreak of the families whose sons were investigated and eventually indicted over the Fenice fire. This is a book that covers all the bases, from the rich and prominent to the (not-so-)ordinary citizen (but mostly the former). There’s also enough history and architecture to have me longing to be hopping on a plane ... and into a boat being rowed by a gorgeous gondolier :-).

Rating: A

27 January 2007

Book Review: Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

New Year’s Reading Resolution #1

Emotionally Weird It’s 1972, and Effie Andrews and her mother Nora are holidaying together in the tumbledown family seat on a miserable island off the Scottish coast. To pass the time, they agree to tell stories. Effie spins tales of her life at university: unwritten essays, feuding professors, a drug-addled boyfriend who takes life at snail’s pace. But there are stranger things afoot - a missing yellow dog, a series of deaths, and her constant sense of being followed. Nora is more reluctant, and it is with difficulty that Effie can prise anything out of her, much less what she really wants to hear (the identity of her father). When she finally does tell her tale, the truth is more extraordinary than even Effie’s creative-writing-major brain could invent.

Effie’s stories are comical and feature a huge cast of characters (off the top of my head I can think of at least thirty); fortunately all are distinctive and there’s no trouble remembering who’s who. At first she seems to be relating the (very well remembered) truth, but later in the book weird things begin happening (like stray pages of her tutor’s densely literary novel translating themselves into reality), and she starts altering the course of events to suit Nora’s wishes. Then just when you start suspecting she’s making it all up, you find that Effie’s tales have at least some grounding in real life, though you can never be sure how much. It’s an interesting variation on the ‘unreliable narrator’ method of storytelling.

Nora complains that Effie’s story lacks plot, and she’s right; the chronicle of a rather aimless life is bound to be aimless itself. But the jumble of eccentric characters and events - from somnolent classmates and dog-napping to absent-minded professors and stakeouts - that fills her days makes it addictive; and Nora’s tale and the winding-up in the last couple of chapters manage to provide it with an end. A few threads are left dangling; the fate of the elusive yellow dog isn’t revealed and Effie never does find out whether a couple of her professors were correct in their suppositions that someone was trying to kill them. But somehow that seems in keeping with the rambling nature of the book, and is a minor quibble with a funny and thoroughly entertaining work.

Rating: A-

25 January 2007

Book Review: Fathers and Sons by Ivan S. Turgenev

Winter Classics Reading Challenge #2

Fathers and Sons The titular characters are minor landowner Nikolai Petrovitch Kirsanov and country doctor Vasili Ivanitch Barazov, and their respective offspring Arkady and Evgenii. The latter two serve as the link between the two families, having become friends at the university. Through the course of the novel, the two friends travel around the mid-nineteenth-century Russian countryside, visiting each other’s family as well as various acquaintances. At first glance it might seem that very little happens, but this is deceptive; much of the plot’s action takes place within and between the characters, with little input from outside events. Obviously there are the two father-son relationships, with the inevitable clashes between the generations; as well as the other members of the Kirsanov household, Bazarov’s doomed relationship with Anna Sergievna, and Arkady’s luckier one with her sister Katia.

In spite of the title, the greatest changes occur between the two young friends. At the start of the novel, Arkady is very much in awe of the older man and aspires to imitate all of his Nihilist views, unaware how little such philosophy actually suits him. By book’s end he has effectively grown up - developed into his own person. Even Bazarov steps down from his pedestal before the end. Turgenev manages to make their growing apart seem inevitable and necessary rather than something to be regretted.

The title is actually somewhat inapt; the story spends far more time with the Kirsanovs than with the Bazarovs, perhaps because there are more of the former. Their household includes Nikolai’s mistress Thenichka and their son, and Arkady’s uncle Paul Petrovitch, who uses his coldness to conceal a broken heart of the kind that he will do anything to save his brother from experiencing. Although really a secondary character, he was my favourite.

All the characters were very well-drawn, which I think added to the intimate, almost insular feel of the novel. Its entire content is the shifting relationships between a smallish group of people and covers a restricted geographical space, and after finishing it I couldn’t help thinking of a miniature painting: Fine detail, delicate portraits, all contained in a limited area. Either that, or self-contained world within a snow dome. I’m not sure why this should be the case, as plenty of novels feature limited numbers of characters and settings and don’t produce this impression. And in this novel, those characters had pasts and futures, some in places beyond the range of the novel itself. Perhaps the snow-dome effect is due in part to the dashes of authorial intrusion, which sets the reader another step back from the characters. Instead of viewing them directly, I was seeing them through Turgenev.

The only thing really not to like about this book was the recurring discussions about political and philosophical views. Philosophy having fallen off the education department’s radar, and politics being something I’ve managed to avoid learning much about, this could get tedious, and a little confusing. I found myself wondering if it was possible to find a classic Russian novel the didn’t feel the need to drag in philosophy and politics. Other than these dull bits, Fathers and Sons was charming, albeit slow-moving.

Rating: B-

23 January 2007

The Bookfest in Brief

Books bought: 56

Amount spent: $57

Weight carried: 13kg. (14 if you include the junk in my shoulder bag.)

Biggest books bought: Cross Stitch (aka Outlander) by Diana Gabaldon (863 pages); The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum (695 pages); Sophie’s Choice by William Styron (684 pages).

Weirdest reason for buying a book: I picked up a copy of Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel to replace the one my mother is convinced was pinched by our resident ghost.

Timeliest find: The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden.

Oops!: A call went out over the PA system for a copy of She by ‘Rider H. Haggard’.

So near, and yet so far: Plenty of crossword dictionaries, but no books of killer Scrabble words. Also, dozens upon dozens of Ludlums, but only the first two of the Bourne trilogy.

Most oxymoronic book title spotted: The Science of Psychic Healing. Not surprisingly, on one of the Humour & Oddities tables.

Strangest book request: Someone was after a copy of The Secrets of Vinegar.

Shortest books bought: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (128 pages); Daisy Miller and Other Stories by Henry James (146 pages); Madame Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories by Sheridan le Fanu (174 pages).

Who would read...? The Running Shoe Book (a complete history); The Encyclopedia of Canaries.

Struck speechless by: The mystery fan who, four kids in tow, knelt down to retrieve some Agatha Christies from the pile under the table - right in front of me. Without so much as a by-your-leave beforehand or an apology afterward. Or, indeed, any acknowledgement that I was even there and waiting to go forwards.

Been on screen: The Last King of Scotland, My Brilliant Career, Enigma, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Sophie’s Choice, The Silence of the Lambs, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Missing in action: Truman Capote (I’ve now lost count of the number of years I’ve been wanting to lay hands on In Cold Blood). And, surprisingly, Anthony Trollope. Every year I’ve seen his books on the Literature tables, every year I’ve thought I really must get around to reading them, and every year I’ve passed over them in favour of something else. And now when I was absolutely determined to start reading his books, there wasn’t a single one in sight.

Relieved to see: That the cover art of the Georgette Heyers I bought did not (unlike a certain copy of The Reluctant Widow) feature the hairstyles and clothing of the 1970s.

Books for the next blackout: Madame Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories by Sheridan le Fanu; Dracula. Reading horror by the light of storm lanterns is wonderfully atmospheric. Might be waiting a while though; there haven’t been many storms here this storm season, much less power outages.

Most challenging moment: Heading into the High Quality section in search of North and South, and North and South ONLY. (Followed within the hour by Biggest Moment of Weakness.)

Can’t wait to re-read: Tracy Grant’s Daughter of the Game. I borrowed this Regency-set thriller from the library in 2005 and when I saw it at the Bookfest, I just had to have it (see Biggest Moment of Weakness, above).

Most ego-boosting book title spotted: The Natural Superiority of the Left-Handed.

Biggest disappointment: Being in the High Quality section with three books I really wanted - and only enough money for two. Something had to be jettisoned, and I decided it would have to be the heaviest. So I had to bid a sad farewell to Michel Faber’s (enormous) The Crimson Petal and the White.

Unexpected fringe benefit: Eavesdropping on the train home and picking up a bit of gossip about the cause of Saturday’s fender-bender outside our place. Seems one driver swerved to miss some kids playing on the road - and there’s only one neighbour with any of those....

22 January 2007

The Best Day of a Booklover's Year

Five days. Four kilometres of tables. More than one and a half million books. Depending on who you believe, it’s either the biggest, or the second-biggest event of its kind anywhere in the world. Yes, it’s that behemoth of used book sales, the Brisbane edition of the Lifeline Bookfest. Unfortunately I don’t have a digital camera or a camera phone to share the spectacle (sorry, Heather!). But for those of you who want to turn a lovely shade of green, the Sunday Mail had an article, and ABC Radio’s website still has a mention of last June’s Bookfest. Both items have pictures which should give a hint of the scale of the thing. It’s the one day of the year when I get to experience both heaven on earth (five and a half hours browsing thousands upon thousands of dirt cheap books) and hell on earth (lugging a quarter of my body weight in books home in 30-plus degrees). The agony is more than worth it, though, and today not even the mid-morning heat and Queensland Rail’s lack of punctuality could remove the smile from my face.

The best bit of the Bookfest is the start, stepping into Hall 3 of the Convention and Exhibition Centre and absorbing the atmosphere of serenity and books. One of the perqs of being an unemployed student is having your summer weekdays free; when I arrived there were no more than several dozen people browsing through the books of the Unpriced section, and half the checkout lanes were lying idle and unmanned. Without the weekend crowds, the whole affair is very orderly. Sure, there’s the occasional shrieking kid, but it’s still much quieter than the average shopping mall.

I’ve been to enough Bookfests to have established a routine. The Unpriced section is first; books from fifty cents to two dollars, at the discretion of the volunteers at the checkout who are invariably generous. I load up there and then know exactly how much I have left to spend in the Priced section. I start with the paperback fiction, spread across four tables maybe ten metres long (or maybe more; I’m not a good judge of distances). They’re spaced out in a row, so I go down four right sides, browsing through books laid spines up, four deep. Then it’s a U-turn at the back of the hall, in front of the stacks of wire-mesh crates holding the extra stock and back down the other side. After that it’s the Penguins and the Literature, then a poke through Reference, History, and, for the hell of it, Humour & Oddities. Above the low hum of conversation and the rustle of pages comes easy listening music and the sporadic blare of the PA system, announcing lost and found items and requests for specific books. By the time I think of enquiring for North and South, my excursion to the Bookfest is half over and with my luck, by the time anyone locates it I’ll have left. So I decide to head over to the Priced section and take my chances on finding it myself.

There’s no queue at the checkout - quite unlike the weekend bottlenecks - and after a quick chat with an elderly and mildly surprised gentleman behind the counter (what can I say, I’m an addict) and a minor lightening of my wallet, I’m out into the blue-striped foyer and on my way to Hall 4. This is the home of the books in good enough condition to warrant price tags; up to around $3.50 in the Priced section, and used bookstore prices (generally $6-10) in High Quality. Priced is first; I glance around the signs wedged into tall metal holders to orient myself and work out my priorities. I’m carrying two capacious and thankfully strong fabric bags from the BCC Library; one is stuffed to the brim and so heavy that I’m skimming it along the ground. By the time I get to the Priced section, I’m too weighed down to feel much of an urge for random browsing. Self-control at the Bookfest

Luck is with me to an extent; I find a few books that were on my list - and, inevitably, some I didn’t know I wanted until I saw them. (But still no North and South.) By the time I finish, I’6ve had two sit-downs because my feet are killing me and my back is starting to rebel, and it’s still only mid-afternoon. Go home now, in the heat ... or venture into the High Quality section in the continued hunt for Mrs. Gaskell?

A no-brainer, that one.

By now I’ve been reduced to pushing the full(est) bag along the ground with my foot. Not that it matters; after all, I won’t be in here long. Just long enough to check the Literature section. No North and South ... maybe it got mixed up with the paperback fiction? I really should check ... just to make sure....

Oh, who was I kidding? I just wanted an excuse to continue salivating over the books. I never did find North and South, but needless to say, nor did I leave the High Quality section empty-handed. (There’s only so much temptation a girl can take.) And beside, it averaged out to around a dollar per book, so the extra expense doesn’t really count. ;-)

It was after four when I finally emerged, bags hooked awkwardly (and painfully) over my shoulders because I’m too short to carry them by the handles without the bottoms scraping the ground. Maybe next year I’ll be smart and take a suitcase on wheels. And a backpack. And maybe a bag to perch on top of the suitcase....

21 January 2007

Whatever Would Shakespeare Think?

That’s the question my mother’s been asking about tonight’s viewing on the ABC. They’ve been screening a British series called Shakespeare Retold, which began with Macbeth set in a restaurant kitchen followed byMuch Ado About Nothing in a television newsroom. Tonight it was The Taming of the Shrew transposed to the political arena. Since I quite enjoy modernisations, and since Waking the Dead had been canned in favour of the cricket, I decided to check it out. I read the play in Year Twelve English, where we also watched the Elizabeth Taylor film adaptation and the modern teenage version 10 Things I Hate About You, and I was interested to see what other permutation the screenwriters could come up with.

I’ll probably never stop marvelling at the number of variations upon a Shakespeare it’s possible to create. The bare bones of the original were all there: A shrewish spinster, a beautiful younger sister who rids herself of an unwanted suitor by promising to marry when Katherine does, and a Petruchio left comtemplating marrying money after his father was so inconsiderate as to die and leave him nothing. But Katherine was a potential opposition leader who needed to improve her image, Bianca was one of those famous-for-being-famous types, and Petruchio was, to quote his best mate, an unstable, unbalanced exhibitionist. Shakespeare would have recognised it, though I doubt he envisioned his leading man as an occasionally-cross-dressing earl. But then that’s the fun of such modernisations: Seeing how far the story can be stretched while still keeping something of the original.

The purists might think it’s a sacrilege, but I think of it as highly complimentary to Shakespeare and his work. It’s a tribute to the quality of his plots that they’re still seen as worthy of telling and retelling. And it’s a tribute to his characters that we can still relate to them after four hundred years, and fit them so easily into any number of settings.

Any author would be enormously pleased just to have their work persist for four centuries in the original form. I’d be thrilled enough to write something that would last four decades. But to have your work not only endure, but to remain so relevant that events and characters can be plucked out and deposited in the present day and the story still ring true, is surely an even greater honour. I like to think that Shakespeare would be happy to see that his plays are still performed, in whatever manner; and that they are considered significant enough to update.

Of course, his opinion of the casting of Heath Ledger could be an entirely different matter.

18 January 2007

Book Review: Evelina by Frances Burney

Winter Classics Reading Challenge #1
2007 TBR Challenge #1

Evelina Evelina Anville has a curious past. Her late mother eloped and married without witnesses, allowing her father to later claim there was no marriage at all. In the seventeen years since his wife’s death, he has never acknowledged his daughter’s existence. Entrusted to her mother’s guardian, she has been raised in obscurity and with a fictional surname, for were the truth to be known she would be regarded as illegitimate, a most unfortunate circumstance in the 1770s.

The kindly Reverend Villars hasn’t the heart to refuse Evelina a trip to London with the family of her friend Maria, whose seafaring father is due back in England. A chance meeting leads to her making the acquaintance of her maternal grandmother, Madame Duval, who immediately decides to take Evelina’s future into her own hands. And what Madame Duval wants, Madame Duval gets. So Evelina’s adventures in the capital are continued, and later extended to the fashionable spa town of Bristol as she learns to make her way in the world beyond Berry Hill. (Having written that, it occurs to me that you could call it an eighteenth-century coming-of-age story.)

Evelina is a wonderful window into the society of the 1770s, which was the main reason I bought it. It shows the manners not just of the gentry but, through Evelina’s cousins the Branghtons, the middle classes as well. But in the end there were too many ‘buts’ for it to be really enjoyable.

I liked Evelina well enough, and was pleased to see that she wasn’t perfect and was prone to do things without thinking, though I did have to raise my eyebrows at the number of men who dangled after her in spite of her lack of fortune or antecedents. But she didn’t have the sparkle of, say, Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, and was terribly concerned about propriety. The real problem was the other characters she encountered during her month in London with her grandmother. The woman herself was ignorant of propriety, and uncaring of the effect her actions might have on Evelina’s reputation or the wishes of others. Once she set her mind on something, no matter how unsuitable, nothing could talk her out of it. The Branghtons were common in the worst sense of the word and too ignorant to realise it, and kept up a continual petty bickering amongst themselves. Mr Smith was obnoxious and ill-mannered, and Sir Clement Willoughby was so oppressive that in the present century he’d be slapped with a lawsuit faster than you could say ‘sexual harassment’. Taken altogether I couldn’t bear to stay with them for much more than twenty pages at a time. Adding to my frustration was the knowledge that, according to the customs of the time, the poor girl was stuck with them.

Things improved markedly with Evelina’s return to Berry Hill and subsequent trip to Bristol, but then Sir Clement made a reappearance and the story slid into melodrama at her reconciliation with her father. His previous lack of interest in her was explained in a clever and believable way that allowed everything to work out not just for Evelina, but for another character as well (fortunately one of the nice ones). Of course the end of the novel for Evelina involved a highly advantageous marriage, to an earl, no less. Lord Orville was as watchful of propriety as Evelina herself, and this combined with her ignorance of the world and her lack of guidance (and consequent faux pas) led him to run hot and cold on her before it occurred to him that perhaps her odd behaviour could be explained by her being 17 and from the country. Having compared Evelina to Elizabeth Bennet I couldn’t help thinking of the equally proper Mr Darcy; while Darcy came across as a man of great honour, Orville just seemed like a prig.

The mildest yet most pervasive flaw is the style in which the book is written. It is told entirely through letters, a technique used to advantage in the opening pages to explain Evelina’s origins and set up the impending action. After that, however, I could never quite shake the consciousness of the inherent artificiality of the epistolary form. What is the likelihood of someone being able continually to recall hours on end in great detail, and reproduce entire conversations verbatim, regardless of the number of people involved? I’ve kept diaries, and keeping track of events alone is hard enough.

Rating: C (as novel); A (as historical resource)

16 January 2007

Book Review: Holy Fools by Joanne Harris

Holy Fools In the French coastal abbey of Saint Marie-de-la-Mer, cut off from the mainland by all but a tidal causeway, discipline has long been lax. Most of the nuns are not turning to God but running from something, Soeur Auguste more than most. As Juliette she was a gypsy who spent her life in travelling carnivals, falling in with the band led by the man she knew as Guy LeMerle. Styled the Blackbird, playwright, cardsharp, and master manipulator, he didn’t hesitate to cast the rest of the troupe to the wolves during a disastrous visit to Epinal. Juliette escaped and, posing as a wealthy widow, entered the convent where she has spent five years with her herb garden, her Tarot cards, and her daughter Fleur.

Then the Abbess dies, and the outside world suddenly begins to take notice of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer. The new Abbess is a powerful bishop’s 11-year-old niece, and Mère Isabelle is determined to prove herself by correcting all the lapses of her predecessor. To help the enforcement of discipline, she has brought her own confessor - a man Juliette knows very well indeed. The Blackbird has returned to her life, bringing with him a complex web of schemes and trickery and hidden purposes. And if he can reclaim Juliette in the process, then so much the better ...

But Juliette has plans of her own. She has come to care for the other sisters, and is determined not to let LeMerle harm them, or manipulate her more than she can avoid. And this time when she escapes him, it will be for good.

Juliette reminded me of Vianne in Chocolat, lacking conventional religion, working her own little magic with cantrips and charms, and with herbs instead of chocolate. And like Vianne she is a wanderer, though Juliette settled down for the sake of her daughter. I found her past as a turn-of-the-seventeenth-century travelling player and aerialist intriguing, and while her reminiscences cast a romantic light over taking to the road the harsh realities such as poverty and hostile townsfolk are not glossed over. Such an unconventional background is what allowed her to develop the independence and strength of purpose that I so much admired in her.

The other nuns mentioned in the book were vividly sketched, though Juliette’s fellow travellers didn’t come so clearly to life. But the most fascinating character was Guy LeMerle. Even when the reader is allowed inside his head, they learn only that he is blurring the truth, never what the truth actually is. He never gives up his self-serving ways, nor his habit of playing the puppet-master with the actions of others; yet in spite of this, and his horrific plans for Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer, he remains somehow sympathetic. Enough of the truth is revealed to humanise him, and while I can’t really say that I liked him, I did begin to understand him.

Rating: B

15 January 2007

So Many Books, So Little Carry Space

It’s the middle of January, which means I’m counting down the days (six and a half!) until my annual pilgrimage to the Lifeline Bookfest. The Brisbane edition of this is billed as the biggest secondhand book sale in the southern hemisphere, and it’s where I buy nearly all my books. So today I sat down with pen and paper and began making my list of books and authors to look out for.

I soon had a list of 50 51 books and 34 authors. It sounded quite unimpressive until I realised that of the works of those 34 authors, there were nearly 330 books that I don’t have.

That’s 380 books altogether. And that’s not including the probably sizeable list of books that I’ve forgotten about. Or the ones I haven’t heard of but will stumble across on the day. It’s times like this I wish I could afford to get my license and run a car; fighting the traffic on the Pacific Motorway would be worth it to be able to bring home more books than just what I can carry. Of course it really is the luck of the draw as to what’s laid out on the tables at the particular time I happen to be browsing; probably I won’t find even a tenth of the 380.

Which could be a good thing: After all, where would be the fun in a world with nothing left to read?

13 January 2007

A Very Modern Library

The Arts section of today’s Courier-Mail contained an article lauding the relocated, revamped and renamed CBD branch of the Brisbane City Council Library. Brisbane Square Library is spread across three floors of a brand-new building and fitted out with all the high-tech mod cons like tv screens, vending machines, video games, and all new furniture. It’s got a fully-automated returns system, research specialists to help you find the answer to any and all questions, and is so popular that borrowing has gone up by 39%.

What the article forgot to say is that the former Central City Library has lost about 90% of its charm.

I suppose it doesn’t help that the new building is an eyesore. The bottom floors are housed in four parallel rectangles of different lengths that have been compared to Lego blocks due to their brightly-coloured cladding: Royal blue, yellow, orange, and an awful green of a shade somewhere between Kermit and Astroturf. It doesn’t compare well to the turn-of-the-last-century elegance of the Treasury Casino next door. It looks a lot better from the inside, and the new library is very sleek and modern. The floors are linked by escalators; the computers are lined up along benches of gleaming white laminate before moulded plastic chairs set on pedestals; the bookcases are bracketed between lightboxes fronted with semi-transparent plastic that comes in a different colour for each section (useful as I can’t yet tell one side of the building from the other).

But there’s no personality left. Without a Returns desk, there’s no librarian beside the door to say hello when you walk in. The old cubbyhole desks and wooden tables, with their scratches and worn edges and graffiti, have gone. So have the comfy mismatched chairs that were frayed in patches and starting to reveal their foam padding. The recent returns are filed neatly by genre on pristine white shelves instead of being piled haphazard on battered metal trolleys. With the vast increase in floorspace, the cozy feel of Central City has vanished.

It’s not all bad news. They’ve finally realised that once people take books home they may well read them with glass or fork in hand, so food is now allowed in the library. Now I won’t have to pack up all my stuff just to grab lunch. A bigger library means more chance of actually being able to find a seat. And I’m young enough to find delivering my returns onto a conveyor belt amusing.I know that in time the dozens of identical cushioned chairs will wear and fade like their predecessors, but the plastic and laminate will remain much the same. I’ll adapt, but visiting the library will never be quite the same.

11 January 2007

The 2007 TBR Challenge

2007 TBR Challenge button

This has been a good week for clearing out the stragglers in my TBR box. First it was the Winter Classics Reading Challenge, now it’s the 2007 TBR Challenge: 12 books that have been hanging around for six months or more ... in some cases, a lot more.

It didn’t take long to round up a suitable long-forgotten dozen. In random order, with the approximate length of time they’ve been languishing in the box, they are:

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier (1 year)
The Secret History - Donna Tartt (1 year)
The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien (1 year)
Blood and Gold - Anne Rice (4 years)
Evelina - Frances Burney (18 months)
Tess of the Durbervilles - Thomas Hardy (18 months - at least)
1876 - Gore Vidal (4 years)
The Vicar of Wakefield - Oliver Goldsmith (1 year ... I think)
Lady Audley’s Secret - Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1 year)
Picnic at Hanging Rock - Joan Lindsay (1 year)
The Naive and Sentimental Lover - John le Carré (1 year)
Journal to Stella - Jonathan Swift (1 year)

Who knows? Maybe by the end of the year my TBR pile will have dropped below thirty for the first time since 2002.

Book Review: Forest of the Pygmies by Isabel Allende

The Forest of the Pygmies I didn’t read the blurb on this until after I got it home from the library, when I discovered that it is, in fact, the third book of a trilogy - the first two volumes of which I haven’t read. Oops. Fortunately it functioned well as a stand-alone book.

Travel writer Kate Cold has just finished an African safari - with grandson Alex and young protégée Nadia in tow - when her party is flagged down by a Spanish missionary. Brother Fernando wants help to search for two of his fellows, who have disappeared from the jungle village of Ngoubé. As well as being remote, the area is under the control of the tyrannical trinity of King Kosongo, Commandant Mbembelé, and the sorcerer Sombé. But Kate is quickly convinced of what a coup the story would be, so together with beer-swilling, chain-smoking pilot Angie and snake-phobic photographer Joel, they head into the jungle.

Things take a bad turn when a rough landing leaves the plane irreparably damaged, and a worse when when the party is imprisoned in Ngoubé. Their one hope is for the two teenagers to rouse the oppressed Bantu and enslaved Pygmies to fight. Not quite as difficult as it sounds, given that Nadia can morph into an eagle and Alex into a jaguar; plus Nadia can become invisible, talk to animals, and has a pet pickpocketing monkey. And not forgetting Alex’s amulet of fossilised dragon dung. The monkey’s retrieval of an amulet stolen from the Pygmies is a start, but they will do nothing without the support of the spirits, which only Alex and Nadia are unafraid enough to venture near.

At first I found the idea of morphing into the embodiment of one’s totemic animal spirit - actually, just the idea of having a totemic animal spirit - somewhat jarring. I put this down to unfamiliarity with and lack of exposure to such beliefs, and I soon got accustomed to it - almost. But I still had to raise an incredulous eyebrow during the showdown with Sombé when Nadia, in the form of an eagle, brought to the village not just gorillas and elephants but a Himalayan ghost and his troop of well-armed yetis. After that I was relieved to see that Kate and Joel, at least, retained their scepticism to the end.

For about eighteen hours after finishing this book, I thought of it as a quite enjoyable way to pass the time, in spite of the touches of the absurd. Then I realised that I hadn’t become attached to any of the characters, and the whole book had the same air of distant unreality as a fairytale.

Rating: B-

10 January 2007

The Winter Classics Reading Challenge

Winter Classics Challenge button

After carrying out my makeover, I didn’t want my blog to be all dressed up with nowhere to go. So I decided to venture out into the blogosphere, and the Winter Classics Reading Challenge from A Reader’s Journal was the perfect place to start.

I enjoy reading classics; I have a whole section of bookcase dedicated to them. The trouble is that other (i.e. newer and faster-to-read) books get in the way, so I don’t start classics as often as I could and I tend to take ages to read them. Consequently classics accumulate at the bottom of my TBR box like dust bunnies under a bed (but not my bed, of course).

In the interest of a belated spring cleaning, here are my five picks for the Winter Classics Reading Challenge:

Evelina - Frances Burney (Because I’ve already started it. But I started this month, so it’s not really cheating.)
Fathers and Sons - Ivan Turgenev (Because it’s been in my TBR box for nearly four years.)
Liza - Ivan Turgenev (Because it’s in a 2-in-1 volume with Fathers and Sons.
Tess of the Durbervilles - Thomas Hardy (Because I read thirty pages on the train on New Year’s Eve . . . 2005. And haven’t touched it since.)
The Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer (Because I read a couple in high school and now I want to read the whole set.)

Blog Envy

As part of my launch of Between the Covers v2.0 I hunted around for some sites to kickstart the Links section. Not only did I get to choose some favourites, I got a good look at the competition. The experience gave me a serious case of blog envy.

Some blogs had an elegant minimalist layout. Some had gorgeous header images that were truly custom-made, not just a reworking of an eighteenth-century painting. The design that had looked so nice when it was a file on my desktop began to seem amateurish in comparison.

The content also lost its shine. There were bloggers writing about Kafka and Coetzee and other such intellectual authors. There were bloggers writing reviews that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a state newspaper. Bloggers thinking critically about characterisation and meaning and symbolism and like examples of the literary art. And I began to think - what on earth made me think I was qualified to write about books?

Sure, I read a lot of them. I have always loved to read, and I have a true book addiction of five years’ standing. But I’m not a critical reader. If I do see the profound underlying meaning of a literary masterpiece, it will probably be by luck or accident. My reviews aren’t anything that anyone would publish and they certainly don’t examine the books very closely, and a lot of the books I read are quite . . . common. I began to wonder if I hadn’t made a very wrong move in daring to set myself up as a book blogger.

Then I realised none of this makes me wrong, it makes me what I am: a girl who reads, not to experience fine literature or complex characterisation or layers of meaning, but to escape from an unhappy life and to spend some time in the persona of someone she likes more than she likes herself. A girl whose literary voracity drags her through books too quickly to appreciate the subtleties, and whose addiction frequently leads to her borrowing so many library books that such speed becomes a necessity. A girl whose fourteen-year love of mysteries means that she prefers a fast plot to high art. A girl whose writing has a tendency to be concise (except when she’s waxing eloquent like now). And a girl who never aspired to write newspaper-worthy reviews, but to say what she thought and chronicle the adventure of her life between the covers.

And that, at least, is one thing for which it’s okay to simply be myself.

09 January 2007

Welcome to Between the Covers v2.0!

Finally, after many hours of trial and error and utter confusion, I’ve managed to create a workable custom template. It bears no resemblance to my first imaginings, and I couldn’t, as I’d hoped, find a header image that would suit shades of mauve, but I think it turned out decently. Hell, for a first attempt by someone who doesn’t even know all the basics of HTML, let alone the inner workings of Blogger, it looks pretty damn good.

Although I have to confess that I cheated a little. I downloaded a free template (from Blogs Gone Wild), made a spare copy, and tinkered around to see which bit of code did what. It hasn’t really been altered beyond the purely cosmetic, but I don’t suppose there’s much more that can be done. The header image is a bit of cheat as well; it’s not my artwork up there, it’s Joshua Reynolds’s.

But I’d rather cheat than settle for Blogger Generic. And I can always produce version 3.0 later. . .

07 January 2007

Book Review: The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunits (Anthology)

The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunits Yes, I know, the image to the left says MORE historical whodunits. But I checked the online table of contents and it exactly matches the one in the book. I was puzzled too, until I realised I was linking to the American Amazon but reading the English edition.

The stories in the book puzzled me as well, but in the best possible way. Admittedly I wasn’t really trying, but I only picked the culprit in one and even then I didn’t spot the motive. While most of them do involve murder, there are a few other types of mystery as well, and they aren’t all necessarily crimes. The tales are arranged in chronological order, from the end of Republican Rome to the reign of James I, and include such leaps of imagination as a murder on Columbus’s ship, a Ripper-esque Elizabethan psychopath, and Macbeth as Shakespeare never imagined it - or did he?

From bloodless to gory, from sombre to comic, all the contributions are thoroughly enjoyable.

I had just one complaint about this book. Of the twenty-two stories, only three featured women, and one of those was merely a mediaeval Watson. An abundance of male detectives is perhaps understandable, given the stories’ settings ranged from ancient to Jacobean, but I’m sure there are plenty of authors out there clever enough to pull it off.

It could have an advantage, though, because it’s inspired me to try it myself . . . or it could just produce endless frustration!

Favourite story: Marilyn Todd’s A Taste for Burning

Rating: B

05 January 2007

Book Review: The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory

The Boleyn Inheritance It’s 1539. England’s golden prince has become a grossly overweight axe-happy tyrant, and he’s looking for yet another wife. The first he left to die of poverty, the second he ordered killed by a French swordsman, the third he never visited as she died of a post-partum fever. Yet Anne of Cleves desperately wants to be chosen as wife the fourth.

Anne has personal experience dealing with petty tyrants, in her case her brother William. To escape him she is willing to take her chances with Henry. She is one of three women of the English court who share the narration of The Boleyn Inheritance, one chapter at a time. Her lady-in-waiting Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, saved the Boleyn inheritance but couldn't save her husband George or sister-in-law Anne. Ever so slightly unbalanced, she is haunted by the memories of them and of what she did that was supposed to save them but horribly backfired. Among the maids-in-waiting is vain, frivolous Katherine Howard, Jane's cousin and fellow pawn in the hands of their scheming uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. Together they will discover just how dangerous Henry has become, and that the Boleyn inheritance is not what they thought.

Anyone who knows a little of Tudor history will be aware of who survives and who follows Anne Boleyn’s footsteps to the scaffold. But there is more history to be learned here than just who survived and who didn’t; I knew little of Jane Boleyn, or of Anne of Cleves other than her fate, or how hazardous the Duke of Norfolk could be to one’s health. And for those who don’t know their history, a book as enjoyable as this is a great way to learn. I know so much more now than I did before I read it, but I never once felt like I was enduring a history lesson.

It feels strange to refer to the people in this book as characters, as they are real historical figures. My favourite was Anne of Cleves, determined to make a life for herself out from under her brother’s thumb. But the real highlights were the chapters from the viewpoint of poor, foolish Katherine Howard. Gregory does a wonderful job of creating the thoughts of the spoilt, heedless girl who became Queen at just 16 and incurred Henry’s wrath for behaving like the child that she was. Her need to rehearse anything she was to do before an audience provides one of the book’s most touching scenes.

My wish now is that Philippa Gregory will write a novel about the reign of Katherine Parr, Henry’s last and perhaps luckiest wife, and the one about whom I know least.


04 January 2007

Book Review: Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich

Twelve Sharp Stephanie Plum, New Jersey’s worst bounty hunter, has more than the usual problems. The bail jumpers have mounted up so far that cousin Vinnie’s bail bonding agency could go under unless she and sidekick Lula bring them in - fast. But the biggest money is made off the most dangerous criminals, and Stephanie and Lula don’t want to get shot at. The agency needs another employee, but the only applicant who’s not a total loser (or totally nuts) is scheming superbitch Joyce Barnhardt, who relieved Stephanie of her now-ex husband. And just to complicate things, she’s being stalked by a trigger-happy woman claiming to be married to bounty hunter-turned-security consultant Ranger.

But things are not what they appear, and somehow Ranger - a man about as traceable as Batman - has fallen victim to an identity thief. But this thief wants Ranger’s whole existence ... including his daughter. And Stephanie.

I can’t seem to recall too much about the last few books in this series, maybe because I haven’t read them as often as the first eight or so, or maybe not. I can say for certain that with Twelve Sharp the series has taken a turn for the better. Evanovich is always good for a laugh, and number twelve is memorable as well as funny. The bad guy is believable, Trenton’s eccentrics are out in force, and Stephanie’s annoying sister Valerie is thankfully absent. Still going strong is the outrageous Grandma Mazur, ageing disgracefully and loving every minute of it, and nearly giving her son-in-law a coronary in the process. This time she’s joining Lula in embarking on a singing career in the band led by the cross-dressing Salvatore Sweet.

Some readers (e.g. my mother) might be frustrated by Stephanie’s continuing inability to choose between Ranger and homicide cop Joe Morelli, but I can appreciate that the indecision serves a dramatic purpose and, hell, I’d have trouble choosing too. Though I did question her habit of getting within stun-gun range of the bad guy. You’d think that after the first time or two she’d have learnt. And the work-related trips through a porn shop are possibly not for the prudish.

Flaws aside, Twelve Sharp is a devilishly funny book with plenty of crime-induced tension.


02 January 2007

The 2007 Reading Challenge

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions early in high school, when I failed - yet again - to keep any on the list pinned to my noticeboard. I can’t break them if I don’t make them, can I?

Then the other month I read Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, a chronicle of her attempt to read one book a week from a set list. The book was wonderfully humorous and I loved it, but it did make me feel that my own reading selections are somewhat ... limited. A check of my lists of books read from the last few years shows a lot of crime and romance, and even more non-fiction from a handful of different sections, but not much by way of literary fiction, or critically acclaimed fiction, or prizewinning fiction, or offbeat fiction. In fact, my first thought was that my taste in books runs rather to the plebeian. (And my second thought was that if I’m tossing around words like ‘plebeian’ in ordinary mental conversation, I’ve been watching Rome too much.)

So I thought it might be fun - or at the very least interesting - to do my own book-a-week challenge. I don’t intend to set a list; if it didn’t work for Sara Nelson, it certainly won’t work for me. Instead I’ll let serendipity bring the books to me. The only criteria will be that the books be ones of perceived quality that I ordinarily wouldn’t touch. 2007 is going to be the year that I broaden my reading horizons.

Admittedly it’s not off to the best start, given that I forgot all about it until this afternoon. But reading is one thing that I will never fail to do so there is hope. And I might even enjoy it.

01 January 2007

Book Review: The Mayor of Lexington Avenue by James Sheehan

The Mayor of Lexington Avenue A small town in Florida is the setting for James Sheehan’s The Mayor of Lexington Avenue. Bass Creek, to be precise, where a woman has been murdered, and the detective in charge and the state attorney are both as crooked as corkscrews. Which is bad news for Rudy Kelly, pleasant but slow, who finds himself on a one-way trip to maximum security.

Ten years later, two months from execution, the case comes to the attention of a lawyer once dubbed the “Mayor of Lexington Avenue” by his oldest friend, who just happens to be Rudy’s father. About to retire to Bass Creek, Jack packs up his office and his secretary and launches into action on an appeal. But can he convince the court to grant a stay of execution? Can he manage to nail Wesley Brume and Clay Evans IV to the wall for their part in the travesty? And can he stay alive?

For it is soon clear that there is a piece of information connected to the case that someone doesn’t want known. Information that they have killed for already, and may kill for again. This suspense, plus wonderfully-drawn characters and clever legal manoeuvring in the courtroom, all contribute to a, well, killer story.

Part One, the murder and “investigation”, was the slowest section of the book as the real action was yet to begin, but the characters and wit kept the pages turning briskly. Thanks to the characterisation, the conviction had a real sense of inevitability. Later it became truly unputdownable. Providing some respite from the courtroom tension were a couple of romantic subplots, and the fact that these involved characters who had firmly arrived at middle age made a refreshing change from the Beautiful People one so often encounters. As for the hero, well, you’ve gotta love a bloke who isn’t afraid to cry and who can handle an AK-47.

At the end of the book I was left with just a few little quibbles, some loose ends never quite tied up. There were a couple of deaths were murder was never proven, much less a killer identified; a lead never followed up; another death where the killer and motive were never identified. Though the latter case did contribute to a leave-them-wondering ending.

Rating: A-

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