28 February 2007

Book Review: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Winter Classics Reading Challenge #5

The Canterbury Tales In the late fourteenth century, a band of pilgrims journey toward Canterbury. At the Host’s suggestion, each agrees to tell two tales: one on the road to Canterbury, and one on the way back. The unfinished collection of stories features twenty-four tales (or parts thereof) from twenty-three pilgrims, including the author himself. They range from tedious to bawdy; the Cook’s tale apparently so ribald it had to be left unfinished. Most of the tales are in rhyming couplets; but several are in stanzas and two are works of prose. Incidentally, the two prose stories are the two most moralistic and tiresome; Chaucer and the Parson waxing dull on prudence and penitence respectively.

The tales are each suited to the character that tells them; risqué tales from the working men, fables and Christian themes from the religious figures, and the story of a knight sent to discover what women want from the Wife of Bath. The most interesting one, from a historical perspective, is the Monk’s Tale, a catalogue in verse of prominent figures come to bad ends. The list includes Bernabò Visconti of Milan, whose murder in 1385 allows a narrowing of the timeframe during which the tales may have been written. Another favourite was the Manciple, who told an Aesop-style legend explaining why crows are black and tone-deaf.

As interesting as the tales themselves are the interspersed sections of Chaucer’s narrative, showing the actions and words of the pilgrims and the Host. This allows the pilgrims to become characters in their own right, and not merely vehicles for relating the tales. The highlight of this is the disagreement between the Friar and the Sompnour, two mediaeval careers that did not get along. The Friar proceeds to tell a tale about a corrupt sompnour being taken by the devil, and the Sompnour retaliates with the story of a foolish friar. Later on the journey, Chaucer’s verse romance satire is interrupted by a dissatisfied audience, and he launches into the allegory of Prudence instead (unfortunately).

Not even the first half of the collection was ever finished; both the Cook’s and Squire’s tales are incomplete, and the Cook is later spoken of by the Host as not having told a story. One can only imagine how the Squire’s tale might have ended; and what the Cook’s tale was that it had to be censored (rather impressive, one would think, if it was bawdier than the infamous Miller’s tale). To a modern reader the readability of the tales varies greatly; but they do offer an extraordinary window into mediaeval English life.

Rating: B

27 February 2007

Banned Books Challenge

I haven’t even finished one challenge and I’m already signing up for the next! I actually had plans for a Banned Books Challenge of my own, but I’ve been beaten to it (good thing I’ve got plenty of other ideas). But I’m not about to waste the books I had lined up for that, so I jumped at the chance to sign up.

I was rather impressed, reading through all the banned books resources, by the number of books I’ve read that have been deemed objectionable. There were at least two dozen that, if only I hadn’t already read them, would have been perfect. But including re-reads would feel like cheating, so I dug through the lists and my TBR box and came up with:

The Decameron - Boccaccio
Lady Chatterley’s Lover - D. H. Lawrence
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
1984 - George Orwell

Extra credit:
One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest - Ken Kesey
The House of Spirits - Isabel Allende
Dracula - Bram Stoker

Four books in four months doesn’t sound like much for a confirmed bookaholic like me, but sometime before my Easter break I plan to set aside all non-challenge reading material and borrow Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell from the library, which should no doubt keep me happily occupied for the best part of a month. And considering how close a call the end of the Winter Classics Reading Challenge is set to be, I probably should err on the side of caution.

I expect this will be my favourite challenge of the year; not just for the books themselves but trying to identify what about them was considered in need of suppression, and a small but worthy act of defiance against those who would like to tell me what I can and can’t read, and what ideas are too much for me to handle.

Book Review: Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

>P? Winter Classics Reading Challenge #4
2007 TBR Challenge #2

Tess of the D’Urbervilles When the Durbeyfields are left facing worse than their usual financial hardship after the death of their only horse, eldest daughter Tess is sent to ‘claim kin’ with the wealthy D’Urbervilles, the family of which her father is a distant descendant. But these D’Urbervilles are impostors, and Alec D’Urberville leaves Tess’s reputation in ruins. After the brief life of her illegitimate child she leaves her home, determined never to marry and burden a husband with her shame. But at Talbothays Dairy her love for the minister’s son Angel Clare overcomes that resolve. When she tells him her secret, he cannot manage to forgive her, and his abandonment of her precipitates her tragic ending.

The phrase that sprang to mind when thinking of Tess was one that I must once have read somewhere: ‘buffeted by the winds of fate’. She wanders around the countryside reacting to events and the actions of others, and when she finally does do something she only hastens the end of the tragedy. There were many points where things could have been changed by something not happening, or by her doing something, but few where her fate could have been averted by an event or by her lack of action. I think her passivity and her helplessness in the face of society and its double standards was Hardy’s intent, especially as he gave her a habit of dozing off at key points in the narrative. While I admired Hardy’s skill in creating the sense of inevitability, but her continual inaction began to wear on my nerves.

The other difficulties I had with the book originated with the two men in her life. When Tess discovered Alec’s conversion into an itinerant preacher, I nearly burst out laughing at Hardy’s plunge into soap-opera absurdity, until it became clear that it was only a passing phase. And Angel’s theological disagreements with his father and brothers still has me baffled, and in spite of the footnotes I’m not clear on the differences between the High, Low and Broad Churches. Between them they demonstrate the dichotomy that classifies women as saints or whores, and Hardy clearly shows that neither view works. Angel believes her to be truly the pure woman of the book’s ironic subtitle and cannot handle the discovery that his goddess has feet of clay. Tess’s relationship with Alec is based on force and coercion, and all the while he blames her or tempting him, and for his inability to stop thinking of her. Between them they bring about her downfall.

This was not a cheerful read, but it was moving and thought-provoking and a reading experience not to be missed.

Rating: A-

25 February 2007

Book Review: Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones’s Diary Over the course of a year, Bridget Jones records the ups and frequently embarrassing downs of her life in her diary. The optimism of her New Year’s resolutions (e.g. ‘Go to gym three times a week not merely to buy sandwich’) quickly gives way to her regular chaos. She’s got a crush on her oily boss, her career is going nowhere, her mother has run off with a Portuguese tour guide, and poor Bridget can’t manage to reduce either her drinking, her smoking, or her thighs. And as a thirty-something single, she’s subjected to the patronisation of the Smug Marrieds and the matchmaking efforts of her family, who keep throwing her in the path of the stuffy Mark Darcy. But this year Bridget is determined to improve things. Too bad success isn’t really Bridget’s strong point.

I chose this for a bit of light relief after the intensity of Cross Stitch and it was perfect. Bridget’s tribulations are consistently funny and her genuine concern for her family and friends saved her from becoming another shallow chick-lit cliché. She’s utterly likeable even with her calorie obsession and general ineptitude, and along with her eccentric friends and relations keeps the book entertaining in spite of the lack of any real plot. At first the diary entry headers, with their repetitive details of alcohol, cigarettes and calories consumed, grated; but she quit writing them for a while and when she resumed, they contained enough other information to be amusing rather than annoying.

It’s impossible to read the book and not compare it to the movie. It was recognisable, but a lot of incidents in the film were invented or exaggerated. But the blue soup was there in print and made me feel a lot better about my own domestic abilities. Plus I got to spend 300-odd pages picturing Colin Firth as Mark Darcy :-)

There was one sizeable problem: references to British celebrities (I assume they are or were celebrities) that I’ve never heard of. Shakira Caine? Michael Howard? Douglas Hurd? Who are these people? The names meant absolutely nothing to me and were too numerous to be bothered Googling.

Rating: B+

23 February 2007

Book Review: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

New Year’s Reading Resolution #2

The Accidental Tourist Macon Leary is a travel writer who hates to travel; his guidebooks are written specifically for business travellers who prefer to pretend they haven’t left home, and put together with the absolute minimum of whirlwind research. After his wife leaves him, struggles to return his life to an ordered state, a process not helped by the misbehaviour of his dog Edward. Unable to part with a pet that had belonged to his murdered son, Macon is obliged to enlist the help of an obedience trainer. That trainer is the chaotic Muriel Pritchett, who wears gaudy thrift shop clothes and chatters non-stop about anything and everything. Macon gravitates to Muriel in spite of himself, much to the disapproval of his brothers. Charles and Porter, after being left by their wives, were content to move back home to be looked after by their sister Rose. Rose is so used to doing this that even after she marries Macon’s editor Julian, she goes back to ‘look after the boys’.

But Macon’s relationship with Muriel falls apart when Sarah returns. Suddenly Macon is back to furniture shopping with his wife. It will take a holiday in Paris for Macon to decide which direction he wants his life to take.

It took me a while to get into this book, I think because Macon’s initial insular ways reminded me a little too much of myself. It soon got easier and I found myself enjoying reading about the characters - actually more than I liked the characters themselves. Rose was my favourite of the lot, and while I did care enough to hope for some happy endings, I never really got attached. But Macon’s journey from the pedantic world of the Learys to a messier and more colourful one - one in which travel could actually be enjoyed - made it all worthwhile.

Rating: B

Book Review: Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Cross Stitch WW2 over, Claire and Frank Randall are holidaying in the Highlands. She studies botany while he chases down every last scrap of information about his six-times-great grandfather Jonathan, soldier, likely spy, and one of the more illustrious branches of the Randall family tree. A few odd things happen - conflicting symbols in the tea leaves, a possible ghost sighting - but nothing so strange as at Beltane, when Claire steps into a stone circle and steps out into 1743. And the first person she encounters is none other than Captain Jonathan Randall, who turns out to be an officer but not much of a gentleman.

Escaping from him, she’s captured by a marauding band of Mackenzies and taken to Castle Leoch. There she meets Callum, the crippled - and very suspicious - Mackenzie laird and his ambitious brother Dougal. Finally accepting that she is, in fact, in the eighteenth century, Claire - a wartime nurse - bides her time as castle physician until she can escape from Callum’s watchers and return to the circle of standing stones - and Frank. Then an ill-fated visit to the English garrison results in Dougal being ordered to produce her for ‘questioning’ - something he has no intention of doing. Not when he can use her to secure his place in the clan succession, and pave the way for a strategically-positioned property to come under Mackenzie control. Knowing that it’s her only hope for staying out of Randall’s clutches, Claire agrees to marry his nephew Jamie Fraser.

This presents its own complications; guilt at the thought of abandoning him, the jealousy of one of the castle girls which see Claire embroiled in a witch trial, and her growing attachment to him. By the time she returns to the circle of standing stones, she can no longer bear the thought of leaving him. But her happiness is threatened when Jamie is betrayed to the Watch, and Claire must risk liberty and life to rescue him from gaol and get him far beyond the reach of Randall’s vengeance.

I’ve dithered for days over this review, certain that nothing I can write could do it justice. The only thing not to love about it is the fact that it weighs more than everything else in my handbag combined. Claire is a fantastic heroine; her background growing up on archaeological digs and battlefield nursing allow her quickly to find her feet in the eighteenth century (although her propensity for swearing raises a few eyebrows), and the latter provided good practice at ordering around recalcitrant men. Her narration is highly entertaining and holds your interest even when describing nothing more exciting than daily life at the castle. Not that there are many lulls; even when nothing much is happening externally, there’s her various internal dilemmas: how to get back to Frank, whether to go back to Frank, and what - if anything - she should do to try to avert the impending disaster of Culloden.

The amount of historical information here is such that the mind boggles at the amount of research that must have gone into it. All I’ve read about Georgian history has concerned England, so it was good to find out what things were like on the other side of the border. Another advantage to having an outsider as narrator is that the political situation can be shown without any bias one way or another; once she makes her decision to stay in the eighteenth century, her only loyalty is to whatever will best ensure her and Jamie’s survival. The two of them make a wonderful couple; he is simply adorable (though he is, as Dougal said, as stubborn as a rock) and willing to do anything for Claire, as she is for him. Those resolutions will be put very much to the test before the end of the book, which involves one of the more ingenious methods of gaolbreaking I’ve come across. And it’s great to see a left-handed redhead in a starring role (okay, that’s my bias!).

This book has one final distinction: it contains the vilest villain of any book I’ve read. Captain Jonathan Randall is a sadist with a great fondness for handsome young Scotsmen in general and an obsession with Jamie Fraser in particular. He has a soft spot for torture and a very creepy resemblance to his six-times-great grandson. And there’s a hint that his mind is twisted even beyond the obvious. I have got to get my hands on the sequel ... once I’ve found enough free time to get through a book that big!

Hmm ... writing this wasn’t so bad after all. Amazing what watching the clock tick toward midnight will do for a girl’s writing speed!

Rating: A+

20 February 2007

Reading to the Finish Line

There’s only eight days left in the Winter Classics Reading Challenge, and I’ve still got two books to finish off. Not wanting to flunk out of the first challenge I’ve signed up for, I’ve adopted the tactic used for library books whose due date is approaching: dividing the number of pages remaining by days remaining, and reading at least that many pages every day. This plan was working well until I checked my calendar and realised that the last three days of the challenge are also the first three days of semester. So now I’ve got to read enough each day to finish them before I get distracted by classes.

It’s turned into something of a race between me and time; the challenge now is not just reading the classics, it’s finishing them before the arrival of deadline I’ve set myself. It’s a bit disappointing because I had decided to try not to leave things till the last minute, as I’m prone to do; but the extra challenge is sort of fun. (I guess if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be in the habit of procrastinating.)

I’ve read enough that I should have Tess of the Durbervilles finished on Sunday, and The Canterbury Tales soon after. But no matter how close the end of the challenge is, I will definitely not be pulling an all-nighter. I learned my lesson on those after that Year 12 Psych assignment!

17 February 2007

Book Review: In Other Words by C.J. Moore

In Other Words This book contains a collection of foreign words and phrases that have no direct English translation. Some have been adopted into English - bête-noir, doppelgänger, schmooze, saga, safari, feng shui, gravitas, nirvana. Some never will be, such as nie dla wszystkich skrzypce graja (literally, ‘the violin doesn’t play for everyone’) and a host of other Eastern European unpronounceables.

And some definitely should be. Who has never experienced esprit de l'escalier, the phenomenon of thinking of that perfect comeback too late? And recent statistics suggest there are numerous families that include nesthockers - adult offspring still living at home (guilty). Then there’s the Japanese tatemae (what everyone claims to be true, even if they don’t really believe it) and donne (what you believe but would never admit to doing so). I wonder if any language has a term for the continued re-election of an incompetent premier? If it does, I’m sure a lot of people in Queensland would like to know.

All the words and phrases have explanations, pronunciation guides, and information about their usage; and each language and language group has its own introduction. This way you can learn fascinating facts like why the Icelandic phonebook is ordered by first names. Even if you don’t start dropping bits of Czech or Celtic into conversation, this is still an intriguing tour through some of the world’s linguistic curiosities.

Favourite word: Drachenfutter (German ‘dragon fodder’), the gifts a husband brings his wife after he’s stepped out of line.
Favourite phrase: Denize girse kurutur (Turkish). Roughly translatable as ‘he can’t do anything right’, its literal meaning is ‘he gets dry if he enters the sea’.

Rating: B+

16 February 2007

Booking Through Thursday

I’ve been meaning for weeks to check this site out on a Thursday, and I finally remembered. Today the theme is (of course) romance. Specifically:

1. Love stories? Yes or No? and
2. If yes, “romances” as a genre? Or just, well, stories that have love stories? (Nobody's going to call “Pride & Prejudice” a “romance,” right?)

1. Yes - so long as they’re not that mushily sentimental . . . stuff. Nothing on earth is ever going to make me read The Bridges of Madison County, for instance.
2. Both! I know that romance as genre gets rubbished by the - well, by certain people; I used to be one of them. Then curiosity overcame snobbery and I discovered they’re the perfect antidote to my perpetual suspicion that I’m carrying enough cynicism for someone three times my age. Reading something guaranteed to have an ending not just happy but idealised, allows me to slip the rose-coloured glasses back on for a few hours and pretend I still believe in all that fairytale nonsense.

I do have standards (the snob reasserting herself!); there has to be a good story and I do prefer to have some mystery or history thrown in (or at the very least, something to make me laugh).

And as for Pride and Prejudice . . . some might not classify Jane Austen as romance, but there’s at least one librarian who’d disagree. The first time I read Austen’s Emma was when I checked it out from the Belconnen Library in Canberra - complete with a red heart sticker on the spine.

14 February 2007

The Non-Fiction 5 Reading Challenge

Non-Fiction 5

As soon as I heard about this challenge, I knew I had to be part of it. Trouble was my TBR box was a little lacking in non-fiction. I raided my mother’s bookshelves for anything that might qualify, but I was still one short, unless I wanted three biographies on the list. Then today I had to go into the city to return some library books ... and there’s that discount book place in the Queen Street Mall . . . and there was goodbye to my optimistic determination not to spend any more money on books this year (or at least this semester). But it was in a good cause. And they were on sale. (I am so good at justification.)

I soon found a suitable book for a mere $1. Then I saw Peter Hill’s Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper, recommended to me only the other day. Figuring it was not for me to argue with serendipity, I bought that as well.

My list for the Non-Fiction Five Challenge is, in random order:

Journal to Stella - Jonathan Swift (overlap with the TBR Challenge)
Notes from a Small Island - Bill Bryson
Governors’ Wives in Colonial Australia - Anita Selzer
Was Australia Charted Before 1606? The Java la Grande Inscriptions - William A. R. Richardson
Fearless - Julia Holden

At least, that’s what I’m currently planning on reading. More than likely there’ll be a last-minute substitution in late April after a trip to the library. It’s a good thing I have until 30 April to finalise the list; I don’t know what my chances are of being able to hold out on reading all of them!

12 February 2007

Bargaining for Books

My mother has just started my recently-acquired copy of Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel. It’s the first book of a trilogy that’s divided between us: Kane and Abel (mine), The Prodigal Daughter (hers), and Shall We Tell the President? (mine). Tense negotiations are now underway to reunite the trilogy, and I’m faced with the choice of handing over both my books in exchange for the two Jane Austens I need to complete my set (tempting), or coming up with a suitable counter-offer for The Prodigal Daughter.

I started with my bulging TBR box (so much easier to contemplate parting with books when I haven’t had a chance to read them and become attached) and came up with pretty much nothing. It’s not easy to find something a. long enough to be considered a fair swap, b. she’d actually read, and c. I’d be willing to part with. There’s a good few books I’ve mentally labelled ‘not a chance’; and she can’t stand even a hint of longwindedness so all the classics are out. (On the plus side, dearly beloveds such as Possession are safe.) She also doesn’t like anything liable to keep her awake at night, so such volumes as Dracula and The Silence of the Lambs are definitely out.

I had a bit better luck with the overflow shelves in the spare bedroom; that’s where I shift books to whenever my section of the family room shelves get stuffed full. I always move the ones I figure I’m least likely to reread anytime soon (if ever). They currently hold a 3-in-1 volume of Mary Higgins Clark that someone gave me. Mum enjoys MHC and has assumed I do likewise; in reality the book’s earmarked for a trip to the secondhand book store at Garden City, once the overflow shelves start overflowing. My plan is to switch that for the Archer, or at the very least to lose no more than a couple of Jean Plaidy historicals. I’m quietly determined to get the better end of whatever deal is struck.

At the moment, though, we’re in a kind of Mexican standoff; she won’t say what she considers a fair exchange until she’s gone through all my books herself, and I won’t play any of my cards until I know what she has in mind. I’m optimistic, though, for the same reason why I always beat her at chess: I have by far the most devious mind.

Oh dear ... how very Machiavellian that sounds! The depths of depravity to which a book addict will sink ...

09 February 2007

A Change of Pace

The thought had been at the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, having to actually sit down and review the books I read would slow me down somewhat. Certainly I could do with a break after last year’s hectic pace of, on average, one book every two days. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way and lately I’ve found myself playing catch-up with my posts.

Of course, those library books did have to be finished. And my mother did want to read Total Control, and I wouldn’t want to keep her waiting, now would I? ;-)

I’ve finally hit upon a solution: Diana Gabaldon’s Cross Stitch. It took me the best part of a fortnight to read the first time around, so I’ve got my breathing space. And there’s no rush, because it turns out my mother can’t stand Diana Gabaldon: she waffles.

In Mum’s view, waffle is one of the cardinal sins available for a writer to commit. It involves any text she deems excess to requirements: flowing sentences, lengthy descriptions, slow action, any kind of meandering. I think in her perfect literary world, all books would be written in a snappy style and all plots would barrel along energetically. I personally don’t see the problem with a writer taking their time over a story as long as it holds my interest, as Cross Stitch definitely does; but I guess once you’ve read Henry James you’ve necessarily developed patience. As little as I understand this difference of opinion, it suits me well just now, and it’s nice to know there are some books I can hog all to myself.

And in a way we’re even: I can’t tolerate some of the movies she goes in for. The Horse Whisperer, anyone? Slow action, lots of meandering....

Book Review: Total Control by David Baldacci

Total Control It starts with a bang (that of an airliner hitting the earth) and rushes onwards for five hundred pages without slowing down. I had the best of intentions starting this book - take a bit of time reading it so I could clear the backlog of half-read novels and find the time to post something other than a continual flood of reviews. I really should have remembered that a good Baldacci is very hard to put down.

The plane which crashed was carrying Federal Reserve Board chair Arthur Lieberman. Ticketed on it - but actually in LA - was technology company executive Jason Archer, up to something which may or may not have been corporate espionage. Now his apparent widow, Sidney, is surrounded by questions - from his company, Triton, worried about their takeover of a lifetime; from her law firm, representing Triton and afraid she might be involved in something; and from the FBI, wanting to know everything she knows and what the connection is - if any - between her husband and the sabotaged plane.

Sidney refuses to believe that Jason could have been involved in anything illegal, and is wary of how much to tell anyone - even the Feds. When Jason calls, she sets out on her own in search of answers, an enterprise which ends with her being framed for triple homicide. Throw in an encrypted disk, a missing password, breaking and entering, a rival company, a murdered PI, his maybe-murdered brother, the suspicion of blackmail, and some shady removalists, and FBI agent Lee Sawyer has one hell of a mess to sort out. And he doesn’t even know if he’s working one case or two.

It wasn’t overly difficult to spot the villains, as I suspected just about everyone at some point. The real puzzle was why, and how the cases were connected, and what if anything Triton’s acquisition of CyberCom had to do with it. Like all good whodunits, as the pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place, my brain kept dredging up little clues I had all but overlooked several hundred pages earlier. I was left with the feeling that I could have kept pace with Sawyer, if only I’d been more alert. (It was ever so slightly odd constantly seeing the good guy referred to as Sawyer. Every so often I’d think of Lost.)

My favourite thing about the book, apart from its unputdownable nature, was that the unravelling of the mystery didn’t depend on coincidence, as is sometimes the case, and that when the cavalry came charging to the rescue at the end, the miraculously good timing was engineered. The mystery was solved by a combination of good detective work, some small but crucial mistakes by the bad guys, and plenty of outsmarting of said villains by the good guys (it also helped that Sidney was handy with a gun). And the final chapter wrapped things up with the tidiest possible ending - under the circumstances - for her and her daughter.

Rating: B

Book Review: The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth

The Fourth Protocol The Fourth Protocol is a section of a treaty signed by, among others, Britain and Russia. Under its terms, none of the signatory countries and import nuclear devices - or the components thereof - into any of the others. Russia is about to break those terms, as part of an audacious and potentially devastating plan - orchestrated by Philby himself - to place Britain under the control of a pro-Soviet Hard Left government following the election of 1987. The one, unknown flaw in their plan is that their source of secret British documents has been discovered, and the hunt for the source of the leak is going to lead the Secret Service in the direction of Plan Aurora. And even if MI5 agent John Preston can’t crack the KGB’s creative and highly efficient courier system, some devious manoeuvring within the two countries might just bring it all undone.

Forsyth throws in a lot of precise details, so the plot relies more on a slow building of tension than a rapid unfolding of events. On the upside it’s clear from the start that something fishy is going on, even if that initial something is only incidentally connected to the Russian plot. For me a lot of the appeal lies in the sheer ingenuity of the characters, both good and bad. I doubt I would ever have thought of smuggling in the two halves of a round bomb casing by disguising them as car headlamps. There’s also an unsettling and probably accurate picture of just how much bureaucracy can screw things up.

The ending was all wrapped up cleverly; maybe a little too much so, as I had to reread a couple of pages to work out exactly who had manoeuvred how and when and why. But the final twist that rounded off the epilogue was a stroke of brilliance.

Rating: B

08 February 2007

Book Review: Daisy’s Back in Town by Rachel Gibson

Daisy’s Back in Town Daisy Monroe has returned to her small Texas hometown after being widowed. Her purpose is to track down high school boyfriend Jackson Parrish, give him the letter written by her late husband (Jack’s former best friend) - and inform him that her teenage son back in Seattle is, in fact, his. It quickly becomes obvious that this is not going to be easy; in Jack’s opinion, the sooner Daisy gets out of town, the better. He won’t speak to her, she leaves, she tracks him down again, he refuses to speak to her, she leaves ... et cetera ad tedium. Then all that high school lust reappears to complicate things and her son arrives from Seattle and drops by Jack’s garage to take a look at his biological father (Daisy and Steven told him the truth). Wouldn’t you know it, under the spiky haircut and dog chains he’s a ringer for Jack’s old man. The secret is out in the worst way possible and there’s a lot of mess for Daisy and Jack to work through before they can reach their happy ending, if anyone cares by that time.

I didn’t.

By the time it was revealed that Jack hated Daisy because she had ditched him and married his best friend the same week he buried both his parents, I’d already written him off as a pain in the arse. And any sympathy I felt for him vanished when he began scheming to secure custody of Nathan, even going behind Daisy’s back to make the kid an offer he couldn’t refuse (a holiday job at the garage restoring classic cars) and telling her if she didn’t want to stay in town, she could leave. I didn’t think much of Daisy either. Once she realised Jack wouldn’t talk to her, why keep tiptoeing around with the we-need-to-talk line? (Guaranteed to send any man running for cover.) Just tell him straight out, drop the letter in the post, and go home. (And if you are going to go to such lengths as crashing his niece’s birthday party, at least have the sense to take the letter with you.) Because of all these delays, it was close to the end of the book before I found out that after his parents’ deaths Jack pushed Daisy away, she got upset and turned to Steven (as was her habit whenever Jack slighted her) and Steven took advantage of her doubts to snare her for himself. It was too late for me to begin caring then.

The final thing that irritated me was the ending. When Jack proposed to Daisy (it was true love, apparently) he told Nathan they’d be living in Lovett - without consulting Daisy. And despite it being barely a year since the death of the man who had raised him as his own, Nathan appeared to have no problem with his mother remarrying and uprooting him halfway across the country. Even my sizeable ability to suspend disbelief didn’t stretch that far.

Rating: D+

05 February 2007

Book Review: The Best Man to Die by Ruth Rendell

The Best Man to Die The title is literal; the night before he was due to be best man at his best mate’s wedding, Charlie Hatton is bludgeoned to death with a river stone while on his way home from the pub. But that’s only the start of the mystery. Hatton was a lorry driver who lived beyond his means. It soon becomes apparent that he was party to a couple of recent hijackings, but there’s an influx of cash that doesn’t correspond to any instance of highway robbery. Then there’s Dorothy Fanshawe, sole survivor of the car crash that killed her husband and daughter. Or not - she insists her daughter is alive and in Germany. So who was the girl whose body was found with the wreckage and how did she come to be there? Why can’t Detective Chief Inspector Wexford shake the feeling that the cases are somehow connected? And is it really only coincidence that Charlie Hatton was killed immediately after Dorothy Fanshawe regained consciousness?

It’s probably just as well this book was so short (under 200 pages) because I never really warmed to any of the characters. This was an early book, nearly forty years old; I’m struggling to remember the later Wexford mysteries I’ve read, and whether he was that perpetually cranky in those too. Fortunately once the action got going on the two mystery plots, I had something to entertain me to the end.

Rating: C

Book Review: Sylvester by Georgette Heyer

Sylvester Sylvester Rayne, Duke of Salford, has decided to marry before his nephew and ward Edmund gets old enough to feel put out by the loss of his position as heir presumptive. To the despair of his romantic mother he approaches the exercise in coldly business-like fashion, but he does unbend enough to allow his godmother to add her granddaughter to his shortlist. Unfortunately on visiting her family estate he discovers that Phoebe Marlow is not duchess material: a shrinking violet when in the presence of her autocratic stepmother, and a regular tomboy when not. And Phoebe, after meeting Sylvester the previous Season, quickly pegged him as aloof and proud to the point of arrogance; so much so that when she wrote her first novel (a Gothic), she cast him as the villainous Count Ugolino.

Desperate to avoid being railroaded into marriage, Phoebe runs away to her grandmother in London, delivering quite a blow to the duke’s ego in the process. And things only get worse when the novel is published and becomes a sensation. Thanks to Sylvester’s - and Ugolino’s - distinctive and devilish-looking eyebrows, the unflattering portrait is instantly recognisable, and the original is furious. Then there’s his spoilt sister-in-law Ianthe, who wants custody of her son regardless of the terms of her late husband’s will, or the fact that her fiancé is a ridiculous fop whom Edmund loathes. She found Phoebe’s novel quite inspiring - especially the part where the heroine kidnaps Ugolino’s ill-used nephew to safety. And Phoebe’s talent for getting into trouble is such that she finds herself right in the middle of it, much to Sylvester’s horror.

Of course you know from the start that there’ll be a happy ending, but most of the fun is in getting there and Georgette Heyer can always be counted on to make the journey enjoyable. She has a wonderful way of bringing out the eccentric and absurd in her characters, particularly the ones who deserve it. In this book that’s Sir Nugent Fotherby, Ianthe’s foppish fiancé, who in one scene brags to Phoebe about his perspicacity in selecting his recently-purchased horse, a horse she knows was sold to him by her father for way too much money. There were a lot of moments where the poor girl had a hard time restraining her giggles (and the same can be said for this girl).

This book gave me something to think about, because I have faint hopes of one day writing the Great Australian Mystery Novel, and can think of a few former acquaintances who would make wonderful villains. But since none of them are happily-ever-after material like Sylvester, I’ll have to make sure they’re sufficiently disguised. But not too much. That would take the fun out of it.

Rating: B

04 February 2007

Book Review: The Alienst by Caleb Carr

The Alienist It’s 1896 and a serial killer is at work in New York City, targeting immigrant children working as rent boys. The Police Commissioner (no less a personage than Theodore Roosevelt) is determined to solve the case, so despite his scepticism calls in his old college friend Dr. Laszlo Kreizler. Kreizler is a psychiatrist (in period parlance, an ‘alienist’) and turns profiler in the attempt to solve the case. He assembles a team comprising narrator and crime reporter John Schuyler Moore; detective sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, enamoured of the latest in forensic science and cheerfully enthusiastic about even the goriest parts of the job; and Sara Howard, Roosevelt’s secretary, who is determined to become the department’s first policewoman. With nothing to go on save the crimes themselves, they set off in search of a killer whom Kreizler swears is sane, but who is none the less dangerous for that. But that might not be all that they’re up against, for corruption is rife and not everyone wants the case solved....

You know a book is good when reading it on the train causes you to almost miss your station. To prevent any further mishaps, I heroically forced myself to read the last 330-odd pages in one day :-). I was somewhat dazed on emerging from such a large volume of long sentences, but it was well worth it. The slightly antiquated style, combined with the historical and geographical detail, created a real period feel. I haven’t read much about American history, and finished the book feeling that I had really learned something about the seedier side of late-nineteenth-century NYC.

Setting aside, this is a riveting mystery. Finding a serial killer is hard enough at the best of times; but when you have to pretty much invent the art of profiling as you go, it’s even more of a challenge. Fortunately the characters are up to it, as well as being entertaining. As a mystery aficionado, it was interesting to see what passed for forensic science in 1896, and the Isaacsons’ enthusiasm was infectious (and how could a bookworm not love characters who chose their profession after reading Wilkie Collins?). Moore as narrator brought a dry humour to the tale, and with his unabashed fondness for booze, women and gambling was instantly likeable. I found Kreizler to be the most enigmatic character, and Sara to be my favourite. She’s the nineteenth-century version of the modern career woman, absolutely set on her goal and not about to let anything - even a husband - get in the way. (The one time she did receive a drunken proposal of marriage, she dumped the sot in question into the Hudson River.) Sara goes around town better armed than the men and in one hilarious scene, reduces the entire team to silence by giving them a sound verbal lashing for treating her like a delicate lady.

Between the delightful characters, the twisting plot, and the have-to-read-on chapter endings, this book had me happily absorbed for hours.

Rating: A-

01 February 2007

Book Review: The Floating Brothel by Sian Rees

The Floating Brothel Once the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay, it didn’t take long for the fledgling colony to become desperate for women. Not just for their civilising influence and use as breeding stock, but also to prevent the men committing what Governor Phillip called ‘gross irregularities’. An urgent message was sent to London, and London seized the opportunity to clear out the overcrowded female cells of Newgate. And so in 1789, more than 200 prostitutes, thieves, counterfeiters and other criminals left England on board the Lady Julian. Between scurvy, becalming, and several stops for repairs to the ageing hull, it took a year for them to reach their new home on the other side of the world. By the time the Lady Julian arrived at Sydney Cove, she had become notorious; for at many of her stops en route, a number of the women on board had turned her into a floating brothel.

This book tells the story not only of the voyage itself, but of life in the lower and criminal classes in the 1780s, and glimpses into the history of some of the women on board (my favourite: the prostitute who, while her client was sleeping, locked him in her room and made off with every last stitch of his clothing). And threaded through the whole is the tale of the star-crossed love of the ship’s cooper, John Nicol, for convict Sarah Whitelam.

I have to confess that I’m not much interested in Australian history; most of it’s too recent for my taste. So the most interesting part of this book, for me, was that describing life for the impoverished in eighteenth-century England, and the voyage out to the colony. After reading about existence in the overcrowded cells of Newgate, exile to the other side of the world didn’t look quite so terrible, particularly on a ship as well-run as the Lady Julian. Because of their value as breeding stock, and their luck in getting an honest agent in charge of supplies, life on board was better than it had been on dry land. Unlike many other convict ships (and especially the three floating hell-holes that followed her in the Second Fleet), there were very few shipboard deaths, and the health of many of the women actually improved during the journey. One passenger in particular was fortunate to be exiled - she was originally to have been burned at the stake for counterfeiting, a punishment that was still being handed out (but only to women) in the 1780s.

There wasn’t a lot written about their lives after arrival, which saved me getting bored; but it was somewhat disappointing to see that the wealth of information about the crimes of specific convicts wasn’t evenly balanced by as much detail about their later lives. Perhaps the information just isn’t there; there’s quite a bit of hypothesising in this book, but I’d rather that than gaps. The bare facts alone would make for a fascinating tale; and after reading the descriptions of Sydney Cove, it’s remarkable to think how quickly such a miserable outpost developed into one of the best places on earth.

Okay, so maybe I’m a little biased in that last statement....

Rating: A-

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