30 April 2007

1,001 Books Online

How great is this? You’ve heard of 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die; well, here’s the online version. You can download the 1,001 Books Spreadsheet, which packs them all neatly into an Excel file in reverse chronological order. And it’s got some technological wizardry added in so that, if you follow the instructions, it’ll tell you how many you’ve read, what percentage of the total that is, and how many per year you’ll need to read to finish them if you live to exactly the average life expectancy for a Westerner of your gender.

Like every other list of books I’ve come across, it served to make me realise that I’m really not that well-read. My total to date? Just 88 (I thought it was 82, but a second look at the list turned up half a dozen I’d missed). That’s 8.75%. And a lot of them I’ve never heard of, or heard of only because of the earlier 100 Books meme. I was encouraged, however, to lose count of the number of books listed that are currently in my TBR box or library pile. I rechecked the list tonight and came up with a total of 19 waiting to be read this year - more than my yearly average of 16. That average, of course, assumes that I intend to read all 1,001; and since Vonnegut, Woolf, and Dickens (just to name a few) have seldom if ever agreed with me I most likely won’t.

But it’s provided a lot of interesting ideas for further reading (as if my Wanted list wasn’t long enough already!) and reminded me that I really must start looking for some of those Margaret Atwoods I haven’t read. I might look for the book, too, to read what was said about the selections - and to see how Peter Boxall justified including three of Edgar Allen Poe’s and one of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories in a list of books!

29 April 2007

A Book Bargain Concluded

What better way to celebrate the end of midsemester exams?

Ages ago I mentioned the Archer trilogy (Kane and Abel, The Prodigal Daughter, Shall We Tell the President?), ownership of which was divided between my mother and myself. Plans were afoot to reunite them, after a trade of books, but the question remained of who would give up what in exchange for what. I was determined to offload a couple of (preferably unwanted) volumes in return for The Prodigal Daughter and was only waiting on Mum to browse my shelves and suggest a fair swap.

And waiting ... and waiting....

When she gets things on her mind, the less important ones tend to slip into oblivion. After reminders got me nowhere I decided to make the first move myself - only to discover that she had either forgotten her original offer or upped the ante. Instead of two Jane Austens for two Archers, she was now proffering two Austens and two Agatha Christies.

Never one to resist literary temptation, I asked if she’d substitute a Colin Dexter for one of the Christies, and caved. So instead of my book collection being decreased by a couple, it has expanded by two. And the small gap in my TBR box has been refilled. Not that I really mind; I now have a complete collection of Jane Austen novels, the first Tommy and Tuppence mystery and my favourite of the Morse mysteries I’ve read. The Morse, which I read not too long ago, has gone straight to the shelves, but the others are in the box. Having seen it on a few Top Ten/Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen lists, I’m really looking forward to rereading Persuasion; the last time was about five years ago. Or more.

*-- Bragging ahead --*

One set of results is in, and I got 95% on my Medical Biotechnology test!

*-- End bragging --*

23 April 2007

The Results Are In

Or rather, they were in ... eight days ago. More proof, if any was needed, that prompt blogging does not co-exist happily with exam periods. But I finally remembered to check the results of Kailana’s poll and was interested to see such a mix of books receiving three or more votes:

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It had to be, didn’t it? This was the first book I thought of when making my list.

2. The Lord of the Rings (including The Hobbit) by J.R.R. Tolkien
Another no-brainer.

3. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
I have to admit, I have never read any of these. I did sit through adaptations on video at various stages in my primary school career, but I don’t recall paying much attention.

4. Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery
I loved these! I must have read the entire series several times over, and so much of it remains firmly in my memory.

5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Another childhood favourite.

6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I have to read this. Soon.

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
My second-favourite Bronte novel, second only to Wuthering Heights, and one I really must re-read soon. Preferably before the new adaptation hits the ABC; I read in the paper just this morning that the network has concluded a deal with the BBC and the new miniseries is on its way down under.

8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I know this is much loved and lauded, but I don’t have fond memories of this book. Probably because I was forced to read it, dissect it, etc, in ... I think it was Year 9 English.

9. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
I love what I’ve read by Atwood, and this one most of all; chilling and dystopian and a great read.

10. Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Have I read any of these or not?

11. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I left this off my list because I didn’t want to include only one book from a series, and I haven’t read the whole series. I usually never read sci-fi, but Adams is my one exception and frequently has me in stitches.

12. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
I know this sounds horrible, but, except for the very short A Christmas Carol, I have never finished a book by Dickens. Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tales of Two Cities ... I’ve given up on them all.

13. The Bible
I can certainly see why this made the Top 28: a bestseller for centuries, changed the face of the world, a comfort and inspiration to millions (or is that billions?). But personally, this isn’t something I would ever touch, except out of morbid curiosity.

14. Complete Works of Shakespeare
And I thought I cheated!

15. Possession by A.S. Byatt
Another of the first books that came to mind. A wonderful and beautifully-written story.

16. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
My favourite Bronte novel and also on my list.

17. The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Sadly, one of the few Montgomerys I never read. I think perhaps I might have to correct that oversight.

18. The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop
Never heard of it.

19. Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

20. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
This one I have heard of, but have somehow never gotten around to reading. Time to add it to the Wanted list.

21. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
On my Wanted list; I’ve read and enjoyed The Man in the Iron Mask and The Black Tulip and would love to read this as well.

22. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
On my list.

23. The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne
In my TBR box ... somewhere ... probably buried under a dozen other volumes.

24. The Time Quartet by Madeleine L’Engle
I’ve heard of A Wrinkle in Time, but never read it and didn’t know there were more.

25. Twilight and New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
Heard of them, but for some reason they just don’t appeal.

26. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I’ve read and adored the first four, and have been trying for some weeks to track down a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to start all over again.

27. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Another failed-to-finish. I should probably try again now that I don’t have Ms. Kennedy trying to shove it down the class’s collective throat.

28. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
How adorable was Wilbur? I’ve lost count of the number of times I read this growing up.

So of the Top 28, five were on my list and I’ve read some or all of another 11. A little over half; not too bad. I’m looking forward to seeing the list of books receiving one or two votes, which should be up once Kailana’s exams are over (I know that feeling!). There should be plenty more in there to add to the Wanted list.

22 April 2007

Book Review: Alexander the Great: Murder in Babylon by Graham Phillips

Alexander the Great: Murder in Babylon By the summer of 323 B.C., Alexander the Great has lived up to his title. Aged 32, he has gone from the young king of a small country, to the most successful soldier history has seen. His empire - the largest the world has ever known - stretches from eastern Europe to the western edge of India and down into Egypt. All this falls apart in early June at a banquet in Babylon, where the Macedonian conqueror collapses in agony. He recovers, only to be struck down again and within days Alexander is dead.

Over the years historians have offered a number of theories as to what killed Alexander. But none seem to have seriously considered the explanation put forward by Alexander’s mother - poison. Taking Olympias’s accusations as his starting point, Phillips sets out to discover what, and who, could have deliberately done in history’s most famous warrior.

The organisation is brilliant; first putting the whole thing into a historical context by describing the world of 323 B.C., then going through the evidence for poison and eliminating suggested natural causes. Next was the narrowing of the suspect list by ruling out the implausible and the impossible. The final list received a chapter each, dedicated to outlining their relationship with the victim and their likely motives for wanting him dead. These were arranged in chronological order, so that they doubled as a history of the life and times of Alexander himself. Finally, events subsequent to Alexander’s death were examined to see if they could help identify the killer; and like all good murder mysteries this one had a twist at the end, with Phillips realising that he had overlooked several small but crucial points that put a different spin on the case. Each chapter ended with a dot-point summary of its contents; while repetitive, these were very useful for cementing the key facts in my head. The whole book was a great education in ancient history, so there was a lot of information to absorb and the recaps were helpful.

Readability is one thing; plausibility is another. For much of the book I remained sceptical as to whether Alexander had been poisoned at all; I couldn’t help feeling that Phillips had set out to prove murder, rather than trying to disprove natural causes. Sure, he ruled out diseases previously suggested as cause of death, but part of my mind kept wondering if there wasn’t something else that might have produced those symptoms. There was also the fact that the main reason for suspecting poison, aside from Olympias, depended on the accuracy of ancient sources regarding the condition of Alexander’s body post-mortem. It was said to have failed to decay even after six days in a ‘close, sultry place’, which was taken as meaning that something - like a toxin - must have killed off the bacteria. But I remembered that desert conditions are ideal for mummification; so did close and sultry really mean humid? And speaking from experience humidity is relative; to someone not used to it, even low levels might feel like a lot.

But after reading an excerpt from a dictionary of toxicology that was included after the cause of death had been rethought I became almost totally convinced; the similarity of symptoms was that striking (and I am convinced that Alexander’s friend Hephaestion was murdered). The identity of the poison narrowed the suspect list, but I’m not sure about the identification of the killer. It depends on a conclusion drawn from circumstantial evidence, and several assumptions about character. Would Phillips’ prime suspect really have chosen to strike then? Would the runner-up really not have known about the murder weapon? And was there a third murder as he claims? It didn’t help that it reminded me of local history potboiler The Mayne Inheritance, in which Rosalind Siemon drew a similar conclusion with even less to go on. There was also one suspect eliminated early on the grounds that it would have been stupid of him to strike at a feast that he hosted; but people do stupid things all the time.

For lovers of history, this is a great read. As for the murder mystery ... I’ll call it a definitely maybe.

Rating: A-

21 April 2007

Book Review: The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

Banned Books Challenge #1

The Decameron This classic collection of fifteenth-century tales is set during an outbreak of the Black Death. Ten young friends choose to flee Florence for the relative safety of the countryside, where they move between villas and try to forget the horror they have left behind. To entertain themselves in the afternoons, they decide to each tell a tale a day, with one of their number reigning over the others as king or queen each day and setting the theme for the stories. The resulting one hundred tales cover most of Italy and a number of other countries, and every station of life from the highest to the lowest to the (supposedly) most devout. Lecherous friars, deceitful wives, cunning tricksters, gullible fools, vengeful kings, true lovers, and even a couple of ghosts, populate the pages. And while many of the tales are set at some indeterminate time in the past, Boccaccio’s Introduction paints a vivid picture of contemporary Florentine life in the midst of chaotic death.

It’s impossible not to compare the Decameron to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the Decameron wins hands down. Although the book itself is long, the stories are generally short; much more so than Chaucer’s. And being written in prose they are much easier to read. Boccaccio also doesn’t go in for the tedious morality tales that Chaucer included. The comparison was most striking during four tales virtually identical to Chaucer’s Reeve’s, Shipman’s, Franklin’s, and Clerk’s Tales. The days all follow the same formula, but some variety is added with outings in the countryside, a servants’ spat, and several distinct personalities among the storytellers: sharp-tongued Elisa, brooding Filostrato, clownish Dioneo.

I read this as part of the Banned Books Challenge, and I realised just why it had been banned when I reached tale 4 of day 1. It was about a monk and his abbot - both of whom seduced the same girl. And that set the tone for much of the next several days, and a good deal of the rest of the book. The clergy were not portrayed in a flattering light; in certain times and places that alone would have gotten it on the banned list. And then there was the sex, including a group of nuns all sharing the gardener, a wife sleeping with another man as revenge for her husband doing the same thing, and a cosy spot of spouse-swapping. After three days it began to get rather tiresome; was that all he could write about? It was also irritating, from a modern perspective, to see the number of female characters apparently quite happy to sleep with whichever man had captured them. Day four, with Filostrato in charge and calling for decidedly downbeat topics, was a refreshing change. From there the subject-matter became more balanced. In spite of these few flaws, it is undoubtedly one of the great literary works of all time and a must-read. No matter how much time you have, or what you feel like reading, there will be something here to suit.

Rating: A-

Book Review: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South Margaret Hale’s life changes abruptly when, on her return home after years with her London aunt, her father announces he is quitting the Church. She and her parents have two weeks to move from Hampshire to the northern manufacturing town of Milton, where her father plans to work as a tutor, furthering the educations both of teenage apprentices and their masters. The transition is not a happy one. Margaret looks down at trade and all those connected to it; and as a clergyman’s daughter accustomed to charity, she finds it hard to adjust to a world where anyone who can’t keep up gets left behind. Her strong opinions on social matters cause her to clash with her father’s favourite pupil, the wealthy but unpolished mill owner John Thornton. He is repelled by the newcomer’s haughtiness, yet can’t help being attracted to her. As Margaret settles into Milton life and makes friends among the workers, she and Mr. Thornton embark on a kind of adversarial friendship. But just when things are going right, everything starts going wrong.

Events in the aftermath of a strike at the cotton mill effectively shatter the growing relationship between them. Then her mother falls seriously ill, prompting her brother Frederick - living in exile after being involved in a mutiny - to risk a potentially fatal return to England. The presence of a strange man in her life, and the lies she must tell to save him, rob Mr. Thornton of any hope of obtaining her; and Margaret feels that his knowledge of her fall from grace must leave her ruined in his eyes. Yet ironically, it is when they are apart that they make the greatest progress toward some middle ground between their different points of view. Then a series of deaths lead to Margaret’s return to London, wealthier and unhappier than she has ever been. And when the final toll of the strike threatens to cost Mr. Thornton his mill, only Margaret can save him - and perhaps secure her own happiness into the bargain.

Anyone who’s read about my last-minute adjustment of my Top Ten Eleven list will know how much I love this book. Finally, I have found a rival for Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, and it actually reminded me of both. The former because it paired a strong, spirited heroine with a rigidly self-controlled hero who had a battleaxe of a relative, it featured an ill-fated proposal followed by a blistering set-down, and the heroine had a sibling in trouble; and the latter because of Mr. Thornton’s unshakeable devotion to Margaret. Even when she broke his heart, he could not and would not stop loving her. Margaret was an exceptional heroine, with strong principles that she was determined to act on, even if she regretted doing so later. It was wonderful to see her lose her prejudices as she learned more about Milton life.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way in which the various social issues - the rights of workers to strike, whether the unions were benevolent necessities or greater tyrants than some of the masters - were worked into the main story. Both sides of the problems were represented evenly, and by real, vivid characters that were more than just points of view. There was no real right or wrong side, as evidenced by the fact that the two main characters discovered a middle ground rather than one realising their faults; even when he was trying to hate Margaret, Mr. Thornton still found himself making improvements of which he knew she would approve. Given certain ongoing political disputes over industrial relations, it was not only informative but timely. All the characters were well-drawn; even the maid came to life on the page. The most intriguing was the aforementioned battleaxe, Mrs. Thornton, with all her contradictions. She showered attention on her daughter while despising her for her weakness, to compensate for her knowledge that she would always love her son best; and when she first met Margaret she was simultaneously horrified by the thought of a penniless girl catching her precious John, and equally appalled by the idea that said girl might turn up her nose at such a prize. I had to feel sorry for her, in spite of her abrasive personality, because whatever happened she would lose.

There was one disappointment, though: it was a library copy and I had to give it back.

Rating: A+

17 April 2007

Book Review: The Camel Club by David Baldacci

The Camel Club The Camel Club is a quartet of ageing conspiracy theorists, who meet in isolated locations under cover of darkness to discuss their latest ideas. One night the member who calls himself Oliver Stone proposes that they actually do something: bring down the country’s intelligence chief, Carter Gray. Before the others can decide, they witness a murder. Narrowly escaping with their lives, their path is clear - find the killers before the killers find them.

The victim worked for Gray’s National Intelligence Centre, though he was technically still employed by the Secret Service. Alex Ford is nearing the end of his twenty years with the Service, and would be quite happy just counting down to retirement and chatting up Department of Justice lawyer/bartender Kate Adams. Still, the case seems like a simple suicide - almost. After a chat with old friend Oliver Stone, Alex decides to act on his doubts. And Gray, anxious to avoid any bad publicity for his president, his agency, or himself, is not happy. So Alex finds himself back on protection detail, assigned to guard the president during a hometown visit. Which is where a terrorist cell is planning a surprise that will put the town of Brennan down in history....

This could easily have been just another 24-style thriller. Bits of it actually reminded me of 24, and the vice-president in the latest series reminds me of the one in this book. The ingredients are all there: Middle-Eastern terrorists, a plot involving the president, corrupt officials, home-grown traitors, the threat of World War III, and one federal agent in a position to stop it. Fortunately, this book has the Camel Club. They made the book; four misfits bound by a love of conspiracy. Each had some experience or knowledge that helped in the piecing-together of the whole, and they provided some wonderful humour as well. They were the perfect civilians to pit against a pair of powerful villains; too often when reading thrillers you have to wonder how Average Joe managed to elude the sophisticated baddies, but the Camel Club members all combined the qualities of intelligence and paranoia. It was perfectly believable that they could outwit their opponents.

Another point in its favour is its balance. While American law and order does win the day (of course), the portrait painted of the last few decades of American foreign policy is far from flattering. While it doesn’t suggest that the U.S. has brought terrorism on itself, it does show that the interaction between East and West is a two-way street. Although some of the more eyebrow-raising details of American interference do prompt the question: is it all the truth, or an author’s conspiracy theory?

Rating: B

16 April 2007

Book Review: The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

The Lady and the Unicorn The socially-ambitious, late-fifteenth-century nobleman Jean le Viste is keen to emphasis his status as one close to the king. To this end, he decides to commission a series of tapestries portraying a battle at which he wasn’t present. The artist chosen to design them is Nicolas des Innocents, who has little experience with tapestry but is happy to accept the commission if it means chances to see Jean’s daughter Claude. Nicolas has seduced a string of women with a tale of the unicorn (specifically, its magical horn) and intends that she should be next. But Claude is closely watched by her mother Genevieve, who likes neither Nicolas nor her husband’s plan for the tapestries. She would much rather a sequence telling of the lady’s seduction of the unicorn. And so unicorns it is.

Far to the north in Bruges, weaver Georges la Chappelle accepts the task of weaving six large tapestries for a nobleman on the rise. He is horrified when the artist arrives at his workshop along with the designs, for Nicolas des Innocents knows nothing about tapestry and is possessive of his work. It is hard to make him see that changes have to be made. What Nicolas does see is Georges’s daughter Alienor, who in turn sees a way out of an arranged marriage to a foul-smelling woad dyer. And when le Viste’s schedule changes, the workshop is strained to breaking point.

The tapestries in this book are real, making the book reminiscent of Girl With a Pearl Earring; only with more room for literary license as almost nothing is known about them except the family that originally owned them. Everything else - the where, the when, the precisely who - is pure conjecture. There was plenty of scope to invent a compelling tale, but it was the tapestries rather than the characters that were the star of the show. I now know rather more than I did about fifteenth-century tapestry-making, from the first drawings to the cutting of the final thread, even the art form’s particular design requirements and weaving guild politics. (But don’t worry, there’s no Historian-style history lessons.) The main features of the six panels were displayed in the front and back of the book and I often turned to them to look at some aspect of the design that had just been mentioned. One of the highlights was the way in which features if the tapestries were worked into and explained in the story.

But compared to the tapestries, most of the characters fell a little flat. Alienor was interesting, as was her mother (and would-be weaver) Christine. The others ... not so much. Some were even puzzling: did self mutilation in the style of a modern-day cutter exist among fifteenth-century teenagers? And how on earth did Nicolas’s unicorn spiel work? Surely the various objects of his lust couldn’t have been that naïve.

Rating: B-

14 April 2007

I Told Me So...

I knew it. I just knew this was going to happen. (And did I listen to me? No.)

Mental note to self #1: sometimes procrastination can be a good thing. At least when Kailana asks people to list their literary top 10. I spent three weeks dithering and reading, lest I post the list and then change my mind a few books later. And even then I hesitated, because of North and South. But then I thought ... no, she’ll be right. All those social and industrial issues ... it won’t qualify. And besides, it’s nearly six hundred pages and I promised myself I wouldn’t procrastinate (excessively).

Famous last words. I loved it, I adored it, and did I mention I loved it? I think I have finally found a rival for Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. (For full gushing, see the review. When it appears. Expect it ... er, when you see it. Mental note to self #2: never get seriously behind in both reading and reviewing shortly before your university starts throwing midsemesters at you.)

So now I’ve got a dilemma: to cheat or not to cheat? Do I turn my Top 10 into a Top 11? It is cheating. And it could be that my Gaskell infatuation is a mere trick of proximity; it’s looming large in my imagination just because I only finished it last night. (But given that I’ve been longing to read it since the mini-series last year, probably not.)

Oh, what the hell ...

Book Review: Hot Dish by Connie Brockway

Hot Dish Jenn Hallesby’s one shot at escaping tiny Fawn Creek, Minnesota, and returning to her old life in South Carolina collapses in ignominy. First she’s robbed of the Queen Buttercup crown - and accompanying scholarship - by a technicality she didn’t even know existed. Then the artist carving the butter busts of the finalists gets arrested in front of her. It’s definitely not what Jenn had planned.

Twenty-two years later, she’s Jenn Lind, the Martha of the Midwest, the Next Big Thing in lifestyle television. And it is, ironically, all thanks to the Scandinavian cooking she learned as her talent for the Miss Fawn Creek pageant all those years ago. Then her adoptive hometown invites her to take part in its sesquicentennial, along with famous sculptor Steve Jaax and his career-altering creation - the butter head. After more than two decades in the Hallesbys’ freezer, it’s something of a celebrity in its own right, as well as a potential Guinness World Record. And Jenn’s new network just can’t say no. So Jenn winds up back in the town where she never fitted in, staying with her formerly wealthy parents, with a cheerfully egotistical celebrity in tow. Things get even worse when three local losers kidnap the butter head as payback for the mayor’s laying a carpark over their dope crop, and hold it to ransom. The town bigwigs want it back for the parade. Steve wants it because it contains the key to the mausoleum vault holding his most famous work, which he had stolen twenty-two years earlier to protect it from his avaricious soon-to-be-ex wife. And his former cellmate wants it for the same reason. But Jenn’s biggest worry is that her ultra-conservative new boss will discover exactly what she did to try to divest herself of the Miss Fawn Creek crown....

This was an enjoyable screwball comedy, with likeable characters and some of the most inept crooks I’ve met outside of Janet Evanovich. Jenn was a great heroine, and proof that even in romanceland, life can begin at 40. Even though it ultimately didn’t make her happy, I still wish I had some of her drive and ambition (qualities I seem to be sadly lacking). Though I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near American Media Services. She and Steve were a perfect match: she didn’t pander to his celebrity status like the rest of his acquaintances, and pointed out a few hard facts about his career’s direction - or lack thereof. And Steve took one look at the town she had spent most of her life escaping and saw everything good about it.

As a setting, Fawn Creek was, for me, both an asset and a disadvantage. I like to read about things outside my normal life, and a tiny snow-bound village is about as far as you can get from a sprawling subtropical metropolis. But since my experience of towns of much less than 250 000 people is of the just-passing-through variety, I kept pausing to think, Is that really what life in a small town is like? Not a criticism of the author, merely a reflection on the reader.

Rating: B

09 April 2007

Easter Bookish Things

Easter Reading Yes, that is an actual portrait of my holiday TBR pile ... sometime this week there is going to have to be a visit to the library website for a spot of renewing.

It’s a wonderful feeling, waking up on Monday morning and knowing that there’s a whole week a ahead of you in which you don’t have to think about uni once; seven days of reading, writing, reading, crocheting, and reading. Or rather, five days, followed by two days of cramming for the Plant Biotech. midsemester I have at 10am on the first day back. Easter this year was originally intended to be an excuse to eat chocolate and read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But then I overindulged at the library last month, with the result that it’s actually an excuse to eat chocolate and rush through my remaining checkouts in order to borrow Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Eventually.

I got a wonderful surprise last night when I stopped by Chris’s Book-a-Rama and discovered that I’ve been nominated for a.... Thinking Blogger Award ....Thinking Blogger Award. (Thanks Chris!). So now it’s my turn to find five blogs not previously nominated - as far as I can tell - that make me think:



A Life in Books

Reading, Writing, and Stuff that Makes Me Crazy

Slipping in the Rain

The rules:

1. If, and only if you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.

2. Link to that post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.

3. Optional: Proudly display your "Thinking Blogger Award" with a link to the post that you wrote

And I was also delighted last night to see that the adaptation of My Family and Other Animals lived up to expectations; I completely forgot about the existence of The Historian, even though Dracula had just put in a personal appearance. I really do think that poor Larry got the worst of it, between opening the scorpion-filled matchbox and having his study shredded by the magpies. Which reminds me that I must get around to starting Justine.


Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian 1972: An American teenager living in Amsterdam stumbles across a strange book in her diplomat father’s library. All the pages are blank save those in the centre, which show an engraving of a fierce dragon clutching a banner emblazoned with a single word: DRAKULYA. Even more intriguing is the packet of letters with the book, addressed to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. When she asks her father about them, he begins to take her with him on his trips across Europe, telling her the story of how he came into possession of both book and letters. Piece by piece, she hears the tale of his thesis adviser, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, who once received a similar book and who vanished after giving the letters to his student; and of how he, Paul, decided to set off on a rescue mission accompanied by Rossi’s unacknowledged daughter Helen. She also discovers firsthand the kinds of warnings delivered to those who inquire too closely into the significance of ‘Drakulya’.

Then her father also disappears during a trip to Oxford, and on returning to Amsterdam she raids his desk and finds a packet of letters in which he continues his tale and reveals part of why - but not where – he’s gone. But she’s seen enough of what he was reading in the Oxford archives to work out the rest, and sets out after him, pursued and then accompanied by the Oxford grad student assigned to escort her home. Along the way they read the letters, about how Paul and Helen travelled through Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria in search of any trace not just of Rossi, but of Vlad the Impaler, the infamous fifteenth-century Wallachian ruler on whom the legend of Dracula was based. For Rossi’s research had led him to believe that Vlad might not be dead . . .

Having previously encountered vampires only by way of Anne Rice and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was good to read another, more historical, perspective. And ‘historical’ is definitely the word for this book; it’s loaded with information about mediaeval Eastern European history and the Ottoman Empire. Vlad’s antics - in life or in undeath – weren’t cheerful reading but they were interesting, and I now have a mental list of topics to read more on (him and the Ottomans, and I’d love to read a non-fiction book about the development of the vampire legend). The first part of the book made for compulsive reading, with information being revealed bit by chilling bit. Unfortunately once the nameless narrator and companion Stephen Barley found themselves stranded in the middle of the French countryside after dodging one of Dracula’s minions, it all went a bit lopsided. Letter after letter after letter, then a few sentences or paragraphs about what she and Barley were doing, then letter after letter after letter. I actually began flipping through the pages in search of any on which every paragraph didn’t begin with quotation marks. It started to feel like, rather than being the main character as I had believed, she was just a means of displaying the story of Paul and Helen. Some of the balance was restored by the end, with a nice twist, although the final confrontation had a touch of the deus ex machina about it. And I never could quite work out why Rossi would return to a line of research from which he had been comprehensively scared off. Is scholarly rivalry that strong?

But in spite of its flaws, this was still a book worth reading; after all, I do give extra points to anything that offers up some history and makes me want to head to the non-fiction section of the library. But if history’s not your thing you probably won’t find it as entertaining.

Rating: B-

08 April 2007

Book Review: Odd One Out by Monica McInerney

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #9

Odd One Out In a family composed of a poet, an artist, a fashion designer, a jewellery designer, and a stage-and-screen lighting genius, Sylvie is the odd one out: she’s an office temp. At the moment, though, she’s back living in the family home, working for her mother and sisters, and being the general dogsbody at her sister Vanessa’s wedding. The crowning humiliation comes when her great-aunt Millicent asks Sylvie - just in time to be overheard by all present - to accept a job as her companion, so they can be ‘two old maids together’.

Fortunately big brother Sebastian arrives to rescue her, dragging her down to Melbourne for three weeks to flat-sit while he’s doing a tv show’s lights on location. While Sylvie’s in residence, he has his friend Leila deliver the first clue in a treasure-hunt like those he sent her on when she was a kid. The hunt leads her first to the local bookstore and cute assistant Max, and eventually to an ill-fated meeting with her estranged father ... via an equally ill-fated dinner party at which Max meets Leila. Along the way Sylvie’s Sydney temp agency boss offers her a job managing the new Melbourne branch. But when disaster strikes back home, will Sylvie give up her new Melbourne life?

I liked Sylvie from the moment I read the words ‘At only five foot two, she’d learnt to avoid complicated patterns or fussy designs’. A fictional kindred spirit, since I am, if I’m being honest, only five foot two myself. Then I read on and learned that she was ... the general dogsbody. Not just at the wedding, but constantly, keeping things running for her mother and sisters and doing all their errands while they swanned around being their famous artistic selves. Yes, it’s another downtrodden chick-lit heroine, overworked and under-appreciated, accepting their lot until being urged to quit by concerned family and friends. Or until being hauled away by her brother. Who she called for help with the first clue. Then she turned to Max for assistance. Then she screwed up things with him before they even got off the ground by assuming he was like her ex. For which she forgot to apologise, with the result that he assumed she wasn’t interested and felt free to pursue Leila. At the dinner party which Sylvie nearly stuffed completely because she didn’t notice that all the dishes in each course had different preparation times. Finally she decided that a hectic office job wasn’t for her (even though she was happy enough to slave away for her family) and moved in with her great-aunt after all ... probably where she would have ended up if she hadn’t gone to Melbourne at all.

Okay, so everything did work out in the end. Great-Aunt Mill turned out to be quite wonderful; I had to love a character who hired her gardener as much for looks as for ability - should my mother ever win Lotto, she’s planning to do the exact same thing. Providing lodgings for music students while sorting out the effects of the late, great jazz musician whose housekeeper/mistress Mill had been for decades sounded like fun. And after he broke up with Leila and moved to Sydney, she got another chance with Max. But it did make me wonder ... can’t I have a competent chick-lit heroine? Just once? Someone in charge of her career, someone on top of her family dramas ... someone like Miranda in Isobel Wolff’s fabulous Behaving Badly, which I’m starting to think has spoiled me for the rest of the genre. (Bridget Jones is the exception to the desire for competence. Don’t know why, but she is.)

The treasure hunt also sounded fun, and I loved Sebastian, although I did lose a little of the appreciation when he manoeuvred Sylvie into meeting her father. He had ignored her existence for 21 years, and when Sebastian revealed just why their parents had divorced my sympathy was entirely with Sylvie. I wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with him either, and I couldn’t understand why Sebastian had been so forgiving.

Rating: C+

Book Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Stardust The village of Wall sits at the edge of Faerie, and once every nine years the Faery market sets up in the field beyond the wall after which the town is named. On the eve of one such event, Dunstan Thorn is promised his Heart’s Desire by a stranger. That Desire turns out to be a one-night stand with a witch’s slave, the result of which is delivered to Wall nine months later. Seventeen years after that, Tristran Thorn is head over heels in love with Victoria Forrester. Desperate to get rid of him, she promises him anything he wishes - if he brings her the star they both saw fall. Tristran promptly sets out to do just that.

The realm of Faerie soon throws up a number of surprises. Tristran discovers an uncanny ability to pinpoint the direction of any resident of Faerie he thinks of. Nursery rhymes turn out to have whole new meanings. And a star that lands in Faerie takes on human form, and a bad-tempered human at that - and one being pursued by more than just Tristran. A witch-queen wants her heart for the youth it will give her and her sisters. Madame Semele wants the heart for herself, and to spite the witch-queen. And the few surviving sons of the late eighty-first Lord of Stormhold want the necklace that knocked her out of the sky, a jewel that will cement the finder’s claim to be number eighty-two and for which each of them has killed before....

Because of the set-up required, it took a few chapters for the real story to get going, and it took a few more for the darker elements to appear. Until then, it seemed like just a fairy tale, something as light and sparkling as the glass flowers sold at the witch’s market stall. Even after the tone became more serious, the ‘fairy tale’ label stuck in my mind. But it was a charming and enjoyable fairy tale. I loved that the heroine wasn’t the sweetness and light you might expect, but cranky and prone to hurling both mud and insults. The devious and murderous potential Stormhold heirs all met fitting fates, and the clues to the identity of the missing heir were well-planted. The cleverest bit of all was the resolving of Tristran’s mother’s captivity; the terms for her release sounded improbable to impossible, yet both occurred in ways that made perfect sense once explained.

Rating: A

06 April 2007

My Top Ten Books (Finally . . .)

It’s fitting that I should post this list at Easter, since it’s something of a miracle that I got it done at all.

Choosing only ten was a huge challenge. I thought I had it nailed when I decided on the semi-hypothetical natural disaster approach: What if I had still been living in Canberra during the 18 January 2003 firestorm? What if my suburb had been evacuated? And what if I had only had room to carry ten books? That worked for all of five minutes, until I realised that, in that situation, I’d have done anything I could - knotted books up in a tablecloth if necessary - to be able to save as many treasures as possible. So I settled for contemplating which I would have grabbed off the shelves first, and which I would have most regretted the loss of.

Then it occurred to me that some of the books in my TBR pile might qualify once I’d read them. Not wanting to post the list only to change my mind a few days later, I packed in some last-minute reading. But now it’s done. Kailana asked for them, and here they are:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
A book list just wouldn’t be complete without Jane Austen, and this is my favourite.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Of course they only count as one! A highlight not just of fantasy but of literature in general; nobody, butnobody, does world-building like Tolkien.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
So the characters might not be among fiction’s most likeable, but this stormy tale of a love stronger than death is compelling and unforgettable.

Possession by A.S. Byatt
Literature and history, romance and mystery, professional rivalry ... it’s all here. The story is fantastic; and Byatt’s ability to create letters, journals, stories, book extracts, articles, and poems by multiple characters is extraordinary.

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
A complete history of philosophy for those who know nothing about philosophy, all packaged into an entertaining and intriguing story. This is one of the very few ‘young adult’ books that I’ve kept.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
The hysterically funny first and most famous of Durrell’s autobiographical books is guaranteed to keep you in stitches. It’s full of hilarious misadventures and affectionate portraits of the creatures of Corfu - and some slightly less flattering ones of his relatives. The tv adaptation is on the ABC on Sunday night; I do hope it’s as good as the book.

The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde
Totally bizarre, and utterly addictive. Time travel, Supreme Evil Beings, mnemonomoprhs, grammasites, malevolent multinationals, eradicated husbands, pet dodos, literary detectives, Montague and Capulet street gangs, and the Cheshire Cat as uberlibrarian. No matter what your preference in literature, there’s probably a reference to it somewhere in here.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
One of the original detective stories, and one of the best, with a plot full of twists and turns that any modern writer would envy.

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Say what you will about Andrew Lloyd Webber, he’s got great taste in inspiration. This horror story about the Paris Opera and its all-too-corporeal ghost is still creepy a century after it was written. And in answer to those unspoken questions ... no, I have not seen the musical - yet - and yes, I did enjoy the movie.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
I borrowed this from the library last semester and was utterly enchanted by Holly Golightly.

And a totally cheating eleventh, eleventh-hour addition on 14 April ...
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
A strong and principled heroine, a hero who loves her no matter what, and issues still relevant today. It was love at first page.

Honourable mentions: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray; Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon; Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer (so close). I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves (if only he hadn’t portrayed the - apparently perfectly respectable - empress as a murderous bitch who offed half the family - including, ultimately, Augustus himself). The Hitchhiker’s series by Douglas Adams (sadly, I’ve only read three of them). And finally, the Nancy Drew books, single-handedly responsible for getting me hooked on crime fiction. Fourteen years later, I’m still addicted.

05 April 2007

Book Review: The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #8

The Woman Who Walked into Doors After the death of her estranged husband, Paula Spencer tries to adapt to a life in which Charlo is gone for good, and struggles to stay off the bottle (at least until the kids have gone to bed). Along the way she slowly reveals the desperate act the brought about his demise. She also travels, through her memories: first her childhood, then meeting Charlo, their courtship and marriage, and the descent of that marriage into her alcoholism and his violence, right up to the one thing that finally made her literally kick him out of the house.

Despite its potentially dreary subject-matter, I loved this book. The characterisation is amazing; the reader is put right inside Paula’s head, with all the lies and excuses and self-blame of a battered woman. It could all have been horribly depressing, but Paula’s determination to do the best she can for her children provides the needed bit of light and hope. The book also gives a vivid picture of growing up and living in working-class Dublin, though some of the references to contemporary tv shows and music were lost on me.

This is a brilliant portrait, and I will definitely be reading more by Roddy Doyle in future.

Rating: A-

04 April 2007

Book Review: Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

Something Rotten Welcome to a warped version of 1988, where dodos, thylacines, mammoths and Neanderthals are commonplace; fictional characters can exit the BookWorld; England is ruled officially by the president-for-life and unofficially by the malevolent multinational Goliath; and literature is taken very, very seriously. All of which means that Spec-Ops officer and Jurisfiction agent Thursday Next has her hands full.

The Minotaur has escaped from his PrisonBook and was last seen in the Western genre, using the alias Norman Johnson and leaving a trail of Slapstick behind him. PageRunner and would-be dictator Yorrick Kaine has launched an anti-Denmark campaign, and no-one at Jurisfiction can work out which book he’s escaped from. Hamlet is staying with Thursday, pretending to be her mad Cousin Eddie, while she works out how to separate his play from The Merry Wives of Windsor, with which it merged after a hostile takeover. Her best bet is to get a rewrite from a cloned Shakespeare - if there’s any left alive. There’s an assassin named the Windowmaker after her, plus her officially-sanctioned stalker Millon de Floss. She has to get Goliath to uneradicate her husband - and keep him uneradicated. A fictional evil galactic overlord wants her to stop his author killing him off. Her brother is playing host to a newly-resurrected thirteenth-century saint, who may or may not be a renegade member of the ChronoGuard, possibly aided by her time-travelling father. Who wants Thursday to avert an apocalypse by ensuring Swindon win an unwinnable SuperHoop croquet final. Not to mention the ten truckloads of banned Danish books she has to smuggle across the border to the Socialist Republic of Wales. And the equally challenging task of finding a babysitter for two-year-old Friday....

If all of this sounds chaotic, you’re right. And if you haven’t read the preceding books in the series (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots) you’re likely to end up somewhat confused. But if you have, you’re in for a treat. Like the rest of the series, this book is wildly inventive, hilariously funny, and a bookworm’s delight (especially if you love Shakespeare). After four books, I think I’ve figured out part of why this series works so well: create an alternate reality sufficiently outrageous, and no matter how eccentric your characters or bizarre your events, everything will fit right in. And somehow everything does. Being set in the real world, it’s not quite as off-the-wall as, say, The Well of Lost Plots, and I was a little disappointed by the brevity of the time spent in the BookWorld. But I didn’t stay that way for long; impossible with a book that makes you laugh as much as this. It’s not all fun and games, though; there are some truly touching moments among the comedy. And I am still in awe of Fforde’s ability to have characters time-travelling all over the place without ever getting tangled up in the potential paradoxes.

For fans of Thursday Next, this is a must-read.

Rating: A-

02 April 2007

Book Review: The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

The Rachel Papers Counting down the hours until his twentieth birthday, Charles Highway reflects on the accomplishment of the last item on his teenage to do list. That item was an Older Woman, specifically Rachel, one month his senior. Staying with his sister and brother-in-law in London, studying desultorily for his Oxford entrance, he pursues her, recording everything in his notebooks as he does everything else in his life. But though Rachel seems perfect, things don’t quite go to plan

Amis certainly knows how to keep a reader interested and entertained; this book was very readable, often amusing, and I was intrigued by the possibilities of what would happen at the stroke of midnight. I was also interested to see the workings of English university admission in the seventies: multiple exams, interviews ... very different from what I had to do (put my preferences into a computer; I had the marks, they had the space, so I was in). Charles was an unusual character; when not occupied with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, he was reading centuries-old poetry and highbrow literary criticism. I didn’t find his reading tastes hard to believe; I actually went to high school with a couple like him (well, except for the sex and the drugs and in one case the rock ’n’ roll). Despite impending adulthood, he still at times behaved like a typical teenager, dismissing his elders with exaggerated descriptions of their flaws. His thorough annotation and cross-referencing of every detail of his life and acquaintances, and meticulous planning of events, managed not to appear obsessive. Rather, it almost seemed a potentially endearing sign of insecurity.

Unfortunately he spoiled this impression the rest of the time by coming across as a pretentious, supercilious, chauvinistic little git. He assumes that lone girls at a party probably have something wrong with them; divides the whole gender into ‘up for it’ and ‘seriously impaired’. He thinks less of Rachel because she’s ‘not a fastidious reader’ and because she won’t go down on him (although he does at least have the good grace to feel ashamed after he tries to force her). His Oxford essays are ostentatiously intellectual; I was delighted when the don interviewing him told him to quit reading the critics and just decide whether or not he liked the poem and why. Not that I expect it made much difference; by the end of the book he hadn’t changed at all. And there really are only so many times you can stand to read about a character hawking up spit or powdering his balls. Yet though I disliked Charles, I didn’t dislike the book.

Rating: B-

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