31 May 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Paper or Plastic?

Do you read e-Books?
If so, how? On your computer, or a PDA?
Or are you a paper purist? Why?
Paper. I love browsing libraries, bookshops, and Bookfests. I love the sound of pages turning and the sight of my favourites lined up on the shelves. I love being able to mark my place easily and to flip back through the pages without losing my spot (even if paper books do require bookmarks; I’m always losing them). And I really love being able to read anywhere, anytime. I know that a PDA makes ebooks portable, but I can’t afford one so if I was to read ebooks I’d have to do it sitting in front of my PC; uncomfortable, inconvenient and without a decent view of the tv. But even with a PDA, I’d probably still stick to paper.

Book Review: The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

New Year’s Reading Resolution #13

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing As a teenager, Jane Rosenal tries to make sense of the dating game by observing her big brother. But that doesn’t stop her needing a lot of trial and error later on. She moves from one Mr Wrong to the next, while struggling to keep her career on track and cope with her family. Just when all seems hopeless, she hears about a book called How to Meet and Marry Mr Right, which claims to guarantee success in landing a man. After summoning the nerve to take it to the bookshop counter, she attempts to put its principles into practice. Will they work, or not?

I finished this book in one day. Normally that would be a huge compliment, but it this case it was merely to make sure I’d finish it well before the Bill Bryson, because I knew I’d need Bryson to cheer me up afterwards. I didn’t realise it till now, but if you threw in a bit more label-dropping you’d have the perfect chick-lit cliché. I was bored senseless and only the knowledge that if I didn’t finish it today, I’d have to face it tomorrow, kept me going. Fortunately the prose was easy to skim through so it was only the plot and the characters that were the problem. That, and the two chapters that didn’t fit in with the rest of the book. Most of it was first-person narration by Jane, then suddenly it switched to her late aunt’s neighbour. I kept waiting for the reason for this to be revealed, but nothing happened. A later chapter was even more bizarre: second-person narration by who-knows-who. The two misfits and the main story shared the topic of disreputable men, but that was the only connection.

I had believed that this was a great book with a great heroine, but I never warmed up to Jane - in fact, I cooled down. At the start I reminded myself that it’s probably normal for a teenager to be judgmental and catty. She did get nicer, but she spent ages in a dead-end relationship with a man more than twice her age. She let her new boss turn her into a glorified PA. Then she read the book, and proceeded to hold imaginary conversations in which the authors exhorted her to stick to their inane rules for landing a man. ‘Nothing is more compelling to a man than lack of interest,’ one of them tells her. (Really? I would have thought nothing was more likely to make a man think you’re not interested.) And of course Jane nearly loses her best prospect because of the rules before finally realising her mistake.

I was also under the impression - strongly reinforced by the review quotes on the back - that this was a funny book. ‘Laugh out loud’ I think one of them said, but I didn’t even smile. All the things Jane said or thought that I suppose were meant to be humorous, I found smart-arsed or bitchy. Well, okay. I did smile once ... on the last page. A tiny bit because Jane finally got Mr Right, but mostly because I was finished - and because I could give it a gentle celebratory throw to the foot of the bed.

There. Catharsis. I feel much better now.

Rating: D

N.B. Between writing this review and posting it, I went hunting for other reviews in the hope that I wasn’t the only person who hated it. Turns out it’s not a novel at all, but a collection of short stories, a fact not so much as hinted at anywhere. Indeed the blurb makes it sound definitely sequential. I guess that would account for the misfit ‘chapters’ - sort of. I considered revising my grading in light of new information, but decided that to do so would imply it had some redeeming feature beyond being easy to skim through. (And no, I was not alone. In the minority, though.)

30 May 2007

Book Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Once upon a time England was divided in two: the southern half ruled by mortal kings and queens, the northern by the magician-king John Uskglass. But by the early nineteenth century the Raven King has long since vanished and the study of magic has become purely theoretical - until an old prophecy foretelling the rise of two magicians, Fearfulness and Arrogance, comes true. Fearfulness is Gilbert Norrell, a recluse who has studied for decades in secrecy on his Yorkshire estate. With the aid of his servant John Childermass, he has bought up books of magic in order that no-one else might read them and destroyed the magical careers of potential rivals. When his talents finally come to public attention, he moves to London and embarks upon the restoration of English magic. Arrogance is Jonathan Strange, who decides that magician is as good a career as any and soon arrives in the capital with his fortune and his wife. As much as Norrell hates the thought of a rival, the opportunity to discuss magic with a fellow magician - and to instil in them his own views on what constitutes Good English Magic - proves irresistible. Together master and pupil rise to fame.

After Buonaparte’s escape from Elba the relationship begins to fall apart. Norrell stays in London, firmly under the influence of his disreputable patrons Drawlight and Lascelles. Strange travels to the continent with Wellington where he acquires a reputation for spectacular magic, including blithely rearranging Spain and neglecting to arrange it back. On his return to England the two become rivals, each vying to be the first magician of the age. This is only one of Norrell’s problems; he is surrounded by arguments and troubled by thoughts of Lady Pole. To capture the attention of the political elite, he once brought the young woman back from the dead - with the aid of a fairy, a type of being he would normally avoid. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair has taken a rather different interpretation of the terms of their contract than Norrell had intended; and, unable to see things from anyone’s perspective but his own, he has continued drawing people into his enchantments. As magic floods back into England, Norrell’s dreams of establishing his own brand of magic fade. Meanwhile Strange discovers that his obsession with books and with his search for the Raven King could have cost him what he values most. And the only person who can help him is Norrell.

This seems to be my year for reading doorstoppers and this was, if not the longest, definitely the biggest. I was restricted to reading it at home because it was too large to carry on the train. It’s large in scope as well as in size, spanning some 11 years and including a vast array of characters; the above paragraphs contain only the barest bones of the plot. Inevitably some characters got lost in the crowd; my curiosity as to what became of Mrs Brandy, for instance, was never satisfied. I also experienced intermittent frustration as plot threads disappeared for chapters at a time before resurfacing, and early on there were moments where I had to pause to recall just who a particular person was.

The writing style was what you might expect if, say, Thackeray had written a history of Regency magic. The text was littered with period spellings and place names (such as Soho-square and Bond-street) and well-supplied with footnotes (some of which even referred to other footnotes). I thought these were a lovely way of providing all the background information relevant to the alternate history Clarke has created; much better than dumping it awkwardly into the story. The amount of information thus revealed was amazing; everything from old legends to fictitious biographical and bibliographical data. The book even starts with background: the events leading up to Mr Norrell’s first public display of magic. I have to admit to getting a touch impatient waiting for the arrival of Jonathan Strange, which was finally heralded by the entertaining tale of how he came into his inheritance (karma really caught up with Strange senior). Once I got used to the pace and was familiar with the cast, I got over the frustration and happily dived into the book every night. From the mythology to the characters to the period style infused with humour, I found it all thoroughly enchanting (sorry) and it will be with reluctance that I hand it back to the library.

At first I rather liked Mr Norrell, and even after it became clear what sort of person he really was I had a hard time disliking him; I actually felt somewhat sorry for him, with his dried-up life and hopeless dreams. He certainly wasn’t a villain in the class of Drawlight, Lascelles and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, all of whom met fitting fates. The latter even managed inadvertently to fulfill one of his own predictions, which came true in a perfectly logical manner that was not at all what he had planned. (Justice, really, for his tricking of Norrell). I’m a little ambivalent about the ending of the book; on the one hand it wrapped up in a sensible place (of course a book about the reintroduction of magic to England will end once that’s been accomplished), and it provided me with plenty of food for thought. But it was also frustrating because there was obviously so much more that could have been told. Did Childermass find a new Reader? Did Strange and Norrell break the enchantment or find the Raven King? You can imagine what you like. I choose to think the Mr Norrell found a bit of happiness at last, wandering the King’s Roads and seeing magic in action.

Rating: A-

27 May 2007

Book Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #12

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit Jeanette is not like other girls. She doesn’t attend school until forced by law, and until then is taught odd smatterings of knowledge by her fervently religious mother. She learns biology from the Bible and geography by following the progress of missionaries from reports on the radio. Active in the church and its touring campaigns of conversion, she is destined to be a missionary herself. Those plans receive a check when she comes to realise just how different she is: Jeanette likes other girls.

Her experimental relationship with best friend Melanie ends disastrously; Melanie, a committed convert, abandons her in favour of a church-sanctioned life and Jeanette is subjected to days of exorcism for her ‘demons’. Eventually she decides that if she cannot change she must leave; but she discovers that the past can never be completely left behind.

I might have made it sound more interesting than it actually was. Standing on the platform yesterday morning, I realised that if I wasn’t facing a long day with nothing else to read, I wouldn’t feel much inclination to continue. Not that I had any particular aversion to it; I just didn’t have any particular interest and could have quit without regret. I think it worked better as a portrait of religious oddity that as an actual story with plot, and I was after the latter. As it was, despite being set in the UK it reminded me somewhat of the documentary God on my Side. Unfortunately the book lacked the film’s train-wreck fascination (or perhaps it just lacked Andrew Denton). No: what was missing was any real sense of connection to the characters. And am I the only one who finds it a little weird when authors name main characters after themselves?

It also lacked coherence; I found it hard to gauge the passage of time and so couldn’t form a clear mental image of the protagonist (should I be picturing a child or a teenager?), and the book was littered with fragments of legends and fairy tales. Sometimes it was possible to see the relevance of these to the main plot, but sometimes not, and it could be jarring to be switched back and forth. But Winterson has a pleasant writing style with touches of humour and I would be willing to give her books another chance or two - but no more.

Rating: C

26 May 2007

Book Review: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

2007 TBR Challenge #5

My 100th post!

The Vicar of Wakefield This novel recounts the ups and downs (or to be more accurate, the many downs and then the ups) of the Primrose family, whose patriarch is the titular vicar. When the man with whom they have invested their savings absconds under a cloud of bankruptcy, the Primroses are obliged to remove to another town and embark on a more frugal life. This proves to be only the first in a string of disasters, not the least of which is their acquaintance with Mr Thornhill, their landlord and an unscrupulous rake with his eye on both the Primrose daughters. A swindler, a fire, debt, abduction, dishonour and imprisonment all follow on the heels of their original bad fortune before luck is restored by the schemes of conman Ephraim Jenkinson and a healthy dose of coincidence. All helped along, of course, by the goodnaturedness of the family, which gets its reward in the end.

The plot was of the most straightforward variety, and proved that whoever Murphy was, his law was alive and well in 1760s fiction. Every disaster that could befall the family, proceeded to do so, until it began to verge on the melodramatic. But it managed to skirt this fate, just as - for the most part, at least - it avoided becoming a morality tale. The exception was the chapter composed solely of an address by the vicar to the inmates of a debtors’ prison. Fortunately it was short, although the reforms he wrought in the place seemed rather too good to be true.

The best part, to my mind, was the ending, where matches were made, imprisonments reversed, fortunes restored, and identities revealed. It could have all been a bit too neat but the coincidences were accounted for and it was fun to see the villain brought down by his own co-conspirators. And such a lovely fate for him! Guaranteed to put a crimp in his style. The final schemes cemented Jenkinson’s place as my favourite character of the bunch, ahead of the vicar’s wife with her little touches of vanity and the vicar himself. He had just about the patience of a saint in dealing with all their misfortunes, but enough small flaws to prevent him from being irritatingly perfect. This is perhaps one for the classics fans, but one worth reading.

Rating: B-

24 May 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Parlez Vous?

I had an idea for a BTT question when I was taking a peek at one of my bookcases yesterday and spotted my old copy of the Aeneid in Latin sitting there. Maybe this question has already been done — but if not… Do you have any foreign language books and if so can you (still) read them?
My answer to the second part of this has to be a giant resounding NO. I am deplorably monolingual, despite the best efforts of my primary school and high school to make me otherwise. Spanish, French, Indonesian ... I displayed not the slightest aptitude for any of them. (Which is frustrating, as I have no trouble picking up new words of English.) Perhaps it’s the foreign grammar that trips me up, or maybe I wasn’t trying that hard. I’m one of those people who need to keep a French-English dictionary on hand to deal with anything more complicated that a mon ami or c’est la vie, and one of my pet peeves is long, untranslated sentences in Latin or French or whatever, from authors who take it for granted that their readers will understand.

As for the first part: I do have a rather elderly novel that came from the estate of my late grandmother ... written entirely in Dutch. God only knows what possessed my father to bring it back from Sydney with him as he should have known I can’t read a word of the language. Perhaps the appeal lay in the fact that the title character has the same first name as me. It’s still sitting on the living room bookshelves and I have absolutely no idea what I’m ever going to do with it.

I would love to know another language; that’s on my list of things to do one day ... eventually....

Page 161

Dancin’ Fool has tagged me for another of the memes that has been doing the rounds lately:

Grab the book that is nearest to you (no cheating), turn to page 161, post the text of the fifth full sentence on the page, post the rules and tag three people.
From Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell I got Sir Walter regarded this lapse into silence and indifference as highly alarming.

Hmm ... intriguing, I suppose! I’m going to tag HeidiJane at Adventures in Bookland, Sarah at Book Buff in Oz, and Tanabata at In Spring it is the Dawn.

20 May 2007

Eight Things About Me

I stumbled across this meme the other night and decided that if I hadn’t been tagged by the end of the weekend I’d take up Raidergirl’s open invitation. Then Bookfool tagged me! (Thanks for that). And while looking for people to tag, I discovered that HeidiJane has tagged me too!

Here are the rules:

1: Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
2: People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
3: At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names.
4: Don't forget to leave them a comment and tell them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

Eight Things About Me

1. I sleep like the dead; telephones, vacuum cleaners, loud music, roaring traffic, neighbours with power tools, thunderstorms and earth tremors have all failed to wake me. My mother is the exact opposite and I’ve lost count of the number of morning conversations we’ve had like this:

‘How about that storm last night?’
‘What storm?’
‘You mean you didn’t hear it?’
‘Hear what?’
‘But it was loud enough to wake the dead!’
‘Er, well ... obviously not....’
She’s often joked about installing a cannon.

2. I will freely reveal my weight, but I will always lie about my height; I never admit to being anything less than 160cm.

3. I say I’m a lefty because that’s the hand I write with, but I’m right-handed at every sport my high school made me try ... except archery, at which I’m left-handed. I use a spoon with my left hand and scissors with my right and, bizarrely, I knit right-handed and crochet left-handed. (I’m hoping all this means I’ve got a well-balanced brain.)

4. When I was younger my bedtime reading material of choice was the Collins English Dictionary, and nowadays I can often be found browsing through encyclopaedias for fun.

5. I am fanatical about sunscreen and if it’s daylight I will never leave the house without SPF 30+, even if I’m only going to check the letterbox.

6. During exams, if I have time I’ll correct all the spelling and punctuation errors in the question paper. In red ink.

7. When I was little I used to collect rocks - any rocks. I drove my mum nuts by constantly arriving home from school with my pockets full of pebbles quarried in the sandpit. I am much more discerning now; the only rocks I bring home are of the semiprecious variety and have holes drilled in them ready to turn into jewellery. :-)

8. Strange but true: I once had the living daylights startled out of me in Phnom Penh by a gecko leaping out of a toaster.

Now I’m supposed to nominate eight more people, so I’ve hunted around for fresh blood and decided on:

Acquisitionist at Literary Acquisitionist
Dancin’ Fool at In The Pink
Marianne Arkins at Reading, Writing, and Stuff That Makes Me Crazy
RhiGirl at Slipping in the Rain
Sarah in the Sky With at Wannabe Inkling
StuckInABook at Stuck in a Book
Sulz at Bloggerdybooks!
And anyone else who feels like it.

I don’t think any of them have been tagged; if I’ve doubled up, smile because you’re popular :-). Your mission should you choose to accept it: complete this meme - and try to find facts more interesting than mine!

19 May 2007

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #11

The Secret Life of Bees At the age of four, Lily Owens accidentally caused her mother’s death. Ten years later, she’s stifled by life with her harsh father T. Ray and receives her only affection from their black servant Rosaleen. When the Civil Rights Act is passed into law Rosaleen decides to register to vote, and when some local rednecks hassle her it’s Rosaleen who gets arrested. Faced by T. Ray’s wrath and the knowledge that Rosaleen’s continued defiance could well get her killed, Lily runs away - and takes Rosaleen with her. Running from the law, Lily goes in search of her mother’s past, heading for the town whose name is written on one of her few mementos: Tiburon, South Carolina. There they find their way to the home of the beekeeping Boatwright sisters: softhearted May, cool June, and August, who shares with Lily her wisdom regarding both bees and life.

Filled with guilt over her lies, and unaccustomed to being, with her white skin, in the minority, Lily nevertheless begins to settle into life in the pink house. Watched over by Rosaleen, the sisters, and their fellow Daughters of Mary, she faces up to prejudices she never knew she had and finds the happiness and acceptance she never got at home. She also comes closer to understanding not only her mother, but her father as well.

I can see why this book has been so popular and rather regret having left it unread in my library pile for weeks. With a few obvious exceptions the characters were all greatly likeable and I spent several happy train journeys with smiles on my face or tears in my eyes. August in particular was wonderful; it’s a shame everyone can’t know an August. Lily won me over with her ability to hope and I was thrilled to see June, hurt by one man and determined never to give another the same chance, finally decide to grab hold of life. There was also some interesting information in there on beekeeping; it’s and unusual topic so there was a lot I didn’t know about the practice and history of apiary. And it was good to see that, after believing her mother to be perfect and her father the villain, Lily discovered that neither was wholly either and the truth wasn’t black-and-white but more complex and real.

What was a mystery to Lily wasn’t much of a mystery to me, however; I saw nearly clear through it at once. Several other things, too, I saw coming a mile away. But I closed the book with a smile, feeling all warm and fuzzy and very glad that I had gone outside my normal reading range to visit 1960s America.

Rating: B+

17 May 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Bookless

It happens even to the best readers from time to time … you close the cover on the book you’re reading and discover, to your horror, that there’s nothing else to read. Either there’s nothing in the house, or nothing you’re in the mood for. Just, nothing that “clicks.” What do you do?? How do you get the reading wheels turning again?
Lack of books is never a problem; more like the opposite! I generally have multiple piles and types of books waiting to be read. But every now and then I get ‘booked out’ ; I just can’t face the thought of picking up yet another book. Sometimes this is a sign that I’ve been overdoing it lately, but sometimes I just need a change. When reading fatigue strikes I just abandon all thoughts of books and find other things to do - often quite a challenge! Sooner or later the urge to read will come back, and when it does I begin with something light (so as not to scare it off again!). Before long I'll be going through as many books as ever.

15 May 2007

Book Review: Daughter of the Game by Tracy Grant

Daughter of the Game After an adventurous life during the Napoleonic Wars as a ‘diplomatic attaché’ Charles Fraser has settled down to London life. He has a seat in Parliament, a house in Berkeley Square, a wonderful wife, and two beautiful children. Then six-year-old Colin is kidnapped, and the Marques de Carevalo demands as ransom the Carevalo Ring. Centuries old and shrouded in legend, this long-lost family heirloom would serve as a powerful rallying point for mustering the Spanish populace to an overthrow of king and country. There’s just one hitch: the Frasers don’t have the ring. And Carevalo’s deadline leaves them less than five days to find it; something no-one has managed in seven years.

Before the hunt can get properly underway, however, there’s a bigger shock to come, as Charles’s wife Mélanie reveals that she is not at all what she claimed to be. And he soon learns that many people, and even he himself, are not who he thought. In the middle of the desperate search for the ring, Charles must face up to his own past before he can begin to accept hers. He also has to find a way to keep that one portion of the facts from Jeremy Roth, the intelligent and suspicious Bow Street inspector in charge of the case. As Mélanie tries to plan for a future in which both she and her devoted maid Blanca could be cast out by the men they love, the couple must overcome the threatened destruction of their relationship and work together. Not only to find the ring and save Colin, but to save each other from a series of increasingly dangerous ‘accidents’. And the Carevalo Ring is being hunted by more people than just them.

Mélanie Fraser was the perfect antidote to Constance Chatterley. She survived horrors before she met Charles and shared in his hair-raising exploits afterward. When the need arose, she didn’t shy away from telling Charles the truth about herself, even though she knew it could cost her everything. Nor would she keep on the sidelines like an aristocratic lady should, but plunged into the less savoury parts of London in search of the ring. It was obvious how well-suited she and Charles were, which provided at least a glimmer of hope for their future when things seemed darkest.

This is the first re-read that I’ve reviewed, and it holds up well the second time around. Knowing the identity of the last-revealed villain and remembering many of the twists and turns, I got to enjoy reading it more slowly. Without being caught up in the pace of the hunt, I could pick up all those hints that I missed the first time and admire how it all fitted together. (And having a taste for the classics, I had to love the fact that several of those clues were based on Shakespeare.) One thing I didn’t remember was the solution to the coded message that at one point became their only means of finding Colin; so I had the fun of cracking it all over again. Knowing all the secrets didn’t much dim my enjoyment, as the characters and the historical setting are so wonderful. The history here is all in the details, like the peeling silver gilt on a chandelier in a gaming hell trying to look better than it is, or a piece of canvas painted in imitation of a Persian rug in a debtors’ prison. Charles’s struggle to come to terms with Mélanie’s past is almost as compelling as the search for the ring; and while one of the kidnappers remains offstage, the other is one of the book’s most intriguing characters. Another favourite was Roth. He is initially uncomfortable working for a couple whose politics diametrically oppose his own, and who take for granted a lifestyle that includes a house whose small parlour is more than twice the size of his only parlour. And for a while it seemed that his conviction that there was something not quite right in the Fraser household would upset everything. But in the end he was the one who made sure that everything was wrapped up as well as possible.

I seem to recall that there’s a second book featuring the Frasers; I’ll have to start looking for it at the library.

Rating: A

11 May 2007

Which Austen Heroine Are You?

Thanks to Just Another Blogger I found this fun little way to kill time between lectures.

I am Elizabeth Bennet!

Take the Quiz here!

:: L I Z Z Y ::

You are Elizabeth Bennet of Pride & Prejudice! You are intelligent, witty, and tremendously attractive. You have a good head on your shoulders, and oftentimes find yourself the lone beacon of reason in a sea of silliness. You take great pleasure in many things. You are proficient in nearly all of them, though you will never own it. Lest you seem too perfect, you have a tendency toward prejudgement that serves you very ill indeed.

Woohoo! Now if only I could find a Darcy....

10 May 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Ask Not Where, But Where Not?

So, judging by last week’s answers, apparently the question I should have been asking was:

Where DON’T you read??

Funny you should ask, because I found myself in a dilemma just this morning. The puzzle was this: Is it, or is it not, bad manners to take a book into a lab class? I had a Med Biotech prac this afternoon, involving a set of samples had to be incubated for 1 hour, then loaded into a gel and electrophoresed for another. Two hours of sitting around doing absolutely nothing - normally that would be the perfect excuse to pull out a book. And if the lab work was done individually I would have. But we have to work in pairs, and arriving book in hand just advertises one’s intention of completely ignoring one’s lab partner. That was my intention, as she’s annoyed me since turning up to the first class an hour late, totally disorganised, and calling me ‘darl’, but I didn’t like to make it obvious. So Daughter of the Game stayed in my bag in my locker. Fortunately the incubation and running times were halved, but that was still a boring afternoon of staring out the window at the Riverside Expressway.

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve been tempted, but I have always - so far - refrained from reading in pracs. I also don’t read while walking, and I try not to read while cooking (well, not too much) because of the chance of culinary disaster. And I don’t read while crocheting (but only because I don’t have three hands). Other than that, if I can read, I probably will.

Book Review: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #10

The Fifth Child Harriet and David have always wanted the same thing: a big house filled with children. And despite the disapproval of their families - who think they’re selfish for continuing to produce kids in quick succession and in defiance of their relatively limited means - they set out to claim their vision of domestic bliss. Just when they think perfect happiness is theirs, Harriet discovers she is pregnant yet again - only this time, something is different. She can feel it; the child she is carrying doesn’t like her and can’t wait to be free of her. From the moment Ben is born with his cold goblin eyes, he is troublesome. Bad-tempered, fast-growing, and possessed of an almost unnatural strength ... he casts a blight over the happiness of everyone in the house. Visitors stop coming and his four older siblings seek refuge in boarding schools, in the homes of relatives, in hysteria. Yet Harriet cannot find anyone in authority to admit what all can see - that Ben is something other. Something not quite human ...

This novella was an enjoyable and imaginative read; I don’t think I’d come across a monstrous child in my reading before and the explanation offered for Ben’s difference was eerily plausible. There were some chilling moments, and even the early chapters were creepy because I knew the happiness wouldn’t last; I was mentally counting off children and waiting for number five. But for the most part I didn’t find it particularly frightening; it wasn’t anything that would make me start looking over my shoulder (though if there were any strange children in the neighbourhood, I might!). I later realised that for someone who had, or wanted, children it could have had more of an impact; the possibility of producing an abnormal child must be one of humankind’s most basic fears.

It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that I didn’t side with Harriet and David’s relatives during the disagreements. I could see why they wanted to keep on having children they were struggling to afford; something that in the real world I can never quite fathom.

Rating: B

09 May 2007

Book Review: Justine by Lawrence Durrell

Justine Living in solitude on a Greek island, the narrator gathers his memories of life in Alexandria before the Second World War. There he becomes entangled with the mysterious Justine, a woman driven by her past. Added into the mix are her husband; a third-rate cabaret dancer; a diplomat; an intelligence officer; a writer; an artist; a Cabalist; and other residents of the city. They drift through each others’ lives until death, disappearance, and the looming threat of war scatter them.

I’d been curious about this, the first book of the Alexandria Quartet ever since stumbling upon the fact that the long-suffering Larry of My Family and Other Animals did indeed become a writer. And from page 1 I had high hopes of liking it. The writing had a lyrical quality; and the meandering nature of the plot - with events ordered not by simple chronology but by ‘the order in which they became significant’ - meant that a bit of brainpower was required to assemble thing into a sequence. But I soon realised that the story had a tendency to get bogged down in literary and intellectual flourishes; oddball metaphors were rampant and at times it was difficult to work out what on Earth he was going on about. For instance: ’We are standing before the Chinese paintings from the Louvre ... There is no form, no lens, no pigment anymore - simply a gaping hole into which the infinite drains slowly into the room: a blue gulf where the tiger’s body was, emptying itself into the preoccupied atmosphere of the studios’. (Uh, yeah ... I recall having the same thought whilst strolling through the National Gallery - not.)

I also wished that the characters would have an absolutely ordinary conversation instead of spouting Ideas (and I can’t help feeling that I should include that capital letter). Information about the nature of the characters was revealed not so much through their own actions as by other characters’ psychoanalysis of them. Which is of course not necessarily accurate: who knows what the truth of them was. The character that is clearest in my mind is the city itself. And I think that in a week’s time I’ll have only a vague recollection of what actually happened, and will remember just a handful of characters and incidents surrounded by masses of words. A fine example of the literary arts perhaps, but truly readable only in sections.

Rating: C

06 May 2007

Book Review: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Banned Books Challenge #2

Lady Chatterley’s Lover Constance, Lady Chatterley, has what seems like an ideal life: marriage into the gentry and a fine home on the profitable estate of Wragby. Then her husband Clifford returns from the First World War in a wheelchair, and the changes this brings out in him slowly creates a gulf between them. He becomes absorbed in his writing and the workings of his colliery, while she stagnates in boredom and apathy. An escape finally presents itself in the form of an affair, with a man not only married, but a servant - her husband’s gamekeeper. Oliver Mellors has spent enough time in the army to learn to mimic the speech and manners of society, but also to despise it; the job in the woods offers a hermit-like solitude away from the world. But the world intrudes in the form of his estranged wife, determined to get him back. Ensconcing herself in his cottage, she discovers his secret and begins trumpeting it to anyone who’ll listen. Mellors is faced with the choice of losing either Connie or his sanctuary; and a pregnant Connie must decide whether to stay at Wragby with a husband she doesn’t love but will raise any child of hers as his own, or braving the censure of society in order to follow her heart.

Reading this book it was easy to imagine what a shock it must have created back in the 1920s. The characters don’t just have sex, they think about it and talk about it, with a good peppering of four-letter words. Connie’s choice of lover must also have raised a lot of eyebrows - a servant! (Horror of horrors.) It was a great choice for the Banned Books Challenge, having been blacklisted for decades before landing its publisher in court on obscenity charges. I had to admire the guts it must have taken to bring such a work into the world at such a time, and am very glad I read it; it really is a landmark achievement of literature.

In terms of readability, it started out well and promised to be much more interesting than Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, which I started several years ago and got thoroughly bored with. But by the halfway point, the book was beginning to drag, largely due to Lady Chatterley herself. She was so passive, just letting things happen to her and not doing a thing to change the dull routine of her life. At first her character was well-drawn enough that I didn’t mind, but it went on too long. The start of the affair was Mellors’s doing, not hers, and even when she actively sought him out it was only because she couldn’t help herself and didn’t have the willpower to resist the urge. She also became unbearably clingy, constantly needing reassurances as to his love for her, his knowledge of her love for him, and the fact of their having a future together away from Wragby. She dragged the pace of the book into a decrescendo such that thirty pages from the end I was already mentally raiding my TBR box for a book with a much more spirited heroine.

Rating: B-

03 May 2007

Booking Through Thursday: R.I.P.

No, not THAT kind of R.I.P.

Reading. In. Public.

Do you do it? Why or why not?

Do I do it? Do I ever! Tomorrow, for instance, I will read: on the platform waiting for the train; on the train; in the classroom before the lecture starts; during the mid-lecture break; in the City Botanic Gardens between lectures; before my second lecture; mid-second lecture; on the platform; on the train. Even ten spare minutes is enough for me to dig out a book; I never leave home without one. And I have to admit ... I have even read a book in the queue at the supermarket checkout!

Why? Because I see no reason not to, and good reason to do so. I cannot stand being bored; a legacy I guess from my primary school days when I was bored senseless for years. I can spend three quarters of an hour staring out the train window if I have a lot to think about, but I prefer to read. It’s a nice, portable means of filling in what would otherwise be dead time; and by reading in public I can guarantee that even on Fridays, when I have three classes and only one hour off in nine, I will still have plenty of time to read. Getting absorbed in a book is also a great way to tune out noisy fellow commuters!

Book Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

2007 TBR Challenge #4

Picnic at Hanging Rock On Valentine’s Day, 1900, a group set out from the exclusive Appleyard College for lunch by the towering rock formation known as Hanging Rock. Four girls leave the group and begin an ascent of the rocks. Only one returns, in hysterics, and a teacher is also discovered to be missing. The consequences of the ‘College Mystery’ fan out from the school, touching staff, boarders, and locals. Some of the results are happy, but others are fatal. As the investigation proceeds a few clues and witnesses are found, but these only raise more questions about a mystery that may never be solved.

This book, and the subsequent classic Australian movie, have generated a lot of speculation, due to the author’s deliberate vagueness as to whether it was based on a true story. It’s interesting to read the book and see the almost journalistic touches used to lend weight to the idea; excerpts from official statements, newspaper articles, even, at one point, a footnote. The fact the there are some loose ends also creates an air of verisimilitude; this is not a mystery novel, more a novel about a mystery. For the most part I didn’t mind the inconclusiveness, but I wondered if this was just because I’d seen the movie and so knew what to expect. If I hadn’t, and had been expecting some answers, I might have found it frustrating; and I am still puzzled by one thing that ought to have been impossible.

While not an exceptional novel, it was definitely worth reading; the ‘mysteriousness’ of Hanging Rock has firmly entrenched itself in Australian folklore thanks to the book and film, and it was good to see how it all started. The writing was very atmospheric and offered an interesting portrait of pre-Federation society. I recall reading somewhere that there was an extra chapter not included in the book, which offered an explanation of the disappearances; I might just have to Google it and see what I can find out.

Rating: B-

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