31 December 2007

Book Review: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

2007 TBR Challenge #12

Lady Audley’s Secret When Lucy Graham makes the leap from village governess to Lady Audley, her future seems secure. Her new husband dotes on her (even if her stepdaughter doesn’t) and as mistress of Audley Court she has all the fine things she could want. But her angelic facade hides a secret, one that could bring her new life crashing down around her ears. Her indolent nephew Robert doesn’t look like much of a threat, but the right motivation can work wonders. Her maid seems devoted, but has other, more pressing concerns. And the biggest, least expected danger of all is perilously close to arriving on her doorstep.

Whatever you expect a Victorian ‘novel of sensation’ to contain, you’ll probably find it here. Attempted murder, secret passageways, blackmail, abandoned children, family estrangement, false identities, madness, burglary, lies and deceptions galore . . . and that’s just off the top of my head. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to work out what Lady Audley’s secret is; the mystery is how and why she pulled it off and whether Robert will uncover the truth. And be able to prove it. There was also the question of what happened to George Talboys. The disappearance - apparently with a perfectly good explanation - of a friend he’d only recently encountered after years apart seemed not quite sufficient to spur someone of such inertia into such prodigious action. I only really accepted his actions after he abandoned the notion of quitting solely to stop George’s sister investigating by herself.

In some ways it’s reminiscent of The Woman in White, though from what I recall of Collins’s book, lighter on the detective story and heavier on the melodrama. But if you can overlook the frequent flights of descriptive fancy, it’s entertaining, especially when the mystery deepens and Lady Audley begins to fight back. I’m not sure about the ending, though; I still can’t decide whether she was telling the truth, but her fate was the best possible outcome for all concerned. Either way, she’s an intriguing character. The only woman in the book to outwardly conform to the Victorian ideal of decorative sweetness and light (as opposed to tomboyish Alicia, cold Phoebe and strong-willed Clara), she is the furthest removed from anoyne’s ideal and perhaps the biggest schemer since Becky Sharp - but much less likeable.

Rating: B

30 December 2007

Book Review: The Hidden Man by Charles Cumming

The Hidden Man Christopher Keen gave up a lot for his career - including his family, walking out on his two young sons. Years later they are two very different men; Mark a workaholic for a nightclub in the vein of Ministry of Sound, Ben an artist supported largely by his journalist wife. The one thing they have in common is their newly-returned father, who has barely begun telling them about his life with MI6 when he is murdered. Soon they’re both drawn into continuing the family business, thanks to a bureaucrat named Taploe and some shady dealings involving some new business contacts of Mark’s club. It looks like a simple task, but the spying game is rarely simple - and nor is it always safe.

It was serendipity that brought me this book. After finishing The Deathly Hallows I went straight into post-Potter syndrome, unable to settle to reading anything else. Anything in the magical line would have been fantasy overload, but anything too mundane would seem dull; a downbeat book would take the edge off the warm fuzzies but a cheerful book wouldn’t fit after such a sad book . . . so I spent two and a half days quite disconsolate, with random fragments of the series still spinning though my head. Then my mother arrived home from the supermarket with The Hidden Man, given to her by a stranger on the train. And it turned out to be just the fillip I need to get me reading again; I finished it in almost a single sitting.

And it was an entertaining read. Quite reminiscent of le Carré, with espionage carried out by ordinary people in ordinary places; no wonder a couple of amateurs thought they could handle it. The plot’s twists and turns intrigued without confusing; and the characters, in their ordinariness and general lack of heroic qualities, fitted the rather grubby nature of the work. I just wish that Ben could have had his eyes opened to the activities of his wife; it didn’t seem fair to leave him in ignorance. And though I enjoyed it at the time, when I wrote this review I had to refer back to the book to remember much more than a few names and a vague outline. Very readable but ultimately forgettable.

Rating: C+

2008 TBR Reading Challenge

2008 TBR Challenge

I only just managed to finish my reading list for the 2007 TBR Challenge, but that hasn’t deterred me from signing up for next year’s! This time, however, I am not going to spread the books over the whole year – that’s just asking for last-minute trouble. And the sooner I finish one challenge, the sooner I can sign up for another....

The list:

The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende
Kane and Abel - Jeffrey Archer
Three-Act Tragedy - Agatha Christie
Crazy for You - Jennifer Crusie
Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse-Keeper - Peter Hill
The Secret Woman - Victoria Holt
Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare
Humphry Clinker - Tobias Smollett
Sophie’s Choice - William Styron
Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
Mrs Dalloway has been on the TBR pile for ... um ... four years? Five? About time I read it!

When Too Much Potter is Never Enough

One of the great things about reading the entire Harry Potter series was being able to read what everyone else thought without fear of spoilers. While touring the blogosphere I came across these fun things:

Courtesy of Stephanie:

i'm in ravenclaw!
be sorted @ nimbo.net

I knew it! I was sure that if I were at Hogwarts the Sorting Hat would put me in Ravenclaw, and here’s the proof :-). But I don’t know how well I’d do with those pass-questions to get in and out of the common room.

The Harry Potter Personality Quiz: which character would you be?
I can’t put up the image for this one, as the accompanying text contains a major spoiler, which is something I’ve tried to avoid. But I can say ... Snape! Snape? I have no fascination with the dark side, and my miserable high school days involved more friends and better hair. On the other hand ... bitterness, intelligence, pride, a life where nothing ever seems to go right ... that I can relate to. Plus if cooking ability is anything to go by I’d be a dab hand at Potions.

Dewey started a Deathly Hallows blog, with a link to an article containing more information about what happened after, for those whom the epilogue left wanting more.

Finally, the Harry Potter Lexicon contains everything you could ever want to know and then some, including an amusing (to me, at least) British-to-American translation guide - in the Help section!

And completely off the topic: can you solve this?

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows It should be Harry’s final year at Hogwarts - but it’s not. Voldemort and Co. are on the ascendant and wizards everywhere are going into hiding. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are joining them - not so much for safety’s sake, as to better manage the hunt for the Horcruxes and Voldemort himself. It’s a life-threatening task, and one with few clues to help them. One of the few things they know for sure is some connection to the Deathly Hallows, a trio of mystical - and mythical? - objects bestowed on three brothers by Death himself. In between racking their brains and dealing with the stress of their situation, they pay action-packed visits to places as varied as quiet villages and some of the wizarding world’s best-secured buildings. As daring as these are, it is the final task which requires the greatest strength of all: a showdown in the very halls of Hogwarts, where heroes emerge in unlikely places and danger is always right behind. A not-so-ancient prophecy is about to be fulfilled, and through it all the death toll continues to climb.

In a word: brilliant. In a few more: this is an example of something so rare I’m surprised I even have a name for it - a laughed-cried-and-sat-up-til-2 a.m. book. In all the death, danger, and darkness, there is still humour; and sometimes they co-exist very closely. This is a book for which you want to have Kleenex on hand; at least one point had me sobbing freely in the early hours of the morning.

The Death Eaters here surpass all previous evilness, and reminded me of the Nazi regime, which I rather suspect was the idea. The hunt soon falls into a pattern of running/hiding, action, repeat, but it avoids dullness. Even when their ideas on the subject of Horcruxes have nowhere to go but round in circles, there is enough progress being made of one kind or another to maintain interest. It’s a true test of intelligence, courage, and friendship; and for this reader, at least, there was the added interest of searching for clues to indicate who might be getting killed off. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered, for I had guessed correctly. What I never guessed at were the different sides of some major characters which were revealed. Not just great twists, but great writing; so few characters in the series are wholly good or wholly bad (with a few notable exceptions), and one at least goes from memorable to truly unforgettable. The resolution is also fantastic, pulling together things from the whole length of the series to make it utterly believable, and terribly moving. The seemingly unrelated Hallows fit in neatly, and I have to admit that they surprised me. I’d assumed, since first hearing the title, that it referred to a location. (Well, ‘Deathly Hallows’ sounds like it could be one of those oddball English place-names, doesn’t it?)

Just because they spend most of the book on the run doesn’t mean that there aren’t some other familiar faces turning up, and best of all was Neville Longbottom. His grandmother was proud as anything that he lived up to his father at last, and so was I. This is a book that leaves you with the warm fuzzies as well as tears. Which means that, yes, I liked the epilogue. I do wish it could have told more, but with so many characters, following them all into the future would have required a very long epilogue! I know some people would have preferred it was omitted, but I don’t agree because of one thing: the forgiveness it showed. The book wouldn’t have felt complete without that.

And I want a handbag like Hermione’s!

Rating: A

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince For Harry’s sixth year, Hogwarts has both a new Defence Against the Darks Arts teacher and a new Potions master. The latter is Horace Slughorn, returned to Hogwarts after Dumbledore seeks Harry’s help in cajoling him out of retirement; for Slughorn has a carefully-buried secret that Dumbledore wants wormed out of him. He also has lower standard for his class, meaning that Harry and Ron unexpectedly find themselves eligible for N.E.W.T.-level Potions. Until they can acquire their own copies, he lends them old textbooks, and Harry discovers that his has been heavily annotated by a previous owner. The self-styled Half-Blood Prince had filled the margins with useful corrections and his own spells, both of which Harry cheerfully employs - to the horror of Hermione, who doesn’t trust the Prince, whoever he (or she) may have been. Nor does she trust Harry’s conclusions about the behaviour of Draco Malfoy. Sure, Draco’s unpleasant, but dangerous?

Spying on Draco, trying to trip up Slughorn, captaining the Gryffindor Quidditch team, learning to Apparate, following Dumbledore on a Pensieve tour through Voldemort’s past - it would be enough for anyone, even without the personal dramas. Harry and Hermione, Hermione and Ron, Ron and Ginny, Ginny and Dean, Dean and Ron, Ron and Lavender - with so many disputes, the Gryffindor common room is an uncomfortable place to be. Soon Dumbledore’s office is too, as Harry learns that destroying Voldemort is going to be far more difficult than he thought. The task gets even harder when the battle between good and evil breaks out again and changes everything.

After The Order of the Phoenix the series gets back to top form with the sixth instalment. There are still arguments aplenty, but here they have a strong element of comedy, rather than just teenage attitude and bad temper. Horace Slughorn makes a fine addition to the cast: self-important, elitist, name-dropping, and showing a different side to Slytherin house. It’s almost a mystery novel, with Draco obviously up to something, but no-one entirely sure what, and Harry taking every opportunity to investigate. The solution is clever, building on clues from previous books as well as this; and it arrives in a jaw-dropping, sit-bolt-upright ending. The stakes are raised and there is clearly no going back. Discovering the identity of the Half-Blood Prince is merely an added bonus.

The penultimate book in the series sets up what promises to be a stunning conclusion. Not just by the scale of the threat, but the size of the obstacles yet to be overcome. For Voldemort is no fool and ... well, let’s just say that there’s a reason the term ‘Death Eaters’ holds so much appeal. I picked up Deathly Hallows immediately after finishing Half-Blood Prince and can only imagine how much suspense the people who read the books as they came out must have been left in between the two.

Rating: A+

29 December 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix With a newly resurgent Voldemort on the loose, Harry is in more danger than ever - a fact brought home when a pair of Dementors attack him and Dudley during the summer holidays. More trouble follows when he’s summoned by the authorities for using magic outside of school. This, coupled with weeks of uninformative messages from his friends, means that Harry is in a foul mood by the time he’s brought to number 12, Grimmauld Place - the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. These assorted witches and wizards are the Death Eaters’ opposite numbers, a group dedicated to bringing Voldemort down.

Easy to say, but harder to do. The resident house elf, Kreacher, shows no desire to help the family’s black sheep (or should that be white sheep?), and the adults aren’t keen to share their plans. Even Dumbledore won’t say much - just farms Harry out to Snape for Occlumency lessons - and the lack of information is driving Harry nuts. Worst of all, Voldemort turns out to be no more of a threat than the ones from within their own side. The Minister for Magic has a major case of denial, and knows just the person to prove that it’s Harry and Dumbledore who are the real danger. And Harry has developed a frightening new ability: catching glimpses into Voldemort’s mind. Or has Voldemort developed the ability to manipulate Harry?

After a thrilling start with the Dementors, the pace slowed and got bogged down in endless arguments. Yes, not knowing must have been immensely frustrating, and yes, he’s a teenager, but it still got tiring. Enough with the bickering! (Although apparently it improves on second reading.) I also thought Harry a bit of a fool for not keeping his mouth shut around Dolores Umbridge. She’s one of those characters you loathe twice over: once for being such a twisted bitch, and again for being all but unassailable. But that very quality meant a good deal of fun watching the underground and passive-aggressive resistance spring up - and the flamboyant antics of the Weasley twins, who will surely go down in Hogwarts legend. Her presence, and the Minister’s claims, also meant that things were very much against Harry, which was something of a nice change. It made him seem more ordinary, in spite of being a wizard, and forced him to learn how to lead. And it was wonderful to see some of the limelight fall on Ron.

The other major character introduced is as wonderful as Umbridge is vile: Luna Lovegood. Scatty yet insightful and with an eccentric taste in accessories; I adored her, and hoped to see more of her in the remaining books. Hermione is her usual book- and timetable-obsessed self, particularly with O.W.L.s looming, except for one uncharacteristically foolish move. Harry learns more about his nemesis when Dumbledore finally decides to be forthcoming, after the first major battle (and tragedy), and one of the series’s most fundamental questions is answered. While there was a lot to like, the arguments - which resumed before the end - dragged it down. I know he’d had a wretched year, but still ... I do hope Tanabata’s right.

Rating: B+

28 December 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Spending part of the summer holidays with Hermione and the Weasleys at the Quidditch World Cup is an exciting prospect for Harry Potter. Or it is until a bunch of Voldemort supporters show up. There is clearly danger afoot; even more so when he returns to Hogwarts. The school is hosting the Triwizard Tournament (relaunched after being axed due to an excessively high death toll). The Goblet of Fire will receive the names of the candidates and choose the champion who is to take on contenders from the schools of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang. But this year the Goblet expels two slips of paper - one bearing Harry’s name. Someone, somehow, has fooled it into thinking that there is a fourth school in the tournament, and that Harry attends it and is of age; and Harry has an awful suspicion of why. Unfortunately for him, being chosen by the Goblet is a binding contract - he must compete.

The tasks aren’t the only hair-raising things at Hogwarts this year. Hagrid’s fondness for all creatures vile and venomous hits a new low with his collection of Blast-Ended Skrewts, making Care of Magical Creatures classes more dangerous than ever. The new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is paranoid, battle-scarred ex-Auror Mad-Eye Moody. The eye in question can see through anything, and rumour has it the rest of Moody is mad, too. Harry’s Triwizard entry has brought him to the attention of Rita Skeeter, who wields the Daily Prophet’s sharpest quill and loves to dig up scandal and drama wherever she can find it - or even where she can’t. But for Harry and Ron, the greatest challenge is none of these – it’s finding dates to the Hogwarts ball. Until, that is, the Tournament takes an unexpected and potentially fatal turn.

Being the middle book in the series, this is naturally its turning point. One or two Voldemort supporters have appeared before, but now the Death Eaters are given a collective noun and introduced en masse. Voldemort himself makes a major step forward on the comeback trail, and in future will pose a much more real and immediate threat. The build-up continues at Hogwarts, where Moody raises the subject of Unforgivable Curses - much favoured by Voldemort and his fan club. If Harry had any doubts about what he was up against before, by the end of the book he doesn’t.

I raised my eyebrows quite a bit during this book at Harry’s continuing run of good luck (first it was Gryffindor winning at Quidditch, now this) ... but I underestimated J. K. It turned out not to be luck at all; and it was skill, willpower, and the nature of magic that got him out of the mess the Tournament got him into. (It helped, too, that cheating was a longstanding Triwizard tradition.) Surprisingly, most of the help comes from sources other than Hermione; but she has a stroke of brilliance regarding Rita Skeeter and her toxic quill. The Tournament also forms a narrative landmark, introducing a new character, new information about Hagrid and Snape, and Harry’s own weak point.

Another thing introduced was a bit of a puzzle. One of the Death Eaters lost a hand and was furnished by Voldemort with a silver replica. This is something I’ve read before, in a Kim Wilkins novel, so I’m guessing there’s a source somewhere. A fairy tale I never read, perhaps? It sounds very Brothers Grimm - does anyone know?

Rating: A

Book Review: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Anansi Boys Fat Charlie Nancy is one of life’s perennial losers. The childhood nickname has stuck long after the excess kilos have gone, he can’t seem to get ahead at work, and now his always-embarrassing father has dropped dead mid-karaoke. Fat Charlie goes back to Florida for the funeral, and is surprised to hear than he has a brother - one who’ll appear in answer to a message sent by a spider. After he returns to London, a spider conveniently appears in the bathtub, and soon after his long-lost brother arrives on his doorstep. But this is no ordinary reunion; turns out old Mr. Nancy was Anansi, an African trickster god, and all those god-like powers have been inherited by Spider, who moves into Fat Charlie’s house and life and shows no signs of leaving. Soon he’s dating Fat Charlie’s fiancée, Rosie, and taking his place at work - the upshot of which is that his slimy boss decides Fat Charlie is just the person to frame for his own embezzling. Throw in a suspicious client, a determined policewoman, a quartet of elderly ladies with a talent for magic, Rosie’s battleaxe of a mother and a bunch of animal gods living at the edge of the world, and Fat Charlie’s life will never be quite the same again.

It took me quite a while to get into this book; I’m not sure whether that was because the brotherly conflict took so long to start, or because I’m not conversant with African mythology, or both. Even after finishing the book, talking animals living in caves at the end of the world still strikes me as bizarre. There’s something to be said for subverting the familiar rather than going with the unknown. But at least it was educational.

The villain of the piece, cliché-spouting Grahame Coats, could have been really annoying, but managed not to be thanks to his awareness of his love of trite phrases, and his delight at the extra ones made available by his descent into a more hands-on style of crime. I couldn’t help hoping that underdog Charlie would come out on top for once, and liked the way in which the brothers became more like each other. Spider learnt how to be normal (more or less) and to think of people other than himself, and Charlie acquired some of Spider’s confidence and poise. The others were mostly likeable, but not anyone I got too attached to; in fact, my favourite character was a secondary one who spent most of the time dead. Entertaining enough, but nothing like as good as, say, Neverwhere; I think this is one for the Gaiman fans.

Rating: C+

Booking Through Thursday: Highlights

It’s an old question, but a good one ... What were your favorite books this year?

List as many as you like … fiction, non-fiction, mystery, romance, science-fiction, business, travel, cookbooks … whatever the category. But, really, we’re all dying to know. What books were the highlight of your reading year in 2007?

The highlight would have to be finishing the Harry Potter series at last. I exceeded expectations by getting to the end only a few months after the release of #7, and the books made a perfect post-exams treat. Also on the list:

Cross Stitch and Dragonfly in Amber - Diana Gabaldon
The Alienist - Caleb Carr
Daughter of the Game - Tracy Grant
The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
The French Lieutenant’s Woman - John Fowles
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke
Doomsday Book - Connie Willis
Persuasion - Jane Austen
North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
Dracula - Bram Stoker
I Knit Water - Craig Bolland
The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
Notes from a Small Island - Bill Bryson
Buried Treasure: Travels Through the Jewel Box - Victoria Finlay

And that’s just the really good ones of the ones I’ve read so far. See . . . I knew my list-keeping would prove useful someday!

27 December 2007

Book Review: Decision at Delphi by Helen MacInnes

Decision at Delphi Artist Kenneth Strang is dispatched by his publisher to the Mediterranean, to sketch various ruins as they would have appeared when intact. Before he even gets past Gibraltar, odd circumstances begin to mount up. A fellow passenger on the ship behaves strangely, his photographer Stephanos Kladas is mistaken for someone else, then Kladas disappears. Strang soon decides to combine work with investigation - and flirtation, thanks to the arrival of replacement photographer Cecilia Hillard. They both wind up uncovering a political plot connected to the activities of a group of mountain fighters during the Second World War fifteen years earlier. Will they both survive?

There was more to the plot than that; I’m sure of it, even if I can’t remember the specifics. Partly because it’s weeks since I read it, and partly because I didn’t have a complete grasp of them even at the time. On several occasions a new development left me completely puzzled and flipping back through the previous chapters in search of enlightenment. Maybe I needed to be more focussed and better acquainted with Greek history of the 1940s and 50s; or maybe the plot needed to be less confusing. It was also much duller than you’d expect from a thriller: lots of circumstantial evidence, talking, and history; not a lot of action. Things perked up when Cecilia got (of course) kidnapped, and revealed a good quantity of intelligence, then slumped again for a rather anti-climatic ending. There were moments of cleverness, from both the heroes and the villains (I particularly like Cecilia’s method for dealing with intrusive alley cats) but the plot couldn’t be entirely redeemed by a bright heroine.

Rating: C-

26 December 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Harry’s third year at Hogwarts starts in the most terrifying way possible. The Hogwarts Express is stopped by Dementors, black-shrouded entities that bring an aura of despair and can steal your soul with a kiss. They’re looking for Sirius Black, a dangerous murderer who’s somehow managed to escape Azkaban, where the Dementors stand guard - and who might just come looking for Harry. As if that isn’t frightening enough, the Dementors don’t always show an inclination to obey orders and stay at the edges of the grounds....

But Harry has more to worry about than Sirius and his hunters. Hagrid is the new Care of Magical Creatures teacher, and Draco Malfoy has used the consequences of his own idiocy to get Hagrid’s beloved Hippogriff, Buckbeak, put on trial for its life. Hermione has begun acting oddly and has a timetable that seems to require her to be in two places at once. Sybil Trelawney, the Divination teacher, has a disconcerting habit of predicting Harry’s imminent demise. Ron is furious because Hermione’s cat keeps menacing his rat. And now Harry has come into possession of a very useful magical aid to mischief-making: the Marauders’ Map. It’s just unfortunate that the map can’t tell him why it shows the presence in Hogwarts of a wizard who’s supposed to be dead.

The third book in the series starts with all the usual humour – Harry’s temper causes an unintentional outburst of magic which inflates his Aunt Marge - but soon turns darker with Harry having to fend for himself (aided by the Knight Bus) and then the Dementors. In appearance they reminded me of Middle Earth’s Nazgûl, but in temperament - I think I’d prefer to meet the Nazgûl. They at least don’t have the capacity to suck all hope from their surroundings and leave you trapped in your worst memories; though I’m not sure whether ending up a soulless shell would be worse than being an enslaved wraith. Defence Against the Dark Arts also takes a nasty turn with Boggarts, which take the shape of whatever you most fear. (Like Ron, I’d see a giant spider.) These classes also provide the priceless mental image of Snape dressed as Neville’s grandmother.

What I really loved about the book was the way the major mysteries - Sirius Black’s whereabouts, the dead wizard appearing on the Map, the occasionally odd behaviour of new teacher Remus Lupin (one of my many favourite characters) - all wove together. In doing so they revealed a stack of information about the past and laid the foundations for more to come. They also shed a small - and surprising - amount of light on Snape’s hatred of Harry. The complex way in which these people and events intersect is one of the things I like best about the series as a whole. And by the end of the book, even Buckbeak and Hermione’s interesting method of time management have joined them. This is definitely one for the animal lovers, as a lot of four-legged things appear: Buckbeak, Crookshanks the bandy-legged and very intelligent cat, Scabbers the rat, a wolf, and an eerie black dog which may or may not be an omen of death. Professor Trelawny thinks it is, but since Hermione demonstrates how all her predictions could be the result of cold reading and guesswork, can you really believe her?

Rating: A+

A Year and a Day

I had intended to do a one-year-on post, but last night I was far too busy ploughing through the final chapters of Doomsday Book to switch on the computer, much less write anything. I started this blog with the one aim of slowing my headlong rush through book after book, and at the same time increasing the amount of thought I gave to what I read. And it worked: at last count I’ve read only 127 books this year, well down on last year’s staggering 179. By year’s end that will be the lowest recorded reading total since the 128 of 2004. (Though I don’t think that’s due only to the blog; I read several truly enormous books this year - The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, Cross Stitch, Dragonfly in Amber, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - as well as spending a lot of time crocheting an afghan.)

What I hadn’t foreseen was the welcome feeling of not being the only one with a passion for everything with pages and a TBR pile that’s barely under control. I like the writing, and the reading of other people’s blogs, and the myriad opportunities to add to my already considerable Wanted list. And challenges! I also discovered the joy of committing - and over-committing - to reading challenges. (Speaking of which: cross your fingers that I can finish my challenge reading by the end of the month.)

I’ve learnt a lot, too. Like not spacing out challenge books over the whole length of that challenge, thereby ending up with a succession of end-of-challenge rushes. And the importance of keeping up-to-date with my blog reading; and with my backing-up in case the next thing to die in my computer is something more serious than just the motherboard. I also know now to never, ever get behind on reviews before Christmas. I’m going to be spending much of what remains of this month chained to the computer, catching up. I like to think that I would have been done by now - mostly - if my mother hadn’t decided to give everyone handpainted candles this year. Handpainted by me, that is. And the designs turned out to be, as my designs invariably are, triumphs of artistic ambition over time management. Then I felt obliged to do something equally time-consuming for her, so ... five days, nineteen posts, plus memes and reviews for books not yet finished. Wish me luck.

I already have plans in mind for my second year of blogging. Successful and timely completion of all challenges; keeping on top of reviews and learning to write faster; more networking; and perhaps the running of a challenge of my own if I can find something that someone else hasn’t thought of first. And I WILL compile an online catalogue of all my books so that if the roof ever does come off in a storm I’ll know what needs to be replaced. But surely even I couldn’t be that unlucky....

25 December 2007

The Booklover’s Night Before Christmas

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the shelves,
Stood volumes of magic and adventure and elves,
Murder and poetry, science and mystery,
Theatrical classics and romance and history.
And in the front room where a woman slept sound
Even more books were scattered around.
The clocks all reached twelve, and up in the sky
An object burst through the clouds up on high,
And resolved as it neared into a sleigh painted red
Which nine antlered reindeer were towing ahead.
A white-haired round figure was perched on the seat
A red hat on his head, and red thongs1 on his feet,
He pulled on the reins and the sleigh wheeled around,
Descending at speed to the house on the ground,
And landed with a crash of hooves upon tin
(Or would have, if magic hadn’t muffled the din).
The driver climbed down and hoisted his sack
From out of the sleigh to his t-shirt-clad back;
The house had no chimney, for in climes like these,
It’s a cold winter’s day when it’s sixteen degrees
So telling the reindeer “I’ll see you guys later,”
He whisked himself in through the roof ventilator
And bounced to a halt on the pink insulation
Before finding the manhole to complete his migration
From rooftop to floor - but what place could this be?
A home, or a warehouse for the council library?
Books on two walls, the sofa, the table,
The benchtop, the floor - but now he was able
To see by the kitchen that people did live here
And would expect the next morning to find Christmas cheer.
He opened his sack and rummaged inside,
A gift for the mother was a cinch to decide -
Some classical music would be just the thing.
But what of the daughter - a twenty-something
With no obvious interest in clothes or in shoes,
Or movies or music - what should he choose?
She apparently - to judge by the looks
Of the rooms she frequented, loved only books;
And had too many of those to need any more -
Especially when January had the Bookfest in store.
An iPod was no kind of present for she -
Not until they put readings out on mp3.
The ultimate book bag? Not quite heaven-sent -
The last thing she needed was further encouragement.
Maybe a holiday was the choice that was best?
Not for her, but her library card; it must need a rest.
Then he thought of the perfect booklover’s treat:
He would see to it that no child in her street
Unwrapped anything noisy upon Christmas Day
So that her reading would not be disturbed by their play.
Christmas would pass in a calm, page-turning whirl -
The perfect gift for this most book-obsessed girl.
Then back to the roof, and back to the sleigh,
Back to the reindeer keen to be up and away...
And if you were awake, his voice you would hear
Ringing out ’cross the suburb as all the reindeer
Galloped off south with Rudolph taking the lead:
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good read!”

1 Thongs = Australian for flip-flops!

22 December 2007

Book Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence Young New York lawyer Newland Archer is about to do his duty to family and society by making a suitable marriage. The bride-to-be is May Welland, beautiful but sheltered and kept as ignorant as possible of the ways of the world. Then the careful ordering of the high-society world of the Archers and Wellands is upset by the arrival of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. She has deserted her husband and now plans on making it official with a divorce. But such a scandal is unthinkable to her family, and they prevail upon Archer to talk her out of such a rash course of action. Much better, to them, to live discreetly apart. He agrees, and soon falls for his fiancee’s older, worldly cousin, and begins to wonder whether the approved choice of bride was the right one after all.

I procrastinated over writing this review before my exams because I was having a hard time thinking of a single thing to say. More than a month and a half later, I’m not faring much better. I can’t say that it was bad, but ... can I say it was good? Hmm ... there were things I liked about it, such as the touches of dry humour and the fact that Newland Archer recognised, and pondered, the double standard regarding pre-marital behaviour for men and for women. Apart from that, there wasn’t really anything I liked about him ... not that I disliked him, either. May at first seemed too sheltered to be at all interesting but then showed her calculating side; while it was nice to see her show a bit of character, I didn’t like her scheming. Ellen was conventionally unconventional, and the other characters had faded from memory so much that I had to refer back to the book before writing. (And I still can’t think of anything to write about them.) I do recall that, thanks to all the intermarriage, a lot of them had other people’s surnames as their first names, which created a little confusion.

As for the May-Ellen dilemma, it was clear what Archer would end up doing, and what the result would be: a life of neither happiness nor regret but merely dull contentment. A sentiment which applies rather well to the reading of this book. As a mildly satirical picture of a particular segment of a particular society, it worked okay. In terms of plot and character, it was mostly forgettable.

Rating: C

21 December 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Harry Potter can’t wait to begin his second year at Hogwarts. Dobby the House Elf has other plans, insisting that Harry needs to be rescued (‘rescued’ here meaning ‘kept away from school’). It’s only thanks to the Weasley brothers and a flying Ford Anglia that he manages to return at all. When he does there’s more adventure waiting, starting with a pugilistic willow tree and followed by murmurs in the walls, writing on the walls, a mysterious diary, hordes of spiders, and students being literally petrified. All Harry, Ron, and Hermione know is that these things have something to do with the Chamber of Secrets; on the one hand supposed to be mere legend, but on the other said to have been opened once before. Naturally they try to solve the mystery - when they’re not busy dealing with homework, Howlers, house elves with misguided good intentions, and the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher: the vain and chronically inept Gilderoy Lockhart. Along the way they discover more about Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort, and learn why Hagrid hides his wand in his umbrella. Then a stroke of bad luck leaves Harry and Ron to face the Chamber and its contents without Hermione’s brain to help them.

I read this in a single day (the last book before starting to study for my exams, which means I read it nearly seven weeks ago. But better late than never, right?). In hindsight this was unfortunate timing; it meant that by the time I reached the end of the series I’d forgotten a few things that left me dishing out mental head slaps at the plot turns I really should have seen coming. (And just in case there’s anyone yet to read The Deathly Hallows, that’s all I’m going to reveal about that.) Back to book two: just as much fun as its predecessor, although I, like Ron, could happily have done without the close encounter with hordes of giant spiders. *shudder* There’s more of the darker side of magic here, including an inadvertent detour to the creepy Knockturn Alley and Harry’s discovery of the significance of his ability to communicate with snakes. I can’t help wondering about the name of the Dark Arts shop Harry accidentally finds himself in, Borgin and Burkes; is the resemblance between Borgin and Borgia intentional? And is Burke a reference to the infamous Burke and Hare? Given Rowling’s habit of having fun with names, perhaps. I also wondered how they managed to unpetrify Nearly Headless Nick; how to you give a ghost an antidote? Not, I’m guessing, with any assistance from Gilderoy Lockhart; his magical talents lay elsewhere. He was one of my favourite characters; shallower than most puddles and stumbling from one magical disaster to the next.

The only thing that really detracted from the book was the presence of a couple of errors. At one point, Tom Riddle was described as Salazar Slytherin’s only remaining ancestor. Unless Tom has managed to outdo even Nicolas Flamel in longevity, that should be descendant. The other slip may well have been Lockhart’s and intended as a subtle clue, but to me it was still distracting: referring to the city of Wagga Wagga as a village.

Rating: A-

20 December 2007

Book Review: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

First Among Sequels Fourteen years after her near-death experience at the SuperHoop croquet final, Thursday Next seems to have settled into comfortable middle age, working in a carpet shop while Landen writes and looks after the kids. But floor coverings are just a front for the underground continuation of disbanded SpecOps departments, which in turn is a front for her forays into the Bookworld. And, as ever, Thursday’s life is anything but comfortable. Her favourite Welsh cheese smugglers might be into something even she can’t ignore - a cheese so strong it has to be chained down. The local dodo fanciers want to kidnap Pickwick. Uncle Mycroft’s ghost has been appearing with a message for her ... but he can’t remember what it is. Her son Friday was supposed to be a clean-cut young man who would join the ChronoGuard and invent time travel; instead, he’s a headbanging layabout who might just get eradicated and replaced with an alternate version. A dangerous psychopath has apparently dematerialised from the carpet shop’s holding cell, and the only person who might be able to help is the truly nasty Aornis Hades. The resurgent and suddenly friendly Goliath want her help fine-tuning a transfictional tour bus. And that’s just in the real world.

In the fictional one, Jurisfiction wants Thursday to train some new agents - the two literary versions of herself, one a cross between Fanny Hill and Dirty Harry, the other a flake who offers hugs to Verbivores. The Racy Novel genre are claiming to have developed a ‘dirty bomb’, capable of unleashing outbreaks of bad language and gratuitous sex. Books everywhere are under threat from Superreaders, who rush through so fast as to cause several times the normal wear and tear. And as Thursday discovers almost too late, there is someone out there about to give a whole new meaning to the term ‘serial killer’. It’s going to be up to Thursday to find and stop them - if the Cheshire Cat can get her out of her latest predicament in time.

The next installment in this series can’t come quickly enough for me, given the cliffhanger nature of the ending of this one. Fortunately most of the plot threads were tied up beforehand, so it wasn’t as frustrating as it could have been (but leaving the main mystery still unsolved was bad enough ... and that Minotaur’s still on the loose). Apart from that, I adored Thursday and her escapades as much as ever. There’s even more Bookworld inventiveness on show, including book maintenance in hangars on a scale almost impossible to imagine (big enough to hoist all the country estates out of Pride and Prejudice), vagrant bits of oral tradition, and a visit to the very heart of a book. Thursday’s attempts to save the day also land her in an impossible Moral Dilemma tale straight out of an Ethics lecture, where failure to play by the rules could have disastrous consequences for the lecturer. Since the world of fiction has previously only featured actual books, it was interesting to see how other forms of storytelling manage their independent existence. The twist surrounding Thursday’s dash into The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco was very clever, but my favourite was the discovery of exactly what Aornis had done as revenge for her Enloopment. For a Mnemonomorph, so simple, and yet so very effective. There was a meme doing the rounds a while ago, containing a question about which fictional character you’d most like to be. While I didn’t ultimately choose Thursday, I did consider her - but maybe I’d pass in light of this. Or perhaps not; it could be worth it for Landen, who’s simply wonderful (even if he does come up with atrocious ideas for books).

Then, after all that, I was horrified by the ending. Dramatic, yes; but also productive of a great deal of impatience. I want to know what happens! And I’ve got months to wait. Grrr....

Rating: A-

19 December 2007

Book Review: Weeds in the Garden of Words by Kate Burridge

Weeds in the Garden of Words How can a part of language resemble a weed? By sharing a weed’s most defining quality - showing up where some, at least, don’t want it, or where it doesn’t quite belong. Hence the weeds of the English language are the inconsistencies of spelling and pronunciation; the non-standard grammar, pronunciations and usages that some are inclined to look down their noses at; and the little oddities of the language (like the fact that ‘finger’ and ‘singer’ don’t rhyme). They also include less commonly decried but perhaps more noxious varieties: the manipulation of the language by advertising, obfuscatory bureaucratese, and the way in which perfectly innocent words can be felled by political correctness.

Likening words to weeds is a metaphor which would never have occurred to me, but after reading the introduction it made perfect sense, and the analogy is kept up throughout by the use of garden-themed quotes at the start of each chapter. Another definition of a weed is a plant whose qualities are yet to be appreciated, and this tolerant approach is the one taken in the book. After all, if weeds don’t die out they tend to flourish, and the weeds of today are the standard usages of tomorrow. Benjamin Franklin once railed against improve and to notice, and it’s hard now to imagine why.

What I found interesting about the book was not only the stories behind some of the many vagaries of English, but seeing just what some people have seen fit to complain about - and whether I agreed with them. I know it’s commonly done, and (now) that they have actually swapped meanings, but the muddling of disinterested and uninterested is guaranteed to irk me. On the other hand, I really don’t care whether you pronounce schedule with a sh- or sk- sound. And I’m ambivalent about the practice I once saw described as ‘the verbing of innocent nouns’ (like injured footballers being ‘stretchered’ off). Most fascinating of all was the -own words. Until Burridge raised the subject I never noticed that I pronounce shown, known etc as showun, knowun ... or that there was anything odd about that. Some think it’s an atrocious linguistic habit; in fact, it’s not a weed at all but the original 10th-century pronunciation which lingered on and is now making a bit of a comeback. One place where it persisted is Glasgow, which raises an interesting question: was this pronunciation passed down to me by my Glaswegian ancestors along with some of my genes?

There’s much, much more than this, and it would have to be one of the most interesting books on the English language I’ve read all year. Best of all (for me) it has a focus on Australian English, noting where it follows British or American usage and where it falls somewhere in between. And it answers a few puzzling questions: like the third word that ends in -shion.

Rating: A

15 December 2007

Friday Fill-In #50

Friday Fill-In

1. Away in a manger, no room for a book! (What a horrible fate!).

2. Dashing through the snow, in a vehicle with the heating turned up full blast.

3. Hark! The herald angels sing. (I decided I should answer at least one properly!)

4. It’s coming on Christmas but you wouldn’t know it to look at our house.

5. When I was small I believed in Santa Claus, Though I knew it was a load of....

6. That Christmas magic’s brought this tale to its long-awaited end.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I’m looking forward to rinsing the henna out of my hair, tomorrow my plans include going with my mother and aunt to see The Nutcracker and Sunday, I want to finally write some more reviews!

13 December 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Catalogue

Do you use any of the online book-cataloguing sites, like Library Thing or Shelfari? Why or why not? (Or ... do you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking to?? (grin))

If not an online catalogue, do you use any other method to catalogue your book collection? Excel spreadsheets, index cards, a notebook, anything?

I’m only vaguely aware that book-cataloguing sites exist! So that’s a no. Although I’ve been listing the books I read for several years, I’ve never really considered keeping a list of all the ones I own. My collection is fairly small (only a little over 300) so I have no trouble remembering what I’ve got and am in no danger of doubling up inadvertently. Ergo, I can’t be bothered. But now that the idea has been put to me I think I will have to investigate the options for keeping some kind of computerised record, if only for insurance purposes in case of freak accident or natural disaster (or bookloving burglar).

10 December 2007

Book Review: The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

Book to Movie Challenge #3

The Bourne Identity A man is fished out of the Mediterranean with several bullet wounds, the number of a Swiss bank account, and zero memory. While convalescing in the home of a drunken English doctor, and travelling to Zurich, he finds that he possesses some quite alarming skills - like the ability to con people, and an intimate knowledge of firearms. In Zurich he at last discovers a name - Jason Bourne - but also learns that there are people who are very keen to see him dead. With the aid of French-Canadian economist Marie St Jacques, he sets of to Paris in search of memories and answers, not just about his own identity, but that of the mysterious organisation known as Treadstone. Soon it begins to look like the truth might be unpleasant. Could Bourne really be the cold-blooded killer who goes by the name of Cain? And if so, how can he reconcile who he once was with who he now is?

Although the Book to Movie Challenge is now over, I did read this during the challenge period and so will continue the spirit of comparison. This is a case where it doesn’t matter whether you read the book before seeing the film or vice versa; they are so different that knowing one won’t much spoil the other. I actually resorted to looking up the film’s IMDB page, to see whether my memory really was that atrocious. Turns out not; and that the screenwriter was working off the director’s outline without having read the book, which explains a lot. They share some things: the main character, the places, Treadstone, Alexander Conklin, a girl named Marie and a man surnamed Abbott. Otherwise, there’s very little resemblance. But the reasons for this are obvious: at over 500 pages the book needed a lot of trimming; the whole Vietnam War background had to be cut (unless you wanted a geriatric spy) and modern technology brought in. And I suspect a spot of political correctness in having Bourne pay Marie to help him escape, rather than abducting her. The upshot of all this modernisation is that I prefer the film to the book. (Yes, you did read that correctly.)

The book was still an okay read, even with the slower pace and puzzlement as to whether my memory was going. Ludlum is good at creating a sense of the confusion felt by a man who can’t remember anything about who he is but must if he’s to escape the people after him, and the fear caused by the suspicion that the truth might not be at all palatable. I also liked seeing how a well-trained spy’s mind works, and the tricks he used to gain information and dodge the bad guys, even if it did get tedious after a while. Marie wasn’t so well-drawn a character; while I admired her intelligence and nerve, a lot of her emotional reactions didn’t ring true. And with such distinctive colouring, would changing her hairdo and make-up really render her unrecognisable? I know I wouldn’t trust a mere hairstyle to disguise myself. The plot had plenty of twists and turns - so many that I surprised myself by not getting completely confused - but ultimately the characters let down the plot.

Rating: C+

Book Review: The Code Book by Simon Singh

The Code Book For almost as long as there have been civilisations to spy on each other, there have been people doing so. And a great asset to any spy is a means of concealing the contents of their messages. This gave rise first to the art of hiding the messages themselves, and then, more practically, hiding the meaning: cryptography. For a long time simple substitution (replacing one letter with another) was all that was needed. But as the codebreakers began to gain the upper hand more sophisticated systems were required, from complex substitutions to code machines like the famous Enigma to the more recent field of computer encryption. This book tours the whole history of code-making and -breaking, from the earliest means of hiding messages to as much as can be known of the present and beyond.

By the very nature of its subject, this is not a complete history; after all, modern spy organisations are hardly likely to reveal their current - or even recent - encryption or decryption methods. Which probably explains the inclusion of chapters on computer encryption as a way of bringing the history up to the present; not something I would have thought of in connection to codes, but perfectly logical once someone else mentions it (and written in such a way that even I could understand the principles). Another detour into something other than traditional codebreaking was a section on the decipherment of ancient languages, such as hieroglyphics or the Minoan Linear B. Just as fascinating as the history was that the work was largely done by amateurs (albeit very linguistically talented and knowledgeable ones).

As interesting as the history was, my favourite thing about the book was the number of opportunities it gave readers to test their own brainpower. A good number of codes are described in enough detail to make them usable - and breakable. The chapter on Enigma included something I’d been curious about for ages: a clearly readable image of the crossword used by the Times to recruit codebreakers. (I drew up a duplicate grid and had a go myself - and discovered that I wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near Bletchley Park.) The book also reproduces the famous Beale ciphers, which supposedly detail a cache of buried treasure. Two have been solved, but the most important one, explaining how to actually find the treasure – hasn’t (not that that deters people from turning up with shovels anyway). An appendix helpfully lists those ancient scripts yet unsolved; a tempting prospect, but given that beyond the confines of English I am linguistically talentless I don’t think I’ll be the one to make the breakthrough on Etruscan or Linear A. And at the back of the book is a ten-step Cipher Challenge; prize money long since claimed, but hugely entertaining none the less ... even if I am still stuck on Step 3.

Rating: A

06 December 2007

Book Review: 1876 by Gore Vidal

2007 TBR Challenge #11
Armchair Traveller Challenge #5

1876 After decades of self-imposed exile in Europe, Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler returns to America, accompanied by his widowed daughter and far too little money. Needing to makes ends meet - at least until Emma can find a suitably wealthy second husband - he makes the rounds of the newspapers, securing commissions to write about the forthcoming presidential election of 1876. The opportunity is too good to pass up, because in addition to the income it offers a chance for Charlie to work for the election of Samuel Tilden, the Governor of New York. Once Tilden is in office, his loyal supporter can talk his way into a comfortable posting to France, by which time he hopes to see Emma safely married to rising lawyer John Day Apgar. But the course of true love isn’t so easily decreed, and some last-minute manoeuvrings by the Republicans could see Charlie’s retirement plans come to nothing.

Earlier in the year, to keep my multiple challenges organised, I drew up a table allocating books to months (1876 was assigned to always-busy November by virtue of its representing two challenges at once). That was the only reason I picked it up - without thinking - and I soon wished I’d been paying rather more attention. Reading a book heavily focussed on a presidential election across the weekend of the recent federal election was just too much politics to absorb at once. So it’s a hard book to evaluate: maybe I would have liked it more at another time, but then I’m not a fan of politics, so perhaps not. As it was, I hurried through it by the simple expedient of reading a set number of pages before each chapter of Harry Potter. (Amazing what difference the right motivation makes.) Another reason for its being hard to read was the lack of suspense. Even I know enough American history to know who did and didn’t become president. And I could see fairly easily what Emma wasn’t going to do (but not what she did, and not what she may or may not have done). On the up side, Charlie was an entertaining narrator when not getting mired in the electoral process (and leaving me still baffled as to the nature and function of the Electoral College) and I had fun spotting landmarks previously encountered in The Alienist. There were also enough real-life people thrown in - including Mark Twain - to suit the Armchair Traveller Challenge and provide a glimpse of life at the upper end of bicentennial New York society.

Rating: C-

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