31 December 2008

Which Historical Queen Are You?

Via Reading Adventures:

Your result for The Which Historical Queen Are You Test...

Elizabeth I

You scored 63% on ruling power!

You are: Elizabeth I, Queen of England, 1533-1603. With a childhood full of political intrigue, it was assumed that Elizabeth would never become queen. But she did, and as queen managed for a time to quiet her Catholic population with acts of tolerance, promote government reforms, strengthen the currency, and forward the growth of a capitalist economy. Highly educated, she also turned her court into a great center of learning. Elizabeth's foreign relations were uneasy. Always pressured to marry to form political alliances, she diplomatically seemed to consider it, but in the end always refused. Her greatest success was the defeat of the invading Spanish Armada in 1588 in the waters off England's west coast. Her greatest failures were the suppression of uprisings in Ireland and her long wars. During Elizabeth's colorful 45 year reign, England became a strong European power, a vibrant commercial force, and an place of intellectual accomplishment. The "Elizabethan age" rightly was one of England's most fascinating eras.

Take The Which Historical Queen Are You Test at HelloQuizzy

31 May 2008

Eponymous Challenge Reviews


The Eponymous Challenge has begun! This post is where the participants can link up their reviews like this: Name (Title). If you don’t have a blog, you can just leave a comment; and if you haven’t signed up, you can still do so here.

1. Poodlerat (Freaks: Alive, on the Inside!)
2. bethany canfield
3. Charlie (The Girl Who Stopped Swimming)
4. Suzi Qoregon (City Boy)
5. Myrthe (Ali and Nino)
6. joanna (Chloe)
7. Charlie (The Senator's Wife)
8. Lizzy Siddal (A Partisan's Daughter)
9. Suzi Qoregon (Smonk)
10. Suzi Qoregon (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
11. Tara (Diana's Boys)
12. Poodlerat (Greenwitch)
13. Poodlerat (The Grey King)
14. bethany (anna karenina)
15. Poodlerat (The Goose Girl)
16. Poodlerat (Enna Burning)
17. Tara (Odd Thomas)
18. Ms Alex (Daemonwolf Books)
19. raidergirl3( Life and Times of Michael K)
20. raidergirl3( Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist)
21. raidergirl3 (Zel)
22. Esther (Anahita's Woven Riddle)
23. Joanna (Wyrd Sisters)
24. Joanna (The Memory Keeper's Daughter)
25. raidergirl3( Maniac Magee)
26. raidergirl3( Miss Julia Takes Over)
27. Suziqoregon (The Sisterhood)
28. Myrthe (Young Stalin)
29. Esther (Keturah and Lord Death)
30. Tara (The Virgin of Small Plains)
31. 3M (Anne of Green Gables)
32. Mo (Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy)
33. Charlie (Mister Pip)
34. Mo (The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter))
35. bethany (Farmworker's Daughter)
36. Joanna (The Speckled People)
37. Amy( Bootlegger's Daughter)
38. Amy( The Reluctant Fundamentalist)
39. Becky (Beezus and Ramona
40. Becky (Ramona the Pest)
41. Becky (Ramona the Brave)
42. Gaelle (Agent Zig Zag)
43. Becky (Ramona and Her Father)
44. Daemonwolf Books (Blue- eyed Salaryman)
45. Poodlerat (Speaker for the Dead)
46. Amy( The Lace Reader)
47. bethany (The Waitress Was New)
48. bethany (Confesssions of a Shopaholic)
49. Ramya (The English Patient)
50. Ramya (Funny Boy)
51. Ramya (Mistress)
52. Ramya (Memoirs of a Geisha)
53. 3M (The Sister)
54. 3M (The Cellist of Sarajevo)
55. 3M (Beloved)
56. Myrthe (The Kiter Runner)
57. Book Hog
58. 3m (Keeper and Kid)
59. Joy (The Nazi Officer's Wife)
60. Joy (Morality for Beautiful Girls)
61. Joy (Pollyanna)
62. Joy (The Vicious Vet)
63. Carrie's Classics (The Book Thief)
64. Carrie's Classics (Time Traveler's Wife)
65. Carrie's Classics (The Other Boelyn Girl)
66. Carrie's Classics (Jane Eyre)
67. Charlie (Mary Modern)
68. Myrthe (Penelope)
69. Mo (The Night Crew)
70. Mo (White Widow)
71. Gaelle (Oroonoko)
72. Tara (The Widow)
73. Cafe Shree( Anna of 5 Towns)
74. Cafe Shree (Emma)

08 May 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Manual Labour

Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos ... do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?
One dictionary; one English-French dictionary for those annoying untranslated bits in older novels; one thesaurus that I found at the Bookfest and thought was too good a bargain to pass up. I don’t look at them much - only when I need to, and then only when I remember. The dictionary got more of a work-out in years past, though - it was once my preferred choice of bedtime reading! (And, yes, I believe my mother does have photographic evidence somewhere!)

I have read writing guides, but I don’t actually own any, and I haven’t borrowed one in a while. My work-in-progress has moved on to the plotting-and-researching stage, and I’m becoming more hopeful about the possibility of taking part in NaNoWriMo this year (Yay!!). As for grammar and punctuation guides - I don’t even read those and persist in thinking I know enough already.

06 May 2008

Book Review: The Big Over-Easy by Jasper Fforde

888 Challenge #10

The Big Over-Easy DI Jack Spratt’s career is fast coming to a dead end; the acquittal of the three little pigs is just the latest in a string of Nursery Crime Division failures. His cases aren’t even being closed, much less getting into print. DS Mary Mary is even less happy than Jack; a department on the way out isn’t the transfer she had in mind. The chance to salvage both their careers arrives in the form of what might just be a murder case when Humpty Dumpty is found shattered at the foot of his wall. There’s no shortage of suspects - dozens of ex-girlfriends and their irate husbands, not to mention people who were burned in Humpty’s shady business transactions. The case is made more complicated by additional corpses and an assortment of plot devices banned by the Guild of Detectives. And Jack has other problems to deal with. He’s still getting a hard time over his reputation as a giant-killer, and he’s just traded his mother’s prized possession - a George Stubbs painting of a cow - for a handful of peculiar-looking beans....

And that’s only some of the oddities that exist in Jack’s world. At first it was a little overwhelming - I was left thinking, ”QuangTech? Jellyman? Sacred Gonga? What the -?” Then I decided the best way to read the book was to switch off the part of my brain dedicated to logical thought and assume the explanations would be forthcoming. And to an extent, they were. The world of Nursery Crime has even less of a footing in reality than that of Thursday Next (but readers of The Well of Lost Plots will see the connection. Jack’s world is the book Thursday stayed in; a fictional fictional version of Reading. And if you want to know how the two Generics turned out, here’s your chance). But to return to this book: It reads much better if you don’t think too much; and it does come to make its own twisted sort of sense. What happens is determined by the original tales (and legends, and urban legends); the how is often unexpected. Sure it’s bizarre, but somehow it works both as comedy and mystery.

Rating: B-

24 April 2008

Royalty Rules Challenge Wrap-Up

Royalty Rules Challenge

The first challenge of the year is done! And with six days to spare, which is much better than I usually manage. I read three books for the Royalty Rules Challenge (links to reviews):

The Daughter of Time - Josephine Tey (A-)
William’s Wife - Jean Plaidy (C+)
Antony and Cleopatra - William Shakespeare (B)
All the books featured real, reigning monarchs as their touch of royalty: Richard III, Mary II, and Cleopatra. All were above average, but I was disappointed by William’s Wife. (On the bright side, it just occurred to me that I should find a biography of Mary II to see if she really was that dull. I love it when books lead to other books.) My favourite of the three was The Daughter of Time, an interesting fictional perspective on the real historical mystery of the Princes in the Tower. It served as the final nail in the coffin of any lingering belief I had of Richard III’s guilt and fuelled my interest in the Wars of the Roses.

Thanks to Ink Mage of Ink Magic for devising this fabulous challenge.

Book Review: Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Eponymous Challenge #2
Royalty Rules Challenge #3

Antony and Cleopatra The world as the Romans know it is divided between three men, but those three are about to be reduced to one. With Aemilius Lepidus out of the way, the fight is between Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar. Antony prefers to spend his time in luxury in Egypt with the still-beautiful Cleopatra, while Octavius concentrates on the running of the empire. They are united for a time by the threat posed by Pompey and by Antony’s marriage to Octavius’s sister. But the lure of Cleopatra is too strong, and the desertion of Octavia gives her brother the perfect excuse for war. Antony is confident of victory; but his pride goes before the fall not only of himself, but of Cleopatra.

It was hard not to read this and not compare it to what I know of Roman history. A reasonable amount of compression took place; Lepidus was dispensed with some years before the Battle of Actium. This realisation didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the play; after all, Shakespeare is hardly reliable history (Richard III, anyone?). Besides, the rearrangement of the empire took second place to the relationship between the two main characters. Antony was entranced by Cleopatra, happily ignoring official business where possible so that he might stay with her, while she was not content unless he was in Alexandria with her. For a famous monarch, Cleopatra had moments of surprising clinginess and emotional erraticness; for someone who controlled a kingdom, she didn’t always have much control over herself. Her powers of seduction being legendary, however, I didn’t stop to think overmuch about what he saw in her.

The structure of the play was impressive, but I couldn’t avoid the thought that it must be hard to stage. Several acts run to more than a dozen scenes, and some of those fill less than a page; just enough to establish the who, what, and where. (The mind boggles at the idea of the backstage chaos created by having groups of people entering and exiting in such quick succession.) The main characters leave plenty to think about, being so drawn as to allow for the reader’s own judgement. A hero, or a fool? A tragic queen, or an emotionally unstable manipulator hoist by her own petard? A political schemer, or a man genuinely concerned for the empire he’d inherited? The play doesn’t decide. Its downside is that, compared to other tragedies, it feels ... well, rather un-tragic. It doesn’t inspire the if-onlys as, say, Romeo and Juliet does; it prompts no listing of things which might have changed everything if they’d just turned out differently. Antony and Cleopatra carries a sense of leaden inevitability.

Rating: B

Book Review: Arabella by Georgette Heyer

Eponymous Challenge #1

Arabella Arabella Tallant is the eldest of four sisters in a family of eight children and modest means. As such she knows it is her duty to marry as well as she can, in order to assist her younger siblings. With her godmother’s offer of a Season in London and her family’s contrivances to get her finely arrayed on a budget her chances look good. Then her uncle’s carriage breaks down, obliging her and her chaperone to seek shelter at the home of the fabulously wealthy Mr. Beaumaris. There she overhears a comment revealing that he thinks her a gold-digger and her ‘carriage accident’ a mere ruse. Impulse gets the better of her and she pretends to be an heiress travelling to London in order to conceal her wealth and be courted for herself alone - before giving him a firm set-down. Not liking such treatment, Mr. Beaumaris decides to have word of the mythical Tallant fortune spread all over town, and to pay Arabella enough attention to make her the most popular girl of the Season.

Sure enough, Arabella is beset by suitors, and when she realises what Mr. Beaumaris’s gossipy friend Lord Fleetwood has done she’s in a quandary. She must marry; but how can she accept a proposal when to do so means revealing that she has no fortune - and the origin of the story that she does? She also finds it hard to keep up the pretence of being a fine lady; as a vicar’s well-brought-up daughter she can’t help rushing to the aid of creatures in need - even mongrel dogs and climbing boys. Mr. Beaumaris is disconcerted to discover that instead of being just a harmless bit of amusement, he actually likes her - and can’t say no when she needs a home for one of her rescued unfortunates. It takes the calamitous London career of Arabella’s incognito brother Bertram to sort things out - after making them vastly more complicated.

It’s about time I posted a review in my own challenge! (But, well, reading slump, blogging slump, whole-life slump ... my mother is currently making better headway through my TBR box than I am.) This book I finished ... er, a while ago, so it wasn’t part of the aforementioned slump - quite the opposite, in fact. While reading it I frequently had a broad smile on my face - especially if Ulysses was on the page. The little dog had a marked personality and simply adored his new owner, leaving many gentlemen comically confused as to whether having a dog following one everywhere was a new fashion they should all be adopting. (Except for Mr. Frederick Byng, who I’ve recently discovered was a real figure, and who took drives in the park with a perfectly coiffed and clipped poodle.) I liked Mr. Beaumaris’s willingness to poke fun at the slavish followers of fashion even though they were following him; but my favourite of the two was Arabella. She was kindhearted, able to hold her own in repartee with all the city people, and prone to getting into scrapes by not thinking about the likely outcome of her good intentions. Her agonising about how to extricate herself can’t have been much fun for her, but certainly is for the reader.

I just wish I could have seen the oh-so-fashionable Mr. Beaumaris happily pottering about the parsonage with all Arabella’s relatives; or her first meeting with his dragonish grandmother. (Somehow I think Arabella and the Dowager Duchess would have liked each other immensely.) And a glossary of Regency slang terms wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Rating: B+

19 April 2008

Book Review: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

888 Challenge #9

The Crimson Petal and the White In Church Lane, a prostitute named Caroline lives and works in a single room in a building close to falling down. Her old friend Sugar lives in somewhat more salubrious surroundings near Silver Street, where she has achieved city-wide fame as the girl who never says no. Sugar’s new patron is William Rackham, heir to a perfume empire in which he previously took zero interest. That changes when he needs the money in order to set Sugar up as his mistress. Through him she enters a new sphere of society, one from which it becomes increasingly difficult to return to visit her old friends.

She also becomes acquainted with the doings of the people William knows. His wife Agnes is mad, given to erratic or childlike behaviour and unaccountable sayings. His daughter Sophie is hidden away in the furthest reaches of the house. His old friends Ashwell and Bodley are determined to set the literary world on its ears with their irreverent publications. And his brother Henry’s attempts at a religious life are hampered by his persistent lustful thoughts about Emmeline Fox, a do-gooding widow with frizzy hair, a long face, and what all but she believe to be a terminal case of consumption. In the end it is Sugar’s knowledge of the Rackhams that will seal her - and their - fate.

I wanted to love this book. And for a time I did. The beginning hooked me; the odd way of narrating that was like first, second, and third person rolled into one and the following of one character in order to meet another. The narrator is omniscient, in the manner of real Victorian novels, and addresses the reader much in the way of a tour guide showing you around a strange time and place and helping you make the right connections. I could almost picture myself walking the crowded London streets in the wake of one character or another. Bodley and Ashwell made me laugh with their discussion of their book on the efficacy of prayer (or rather the lack thereof), and I hoped that Sugar would turn out to be a new Becky Sharp.

But as the book wore on my interest in it did an Emmeline Fox and went into a decline. Sugar’s manipulations, Agnes’s madness, and William’s increasingly bad temper became tedious, and I’d catch myself thinking, ”Why am I reading about you?” The characters I liked, or at least liked reading about - Caroline, Henry, Emmeline, Ashwell and Bodley - were only secondary ones, not present often enough to compensate for my frustration with the main cast. Sugar was no Becky; granted it’s been a while - okay, nearly six years - since I read Vanity Fair, but I recall her as being in some degree impulsive. Sugar was the ultimate schemer - everything she did was planned, and hardly a word left her mouth without its possible effects being carefully considered. I didn’t much like Agnes, either, but if her diaries were anything to go by she was too much of an airhead to be any more pleasant sane. Emmeline I did like, but in a modern novel it was disconcerting that she was one extremely few women in the whole 800+ pages who couldn’t be pigeonholed as saint or whore. (Yes, Agnes was mad, but she was also an exaggerated Victorian ideal: petite, blonde, religious, dependent, so innocent as to be monumentally ignorant, and not the brightest candle in the parlour.)

Overall this was a terribly difficult book to grade. At its best it was brilliant, depicting the lower end of Victorian life in all its well-researched seediness (and be warned that that does include the c-word ... not infrequently, either). Even at its worst I retained a curiosity about what happened. At the same time I wanted it to end quickly, just to get it over, with the result that I sped through many dozens of pages each night to emerge with my brain feeling groggy and glutted with words. When it at last arrived, the end didn’t satisfy, leaving too many loose ends and an urge to slap William. Yet I am sure that it will prove to be a book not soon forgotten.

Rating: C+

17 April 2008


I found this at Reading Adventures:

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?
Created by OnePlusYou

Mum would be pleased!

Booking Through Thursday: Vocabulary

Suggested by Nithin:

I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

I was in the habit of writing down unfamiliar words, usually on the back of library checkout slips; but the end result was a backlog of words that I’d never gotten round to looking up. So now I keep reading and either forget all about it, or look it up later. The dictionary is my reference of choice, but I like Google for words in historical novels that sound like they have more information to be discovered than a dictionary entry would contain.

But most of the time, I’m pretty lazy when it comes to new words: I try to infer meaning from context and read on.

14 April 2008

Book Review: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

888 Challenge #8

Under the Greenwood Tree In the church at Mellstock, the music has long been provided by the Mellstock Quire - a motley assortment of local workmen and their instruments. But new vicar Mr. Maybold is a fan of progress, and has given the Quire a firm expiration date. Together with the alderman, Mr. Shinar, he wants to see a brand-new organ installed in the church - and new schoolteacher Fancy Day at the keys. The impending dissolution of the Quire is a particular blow to Reuben Dewy, for whom Quire membership is a family tradition, and he attempts to fight the decision. Reuben’s son Dick, however, is less interested in music than in Fancy. Can a mere tranter’s son hope to win the hand of someone who could do so much better; and can he be sure of her when she’s as capricious as Fancy is?

At little more then 150 pages this is the shortest book I’ve read in ages. Being so short, not much happens - just the demise of the Quire and one uncertain courtship. But it’s still an enjoyable read, and worth it to witness that rare thing - a (mostly) happy ending instead of the usual Hardian doom and gloom. The outside world intrudes very little upon Mellstock, and the villagers are used to following their own ways and customs (as shown by their dislike of Maybold, an ‘nterfering’ kind of churchman who’s always visiting his parishioners rather than letting them alone). As such it’s all very idyllic and well-suited to a tale of romance that ends with a wedding and not a funeral.

Yet the story’s sunlight is not without shadows, and it’s not quite so straightforward as it was in the movie. All the other women are poor and tired, settled into dull if comfortable lives alongside their husbands (well, except for Fancy’s stepmother, who’s ... not quite all there). It makes it impossible not to wonder whether Dick’s plans for the business will succeed, or whether he and Fancy will end up like all the rest. And the last sentence throws up all kinds of questions without any hope of answers. It turns out to be a more thought-provoking read than it at first appears.

Rating: B

12 April 2008

Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

888 Challenge #7

The Shadow of the Wind In post-war Spain, 10-year-old Daniel Sempere’s bookseller father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Inside this building of rambling stairs and labyrinthine passageways, he is allowed to choose a volume to care for so that others may one day read it - or does the book choose him? Either way, Daniel leaves with a copy of The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. The book is obscure and the author shrouded in mystery; he disappeared from Barcelona, surfaced in Paris, vanished from Paris, and turned up murdered in Barcelona. Now his works are becoming increasingly rare due to the actions of a literary arsonist - a man who torches every Carax novel he can; a man with a charred face and blazing eyes who wants Daniel’s book for himself. So Daniel does the only thing he can think of: hides The Shadow of the Wind deep in the Cemetery where no-one else can find it.

The years pass, but Daniel’s curiosity about Carax doesn’t. One by one he tracks down the people who hold a piece of the mystery, and so uncovers a story as laced with darkness as any Carax wrote. He’s helped in this by a number of friends, including bookshop assistant Fermín Romero de Torres, the ‘man in Havana’ under the old regime and a man in hiding under the new one. His nemesis is Inspector Javier Fumero, a sadist of mercurial loyalties and no love for anyone seeking information on Carax. His presence makes perilous an adventure that is already eerie. Not only is there a haunted house, but Daniel looks like Carax - and now his life is coming to resemble Carax’s as well.

This is one of those books that I close with a sigh and think, ‘If only I didn’t have to give you back to the library.’ And it’s a book I’ll want to read again; not only because it’s so good, but to pick up all the things I’m sure I missed the first time around due to the rate at which I barrelled through the pages. It’s more than unputdownable; it’s a book that draws you in from the very first word and doesn’t let go. One moment I was right there with a dying man on the streets of Barcelona; the next, the chapter had ended and I was back in Brisbane, coming to the belated realisation that the microwave had finished - I didn’t even hear it beep - and dinner was ready. And even as I loved it, it made me despair of ever creating anything half so good.

Daniel is the narrator for most of it, and it was great to watch him grow up, solve the mystery, and confront the major flaw in his character. But of all the memorable characters, my favourite was Fermín; I defy anyone not to adore Fermín. After being taken in off the streets by the Semperes, he repays them with absolute loyalty. He can take care of anything from sourcing rare books at knockdown prices to smuggling a hooker into a nursing home run by nuns; and despite the horrors of his life is indefatigably cheerful (and frequently comical). The mystery is absorbing and filled with unexpected turns; for though some parallels do appear, Daniel’s and Carax’s lives never come to resemble each other closely enough for you to predict what will happen to one based on what’s happened to the other. And it was a refreshing change to meet an amateur detective so willing to confide in people and obtain assistance in his quest. The villain, too, is good: Fumero is devoid of redeeming features and common humanity, but enough is shown of his past that he doesn’t seem one-dimensional; rather, chillingly and sociopathically real.

I could probably ramble on for several more paragraphs, but I will say just this: If you haven’t read this yet, reach for the bookmark, lay down whatever you’re reading, and get thee to a library!

Rating: A+

10 April 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Writing Challenge

Pick up the nearest book. (I’m sure you must have one nearby.)
Turn to page 123.
What is the first sentence on the page?
The last sentence on the page?
Now ... connect them together ...
(And no, you may not transcribe the entire page of the book–that’s cheating!)
Madame Bonacieux and the Duke entered the Louvre without difficulty; Madame Bonacieux was known to belong to the Queen, the Duke wore the uniform of the musketeers of M. de Tréville, who were, as we have said, that evening on guard. It was fortunate that the man at the gate did not inquire too closely into the identity of his supposed colleague, and was thus unable to raise the alarm, the Duke being that most unwelcome of creatures - an Englishman. He followed his guide through the corridors, which, though but dimly lit, were far less eerie than they would become centuries hence, when the royal family had been replaced with artefacts and their accompaniment of shadows. That is not to say that it was without the ability to affect the nerves of visitors, particularly those who came on the business of intrigue; for Monsieur le Cardinal was well-equipped with spies. Who knew but that one might get wind of the Duke’s presence, even secreted as he was by Madame Bonacieux in a locked chamber? Nevertheless, isolated as he was, we must say that the Duke of Buckingham did not experience an instant of fear: one of the salient sides of his character was the seeking of adventures and a love of the romantic.

This would have been a lot easier had the nearest book been less verbose! The first and last lines are from The Three Musketeers (I’ve got a few reviews in the works), and the middle portion is, for 11.30 pm, not a bad impersonation of the nineteenth-century style!

04 April 2008

Book Review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Chunkster Challenge #2

Don Quixote After reading innumerable romances of knights and chivalry have turned his brain, the self-styled Don Quixote de la Mancha sets out to take his place among the great heroes of legend. His friends and family are horrified, and relieved when he soon returns home; but the relief is short-lived, for he hires his neighbour Sancho Panza as squire and sallies forth again. Technically sane, Sancho nevertheless has a remarkable ability to believe anything, if he only puts his mind to it - though he doesn’t, like his master, see everything that crosses his path as the manifestation of some noble adventure. Don Quixote sees armies in flocks of sheep, castles in inns, and of course giants in windmills. The pair travels around Spain, righting wrongs - or trying to - Sancho dreaming of the government of an island his master has promised him, Don Quixote hoping to win the newly-disenchanted Dulcinea. Along their journey they meet a variety of people - some they help, some they are hindered by, and some who just want to have a good laugh at their expense.

The second-biggest of my Chunkster Challenge reads, this was a mammoth undertaking: nine-hundred-plus pages that turned slowly thanks to seventeenth-century prolixity. But while it could be tedious at times, it could also be a lot of fun. Clownish Sancho and the delusional Don are unlikely people to go about rescuing the world’s unfortunates, and they fail at least as often as they succeed. It’s intended as a satire upon the chivalric romances of previous centuries, but you don’t need to be acquainted with them to appreciate the parody. The closest I’ve come to Don Quixote’s preferred literary fare is looking at a massive library copy of one volume of Orlando Furioso and noting with amusement that it still hadn’t been checked out. After reading Don Quixote, I have a pretty good idea of the kinds of magical intervention and improbable feats they contained. I do wonder, though; did the old tales feature romantic troubles miraculously resolved, with rakish nobles suddenly reforming and vowing to be good husbands? Or was that not part of the satire but an eye-roll-inducing flaw?

The high point came early, when the shepherdess Marcella - decried as cruel for remaining unmoved by the pleas of her many suitors - delivers them all a fabulous set-down, proclaiming that she is her own person, and no amount of devotion should oblige a woman to feel anything in return. Unfortunately the book was marred by some very lowbrow stabs at humour and sheer long-windedness. Some days it took force of will to get through more than twenty pages, particularly toward the end, when the Don and Sancho were enjoying the dubious hospitality of the Duke and Duchess (i.e. being made the butts of numerous and elaborate jokes). I felt the entire episode dragged on far too long, and that the lengths they went to for ‘fun’ verging on cruel. Yet I’m glad that I have now read the novel that gave the English language such things as quixotic, Lothario, and tilting at windmills.

Rating: B-

02 April 2008

Book Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

2008 TBR Challenge #6

The Scarlet Letter In the eyes of the Puritan settlement of Boston, Hester Prynne stands doubly condemned - first for bearing a child out of wedlock, then for refusing to name her partner in sin. She is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter A upon her dress, marking her as an adulteress for as long as she remains in the town. Hester retires with her daughter Pearl to a forest cottage, and in time her needlework and her charity gain her a measure of acceptance.

With all but one person. The physician known as Roger Chillingworth has seen what no-one else has: the identity of Pearl’s father. And he has reasons of his own for wanting to stamp out any chance at contentment that Hester or her lover might try to take.

For the time in which it was written. this is a remarkable book; focussing on a ‘fallen’ woman without condemning her, but rather the Puritan regime which judged her so harshly. Hester is a very sympathetic character, and I loved seeing the attitudes of the townspeople toward her change as they saw the quality of her conduct under the burden of the scarlet letter. Chillingworth’s motives were soon obvious, but he still made an effective ... well, I guess you could say villain. Certainly his presence was a malevolent one, although he scarcely did anything; it was psychological villainy, in keeping with the nature of the rest of the book’s drama. If it was longer, it would have run the risk of being boring; and as it was, my mind didn’t lack opportunity to wander off and start comparing Pearl to the typical possessed child of the horror genre. (Not that she was possessed, merely unpredictable and to Hester’s imagination a little sinister.) I should confess here that I made it shorter than it is, by skipping the entire Introduction on Chris’s advice.

The slow pace I could live with, but some of the dialogue was more of a problem. There were moments when Pearl, though little more than a toddler, spoke just like an adult. Admittedly I’m no expert either on the seventeenth century or small children, but to me it sounded wrong. Still, it’s a book I definitely recommend.

Rating: B

Book Review: Imperium by Robert Harris

888 Challenge #6

Imperium In the last decades of the Roman republic, imperium is power. The height of political imperium is the consulship, and Marcus Tullius Cicero won’t settle for anything less - quite an ambition for a farmer’s son. Learning the art of oratory and marrying sufficient money to buy his way into the senate is easy enough; achieving rank within the senate is harder. The opportunity to do so arrives on his doorstep in the form of a Sicilian named Sthenius, hiding from the murderous intentions of Sicily’s Roman governor. Gaius Verres could scarcely be more corrupt if he tried, and makes an ideal target for an ambitious advocate clever enough to outwit the devious defence lawyer.

In politics, drawing attention to yourself can cause trouble. Cicero finds himself caught between the feuding generals Pompey and Crassus, beholden to one and dodging the enmity of the other. Having helped Cicero during the Verres case, Pompey expects some assistance in return - help to gain his own, military brand of imperium; and Crassus is planning something that Cicero will need all his political ingenuity to stop.

A novel about law and politics ... bound to be a bit dull, you think? Not a chance! Even elections can be interesting when the process is subject to the kinds of manoeuvrings the Romans delighted in. Add in Caesar’s ambitions and Crassus’s fortune, and they can be thrilling. So can trials when you have Verres in the dock and Hortensius defending him; the one vile, the other a first-rate schemer with an endless supply of tricks for ensuring things go his client’s way. The sheer scale of Verres’s numerous crimes was mind-boggling, and I wondered if history had ever produced an official more corrupt ... and then the book introduced Catilina, who governed in Africa and almost escaped prosecution because no-one could be found brave enough to take on the case.

The people in the book are all real, and so is the narrator - Cicero’s secretary-slave, Tiro, who developed a 4000-symbol shorthand system in order to cope with his master’s torrents of words. He’s ideal for the rôle - close to Cicero and his work, and able to observe without being much noticed. He can just stand back and watch the drama (and the comedy) unfold. Between Tiro’s observations (‘I learned one valuable lesson that day, which is that if you seek popularity, there is no surer way of achieving it than raiding a syndicate of tax collectors.’) and the comeuppances delivered to various characters, it was funnier than I had expected. The characters are all fabulous, and it’s generally easy to keep track of who’s who - but it ended when Cicero became consul and I wanted to know more!

Rating: A

27 March 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Cover-Up

While acknowledging that we can’t judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations? Etc.?
Since I get almost all my books from the library or the Bookfest, I can’t afford to be picky about covers. I have a few that are awful (like a Georgette Heyer featuring the clothing and hairstyles of the 1970s); but when it’s a choice between taking a bad cover or not having the book, I’ll choose the bad cover. I’m sure I have been attracted to a book by its cover (although I can’t think of any examples right now), and I’m equally sure I’ve rejected perfectly good books because of atrocious design. And while I do love curling up with a beautiful book, I’m far more interested in what’s on the inside!

I almost always read softcovers for convenience, because they’re lighter and more portable; but I do like small hardbacks from about fifty years ago, with fancy gold embossing on the covers. They’re only a little bigger than a mass-market paperback, which is what I prefer for ease of holding and carrying. As for font - it only has to be readable! Fortunately my close-up vision is good so even small print is manageable.

26 March 2008

The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Historical Fiction Challenge
As soon as I saw this, I knew I had to sign up. (‘This’ meaning the challenge - not the button. Nothing at all to do with the button. Really.... ) Historical fiction is always in plentiful supply in my TBR pile(s), and Annie has defined it to include classics too :-) Not that one needs an excuse to re-read Jane Austen!

In chronological order of setting, my choices are:

Here be Dragons - Sharon Penman (12th century)
Katherine - Anya Seton (14th century)
The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas (17th century; overlap with Eponymous Challenge)
Joseph Andrews - Henry Fielding (18th century)
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (19th century)
Cocaine Blues - Kerry Greenwood (20th century; overlap with 888 Challenge)

Now I just have to wait until 1 April to start!

Book Review: The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett

What’s in a Name? Challenge #2

The Key to Rebecca He arrives out of the desert on foot, carrying with him the means to create an all but unbreakable code. He knows Cairo like the back of his hand, able to vanish among its alleyways and appear as either foreigner or local. He’s a German spy behind British lines, and his goal is to ensure that Rommel can advance across North Africa unhindered.

There’s just a few hitches in this plan. The first is an army captain who (albeit belatedly) sees through his cover and reports him to Cairo. The second is Major William Vandam, who agrees with the captain’s assessment and is determined to investigate, no matter what his singularly unhelpful boss has to say about it. He just needs someone capable of getting close to his target - someone like Elene Fontana, for whom helping the British is a ticket to a new life, one where she doesn’t have to rely on rich men to pay her bills. Both end up in more danger than they anticipated, and they’re not the only ones to do so.

At first glance it’s an odd title, but it does make sense. Rebecca is the basis of the code, the code can’t be used or broken without the key, and the British have to get their hands on the key if they want to halt Rommel. I would have liked a better overview of how the code worked - just how would he have managed to encrypt an uncommon letter like X? - but even incompletely described it’s still ingenious. The background which enabled Alex to blend so seamlessly into Egyptian life was unlikely (to my mind, at least), but plausible enough for me to accept it and read on. His close connections with Cairo low society help the local colour to shine through; Egyptian attitudes to the British - and vice versa - play a significant part in the story. These were most prominent in a side plot that left me with the niggling feeling that the name Anwar al-Sadat should be ringing a bell.

Vandam is an eminently likeable hero, and you have to admire a man with the patience to put up with a boss like that every day. Bogge is almost comical in his obstructiveness, a rampant snob with no intention of being outshone by a postman’s son with a Dorset accent. (Which is, of course, exactly what happens.) Elene is an interesting addition to the spy-catching plan; Vandam disapproves of her lifestyle, and she understandably resents him for assuming she’ll have no problems with letting herself get picked up by Alex as part of the plan. She was the character I liked most, but was also connected to the part of the book I liked least. Alex has an accomplice with twisted tastes, and I could have done with knowing less about what they got up to, either with each other or with Elene.

Rating: B

25 March 2008

Book Review: The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

Chunkster Challenge #1

The Sunne in Splendour Sixty years after the House of Lancaster usurped the throne, the House of York is trying to do the same. The third Lancastrian king, Henry VI, is simple and saintly and completely under the thumb of his formidable wife, Marguerite d’Anjou. Determined to hold on to her crown, she has gone to war against the Duke of York, a man who has a stronger claim to the throne than does her husband. He has no choice but to fight, and ends up dying in the battle for a crown he never wanted.

His eldest son Edward does want the crown, and succeeds in grabbing it after the Battle of Towton. England loves its handsome young king, but Marguerite loathes him. And Marguerite’s not giving up - particularly if the Earl of Warwick, who’s already made one king, can be persuaded to switch sides and help remake another. It’s ten years before the House of York has a firm grip on power - and with it the Woodvilles, the numerous and ambitious relatives of Edward’s beautiful, hated Queen.

After Edward’s death the Sunne in Splendour turns out to have been just a little tarnished. A bishop drops a bombshell that sees Edward’s sole remaining brother take the crown, producing one of the great unsolved mysteries and leading to one of the blackest reputations in history.

It was big, heavy, awkward to hold and not quick to read. And I loved every last page of it, no matter how many nights I ended up with aching hands and thumbs from keeping it upright and open. After I finished it, it was a full day before I could bring myself to pick up another book. In the absence of time travel, a good historical novel is the next best thing; and this novel makes you feel as if you’re right there with the characters. This can be nerve-wracking at times, as the Plantagenets weren’t a family given to happy endings - and some of them ended rather unpleasantly.

From a series of names and dates, the Wars of the Roses have become a collection of distinct personalities who will be remembered long after the last page. Most of these are from the second and third generations of the battle: the descendants of Richard of York, Warwick the Kingmaker, and Marguerite d’Anjou. Because they were still children when Edward took the throne, the years skip by quickly at first - from 1459 to 1470 in 166 pages. For a while I wondered how the years that remained could be stretched to fill the rest of the book. I needn’t have worried; there was no such thing as a quiet life in the royal family of the time, particularly not with Clarence and Elizabeth around. Elizabeth reminded me of Becky Sharp - I didn’t like her, but couldn’t help admiring her ingenuity and determination. All the characters are well-drawn, so much so that I rarely had trouble distinguishing between the multiple Elizabeths, Richards, and Edwards; and I now almost feel like I know them. When something comes so much to life it can be hard to remember that it’s just one person’s interpretation of the historical record. This difficulty is compounded by Edward’s extraordinary luck; there were so many places where things could have gone horribly wrong and didn’t, and the Battle of Barnet is something no writer would dare invent. Such a series of chances and coincidences would be laughably absurd if fictional.

Having read a couple of other interpretations of the same period in the last few months - The Goldsmith’s Wife and The Daughter of Time - I had a good deal of fun playing spot-the-difference. Penman’s answer to the Princes in the Tower mystery is, I think, more plausible than Josephine Tey’s - in fact, the most plausible I’ve yet read. And of all the versions of Richard I’ve read, this one is my favourite. I liked him from the first page, and he’s about as far as you can get from the monster of Shakespeare. I actually procrastinated over finishing the book just because I knew what history and Henry Tudor had in store for him, and didn’t want to see it happen. Instead of a calculating villain he comes across as, if anything, not calculating enough; unable to always think three steps ahead the way his brother did. I read the final chapters, watching things start to go wrong, and couldn’t help thinking each time: “What if-?”

Rating: A

11 March 2008

Ten Ways to Tell a Book was Written by Me

I’ve seen this one doing the rounds for a while now, and since I’ve put NaNoWriMo on my 101 Things list, I decided it was time to borrow it.

1. The protagonist will be female (or protagonists, in the event of there being more than one distinct plotline). I’m not familiar enough with the male of the species - or should that be the male species? - to feel confident being in the head of one for a large portion of the book.

2. The aforementioned female/s will be smart. Depending on the time period, not necessarily well-educated; but brainy enough to be a match for even the wiliest of villains.

3. And yes, there will be a villain - or villains. Because there will be a strong mystery element, even if the book is more than just a whodunit. Who killed X? What is Y hiding? Who’s obstructing Z? Why is the house haunted? What really happened two hundred and something years ago? (Or in the case of my NaNoWriMo project, all of the above.)

4. Speaking of haunted houses ... sooner or later, something strange will happen. No made-up worlds or mythologies, just a touch of the weird in the middle of the everyday.

5. The past will be important; either the setting will be wholly or partly historical, or a modern-day heroine will become entangled in something from the past (or even a bit of both). I love history, and a novel is the perfect excuse to do research. Probably European; I’ve never been fond of Australian history, partly from having suffered through too much of it in school, and partly because I prefer my history much older.

6. For my heroines, a nice happy ending heading off into the sunset with Mr. Right is unlikely - or at best, only going to be suggested as a possibility. I have little faith in my ability to create either a convincing love story, or a convincing couple to undergo it. Which leaves me in a NaNoWriMo quandary: I didn’t mean to create a perfectly-matched pair, but I appear to have inadvertently done just that.

7. On the non-romantic front, some at least of the relationships between characters will be complex and tangled, even to the point of trust and mistrust going together. It won’t always be as simple as A likes B, B loathes C.

8. The line between good and bad will be slightly blurred; a bad guy can commit his villainies as much for others as for himself, an essentially good character can scheme endlessly for revenge. (Is it just me, or is this NaNoWriMo project starting to sound a tiny bit ... ambitious?)

9. Although there will be some dark situations (no examples this time - I’m not about to give away the ending!) there will also be plenty of humour. Perhaps not the kind to make you laugh out loud, or even giggle; but enough to lighten the gloom.

10. The title will come from a quotation of some kind. Shakespeare, say.

Book Review: Every Dead Thing by John Connolly

888 Challenge #5

Every Dead Thing Charlie Parker’s police career ended shortly after the lives of his wife and daughter. Now he’ freelancing, doing what he can to find their killer in between odd spots of private investigation. The moonlighting’s not going well; first the bail jumper he’s about to take in gets shot in broad daylight, and then he gets roped into doing a missing persons case. Although Charlie suspects that Caroline?? simply doesn’t want to be found he accepts it anyway, and soon finds himself on the trail of a child-killer.

But when one case closes, another re-opens. Down in Louisiana, bodies are appearing with similar mutilations to those of the Parkers. A sadist is on the loose, turning his victims into three-dimensional artworks of death, memento mori for the modern age. A gang war is about to commence. And there are more things than just alligators haunting the local swamps.

First, a word of warning: This is probably not the sort of book you want to read over lunch. The killer’s preferred method of displaying his handiwork really is gruesome. I haven’t even bothered checking to see whether the historical basis is fact or fiction; if fact, my imagination has already provided pictures enough without Google adding to them. That aside, it’s a good, if at times unsettling read. Charlie is an interesting character, having become as much a dealer of death as the felons he once sought to put away ... but only to the bad guys. He’s very far from perfect, but he doesn’t mind admitting his faults and has a sharp sense of observation. The structure is unusual, with one case framed by another, and Charlie constructs enough of a connection between them that they fit together nicely. And the supernatural element made the book doubly creepy (in the best possible way).

Apart from the gruesomeness, the thing that detracted from it was the sheer excess of the body count. I didn’t try to keep count, and suspect I would have failed anyway, there were so many. Enough to fill several morgues, I should think.

Rating: B

07 March 2008

Booking Through Thursday Friday: Hero

You should have seen this one coming … Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?
You can blame the time difference for this: By the time WordPress belatedly got around to posting the question, it was well past midnight here and I was asleep! Not that having an extra day to ponder made the answering any easier. For some reason, it’s female characters that stick in my memory more than the men. There are plenty that I like, but favourites? After much deliberation (and reading of other people’s suggestions!) I came up with these:

To start with the glaringly obvious: Jamie Fraser from the Outlander series. Intelligent, sexy, able to make me laugh, devoted to Claire, lethal with a broadsword. (And a fellow lefty.) Even occasional bouts of pigheadedness can’t detract from his appeal.

Another Fraser is Charles from Daughter of the Game by Tracy Grant. Equally adept in grand houses and grimy alleyways, he knows how to handle a crisis, and to cope with a nasty series of surprises regarding his nearest and dearest.

Third on the list isn’t really a lead character ... but I feel like cheating a little: Severus Snape from the Harry Potter books. Far from the most pleasant of magical beings, but compelling and, in the end, heartbreaking.

And no post on heroes would be complete without mention of Jane Austen, which presents the biggest dilemma: Which to choose? Mr. Darcy overcomes his pride, and goes to the rescue of Lydia. Mr. Knightley would leave his home rather than have Emma leave her father. Captain Wentworth writes what must be the most romantic letter in all of literature. Or even Colonel Brandon, who sits for hours in the garden reading to Marianne while she recovers from the ill-effects of her drenching.

Maybe I’ll just cheat again and nominate them all....

06 March 2008

Book Review: William's Wife by Jean Plaidy

Royalty Rules Challenge #2

William’s Wife As the favoured elder daughter of the Duke of York, the Lady Mary has a charmed life, marred only by the presence in her household of the grasping Villiers family. That changes after her father converts to Catholicism, and doesn’t hesitate to make the fact known. In a country determined never to see a repeat of the persecutions of Bloody Mary, the thought of a Catholic heir to the throne is not well received. But there is a way to reassure the populace: Marry his daughter to one of Europe’s most devout Protestants.

Aged just fifteen, Mary finds herself married to William of Orange, the dour cousin she hardly knows, and dispatched to The Hague. Her new life isn’t made easier by the discovery that William’s lack of appeal hasn’t deterred her lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Villiers. Her husband might not be loyal, but Mary is determined to be, and soon that loyalty is tested. For James II has not proved popular as King, and she and Willaim have been invited to rule in his stead; and Mary must decide whether to support her father or her husband.

I like to pick up a bit of history while I read, so I was glad of the chance to read a book about figures I knew little of, and set - at least in part - outside England. (And it was indispensable on the morning I was stuck at Coopers Plains for an hour when a signal failed.) Public transport mishaps aside, though, it was a book I could probably have done without; not as good as I’d hoped or expected. It was impossible not to feel for Mary, sent away from her home and family to marry a cold fish like William, but sympathy and liking don’t necessarily coincide. (Though I did at least warm to her more than did my mother, who read the book after me and frequently evinced a desire to slap her.) The depiction of her sister Anne wasn’t much better; I found myself wondering how anyone so indolent in both body and mind could make a suitable monarch.

I think the biggest problem was the point of view. There are times when first person just doesn’t work, and this is one of them. Mary isn’t that interesting, and her narration is little more than mere reporting. She was a child when she left England, didn’t return to it until after her father and his family had fled into exile, and was married to a man not in the habit of discussing state affairs with his wife; so all the political intrigue of the time - like the stirrings of Titus Oates - were related secondhand and after the fact. And her thoughts kept going back over the same ground again and again. If only her father had kept his faith a secret ... If only her cousin Monmouth hadn’t let his head get filled with such grand ideas ... If only she had thought to ask that Elizabeth Villiers remain in England....

If only I’d borrowed it from the library instead of buying it....

Rating: C-

Book Review: The Daughters of Cain by Colin Dexter

The Daughters of Cain Morse isn’t happy at the prospect of taking over someone else’s case; but when it turns out that the previous detective’s wife really was dying, he doesn’t have much choice. So he and Lewis begin their belated investigation into the murder of Wesley College’s Ancient History Tutor, Dr. Felix McClure. In the absence of witnesses or a weapon, the only thing to go on is motive, and there’s no shortage of that. An undergraduate who committed suicide, drug-taking amongst his students, the call girl he was seeing - any one of them could have inspired a knife to the gut.

Across town, a schoolteacher is keeping a secret, and her cleaning lady is in trouble. They have nothing to do with the case - until the second body turns up, that of someone with more than one connection to the late Dr. McClure. Whether the two murders have anything directly to do with each other remains to be seen, but Morse thinks that they do. Or is that just what a very clever killer wants him to believe?

After being reminded of Morse by The Daughter of Time, it seemed natural to read this next. It wasn’t quite able to knock The Wench is Dead from its position as the favourite of the Morse books I’ve read, but it did come close. At first the mystery was threefold - what were Julia and Brenda up to, who killed Felix, and how would the two plots merge into one? When they did so, they became more baffling ... and then I managed to arrive at a few points ahead even of Morse, and was left waiting impatiently for the characters to catch up. But the book redeemed itself when I discovered that police and reader alike were being led up the garden path; and then I could only marvel at the sheer deviousness of the plot. (And try, and fail, to solve the cryptic crossword clue that stumped Morse.)

Rating: B+

04 March 2008

Book Review: The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Royalty Rules Challenge #1

The Daughter of Time Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant fell through a trapdoor while chasing a suspect. Now the only thing he’s pursuing is something to counteract the boredom of being trapped in a hospital bed at the mercy of the nurses. His friend Marta comes to the rescue with the suggestion that he find a historical mystery to look into - did the Dauphin escape the guillotine? Was Amy Robsart murdered? - and, knowing Grant’s fascination with faces, brings along a selection of portrait prints to help him decide. None of the proffered puzzles captures his attention, but one face does: That of Richard III.

Marta had intended that Grant consider investigating whether Perkin Warbeck was, as he claimed, one of the Princes in the Tower - the two boys murdered by their usurping, hunchbacked uncle. Instead he begins researching Richard himself. Aided by an American historian (also provided by Marta), Grant sifts through the accounts of Richard’s reign. He soon realises that there is another mystery attached to Richard - that of whether he ordered the deaths of his nephews at all.

Once upon a time, I believed. I accepted without question what history and the encyclopaedia said: That Richard III was a cruel man who had two children killed that he might be king. When the first faint doubts appeared, I’m not sure. Perhaps when we read Richard III in Year 10 English, and it occurred to me that of course Shakespeare’s Richard was a monster; he was, after all, writing in the reign of Henry Tudor’s granddaughter at a time when theatres needed royal approval. Sometime later, I read that far from being hunchbacked, he was actually accounted good-looking. And everything I’ve read about Richard since has only served to improve my opinion of him. Yes, I was willing to be persuaded; but I think even someone convinced of his villainy would be given a lot to think about while reading this book.

As literature, it’s possessed of a noticeable shortcoming; the characters who come and go from Grant’s room (staff and visitors alike) are plainly there for the purpose of presenting the arguments for and against Richard, and voicing the popular legends. It’s potentially controversial history converted to a more palatable form, fiction. (And it reminded me of Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead, in which Morse solves a - fictional - nineteenth-century mystery while hospitalised.) In spite of its transparency, it’s still an engrossing read, such is the fascination of the information it presents. Grant’s emerging belief in Richard’s innocence is given weight by the discussion of other famous (non)incidents, like the Boston Massacre - in which the British troops were provoked and the dead could be counted on one hand. It’s a touch frightening to think how easily history can be completely rewritten without anyone saying a word, as well as a valuable reminder to think about ‘facts’, instead of just swallowing them. Some of the evidence in Richard’s favour is so obvious I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed it myself; some was an education. By the time it was all laid out, I couldn’t see how Richard could possibly be guilty - unless possessed of far less by way of brains than history would suggest.

As for Grant’s identification of the real villain ... that, I’m not so sure about. There’s no shortage of other suspects; and no real proof against the one Grant settles on. To find a truly convincing case against any one of them would likely take someone with degrees in history and psychology, and unfettered access to the original records - and probably the miraculous discovery of some long-lost documents, too.

And although I have none of those things ... if I were in London, I’d be sorely tempted to rush out to the British Library and begin the search myself.

Rating: A-

01 March 2008

Version 3.0

This is the other reason there have been so few reviews lately! I’d been planning the switch to three columns on February 29 for a while; but after seeing the recent renovations at Book-a-Rama and Reading Adventures I got inspired to make the overhaul complete. Hence, all my writing time got turned into designing-and-coding time.

Anyone who’s made a return visit in the last 23 hours would have noticed this already; I’m a day late with this post. I grossly underestimated both the amount of last-minute tweaking that would need to be done, and how much of a perfectionist I’d be about it all. So the new look didn’t hit cyberspace until after 1 a.m. today, after which I was much more interested in sleeping than writing. Worth the late night, though.

Now for the grand tour! The painting is Fragonard’s A Young Girl Reading (keeping up the eighteenth century theme) which allowed me to pick out a new, warmer colour scheme. I don’t usually like pale pinks, but I’m making an exception here.

And, there’s a new column. FreeRice is something I heard about from Stuck in a Book. As the name implies, it donates rice to the hungry; it’s paid for by advertising and works on the basis of a multiple-choice vocabulary game. It’s quite enlightening; not only learning new words, but seeing how good I am at guessing their meaning. Distributed Proofreaders is associated with Project Gutenberg, which makes public-domain works available for free online. At DP, you can sign up as a volunteer proofreader and help the process along. Not only is it fun, it’s the best good cause of all - free literature! I’ve at last got the majority of my books logged into LibraryThing - enough to put a random selection on display - and I’ve come up with my own 101 Things in 1001 Days list. It covers everything from the easy to the wildly optimistic, and hopefully all will be completed by midnight, 26 November 2010. (I think I calculated that correctly....)

Treasured Blogger Award

Treasured Blogger

Dancin’ Fool at In the Pink created this in honour of a friend who no longer has time to blog, and I’ve had the privilege of being one of the inaugural recipients. Displaying it and passing it on are optional, but I want to send out a thank-you to those blogs and bloggers I couldn’t be without.

And the award goes to:

Heather at The Library Ladder, who left one of the first comments on this blog and recently bestowed a MWAH! on it.
BookLogged at A Reader’s Journal, host of the first reading challenge I signed up for.
Danielle at A Work in Progress, whose blog I can never seem to visit without adding titles to my Wanted list.

Friday Fill-In #61

Friday Fill-In

1. I’m looking forward to finishing the first of my Chunkster Challenge reads next week. (I hope.)

2. I don’t handle other people very well.

3. Mango is something I could eat every day.

4. Warmth and sunlight have been lacking this summer.

5. Challenge overload here I come! (I’m seriously considering the Novella Challenge)

6. I am far too much of a coward ever to get a tattoo.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I’m looking forward to launching my new template, tomorrow my plans include catching up on reviews (what else?) and Sunday, I want to do more of the same (I’ll need it)!

29 February 2008

Roll Up, Roll Up for the Eponymous Reading Challenge!


One of my favourite things about book blogging is the existence of reading challenges. I’ve considered several ideas for running my own, but have only recently hit on one that no-one else has thought of. So I am striking while the idea is still unclaimed and celebrating books that share names with their characters with

The Eponymous Challenge

Here’s how it works:

The challenge will run from 1 March to 31 May, 2008.

During that time your mission should you choose to accept it is to read 4 books whose titles are the name of one or more of the characters (e.g. Evelina, Oscar and Lucinda); or a description of one or more of the characters (e.g. The Merchant of Venice, Sylvia’s Lovers).

Non-fiction books and overlaps with other challenges are welcome, as are books named after four-legged characters.

Once you’ve chosen your books, choose a colour scheme....


(200 x 87)

... post your list, and add a link to it with Mr. Linky below. I can’t wait to see how this works out!

1. Between the Covers
2. Maria (A Book Geek)
3. Becky (Becky's Book Reviews)
4. Charlie (Off the Shelves)
5. Joy (" Thoughts of Joy...")
6. Callista (SMS Book Reviews)
7. Nicole B.
8. Lena
9. Samantha (Bookminx)
10. Fleurdesel
11. Karen
12. Mandy
13. Tara
14. trish
15. Andrea
16. Mo (Inside Mo's Mind)
17. Myrthe
18. Poodlerat
19. Suzi Qoregon
20. Lynne (Lynne's Little Corner of the World)
21. joanna
22. Amy( The Sleepy Reader)
23. jlshall
24. Ms Alex
25. cafeshree
26. Kim
27. Gaelle (Proust's Madeleine)
28. Juli (Can IBorrow Your Book)
29. Lizzy Siddal
30. loey
31. 3M
32. raidergirl3
33. bethany canfield
34. Esther (Connect the Plots)
35. Ramya
36. Kim- page after page (wrap- up)
37. Lizzy Siddal (Reviews and wrapup)

Booking Through Thursday: Heroine

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one ... I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)
Where to start? In random order:

Thursday Next gets to dive right into all sorts of good books (hard not to be jealous of that!) and is capable of dealing with even the stickiest (or most outlandish) of situations. She’s definitely someone you’d want to have around in a book-related crisis.

Claire Randall from the Outlander series. She’s one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered, and lives as vividly in memory as she does on the page. Anyone who can adapt to the harshness of eighteenth-century life and warfare would win my admiration; Claire’s courage, humour, quick thinking and love for Jamie have fixed her as one of my all-time favourites.

I’ve seen her mentioned a few times so far and have to agree: Jane Eyre. I love seeing the quiet, downtrodden child grow up and triumph, I love her adherence to her principles, and I love that Mr. Rochester loves her for her mind. I’m weird that way. I’d far rather be considered smart than pretty; and I’d rather not be thought pretty at all, than to have someone notice my looks without giving a thought to the brain behind them. To me, what Jane finds at the end of the book really is true love.

And finally and most predictably ... Elizabeth Bennet. How can you not love a girl who’ll tell even the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh exactly what she thinks of her? That scene is one of my favourites ... and that book is one I must re-read at the first opportunity!

They’re the ones that spring to mind at midnight-ish, and I’m sure that by tomorrow morning I’ll have thought of at least four more!

Or, by the time two minutes are up! How could I (almost) forget Hermione Granger? She shares my approach to problem-solving: When in doubt, find a book.

26 February 2008

Excuses and Two Quizzes

Nearly two weeks without posting! And I can only blame my ISP for some of that, since I’ve been reconnected for nearly a week. I’ve gotten a bit out of the habit of writing, and found it easy to be distracted by other things: Reading; sewing; starting to knit a shawl when the temperature was hovering unseasonably around the mid-twenties; draping myself in front of the aircon when the temperature spiked to 40. Fortunately I’ve got plenty of time to drag myself back into the habit of reviewing; I’m now into not one but TWO Chunkster Challenge books; it will be a while before either of those are finished!

But if I haven’t been writing, I have at least been keeping up my blog reading, and found these two quizzes. The first came from Book-a-Rama:

What Be Your Nerd Type?
Your Result: Literature Nerd

Does sitting by a nice cozy fire, with a cup of hot tea/chocolate, and a book you can read for hours even when your eyes grow red and dry and you look sort of scary sitting there with your insomniac appearance? Then you fit this category perfectly! You love the power of the written word and its eloquence; and you may like to read/write poetry or novels. You contribute to the smart people of today's society, however you can probably be overly-critical of works. It's okay. I understand.

Artistic Nerd
Science/Math Nerd
Social Nerd
Gamer/Computer Nerd
Drama Nerd
Anime Nerd
What Be Your Nerd Type?
Quizzes for MySpace

No surprises there! And from Reading Adventures:

You Belong in Paris
Stylish and expressive, you were meant for Paris.
The art, the fashion, the wine!
Whether you're enjoying the cafe life or a beautiful park...
You'll love living in the most chic place on earth.

*Sigh* ... if only I wasn’t so linguistically challenged! (Read: a complete dunce at foreign languages.)

123 Meme

Aarti tagged me for this quick little meme, which is just as easy as the name suggests.

The rules are:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages)
2. Open the book to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence
4. Post the next three sentences
5. Tag five people
The nearest book was The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, which at the time of tagging I was reading for the Royalty Rules Challenge. Sentences five, six, and seven on page 123 are:
For the rest of the evening Grant pottered happily through the history books, collecting heirs.

There was no lack of them. Edward’s five, George’s boy and girl.

(The main character begins to realise just how many people stood between Richard of Gloucester and the throne.)

If there actually happens to be anyone not yet tagged for this ... you are now!

Book Review: Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

What’s in a Name? Challenge #1

The Girl in Hyacinth Blue In a teacher’s house hangs his greatest secret: A painting of a girl dressed in hyacinth blue, caught in an idle moment by a window. He is trapped between the urge to share the beauty of (maybe) a lost Vermeer, and to atone for the ugliness of its acquisition. From there the tale works its way back through time, visiting some of those who have loved and lived with the painting, and whose lives have shifted course beneath the girl’s abstracted gaze. A Jewish family keeping Passover in 1942; a couple about to say goodbye to their only daughter; a French diplomat’s wife longing for Paris; a woman in the middle of a flood who finds the painting and a baby and longs to keep both; and her secret benefactor. At last it reaches the artist himself, and the chance moment that inspired its creation.

Read. This. Book.

Okay, I’ll be more specific. I ploughed through this in a couple of days, eagerly turning the pages because I was impatient to read more. Then once I’d finished I wished I’d read it more slowly so that it wouldn’t have been over so soon. I still can’t quite decide whether it’s really a novel or a linked sequence of short stories; in that respect it reminds me of The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing; dreadfully unfortunate given that that merited a D- (I think) while this is a case of literary true love. The writing is beautiful, the scenes of Dutch life delicate and clear on the page, and the descriptions of the painting will have any art lover salivating. You can just see the brushstrokes creating the texture of the basket, and the way the colour shifts with the light. If you’re so lucky as to have a Vermeer somewhere nearby it would be enough to make you want to rush out and visit it.

It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Girl with a Pearl Earring; it was interesting to note that here once the family moved in with Maria Thins, Vermeer hardly painted at all due to the poor light - yet that is the house where the other novel was set. Both are good, but this is the better of the two; only this left me with the feeling of holding something precious. I have to say, however, that some of the Dutch names give one a certain pause for thought - of the ‘145How on earth do you pronounce that?’ variety. As I’m sure there must be a reasonable number of manageable Dutch names available for use, that is the only thing that keeps it from perfection.

Rating: A

25 February 2008

Book Review: A Matter of Honour by Jeffrey Archer

A Matter of Honour In 1966 carbon dating reveals a minor icon in the Winter Palace to be a fake. Rather to his surprise, the head of the KGB is ordered by Brezhnev to spare no expense in retrieving the original. This isn’t for the sake of the painting, but for a document believed to be concealed inside it; one which two countries would do anything to lay hands on and which will be useless if not found within a month. A couple of weeks later, Adam Scott inherits an envelope which his father’s will warns should only be opened on condition that no word ever be breathed of its contents. Adam hopes said contents will clear the taint of reputation that drove both father and son to resign from the army. Once translated, the papers lead to a Swiss bank vault containing a minor Russian icon, and propel him into murder, mayhem, and a chase across Europe with a ruthless KGB agent at his heels.

This book is notorious in our house. I brought it home nearly seven years ago and after reading it, lent it to my mother. One afternoon she decided to read “just one more chapter” - and finally put it down when she finished it twenty-three chapters later. It’s not a book to read on public transport - I tried that myself recently and if I’d been travelling alone could well have missed my station - and is probably best left for a free weekend. All the ingredients of a first-rate thriller are there - the fate of the free world at stake, a tight deadline, a homicidal and well-funded opponent, an innocent bystander dropped into the middle - and they all come together beautifully, with enough grounding in historical fact to make it seem plausible (while you’re reading it, at least). The chase takes a while to get started, but since Adam and Romanov are in the same book it’s obvious they’re going to cross paths eventually ... and until that happens, that deadline just keeps getting closer. Hero and villain are a well-matched pair; both smart, tough, and adept at using whatever - or whoever - comes to hand (the difference being that one favours subterfuge and the other violence).

Despite the life-or-death stakes there’s still room for levity among the secondary characters, particularly an endlessly talkative mustard salesman. My favourite of all was the closest thing the book has to a heroine: Robin Beresford, a double-bass player who has a flair for deception and the balls to stand up to Romanov. One point greatly puzzled me until I looked it up (turns out that, yes, it is possible to put the Union Jack upside-down). And I’m a little ambivalent about the ending. On one hand, it was fitting, but on the other, I wished it could have been a certain someone else who did it. (Which is terribly vague and unhelpful, I know, but I do hate to give too much away!)

Rating: A-

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