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)!

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