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

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