31 July 2009

Fractal Friday: Tropicana


Book Review: The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

The House at Riverton 1999: Grace Bradley receives a letter from a film producer. Ursula is making a movie about the family at Riverton and the tragic suicide of poet Robbie Hunter during a party there in 1924. At 98, Grace is the only inmate of the house still alive, and she agrees to visit the set. Riverton has been faithfully re-created, but as Grace talks to Ursula she learns that the film’s version of events is hopelessly wrong. To say so would be to reveal a secret which Grace has been keeping from everyone for 75 years. Instead she tells her story into a series of tapes for her mystery-novelist grandson Marcus.

1914: Grace begins work as a housemaid at Riverton, and becomes entranced by the Hartford siblings and The Game of make-believe they play. In time she progresses to the post of lady’s maid to Hannah, the elder Hartford sister, and travels with her to London on her marriage. There Hannah meets her brother’s old friend Robbie, and encounter which triggers the slide of what remains of the family into disaster.

Obviously in 600 pages more happens that that, but I’m wary of giving anything away - or at least more than the author herself does. Knowing virtually from the start that the crux of the story was Robbie Hunter’s 1924 suicide took away some of the mystery; there was only why to speculate about, not what. And knowing that I had to get through ten years’ worth of Grace’s memories made the book hard to get into, as did Grace herself. It took me a while to warm up to her, even after she broke Riverton rules by smuggling in several books because she couldn’t live without Holmes and Watson. We’re told that she’s extraordinary, and indeed she acquired a doctorate in archaeology at a time when most women stayed home. Unfortunately, the book only shows her more ordinary youth and old age. (A novel about Grace's middle years - now that would be worth reading!)

What kept me going were the Hartfords. I shared Grace’s captivation, especially with Hannah, who was determined to remain single and independent and liked to take sharp jabs at her father’s horror of the slippery slope of female suffrage. That aspect of the book was particularly well done - the historical characters were all products of their time and held opinions accordingly. Soon I became more absorbed in the story and the glittering world of Riverton.

And then the main female characters underwent a collective drop in intelligence. Emmeline grew up into a spoilt, foolish girl with apparently no common sense. Hannah walked right into the machinations of her relatives, and was later willing to sacrifice her dreams for the very people who had crushed them in the first place. And Grace failed to notice things that were right under her nose (as did Hannah, and Robbie for that matter). When the IQ points went, so did my interest. It got so bad I actually turned to the end and began working backwards. I found it dull and increasingly frustrating.

The First World War was so far offstage it almost might not have happened. I was disappointed when Marcus started showing an interest in Ursula (a pet peeve of mine - can’t authors let their characters stay single? Just once?) And the boyfriend Grace acquired in her sixties was quoted as saying that it was a good thing she was an archaeologist, as the older he got the better she liked him. Reverse the gender of the pronouns and it’s an - uncredited - paraphrase of what Agatha Christie said of her second husband.

The thing that really annoyed me, though, was that it retrospectively marred my enjoyment of The Forgotten Garden. Like her second book, her first featured two time periods whose only common character was a woman who: Lived to well past 90; made an ill-judged marriage; had one child, a daughter, to whom she never felt any connection, and a grandchild she adored; and sought to leave information about her past for said grandchild, with the aim of helping them get over the sudden death of their spouse. That’s a fair bit of thematic recycling, and had I read the books in publication order I would not have given The Forgotten Garden the grade that I did. (Which raises the question: Edit the review in light of new information? Or leave it as is?)

Rating: C+

28 July 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
    Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

Her dismay was so intense that it was no longer measurable. All she knew was that he did not want to come.

From A Start in Life by Anita Brookner, p. 54.

27 July 2009

DNF: A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

A Fraction of the Whole I must have hit a new personal best - or personal worst - with this one: I quit on page 28. And I had a sinking feeling from page 1. Meaning that I made it through all of 4% of the book. Hence I really can’t write a review as such; can’t say what it’s about, even.

It opened with the narrator, Jasper Dean, in jail - not an auspicious start. He decided to write his story, despite that being a highly impractical hobby to have while inside. He introduced his father Martin, who shuffled Jasper in and out of school between attempts at teaching him at home. These attempts took place in what sounded like a dump of a house and involved him lecturing a six-year-old on such topics as gender politics, Nietzsche, and why self-respect is bad for you. Basically he came across as a bit of a deadbeat and a bad father - and then he became the narrator.

Did I want to spend time with these people? No. And something about the writing style disagreed with me from the start (and it wasn’t funny like the cover quotes promised).

Read: 28 of 699 pages

26 July 2009

Weekly Geeks: Faking It?

Weekly Geeks

1. Go to Creativity Tools' random word generator.

2. Get yourself a random word. Write it down. Then click "new word" to get yourself two more random words, and write them down, too. You should have three words written down.

3. Now find the random sentence generator and get yourself a sentence, write it down underneath the three words. If you don't like that sentence it's okay to click "new sentence" until you get one you like.

4. Use the Random Phrase Generator to generate a phrase. Write it down. You may not need this, but keep it handy, just in case. Again, it's okay to go through a couple of phrases before settling on one that works for you.

5. Now, using the three words from Step 2 and the sentence from Step 3, write one of the following, (but don't tell us which!):

(a) A book review (if you have an obscure book that many of us won't recognize by the title, this would be a great time to do it--or you could omit or replace the title [see -d- below] just for this week)
(b) A scene from a book (you'll need to replace some of the words and a phrase with the random ones).
(c) A scene you make up completely from scratch
(d) A review of a fake book, using the Random Phrase from Step 4 as your book title

Firstly: What an awesome challenge! This is going to be so much fun ... I’m doing something different to everyone else so far and posting a scene (or rather, part of one), from a historical mystery by Kathleen Koch. Fortunately it’s obscure, because I’m afraid there’s a bit of a spoiler. Real or fake - what do you think?

It was after supper when she stepped down from the hackney outside her brother’s residence. A painstakingly correct manservant showed her into the sitting room where Fletcher was settled with a glass of brandy and the inevitable book. He rose in surprise at his sister’s unexpected appearance.

“Come to make sure I’m not too bereft?” he asked, and it took her a moment to realise that he was speaking for the servant’s benefit, referring to the story they had agreed between them the previous night.

“A sister’s duty,” she said lightly, declining a seat as the servant left the room. She waited for a count of ten then swept across the room and opened the door. A startled maid scurried away.

“You need to manage your servants better,” she announced as she banged the door shut.

“I doubt you came here to dispense household hints. Just because I’m not in the habit of taking laudanum doesn’t mean I can’t recognise its effects. The juice disables an idle independence.”

“I thought that after such a distressing event you would need your rest. Since I knew you’d never agree to the suggestion, I–”

“Decided to drug me for my own good?”

A sharp retort rose to her lips, but she suppressed it on seeing that he really did look haggard, in spite of the good night’s sleep she had procured for him. His hair was coming loose from its queue, he wore the same clothes she had seen him in the previous night, and there was a haunted look in his eyes. The last fact convinced her that the first two weren’t merely for effect.

“You really did miss her, didn’t you?” she said softly.

He knocked back the rest of the brandy and set the glass down heavily. “What did you think, Mercy? That I could kill a woman with my bare hands and not feel anything? That I could be glad to see her dead, however much of a threat she had become?”

“I don’t think even you could be so cold-bloodedly pragmatic. I just … didn’t think you could be so human.”

Without getting up, he sketched her a slight bow. “If that’s your opinion, I shudder to think what Guy thinks of me.”

Mercy took a deep breath. She had thought to find her brother as composed as ever, and now that she hadn’t she felt some small compunction about burdening him further. But surely her own life – Guy’s life – was more important that Fletcher’s conscience, such of it as he possessed.

“I need to talk to you about the steps I took today to – to ensure our security.”

A spark of life returned to his face. “I’m listening.”

The explanation that had seemed so foolproof in her own home suddenly appeared pedestrian, able to be knocked to pieces by a single counter-argument. But it was all she had.

“I deposited a package with my solicitors,” she began, noticing the look of puzzlement that flickered across his face. “That package is accompanied by two letters. The first is to be opened if I should meet a death that is in any way unnatural.” She had him now; he leaned forward in his seat, his eyes uncomfortably intent on her face.

“It instructs the firm to open the package and make whatever use of the contents they see fit. The other letter is to be opened when all three of us – you, me, Guy – are dead, and it instructs the firm to hand the package to your heir.”

Fletcher half-raised the empty glass, but didn’t stir to refill it. “What is in the package?” he asked, in a tone that suggested he could hazard a guess.

“Your old account book.”

He lurched to his feet, and there was a flash followed by the tinkling sound of shattered glass as he hurled the brandy snifter into the fireplace. “You little bitch!”

Mercy felt the heat rise in her cheeks, but she didn’t flinch. “Maybe so, but a talented one. I learned all sorts of useful things at the brothel, not least of which was picking pockets.”

“I checked it before I threw it in the fire. I checked it and it wasn’t blank.”

“Because I’d taken the liberty of reproducing it.”

“They teach you forgery as well? I suppose I should be glad you never put your skills to use on the streets and got yourself hanged. Or maybe not.”

“I never committed any crime in which you were not also involved – except the aforementioned, of which you have no notation whatsoever.”

24 July 2009

Blog Improvement Project: Task 13

Blog Improvement Project Blog Post Bingo! My favourite task from the first half of the year is back. And despite my knitting-induced posting shortage, I managed a very respectable total:

1. A Link PostThe Cheat’s Way Out
2. A Short PostA Good Excuse
3. A List Post26 More Neologisms for Booklovers
4. An Opinion Post – FAIL
5. A Poll or Question PostBirthday Loot Poll
6. A How-To Post – FAIL
7. A Long PostBook Review: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
8. A Review PostBook Review: The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
9. A Definition Post – FAIL
10. NEW: A Personal PostBirthday Loot
11. NEW: A Resource PostVictorian British History Online
12. FREE SPACE – Wordless – Fractal Friday: Garland

Last time I managed seven out of ten; this time it was nine out of twelve. From 70% to 75% - an improvement! Well, of sorts ... it was the same post types which tripped me up again. And I did have to publish five posts - including this wrap-up - in a single night to make it. (Though I might add it wasn’t nearly so impressive an achievement as it sounds: they were either the work of minutes or already half-done.)

Victorian British History Online

I had the horrible realisation last night that there were 100 days left till NaNoWriMo (99, now). And I’m just a teensy bit underprepared. In fact, I still don’t know what year it’s going to be set in. (But I do at least know the decade!) Clearly, I need to do some research. I’ve hunted up a handful of useful websites, and collected them here as a quick reference for myself and a possible source of interest to others.

The Dictionary of Victorian London consists of excerpts from primary sources indexed alphabetically by topic.

This site’s collection of Victorian and Edwardian Photographs includes images listed by year. Perfect for marvelling at the hairdos and dresses and being glad you were born in the twentieth century :-)

The Costumer’s Manifesto has a huge list of Victorian Fashion Links, organised by decade.

The Victorian Web includes a little of just about everything.

And my personal favourite (as if I don’t have enough to read already!) is The Victorian Women Writers Project, offering online texts by nineteenth-century female writers - free!

The Cheat’s Way Out

When I composed my 101 Things in 1001 Days list, I deliberately included a mix of easy, challenging, and wildly optimistic. I did think that #7 - reading the entire Bible - would be somewhere in the middle, but I was wrong. So wrong. After struggling through five and a bit books I let it lapse, and realised that I was really much happier without the prospect of four chapters to be read each evening. Unfortunately a vague endnote in Jane Eyre (explaining that a biblical allusion was to “the famous parable” - so famous I’ve never heard of it) reminded me of the whole point of adding that task to the list.

So if you want to be able to get references to the Bible, without actually reading it, what do you do?

If you’re me, you hit Google and find this: The Brick Testament. All the highlights, illustrated ... with Lego.

Sure it’s cheating - but at least it’s fun.

Fractal Friday: Garland


Book Review: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch In London in 1947, four people are linked together by both the present and the past. Kay Langrish ignores her family’s money to live in rooms in a building lucky to be standing, trying to get used to a life no longer lived with the pace and intensity of the war years. When not roaming the city and wandering into cinemas, she watches the arrivals and departures of the patients of her Christian Scientist landlord, among them an old man escorted by one much younger. Duncan Pearce works at a factory job far below his abilities, lives with an uncle who’s no relation at all, and hides from the knowledge of what happened to land him in prison. His sister Vivien, the only member of his family with whom he’s really comfortable, comes to visit but Viv has troubles of her own. She works as a receptionist at a matchmaking agency while knowing that her own happy ending will never come, for the man she’s loved for years has a wife and children. Her colleague Helen Giniver struggles with the fierce bite of jealousy and the silence she must keep over her love for a woman she feels sure she is going to lose.

Three years earlier all are living different lives. Helen works in an office assisting those who have been left homeless by the bombs, feels suffocated at home and torn by her attraction to her lover’s ex. Kay drives an ambulance, heading out into the worst of the Little Blitz to see who is left to be saved, and making the mortuary run with those who can’t. Viv spends hours at a desk in a typing pool, stealing away to see Reggie when she can, in carefully stage-managed meetings in various run-down hotels. Her brother stagnates in Wormwood Scrubs, listening to the bombs fall and sharing a cell with a conscientious objector who fears he may at heart be a coward.

And three years before that, the events occurred which precipitated all the rest.

At first I was unsure about reading a story with this structure. After all, you read a novel to find out what happens next, not what happened years before. I wanted to know how the characters pieced together their post-war lives, and didn’t think much of Kay’s belief that people’s pasts are more interesting than their futures. Then I realised that in 1947 that was almost certainly true. Little that came later could match the drama of life in the midst of war, with death and destruction always just around the corner. Once I’d accepted that premise I was far more content to follow the book back into the past, and when the scene shifted to 1944 I felt no regrets about leaving the characters to their unspecified futures. And I closed the book a satisfied reader.

Between this and Foyle’s War I could acquire a taste for the history of this period. The description is fabulous, and covers everything from air raids to bureaucratic red tape to the dreadful food (and I won’t soon forget Viv being charmed by Reggie’s smile and falling in love with him “teeth-first”); and the sense of London geography is most impressive. The characters – and therefore the author – have a deep knowledge of the city, though the litanies of place-names were largely double Dutch to me. I know the river runs west to east and not a great deal more. The setting trumped the characters for me; I liked Kay and Viv, but I wasn’t quite convinced that Duncan should have been drawn into his actions so easily (though, granted, there was a very string personality involved.) And Helen was prone to annoying me. She had a serious problem with jealousy, which is always a recipe for disaster because if you’re wrong, your irrationality is all too likely to drive the other person away. Throw in some self-mutilating tendencies and you have a walking definition of “crazy in love” – emphasis on crazy. What I did love about the four was the way they each chose a different method of coping (rescuing, being rescued, running away, living for the moment) and so provided something of a cross-section.

As well as feeling inspired to read more about those left at home during the Second World War, it’s connected in my mind with the recent GLBT Challenge Eva wrote about. There’s a segment of society it would be intriguing to read more about in a historical context.

Rating: B+

23 July 2009

26 More Neologisms for Booklovers

The last lot were so popular, I decided to do it again.

The condition of really wanting not to read the advertisements on every bus shelter and billboard you pass, but being unable to help yourself.

The fate you meet when, for one of your classes, you inescapably must read a book so tedious it could cure insomnia.

Consisting of chapters short enough to be read in a single television ad break.

Feeling depressed over the high price of books.

Early yawning
The first hint that a book will be less than fabulous, in the form of a moment of eye-glazing dullness before page 50.

Someone whose choice of reading material is invariably whatever novel the critics have just been raving about.

Memoir recounting the author’s love of food, discovery of the joy of food, resolution of their psychological issues regarding food, exotic journeys with a focus on food, professional career involving food...

Universal agreement that a particular book, or aspect thereof, is just plain bad.

Chronically curious about what other people are reading.

To skip ahead in a book and read passages from random points further on.

Ingenuity applied to devising a way of simultaneously reading and doing handicrafts.

Assessing the merit of a tv show as being inversely proportional to the amount you read while it’s on.

An adamant refusal to read a book the whole world’s going nuts over, no matter how good it might be.

Infamous for writing novels in which next to nothing actually happens.

State in which you become so absorbed in a book as to lose awareness not only of what’s on the radio, but of the fact that you’re singing it.

Page yearner
A book that leaves you wishing there was more.

“No, honey, I haven’t bought any more books this month ... What? That stack behind the aspidistra? Oh no, those have been there for ages....”

A book you read while commuting, but never pick up when at home.

Printed in a typeface that leaves you peering at the page trying to work out what on earth it says.

A pale imitation of a wildly successful novel or series.

Literary chaos in the shape of a mountain of TBR books stored in no particular order.

Literary bad guy who shows a disappointing lack of nastiness.

Number 46 in the library hold queue.

X factoid
A quote or piece of information you know you’ve read somewhere, but whose source you simply cannot remember.

The stretching necessary to ease muscles aching from lugging home your latest bookstore purchases or library borrowings.

Featuring an animal which behaves in an unnatural way, thereby displaying the author’s lack of acquaintance with the breed or species in question.

Booking Through Thursday: Preferences

Which do you prefer? (Quick answers – we’ll do more detail at some later date.)

  • Reading something frivolous? Or something serious?
    How serious is serious? (And how frivolous is frivolous?) I think I’ll settle for saying: Nothing excessively serious, nothing excessively frivolous, and a nice balance of both.
  • Paperbacks? Or hardcovers?
    Paperbacks. Smaller, lighter, therefore easier to cart around and read on the train.
  • Fiction? Or Nonfiction?
    Both! Though I do read much more fiction than non-.
  • Poetry? Or Prose?
    Prose ... I don’t dislike poetry, I just hardly ever seem to read it.
  • Biographies? Or Autobiographies?
    Biographies, because the people I like to read about are generally a century or more dead, and I like to have the latest information about them.
  • History? Or Historical Fiction?
    Both, though if I’m reading it specifically for the history, I’ll take the non-fiction.
  • Series? Or Stand-alones?
    Stand-alones, so I don’t have to experience the frustration of endlessly hunting for the next book at the library. Or worse, the frustration of reading the first two books, then discovering the library has zero copies of the third.
  • Classics? Or best-sellers?
    Classics. I love nineteenth-century fiction, plus I usually have an aversion to reading what everyone else is.
  • Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose?
    Define lurid. I can enjoy both simple storytelling and literary flights in their place, and I can be annoyed with both of them out of it. The style should suit the story, without being overdone.
  • Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness?
    Plots! I say again: PLOTS!! I had such a struggle to get through the stream-of-consciousness Mrs Dalloway; the rambling from thought to thought and person to person drove me nuts.
  • Long books? Or Short?
    Hmm ... long, provided it’s good enough to justify all the time it takes to read. (Though short books are good for a change of pace, and for making up the numbers.)
  • Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated?
    Non-illustrated, so I can picture things for myself.
  • Borrowed? Or Owned?
    As much as I love the library, I have to say owned. A well-stocked bookcase is a beautiful sight.
  • New? Or Used?
    Used. I’m an inveterate bargain-hunter; books chanced upon at sales come with a delightful sense of serendipity; and the resulting mish-mash of sizes and styles makes for a nicely eclectic bookshelf.

21 July 2009

Weekly Geeks: Best Movie Adaptations

Weekly Geeks

With the release of Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince this past week, I thought it would be good to turn once again to movie adaptations. In March, with the release of Watchmen (using that as a jumping off point for discussion), I brought up the subject of worst movie adaptations. This time, I'd like to bring up best movie adaptations (not saying if the recent Harry Potter movie is or isn't faithful to the book since I'll be honest I haven't read the book, but using the subject as a jumping off point for discussion).

So what are some of your favorite movie adaptations of books? Include trailers or scenes from Youtube if you'd like.

Also along with that question, or instead of that question, what book or series would you like to see be made into a movie or movies? Tell us why you think it or they would work as a movie. If the book already has a book trailer, include that, to help make your point.

Aside from the glaringly obvious (i.e. the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the six-part Pride and Prejudice if you’re counting television) the first book and film that sprang to mind was The Remains of the Day. I loved the movie, and when I read the book I had the film running in my head. The whole tone of the film is perfect and Anthony Hopkins is just fabulous as Stevens.

Back down this end of the world, Picnic at Hanging Rock took the best qualities of the book and turned them into a local cinematic classic. Proof that in the right hands even a sun-scorched Australian summer can produce an eerie Gothic atmosphere.

And for sheer ingenuity I have to mention Seabiscuit, which turned non-fiction into a terrific story. (The question didn’t specify novels!)

I’m going to pass on choosing a book to be adapted, because the movie is so rarely as good as the book. Hearing that a much-loved book is going to be dramatised leaves me feeling more concerned than excited; I tend to wonder what will be altered or left out, or what piece of woeful miscasting will be perpetrated. Perhaps the best book to be translated to the screen would be one I haven’t read!

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

Bartholomew leaned against the door in relief at seeing Deynman unharmed. He had been afraid that Deynman might have eaten the pie to see whether it had been poisoned.

From An Unholy Alliance by Susana Gregory, p. 200.

20 July 2009

Birthday Loot Poll

Of all the books acquired as a result of last week’s birthday, I know exactly which one I’m going to read first: The Book Thief. I've only been wanting to read it for a few years...

What I can’t decide is which to read second. So, as it’s Blog Post Bingo time again with the Blog Improvement Project, I decided to take the easy road and let you choose for me.

Get This - Survey Results - GlowDay.com

Birthday Loot!

People know me so well...

Nothing takes the sting out of hitting the quarter-century mark like

The Angel's Game
The Book Thief

BOOKS! Especially when someone else throws in a $50 Borders gift card. After several days dithering over what to look for, I took care of that today. Which wasn’t quite so much fun as it sounds; books here are so expensive it was damn hard work stretching that $50 to cover...

A Circle of Sisters
Heart of Darkness
Wives and Daughters

... three books. Being a lover of book sales it’s been years since I last looked at full-price volumes, and it was a nasty shock. I’m cheering myself up by admiring the view of my new acquisitions stacked on the shelf under the coffee table, with the Gaskell on top. It was booklust at first sight when I found that.

I couldn’t resist Circle of Sisters, either - a biography of the comparatively poor Macdonald sisters who between them were married to or mother of a famous writer, a famous painter, a President of the Royal Academy, and a prime minister. It’s going to pull double duty as fascinating reading and Victorian-era Nanowrimo research. Looks like the TBR box on the bookshelves will have to wait...

19 July 2009

A Good Excuse

Yes, there’s been a certain dearth of posts around here lately ... but it’s all been in the name of a good cause. (Good from my perspective, at least.) I have finally finished knitting the sweater I’ve had in progress for longer than I can estimate offhand. (We're talking months here.) I took more and more time away from reading and writing just to get it over with.

The finished product

It’s a plain black version of this pattern and the sleeves/upper back gave me hell. The first attempt was too wide, the second too narrow, the third had to be partially unravelled when I failed to maintain the correct tension on sleeve #2 ... and let’s not forget the lovely evening I snapped one of the plastic needles I was using. Into four pieces. While all but five of the stitches were still on it. (You can imagine the fun I had sorting that one out.)

So having sworn off plastic needles for good, I’m now back to doing nice easy knitting: lace-pattern socks.

And, of course, staring at a monstrous list of books I haven’t reviewed yet....

16 July 2009

Booking Through Thursday: TBR

Do you keep all your unread books together, like books in a waiting room? Or are they scattered throughout your shelves, mingling like party-goers waiting for the host to come along?

I do try ... most of my TBR books are contained in/overflowing from a cardboard box on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in the family room. But not all new acquisitions make it into the box, not all books stay in the box until read, and then there’s the library pile....

At the moment I have several unread books stacked beneath my bedroom window (where they’ve been for - er, let’s not worry about that, shall we?) There’s a few more on my dressing table, library books on the floor, and a couple on the kitchen bench. No, make that three on the kitchen bench. And that’s not counting the books I want to re-read, which are still in their regular positions on the shelves.

It doesn’t count as chaos so long as I know where they all are :-)

14 July 2009

Weekly Geeks: Where in the World Have You Been?

Weekly Geeks

This week's Weekly Geeks asks you to tell us about your globe trotting via books. Are you a global reader? How many countries have you "visited" in your reading? What are your favorite places or cultures to read about? Can you recommend particularly good books about certain regions, countries or continents? How do you find out about books from other countries? What countries would you like to read that you haven't yet?

Use your own criteria about what you consider to be "visiting" - whether a book is written about the country or by a native or resident of the country.

I decided to interpret visiting to mean any book about or set in a particular country; but I ignored the nationality of the writer. If that country’s not there on the pages of the book, it doesn’t count. After combing through my bookshelves and reading records, I came up with this:


Looks impressive, doesn’t it? But ... some of those books are historical novels, or non-fiction history. (Can I really say I’ve been to Macedonia when what I mean is I’ve read a book about Alexander the Great?) Some visit a place only briefly, or pay only cursory attention to the setting. Some were written too long ago to give any idea of life there now. After weeding out the old, the historical, and the literary equivalents of stopovers or just passing through on a tour bus, this was the result:


And even that’s being generous ... so I’m not the best-travelled of readers. America, Britain, and Australia account for the great majority of what I read. No matter how many times I think that I must branch out into other parts of the world, I still gravitate to my beloved British history. After seeing the maps, instead of thinking of other parts of Europe to read about I’ll start hunting for books set in South America, Africa, and Asia which are all sadly lacking in my reading history ... and more novels that aren't set in the distant past!

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

The tea looked ghastly, anyway: greyish, probably made from chlorinated water, and the milk was powdered and formed lumps. Julia picked up the cups and led Helen little way off, to a heap of sandbags underneath a boarded window.

From The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, p. 209.

09 July 2009

Library Loot

Library Loot

Case Histories
The House at Riverton
A Fraction of the Whole
The Night Watch

Case Histories - Kate Atkinson
The House at Riverton - Kate Morton
A Fraction of the Whole - Steve Toltz
The Night Watch - Sarah Waters

I’m delighted to have the chance to read A Fraction of the Whole - the last time I saw it on the shelves I was deterred by the sheer size of it, but today I decided to grab it while the need to leave room for a litre bottle of sunscreen guaranteed I wouldn’t borrow too much. I might save it for second last - the Kate Morton is going to be read last, since I only read her other one a few months ago. And if this one turns out to bear a whole string of resemblances to this year’s NaNo project, I’ll ... well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I certainly won’t be happy while I do it!

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg.

07 July 2009

Book Review: The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

The Good Thief All that Ren remembers of life is St Anthony’s Orphanage. He has no idea who his parents were, why he was abandoned, or how he lost his hand. What he does know is that if he’s not adopted soon, the monks of St Anthony’s will sign him over to the army.

Ren’s dreams of a family look set to be realised when the dashing Benjamin Nab claims him as his long-lost brother. In fact Benjamin is a conman and thief who sees in Ren’s missing hand a fine opportunity to generate sympathy and profit. Yet even his acuity doesn’t see how good a choice Ren is, for he filled the emptiness of orphanage life with the products of habitual petty theft. With his light-fingered talents he adapts to life with Benjamin and his alcoholic accomplice Tom, but is never happy with the idea of being a criminal. When Benjamin - against his better judgement - moves the little group to the town of North Umbrage, Ren discovers just how far his “brother” will go for some easy money. He also finds that there are powerful enemies lurking in the shadows, and friends for whom such danger is worth risking.

I really need to start keeping better track of where I hear of books I want to read; I have no idea where I got the notion that this was worth borrowing. Newspaper, I think. Whoever it was, they were right; I enjoyed it, and liked the titular thief - Ren - from the beginning. It was easy to understand why he would take to theft; and why, having seen what army life had done to another orphan, a life of crime would seem preferable. He cares about the people around him and wants to do the right thing as much as that’s possible; and he’s clever enough to do so while dodging the bad guys. Well, the worse guys ... since Benjamin and Tom aren’t exactly good. Yet they were made somehow sympathetic and hard to dislike. I joined Ren in envying Benjamin’s quick tongue and marvelling at his outrageous impromptu stories. Even Dolly the giant killer-for-hire had his good points.

As much as I was fond of Dolly, his advent marked the start of the flaws. The scientific side of my brain immediate began speculating as to whether he could have survived long enough to be found, and concluded that he couldn’t. And then there was the rooftop-dwelling dwarf, the mad mousetrap-factory owner, the gang of goons who each wore a different style of hat ... they introduced an element of the absurd (or of magical realism without the magic) that hadn’t been present before, making the second half of the book sit at odds with the first. I suddenly began to doubt whether it was meant to depict the “real” world at all. And the phonetic representation of McGinty’s accent was painful to read and as over-the-top as the man himself.

The ending made up for it all, though. I loved Benjamin’s last con, and seeing how the household - dwarf and all - took to their newfound life together. And I’ve added Hannah Tinti’s short stories to my must-read list.

Rating: B

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from - that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

'We had discovered its loss,' said Mr Bollard. 'Thank you very much, Miss Elvira, for bringing it back so promptly.'

From At Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie, p. 77.

04 July 2009

Weekly Geeks: Trivia Time Answers

As promised, the answers to last week’s Weekly Geeks trivia questions. (And congratulations to Rikki, who led the field with 4 correct answers in the comments.)

1. In the Outlander series, what is Jonathan Randall’s middle name?

2. Where in Gormenghast did Steerpike begin his career?
The kitchens

3. Who is Stephanie Plum’s husband-stealing nemesis?
Rival bounty hunter Joyce Barnhardt

4. In Possession, Mortimer Cropper is fixated on acquiring Ash memorabilia for the collection he maintains in which American state?
New Mexico

5. What deformity did Shakespeare bestow upon Richard III?
A hunchback

6. How many strange women does Jonathan Harker encounter in the home of Dracula?
Three ... i.e. three too many

7. Which respectable Roman did Robert Graves depict as a serial murderess in his novels about Claudius?
Livia Drusilla, wife of the emperor Augustus

8. Before he ran off with Lydia Bennet, with whom did Wickham attempt to elope?
Mr Darcy’s sister, Georgiana

9. How does Thursday Next’s battle with Acheron Hades alter a classic novel?
By starting the fire that destroys Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre

10. Which real-life bad guy appears in A Conspiracy of Paper?
Self-proclaimed Thief-Taker General - and in reality criminal mastermind - Jonathan Wild

02 July 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Celebrities?

Suggested by Callista83:

Do you read celebrity memoirs? Which ones have you read or do you want to read? Which nonexistent celebrity memoirs would you like to see?

Uh ... do ex-politicians count as celebrities? Because I’ve read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (read, and not reviewed ... *gives self slap on wrist*) I looked for that because it sounded like an interesting story, but in general I rarely read autobiographies of any description. I don’t take an interest in the private lives of celebrities; I don’t even read the gossip pages of the newspaper; and if I’m going to read about someone else’s life it’s probably going to be a biography of a person who’s been dead for over a century.

Are there any I want to read? My automatic response was None, until I read Violet’s post and was reminded of Desert Flower by Waris Dirie, which I’ve been wanting to read for years.

As you can probably guess, there aren’t any I’d like to see written.

01 July 2009

Victorian Challenge Wrap-Up

Victorian Challenge

So technically this finished yesterday ... but I read all the books within the challenge period, so I’m not really late. (So much for getting organised. I wonder how many challenge wrap-up posts I’ve begun with words to that effect?)

I think the Victorian Challenge will end up being one of the best reading challenges of the year: the perfect excuse to reacquaint myself with old favourites with a couple of long-intended re-reads, and to enjoy new books by much-loved authors. In fact, there wasn’t a single new author on my list! (That’s something to look at in future - trying to include at least one new author per challenge.)

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë - A
Cousin Phillis and other stories - Elizabeth Gaskell - B+
Far From the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy - A
The Woman in Black - Susan Hill - B+
Barchester Towers - Anthony Trollope - A-

Nothing lower than a B+ - a fantastic result, one shared with the first challenge of the year. I wonder if I can keep this up?

Thanks to Alex for hosting this challenge.

Book Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Classics Challenge #2
Victorian Challenge #6

Jane Eyre Jane Eyre has none of the advantages that an ordinary girl might hope for. Plain, orphaned, poor, and friendless, she is dependent upon the scant goodwill of relatives by marriage who never wanted her. One thing she does have is spirit, and after showing it in spectacular fashion she is dispatched by her Aunt Reed to the bleak school at Lowood. Among the strict rules, freezing weather, and the miserable food, she finds friends and a home for the first time in her life.

Eight years later, having risen to the post of teacher, Jane feels it is time for a change; and common sense dictates that the way to effect one is to advertise. A letter arrives in response from a Mrs Fairfax, seeking a governess to take up residence at Thornfield Hall. The Hall is everything Jane could wish: a fine house with beautiful grounds, run by a kindly housekeeper, and with an affectionate if frivolous charge in Adele Varens. The one discordant note is the unwelcoming servant Grace Poole, and the spine-chilling laughter that comes from her rooms on the third floor. But what is one unfriendly face in a house whose master is Mr Rochester, who likes to hear Jane talk and make her laugh?

Jane knows that she could never be so lucky; that he must marry status and fortune like those possessed by Blanche Ingram. Still she cannot help but hope, until a surprise event forces her to decide what she truly wants.

It’s been way too long since I last read this. Actually, it’s been sitting in my TBR pile ever since I heard there was going to be a new adaptation. (Better late than never . . .) It was just as good the second time as the first. I liked Jane from the start - how can you not love someone who would rather curl up in a window seat with a book than go for a winter walk? And my fondness for her increased as the book continued. She is a heroine of firm principles and sticks to them regardless of what other people might think of her. She will always be one of my favourites, because that quiet strength is something I could realistically aspire to emulate.

All the hallmarks of the gothic are there: isolated heroine, old house in the middle of nowhere, mysterious owner, sinister servant, strange dreams and things which might defy explanation. It has its unnerving moments, such as Jane’s midnight encounter with Richard Mason, but it feels more like a novel with gothic overtones than an actual gothic. Jane has too much sense to let her imagination run away with her, or let Thornfield Hall’s oddities assume greater importance than her relationships with the people it contains. Chief amongst these is, of course, Mr Rochester, whose past might not be much to boast about but who at least has better intentions for the future. (But you know that they say about good intentions....) He might be devoid of looks and possessed of the habit of deriving amusement from other people, but I envy Jane her finding of someone to appreciate her for her mind above all else.

Yes, there’s a too-convenient stroke of coincidence in Jane’s meeting the Rivers siblings. And I felt that the religious aspects of Rochester’s acceptance of his fate didn’t ring quite true (though that is perhaps the confirmed atheist talking). But really, I don’t care. It’s a wonderful book, one which more than any other love story holds out the tantalising promise of a Prince Charming out there for even the poorest and plainest. (It also has the ever-interesting St John Rivers, who raises the concept of duty to a whole new level.) And it will not go another who knows how many years without a re-read.

Rating: A

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