28 January 2010

Booking Through Thursday: Twisty

Jackie says, “I love books with complicated plots and unexpected endings. What is your favourite book with a fantastic twist at the end?”

So, today’s question is in two parts.

1. Do YOU like books with complicated plots and unexpected endings?

2. What book with a surprise ending is your favorite? Or your least favorite?

1. I love complicated plots! Well, as long as they don’t leave me hopelessly confused, and as long as everything makes sense in the end. I don’t like loose ends, unless the book is part of a series, where unresolved issues might be dealt with in a later book. I tend to be easily bored, so a plenitude of twists and turns is a good way to keep me interested. And no matter how many times I fail, I insist on trying to work the mysteries out for myself.

Twist endings are great, too (except for the come-out-of-nowhere ones). I love it when a book firsts stuns me, then gives me a lightbulb moment while everything is explained in a way that makes perfect sense.

2. I’m having a hard time thinking of any true disasters. I didn’t much care for the ending to The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry; you’d need a century of psychotherapy to get over all of that. A twist ending which has stuck in my mind in a good way is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie - even if I’m the only one in my family who liked it!

Mini-Reviews: Plantagenet and Tudor

Lancaster and York by Alison Weir
Lancaster and York In the fifteenth century hostilities broke out among the highest echelons of English society. The House of York and the House of Lancaster, rival factions of the royal family, fought for the crown while the common people carried on as usual and fled as necessary. As Henry VI and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, battled two successive Dukes of York, a situation was created in which families were divided, loyalties were variable, and a single decision could change the course of history or cost you your life - or both.

I’m ashamed to admit that when I was studying Richard III in Year 10 English, I’d barely even heard of the Wars of the Roses. (Isn’t modern education wonderful?) Now I’m fascinated, and books like this will show you why - a mix of powerful personalities engaged in endless political and military manoeuvring, plus some fabulously strong women. It doesn’t cover the rise of the Tudors, but it provides a comprehensive and readable history of the first period of the wars when the Yorkists’ opponents were the legitimate branches of the House of Lancaster. It also details the decades leading up to the outbreak of fighting, during which the basis for the dispute was laid - the reign of Richard II, his overthrow by Henry IV, and finally the change in attitude of Richard Duke of York from merely wanting to curb the power of Henry VI’s profligate favourites to believing he ought to be king himself.

I’ve come to see Margaret of Anjou in a slightly different light. She’s still one of the historical figures I love to hate; but now I can also pity and admire her. It can’t have been easy to become queen of a foreign country at such a young age, or for such a formidable woman to be tied to such a mousy husband. In a world dominated by men, she raised and led armies in support of first her husband, then her son. And in the end she lost everything she cared for - her husband murdered in the tower, her son murdered on the battlefield, her hated enemy’s son wearing the crown.

Rating: A

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen by Leanda de Lisle
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen The three Grey sisters - Jane, Katherine and Mary - shared the blood of the royal house of Tudor, and hence a claim to the throne. Jane’s came to an end on the scaffold after just nine days as queen, but those of her sisters remained. And it was under the rule of Elizabeth that they suffered the most for this accident of birth. In the eyes of Tudor England, a female ruler was against nature and against God. Far better a female claimant with the backing of a capable husband; better yet a male descendant of the Tudors. As long as the Grey sisters remained unwed, they posed no threat - but when they insisted on following their hearts they were imprisoned by a queen who could not afford to risk jeopardising her hold on power.

I like to think of myself as reasonably well-versed in history, but all I knew of the younger Grey sisters was that they existed. Now those bare names have been transformed into distinct personalities and memorable stories. And Jane is here presented as an intelligent, determined young woman rater than the tragic pawn of later popular imagination. Indeed the most tragic of the three is Katherine, who possibly starved herself to death rather than endure a life of captivity far away from her beloved husband. Mary was my favourite, shrewd enough to navigate the dangerous waters of the court for years before her mistake, and able to find some measure of happiness in the end.

It occurred to me that the fate of the younger Grey sisters is another argument against the theory of Richard III’s responsibility for the disappearance of his nephews. If a woman’s claim to the throne could be adopted as his own by a sufficiently ambitious husband, if her son could form the figurehead of a rebellion, if these threats were real enough for a monarch to take drastic steps to prevent them - why, if he were guilty, did Richard not get rid of his nieces as well?

Rating: A

21 January 2010

Mini-Reviews: Classic Women

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility After their father’s death, the three Dashwood sisters and their mother are obliged to move to a cottage on the estate of Mrs Dashwood’s cousin. None of them regret leaving the house now in possession of young Mr Dashwood and his wife; but eldest sister Elinor does regret leaving the neighbourhood of Edward Ferrars. The suspension of one romance soon makes way for another, when second sister Marianne meets the dashing Mr Willoughby. Not one to repeat what she sees as Elinor’s mistake - letting prudence keep her from showing her true feelings - she is soon behaving in such a way as to spark suspicions of a secret engagement. Elinor pities Colonel Brandon, who adores Marianne; but soon enough she has to deal with heartache of her own.

I know there are some people who find Elinor boring, and granted she is staid and unemotional. But then, so am I. If she’s not my favourite Austen heroine, she is certainly the one I relate to most. And this being Jane, there’s an abundance of sharp observations and comical characters. The young Mr Dashwood is a fine example, with his boundless capacity to be persuaded by his wife that he is doing enough for his sisters - indeed, being quite generous - when he’s scarcely lifting a finger.

But I’m six years older and more cynical than the last time I read it. And I’m no longer under the influence of the film version. For one or both of these reasons, I didn’t find it as romantic as I once did. On the surface the story appears to have a charming twist - prosaic Elinor makes a love match, while romantic Marianne marries on the grounds of friendship and respect. Yet this seeming subversion is itself subverted. Edward is about as practical a choice of husband as you could make (rather dull, actually). And the Colonel’s fondness for Marianne struck me this time as a piece of romantic folly. His comparing her to his lost first love made me think that he loved her at least as much for who she resembled as for herself, and that he viewed a marriage to Marianne almost as a second chance with Miss Williams. Psychologically interesting, but a tad creepy.

Rating: A-

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Wives and Daughters Molly Gibson’s life is turned upside down when her father decides she needs a proper chaperone - i.e. a stepmother. He chooses Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, who is beautiful and generous, self-centred and vain. Molly’s two consolations are her friendships with the residents of Hamley Hall and her new stepsister, Cynthia. But Cynthia has a secret, and in her desire to help Molly finds herself drawn into her sister’s entanglements at the risk of her own reputation. Worse, Cynthia’s innate ability to lure men dazzles Molly’s friend Roger Hamley.

A 914-page classic might sound daunting, but I loved the length. Opening it was like settling down with friends, and it’s unfortunate that it was unfinished at Gaskell’s death. What there is of the novel advances far enough that it’s easy to see what would have happened in the end; but I would have liked to see Molly get her happy ending. She’s a sweet girl, and certainly she deserved some reward for putting up with Hyacinth without too many complaints. The new Mrs Gibson was not at all the typical evil stepmother; indeed she did her best to be nice to Molly, albeit in her own unthinking way and partly out of concern for what people will say if she doesn’t treat the two girls exactly alike. And she had a beneficial effect on Molly’s dress sense.

The two Hamley brothers were among my favourite characters. Osbourne surprised me - and everyone in Hollingford - with a wonderful secret, and Roger was just adorable. He reminded me of Gabriel Oak - not much to look at, but possessed of a heart of gold, and a good friend to Molly. I also loved Lady Cumnor’s cheerfully unmarried daughter Harriet. It’s left me me eager to read more of Gaskell’s works; not only have I loved all those I’ve read, I love the fact that they’re all so different, and long to see what other sorts of tales she told.

Rating: A

A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe
A Sicilian Romance Sisters Julia and Emilia Mazzini live a quiet life in their father’s castle in Sicily - until he returns with his new wife in tow. A hedonistic stepmother is bad enough; the count’s intention to force his younger daughter into marriage with a loathsome duke is worse. Desperate to escape the fate planned for her, and shunning the idea of an elopement with the man she loves, Julia turns to her brother Ferdinand and her companion Madame de Menon for help. Their attempt to escape the seemingly haunted castle and its master plunge them into perils and revelations beyond anything they had imagined.

If it hadn’t already been in my TBR box, I doubt I would have tried Ann Radcliffe again after struggling through The Mysteries of Udolpho. I received a pleasant surprise; as well as being much shorter, this novel was also much easier to read. The story got less bogged down in picturesque scene-setting, the action got underway a lot sooner, and the heroines seemed not to faint as often. And they had a brother; how often do you get to see gothic-novel terrors inflicted on a male character?

My previous experience enabled me to overlook the melodrama, the swooning, the spontaneous poetry and the landscape-induced rhapsodising as simply hallmarks of Radcliffe’s style, and just enjoy the story. It’s spooky fun with a serious underlying commentary on the precariousness of a woman’s place in the world, and the problems of the dowry system. Not that it was always easy going; sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s overburdened with coincidence, and Radcliffe takes an unusual approach to her heroes. The bad guys get to be fully fleshed-out characters, and there are some fine examples here; I particularly like the development of the count toward the end. But the dashing heroes are mere cardboard cut-outs of Prince Charming; I really think you could switch Sicily’s Hippolitus and Udolpho’s Valancourt and never notice the difference. I suspect this is owing to the moral message inherent in her novels: adhere to the path of virtue, do “that which is right” and you will be rewarded. The heroine’s reward is her hero; so, just as the moral precept is one to which all her readers were intended to aspire, so too the reward is the kind of generic romantic figure of which any reader might dream.

Rating: B

15 January 2010

Fractal Friday: Firefeather


Weekly Geeks: Housekeeping

Weekly Geeks

This week take a look at your blogs and do a little generally cleaning. Fix those broken links, straighten out those blogrolls, make some labels. Stuff like that.

Your blog is perfect, you say? How about your email? Time to delete some of those old messages. Have a look at your blog subscriptions in your blog readers. Maybe it needs a good going over. Are you a member of LibraryThing? Add those Christmas gifts to your virtual bookshelves. Upload your audiobooks to your iPod. Download some ebooks.

Nothing to do online? How about looking at your bookshelves at home? Organize them anyway you see fit. (Take some pictures.) Take unwanted books to the used book store or give them to charity. Get a library card.

After you've done your cleaning, write a post about it or vlog or haiku. Just let us know what you did. Come back see what others have done.

I didn’t participate in Bloggiesta, as I didn’t have that kind of time to give to blogging over a single weekend. But I did check out the site to get some more ideas for my blog to-do list. Now the list is so long that the entire rest of January looks set to be one long Bloggiesta for me. (Possibly part of February, too; it depends on how long it takes me to work out how to make what I want to do work with my layout.)

This week I:

  • Updated my sidebars.
  • Added the books I got for Christmas to LibraryThing, and discovered that some of my older books still need to have their covers scanned and uploaded.
  • Cleaned out my email inbox, an act which was long overdue.
  • Made good progress in unifying the formatting of all my old posts, including adding ALT tags to all my images.
  • Finally started catching up with my review backlog. I did intend to have more ready to go up tonight, but I decided to wind up some loose skeins of wool first. This turned out to be a mistake; one of them got into an extraordinary tangle of Gordian knot proportions, and it took me all evening to sort it out.
  • Saved the latest incarnation of the layout.
  • Backed up my blog. For - *gasp* - the first time ever. Yes, this is appalling negligence, and no, I won’t let it happen again.
The bookshelf maintenance, though, will have to wait until I work up the courage to cull. I’m considering setting a date and putting a countdown in my sidebar - the prospect of public failure should be incentive to get it done. So too will the prospect of taking the weeded-out books in good condition to a secondhand bookstore I know that takes trade-ins. I’m telling myself that since the new acquisitions will go in the TBR box, not on the shelf (yet), I won’t actually be adding to the storage problem.

Chunkster Challenge 2010

Chunkster Challenge 2010 Since I’ve already gone and leapt into one reading challenge without the certainty of a list, why not sign up for another? I love huge books, so the Chunkster Challenge is something I can never resist. I’ve chosen the Do These Books Make My Butt Look Big? option of 4 books of 450+ pages and I do have one book selected already:

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray (671 pages)
It has been far too long since I last read it, and the Chunkster Challenge is the perfect excuse to get it out again.

14 January 2010

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2010

Historical Fiction Challenge

I’m signing up for the 2010 Historical Fiction Challenge over at The Royal Reviews. And - *takes deep breath* - for the first time ever, I am diving into a challenge without a list. I have no idea what I’m going to read, beyond vague plans of covering as many eras as possible, and no idea how I’ll manage without knowing precisely what books I have to read by what date. Which I guess means it’s high time I locked up my inner control freak for a while.

Since I don’t know what books serendipity will bring my way during the year, I have wisely eschewed the 20-book option in favour of the Addicted level - 12 books.

And reading fewer books in one challenge leaves more room for signing up for other challenges....

Booking Through Thursday: Flapper? Or Not?

Suggested by Prairie Progressive:

Do you read the inside flaps that describe a book before or while reading it?

You mean the blurb? Doesn’t everyone? (Judging by some of the other responses, apparently not.) I always read it before reading the book; if I’m browsing at a library or book sale, the back cover (or inside flap) is how I determine whether or not to read a particular book. A tempting blurb can induce me to read a book I’ve never heard of.

In fact, I can’t imagine reading a book without reading the cover first! Perhaps that would be an interesting library experiment to try: ignore the blurb and dive in unprepared.

12 January 2010

Mini-Reviews: Murder Most Foul

The Minotaur by Ruth Rendell
The Minotaur Kerstin Kvist expects her position at Lydstep Old Hall to be a regular nursing job. Instead she finds her patient, John Cosway, seems neither to need or want her help, despite having asked for it. And just how did he manage to request a nurse, when he spends all his days heavily drugged? Having little else to do, Kerstin becomes an observer and chronicler of the Cosway family and their doings, and explores the estate in search of an elusive maze whose location no one will reveal. Soon she comes to suspect that John is not schizophrenic after all; and that his family might have reasons of their own to keep that diagnosis in place.

This book takes a gothic-novel atmosphere and plunks it down in the least gothic place you could imagine - a picturesque English village. And it works. The Cosways are about as different as members of the one family can be, there’s plenty of intrigue in the village, and then there’s the mystery surrounding John.... The true nature of his condition is obvious (to the reader, if not to Kerstin in the 1960s) but the reasons behind his treatment are less easy to spot.

Aside from Kerstin’s purposelessness at the Hall, my biggest issue with the book was her name. It’s established on page 1 that it’s pronounced Shashtin (and yes, this is relevant to the novel). But I had endless difficulty seeing Kerstin on the page and making the voice in my head turn K into Sh. Though it did at least give me new sympathy for all those who struggle with my own name (i.e. everyone).

And I ended up with a bad case of library envy.

Rating: B

Naked in Death by J. D. Robb
Naked in Death The year is 2058. The place is New York City. Some of the details of everyday life might have changed in the next few decades, but crime is still much the same. Lieutenant Eve Dallas is working on a strange one - a serial killer targeting prostitutes (sorry, licensed companions) with handguns, the kind that fire bullets, the kind that have been museum pieces for years. The murderer may or may not be the enigmatic billionaire Roarke, whose multitude of business interests aren't necessarily all legit. And Eve may or may not be falling for him.

I don't generally read anything resembling sci-fi, but I liked the futuristic world-building here. It's a combination of the familiar and the strange, and manages to be bleak without being dystopian (real coffee, as opposed to cheap swill, is an expensive luxury - what a perfectly horrendous thought!). And how telling that the biggest advances have been in the field of cosmetic improvements.

In addition to the leads there's a great supporting cast, especially Eve's colourful friend Mavis and Roarke's snooty butler, Summerset. Given that Summerset regards Eve in the light of something the cat dragged in, I can only imagine what his reaction would be if he met Mavis (and I hope that, further on in the series, Summerset meets Mavis).

Unfortunately it suffered from the weight of expectations. I've heard a lot about the series over the years, and especially a lot about Roarke. I liked him, and I think he's a great match for Eve, but I didn't fancy him like every other reader seems to. Partly it was the nicotine addiction; even if you can access the technology to cure any ill effects, it's still a habit I can't abide. And partly it was because, in every other respect, he was just too good to be true.

Rating: B+

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
Last Rituals The head of the history department at Reykjavik University arrives at work early one morning and finds the mutilated corpse of a foreign grad student stuffed in the alcove with the photocopier. An arrest is swiftly made; but Harald Guntlieb's parents in Germany don't believe the man in custody killed their son. To prove it, they hire German-speaking lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, who takes the job only because she needs the money. Working with charmless private investigator Matthew Reich isn't Thóra's idea of fun, and nor is poking into the unsavoury details of Harald's life. Drugs, money, women, an obsession with the bloodthirsty history of witch-hunting - which, if any, led to his death?

The mystery plot was everything I could have asked for - it kept me guessing, allowed me a small moment of satisfaction when I identified the killer (albeit not the motive) one step ahead of the characters, and made such perfect sense in the end that I felt a trifle foolish for not seeing the very well-planted clue that could have revealed everything. It also had one of the most ... eccentric victims I encountered all year. As if the unhealthy fixation on the extermination of alleged witches wasn't enough, Harald had a taste for the more gruesome forms of body modification. (Unfortunately this reminded me of a particularly stomach-turning episode of CSI, which was a mental image I could have done without.)

I liked Thóra a lot; she’s an ordinary woman trying to make the best of life’s ordinary problems. Her battles with her recalcitrant mechanic and bad-tempered receptionist offered some light relief from the gruesome murder case. Best of all was the armchair travel. This is the warm and jetlag-free way to see Iceland; by the time I closed the book I almost felt like I'd been there. The vicarious tourism was good enough that I forgave the book its ORS (Obligatory Romantic Subplot).

Rating: B+

05 January 2010

The 2010 TBR Lite Challenge

My (very short) list of resolutions was originally intended to include “No more reading challenges until autumn.” But I forgot. And then I saw this:

TBR Lite Challenge

And due to my lighter-than-usual reading year in 2009, I have plenty of books to choose from. Conclusion? It’s fate. This challenge and I are meant to be. And since it would be churlish to fight destiny when it throws itself in my lap, I should make a list right away.

Ah, justification. One of my great talents :-)

That list is adaptable, since I’m choosing Option B, and it currently includes:

The Painted Duchess - Anne Bruck
The Wedding Officer - Anthony Capella
The Collector - John Fowles
The Secret Woman - Victoria Holt
Cruel as the Grave - Sharon Penman
All the King’s Men - Robert Penn Warren

The Victoria Holt has been on my TBR pile for so long I can’t even remember how long it’s been on my TBR pile! Perhaps that should be one of the first books I read.

04 January 2010

Belated Happy New Year

Last year, I speculated as to what disaster might strike the 2009 holiday season (assuming that they do, in fact, come in threes). Answer: ongoing problems with my ISP. And the mother of all reading slumps - I've scarcely read anything in two months. (And that six-hour debacle involving a borrowed sewing machine without an instruction manual, and a tiered dress evidently designed for an amazon which was an absolute bitch to shorten. But which looks fantastic on me now that it's 18 centimetres shorter.)

On the up side, this leaves me with time on my hands for New Years Resolution #1: Finish my NaNoWriMo novel. As in, first draft, second draft, third draft, all the way to something another person might actually want to read. With or without the co-operation of my characters. (Fabian, I can invent a past for you far worse than anything you could reveal to me if you don't start talking soon.)

And being in the midst of unravelling an old sweater into its component colours, and with two projects already started, there's going to be a lot of knitting in my immediate future. (I had intended to do some before-and-after shots, but such was my enthusiasm for the destruction stage of the proceedings I completely forgot. Perhaps I've been watching too many episodes of Mythbusters...) There's also that gorgeous blue merino I can't find a pattern for, which leads me to New Year's Resolution #2: Try my hand at DIY knitwear design. Given my utter incompetence when I tried drafting sewing patterns, and my lack of talent for mathematics, this is going to be ... interesting.

Reviews, mini-reviews, and progress reports soon.

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