31 March 2007

Book Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #7

The Time Machine The nameless narrator forms part of the audience of the Time Traveller; first as he explains his invention and makes the prototype disappear before their eyes, and later when he returns from his trip and relates the tale of what he discovered in the future. At first the year 802 701 seems a benign paradise; warm climate, beautiful if idle population, all of nature conquered by science. But where do their food and goods come from? Why are they so afraid of the dark? And just where did his time machine go? The Time Traveller’s hunt for answers overturns all his initial conclusions about the future he finds himself in, and reveals the horrific consequences of - as he surmises - a vastly increased gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots.

The future as presented here is a very Victorian vision, with the social changes arising from industry and class differences. But its presentation holds its appeal in the present day, beginning with a lucid explanation of time-as-fourth-dimension and packing a lot into its 90-something pages. My favourite part was the exploration of the old museum, dust-laden and partially collapsed, where some exhibits were perfectly preserved and others all but destroyed by time. I was a little disappointed, however, to see that the Time Traveller only went forward in time, and didn’t pay a visit to the past.

This book raises all sorts of interesting questions as to what would happen if science ever did conquer nature; if everything was discovered and there were no mysteries left. Would people find a way to keep innovation and inventiveness going? Or would the world - or the upper classes thereof - fall into idleness? Only time will tell....

Rating: B+

Book Review: Goddess of Spring by P. C. Cast

Goddess of Spring Carolina Francesca Santoro is a middle-aged businesswoman with a problem: her accountant. Thanks to his incompetence, she now owes a sizeable sum to the IRS. Desperately searching for ways to boost her bakery’s profits, she stumbles across The Italian Goddess Cookbook in the shop across the road and tries out the pizza alla Romana, even though the instructions are as much spell as recipe. Next thing Lina knows, she’s in a much younger body, in a place that is definitely not Oklahoma, being offered a deal by Demeter herself. You see, the underworld is having a bit of a morale problem, and she’s decided the place needs a goddess of its own (translation: she wants the prayers for the dead directed at somebody else). And the obvious candidate - her daughter Persephone - is out of the question until she’s done a bit of growing up. So she offers Lina a chance to save her bakery while raising the spirits of the dead (sorry!): trade places - and bodies - with the Goddess of Spring. For six months Persephone will breathe new life into Pani del Goddess, while Lina will use her life experience to whip the underworld into shape. And she needn’t worry about Hades – he’s quite boring, really.

So Lina descends into the realm of the dead, all the while reminding herself to forget that they’re dead. That task becomes a little easier when she meets Euridyce (yes, that Euridyce), a friendly little spirit who quickly becomes devoted to ‘Persephone’. And it’s not long before the new Goddess is making an impression, disconcerting Hades at their first meeting when his fire-snorting dread steeds fall head over hooves in love with her (and she later charms Cerberus - all three heads of him). He’s further puzzled by the interest that a goddess he always believed self-centred shows in his realm. For while the Underworld might not have much of a reputation, it’s far more spectacular than anything on earth, and Lina is fascinated by it all - and by Hades. Far from being boring, he’s actually desperately lonely. Having witnessed the connection of soulmates, he’s determined not to settle for anything less himself. No easy task, since immortals can never truly belong to the Underworld and mortals have an unfortunate tendency to run screaming when they discover his identity. Except, of course, for Lina. But romance comes to an abrupt halt when Demeter whisks Lina back to Tulsa, where Persephone has made over not just the bakery but her borrowed life - complete with youthful new wardrobe, toyboy . . . and the recipe for ambrosia cream cheese! Business is booming, but life just isn’t the same. Then six months later, Persephone reappears. Could the timeshare plan she proposes work? And could Lina’s soulmate really be a Batman-esque Lord of the Dead?

After a run of the dull, the frustrating, and the mediocre, this book was the ideal pick-me-up; wonderfully imaginative and dead funny (once again, I couldn’t help myself). I wish my mind could work like that: take something familiar and turn it upside down (while cheerfully throwing reality out the window). I’ve long been fascinated by ancient mythology, so it was a treat to read about so many legendary figures from such a different perspective: a scheming Dido, a laugh-inducing explanation of just why Orpheus looked back, and Apollo’s dented ego when he discovered that a mere mortal was more interested in his horses than in him. There was also plenty that I never previously knew: the nature of Tartarus; the rivers of the Underworld; the fact that, yes, there is a difference between a daimon and a demon. I loved Lina, with her mental movie references, her determination to make the best of a very bizarre job and dedication to the people (ex-people?) under her temporary rule, and her love of animals. (Though I’m really not sure I could look at Cerberus and see just a larger version - in partial triplicate - of an ordinary pet bulldog.) I couldn’t help liking Persephone, even if she was a bit on the frivolous side. And Hades ... I’ve never watched a Batman movie in my life, but at last I begin to understand the fascination (and boy can he decorate!). It’s hard to picture an immortal god being anything less than perfectly assured, but Cast pulls it off; he actually seems quite human.

I did have one point of contention. Lina was the perfect choice for Demeter because she spoke Italian. But Hades’s realm is the ancient Roman Underworld – shouldn’t everyone have spoken Latin? (Although I do appreciate that a modern heroine fluent in that language might have been a big ask.)

Rating: B+

29 March 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Location, Location, Location, Part II

Where do you do most of your reading?

I read anywhere and everywhere. Most commonly: in my room (either on the bed or on the floor propped up against it), the couch in the family room, on the train, waiting for the train, at uni while waiting for lectures to start, or in the City Botanic Gardens between classes. I am yet to resort to doing what I have seen others do, namely reading while walking, but I have been tempted at times.

Your favourite spot?

The Gardens. Being the subtropics it’s rarely too chilly to sit outside and usually sunny. My favourite spot within my favourite spot is a shady picnic table beside the river just down from the mangrove walk. There’s a view across the water to the cliffs at Kangaroo Point; and I can watch the boats at anchor and the occasional passing CityCat ferry. The riverside footpath is at the bottom of a steep grassy slope and is generally pretty quiet. But if the table’s occupied or I can’t be bothered walking all the way across the Gardens, I just sit down in the first quiet shady spot I find. If it’s really busy, I’ll even settle for the small and constantly-moving patch of shade cast by a palm tree.

I love the Gardens because they’re convenient (right next to my uni! How lucky am I!) and there’s so much to see. Grand old Moreton Bay figs, hibiscus flowers the size of dinner plates, ducks among the waterlilies, scarlet cannas, trees covered with pinkish-mauve flowers, all the passers-by. I once spent my lunch break being entertained by a rehearsing police band! The only downsides are those wretched mynahs and the occasional roving pack of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

28 March 2007

Book Review: The Naive and Sentimental Lover by John le Carré

2007 TBR Challenge #3

The Naive and Sentimental Lover Meet Aldo Cassidy: verging on middle age, with a wife, two kids, a renovation in progress, and a company that manufactures prams and the fastenings that hold them together. His only apparent peccadillo is fibbing to his wife about his whereabouts while he goes jaunting around the countryside. But Cassidy’s ordinary life is about to get a bit of a shake-up. Visiting Haverdown Manor, he meets Shamus and Helen. His entanglement with the impecunious writer and his wife will alter the course of his life.

At times this book could be reasonably entertaining, but at others it was confusing enough to make your head spin. The writing style puts the reader right inside Cassidy’s often hyperactive mind; there are times when it is impossible to tell whether events are real, imagined, or remembered, and others when you think you know and then get proven wrong. The effect could be quite disorienting (and incidentally, is why I didn’t like le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl. Must have been a phase he went through). Also puzzling was why Cassidy put up with Shamus, apart from the fact that the latter was a good antidote to the dull routine of Cassidy’s life - and would probably have been difficult to dislodge. At best he was eccentric, but he frequently descended through erratic to distinctly unbalanced; I several times questioned his sanity. I had no sympathy for him as a character, but I don’t think I was supposed to.

On the bright side, the characters were well-drawn enough that even minor players like Cassidy’s sister-in-law and various employees could be clearly pictured. And there were several memorable scenes, such as the wealthy child dining alone in an upscale Paris restaurant. But though quite readable when the reality of events was assured, the story never really grabbed me.

Rating: C

25 March 2007

Book Review: The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín

New Year’s Reading Resolutions #6

The Heather Blazing This is the story of Eamon Redmond, an aging Irish judge; both in the present, as he faces the prospect of retirement and the loss of his wife, and in the past, as he reflects on his younger days and his family’s connections to Ireland’s political struggles. And ... that’s it, really. This is definitely more about character than plot.

I thought this book would be perfect for my New Year’s reading challenge, as I’m six books behind and hoping to cheat adapt by choosing shorter books. An unfounded hope in this case, as despite having only 243 pages it still took a week to read. Why? Because it was, quite frankly, boring. I kept waiting for something to happen to make the effort of reading worthwhile, but nothing did. And there were no flashes of humour or delightful characters or thought-provoking content (unless you like politics) to compensate. I made it through the first 150 pages by deciding that for every chapter of Tóibín, I would read one of P.C. Cast. By that point I had gotten into the book just enough to be able to keep going on my own, but I could easily have quit without missing knowing what happened. I never felt the least curiosity about any of the characters.

I didn’t much care for Tóibín’s prose style either. The review excerpts in the front of the book described it as ‘stark’ and ‘pared’, and this sometimes creates a vaguely disjointed effect, like when there’s eight or nine sentences in a row that start with ‘He’. He did this, he did that, he did the next thing and the next ... I was almost tempted to take some sentences at random and jumble them up to see whether the result was noticeably different from the original text.

There was a brief glimmer of historical interest to be had from a few references to early-twentieth-century Irish history, but apart from that there was little but tedium.

Rating: C-

23 March 2007

Trying to Choose my Top Ten

Browsing the litblog web before my class yesterday, I came across this post at Chris’s Book-a-Rama. Kailana is doing a survey of bloggers’ top ten books they can’t do without. There is a condition though: they have to be books you’ve read. ‘But what about the rest?’ my mental voice wailed, thinking of all the volumes on my must-read list and spilling out of my TBR box, some of which are doubtless capable of knocking something out of my current Top Ten. Or will be, once I’ve actually compiled my current Top Ten. After thinking about it for one and a half days, I’m not that much closer to a final list than I was on Thursday afternoon. Five places have been filled, but there’s a shortlist of 29 vying for the five that are left. And I’m not sure how to go about narrowing it down.

How do I decide which books qualify? After all, there are some that I love and would grade an A, but wouldn’t necessarily place even on the shortlist of indispensability. What about books that are part of a series? Should I include the whole sequence? And does a spot of literary license with historical facts render a book ineligible?

I am so glad Kailana’s giving people until the middle of next month to respond!

22 March 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Keeping it Short

1. Short Stories? Or full-length novels?

I usually prefer novels, but I do read short stories if I see a collection that catches my fancy, or by an author I like. I don’t always have the best of luck with short stories; too often I find them pointless, disturbing, or just plain confusing. But when they’re good they can be a fun way to pass the time.

2. And, what’s your favourite source for short stories? (You know, if you read them.)

The same places I get nearly all of my books: the library and the Bookfest!

19 March 2007

Bloglebrity Status and Borrowing Stacks

C-List Blogger I stumbled across this on Chris’s blog the other night and couldn’t resist checking out my standing in the bloglebrity ranks. The result was a very respectable C, not bad for a few months’ work. I wonder if I can work my way up to a B? Something to contemplate....

In other news, I had a good day at the library. Make that a very good day. A double-digits day. Yes, despite my best intentions I borrowed 10 books, taking my total checkouts to 13. In my defence, I will say that it was a very stressful morning. Yes, it was university careers fair day. So first there was the nervous anticipation (I’m pathologically shy and they expect me to network?), followed by the discovery that this is not the year for biochem or biotech. In fact, excluding the defence force, there were only two employers looking for either: Queensland Health (“check our website in June”) and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (in Canberra; lovely place, but currently overpopulated with people I have no desire to see again). What’s a girl to do to cheer herself up?

If she’s me, she goes to the library, of course.

I only planned to get a couple of books to help get caught up on my New Year’s Resolution of one never-thought-I’d-read-that book a week. (Famous last words.) I got the two: H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. But then there was the Tracey Chevalier historical. And the Connie Brockway contemporary. And the first of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (I’ve been wanting to read his books ever since My Family and Other Animals).

There was the David Baldacci I’d heard was brilliant and knew Mum would love. And North and South, the longed-for subject of my Bookfest hunting, which I’ve wanted to read since watching the BBC adaptation (and, admittedly, since watching Richard Armitage in the BBC adaptation). And that other doorstopper, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. And the guide to character traits which’ll be handy should I find the time to start writing again (fat chance with that many books to read). And to round out the ten, a book from the history section speculating that Alexander the Great was murdered.

I barely managed to stuff them all in my backpack, and it was a miracle I could stand upright afterwards. Anyone remember in Runaway Bride when Julia Roberts’s mountaineering fiancé helped her into the overloaded pack and she promptly toppled over backwards? A few hundred pages more, that would have been me. I was already carrying around the 600+ pages of The Decameron for the Banned Books Challenge, adding to both the weight and the reading pile; and I’m yet to begin this month’s read for the TBR Challenge.

Which explains why I am not planning to enlist in any more challenges.

Not yet, anyway.

Book Review: The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus

New Year's Reading Resolution #5

The Nanny Diaries Looking for a job to pay her way through her final year of college, Nan stumbles upon what seems the perfect opportunity. The hours are flexible, the pay is good, the kid is cute, and the mother seems pleasant. It’s only after she accepts the position as four-year-old Grayer’s nanny that Mrs X can be ... somewhat demanding, to say the least. Employment soon devolves into exploitation, but Nan is too attached to Grayer to abandon him, no matter how much of her own life she’s forced to give up. And her quandary becomes even more complicated when she discovers that Mr X - who must set some kind of gold standard of paternal uninvolvement - is having an affair with a colleague in Chicago. Whatever will Nan do?

This book is pretty much the childcare industry’s The Devil Wears Prada. Girl accepts what appears to be dream job working for filthy rich woman. Girl discovers she has the boss from hell, who has absolutely no concept of what constitutes a reasonable demand. Girl decides to stay, despite having to sacrifice ever more of her own life, and the pleas of her family and friends. Last straw arrives and girl quits moments before being fired, taking some possession of her former employer’s with her (in this case, the new, unwanted puppy). I’d have thought she’d get suspicious when, chatting to Grayer’s outgoing nanny, Nan discovered the poor girl had no idea she was about to be sent back to Australia. It was all downhill from there, and I really couldn’t understand why she stayed. If it was me being made constantly late for class, I’d have written out my notice, dumped the kid with the doorman, and left. Nor would I have wasted time and energy worrying about an affair that was none of my business. Well, okay, so there was Grayer to think of, but I am lacking any semblance of maternal instinct so Nan’s devotion to him was somewhat beyond my comprehension.

The use of obvious pseudonyms - Nanny and the Xes - lent it a tabloid-exposé air, but it just seemed absurd when other people referred to them as such. And even my considerable ability to suspend disbelief failed in the face of a child development consultant who inquired whether Grayer was translating the colours and sizes in his wardrobe into Latin. Fierce competition for kindergarten places I could buy, but this? This was a concept my working-class mind could not grasp. And when Nan finally did quit, it wasn’t because of the excessive demands but because she found out about the Nannycam. Personally I’d think nearly missing her thesis defence would have trumped that, but apparently not.

Mildly amusing, but just not my style.

Rating: C-

18 March 2007

Book Review: Johnno by David Malouf

New Year’s Reading Resolution #4

Johnno Sorting through his late father’s possessions, the narrator known only as ‘Dante’ finds one of his old school yearbooks. Leafing through its pages, his discovers a forgotten photograph that triggers his recollections of his old acquaintance, Johnno. The resulting trip down memory lane spans some twenty years, starting in wartime Brisbane and continuing to 1960s Europe before returning home to Queensland. It’s an ideal choice for my Resolution reading, as Malouf is frequently held up as one of the greats of Australian literature, but I’ve never felt inclined to read his books; though I have been at least slightly curious about Johnno since the One Book One Brisbane scandal of 2004. (This was technically the runner-up, but the public vote was overruled ... possibly because the public voted for chick lit.)

I knew this review would be difficult when I was over halfway through and still had no idea what to say. It’s much more about character than events, so no point commenting on the plot. As for the characters themselves ... didn’t dislike them, but didn’t like them much either. Johnno I can best describe as chaotic; life in his presence would never be dull (whatever else it might be). Dante I felt wasn’t so much a character as a means of viewing Johnno’s antics; he was known only by a nickname, and that only after several chapters of namelessness. And being an Australian writer of Turkish extraction, I wondered if he wasn’t based on the author. My main memory of the first 3/4 of the book is frustration at not being able to place the historical locations relative to modern ones. Things like the long-vanished tram line; all I got from the book was that it went somewhere near George Street. I also spent 200 pages wondering whether the Gardens repeatedly referred to actually were the present-day City Botanic Gardens (they were). If I didn’t know Brisbane I could have let my imagination picture whatever it liked, but instead it automatically tried to compare past and present.

Once the scene shifted to Europe the reading got easier, and the final chapters when the mystery surrounding Johnno was revealed, it even became entertaining. But the thought-provoking end failed to compensate for the slow and geographically confusing first half. It probably is a fine example of Australian literature if I could only appreciate it; and I’m at a loss to explain exactly what it was I didn’t like. I guess it just didn’t agree with me.

Rating: C

17 March 2007

Book Review: Enigma by Robert Harris

Enigma Early in 1943, Germany changed its weather code books, depriving the British cryptanalysts of their only means of breaking the particularly diabolical version of Enigma used by the U-boats. Shortly before this blackout, three convoys had left New York carrying not just cargo but civilian passengers, and begun heading toward the area patrolled by the submarine wolf packs. With just four days to break a code that took ten months the first time, the codebreakers at Bletchley Park send for Tom Jericho, holed up at Cambridge recovering from a nervous breakdown. Since he had gotten them into Shark the first time, they hope he can do it again.

But Jericho has other things on his mind. The Bletchley worker with whom he had been having an affair has vanished after relieving her office of several undeciphered cryptograms. He begins a search for her, aided and abetted by her roommate Hester, who was drafted to Bletchley after winning a crossword competition - then made a glorified file clerk while several of the men she beat did the actual codebreaking. Finding Claire, and her reason for stealing the cryptograms, provides her with a chance to do some real work. Investigating the theft, Jericho begins to suspect that there is a traitor somewhere in Bletchley Park. Which would certainly explain why the police are swarming all over the countryside....

The bonus of Enigma is that there’s not one race against time but two: finding Claire and the traitor, and finding a way to break Shark before the convoys get within range of the U-boats. It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that I was still able to enjoy the suspense despite having a. seen the movie and b. read a non-fiction book about Enigma last semester. I don’t usually care for twentieth-century history, but this setting appealed to me, puzzles and code-breaking being right up my alley (yes, I’m one of those newspaper-sudoku tragics). The fictional characters and events were neatly fitted around real events such as the codebreaking blackout and the fate of the three convoys, and the convoluted workings of the Enigma machines were clearly explained. And it has one of my favourite kinds of endings: no loose ends, but that one little twist that keeps everything from being perfectly tidy.

My only real disappointment reading this book was that my favourite line from the movie was actually a screenwriter’s improvement on a less snappy original (I’d been looking forward to meeting it again). In the film, Kate Winslet’s Hester, informed by her slimy boss that, without her glasses, she didn’t look half bad, replied ‘Really? You know, without my glasses, neither do you.’ Being short-sighted and frequently bespectacled myself, I have filed that one away for future reference.

Rating: A-

16 March 2007

An A to Z of Me . . .

Borrowed from Marianne who borrowed it from Allie ... (Hey, it’s Friday, I’m allowed to slack off!)

A - Age: 22

B - Band listening to right now: Powderfinger - my favourite end-of-a-long-day pick-me-up.

C - Career future: The dream answer: one of bestselling author, jewellery designer, or material conservationist (preserving historical artefacts), somewhere in Europe.
The likely answer: at best, stuck in Brisbane as a laboratory drone at a biotech company.

D – Dad’s name: Gerardus Johannes. Or, because most people can’t handle the Dutch G (pronounced rather like a strangled H), Ed.

E - Easiest person to talk to: My mum.

F - Favourite song: I won’t even try to answer this one, because I’d have a different answer tomorrow. Or in half an hour.

G - Gummy Bears or Gummy Worms: Huh?

H - Hometown: Canberra, Australia (beautiful one day, freezing the next).

I - Instruments: Two years on the trumpet (primary school) followed by four on the French horn (high school). Nowadays my greatest musical achievement is staying at least partly on-key while singing along to the radio.

J - Job: Impoverished student!

K - Kids: Never. I haven’t a maternal bone in my body.

L - Longest car ride ever: Probably on one of the driving holidays I went on with my parents when I was 5 and 7. Within memory, I’d say Phnom Penh to Battambang (and back again). It might not be the longest, but it sure as hell felt like the longest.

M – Mum’s name: Ruth Patricia (but she hates being reminded of the Patricia).

N - Number of people you slept with: N - No comment!

P - Phobia[s]: Large spiders (especially huntsmen); anything that puts me at the centre of attention.

Q - Quote: I think, therefore I’m single!

R - Reason to smile: I finished the Guardian cryptic crossword in a single sitting without the aid of a dictionary or thesaurus!

S - Song you sang last: American Pie.

T - Time you wake up: Depends on the day of the week. Today: 6.30. Ugh.

U - Unknown fact about me: My Year 12 Psychology teacher was a Buddhist monk.

V - Vegetable you hate: Onions and beans.

W - Worst habit: Several: I leave stuff everywhere, I procrastinate, and I never notice when there’s housework to be done. But the worst would have to be excessive negativity (usually about myself).

X - X-rays you've had: One before I got braces (bad news: five teeth and a piece of my jaw had to go).

Y - Yummy food: Mangoes and chocolate.

Z - Zodiac sign: Cancer.

Booking Through Thursday: Writing in Books, Part III

Speaking of writing in books, what about writing the entire thing? Do you write? Aspire to write? Dream about writing?

I would love to get a novel into print. Preferably something that would sell like hotcakes (or better yet, like Dan Brown). I have a number of vague ideas floating around, and a somewhat more concrete one that’s been bugging me for years, but I’ve never found the time to seriously work the kinks out of the plot. It’s the paradox of writing that the best way to learn about is by reading standout examples, but copious reading leaves me no time to write. One day....

If you do write, do you do it for yourself, or because you hope to be published? (Or because you ARE published?)

A bit of both. I write because I love it, and because it’s good practice should I ever get around to turning my ideas into a finished novel. (And the city council’s annual short story contest with a $6,000 prize isn’t a bad incentive either!.)

I have actually had a short story published (once, pseudonymously), but other things - like uni, books, and blogging - got in the way and I’ve hardly written any fiction since.

15 March 2007

Book Review: The Eight by Katherine Neville

The Eight When its existence is threatened by the French Revolution, Montglane Abbey is disbanded and its nuns scattered across Europe. Thirty-two of them carry part of the Abbey’s dangerous secret: pieces of a chess set presented to Charlemagne; said to be cursed; and containing the key to great power. Eight of the women are to serve as collection points for pieces whose possessors are obliged to flee; one of these is a teenage novice sent to Paris and the guardianship of the revolutionary painter Jacques-Louis David. But some secrets just can’t be kept and soon Mireille is running for her life, heading to Africa under the unlikely protection of a vertically challenged young soldier from Corsica....

Nearly two centuries later, computer genius Catherine Velis refuses to assist in her firm’s shady dealings and is promptly reassigned on a one-year posting in Algiers, working for some oil outfit no-one’s ever heard of (called OPEC). Even before she leaves the States strange things start to happen. First she receives a seemingly nonsensical warning of danger from a phony psychic. Then her chess-mad acquaintance Lily Rad - lacking in charm and abundant in girth - hauls her to the opening match of an American invitational chess tournament ... which features an uninvited Russian. Alexander Solarin also warns Cat of imminent danger, and soon proves to have an unfortunate habit of leaving corpses in his wake.

Undaunted, Cat travels to Africa, both to work and to do a favour for Lily’s uncle Llewellyn, a third-rate antiques dealer who’s trying to get hold of a handful of ancient chess pieces. She quickly finds herself caught up in a real-life chess game, with the Montglane Service as its prize. Two teams are fighting for its possession, with players representing the pieces on the board - even sacrificial pawns. Cat is no ordinary pawn, however, but the one destined to reach the eighth row and replace the retiring Black Queen. And even the chessboard know-how of Lily and Solarin might not be enough to outwit the White Team, determined to possess the Service and its secret whatever the cost.

This book left me in a quandary the morning I finished it (Tuesday ... I’m a little behind). I got off the train with sixty-odd pages to go, a lot of questions still unanswered ... and a class to go to. For a moment I was actually tempted to try reading while walking, just to get through a few more pages. But I decided against it as peak-hour traffic on Vulture Street isn’t something you want to mess with, and I didn’t fancy making a fool of myself by blundering into the railings of the Goodwill Bridge. So I was forced to wait and devour it on the way home instead.

Being partial to both chess and word puzzles, I was always going to be in for a good read. The historical half starts quickly and doesn’t slow down. The backstory was neatly filled in with tales (The Abbess’s Tale, The Empress’s Tale) that reminded me of Chaucer, and the whole thing was packed with real historical figures, from Russian royalty to American rebels. The twentieth-century thread began more slowly and was hampered early on by some heavy-handed foreshadowing of the ‘if only I had known...’ variety. But once the action began it proceeded more smoothly.

My favourite thing about this book was the relationship between Cat and Lily. At first Cat found chess-mad, impractical Lily quite tiresome, but when obliged to work together they made an impressive team. Lily’s chess expertise proved invaluable (and as an added bonus, her Algerian adventures caused her to lose so much weight, when she returned to New York the bad guys didn’t recognise her). Even Carioca, Lily’s yappy fluffball pooch, proved useful, digging up buried treasure and developing quite a taste for bad guy’s ankles.

One thing that puzzled me through this book was why set part of it in 1973? It seemed an odd choice of year. But the ending explained it all, when the villains met a fitting fate that was utterly dependent on the timing.

And a big thank you to Kirsten for the recommendation.

Rating: B+

12 March 2007

How to be Happy in a Heatwave

I had one class today, finishing at noon; a fact which had me somewhat worried, given that yesterday (and thank God it was a Sunday) the temperature in Brisbane hit a whopping 38 degrees. And yes folks, that’s celsius. So today after lecture and lunch I dashed to the library, loitered until I could grab an unoccupied computer terminal, and logged on to the net. Specifically to the Bureau of Meteorology in hunt of the precise level of the heat outside. The website said 37 and I was almost sorry I’d asked.

But not for long. Since it was clear I’d have to stay put until the heat subsided to a halfway tolerable level, I settled down and spent 3 (!) hours happily browsing book blogs at the university’s expense. It was the most fun I’ve had at the uni library since ... well, it was the most fun I’ve had at the uni library. (And I only felt a little guilty that I wasn’t doing work for Thursday’s tutorial.) So by the time the mercury finally dropped to a mere 33, I was quite content.

For those more familiar with fahrenheit: 37oC is a shade under 99oF. 33oC is a slightly more reasonable 91oF. I think I prefer celsius – ‘thirty-seven’ sounds much better than ‘nearly a hundred’!

Book Review: I Knit Water by Craig Bolland

New Year’s Reading Resolution #3

I Knit Water After being unceremoniously dumped, Mark Heron drops out of middle-class suburbia and into the low-rent life. Struggling to find a tenable place within his limited means, he arrives at the house known to residents as Heartbreak Lodge. Despite its rather ominous-sounding location on the corner of Hardgrave Road and Vulture Street, Mark moves in. While life continues on without him, he gets to know the occupants of Heartbreak Lodge’s other apartments. Like him, they all exist outside of the nine-to-five, busily social world that the rest of the city thrives on. Steve keeps trying - and failing - to finish even a single painting. Dave floats through life buoyed up by optimism and weighed down by junk. Agnes - raised by her grandparents, working in aged care - already possesses the wardrobe and lifestyle of an old woman. And Speedy knits water, which is, as he explains to Mark, the fine art of doing nothing - but doing it well. It is this trick of making something out of a nothing life that Mark must learn as the world of Heartbreak Lodge is tipped upside down forever.

Despite its having narrowly missed out on the Premier’s Literary Award in 2001, I approached this book with some trepidation, I think because I’ve learnt to view anything involving the Premier with a fair degree of suspicion. Now I wish I’d read it sooner. I was hooked on page 2, when Mark reflected that, contrary to the agent’s assurances, the flat he was inspecting had been restored with as much homage to the original as Michael Jackson’s face. And I stayed hooked: though their lives are mediocre, the characters are never dull or trivial; they manage to be eccentric without being comedic oddballs; and their bits of philosophy on modern city life woven all through the book flow naturally without sounding forced or unnatural. In spite of the sadness of all of their lives, there is a constant undercurrent of hope. I couldn’t pick the book up without wishing it was my own rather than the library’s.

Adding to the charm of the story and characters was the experience of reading a book set in a city I know. For once, when a location was mentioned I could place it at once on a mental map, sometimes even conjure a visual image. When I travel to and from uni I use the train station on Vulture Street, one suburb over from Heartbreak Lodge. The bridge Mark watches being built is the one I walk over nearly every day. And I can see the Kangaroo Point cliffs from my favourite lunch spot.

This is one of those books that is going to linger in my memory for a long time to come.

Rating: A

Book Review: Ladies-in-Waiting by Anne Somerset

Ladies-in-Waiting For five hundred years, ladies-in-waiting, and their junior counterparts maids of honour, have formed part of the English court. Starting with the early Tudor court - and Henry VIII’s tendency to replace his current wife with one of her attendants - this book travels through the courts of the English monarchs right up to the present day. It provides an interesting picture of how court life has changed through the centuries, and from monarch to monarch; some delighted in a decadent court, while other were sticklers for propriety.

The book consists mostly of historical information about the royals, and tales of individual women of the court. The section on Henry VIII was just a rehashing of stuff I'd already read elsewhere, but after that things improved. While some women of the court were truly devoted to their employer, some were out for whatever they could get, most infamously Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, mistress to Charles II. (I still have not forgiven her for dismantling Henry VIII’s masterpiece palace in a fit of pique.) And the future George IV’s mistress Frances, Countess of Jersey, was even more malevolent. The most interesting thing was discovering how political life attending the Queen could be. Queen Anne's chambers were divided along party lines, and Queen Victoria's youthful determination to have the final say over her household brought down a government.

It’s a shame that more women at court didn’t keep diaries of daily life in the style of Fanny Burney, for then there might have been more information available as to what precisely serving the Queen entailed. But as the author pointed out in the introduction, the minutiae of court routine were taken for granted and not deemed worth recoding. So this is more of an overview of a different aspect of royal history than a detailed description of protocol and procedure.

Rating: B-

08 March 2007

Book Review: The King's Women by Deryn Lake

The King’s Women At the start of the fifteenth century, France was a decentralised collection of provinces in the middle of a century-long conflict with England. Into the midst of this arrived the future Charles VII, son of the gluttonous and depraved Isabeau of Bavaria and (supposedly) the mad Charles VI. Despite having two older brothers - and being disinherited by his mother in favour of her English grandson Henry VI - Charles obtained the throne and secured a place in history as the king who united France under a single monarch, drove the English back to a toehold at Calais, and brought his country out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.

This book is not just a biographical novel abut Charles, but also about the various women in his life. Neglected by his mother, he sent several years in the house (well, castle) of his mentor and future mother-in-law Yolande, Queen of Sicily and Duchess of Anjou; a formidable woman who ruled the duchy almost single-handed during her husband’s long absences. Her daughter Marie went down in history for an entirely different reason: supplying the Valois dynasty with more than a dozen children. Charles’s mistress Agnès Sorel encouraged him - in this version of events at least - to the final strike which dashed English hopes of ruling France. But the greatest impact on history was that of the legendary Joan of Arc.

Since much of the history I read is English, it was a refreshing change to read something new, and from a new perspective. Here the great warrior king Henry V was a maniac whose warmongering ruined France to the extent that it almost wasn’t worth the effort of winning. Reading this book really showed how much I still have to learn; I never realised that Joan of Arc was part of the Hundred Years’ War. Nor did I know that Henry V began his campaign for the French throne in the middle of a burgeoning French civil war . . . or that one side of said civil war actually allied with the invaders. I found the wealth of historical information fascinating, though it was a good thing that the book included a French/English royal family tree and a list of characters; I needed to refer to them often. Unfortunately it did not include a map - I had to check the atlas and discovered that my mental map was not entirely accurate.

The fictional elements were neatly woven in with the historical facts, with one exception. The book has an unusual take on the origins and history of Joan of Arc which, while creative, suffers from bad timing. It was based in large part on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which was later to provide so much inspiration to Dan Brown before being, as I recall, thoroughly discredited. Mentions of Templars or the Priory of Sion or the Grand Master character inevitably reminded me of tv documentaries taking the book and its theories to pieces, and it was some time before my ability to suspend disbelief reasserted itself. Doubtless it looked much better back in 1992. But the chance to read about a time and place I knew so little of outweighed this fault.

Rating: B+

04 March 2007

Book Review: The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory

The Virgin’s Lover In 1558 Elizabeth inherits an empty treasury and a country racked by political and religious tensions. In her first two years as Queen she must maintain her tenuous grasp on power in a country where half the populace want a Catholic on the throne, and not all of the Protestants support her. To complicate matters further there’s a distraction on hand - the handsome and charming Lord Robert Dudley. He is utterly unsuitable, being not only married but tainted by his father’s treason, but Elizabeth just can’t help herself. Meanwhile his wife Amy is being shunted around the countryside to one set of friends after another, and Sir William Cecil is plotting Dudley’s second downfall....

I’m always interested in Tudor history, but this book took a bit of effort to stick to. Elizabeth was horribly indecisive, vacillating endlessly about whether to go to war against the forces of Mary of Guise and prone to sudden changes of mind. She also was scarcely able to function without Dudley to guide her. I found myself wondering how she ever managed to hold on to power, and now have a strong desire to read a proper biography of her, to see if she really was that dependent on Dudley. And I just wanted to shake Amy. I know doormat wives were the fashion back then but her slavish adoration of him was as wearing as it was puzzling. I could see looks and charm but not much else to recommend him.

The discovery of the mystery surrounding Amy’s death was one of the good things about this book. Gregory offers a possible explanation, but it’s one of several and I’d definitely like to learn more. But the real highlight was all the scheming that went on within the court. Cecil and his spies, Dudley and his spies, Elizabeth playing off the emissaries trying to secure her hand for their employers ... the Queensland Parliament looks almost tame in comparison.


Rating: C

03 March 2007

A Reading Meme

I came across this meme at Adventures in Bookland. If I’ve read it, it’s in bold, if I want to read it, it’s in italics, and if I stalled halfway through it, it’s purple .

1. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)
8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
17. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)
18. The Stand (Stephen King)
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling)
20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
21. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
27. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
28. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)
31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
34. 1984 (Orwell)
35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
37. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
38. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)
39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
45. The Bible
46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
53. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
54. Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
56. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
57. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
59. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)
61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
63. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
66. One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
67. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo)
70. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding)
72. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. The World According to Garp (John Irving)
79. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
80. Charlotte's Web (E.B. White)
81. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)
85. Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down(Richard Adams)
87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
91. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
95. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96.The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
99. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)
100. Ulysses (James Joyce)

I’ve only read thirty-six! But that is more than a third - just. And I want to read another twenty-one, three of which are in my TBR box, but that doesn’t count the handful that I’ve never heard of but that sound sort of interesting. And I’ve given up on three, but then Dickens never has agreed with me.

01 March 2007

Booking Through Thursday: But, Who’s Counting?

1. How many books would you say you read in an average month?

An average month in which year? I’ve been keeping a record of the books I’ve read for the last three years, and the numbers have been steadily climbing. But so far this year, an average month has included twelve books.

2. In a year?

Again, it depends on the year. 2004: 128. 2005: 163. 2006: 178. 2007, if I continue at the current rate: 144. Definitely into triple figures.

3. Over the last 5 years?

Probably close to 600.

4. The last 10?

A lot!

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