28 February 2009

Library Loot

Library Loot I have been longing to do this meme since I first saw it, but this week was my first visit to the library all year (the horror!). My excuse is that my TBR box is stuffed to bursting with my recent acquisitions so I had more than enough to choose from at home. But it’s hard to resist the library’s siren call for long....

The Lace Reader
Lord John and the Hand of Devils
The suspicions of Mr Whicher Raising the Dead

My current loot:

The Lace Reader - Brunonia Barry
Lord John and the Hand of Devils - Diana Gabaldon
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective - Kate Summerscale
Raising the Dead: The men who created Frankenstein - Andy Dougan

I got rather gruesome in the non-fiction section, didn’t I?

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

26 February 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Collectibles

Hardcover? Or paperback?
Illustrations? Or just text?
First editions? Or you don’t care?
Signed by the author? Or not?

My attitude here can be summed up in a single word: Whatever. If it has a cover that’s not too ugly and a full complement of pages, and it’s affordable, I’m happy. And if it’s not on the verge of falling apart, though I have gotten good at patching up tattered spines. That being said, while hardbacks can be nice to look at I do prefer paperbacks (the small ones, not trade) simply for portability.

I love pictures in non-fiction books; they’re one of the first things I look for and I often refer to them while reading. In fiction, though, the only kind of illustration I care about is maps. I just finished Robert Harris’s Pompeii and the absence of a map drove me nuts - I ended up drawing my own from ones on the net. It’s always nice to be able to get my head around the geography of the place I’m vicariously inhabiting.

As for first editions and signatures - I’m not an autograph hunter, and these are things it wouldn’t even occur to me to look for.

25 February 2009

Classics Challenge 2009

Classics Challenge 2009

I saw a post about this at Lost in Books and couldn’t resist. A small, practical part of my brain is telling me a sixth reading challenge is perhaps not what I need, but the rest of it is still basking in a rosy glow of classics adoration after finishing Far from the Madding Crowd. (I cannot believe I forgot almost everything about that book!) The majority won, so not only am I signing up, I’m going for the “classics feast” option and bonus - six books plus one future classic.

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (re-read)
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë (re-read; overlap with Victorian Challenge)
The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane
Bleak House - Charles Dickens (overlap with Chunkster and What’s in a Name? 2 Challenges - I need all the encouragement I can get if I’m going to get through it!)
Metamorphoses - Ovid (overlap with Centuries Challenge)
Macbeth - William Shakespeare (re-read)

Bonus: Possession - A. S. Byatt (re-read; overlap with Chunkster Challenge)

I can’t wait for the first of April!

24 February 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!

“I think perhaps I shall sacrifice that white bull after all. And you,” he said to Attilius, “will give me back my water within two days.”

From Pompeii by Robert Harris, p. 66.

23 February 2009

Book Review: Stargazing: Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper by Peter Hill

Stargazing It began, as do so many adventures, with a trip to the pub. On a night out in 1973, Peter Hill mentioned to a friend that he’d always fancied being a lighthouse keeper. Shortly afterward she saw a job ad looking for people to do just that, and encouraged him to apply. The lights being a little short-handed that year due to the greater appeal of working on the oil rigs, the Commissioners of the Northern Lights were happy to hire a long-haired hippie art student for the holidays. Despite having no idea what it was a lighthouse keeper actually did, and being some weeks short of finishing the year’s studies, he set off to spend the next several months being rotated between shore leave and various lighthouses off Scotland’s west coast (and being invited to depart from the art school on a more permanent basis). Along the way he discovered that while you don’t have to be mad to work in a lighthouse, it helps - and whether it’s crosswords or an obsession with Doctor Who, you’ve got to have a hobby.

Two years ago this was recommended to me by Dancin’ Fool, and after long months of it reproaching me from across the room I’ve finally read it. (And this is by no means the longest time a book has languished in my TBR pile.) Happily it was worth the wait. It’s described as a memoir of the first profession ever to be made totally redundant, but I’ve got my doubts as to whether that’s actually the case (the Worst Jobs in History series featured more than a few careers kept alive purely out of historical interest). It’s a fascinating account which conjures up the lost world of the lighthouse keeper and what it was like to be young in 1973 with Vietnam and Watergate forever looming in the background. The islands on which the lighthouses stand are almost characters in themselves, but the highlights are the eccentrics who staff them. From the gourmet cook who spent his free time building a boat behind the fog signal to the man who liked his Scrabble games limited to words with a nautical connection, there’s not a dull - or even an ordinary - one among them. There’s also interesting information on everything from lighthouse operations and coastal weather to the world’s worst poet and how to hold a conversation in the lulls between deafening blasts of a fog signal. Stargazing is a wonderful memorial to and celebration of a lost profession, and makes life on a tiny island seem like a fine way to escape the real world.

Rating: A

22 February 2009

Weekly Geeks: A Character Conversation

Weekly Geeks

Many of us have had an opportunity to interview an author, mostly through email, but perhaps even on the phone or in person. In fact, many of you have become experts at author interviews. So this week, let's pretend that we can get in contact with one of our favorite characters and interview them. What would you ask Mr. Darcy if you could send him an email. What would his answers be like? What would you say if you could just call up Liesel or Rudy from The Book Thief and ask them anything? How would they answer your questions? What if you could invite Jo March or Anne Shirley to lunch, what would the conversation be like?

Now, have at it and get making those calls and sending those emails to your favorite characters!

To Say Nothing of the Dog Getting there was easier than I’d expected. After some weeks of peppering Oxford with messages that I desperately hoped would survive the intervening years - and be found by the right people - I took up my position an hour early. The corner of the cemetery I’d selected had no graves of recent date or historical interest, but it never hurt to be careful when the presence of a single photographer could prevent the opening of the net. Eight minutes before the scheduled time I saw the faint shimmer and stepped forward to be whisked into the future mere moments before a group of daytrippers from Bristol wandered into the graveyard.

On arrival I counted to ten before opening my eyes. I was definitely not in 2009 - the increased wear on the headstones told me that; and I wasn’t in the lab. I pondered the nearest headstone for several moments and was relieved to discover that my thoughts did not attempt to wax poetical.

“Are you Ms ____?” inquired a voice behind me.

I started (were tightly-wound nerves a side effect?) and turned to see a fair-haired young man on the other side of a Victorian monstrosity. “I am,” I said, edging around the maudlin marble angel.

“And I’m Ned Henry, as I’m sure you’ve guessed. Welcome to the future.” He led me toward the cemetery gate, eyeing me askance as he did so. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Fine,” I assured him.

“It’s just that you were squinting, and I wondered...”

“No time lag, just myopia,” I said, retrieving my glasses from my bag, where I’d stowed them for safekeeping. “You know, Verity’s right - you do look rather like a young Lord Peter Wimsey.”

Ned brightened at the mention of Verity. “You won’t get to meet her, I’m afraid,” he said. “She’s in 1937 at the moment. And I can only spare a short time before I have to go to 1946.”

“Another cathedral?” I asked sympathetically, as I tried to concentrate on crossing the road rather than gawking at the changes 50 years had wrought. “I’ve no connection whatever to the Schrapnell family,” I added hastily, as his grimace was swiftly changed into a smile. “Grumble all you like.”

“Oh, thank God. That woman is driving me insane! She expects me to stay with her through the entire project, and doesn’t seem to realise that with her level of perfectionism I’ll be collecting the pension before even half the cathedrals are built. Coventry was bad enough but I swear she’s getting worse.”

I was tempted to point out that Lady Schrapnell would be dust before Ned was an OAP, but suspected that the woman would stay alive through sheer force of will until the last cathedral had had its grand reopening. “Look on the bright side,” I said. “You’ve got Verity to keep you sane.”

He shot me a dark look. “Only so long as Lady Schrapnell fails to drive Verity insane.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

We arrived at a small apartment in a quiet street, and I reluctantly dragged myself away from my touristy staring and followed my host upstairs. The interior proved to be an odd assortment of styles and times, late Art Deco alongside ersatz Victorian chintz cheek by jowl with things more modern than anything I could recognise. I supposed it was an inevitable consequence of spending so much time among the fashions of the past. Out of this amalgamated décor wandered a grey and white cat, which began twining itself about my ankles. “Penwiper, I presume?” I asked, bending down to stroke it.

“It is.” Ned leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Perhaps you wouldn’t mention having seen him? He was supposed to be back at the lab before Verity left, but...”

“I’ll hold my tongue - and my pen,” I promised, settling myself in a comfortably overstuffed armchair and burrowing among the inordinate amount of stuff I’d deemed necessary for an afternoon’s journey to 2059. Ned briefly dropped onto a sofa opposite and immediately leapt up and vanished into the kitchen. By the time he returned with a steaming teapot I’d unearthed notepad and pen from under my umbrella, water bottle, food, wallet, keys, sunscreen, book, nail file, map, camera, sketchpad, pencils, glasses case, scissors, safety pins, string, kleenex, first aid kit - hey, it never hurts to be prepared! - and a three-month-old train ticket. And so the interview began.

Out of curiosity, which of my messages was found, and by whom?
It was the one you left in that copy of Reverend Bohring’s monograph on Roman and Italic Fonts on Memorials in East Anglian Cathedrals, 1789 - 1821. Clever of you - naturally that woman’s obsession with details covers the precise shape of the serifs carved onto the tombs, so of course we had to read it. Three times. Carruthers found it - no one had looked at it since you.

Ah, yes, Carruthers - he was with you in Coventry when you were pulled off the project due to time lag. Have you suffered from any other instances of it since?
Time lag is an occupational hazard when working for Lady Schrapnell. You think you’ve taken care of everything, and as soon as you get back she’s thought of half a dozen things more, and back you have to go. And nothing will convince her that time lag exists. There was a plot last November to drag her through the net a few times so she could experience it for herself, but nothing ever came of it. We don’t have enough free time to hatch conspiracies.

Is the bishop’s bird stump the most monstrously hideous artefact ever created by mankind?
I hope so! I don’t want to think of what could possibly be worse. Hopefully nothing connected to any of the cathedrals Lady Schrapnell’s rebuilding, so I can remain in blissful ignorance.

Wise idea. It sounded dreadful. Tocelyn seemed quite taken with it, though. Have you ever been back to visit the people you met during To Say Nothing of the Dog - Terence or Professor Peddick, say?
Not yet - it’s on my list of things to do if I should ever again have more than a day at a time to myself. I’m starting to think the only way I’ll manage it is to engineer another severe bout of time lag. Actually, that idea has possibilities ... I wonder if I could get Verity to do the same? But I’d like to take back some kind of fish for the Professor so one of us will have to have their wits intact.

How’s the cat reintroduction project going?
Quite well, I believe. Mr Finch is still making trips to the nineteenth century and returning with discarded kittens, so the species isn’t back on its feet yet. And Penwiper is still needed at the lab, where of course we always take him whenever he’s wanted with admirable promptitude.

Of course.... If you could choose something from the past, something that’s been lost, and recreate it á là these cathedrals, what would it be?
Something small! I think I’d choose a row of ordinary houses, a relic of how everyday people once lived and not the Lady Schrapnells and Tocelyns of this world.

A wonderful idea.... Have you ever considered a trip back to the first decade of this century?
Actually, I haven’t; I’m purely - well, mostly - twentieth century, though that woman occasionally takes advantage of my experience to pack me off to the 1880s if no one else is available. It sounds like a nice time to holiday in - after the cathedrals were destroyed and before anyone conceived the devilish notion of rebuilding them.

Thinking of cathedrals being destroyed - what happened to the new recruit who was with you in Coventry?
He transferred to a strictly academic position - one where he doesn’t have to go through the net or handle complex implements like torches. Admin, basically.

Are the scientists any closer to determining how the net actually works?
I heard that there was some progress made recently, but it was all very technical. I gather that until they know exactly how it automatically prevents incongruities, they can’t know how it allows time travel. However, they have succeeded in devising a way to move people and objects between two points in the past without them going via the lab - as you’ve just seen for yourself.

How did the history department come to approve of Connie Willis’s novels being written at all, much less transported back several decades for publication?
That was the PR department’s doing, not the history department’s. They felt that the notion of time travel as an academic research strategy would be much more easily accepted if the public had already been introduced to it through a nice non-threatening medium. Like an entertaining novel or two. They approached Mr Dunworthy and he recommended those exploits which he felt would simultaneously amuse, instruct, and warn of the potential dangers. Though I must point out that he wasn’t happy about being obliged to do so - he takes our research very seriously.

So was my visit also the PR department’s doing?
Well, yes. With blogging so popular back then - now, for you - they felt that it would be a great way to further promote the fine work being done by the Oxford University Department of History. And that anyone so creative in their efforts to contact us would do a good job of it.

“Nice to be appreciated,” I remarked as I stowed my notebook in my bag and made a mental note of where in the jumble of objects it was. I looked at my watch. I would be just in time to catch the first opening of the net. “Those technicians of yours - they do know just when to send me, right?”

“Don’t worry,” Ned assured me. “Badri’s going to take care of it - he’s recovered considerably since the events of Doomsday Book. He’ll get you back home safely.”

I shelved my mental images of being dropped back after the buses stopped running and having to walk back to my hotel at three in the morning. Ned grabbed his keys and together we made the return trip to the churchyard, as empty of living people in 2059 as it had been fifty years earlier. Along the way I took a few snaps of some of the more noteworthy features of future life.

The net had not yet appeared when we arrived. “I know it was done under sufferance, but thank you for talking to me,” I said. “I’ve really enjoyed this afternoon.”

“And I really enjoyed the chance to vent my feelings about Lady Schrapnell, so thank you,” he replied. “But there is one thing...”


He held out one hand. “The film from your camera. Mr Dunworthy would have my hide if I let you risk creating an incongruity.”

I took the film from the camera - thankfully it had been a new reel - and handed it over with a show of reluctance. After all, I thought, as the net shimmered into view and I waved goodbye, I still had my memories - and I always was good at drawing....

Read my reviews of To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book.

20 February 2009

Friday Fill-In #112

Friday Fill-Ins

1. Give me a good book and I’ll be happy for hours.

2. Whenever I look at my bookshelves, I wonder where I’m going to put all the volumes yet to be read.

3. I wish that time was elastic and I could stretch it out and squeeze more hours into the day.

4. Fresh mango was the last thing I ate that was utterly delicious.

5. To live in this world you need a good sense of humour.

6. Other than this one, It’s All About Books is the last blog I commented on.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I’m looking forward to getting some sleep, tomorrow my plans include starting the first sleeve of the sweater I’m knitting and Sunday, I want to be able to walk outside without stepping in puddles. We’ve had enough rain!

19 February 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Storage

This week’s question is suggested by Kat:

I recently got new bookshelves for my room, and I’m just loving them. Spent the afternoon putting up my books and sharing it on my blog. One of my friends asked a question and I thought it would be a great BTT question. So from Tina & myself, we’d like to know “How do you arrange your books on your shelves? Is it by author, by genre, or you just put it where it falls on?”

My system is rather on the chaotic side, largely because there are bookshelves all over the house. Craft-related books are kept in a cupboard along with all my supplies. Old textbooks are dumped in the spare room/junk room. After that it gets more complicated. One side of the bookcase in the family room is dedicated to my fiction, with classics first then everything else (all alphabetically by author). The overflow has been relegated to shelves in the living room; since I spend more time in the family room than the living room, the former contains my favourites and the latter those I’m less likely to be re-reading anytime soon. Another set of living room shelves houses my encyclopaedias, along with all my mother’s non-fiction. The other half of the family room bookcase holds her fiction, except for the bottom shelf, which is where I keep my small collection of non-fiction (arranged in descending order of size) and the cardboard box filled with my TBR pile. On top of that, there’s books-in-progress, read-but-yet-to-be-shelved books, and books we’ve borrowed from the library and each other strewn across shelves, tables, kitchen benchtops, sofas, and floors. In fact the only rooms in the house that don’t see books are the bathroom and the laundry.

Amazingly, I know where everything is.

17 February 2009

Ten Favourite Things Beginning with J

I knew I’d get a challenging letter! I decided to have a go at the alphabet meme that’s been doing the rounds, and Suey gave me the letter J.

Every spring these trees burst out in flowers of the most gorgeous blue-mauve. Around the same time, apparently, University of Queensland students start shielding themselves with books and umbrellas, because of the belief that if a jacaranda flower falls on them, they’ll fail their exams. Happily my own uni had no such superstitions - perhaps because it has no jacarandas.

I live in jeans as much as possible during the cooler months. I have the devil of a time finding ones that a. fit, b. flatter, and c. won’t blow the budget, but the end result is worth it. Stretch denim worn tight has a nice sucking-in effect.

Jigsaw puzzles
I have one with the same image on both sides, rotated 90 degrees. One with no edges and five pieces left over. One with no picture to work from. One where the image is made up of numerous tiny ones - a photomosaic. One with 3,000 pieces. None took more than a few days and my family has given up trying to find one that will really challenge me. *Sigh*

Jane Austen
Who doesn’t love Jane? I’ll never get tired of re-reading her novels and spending time with her characters. (Thinking of which, it’s probably about time I re-read Sense and Sensibility.)

Is anyone else familiar with this species of newspaper puzzle? Nine letters in a 3x3 grid, where the aim is to create as many words of 4+ letters as possible, including a 9-letter word, all using the letter in the centre square. Even better than a cryptic crossword.

The house where I grew up had a fence covered in jasmine (and the neighbour’s ivy). When it was in flower the whole corner of the yard was filled with the scent.

I feel undressed without my rings and love drop earrings. Sometimes I make my own from beads and wire, and I find a jewellery sale nearly as irresistable as a book sale. My jewellery box is a tangled mess but I haven’t quite worked out how else to store them.

I’m nowhere near as bad a hoarder as I used to be, but I still manage to accumulate an excess of stuff - and leave it everywhere. I must reform. I must!

Jet black
There’s a preponderance of black in my wardrobe, because it’s what I buy when I can’t find any colours to suit (which, as I’m not one of the tanned blondes and brunettes for whom fashion is designed, is often). Plus, I look good in black. Sometimes I think I should just give in and turn goth, but I love colour too much.

Julia fractals
All fractals, really, but I was running out of ideas!

Book Review: The Sculptress by Minette Walters

What’s in a Name? 2 Challenge #2

The Sculptress Olive Martin is known as “the sculptress” for the way in which she butchered her mother and sister and arranged the pieces on the kitchen floor, before calling the police and confessing. Rosalind Leigh has no desire to write about Olive - or, indeed, anything else - but her agent has delivered her an ultimatum. Write the book, or her publisher will drop her. Left with little choice, Roz goes to interview Olive, expecting a monster but finding instead an intelligent, likeable - and clearly sane - woman. Indeed, five psychiatrists have proclaimed her sane, though many who saw her handiwork deemed her a psychopath. As Roz digs deeper into the case’s big unanswered question - why? - cracks begin to appear in the accepted version of events.

Why did Olive’s statement omit so much of what was shown by the forensic evidence? If she was planning to go to London that day, why was she wearing old clothes? Are her claims of having a secret lover the truth? Perhaps more importantly, is writing the book helping Roz move on from the event that almost destroyed her life, or leading her into more trouble? Former detective Hal Hawksley might make her go weak at the knees, but a restaurateur who hides from customers and regularly gets beaten to a pulp is more than a little shady. The more Roz learns, the more convinced she is that he and Olive are both innocent of all wrongdoing - but can she save either of them?

Wow. The Sculptress is one of those books that grabs hold of you at the beginning and doesn’t let go until it’s dragged you through to the end. It’s a good end, too; one to create a little chill and leave you wondering (in a good, speculative way, rather than a loose-ends-not-tied-up way). Even before there’s any doubt as to Olive’s guilt there’s mystery; in the gulf between Olive’s monstrous reputation and appearance and her well-spoken, friendly manner, and in the prison officer’s warning that Roz can’t trust a word that Olive says. Roz’s investigation is very well plotted, with little details here and there adding up and threatening to make the entire case crumble. Likewise the nature of Roz’s recent trauma is carefully revealed by degrees, going a long way to explaining why she’s so prickly.

The pace never flags, but at times I found the writing style concerned too much with momentum and too little with detail. Even as I was speeding through and loving the plot, a back corner of my mind kept struggling to pin down a firm image of certain people and places. And while I loved the plot, the characters were less appealing. They were certainly sympathetic, I really hoped things would work out for them (and I loved Roz during the hatpin scene), but I never truly warmed to them. With the exception of Sister Bridget, there wasn’t one I’d care to meet. This suited the kind of story being told - bitter, real, and with happy endings not guaranteed - but I do prefer to spend my time with fictional people I truly like.

Rating: A-

Book Review: A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susanna Gregory

What’s in a Name? 2 Challenge #1

A Plague on Both Your Houses The bizarre death of the Master of Michaelhouse College appears to be suicide. At least, it does until it is swiftly followed by several more deaths, an assault, a ransacking, an attempted murder and a disappearing corpse. Added to a previous series of deaths in Cambridge colleges, it generates rumours of a plot by Oxford to undermine its rival. For with a terrible pestilence sweeping across the country, there may soon be only one university left standing; and the weaker Cambridge is to begin with, the greater the chance that Oxford will be it.

Michaelhouse’s Fellow of Medicine, Matthew Bartholomew, wants his friend’s death investigated. The Bishop wants to cover it all up. Bartholomew is forced to give in, and indeed has enough to do with preparing for the plague and dodging the malice of someone who’s clearly out to get him - though he hasn’t the faintest notion who or why. Then the Death hits Cambridge ... and despite the fact that people are dropping like flies, someone sees the need to commit another murder. Reasoning that the Bishop will be busy, Bartholomew decides to investigate the matter himself, and soon comes to suspect even his friends and family of being involved in the plot that’s afoot. That is, if the plot exists at all.

Who would have thought academic life could be so dangerous? That’s what I love about Susanna Gregory - she manages to combine loads of historical detail with a high body count and plenty of other crimes and misdemeanours. Mediaeval Cambridge springs to life on the page without slowing down the plot. And what a plot it is! By page 300 I was thoroughly baffled and wondering how on earth it could all be resolved. A hundred pages later I was marvelling at how something so (relatively) simple could spawn such a complex heap of criminal activity, and feeling both educated and entertained. As well as town and college life, the novel shows the chaos created by the black death and the waiting that preceded it.

Just as good as the plot are the characters. It’s been nearly four years since I last read any of this series, and I still had fond and vivid memories of Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael. The former is regarded as an oddity (or possibly a heretic) by his patients for insisting on cleanliness and ignoring such things as astrology, and the latter is a most unsaintly monk with a passion for food and for the sorts of intrigue and office politics that Bartholomew deplores. Having originally come to the series partway through, I enjoyed seeing how Bartholomew reluctantly arrived at the sideline of detective, and liked the way in which his amateur status showed itself as he took his time to put it all together and wasn’t always sure what to do next. He’s an ordinary man who just happens to have a murder mystery dropped in his lap, and who’s doing his best to get to the bottom of it. And by the end I thought he must also be part cat - in possession of nine lives, the better to fend off all those attempts to murder him. (The last time I caught myself thinking, what, again?)

The supporting characters are all brilliantly drawn, and the understandable shortage of women is more than made up for by the formidable Agatha the laundress (who regards herself as twice the man that most of the men are). The fictionalised world of Michaelhouse College (once real but long gone) is one that’s very hard to forget.

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!

“Well, we are not likely to know more tonight, at any rate,” said Bathsheba. “But one of you had better run across to Farmer Boldwood’s and tell him that much.”

From Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, p. 117.

14 February 2009

Blog Improvement Project: Task 3

Blog Improvement Project

The third task in the Blog Improvement Challenge was Blog Post Bingo - trying to create as many of the following types of post as possible.

1. A Link Post - It’s All Fun and Games, a list of links to book- and word-related entertainment.
2. A Short Post - Make Room! Make Room! - my imminent shelf-space crisis.
3. A List Post - 26 Neologisms for Booklovers, perhaps my favourite post ever.
4. An Opinion Post - FAIL
5. A Poll or Question Post - Valentine’s Day Poll. Last I checked, “Classic love story” was one vote ahead of “Something totally romantic,” so as soon as I finished The Sculptress I settled down with Far from the Madding Crowd. It’s that rarity, a Hardy happy ending (classic), and it was quoted in the final Vicar of Dibley (totally romantic), making it a nice compromise.
6. A How-To Post - FAIL
7. A Long Post - Barchester Towers review.
8. A Review Post - To Shield the Queen review.
9. A Definition Post - FAIL
10. FREE SPACE - Happy Valentine’s Day - a wordless post.

Seven out of ten’s not too bad - better than I thought I’d do at first glance. It would have been nice to have some interesting expertise to share, but overall I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished this fortnight. Bring on task #4!

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Weekly Geeks: What’s in a Name?

Weekly Geeks

For this week’s edition of Weekly Geeks, we’re going to take a closer look at character names. What are some of your favorite character names?

Go to Google or a baby name site like this one or this one, and look up a favorite character’s name. What does their name mean? Do you think the meaning fits the character? Why or why not?

If you’d like, look up your own name as well and share the meaning.

Looking over my shelves and the lists of books I’ve read, it’s surprising how many of them fail to bring a character name immediately to mind. The what is so much easier to remember than the who. And most of the ones I do remember fail to grab my imagination; perhaps having such an uncommon name myself makes everything else seem ordinary in contrast.

I’m fond of the name Joseph, though I’ve no idea why. It’s derived from Yosef, a Hebrew name meaning “The Lord’s addition (to the family).” The only fictional Joseph I can think of offhand is Stephanie Plum’s Morelli, but I’m sure I must have encountered more.

I also like Maud, from Possession (the second Weekly Geeks in a row I’ve mentioned that book!) It’s from the Germanic Mathilda, meaning “powerful battler”; and aptly it came into vogue in the Victorian era, when part of the book is set. I think it suits her character well - she has to work hard to get at the truth and to keep it from her and Roland’s rivals.

Since I’m currently reading Far from the Madding Crowd I have to mention Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene - two fabulous names in the one novel! Bathsheba is from the Hebrew Bat-Sheva, meaning “Daughter of oath.” The Biblical Bathsheba married King David after he had her husband killed in battle. I can’t say how well this fits Hardy’s heroine - the reason I’m re-reading the book is because I realised how little I remember of it. Gabriel comes from Gavriel, Hebrew for “strong man of God”. Well, he is the hero of the book - does that count as a good fit?

As for looking up my own name - it is, in a convoluted way, a form of Jane, meaning “God is gracious”. It fits after a fashion - I’m a proverbial plain Jane, and I’m weird (all the forms of Jane available, and I got the unspellable, unpronounceable one - thanks, Mum and Dad!)

13 February 2009

It’s All Fun and Games

In need of some entertainment? Try these links:

Reading other people’s reviews failing to inflate your must-read list sufficiently? Literature Map can help. Type in the name of a favourite author and a cloud of other names will appear. The closer they are to the author in the centre, the greater the probability that you’ll enjoy their books. (You could use this in reverse, too - enter the name of someone whose works you loathe, and find out which similar authors to avoid.)

Test your memory with the First Lines Quiz. How many opening sentences can you identify by title and author?

If you’re really up for a challenge, try Etymologic. Forget about the meaning of a word - can you identify its origin?

There are Word Games galore courtesy of the Oxford University Press, including the Oxford Word Challenge. Challenges range from the relatively simple to the truly fiendish.

At the site of a rare book store called Between the Covers (!) is a game called Letterature - think Wheel of Fortune with a literary theme. Play against a friend or the computer, and see who can deduce the title first.

Verbotomy issues a daily challenge to invent a new word for a given situation. For a blogosphere version with a literary bent, Raidergirl3 and Suey have devised the Bookword Game, looking for neologisms to fit bookish situations that need a word of their own.


Make Room! Make Room!

I recently got around to putting away all the books that were lying around on the front of the shelves, and made the horrible discovery that I have precisely 32 inches of shelf space left. So I did what anyone with a spirit of scientific inquiry would do: I measured my unshelved books (mostly my TBR pile, overflowing out of a cardboard box). Not only do they outstretch the available space by more than half a metre, but if I could get them into a single stack without toppling they’d come past the level of my chin. Granted, I’m short, but it’s still a little alarming to think that with very few additions, my TBR pile could end up taller than me.

And, of course, that impending shelf space crisis ... Well, I did put “cull my book collection” on my to-do list :-(

10 February 2009

Book Review: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Victorian Challenge #1

Barchester Towers When the Bishop of Barchester dies, the preferment goes not to his son, Archdeacon Grantly, but an outsider. Or rather, two outsiders, for the new Bishop Proudie’s wife does all she can to rule her husband and, through him, the diocese. The Low Church sensibilities of the Proudies and their evangelical chaplain, Mr Slope, do not sit well with the archdeacon, who with great celerity moves to ensure that things change as little as possible. His first act is to try to get his father-in-law, Mr Harding, reinstated as warden of Hiram’s Hospital. Mrs Proudie has other ideas – she wants the bishop to give the post to Mr Quiverful. Mr Slope vacillates between the two options, leaning toward whichever will best ensure his worldly success – and as Mr Harding has a widowed daughter with twelve hundred a year, there’s a lot of success up for grabs.

Eleanor Bold and her income have also been noticed by Charlotte Stanhope, eldest daughter of a churchman summarily recalled from a long absence in Italy by the new bishop. Dr Stanhope has neglected his duties to the extent of letting his children think and act as freely as they please, with results that scandalise Barchester. Charlotte’s sister Madeline is a cripple whose still-living husband doesn’t stop her setting out to enthrall everything in trousers, and their brother Bertie has failed to settle to any profession beyond that of spending his father’s money. Certain that Bertie will never prosper on his own, Charlotte decides that a rich marriage is just the thing, and sets out to make it happen. She never dreams that anyone so plainly enamoured of Madeline as is Mr Slope might have such schemes himself.

Archdeacon Grantly suspects just that, and furthermore interprets Eleanor’s common civility to Mr Slope as encouragement. Soon a wedding is viewed as only a matter of time, and not even securing a vacant living for Mr Arabin, a firm adherent to the archdeacon’s principles, can compensate for such a dire prospect. Mr Arabin, after meeting Eleanor, is no happier at the thought. And few people other than Mr Slope are pleased when the dean also dies, and the bishop’s chaplain is suggested as a replacement.

Barchester Towers is the second of the Barsetshire novels, and takes place five years after The Warden, the events of which are recapped at the start. Church squabbles might not sound the most interesting of subjects for a novel, and I’ll admit it had its tedious moments, as things ecclesiastical were recounted and philosophised upon. The greater part of the book more than compensated, and contained some hilarious moments. The image of Bertie Stanhope breezily attempting to free a furious Mrs Proudie’s skirts from the castors of the sofa he had just sent hurtling across the floor is one I will not soon forget. (Aside: I recall reading somewhere that a fellow club member once mentioned his dislike of one of Trollope’s characters, to which Trollope replied that he would go home and kill her off immediately. Was that Mrs Proudie?)

The characters can be hard to truly like, but they are a lot of fun to read about. The bishop is a henpecked doormat and his wife and chaplain odious, but it’s great entertainment to see said wife and chaplain vying for supremacy over each other (and the bishop). I always found myself hoping for the victory of whichever one was currently on the page and plotting. The Stanhopes are wonderfully eccentric in their disparate ways, and each manages to do something good by the end, but I was still glad to see the last of them. By comparison the forces upholding the status quo (the good guys, if you will) are less interesting than the disruptive elements they combat. The exception is my favourite of the lot, Miss Thorne, the local squire’s sister who thinks there is little worthwhile in the world that isn’t at least a few centuries old.

There is a love story worked in amongst the scheming, and while I was pleased to see a happy ending for Eleanor she’s not exactly my favourite heroine. A nice girl, a good daughter, a devoted mother and doubtless now a good wife, but there’s little more to her than that. And no, there is not a spoiler in this paragraph. Trollope has an odd habit of announcing certain plot developments far in advance which somehow failed to mar my enjoyment of the book. It takes good writing to pull that off.

Rating: A-

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!

He turned to Bartholomew. “I have told you all this because I wish you to be on your guard - for your own life and for the security of your University.”

From A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susanna Gregory, p. 104.

09 February 2009

26 Neologisms for Booklovers

Overuse of words ending in -ly.

Happily accepting cracked spines and dog ears in secondhand books, whilst being fanatical about the condition of books acquired new.

Possessed of the urge to read a book you never knew existed until it was made into a film.

The scraps of paper, old library borrowing slips, unused postcards, etc. left in a book by previous readers.

Choosing a particularly obscure, intellectual, literary, or all of the above book to read while commuting, in order to impress your fellow passengers.

Written in such a convoluted style that by the time you reach the end of a sentence or paragraph, you can’t remember how it started. Or even what it’s about.

To make (often unflattering) assumptions about a book or its reader based on genre.

A female main character so annoyingly backbone-less you can hardly bear to read about her.

To search for and read numerous reviews online before deciding whether or not to read a given book.

The fine art of keeping on top of fourteen library books with three due dates between them, the books you’re reviewing on LibraryThing, the latest book club selection, and the technothriller you borrowed from your brother.

Wanting to buy a book for a friend or relative’s child, but totally clueless as to what might suit.

Lost in quotation
Flipping madly through a book in search of a line or passage whose page number you were sure you’d remember.

The useless jottings left in a book by a previous reader.

Non sequeltur
The act of reading a series out of order.

When looking to buy a particular book, to hold out for an edition with a less hideous cover.

Instinctively wary of any book whose pages are lacking in white space.

The situation in which you find yourself when you have a large TBR pile but nothing to read.

To vent one’s feelings in a scathing review of a book with no merit whatsoever.

To look forward eagerly to reading a much-anticipated book.

The act of slipping a library book into your suitcase, even though you’re certain the library would consider it a cardinal sin to take its property interstate/overseas.

Having 1 copy shared between 33 library branches.

Vagaread of fate
The phenomenon of entering a store in search of one book and leaving with five ... none of them the book you originally intended to purchase.

Wishful rethinking
The conviction that this time you will reach the end of a book that you’ve abandoned, because you’re sure it can’t be as unenjoyable as you remember.

Perfectly happy to read any translation of a foreign work, regardless of what others have to say about its quality.

Sorely tempted to read the books you’ve bought to give as Christmas presents.

A library book borrowed in spite of a large TBR pile, on the grounds that it won’t take long to read.

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice The impending arrival of a wealthy bachelor creates much excitement in the environs of Meryton - particularly for Mrs Bennet, who immediately forms hopes of acquiring him for one of her five daughters. Mr Bingley proves to be every bit as handsome and charming as she could wish, but the friend who accompanies him is far less agreeable. Miss Elizabeth Bennet especially conceives a dislike for the insufferably proud Mr Darcy, and not all his immense wealth can endear him to her mother. His reputation slides even lower when the dashing Mr Wickham lets slip a tale of unjust suffering at the hands of his former friend. Despite the remonstrances of her sister Jane - who cannot bear to think ill of anyone - Elizabeth is quite ready to believe the worst, the more so as she is certain Darcy has been responsible for ending Bingley’s attachment to Jane and hastening him out of the neighbourhood.

But Elizabeth hasn’t seen the last of her least favourite person. By an unfortunate stroke of fate Darcy’s aunt is Lady Catherine de Burgh, the patron of the Bennets’ pompous clerical cousin Mr Collins (who, having been soundly rejected by Elizabeth, married her best friend instead). A visit to the new Mrs Collins, and a tour of the countryside with her aunt and uncle, both conspire to throw Elizabeth and Darcy together. Could anyone so proud possibly wish to ally himself to someone with a negligent father, a vulgar mother, an uncle in trade, and a sister who has just disgraced herself utterly - and after stooping to deception to save his friend from the same folly? And what would the dragonish Lady Catherine have to say about it if he did?

I seriously doubt whether there is anything I can say about Pride and Prejudice that hasn’t been said a zillion times before (and that, combined with the fact that I’ve loved it so long it’s hard to determine exactly why, has been giving me a serious case of reviewer’s block). It was the first Austen I read and it vies with Persuasion for the place of favourite. The Bennets must be one of literature’s original dysfunctional families. Mrs Bennet is a perpetual embarrassment to her elder daughters, with her attacks of nerves, obvious attempts at matchmaking, and indulgence of officer-mad Kitty and Lydia. Mary tries to compensate for her lack of looks by acquiring, and showing off, dubious intellectual and musical accomplishments. And Mr Bennet lets them all be as silly as they please, so long as they amuse him in the process. Jane and Elizabeth are the only sensible ones, but I have a soft spot for Mr Bennet - his straight-faced teasing of his wife and younger daughters never fails to make me smile. There’s hardly a character in the book I don’t love to read about; even the less pleasant ones, such as dragonish Lady Catherine or Mr Bingley’s delightfully bitchy sisters, are poked fun at rather than set up as serious antagonists. Only Wickham is unredeemed by any traits fit to be laughed at.

Elizabeth is one of my all-time favourite literary heroines; she has an independent mind and little hesitation in using it, from rejecting Mr Collins despite the good it could do her family to telling off Lady Catherine. (It’s a little strange to think that the same author who created a heroine so appealing to modern sensibilities was also responsible for Fanny Price, the epitome of meek and mild.) Between her own case of disgust at first sight and the charming Wickham’s plausible tale, it isn’t hard to see why she is so ready to believe everything bad of Darcy. The pride responsible for Elizabeth’s initial aversion has an equally firm basis, and their respective reformations are perfectly convincing. Not only does each receive a strong fillip to change their ways, but they’re allowed plenty of time to adapt their thinking.

This is a book capable of keeping its readers smiling all the way through. There’s hardly a page without some gentle sending-up of early nineteenth-century country society and the people who inhabit it (who could forget Mr Collins bragging of the cost of a fireplace that’s not even his?). Plus, of course, a fabulous heroine and a hero who’s almost perfect. And as for Mr Wickham - I can’t help thinking he gets just what he deserves.

Rating: A+

08 February 2009

Weekly Geeks: Judge a Book by its Cover

Weekly Geeks

This week it's all about judging books by their covers! Pick a book - any book, really - and search out multiple book cover images for that book. They could span a decade or two (or more)... Or they could span several countries. Which cover is your favorite? Which one is your least favorite? Which one best 'captures' what the book is about?

My first thought was Wuthering Heights, but that’s already been done wonderfully by Claire. So I went for a modern classic instead - Possession by A. S. Byatt. I simply adore this book - I’m planning to read it again some time this year and rave about it here. Although it’s nearly twenty years old, there aren’t that many covers.

Cover 1 This is the edition I have, and I love it. The image and the script writing are both evocative of Victorian elegance, and promise a story that’s beautifully-written and romantic with Dickensian intricacy. Since this is just what Possession is, I think it’s a perfect fit for the book.
Cover 2 This is also very Victorian; in fact, it could be an illustration for one of Christabel’s tales. But I don’t like it as much as the first. It has a very cut-and-paste look to it - he’s distinctly lopsided. And she must be very uncomfortable standing like that.
Cover 3 Obviously, the movie tie-in version. I’ve never been a fan of tie-in covers, but this has one advantage over all the others - it shows that there are two separate stories, one in the present and one in the past.
Cover 4 My least favourite of the English covers. Sure, it’s elegantly minimalist, but what do moths have to do with the novel? Answer: nothing whatsoever. Now, if it was Angels and Insects I could understand it. Maybe someone in the art department got the two confused?
Cover 5 I found this Italian (I think) cover on LibraryThing, and it’s woefully dull. I’m not exactly sure what that picture is, but it makes me think of cramped, ill-lit garrets and the darker side of Victorian London life. (Well, there is that seance.... )
Cover 6 The French version, also from LibraryThing. She’s suitably pre-Raphaelite, but too much like some kind of faerie queen. A pair of wings and a magic wand wouldn’t look out of place, which doesn’t fit with the more serious nature of the book.
Which is your favourite? And if you’ve read it, which do you think suits the book best?

06 February 2009

Book Review: To Shield the Queen by Fiona Buckley

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge #1

To Shield the Queen Through the good offices of her late husband’s employer, Ursula Blanchard has acquired a place at the court of the new queen Elizabeth. It’s much better than returning to her family, who have never forgiven her for eloping with the man they intended should marry her cousin. Nevertheless it is far from ideal - with only a modest income she must support her daughter and keep up appearances on par with considerably wealthier women. When word of her straitened circumstances gets out, she receives an offer of additional employment.

All the court is abuzz with gossip about Elizabeth’s relationship with her Master of Horse, Sir Robin Dudley. Unfortunately for Dudley, there is an obstacle in the way of his becoming king - his wife. Chronically ill and secluded in the country, Amy Robsart is terrified of her husband ... and the court knows it. Rumours of dark deeds are circulating, and both Elizabeth and Dudley want them stopped. To that end, he offers Ursula a generous payment to go to Oxfordshire, convince Amy that she has nothing to fear from him, and stop her talking of attempts at murder. Ursula agrees, and soon discovers that something is going on at Cumnor Place that shouldn’t be, though she cannot tell exactly what before she finds herself on the trail of both murderers and the conspirators in a Catholic plot. Which could be more than a little awkward as both her relatives and her suitor are Catholic, and they could well be in it up to their necks.

A number of times I have seen this book at the library, thought it looked interesting, yet never actually borrowed it. Now I wish I had. Ursula makes a fantastic heroine, and one well-endowed with common sense. Except for the years of her marriage fate hasn’t dealt her a good hand, but she doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for herself - she just sets out to do what must be done. She thinks before she acts and willingly confides in, and listens to, her servants. The three of them make a great team - even if her groom does think that hunting down killers is unbecoming a lady. Ursula is a refreshing change from the all-too-common kind of heroine who puts getting to the truth ahead of all other considerations; she has plenty of curiosity, but she puts caution first, except for one perfectly understandable outburst at her uncle. And though unconventional, she’s very much of her time.

The mystery takes some time to get started but it’s time well spent watching as Ursula gets accustomed to court life and learns how to deliver discreet yet poisonous set-downs to Lady Catherine Grey. When it does get underway it provides a plausible explanation for Amy Robsart’s still-mysterious death. With a possible connection to both her relatives and the man she’s fallen in love with, there won’t be an easy resolution for Ursula. Nor will there be one for the court, where truth takes second place to appearances. It’s a complicated situation and I like the way it was tied up in the end, and that the origin of the murder plot spoke volumes about the nature of the court. I’ve added the rest of the series to my must-read list, and I hope they’re as good as this.

Rating: B+

03 February 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!

A perfect commotion took place. The doctor, who heard it as he was standing in the drawing-room, knew that his daughter was coming and retired into the furthest corner, where he might not see her entrance.

From Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, p. 95.

Weekly Geeks: Other Passions

Weekly Geeks During the first fortnight of the Blog Improvement Project I made a resolution to do more participatory stuff. I’d long known of the existence of Weekly Geeks, and after seeing that last week’s topic was my beloved classics I decided it was high time I got involved.

This week’s topic:

This week's Weekly Geek is inspired by Dewey's Knit-a-Long, a mini challenge of Dewey’s Reading Challenge. Dewey had other passions besides reading and blogging. Knitting was one of them. This made me think, what are the Weekly Geek's other passions?

#1. What are you passionate about besides reading and blogging? For example, are you crafty (knitting, woodworking, scrapbooking, model building)? Do you cook? Into gaming (computer or board)? Sports (player or spectator)? Photography? Maybe you like geocaching, rock climbing? Or love attending events like renaissance fairs, concerts? Music? Dancing? You get the idea. Tell us why you're passionate about it. Post photos of what you've made or of yourself doing whatever it is you love doing.

#2. Get us involved. Link to tutorials, recipes, Youtube videos, websites, fan sites, etc, anything that will help us learn more about your interest or how to do your hobby. Maybe you'd like to link to another hobbyist whose work you admire or tell us about a book or magazine related to your interest.

#3. Visit other Weekly Geeks. Link in your post to other Geeks who've piqued your interest in their passion. Or maybe you might find a fellow aficionado among us, link to them.

I’ve seen the term “magpie” in a few responses and that fits me, too - I dabble in lots of things but often not for long at a time. Crochet, embroidery, bead jewellery-making, sewing, painting ... I can turn my hand to just about anything creative. But since it was Dewey who started Weekly Geeks I can’t not showcase my knitting. I have two works in (very slow) progress; it’s been a lamentably long time since I’ve applied fingers to needles. One is a sock to match one that’s been lying in my knitting basket since October, and the other is a black sweater that I must get going on soon if I want to have it ready for winter.

The first knitting project I ever finished was a big blue scarf on huge needles. When wrapped around my neck, the ends reach almost to my knees! The one of which I’m most proud are these ankle socks, done on skinny metal double-points when I’d never previously knitted anything more complicated than, well, a scarf.


Only for my fellow bloggers would I don winter woollies in February!

Another artistic thing I do is create fractals. I can’t even remember how I got started - I think I stumbled upon a fractal creation program on the internet on night and thought it sounded fun. Which it is. I’m considering maybe starting a new site to display them once I’ve accumulated some more images.




And I’m addicted to the puzzles page of the newspaper, especially the cryptic crossword. I rarely manage actually to finish a cryptic, but I still love them.

Knitty.com. I love browsing the patterns here and wishing I had the time and patience to knit a lot more. My sweater-in-progress is a Knitty pattern, and I highly recommend their Universal Toe-up Sock Formula. With a few simple calculations you can make socks with any weight wool, on any size needles, for any size feet.

The Infinite Fractal Loop at Fractalus has a huge list of links to galleries of fractals. They also have a list of programs to download. The one I use is Tierazon, which I think is still floating around the web somewhere, though its homepage has disappeared.

Julie P at Booking Mama is another knitter - one who also does felting. I’ve read articles about felting but never tried it - it’s on my vague mental list of things I must try one day.

Alessandra and Gautami are fellow puzzle addicts.

And Lynda is learning Italian, which I dream of doing even though I’m a dunce at foreign languages!

6 (Bookish) Things that Make Me Happy

I found this free for the borrowing at Musings of a Bookish Kitty.

Rules to the 6 Things that Make Me Happy Meme:

1. Link to the person who has tagged you. (See above.) 2. Write down six things that make you happy (I, like Literary Feline, am stealing Nymeth’s idea of listing only book-related things. After all, happiness = books, right?).

1. The sight of a crowded bookshelf or overflowing TBR box.
2. Stumbling across a book I’ve been hunting for ages.
3. A book that’s as good to look at as it is to read.
4. Learning something new while reading.
5. Settling down to re-read an old favourite.
6. An ending that will stay with me long after I’ve closed the book.

If you want to do this, consider yourself tagged.

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