28 May 2010

Fractal Friday: Aqua


Library Loot

Library Loot

The Lambs of London
Rebels and Traitors
Sea of Poppies
The Janissary Tree
The Other Boleyn Girl
Wolf Hall
The Lambs of London - Peter Ackroyd
Rebels and Traitors - Lindsey Davis
Sea of Poppies - Amitav Ghosh
The Janissary Tree - Jason Goodwin
The Other Boleyn Girl - Philippa Gregory
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

A couple of days ago, I was wondering what books I could read for the Chunkster Challenge. Now I’m wondering how I’ll finish my borrowed chunksters in four weeks! 651 pages in Wolf Hall, 742 in Rebels and Traitors ... and they’re both way too big to squeeze into my handbag. Looks like my evening knitting will have to be put on hold for a while.

And I’ve only now realised that every novel in that pile is historical!

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

24 May 2010

Weekly Geeks: A Character Comparison

Weekly Geeks

For this week's task, let's take a close look at some of our favorite bookish characters. Specifically, think of a character that you really relate to, a character that you think you could jump right in the story and actually be, a character that you think the author might know you because it comes so close to who you are! List for us the traits of that character that you feel closely resembles yourself. If you feel like there's several characters that fit the bill, list them all! Why not!

On the flip side, you can also share with us a favorite character that is the complete opposite of you. Maybe it's a character that you would never get along with, or one that would drive you crazy if you met them. Maybe it's someone who has completely different values, opinions or personality than you. Again, make a list of these traits that you feel are totally incompatible to yourself.

Finally, you can also tell us about a character that you wish you could be more like. Tell us what traits of this character you'd like to possess and why.

The character who could be me is the second Mrs de Winter from Rebecca. We have so much in common! We each have a very uncommon first name that is impossible for the overwhelming majority of people to spell or pronounce, and are stunned when someone actually gets it right without assistance. She goes unnamed for the entire book; I use my name as little as I can manage, because I hate it.

We’re both shy and mousy little things, lacking in social poise, quick to assume that anyone who comes near us must want to speak to the person beside us. Neither of us know what to do when confronted with the malice of a person like Mrs Danvers. In a grand country house like Manderley, I’d be just as out of my depth as she. since she eventually found her feet, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet.

I also relate is Anne Elliot of Persuasion. We’re both accustomed to being overlooked and ignored, even by most of our own relatives. We’re resigned to a certain lack of beauty. And when spoken to by someone older and supposedly wiser, we’re both prone to believe that they are right and we are wrong. (That last trait makes me wonder if I mightn’t have been a little too well-brought up!)

A favourite character who is my total opposite is Phryne Fisher from Kerry Greenwood’s mystery series. Phryne is a 1920s flapper, with plenty of family money behind her, who likes fashion and fast cars and daring adventures. I have clothes in my wardrobe that are 10 years old and would far rather read about daring adventures than experience them!

The character I’d like to resemble more - in some ways! - is Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair. She identifies what she wants and goes after is with no regrets, and without wondering whether or not she deserves it. (Indeed, she seems to assume that she is entitled to whatever she can get.) Even when she’s down, she’s never defeated, always able to believe that her fortunes are bound to revive. I could do without her conniving ways and her willingness to plot elopements with other people’s husbands, but I’d love some of her confidence and optimism.

18 May 2010

Book Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger In post-war Warwickshire stands Hundreds Hall, slowly crumbling into ruin amid the shrinking lands of its estate. Mrs Ayres and her two children live in the handful of rooms not yet closed up, with only a couple of servants to help stave off decay. Roderick, injured in the war, worries incessantly about money while slowly drowning in a sea of paperwork. His plain sister Caroline settles into a life of eccentric spinsterhood. Together they cling to a way of life now past and refuse to give up a home they cannot afford.

Into their isolated, stagnating world enters Dr Faraday, who has been fascinated by Hundreds for most of his life and soon becomes equally so by the family. By persuading Rod to undergo an experimental treatment he gains access to the house that so entranced him, and is adopted as confidante by the Ayreses. He pays no heed to the young maid’s claims of a “bad thing” in the house. He’s sure there’s a reasonable explanation for Rod’s fancies that his furniture is relocating itself. He certainly will not consider the possibility of there being something in Hundreds against which no amount of logic can offer a defence.

The 1940s may seem a little recent for the Historical Fiction Challenge, but I’m including it anyway because it’s a story that couldn’t unfold the way it does in any other time, and gives a clear picture of a bygone time. Not only surface features like rationing and the aftereffects of the war, but the deeper shift in society. In the eyes of most people the Ayreses are dinosaurs, persisting in the belief that property and birth can compensate for absence of money as they once did. Even their evening clothes belong to another time. For the general public, this colours all their conclusions about events at Hundreds. For Faraday - the son of a former Hundreds servant - their decline offers him an opportunity that would never otherwise have been his.

And he doesn’t have many qualms about taking advantage of it. He’s not the most likeable of characters; he’s class-conscious and prone to a sense of inferiority, worries chronically and pessimistically about the impending introduction of the National Health Service, and dismisses the concerns of the residents of Hundreds out of hand. He knows there’s no such things as ghosts or poltergeists or “little strangers” that have split off from a disturbed psyche and taken on a malevolent life of their own; ergo everyone else should know it too. The best thing about Faraday is his novelty value; how often do you read a gothic novel and encounter a narrator who never once succumbs to credulity?

Being a gothic novel, it naturally depends heavily on atmosphere. Not much actually happens for a book of 500 pages; but those pages all create the unshakeable conviction that sooner or later something will - and that it probably won’t be good. Hundreds Hall is a perfect setting - largely shut up, falling to pieces, without electricity every time the generator runs out of fuel. It’s a house that would hardly feel complete without a ghost, or at least the legend of one, and a place where even a complaint about the maid can seem instantly sinister.

In time, Faraday came to annoy me immensely. I am all for rationality; but the events at Hundreds reached a critical mass beyond which continued insistence upon rational explanations was no longer ... well, rational. Or they seemed to. After all, he witnessed little of it himself; most of the details came to him from people who could well be mistaken, hysterical, or just plain mad. I thought there was something strange at work, but then, I like ghost stories. Someone who doesn’t might side with the doctor. One of the novel’s greatet strengths is its power to make the reader question everything they learn and doubt their own opinions; and perhaps discover something of themselves by seeing which explanation they favour - something like a literary Rohrschach test. (For a supposedly logical scientist, I embraced the idea of a supernatural agency with alarming ease!)

The ending restored some of my certainty ... I think. It was eerie and subtly sinister and left me feeling that my theory of the nature of whatever inhabited the Hall is the correct one - if, indeed, there is a correct theory. I’m sure other readers will form their own ideas.

Rating: B

It’s Tuesday, Where Are You? / Teaser Tuesdays

It’s Tuesday, Where Are You?

I’m taking a tour of Rome circa AD 200, with the aid of what amounts to a Lonely Planet guidebook for time-travellers.

Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day by Peter Matyszak.

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!

Anyone with goods to dispose of might go to a designated commercial area and set up his pitch, but most leave this job to professional auctioneers. (Though the emperor Caligula himself once raised funds this way - not unexpectedly getting excellent prices from his terrified audience.)

From Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day by Peter Matyszak, p. 68.

12 May 2010

Blogger 1, Spider 0?

Back in February, I posted about the chaos created by the coming to life of my worst nightmare, i.e. walking into my bedroom one night, closing the door, and finding a huntsman spider on the back of it. My arachnophobia decreed that everything be removed from the room in order to prove it was spider-free, which to my immense relief it was. Since I didn’t actually kill the wretched thing, I assumed it had escaped. Now, though, it appears that that was not the case.

It died.

At the bottom of my knitting basket.

Or a spider did. This evening I emptied nearly everything out of it to chase stray crochet hooks and double-points, and noticed an odd brown thing in one corner. A closer, and fortunately only visual, inspection showed it to be a rather dessicated huntsman. So then I was obliged to - very gingerly - remove all the remaining stuff and tip the corpse into the bin, and heroically resist the urge to sterilise everything. (Typical bloody huntsman - thoroughly toes-up and still causing trouble.)

Since the possibility of there having been, at various times, two huntsmen in there is too awful to contemplate, I’ve elected to believe the one that vanished in February took a stroll over something coated with surface spray and then crept away to die.

Under all my yarn! I don’t know whether to be more relieved that it removed itself from this world, or irked by its choice of where to do so.

11 May 2010

It’s Tuesday, Where Are You? / Teaser Tuesdays

It’s Tuesday, Where Are You?

I’m taking a (non-fiction) tour through the ancient world, investigating dead languages - those that have been deciphered and those which remain a mystery.

Lost Languages by Andrew Robinson.

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!

Champollion was still unaware of this complexity. For despite his success with Egyptian names, he was yet to take the plunge and accept that all hieroglyphic words, not just proper names, might have phonetic elements.

From Lost Languages by Andrew Robinson, p. 69.

10 May 2010

Weekly Geeks

Weekly Geeks

A couple of incidents have prompted this week's topic.

1. I very much enjoyed the two Susan Hill novels that I’ve read and already have the next book in her series Simon Serrailler series on my audio book playlist. Then I discovered, via the author’s opinion column in a UK newspaper, that I don’t particularly like her personality (this piece is an example of what I found mean-spirited and inaccurate about her rants but there were other articles too). Suddenly her books did not seem so appealing any longer.

2. Craig Sisterson's excellent blog Crime Watch featured an article about historical mystery author Anne Perry who, as it happens, committed a particularly grim murder many years ago (at the ripe old age of 15). "Thank heavens I'm not a fan of hers" was my first thought.

So I have been pondering the issues of whether it is possible to separate an author's non-writing life from the books they produce and thought I'd throw these questions over to you. Feel free to answer one or more of these and give examples if you have them.

Does an author's politics matter to you? Do you have a favourite book or series written by someone you know to be your political opposite? Or have you stopped reading works by a particular author after discovering that their politics was radically different from your own?

What about their personality? Have you ever stopped reading an author's work after seeing or hearing them talk because you didn't like what you saw or heard?

And how about that secret past? How would you feel if you found out your favourite author was a murderer or some other kind of criminal? Are there some crimes that you would be OK about and others that would stop you following their work? Do you know about the pasts of 'your' authors? Do you want to?

This week's topic is brought to you by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading.

That reminds me ... I really must get around to (finally) checking which of Anne Perry’s books is the first in the series so I can read it. I’ve been meaning to for years, but the library has too many distractions :-) Learning that she’d committed a murder herself only piqued my curiosity about the books; it certainly didn’t deter me. (Would people’s opinions be different, I wonder, if she wrote in another genre?) Nor did Frank Abagnale’s history of conning people stop me reading and enjoying Catch Me if You Can. However, if a writer decided to move from books to crime rather than the other way round, I could take a different view. For someone to put an unpleasant past behind them is one thing; to go and do something horrible in the present is quite another.

I’m going to assume the politics part of the question applies only to modern authors. You can’t judge a book by the political or moral standards of an author who lived in a different century; and if outdated attitudes with which you don’t agree come through in their writing, well, that’s the chance you take when you open a classic. (And if you object to sending royalties to someone of whom you don’t approve, there’s no need to worry about that if they’ve been dead since 1846.)

About a third of the fiction I’ve read over the past couple of years has been written by authors now deceased, which reduces the chances of my reading being affected by revelations about the writers. The chances are made even lower by the fact that I never know much about the people whose books I read. Unless an interview turns up in the pages of the Courier-Mail I tend to remain clueless unless I stumble across something on a blog somewhere and actually read it. I couldn’t specify a single author’s political preferences, and since I’m largely apolitical I probably wouldn’t care.

Personality, too, I’m largely unaware of, but there’s an exception to everything and this one’s name is Peter Carey. He recently popped up in the pages of The Australian with some comments he made during a talk in New York. What. A. Snob. Granted, I rarely read literary fiction, but any interest I might have had in his work has now been snuffed out.

A more pertinent issue, for me, would be authors using their books to espouse their own beliefs, but this is a tricky area. You’d have to be certain it was the author, and not the characters, holding the offending opinion, before judging their entire oeuvre on that account. If you’re dealing with historical fiction, it’s a minefield. The characters then cannot possess a complete set of 21st-century values and must possess some now outdated, which the author need not share. (During NaNo last year, one of my characters informed me that he didn’t want the heroine to save the day; he thought her place was tending to the ill and injured with the rest of the women. I was briefly horrified before realising that that was just what someone born in 1829 would think, and if I didn’t like it, too bad.) A disagreeable authorial message would likely need to be sledgehammer-unsubtle or a constant theme in their work before I’d give up completely; after all, a certain amount of bias is perhaps inevitable.

With non-fiction, I always read any biographical information about the author supplied on the back flap of the dust jacket or wherever, to check out their background and qualifications. Even if I’m just reading the book for personal interest it’s good to know that it’s written by someone in a position to know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, I recently read and liked a thoughtful historical biography by a science fiction writer; there’s exceptions to this, too.

As for Susan Hill, I haven’t been put off her books (though I wouldn’t read any other editions of her column ... and conversely, I read Rebecca Sparrow’s column even though I hated her book. Novels and opinion pieces are entirely different things ... so long as the latter don’t disparage people with tastes less highbrow than those of the writer).

Book Review: Gallipoli Sniper: The Life of Billy Sing by John Hamilton

Gallipoli Sniper Early in 1915 the 2nd Light Horse Brigade of the Australian Army quartered at a training camp in Egypt. Their dreams of riding into Berlin were shattered by a decision to dismount them and send them as infantry reinforcements to drive the Turks off the Gallipoli Peninsula.

They landed into a nightmare worse than anything they had imagined. The land which looked so lovely from the sea was precarious and rugged, scorching in summer and freezing in winter. Weeks of work went into even the smallest advances. And the battlefield was ruled by the Turkish snipers, who brought death in an instant without warning. The only thing for the Allies to do was to play their game; organise snipers of their own. And the best they had was Billy Sing, who notched up 201 confirmed kills - and had generals queueing up to take a turn as his observer - before encountering the waterlogged miseries of the Western Front and a life of hard-drinking poverty back home in the outback.

You know your browser’s spellchecker isn’t Australian when it puts a squiggly red line under “Gallipoli”....

What better way to spend the Anzac Day long weekend than by reading a book about the Anzacs? (Yes, it took me that long to get around to finishing the review....) I’d say I’d make it a tradition but I’m not really into twentieth-century history, of which fact I was made embarrassingly aware. I now realise that I know more about the Wars of the Roses, or the efforts of the British to oust Napoleon, than about World War I. I knew there was something called The Nek at Gallipoli - THE iconic battlefield of Australian military history - but couldn’t have said what it was. (Feeling a tad guilty now....)

For those who don’t know, Gallipoli is kind of our version of the Charge of the Light Brigade: A heroic effort that was doomed from the outset and has become the stuff of legend. (Also the title of a classic film of which I was constantly reminded while reading.) The history is bookended by scenes of a present-day pilgrimage to the battlefield, beautifully described and bumping Gallipoli up several positions on my “places to see” list. (Though not while the Anzac Day crowds are there!) This ties the past to the present and shows how powerful a hold the place still has on the national consciousness.

There is something of a shortage of information to be dealt with; it’s not until some weeks into the Gallipoli campaign that Billy Sing really emerges from the background. It’s not known, for instance, how someone who was obviously half-Chinese got accepted into what was then a relentlessly white army. But the author works well with what is available to produce a clear picture of how his early life in Queensland served as a fine training ground for a future sniper. (There’s also, sadly, a lack of information about his mother; a woman who could, in those times, travel halfway round the world alone, head into Queensland’s answer to the Wild West, and marry a Chinese man must have been truly remarkable.)

Hamilton makes liberal use of block quotations from primary sources, which felt a little like cheating until I got used to it, and then to appreciate it for the picture it gave of the times through the eyes of those who were there. There’s only one surviving piece of writing by Billy himself, which is unfortunate as he had a talent for description. And among the quotes that preface the chapters are some reach-for-the-Kleenex epitaphs from the Shell Green cemetery on the Peninsula. Sometimes, though, it made for gruesome reading (but at least I added “deliquescent” to my vocabulary ... no, you don’t want to know what that referred to).

It’s also chilling, depicting as it does the contradiction of a popular man who loved to make people laugh, yet who became an assassin so ruthless even his own side called him “the Murderer”. Did the war turn Billy into someone sufficiently cold-blooded as to deem taking other human lives “as easy as shooting wallabies”? Or did it simply provide an opportunity to the killer already lurking inside him?

Rating: B+

07 May 2010

Fractal Friday: Angiogenesis


Book Review: The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah

The Point of Rescue When Geraldine Bretherick and her daughter Lucy are found dead in their home, the police - with the exception of Simon Waterhouse - think it’s a murder-suicide. Certainly the diary entries found on Geraldine’s laptop support the theory, though her husband insists a third party must have killed them both.

When Sally Thorning sees Mark Bretherick on the evening news, her nightmare begins. The previous year, she had a holiday fling with a man named Mark Bretherick - but the bereaved husband on the television isn’t him. Convinced that he’s an impostor, and that someone is trying to kill her, she starts an investigation of her own.

To say much more would be to risk giving away something of the fabulously twisting plot. There are a lot of storylines and characters, and I loved sitting back and watching them all come together, while wondering how they all fit. The mystery is baffling, and keeps becoming more so; and I didn’t mind at all when Simon left me floundering in his intellectual wake as he made the last leaps to the solution.

It was the mystery, really, which kept me reading. Without such a good plot, the characters would have driven me crazy. I liked Simon’s former colleague Charlie Zailer, and his being nuts about her eventually made me warm to him, too. But most of the police came with abrasive personalities, and it took a good while before Simon’s sense of superiority stopped making me want to slap him. Sally was the worst; it’s a shame she was integral to the plot because regularly spending time in her viewpoint was painful. She was negative, whiny, catty, and stuck-up, though some of her actions toward the end had me mentally cheering for her. No-one deserves what she went through, but I just couldn’t help thinking that she brought much of it on herself, starting with cheating on her perfectly nice husband (after complaining volubly about him).

There’s at least one other novel featuring Simon and Charlie, and I’ll have to find the next one - the ending practically screamed “Sequel ahead!” and I want to know what happens.

Rating: C

05 May 2010

The Non-Fiction 5 Challenge

Non-Fiction 5 Challenge

I didn’t realise quite how far behind I’d gotten in my blog reading until I stumbled across this challenge - only last night. I promptly decided to sign up, which proves just how addictive I find these things. (Everyone reading this can bear witness to my avowal not to sign up for any more until at least the second half of July. Or even until spring, if I can resist temptation that long.)

This one at least will be easy:

1. Read 5 non-fiction books during the months of May - September, 2010.

2. Read at least one non-fiction book that is different from your other choices (i.e.: 4 memoirs and 1 self-help).

Or at least four-fifths of it will be. I’m always getting non-fiction books from the library, but finding one that’s emphatically not history could be challenging.

But then isn’t that the point?

04 May 2010

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City Chicago in 1893 was a city of noise and movement and people. Thanks to energetic campaigning, it had won the chance to outdo Paris, to produce a World’s Fair bigger and better than anything seen before (with, of course, an attraction to outshine Eiffel’s tower). Under the direction of architect Daniel Burnham, a vast complex of buildings and landscaping - the White City - sprang up against seemingly impossible obstacles of time and budget.

Chicago was also a place where it was very easy to vanish. People disappeared all the time, and the police force didn’t have the resources to hunt every one. The influx of visitors lured by the Fair - including many unaccompanied young women - provided an opportunity that Dr H. H. Holmes had no intention of missing.

It seems strange to imagine a time when Americans believed crazed serial killers were something you only had to worry about on the other side of the Atlantic. These days, despite the best (or worst) efforts of people elsewhere in the world, “serial killer” automatically makes one think of the States. Then, H. H. Holmes was the first proof that America was capable of producing its own Ripper - not that Holmes appears to have done anything so confrontational as slicing up his victims. At least not while they were alive....

In fact it’s not known for certain quite what Holmes did, or how many people he did it to. Thanks to his own varying accounts, limited investigative techniques, and a convenient fire, a certain amount of imagination had, of necessity, to be applied to reconstructing his crimes. Judging by the footnotes the scenarios depicted are entirely plausible. Holmes’s utter disregard for his victims is chilling, and so is the way in which he managed to charm so many people so thoroughly. Even those few who sensed something wrong about him did nothing; and I’m curious now as to what traits enable a person to see through the facade of a sociopath.

Alternating with the chapters devoted to Holmes (usually at the most suspenseful moment possible) are those detailing the battle to get the Fair underway on schedule, and without giving New York anything to laugh at. With careers and civic pride on the line it’s gripping stuff, and the list of soon-to-be famous people the White City inspired is impressive. I’m not at all a fan of noisy shows and large crowds, so reading about something like this is by far the best way to experience it! There’s a wealth of detail and anecdotes to bring the Fair - and the grimy, malodorous city - to life.

And then there’s loopy Patrick Prendergast and his unhealthy obsession with the mayor....

Rating: B+

It’s Tuesday, Where Are You? / Teaser Tuesdays

It’s Tuesday, Where Are You?

I’m in post-war Warwickshire, and I’m a regular visitor at the crumbling Hundreds Hall. The maid claims there’s a bad thing in the house making wicked things happen, but I’m sure it’s only nerves.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

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!

Mrs Ayres had obviously been sitting in one of the chairs, and in the other, facing me as I went in, sat Roderick. I had seen him only the week before, but his appearance now startled me.

From The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, p. 110.

01 May 2010

Library Loot

Library Loot

The Little Stranger
Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day
Lost Languages
London: A Life in Maps

The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters
Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day - Philip Matyszak
Lost Languages - Andrew Robinson
London: A Life in Maps - Peter Whitfield

See, I am capable of exercising self-control in a library. Or I am when my non-reading To Do list is approaching morbid obesity. Slimming it down, though, will have to wait until I’ve finished The Little Stranger, which I’ve been longing to read since it came out. And which is going to be a good addition to my Historical Fiction Challenge list.

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

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