30 December 2013

The Dresden Files

After reading Storm Front, I downloaded the entire Dresden Series and read them back to back, on my shitty 2-hour-battery-life e-reader. I have now finished them.

Titles: Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, Blood Rites, Dead Beat, Proven Guilty, White Night, Small Favour, Turn Coat, Changes, Ghost Story, Cold Days
Author: Jim Butcher
Series: The Dresden Files, books 2-14
Year published: 2001-2013
Pages: Varies, up to about 700
Time It Took To Read: A day each, if I could have read them solidly without needing to charge the bloody e-reader

I love this series. It encompasses huge amounts of mythic lore, from God and angels to faries (sidhe), trolls, pixies, ghost and spirits, Norse mythology, shapeshifters, vampires, demons, and incubi. At the centre is a wizard, who remains fundamentally human (at least...mostly), with a sense of righteous, and indignant, fury. He wants things to be right. He senses that there's a much bigger wrongness with the world than merely what is happening with Chicago. He doesn't know who he really is, and keeps being fed snippets of personal history. 
I am eager to read more. Butcher's plan is to write 20 regular files books, and then an apocalyptic trilogy to finish things off. That means I only have to wait about TEN MORE YEARS to finish it. 

And it brings my final tally of the year to 63 new books. I've also re-read a lot of old ones, so it's probably closer to 100 books this year. I've got about 12 new ones to read waiting on the shelf, and my boyfriend's moved in with his huge stock of sci-fi and fantasy. MOAR READINGS!

Happy New Year!

10 November 2013

Storm Front

Author: Jim Butcher
Series: The Dresden Files, book 1
Year published: 2000
Pages: 336
Time It Took To Read: A day
 
I bloody love supernatural horror. Not the ghosty-bump-in-the-night type, because that's freaky. But wizards, vampires, demons. The Southern Vampire Mysteries (True Blood) are my favourites, but as that's now finished, I needed a new series to get into. BEHOLD, this came up on a trip to Forbidden Planet and is amazing. So much so that I've got hold of the WHOLE series already. 
Harry Dresden is a real wizard, who earns a meagre living by consulting for the police and offering a private eye service to the public. He is the only wizard in the phone book. When a horrible double murder occurs, the police (who are largely sceptical about his powers) call him in to have a look. This leads to an unfortunate series of events, in which Dresden's life is threatened repeatedly, by demons and wizards and storms. 
It's a bloody good read. Kinda trashy, but with good characters and just the sort of fantastical horror I love. Escapism at its finest.
 
And there we go. FIFTY new books read this year, with about 7 weeks to go.  I will continue blogging reviews of all the new books I read. I think my favourite was Wolf Hall.

The Bat

Author: Jo Nesbo
Translator: Don Bartlett
Series:Harry Hole book 1
Year published: 1997 in Polish, 2012 in English
Pages: 432
Time It Took To Read: A day

Ah, Nordic Noir. This book is, unusually for its genre, based in Australia. Harry Hole (pronounced Hoh-leh), a Norwegian policeman, goes to Australia to investigate the murder of a Norwegian woman. This leads him into a circle of drugs, prostitution, addiction of many types, and tempts him with alcohol. He also meets a beautiful woman. Of course, being this style of book, there's no happy ending. I was thoroughly depressed when I finished it. But that's not to say I didn't enjoy it or it wasn't good - quite the opposite, I was tremendously invested in the characters and hoped Harry would sort it all out by the end. I have got hold of the rest of them, and can't wait to get into them. Slowly. One by one. Not too much at a time, lest I get too depressed by them.

Book count: 49/50

She Wolves

Author: Helen Castor
Year published: 2012
Pages: 496
Time It Took To Read: Four days

I love Helen Castor. Unlike her nearest rival for female TV historian Lucy Worsley, she doesn't act like sex is a great, taboo delight, and she credits her sources properly. The role of women in history fascinates me from a personal and feminist perspectives. Much of the oppression women are still faced with dates from the Victorian era, but some of it dates back centuries, if not millennia.
The first truly independant queen of England was Mary I, but there were queens before her, who held power. Her own mother, Katherine of Aragon acted as regent when Henry VIII was fighting in France. This was carrying on a long held tradition, where queens could rule in their husbands stead, as power was considered to rub off on them.
This book looks at Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitane, Isabella (known as the She Wolf of France) Margaret of Anjou and the circumstances that led to the quick succession of queens beginning with Jane Grey and ending with Elizabeth I.It explains how they took power, often through treasonous intrigue, and how they were considered by their peers and subjects. It is fascinating, and if you're interested in history, a very good read.

Book count: 48/50

1 November 2013

Walk The Lines, Kathryn Swynford, The Fire Engine That Disappeared

It turns out that doing two uni modules at the same time is quite time consuming. Even when I'm not actually working on it, my mind is forever asking me DIFFICULT questions about golgi apparatus and the finer details of Galenic theory. However, in the last week, I've been rather unwell and spent a lot of it reading. So, a triple bill of reviews.

Author: Mark Mason
Year published:2011
Pages: 368
Time It Took To Read: About a week
First up, Walk The Lines. A man decides to walk all the main London lines (not the DLR or overground), to get a better sense of London. I read this after visiting my dearest friend Katie, who lives in Hammersmith, as I am perpetually confused when leaving the tube station there trying to find her house. She lives NEXT TO THE THAMES, yet I can never bloody find it. I, like many other fen-dwelling country folk, have no idea how London actually fits together on the surface. It took me several years before I realised that Leicester Square and Covent Garden are next to each other. Such is the curious geography of the tube, which makes everywhere seem oddly divorced from its neighbours.
Mark Mason has lived in London most of his life, but now lives in Suffolk where life is cheaper, and a one bedroom flat rent in London can get you a small mansion. It turns out that walking the lines equates to about 400 miles. He does it by line, rather than simply wandering from station to station, meaning he visits a lot of stations twice. 
I enjoyed the book, from a nerdy point of view, but I felt it could have included more trivia. It feels like the extended, occasionally drunk, grumble of a man who's doing a lot of walking. If Tim Moore had done the same thing, it would have been wondrous. It's still a good read though, especially if you enjoy the Tube network.
Author: Alison Weir
Year published:2007
Pages: 278
Time It Took To Read: Two days
I've reviewed Alison Weir's historical fiction before, but this is the first time in a long time I've read one of her histories. The last one I read was Mary, Queen of Scots, which was bloody ponderous. However, this was a pleasant surprise.
As you might expect, a 14th century woman who was very much on the fringe of importance until the latter years of her life does not leave the biggest archive of material to base a biography on. Kathryn Swynford was the notorious mistress, and later wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Leicester, one of the primary nobles of the 14th century. His brother, Edward III, was one of the finest rulers England ever had, and John of Gaunt's son by his first wife became Henry IV. Kathryn Swynford bore him four bastard children, who were later legitimised by papal decree (and then illegitimised by Richard III, trying to protect the throne from Henry Tudor, ignoring his own descendancy from them), and her descendants include all monarchs since the 15th century, and many other important figures. Alison Weir weaves a story around her, based mainly on property deeds and the records of John of Gaunt, and most of her source material is educated guesswork based on the much more complete records of his doings. I found it particularly interesting because, like so much of the royal court at that time, the places she lived are not far from me. Peterborough, Stamford, King's Lynn, Grantham, Lincoln and Boston were all Lancastrian lands back then, and regularly referenced.
This is the first time I've read much biography about the Plantagenet family, and I really enjoyed it. Kathryn Swynford is an excellent example of a woman either ignoring or largely escaping the misogynist taint of adultery in those days, owning property in her own right and raising illegitimate children without much apparent backlash. It helped that she was within John of Gaunt's household for the majority of those years, but she's still a rarity. It's a well written, well sourced book, and worth a read if you're interested in that era.


Author: Maj Sjöwall and PerWahlöö
Translator: Joan Tate
Series: Martin Beck, book 5
Year published: 1969 in Swedish, 2011 in English
Pages: 288
Time It Took To Read: A day
Do you know what I like? Hotel rooms that give you books to read!  I went away last weekend, and in my hotel room was this (and some godawful chicklit), so I devoured it promptly. Martin Beck is the original grumpy Swedish detective, and there are a total of ten books about him, written by a married couple.
In this story, a house blows up in the middle of the night, and when it's discovered to be arson, the hunt is on for the killer and the motive. This is a realistic police procedural book, that doesn't mess around with endless heartfelt plot. The characters are realistic: they go home, they have wives, they drink, they screw, they sleep. Martin Beck is the head of the homicide department, with a crap homelife, but unlike similar British detectives *cough,Frost,cough*, he doesn't sleep in his office or apparently shout at his wife. He just gets on with it, drily. 
I loved this. It wasn't painful to read like the Millennium Trilogy (excellent, but god you need therapy afterwards), or gorily foul like Wallander can be, but it was incisive, with true characterisation and I really cared about the resolution. And unlike many other books, where the perpetrator is immediately obvious after the prologue, I really didn't know whodunnit til the very end. 
I've got the Harry Hole series lined up next...
Book count: 47/50

7 October 2013

An Anthropologist on Mars

 
Author: Oliver Sacks
Year published: 1995
Pages: 336
Time It Took To Read: Two days

I bought this book a while ago, on a whim, having read a few of Oliver Sacks' books before. Since I bought it, it has become apparent that my eldest son is not normal, neurologically. He has no diagnosis yet, but he certainly ticks a lot of boxes on the Aspergers checklist. This led a strange resonance to the book, with its stories of the perception of the broken minded.
The story focuses on people who see the world through different eyes, for many different reasons. There is a painter who loses all colour perception after a car accident, and almost kills himself with the gloom, monotony and misery of it. There is a man who, following a serious brain tumour, becomes convinced it's still the 1960s and comes alive when, and only when, he hears music. Another man is a surgeon with profound Tourettes syndrome, who is able to suspend his tics during surgery, and at other times allows them to take over, finding relief in doing so. There is a man who, virtually blind from toddlerhood, has his sight restored and cannot cope with it. Another suffers a brain injury that causes him to paint the most beautiful scenes from his home town, but it's all he thinks about or talks about.
But the two most important stories to me are the autistic boy with the most precocious artistic talent, and the interviews with Dr Temple Grandin, a woman with high functioning autism who has done a vast amount of work in humane slaughter. She empathises with cows, despite the popular perception of autistic people as devoid of empathy. She also developed a hugging machine, so she could enjoy the comforting deep sensation of a hug, without the need of people.
The overwhelming feeling I got from this book was not one of people who were deficient or subhuman, though I daresay their families struggled with their fundamental difference, but people who managed to live despite being considered so abnormal.
If my son does have Aspergers syndrome, he will be seen as different. He will be labelled, and although I am keen for a diagnosis as it's the only way to get him the proper support he needs, that label comes with the risk of superseding Jimmy, so he simply becomes Aspergers.
Society enjoys homogenity. Society is afraid of difference - look at how transgender and transsexual people are treated, with horror, fear and alarm, for failing to fall neatly into one of the two gender boxes. Society is not built to cope easily with those who have different minds. Jimmy's differences become almost painfully apparent to the observer when he is in his peer group, worrying his teachers, alienating his fellow classmates. The onus is on giving him the skills to cope with society perceiving his differences rather than his similarities.
This book is peppered with neurological attempts to make the damaged 'better', when their adaptation to their different world means that being made 'better' means making their lives worse. The man whose sight was restored had the operation to please his fiancee, who passionately believed that his life would be better with sight. However, his sight was so poor, and his ability to learn to see so impaired after such a long time, that he could not take pleasure in his sight. Most telling were the interviews with Temple Grandin, and I advise anyone with loved ones on the autistic spectrum to look into her life, to read interviews with her and the books she has written, to see how a different life is not necessarily a deficient life.
This book shows, overwhelmingly, that there is not one neurological path to a worthwhile and rewarding life.

Book count: 44/50.

30 September 2013

How To Climb Mont Blanc In A Skirt

Author: Mick Conefrey
Year published: 2011
Pages: 224
Time It Took To Read: Two days, but it's light and easy

I am an armchair traveller. The thought of being trapped in the Himalayas in winter with nought but a donkey and a six year old for company makes me want to weep, but give me a book with the same (Where The Indus Is Young by Dervla Murphy)and I'll devour it. My personal travelling has taken me to er, most of England, North Wales, Scotland (just), Benidorm,Verdun and Reims. But through the power of books, I've been all over the world. Travel was my first book obsession. I think I must've got out every book the library had when I was 16 or so, and I have a huge collection of books.

This book charts the history of the female traveller, largely before the feminist movement, when a woman travelling at all was considered inappropriate. The book, which is in the humour section on Amazon, explains how male adventurers hates women trespassing into their territory, even deliberately sabotaging female attempts to climb mountains. It covers women who have travelled disguised as men, or as natives, and those who have been sexually assaulted or threatened for travelling without disguise.
I got a bit fed up of the "LOL! WIMMIN TRAVELLING? WOTEVER NEXT!" attitude in places, but some of the stories are amazing. One woman, a doctor in the Antarctic, administered her own chemotherapy when dying of breast cancer. There are stories of tragedy, bereavement and injury mixed in with tales of silliness and invention.There's also a good segment on pioneers in female aviation and solo sailing.
All in all, a pretty good read, with plenty of references to other material if you're particularly interested in the field of female travel.

Book count: 43/50

25 September 2013

The Flavour Thesaurus


Author: Niki Segnit
Year published: 2010
Pages: 400
Time It Took To Read: A few weeks, during breakfast

Life's been a bit stressful recently. My eldest started school, and is now under investigation for suspected Aspergers or ADHD. This has meant many meetings, many alterations in routine and currently he only goes to school in the morning because he becomes unmanageable in the afternoon. 
We finally got rid of the mouse, my partner moved in and all my uni books arrived. I am now afeared of uni work because I have about half the quiet time I thought I would have to study in. But I'll manage. I'm good at managing.
I haven't done much reading at all. I've been reading my enormous uni set text on the evolution of modern medicine, and that has effectively stopped me reading anything else during the day. However, I did, finally, get round to reading this book which I've owned for nearly two years.
It took me by surprise. I was expecting a scientific tract on flavour molecules, and instead this is a chatty, informal book which lists different combinations of flavour - some which work, some which don't - with suggestions of how to use them in daily cooking. Some of it comes across as TERRIBLY upper-middle class, with talk of living in Belgravia and truffles, and some of the combinations you'd be hard pushed to find in your local Asda. BUT it's a well written, thoroughly enjoyable book and if you want inspiration for cooking, it's excellent. 

Book count: 42/50

9 September 2013

Bring Up The Bodies

 Author: Hilary Mantel
Series: Thomas Cromwell trilogy, book 2
Year published: 2012
Pages: 482
Time It Took To Read: Two days 
 
I have had a truly awful couple of weeks. I came back from holiday to discover a mouse had taken up residence. I am absolutely phobic about mice - proper hyperventilating, sobbing, vomiting, petrified phobic. We didn't really get anywhere with sorting them out til Thursday, when the exterminator came out and on Saturday we got a cat, so I finally feel able to relax at home. I can't tell you what a mess I've been. Constantly on edge, crying all the time, severe insomnia, not wanting to be here but having no choice because my eldest has started school so I can't just bugger off. My family (extended and immediate) have been brilliant, giving us somewhere to stay when I couldn't handle it anymore. But now, I can actually sit at home without jumping a mile when a fly buzzes, so I got some reading done.

I ordered Bring Up The Bodies immediately after finishing Wolf Hall, and am gutted that Hilary Mantel hasn't written the third book yet. These books are fabulous. Immersive, detailed, realistic and nuanced dialogue and beautiful characterisation. If you're aware of the circumstances surrounding the death of Anne Boleyn, so much the better, and I think you really need to read Wolf Hall first to get the best out of the book, but even as a stand alone volume, it is amazing. Thomas Cromwell remains the central figure, though you get to know other characters a lot better.
I have been and bought more Mantel today, but suspect I will be re-reading David Starkey's Tudor histories over the next few days to remind myself of the historical truth behind these astonishing books.

Book count: 41/50

25 August 2013

Wolf Hall

Author: Hilary Mantel
Series: Thomas Cromwell trilogy, book 1
Year published: 2009
Pages: 650
Time It Took To Read: Three days
So, from the ridiculous to the sublime. 
I'm not a big fan of the sort of literature that wins awards, and is doled out to students to analyse. This is probably because my AS level english lit teacher was such a monstrously snobbish idiot about people, books and intelligence. I vividly remember her sneer of disbelief when I told her that I'd read Beloved in one night, as though my general demeanor and appearance meant that I was incapable of reading and understanding a Great Work in a few hours. Bitch, please.
Anyway, this is only the third Booker prize winner I've read, after Midnight's Children (which I should really re-read and see if I understand it better than I did ten years ago) and Amsterdam (tedious). And it was FANTASTIC.
It is a Tudor novel. The establishment, rise and decline of the Tudor dynasty is my favourite, and most fanatically researched part of history. I remember seeing the famous Hans Holbein picture of Henry VIII at Belvoir Castle when I was about 9 years old and being entranced. Since then, I've read most histories of the Tudors, visited their homes, and seen many of the artefacts and portraits of them. I think if I went to Hampton Court Palace, I'd pass out.
This book is largely concerned with Thomas Cromwell, a man exceedingly well placed to initially observe and later steer the events of Henry VIII's first few marriages. Wolf Hall is about the Great Matter of divorcing Katherine of Aragon, the schism from the Roman Catholic church and the marriage to Anne Boleyn. It is a far more political view of events than the corresponding books by Phillippa Gregory, without becoming androcentric. 
I wasn't quite sure if I'd like it or not, and held off reading it for some months in case it was a tedious mire of awful. I was gripped from the first page. It's written in the present tense, with a curious form of third person narrative - Cromwell remains the central character, with events seen only through his eyes, but never in first person. It took some getting used to, but made for a much more interesting read than the usual selfishly driven "I did, I saw, I said" of other historical novels.
The quality of writing is astonishing. Certain paragraphs made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, they were so real and so searing. Even if you have absolutely no knowledge of the Tudor court except for Henry VIII and his myriad wives, you can follow this book, understand the key players and untangle the web. However, if you know more about the court, the actions and the people, then this book is delicious. The characters are fully fleshed, and wholly believable.
I loved it. I bought Bring Up The Bodies this morning, so that's next.

Book count: 40/50

23 August 2013

Inferno

Author: Dan Brown
Series:  Robert Langdon, book 4
Year published: 2013
Pages: 480
Time It Took To Read: A day
Ah, Robert Langdon! A man whose life has been threatened far more times than is decent for a professor! A man who, despite confirmed bacherlorhood, finds himself regularly in the company of bendy, strong, intelligent women (/plot devices) who are invariably attracted to the older, distinguished Langdon! A man who remembers virtually everything he's ever read or seen regarding key pieces of art, historical documentation or architecture! A man with no budget! A man who knows everyone who can possibly be of use! A man whose primary function is solving a web of clues to find some deadly and advanced weapon of mass destruction!
But wait. Despite constantly saving the world, Langdon never recognises the villain, or villain's accomplice, among his acquaintances. He assumes everyone is exactly who they say they are and has pure motives. He is an ass, whose main function is the exposition of the author's collection of research.
I have read all Dan Brown's books. I enjoy the cultural references far more than the story, and Inferno certainly made me want to visit Florence (though not as much as Hannibal did). Unfortunately, Dan Brown only knows one plot - villain threatens world, hero+female accomplice thwarts him, realising at last moment that the villain is a previously mentioned friend. His two non-Langdon books are the same. This book does slightly deviate from the One Plot towards the end, but it's still almost identical most of the way through, to the point where you know perfectly well Dr Brookes will be his accomplice when she's described as 'willowy' on page five.
The premise is that Langdon's in Florence, with a brain injury and amnesia, chasing down a maniac who wants to decimate humanity. The maniac is (naturally) obsessed with Dante's Divine Comedy, specifically the Inferno, which is the masterpiece from where most modern inferences of hell are taken. Obviously, Langdon knows all about Dante and related art, and has taught endless knowing courses on it, and is a celebrated Dante expert among experts (ahem) but he can't actually remember what he's in Florence for.
Chaos ensues.
It does attempt to raise a few ethical questions about overpopulation, but has such a simplistic and unsatisfactory ending (which I won't give away), that I felt quite cheated. But that is Dan Brown - a holiday read in the finest tradition, but don't expect to be blown away by depth.
 
Book count: 39/50

10 August 2013

A Dangerous Inheritance

Author: Alison Weir
Year published: 2012
Pages: 528
Time It Took To Read: A day
 
Alison Weir is a historian who has been publishing rather dry books about the Tudors and Plantagenets for over twenty years. A few years ago, she started publishing fictional accounts from this era and they are FAR better than her nonfiction works. She is much better than Philippa Gregory, in my opinion, though they both write Tudor/Plantagenet era work focusing on royal women.
Anyway, it is my (potentially libelous) belief that Weir wrote this book in reaction to Gregory's Cousins' War saga (see here and here). It sems obvious that Gregory is going to attempt to pin the death of the Princes in the Tower on Henry VII, so Weir is attempting to get her version (both historical and fictional) across before Gregory gets the chance. Weir wrote a historical account, firmly pinning the blame on Richard III way back in 1992. 
 
This book concerns Katherine Plantagenet, the bastard daughter of Richard III, and Katherine Grey, sister of Lady Jane Grey.  Lady Jane Grey is the subject of an earlier Weir book - Innocent Traitor. She briefly seized the throne after the death of Edward VI, to try and prevent Catholic Queen Mary taking over. It all went awry, she reigned for nine days and then Mary cut her head off. Katherine Grey then switched allegiance to Queen Mary, as her cousin, and later secretly married Edward Seymour after her first marriage was annulled. Queen Elizabeth I didn't take the news well and locked them up.Katherine gave birth to two children in the Tower of London and her marriage and children weren't legitimised until the reign of James I, by which time Katherine had been dead for years.
The story Weir chooses to tell switches between the two Katherines. Katherine P is a very shadowy historical figure. Literally nothing is known of her, except that she was raised in her father's household, so the majority of the story is conjecture. It is based around her quest to stop her father being accused of regicide. Katherine G finds Katherine P's papers in the future, complete with haunting, and follows the story herself. The conclusion is basically "Yes, Richard III did it." 
The whole book feels a bit pointless. There isn't enough historical information about Katherine Plantagenet or her stepmother Anne (The Kingmaker's Daughter) to give them real resonance. There is AMPLE information about Katherine Grey, to the point where the whole book could have been written about her alone. The constant switching of viewpoint is a device Weir uses often in her books, but it is aggravating and confusing that the dual heroines have the same name. The 'dangerous inheritance' seems to refer to the knowledge about the Princes, but that sort of gets ignored til the very end. I think, in short, that the focus for the book is all wrong.
But there's plenty of intrigue, sex and romance for those that like that sort of thing. I'm interested to see how Gregory finishes off her Cousins' War series, and I hope Weir's next book is a bit less cobbled together.

Book count: 38/50

The Psychopath Test

Author: Jon Ronson
Year published: 2011
Pages: 304
Time It Took To Read: A few hours
 
I've been meaning to get this book for YEARS, and finally saw it on offer in Asda not long ago. I read it last weekend, largely at a wedding while waiting for my boyfriend to come to bed. A long wait. A good wedding!
Anyway, Jon Ronson is a journalist and this book is about various mental health conundrums. Ostensibly, the book is about the Hare Psychopathy checklist, and it's occasionally indiscriminate application. However, in his research, Ronson pings around all sorts of curiosities in the mental health sphere. From talking to the anti-psychiatry face of Scientology to the odd extremes of conspiracy theorists online, every chapter is a joy. Not a very cohesive joy, but a joy nonetheless.
I am fascinated by mental illness, and relatively anti-psychiatry myself (though not to Scientologist levels). I've recently finished a Coursera course on mental health and social contexts (see my other blog for more info), and now I'm wondering if I should think about doing a mental health module for my degree.
It demonstrates many of the problems with modern psychiatry in layman's terms.Will Self apparently found it hilarious. I can't say I was rolling off the bed laughing, but it was empathetic and gentle humour. Whatever your interest in psychiatry and psychology, this is good read. And if you just like rollicking journalism, this is a VERY good read.

Book count: 37/50

1 August 2013

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and Lost At Sea


Author: David Grann and Jon Ronson
Year published: 2010 and 2012
Pages: 352 and 471
Time It Took To Read: A couple of days each

This week, I've read two collections of journalism back to back. Both collections focus on mysteries and curious real life stories.
David Grann is an American journalist. His book claims to be about mysteries and intrigues, but not all of the stories are particularly mysterious in the traditional sense - for example, the mystery in one story is why people choose to work as sandhogs.I was hoping for more murder, but some of the stories are fascinating nonetheless. One explains how a prison gang took over most of the prisons in the US, and another looks at the life of a man who spent most of his life on the run from the police, another looks at the life of a man who spent years impersonating teenage runaways for the attention. The stories, however, are dry, factual and faintly dull at times.
Jon Ronson is a British journalist, who writes for Guardian and GQ. His collection also concentrates on mysterious people, but with a huge dollop of humour and sensitivity.  He explores a few savage murders, people giving away their kidneys altruistically for God, the suicide of a man driven into debt by mounting credit card bills, and most interestingly, into the sexual abuse trial against Jonathan King. This latter case is topical, considering Operation Yewtree. Although Jonathan King was prosecuted in 2000, some of the comments made by people around him are startling. "Poor Jonathan: we all did it." is a typical comment. Apparently, sexually exploiting children really was entirely acceptable in celebrity 70s culture. Tam Paton - who was successfully prosecuted in the early 80s - argues that they were only convicted because they abused boys, and it would have been allowed to pass if they'd abused girls. Alas, it seems there may be some truth in that.
I don't really recommend the David Grann book. It was good, but compared to Ronson, dull. Ronson sparkles by comparison and his writing is compelling.I plan to read his Psychopath Test next.

Book count: 36/50

24 July 2013

Blood of Elves

Author: Andrzej Sapkowski 
Translator: Danusia Stok 
Series: The Witcher Saga, book 1
Year published: 1994 in Polish, 2008 in English
Pages: 314
Time It Took To Read: A day
I am really pissed off at Gollancz, who have the publishing rights to this series. I hate waiting, and after a three year delay, the second book of the series was published a few weeks ago. The next isn't due til next year. This is apparently because of legal difficulties. For gawd's sake, everyone ELSE in Europe has had translations. Get on it! Gollancz are also responsible for the fact that I have to wait A YEAR for the last True Blood book to be published in paperback. Who wants that many bloody books in hardback? They don't make you wait a year for the kindle edition!
Ahem.
Anyway, this book begins the Witcher Saga properly. The short story collections (The Last Wish, and The Sword of Destiny, which hasn't been officially translated yet) were written first, and this book refers to several incidents in these books. But it's not essential to have read the short stories first. 
The story revolves around Geralt, the witcher and his ward, Ciri. Ciri begins the story being trained as a witcher as well, but her magical ability needs a wizard's touch. This is recognised first by Triss Merigold, and later Ciri's care and training is given to Yennefer.  Meanwhile, everyone and his dog is after Ciri, for reasons that aren't completely clear in this book. 
If you've played the game, it's interesting to see Triss in a position of such weakness, and to see Yennefer at all as she's AWOL by the time the game starts. Dandilion, the bard, makes a welcome appearance as well. The descriptions of battle are among the best I've read, but this series has a gentler side as well. I really want to read the rest of the series. Would anyone like to teach me Polish? It'll probably be quicker than waiting for Gollancz to pull their finger out.

Book count: 34/50

18 July 2013

The Magician's Apprentice

Author: Trudi Canavan
Year published: 2009
Pages: 752
Time It Took To Read: Two days
 
This book is a prequel to the Black Magician and Traitor Spy trilogies, also by Trudi Canavan, and I bought it because it looked like my sort of thing. I wanted to see if the trilogies were going to be worth my while.
It took me a couple of days to read, in the baking sun. The story starts in Kyralia, with Tessia, who wants to join the Healer's Guild with her father, but is effectively barred from joining as she's a woman. Meanwhile, Lord Dakon, the local leader, is entertaining a Sakachan lord who he neither likes nor trusts. When Tessia, Lord Dakon and the Sakachan meet, Tessia discovers she is a 'natural' magician. This is a world where magicians can train anyone who can afford it to be a magician, but are obligated by law to train 'naturals' up. Magicians rule the whole country, and also defend it from foreign magicians who are less scrupulous.
Underpinning all this is the idea that Magicians keep apprentices so they can draw power from them, and become stronger themselves. This 'higher magic' can be taken from anyone, but is considered part of the magician-apprentice bond. However, Sakachans keep countless slaves for the same purpose.
So far so interesting. The story is good, though it is written with the expectation that you've read the trilogies, even though this book is set hundreds of years prior to them. It is obvious from the way the book ends that Tessia, as well as a Sakachan woman whose story runs concurrently, becomes somehow important in the future.  I didn't feel overly invested in the characters. The Sakachan subplot, regarding a woman called Stara, comes from nowhere and seems to go nowhere, except to highlight how vile the Sakachan culture is to women in general.
There are strong feminist themes throughout.Despite it being the basis of much of the story, I felt like the magic was underdescribed. Apparently, this author writes to include a young adult audience, and I think this story would have been much better if written with more adult themes - there was no sex, and death was muted. Women are either virgins, or married to impotent/homosexual men, although promiscuity is implied. Tessia's parents are murdered and then rarely mentioned again.
I don't plan to buy anymore of Trudi Canavan's books based on this, though I do plan to get them from the library and see if they're better - certainly, reviews on Amazon suggest this is not her best work. Ultimately, I was hoping for more of a saga, especially after the brilliance of the last book I read!

Book count: 33/50
 

14 July 2013

The Last Wish


Author: Andrzej Sapkowski 
Translator: Danusia Stok
Year published: 1993 in Polish, 2007 in English
Pages: 280
Time It Took To Read: A day
 
My boyfriend got The Witcher 2 for Christmas on Xbox. I borrowed it off him, after he said the combat system was a bit difficult, and completed it in a fairly sleepless week. It was my sort of game - swordy, some magic, traditional RPG elements and good characters. I bought this, the first collection of short stories which the games are based on, when I found out that they existed! Originally written in Polish, the books are slowly (painfully slowly) being translated into English. Only three of eight have been done so far. This is vexing. Get on it, publishers.
Geralt is a witcher and he kills monsters for money. Witchers are mutants, removed from their parents at birth and treated with hormones and poisons to make them superhuman. They use magic, but aren't exactly sorcerers. They have great alchemical skill, and a mastery of lore. Although they are mercenary, they have a strict code of honour. They are mistrusted by most of the regular population, and seen as a necessary evil by much of the elite.They are supposed to have their feelings destroyed in the process of becoming witchers, but this has not wholly happened to Geralt.

The Last Wish is a collection of loosely interlinked short stories about Geralt's adventures. There is a great deal of humour, life and warmth in the stories, as well as gore, horrendous monsters and fantastical elements. It has helped that I've played the game, and had an understanding of the subset of magic that's used in the book, but I found it a really good read regardless. If you enjoy playing RPGs in the Baldur's Gate/Elder Scrolls genre, or, indeed, have played The Witcher, I can't recommend it highly enough. It makes me wish I could read Polish so I could get them all now!

Book count: 32/50

11 July 2013

Former People

Author: Douglas Smith
Year published: 2012
Pages: 374
Time It Took To Read: A couple of weeks - not a beach book!


I don't know much about the Russian revolution. It was missed out of my GCSE history, because apparently the feudal system of 500 years ago is more important than something that happened barely a hundred years ago.
Like many others, my knowledge was mainly grouped around some names (Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky), a vague communist ideology, and the murder of the Tsar and his family in 1918. I've read quite a lot about the murder of Tsar Nicholas II, and it was a horrific murder. Discount, if you will, the politics and the status of the family. A husband and wife, their four daughters and their invalid son, along with some servants, were taken into the cellar of the house they'd been held at. They were told they were going to be shot (they went down believing they were to be moved), and the soldiers opened fire. Unfortunately, the family had sewn their jewels into the clothes, which sounds decadent, until you realise that this was pretty much the only liquid assets they had left to use if they managed to get out of Russia. These jewels acted as bulletproof vests. The family were stabbed with bayonets once the bullets ran out. It took ten minutes. Imagine watching your family gunned down and stabbed for ten long minutes. Once they were finally dead, they were burned, buried, moved around a bit and eventually found in 1981 and 2007, and reburied.
So, that's what happened to the monarch. But no monarchy exists without an aristocracy to support it and to marry into. This book deals with what happened to the noble class.
Russia in the early 1900s was plagued by poor government and civil unrest. A revolution was seen as inevitable and welcomed by many; rich and poor alike.The type of socialism employed by Lenin reversed the status quo. Rich estates were given to peasants, rich people were sent to work in the fields. Their possessions were either stolen, destroyed or simply removed from them by the government. Many nobles fled into Europe, where they had families or second homes. Indeed, the Tsar was trying to arrange to get out to Great Britain around the time he was arrested. The reluctance of George V in allowing his cousin to seek refuge meant they had to stay. However, many other nobles chose to stay, not wanting to abandon the motherland. They often spent long terms in prisons and work camps, and several were shot for treason. But as this book demonstrates, life went on. People married, they had children, they lived as best they could in their newly reduced circumstances.
Then Stalin came along. The nobility (along with other undesirables) were made official Outcasts. This forbade them to work, to own property/land, to seek healthcare or use legal services. They were imprisoned in gulags for long periods of time, with little or no warning, or reason. Sometimes, they were released for a few years, only to be rounded up and executed. Being sent to the gulag often meant death anyway, from starvation, dysentery, and other infections.

This book concentrates on the Golitsyn and Sheremetev dynasties. There is a lot of interbreeding, and repeated names, which makes it hard to follow - there's a family tree and list of characters, but I felt like having a notebook alongside, writing things as I went along would have been more helpful. I didn't feel particularly involved with anyone's plight and everytime I became absorbed, the narrative switched to someone else. By the time the action switched back, I'd forgotten who was who.
This book expects you to have more understanding of the Russian revolution than I do. That said, it is exceptionally well put together and researched, and heartbreaking. I just wish the author had concentrated on a couple of strong central characters and made the rest of the story revolve around them. The constant jumping around does not make for a cohesive read. He has not struck quite the right note between dry historical narrative and biography. On to something less arduous!

Book count: 31/50

10 July 2013

The Duties of Servants

Author: Jan Barnes, original unknown
Year published: Originally in the 1870s, reprint from 1993
Pages: 128
Time It Took To Read: Not long


I read on the toilet and have a selection of books installed there, for when my usual fare is just not bog-worthy. You know you do too, stop judging me. Anyway, I'm currently wading through a fascinating, but deeply depressing book on the Russian revolution, and that's not good toilet reading. THIS however, was PERFECT.
It was originally published in the late 1870s, as a guide for employers of servants. It has a guide to wages, advice on hiring (don't hire married men, they might steal your brandy), and an outline of duties for each servant. It covers the very largest households, and the legion of servants expected, down to the family with just a parlourmaid. It has some GEMS of information, like how to talk about food with your cook without annoying her, and how to cope with SLATTERNS. It's not a very substantial book, but if you like Downton (I don't), or that period of history (I do), or social history (yup), you'll get something out of it.

Book count:30/50

I've also been re-reading some Bill Bryson books - Neither Here Nor There and Notes From A Small Island. That man is a GENIUS.

24 June 2013

A Dance With Dragons

Author: George R.R. Martin
Series:  A Song Of Ice and Fire, book 5
Year published: 2011
Pages: 1300, over two volumes
Time It Took To Read: Three days
 
Alas that I have finished the published books for now. Alas. I'll be dreaming of flying round on the backs of dragons for ages now.  This book picks up pretty much exactly where Feast for Crows left off, following the different paths of the multiple main characters. The first half concentrates on the action around King's Landing and the second half concentrates on the South and the wall. The two join up towards the end of the second part. 
People you think are going for the long haul die, others reappear when they shouldn't, and someone finally gets a little comeuppance. But the reason I love these books is because there is no linear action-judgement-consequence. Someone does something vile and gets off scot free. Someone else leads an apparently good life and suffers all manner of hell. Nobody is wholly good or bad (though some are wholly stupid) but it doesn't matter if what they are - if they're in the way of the story, they die.GRRM is a twisted puppet master.
Hopefully, Winds of Winter will be released next year and I won't have to writhe in expectation waiting for it for six years.
 
If you haven't read these books, and you like fantasy or sagas, and you think you'll enjoy them, try and read them all consecutively. It gives you a much better idea of who's who, family trees (the appendices help, but they're not very well written) and WHY things happen. I read the series with long gaps between books 1 and 2, and 3 and 4 and it made somewhat disjointed reading, while I tried to remember who was who. I will re-read the lot when the next one comes out.

Book count: 29/50


17 June 2013

A Feast For Crows


Author: George R.R. Martin
Series:  A Song Of Ice and Fire, book 4
Year published: 2005
Pages: 778 + appendices
Time It Took To Read: Three days
Oh, Game of Thrones! Oh, George R.R. Martin! Oh, misery! Oh, death! Oh, despair!
I read the first three SoIaF  books last year, on recommendation from multiple sources. The first one took ages to get into, the second was a bit slow going, the third was a neverending, heart wrenching tale of WOE. This is similar to the third. GRRM does not pull his punches. He's not writing a fairy story. It is difficult to fathom whether anyone will get a happy ending, at this point, especially considering he's writing another two volumes of the series, and writes them on a slow timescale.
It's difficult to know where to start when describing this series. It is set in a massive, realistic world. The scope of it is enormous. The amount of central characters is huge - nobody's story is really secondary. Instead of there being one protagonist, there are loads, and they are regularly killed off. Considering most fantasy work is based around one or two characters, who you know are almost certain to survive, it can be quite jarring. GRRM will not be second guessed, as anyone who saw the recent Red Wedding episode of the show can tell you. Imagine Lord of the Rings, but with more sex, and with Frodo brutally murdered halfway to Rivendell, and you may have a bit of an idea of what kind of epic you're dealing with. I don't actually watch the TV series, because of plot differences and the fact the TV show might give away things I haven't read yet.

This book concentrates on half the characters, with a note at the end explaining that there was just too much to fit in one book, so the other half of characters are in the next volume. I don't want to tell you WHO it concentrates on because I can't remember if there's a question mark over their deaths in the first few books, but I don't think I'm giving much away when I say this book is mostly concerned with the Lannisters, the Starks and the Ironborn. There are brutal murders, plots that seem straight out of the court of Henry VIII, religion, and lots of misery. Nobody is happy, nobody is safe and there seems no end to the endless suffering in the realm. And I love it. I saved the last three books to read after my exam, partly to stop myself becoming wholly entrenched, partly to give myself a goal. I started reading this literally as soon as I got home after the exam. It can be quite difficult to follow the myriad plot threads, especially when they cross over, but there are full character lists in the appendix of each book.
I prefer A Storm of Swords to this one, but I think that's because all the characters are involved (and it was SLIGHTLY less relentlessly grim). I would've been quite pissed off had I bought A Feast for Crows when it was released and had to wait six years to find out what happens to everyone else in A Dance With Dragons. As it is, A Dance With Dragons is sitting next to me, and I'm about to start reading. SQUEE for these books. SQUEE for them, and their refusal to comply with the usual fiction tropes of a happy ending, or hope, or even a little bit of happiness. SQUEE for complicated characters! SQUEE for female characters with actual plot! SQUEE for fantasy treating its readership as intelligent adults, not teenagers, with no knowing wink!
Squee indeed.

Book Count: 28/50

7 June 2013

Procrastinating? Moi?

So, I decided my fifty books should all be books I hadn't read before. Otherwise, there's no challenge for me. I'd just re-read the top two shelves of my bookcases and be done.
Now, thus far, this hasn't been a problem. However, with my exam looming in less than a week, I shouldn't be reading anything other than endless coursebooks about health. Health, health, health. Where everything you'd think is a good thing is actually bad, and they use big words like salutogenesis and iatrogenesis and expect you to understand and recite their  meaning verbatim (a paradigm of wellness in spite of disease, and medicine making you worse, in case you were wondering). Reading for pleasure at this point in time comes with a whopping great side order of GUILT and PROCRASTINATION. So, I've not really been doing much of it.
I've been reading magazines. Mainly the Radio Times, because I prefer reading about telly to watching it, but also cardmaking, Private Eye and food magazines, because I am crafty, snarky and greedy.
I've also been re-reading a few old favourite books. First, The Lord of The Rings because reading The Hobbit made me yearn for all that hobbity action, and elvish bollocks. Then The Pillars Of Hercules by Paul Theroux, which is a travel book about a man who meanders around the edge of the Mediterranean, carping furiously at everything. I love him. I also read French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David. She really started the food revolution in this country after rationing ended, introducing garlic as a non-terrifying foodstuff, and increasing interest in things like pasta. Her books are poetry, and her recipes all seem pretty legit. I admit, I read them for the food porn rather than as a manual.
Currently, I am reading...slyly and guiltily... Sunrise With Seamonsters by Paul Theroux, which is a collection of his journalism. It's mostly based around travel and other writers, and covers the first twenty years of his career. I'm also reading, less guiltily, The Art of Eating by M.F.K Fisher. If you have never heard of Mary Kennedy Frances Fisher, you are MISSING OUT. She was basically the US's version of Elizabeth David, waxing lyrical about French food and inspiring two post-war generations (she started writing between the World Wards) to eat better. The Art of Eating is an anthology of her first five books, and her autobiographical The Gastronomical Me is one of the best examples of food writing I've ever read. It is delicious. I am evangelising. Go read.

So, in a week, I start on the enormous pile of fantasy books waiting for me. After seeing the reaction of TV viewers to The Game Of Thrones Red Wedding, I can't wait.  And I really can't wait to get this hateful exam done... Where was I? Prevention...is it better than cure? Probably not... *sigh*

20 May 2013

The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England


 Title: The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England
Author: Ian Mortimer
Year published: 2012
Pages: 432
Time It Took To Read: A few weeks

God, I'm on such a go-slow this month. I've got an exam looming in 25 days (GULP) and despite the fact I'm putting revision off, I cannot concentrate properly on anything else. Except blind panic and flailing, but that's fairly standard.
Anyhow, I started reading this a few weeks ago, and have been persevering VERY SLOWLY. That's not to say it's a difficult read - it really isn't - I just have a lousy slow mind at the moment.  I am a big fan of Ian Mortimer - the Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England is one of my favourite history books. 
Instead of concentrating on the monarchy, which virtually every other history book does (mainly because that's where the documentation lies), Ian Mortimer looks at sources to find out how regular people lived. He writes the book in the form of a guide to another country, with sections on the land, diet, entertainment, transport and illness. It is FASCINATING. 
Although this isn't written as a series, you will probably find it helpful to read the Medieval England guide first, as this book assumes you've read it and builds on the knowledge in that book. It compares life in Elizabethan England both to the medieval era, and to the present. 

Book count:  27/50

I have a VAST TROVE of books to read after my exam, including the latter three Song of Ice and Fire series, and loads of other fantasy. But for now, I fear the revision needs my attention a touch more.

2 May 2013

Shadow of Night

No photo. Go look it up on Amazon, it's BLUE.

Title: Shadow of Night
Author: Deborah Harkness
Series: All Souls Trilogy Book 2
Year published: 2012
Pages: 630
Time It Took To Read: Two afternoons

After reading the first of this series, I compulsively bought the second. Then I remembered how horrendously behind on uni work I was and made myself forsake it until my last TMA was in. My last TMA was submitted on Sunday and I picked this book up yesterday. AND DEVOURED IT. 

Now, I don't want to give away any major plot twists, but the story thus far is that a witch has fallen in love with a vampire (as you do) and now they're hiding in time from the Congregation - a scary collection of witches, vampires and daemons who keep order. The witch, Diana, has a very shaky grasp of her power, and is trying to find a teacher. The vampire, Matthew, has his finger in every possible historical pie.He is omnipresent, friends with every luminary of the 1590s, and exceptionally politically powerful. Diana has to cover up her 21st century origins, and Matthew has to try and cover up several hundred years of changing ethics and politics. And then they have to try and get what they came for, and then get home again.

There are, as mentioned before, lots of parallels with the godawful Twilight series. The biggest differences are that Diana is a fully rounded character, not a melancholy teenage idiot, and the author really knows her historical stuff. The book falls down slightly in some of the dialogue, but more than makes up for it in invoking the atmosphere of 16th century Britain. It did slightly rankle at how quickly Diana dropped her modern behaviour, though this is explained away by her learned background. 
Also, my useless vasovagal response kicked in when there was biting of chest arteries, and I nearly passed out. It is no good being triggered by venepuncture, when enamored of vampire fiction.

There will be a third in this series, but Deborah Harkness hasn't BLOODY WRITTEN IT YET. I feel slightly like going a bit Misery to force her to write it faster, but that way madness lies ;-). It really is quite a compulsive read. I am not a patient person, but will certainly be reading it when it finally emerges.In the mean time, if you are a fan of vampire books, or supernatural books, or alternative history books, or just historical fiction, I really recommend this particular book. But read the first one first, or it won't make all that much sense.

Book count: 26/50

The Hobbit

For some reason, the photo uploader's down. I have the 1980 Unwin edition, with a picture of Smaug and his treasure on the front. You'll just have to imagine it!


Title: The Hobbit
Author: J.R.R Tolkien
Year published: 1951
Pages: 285
Time It Took To Read: A few hours

I first read this book in 1997, when I was 12. It was one of the set texts for English that year. Unusually for a set text, I didn't immediately develop a long term loathing of it, or it's stupid author (unlike, say, Ian McEwan), but neither did I ever have any particular need to read it again. My parents bought me Lord of the Rings for my 17th birthday, and I read it annually, even though it's now battered to hell. But The Hobbit remained a vague memory.

I went to see the film earlier this year, in a cinema an hour from my house, because we almost left it too late to catch it before it stopped showing. As it was, we were late and missed the first 15 minutes because the mines of Moria have nothing on the Leicester ring road. I joked to my boyfriend that they'd split it into three films, just to fit in the endless singing, and it would appear that I am about right on that assumption.

Anyway, seeing the film rekindled an interest in reading the book, and as my boyfriend is such a geek he can VIRTUALLY SPEAK SINDARIN, he lent me this copy. I read it over a couple of long evenings getting my children to sleep.I didn't read it to them, though I did resort to reading LOTR to my four year old when he was ill a few months ago. He pronounced it 'boring'. *sigh*
It is very much a children's book - probably ideal for 10 to 13 year olds - but it's still a good read, especially if you're acquainted with LOTR either by film or book. The plot is relatively simple compared to, say, the Silmarillion, but there's enough depth to get your teeth into. The language and dialogue are gentle and there's a lot of humour throughout. Despite the intended audience, the characters are three dimensional. There is no dichotomy of good and evil, and even the so-called good guys have moments of utter prickishness (I'm looking at you, Thorin Oakenshield).
It's an excellent introduction to Middle Earth, and the high fantasy genre in general. Go! Read!

Book count: 25/50.


29 April 2013

A History of English Food


Title: A History of English Food
Author: Clarissa Dickson Wright
Year published: 2010
Pages: 455
Time It Took To Read: A couple of months, largely read during meals

I borrowed this signed edition off my Mum a few months ago, and have been gradually getting through it when eating. I read when I eat, because I'm odd like that.
I'm fascinated by what people ate in ye olde days. The lack of detail about food in history, and historical fiction, annoys me. It's such a cliché: kings are always eating vast banquets, whilst commoners nosh down gruel. I've read a few books on the history of eating in Britain, but this is probably the book with the grandest scale. It begins in medieval times and carries on to the present, with a considerable portion of the book dedicated to the last 150 years.
It is exceptionally  readable and interesting. I love Clarissa Dickson Wright's presenting style, and her greed and adoration of food - never trust a thin food writer. The book does suffer very slightly from her continuous personal comparison of food then and food now. I see that she's comparing the similarities of diet, particularly in the country, then and now, but it does make her sound like she grew up in 1482, on a tenant farm.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book anyway, and there's a collection of medieval recipes in the back that I'm quite tempted to try. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in food, or British history. Om nom nom.

Book count: 24/50

20 April 2013

The Kingmaker's Daughter


Title: The Kingmaker's Daughter
Author: Philippa Gregory
Series: The Cousins' War Book 4
Year published: 2012
Pages:464
Time It Took To Read: A dreary afternoon

The latest Cousins War book concentrates on Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. He was known as the Kingmaker, due to his key role in overthrowing Henry VI and putting Edward IV on the throne. He wanted to be the power behind the throne, and used his daughters to enable that, choosing to marry one daughter - Isabel - to the King's brother, and the other - Anne - (when the tides turned), to Henry VI's only son. Gregory implies that his eventual aim was to get one of his daughters on the throne, so he could continue to control things after Edward IV's secret marriage (covered in The White Queen) to Elizabeth Woodville altered the dynamic of court.

This was a much better read than the last in the series. Gregory admits there is little contemporary evidence for Anne's actions and reasons, but manages to weave a convincing narrative that places Anne at the heart of events, explaining her second marriage and gradual determination to stop being a pawn in men's games. The book is also littered with heartbreak - the birth of Isabel's first child made me weep, and I so rarely show any emotion. I mean, I had PMT, but even so. 
I really enjoy this series primarily because it covers a period of history which is mainly known for battles and politics. Gregory manages to inject feminism into a wholly misogynist period, whilst also making the familial relationships obvious, and giving these shadowy characters life. It is a shame that the book was written before the body of Richard III was confirmed to suffer scoliosis, as it is dismissed as weakness and witchcraft. It seems that Gregory aims to put the death of the Princes in the Tower at Henry VII's feet. As the final book, The White Princess, concerns his eventual wife, this may be mostly for dramatic effect.
I look forward to reading the final book when it comes out in paperback, and seeing how the strands of story meet in the end.

Book count: 23/50

15 April 2013

Sepulchre

Title: Sepulchre
Author: Kate Mosse
Series: Languedoc Trilogy, Book 2
Year published: 2007
Pages: 784
Time It Took To Read: A particularly ungodly morning

This is the first Kate Mosse book I've finished. I started Labyrinth, but then dropped it in a puddle, ruining it completely. I suspect this book may well have say, desolate and unread, upon my shelf for some time except that I decided to take it to France this weekend - something fairly undemanding to read on the ferry.
As it happened, I read it while under the worst attack of diarrhoea I've ever suffered, yesterday morning in Verdun. I don't think I like Verdun anymore. 
It's set in the same place (in the South of France), in two separate times - 1891 and 2007. In 1891, a girl and her brother have gone to stay with their aunt, and the girl discovers a dark mystery in the grounds of the house. In 2007, an American woman believes her family history is linked to the same house. The two stories unfold, each lending explanation to the other. It's a similar technique to Labyrinth.
The twists of the story are predictable as hell, though the narrative is good. I find it slightly irritating that occasional French phrases are slipped into the dialogue, between two French people, speaking French, moreso when the language occasionally shifts to Occitan. I get that it's supposed to be evocative of the region, but it grates. There is a vague subplot about Debussy that fades out completely after the first third, until the epilogue. The historic villain is an absolute nutjob - charming, intelligent, vicious and insane - which is always good. However, the modern villain is an idiot caricature of the Richard Hillman type. 
All in all, I enjoyed the book. It was, as I thought it would be, a holiday book - undemanding, unsubstantial,  and addictive and it made a very nasty tummy bug eminently more bearable.

Book count: 22/50

6 April 2013

A Discovery of Witches

Title: A Discovery of Witches
Author: Deborah Harkness
Series: All Souls Trilogy Book 1
Year published: 2011
Pages: 589
Time It Took To Read: Two days, in which I did little else

Ah, Vampire mythology. I've read a lot, seen a lot; and everyone's got their own interpretation. My first vampire book was Interview With A Vampire, which intrigued me, but also slightly revolted me. Then came the GODAWFUL Twilight series. Now, I like the Southern Vampire Mysteries (True Blood) as a bit of light reading. 
I got this book for my birthday LAST year (my birthday was on Wednesday) and asked for it because of the witch element rather than the vampirism. I really enjoy supernatural fiction in general, possibly because my mother wouldn't let me read any when I was young, making it rather irresistible.
I took an hour or so to get into it. The plot is that a witch - Diana - finds something that everyone wants, and falls for a vampire - Matthew - along the way. So far, so Twilight. And in many ways it DOES take a lot from the Twilight series - the vampires can daywalk, they generally avoid eating from humans, the old fashioned manners of the vamp contrast with the modern independence of the woman, and OBVIOUSLY their love is FORBIDDEN by all and sundry.
But there are many ways in which it is definitely NOT Twilighty. Diana, for a start, is a witch, not a puny human. She has no desire to be changed into a vampire, at least not to begin with. She's a historian in her early 30s, researching the genesis of modern science via alchemy. The author is a science historian, and the whole book is full of fascinating historical and scientific facts. This makes it a meaty read. There's also not too much blood. I am a bit squeamish; fine in the flesh, rubbish reading about it. It will make my history of medicine module next year FUN.
I read the book AVIDLY - literally, I did nothing else yesterday, much to the chagrin of my bored children - but found the pace frustrating. As I reached the end of the book and realised there was no tidy conclusion, I started to get a bit angry. How could the author NOT conclude an almost-600-page book? BEAST! Then I looked on Amazon and found out it's part of a trilogy (not advertised on the book), ordered the next one and relaxed.
Awesome book, in short. If you like the mythology, but hate the flimsy, formulaic trashiness of most supernatural books, give this a try.

Book Count: 21/50

2 April 2013

To Kill A Mockingbird

Title: To Kill A Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Year published: 1961
Pages: 309
Time It Took To Read: Two days

I take little joy in classic literature most of the time. It reminds me of my GCSEs and AS levels, when reading was for critical analysis, not pleasure. This means that I have actively avoided a lot of very good books, for no better reason than they have, at some point, caused a class of 17 year olds to bury their heads in their arms because they just don't CARE WHY JED TURNED UP AT THE BALLOON ACCIDENT, CHRIST MCEWEN STOP GOING ON, YOU JOYLESS WANKER (Enduring Love there, still scarring me after 11 years).

So, my sister lent me this, after expressing deep disbelief that I'd never read it, and I devoured it in two days. I like Southern fiction. It's an alien universe, with its own culture and ideology, one of the many reasons I think the True Blood stories work so well there.
The story centres on a rape trial, but is about inequality, racism and hypocrisy. It is set in the mid-30s, in Maycomb, Alabama, and centres on the Finch family. Atticus is a lawyer, and a widow; father to Jem and Scout. Scout, our narrator, is 6 at the beginning, and nearly 9 by the end. She is a vehement, spitting, fighting  kitten-child, with a strong sense of injustice. The world, through her eyes, is a mass of contradictions, and her struggle to understand them becomes the reader's struggle.
The heart of the story is racism, both cultural and direct. A black man has been charged with the rape of a white woman, and the whole area is baying for blood. Atticus has been elected to defend the man, which gains the ire and insult of the community. Nobody is willing to consider that the man may be innocent. Slavery has been abolished for nearly seventy years, but the black community are still seen as inferior, dangerous and subhuman.
Scout, however, is more concerned with trying to rehabilitate her mysterious neighbour Boo Radley, not seen in her lifetime.
The characterisation is sublime, and evocative. The world of Maycomb, with all its contradictions and imperfections, is easily envisioned. Passing events in their lives, like the arrival of snow or a mad dog, are given all the meaning that they would have for a growing child.  The atmosphere of the looming trial, is palpable. Its drama, humour and significance is perfectly expressed. The ending is shocking, but ties everything together.
Amazing book, in short. One everyone should read, especially those who take civil rights and equality for granted.

Book count:  20/50





21 March 2013

Splendour and Squalor

 
Title: Splendour and Squalor
Author: Marcus Scriven
Year published: 2009
Pages: 413
Time It Took To Read: A week, intermittently

Oh my, what a month I've had. The children have had contagious diseases, one after the other. I've been gallivanting, and managed to get laryngitis and a chest infection. I've got annoyingly behind with uni work, and am writing this instead of an assignment, which is somewhat counterproductive.
I've decided not to include books I read often in this challenge, but in the last few weeks I've re-read most of the Harry Potters, and a collection of Mitford letters. It's Lent, a time I choose not to buy new books TO TORTURE MYSELF in an attempt at self-discipline. It also saves me money.

However,  this book has been sitting on my shelf for almost a year. It is a general commentary on the fall of the British aristocracy, focusing on the biographies of Edward FitzGerald, Duke of Leinster, Angus Montagu, Duke of Manchester and Victor and John Hervey, who were both the Marquess of Bristol. All these men are now dead, in largely tragic circumstances. I had heard vaguely of the Herveys, but otherwise everything in the book was new to me.
It's not the best written book in the world. The writer assumes the reader has an in depth knowledge of the peerage. His prose jumps several generations at a stroke, without properly explaining who is related to whom. As many generations use the same forenames, this can be extremely confusing. The family trees at the beginning of the book are very select, and don't list everyone mentioned. He also alludes to events far in the future, giving the book a chaotic feel.
However, the book itself is exceptionally well researched.The writer has evidently gone to some lengths to get interviews with the right people, and to offer insight into the actions of these reckless men. He sometimes focuses too much on the 'family gene for madness' (especially where the Herveys are concerned), rather than recognising the psychological burden of difficult upbringings and unexpected inheritance. He also seems to regard John Hervey's bisexuality as more distasteful than his multimillion pound heroin and cocaine addictions.
I really enjoyed this book, I just wish it'd been edited a little more tightly.

Book Count: 19/50