Sunday, 29 March 2009

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict - Laurie Viera Rigler

I won Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict over on Elaine's Random Jottings and was dying to read it last weekend but I'd not finished Waterworld and had to take advantage of the weather and tackle the garden. Before I head off to Kenya, I managed to find time this weekend to squeeze this one in though!

From the blurb: "Courtney Stone - sassy, smart and suddenly single - has always felt she might have been better suited to life in Jane Austen's England. She senses that she would have found soul mates in Emma and Elinor, and through good times and bad S&S and P&P have been her secret under-the-duvet pleasures. One evening, having drifted off to sleep after self-medicating with pizza, Absolut, and Elizabeth and Darcy, Courtney wakes up in nineteenth-century England, in the bed (not to mention the slim and svelte body) of a girl called Jane Mansfield. At first she thinks this has to be some sort of weird dream, but slowly she becomes used to the absence of toothpaste and fat-free food, and finds herself actually enjoying Jane's life. Perhaps she could do without her wicked new 'mother' who wants to marry Jane off as soon as possible to the nearest wealthy man although this may not be such a bad thing, as the nearest wealthy man just happens to be the very dishy Charles Edgeworth. But, in becoming Jane, Courtney has left some important unfinished business behind, and she soon realises that in order to return to the present day she needs not only to solve the riddle of Jane and Charles but to get to grips with her own twenty-first-century relationship phobias along the way. "

My first impressions of this book was that there are distinct shades of last year's wonderful ITV series "Lost in Austen" but it was different enough for it not to matter. Courtney is from Los Angeles rather than the UK and this makes for an even broader cultural divide than in Lost in Austen. I was also pleased that the author made an attempt in this book to ask some of the questions that I had in the series such as those around washing, ladies matters and going to the loo! Never say I'm not high brow!

Overall, an enjoyable read that makes me want to download some more Austen to my iPod Touch and take it with me to read it in Kenya. Although something feels a bit odd about the prospect of reading Jane Austen in Africa.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Waterland - Graham Swift

This book has taken me absolutely ages to read. For one reason or another, in the last couple of weeks I've only popped down to the Quiet Room at work during my lunch break once to read and that's made a surprising difference to my pace! Perhaps I am also more conscious of my reading speed as I am keen to fine myself as much as possible at the moment and am also desperate to get onto some of the books I bought "for my holiday" as I clearly can't take them all with me so I might as well start on some now.

I've had a copy of Waterland on my shelf since Graham Swift won the Booker prize for Last Orders in 1996 (and yes - there's a copy of that on the TBR pile too) and, despite being set in the East Anglian fens, I've just never got around to reading it. My trigger this time was that I was going to see Graham Swift talk as part of the current UEA lit fest on Wednesday night so thought I had better read at least one of his books first! In the end, Dad and I played hooky and had dinner instead which makes me feel slightly guilty but then we did have a very pleasant evening!

Enough rambles and on to the book! Waterland is a non-chronological narration of the life of Tom Crick , a history teacher, that covers his early years, events in the present time and the lives of some of his ancestors. The location for much of the story is the fens, the Waterland of the title, and the impact that living there has on the lives we follow. As well as being a social history, there's also a murder, a love story and an exploration of how the past comes back to haunt the future.

This book is so beautifully written. There are so many layers to the story that I am sure I didn't appreciate some of the nuances of the narrative as I was reading and perhaps that's why it took me so long. There is a real sense of inevitability hanging over the characters that I wanted to almost savour the story before events were actually revealed. As well as the central story itself, I really enjoyed some of the tangential asides and, as odd as this may sound, the chapter on eel reproduction in particular was both illuminating and interesting!

Based on this reading experience, I'll definitely have to give Last Orders a dusting off as well. Although finding a book this good that's been lurking on the TBR pile for over ten years makes me wonder what else I should dig out at the same time!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Hester's Story - Adele Geras

Hester's Story is the third book by Adele Geras that I've read and, similarly to the other two, it's a "saga" type novel (I hate that phrase!) that centres around a strong female character looking back over her life.

From the blurb: "Hester Fielding was once the leading ballerina of her day. Her life is the stuff of drama: a bleak Yorkshire childhood transformed by the discovery of her amazing gifts as a dancer; a dangerous love affair that can only lead to heartbreak; and a secret that would topple her from her pinnacle of fame if it ever came out.

Now Hester has returned to Yorkshire, to Wychwood where, each year at Christmas, a ballet is performed on Twelfth Night in the little theatre there. Just before the company arrives at Wychwood, Hester receives a phone call that brings back haunting memories. As the dancers prepare for the opening night of Sarabande, and loyalties shift and tempers flare, the past comes crashing into the present in ways that Hester could never have predicted. "

Like Facing the Light (which was my pick of the month last Febuary), the characters in this book are very focused on the arts and I feel that I now know a lot more about the underbelly of ballet than I did before! Geras charts the highs and lows of dancing with great compassion and I found that I could understand and even empathise with the sacrifices that characters made in order to excel.

Reading this book really took me back to when I was very young and read Noel Streatfeil's Ballet Shoes. The passion for dancing within the story was so strong that I found myself wistfully regretting that I didn't learn to dance as a child. Whilst secretly acknowledging to myself that there was a very good reason for the lack of ballet in my life and that it's strongly connected to my utter lack of co-ordination or even intermediate balancing skills...

Sunday, 15 March 2009

What books to take on my jols*

It's about the time of year when I have had enough of winter so Mr B and I are off to Kenya in a couple of weeks. We had such a fabulous time on Safari in the south of Tanzania three years ago that we've decided not to try to re-create that experience this time around but we will spend a couple of nights on the outskirts of the nearby Shimba Hills reserve to break up the trip. There are some fabulous looking camps in Kenya but I want to return to Tanzania in the next couple of years so will save myself for that instead! As a result, we will be based by the beach as we're staying in a couple of places to the south of Mombasa but that does mean plenty of time for reading books in between snorkelling and exploring the local area!

I already know that I am definitely going to pack Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (over 2250 pages with a small font!) and am really looking forward to getting the time to read them back to back. With a meagre five book limit, I am now trying to choose a couple more from between The Quincunx, The White Tiger, The Suspicions ofMr. Whicher, Halting State, When We Were Orphans and Diary of an Ordinary Woman. Any advice very welcome!

I've banned myself from deploying a "perhaps I could buy these for my holiday" mind-set as I suspect once I start down that road we'll be paying an excess baggage charge in both directions. Although I don't think that accidentally purchasing A Guide to the Birds of East Africa should really count as that's set in Kenya so more like essential reading...

If I sound hard done by, I should mention that my husband is also taking five books and he is under strict instructions to ensure that I've not read any of his selection! Additionally, I've added plenty of books to my iPod and I'm hopeful that the places we are staying in will have bookshelves with packed with "easy reads" so I'm relatively sure that I'll make it through two weeks with enough reading material.

Won't I?

*Jols = Jolly Holidays!

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Forests of the Heart - Charles de Lint

I've been meaning to read a book by Charles de Lint for a while now and when I saw this haunting cover I could not resist making Forests Of The Heart my first one.

An introduction from the blurb: "In the Old Country, they called them the Gentry: ancient spirits of the land, magical, amoral, and dangerous. When the Irish emigrated to North America, some of the Gentry followed...only to find that the New World already had spirits of its own, called manitou and other such names by the Native tribes.

Now generations have passed, and the Irish have made homes in the new land, but the Gentry still wander homeless on the city streets. Gathering in the city shadows, they bide their time and dream of power. As their dreams grow harder, darker, fiercer, so do the Gentry themselves--appearing, to those with the sight to see them, as hard and dangerous men, invariably dressed in black."

Bettina is a healer who is part Indian and part Mexican and she was raised in the desert by her grandmother to understand the spirit world. Now she lives in Kellygnow, a massive old house run as an arts colony on the outskirts of Newford, a world away from the desert of her youth. She can see the Gentry gathering in the woods near the house and, when she realises that they intends to challenge the local spirits, is instrumental in the fight against them.

The large cast of characters include Ellie, an independent young sculptor, who also also has magic in her blood, and her former lover, Donal, who has Irish roots and a grievance against the world. Donal's sister, Miki, a punk accordion player, works for Hunter, a record shop owner and finally we have Tommy who is a Native American from the reservation nearby and volunteers with Ellie to help the homeless. It all looks so simple there but when they were being introduced (along with several more minor ones) it was getting a bit confusing for me!

This book mixes Celtic and Native American folklore in a modern south western American setting which was somewhat unexpected. I think I expected something more overtly Gaelic but the blend of traditions actually worked quite well. The desert landscape is carefully and lovingly described and Bettina's strong tie to her homeland and the conflicting pulls of Catholicism and Folklore is nicely balanced.

As an introduction to de Lint, I suspect I could have chosen an easier work but as I understand that many of Charles de Lint's novels have been set in and around the city of Newford, I'll have a dig about for more. I also want to see if any of the other books feature Tommy's large selection of formidable aunts who I would have loved reading more about.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Night Angel Trilogy - Brent Weeks

Released in the UK by Orbit late last year, The Way of Shadows, Shadow's Edgeand Beyond the Shadows are a debut trilogy from Brent Weeks which seem to be piled up on three-for-two tables everywhere I go. I say everywhere but really I mean in large bookshops and online. I suspect Orbit are keen to push the Brent Weeks brand and I think that the cohesive cover design really helps to achieve that.

So I don't ruin the story for anyone, here's the blurb from the back of the first book just to give a flavour: "For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art-and he is the city's most accomplished artist. For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he's grown up in the slums, and learned to judge people quickly - and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint. But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins' world of dangerous politics and strange magics - and cultivate a flair for death."

Rather than give a synopsis of the trilogy, I'll try to broadly describe what you can expect to see if you read this series. Given the central character is an assassin it's perhaps unsurprising that there's a fair bit of death! I will mention here what was unexpected from the first book was the darkness in the portrayal of living as a street urchin - not only covering the physical danger that the children were in but also the moral choices that it forces upon them. In this trilogy, you also get some magic, plenty of battles, political intrigue, romance (some of it slightly confusing) and a convincing world to set them all in. You also get a hell of a lot of characters to follow around and I'm not sure that they were all needed in this depth.

That aside, to give a (very brief) summary, I enjoyed the first book, felt the second book dragged a little and just too much happened and the third book brought everything to conclusion whilst also setting up potentially more interesting story arcs for future novels! If you like the magic or fantasy assassin sub-genre and are after an easy read with an interesting take on right and wrong then go for it.

My thanks are due to Fantasy Book Critic for the image of the combined covers as it saved me a job collating them myself!

Sunday, 1 March 2009

February Reading List

I can't believe that another month has passed and that it's time to re-cap my reading list as well as to make my donation of £1 per book to Book Aid International as part of my commitment to the Year of Readers challenge.

I've been really busy this month and don't seem to have found time to post book reviews but I'll do my best to catch up today! I'd say I'll do better next month but I suspect that won't actually be the case! :D

Wildwood Dancing
- Juliette Marillier
Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein
The Gone-Away World - Nick Harkaway
The Android's Dream - John Scalzi
The Convenient Marriage, The Nonesuch and Faros Daughter - Georgette Heyer
The Way of Shadows - Brent Weeks