Sunday, 28 June 2009

H is for Holkham Hall

Being a very decisive woman (!) I selected five Norfolk locations as "H'options" for Mr B to pick from for this weekend's activity. They were:
  • "Behind Door 1, we have a 3000 acre country park with designated walks, resident herds of deer and a famous beach nearby.
  • Behind Door 2 is a stately home - once that of our first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. The gardens are (apparently) famous and the park is home to over 1,000 head of white deer.
  • Continuing the theme of large county houses, Door 3 is a hall with a beautifully landscaped fifteen acre garden. I know that will appeal...
  • Behind Door 4 there is a 100 acre country park just a short walk from the historic Norfolk town of Holt.
  • Finally we have Door 5 - behind which is the largest expanse of open water in the Broads system."
Who knew Norfolk had so many tempting attractions beginning with H and Hunstanton, Happisburgh Lighthouse, Horsey Wind Pump and the Holme Dunes didn't even make the short list!
Not very surprisingly, he chose Holkham Hall as our destination and, even though it was very overcast, we packed up the dogs, plenty of water and headed out. I am ashamed to say that I've never actually been to Holkham before even though it is one of the county's landmark buildings. Should also confess that we didn't take the opportunity to go into the house itself but then we did have the dogs with us...

It's free to enter and enjoy the grounds so we had a lovely walk around the 1 mile long lake followed by delicious ice-creams made on the estate. Well. We had ice-creams and the dogs had water! The plan was to then have a walk on the gorgeous Holkham Beach however one of our dogs is not well and she had clearly had enough of exercise for the day and as the sky had cleared it wasn't safe (or fair) to leave her in the car by herself whilst we took the other one for a romp.

I'd definitely like to return there but as it's a surprisingly long drive from Norwich perhaps we'll leave the dogs at home and stay overnight next time!

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Lord Perfect - Loretta Chase

Well honestly. What is a girl to do when returning her stash of romance novels to the library but to "just check" to see if any other Loretta Chase books are on the shelf? Then to just borrow another one. Then read it very, very quickly indeed? Sadly the copy I borrowed did not have this wonderfully genre cover but I laughed so hard when I saw it online that I felt that I just had to use it to illustrate this post!

Lord Perfect is book three in the series and follows on the from events of Miss Wonderful and Mr Impossible. The eldest Carsington brother, and the Earl of Hargate's heir, Benedict Carsington is tall, dark, and handsome. He is known as "Lord Perfect" for his impeccable manners, good breeding and is a stickler for social rules.

That is until he meets the gorgeous Bathsheba Wingate, who is both recently widowed and a member of the notorious De Lucey family. She has a very high spirited daughter who lures Benedict's nephew into a quest for a legendary treasure and to recover the pair before scandal breaks they set off on a rescue mission. With predictable results.

Loretta Chase's wonderful sense of the absurd, in combination with a good sense of humour, made this book a joy to read. The dialogue between Benedict and Bathsheba was great fun and there are a couple of delightful scenes between that made me laugh out loud. In particular the scene in the bathroom but I am quite confident that I could not explain just why it made me chuckle.

Another very enjoyable read from Loretta Chase and with only one Carsington brother left unmarried I suspect he'll be next up! What fun.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Mine til Midnight & Blue Eyed Devil - Lisa Kleypas

Another author I’ve seen featured a few times over on the Book Smugglers blog is Lisa Kleypas and whilst I was browsing in my local library, I saw that they had a few books by Kleypas on the shelf. I really feel in the mood for a decent batch of escapist and frivolous reading so, committing to the experience, I picked up copies of Mine Till Midnight and Blue-Eyed Devil to go with the Loretta Chase books I posted about earlier this week.

According to the back cover, Mine till Midnight is the first in a series of books presumably centred around the Hathaway family. He is Cam Rohan - handsome, strong, commanding, manly and possessive. She is Amelia Hathaway - the beautiful eldest of four impoverished but gentile sisters who has shouldered the responsibility for holding her family unit together following the death of their parents and the descent of her elder brother into dependency on alcohol and drugs. They are irresistibly attracted to each other...

The twist is that he is a half-gipsy who, for reasons he still does not understand, was turned out from his tribe whilst young. Since that time he has made a financial success of himself and mixes with powerful people however he is not quite comfortable fitting in with his position in society and hankers for a simpler life on the road.

I’d suspect that Amelia's sisters will feature in future novels in this series of and that there is potential for the back history of her sister, Win and Merripen (another abandoned gypsy with a mysterious tatoo who was taken in by the family as a child) to be explored in more depth.

The second Lisa Kleypas book I read was Blue Eyed Devil which turned out to be a sort-of-sequel to a previous book called Sugar Daddy but I don’t think it really mattered that I’d not read that. This is the first of my “romantic reading” books this week to have a contemporary setting though as the location is Texas, it still felt suitably removed from normal life. The fact that it was set in present time did mean that initially I was more drawn to compare it with that guilty pleasure of my teenage years – the Mills & Boon novel!

Haven Travis is the only daughter of oil magnate and has led a sheltered and privileged life but not one without its own difficulties. Keen to assert her independence, and to prove that she is capable of making her own decisions, she elopes with her college boyfriend Nick and her father cuts her out of his life as he is convinced that he is only with her for her family’s money. The marriage does not go as expected and Haven finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship which she has to escape from. Helping her to recover confidence in herself as an attractive and capable woman is Hardy Cates enemy of the family, who is (yep – a clear trend developing here) also sexually active, handsome, strong, capable and all man! Oh - and he has blue eyes but I am not entirely sure why he would be called a devil.

My hat goes off to Kleypas for managing to combine an authentic story of someone in an abusive relationship with the contrasting lightness of storyline required for a developing passionate romantic attachment.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Miss Wonderful & Mr Impossible – Loretta Chase

Loretta Chase is an author whose name I have seen appearing on The Book Smuggler’s blog several times and when this week featured an interview with her, along with a link to their review of her new book, I though it was about time to see what all the fuss was about. I stumbled upon Miss Wonderful and Mr Impossible in the library, which are the first two books in Chase’s “Carsington Quartet”, and decided that they would make a marvellous starting point.

I say stumbled upon. I actually checked the online catalogue to see if books were in stock first and then searched for books by Loretta Chase in the romantic novel section as indicated. These books are irritatingly mixed up as a sub-genre on revolving carousels rather than neatly arranged by author and I had no initial luck but then finally tracked these books down in the main fiction area where, of course, authors are properly alphabeticalised. I could get into a side ramble about the difficulty of locating books in a large city library where they create these sorts of genre zones that they don’t then stick to but I shall spare you. For today.

And on to the books! First up is Miss Wonderful, which features my favourite type of romantic hero - The Reformed Rake. The third son of the Earl of Hargate, 29 year old Alistair Carsington has been falling in, and out, of love with unsuitable women for years and it’s costing his exasperated father a fortune. His father gives him an ultimatum – marry an heiress or he’ll sell of his younger brother’s inheritance to fund his lifestyle. In a bid to remove himself from the path of temptation, and to prove that he can earn his own money from a business venture he’s entered into with an old friend who saved his life on the battlefields of Waterloo.

Arriving in Derbyshire, he meets Mirabel Oldridge – a woman who dresses so unflatteringly that undressing her is “practically a civic duty”. Mirabel has taken on the responsibility for running her increasingly eccentric father’s estate and the last thing she needs is a stunningly attractive aristocrat arriving on her doorstep and reminding her she has a heart. Their romance develops and it was very refreshing to read a novel where the almost obligatory misunderstanding between a couple on the cusp of developing a relationship was missing. Alistair himself was not quite arrogant and rakish enough to be quite my dream book hero but his charm won me over.

In Mr Impossible Alistair’s younger brother, the dashing, reckless and permanently in trouble Rupert, is sent to Egypt by his long-suffering father. Daphne Penbroke is a highly intelligent Egyptian scholar however, with her brother’s help, disguises her research as the product of his mind rather than hers. Daphne’s brother is kidnapped and an ancient scroll she was studying is stolen from their home so she turns to Rupert to help her to rescue her brother.

Both books are great fun with heroes who are Real Men and heroines who are intelligent, strong, capable and independent. Loretta Chase has a delightfully wicked writing style and the exchanges (both verbal and physical) between her lead characters are a delight.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

G is for Great Yarmouth!

In a bold move, Mr B's alphabet weekend activity was a trip to Great Yarmouth. I do have to say that the tourist board have done a great job with that website as it successfully glosses over the seedier aspects of an outdated seaside resort and this link is a lot more realistic!. Having said that, and now feeling a little unfair, I should say that it's clear that a lot of money has been spent on re-vamping the sea front and it's considerably better than it was last time I went there.

I confessed that somehow I'd never experienced the pleasure of vising the Merrivale Model Village and Mr Banks insisted that we fork out £5.50 each (!!) and explore the acre of "captivating model village and its charming inhabitants". I actually really enjoyed the experience and there is something awfully English about obediently following a winding path (in the rain) and admiring the effort that has clearly gone into creating this attraction.

Next up it was a walk along the sea front (as the tourist information site explains "Frequently called The Golden Mile"), and along to Britannia Pier where Mr B decided he had to attempt to win me a teddy bear on the grab machine. 60p later and I was the slightly embarrassed recipient of a very large, and to be honest unexpected, Winnie-the-Pooh. No shame no gain so proudly clutching my new friend it was a quick ride on the Ghost Train before fish and chips looking out over the beach/Scroby Sands wind turbines - and at the black clouds rolling in. See pic for both evidence of delightful British summer weather at the beach and Mr B's grab machine prowess!

We finished off our trip with a game of Adventure Golf. Which I was comfortably winning until the last two holes when it all fell apart for me - serves me right for starting to gloat. :( We didn't have time to check out Great Yarmouth's newly re-developed Heritage Quarter but as we've been told that the Time and Tide museum is a must by my father-in-law so perhaps it'll get slipped into a weekend later this year...

Friday, 19 June 2009

The Welsh Girl - Peter Ho Davies

It felt right to stay in the era of WW2 so I picked up my copy of The Welsh Girl, with it's gorgeously illustrated cover, that's been languishing neglected on my shelf for too long. This book managed to be on both Richard and Judy's summer reads list and the Man Booker long list.

From the blurb: "In 1944, a German Jewish refugee is sent to Wales to interview Rudolf Hess; in Snowdonia, a seventeen-year-old girl, the daughter of a fiercely nationalistic shepherd, dreams of the bright lights of an English city; and in a nearby POW camp, a German soldier struggles to reconcile his surrender with his sense of honour. As their lives intersect, all three will come to question where they belong and where their loyalties lie."

I'm really not sure that the above gives a good feel for what this book is really about. It's an odd mixture of slightly interlinked stories and I felt that the two characters I learnt most about were Esther Williams, the titular Welsh Girl, whose father farms sheep whilst she works in the village pub (because she can speak English and serve the soldier) and Karsten, a German POW who is battling with his shame and self-loathing at letting himself be taken prisoner. I'd expected more of a story from the Rudolf Hess aspect of this book to be honest and don't really understand why he's a character in it other than to allow facts about Nazi Germany to be placed into context.

There are some very strongly portrayed side-characters - I liked the pub landlord Esther's father is a complex, and difficult man to live with, and I really felt for Jim, the young evacuee who lives with them, and his attempts to integrate with the Welsh community. I'd also love to read a book about Mary, who is a BBC radio entertainer broadcasting from the relative safety of Wales and understand more about what lies beneath her brittle humour.

To try to explain what this book is about, and what it meant to me, I scrawled some notes: importance of landscape, sense of place, the meaning of patriotism, identifying the real enemy, belonging to a group or community, responsibility for the expectations of others, isolation. Sadly, not a very helpful exercise to shortcut pulling together actual sentences but I've struggled to put it any more clearly.

This book is beautifully written, and some of the prose is gorgeous, however ultimately it is somehow lacking in heart. I think that Peter Ho Davies is a very talented writer but that this book ended up being about the technique rather than the soul of a story - not sure that makes sense but luckily it's my blog so I can write what I like :)

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I will make my post about reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society short and sweet as surely everyone has read, if not the book itself at least one post about it by now! I had the pleasure of reading this book in one evening which is a rare treat indeed. I got in from work and had a lovely bath whilst reading it. Then continued reading it in the kitchen whilst munching on ginger cake. Finally I moved into my new snug where I sat in one of our new winged armchairs and , accompanied by two small dogs and a glass of wine, finished it off. It was a fabulous evening and a winning formula that I intend to repeat!

So - on to the book "It's 1946 and author Juliet Ashton can't think what to write next. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey - by chance, he's acquired a book that once belonged to her - and, spurred on by their mutual love of reading, they begin a correspondence. When Dawsey reveals that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, her curiosity is piqued and it's not long before she begins to hear from other members. As letters fly back and forth with stories of life in Guernsey under the German Occupation, Juliet soon realizes that the society is every bit as extraordinary as its name."

Before starting, I'd not grasped that this novel is told in a series of letters between a London-based author, her friends and the members of a Guernsey book club. After a couple of failed attempts to read Dangerous Liaisons I tend to avoid epistolary novels but I can firmly state that this book is really, really charming and was a joy to read from cover to cover.

The very recent Nazi occupation that the inhabitants of the Channel Islands had lived under was something I only had the vaguest knowledge of and the simplest of stories about those years recounted by the various letter writers really moved me. The variety of characters themselves are honestly delightful and I thought that the balance between humour and sorrow in the letters was just about right.

I received a copy of Libby Cone's novel War on the Margins, which is set on Jersey during WW2, through the post a couple of weeks ago and I think that will make a really interesting companion read to this one.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Soon I will be Invincible - Austin Grossman

This excerpt from the first page of Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible (hopefully) gives an indication of what to expect from this debut novel:

"This morning on planet Earth there are 1,686 enhanced, gifted or otherwise-super powered persons. 678 use their powers to fight crimes, while 441 use their powers to commit them. 44 are currently confined in Special Containment Facilities for enhanced criminals. Of these last, it is interesting to note that an unusually high proportion have IQs of 300 or more - 18 to be exact. Including me . . ."

This book has a great premise - it takes a wide range of super-power comic book clichés and pokes gentle fun at them. The chapters alternate between the perspective of a much-thwarted and twelve times imprisoned super villain (Dr Impossible), who is plotting his next escape from prison whilst pulling together his latest scheme to take over the word, and a young woman (new name of Fatale) who, following an accident, has woken up with cyborg powers. As well as regretting her choice of hero name, Fatale is not yet clear what her new physical limitations are and has recently joined the elite "New Champions" super team and soon, inevitably, these two characters find themselves on opposing sides of a battle of Good against Evil. If sides are really that simple to define…

Key to the success of this story is the depth of knowledge, and affection, Grossman has for the genre. He succeeds in avoiding the trap of merely parodying comic books and as a result this book has more to say about its characters than I expected – what might drive an intelligent young man to become a villain rather than a hero? Could his life have taken a different path? What challenges might face an evil genius recently escaped from prison in his attempt to raise funds to realise his latest plan? What’s the bedding in process for a woman who wakes up with what are effectively super powers as she settles into a team of established team of famous heroes?

I do have to say though that the book felt as if, after a terrific start, Grossman was not quite sure where to go with his idea and the latter half, although enjoyable did not live up to the potential of the first.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

F is for Failure

This week is my call for our alphabet weekend activity but sadly we just don't have time for anything exciting. Mr B was filming a wedding yesterday and today he'll be playing (and I will be watching) cricket all day today so there was no chance of fitting in my planned day trip. When I accepted that this was going to be a rubbish effort weekend, I settled for going into M&S on my way home for work on Friday in search of French food and Fine wine to eat/drink whilst watching a Film. As it was looking nice and summery (and their choice of French food was pretty limited) I went for moules and frites, followed by lemon souffle and washed it down with some Fitou. I bought some pretty Flowers too but these were clearly me stretching my panic-theme to my own advantage!

I'd planned on us watching a couple of french films, as we have a small selection at home that we've not seen yet. But... at the end of the working week something less challenging was required so we ended up with (I am almost ashamed to type this) The Tale of Despereaux on the basis that it sounded as if it could be set in France. It wasn't. A bottle of Fitou later and we watched the considerable more intellectual Shape Of Things which was written and directed by Neil LaBute and starred Paul Rudd (who can do no wrong in this household) and Rachel Weisz.

My lesson - keep an eye on the calendar and ensure that at least one day/evening of the weekend is actually free! Roll on H...

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

E is for Evita!

A return to Mr B's choice for this weekend's alphabet activity and, in a first for us, it was on a Monday! Under the shrouds of much secrecy, Mr B arranged to meet me after work and was very pleased with himself when he was able to produce two tickets to see Evita at the Theatre Royal. Definitely a case of him falling on the sword for this one but he admitted that he quite liked it in the end.

Rachel Wooding
, who played Eva Peron, was absolutely fantastic. She really brought the life to part and her stamina, both vocally and acting, was incredible. My hat goes off to her and the ensemble for an enjoyable and professional production.

I wish I could praise Seamus Cullen, who played Che, so highly. I really felt that he let the production down with his weak vocals - and his delivery of the final line of the show...? Dear me. I'd hoped he was the understudy but sadly not.

I was (am!) a big fan of Antonio Banderas as Che in Alan Parker's film of this show. Sadly YouTube don't have the clip of him dancing in the fountain (Warner seem to be very vigilant) so we'll all have to make do with this one until they pull it instead:


Sunday, 7 June 2009

Speaker for the Dead - Orson Scott Card

I read, and really enjoyed despite myself, Ender's Game back in January as part of the Sci-Fi Experience and when I saw this indirect sequel in the library I could not resist borrowing it.

Speaker for the Dead is set three thousand years after the events that took place in Ender's Game however Ender remains young due to travelling in stasis. In that time he has become famous as the man who killed an entire race of thinking, feeling beings.

On the recently colonised Catholic planet of Lusitania another sentient race is discovered - offering mankind a chance to redeem themselves. The Pequeninos, known as "piggies", live in the forests and, once their presence was known about, a strict policy of non-interference is implemented to avoid contaminating them with any human technological advances or ideas. This means that only a handful of authorised scientists, operating under strict guidelines, are allowed to leave the fenced settlement to interact with the native population of the planet.

Despite these measures, there are fundamental cultural misunderstandings between the Humans and the Piggies that results in the murder of one of the human scientists. Novinha, a young biologist, blames her self for this dead and calls Ender, as Andrew Wiggin, to Lusitania in his capacity of Speaker for the Dead to uncover the truth and to present the results back to the community. His arrival twenty years later, having been in stasis, finds that Novinha recalled her request just a few days later and that she, and her family, bitterly resent his presence.

I enjoyed the plot, and characters, in this book but what I liked most was the thought provoking "shades of grey" that underpin the human view towards other sentient races. Some interesting moral questions were raised that are not easily answered, even in a fantasy setting. It was interesting to see a future take on the changing internal power structure of the Church versus State in conflict - although I do wonder if the Catholic church will be quite that influential in several thousand years if humans are living on 100 different worlds light years apart!

Like Ender's Game, this book won the Hugo Award (1987) and Nebula Award (1986) for outstanding science fiction novel - making Card the first author in history to win both these awards in two consecutive years. This book manages to explore complex ideological concepts and still entertain - an impressive accomplishment - and I look forward to getting my paws on the sequel!

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Maus - Art Spiegelman

This is my second read for the non-fiction five challenge. Unusually, it's a graphic novel which tells the (true) story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler's Europe.

Art Spiegelman, who won the Pulitzer prize for this work, is their son and this work is the result of conversations with his father.

It's hard to describe this book so from the blurb: "By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival - and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance."

I’ve really struggled to write this review and, after putting it off for several weeks, I think that the solution is not to really write one at all.

If you are at all interested in the prospect of reading a non-fiction book about the Holocaust where the Jews have been drawn as mice and the Nazis as cats then you should do so. This is an absolutely superb work and I would not hesitate to recommend it.

Monday, 1 June 2009

May Reading List

So - ten books read this month at £1 each means a £10 donation to Book Aid which brings my total donated for this year so far to £50 plus another £14.10 in gift aid. I'm pretty impressed that already I've "fined" myself enough to send more than 40 books overseas and it's nice watching the total funds grow. I set myself a target of £150 for the year so either I need to read 100 books in seven months or encourage sponsorship!!

May's reading was quite heavy on the fantasy side with magic, dragons and werewolves all featuring:

The Dragonfly Pool - Eva Ibbotson
The Adamantine Palace - Stephen Deas
Son of the Shadows & Child of the Prophecy - Juliet Marillier
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa - Nicholas Drayson
Heir to Sevenwaters - Juliet Marillier
The City & The City - China Miéville
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher - Kate Summerscale
Bitten & Stolen - Kelley Armstrong

The inclusion of one non-fiction book was much needed and, now that my bookshelves are all organised, I'm looking forward to reading more non-fiction work in June. Famous last words as I have a birthday haul due and I have my fingers crossed for several books featuring dragons, magic or both!