Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Lord of Scoundrels - Loretta Chase

Lord of Scoundrels is described on The Book Smugglers site as "the One Romance to Rule Them All". High praise indeed and when Ana posted a comment on my blog saying "...I urge you , no I BEG of you to search for Lord of Scoundrels - that is not only the best Loretta Chase novel but also , quite possibly,the best romance I have ever read. period." I felt that it was time to take up the challenge. I won't even go into the painful details of my experience attempting to locate it at my library (one hour, three staff and an increasingly frustrated Peta) but they kindly ordered in another copy for me to replace the mysteriously lost one and as soon as I received it I plunged in.

The blurb: "They call him many names, but Angelic isn’t one of them . . . Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain, is big, bad, and dangerous to know. No respectable woman would have anything to do with the “Bane and Blight of the Ballisters”—and he wants nothing to do with respectable women. He’s determined to continue doing what he does best—sin and sin again—and all that’s going swimmingly, thank you, until the day a shop door opens and she walks in.

She’s too intelligent to fall for the worst man in the world . . .

Jessica Trent is a determined young woman, and she’s going to drag her imbecile brother off the road to ruin, no matter what it takes. If saving him—and with him, her family and future—means taking on the devil himself, she won’t back down. The trouble is, the devil in question is so shockingly irresistible, and the person who needs the most saving is—herself!"

That synopsis had me cackling with glee - a rake, a determined heroine = sparks flying. Joy! Like her other books, there is more depth to this romance that their might appear and the character of Jessica Trent is a delight. She is fearless, intelligent, brave, clever, beautiful (of course) and more than a match for the angry, painfully insecure, vulnerable and filled with self-loathing, Dain.

Without going into the details of Dain's childhood, I should mention that it struck me whilst reading this book how unusual it is to have a properly thought out back story to explain why our hero became a selfish, dissolute rake in the first place. This also allows us to be convinced that he's got genuine motivation and desire to turn a new leaf and be reformed by his heroine! And that's what makes Chase special - she's not turning out a story without thought for her characters but thinks about why they act as they do.

I followed reading Lord of Scoundrels with the final book in her Carsington series - Not Quite a Lady. I'm not going to do a "proper" review, as I have not got time, but like Miss Wonderful, MrImpossible and Lord Perfect it was a delight to read and, yet again, a fabulous example of how to write romance novels that feature interesting characters that you genuinely care about and with a story line that didn't feel generic. This one actually made me cry!

In summary, Loretta Chase is surely the Queen of Romantic Fiction!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

L is for Latin Dance!

Just a quick post to say that this week's alphabet activity was Latin Dance. I had tried to get in touch with a local dance instructor who teaches the Lindy Hop but sadly they didn't respond to emails. Or perhaps just as well as it does look pretty energetic!

Armed with only a jug of mojito and a "Discover Latin Dance" DVD, we spent quite some time learning the Cha Cha along with some associated set moves - to the bemusement of our dogs. Once we'd mastered the dance (!) we were exhausted, and a bit sore from treading on each other, we decided to skip the rumba and samba sections of the DVD for now. Perhaps a teacher would have been more effective for beginner dancers but I am sure they would have frowned on the frequency of our mojito breaks!

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The American Future - Simon Schama

This is my fifth Non-Fiction Five read.

Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York. I had the pleasure of attending a conversation/reading in May featuring Simon Schama as part of the Spring UEA literary festival and really enjoyed his lecture based on the contents of his newest book, The American Future. Being too tight to buy it in hardback, I waited until the paperback edition was published this month before splashing out!

Subtitled "A History from the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama", this book was written to accompany his four part BBC2 documentary series of the same name, aired last October, which I must admit I didn't watch. The book is split into four thematic sections (presumably to tie in with the four episodes) and I found each one fascinating.

Schama examines conflicts from America's past in order to understand their legacy in influencing the country's contemporary political situation and he splits this examination into "American Plenty", "American War", "American Fervour" and lastly "What is an American?". This allows him to hop around time, people and events to suit the point he is making rather than be tied by the demands of a conventional chronological history book.

He clearly illustrates just how deep the roots of racial segregation grow in this country - and tragically how the impact of this legacy could have been so easily reduced if different political decisions had been made at pivotal points in history; for example the withdrawal of federal troops from the south in the 1870s allowed white extremism in the form of the KKK to take hold. Within this topic, he covers not just the impact of slavery on modern America but also its fraught relationship with Mexico, the plight of immigrant workers and even the ethnic cleansing of native Americans. Big themes for such a slim book and I'm very impressed how clearly he links events of the past to the current political arena.

I must admit that my knowledge of American history is limited however I didn't feel that I was ever out of my depth in understanding the backdrop to events he covered. If anything, this book has made me want to seek out more books on America to learn a bit more about the country's history and that of some of the people who were so influential in shaping it. I'm really glad that I read this book after Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father as it helped me to understand the history behind some of the deep rooted racial divides that he examines in a modern context.

Monday, 20 July 2009

K is for Kayaking!

Well. Actually we slightly cheated and hired a canoe rather than a kayak in the end as that was more practical option for two novice paddlers, their two dogs and a picnic!

We paddled along the River Waveney, on the Bungay Loop, and look how beautifully tranquil it was!
I should probably put the following trauma into some kind of context.

1) We are not experienced canoeists and had only paddled together once before in Florida when we were in search of manatees. That was over a year ago!
2) Keep in mind that we had two small dogs in the canoe with us and that this was their first trip on the river.
3) I was a little fragile having attended a hen do the night before where I imbibed far too many cocktails.

Now imagine several swans floating serenely on that river...

It took the dogs a couple of encounters to work out what these big white things were but once Safi twigged it, things became a bit tricky. We managed to get past the first group of five swans without too much incident (other than me ending up in a patch of nettles) and then past a young, very inquisitive, male whilst managing to hold both collars, the paddle and keep moving upstream before we decided to pause and enjoy the riverbank with our picnic for a while!

At this point, of course, it started to rain but we had waterproofs and were happy to get a bit damp. Then a swan came to check out our canoe and decided to start fishing near it. The swan doesn't want to leave. Eventually we decide to launch the canoe anyway and hope he stays downstream. He does not. We ended up stuck in the reeds, me twisted around holding Oscar's collar (keen to jump in) with Safi firmly clamped between legs (keen to bark) and pinned in by the swan who was alternating between curiously attempting to locate the source of the restrained and increasingly frantic whines and then hissing at us.

Remember that hangover. I am ashamed to admit that I did shed a couple of pathetic tears before Mr B heroically extracted us. After spotting a pair of swans further down the river with their cygnets we decided that it was probably best if we returned upstream.

The dogs must have sensed that they were skating on pretty thin ice as they behaved beautifully for the rest of the trip and the experience of allowing the current to take us through the group of the five swans we'd encountered earlier was absolutely magical. It quite made up for the earlier trauma. I'd love to go out on the river like this again - but next time I think we might leave the dogs at home!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Dreams From My Father - Barack Obama

This is my fourth Non-Fiction Five read.

I was lucky enough to see Simon Scharma speak about his newest book The American Future at the UEA as part of their last literary festival and he urged the audience to read this book by Barack Obama saying that it was beautifully written. Being an obedient little soul I ordered myself a copy straight away!

Dreams from My Father, sub-titled "A Story of Race and Inheritance", was commissioned following Barack Obama's election as the first African-American president of the "Harvard Law Review" and I would strongly suspect that this book was not at all what the publisher expected to receive. It is, in essence, a very honest personal memoir of his life up to his entry to Harvard to study law. Perhaps surprisingly given why it was commissioned, it doesn't actually cover his time at Harvard and that's only briefly touched upon in the epilogue.

The book is divided into three sections. "Origins" covers his childhood, adolescence and college years. In "Chicago" he reflects on his experience after accepting a challenging position as a community organiser in Chicago. The last section, "Kenya", (which is the one I found most interesting) is about a month long trip that he took to Kenya to visit his, now deceased, Father's extended family before starting to study law at Harvard. Each section covers his increasing awareness of his own confused identity as a child of mixed race in modern America and gives an absolutely fascinating insight into the journey he takes to try to understand himself and his place in the world.

I knew that Obama's background was unusual but had no idea how much so until reading this book. His maternal Grandparents lived in Kansas before eventually moving to Hawaii, along with their daughter. It was there that she met his Father, a Kenyan studying locally, and you have to wonder just how willing two white Kansas ex- farming stock were to accept their daughter's marriage to a black Kenyan student. Following the collapse of his parent's marriage, she re-married and moved her family out to the Philippines and it's clear that this was quite a culture shock for them both although the young Barack seems to have adapted more successfully than his mother. It was really during the last section of the book where he meets his extended paternal family that I realised just how different the two worlds that his parents inhabited actually were and that whole experience must have been quite something for a young guy in search of his heritage.

The young Obama is eloquent and perceptive - I wish my younger self had displayed even half of the empathy and thoughtfulness that this young man does. Barack Obama is very honest about his thoughts and experiences in this book and I wonder if he'd write the same story if documenting his early years now. It's this very openness, and willing to share, that makes the book special and, completely setting aside who he became, it remains a very well written, thought provoking and moving account of a young man coming to terms with his heritage and finding his place in the world.

My next non-fiction read is Simon Scharma's The American Future which will hopefully be an excellent choice of book to read straight after this one.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Burma Chronicles - Guy Delisle

This is the third book I have read for the Non-Fiction Five challenge and, like Maus, it's a graphic novel. I'm really enjoying reading non-fiction graphic books - I think it allows a much lighter touch with more freedom than a prose book on the same topic would.

Guy Delisle is a very talented illustrator/author originally from Quebec, Canada and his wife works for Médecins Sans Frontières. The Burma Chronicles as written as a result of her being posted to Burma in 2005 and Guy accompanies her with their infant son, Louis, in tow. The challenges he faces as a stay at home father are probably the most delightful snippets within the book and the opening sequence of the book where he covers the journey to get there is genuinely funny. He certainly manages to sum up the horror of long-haul travel with an infant very effectively...

The book is made up from a series of snapshots covering his attempt to adjust to ex patriot life in Rangoon and his experiences include the challenges of shopping, meeting local people, getting to know the other stay at home parents (who all seem to be female) and his efforts to join the nirvana that is the Australia club.

Alongside this, there are sections covering the political situation in Burma and his observations as he accompanies his wife on trips into the field a couple of times. The statistics on heroine addiction and related AIDS infection rates are absolutely horrifying and one imagines that the situation can only have worsened in the years since 2005. In sprite of the sometimes difficult subject matter, Delisle's ability to tamper even the bleakest of observations with understated humour make this book very easy to read whilst remaining thought provoking.

NYMag have a "sneak peek" from the book covering the pages where Delisle first attempts to visit imprisoned Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. This gives a great over-view of his gentle style and I hope that it tempts readers to read this book! Guy Delisle has also written earlier books covering his solo travels in Pyongyang and Shenzhen and I look forward to experiencing his observations on life in North Korea and China.

Friday, 10 July 2009

J is for Jokes!

Thinking of a J alphabet weekend activity was surprisingly hard especially as I was slightly hampered by our pre-existing weekend commitments. Jazz - no events this weekend. Jousting - unable to work out how to arrange this in Norfolk. Jelly - a bit lame. Learning the Jitterbug - no teacher with availability in the tight time slot I had. Eventually inspiration hit and I decided to try for Jokes and victory was mine!

Having "accidentally" slipped up and revealing, via email, that we were off to a Jam Making course being run by the local branch of the Women's Institute last night, Mr B was extremely relieved to discover, when he met me in Norwich after work, that I had in fact bought tickets to the Comedy Store's mini-festival being held at the Unthank Arms instead. Good of him to turn up to be honest as he was reasonably confident that his wife was random enough to have actually booked a jam making session.

We had dinner before heading up to the pub and I succeeded in getting the start time completely wrong so as we sneaked into the marquee that the pub had erected in the garden, the MC took the opportunity to make several jokes about women making men late. Aided by Mr B's supportive palming all blame off on me... The overall line up was very strong and the second comedian, Mike Gunn, was very funny indeed although I suspect you really had to be there!

(PS - inexplicably I failed to post this last week having written the whole thing! Weird)

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Hazards of Hunting a Duke - Julia London

In what is becoming a recurring theme of my reading pattern at the moment, Julia London is another author of historical romances who I first heard about over at The Book Smuggler's blog. I happened to see one of her books on the just returned trolley at my library and, in spite of the very 80's looking cover, thought it would be worth a try.

"Ava and Phoebe Fairchild and their cousin Greer, popular young ladies of the ton, discover they're destitute when their mother dies. Their stepfather has absconded to Paris with their mother's fortune, leaving them with a miserly stipend and under the watchful eye of his sister, an austere spinster. In order to maintain the lifestyle they are accustomed to Ava, the eldest girl, hunts down handsome Jared Broderick, the Earl of Middleton and heir to a dukedom, and marries him. Only after their passionate wedding night does Ava realize Jared had ulterior motives for marrying her. He intends for Ava to serve as his socially-acceptable wife so his very proper father will not disown him for pursuing a love affair with a beautiful, sophisticated widow."

This is the first in a trilogy of books featuring Ava, Phobe and Greer called the "Desperate Debutantes". Now I realise that there is a certain amount of freedom allowed to a book in a historical setting* given that the story needs to appeal to a modern audience but for me, this book could have been vastly improved with some decent research and the removal of several unnecessary Americanisms that jarred horribly.

A really simple example to illustrate what I mean - calling the hero Jared Broderick just felt wrong and as though he should be a cowboy rather than an Earl. I felt that neither him or Ava acted in a convincing way based on their places in society (or the ton as it was referred to far too often) and the social framework of the day. Frankly, Jared would have been more likely to make Ava his mistress than his wife and I wouldn't have blamed him and I'm not entirely sure what she could have done about it either. It is quite possible that I am over-thinking this one but I had to wonder why bother setting this book loosely in this era if you're not going to bother accurately applying research that I would presume did take place? I notice that the synopsis of the book featuring Greer (another odd choice of name) includes reference to the Prince of Powys. Suspect I'd better avoid that one if I want authentic history as a backdrop!

Perhaps I have read too many historical romances back to back now but I found myself a little disappointed in this one but to be fair only for the reasons above. The characters themselves were fine and the plot much as expected. Maybe I've not chosen the right Julia London book to read first, and am being overly picky, but I just didn't enjoy this book as much as I have the other books I've been reading recently so don't think I'll bother reading any more of hers unless I hear otherwise!

*For example, just how many Dukes and Earls did Great Britain have in the 1800s to feature as husband material in all the novels of this genre I've been recently reading?

Sunday, 5 July 2009

I is for... Italy

After a very lazy Saturday (I finished one book, read another in it entirety and then started another...) I felt that we should actually leave the house today so this morning we went on a bit of a jaunt around the area that we're looking at buying a house in - driving around Barton Broad (including the village of Irstead) and then up through Smallborough/Dilham and on towards North Walsham. The more we explore Norfolk, the more I realise that we are so very lucky to live where we do. It is a really beautiful, and surprisingly rural, part of England and I am so glad that we're coming to know it better this year. Sadly, dogs are not allowed on the Norfolk Wildlife boardwalk at Barton Broad (we probably should have checked first!) so we didn't get to see the view across the Broad but as they were getting very hot and bothered, in spite of lots of water, perhaps that was just as well.

This week's alphabet weekend theme was I is for Italy. Sadly, Mr B did not actually whisk me away to Italy for the weekend (although he assures me that he looked into it!) but after getting back from exploring and dog walking, we went out for a very pleasant Italian lunch together, enjoyed ice creams and then watched the director's cut (at 2:47!) of Cinema Paradiso. This is a lovely Italian film from1989, that neither of us had seen before, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and a Special Jury Prize at Cannes.

I'm already dreading my letter J for next weekend. The only time we can really do anything is Friday night or possibly during the day on Saturday. Jam making...? Eating Jelly...?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

June breaks the record for number of books read and as a result I had great pleasure in making a £15 payment to Book Aid International.

Another really weird month of reading though with lots of romance (both human and faerie!), a bit of Sci-Fi, some more magic, superheroes and then several excellent books set during WW2. Looking back it really doesn't seem as if I can possibly have crammed so many books into what was a really busy month for me so clearly the answer is to pick books you are going to be able to effortlessly enjoy when you are feeling frazzled! The last six books of the month certainly fit that bill but hopefully I'll be back on track soon and feel able to tackle something a bit more challenging. Like most of my TBR pile!

Maus - Art Spiegelman
Speaker for the Dead - Orson Scott Card
Wicked Lovely, Ink Exchange & Fragile Eternity - Melissa Marr
Soon I Will Be Invincible - Austin Grossman
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Welsh Girl - Peter Ho Davies
Instructions For Living Someone Else's Life - Mil Millington
Miss Wonderful & Mr Impossible - Loretta Chase
Mine till Midnight & Blue Eyed Devil - Lisa Kleypas
Lord Perfect - Loretta Chase
Talon of the Silver Hawk - Raymond E. Feist