Chatterbox tries again in '12!

DiskuteraThe 12 in 12 Category Challenge

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Chatterbox tries again in '12!

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Redigerat: dec 30, 2011, 12:08am

This time I won't leave it all to the last minute... the reading, I mean!!

In my "real life", I've been a financial journalist, although the book I hope to spend part of 2012 writing will, for the first time, have nothing to do with that world. So in tribute to this portion of my past life (all quarter century I have spent on it...) I'm picking books that fall into categories headed by financial terminology!!

As in prior years, I'll be shooting for 12 books plus a bonus book in each category -- if one of the books is utterly unreadable, the bonus book kicks in!

I. Initial Public Offerings (aka, "I Saw it First!"): Books that I'm reading in e-galley format, or as ARCs, received pre-publication.

II. Bluechips: Old favorites, re-read for the fun of it.

III. Insider Trading: It's a crime! And so the theme of this category is mysteries...

IV. Our Analysts Say it's a "Buy": Books that friends urge me to read.

V. A Random Walk (in a Bookstore): Spontaneous purchases or library snaffles -- nothing that I had planned or expected to read, just books that grab my fancy.

VI. From the Medici to the Rothschilds: the evolution of the financial markets occurred between 1400 and 1815, so these are books about or set in that time period; fiction or non-fiction.

VII. BRICs and Frontier Markets: All the buzz in global investing these days; a book set in or about a country that falls into these categories (Brazil, India, China, Russia; other, smaller emerging markets.)

VIII. Asset Allocation: An evenly-balanced mix of newly-published fiction and non-fiction

IX: Junk Bonds & Sin Stocks: Guilty pleasure reading... Of no nutritional value whatsoever.

X: Shelf Offering: Books that have been hanging around since before Jan 1, 2011

XI: Mega-Cap, Dividend-Paying Stocks: Chunksters, of 500 pages or more.

XII: Glass Ceiling: Books by women featuring professional women as characters, or a woman behaving in a non-traditional or unexpected way.

My total books read in 2012, for this challenge and elsewhere (my threads over on the 75-challenge are a one-stop shopping commentary on all my reading):

My ticker for this challenge:

Redigerat: okt 19, 2012, 3:58pm

I: IPOs: Books read as e-galleys or advance reader copies.

1. The Expats by Chris Pavone -- direct from publisher -- ***1/2, STARTED 1/28/12, FINISHED 1/29/12
2. Shatter by Michael Robotham - LT ER - ****, STARTED 4/10/12, FINISHED 4/11/12
3. The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay -- Amazon Vine -- *** STARTED 2/14/12, FINISHED 2/16/12
4. In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner -- Amazon Vine -- ****1/2, STARTED 6/28/12, FINISHED 6/29/12
5. The Shadow Patrol by Alex Berenson -- LT ER -- ***1/2 - STARTED 1/4/12, FINISHED 1/6/12
6. Semper Fidelis by Ruth Downie -- NetGalley - ***1/2, STARTED 10/13/12, FINISHED 10/16/12
7. Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd -- Amazon Vine -- ****1/2, STARTED 3/15/12, FINISHED 4/15/12
8. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian *** 1/2 STARTED 6/23/12, FINISHED 6/27/12
9. Gold by Chris Cleave -- Amazon Vine -- ***1/2 STARTED 4/26/12, FINISHED 4/28/12
10. Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal - LT ER - 1/2 star -- STARTED 2/5/12, FINISHED 2/12/12
11. The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam - Publisher giveaway BEA -- STARTED 8/11/12, FINISHED 8/18/12
12. The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones - Amazon Vine **** STARTED 3/9/12, FINISHED 3/10/12
Bonus book: The Twelve by Justin Cronin -- Publisher giveaway BEA ****-- STARTED 10/6/12, FINISHED 10/10/12

Redigerat: nov 7, 2012, 2:16am

II: Bluechips: Old favorites; reliably entertaining. The more obscure or unlikely, the better!

1. A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury by Edith Pargeter, **** STARTED 2/8/12, FINISHED 2/11/12
2. Fall From Grace by Larry Collins, ***1/2, STARTED 10/1/12, FINISHED 10/4/12
3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson, ****, STARTED 1/13/12, FINISHED 1/23/12
4. Hand in Glove by Robert Goddard **** 1/2, STARTED 11/1/12, FINISHED 11/4/12
5. Landscape of Lies by Peter Watson ****, STARTED 6/18/12, FINISHED 6/23/12
6. The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens ****1/2 READ 3/1/12
7. Fly Away Home (J) by Marge Piercy **** STARTED 3/28/12, FINISHED 3/31/12
8. Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden ***1/2, STARTED 3/5/12, FINISHED 3/6/12
9. The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart *** 1/2 STARTED 6/10/12, FINISHED 6/12/12
10. Just for the Summer by Laura van Wormer, **, STARTED 10/15/12, FINISHED 10/23/12
11. Silesian Station by David Downing, ****1/2, STARTED 10/12/12, FINISHED 10/30/12
12. Devil Water by Anya Seton ****1/2, STARTED 4/20/12, FINISHED 4/22/12
Bonus book: The Etruscan Net by Michael Gilbert, **** STARTED 10/11/12, FINISHED 10/12/12

Redigerat: aug 4, 2012, 8:25pm

III. Insider Trading: Mysteries & Thrillers

1. Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George **** STARTED 2/20/12, FINISHED 3/7/12
2. The Jackal Man by Kate Ellis STARTED **** STARTED 3/3/12, FINISHED 3/5/12
3. A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths ***1/2, STARTED 1/19/12, FINISHED 1/20/12
4. The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg, ***1/2, STARTED 3/6/12, FINISHED 3/15/12
5. The Darkening Field by William Ryan **** STARTED 5/12/12, FINISHED 5/14/12
6. The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny, ****, STARTED 7/24/12, FINISHED 7/31/12
7. Lehrter Station by David Downing, ****, STARTED 5/8/12, FINISHED 5/10/12
8. Gallows View by Peter Robinson, *** 1/2, STARTED 1/15/12, FINISHED 1/17/12
9. 1222 by Anne Holt **** STARTED 3/30/12, FINISHED 3/31/12
10. Murder on Fifth Avenue by Victoria Thompson, ***1/2, STARTED 6/20/12, FINISHED 6/21/12
11. Slash and Burn by Colin Cotterill, ****1/2, STARTED 2/12/12, FINISHED 2/13/12
12. The Ionia Sanction by Gary Corby, ****, STARTED 2/27/12, FINISHED 2/29/12
Bonus book: Kingdom of Strangers by Zoe Ferraris *** 1/2 STARTED 7/6/12, FINISHED 7/8/12

Redigerat: dec 27, 2012, 12:43am

IV: Our Analysts Say It's a "Buy"

1. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh **** 1/2 STARTED 1/25/12, FINISHED 1/31/12
2. The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, STARTED 12/9/12, FINISHED 12/24/12
3. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers STARTED **** 12/18/12, FINISHED 12/22/12
4. The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley **** STARTED 10/18/12, FINISHED 10/20/12
5. The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery **** 1/2 STARTED 2/24/12, FINISHED 2/25/12
6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (J) by John le Carre ***1/2, STARTED 11/10/12, FINISHED 11/15/12
7. The House of the Mosque (J) by Kader Abdolah
8. The Secret River by Kate Grenville, ****1/2 STARTED 2/13/12, FINISHED 2/15/12
9. The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner **** STARTED 3/8/12, FINISHED 3/19/12
10. A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam, ****, READ 10/24/12
11. Pure by Andrew Miller **** 1/2 STARTED 6/20/12, FINISHED 6/23/12
12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, ****1/2 STARTED 7/6/12, FINISHED 7/7/12
Bonus book: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey **** STARTED 11/20/12, FINISHED 11/22/12

Redigerat: nov 25, 2012, 9:19pm

V. A Random Walk: Books that strike my fancy unexpectedly

1. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout STARTED ***** 10/26/12, FINISHED 10/31/12
2. Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead **** STARTED 7/2/12, FINISHED 7/4/12
3. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan ****, STARTED 10/15/12, FINISHED 10/17/12
4. The Broken Lands by Robert Edric, **** STARTED 1/25/12, FINISHED 1/28/12
5. A Walk Across the Sun by Corbin Addison, *** READ 2/9/12
6. Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman, ***, STARTED 10/5/12, FINISHED 10/7/12
7. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter , ***, STARTED 11/23/12, FINISHED 11/25/12
8. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller - **** 1/2 STARTED 4/1/12, FINISHED 4/2/12
9. The Boy Who by Simon Lelic, *** STARTED 4/6/12, FINISHED 4/7/12
10. The Innocents by Francesca Segal **** STARTED 7/12/12, FINISHED 7/16/12
11. Trapeze by Simon Mawer **** 1/2 STARTED 4/27/12 FINISHED 4/29/12
12. The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, ****1/2, STARTED 5/5/12, FINISHED 5/10/12
Bonus Book: The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya ****1/2, STARTED 7/16/12, FINISHED 7/18/12

Redigerat: dec 29, 2012, 10:06pm

VI. From the Medici to the Rothschilds: Historical fiction or history, set in the period 1400 to 1815, the time frame in which modern financial markets were struggling to emerge.

1. The Noble Assassin by Christie Dickason (mid 17th century) ****, STARTED 5/1/12, FINISHED 5/3/12
2. The Shadow Prince by Terence Morgan (late 15th century) ****, STARTED 1/13/12, FINISHED 1/15/12
3. The Queen's Vow by C. W. Gortner (late 15th century) ****, STARTED 5/14/12, FINISHED 5/16/12
4. Mozart's Last Aria by Matt Rees (late 18th century) **** READ 4/14/12
5. Taj by Timeri Murari (mid 17th century)
6. A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir (mid 16th century) **** 1/2, STARTED 7/11/12, COMPLETED 7/14/12
7. Traitor by Rory Clements, **** STARTED 12/27/12, FINISHED 12/29/12
8. The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak (mid 18th century) **** 1/2, STARTED 1/17/12, FINISHED 1/18/12
9. The Mirrored World by Debra Dean (mid 18th century) *** STARTED 7/9/12, FINISHED 7/11/12
10. Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown (mid 17th century), ***1/2, STARTED 9/12/12, FINISHED 10/1/12
11. The Stockholm Octavo by Jean-Vincent Blanchard (late 17th century) STARTED 12/28/12
12. The Second Empress by Michelle Moran (late 18th/early 19th century) *** 1/2 STARTED 6/26/12, FINISHED 6/29/12
Bonus Book: The Queen's Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray, **, STARTED 5/2/12, FINISHED 5/7/12

Redigerat: dec 31, 2012, 8:38pm

VII. BRICs and "Frontier Markets": Fiction and non-fiction set in or written about countries that are BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or emerging markets typically defined as "frontier markets" -- South Africa, Cambodia, Venezuela, etc.

1. Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (China) STARTED **** 11/22/12, FINISHED 11/23/12
2. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayli (India) **** STARTED 9/14/12, FINISHED 9/26/12
3. Oil on Water by Helon Habila (Nigeria) **** STARTED 12/9/12, FINISHED 12/10/12
4. The Line by Olga Grushin (Russia), *****, STARTED 12/11/12, FINISHED 12/12/12
5. Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (Thailand) ****1/2 STARTED JULY 2012, COMPLETED 11/29/12
6. The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero (Chile) STARTED 11/25/12
7. Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru) STARTED 12/29/12
8. Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) **** STARTED 12/27/12, FINISHED 12/29/12
9. S: A Novel about the Balkans by Slavenka Drakulic (Croatia) ****1/2, STARTED 12/29/12, FINISHED 12/30/12
10. A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif (Pakistan) **** STARTED 6/25/12, FINISHED 6/30/12
11. Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jalloun (Morocco)
12. Honour by Elif Safak (Turkey)
Bonus Book: The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (India) ****, STARTED 2/22/12, FINISHED 2/23/12

Redigerat: dec 24, 2012, 2:11am

VIII. Asset Allocation: A well-balanced portfolio of quality fiction and non-fiction, picked from relatively recent books. (eg, nominees for the Orwell Prize, Man Booker, Giller, etc.)

1. The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos **** 1/2 STARTED 8/15/12, FINISHED 8/27/12
2. The Heat of the Sun by David Rain, **** STARTED 12/13/12, FINISHED 12/14/12
3. How it All Began by Penelope Lively **** STARTED 2/1/12, FINISHED 2/2/12
4. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng ***** STARTED 8/18/12, FINISHED 8/26/12
5. Da Vinci's Ghost by Toby Lester **** STARTED 9/15/12, FINISHED 9/16/12
6. River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh STARTED 12/9/12
7. Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth **** STARTED 3/16/12, FINISHED 4/6/12
8. Perla by Carolina de Robertis, STARTED 3/11/12, FINISHED 3/12/12
9. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks **** 1/2 STARTED 12/16/12, FINISHED 12/23/12
10. The Dinner by Herman Koch ****, STARTED 12/4/12, FINISHED 12/5/12
11. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel *****, STARTED 4/23/12, FINISHED 4/26/12
12. Poor Things by Alasdair Gray STARTED 11/24/12, FINISHED 11/26/12
Bonus Book: The Opium War by Julia Lovell

Redigerat: dec 1, 2012, 1:51am

IX. Junk Bonds and "Sin Stocks": Completely mindless, frivolous reading.

1. I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella, **** STARTED 4/14/12, FINISHED 4/15/12
2. Rumours by Freya North, ***1/2, STARTED 10/2/12, FINISHED 10/3/12
3. Spookygirl by Jill Baguchinsky ***1/2, STARTED 11/19/12, FINISHED 11/21/12
4. Recipe for Love by Katie Fforde ***1/2, READ 10/30/12
5. The Decision by Penny Vincenzi ****, STARTED 8/22/12, FINISHED 8/25/12
6. Under a Sapphire Sky by Susannah Bates, STARTED 11/27/12, FINISHED 11/30/12
7. Private Lives by Tasmina Perry ***1/2, STARTED 10/13/12, FINISHED 10/15/12
8. Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett ****, STARTED 2/6/12, FINISHED 2/8/12
9. A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott, ***1/2, STARTED 2/5/12, FINISHED 2/6/12
10. School of Fortune by Amanda Brown, **, STARTED 9/14/12, FINISHED 9/15/12
11. The Garden Intrigue by Lauren Willig, **** STARTED 3/1/12, FINISHED 3/3/12
12. A Little Folly by Jude Morgan *** STARTED 3/10/12, FINISHED 3/13/12
Bonus Book: The Soldier's Wife by Joanna Trollope, ****, STARTED 3/15/12, FINISHED 3/17/12

Redigerat: dec 10, 2012, 12:51am

X. Shelf Offering: Read a book that's been languishing on my shelves for at least a year, whether cyber-shelves or physical shelves! Preference given to books that have been unread for years or decades...

1. The Napoleon of Crime by Ben Macintyre ***1/2, STARTED 12/29/11, FINISHED 1/30/12
2. Troubles (J) by J.G. Farrell
3. A Question of Loyalties by Allan Massie, ****, STARTED 9/19/12, FINISHED 9/24/12
4. The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower ****1/2 STARTED 11/26/12, FINISHED 12/2/12
5. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka **** STARTED 1/28/12, FINISHED 1/30/12
6. The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin *** STARTED 9/15/12, FINISHED 9/25/12
7. Crowded with Genius by James Buchan ***1/2, STARTED 12/30/11, FINISHED 1/25/12
8. Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb STARTED 10/9/12, ***1/2, STARTED 10/9/12, FINISHED 10/14/12
9. The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault **, STARTED 9/15/12, FINISHED 9/17/12
10. The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst **** STARTED 2/8/12, FINISHED 2/12/12
11. Restless by William Boyd STARTED ****1/2 10/20/12, FINISHED 10/29/12
12. The Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis ***1/2, STARTED 12/7/12, FINISHED 12/9/12
Bonus Book: The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, **** STARTED MONTHS AGO, FINISHED 10/19/12

Redigerat: dec 31, 2012, 8:39pm

XI. Mega-Cap Stocks: Chunksters of 500 pages or more.

1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann STARTED 11/14/12
2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens - **** STARTED 10/18/12, FINISHED 11/7/12
3. Half of a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie STARTED JULY
4. Two Brothers by Ben Elton, **** STARTED 12/21/12, FINISHED 12/31/12
5. The Potter's Hand by A.N. Wilson
6. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel *****, STARTED 4/20/12, FINISHED 6/9/12
7. 11/22/63 by Stephen King **** 1/2 STARTED 11/28/12, FINISHED 12/31/12
8. An Instance at the Fingerpost by Iain Pears ****1/2, STARTED 12/7/12, FINISHED 12/11/12
9. The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling ***, STARTED 9/27/12, FINISHED 10/24/12
10. Dominion by C.J. Sansom **** STARTED 12/20/12, FINISHED 12/26/12
11. Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies
12. Catherine the Great by Robert Massie **** 1/2 STARTED 2/1/12, FINISHED 2/5/12
Bonus book: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke **** STARTED 12/14/12, FINISHED 12/18/12

Redigerat: dec 1, 2012, 1:52am

Category XII. The Glass Ceiling: Books about professional women, or women working in non-traditional ways/jobs, or who challenge the conventions of their times.

1. Bond Girl by Erin Duffy (a woman on Wall Street) ***1/2 STARTED 1/30/12, FINISHED 1/31/12
2. Granddad, There's a Body on the Beach by Colin Cotterill (Thai woman as crime reporter) ***1/2, STARTED 6/24/12, FINISHED 6/27/12
3. Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani (16th century Iranian/Safavid princess is a powerful political player in her own right) **** STARTED 8/18/12, FINISHED 8/21/12
4. Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick (woman who insists on becoming a queen regnant) ***1/2 STARTED 2/24/12, FINISHED 2/25/12
5. The Time in Between by Maria Duenas (1930s/40s -- woman couturier becomes a secret agent) ****, STARTED 2/21/12, FINISHED 2/22/12
6. Sand Queen by Helen Benedict (woman in the army)
7. The Purple Shroud by Stella Duffy (bio novel of Theodora, powerful Byzantine Empress, ****, STARTED 11/5/12, FINISHED 11/30/12
8. Tolstoy Lied by Rachel Kadish, (woman in academia) *** 1/2, STARTED 2/8/12, FINISHED 2/12/12
9. Wanted Women by Deborah Scroggins (an anti-Islamic crusader and an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist) ****1/2, STARTED 7/2/12, FINISHED 7/4/12
10. Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt (historical novel featuring noted abbess/musician/mystic of the 12th century) ****1/2, STARTED 9/9/12, FINISHED 9/10/12
11. Dangerous Ambition by Susan Hertog (joint bio of Dorothy Thompson & Rebecca West, pioneering writers)
12. The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri Murari (young woman challenges the Taliban) ****, STARTED 5/19/12, FINISHED 5/20/12
Bonus book: Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson (woman entertainer/spy in WW2 Cairo) ** STARTED 10/8/12, FINISHED 10/27/12

okt 28, 2011, 11:57pm

Oh I love your categories, and look forward to following your reading again next year.

okt 29, 2011, 11:26pm

Great creative categories. I'll be following along as well.

okt 30, 2011, 12:08am

Nice categories. I'm especially interested in your BRIC category. Will you do only one book for each country?

okt 30, 2011, 5:07am

#16 -- Denise, I'll try and get as diversified a bunch of books as possible. Right now, I've got something from Nigeria, from China and from India. If I add a second book about any of these countries, I might opt for non-fiction. Others up for consideration include South Africa.

okt 30, 2011, 9:12am

I'm definitely keeping an eye on your thread and this category, Suzanne. We have quite a collection of books about China (I don't have them all entered yet.) I've heard of Dream of Ding Village, but we don't have it.

okt 30, 2011, 12:31pm

Just found your thread and ready to follow it. Love the financial theme!

okt 30, 2011, 10:52pm

Ditto - I love your theme too.

okt 31, 2011, 5:33pm

oooh! From the Medici to the Rothschilds looks good! I will have to see what you read for that! I've sort of blown my Medici/history category this year :-(

(Bruce's evil twin :-))

Redigerat: okt 31, 2011, 7:41pm

I'm way behind on my history category, too, which is why I decided to make this more open-ended by combining history and historical fiction. One book I want to reread is one by Robert Goddard that is set around the events of the South Sea Bubble -- after Tulipmania, perhaps the world's first great financial bubble, which bankrupted more people than did If you're looking for interesting books in that area, Stella Tillyard's new novel about the final years of the battle against Napoleon, about to appear in the US and already out in the UK, has some fascinating segments about the Rothschilds and their help financing that war, as well as the evolution and financing of London's first gas lighting company -- I hadn't realized that had happened so early.

ETA, Denise, is there anything you'd recommend? I read a lot of business/finance books about China and basic non-fiction narratives ahead of a December 2006 month-long reporting trip there, but aside from Yiyun Li's The Vagrants, I'm not sure what else might be interesting. I do have a book about the construction of the train from China into Tibet on my TBR mountain.

okt 31, 2011, 11:28pm

#22 - Because of your question, Suzanne, I checked my library to refresh my memory. I was surprised to find that the majority of my books tagged 'China' are non-fiction. So, if you are looking for some more non-fiction, I recommend Spence's The Search for Modern China to get a good overview of China's history from I believe the Qing dynasty until 1989. It is a chunk of a book though. Wild Swans is another large, non-fiction book. It tells the story of three generations of women from the author's grandmother to herself. They lived during very "interesting" times in China. It is a book on the 1001 list. Finally, one I often recommend is The Private Life of Chairman Mao. It was written by Mao's personal physician and it provides a behind the scenes look at how Mao ruled China.

For fiction, I enjoyed Family by Pa Chin. It is about a family in upheaval during a time soon after China had gotten rid of the last emperor and was trying to become more democratic. To me the family changes mimicked the countries changes. I also enjoy Lisa See's books, especially Snowflower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls, although the latter takes place mostly in the United States.

nov 16, 2011, 7:27am

Good idea Suz and very creative to come up with all this financial terminology as a start for your choices. Starred but I won't keep up with my speed reading heroine!

nov 18, 2011, 5:54am

I've been behind on all my reading, including catching up on LT. As a financial person myself, I love your categories. have you starred and will be following along and expect to be adding to my wish list.

nov 20, 2011, 12:00am

Suz, very neat idea for a theme which makes me think for 13/13 I should base myself on design terms of magazine publishing jargon or whatever. I'll have forgotten all about this idea by year's end though, no doubt.

I see several books on your list that I intend to read in 2012 as well. Troubles, 1Q84, Bleak House and Sea of Poppies come to mind. Maybe we can share reads via TIOLI or something. Have you starred. Maybe I'll manage to keep up with you more easily here than with the 75ers? One can always hope...

nov 21, 2011, 7:12am

Very creative Suzanne. I look forward to seeing how your categories fill up:)

dec 2, 2011, 10:14am

Found you and will be keeping and eye out in the new year :)

dec 2, 2011, 2:20pm

Great categories and clever framework. I see quite a few that are on my "to read in 2012" list as well.

dec 7, 2011, 11:02am

I'm trying to keep this a little bit more open than I did this year, so that multiple different kinds of titles can slot into different categories -- these categories feel more flexible to me than the topic-oriented ones I've done in the last two years. We'll see how well it works in practice, though!!

dec 7, 2011, 11:10am

I'm already finding books can fit into multiple of my categories. That certainly makes things easier.

dec 7, 2011, 12:46pm

Hi, Suz, I thought I'd check out this group, and first thing I find is your very interesting category list. I will be watching with anticipation. I might have an "Economics" category myself, although at the moment I have 15 categories, most with fewer than 12 possibilities, so I am still considering creative ways to group some up.

dec 16, 2011, 4:56pm

I hated Economics in college but I love your categories. 8^)

dec 21, 2011, 9:07pm

You have some great prospective reads here! We're actually considering reading some of the same books in 2012. :) Good will be fun to check in on your progress!

dec 24, 2011, 10:12pm

Mamzel, I failed my first economics course in first year university, as well as my high school maths class, so I find it very amusing indeed that I make my living writing about the world of finance and Wall Street...

Look forward to comparing notes on "our" books, Ms. Infectious Optimist! (and wouldn't this been a lovely world if optimism and benevolence were infectious???)

Happy holidays to all!

dec 25, 2011, 12:16am

>35 Chatterbox: Viral, even.

dec 25, 2011, 1:02am

Chatterbox and Cynwetzel, you made my night. Hope you both are having a good evening, and have had an infectiously joyful holiday season. ;)

dec 27, 2011, 4:44pm

*Ah-ah-ah-choo!* No more viruses. Please!

jan 6, 2012, 6:36pm

OK, six days into the new year and I have finally finished my first book for this challenge! Appropriately enough, it's in my first category -- IPOs, devoted to new books -- and it was an ER win, so I'll be reviewing it in more detail on the book's page. The Shadow Patrol is a good airplane or beach read, an adequate spy thriller that doesn't have any glaring holes or clunkers in it -- this isn't James Bond on steriods, but an intelligent novel. On the other hand, it never really transcends the genre, either. So I'm giving it 3.7 stars.

jan 6, 2012, 9:56pm

it is always a nice feeling to get that first book done!

this isn't James Bond on steriods, but an intelligent novel.

I usually steer clear of the spy thriller genre but you have intrigued me with that statement.

jan 15, 2012, 8:34pm

Wow, I make this challenge more flexible than ever -- and I end up reading more slowly!?! How irrational is that?!?

The Shadow Prince by Terence Morgan is the sequel to the author's debut, The Master of Bruges, which I liked far more as a novel about a far less well known part of history (Burgundy & Bruges in the mid-15th century) and because its main character wasn't (thank god) a kind or queen or prince or princess, but a painter, Hans Memling. This time around, Morgan is dealing with the fate of the younger of the princes in the tower, Richard of York, who -- in Morgan's "what if?" view of history, escaped Henry VII's murderers and had a series of adventures under a false identity before escaping to claim his crown. Just as Morgan takes the improbable (but still possible) view that Richard lived to adulthood and was the pretender Perkin Warbeck, so he devises an ending for his novel that is a bit out of line with history. It's a spoiler, so I won't say more here, except that I wouldn't read this unless you've read The Master of Bruges and like me can't wait to read the sequel. This isn't a bad book, by any stretch, and the liberties that Morgan takes are squarely within what is reasonable (i.e. -- there are things that we can never know, and he's conceiving options that are possible, if not always probable) rather than bizarre hypotheses made up out of whole cloth. Still, it suffers by comparison with its predecessor, and I've just read too much about the wars of the roses, the princes in the tower, etc., in recent years to enjoy this quite as much. 3.9 stars; the predecessor would be 4.5 stars.

jan 18, 2012, 12:35pm

Gallows View is the first novel and first in the Inspector Banks series by Peter Robinson, and as several folks had warned me, I didn't like it quite as much as I did the stand-alone novel that I read as my first novel of the year. That said, it was a perfectly adequate mystery novel, in which Alan Banks has to solve a number of possibly related cases -- burglaries, a peeping Tom, a rape and a murder. Solutions aren't all that unexpected, so this was 3.6 stars. It was originally published in 1987, and it was interesting to see how dated that now feels -- computers are new (there are no PCs); no mobile phones; no real DNA testing; Margaret Thatcher is running the country, etc. etc. I've requested the next two or three books from Paperbackswap as I've got a bunch of credits still stacked up, and will then turn to the library to read through the series. 3.6 stars. Meh; there are better mysteries & series out there to read.

jan 18, 2012, 7:02pm

...and one more!

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, an ARC I've had sitting around for a few months, ended up being far more compelling reading than I had feared it might based on sampling the first few pages. The narrator, Barbara (or Varvara to the Russians), is the (fictional) Polish-born daughter of a book-binder who is brought to court and becomes an excellent "tongue", or spy, for the Empress Elizabeth and her chancellor. The novel documents the arrival of the German princess who would become Catherine the Great at the Russian court, and the double-dealing and Machiavellian intrigues of that court -- and in particular the alliance of Barbara and Catherine. Even though I'm fairly familiar with Catherine's early life (and I'm looking forward to reading Robert Massie's bio of her), I found this a novel take on these years, given that the story is narrated by an outsider -- a member of the court, who can see more of the ugly underside than most of the nobility through whose eyes such historical novels are usually narrated. Barbara becomes so good at her role, however, that she forgets the downside risks associated with knowing too many secrets... One of the better historical novels I have read of late; definitely recommended to anyone who is a historical fiction afficionado and interested in the period. 4.3 stars

jan 19, 2012, 5:20am

Sounds interesting good review

jan 19, 2012, 9:31am

I'm hoping to read The Winter Palace sometime this year. Many years ago there was an exhibit of Catherine the Great stuff in Memphis which I had a chance to attend twice, I believe. She was a fascinating woman, and I enjoyed reading a couple of biographies of her around that time. I've read a few historical fiction books set in that time frame since then as well. I've heard great things about this book. Our library has it, so it's just a matter of deciding when I have time to read it!

Redigerat: jan 21, 2012, 1:47pm

It's actually a fairly fast-paced book, given its size... I'm facing the same dilemma with Massie's biography. I have the ARC sitting on my shelf and glaring at me reproachfully, and my curiosity about her later life has simply been whetted by the novel, so I may have to carve out some time...

A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths, is the fourth in a series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. This time around, the plot revolves around Aboriginal Australian skulls in a museum, the coffin of an ancient bishop, and a couple of mysterious deaths, and a drug smuggling ring. Griffiths ties them together well enough, but she doesn't have enough time to make the story develop organically and let the reader get interested in the situations and personalities. Some seem to be introduced only because she needs them to serve a purpose -- not great when that happens and it's visible to the reader. I loved the first book, enjoyed the last two, but was relatively disappointed by this one. Don't read it unless you've read the predecessors, which are worth your time, but this one... Well, I'm underwhelmed. I'll def. give Griffiths another chance because the first three were so good but she never really delivered on the promise of the plot elements. 3.5 stars.

jan 21, 2012, 7:43pm

46> I just finished (literally) the 3rd one, so I'm not in a hurry to read #4. I liked the mystery in number 3 well enough but I've noted my problems with the book in my review. I'm sure I'll read it when it's readily available here in the States, but I am not sure if Griffiths is more interested in plotting a mystery or in proselytizing to paganism.

jan 21, 2012, 8:30pm

Lori, I get the sense that she's more interested in the plot possibilities of linking archaeology with a modern-day pagan character, but if that dimension irritated you in the prior books, it will drive you batty here. My sense is that she is under pressure to crank out the sequels too rapidly, and it's taking a toll on her ability to craft a good story.

jan 23, 2012, 3:04pm

I just received the first two of this series but haven't started them yet.

jan 24, 2012, 12:42am

Re-read, for my re-reads category, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson. OK, admit it didn't have the same impact on me as it did on the first reading, when I had just finished the first and second books and was on tenterhooks to see how it all was resolved, and of the three, I think it's the weakest, as it's all about investigations and procedures (or mostly so). Still, a good re-read. 4.3 stars, maybe? or 4.2? I dunno, I'm dithering.

jan 24, 2012, 1:12am

dithering is good! ;-)

I will get around to reading Larsson's trilogy.....

***stares at TBR bookshelf and pile of library books***

.... one of these days.

jan 24, 2012, 12:01pm

I just pulled #2 from the TBR pile and put it in the pile to go on vacation the end of next month.

jan 25, 2012, 9:21pm

Finally crossed the finish line with Crowded With Genius by James Buchan, a history of the Enlightenment era in Scotland with a focus on Edinburgh, which I started reading back around Christmas; it was one of only two books that made me fall short of reading at least 11 books in every category last year! This was a very promising book that had some great moments (such as the chapter on how Edinburgh came to be a center of medical scholarship) but that couldn't hold up completely, so it took ages to read it, at a rate of about 1/3 of a chapter a night. It's a book I may well revisit, as it covers a lot of interesting ground, but I kept finding myself bogged down by a host of unfamiliar names -- for ever David Hume and Adam Smith there are dozens of lesser lights, and while Buchan doesn't assume that he's writing for a scholarly audience, nor does he spend time really developing their characters. Probably this is a book that should have been 700 pages instead of 350, or been more narrowly focused. Still, as I said, there's some fascinating stuff here. 3.7 stars, recommended if you're a history junkie with a particular interest in the period.

jan 28, 2012, 7:37pm

It's no spoiler to say that Robert Edric's novel of the Franklin Expedition, The Broken Lands, is about disaster and a doomed voyage of exploration -- the author discloses it on the dust jacket. After the 130 or so men, two dogs and a monkey were last sighted by a whaling vessel off Baffin Island in 1845, they were never seen again, and even today their precise fate remains somewhat mysterious. Bits and pieces have been found -- artifacts, bones, etc. -- but no chronicle. Edric sets out to imagine what it might have been like on the Erebus and the Terror as the realization dawns very slowly that problems become acute and then morph into catastrophes. Oddly, there are some parallels -- the author does a good job of limiting what the men aboard the vessels know to what they can know at any given time -- the recognition that there is no way out and no salvation arrives only in the final pages. The earlier pages offered fascinating glimpses of some of the characters (Edric focuses on some of the senior officers, including the scientists and doctors aboard) and what it was like to embark on a voyage of exploration at that time, when the men who returned could count on being feted as heroes. The ice itself is vividly portrayed as a character in its own right. A very very bleak book, but fascinating. 4.2 stars, recommended if you can face it.

jan 29, 2012, 2:54am

The Expats by Chris Pavone is one of those mystery/thrillers that's almost very good, but ends up stuck at merely "good" -- when you read it, you're carried along by the plot and don't focus on the holes, but when you stop, you realize there's not much substance there. (Another example of this would be The Informationist by Taylor Stevens.) Still, I wanted to read this because of the setting in an expat community in Luxembourg (I was an expat kid in Brussels and had friends who lived in Lux) and because it got rave blurbs from a few writers I like, including Olen Steinhauer. The plot's premise is simple: A couple and their two young children move to Luxembourg, but the secrets they keep from each other keep getting in the way. It's a big conspiracy, but it's too big, really, for this book. That's what I loved about Grisham's debut, The Firm; while it might have been implausible, it was a kind of compact thriller. All the big reveals at the end of the book are kinda out of the blue, despite the author's rather convoluted approach to writing the novel, in which she moves back and forth in time at will. Hey, it was an entertaining read, and a decent enough book for an airplane or beach, but there are better books of its kind out there. 3.7 stars; glad I got an ARC from the publishers.

jan 29, 2012, 8:43am

>54 Chatterbox: - I've added this to my list of books to get the hubby as he loves marine disaster books.

jan 30, 2012, 7:48pm

He'd love Ice Blink, then...

Two more for this challenge!!

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka was a wry and satirical look at emigrants in Britain -- the first novel of hers that I read, Strawberry Fields, dealt with a similar subject. Although she made her name with this novel, I'm not sure it's better; in fact, in essence, the two are very similar, both dealing with dimensions of the immigration debate in the UK through very vividly-imagined characters. I confess that the reason I wanted to read this one now is that my father has become involved (in his 70s) with a Lithuanian woman who is younger than I am (in her 40s), who needs a permanent visa... Happily, my sis-in-law says she's v. nice, and my father, after three marriages ending in divorce, shows no interest in embarking on #4. Vera and Nadia, whose father falls for a Ukrainian woman with bleached hair, fake boobs and too-short miniskirts, aren't quite so lucky, nor is dad himself. As he tries to craft his magnum opus (its title is the title of the book), his life becomes more and more chaotic, and Nadia, the narrator, finds her comfortable assumptions about the world and even her family history shaken. This was tremendously entertaining; it's not a brilliant or revelatory novel, but I really relished it and didn't want to put it down and go to sleep last night. 4 stars.

The Napoleon of Crime by Ben Macintyre was less compelling, to my surprise. It's an interesting enough story, I suppose, but I found it relatively hard sledding compared to some of Macintyre's other books and to other narrative non-fiction works I've been reading. Macintyre doesn't have the most vivid writing style imaginable and while I wasn't familiar with the life and capers of Adam Worth, had someone asked me to imagine the kind of things that might pop up in a story of the life of a North American and European gilded age uber-thief, most of those would have featured here. The glimpses of an underworld society that paralleled high society were amusing, as was Worth's fascination with a particular art work whose theft was his piece de resistance, but I suppose I just found the story lacking that element of "wow, who knew??" that I really wanted to fine. Not that Worth's antics weren't extraordinary, but as I said, they were within the realm of what I might have imagined. So it turned into a bit of a ponderous read for me, as I read 20 or 30 pages a day without ever really becoming caught up in the story. 3.6 stars.

jan 31, 2012, 4:00am

I've just read Tractors as well, but I think you may have enjoyed it a little more than I did. I also thought it was quite entertaining, but I was left a bit underwhelmed given how much I enjoyed previous books from the Orange awards.

jan 31, 2012, 1:04pm

I admit I find the Orange books very hit or miss. Some I have read have left me wondering what on earth the judges were thinking -- they are either very "faddy" (concept/topic/character type that is trendy, but not likely to last) or just banal, like last year's The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, at which I found myself wincing while reading. On the other hand, last year also brought the fab The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna. Still, I find it best to look at these and have low expectations and end up pleasantly surprised!! The year that Lewycka was nominated, I think my fave from the shortlist was Old Filth, which I thought was fab.

Picked up Bond Girl by Erin Duffy on a whim late yesterday evening, and ended up whipping through it in only a few hours. It's a fun, lively read, although her character's experiences working on a bond desk at the fictional (but identifiable enough) investment banking firm is enough to reinforce all the anti-Wall Street prejudices out there. (Traders with too much time on their hands round up $28k to bet that one of their colleagues can't eat one of every item sold in a vending machine during the course of a trading day; he does it.) Duffy focuses on the chick lit elements in this novel -- you won't get much insight into the nature of a bond trader's job here (although there is a bit) but you will into the wacky nature of Wall Street. Amusing brain candy. 3.7 stars, but will probably be lower for folks who've had no interactions with Wall Street.

jan 31, 2012, 11:51pm

...and one more, ending the month on a good note!

Sea of Poppies grabbed my attention and held it right to the last page. Amitav Ghosh does a fabulous job of weaving together the very disparate stories of the wife of a poor poppy-grower, the mulatto American seaman, a rajah, the orphaned daughter of an eccentric French botanist, a corrupt opium mogul and a clerk/Krishna devotee who suspects the seaman isn't quite what he appears to be. As the Krishna devotee says, "is it forbidden for a human being to manifest themselves in many different aspects?" Their fortunes are all tied, in disparate ways, to the Ibis, the boat that arrives in Calcutta and will leave for Mauritius with a load of indentured laborers in its hold. It's a compelling story in its own right, and the themes -- of the ways in which one's place in society is pre-determined and the constraints it imposes, and what happens to loosen those constraints, as well as the corruption of those seeking to maintain an artificial order -- are fascinating. The Ibis, as one character reflects, "was a vehicle of transformation, travelling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth." I confess that while I enjoyed some of the wordplay and eventually got accustomed to the incessant use of pidgen nautical terms, there were entire pages that I followed with difficulty. I'm docking 0.3 stars for that. (Puhleez: "By noon, the schooner's anchors were a-trip and the trikat-wale were ready to haul on her hanjes" -- and I've read the textbook for the basic keelboat course!!). 4.7 stars, def. one of the best books I'll read this year.

feb 3, 2012, 12:18am

How It All Began by Penelope Lively is an exceptionally well-written novel that can be read on multiple levels -- as an entertaining and undemanding overview of the way the lives of several characters are transformed by chance, or as an extended musing on the role that chaos plays in our lives; how we start out our lives intending to do certain things, with plans and dreams, only to look back in astonishment at the way random happenstance alters that. In this case, the catalyst is the mugging of Charlotte, a woman in her 70s. The mugging is dealt with in the first few pages, and then scarcely referred to until the final paragraph. Instead, we learn how this affects Rose, her daughter; Rose's employer, Henry; Henry's niece; Henry's niece's lover; Henry's niece's lover's wife and so on... The extent to which they are aware or unaware of the forces moving in their lives is interesting, and the characters are like ink and water sketches, delicate yet detailed. Essentially a "domestic" novel about characters and relationships, and one that relies on charm rather than massively insightful or original material, but I really enjoyed it. 4.2 stars.

feb 3, 2012, 3:28am

>54 Chatterbox: - The Terror by Dan Simmons is another book that deals with the same topic. I started it about a year or so ago, but haven't managed to finish it yet. Amazingly, I think I can pick it up at any time (and probably should soon) and continue where I left off as the story still hangs with me.

feb 3, 2012, 7:55am

I keep seeing Sea of Poppies popping up in this group! Either it's a really good book or it fits some sort of challenge. I definitely want to read it though. Never read a book by Ghosh--hadn't even heard of him before this book started popping up!

feb 5, 2012, 10:59pm

I think Sea of Poppies is one of those books that spreads by word of mouth; also, it was shortlisted for the Booker in either '08 or '09, which certainly added to the buzz!

I looked at The Terror, but the fact that he seems to rely heavily on a kind of monster (and that the novel seems to become a more modern horror story) kinda put me off reading it; to me, the horror was the nature of the man vs. Arctic wilderness, and that was quite sufficient! If you read that, try the Erdic novel later -- I think the two prob. have different views of Francis Crozier.


Catherine the Great by Robert Massie was an immensely readable and vivid biography of a remarkable Russian empress; for the most part it is comprehensive and throughout it is well-written, vivid and compelling. That said, and while I'm rating it 4.4 stars for what it does do, there is a lot that it doesn't accomplish. There are already some standard biographies of Catherine out there, and what Massie is really doing is crafting a popular biography based on their work. That's fine, but anyone reading this with some knowledge of Catherine and her times will find this more a lively version of what they already know. Frankly, I couldn't put it down, although at the same time, my list of niggly quibbles grew. In the early stages of the book, the focus is solidly on her and palace intrigues -- fine, but I really felt that the broader picture was missing. At what point did she resolve to become sole monarch, rather than consort or regent? Massie seems indecisive, sending mixed signals. When Catherine reaches the throne, halfway through, Massie jumps back and forth in time, so, for instance, the reader gets a complete overview of her favorites, and then goes waaay back in time to early in her reign, when Gregory Orlov was still her lover and favorite, as Massie begins discussing the plans for the marriage of Catherine's son. Later, the same is true of her relationships with foreign powers -- one minute, she is referring to the death of the Austrian Emperor; in the next chapter, she is sailing down the Dnieper with him. It didn't spoil the narrative, but did mean I had to constantly refer to where I was in Catherine's chronology (there wasn't one in my ARC edition of this book, alas.) There's an offhand mention of the fate of Catherine's son, which should have been elaborated on in an afterword of some kind. And so on, and so on. But, as I noted, these are mainly quibbles. Massie doesn't speak or read Russian and relied perhaps a bit too heavily on Catherine's own memoirs and other secondary accounts and key biographies, but the readers of this aren't going to be aware of it, and he's dealt with the vast mass of material in an almost effortless way. Recommended, 4.4 stars

feb 6, 2012, 1:29am

Suzanne, I want to thank you for adding The Peacock Spring to my list of Comfort Reads. I loved this book and I now have a new author whose books I can't wait to track down.

feb 6, 2012, 11:41am

I came this close to buying the book about Catherine the Great this weekend and I'm glad I didn't. I read precious few biographies and it sounds like this one would be tough to follow, not knowing much about her to begin with.

feb 6, 2012, 11:56pm

Judy, I'm always delighted when someone discovers Rumer Godden! I did at the age of 14, and promptly started seeking out her books. My faves are probably China Court, In This House of Brede, The Greengage Summer, and among her later books Thursday's Children, about a young boy who is a misfit within his family but trains to become a dancer and The Dark Horse, which is probably a bit of a crossover YA title. Her last two books I liked, but are intriguingly different; the settings are linked. Coromandel Sea Change is the better, but there is also Cromartie vs the God Shiva. If you liked Peacock Summer, you would probably find the latter two appealing; The Dark Horse also is set in India.

Mamzel -- it's tremendously readable, and not that hard to follow, especially if Massie included a timeline of some kind in the real book. (I only got the ARC, so it's hard to criticize the extra features that could have been there...) If you're interested in Catherine, it's almost certainly the most readable and comprehensive book out there; my quibbles are more minor than major, and the only major one would probably only be relevant to someone who knows a lot about the period and is looking for fresh revelations.

OK -- next book. I had to read Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre for my real life book circle, so to offset that, turned to A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott. This recovery book, utterly frivolous, is kinda vintage chick lit, or a slight cross between chick and hen lit. Poppy is suddenly widowed by freak accident, and isn't altogether unhappy by the loss of the control freak she had married on the rebound. Then she makes a discovery about her late husband's double life... Oh yes, ultimately very predictable, like all books in the genre, but I desperately needed something mindless. Anyway -- the Alliott book was of its genre, so 3.5 stars for that. Not memorable, but who cares?

feb 8, 2012, 11:22pm

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett is the second of his Discworld novels and though I still wouldn't describe myself as a fantasy fan, this, rather than Guards! Guards! is the book that has convinced me to read more of Pratchett, probably starting with the rest of the "Watch" novels. Corporal Carrot has emerged in this book as more than just a two-dimensional character hear, and become even a bit of an enigma, and I thought the troll/dwarf rivalry was great fun. Yes, some of the puns and humor are wince-inducing, but I found I didn't care too much this time. The plot? Oh, there's a "gonne" loose in Ankh-Morpork, a weird kind of stick that uses gunpowder to lob lethal blobs of lead at people... and the Watch has to track it down. Undemanding fun; 4.2 stars.

feb 10, 2012, 12:06am

A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison is due back at the library; I whipped through it, which was both for good and bad reasons. This is a clunkily-written novel that is more about the author's goal of getting readers outraged about sexual trafficking, than it is a novel with fully-realized characters. Obviously, I was outraged as the author had intended, but realized I didn't need to read this book to feel that way. Basic plotline: two sisters orphaned by the Asian tsunami end up kidnapped and sold into a brothel -- the youngest is taken on an odyssey. The chapters about the sisters alternate with ones about a burned-out lawyer who ends up volunteering with an NGO in Mumbai and trying to reconcile with his estranged wife. Too convoluted; too much serendipity at work; too many loose ends tied up too neatly. Not recommended, but if you do start it, you'll probably finish it, out of sheer momentum. This was for the "random" books section. 2.8 stars.

feb 11, 2012, 7:01pm

A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury is one of the historical novels written by Ellis Peters under her "other" name, Edith Pargeter. It tells a fascinating story, that of the three-way relationship between Henry of Lancaster, who became Henry IV after seizing the English throne from Richard II, his son and heir (who would become Henry V), and a third Henry, Henry Percy, aka Hotspur, who was the equivalent of the idol of the masses, known for his valour & chivalry. (If you've read Shakespeare's novels, you'll have a sense of this.) Henry IV is becoming old before his time; he can no longer trust. Meanwhile, his young son (who is about 16 at the end of this novel) has been under the care and tutelage of Hotspur on the Welsh Marches. When Henry IV's distrust takes over, he does something that Hotspur and his family can't tolerate, and civil war looms, putting young "Hal" in the midst of a conflict. Pargeter does an exceptional job here, from writing about battle (both the adrenaline and the aftermath), to the psychological impact of estrangement between fathers and sons. There's an odd kind of romantic twist here which is perhaps a bit unbelievable, and the language is even more convoluted and flowery than that found in the Cadfael novels, so you have to be able to tolerate phrases such as: "They made their own terms of reference; she, perhaps with knowledge and calculation; the man, after his kind, by impulse and the blind brilliance of his own nature." This somehow works better in historical novels (I've not been able to read a trilogy of Pargeter's set in WW2, because of the language) but you have to be able to immerse yourself in it and somehow ignore it. For me, as a historical fiction nut, it's worth it: in this, as in the massive Brothers of Gwynned series she wrote, Pargeter has taken what was an overlooked tale and turned it into a compelling saga. Sharon Penman owes a lot to her; Penman's novels of the last Welsh princes followed Pargeter's and while they are without the flamboyant, flowery style, they also don't have the same sense of time and place. Recommended to those interested in historical novels and the period. 4.1 stars; this was one of my re-reads for my "bluechips" category.

I'm going to be adding some books to the lists here that I plan to read in memory of JanetinLondon. As many of you know, Janet died in early January; she and I had lively discussions about many books and I'll miss her here tremendously. I'll mark those books with a (J) after the title; all are chosen from her books and my TBR list, or my wishlist.

feb 11, 2012, 7:14pm

I'm so sorry about your friend. That's a beautiful way to remember her.

Redigerat: feb 12, 2012, 12:50am

There's a memorial read of God's Philosophers going on right now over in the '75 group; I just got my copy, though, so I'm not sure I'll be able to keep up with that one. I hope to start reading Troubles by JG Farrell next month, however.

The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst does his usual excellent job of conjuring up the atmosphere of the late 1930s in Europe -- this time in Warsaw, where a French military officer, Jean-Francois Mercier, finds himself enmeshed in a web of spies and spying -- German ones, Polish ones and Soviet ones. Eventually, the focus emerges -- at the heart of all this spying is the need to find an answer to how the Germans will decide to attack France in the battle that everyone by now knows all too well is becoming unavoidable. (This is set in 1937/38.) Don't look for tremendous pulse-pounding drama here, although there are a few moments where agents are in peril where I think I literally held my breath for a page or two. But action isn't the strength of this or any of Furst's novels. Despite the fact that it rambles a bit, it's a good read, and extremely atmospheric. At one point, I could almost feel myself on a train to Belgrade, as the steam huffs, someone bangs a case on the outer door my compartment and the train slowly glides out of the station... 4.1 stars (This is a book that I started to read several times after it landed on my Kindle a few years ago...)

Redigerat: feb 12, 2012, 2:46pm

Tolstoy Lied by Rachel Kadish: Like Cushla (cushlareads), whose words about this book inspired me to read it, I finished it with much more ambivalence than I began. I was delighted to find an intelligent chick lit book, with high-caliber writing that held up throughout even though Tracy's relationship with the love of her life, George, became more unbelievable. ***SPOILER ALERT*** after a mere two months he proposes; she feels rushed and freaks out (who wouldn't??) and then there's waaay too much over-thinking and second-guessing ***END SPOILER ALERT*** She is forced to redefine her ideas about happiness and literature in her own life, even as she clings to them as a possible book thesis -- she is in the midst of the tenure process at a New York University. For me, the problem was that Kadish couldn't quite strike the right tone throughout -- she starts out in a bright chick-lit tone but talking about serious stuff, which was a combination I liked, but then toward the middle, I felt as if I was inside the head of someone whose thoughts are going around in circles. OK, this may have been a conscious choice and designed to illustrate the book's themes, but whatever the case, the shift in tone REALLY didn't work for me. What started out as fresh ended up feeling claustrophobic to me; that intensity just wasn't a good match for the type of novel she set out to write and reminded me of something Marilyn French might have written. That's not an insult, but that's not what the first part of the book was, so it's an odd mix. OK, I'll give it 3.4 stars. (I admit I also felt alienated here as I felt the author became a bit preachy toward the end about women who are single by choice & relatively content with that life: "Before I met this man I was perfect; I had no faults I was aware of. Now all I can do is absorb the pleasures and stings that come with being known. And conduct myself with humble, patient obstinacy -- knowing that while a woman' s independence may be a hothouse flower, I am not. I will survive the jousting. So we stake our positions, compromise, draw and redraw lines." WTF??? It's as if the author doesn't recognize that an unmarried women might know that that these things are part of a marriage. (It's a bit like a new mother telling a childless friend, you can't even imagine what it's like to be a parent -- true to some extent, of course, but breathtakingly arrogant, nonetheless.) The tone emerges as privileged, haughty, almost arrogant, both in her dealings with her fellow academics as she fights for tenure, and in the didactic asides to the reader. I'm saddened, because this could have been a fabulously fun novel, and wasn't.

feb 12, 2012, 3:26pm

Thanks for the review of Catherine The Great. I've been looking forward to it since I saw it was coming out. Since I haven't read much about her yet, I don't think I'll be annoyed by the things that bothered you. Sounds like it will be a good place to start and I can read a more detailed biography in the future.

feb 12, 2012, 7:40pm

I would really recommend the Massie; as you'll see, I gave it a very high rating, so my qualms are really on the margin and aimed mostly at the kind of people who probably wouldn't read a more general book anyway.

On the other hand, here's one that I want to stick a giant AVOID AT ALL COSTS sticker on.

The only good thing to say for Mr. Churchill's Secretary is that, unlike most ER books, it arrived promptly. But it's is simply a poor excuse for a novel that sometimes felt like a book intended for 13 year olds (it wasn't; there's some very soft sex scenes of unmarried couples lying naked in a bed), that just strained my credulity to the breaking point. True, the author addressed the loooong list of questions I had accumulated by page 30, eventually, but the answers were bizarre. I've reviewed it, because it's an ER book, so if you want to know more, read that. I can't repeat myself, the experience of the last 50 pages was simply too painful. Avoid at all costs; it's being marketed as akin to Maisie Dobbs, but only if you're delusional. 1/2 star. I'm hoping it's the worst book I read this year. This woman needs an editor. I kept whipping out my pencil and trying to form a coherent and compelling narrative structure for this, only to put it away again and remind myself that isn't my job. Surreal that she has a 2-book deal -- that should give hope to all struggling novelists.

I now have to go and read something that I KNOW will be a compelling and exciting read, after spending the best part of a week slowly plodding through the above. I kept having to put it down and go read something better, so a book that had it been good I could have read in a day, took me nearly a week. And I only finished it because of the ER obligation, and the fact that two of my recent ER books require me to finish the author's prior book before reading the latest one.

OK, off to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. I'm not a literary snob, but...

feb 12, 2012, 7:57pm

I just read your review -- I loved it! Actually, it made me laugh out loud, so it got a thumbs up from me.

I remember thinking I'd have to get a hold of this one when I saw it on the ER list, so I want to thank you for saving me from disappointment.

Tolstoy Lied and Mr. Churchill's Secretary back to back -- I hope your next book is much, much better!

feb 12, 2012, 8:50pm

@ 75 -- Mr. Churchill's Secretary was my ER book too. I didn't hate it to quite the same extent that you did, but I was definitely underwhelmed. And I totally agree about the need for some pretty extensive editing!

feb 12, 2012, 11:17pm

Happily, I'm now immersed in two -- one genre read (the newest book in the Dr. Siri series from Colin Cotterill, which is shaping up to be fab) and the second book I've read by Carmine Abate, The Homecoming Party. I loved his first novel, and this one is living up to it although I'm only 50 pages into it. So the nasty taste is slowly being removed from my mouth...

Christina, I kept wanting to like it or to find redeeming qualities, and then I'd turn the page and something would spring up that made me scream and hurl the book from me instead. With a book like that, usually I give up after 30 or 40 pages, but with an ER book....

feb 13, 2012, 7:51am

Excellent review. Not a genre I particularly follow so I was unlikely to pick it up anyway. I too have an ER book that I'm having a tough time getting through. I'm off on vacation in a couple of weeks and I'd really like to get it done before then. Sounds like your next books might be better.

feb 13, 2012, 9:41pm

Slash and Burn by Colin Cotterill is the latest volume in the (mis)adventures of Dr. Siri Paiboun, the reluctant national coroner in the still embryonic communist regime of Laos in the late 1970s. I fell in love with this series after the first book, and this is one of the better books in the series, featuring most of the old favorite characters, including a staring role for Siri's morgue assistant, Gaeung, who has Down's syndrome. Indeed, Siri's gang may look like a bunch of oddballs -- Nurse Dtui, Madame Daeng (who runs the premiere noodle establishment in Vientiane), Inspector Phosy and his love rival, Lieutenant Sit, and a disgraced old Politburo buddy, Civiltai, not to mention a cross-dressing shamanic psychic translator. Yet all of them set off along with a highly unusual mission: years after the Americans left their CIA bases in Northern Laos, a government expedition wants to go back to see if they can find the body -- alive or dead -- of a former Air America pilot, the son of a noted senator. But there are wheels within wheels, and what should have been a great diplomatic whitewash is messed by Siri's instinct for discovering the truth -- even if it means that, as Yeh Ming, the Hmong shaman (long dead) to which his body now reluctantly plays host, has warned him, he must die. Should Cotterill kill off Dr. Siri, I would have to go into mourning. Cotterrill does such an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Laos and its inhabitants that I can almost feel that I'm sitting at the edge of the Mekhong, watching the sunset; I'm tempted to book a flights so I can taste Mme Daeng's noodles and investigate Siri's (illegal) library. What fun this series is. 4.4 stars, definitely recommended, but do start at the beginning, with The Coroner's Lunch.

feb 15, 2012, 1:20am

Finished The Secret River by Kate Grenville and am left in awe of the author's ready command of her characters, events and the setting. The pacing and flow are almost pitch-perfect and she captures an impending sense of doom without once hinting at the exact nature of that doom (although its general nature becomes clear.) The story is probably familiar to a lot of LTers by now -- William Thornhill has his death sentence for theft commuted to transportation in the first few years of the 19th century, and he, his wife Sal, and their growing family set out to build a new life in Australia. While Sal is brutally homesick, Will discovers a place where he can live as an equal to those around him -- except that, as he realizes, the land he covets and views as his own is occupied in a way he doesn't understand by people with whom he can't communicate. Nonetheless, Will warily accepts the idea of living side by side -- only to find he is unable to feel in agreement either with his fellow "emancipists" or the aboriginal peoples. It's a powerful and convincing story; definitely recommended! 4.6 stars, on my list of the year's best books. I have already downloaded Sarah Thornhill onto my Kindle...

Redigerat: feb 15, 2012, 1:26am

Glad to hear Secret River is so good, I am looking forward to getting my hands on it!

feb 17, 2012, 7:43pm

The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay was a book with tremendous potential that wilted in response to the way the author chose to write it. Instead of chronicling events in real time, or even making them feel engaging and moving and dramatic in retrospect, de Rosnay has Rose write this novel in the form of a communication of some kind with her long-dead husband (it's ostensibly a letter, but feels like a lot of random musing.) Armand had brought her to his home in the St. Germain quartier of Paris in the late 1820s; now, Baron Haussman (known here only, ominously, as the Prefect, his official title) is redesigning the city of Paris and replacing little neighborhoods like that of Rose with grands boulevards. So her house is scheduled to be demolished, something that Rose knows will destroy her. As she waits out the house's final days, she revisits her life, secrets are revealed, etc. etc. de Rosnay does a great job of portraying a quartier and a community life, but really never convinced me to care much about Rose. 3.2 stars, meh.

Redigerat: feb 22, 2012, 9:58pm

After a few "women's novels" that underwhelmed, here's one that is a winner:
The Time in Between by Maria Duenas was the chunkster that I chose to entertain me on my flight back to NYC yesterday, and finished up sometime today. It's not every novel that earns a blurb from Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa ("a wonderful novel with intrigue, love and mystery") and I'm not sure that Llosa is really that enamored of what is not much more than a straightforward saga of a woman making her way in the world in the 1930s and 1940s. It's a typical woman's novel, with the really fascinating element being its setting: Duenas has chosen to place her story of Sira Quiroga, a young woman from Madrid who runs afoul of a man and is left peniless in Spanish Morocco on the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, against a backdrop of fascinating events and characters that will be almost unknown to most of her readers and that I for one found very compelling indeed. The story -- Sira becomes a couturier and a spy, just as the book's cover jacket promises -- is fairly predictable, but the glimpses into the Moroccan city of Tetouan and Madrid as the country's neutrality came precariously close to shattering during WW2 were anything but. Lots of the plot twists are predictable, some are not terribly well-handled, but the pacing is brisk, the writing (and translation) quite good and the level of suspense generated by the author often very good indeed. Hence my ability to whip through the whole 609 pages in less than two days -- I really didn't want to put it down, and I now want to read more about some of the players and characters. Spain and Portugal were fascinating places in WW2, as spies duelled in the shadows, and the author does manage to capture that atmosphere. Definitely worth checking out, if that kind of book strikes your fancy. I'd describe it as a version of A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson, but less gritty, more saga than suspense, and told through a woman's eyes. A thumping good read, if not a top book of the year; 4 stars.

feb 23, 2012, 12:38pm

...and another one!

The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar is a particularly good example of the kind of book that has become a genre -- a group of friends (usually female), went through a particularly important time in their lives together, drifted apart, now come back together and resolve issues. This is almost the template for Umrigar's very well-written novel, which comes close to rising above all the tropes partly because the women in question are Indian women, who came of age in the late 1970s, and who have watched their country undergo dramatic and often disturbing change. (One plot twist here involves the rise of sectarianism). I found this was a very fast read, because I always wanted to read what happened next -- each of the four women -- one dying of a brain tumor in the United States, the others in India, planning their final reunion with her -- have distinctive personalities, and none felt two-dimensional to me. Of course, had some of the issues been explored in depth, this could have been downright fascinating, but Umrigar is more interested in writing about relationships than issues, and that's fine, because she does it well. Very readable, recommended if that's your kind of thing, but not really new or fresh. Still, I liked it and whipped through it. 4.1 stars.

feb 23, 2012, 9:57pm

@ 84 -- So glad to see the positive review of The Time in Between! I'm on hold for a copy at my library, but I'm getting really impatient to read it!

feb 25, 2012, 7:38pm

The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery is a delightfully pithy and cynical little novella. Ossama is a Cairo-based thief, who pilfers from those who he considers the real thieves -- the wealthiest of his fellow citizens. Because, after all, there is no way to make an honest living in Egypt... His father lives in a rickety tenement; Ossama also encounters Karamallah, who lives on more solid foundations -- he has taken up residence in the city of the Dead. Together, they decide how to use a particularly juicy piece of information about one of the uber-thieves. The language is delicious; the philosophy and hilariously moral amorality (or amoral morality??) left me chortling but also thinking. Read this now. 4.7 stars; must seek out more by Cossery. My copy of this book has a blurb on the back from the Times of London, describing Cossery (who died several years ago) as "one of the last and quirkiest links to the postwar glory days of St Germain-des-Pres"; when asked whether he didn't get bored being idle, Cossery replied, "I can't get bored. I am with Monsieur Cossery." What's not to like??

Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick is a good book for all those who've been delighting in Tudor historical fiction -- the saga of Matilda's attempts to win the English crown in the 12th century was one of the reasons for Henry VIII's marital misadventures -- he didn't trust either of his daughters to rule. This is a fast-paced and entertaining read, and in some ways better than Sharon Penman's loooong saga focusing on the civil war between Matilda and Stephen during which, chroniclers wrote, "Christ and his Saints Slept." It's romanticized and a bit fluffy, but exceptionally well-researched. 3.7 stars, for historical fiction fans.

feb 26, 2012, 1:19pm

I am a fan of Elizabeth Chadwick, I find she gets the blend between historical detail and good story just about right. In fact, I am planning on reading The Running Vixen, the middle book in her "Wild Hunt" trilogy soon.

mar 1, 2012, 12:53pm

The Ionia Sanction by Gary Corby was a fast-paced sequel to the author's debut mystery, set in ancient Greece, that I raved about last year. This isn't quite as fresh, but the author very astutely shifts the base of operations to address that. Nicolaos, elder brother of the still-teenage Socrates, is an investigator working for Pericles in ancient Athens (circa 460 BCE). A "proxenos" (think, 5th century BCE consul) for Ephesus is found murdered in Athens after warning Pericles of potential treachery -- to find out what that might be, Nico has to venture out of Attica and across the seas to Ephesus, coincidentally the place where the girl he loves headed when his father denied him permission to marry. Together, Nico and Diotima encounter some truly nasty villains (who like impaling people on spikes), an overly-principled Persian overseer, a Greek traitor (Themistocles) and his family (who have some deeply nasty habits of various kinds). In some ways, I ended up liking this better than the debut, although you have to have a tolerance for flip, anachronistic attitudes and comments and sly "we know what happens next" references. (As when Nico refers to people using hemlock to commit suicide, the cause of Socrates' death many decades later.) Reminds me a bit of one of my favorite children's books, "The Crown of Violet" by Geoffrey Trease, which features an older Socrates and another threat to Athens. (can't find a touchstone for the latter...) This was 4.2 stars for me.

mar 1, 2012, 10:40pm

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens is one of those sentimental favorites that I probably re-read countless times in my teens and 20s, after my mother gave me a newly-reissued copy of Mariana by the author in 1977 (yes, I remember the date! -- I read it while on a trip to India, and had a hard time pulling myself out of the pages to look at elephants that were tiny spots on the other side of the lake during a wildlife cruise.) Then my copy vanished, along with The Fancy, another Monica Dickens fave. Still, maybe the author is coming back into popularity, as I was able to get a nice crisp, new Persephone edition, with a respectful and even admiring afterword by AS Byatt (written in 1970, from Horizon -- whatever happened to that magazine? Did Cyril Connolly's death kill it??) Dickens (the g-granddaughter of you know who) is seen as a resolutely middle-brow author who wrote for the kind of middle-class women who wanted something different from escapist romances and yet who didn't want Literature. That's probably a reasonable assessment of the target market, but I think it doesn't recognize what Dickens set out to do. With a lot of empathy, if not much flamboyance, she sheds light on people who don't expect much from life and for whom a nice lunch out, a pleasant conversation, and sitting beside a warm fire, are as appealing as riches, exotic travel and gorgeous men/women might be to characters in other books. These novels aren't dramatic -- except that they are, in very subtle ways. In this story of the widowed Louise, as she shuttles from the home of one daughter to another after her feckless and unpleasant husband Dudley dies and leaves her nothing but bills after bullying her into submission for decades, the drama creeps up on you. It's the drama associated with a woman who is living life teetering on the edge -- what will happen if this reluctant safety net vanishes? What will happen to her beloved granddaughter, a misfit in her own family? Louise irritates the reader -- she is passive, probably not the sharpest crayon in the box, too self-effacing and when she tries to help out, she does it badly, bungling the darning and offending the servants at the friend's residential hotel where she spends winters. She's not a heroine, but her tenacity and insistence on seeing the best in those who are her family (even as she sees their flaws clearly) make her heroic, in a different way. 4.4 stars, some of the rating being from the book's status as a sentimental fave. For my re-reads category.

mar 3, 2012, 5:08pm

The Garden Intrigue is a frothy historical romance, part of the "Pink Carnation" spy mysteries series. Now, take the spy and mystery very lightly, as Lauren Willig's goal is really to be silly. Take the example of one apprentice spy, entering an early 19th century salong in Paris "charging in as though all the hounds of hell were behind him, the nasty yippy ones with particularly pointy teeth." Willing is happily anachronistic in the parts of her novel set 200 years ago (she even has one character musing to herself, "what a fool she was, what an addlepated fool" -- anyone else recognize the source of that??). The contemporary part of the book is just a framing device, although Eloise Kelly is endearing enough. This could be nothing more than Harlequin romance, but for the fact that Willig knows her history well, can write (which is why her goofy phrases make me laugh -- they're deliberate) and never, ever takes herself or her characters too seriously. The result is delightful fluff; the perfect antidote to the woes of the world. 3.9 stars, for the light reads part of this challenge.

mar 3, 2012, 7:57pm

A great review of The Garden Intrigue which I haven't yet got to in the series, but I also enjoy Lauren Willig for her williness to be goofy, and never taking herself too seriously yet still providing us readers with accurate history.

mar 5, 2012, 12:18am

Refreshing, isn't it, Judy? Usually it's the other way around -- an author taking him/herself seriously, and some seriously wacky versions of "history"...

mar 5, 2012, 9:55am

The Jackal Man is a better mystery than many in this aging series by Kate Ellis featuring university friends Wesley Peterson, now a detective, and Neil, who went on to become an archaeologist. Each book in the series features a contemporary mystery that has some kind of historical parallel and archaelogical link, and sometimes Ellis stretches to make those work (meaning that they don't). This time it all hangs together far better, with a series of particularly nasty murders having echoes of a series of crimes that took place back in 1903 and that were believed to be committed then by the son and heir of a baronet who was an avid Egyptologist. This time around, Neil is summoned to help catalog the baronet's collection by his g-g-granddaughter when the murders begin -- on each body is found a little statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death and the afterlife. A good, nicely complex mystery, but there's very little here on the characters themselves; they are simply there to solve that crime, in contrast to some of the past crimes. Start with The Armada Boy and read some of the earlier books; this one is for folks who like the series but have been disappointed of late. 3.8 stars.

mar 6, 2012, 7:17pm

Coromandel Sea Change is one of Rumer Godden's later novels, and perhaps not as compelling as China Court or the Peacock Spring. Nor are her characters -- once you step back from the book and really look at it -- terribly convincing, and one of the reasons I've loved her novels is that any eccentricity or larger-than-life personalities feel natural in the context of the story she is telling. In this case, I didn't find either of the two main characters, young Mary Browne (married at 18) or the idealistic politician, Krishnan, either that convincing or that engaging, and so it's harder to deal with Godden's distinctive writing style. Oddly, this time around, I even found myself empathizing with the frustrated and angry Blaise, Mary's husband, or Kuku, the assistant manager of Patna Hall, where the drama and the ultimate tragedy take shape. The setting is fascinating, there are some intriguing minor characters, but I don't recommend this unless and until you've finished Godden's other novels and really feel the urge to read just one more. 3.7 stars

mar 8, 2012, 12:40am

Finally finished Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George, the latest book in the long-running Inspector Lynley series. This is another departure from the norm of the series -- from the start, it's unclear whether there's actually a crime when Lynley is ordered by his boss's boss to head up to Cumbria and investigate the mysterious drowning of the nephew of a powerful industrialist. But the investigation itself causes family mysteries of various kinds and ripple effects to spread throughout the lives of Lynley and his network of friends and colleagues. The book is long and complex, so it's hard to spell out what those are, and I'm not sure that complexity is an advantage. Each individual narrative thread is compelling enough, and they do all fit together, but some of them could have been disposed of without harming the overall plot. I don't mind a long rambling journey in a book, as long as I'm having fun getting there, but this time the end point wasn't altogether what I expected. I'll keep reading the books, at least in part because I'm curious about what will happen next in the plot line involving Barbara Havers and Taymullah Azhar, but I'm flummoxed about what Elizabeth George is doing. Notably, I picked this up and put it down again several times; started reading it while in San Juan nearly three weeks ago and only finished it now. And putting it down to read something else never really bothered me. OK, on to something different, I think. This was 3.8 stars.

mar 8, 2012, 5:59pm

I have been a faithful fan of Elizabeth George's since her first book, even though I have thought her work has being going downhill in recent years. I will keep reading her and you have encouraged me with mention of
Barbara Havers and Taymullah Azhar. I have been missing Barbara Havers in the last few books, but I am a couple behind you. She (Barbara) is my favorite character in this series.

mar 10, 2012, 1:14am

Am still not sure I like The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones, but I'm also not sure it matters. It's strange, riveting, compelling and utterly unlike anything else I've read. I'll do a longer review later, after I've had some sleep, but essentially this is a book that starts out purporting to be the straightforward saga of a young woman's birthday party in the late Edwardian era -- think a more middle class Downton Abbey. There are all kinds of tensions and dysfunctional relationships between the invited guests, who have preconceptions about each other, view each other through different prisms, think of what they should want, what they deserve, etc. Then a train is derailed, and the uninvited guests -- the passengers -- arrive, and thing become truly, deeply strange... When the next day dawns, they have all been through a stormy night, literally and rhetorically. I have to say that by page 100 I was ready to give up in disgust, creeped out by elements of this book and annoyed by the tone and the characters. By page 200, I couldn't wait to see how it ended, even as it became clear exactly what was going on. I don't know if this is a fable, or... ? Anyway, will owe Amazon Vine a review for this, so will cross-post that here by the end of the weekend. I think this is a very well-written, clever and witty (not funny, but witty) novel, but whether it will appeal to anyone else?? I wouldn't even hazard a guess. This is one that is very much going to be an individual choice; some will hate/loathe it, others will wrinkle their noses; some will be baffled by it and some will be captivated. As I said, like? Not sure. In awe or Jones's ambition and imagination? Abso-bloody-lutely. This is an ARC; the novel is due out in May. 4.2 stars

mar 10, 2012, 1:57am

Hmmm - I might keep my eyes open for The Uninvited Guests. It sounds intriguing.

mar 12, 2012, 11:56pm

Perla by Carolina de Robertis is the story of a young woman's quest for her own identity -- sparked by the discovery of a naked, smelly, dripping wet man on her family's living room floor when she returns home unexpectedly and while her parents, an Argentinean naval officer and his wife, are away for a week. This being magical realism, Perla quickly realizes that this is one of the "Disappeared" from Argentina's Dirty War. she reacts with surprise, curiosity but a degree of aplomb. After all, she concludes, "if you can't explain how something went away , then why should its return obey the laws of reason?" But his appearance and their interactions prompt an onslaught of questions, even as the ghostlike entity's own recollections of what led to his immersion in the sea also reveals more of Perla's past. 4.7 stars, despite my lack of enthusiasm for magical realism. Full review over on the book's page, and I've posted one for the Uninvited Guests as well.

mar 13, 2012, 10:32pm

A Little Folly by Jude Morgan was a disappointment. This author has written a fab series of mysteries set in the 18th century under the pen name of Hannah March, and some excellent bio-novels based on Shelley and his circle and Charlotte Bronte. But he (I'm pretty sure the real persona is male) flounders a bit, IMO, when it comes to the novels that he writes in the tradition of Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Don't misunderstand -- the language is pitch-perfect, the situations very akin to those one might find in either, although perhaps the characters a little more knowing than either of those authors would have permitted. (Louisa, the heroine of this novel, despite having led a very very sheltered life, seems quite familiar with what a "criminal conversation" lawsuit might involve -- it's essentially an alienation of affection civil case, a way to punish adulterers in a pre-divorce era.) Louisa and her brother Valentine are finally free to explore the wider world when their dictatorial father dies, but will that freedom go to their heads? Meh. This lacks the wit and polish of either of Morgan's literary models, despite having a literary style straight out of 1814. If you're really yearning for a fresh story in this vein, give it a shot, but I found it a bit boring in spots. 3.2 stars.

mar 14, 2012, 8:01am

You made me curious so I jumped over to and looked up Jude Morgan and it says the real name is Tim Wilson, so I think you're right that He's a HE.

mar 14, 2012, 8:09am

Suzanne, I'm sure I haven't commented on your twelve in twelve categories because they looked new to me this morning, so let me just say, how apropos they are!

I've noticed, now that I'm listening to quite a few audio books just how many authors read their own books. Did you narrate your audio version of Chasing Goldman Sachs?If not, we you able to choose who would read it?

mar 15, 2012, 8:48pm

Dudes, yes, although I wondered if Tim Wilson was simply another persona!!

Lynda, nope, I had no voice -- literally or rhetorically -- in recording the audio version of CGS! Probably wise, as I do have a slight, albeit often unplaceable accent that sometimes drives people I'm talking to slightly batty until they ask me about it. I didn't have any say in who did it -- indeed, the first I knew about this was coming home one morning -- yes, yes, we New Yorkers live rackety lives -- to find a voice mail from the woman doing the recording, wondering how on earth to pronounce the lilongwe (a currency) and several other things! (Some I had to check out myself...)

Finally finished The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg on the train to Boston. It was -- oddly -- a slog. I think the author can't decide whether she's writing mysteries or novels; certainly this wasn't suspenseful enough to stop me putting it down (repeatedly), nor was it compelling enough character-wise to work as a plain novel. That said, it was interesting -- in this fifth installment of her Swedish mystery series, Patrick is on paternity leave while Erica is trying to solve a mystery about her dead mother, in whose belongings she has found a bloodstained infant's garment and a Nazi medal. Some of the twists were obvious, others weren't, but the biggest flaw was all the extraneous material. This is not a series that is getting better, but it's still interesting, thankfully. I do think that a particular Swedish sweet manufacturer should be paying Lackberg, given the number of times its product was mentioned in the pages. Kinda underwhelming. 3.6 stars, won't toss the book but the odds I'll re-read it are low and I'm in no hurry to move on to the sixth book, which came out in the UK today. Sigh, too bad, as I loved the first book in the series.

mar 19, 2012, 12:09am

The Soldier's Wife by Joanna Trollope, while rather predictable to anyone who is familiar with the author's work and wants to sit down and imagine how the return of a soldier from combat might disrupt the lives of friends and family at home might be handled in the way she writes a story. Alexa is the main character; widowed in her 20s, she fell in love with Dan but only now is beginning to realize what it means when someone comes back from war unwilling to recognize that her concerns are valid -- or even acknowledging their existence. Time and again Dan displays that he's oblivious to what is going on. It's all very predictable, but Trollope makes it a better read than most other authors could. Still, this isn't her best -- and it's full of incomprehensible military jargon that I had to try to decipher through the clues she scattered around, like an officer being "pinked", which I assume (from references to promotions and pink sheets listing promotions), has something to do with acquiring a higher rank. 3.8 stars, because it was very readable and I'm feeling generous.

mar 19, 2012, 10:11pm

The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner was a book that I read because RebeccaNYC really loved it; while I enjoyed the almost delicate tracings of the life of a community of nuns in the Fenlands of Northeastern England in the 14th century, I don't think I loved it as much as she did. In a way, I found myself thinking that it's almost like looking at the landscape in which the author set this novel -- it at first looks featureless and flat, until you begin to pick out the details of the land against the astonishing expanse of sky. Nuns depart, arrive, die, misbehave; a new priest who isn't really a priest arrives, and lives there for decades; there are plagues, rebels, civil strife, bishops' visitations. In the end, it was some of the small vignettes that stayed with me -- the visit of one nun to a family wedding; the voyage of a young clerk to a leper's chantry en route to the convent, where he discovers a new form of music in the most unlikely setting; Sir Ralph's craving for hawking. Recommended, 4.2 stars

mar 24, 2012, 4:45pm

The Corner that Held Them sounds like it gave a pretty good sense of what live might have been like back then, but not plot driven at all. A good one when you're ready for a quiet read, yes?

mar 31, 2012, 10:51pm

Cammykitty, yes, and it's one that you can read in stages, a chapter here and a chapter there. In fact, that's what I did, and I'd recommend it.

Fly Away Home was the first novel I read by Marge Piercy, shortly after it was published. Found it in the library of the Tokyo American Club, which was one of my few sources of non-purchased books for a few years; a rather limited selection, but I quite liked this one and later got my own copy, which has now officially fallen apart. It's a feminist work, in that essentially it's the story of a woman, cookbook author Daria Walker, who has placed her husband at the center of her world only to discover that he doesn't deserve to be there, and that she must reconstruct that world. It's an intriguing plot tied to the gentrification of Boston in the 80s, social/class issues and gender relationships, but it's also very entertaining and ultimately suspenseful. Daria's husband Ross is sometimes too cliched to be real, in my older eyes, but I still enjoyed this re-read of a book that I haven't looked at for a decade or perhaps even 15 years. Mildly recommended, 3.9 stars.

apr 2, 2012, 2:25pm

My final book of the month was 1222 by Anne Holt, which started off being OK and ended up being extremely good. It's supposedly a tribute to the Agatha Christie style of murder mysteries and to the locked room mystery specifically, but I liked this far more than either, in large part because the reader sees things through the eyes of the first-person narrator, paraplegic former police inspector Hanne Wilhelmson. After a railroad derailment, she and hundreds of other travelers from Oslo to Bergen in Norway are forced to take refuge at a nearby hotel complex, accessible only by rail, as a winter-time hurricane closes in making rescue delayed and nearly-impossible. As the snow mounts up, the buildings are cut off from one another, and then there are two murders... There are all kinds of intriguing characters here -- some skinheads, some schoolgirls, a runaway teenage boy, a racist television pundit, a group of clergymen, a doctor who is also a dwarf, and a mysterious group of people who were traveling in isolation in a special railcar and who are now locked away in their own corner of the hotel. It's just the right degree of claustrophobic and suspenseful, and although Hanne is just as serious and intense as Maisie Dobbs (see #110, above), she's far more interesting a character. Definitely recommended! 4.1 stars, I'll be reading more by this author, for sure.

apr 2, 2012, 9:40pm

Here is a book that you MUST read!!

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is utterly mesmerizing; I read it whenever I found a spare moment, wandering up and down stairs with my Kindle in front of me, letting someone go ahead of me in the bank lineup so that I could finish the chapter, holding it in front of me while I walked home through the subway station. If you're familiar with The Iliad, the plotline of Achilles and his close companion, Patroclus, will be known to you, at least in outline. But Miller has succeeded in bringing the story alive in a way I never thought I would see, creating a world that is familiar -- she focuses on the characters and emotions familiar to us today, downplaying the ways in which their lives were so different -- and yet also strange to us, in which the gods are vivid, living presences, including Achilles' own mother, Thetis. Annoying Apollo, for instance, is a fatal error, and all the Greeks know this and will take dramatic action to avoid it. The presence of the gods is as taken for granted as the quest for military glory. Nonetheless, Miller's Achilles is a conflicted warrior: he knows his instinctive talent demands this be his role, but his mortal side clings to his love for Patroclus and the idea of sharing his life with him. Skilfully, the older kings tempt and threaten the two, urging them on to what the Fates have decreed will be their destruction. Even knowing the end of the tale didn't spoil the pleasures of this novel for me. Excellent; it will appeal more to those with an interest in history, the Greek myths, etc., but there's plenty here for all to relish. Intriguing to think that this novel of homosexual love was written by a woman and told through the eyes of a man -- which just adds to her accomplishment, IMO! 4.7 stars, definitely recommended

apr 3, 2012, 1:10pm

This is a book that I MUST add to to wish list. Having tore through a 10-book series taking place in Ancient Rome, I am reminded how much I love historical fiction and this sounds like something that would be right up my alley. It will also bring me back to my fourth grade class that had a nutso teacher that had us reading the Odyssey, the Iliad, and Margaret Hamilton's Mythology. We put on a play called the Wrath of Achilles, sewed our own tunics and painted our own shields. Ah...those were the days!

apr 5, 2012, 6:31pm

1222 and The Song of Achilles sound good!

apr 6, 2012, 12:13pm

108 I'm always interested in Piercy's take on Feminism and gender roles. She's obviously thought a lot about it, but I remember hearing in the '80s that the "Feminists" (refered to as though they were a political organization to which a person applied for membership and paid dues) were annoyed with her for something, I can't remember what - which to me proves she is following her own heart and thoughts rather than a movement. We need more people like her who can stir up discussion on any number of issues.

apr 6, 2012, 9:30pm

#112 -- they are!

#113 -- yes, I get VERY impatient with the attitude toward "feminism". You'd think it was a conspiracy or summat.

Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth is a slow-paced book, and the narrator, Charles Cleasby, occasionally vanished too frequently and extensively into his past, in which he identifies with and sometimes feels unable to separate himself from one of Britain's greatest heroes, Lord Nelson. Those bits where Cleasby worries away at little details eventually became wearing, and it's far more fascinating to witness his encounters with the "real" world, as the latter challenges his ideals and obsessions. Will he snap -- and if so, how? He is intent on finding evidence that will exculpate Nelson from the only stain on his character, but what will happen if he can't? The final 100 pages are filled with tension. Recommended, but for the patient reader. 4 stars

apr 7, 2012, 5:32pm

If you're going to tackle the topic of violent children who kill, you need to have a distinctive voice and angle on the characters you're writing about, and in The Child Who, Simon Lelic just doesn't deliver. (I picked this up because Foyles had recommended it.) Imagine what might happen when you're a husband and father of a teenage girl and a solicitor who is on duty when the call comes in that someone is needed to represent a 12-year-old accused of killing an 11 year old girl -- and you've got this book in a nutshell. The boy who is ostensibly at the heart of the narrative and who is the catalyst for all the events is never really three dimensional, and the events themselves are fairly predictable. The contrast between that and the horrific nature of the crime is just weird, and the biggish plot movement and final plot twist just exacerbates the strangeness. (Oh, and I saw that twist coming from miles away....) Ultimately, while the writing is good, the story is oddly distancing and even boring, which is a heinous crime for a novel about such a subject. Not bad, but deeply underwhelming. 3.2 stars.

apr 14, 2012, 10:58pm

In Mozart's Last Aria, Matt Rees moves back in time and westward in space from today's Palestine, where he has set an impressive series of crime novels featuring a Palestinian schoolteacher, starting with The Collaborator of Bethlehem. This is slightly less fresh or novel perhaps -- it's a murder mystery with the great Mozart at its center as victim, involving a few too many conspiracy theories, and a bit too much racing around by our intrepid heroine, his estranged sister, Nannerl (Maria Anna). Still, it's a good yarn, and Rees does a fabulous job creating a sinister aura in old Vienna and capturing a real spirit of place. I know central Vienna (inside the Ring) reasonably well, and I could almost conjure up the streets and buildings as I read Rees's work. It also helped that I like mysteries, historical fiction and music. 3.9 stars, recommended if you, too, have an interest in these. (Listening to some Mozart wind music -- his fab clarinet concerto -- as I finish this post...)

apr 15, 2012, 11:22pm

Two more completed!

I've Got Your Number is Sophie Kinsella at her best -- OK, I admit, it's the epitome of brainless chick lit, but this one is in many ways a funny commentary on our hyper-reliance on electronic communications. Heroine, in dire plight, finds a mobile phone in the garbage of the hotel where she's been having a festive tea with friends, and where (a) her engagement ring vanished and (b) her phone was stolen. Soon enough, her life is entangled with that of the man whose PA tossed it away on her way out the door... Yes, it's predictable, but amusing and a thumping good read. 3.8 stars. No nutritional content, but who cares?

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd makes me forgive the author for his nasty prank on the reading public of last year, when he published Nat Tate. (The idea was to skewer the pretentious people who don't know what they're talking about, but it wasn't good or funny enough to excuse the high price the skimpy and not that interesting book commanded...) At any event -- this is Boyd in high form, telling the tale of Lysander Reif, opening with the actor's sojurn in Vienna as he seeks psychotherapy in 1913, on the eve of war. He's framed for a crime and must escape the Austro-Hungarian empire -- only to find, when war breaks out, that the people he encountered in Vienna re-enter his life in new and disturbing ways as he is enlisted to uncover a network of spies. Compelling reading; definitely recommended, onto my top books of the year list. 4.4 stars. This reminds me that I still need to read Boyd's Restless.

apr 16, 2012, 6:54am

I've read a couple of William Boyd books so far and have several others on the tbr shelves. Thankfully Nat Tate isn't one of them but it looks like I might have to add Waiting for Sunrise after I've cleared some space by reading the others.

apr 16, 2012, 9:09am

Waiting for Sunrise sounds like one for the wishlist. Have you read Ordinary Thunderstorms? I own both that and Restless, but have read neither. Oh, that shameful TBR pile.

apr 16, 2012, 9:41pm

Oh, I do enjoy a good Kinsella from time to time.... adding I've Got Your Number to the To Read Later list!

apr 17, 2012, 12:52pm

I have I've Got Your Number on hold at the library...hoping it will come in soon!

apr 17, 2012, 5:06pm

When I am in the mood for Chick-Lit I reach for a Sophie Kinsella or a Marion Keyes. I will add I've Got Your Number to the wishlist.

Redigerat: apr 19, 2012, 12:27am

Ooooh, LOTS of visitors!! Hello, all...

I have indeed read Ordinary Thunderstorms, and quite liked it, although not as much as this one. Restless is one I'm going to read this year; indeed, I think I'll add it to my "off the shelf" category...

I'm a bit ambivalent about Kinsella. Some of her novels I love; others I can't stand. I'm so fed up with "Shopaholic" I could scream -- to have a character remain that ditzy for that long is deeply annoying. Twenties Girl was underwhelming. This one was just right, however. My fave chick lit author is Trisha Ashley, especially some of her earlier books.

I just succumbed to another guilty pleasure and picked up the new stand-alone suspense novel by Nora Roberts. I find her romances faaar too saccharine, but the thrillers are fun, even though you know that her heroine is gonna end up with a hunky hero. May read it this weekend...

apr 19, 2012, 1:25pm

I certainly agree with you about the Shopaholic series, I stopped it after reading three. I will have to check out Trisha Ashley, I haven't heard of her before.

Redigerat: apr 23, 2012, 12:47am

Try The Urge to Jump or Singled Out. They are a hoot, especially Every Woman for Herself, which is a great riff on the Brontes...

Devil Water is a re-read of one of the best books by by Anya Seton (author of the iconic Katherine). I think it has probably been close to 30 years since I read this, and it reminded me of what very good historical novels can be. It's the story of the Radcliffe brothers, James, Earl of Derwentwater and his younger brother Charles, and Charles's daughter Jenny, fruit of a mesalliance with a Northumbrian girl. The backdrop is the Jacobite cause from 1710 up until the failure of '45 rebellion, and it follows Charles's youth, including an escape from Newgate after the 1715 revolt, and then Jenny, and her adventures as she joins her father in exile in France and then sails to Virginia -- only to face a final conflict of loyalties when her father, in the Tower of London, begs her to return to England to see him. It's not perfect, but in an era where so much historical fiction feels perfunctory in both setting and nature (dial up the romance/sex; dial down the context, the sense of being there) this was a delight to read. Seton does her research, but wears it lightly -- I got a vivid sense of early 18th century London, from sedan chairs to taverns but only as part of a compelling story. 4.3 stars, perhaps 0.3 being for sentiment's sake. Recommended (along with Katherine and The Winthrop Woman) to any historical fiction afficcionado.

apr 23, 2012, 1:16pm

@ 125 -- Ooh, I've read Katherine and have been wanting to read some more Anya Seton. I'll have to look out for Devil Water!

apr 26, 2012, 9:34pm

You MUST all read Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel; it is utterly brilliant. You can go to Amazon and read my full review; can't cut & paste today due to deeply nasty migraine. The title of that review is "Mr. Secretary Cromwell: "sleep, plump and densely inaccessible" "; feel free to hit it with a helpful rating if you want, but just get it. it's wonderful. 5 stars. Actually, 6. Will repost full review when I don't feel as dead as Anne Boleyn.

apr 27, 2012, 12:42am

Will repost full review when I don't feel as dead as Anne Boleyn.

I hope the migraine subsides soon and thanks for the interesting visual your statement created for me! You just may entice me to pick up a Mantel......

apr 29, 2012, 12:52am

"Gold" is Chris Cleave's third novel (and it's about time LT created a touchstone for it....) and IMO his weakest. It's the story of Zoe Castle or Kate Argall, the two longtime friends/rivals who must face off for the chance to go for a gold medal in cycling at the London Olympics. The two couldn't be more different -- when the book begins, Kate is missing the Athens Olympics to stay in London with her infant daughter, while Zoe grabs gold -- and yet who both are passionately competitive. Their rivalry isn't just about them. Tom, their coach -- who lost out on his own medal decades ago by one-tenth of a second -- recognizes that both women are driven and both are equally talented. Jack, Kate's husband, knows how Zoe can be relentless in pursuing what she wants. And then their is Sophie Argall, 8 years old, battling leukaemia and taking refuge from ugly reality in a fantastical world where she joins the rebels of Star Wars to fight the evil Empire -- that is, when she isn't reacting to chemo by vomiting into a model of Han Solo's spaceship in order to avoid alerting her parents to her nausea. Her goal is to fool them into being happy, one minute or one hour at a time, so that she isn't surrounded by anxiety. Life and death issues of survival are less dramatic in this novel, and Cleave's narrative doesn't stand up to the additional weight this absence creates. Indeed, it often felt very predictible: there are lots of racing metaphors and even similes -- a paramedic wonders "what the hell it was in this woman's life that meant she couldn't just break like everyone else", while Kate ponders "what good did it ever do anyone to ride themselves back to their point of origin" on an endless oval cycling track at a velodrome. Baggage slows a rider down, the reader is reminded -- including emotional baggage, of which Zoe and Kate both have plenty. Nothing surprising or risky here: we learn, bit by bit, what makes the characters the way they are and the confrontations and plot twists are telegraphed far in advance. It's all very tidy. A giveaway were the comments on the back page of the advance reviewer copy, which focuses on emotions more than on narrative -- "what really matters is how (Cleave's books) make you feel" and the promise that this novel "will make you love your family more than you thought possible." Well, that's not why I read a book, and that's why this one gets only 3.4 stars.

apr 29, 2012, 10:43pm

Trapeze by Simon Mawer is the gripping story of Marian Sutro, a young woman in wartime England whose hidden asset is her ability to speak French like a native. As a result, she is recruited by a secret wartime department -- the SOE -- to travel into France as a spy and saboteur. But Marian's tale is more complicated than the traditional espionage thriller fare, for she has two missions for two separate secret divisions of the government, and one will take her back into the life of Clement, the man she once adored and whose atomic research is now critical to the war effort on both sides. In some ways, this is familiar ground -- sometime this year I hope to re-read Fall From Grace by Larry Collins; Ted Allebury has written tales with similar settings, as have Elizabeth Buchan and Evelyn Anthony, to name only a few that spring to mind. (And that's just the SOE in France with women heroines....) What distinguishes Mawer's entry into this sweepstakes is his writing skill, and his decision to focus on Marian's wry self-observations as she travels from "normal" life into the SOE's training school and then is parachuted into France; as she goes from being a trusting individual to one who looks for betrayals everywhere. Is she Marian? Anne Marie? Alice? Laurette? Above all, what Mawer delivers is a kind of intensity and tension that creeps up almost unawares. I really felt that I was physically there with Alice/Marian in Paris -- walking in a familiar landscape that is at once nightmarishly different and terrifying. I was reading this while waiting for my brunch at a local restaurant today; when my server apologized for the lengthy delay 30 mins after I had ordered, I looked up in surprise -- I hadn't realized how much time had passed. And I couldn't buckle down to do my work this evening until I had finished the book. The final segment of the book, I had my heart in my throat -- I really couldn't predict what might happen next. And while the next-to-last plot twist wasn't all that convincing, by the time the final one was delivered, I found I didn't really mind -- even though the final page creates more question than the novel answers and I howled in outrage at the lack of an epilogue. Definitely a thumping good read, and above-average for the genre. 4.3 stars

apr 30, 2012, 2:44pm

Hi Suzanne, Trapeze is definitely one for my wishlist!

maj 4, 2012, 4:00am

The Noble Assassin by Christie Dickason reminds me why I like this author's work so much. She has focused her attention on the Jacobean era of England -- a bit of a wasteland when it comes to historical novelists, who are all Tudor-obsessed or drifting off to the Wars of the Roses -- and has a knack for crafting a narrative and not just creating dialogue uttered by historical characters striking poses against a real life backdrop. This is a companion piece of sorts to her previous book, The King's Daughter, which told of the earlier life of Elizabeth Stuart, later the Princess Palatine and Queen of Bohemia -- the Hanoverians and thus the current queen are descended from her. The first book sets the stage, showing how James I, when he became king of England, was never able to capture the affection or even the loyalty of his subjects, who found his two eldest children, Henry and Elizabeth, far more appealing. James was a highly intelligent and highly suspicious man and monarch (with a taste for pretty young men as favorites) -- well, if you'd been brought up by feuding Scots lords, had to comply with the execution of your mother (mary queen of scots) in order to inherit the throne of her arch-rival, Elizabeth, you probably wouldn't have much of a clue about what makes for functional human relationships. He suspects even his own children, as the first book shows; when Henry dies young, Elizabeth is grateful and relieved to escape into what is a marriage for love to a young German prince. (There are wobbly bits about the first book, part of which is told through the eyes of a young woman who is part African, which don't really work.) This book picks up a few years later: Elizabeth's husband has been elected as Protestant king of Bohemia, to the fury of the Habsburgs, who turn their ire on them and drive them out of Prague in a winter snowstorm. Taking refuge in the Hague, Elizabeth and Frederick want to try to regain their throne -- the alternative is to live life feeling under constant threat, as every Bohemian noble who even tacitly supported them has been brutally executed and the same fate awaits them. Her father is furious that she defied in supporting her husband's ambitions to become a king, and refuses to have her back in England -- after all, her popularity is a threat to him and the weedy remaining son who is his heir (The future Charles I.) The main protagonist here is Lucy Russell, countess of Bedford, a longtime friend of Elizabeth's, who since the death of the queen has been unhappily rusitcating with her husband and yearns for a chance to resume her role as a courtier, literary patron and center of an intellectual circle at court. She spies an opportunity for both Elizabeth and herself in the "Winter Queen's" misfortunes, but as she gets caught up in a conspiracy that she thinks is moving to one end, she discovers that she is really at risk of becoming the tool of the plotters themselves. Dickason does a fabulous job of capturing the way in which personal tragedies became caught up in the final stages of Europe's wars of religion that wouldn't end until the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. Just as intriguing for me was the glimpse into the Jacobean world of stylized entertainments (masques Lucy devises with the help of Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson) and her role as patron and a love affair with John Donne. If you're interested in the period, this is fabulous; if you're interested in historical fiction, you should certainly give Dickason's novels a try. Recommended, 4.1 stars.

maj 6, 2012, 4:39pm

I had to add Noble Assassin to my wish list after reading your review. I just finished reading The Kings' Mistresses which is a bit after this, so I am intrigued about what happened in the period before.

(Bruce's evil twin :-))

maj 6, 2012, 5:03pm

Great reviews of Trapeze and Noble Assassin, Suzanne. I am going to look for both.

maj 7, 2012, 3:54am

Here is one to avoid, however.

The Queen's Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray was a horrible disappointment. The author can write good novels; she knows the period. And yet she wrote something that isn't even really a novel, or only fitfully. She's telling the story of Axel Fersen, Marie Antoinette's lover. Off he goes to the US with the French, to fight for the colonists against the Brits. Great opportunity for some interesting writing, as this representative of the ancien regime finds himself fighting alongside homespun farmers, right? Nope. She chooses to tell this segment (a) by quoting 18 pages' worth of Fersen's letters, rather than by instilling some drama by letting us see it through his eyes (this IS billed as a novel) and (b) having the comments that breakup the letters made by Fersen's sister! Then when the author does shift from telling to showing (very very rare), it's often anachronistic ("Is he going to pull a Queen Christina?" doesn't strike me as 18th century parlance) or just weird, like misplaced sex scenes (I learned some interesting Swedish anatomical words.) Usually I give thumbs down to historical novels because they are badly written, they ignore historical reality or are just thinly disguised romances. In this case, the book is really a mediocre biography disguised as a novel, and had it not been an Amazon Vine galley I would have tossed it in the garbage. But I had to finish and review it, and I grudge every minute of the time I spent reading it. Someone who doesn't know the story of Marie Antoinette may find it interesting -- but it's not a novel. It's a readable history, disguised as a 21st century version of a late 18th century memoir. And if that sounds weird, well, yeah, it is. Avoid this one. 1.8 stars.

maj 10, 2012, 1:50pm

Two more, luckily much better!!

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright is, IMO, an excellent novel. Yes, it's kind of diffuse, and yes, it's told through the eyes of a narrator who is married and having an affair with a married man. It's clear early on that by the time she is writing this, she is looking back to the day she first met him, standing at the bottom of her sister's garden. At the time, she thinks later, he "is just a little rip in the fabric of my life. I can stitch it all up again, if he does not turn around." This novel captured for me, better than any other I have yet read, the irrationality and occasional downright inconvenience of unexpected love. Gina Moynihan knows not only that this is a person who is married and thus technically out of bounds, even if she weren't already with the man who will become her husband; she is also clear-eyed, at least in retrospect, about the many ways in which she finds him odd or even how he should not appeal to her. And yet... We see this through the wry and sometimes cynical eyes of Gina, evaluating her own behavior and finding it as irrational as others might; describing and not really falling into the trap of rationalizing or excusing. But this is also a story about getting what you want and realizing that life is still "real life"; that even getting a dream job or the man you love doesn't change day to day reality, as Gina recognizes. "I thought it would be a different life, bu sometimes it is like the same life in a dream: a different man coming in the door, a different man hanging his coat on the hook... I don't know what I expected. That receipts would not have to be filed, or there would be no such thing as bad kitchen cabinets .... Sean exists. He arrives, he leaves. He forgets to ring me when he is late and so the dinner is mistimed... sometimes the intractability of him, perhaps of all men, drives me up the wall." I don't understand the criticisms of the novel's style -- yes, it rambles a bit, but it's really an interior monologue, a woman looking back at one aspect of her life and following it through to the point where she finds herself today. True, she is self involved -- but in interior monologues, aren't we all? Enright will undoubtedly find lots of critics amongst those who believe her character should have drunk poison or thrown herself under a train in remorse for her adultery and allowed her tale to be told by others, but that's what I liked about this novel. It's what happens most often. How many people actually behave that way in real life? Anne doesn't ask us to approve of Gina's choices; what she spells out is the muddle-headed way that most people lead their lives, and the way that one decision leads to another and the next, until you are someplace you never expected to be and, like Gina, looking back on the journey with a degree of bemusement. The writing was gorgeous and I loved this novel; 4.7 stars from me. Avoid it if you are prone to want to approve of the life decisions of characters, however, or if you're particularly sensitive to the topic of adultery.

Lehrter Station by David Downing -- My full review is now live over at Amazon, and I'll cross-post here shortly. The bottom line: in this fifth book in the series, it's November 1945 and John Russell and what is left of his family are in London, trying to rebuild their lives, when the Soviet spies arrive to collect the bill for the events laid out in Potsdam Station. This is a more difficult book to evaluate, as we no longer have one big bad guy in the shape of the Nazis; Russell has to play the Soviet and American spies off against each other and navigate some nasty black marketeers, but the level of tension wasn't sustained as well in this book as the previous ones in the series. Also, it sometimes felt like Russell was playing "whack a mole" -- as soon as he figured out a way to deal with one problem, another popped its head up, not necessarily connected to the first. It also made me slightly irritable that the author seems to have decided to find a way to bring back -- in kind of cameo performances -- characters that Effi and/or Russell encountered in prior books. This is mildly interesting, but often felt too much like a deliberate effort to tie up loose ends. As someone remarks late in the book, "this has been our month for renewing acquaintances"; I groaned, yes I had noticed. At times it felt like I was being introduced to a special guest star per chapter, and not all of them fit naturally into the plot. These are minor quibbles, but add up to my recommendation: if you loved the last four books, you'll like this one, but don't try to start the series here because it doesn't have the same "oomph" to it, at least on first reading. 4 stars.

maj 14, 2012, 11:31pm

The Darkening Field by William Ryan is the second in a series featuring Soviet militia detective Korolev; it's 1937 and once again he's somehow found himself investigating a crime at the behest of a high Politburo member, Ezhov (whom I always think of as "Yezhov", so the alternate spelling was annoying...) In this case, Korolev is dispatched to a country house near Odessa, the site of a film project; a top Soviet director is filming the story of a young boy who betrays his family as capitalists and hoarders to the authorities, proving his devotion to the Party. Needless to say, in the aftermath of brutal collectivization, not all is peaceful in the Ukrainian countryside, and Korolev finds himself unable to figure out which he fears more: the Politburo types who could have him taken out and shot without blinking (he's just waiting for that midnight knock on the door; he even has a suitcase packed to take the Lubyanka); the prospect that counter-revolutionaries are planning insurrection in the Ukraine, or the presence of Kolya, the head of the Moscow Thieves, a nasty early version of the Russian mob, who seems intent on doing Korolev a "favor". And to make matters worse, he doesn't know if any of them really want to find out whether the young woman on the movie's production team was murdered or killed herself. A standard whodunnit, but with an interesting (to me) historical backdrop and some intriguing characters; I didn't find it quite as fresh and intriguing as book #1, but I'm glad I read it. 4 stars

maj 17, 2012, 11:22pm

The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner is a historical novel focusing on the author's forte -- making more sympathetic and understandable to a contemporary audience a rather controversial queen -- by exploring Isabella of Castile, now known for expelling the Jews, beginning the exploitation of colonial era Latin America and putting in place the Spanish Inquisition. Gortner makes a smart choice, concentrating on the sheer improbability of her becoming queen of Castile and her battles to stay out of danger and claim her birthright. (She married Ferdinand of Aragon -- he was only ever king consort of Castile; their youngest daughter was Catherine of Aragon.) The book falters a bit in the second half, with Isabella and "Fernando" now on the throne and trying to throw the Moors out of Spain -- it feels more like a novelization of events than a novel. Still a good read for historical fiction afficionados, although unlike Wolf Hall, it's not going to make anyone a fan of the genre. I found it fascinating; the only other book I've read that I enjoyed that was as well-researched was Crown of Aloes, and that was probably 40 years ago. 3.9 stars.

I keep meaning to mention that the books posted here are just the tip of the iceberg for me -- I've now read 175 books so far this year, and most of them are listed over on the 76-thread challenge, where I tend to be a lot more chatty!

maj 20, 2012, 4:34pm

The Taliban Cricket Club is the second novel (that I know of) by Timeri Murari; the first is Taj, which I'm hoping to read before the end of the month. At heart, it's a conventional kind of story (think Major Pettigrew's Last Stand), with some very conventional twists and turns that are telegraphed far in advance and some plot elements straight out of the romance genre. But -- and it's a big BUT -- Murari's heroine, Rukhsana, is a young woman in her 20s, a former journalist, living in Kabul under the rule of the Taliban. While waiting for her cousin and intended husband (a family-sponsored marriage) to send her money and documents to leave the country via a smuggling route (and for her mother to succumb to cancer) she risks her life writing stories about the Taliban's rule of terror that are smuggled out and published overseas. ("We were a small tribe of rebellious scribes in hiding.") Wahidi, one of the Taliban leaders, who had forced Rukhsana out of her job years earlier, becomes convinced that she is behind the stories, but also obsessed by her and determined to marry her. The prospect is terrifying -- but Rukhsana and her extended family have a plan. The Taliban regime has determined that cricket is a sport that can be played with modest clothing, and see it as a bridge to the rest of the world that denies the legitimacy of their rule. Afghans are encouraged to form teams and compete for the right to be the best in the country -- and the chance to travel to Pakistan to be trained by that country's top cricketers. Rukhsana, as a woman, can't play -- but maybe she can coach her cousins to victory and find an exit strategy for herself in the process? Thus begins a race against time. As I've said, it's a romance in disguise, but however banal the story is, the reality of Afghan women's lives during this era lies behind it as a sobering reminder of the deadly seriousness of the "games" that Rukhsana and her allies are playing. It ends up being a gripping and moving read, if not a work of immense literary merit. In other words, a "thumping good read." 4.1 stars; definitely recommended.

maj 20, 2012, 5:44pm

The Taliban Cricket Club sounds fun--and it sounds like it would be a great movie. I think I am going to try to read Taj, I am interested in the Taj Mahal... it is such a fascinating story.

maj 22, 2012, 3:19am

Think you would love this -- and yes, you're right, I can definitely see it as a movie. It's very funny, I was just reading the author's bio, and realized that we both began our writing careers at the same tiny small town daily newspaper in Canada, the Kingston Whig Standard, once owned by the family of Robertson Davies. (His nephew was the publisher the summer that I worked there.)

maj 23, 2012, 11:18pm

I am always ready to add one of your "thumping good reads" to my reading list. The Taliban Cricket Club sounds like a good story.

jun 3, 2012, 11:43pm

A class I work with just finished reading The Breadwinner which is another story of women, including women journalists, working clandestinely during the Taliban's rule. The Taliban Cricket Club sounds interesting. Cricket - how colonial.

jun 11, 2012, 1:15am

How fascinating, cammykitty! I'm going to bop over to that page to see if you have posted yr comments on it...

Re-read Wolf Hall. Still think it's brilliant and insightful, giving us a window into one of the most feared men of his age and contrasting others' views of him with his own view of himself. Also tremendously vivid writing. 5 stars, a no-brainer.

jun 11, 2012, 1:20pm

Hi Suzanne, I am about halfway through Wolf Hall and after a shaky beginning I am really enjoying this book. I am in awe of Hilary Mantel and her ability to bring this character to full life. I have also been enjoying your and Ilana's Tutored Read. You've supplied such strong background information which really helped me flesh out my small knowledge of the Tudors.

jun 13, 2012, 3:39am

I'm glad you're finding it helpful, Judy!

Another re-read: The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart, which shows its age (it was written in the 1960s, I think) but still is fun albeit not up to date. Christy and her cousin Charles head off to visit their great-aunt, who is imitating Lady Hester Stanhope as an eccentric recluse in pre-civil war Lebanon, and stumble into a den of thieves, kinda. The romance isn't always convincing to me as a jaded middle-aged personage, but it's refreshing to read a book of romantic suspense that isn't a bodice ripper and is well-written. Light fare, perfect for the train today. 3.6 stars,

jun 21, 2012, 11:10pm

Whoops, I'm falling behind...

Murder on Fifth Avenue by Victoria Thompson: I have become so accustomed to this series being deeply underwhelming that I almost didn't pick up this book from the library. Which would have been too bad, as it's easily the best the author has written in several outings, even though some of the plot "twists" were VERY self evident, to the point where I felt like shouting at Sarah Brandt, the midwife whose parents are part of New York high society of more than a century ago and who investigates crimes alongside the often-reluctant policeman, Frank Malloy, "Don't you GET it??" Still, a tight narrative and intriguing plot. Not the best mystery I have read of late, but perfectly serviceable: 3.6 stars.

jun 28, 2012, 12:20am

Granddad, There's a Head on the Beach by Colin Cotterill went too far out on the whimsical spectrum and became just silly. I adore the goofiness of the Dr. Siri novels, but in this, the second in the author's new series focusing on a 30-something Thai female reporter stranded with her family at a god-forsaken beach resort has too many eccentric characters and none of the same magic sauce that makes Dr. Siri work so well. There's a point to it all -- this novel deals with mysteries involving the plight of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, and corruption in Thailand generally -- but it's drown in eccentric characters, so that it's hard to get the same level of involvement in the story. (the climax includes a bunch of karaoke-singing squid fisherman...) 3.5 stars; I hope this series gets better cuz I fear Dr. Siri is soon to draw to an end...

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian is an ARC of a book that comes out soonish -- the author is writing a narrative built around the horrors of the Armenian genocide by Turkey circa 1915 and onward. Having had Armenian friends since childhood, I knew the basic facts, and abt 18 months ago read Erevan by Gilbert Sinoue, a fabulous novel in French that does a better job than this of telling the story. I don't think Bohjalian's device of splitting the narrative up so much -- one big strand is contemporary as the granddaughter of a survivor and his American wife undertakes an investigation into their experiences in Aleppo in 1915, and the other is a narration of what happened at that time. The events described are chilling, but none of the characters were vividly realized enough to draw me into the narrative and make this as unforgettable as it should have been, given the subject matter. His characters are too obviously there to tell a story through. Read it if the topic interests you, or if you're looking for a not-too-demanding read about faraway places and events that are too distant or unknown. But beware, there are graphic and chilling details of those events. 3.7 stars.

Just reflecting that my June books have been rather underwhelming, as reflected in these and some of the above...

jun 29, 2012, 11:06pm

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner is the kind of high-impact novel that Chris Bohjalian's book about the Armenian genocide book could have been, were Bohjalian able to write better or capture characters more effectively. Wisely, although the main character of this heartbreaking story is a thinly-disguised Vaddey, the author has chosen to write of a young girl's experiences during the takeover of the Khmer Rouge and under their rule of terror as fiction, not memoir. We're not subject to the vagaries of memory, and can immerse ourselves in the story without having to find a way to relate the author to that story, constantly. Better yet, Ratner is able to walk that narrow line between making her narrator's voice sound too knowing for her age (young Raami is only 7 when she and her family are driven out of Phnom Penh with all its other residents, and their nightmare begins) of injecting her own voice too much into the narrative. Raami sees what her elders do, but understands only a fraction -- and yet that somehow enhances the power of the novel. As in real life, Raami's family are cousins of the ruling family; princes and princesses. Her beloved father is a poet, and Ratner sprinkles Khmer poetry, folk stories and Buddhist lore throughout -- the kinds of things that the Khmer Rouge fought hard to eradicate among the population. The story is heartbreaking, but powerful, and it's an extremely good novel, that I simply couldn't put down. There was a lot of buzz about this book at BookExpo, but I got my ARC from Amazon. It comes out in August, and I'd suggest pre-ordering a copy. I'm not sure it's great literature, but it's powerful stuff. Being told through a child's eyes somewhat limits the author's ability to deliver a complex, uber-literary work -- that's a hard task for even a skilled author -- but it's very good, most of the time. Yes, occasionally it tips a bit too far in the direction of sentimentality, but much of the time the emotions are honest and raw. Powerful stuff. 4.6 stars.

jun 30, 2012, 2:12pm

And onto my wishlist In the Shadow of the Banyan goes!

jul 1, 2012, 6:36pm

The Second Empress by Michelle Moran -- Not the author's best, but it will be interesting for historical fiction fans curious about people other than the ubiquitous Josephine. Takes a look at Napoleon's final years, from his divorce from Josephine until Waterloo. Felt a bit rushed, and the multiple points of view didn't help me become immersed in the subject. 3.7 stars.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif is the story of one or possibly many conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq. As a Pakistani friend had said, it ends up with an odd combination of farce and cynical commentary that often is an odd juxtaposition; I kept wishing Hanif had opted for a single tone. The wit was a bit too pointed and obvious for me, too. That said, an intriguing and very well-written novel but ultimately not one that will earn 4.1 stars from me. I'll be reading Our Lady of Alice Bhatti this month, which may help me make up my mind about the author.

jul 4, 2012, 4:34pm

Wanted Women by Deborah Scroggins is a kind of parallel biography of two controversial women, both Muslim, who ended up taking radical and radically different approaches to the West and to their faith. While Pakistani-born, MIT-educated neuroscientist Aafia al-Siddiqui became an even more convinced Islamist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali made her name as an atheist equating Islam with oppression -- by definition. One is probably well known by name here; the other not. "To her followers, each woman is an icon; her legend will always be more alluring than her reality." And Scroggins has done a pretty good job contrasting the legend with the reality, although her success was doomed to be limited by the very nature of Pakistani political culture -- being unable to speak with the Siddiqui family or get to the bottom of Aafia's "lost years" inevitably limits her ability to completely portray that woman's life, whereas Ayaan Hirsi Ali led her life in the glow of the public. But in both cases, Scroggins gets behind the public hysteria, both pro and con, to calmly and coolly present the facts. In Aafia's case, that was less surprising to me; while I wasn't familiar with much more than her name, I'm familiar enough with the basics of political Islam to understand the context; the surprise was in the degree to which she became part of the West, studying and living in the United States for a decade and raising two children here, and yet living a parallel life, in a way. Scroggins' portrayal of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, is almost certain to be controversial -- but again, the research is painstaking and her conclusions are a reminder of the dangers of inhabiting a black and white world. To Ayaan, there can never be any such thing as a moderate Muslim; it's a contradiction in terms, and understandably, that infuriates the millions of moderate Muslims. Certainly, she is a polarizing figure, and it's arguable that while she initially claimed to be trying to obtain justice for Muslim women, she ended up creating at atmosphere where they would be unable to do so, both by radicalizing her opponents and by winning support for the idea that Islam is an evil religion, and a woman who chooses to remain a believer is choosing oppression and thus (implicitly) not worthy of support. I was familiar with the controversies surrounding Ali's refugee status in the Netherlands and her arrival in the United States; I wasn't aware of all the nuances surrounding that. Looking at her writings, I've long wondered about whether she is really a "scholar" -- she seems to be writing the same thing, over and over again -- but because of what it is that she is saying, there is a will to believe that she is, even when her writings are proven incorrect. Ultimately, this should be a reminder to anyone who wants to place a halo on anyone's head -- that charisma should always be met with a matter-of-fact analysis. True, as Scroggins points out, Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn't advocate murder; words are her weapons. In contrast, Aafia al-Siddiqui was plotting (albeit unsuccessfully) mayhem and mass destruction. But words can lead to or provide the justification for violence, and violence can provide a rationale for hateful speech and narrow-mindedness. I ended up wanting to put both women on a desert island somewhere, because the absolutism of both terrified me. That testifies to the success of this book, despite its inevitable limitations and occasional structural awkwardness. 4.4 stars.

jul 4, 2012, 9:24pm

...and one more!

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead is billed as an ironic tour de force, but it isn't. It's beautifully written, but the characters and basic plotline -- family wedding at WASPy Nantucket-like retreat reveals all kinds of tensions and fault lines -- are all too familiar, and at times I wanted to groan under the weight of all the irony and symbolism. It's too substantive to be chick lit, but neither is it smart or insightful. I was curious what Amazon reviewers had to say, as my own reaction was so ambivalent, and found someone there comparing to The Marriage Plot -- interesting, as my response is in kind of a similar vein. I'm intrigued but not engaged, although the writing in both cases is excellent. That said, the uber-clever similes started coming at me so fast that I couldn't duck -- that very smart writing works best when it's understated, and here there's a passage that has been slaved over and made pristine on virtually every page. Eg, in a hospital, one character watches someone else in the waiting room suffering from nausea dart toward a bathroom; "the man watcher her go with wistful resignation, as though she were a wayward balloon." Sometimes, the author attempts humor, but it's too self-conscious for my taste, as when one character says to another, "eye contact with you is like eye contact with a taxidermied moose head." Or, in the case of the parents of the groom - "the Duffs went together like two shades of beige, bound by a common essence of optimism, narrow-mindedness and self-satisfaction." In short stories, that can work; in a 300 page novel, I felt crushed by all this ultra-clever phrase-making -- and not engaged enough by the essence of the novel. 3.9 stars, mostly for the writing. There's a surplus of ironic novels about WASPs, and I happen to think anyone thinking of adding to the pile should ask themselves what they really hope to achieve or say.

jul 4, 2012, 9:50pm

In the Shadow of the Banyan went on my WL too. & BTW, thank you for your tutored read of Wolf Hall.

Redigerat: jul 8, 2012, 1:17am

Glad you're enjoy the tutored read, cammykitty! Hope you are enjoying the book as well; I think it's brilliant. I've been a historical fiction nut since I was a child, and it easily wins a place on my top 10 books in that genre that I've ever read!

And here's another fab book, of a completely different nature.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn has more twists and turns than the most risky oceanfront highway you've ever driven along -- and Flynn is firmly in the driver's seat, negotiating each sharp shift at speeds well above the speed limit. Amazingly, this all pays off in the shape of what is likely to be the best thriller that I read this year, although it is one that is going to take days to recover from reading, so twisted is the psychological element of the suspense. Will I ever be able to trust anyone in a relationship ever again?? It starts out as another conventional thriller: Nick's wife vanishes on their fifth anniversary and all too soon there's plenty of circumstantial evidence making him look like another one of those charming sociopaths who murder their wives. Nick's first person account alternates with that of Amy, his wife, the epitome of the photogenic, blond, charming 30-something woman. But what is Nick's story -- and what is Amy's? Really, when everything is stripped away? Flynn handles the dropping of each tiny piece of game-changing information into the mix like a pro -- I'd hate to try to outwit her at even a game of Scrabble, I confess. The plot twists are some of the best I've read in this genre, and the final denouement(s) is/are even better. In some ways, any other conclusion wouldn't have been up to the standard of what has gone before; would have been a cop-out. If you liked the unreliable narrator element of Gillespie and I, here's another novel that will give you plenty to ponder, albeit in a completely different kind of package. If you liked this thriller, go and read Gillespie and I. Straight onto my "best reads of the year" list and without question a thumping good read. 4.7 stars. Not literature, but solid writing and unbeatable pacing, plotting and characterizations -- so who cares?? :-) READ IT!

jul 8, 2012, 1:25am

Okay, I'll trust you and WL Gone Girl

jul 9, 2012, 8:58pm

Kingdom of Strangers is a book that could have been much stronger than it was. It's the third mystery by Zoe Ferraris set in Saudi Arabia, and while some of the plot elements and narrative turning points were very good, none of it ever clicked the way it should have. The title refers to the immigrant workers brought in to do the jobs Saudis feel to be beneath them -- and particularly to the housemaids, 19 of whom have vanished, only to turn up -- dead -- beneath the sand in the desert. The main focus of this third outing is on Insp. Ibrahim and Katya Hijazi; Nayir plays only an ancillary role. There are a lot of apparent contradictions here -- why can Katya and Nayir safely drive out to the desert unescorted if they aren't married? Why do her co-workers call her "MIss Hijazi" if they believer her to be already married? Plots are wrapped up in a rather abrupt fashion, and Ferraris does far less than she could with the character of "Charlie" Becker, the (female) American profiler called in to help catch the serial killer. There's a decent story at the heart of this, but after a very good debut, this series is getting weaker rather than stronger. Read the earlier books first, then decide if you want to keep going. 3.7 stars; I'm feeling generous, too.

jul 11, 2012, 11:50pm

The Mirrored World by Debra Dean should have been great, and certainly the writing is fab. But... it's too lean for the material. It's like a line drawing of something that should have been an oil painting, and I never felt that I understood what dean was trying to do with the characters of Xenia (a holy fool, driven "mad" by love and loss) who later becomes St. Xenia, and her cousin Dasha, the narrator. The themes and ideas were interesting, but the characters unconvincing. 3 stars, and that's being generous, because the writing is so fabulous. 3 stars.

jul 15, 2012, 6:28pm

A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir: Finally, this historical non-fiction author has delivered a historical novel that is worthy of all her expertise! Her last, Captive Queen, about Eleanor of Aquitaine, was downright tedious, but this made for a gripping novel. She juxtaposes the stories of two Katherines: Katherine Plantagenet in the 1480s, and Katherine Grey, from 1553 until about 1570. Both are too close to the throne; too close to conspiracies involving those they love revolving around power; both find themselves with young relatives -- Katherine's young cousins and Katherine Grey's elder sister -- who pay with their lives for being the "wrong" heirs to the throne. Kate P.'s story is told in the third person; that of Katherine Grey in the first person; the latter, as her life becomes darker, is compelled to read and understand some writings (fictional) left behind by Kate P., who in turn felt compelled to examine the evidence connected with the disappearance of her two young cousins, better known as the princes in the Tower. Was her beloved father really responsible? Annoyingly, I can't remember what conclusion Weir drew in her book on this subject, which was the first of her historical works I read, so I'll have to circle back and read it, now! Still, an excellent novel, which should make the hearts of historical fiction fans everywhere rejoice. Not a literary novel, a la Wolf Hall, just a way-better-than-average historical novel. 4.8 stars.

jul 16, 2012, 5:02am

Wow, 4.8 stars and a great review. I'm going to have to find a copy of A Dangerous Inheritance, I feel like I haven't read enough historical fiction this year.

jul 17, 2012, 9:49pm

There's a lot of it out there, Alana, although not always the books that get the most buzz!

I posted a list of overlooked and great historical novels on my blog last year, and will repost the link below. I'm not sure why I left Wolf Hall off the list, although it and the new Weir novel definitely belong on it.

Here's the link for anyone who is interested:

I'm also going to defer to my blog for a review of the next book, as I don't feel like taking up loads of space, or working on shortening the review, so....

The Innocents is an homage by Francesca Segal to The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and it's moderately successful. I'm giving it 3.9 stars, and you can read my full review here:

jul 17, 2012, 10:55pm

A Dangerous Inheritance sounds good. It's going on the WL. :)

jul 18, 2012, 11:29pm

One more to add...

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya is the second novel I've read by this author, and the second winner. Set in Afghanistan, it deals with the crisis provoked by the sudden appearance of a woman in a burkha outside an American firebase; she is there to claim the body of her brother, killed in an attack days earlier. The woman is a catalyst of sorts, and we read about life on the base and the individual stories of the participants in the drama -- the medic, the lieutenant, the interpreter, the captain -- and come to understand what life might be like for these individuals, caught up in mutual incomprehension. I'll be blogging about this later and will post a link here. 4.3 stars

jul 19, 2012, 6:04am

Thanks for the link to your blog, most of the books you mention I'm unfamiliar with. I have read Nerfertiti, and I saw the Poldark series mentioned on someone's thread just the other day. And you got me with Broster simply by mentioning 'Jacobite' :-)

jul 20, 2012, 8:07pm

Alana, LOL re Jacobite! Yes, there aren't all that many novels featuring the Jacobites -- at least, not that many good ones or ones that I have encountered. (I'm sure the ubiquitous Nigel Tranter has had a crack at the topic...) I tried to emphasize some of the more obscure ones that I particularly liked.

aug 4, 2012, 8:52pm

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny is a mystery featuring the inimitable Gamache -- but not Three Pines, which undoubtedly will annoy some of the author's die-hard fans. It made me like it more, as some of the Three Pines characters -- while whimsical and endearing -- are just too OTT to work as real people for me -- most are lovable but flawed, or else flawed and not quite lovable. I liked the Gamache book set in Quebec city and in this one, he and Beauvoir finding themselves investigating a murder in a remote monastery among among monks vowed to silence and isolation but made famous by their recording of Gregorian chants. I'll be blogging about this, probably on Monday, and will post the link here. 4 stars. This is a galley; the book will be out in a few weeks' time.

aug 7, 2012, 1:57pm

Ooo! I'm 15th on the waiting list at my library when it finally comes out. So jealous you got an advance copy. It sounds good!

aug 7, 2012, 4:15pm

Wanted Women sounds really interesting.

aug 19, 2012, 12:58am

Ooof, have been neglecting books in this challenge... Will I manage to finish it this year, or have I yet again been too ambitious?? The rest of August may not be that productive when it comes to reading, heaven knows. At any rate....

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam is an intriguing and very well written debut novel (the author has published short stories previously) that is getting a lot of buzz -- and deserves 90% of that buzz. It's set in wartime Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and deals with themes of fathers and sons, home and betrayal. Sure, the author telegraphed some of the major issues too clearly for the reader not to discern them (is Percival Chen really as naive or oblivious as he seems to the reader??) But overall, this story of Percival, the headmaster who runs an English language academy in Saigon, and his dealings with his closest friend, Mak, his son, Dai Lai, and the beautiful Eurasian woman, Jacqueline, with whom he falls in love even though she isn't Chinese, transcended most of my plot-based niggles and suceeded because of the author's uncanny ability to capture in words the sights/sounds/textures of southeast Asia and his keen sense of human foibles. It will be billed as Literary Fiction; I'm not sure it quite rises to that level, but it's an intriguing and worthwhile book. 4.25 stars; recommended.

aug 24, 2012, 5:15pm

Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani is set in the Iran of the 16th century, and that alone would make it fascinating. (It will be a winner for any fans of the novels of Indu Sundaresan set in the Moghul court during a similar timespan.) That said, it's not a perfect novel. There's too little historical context (it could have used an introduction, or more context introduced gracefully into the opening chapters), and sometimes the obsequious language is irritating. Yes, it's nice to be in harmony with the era and not sound like a 21st century character has just zoomed 500 years back in time. But it can be carried to excess. The author has a habit of introducing us to characters, only to have them die suddenly and (usually) violently -- that's the history, but it's almost as if we're led to expect one kind of outcome only to find out, whoops, so and so is murdered offstage, OK, time to move on. Still, it's a very, very interesting look at a little-known (here) period and place -- the Safavid empire, as seen through the eyes of Javaher, a young man who at the age of 17 chose to become a eunuch and enter the harem to serve the shah, and try to uncover the man who (he believes) ruined and murdered his father, in order to redeem his family's honor. Javaher is a fascinating character, well depicted in this novel, as is the world of the harem. Less successful is the portrayal of Pari, the princess he serves and the favorite daughter of the shah. The author can't seem to decide if she is brilliant or dangerously reckless and imprudent in her ambition. The first half sometimes left me cold, but by the time I was at the midpoint, the various conspiracies left me in their grip, and I was glad to have bought the book. 3.8 stars.

aug 24, 2012, 7:40pm

Equal of the Sun sounds interesting, but I'm sure I'd want a bit more history too. I don't have enough background knowledge to fill in any gaps. Hmmmm... I'll think about it.

aug 26, 2012, 10:16pm

Read the author's note first, or just a Wikipedia piece about the Safavid dynasty -- I found myself thinking that either would have helped.

The Decision by Penny Vincenzi is characteristic of this author's "Aga saga" novels. Essentially brain candy or chick lit, although Vincenzi started writing before the real advent of chick lit (which I date back to "Bridget Jones") but I find that with all their flaws I can immerse myself in her novels and relish the complexity that she creates and the world she imagines. Her novels tended to be full of imperfect people with good intentions, leading affluent and privileged lives and dealing with predictable problems, but I end up not caring about the flaws. Anyway, this very long novel deals with Eliza and Matt, from opposite sides of the class divide in early 1960s Britain. Interesting; not her best, still 3.8 stars.

aug 26, 2012, 11:51pm

Forgot that this one also belongs here!

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. DO NOT MISS THIS BOOK. I will blog about it later, probably this week. But seriously -- it's brilliant. Layers upon layers, revolving around the theme/idea of memory and memorials, set in the rough present (probably the early 1990s?) and the 1950s, when the Emergency was still raging in what was then Malaya and became Malaysia, with forays into the further past, as the narrator, Teoh Yun Ling, looks back at her experiences growing up in Penang as a member of the privileged Straits Chinese community, and then in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Definitely this will be among the top 5 novels I will read this year. I'd be torn to say whether this or Bring Up the Bodies is the better book, but this is less familiar ground for readers, so I'd love to see it win and get a bigger audience. Will be out in the US in early September -- order it now!! 5 stars.

aug 27, 2012, 4:29pm

The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos is another novel I've been reading and loving, and will be blogging about. It's not as accomplished as Tan Twan Eng's fab book, but is vastly better than much of what I have read this summer, and deals with an interesting epoch -- Greece in the years that it was ruled by the junta, from 1967 into the mid-1970s. Bakopoulos chooses to make a single family her focus -- a widowed mother who works as a doctor; her brother, a poet; her three children, all coming of age in a turbulent and violent era. She deals with the experience of each (although the son, Taki, gets short shrift), confronting the colonels' rule in different ways. Sometimes it feels a bit perfunctory and there are limitations to this approach, but it's a vivid novel and works very well -- each character feels so real to me that I want to hop on a plane to Athens and ask them what happened next. I'll post the blog link here when I catch up on that stuff, but for now will just say this earned 4.4 stars from me. Definitely worth looking out for.

aug 27, 2012, 11:56pm

The Green Shore sounds like one for the WL - and a good one for that reading around the world challenge.

aug 28, 2012, 6:41am

garden of evening mists going onto my WL

aug 28, 2012, 9:04pm

You have sold me on The Garden of Evening Mists!

aug 30, 2012, 12:32pm

The more the merrier for that fabulous book -- it's definitely going to be one of my top 5 for the year.

sep 17, 2012, 10:41am

School of Fortune by Amanda Brown sounded as if it would be a cotton candy book -- no nutritional value whatsoever, but fun. Instead, this story of an over-privileged Dallas chick who, after she walks out on her wedding discovers that in order to receive her billion-dollar inheritance must earn a diploma -- any kind -- turns into distasteful yuckiness, and just an excuse for the author to take her unlikeable character through a series of improbable adventures at driving school, matchmaking school, etc. The beginning was mildly amusing if only for the overdrawn characters of the dozen bridesmaids and competitive mothers in law, but the rest was blech. Avoid. 2 stars. Only that high bec. I don't have the energy to justify a still lower ranking.

Da Vinci's Ghost by Toby Lester is excellent, although it pales by comparison to the author's much larger and more sweeping The Fourth Part of the World, which was one of my top books of 2010. Still, Lester's style is so engaging and his curiosity and interest in tracing the roots of Leonardo's famous drawing of "Vitruvian Man" so compelling that it helped gloss over one of the major flaws of the book -- the big question of "why does this matter/why should we care"? That's a question that I began pondering once I finished the relatively short survey of the history of the way people viewed the link between the human body and the workings of the universe from the Roman empire under Augustus (when Vitruvius first made explicit a link between the architecture of the ideal human body and that of a temple) to Christianity and on toward humanism. Unlike the maps at the heart of Lester's first book, which continue to shape the way we think of the world we inhabit, it's hard to see the contemporary relevance of Vitruvian Man, other than its ubiquity as a pop cultural reference (fridge magnets, college dorm posters, etc.) In the absence of that, I have to keep my rating to 4.2 stars... Still worth a read, if you're interested in this era and the development of this kind of intellectual thought and/or Leonardo da Vinci himself.

sep 17, 2012, 10:47am

... and one more:

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard of Bingen by Mary Sharratt is a historical novel that I've been eager to read since learning it was due out. I'm mostly familiar with the novel's subject through her music, which went through a big phase of renewed popularity during the early/mid 1990s, when Sequentia began recording it for an early music label; it was then that I learned of Hildegard as one of those rare women of the 12th century who really defied the odds (like Heloise, her rough contemporary) and found a role of leadership for themselves in the Church of the time. Sharratt takes a Gaia-like approach to Hildegard's visions, which I find perfectly legit -- everyone from conservatives like the current pope to new age types have borrowed her ideas -- but which might irk some who prefer to see her as a conservative theologian (eg she opposed catharism, but also opposed burning them...) What is impressive is the extent to which Sharratt can capture what it must have been like to have been "given" to the church as a young child -- and even worse, "given" to accompany a future anchorite, to be walled up alive to pray. She recreates the claustrophobia that Hildegard the child experiences and yet somehow makes convincing both her decision to find a way to build a life around this -- and later to break free of those walls. If you're not interested in the time period or the early church, this won't be a book for you, however. 4.3 stars.

sep 17, 2012, 11:42am

Oooh, very interested in the Hildegarde of Bingen novel! She was one of the most fascinating people I came across in my music studies. Definitely going on the TBR pile. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

sep 19, 2012, 12:39pm

You're welcome! Hildegarde also came up in Da Vinci's Ghost, a big part of a whole chapter there.

The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault was so slow as to be nearly unreadable, and the plot wasn't engaging enough for it to help me that much. A couple of (to me) uninteresting lexicographers discover mysterious/cryptic citations in their files, which triggers an investigation. Even 150 pages into it, nothing had happened to make me care one whit about either Billy or Mona. Wouldn't have finished this had it not been for the TIOLI challenge in the 75 books group, and the fact that someone else had already read it and was counting on me to finish. It was a chore. 2.2 stars. Adequate, no more. Yes, it improves toward the end, but it took so long to do so that by then I was alienated.

sep 19, 2012, 9:44pm

Thanks for the warning. Title The Broken Teaglass sounds interesting, but I doubt that I have more patience than you.

sep 26, 2012, 1:22am

A Question of Loyalties by Allan Massie is a compelling novel that has been sitting on my shelf for far too long unread. (I have read the author's quartet of novels about early Roman emperors, however, which also are good.) Etienne de Balafre is a South African citizen with a British-born mother and a French father -- a father, however, who was tangled up in French politics during the WW2 years, becoming an official in the Vichy government. In his late 50s or so when the novel opens (it was originally published in the mid/late 1980s), de Balafre is approached by someone interested in his father's past, and decides to embark on a voyage of exploration, reconstructing his father's final years through conversations and documents. That's more engaging than it sounds, but there still are lots of peripheral characters, some very complex themes and a rambling narrative that will make this a bit trickier to follow if you're not familiar with the time and place -- Massie assumes knowledge of personalities like the generals' plot in 1944, of the distinction between Vichy and the Occupied Zone and even French politics. I ended up liking it a great deal, despite one or two improbable coincidences, as it explored what happens when a man whose conservative Catholic values lead him to loyalties that turn toxic. Happily, Massie never falls into the trap of turning it into melodrama or psychodrama. More interesting food for thought than an unputdownable novel, however. 3.9 stars, should have been higher. Worth trying, but...

I read this as Massie is in the midst of publishing a trio of mysteries set in Bordeaux during the Vichy years that I want to read.

sep 27, 2012, 9:42pm

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil was one of "those" novels -- by which I mean novels that, no matter how much you admire the power of the prose and the creativity behind the narrative, you (or rather, I) never really manage to immerse yourself in the story itself. I found the character of Dimple fascinating and beautifully drawn -- but it remained clear to me that this "hijra" was another of Thayil's characters as he uses Dimple and a host of others who frequent Rashid's opium den in Bombay/Mumbai over a period of years that elapse almost imperceptibly to explore the changing and globalizing India. While the backdrop changes, the seedy underbelly remains largely intact, even if the nitty gritty of the opium trade moves to heroin and onward -- possibly -- toward rehab. I appreciated this, but while "whelmed", was never "overwhelmed" in the way the power of the language merited. For sheer creativity this ranks highly, but not as a novel. 4 stars.

sep 27, 2012, 11:12pm

Here's wishing you a stunning novel. The last two sound interesting, but not enough to go out and find them.

Redigerat: okt 1, 2012, 12:43am

Sadly... it was a mediocre one.

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin has been on my TBR list forever and now I know why. I think it's the combination of the writing style, which I found a bit stilted, and the characters, who left me kinda cold. Nothing actively annoying and the backdrop -- tsarist Russia -- is interesting, but I found Erast Fandorin's first adventure in this series all to easy to put down and forget about. I'd try the next in this series, but probably not for a while. Others may like this more than I did, however. 3 stars.

okt 1, 2012, 3:03pm

Shame you didn't find The Winter Queen much to your liking. I've managed to pick up one of the later books in the series without realising it was part of one and had been thinking of picking up this to start with first.

okt 1, 2012, 4:46pm

:( Well, at least I know one book to leave off my TBR pile.

okt 1, 2012, 8:04pm

I do know of some folks who have liked the Akunin mysteries; it just wasn't for me, and I'm becoming a bit more ruthless about books that don't grab me. There are so many good ones to discover...

Here is one that was chilling and unnerving, but reasonably good:

Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown is a disturbing novel -- the next time I fantasize about time travel, someone needs to remind me that I don't want to land as an independent woman in the 17th century. This novel has at its heart the story of Rachel Lockyer, unmarried, who is accused of having a child "covertly" and then burying it. Is she guilty? What happened? We discover only gradually, as her trial -- which could end with her being hanged -- progresses. It's chilling and more so for being based on accurate narratives. Especially unsettling is the way she and her plight were used by others to advance their causes. The author stumbled across these stories of women being charged with murder simply for concealing the birth of possibly stillborn illegitimate babies while doing doctoral research -- it's well-written but dark & disturbing. 3.8 stars.

I'll have to read something mindless to cheer myself up after this one!!

okt 3, 2012, 2:13am

</i>Accidents of Providence sounds interesting, but I think I'll wait until I'm in the right mood for it before finding a copy.

okt 3, 2012, 10:24pm

There are tons of folk songs that are like that - why did you kill your baby etc etc and the woman usually ends up being burned or hanged. Accidents of Providence is an interesting premise. Did the time traveler have her own plotline too, or was it more a look at all this awfulness sort of book?

Redigerat: okt 5, 2012, 4:17am

Cammykitty, the reference to time travel was just for myself -- to remind myself the next time that my fascination with history makes me want to go back to see things first hand, I should hit the pause button. No time travel plotline in that one.

Fall From Grace by Larry Collins was a more dramatic story when I first read it back in the mid-1980s, shortly after its release, probably because the story of strife between wartime intelligence agencies was newer and more dramatic, and because details of the various deception operations ahead of D-Day were still vivid. Nonetheless, this suspense/thriller holds up pretty well, although it's squarely genre fiction. It was interesting to re-read this now for my 12 in 12 challenge after reading Simon Mawer's Trapeze earlier this year. The latter is a better novel; this one has a more comprehensive theme. Both feature a woman agent for the SOE n France. 3.7 stars.

Rumours by Freya North was therapy after reading/while reading all the bleak novels and non-fiction. (I have just started Just Send Me Word, about Stalin and the gulag...) It's feel-good chick lit; no literary merit whatsoever, but who cares? Not much to say about the plot, either. The only "bad guys" are off stage, so there isn't even anyone here to dislike. But it's hard to dislike a novel that is cheery and smiley and cotton candy. 3.5 stars, don't go near unless you like chick lit.

okt 5, 2012, 9:22pm

Ah, I was wondering about that. I thought perhaps there was no actual time travel - and I agree! Don't go back! Between plagues and persecutions, there aren't a lot of time periods more appealing than the present. Glad you found a cheery smiley bit of cotton candy. ;)

okt 7, 2012, 11:11pm

Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes is a fun little whimsical novel; Janet Laird inherits an old Victorian building in an Indian hill station circa 1960; this is the story of how she builds a new life for herself there, a "heartwarming" tale, with lots of Muslim, Hindu and Indian Christians living in harmony and working together to save their town from the nefarious plans of the central government authorities. Tissue-thin plot that doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, but it has charm I liked the character of Mr. Ganguly, the parrot. 3 stars. More mindless stuff, read on a whim at the suggestion of another LTer.

okt 11, 2012, 11:55pm

... and one more!

Rather than retyping all my comments on The Twelve by Justin Cronin, I'll just link to my blog review, here:
The bottom line? A solid 4 stars.

Oh, and there's a giveaway...

okt 16, 2012, 12:25am

Private Lives by Tasmina Perry is cotton candy reading; one form of chick lit featuring high drama and flashy careers (in this case, the law and Hollywood). Set in London, the main character is Anna, a solicitor. What makes Perry's books worth reading for me is that they are lively and fast-paced, and she tends not to drop designer names but instead focus on creating some tension and a real sense of character. Not quite as lurid as some of the covers might suggest... The epitome of a perfect beach read, in fact. Too bad I'm not on a beach... 3.5 stars,

okt 19, 2012, 4:08pm

Sweet Tooth by Ian MacEwan had me wondering a while where the deft plotting and intriguing perspectives of the kind on display in Atonement had vanished to. And then suddenly I discovered them in the final paragraph, which turns everything you thought you believed about this novel on its head and completely redefines the phrase 'unreliable narrator'. I can't give away too many details, but will try to blog about this over the weekend. There are all kinds of fun comments on the literary establishment that make this even more entertaining in a "wink wink; nudge nudge" kinda way. It is more clever than it feels, and of course, up to MacEwan's usual writing standards. 4.3 stars.

Semper Fidelis by Ruth Downie is a NetGalley; the latest in this series of mysteries featuring Ruso, the "medicus" of Roman-occupied Britain, will be out early in 2013. After a ho-hum last outing, this was back on form, as Ruso and Tilla have to contend with mysterious deaths among British legionary recruits, a visit by the emperor Hadrian (and the discontented Empress Sabina) and a potential mutiny. Predictable but lively and engaging reading; good if you have liked other books in the series, and you might even be able to read it as a stand-alone. 3.7 stars.

I FINALLY finished The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo and am beginning to understand what folks see in the author, although it took me about 30/40% of the book to finally get engaged in the plot -- and that's a long time. I have tried to read this and put it aside on at least four occasions! Too much jumping back and forth; too many unfamiliar characters in those crucial early chapters. What does an event protecting a visiting US president have to do with Norwegian soldiers in the SS outside Leningrad in WW2, or an old man visiting a hotel and his doctor? Nesbo is saying "trust me" and I didn't and I'm still a bit grumpy about that first third of the book. The second third captured my interest; the final third grabbed me and didn't let me go. So I will read the next in the series and stick to it even if the opening bits are slow and confuddling, and I'm glad I finally got to this! 4.1 stars.

okt 22, 2012, 3:59pm

The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley definitely got a lot more interesting and compelling as I moved further into it; the first few chapters didn't do much for me as I found the characters and situations oddly distancing; I kept comparing it to Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Cazalet Chronicles" (a trilogy beginning with The Light Years) and finding that Wesley's novel came up short. Eventually I realized that if Howard's novels are oil paintings, Wesley is a silverpoint or charcoal drawing -- perhaps not as finely detailed, but still conveying a lot to the attentive reader. And reading between the lines is what made this most enjoyable -- that, and the way Wesley juxtaposes the events of the world war 2 years with later "looking back" by Helena and Polly en route to ... something, somewhere. Over the course of the book, we come to know what, and who and why and it's this two-stranded narrative that made this a novel to enjoy. 4.1 stars

okt 24, 2012, 4:48pm

Just for the Summer by Laura Van Wormer is a book that I remember being fun and frothy, mindlessly entertaining. Other than mindless, it's none of these. Perhaps it's that it feels very dated (especially since it's set in the Hamptons -- Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger broke up eons ago; JFK junior is dead; Marla Maples isn't married to the Donald, etc. etc.) and that she likes to drop names. Not fun, dreary & dull. Avoid. I've enjoyed & would re-read some of her others, but not this one. 2 stars

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam, on the other hand, was a very good novel. I read The Good Muslim first, so I was somewhat familiar with Maya and Sohail, the two young people coping with the aftermath of Bangladesh's war for independence. This novel is set squarely in this period of the war itself, and focuses on Rehana, their mother -- Urdu, not Bengali is her native language, her sisters are married to men who live in Lahore, not Dhaka, and yet her children are caught up in the fight for Bangladesh's independence from West Pakistan. The horrors of factionalism, but at heart this is a story about family and specifically mothers and their children. Not as accomplished as the sequel, but a compelling read that I read straight through yesterday. 4.1 stars.

okt 26, 2012, 1:26am

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling was a slooooww and plodding read. I started this at the end of September, and it has taken me until now to finish. Apparently Rowling has said that she doesn't want to speak to anyone who didn't cry at the ending, in which case I suppose I'll never be speaking to her. I count it a victory that I was slightly moved. I didn't either want or expect a Potteresque book, and I tend to like books with dislikeable characters, as they are very human with their flaws. But... Rowling's characters are so unredeemably flawed that they are impossible to relate to. I find it deeply ironic that she managed to turn wizards and house elves and other characters into compelling characters -- look at Snape, for heaven's sake, is he a hero or a villain? he is certainly a complex character and utterly believable -- and yet when she finds herself writing about people, they are dully banal. It's an ensemble story and we skitter from one character's POV to the next, everybody spitefully griping about everyone else. Yes, it's plausible, but extreme plausibility doesn't always make for a compelling story. This is just bleak and, IMO, tedious. Because even the intense drama of the final pages didn't rise about tedium. Ultimately, it felt like B movie melodrama -- in a kind of Peyton Place world. I was lukewarm about Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English but now look back on it fondly as an example of a well-executed novel tackling similar kinds of issues and themes about the dark side of contemporary England. (Rather, that novel deals only with the underclass and not the contrast between the smug lives of the middle class and those in the housing projects/housing estate, but my point is that Kelman makes his characters humans. Wish I had borrowed it from the library. Can't see myself reading anything else she writes -- and this is more my natural kind of writing than the fantastical world of Harry Potter, so it should have been a slam dunk. 2.9 stars

okt 27, 2012, 2:12pm

>Interesting! I almost got this at the bookstore a couple of days ago, then resisted. I'll probably read it eventually, out of curiosity if nothing else, but I think I'll wait for paperback, deep discount, or a borrowed copy.

okt 28, 2012, 1:53am

Ivy, this seems to be a book on which there is a big division of opinion. For my part, I simply struggle to understand how/why a reviewer might characterize this as a brilliant study of contemporary Britain (or contemporary anywhere). But there's no question that some see it as this. And I do believe I'm evaluating it on its merits -- certainly, while I was reading, I wasn't thinking of it as a novel by the author of Harry Potter, but as a novel. It's not that it was disappointing in comparison to anything else, just that it lacked the expertly-drawn characterizations and taut plots of the kind of novels I enjoyed. I've been listening to an audiobook version of Bleak House and it did strike me as Dickensian in a couple of ways -- the social commentary, the sprawling narrative in which you have to keep track of multiple characters. But Dickens has a knack of engaging my interest despite the nauseatingly saccharine character of Esther (whom I want to beat about the head until she stops simpering) and Rowling doesn't.

Sigh. And here is something still worse, IMO. Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson is the latest by a novelist whom some of my historical fiction friends have been urging me to read. It was irritating and I only finished because I had resolved to read each book for my TIOLI challenge (in the 75 books group) in honor of my late cat, Jasper (a rolling challenge featuring books beginning with each letter of his name -- yes I know that makes me sentimental!). Gregson is an indifferent writer and a lazy, lazy plotter of stories. Firstly, we're expected to believe that a 23 year old woman in England in 1942 is doing no war work whatsoever, just drifting around singing occasionally. ??? Then we're asked to believe in a series of implausible coincidences that get her to Cairo where she is recruited by the English secret service. Bollocks. I won't even get into the "love" relationship, which feels extremely artificial even by the standards of the genre. Then we get big historical bloopers, like a reference to a troupe of ENSA performers in France, all of whom have been struck by illness; the context is a comment by someone indicating that this has just happened. In 1942. When France was occupied by the Germans. I really don't think they were inviting English entertainers to tour at that point, oddly. Just unconvincing, featuring plasterboard characters. You don't even get a sense of threat or peril throughout most of the novel. To be avoided, and I'll discard the paperback that someone had sent me of one of Gregson's other novels. 2 stars.

okt 29, 2012, 1:36pm

With all of those glaring errors, I wonder if 2 stars is generous!

okt 31, 2012, 1:02am

Mamzel, probably! But on the other hand, I realize that many readers won't pick up on minor errors -- they'll just read past them without noticing because they're more focused on the romance.

Thankfully, two better books here:

Restless by William Boyd is a brilliant and entertaining novel that is calculated to appeal to those who love literary spy stories. Fabulously complex characters and a narrative that is split between the hot summer of 1976 in Europe (which I remember all-too vividly...) when Ruth Gilmartin, single mother, English teacher and struggling to complete her PhD, discovers that her mother has been lying to her all her life -- and the years of World War II when Eva Delectorskaya finds herself trapped in a world of double and triple-dealing as a British spy. Eva, now Sally Gilmartin, obviously made it out of whatever trap she found herself in during those years -- but how did Eva become Sally, and is her current paranoia justified? Discovering the story is like peeling an onion, and this story features some hints of great themes (the complex politics of the 1970s, from the anti-Shah movement to the Red Army Faction in Germany, set against the backdrop of the great anti-fascist crusade that justified all kinds of underhand activities and subterfuge). If you haven't read this -- do so. 4.6 stars.

Recipe for Love by Katie Fforde is perfect hurricane reading, offering plenty of mindless entertainment and requiring no disciplined thought. Amusing fluff, by one of the more competent chick lit authors who doesn't get bogged down in dropping names of designer labels and seems to keep her characters at least somewhat realistic. This one was fun to read as it's set against the backdrop of a kind of reality TV cooking competition. 3.5 stars.

okt 31, 2012, 10:28pm

Silesian Station by David Downing is a good re-read of one of the better books in this series (IMO!) I'd opted to re-read them after Lehrter Station brings back some of the characters from the earlier books. 4.3 stars.

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout is a great discovery. So far available only in Canada, but will be published in the US in the spring, it's the story of the doomed Everest expedition led by George Mallory, as seen through his eyes, those of his young fellow climber, Sandy Irvine, and Ruth Mallory, waiting for news at home in England. The action on Everest takes place over the course of weeks; that featuring Ruth, over the course of a single day, and yet it somehow covers an incredible swathe of time and emotions. It reminds me of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and yet it isn't anchored by a literary homage, which makes it all the stronger. A must-read, when you can lay hands on it. 4.7 stars.

nov 7, 2012, 2:14am

Hand in Glove by Robert Goddard was a re-read of one of my favorite books by this author, published more than 20 years ago and that I haven't re-read for at least a decade. It's a good yarn, classic Goddard, with layers and layers of surprises revealed throughout, and a plot that revolves around the echoes of the Spanish Civil War in late 1980s Britain. Beatrix Abberley is found dead -- murdered -- and her honorary niece ends up trying to delve to the truth behind this crime and a later one, all of which seem to go back to the death of Tristram Abberley, Beatrix's younger brother, a poet who died in Spain in 1937. Fun reading. 4.3 stars.

nov 9, 2012, 5:47am

Finally finished Bleak House! I was captivated by Dickens' descriptive talents re London in the first chapter, resolved to read this two years and promptly set it aside. Sigh. Ended up alternating between reading it and listening to the audiobook by Simon Vance, which made a lot of it the descriptions that I loved the most really vivid. In many ways, it's a potboiler of its time, with sad pathetic dying waifs, orphans with mysterious pasts, people who will themselves to die, miscarriages of justice, etc. etc. But the social commentary and the character studies transcend the sentimentality/saccharine character of Esther, Jarndyce and Ada, and I found myself very engaged by the characters of the Dedlocks, George, the Smallweeds, Tulkinghorn, etc. I confess I still yearn to shake Esther until her teeth rattle, she was so annoying with her self-deprecation and excessive modesty -- oh, no I don't deserve to be liked or appreciated or to be anything but overlooked... (grrrrr) Looking forward to watching the BBC serialization, however. 4.1 stars

nov 9, 2012, 11:41am

Congratulations! Bleak House is a monstrous doorstopper of a book. Its on my read before I die list - just so I can say I read it. I do like the characters that Dickens comes up with and his detailed descriptions of the time period, but I can only handle tackling one Dickens a year, tops, before I start to feel bogged down by his stories.

nov 9, 2012, 12:33pm

Glad you liked Bleak House, Chatterbox -- and the BBC miniseries is quite good as well. You're in for a treat!

nov 11, 2012, 6:09pm

I have had Bleak House on my 'to read' list for at least the last two years... and The Magic Mountain, the other massive epic classic that I will undertake this year, has been around for even longer -- since the mid/late 1980s, I think. Yet again this year, I have been overly ambitious! Even at the pace at which I read, it's going to be an effort to get to the end of this year's challenge. Glad I restrained myself a bit next year, with more flexible characters and alternating between "full length" challenges and half-length ones.

nov 19, 2012, 11:02am

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre is a book that no one could believe I hadn't read, and everyone assured me I would love, because I relish character-driven spy thrillers billed as being in the Smiley legacy. The problem? I didn't love this. It's oblique, and moves as slowly as molasses; nowhere in it did I feel any sense of suspense or intense engagement, whether as a spy novel or even as a very good novel. (Just to be clear, I'm NOT a big fan of the Steve Berry kind of thrillers; cerebral is good, IMO.) I knew the story as I've seen both the television drama and the film, and actually fought to keep myself awake at times in the film. Perhaps I ended up too familiar with the bare bones of the story? I could appreciate the writing skill, the complexity of the plot, and all that stuff, but overall was deeply underwhelmed. Had I not known what it was about, I would have struggled to really grasp what was happening - and Smiley himself and his own motivations, remain unclear. I could not engage with him as a character on any level. (It has nothing to do with being likeable or not as a character -- he just never became a 'real' character or personality in the way that Guillam did. And I don't think the idea that Smiley is intentionally oblique is an acceptable explanation -- when he carries the narrative so much, I want to be able to see him as an individual, not a cipher.) So, not my favorite book of the year. A friend suggested I try The Honourable Schoolboy but it will be a while, I suspect. 3.5 stars. Meh. Wanted to love this but couldn't.

nov 19, 2012, 1:18pm

I am not a fan of le Carre's books, but other members of my family are so I can appreciate why you found it to be just 'meh'.

nov 24, 2012, 12:31am

What disappointed me was less the book than my own reaction to it, if that makes sense...

Spookygirl by Jill Baguchinsky is a book that I first read a snippet of as one of the early-stage reviewers for the Amazon Breakthrough novel award. It was easily the best of the 50 segments I read & reviewed and was so lively and entertaining I was pretty much convinced this was already published. So I was delighted when it won the competition last year. And this enthusiasm in spite of the fact that (a) it's a YA novel, which I rarely read and (b) there's a big paranormal plot, which I usually avoid like the plague. It's all a nice neatly-wrapped up little package, which may be lacking in edge for some readers, but I found this narrative of a teenager who sees ghosts and keeps a pet poltergeist, but who still doesn't know what happened to cause her mother's death during a paranormal investigation years earlier, to be worth a read. It doesn't live up to the original segment, but now I'm comparing it to stronger material, so hardly surprising. 3.75 stars.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey is what you would get if you combined Jane Eyre (on which this clearly is modeled) with women's fiction by, say, Joanna Trollope. I enjoyed the result more than you might think based on that description, and probably partly in spite of the fact that Bronte's Jane annoys me -- she is so passive, yet so principled, an odd combination. In this homage to Bronte, the madwoman in the attic plot twist is unbelievable -- both in and of itself, and in its impact on Gemma -- but ultimately what really kept me reading was the setting of Scotland in the early 1960s. I'm glad a friend urged me to read it. 4.1 stars.

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke is one of those library books that has made a very long stay chez moi. (The Brooklyn system lets you renew 99 times, for three weeks each time, as long as no one else has requested the book...) I finally got around to reading it this week and found it fascinating, and am not surprised it was banned in China. It can be read on a lot of levels -- Ding Village is clearly a microcosm of China itself, doomed by top-down planning, but Yan also is blasting some specific policies (blood selling) and regional corruption that is the bane of the country's top leaders. A village is temporarily made prosperous when villagers are encouraged to sell their blood, until AIDS sweeps through the community. The narrator is a dead boy, the son of the man who made a fortune extracting blood from his fellow townspeople but who didn't take sensible precautions and reused needles, etc. The young boy is murdered, an anonymous act of revenge, and from his own grave recounts the path that others take as they approach their own different kinds of doom, primarily from the viewpoint of his grandfather, the school caretaker. Communal life breaks down but tradition looms large, as villagers battle to get coffins and arrange posthumous marriages for their children. At times it's almost hallucinatory, but never topples over too much. Yes, it's bleak, but this is an author worth watching. 4.2 stars.

nov 24, 2012, 6:50pm

I hadn't heard of Yan Lianke--thanks for the review, sounds good.

nov 24, 2012, 11:19pm

Really, you can renew a book 99 times? That's over 5 and a half years! I think I would find that a little dangerous :-)

nov 25, 2012, 12:43am

Dream of Ding Village sounds really good - and kind of macabre, but in a realistic way. WL time!

nov 25, 2012, 8:10am

I can't wait to mention this to my sister (a librarian). She should find it interesting.

Redigerat: nov 25, 2012, 9:18pm

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is an example of how someone who can really write can be derailed by banal plotlines -- the importance of lurve, a kind of "Il Postino" style element -- a cluttered narrative and unconvincing characters. There are times when it almost comes together, but ultimately I didn't care about what happened to a single one of these individuals and read on only out of mild curiosity. Yes, the setting is fresh, but those characters who aren't drunk all the time or drugged, are dysfunctional in other ways, or two-dimensional. My first book by this author, and I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. Yes, the writing is good, but it doesn't compensate for the drudgery of trying to follow a scattershot narrative that includes a film treatment about the Donner Party, a plot line involving the filming of Cleopatra in Italy with Taylor and Burton, an aging Hollywood producer, a community theater in Idaho, a 45-year-old self-destructive has-been busking in the streets of Edinburgh, a woman who has illusions about the movie biz and her lapdance-addicted bf.... etc etc. I finished this feeling almost as depressed as some of the characters. Not recommended, 2.8 stars. (Not sure what the fuss is about with this one...)

Yes, the long renewals are VERY scary. I had had Dream of Ding Village sitting here for nearly 18 months...
Check out the Brooklyn Public Library's websites -- the details are all there! Oh, and the limit for the # of books you can have out at a time? 99....

nov 25, 2012, 11:31pm

Yes, the setting is fresh, but those characters who aren't drunk all the time or drugged, are dysfunctional in other ways, or two-dimensional. Yuck! That's all I need to know.

nov 27, 2012, 11:57am

I have Citizen Vance by the same author in my TBR and I can't say your review encourages me to move it from where it is (out-of-sight - closet shelf maybe?).

nov 28, 2012, 12:47am

LOL! I try not to be prescriptive; one person's best book of the year is box office poison to others, after all, but this one just felt like a waste of good writing. Here's a quirky, offbeat but fun alternative:

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray is a book that I might have continued to ogle on bookshelves for another 20 years had it not been chosen as our latest book circle offering. It's a riff on Frankenstein, set in late 19th century Glasgow, and the author runs amok with his narrative, tossing in sly allusions, puns, and references to all and sundry with abandon. (For instance, the creator of the new human being is named Godwin Bysshe Baxter -- the original Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley, daughter of William GODWIN and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and married to Percy BYSSHE Shelley; Baxter's creation becomes a feminist physician.) The first 3/4 of the tale is told through the eyes of a public health official in Glasgow, McCandless, who is a kind of friend/ally of Baxter's and who marries the young woman Baxter has "created". And who could be more reliable than that? Except that the final 25% of the narrative belongs to Dr. Victoria McCandless... I just love a witty novel featuring an unreliable narrator, and so while this sometimes felt a bit over the top and def. was very stylized, it was fun & intriguing. I won't rush out to read more Alasdair Gray but at some point will seek out Lanark, 1982. 4.2 stars

nov 30, 2012, 12:31am

Yes, Poor Things sounds quite a bit more fun.

dec 1, 2012, 1:47am

Under a Sapphire Sky by Susannah Bates was adequate chick lit, saved from banality by its setting (partly set in Sri Lanka) and the fact that the main character, Marianne, is a jeweler. And the fact that the romantic subplot isn't any of the obvious options, and that the author doesn't mind setting up a "not quite happily ever after" plot twist midway through the book. Some of those elements made this better than the average chick lit book, and turned this into a good read for a gloomy winter evening. 3.7 stars

Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap is a collection of short stories that I nabbed from the library earlier this year and have been dipping into since the summer. Finally finished the last, a novella entitled "Cockfighter", and have to say that while the quality ebbs and flows here, this is certainly worth reading, in part because of the author's knowledge of the "real" Thailand. His characters aren't those seen through a foreigner's eyes (although one story, "Don't Let Me Die Here" is told from the POV of an elderly man now living with his son & his Thai wife and their children in Bangkok, and the inability to communicate) but are authentic. Particularly moving was "Draft Day", a scene at a Buddhist temple where the annual military draft drives an unmovable wedge between two longtime friends. Recommended, 4.3 stars

The Purple Shroud by Stella Duffy is the sequel to Duffy's tour de force first novel about the Empress Theodora, covering the period between the accession of Justinian to the role of emperor to the end of their mutual story (trying to avoid spoilers...) It's not quite as compelling in some ways, as Theodora has accomplished her climb to the highest position in the land and so the element of struggle against adversity isn't there -- or at least, the nature of the adversity is different, as Theodora fights palace intrigues and the constraints that her new position brings with it. Definitely worthwhile, but read the first book first. 4.2 stars,

dec 3, 2012, 3:57am

Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower is a novel that Historical Fiction fans were rabidly enthusiastic about when it was published perhaps 2/3 years ago. I ordered it -- and promptly put it to one side, having never been that enamored of books set pre-1140 or thereabouts. This is the story of Gytha, a young Saxon woman who has served in the household of King Harold's mistress prior to the Norman invasion and swears to take vengeance on Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, for his role as the eminence grise of the invasion and the occupation. An opportunity arises when she is picked to become an embroidress on what is today known as the Bayeux tapestry -- except, of course, she ends up discovering her feelings are slightly more complex. In some ways, this is the same kind of novel as Katherine by Anya Seton, and very nearly as good, too. The focus is an all-consuming and unlikely love affair and its end, which Bower weaves into the politics of the new Norman government and into the story of the Bayeux tapestry, imagining what might have led to the creation of myriad scenes in that series of panels -- that's one of the most fascinating parts of the novel. It's well written, Gytha is a compelling character and despite the fact that Bower kind of pushes the big story to the background (Hereward's rebellion is a bit of a footnote), I still found this a compelling read. And yes, if you read historical fiction, you should def. seek this out. It's not Hilary Mantel, transcending the genre, but it's very close. So close that I just bought & downloaded her other novel, about the Borgias, despite the rather lurid cover on Amazon. 4.3 stars, with the potential to be higher had Bower not stuck quite as closely to the romantic script. Her depiction of England circa 1070 is breathtakingly detailed and vivid, and never takes over from the main story or ends up sounding like a description there to prove that the author has done her research (a pet peeve of mine...)

dec 3, 2012, 11:14am

I do enjoy historical fiction and I will definitely keep an eye out for this one! Thanks for your comments.

dec 3, 2012, 5:57pm

Needle in the Blood sounds interesting to me too -- thanks for your review!

dec 3, 2012, 8:31pm

Sounds like one I should track down, too.

dec 4, 2012, 5:10am

Needle in the Blood sounds like a good one to me. Thanks for the review Suzanne.

dec 4, 2012, 11:40am

I was very impressed with it, and when it comes to HF, I'm an increasingly tough sell on novels. I liked the fact that this wasn't about the endless Tudors & Plantagenets, and that while the author's main focus ended up being on the romance, the setting was so vivid. Now I hope that her previous book lives up to my high expectations!! (The cover really is lurid enough for me to avoid it under normal circumstances...)

dec 5, 2012, 9:26pm

The Dinner by Herman Koch. Hmm, well, this was interesting. When the novel, narrated in the first person, opens we learn that the narrator, Paul Lohman, and his wife, Claire, are about to have dinner with his brother Serge and Serge's wife, Babette, to discuss something important. As the pages go by, we see more and more displays of Paul's cynicism regarding Serge, a politician, and his bitterness -- and learn a little bit more about the roots of those attitudes as well as the problem involving their sons that they must discuss. By the time the nature of that became apparent about halfway in, my attention was grabbed. That said, some of the plot twists were a bit melodramatic, in particular the conclusion, which struck me as a bit of a bizarre stretch, out of keeping with the more subtle buildup. This was an ARC from Amazon; the novel will be published in February. It was a lively read, but ultimately disappointing. Still, if you liked Gone Girl, there are some elements that are common to the to (and Gillian Flynn blurbed this book). Worth a try, maybe. 3.8 stars.

Redigerat: dec 10, 2012, 12:49am

The Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis is a historical novel I've had sitting around for more than two years and finally got around to reading after spotting (and buying) a biography of Caterina Sforza, The Tigress of Forli. I knew I probably wouldn't want to read the novel after the bio, so pushed it up my list and found it surprisingly readable, although I could have done without the quirky tarot sub-plot and the the idea of some kind of non-Christian "angel" accessible via hallucinogenics. Kalogridis, based on the only other book of hers that I have read, seems to have a penchant for this kind of ridiculous stuff, which is all the more odd given that the women she chooses to focus on led such dramatic lives without it -- and that it's so out of context the realities of Caterina's era. That said, if you have become addicted to the Borgia mini-series on TV, Caterina was a contemporary of theirs, and ran afoul of Cesare (to put it mildly). 3.4 stars.

dec 10, 2012, 9:54pm

Oil on Water by Helon Habila is a book I downloaded onto my Kindle about 18 months ago, immediately after hearing the author discuss it on WNYC (the local NPR outlet), which is responsible for more impulse book buys than I care to contemplate. Then I promptly put it to one side... Pity about that, as it's quite a powerful novel set in today's Nigeria. I'm glad I read Peter Maass's book about the horrors of oil exploration in West Africa before this, as it gave me a context for the story. On the surface, at least, it's about the effort of two Nigerian reporters, a jaded, burned out veteran named Zaq and a struggling newbie, Rufus, to find and interview a white Englishwoman kidnapped by insurgents in the Niger delta for ransom. But it's really about the impact of oil on the region, social, environmental, political and economic, told through the lives of Zaq, Rufus, Rufus's sister, Boma, and those they encounter in the sometimes odd and futile quest. It's a short and compelling novel, taut and vivid. Recommended, and I'll be looking for more by this author. 4.2 stars

dec 11, 2012, 3:08am

Making a mental note of Oil on Water, it sounds great.

dec 11, 2012, 7:49pm

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is another chunkster that I can finally manage to cross of my TBR list after a period of years! It proved very entertaining indeed; four interwoven narratives (told sequentially) by four very different men, all revolving around the same set of events that take place in Oxford circa 1663, shortly after the Restoration of Charles II. It's a turbulent time, and the arrival of an Italian merchant's son and the violent death of an Oxford don set in train (or are the culmination) of many forces at work -- it isn't until the final pages that we get a sense of what is really going on. Indeed, each of the four narratives cunningly appears to reveal much, until I read the next one only to realize that one or other of the narrators is lying/misleading us. To some, the young woman hanged for murder is a witch, to others a bad-tempered serving girl; to some, Marco da Cola is a conniving assassin and to others a curious natural philosopher. Each views their peers through the prism of their own preconceptions and biases, and the author does a great job of juggling the complexities that ensue. It's long, but worthwhile, especially if you're familiar with or curious about the period, one of tremendous political, intellectual and religious ferment. Indeed, it's kind of amazing that Iain Pears was able to connect his narrative to all of these trends so deftly. 4.4 stars

dec 11, 2012, 10:30pm

232 to put it mildly is right. No reason to make up anything about her. I've read she had a grimoire that was filled with cosmetic recipes and poisons. She was reported to have sent a letter contaminated with smallpox (or some other deadly virus of the time - can't remember which) to the Pope. Didn't work, except perhaps on the messenger, but very clever.

The problem with Borgia-esque historical fiction IMHO was that there were so many outlandish stories running around about them (and their contemporaries) at the time that authors get carried away with it. The novels I've seen I couldn't even pick up because I knew enough historical fact to see they'd gone into fantasy land, just by reading the back blurb copy.

dec 12, 2012, 1:55pm

@ 235 -- Nice review of An Instance of the Fingerpost! I've had it on my TBR list for years, but it's so long that I haven't been able to work up the necessary motivation. Sounds like a great read for when I'm in the right mood, though!

dec 12, 2012, 3:28pm

The Line by Olga Grushin was one of those books that once I had picked it up, I simply could not put it down again. And it's one that I can see re-reading multiple times, just in order to relish the author's startling ability to capture a scene, a mood, a moment in absolutely perfect words. It's the story of a line in Soviet Russia, but Grushin deliberately makes the backdrop a bit blurred, so that instead of trying to focus on how her depiction of that era corresponds to reality, we instead are caught up in the characters and the nature of their various quests for some kind of hope in the form of a ticket. When the novel begins, no one who joins it even realizes that is what they are waiting to buy. It could be anything -- when you saw a line in that era, you joined it, because otherwise you would miss out on the chance to buy anything from cheese to lipstick or winter boots. Eventually, it becomes clear that the line has formed for tickets to a concert by an emigre composer, Igor Selinsky. (The novel's inspiration was a year-long line in 1962 for tickets to Stravinsky's return to his homeland.) The family at the heart of this novel -- Anna and Sergey; their son, Alexander, and Anna's mother Maya -- all have their different reasons for wanting the single ticket they will be entitled to at the end of weeks, months, a year of queuing. And the long wait exposes the tensions within the family, between tone-deaf Anna, Sergey, who has no sense of smell or taste; Alexander, who is color-blind; and the elderly Maya, who has responded to the transformation of her world from the vivid and colorful universe of ballet and dance into the bleak Soviet conformity by ceasing to speak. All will sacrifice different dreams or parts of their lives in service to "the line". The ending is abrupt but completely "right": there is room for hope, but not for rose-tinted glasses. This is one of those books that will linger in my mind for months, and I can't wait to read Grushin's other book, The Dream Life of Sukhanov. It's not perfect, but based on my response to the vivid and yet elegant writing, I'd be churlish to give this anything less than 5 stars. Highly recommended

dec 12, 2012, 3:48pm

At the time I read it, I only gave The Line 3.5 stars. However, I have to say that it is a book that has stuck with me, and it probably deserves a higher rating such as the one you gave it.

dec 12, 2012, 4:11pm

I just brought home An Instance of the Fingerpost. I had never heard of it before but added it to my piles because I have been into Historical Fiction lately. Christina's and your comments certainly make me glad I did!

dec 12, 2012, 10:01pm

The Line sounds utterly bizarre. Waiting for Godot combined with something altogether other.

dec 13, 2012, 12:09pm

Cammykitty, it really isn't as bizarre as it sounds. Just enough disconnected from reality to make it a not quite realistic novel, but perfectly normal when compared to magical realism or Beckett. You can read it on a very symbolic level -- or just as a story. Which is one of the things I loved about it. I tend to dislike being instructed to read a book as an allegory, but delight in discovering for myself the ability to do so, and Grushin walks that particular line very elegantly indeed!

dec 14, 2012, 2:06am

You've convinced me to put it on the WL!

dec 14, 2012, 1:41pm

I liked The Line, but not as well as you. Would agree that it's not really that bizzarre, and it's fairly easy to read. Recently I went to a Shostakovitch concert, and that made me think more about the book and like it more.

The thing that bothered me was that I just could not believe that Anna and her son would care so little about music.

dec 14, 2012, 3:36pm

I just could not believe that Anna and her son would care so little about music. That makes me even more curious. It might mean the characters/description is well done enough that a music lover can be thoroughly angry and annoyed at some of them. If Anna and her son were the only characters though, I'd agree. It would be time to throw the book against the wall! I do know people who aren't touched by music though. They probably wouldn't get a ticket just because it was valuable to other people though.

dec 14, 2012, 6:06pm

I found Anna's indifference and tone deafness of interest, given the later revelations, but I don't struggle at all with the idea that people were/are indifferent to classical music (alas...) Adjusting for the Soviet era, which was different might make that a bit surprising, but I know I'm a rarity among my friends in terms of what I listen to and what kind of live music events I seek out, and at the NY Philharmonic last night, I was, at 50, by far one of the younger folks in the audience! What I found amusing/quirky was that Anna seems so fascinated by concocting meals or dishes (like the date tart) and yet she clearly can't grasp the essence of literal taste or cooking.

dec 15, 2012, 1:12am

Sounds like the characterization was well done - lots of quirks. & sad that there weren't younger people there. Locally, we've got some wealthy patrons of the arts who have been doing things like purchasing a block of tickets for a school group etc to encourage young people to value the arts. You're making me realize what an important charity that really is.

I've got very eclectic tastes - almost impossible to describe. You could find me listening to classical music or Irish punk - and as for the Irish punk, at 50 you certainly wouldn't have been the youngest or the oldest in the audience. I'd like others to be exposed to a broad range of music too.

dec 15, 2012, 3:52am

Some people simply aren't musically inclined, I fear. The attitude I struggle with a bit more is the adamant view, "I won't like it". There is music I don't like (rap, etc. for instance), a lot of Western stuff, teen pop (except for the stuff I listened to as a teen), atonal classical music. But I do try to broaden my horizons, and often discover things I really love as a result, or at least that I'm glad to have discovered. I have NO idea what constitutes Irish punk, however...

Curiously, my next book for this challenge also relates to music, albeit in a different way.

The Heat of The Sun by David Rain was a book that I was eager to read; its starting point is the assumption that Puccini didn't write "Madame Butterfly", but instead on a different story, a novel by Daudet -- and that the events in Madame Butterfly were, rather, a real story. And now we are in the midst of the aftermath, as Pinkerton's son -- grown up, and unaware of his real history -- meets Sharpless's orphaned son at an American boarding school. The two form a bond, and as the novel unfolds over the next 30 years ago, encounter each other again and again -- in New York, in Japan, in Los Alamos. The themes may be a bit heavy handed, as with the symbolism -- the clash between young Trouble's personal loyalties is reflected on a wider scale, with his father being one of the fiercest opponents to Japan within Congress, for instance, and there are constant references to what is meant by honor, to sun and heat, etcetera. On the other hand, the writing is very good indeed, and knowing the Puccini opera made me relish the wry asides to it scattered throughout the book. (When Sharpless revisits Japan on a journalistic assignment, he stays in the consul's house where he had lived as a toddler, and finds on the shelf a copy of Pierre Loti's novel, Madame Chrysantheme, one of the inspirations for "Butterfly".) But if you don't know the opera, this will feel too scattershot, and the characters are pencil sketches rather than fully developed and convincing personalities in their own right. Clever, but it doesn't quite deliver on its promise, alas. I'd certainly take a look at anything else by this author, given the writing and smarts on display here, and I'm glad I satisfied my curiosity, but I'm also glad this was a library book and not a purchase. 3.7 stars.

A side note: during the novel's epilogue, the narrator is present at the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, in the city of Hiroshima itself. Very, very eerie, as I was there that day myself, sitting in the audience. I'd been at grad school in Japan and was working at the Japan Times that summer, and had gone with some Japanese classmates, traveling down to Hiroshima and then further down Honshu to Shimonoseki, before traveling back to Kyoto by myself. So it was intriguing to read this by someone who I think would have been too young to attend that particular ceremony.

dec 16, 2012, 3:36am

The Heat of the Sun sounds fun. It makes me think I should mention Louise Marley's The Glass Butterfly to you. Louise Marley was at one time an opera singer. Now she's a writer, usually fantasy and science fiction, and most of her novels center around music. The Glass Butterfly is half historic fiction about Puccini's household during the time when he was writing Madame Butterfly and half paranormal thriller.

dec 16, 2012, 11:23pm

Tks, but I really am not a fan of paranormal stuff, with very, very rare exceptions. (I like Connie Willis' Oxford Time Travellers series, and also Lev Grossman's books, for instance.) I'll look at it, but.... I'm reading Inkheart now, but it's the fact that it involves books that is keeping me going!

dec 17, 2012, 1:33am

Actually, that was my comment on The Glass Butterfly. The two parts of the story weren't equally strong, and you guessed it, the paranormal part was the weak part. It's a shame she didn't genre hop and do a solid historic fiction novel.

dec 19, 2012, 3:06pm

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke was a bit of a meh read for me. Yes, the plot revolved around books, which was a plus, and the writing (even in translation) was very good, but it felt too much like a fairy tale, with Very Bad characters and Very Good ones, and not much in between. (Although I kinda liked the irritable Tinker Bell who is "read out of" Peter Pan.) A fun enough read, but I think I prefer my fantasy with either more humor or more connection to "real life" (i.e. the juxtaposition of the fantastical and the real; even in Harry Potter, the books really are just re-written versions of classic English school stories that happen to involve wizards.) 3.8 stars

dec 22, 2012, 2:52am

I loved Inkheart for the very reasons you were disappointed with it. LOL. I read so much "realistic" fantasy that it was nice to be in a world in which I knew who was Very Bad but didn't actually know what would happen. Sure, it didn't really make a lot of sense but I was happy to be along for the ride.

dec 23, 2012, 2:03pm

If you like the Tinkerbell character, I would recommend Tiger Lily which is written from Tink's POV.

dec 23, 2012, 11:18pm

Stopping by to wish you a Happy Holiday, Suzanne. I've enjoyed following your reading throughout the year, and I have added many of your reads to my ever-growing wishlist.

dec 24, 2012, 2:09am

Thanks for the tip, Mamzel, but I think what I liked about Tinkerbell was the fact that she was a bit of a curmudgeon in a novel that wasn't full of characters who fall into that gray zone -- good & evil blended.

Judy -- thanks for the holiday wishes and right back at you! Hopefully at least one of the following will be a book bullet...

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is a tough book for me to try talk about. The basic plot -- the bones of the novel -- is compelling, and even brilliant. The execution felt wildly uneven. It's a short novel, the tale of the collapse of the lives of two young men, fellow soldiers in Iraq, under the pressures of combat. Occasionally, there were moments of tremendous power and emotion that blew me away. But they were interspersed with segments that almost collapsed under the hyper-eloquent and overly complex phrases and pages that not only didn't ring true (after all, the narrator is a 21-year-old recruit) but ones that I had to read over and over again to tease out what Powers was saying and what he meant. (The jumps in time and space also weren't always handled as well as they could have been.) I can handle one of those things, but not both. I think Powers is an immensely talented author, but this novel underwhelmed me. I'm more interested than ever now in reading Matterhorn, as both novels seem to deal with the trauma of war, and particularly of a war that seems meaningless to its participants (or that has lost any meaning, beyond the brotherhood among those participants.) 3.8 stars.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks reinforced my interest in Geraldine's fiction (as a former colleague, I've been a big fan of her non-fiction for eons). This grew out of her war reporting in Bosnia during the mid-1990s, and is based on the preservation of an ancient Haggadah in Sarajevo -- she builds a story that revolves around periods of "covivencia" that then relapsed into ethnic and religious tension, using as a device for exploring this theme the oddities found in the pages of the Haggadah by a young Australian expert brought in to restore it in 1996. Hanna Heath locates a butterfly, a white hair, stains of wine and other materials -- and Geraldine takes each of those discoveries and builds a story around it. The final discovery is particularly compelling. Not all of the little vignettes from the past is equally compelling (the weakest, IMO, is the penultimate one, dealing with the expulsion of the Jews, which appears to be a struggle to pull the narrative threads together). While we don't really see Hanna develop a relationship with the little book beyond that shaped by her professional passions, she does make other personal and professional discoveries. Very, very readable, and fascinating. 4.5 stars; excellent character portrayals and vivid descriptions, that anyone who is interested in the history of objects will find unputdownable.

dec 27, 2012, 12:42am

Two more... will I make it across the finish line, or will the calendar beat me??

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa was a very mixed bag. There were some fabulous and evocative moments -- vivid descriptive passages, mostly. And the final scene involving an action by Conchetta, daughter of the prince through whose eyes we see most of this, will resonate for a while. But there also was a lot that was very heavy handed in terms of the imagery. (En route to a ball among the remnants of the aristocracy, Prince Fabrizio crosses the path of a priest taking extreme unction to a dying parishoner -- yes, we get that this is symbolic of the dying elite and a foreshadowing of Fabrizio's own death, to the extent that it's a 2x4 to the forehead...) The author overdoes the use of foreshadowing, leaping forward and comparing a journey in the 1860s during which the bulk of the narrative is set, to one undertaken by plane today and interrupts the narrative to tell us what will become of the characters he's writing about, etc. etc. Then there's the casual misogyny -- I mentioned the "beautiful bitch" comment, then there is Fabrizio's view of the women at the ball as a bunch of baboons, whom he imagines climbing the curtains and showing off their pink rear ends, etc. But not all these offhand comments are those of Fabrizio (in which case you could say, well, it's the character), nor is he equally harsh, in the same way, to the men, even those who don't come off well -- they are just foolish. So, this was a beautifully-written novel that rubbed me the wrong way from beginning to end, and it makes it hard for me to evaluate. Ultimately, it's a series of vignettes around a common theme, rather than a novel, and aside from the incredible descriptive passages, I'm not sure how it ended up where it did in the 'canon'. 3.5 stars, and I'm being generous bec. of the writing.

Dominion by C.J. Sansom was a better read, but not as good as I had hoped for from the author of the "Shardlake" mysteries. Reading the historical note at the end kind of clarified my problems with it: Sansom has an agenda here, making us aware of the dangers of resurgent nationalism in today's Europe. That's valid enough, but even before I got to that note, I was a bit tired of his idealistic characters making speeches, and of them very consciously filling us in on the alternative history involved. Because this is set in a possible 1952 in England, one that could have existed had Winston Churchill failed to become PM in 1940 and had Britain reached some kind of accommodation with the Nazi regime. Sansom paints a detailed portrait of an imaginary Britain -- one that is just as bleak as austerity-era "real" England of the time, when years after the war ended, rationing was still in force. But in this version, a government led by Lord Beaverbrook collaborates with the Nazi regime, and there was never really a WW2. The plot revolves around two university friends: Frank, a mentally troubled scientist who becomes privy to a weapons secret, and David, who is keeping secrets of his own, including the fact that he has become involved in the Churchill-led resistance movement. I found this took a while to grab me, and at times I found it a bit difficult to believe in the core premise (can't disclose as it would be a spoiler) that didn't jibe with the impression of a ruthless resistance movement. It's still a good book, and intriguing as alternative history, but I much prefer Collaborator by Murray Davies, which is a fabulous fast-paced book of the same kind. (In it, England was conquered in 1940 and now is occupied; the same kind of moral compromises, resistance activities, etc. are part of the mix, but Davies isn't on a mission of his own as an author and the result is a breakneck thriller.) This just isn't as good as the Shardlake mysteries, but then perhaps my expectations were too high, as well. 4.1 stars.

dec 27, 2012, 11:07am

You can do it, Suzanne!

dec 27, 2012, 10:22pm

Some great reviews here!!! Keep going keep going!!!

dec 29, 2012, 10:05pm

So much for my pledge not to leave it all to the last minute...

Traitor by Rory Clements is the fourth in a series of historical mysteries/thrillers featuring a fictional John Shakespeare, brother of the more famous William, who in Clements's imaginings, became an intelligencer for Walsingham and later Robert Cecil, ferreting out conspiracies against Queen Elizabeth late in her reign. By now, Mary, Queen of Scots is dead; Elizabeth is fading; the Earl of Essex is in the ascendancy. It's a quite fast-paced thriller, but in terms of characters and complexity really doesn't stand up well against Sansom's Shardlake series. Worth trying, but start with the first book. 3.8 stars

Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz is an elegantly crafted series of vignettes, character sketches and episodes in the lives of the residents of the alley of the title in Cairo in the final years of World War II that gradually come together to form a novel. Compelling, but not in the same league as his Cairo trilogy. 4.2 stars

S: A Novel About the Balkans by Slavenka Drakulic is incredibly powerful, and even more depressing, as it focuses on the inexplicable issue of man's inhumanity to man -- and woman. When this novel opens, S. is in a Stockholm hospital, having just given birth to a baby boy. But she's a Bosnian refugee who has survived the "woman's room" (aka soldier's brothel) and repeated rapes at a camp in the Bosnian hills, and she couldn't begin to guess which of the many men she was forced to service fathered this child, even as his birth brings memories flooding back. Very powerful; it's incredible the extent to which Drakulic managed to climb into the skin of a woman in this position. But I wouldn't recommend it to any sensitive readers, as it makes for very tough reading in places. S. has survived, along with the tumor in her belly -- but now what? There is a resolution of sorts in the final pages, but it's hard to imagine that anything is that simple. 4.5 stars.

dec 30, 2012, 8:47pm

Looks like you had some decent reading to help push you to the finish line, Suzanne!

dec 31, 2012, 8:36pm

A quick New Year's Eve update. Still hoping to wrap up at least two other books before it's midnight here, and may finish a third before midnight arrives in LA or Anchorage... Yes, I know that I live a bit further east than that, but I'm going to push the envelope in hopes of coming closer to my goal. Cheating? Well, only if you're rigid... :-)

11/22/63 by Stephen King grabbed my attention and held it throughout all 853 pages -- I was so caught up in the saga of Jake Epping's trip back in time from 2011 to 1958 and his quixotic attempt to avert the assassination of Kennedy in hopes of creating a better world. The reluctance of history to be changed is one problem, and so are all the unexpected twists and turns that follow. The epitome of a thumping good read. I don't like horror novels at all, so this may be the only King novel I read; he is a tremendous storyteller. 4.7 stars.

Two Brothers by Ben Elton starts off well, with an intriguing premise. It's Berlin, 1920: A young Jewish woman is pregnant with twins; one dies at birth and she is asked by overworked doctors to raise the child of another mother who died while giving birth. When Paulus and Otto are teenagers, the fact that one of them was born to Christian parents suddenly matters... It turns into an interesting enough tale of identity, but with characters jumping on stage to symbolize a certain "type" or moment (like the folks whom the twins' father, Wolfgang, meets in a 1920s jazz club) only to vanish rapidly, it's hard to feel the backdrop is real. Maybe it's Elton's background as a playwright and TV scriptwriter? I've read others of his books that worked better for me; this didn't live up to the premise of the story, although it wasn't bad. 4 stars.