Monday, 21 July 2008

Decline and Fall - Evelyn Waugh

I read it pretty quickly -- it was light and funny.

I sent this one off to bookcrossing.

Holy Fools -- Joanne Harris

Holy Fools -- really enjoyed this. I picked it up while I was on holiday in Turkey (I left a couple of my own books in return). I like the way Joanne Harris builds up the atmosphere using the weather. And I love how previously harmless characters suddenly become threatening. And how do you set an unreliable person up as a reliable narrator? LaMerle tells the truth because he is so proud of his scheme and is a showman.

Troll Mill -- Katherine Langrish

Another brilliant installment set three years after the first.

Kersten thrusts her baby into Peer's arms and throws herself into the sea, leaving Peer with doubts about her husband, his friend Bjorn. Worse is to come -- there are rumours that the Grimmerson's mill is running again by night. But the millers who so badly mistreated Peer in the first book are trolls, so who is operating the mill, and what is the strange gritty flour that they are milling?

Nothing much has changed from the first book -- Peer is still worried about everything; and wishes Hilde would take more notice of him, while Hilde is determined to keep him at arm's-length in case her feelings for him result in a family and no more adventures.

I'm going to pass this and the first book on to my cousins.

Troll Mill (Troll, book 2) at Fantastic Fiction

Spinsters Abroad -- Dea Birkett

An examination of what drove Victorian lady explorers -- and many of them were driven, trying to escape from their own illness, or that of their families.

Most of them seem to have died wretched deaths -- alone and frustrated by their infirmity.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Philosopher turns detective

The Sunday Philosophy Club -- Alexander McCall Smith

A self-sufficient lady philosopher witnesses a young man's death and decides that something isn't right and that she needs to investigate.

Isabel Dalhousie takes advantage of the tight-knit nature of the Edinburgh arts scene to find out more -- everyone knows someone you know so it's possible to dig around like this. I keep expecting the residents of 44 Scotland Street to pitch up.

She justifies her nosiness by claiming that it helps her recover from the trauma of witnessing someone dying.

I like McCall Smith's precise, correct language. It suits Isabel's side of the story. I find it harder to keep up with her neice Cat -- the head voice is slightly too old (although she's a very engaging character, and I, like Isabel, care about her.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The marriage bed

TV: Malcolm in the middle
Dewey's Opera

I love shows where elements of fantasy blend into the action. In this one, Dewey watches an opera on TV and is reduced to tears. He is inspired to write his own -- his snoozing special needs teacher gives him plenty of opportunity to do this. But he needs a plot worthy of his music -- and Hal and Lois' quarrels over a new bed is perfect. When they argue, they gradually slip into song, then into costume and finally on to the stage, complete with supporting choruses.

In between, baby Jamie has his own opera going on -- he conducts a silent love affair with the toddler next door based on glimpses on her eyes over the windowsill.

And as if that's not enough, Malcolm and Reese take up street luge (a craze so dangerous that the police are nostalgic for crack) and find themselves humiliated again and again by a mysterious rider -- who turns out to be wheelchair bound Stevie. This was revealed to the viewers early on.

Black birds

Another few chapters of A Feast For Crows.

The Maid of Tarth's story continues. Brienne is strong as you like, but she's still so vulnerable because she's a woman. Always afraid that someone is going to attack her; and the taunts of the Bloody Mummers are almost unbearable. I want to watch out and see if I feel the same way when a man is taunted by the people he is fighting. And Brienne's paranoia makes her judgement poor; although perhaps she was right, and Dick Crabbe was only good compared with the Mummers. She is afraid, and then feels guilty for being afraid of someone. How very womanly.

Victarion is another difficult character to like -- he's hard as rock; and mentions having killed his wife... and then goes on to make me feel sorry for him. Gah. I enjoy the Ironmen threads because they are relatively straight forward people who are not losing their grip on reality. This was a tense chapter -- I genuinely didn't know who was going to win. I hoped it would be Asha; but then I suppose to move a story on, you need to have the worst, most terrifying outcome possible. There was a quote in this chapter, which shows where the book got its title: "After every battle, the crows come in their hundreds and their thousands to feast upon the falled. A crow can espy death from afar. And I say that all of Westeros is dying. Those who follow me will feast until the end of their days."

Poor Arianne -- I'm starting to get the feeling that she's way out of her depth here. But she is lucky in a way; because of who she is, she will never lose everything. It might almost be a game for her.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Lark Rise to Candleford

This was a funny little episode. Once again the theme of love that can never be acted upon appears -- poor Miss Lane. Mystical yokel Queenie finds a tapestry in the graveyard and she and her husband Twister are overwhelmed by its beauty. And also by the possibility that it might be worth a fortune. The Misses Pratt come over all psychic.

Meanwhile, Philip and Alf go head to head, but is it about poaching, or about Laura? I love this thread -- although I'm pretty sure I know who's going to win in the end.

And Mrs Arless comes home determined to be a better person, cue a very funny scene where she can't stop saying 'arse' ('we all has one, and some of us has two') in front of the vicar's daughter. Her character seems a lot deeper and slightly more interesting now she's been to prison.

And Robert accuses his son Edmund of lying -- lots of opportunities for them to glare darkly at each other. But since I'd had no indication that Robert's own brother had been a bad'un, until I was told in an exposition, I found it hard to be sympathetic. I loved Laura's quote: ' walk down the road as if you own one half of it and are thinking of buying the other.'

I find the reactions of the Misses Pratt to the tapestry very... out of character. I suppose, being fashionistas, they'd know what they were talking about, but to have them go all mystic about it doesn't seem right. I think, given that Queenie already has a relationship with them through her lacemaking, I would have been inclined to have her go to them first; I would have had them take it off her in a flurry of excitement (just like they took the schoolmaster's French books from Thomas Brown) and then I would have had Miss Lane and Sir Timothy intervene. But who knows the minds of other writers, eh?

Other points I liked: The baby box, which I remember from the book; and the music; and Emma's felt hat.

BBC website: Lark Rise to Candleford

A Feast for Crows

I'm still munching away at George R. R. Martin's epic, and loving it. Pod has appeared again -- he's one of my favourite characters.

And there's been a startling revelation about the baby Samwell Tarly is escorting -- I guessed there was something of this nature up. Samwell, as usual, is suffering and uncomfortable -- seasick, stuck in a cabin with a miserable woman and her puking, shitting baby and the bard he is travelling with is bullying him. Poor Sam seems to attract bullies.

Cerys gets madder by the chapter -- I'm observing closely how she is being unravelled, as it's done very effectively. Paranoia, and an obsession with her son. She is afraid to trust anyone, and is gradually alienating all her supporters.

Myrcella -- previously a rather sketchy character -- is developing (developing is a good word, because it's very like watching a picture appear). I'm liking the Sunspear threads -- this story is being told through many different characters, which is interesting.

Poor Sansa is losing her identity -- I've glanced ahead, and all her chapters now have her new name. It's strange how suffering can make you like some characters more -- I hated Sansa at first -- and other characters less -- I used to be a huge Cerys fan, and now I'm just waiting for the end.

I'm dying to hear more about Tyrion; and Jon Snow, but I won't get that until I start the next volume. I really, really wish this could have been a massive book with all the stories mixed up.

Women underfoot

Quality Women's Fiction -- July 2007, issue 51.

This just goes to show how behind I am on my magazines...

I love QWF; but one thing struck me about this issue -- it's full of stories about victim women -- wives who have to wear a pair of denim shorts to bed; wives whose husbands have affairs with their sisters (the wife's sister, I mean); wives forced to put themselves in danger from violent exes because they need money etc etc. Sometimes it feels as though to be a women is to carry an unbearable burden, and a lot of these stories are about the consequences of laying down that burden.

Then again, I love the widow experimenting with carrots; and the mother who was pissed off at having to attend an awards ceremony for her autistic son who 'takes up a whole eight and a half by eleven piece of paper to write his four-letter name'.

Website: Quality Women's Fiction

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Crows and Gumshoes

A Feast For Crows -- George R. R. Martin.
I love this series, and have been working at it for almost ten years. I was sent the first book as a review copy when I was at uni -- I read it, reviewed it and gave it away. It was too dark, too gory for me. But the plot kept tugging at me -- particularly the story of resourceful born survivor Arya Stark; and her bitter bastard brother Jon Snow; and the erotic tales of Daenrys, Queen across the water. I love the way character push and push at making me recoil with disgust until I can't understand why I want to read more about them.

So far this installment is going well. Jon has had a go at Samwell for whining on about being craven (good for you, Jon, I've been wanting to give fat boy a shaking since he first rolled into the story). Arya has made yet another new start in a new place, swallowing her doubts and fears in the usual way -- I'm afraid at some point she is going to have a breakdown, but who knows... There was a good slice of travelogue in this chapter, too. I'm enjoying the Damphair chapters too -- the idea of a religion that drowns and resuscitates people to baptise them is splendid.

Interzone 213
I am behind on my magazine reading, and I found this half-read in a box by my bed. There was one story still to go, and the reviews section. The Lost Xuyan Bride is a gumshoe story set in a world of a Chinese / South American empire. Aliette de Bodard must have had fun with the details -- loved the Mexica border officials in feathered regalia.

I didn't feel as if Brooks (the detective) was as trapped as he should have been into taking on this assignment. The love of his life was dead; he was a hard-up immigrant with no-where to run, but I sort of felt that there wasn't enough to force his hand. He just seemed to be going through the motions, somehow. I think perhaps he needed something more to spur him on, to make the case burn into him. Having said that, I kept reading -- I wanted the girl to be safe. And I loved the ending, and the way the resolution echoed Brooks' own sad life.

Book reviews -- saw a book I'd recommend to Katie, but the description on Amazon makes it sound like hard sci fi instead of a bodice ripper. Sigh. Plus, she's so busy these days that I don't suppose she'll want a fat epic series -- Queen of Candesce by Karl Schroeder. Also thought that Cat might appreciate the YA Dragonhaven by good old Robin McKinley.

Interview with Gary Gibson. I was struck by a para about how Gibson wrote most of his last book while forced to be off work. He talked about how Douglas Adams started his career being homeless so that he didn't have to get a 'proper' job: '...while friends who were initially as ambitious to be successful writers did the 'sensible thing' and got decent day jobs in order to support themselves: they were never heard of again.' Thank you.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Fire of the Dragon

The plot
A young husband reluctantly leave his pregnant wife to go to war. Five years later, he is holed up in a beseiged castle, and finds himself torn between staying faithful to his wife and a pie.

What I liked
Medieval war is not the usual setting for gentle comedy about a put-upon man; but this was handled very well. Huw ap Dafydd is a likeable character, with very human failings and fears.

The Welsh accents.

The gentle humour -- it relied on situations, rather than word play. The more Huw tried to improve his lot, the worse things got; and following his heart in pursuing the princess nearly got him punished.

A lot of the action went on in his head -- he tortured himself with thoughts about what his wife was up to at home.

What I learnt
Watching someone struggling in a situation they have landed in because of their failings is funny.

Website: BBC Radio Wales

Broadcast BBC Radio Wales on Sunday 13 January.

Saturday Play: A Passion Play

The plot
A middle-aged couple are blown apart by the younger widow of an old friend.

What I liked
The contrast of the head voice and the real voice -- this play reflected what the character was saying and what they were thinking. All you have to go on is a slight difference in quality of the two voices.

Kate's annoying 'riiiighht' -- this was pointed out later in the play.

What I learnt
It is, apparently, possible to get away with lines where a wife says to a husband: 'but she's the same age as our daughters Rowena and Sally' (or whatever).

Website: Saturday Play

Broadcast BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 12 January.

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

The plot
Moist von Lipwig has sorted out the Ankh Morpork Post Office and now he is bored. The Patrician insists that the bank needs taking in hand, and Moist is the man to do it. But Moist is not enthralled by this -- it sounds like the sort of job that could get a man killed.

But he is moved into place when the chairman, Mrs Topsy Lavish, leaves her 50 per cent share to her lap dog (who already has one share) and leaves the dog to Moist.

Moist is right about it being a dangerous job: The chief cashier is not happy; nor are the men of the mint, particularly when Moist suggests paper money; and nor are the hateful Lavish family, who own the other 49 per cent of the bank.

And what is Moist's girlfriend Adora Belle Dearheart, representing the Golem Trust, excavating in the Dwarfs' desert?

What I liked
It's Terry Pratchett, for a start.

I like Moist as a character -- he has a certain 3Dness to him. It's sweet seeing him trying to come to terms with loving the spikey, chain-smoking Adora Belle.

Cribbins is a superb villain. His false teeth make his speech... characteristic.

I liked the Glooper -- this is a water powered computer model of the city's money.

I'm always glad to see Igors -- interesting strand of racial tension there, as both Igors and Moist come for Uberwald.

What I learnt
Terry Pratchett usually starts out with a very mysterious opening -- that I promptly forget about because it doesn't make sense. If I remembered it, it would probably enhance my reading experience. Perhaps it should be printed on a bookmark given away free with every book.

I spotted that a big deal was made of Miss Lavish's ginger hair, and of Hubert's hair, too -- I felt very smug when Moist (as a clever character) asked about this.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Before I Die by Jenny Downham

The plot
A sixteen-year-old girl dying of cancer makes a list of things she would like to do before she dies, and does them.

What I liked
It made me cry -- books never make me cry.

I loved the relationship between Tessa and her brother -- she is by turns irritated and overwhelmed with love for him.

I liked how selfish she was -- no saintly invalid. It was fascinating to see how she views the affect she has on her father, and while she accepts that she is driving him up the wall, continues to do what she wants to do.

I liked the contrasts between Tessa the little girl and Tessa the woman in her.

What I learnt
Because she is not going to live long, things that might seem self-destructive in a normal teenager don't have to be dealt with on a moral level. A quick web search turned up no-one with a bad word to say about her behaviour -- one person remarked that the sex and drugs content would keep it off school reading lists. It would create an interesting discussion point: Is it OK for Tess to do these things? Why? Why is it not OK for me to do these things.

A dying character can be selfish without being unlikeable -- or at least, the reader can understand why they are doing it, and I suppose forgive them.