31 December 2010

Review: The Shifting Fog | Kate Morton

After reading Kate Morton's sensational novel The Forgotten Garden - and giving it 5 stars - I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into The Shifting Fog, also known (and printed in other countries) as The House at Riverton.

In the beginning of the novel, the reader is aware that there is going to be a shooting at the lake at Riverton Manor and a famous young poet will die - presumably by suicide - but we're not quite sure why. We meet Grace, who was employed as a servant at Riverton Manor at the young age of 14 and was ensconced in the household during this period. When Grace is in her late 90's and living in a nursing home, she is contacted by a film maker looking to make a film of the events leading up to the suicide. The film maker has researched the characters and the period, and asks Grace for her input to ensure the sets are an accurate portrayal of the manor during the roaring 1920's.

Grace begins to reflect on her time at the manor; observing sisters Hannah and Emmeline and the secrets she has protected since then. We are taken back to the period in long vivid flashbacks, and become immersed in the house and entranced by the characters. The book is very gothic in its setting and rich in secrets, long kept loyalties and a sense of tradition. We also witness the slow decline of Riverton Manor and the changing social landscape following World War I and the devastation that came with it.

Grace reveals the truth about the young poet's death at the end of the book, and for me it came as a complete surprise and I'd go so far as to say it was even haunting. As a result, we learn why sisters Hannah and Emmeline never spoke to each other again after that night.

Kate Morton has used a similar plot design as she did in The Forgotten Garden - two different time periods, characters haunted by the past, family drama, mystery and secrets slowly revealed - however it's such a magical and effective concoction and I enjoyed it very much. I have to say I preferred The Forgotten Garden, however the suspense and mystery in this novel had me completely gripped. I would highly recommend The Shifting Fog to other readers.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

Review: Gentlemen and Players: A Novel - Joanne Harris

This novel by Joanne Harris centres around St Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, which in itself becomes a central character in the early stages of the book. The school is rich in history and tradition, avoiding any kind of scandal and ensuring any mishap is kept from the local press. Order must be maintained at all costs.

The book shifts narrators from Mr Straightley, Classics teacher who is one of the longest serving professors on staff, and a mysterious new member of staff motivated by deep revenge and set on destroying the school from the very foundations.

Gentlemen and Players was published in 2005, six years after her very successful novel Chocolat, and was nominated for the Edgar Awards. I don't want to give away any more of the plot as there is a massive twist towards the end of the book that caught me completely by surprise. I thought I knew which member of staff was the impostor, but I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. The impostor has a dark character and years of hurt and torment, and a cleverly plotted method of revenge.

I enjoyed reading about this character in their younger years, and found myself cheering for Mr Straightley, the sharp -witted, Latin speaking Professor who tries to get to the truth of the sudden decline of his beloved school.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to all those who enjoy a thriller and a twist!

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

26 December 2010

Review: Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World

This is a non-fiction book about the great composer, Gustav Mahler, written by Norman Lebrecht. When I read somewhere that the music of Mahler was performed more often than Beethoven, I had to find out more about this man, and this seemed as good a place as any to begin.

Mahler was born in 1860 and died in 1911, and was a conductor as well as composing music. This book covers Mahler's personal life and music, much of which is very interesting. However; the reader quickly learns that Lebrecht himself has spent countless years researching anything to do with Mahler, almost to the point of obsession. The author can't resist including his own personal anecdotes here and there, which often disrupt the flow of the text. I often found myself confused, wondering if this particular anecdote was about Mahler or about the author. This appeared quite self-serving, and these segments should have been edited more clearly, or incorporated in some other way.

It was interesting to read about the times in which Mahler was composing, and how his music was received by others. He was liberal in his instructions to other conductors performing his music, so much so, that some performances of a particular symphony could vary by as much as 20 minutes, depending on Mahler's mood, or the interpretation of the conductor. Fascinating stuff! Mahler was one of the most accomplished conductors in his time, and was in constant demand, working long hours. According to Lebrecht, Mahler was a perfectionist when it came to the skill of those musicians in his orchestra and would often dismiss musicians who didn't meet his high standards.

According to Lebrecht, Mahler's music influenced many people, including those in important roles within society. (Lebrecht includes a few examples in his book). He claims Mahler was an important influence for musicians that followed, no doubt true. But did Mahler change the world? I don't think so, at least not to the extent the author has claimed.

Recommended for those interested in learning a little about Mahler, although you may find a better reference than this book.

My rating = **

Carpe Librum!

18 December 2010

Name change?

I've been wondering if it's a good time for a name change. This blog has been going for a number of years now, and has become solely about book reviews, so I'm wondering if a more fitting title is now called for.

Suggestions are more than welcome. What do you think?

14 December 2010

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time | Mark Haddon

Friends will know I often avoid reading a particular book if I think the title is too outrageous or seems to me to be seeking attention. However; occasionally I have to acquiesce, especially if it's recommended to me by a friend. This has been the case in the past for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society which I really enjoyed - once I got over the ridiculous title of course. And, I'm happy to say, the same was true here.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is narrated by a young, autistic teenage boy named Christopher. In the beginning of the story, he discovers his neighbour's dog -Wellington - dead on the lawn and decides to become a detective and find out what happened. The book is terribly honest and funny; Christopher can't tell lies, he's mathematically gifted and has various 'behaviour problems'. He lists these in the book, some of which include: hating yellow and brown things, not liking being touched and covering his ears and groaning (which he describes as the only way to reduce the stimuli around him). Some of the items on his list are serious, but others are amusing, and the author has done an amazing job both including and balancing the humour throughout the book.

I found Christopher to be an incredibly likable character and I was amazed at the author's ability to create him and the unique narrative and style of writing. I have no idea if Christopher is an accurate portrayal of a teenager with autism, however it certainly opened my eyes to how easily behaviour can be misinterpreted.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was extremely easy to read (I finished it in 2 nights), and it had me smiling to myself and caring greatly for Christopher's plight. The novel won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 2003, and the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Book in 2004.

It's a fabulous and touching read and I recommend it to everyone 10yo and over.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

13 December 2010

Review: Your Soul's Plan | Robert Schwartz

This book is for those who believe - or are interested in learning more about - pre-birth planning. Author Robert Schwartz writes that the soul plans life's challenges/opportunities/lessons prior to birth. Not only that, the soul plans these major life events in conjunction with other souls, that will each play a role in life on earth with us - brothers, sisters, parents, partners, soul mates etc.

We've all heard the phrase 'soul mates' and 'old soul'. Similarly, we've all had the experience of meeting someone for the first time and feeling like you've met them before, or suddenly just click.

The book covers several themes such as: illnesses, children with disabilities, loss of a loved one and more. The author elaborates on each theme by including case studies which involve psychic readings from several practitioners.

The book certainly raises many topics for debate and further exploration, and plenty of material for deep and meaningful discussions.

Regardless of whether you are a 'believer' in pre-birth planning or not, I found Your Soul's Plan a spiritually enlightening read. If we could all approach life in this manner, with so much love and compassion, the world would certainly be a better place.

My rating = ****

That's my four bucks!

06 December 2010

Review: Black Dahlia | James Ellroy

The Black Dahlia is a book that is referred to often as the American crime novel to top all crime novels, so of course I just had to read it for myself.

Set in the 1940s, the Black Dahlia is the name given to murder victim Elizabeth Short, who is brutally murdered and her corpse dumped in an abandoned lot. Two policeman (and ex-boxers) Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are amongst many on the taskforce who investigate this heinous crime.

Bucky and Lee become close friends in the book and together with Lee's close friend Kay, become an inseparable three-some. (In fact, this reminded me of the relationship in the film Sophie's Choice, between Sophie, Nathan and Stingo).

Bucky tries to prevent Lee from becoming obsessed with the investigation; and he and Kay are shocked when Lee goes missing. Bucky continues to investigate the murder and Lee's disappearance, and eventually unearths secrets from every corner. Without giving the plot away, I was surprised to learn of the details at the end of the book, and enjoyed unravelling the trail set by Ellroy. Ellroy's style does take getting a little used to; he uses a lot of slang, including slang of the times and cop and street slang, which sometimes is hard to keep up with.

Admittedly, I did find it frustrating when either Bucky or Lee had to run to a phone box to phone in their findings or for a vehicle registration check, and hold on the line for 30 mins for information. It did give me a new appreciation for police investigations in the times before computers and databases, but it was frustrating because I wanted the story to keep pounding along.

Before beginning to read this book, I did know that the author James Ellroy, had once been homeless and a petty criminal, and I was very interested to know how he went from that state of living to becoming a successful author. At the end of the book, Ellroy comments on his own Mother's unsolved murder and his feelings about her and the Black Dahlia. He discloses intimate information about himself and states unequivocally that he doesn't intend of speaking of this ever again.

Ellroy is reputed to have said: "I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music." Do I agree? Sadly, no. Do I believe The Black Dahlia lived up to it's reputation? Well, not for me unfortunately. He's clearly a very successful author though and this book went on to form the 'LA Quartet' which included his later novel LA Confidential, (hated the film though). If you love crime fiction, you should read this at some stage. The character development goes much deeper than most crime fiction of today, which is the most rewarding aspect of this novel for me.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

29 November 2010

Review: The Library of Shadows - Mikkel Birkegaard

The Library of Shadows was written by Mikkel Birkegaard and translated from Danish into English by Tiina Nunnally.

The author has conceptualized people who have the ability to influence your thoughts and feelings through reading. This concept is highly original as far as I'm aware and I was gripped by the idea immediately.

Set in Copenhagen, Luca Campelli is the owner of an antiquarian bookshop containing many old and rare texts as well as new releases. He and his son Jon have been estranged for many years, until Luca's sudden and unexpected death interrupts Jon's career as a highly successful lawyer. After his funeral, Jon finds himself inheriting the bookshop and becoming curious about the secrets his Father kept from him.

Jon soon learns about the secret society of gifted bibliophiles who possess powers as either transmitters or receivers. This subtle supernatural theme continues throughout the novel, as Birkegaard attributes these society members with the ability to influence, manipulate and brainwash people with their powers.

This is an exciting read and you'll find mystery, intrigue, action and danger along the way. I feel compelled to add that the translation contains several flaws which disrupted the natural pace of the novel. The romance between Jon and a supporting character was ridiculous, and the seduction scene in the shower was laughable and completely unrealistic - making me shout "as if" out loud while I was reading.

However; connections in the book to the great Library in Alexandria were absolutely tantalising and I thoroughly enjoyed these snippets. All in all, The Library of Shadows is a book with a great deal of promise, however in my opinion it failed to live up to its potential.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

21 November 2010

Review: Angel Time | Anne Rice

Angel Time was written by one of my all-time favourite authors Anne Rice. Published in October 2009; a copy found its way under the Christmas tree last year thanks to a thoughtful relative. Since then I've been admiring it on my bookshelf and trying to prolong the gratification for as long as I can.

However; with the release of the second book in this new series, I thought I had waited long enough and plunged into this long awaited novel with high hopes and expectation.

The book opens with the character of Toby, a hired assassin who has a painful past. The reader is given a glimpse into this past, and we are shown how Toby reached the point of becoming a killer for hire. One night - after another assassination by needle - Toby is approached by an Angel named Malchiah, and given a chance to redeem himself and leave evil behind for good. Toby agrees to help Malchiah in his duties on earth, and is taken by Angel Time to 13th Century England where he must protect the lives of two Jewish people under threat from an angry mob.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it met all of my expectations. The book contains her much loved themes of love, hate, good and evil, as well as faith, religion and God. Having read Anne Rice's book Called out of Darkness - A Spiritual Confession, I can see the themes of faith and religion echoed quite closely in the character Toby. She has obviously drawn on her own experiences and life journey when plotting the series.

The series is called The Songs of the Seraphim, and the next book is called Of Love and Evil, and continues with Toby and Malchiah as they head to Rome for his next 'assignment'. Fortunately I've just purchased this one, and it's waiting expectantly on my bookshelf just waiting to be seized.

I thoroughly enjoyed it!

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

19 November 2010

Review: Grave Sight | Charlaine Harris


Grave Sight is the first book in the Harper Connelly series written by Charlaine Harris. I picked this up for a bit of fun, and a so-called 'trashy' read and it didn't disappoint. Main character Harper has the ability to find dead bodies, as well as being able to determine how they died. I thought this concept was interesting enough to pursue for a light read.

The book had a very promising start with Harper and her brother taking on paying jobs for clients who need her services. However; the entire novel focussed on one job for a client situated in a smallish USA town (albeit with multiple bodies), and contained too much romance for my liking.

I would have enjoyed Grave Sight so much more if I was able to follow Harper working for many different clients over a greater period of time. It certainly would have provided more scope for the author and more variety for the reader. Having said that, it was an entertaining read and is probably best suited for Young Adult readers.

My rating = **1/2

Carpe Librum!

15 November 2010

Review: Darkly Dreaming Dexter | Jeff Lindsay

This is Jeff Lindsay's first book introducing the serial killer Dexter - a blood spatter expert who only kills those who fit 'the code' taught to him by Harry, his adoptive father.

As we know, the books have been made into the well known US TV series called Dexter and I've enjoyed watching all the seasons to date. So, when I decided to read the first book, I wasn't sure what to expect.

It was quite a shock to find that series one of the TV show follows the book so closely. On several occasions I found myself chuckling while reading the character descriptions of Deb, Doakes and Masuka. They're exactly like that on the big screen! In fact, this is the closest book-to-screen adaptation I can think of. So much so, that it became a little predictable in parts, so I was in for a swift shock at the end of the book when one of the key characters dies in an ending that couldn't be further from the TV show.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter and I can safely say that Michael C. Hall has been cast exceptionally well, playing the role of Dexter on the show. I could really hear his voice in the book, and it easily carried me along. I have the next two to read in the series, however, they're going to have to wait a while - I have 45 books on my TBR (to be read) pile at the moment. Unfortunately, this wasn't good enough for the next two to jump to the top of the pile, but I'll enjoy coming back to Jeff Lindsay's characters when I can.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

12 November 2010

Review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

This is a unique piece of non-fiction and claims to be 'A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century' and that's exactly what it is. With chapters on: the people, what to wear, what to eat and drink, health and hygiene, where to stay, what to do and more it's a comprehensive guide to the times. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England was illuminating, fascinating, shocking and at times even funny.

I'd like to share with you the medicinal remedy for quinsy, which is an abscess in the throat developed after untreated tonsillitis:
Take a fat cat, flay it well, and draw out the guts. Take the grease of a hedgehog, the fat of a bear, resins, fenugreek, sage, honeysuckle gum and virgin wax, and crumble this and stuff the cat with it. Then roast the cat and gather the dripping, and anoint the sufferer with it.
Such a shocking remedy, it's hard to believe how they thought this could possible heal the patient. It was interesting to learn that the milling process to create flour often left small pieces of the mill stone behind which would be baked into the loaves of bread. These small pieces of gravel and stone dust naturally took their toll on the teeth of the people consuming the bread.

I didn't realise that the clothing people were permitted to wear was strictly regulated according to their annual income and land holding. For example:
Yeomen and their families weren't able to wear jewels, gold, silver, embroidery, enamelware or silk; no fur except lamb, rabbit, cat or fox; and women were not permitted to wear a silk veil.
It was also quite interesting to read about how the simple button would come to transform the clothes of this era enabling a movement away from the tunic that had to be placed over one's head to what we now know as a jacket or coat.

The author had me laughing at several points and in particular his description of a brook 400 yards from the city gate:
Along the banks you see piles of refuse, broken crockery, animal bones, entrails, human faeces, and rotting meat strewn in and around the bushes. A small brown pig roots around on the garbage. It is not called Shitbrook for nothing.
An extremely entertaining and informative read, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about what life was like 600 years ago.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

10 November 2010

Review: Red Queen | H. M. Brown

Red Queen is the debut novel for this author - a woman living in country Victoria. Her novel begins with two brothers living in isolation in a self contained cabin in the Australian bush. Their survival depends on their isolation from the populace as a deadly virus is killing people in cities and towns and is highly contagious. But don't worry, the book isn't about the virus, it solely focusses on the the two boys, Shannon and Rohan.

The brothers have been living together for so long the dynamic between them is fascinating but also claustrophobically close. They have developed a designated routine for gathering food, 'keeping watch' and even sleeping. However; when a lone woman tries to seek shelter with them in their cabin, their whole world is threatened and loyalties are put to the test.

The book was an interesting foray into the power play between the brothers and this was the aspect I enjoyed the most, especially close to the end. Red Queen is a gripping psychological thriller and a very quick read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have been recommending it widely, especially given it was written by an Australian author.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

22 October 2010

Review: Stories - All New Tales, Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

Stories - All New Tales is a collection of short stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. The collection features stories by well known writers like Jodi Picoult, Jeffery Deaver, Joe Hill, Chuck Palahniuk and many more.

When it comes to writing and fiction, the editors are most interested by the following four words: ".........and then what happened?" Quoting from the introduction, these are 'The four words that children ask, when you pause, telling them a story. The four words you hear at the end of a chapter. The four words, spoken or unspoken, that show you, as a storyteller, that people care.'

So they put the word out and writers started submitting their short stories. The stories cover science fiction, fantasy and horror genres, which make for an engrossing collection.

I found it an interesting collection and I enjoyed most of the stories. Weights and Measures by Jodi Picoult made me shed a tear, which hasn't happened while reading a book in many many years, which was enough reason alone to read this collection.

The Therapist by Jeffery Deaver was a real thriller with a supernatural theme, and The Cult of the Nose by Al Sarrantonio was creepy and had me wishing for more! I thoroughly enjoyed Human Intelligence by Kurt Andersen, which was about a being from another planet who had been living on earth and documenting our existence for fifteen hundred years before his identity was discovered.

However, it was Michael Marshall Smith's Unbelief that had me completely stupefied. The story is only seven pages long, but took me 45 mins to figure it out. When I finally figured it out, it was such a huge relief! I gave it to someone else to read and said: "here, it took me 45 mins to figure this one out, see what you think". Predictably he had it sussed from the first page, argh!

It was refreshing to read a collection of short stories in between my regular reading schedule and this is a very fine collection and a terrific way to gain exposure to new authors.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

12 October 2010

Review: Dark Fire | C. J. Sansom

Dark Fire is the second in the Matthew Shardlake series by C. J. Sansom, but is also a stand alone novel in its own right. Matthew Shardlake is a Lawyer in 16th Century London and is persuaded (against his will of course) to serve the interests of Lord Thomas Cromwell in exchange for a stay of execution for an innocent girl being held in The Old Bailey.

It is claimed that a barrel of Greek fire (commonly referred to as Dark fire, hence the title) has been discovered in a Church, hidden for 100 years together with the formula. Lord Cromwell has informed the King, who of course wants to get his hands on this weapon of mass destruction and terror so that he can use it against his enemies.

Soon those who claimed to have discovered Greek fire are murdered, and Shardlake begins to investigate on behalf of Lord Cromwell. Meanwhile, the bodies pile up and his enquiries take him to all over the city from the heights of society to the stinking inns, alleys and brothels of London.

While Sansom has taken liberties with plotting the discovery of Greek fire in London at this point in history, Greek fire did exist in the Byzantine era and was a devastating weapon. The formula was closely guarded and has been lost over the centuries. Even today, the composition of Greek fire is not known. For more information, click here.

I guess this novel would fit into the genre of medieval crime if anything else, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Dark Fire is a terrific read and C. J. Sansom is an author to look out for.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

04 October 2010

Review: The Lost Symbol | Dan Brown

The success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is quite mind blowing. It's now considered one of the most popular books of all time and has sold over 81 million copies around the world. It's hard to imagine how such a successful author can prepare himself to write the next book in the Robert Langdon series under such a heavy weight of expectation. But, he's done it.

In the beginning of The Lost Symbol, Robert Langdon flies to Washington D.C. under the impression he'll be making a presentation at the U.S. Capitol, however that all changes very quickly when he realises his mentor has been kidnapped. Langdon is forced to decode the secrets of the Freemasons in order to save his long time friend Peter Solomon.

The plot structure is extremely reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code, as the reader is taken on a rollicking ride of secrets and symbols within landmark buildings in D.C - sometimes hidden and sometimes in full view of the public. The plot wouldn't be complete without an evil bad guy with delusions of grandeur and a deadline to increase the tension. It's very easy to understand why Dan Brown has opted to use the same literary recipe that brought him so much success with The Da Vinci Code, and I can't really blame him for it either. I can also understand why he draws such criticism from the literary world, however for me, I was more than happy to settle back into his familiar rhythm.

I immensely enjoyed discovering the history and symbology with Langdon in Washington D.C. although I longed for a visual of the art, symbology and architecture that seemed to ignite every page. The focus on Freemasons was illuminating and intriguing although of course I couldn't say how close to the truth it really is. In this case, I was more than happy to submit myself to the story, leaving all literary expectations at the door.

Surprisingly, I believe The Lost Symbol is just as good as The Da Vinci Code, although I doubt it will sell as many copies. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy a thriller.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

20 September 2010

Review: Nightshade | Paul Doherty

I can't believe this is the 16th in the Hugh Corbett Medieval Mysteries series, and I have them all!!! Not only that, I'm now up to date, with the next in the series due to be published in paperback on 1 November 2010.

I've enjoyed the character development throughout the series. Sir Hugh Corbett wants to spend quality time with his wife, and is anguished each time the King sends him away on a new piece of business. Meanwhile Ranulf is power hungry and keen to advance, eagerly accepting secret instructions from the King. Ranulf's investigative skills and powers of observation continue to grow and he is beginning to emerge as a force to be reckoned with.

In Nightshade, we're transported back to 1304 as Sir Hugh Corbett, Ranulf and Chanson are dispatched by the King to Mistelham. They are to retrieve items stolen from the Templars during the Crusades as well as get to the bottom of the hideous slaughter of 14 seemingly innocent members of a religious order, their corpses left to hang in a deserted area of the forest. Tales from the Crusades, hidden clues, tightly held secrets and a deadly bowman stand in the way of Sir Hugh restoring order and finding the culprit/s.

Doherty conjures the sights, sounds and smells of the period extremely well, which is the main reason I continue to follow and enjoy his series. His descriptions of the biting cold and the fog make me appreciate the luxuries of the present day all whilst snuggling down deeper into my doona. Doherty follows the familiar plot construction of the series, which makes for a predictable style but pleasurable read.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

14 September 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week



September 13 - 17 is Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and you can join in the celebrations by visiting their website (above) and discovering and supporting new book blogs. You can also find them on Facebook.

That's my four bucks!

11 September 2010

Review: Swimsuit | James Patterson

Swimsuit was written by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro and it was the best Patterson I've read in quite a while. A psychopathic serial killer who goes by the name of Henri Benoit (amongst other names and identities) viciously rapes and kills a swimsuit model in the beginning of the novel. To make matters worse, he is being paid to kill at random and film his evil deeds for super rich clients all over the world.

The hero of the book is a former cop turned reporter, Ben Hawkins who has been told to fly to Hawaii and report on the missing model. He unwittingly becomes involved in the case himself when the killer confronts him to ghost write his story or become his next victim.

If you keep in mind this is a James Patterson and allow yourself to enjoy the short chapters, quick pace, and violence and leave any expectations at the door for deep character development and poignant prose Swimsuit is a quick, easy and entertaining crime thriller.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

31 August 2010

Review: People of the Book | Geraldine Brooks


People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks was extremely popular 2 years ago, winning the Australian Book of the Year Award, and Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award in June 2008. It was on every Top 10 list in Australia, and subsequently I avoided the trend and didn't engage, until now that is.

Lured by the possibility this book would feature in an up and coming book club I finally took the plunge. Dr Hanna Heath is a rare-book expert based in Australia, and is given the unique opportunity to examine and conserve the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah is described as being a 'lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind'.

The author was inspired by the true story of this rare and mysterious Hebrew manuscript, and takes the reader back through the centuries, each time giving us a hint of the manuscript's journey and turbulent history. We soon learn the Haggadah was hidden and protected from the Nazis during WWII, saved from the flames in Venice in 1609 and was in danger several times since it's creation in 1480.

I was fascinated to learn more about the Jewish belief in the 1400s with regard to true representations of people and illustrations. I was also struck by the persecution of the Jewish people throughout the novel, and was surprised that a book filled with such religious turmoil and conflict was so popular with the reading public.

In her examination, Dr Heath finds microscopic debris, a wine stain, a white hair, and while she investigates their origin, the reader is taken back in time to find out what really happened. I thoroughly enjoy this writing technique and find it thrilling to know more than the main character in any novel.

Interspersed throughout the story is the troubled relationship with Hanna's mother and a family secret so big it could irreparably ruin their relationship forever. Whilst this sub-plot was quite interesting and contributed to Hanna's character development, it wasn't pivotal to the story line. Although I must say I really enjoyed the Australian touch and the occasional reference to Australian places during the book.

If you haven't already read this best seller, I would certainly encourage you to pick it up. If you're interested in medieval manuscripts and their preservation, you'll love this book. You'll also enjoy it if you are a fan of the historical fiction genre. However, let it be said that some of the material is heavy and quite serious in terms of religious persecution and conflict.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

20 August 2010

Review: Cathedral of the Sea | Ildefonso Falcones

This magnificent novel has been translated from Spanish and has sold over two million copies in Europe as well as winning many prizes. Set in Barcelona in the 1300s during the construction of the spectacular gothic Santa Maria del Mar Church, there have been many comparisons to Ken Follett's earlier novel Pillars of the Earth. I might as well state at the outset that whilst both historical fiction novels are epic page-turning sagas featuring the construction of a Church/Cathedral, Pillars of the Earth is more focussed on the building of the Cathedral, whilst in the Cathedral of the Sea, the building of the Church is almost a back drop, and never really the main focus of the story.

The Cathedral of the Sea is a good solid read at over 630+ pages, and is set over a period of more than 60 years. The story begins in 1320, with the parents of the soon to be main character Arnau. His parents experience terror first hand when the local lord arrives on their wedding night to exercise the right of firma de espoli forzada, which gives the lord the right to sleep with a bride on her wedding night. Needless to say the novel is gripping from the very beginning and I was instantly hooked.

Falcones is able to convey the sights, sounds and smells of this period brilliantly and throughout all of the various classes from the very rich to the destitute and the poor. Various conflicts feature throughout the book; we learn about the relationship between the King, Barcelona and the Pope, we witness the terrible treatment of Jews and the powers of the Inquisition. This novel really has it all. The main character undergoes several twists and turns in his life, and several changes in occupations, but I won't spoil the book by mentioning any of them here.

As you would expect in such an historical epic, the plot is rich with family secrets, sex, power, riches, religion and conflict. Oh, and of course the building of the Santa Maria del Mar Church is going on in the background although the reader is able to enjoy the progress and the architectural beauty without being bogged down by pages and pages of tedious detail.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth or World Without End, and of course anyone who enjoys their historical fiction rich in substance.

My rating = ****1/2

Carpe Librum!

11 August 2010

Review: The Pilo Family Circus | Will Elliott

Born and based in Brisbane, Will Elliott is the author of the multiple award winning fantasy novel The Pilo Family Circus.

After a bizarre incident in Brisbane on his way home from work, Jamie finds himself being harassed by clowns who trash his house in an obscene manner and eventually recruit him as a clown in their circus. The Pilo Family Circus is located on a different plane between earth and hell, and Jamie finds he is trapped in this strange community.

When Jamie puts on the white face paint of the clowns he becomes a different person, JJ an angry and vicious clown. When the paint is removed, Jamie re-emerges, horror struck at the behaviour of his nemesis JJ.

Not having read a lot of fantasy, the genre was a little unfamiliar to me, however I immersed myself in this new world as much as I could. The blurb promised the book would be 'darkly funny' and 'gleefully macabre' and it certainly was all that. The writing was strong, the violence and conflict felt very sharp and unique and the dilemma Jamie finds himself thrown into was very original and equally as dangerous.

I enjoyed reading about the different sections within the circus (i.e. acrobats, dwarfs, carnies) and would have liked to have discovered more about their individual stories and how they became trapped in the circus. I also recognise however that this would have slowed down the pace of the book, so I guess you can't have it all.

Will Elliott has certainly found success with The Pilo Family Circus, winning the ABC Fiction Award in 2006, amongst many others, including a nomination for the International Horror Guild Award. Will is the first Australian to be nominated in the novel category for this award, and I believe more Australian readers should be familiar with his work.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

08 August 2010

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell | Susanna Clarke

This is a book about magic, and at 864 pages it took some time to get through. The book begins in England in 1808 where we meet Mr Norrell, a theoretical and reclusive magician with a penchant for ancient books of magic. Magic hasn't been practised in England for hundreds of years, however Mr Norrell demonstrates his skills as a magician and tricks all other theoretical magicians to disband their society, thereby making him the only practising magician in England.

Unbeknownst to Mr Norrell, Jonathan Strange - who has never studied magic - finds he has a particular skill in the field and becomes Mr Norrell's pupil.

The book continually points to a complex level of magic beneath the surface and historical facts via the use of false footnotes. These footnotes are quite amusing at first, but end up dominating the pages at times and add significant bulk to the novel. They are very elaborate and I found them distracting at times. The footnotes feature on almost every second page and is something I will definitely remember long after reading this book.

Mid-way through the book I wasn't sure where the plot was heading, however towards the end it started to reach a climax and had a satisfying conclusion. Comparisons should not be made to any of the Harry Potter novels though, as they're nothing alike. Nor is there any resemblance to the fantasy element in Lord of the Rings. This is a complex and intellectual undertaking about two magicians set in an historic time, with the Napoleonic war in the background, and the magic from Faerie land being sought and studied via old and rare books.

I thought it was a good read, however a little cumbersome.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

27 July 2010

Review: The Lady and the Unicorn | Tracy Chevalier

The inspiration behind this historical fiction novel is the very real set of medieval tapestries depicting the seduction of a unicorn currently on display in a Paris museum. This is my first novel by Tracy Chevalier and I was instantly captivated by the subject matter and wanted to know how the author would approach the subject, given there is little known about the creation of the magnificent tapestries.

The Lady and the Unicorn is a quick read, and very rich in period detail. The story begins in Paris in 1490 and moves to Brussels, where the tapestries are woven in a family owned business.

I was completely engrossed by the weaving process, and was amazed to learn just how difficult and time consuming tapestries were to make in medieval times. For example, I didn't know they were woven face down. One of the tapestries took 2 years to weave, which meant that it was 2 years before the workers could see their final creation. When it was finished and cut from the loom, it was then quickly rolled and locked in a wooden trunk to protect it from thieves and insects. Imagine all that work, and barely 5 minutes to look at the end creation.

There is much sex and sexual tension in the book and I enjoyed reading about the fate of several women, although I wasn't too fond of the womanizing artist.

The story was rich with drama and historical detail and I especially enjoyed reading about the fate of the tapestries after they had been completed and long after all characters in the book had passed away. Fascinating!

I thoroughly enjoyed The Lady and the Unicorn, and would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in weaving or who enjoys European historical fiction.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

17 July 2010

Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog | Muriel Barbery

I've been procrastinating about writing the review for this book, because frankly I didn't enjoy it. I know it's been on many Top Ten Bestseller lists at home and abroad, but I just found it pretentious and ostentatious. I was annoyed by the main character, Madam Renee Michel, a concierge in a French apartment building who is a bibliophile and extremely well read, even naming her cat after a character from Russian literature. Frustratingly, Madam Michel 'dumbs herself down' so that the wealthy and posh residents won't find out the truth about her. (So what if they did?). In fact, she goes to great lengths to maintain the outward picture of a dumpy, dopey middle aged woman.

The 'Best Supporting Actress' award of the novel goes to the character of Paloma, a 12 year old resident in the building who is a child prodigy and intensely philosophical and contemplative. The introduction of a new resident, Kakuro Ozu was a turning point in the novel, and the most enjoyable section.

I believe the author was looking for an avenue to show off her intellect and did so here under the guise of fiction. I know my opinion will upset those of you who have enjoyed this book, but I have to be true to myself, and the title of this blog. I'm aware that The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been met with incredible success, however I guess it just wasn't for me.

My rating = **

Carpe Librum!

04 July 2010

Review: Book of a Thousand Days | Shannon Hale

The Book of a Thousand Days is a young adult fiction novel written by Shannon Hale. It is the retelling of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, via the journal of Dashti, a Lady's maid. She and her mistress, Lady Saren are locked in a tower for seven years by Lady Saren's father, due to her refusal to marry Lord Khasar.

The tower has been sealed and contains three levels, a cellar containing enough food for seven years, a kitchen with a hearth and chair and a bedroom for Lady Saren on the upper floor. Through the years they suffer through the extreme weather together, both suffocatingly hot and freezing cold, and Lady Saren is miserable and withdrawn the entire time. Dashti is always positive and uses her gift of singing the healing songs to try and tend to Lady Saren. Evidence of this is her attitude towards being locked in the tower, writing that her mother would be happy for her, knowing she has food enough for seven years!

The first half of the book is their time together in the tower and the second is the adventure they undertake when they get out. I found the language of the healing songs quite interesting and would have loved to have 'heard' them in the real world. This was a light and enjoyable read and I would recommend it to any young person who enjoys a good adventure. You'll find romance, adventure and of course some morals you would expect to find hidden in any good fairy tale.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

02 July 2010

Review: Vlad, The Last Confession | C.C. Humphreys

This historical fiction is an account of the life of Vlad The Impaler, told from the perspective of the three people closest to him: his lover, his closest friend and 2IC, and his confessor. We meet Vlad as a young Prince, being held hostage by the Turks in the early 1400s. In this period it is customary to hold the sons of a war lord hostage as a deterrent for attacking or invading your enemies. Devoutly Christian, Vlad receives tutelage in the Muslim faith with his younger brother Radu. When Vlad meets the young Sultan Mehmet their mutual hatred is born.

Vlad is soon separated from his brother and suffers cruel treatment at the hands of the Turks, and is forced to learn and practice horrific torture techniques. It is at this time that Vlad learns the motto "we torture others so they cannot torture us" and we see a significant change in his attitude to torture, and the development of his view on impalement relating to the Crucifixion of Christ. The author is careful not to justify Vlad's actions, but rather reveal the nature of his upbringing and his struggles and conflicts from the perspective of the three confessors.

There is much war, action, torture and conflict throughout the book, but it is surprisingly complex at the same time, with a complicated love story and heart breaking relationship with his 2IC and betrayal by his younger brother. There was also a lot of falconry which I enjoyed!

At one point in the book, Vlad takes control of Wallachia and punishes every law breaker - regardless of the severity of the crime - with impalement. This punishment acts as a deterrent, and within a short time the crime in Wallachia plummets, travellers and traders begin to cross the territory again and the people flourish and grow rich. Two years prior, Vlad had voiced his desire to be able to put a golden bejeweled cup on the edge of the well, and the townspeople would not be tempted to steal it. Vlad accomplished this and said that he couldn't make his people love him, but he could make them fear him. It was this particular aspect of the book that had the most lasting impact on me. Both the nature in which he used fear to reign, but also how his people prospered under this regime, which hadn't occurred to me before.

I absolutely loved this book and was enthralled by the history in the region at this time, and the ongoing struggle between the Muslims and Christians. This is definitely a book for those interested in historical fiction. Anyone interested in reading about vampires should look elsewhere. This is a serious book, with hard hitting issues and a twist at the end.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

01 July 2010

Review: The Collector | John Fowles

The Collector by John Fowles was featured last year on one of my favourite TV shows The First Tuesday Book Club on the ABC. Here is a link to the segment on the show, reviewing the novel. This inspired me to read the book, and almost 12 months later, I finally got around to it.

This Vintage Classic is about Frederick Clegg, an uneducated clerk, who is socially awkward, a little mad and collects butterflies. He is obsessed with Miranda Grey, and stalks her as he would a butterfly, and after winning a significant sum in the lotto, he plots to kidnap her. Disturbingly Clegg decorates the cellar of a house in the country purchased specifically for the purpose, even going so far as buying clothes and underwear for Miranda to wear when she 'moves in'.

Clegg successfully captures Miranda and keeps her prisoner in his cellar, hoping that she will fall in love with him. Obviously she despises him although she does develop some sympathy towards the end. Clegg tries to treat her as well as he can, buying her whatever she asks for and does not beat or abuse her, although it's later revealed he is sexually impotent.

The book is divided by two narrators, Frederick and Miranda. While Frederick is narrating the book is creepy and disturbing, and I couldn't put it down. When we're introduced to the voice of Miranda however, it was quite a jolt and I was looking forward to reading about her experience and the terror of being prisoner in this cellar. Disappointingly, this isn't what unfolded. Miranda is a young art student and very self-obsessed which very quickly got on my nerves. I agreed with the guests on the The First Tuesday Book Club that she was shrill and annoying, and almost an unsympathetic character. I thought she was pretentious, but having said that, her attempts at escape were extremely exciting, and the ending was unexpected and far from cliche.

Written in 1963, I didn't feel this book was terribly dated which was a pleasant surprise for me. It's interesting to note that The Silence of the Lambs was published a mere 25 years later, and also has a butterfly on the cover, but obviously for different reasons. It's interesting to wonder if Thomas Harris included this as a tribute to The Collector or if indeed he was influenced by this classic.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys suspense and a good thriller without the blood and guts of present day novels.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

22 June 2010

Review: Beach Road | James Patterson

James Patterson has teamed up with Peter De Jonge to write this crime novel Beach Road and it was a good quick read. I used to really enjoy books by James Patterson, but over the years his writing has evolved into mass production on a grand scale, churning out books almost every month with different co-authors. It's impossible to keep up, and I believe it dilutes the quality of the author's work. But I'm sure many would disagree, and of course he's enormously successful.

This particular book has been on my TBR (to be read) pile for a long time, and it was a relatively interesting story with a twist at the end definitely worthy of a mention. I definitely didn't see it coming, and I'm of the opinion that it was the work of Peter De Jonge, but of course we'll never know.

This book is essentially about a man arrested for a triple homicide at a basketball court located at a mansion in East Hampton. The main character Tom is convinced the defendant Dante is innocent and agrees to represent the young man in the trial of the century. The story is narrated by different characters and is constantly switching which takes time to get used to. The narrator's name appears at the top of each chapter though, so it's easy to keep up.

I enjoyed the twist at the end and I love that in a book. This is an easy and non-complex crime novel, recommended for any James Patterson fans out there. Just don't expect too much.

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

20 June 2010

Review: The Shack | William Paul Young

Set near Oregon in America, Mack's daughter Missy is abducted during a family camping trip, and evidence of her murder is later found in an abandoned shack in the woods (hence the title for this book). Years later, Mack finds a note in his letterbox, inviting him back out to the shack. Not knowing if the note is from Missy's killer or directly from God, he decides he must go and find out.

What happens next is a moving account of Mack's time spent with God in the form of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They each teach Mack lessons about the 'great sadness' he feels at the death of his daughter, and each lesson brings him closer to restoring his faith.

I found this book quite profound, and it certainly had an impact on me as I was reading it. Mack's story is told by his friend, who says at the beginning that he's just telling the story as Mack told it to him, and leaves it to the reader to decide whether it really happened or not, or was just a dream. I think this is an excellent tactic, as it means Young is not forcing this tale onto the reader and calling it fact. You can just allow yourself to fall into the story and decide for yourself later.

It reminded me of The Celestine Prophecy and The Alchemist and I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Shack. I believe the primary theme of the book is Love, as well as Faith. The popularity of the book has grown with a dedicated website www.theshackbook.com and has topped many best seller lists, including occupying the Number 1 spot on the New York Times best seller list for 70 weeks.

Regardless of your beliefs, I believe there is a personal, spiritual message in this book for everyone, and I think the enjoyment of this book will come from re-reading it and picking up more each time, as well as reflecting on the life lessons.

I recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered about God and how He can allow so much pain in the world. Alternatively, anyone who would like a different perspective on suffering and self growth.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!

19 June 2010

Review: I'm Not Scared | Niccolo Ammaniti


I'd been looking forward to reading this book for quite a while. Knowing it was about a young child who discovers a boy being kept hostage/prisoner in a hole and and what unfolds next was enough to significantly grab my attention.

Reading it however was a completely different experience and a major disappointment. Set in Italy, the translation from Italian to English is extremely noticeable and often interrupts the natural flow of the descriptive sections of the novel. The setting and location felt isolated to me and not well developed. The discovery of the kidnapped boy in the beginning of the book was the most exciting part, and then it was all down hill from there.

The middle of the book was frustrating as I struggled with the direction the 9 year old boy was taking with his new found knowledge. There was a slight surprise in the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping which I thought was building to an exciting big 'reveal' at the end which unfortunately didn't happen. The ending was very predictable and reminiscent of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, although I'm happy to report that it appears this novel was published first.

In fact the ending was so lacking an explanation for the kidnapping that I thought I must be missing a page or two. Perhaps it had fallen out of the library book. This idea kept me going for a few minutes, and led me to the ever faithful Amazon and Google.

I guess you could say this is proof of a terrible ending and a great disappointment. The ending went beyond ambiguous to just plain lacking.

This was a terrible read, and I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone.

My rating = *

Carpe Librum!

14 June 2010

Another change

I thought it was time for another change to the format and layout of my blog, hope you like it!


Let me know your thoughts.

Review: At Day's Close - A History of Nighttime | A. Roger Ekirch


This is a non-fiction book about nighttime in the period 1500 - 1750. Impeccably researched, Ekirch regularly quotes from poems, diaries, court transcripts, news articles and other records to illustrate his point. Covering Europe and early colonial America, the book is divided into 'themes,' which makes it easy to read about the topics that interest the reader (but of course I read it all).

It would be obvious to most that danger increased after the sun went down as did the number and the nature of crimes which are described in the book. A common term of 'shutting in' described how people in towns and rural areas would shut themselves in their homes at the same time each day, closing shutters, barring doors etc. Superstitions and fears were rife and included witches, demons, faeries, monsters and satan amongst fear of burglary. People even feared the damp night air, which gave birth to the night cap, to keep the damp night air from settling on the head.

Most households would light a rush light, tallow candle, (made from animal fat) or a lantern for light, at least an hour after shut in to save on costs (candles and other methods of producing light were expensive). In fact, it was very common to move furniture back against the wall at night so as to remove obstacles while moving around in the dark.

These fears kept many shut in at night, but social activities and gatherings did occur at night, especially during a full moon or a clear night, where the light from the night sky was at it's brightest. Ekirch informs the reader about many of the activities men and women of all backgrounds indulged in at night time.

It is believed that most people went to bed between 9pm and 10pm when all forms of light were extinguished and the fire was raked over. The most interesting revelation in this book is that during this period, sleep patterns were drastically different to today. This fact is relatively unknown today, but hundreds of years ago, people enjoyed two sleeps in one night! Ekirch provided many quotes from plays, diaries etc to support his research and I was quite astonished to say the least. After the 'first sleep', a person would wake up for anywhere up to 2 hours or more. This time was generally used to ponder their dreams and 'visions' and for quiet contemplation and prayer. This is the time most lovemaking took place given that most laborers were too tired when they went to bed. It was also considered to be the best time for conception!

The second sleep then took place, followed by the 'cock crow' (roosters crowing) and dawn. These marked the time of night for most people living during this time. In London and Paris, it was interesting to learn about the 'night watch' whose job it was to patrol the streets, apprehending criminals or thieves, watching for signs of fire (a serious danger in any city or town) as well as calling out the time. They usually called out the time accompanied by a rhyme or catch cry. Ironically, many residents often complained that they were continually woken up by the nightwatch who were on duty primarily to keep people safe from fire and burglary.

With the introduction of artificial light, this sleep pattern slowly dissolved and Ekirch claims that our connection to our dreams (an extremely important practice during these times) has been lost as has our time for peaceful inner reflection.

It was interesting to learn that the Churches across Europe were not in favour of the introduction of artificial light, as they viewed night time the time for prayer and worship.

Did you know that when walking at night in a town or city, it was best to walk as close as you could to the wall, so as not to be showered with the contents of chamber pots being emptied from above? In fact, if two men were walking towards each other, the poorer man would always give the 'gentleman' the wall and walk on the side closest to the street. Walking close to the wall wasn't without it's own perils though, and falling down into cellars and coal shutes was common.

Anyway, I could go on and on about this book, because it was so fascinating and such a great read! Did you know that men used to urinate into the fireplace at night time, if they didn't have a chamber pot? Gross!

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history and especially an interest in 'night in times past'.

My rating = *****

Carpe Librum!