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!