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!