02 December 2012

Reading Report for November 2012

I finished 12 books in November, of which one was a reread. They were my usual mixture of mysteries and romances, in addition to two memoirs and a book of urban legends.

One of the hallmarks of a good book is its ability to affect one‘s emotions, and I read a number of such books last month. Unfortunately only two of them awakened positive emotions, one (Beware of Cat) to make me feel happy and well-disposed towards humankind, and the other (Misery Loves Maggody) made me laugh out loud at the ridiculous and wonderfully stupid antics of the characters and the situations they got themselves into.

In one of the others I was annoyed with a clueless character and in another it was a masochistic lead character that got my goat.

However, it was Blood, Bones and Butter which really got me worked up. I closed that book full of negative feelings, a seething rage and just a bit of paranoia - come to think of it: not unlike the feelings of the author herself seem to have been at the point where she chose to end the book. Reading about a crumbling marriage where both sides are equally at fault, mostly through their inability to really communicate, is not fun, but it was more the negative tone of the whole thing that affected me than anything about Hamilton or her husband or their relationship.
Mostly I think it was because the ending doesn‘t really show what happened. Did they get divorced, did they make up, did she..., did he... ? We don‘t get to find out, although a divorce seems highly likely. But nothing is revealed for sure and it leaves one dangling, full of the negative feelings the description of this oil-and-water marriage has stirred up. The first 2 parts of the book, however, make a great foodie memoir that I wouldn‘t mind rereading at some point.

The Books:
  • M.C. Beaton: The Skeleton in the Closet. Romantic mystery.
  • Thomas J. Craughwell: Urban Legends: 666 absolutely true stories that happened to a friend... of a friend. Urban legends, unimaginatively retold.
  • Gabrielle Hamilton: Blood, Bones and Butter: The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef. Memoir.
  • Joan Hess: Misery Loves Maggody. Comic mystery.
  • Stephanie Laurens: A Secret Love and All About Love. Historical romances.
  • Ed McBain: The Mugger. Police procedural.
  • Jill McGown: Gone to Her Death. Police procedural.
  • Barbara Moore: The Doberman wore Black. Murder mystery.
  • Nora Roberts: Chesapeake Blue. Contemporary romance.
  • Nora Roberts: Montana Sky. Contemporary romantic suspense.
  • Vincent Wyckoff: Beware of Cat, and other encounters of a letter carrier. Memoir.

22 November 2012

What's in a Name challenge wrap-up

I suddenly realised I forgot to write a wrap-up post for this challenge. Well, here it is:

I finished the first book in the What's in a Name challenge on August 30, and the final one on October 1, so it took me a little over a month to read them all.

The books were:

  1. a topographical feature (land formation): The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger.
  2. something you'd see in the sky: The Raven in the Foregate, by Ellis Peters
  3. a creepy crawly: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elizabeth Tova Bailey
  4. a type of house: Daughters of the House by Michèle Roberts
  5. something you'd carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack: The Motorcycle Diaries, by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara
  6. something you'd find on a calendar: The Darling Buds of May, by H.E. Bates

As you can see, the books were quite the mixed bag, half fiction and half non-fiction: some travel, some historical crime, some memoirs mixed with natural history, literary fiction, humorous fiction and some more (completely different) travel. 

Of the six books, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was the hands down favourite and the only one of these books I am likely to reread, although I will be keeping the Brother Cadfael book, just in case I get a hankering for rereading the series at some point. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating has gone back to the friend who lent it to me, but I will be on a lookout for a copy of my own. It was a fun challenge, but I can't say it made me any more eager to continue posting reviews. I will, however, continue to post my reading reports and the occasional review and other stuff, but as for now, I would rather be reading than reviewing or writing posts every day.

04 November 2012

Reading report for October 2012

I finished 21 books in several genres in October, of which 9 were TBR challenge books and 4 were rereads.

After catching up with the Brotherhood of the Black Dagger series, I found I wanted to sink myself into another made-up world and started reading a new series: the Cynster family historical romance novels by Stephanie Laurens. I finished four of them in October and am now reading the fifth. I am finding these historicals an interesting, well-written and well-plotted collection of well-known romance themes with kick-ass heroines and pretty much interchangeable heroes.

So far the storylines have been the ‘compromised lady’ combined with ‘the heir must die’, the ‘gentleman problem solver’ combined with the ‘sneak thief’, the ‘surprising will’ combined with the ‘forced marriage’ and ‘the woman who must keep her land and protect her people at all cost’, and another ‘gentleman problem solver’, this time combined with ‘amorous amateur criminal investigators’ and, briefly, the ‘woman disguised as a boy’. In addition all have featured the 'determined bachelor' and 'reluctant lady' themes. The one I’m reading right now seems to be a third ’gentleman problem solver’ combined with ‘mystery woman’ and ‘amorous amateur criminal investigators’.

A final mention must be made of Bonk: The curious coupling of science and sex by Mary Roach. I enjoyed her first book, Stiff: The curious lives of human cadavers, and this one was enjoyable as well and quite funny in parts, but I did find it a bit rambling.

The Books:
  • Marian Babson: Murder at the Cat Show. Murder mystery.
  • Jennifer Crusie: Bet Me. Contemporary romance; reread.
  • Lawrence Durrell: Reflections on a Marine Venus. Travel, memoir.
  • Lori Foster; Erin McCarthy; Amy Garvey: Bad Boys of Summer. Romance novellas, contemporary.
  • Laurie R. King: A Monstrous Regiment of Women. Murder mystery, historical.
  • Heather Lauer: Bacon: A love story: A salty survey of everybody's favorite meat. Foodie book with recipes.
  • Stephanie Laurens: Devil's Bride; A Rake's Vow; Scandal's Bride; A Rogue's Proposal. Historical romance.
  • Stephanie Laurens; Victoria Alexander; Rachel Gibson: Secrets of a Perfect Night. Romance novellas, 2 historical and 1 contemporary.
  • Ed McBain: Lady Killer. Thriller; police procedural.
  • Elizabeth Peters: The Murders of Richard III. Mystery, whodunit.
  • Ellis Peters: The Knocker on Death's Door. Murder mystery.
  • Mary Roach: Bonk: The curious coupling of science and sex. Popular science, sexology.
  • Michèle Roberts: Daughters of the House. Literary fiction.
  • Nora Roberts: Sea Swept; Rising Tides; Inner Harbor. Contemporary romance; rereads.
  • Mary Taylor Simeti & Maria Grammatico: Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood. Memoir with recipes.
  • Josephine Tey: The Man in the Queue. Murder mystery.

07 October 2012

When book titles collide

I do realize that many authors do not have control over what title is stuck on their books (by the look of it by bored editors who think readers don’t care about these things), and my heart goes out to them when I see a particularly unoriginal or over-recycled title. So don‘t take this little rant of mine as criticism of authors (like someone did when I originally posted about this subject on my original 52 books blog, nearly 10 years ago).

This is what I wrote back then: 
I conducted a bit of accidental research into the subject of recycled titles with a book I came across in the library a couple of weeks ago. I had read a favourable review of a novel titled The Devil’s Bargain, but could only remember the title. I found the title in the library and took the book home to read. Just in case, I re-checked the review, but discovered the book in the review was by a different author from the one I had found. So I turned to Amazon UK, where I have often been able to find reviews of books I want to read. Well, I found no fewer than eight books with that title, three with and five without the definite article. An additional book had the phrase as part of the title, and another one a variation on the theme. Of the ten books, eight were romances, mostly historicals, and the remaining two looked as if they had romantic elements in them. Now, it’s one thing for several different publishing houses to publish books with the same title. After all, they can’t be expected to be constantly checking up on the competition, but in this case two well known publishing houses had each published two of these Devil’s Bargains. Duh!

Would you believe it happened to me twice in the same day? Yep, there are three books about errant earls out there, all of them Regency romances. England must have been full of dazed and confused earls back in those days.

This hasn‘t changed. There is an ongoing discussion about this on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog, and here is an article about the subject from the (now sadly defunct) romance newsletter At the Back Fence.

Just for fun, I googled The Devil's Bargain and variations on the theme and came up with the following in the romance category alone:

With a definite article:

Without an article:

 Other variations:

05 October 2012

Reading report for September 2012

I finished 12 books in September.
They fall into several genres, with romance being the most popular one. Half of the books could be called romances, although only three are labelled as such. The other three have strong romantic elements. Of the remaining books, five were non-fiction, of which two belong to my favourite non-fiction genre: travelogues. There was one reread, or rather re-listen, as it was an audio book.

The books:
Elisabeth Tova Bailey: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Memoir/natural history.
H.E. Bates: The Darling Buds of May. Humourous fiction, romantic.
Bathroom Reader's Institute: Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into History. Trivia.
Calista Fox: IOU Sex. Erotic romance.
M.J. Fredrick: Road signs. Contemporary romance.
Ernesto 'Che' Guevara: The Motorcycle Diaries. Travelogue.
Steven D. & Stephen J. Dubner Leavitt: Superfreakonomics. Economics.
Debbie Macomber: 311 Pelican Court. Women‘s fiction, cosy, romantic.
Ellis Peters: The Rose Rent. Historical mystery.
Wilfred Thesiger: The Marsh Arabs. Travelogue.
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings. Fantasy (audiobook, read by Rob Inglis).
J.R. Ward: Lover Reborn. Urban fantasy/Paranormal romance.

04 October 2012

Review: Reflections on a Marine Venus, by Lawrence Durrell

"Is not Lindos the official beauty-spot of Rhodes? The contrast with Cameirus is remarkable—for where Cameirus is refined, turned in upon itself in sunny contemplation, Lindos is bold, strident. Cameirus has all the stillness of an amphora in a Museum, with its frieze of dancers caught in a timeless dancing; Lindos, under the sweetness of its decoration, is like a trumpet-call, beaten out in gold-leaf and vibrating across the blue airs of time."

Novelist Lawrence Durrell was the oldest brother of naturalist Gerald Durrell, and they shared the ability to write beautifully evocative texts about things that interested them. I must admit that I have never read any of Lawrence's serious fiction, but I have enjoyed his humorous works about life in the diplomatic corps, Esprit de Corps and Stiff Upper Lip, and did not have much left of Bitter Lemons, his travelogue about Cyprus, when I had to return it to the library and then somehow never remembered to borrow it again to finish it.

Reflections... is about his stay in Rhodes, as a press officer for the British Army, in 1945 to 47. His descriptions of the people of the islands, his friends and various events are loving, laid-back and dreamily poetic, exploring friendship, ruins, folk traditions and festivals, comedy, tragedy and the Greek character, and drawing up image after image of Rhodes: shimmering under a blazing summer sun, turning purple in the dusk, quiet and blackened under a starry sky, and sleepy and lazy in the soft light of morning. 

There is no shortage of humour either: 
"The octopus when it appeared looking like a boiled motor-tyre was greeted with shouts of applause. Gideon proposed a toast to it. The octopus was in no condition to reply to these courtesies. It lay bubbling in a rich red sauce flavoured with garlic and peppercorns. Hoyle once more constituted himself taster and repeated 'I was afraid it was going to be a leetle tough but,' putting a piece of the sucker in his mouth, 'praise be it isn't.' It wasn't."
It was with sadness that he left Rhodes for his next posting, but this was just one example of his love-affair with islands, especially Greek ones. He also wrote about Cyprus (in Bitter Lemons) and Corfu (Prospero's Cell). It think I just might have to read those before I tackle his serious fiction.
4+ stars.

03 October 2012

Review: Bitter ALmonds: Recollections and recipes from a Sicilian girlhood, by Mary Taylor Simeti & Maria Grammatico

This book is the memoir of Maria Grammatico, owner of a famous pastry shop in Erice in Sicily where she uses recipes learned while living as an orphan in a convent in the town.

Simeti recorded her story, translated it and organised it for the book, which is the narrative of Grammatico's life, her 15 year stay with the nuns and a little of her impoverished childhood in the Sicilian countryside before that.The loss of her father threw the family into even deeper poverty, and her mother was forced to send her and one of her sisters to live with the nuns, who took in orphans, so she could could feed the rest of the family and ensure the two girls were well looked after.

What followed were years of hard work and deprivation, but also of opportunity. Grammatico learned to form and prepare the pastries the nuns sold to supplement the convent's income and, being a clever girl, she was able to learn the recipes - which the nuns guarded from the girls - by simply watching them being made. Her revenge for her ill-treatment by the nuns was to take the recipes and use them in her own pastry shop, which she opened after she left the convent (which incidentally closed soon after she left).

It's funny that I should have chosen this particular book as the follow-up to Daughters of the House, because the two contain a shared theme or thread, that of people's troubled relationships with the Catholic church. The title Bitter Almonds is apt. Not only can it be read as a reference to the bitterness Maria Grammatico harbours towards the church (but not to God: she seems to be deeply religious, but it's a private religion) after the indifference and casual cruelty she lived through in the convent, but also to the almonds that are used in so many of the pastry recipes she learned in the convent.

Her story, which Simeti says she has organised into a narrative but otherwise not embellished or added anything to, is simply told and gives one an impression of the life in the convent as she experienced it and compares it with the life she knew before. In-between Simeti tells the story of her acquaintance with Grammatico and how she came to write the book.

Last, but certainly not least, are the recipes, which take up a good half of the book. They are mostly ones Grammatico learned in the convent and uses in her pastry shop, and has generously shared with Simeti and the world. I have every intention of trying some of them, perhaps starting with one of the basic recipes that can be turned into more than one kind of pastry.

4 stars.

01 October 2012

What's in a name challenge review: Daughters of the House by Michèle Roberts

This is the sixth and final challenge book, the type of house. The choice was limited - there were very few books in my TBR+1 pile that had any kind of abode in the title, let alone a type of house, so I ended up choosing the common, generic word.

This literary novel, shortlisted for the Booker the year after it was published, is the story of two cousins, one French, the other half-English, half-French, who grow up in a big house in a small village in France in the 1950s. One of them returns to the house after 20 years in a convent and family secrets and lies are uncovered and events in the village explained as the story plunges back into their childhoods.

This is a beautifully written little book, full of descriptions of everyday things loaded with symbolism and metaphor. The story it tells is that of a typical love-hate relationship between two cousins, one who is special and another who longs to be. The narrative is full of twists and hints about dark deeds and while some plot points are predictable, others are surprising. I didn't really like either of the girls, and as my readers will know, I have to like someone in a book to really enjoy it. I found this a big drawback, but enjoyed the book up to a point nonetheless.
3 stars.

20 September 2012

What's in a Name challenge review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elizabeth Tova Bailey

No sooner hand I finished the previous review when I picked up the next book in the challenge and read it through in a single sitting. It was that fascinating and that good.

This is my fifth and second-to-last book of the challenge, the creepy crawly (a snail), and the only one so far that has not been on my TBR list. Just to be clear, the TBR books are the ones I have owned for over a year. 

The reason I didn't choose a TBR book for this category was simple: I only have one unread book about creepy-crawlies that fits the plus-one-year rule, and it's a reference book as thick as a telephone directory that I have no intention of reading from cover to cover. 

The author was struck by a mysterious illness while on holiday in Europe and the outcome was a debilitating condition that made her an invalid. Stuck in a cycle of slight recoveries and violent relapses, she was bound to her bed when a friend brought her a pot of wild violets and a forest snail. She began observing the snail and noting its behaviour and drawing parallels between her own condition and that of the snail, sometimes wishing she was a snail.

The book is a beautifully written observation, not only of the snail, but of the human condition and the author's situation as someone who was (and presumably still is) unable to enjoy full mobility, showing how a small thing like a snail could make her forget her own condition for a while and become totally invested in something else. It also contains much information about snails, along with a number of interesting quotations relating to snails, and a juicy bibliography at the back that should satisfy even the most avid amateur malacologist.

Highly recommended. 5+ stars.

19 September 2012

What's in a Name challenge review: The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates

My fourth What's in a Name challenge book was this delightful short novel, the first in a series of (I think) 5 books that have also been used as the basis for a television series. The challenge category is # 6, the something you'd find on a calendar, that of course being the month of May.

Cedric Carlton, a clerk from the Internal Revenue office arrives at the Larkin family farm to find out why Pa Larkin hasn't filed his taxes. He meets the Larkins' oldest daughter, Mariette, and falls in love with her at first sight, which comes in useful for Pa, who clearly has no intention to pay his taxes and uses Cedric's infatuation with Mariette to dodge all questions about the matter. Cedric, renamed Charley by Pa, quickly forgets why he came and takes sick leave in order to stay with the family and be near Mariette, who seems quite interested in him too.

This is one of those lovely novels in which a formula as old as literature is used to good effect to tell an entertaining, occasionally funny and heart-warming story. The characters are more or less stock, to be sure, but they are fleshed out sufficiently to give them enough dimension to function well in this plot-driven novel about two different worlds colliding with interesting results. 4 stars.

P.S. Check out the TV series, starring, among others, Catherine Zeta Jones.

17 September 2012

What's in a Name challenge review: The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger

This is the third What's in a Name challenge book I finish, the topographical feature, that of course being a marsh. This means I am halfway there, and one more TBR book down.

The Marsh Arabs is a travelogue that, along with another travelogue by the same author, Arabian Sands, often appears on lists of best travel books and classics of the genre. It's easy to see why. The style is straightforward and no-nonsense, yet never dry or boring and it was refreshing for a change to read a travelogue by someone who knew exactly who he was and what he was doing, rather than the more common "searching for meaning and/or identity" travelogue so common today.

In 1951 to 58 Wilfred Thesiger spent several months of each year in the marshes of southern Iraq, getting to know the inhabitants, their way of life and customs. He seems to have travelled to this particular area in search of people who were not yet too modernised to have lost all connection with their past and the land, and like most of the best travel writers he seems to have made his expeditions there solely for his own enjoyment.

He describes his life with and travels among the Maʻdān people, the Marsh Arabs of the title, and intersperses his account with information about their day-to-day lives, what they ate, how they built their houses and made their boats, their social structure, marriage traditions and burial customs and last, but not least, blood feuds that would have made the Vikings proud. He shows he had respect for the marsh-dwellers but expresses regret and disdain for the educated among them who he thought had been made discontented with their lot by teachers who couldn't understand why anyone would want to live in the marshes. In this, he shows an attitude reminiscent of the ideal of the 'noble savage', whereby the observer desires to keep the idealised people frozen in time whether they want to nor not. In his case, he knew he was observing a disappearing way of life which he deplored but could do nothing about. The best he was able to do was to record what he saw for posterity.
Despite the obviously Victorian attitudes of the author, I am still giving it 4 stars.

This is one of those books that, when they end, has one wondering what happened next. I do know that Saddam Hussein later came along and drained the marshes, reducing them to a tenth of their original size and scattering most of the Maʻdān, with all the evils that the sudden uprooting of a traditional culture can have. At least the people Thesiger observed leaving the marshes in the fifties were doing it of their own free will.

Now I think I'll need to get my hands on Gavin Young's Return to the Marshes (1977) and then Rory Stewart's Prince of the Marshes (2006), to see what has changed.

15 September 2012

Reading report for August 2012

It suddenly occurred to me that I had yet to post a reading report for last month. 

I finished 12 books in August, out of which one was a reread. It was a mixed bag this time: autobiography, travel, popular science, romance, urban fantasy, mystery and suspense. Some of my favourite genres, in fact.

The TBR challenge is inching along, with 3 books in August, and I got going again with the Brother Cadfael mysteries, reading three of them back to back. I finally got hold of the final book I needed to complete the series and now there is nothing holding me back from finally finishing it.

The Books:
Alison Arngrim: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. Autobiography.
Andrew Beahrs: Twain's Feast: Searching for America's lost foods in the footsteps of Samuel Clemens. Travel and food.
Georgette Heyer: The Convenient Marriage. Historical romance. Reread.
Sam Kean: The Disappearing Spoon: and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world, from the periodic table of the elements. Popular science/history.
Christian Lander: Stuff White People Like. Humour.
Ellis Peters: The Pilgrim of Hate, An Excellent Mystery and The Raven in the Foregate. Historical mysteries.
Nora Roberts: Brazen Virtue. Romantic suspense.
J.R. Ward: Lover Mine and Lover Unleashed. Urban fantasy/Paranormal romance.

10 September 2012

What‘s in a Name challenge review: The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, translated by Alexandra Keeble

Here is my second What‘s in a Name challenge read, no. 5, the something you‘d carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack, that thing being a diary.

The Motorcycle Diaries shows famous revolutionary Ernesto Guevara as young, roguish and immature but already beginning to form the ideas and ideology that would later lead him to join the Cuban revolution and attempt to carry through revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia, the latter which would cost him his life. How much of that revolutionary spark that can be seen here and there in the book is his own fiction and how much is true is impossible to know, as he edited the diary he kept of the journey and may have added to it to make it more interesting for his political brethren. The final chapter, his mini-manifesto of support for the downtrodden and for the revolution he believes in, is certainly a later addition, written to give the book a climax and a real ending.

For the most part, however, this book is about the joys of travel. Guevara and his travel companion set off on a motorcycle with more optimism than money to explore South-America. They abandoned the vehicle when it broke down irrevocably and continued on foot, horseback, in the backs of trucks, by boat and, on one leg of the journey, by air. On the way they saw beautiful nature, visited interesting places, met the sick, poor and disenfranchised and bummed food and accommodation off anyone who would give it, turning sponging into a sport out of necessity. They shivered through freezing nights and sweltered in the heat of days, drank and ate immoderately one day to compensate for the hunger of the previous and following days, became stowaways on a boat, visited leper hospitals and colonies and generally did as they pleased, although their dream of visiting Easter Island never came to frutition. It‘s really the kind of adventure many backpackers dream of when they set out on their journeys.Recommended, even if you don't agree with Guevara's ideology.

30 August 2012

What‘s in a Name challenge review: The Raven in the Foregate, by Ellis Peters

Here is my first What‘s in a Name challenge book: item no. 2, the something you'd see in the sky, that thing of course being a raven.

I have been making my way through the Brother Cadfael series in order of publication for the last several years, going rather slowly because I have been picking them up from second hand book shops, flea market stalls and BookMooch, knowing I would want to keep them after reading them. This is the 12th in the series out of 21, so I am a little over halfway there.

The parish priest of Holy Cross, commonly called the Foregate because it lies just outside the walls of the abbey, dies and the Abbot of Saint Peter and Saint Paul brings back from a visit to his bishop a priest to replace him. But the priest clashes with his flock due to his inflexibility and lack of humility and kindness. When he is found drowned in the mill-pond on Christmas Day with a suspicious wound on the back of his head, foul play is suspected and Brother Cadfael and sheriff Beringar, now finally officially the holder of his office, set out to find the truth.

To complicate matters a young man, a follower of Empress Maud, on the run from King Stephen‘s men, is hiding in the abbey and known to Cadfael for having good reason for committing the murder. But the monk‘s insight and knowledge of human nature tells him the young spy is innocent. But who hated the priest enough to knock him over the head and throw him in the mill-pond to drown?

I was rather disappointed by the last two books in the series, the weird Pilgrim of Hate, which was more psychological thriller than a mystery, and An Excellent Mystery which was, if anything, a love story rather than a mystery, the clues dropped being a little too broad for it to remain mysterious for long. This, however, is a real mystery that will keep the reader guessing either until light dawns just ahead of the sleuths, or possibly only when the truth is revealed. The mystery is enthralling and I was kept looking for clues at every turn.

This novel has its good and bad points, among the best being Cadfael himself and his whole world, including the (for me) fascinating rite and ritual of the medieval Catholic church. The obligatory romantic element, however, has often been done better. The disguised youngster trope is there, the charming young man and strong-willed young woman who discover each other are there, but are as flat as can be, mere cardboard cut-outs copied from previous romantic heroes and heroines of the series.

 However, this novel may infuriate some purists, for the reason of soundly breaking S.S. van Dine‘s rules of mystery writing twice somewhere along the way. The first break with van Dine is the romance element, which is to be expected in most of Peters‘ mysteries, but the other? You‘ll have to read it to find out.

For reason of the cardboard-flavoured lovers and a few other small annoyances, I am only giving this novel a score of 3/5.

29 August 2012

Reading Challenge

As a regular visitor to this blog will have noticed, I have not been very active lately. This is because of many things that have combined to make me disinterested in posting reviews and writing about books. However, I would like to become more active and to that end I decided to join a reading challenge and pledge to blog about the books I read for that challenge to give me a little boost. 

I mentioned back in January that I would probably just do my personal TBR challenge this year and if I were to do or join any other challenges, it would be somehting small that could fit within the TBR challenge, and I decided on the perfect mini-challenge for that: the What's in a Name challenge run by Beth Fish Reads.

The challenge is, in the words of the challenge mistress:

 "Between January 1 and December 31, 2012, read one book in each of the following categories:
  1. A book with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title: Black Hills, Purgatory Ridge, Emily of Deep Valley Done
  2. A book with something you'd see in the sky in the title: Moon Called, Seeing Stars, Cloud Atlas. Done
  3. A book with a creepy crawly in the title: Little Bee, Spider Bones, The Witches of Worm. Done.
  4. A book with a type of house in the title: The Glass Castle, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Ape House. Done.
  5. A book with something you'd carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title: Sarah's Key, The Scarlet Letter, Devlin Diary Done
  6. A book with a something you'd find on a calendar in the title: Day of the Jackal, Elegy for April, Freaky Friday, Year of Magical Thinking. Done
The book titles are just suggestions, you can read whatever book you want to fit the category.

Other Things to Know

  • Books may be any form (audio, print, e-book).
  • Books may overlap other challenges.
  • Books may not overlap categories; you need a different book for each category.
  • Creativity for matching the categories is not only allowed but encouraged.
  • You do not have to make a list of books before hand.
  • You do not have to read through the categories in any particular order."

I am already reading a book that fits list item no. 2 and will review it as soon as I finish it.

28 August 2012

Top Ten Tuesddays meme: Bookish confessions

This week the bloggers of The Broke and the Bookish urge us to use our blogs as confessionals:
"Anything! You dog ear, you hated a book  but said you loved it, you have $500 library fines...anything goes!"

So, in no particular order, here are my confessions (don't forget to check out the rest):

  1. I break spines (but only on paperbacks).
  2. I buy most of my books second hand, meaning the authors don’t get any royalties from me.
  3. Give me a book and unless I specifically asked you to give it to me I will, in all likelihood, return it and use the credit to buy a book I know I'll want to keep.
  4. Back in my student days (when I was pretty much broke) I would buy books, read them and return them to the book-store.
  5. I have been known to check out 20 library books at once... and return 19 of them unopened.
  6. Back when I was studying English. Lit., I read several classic novels and wrote admiring and glowing essays about them that got full marks from the teachers, but in actuality I hated several of them. Bleak House and Wuthering Heigths are two examples. WH I still hate, but BH is proving to be a delightful reread so far. I think it was mostly its length I objected to in the beginning.
  7. I borrowed a book from my mother in 2010 and still haven’t returned it.
  8. I only keep one in about 10 books I buy.
  9. I have excused myself from attending parties and other events because I wanted to read a particularly interesting book.
  10. My uncle returned The Lord of the Rings to me looking like it was chewed on by a dog. I forgave him for that. I still haven’t forgiven him for returning it in that condition and having the temerity to not even have finished it. That was 20 years ago.
The only ones I am a bit ashamed of are #1 and #4.
The others are included because other people may find them shaming. 

22 August 2012

Review: Twain‘s Feast: searching for America's lost foods in the footsteps of Samuel Clemens by Andrew Beahrs

As anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time will know, I enjoy reading books about food and books about history, and I love travelogues. This book combines all three. The premise of the book is to hunt down some of the foods that Mark Twain wrote about longing for when months of insipid European hotel food were beginning to wear on him during the journey he describes in his travelogue A Tramp Abroad (I know just how he feels). 

Beahrs is an unapologetic foodie and clearly a fan of Twain‘s and he seems to have been tireless in chasing after the foods he chose to discuss in the book. Some of these he makes sound mouth-watering, and the reader can‘t help joining in his lament over how some of these foods have been lost or stopped being as easily available as they were in Twain‘s time, e.g. prairie chicken and terrapin. Others, I must admit, I would give a miss, such as raccoon and possum. Cranberries and maple syrup I am familiar with (when this is written, I am happily digesting a dessert of fresh crowberries with cream and maple syrup), and this is the first food book I have read that has actually made me want to taste raw oysters.

Beahrs spent freezing hours in a blind in a cornfield in Illinois to observe prairie chickens, attended a yearly raccoon supper in a small town in Arkansas, helped build undersea beds for oysters to attach themselves to in San Francisco Bay, visited cutthroat trout hatcheries in Nevada, a diamondback terrapin breeding ground in Maryland, restaurants and outdoor markets in New Orleans to sample fish, cranberry growers and maple syrup farmers in various places on the east coast of the USA.

Along the way he sings the praise of local food and bemoans how American foodways have changed for the worse since Twain‘s time, sometimes because the habitat of one food species had been destroyed in favour of another, more profitable one, as is the case with prairie chickens vs. corn and grain. Additionally, although I‘m not sure that was one of the things he was trying to do by writing this book, he also makes a convincing case for the existence of not one genuinely American cuisine, but several, all based on fresh and local foods, blending the raw ingredients and cooking methods known to the Native Americans with those of European immigrants and African slaves, into a something uniquely American. The recipes from old American cookbooks sprinkled throughout the text serve to underscore this and show how the dishes Twain rhapsodised about may have been prepared.

If this book has a fault, it is that the chapters seem somewhat disjointed, not really connected, even with the theme of Twain and his favourite food running through the book. It‘s almost like a series of interconnected articles rather than a complete book written as such. Twain fans may be disappointed in that he leaves Twain behind for pages at a time, but it must be remembered that Twain is just the excuse: what the book is really about is food.

Dedicated epicureans may also be disappointed that Beahrs doesn‘t go all out to try to taste all the foods he mentions, e.g. terrapin and prairie chicken, but I think it shows respect for these increasingly rare animals. One day the conservation efforts and habitat reclamation he writes about may bring these species back in sufficient numbers to be eaten ethically and without guilt, allowing even common foodies like myself to eat like Twain.

4 stars.

09 August 2012

Review: Stuff White People Like: A Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions by Christian Lander

I used to be a regular visitor of  the eponymous blog that spawned this book. I was aware from the first that it should really be titled "Stuff liked by stereotypical, white, middle-class, liberal, urban Americans aged between about 18 and 40", but that didn‘t make it any less funny. I‘d check in, smile or occasionally giggle over the humour, agree or disagree with Lander, and then move on to the next blog in my feed. For some reason (i.e. I found another blog I liked better – I have limited time to read blogs and only ever juggle about 10 at any given time) I stopped reading the blog, but coming across the book in a second hand shop brought a smile to my face and I bought it and took it home with me to read. 

The thing to keep in mind when reading this book is that it is, as I said above, very much about stereotypes and therefore it is by necessity hyperbolic. It also seems to aim to shoot down or at least uncover pretentiousness and one-upmanship, which makes it satirical. These are the foundations of the humour. Hyperbole and satire of course go together like thunder and lightning – you can‘t really imagine one without the other. 

I discovered, however, that this book is best read with frequent breaks between chapters, stretched out over a long period of time. The reason is that after reading 3-4 chapters one after the other it begins to grate, sounding less humorously satirical and hyperbolic than bitter and self-hating, even bordering on vitriolic at times. The tone is such that if a non-white person had written it, it would sound very much like racism, and if written by a member of any other class than the middle, it would be classist, and by any nationality other than American it would sound jingoistic. You get the picture. In order to preserve the humour as it was meant to be understood and enjoy the book as it is meant to be enjoyed, i.e. as light comic entertainment playing with stereotypes, I therefore recommend treating it like a blog and reading at most two chapters at a time. 

This makes Stuff White People Like a perfect read for the bathroom or for those pesky TV advertising breaks. Goodness knows the ad breaks on Animal Planet are long enough for one to finish a novel in a surprisingly short amount of time.

06 August 2012

Reading report for July 2012

I finished 14 books and 2 novellas in July, all but one of which I started reading within the month, so the page count is impressive, around 5400 pages, not counting those parts of London: The Biography I read earlier. You could say I‘m making up for lost time, having read very little (for me) during the winter.

Of the books I read in July, I have already reviewed London: The Biography . Not unsurprisingly, 3 of the other books and one novella came from the Black Dagger Brotherthood series. The other novella takes place in the same world but is not part of the series. Neither novella will go on the Books Read list until I have finished the books they are to be found in, but the titles are Father Mine and The Story of Son. The former is about the couple from Lover Awakened , the third book in the series, and what happened afterwards. The other is a sweet paranormal love story.

Another series I recently discovered Debbie Macomber‘s Cedar Cove books, of which I read the two first in July. They weren‘t as endearing as her Christmas stories, but gave one a nice and cosy, warm feeling, much like the Cat Who books by Lilian Jackson Braun, only without the murders. Although the main theme in these books is love, they are not traditional one man/one woman romances but rather parts of a larger, multi-book story with multiple characters, with one or two love stories being brought to the I do in each book and new ones continued or started.

A third series I have just started reading is the Inspector Lynley mysteries. I was familiar with Lynley and his sidekick Havers from the TV series so I found it rather funny to read the description of Lynley in the book. I have him firmly fixed in my mind as looking like the delicious Nathaniel Parker, the actor who portrays him in the TV series, who is definitely not blond like the Lynley of the books. I have started reading the second book and so far TV Lynley seems to be winning – I still see Parker in my mind whenever I read the name.

I also discovered the Uncle John‘s Bathroom Readers when I came across one in a second hand shop last month. I will definitely be buying more of them.

As for the rest, I read 2 romance novels and a collection of 5 romance novellas, one Ellis Peters mystery, and reread two books, one by Terry Pratchett and one by Piers Anthony. I discovered Anthony‘s Xanth books long ago and enjoyed them up to around book 20 when I decided I‘d had my fill of them. However, I never got rid of my copies, and recently I decided to reread them to help me to decide whether or not I want to keep them.

The Books:
Peter Ackroyd: London: The Biography. History.
Piers Anthony: A Spell for Chameleon. Fantasy. Reread.
Bathroom Reader's Institute: Uncle John's Bathroom Reader: Wonderful World of Odd. Trivia.
Elizabeth George: A Great Deliverance. Police procedural. Murder mystery.
Robin Kaye: Too Hot to Handle. Contemporary romance.
Debbie Macomber: 16 Lighthouse Road and 204 Rosewood Lane. Women‘s literature.
Cathy Maxwell; Elaine Fox; Jeaniene Frost; Sophia Nash; Tracy Anne Warren: Four Dukes and a Devil. Romance, mixture of historical, contemporary and paranormal.
Ellis Peters: Death and the Joyful Woman. Murder mystery.
Terry Pratchett: Reaper Man. Fantasy. Reread.
Nora Roberts: Sacred Sins. Romantic suspense.
J.R. Ward: Lover Unbound , Lover Enshrined and Lover Avenged. Urban fantasy/Paranormal romance.

15 July 2012

London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd

It took me a more than a year to finish this epic non-fiction book of history/biography. Not that I couldn't have finished it earlier – under normal conditions it would have taken me about a week to read a novel of this length – but this humongous piece of non-fiction just isn't the kind of book I want to devour in a few reading sessions. For starters, it's heavy, both literally and figuratively speaking. The paperback edition I started reading weighs one kilo (that's about 2.2 lbs.) – the kind of book you really need to keep on a lectern or a book stand to read. Therefore it was a physical relief to be able to set it aside for a Kindle edition for the last 200 or so pages.

As for the figurative heaviness, it could easily have been cut down by 200+ pages without losing anything important. Ackroyd's style here is verbose, bloated and often aimless (but admittedly never dry), the equivalent of the talker who speaks only for the pleasure of hearing his own voice. This made for slow going, especially in the second half of the book, where the verbosity often threatens to suffocate the narrative. I continued reading, however, because the subject of the book really interests me. I find London fascinating and have often felt, as I wandered its streets, that I wanted to know more about it. This book delivered that in spades. In among the verbiage there was fascinating information to be found and interesting speculations about various aspects of the city.

Although it starts with prehistory and ends with a speculation on the future, the book is mostly not organised linearly, i.e. it doesn't tell the story of London from it's beginnings to modern times, but is rather organised by aspects of its history and people. You'll find chapters on such varied subjects as sound, street layouts, entertainment, disease, death in its various forms, trade, food and drink, sex, crime, times of day, children, women, immigrants, and the growth of suburbia, besides many others.This means that you can dip into the book at random if you so wish – there is no need to read it linearly. You might even be happier reading it in random order than I was reading it from cover to cover.

While this organisation makes for some interesting juxtapositions and makes the book easy to read in random order, I think Ackroyd tried a bit too hard to cover everything there was to be covered about London, and could have produced a more focused portrait of the city. As it is, he has, in nearly 800 pages, managed to merely whet my appetite for London. There are numerous threads of history that he mentions briefly that I would like to pick up and follow to their end. Some, of course, I am familiar with, like the Jack the Ripper case, while others, like the story of the London Underground, I am not.

For the reasons given above, I feel I can only give this book 2 stars (out of 5), but I do not regret reading it. It has given me much to think about and pointed out to me a number of books I would like to take a look at. Now I want to find a straightforward history of the city, and after that I might  read John Stow's 1598 Survey of London, which I learned about on a fascinating walking tour of London's financial district last year and is mentioned several times in this book.

10 July 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 epistolatory books I enjoyed and hope you do too

I haven’t participated in Top Ten Tuesdays for ages, but as it’s freebie week, I decided to enter one of my book lists. Do visit the hosting blog, The Broke and the Bookish, and click through to some of the other participating blogs.
  1. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. Non-fiction. Lovely, lovely collection of letters between Hanff and the staff of a bookstore in England, written over a period of 20 years. Recommend the movie as well. 
  2. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Written as a series of accounts of the theft of a precious stone, using different styles and voices. It’s long, but worth reading. 
  3. Letters to Alice, Upon First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon. What the title says, plus much more besides. Discusses not only Austen, but the art of writing as well. 
  4. Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos. A novel told entirely in letters between the characters, a couple of scheming French aristocrats playing a dangerous game of seduction. 
  5. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. A correspondence between a young demon and his "uncle" Screwtape, a senior demon. Occasionally funny, often insightful meditation on Christianity and on good and evil. 
  6. Dracula by Bram Stoker. Written as a collection of letters, diary entries and other writings of various characters occupied with the pursuit of the eponymous count. 
  7. Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy by Jean Webster. Two entertaining romances told entirely in letters. The first one is just a little bit icky due to the age difference between the corresponding couple, but the letters are delightful. The movie makes the age gap even bigger and is therefore somewhat icky. 
  8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Written as a series of letters from the protagonist, a poor black woman in the rural southern USA, to God, telling a heartbreaking but also eventually heartwarming story. Recommend the movie as well. 
  9. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend, and the first two sequels. I haven’t read the rest, so can’t recommend them. The angsty and very funny diary entries of an adolescent boy doomed to perpetual loserhood. 
  10. Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson. I found this YA novel, which is presented for the most part as journal entries by Amy, fresh and funny. I hope they make a movie out of it.

03 July 2012

Reading report for June 2012

If you have been wondering why there have been so few posts this month, it‘s because I have been reading: voraciously, almost manically. I finished 17 books in June, reading most of them from cover to cover within the month. Three of them were rereads, the In the Garden trilogy by the fabulous Nora Roberts, who is also my most read author of the month. 13 of the books were romances, with a 14th being romantic but lacking the clear-cut happy ending of the others. Of the rest, two were mysteries, one of them a short story collection and the other the first book in the series. Lastly I read one book on language history.

The best read of the month was Morgan Matson‘s Amy and Roger's Epic Detour, a romantic coming-of-age epistolary road novel for young adults. It reaches into picaresque territory, with the eponymous characters going on a road trip across the USA and taking a route not sanctioned by the adults who planned it for them, doing things they aren‘t supposed to do and making discoveries about themselves and others. The writing is fresh and it takes you to several interesting places around the USA, besides containing some cool music playlists that could be fun to recreate.

The discovery of the month was the Black Dagger Brotherhood urban fantasy series by J.R. Ward. They are so very addictive that I read four of them back to back, three in June and one in July. Once you get over how badly the first one, Dark Lover, is written, it‘s difficult to stop. The writing improves book by book, the world-building is fantastic and keeps getting more and more involved and detailed with each book, the romances are blazing hot and the fight scenes not as sketchy as they often are in romantic suspense/thrillers. I am trying to back away from reading all of them one after the other, as I would like to stretch out my reading of them.

News of the month is that I finally got a Kindle and discovered that I actually read faster on one than I do from a book, much as I do from a computer screen. As a result, the TBR challenge has suffered, with only 2 TBR books finished in June. Even if I had not got the Kindle, I think the TBR challenge would have suffered anyway, because I keep discovering more books my grandmother owned that I am unable to resist taking for my own, so the stack continues to swell. I am therefore changing tack and abandoning the idea of reducing the stack down to a fixed number and will instead aim to read at least 50 TBR books newly added or old relics from the stack in 2012. I have already finished 20 and there are six months left of the year, so it will be a realistic goal while still being a challenge.

The Books:

  • Rachel Gibson: Tangled Up in You. Romance, contemporary.
  • Molly Harper: How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolf. Romance, contemporary, paranormal.
  • Michael Innes: Death at the President's Lodging.Mystery, police.
  • Michael Innes: Appleby Talking.Short mysteries, police.
  • John Bemelmans Marciano: Anonyponymous.Language history: people whose names have become words in English.
  • Morgan Matson: Amy and Roger's Epic Detour.Young adult novel.
  • Patricia Potter: Cassidy and the Princess. Romantic suspense.
  • Nora Roberts: Command Performance, The Playboy Prince. Romance, contemporary.From a series of 4.
  • Nora Roberts: Summer Desserts, Lessons Learned. Romance, contemporary. Paired novels.
  • Nora Roberts: Blue Dahlia, Black Rose, Red Lily. Romance, contemporary.Trilogy.
  • J.R. Ward: Dark Lover, Lover Awakened, Lover Revealed.Urban fantasy/paranormal romance, suspense. Books 1-3 in a series.

14 June 2012

Books read from January to the end of May

I'm on Pinterest. I find it useful for various organisational tasks and for making visual memos, and one of the things I have used it for is to make a visual representation of the books I have read, by pinning the cover images:
Contains all but one of the books I read in the given time period.

05 June 2012

List love: All at Sea

Jungle, desert, mountain, sea?

Someone asked this question not long ago in a random poll on a chat forum I frequent, and my answer was emphatically “the sea”. I grew up in sight of it, I start to feel antsy if I can’t hear, see or smell it for more than a couple of weeks, and I really think I would lose something important from my life if I were to settle somewhere far away from it. A lake is just not the same - fresh water smells different, and so do saltwater lakes. So here is some List Love, featuring the sea in a pivotal role:

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Novel. While the eponymous white whale is the star of the show, the book actually is about much more than just Captain Ahab’s obsession. The descriptions of life at sea on a whaling ship were what I most enjoyed about it.
  2. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. The true story that inspired Moby Dick. An enraged bull sperm whale sinks a whaleship in the Pacific and the crew must try to get to land in the whaleboats. Not a pretty story but an amazing survival tale.
  3. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. Trapped in a hostile environment, surrounded by sea and ice, this is another amazing survival story in which the sea plays an important part.
  4. The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson. Life in, on the surface and on the shores of the sea plays an integral part in this interesting and well-written account of the life cycle of the Maine lobster and the lives of the fishermen who trap them and the scientists who study them.
  5. The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby. While I could have done without the technical aspects of life on a tall ship, the names of sails and rigging, ropes and other equipment in which Newby indulged in describing, there is no denying that the life at sea that he describes has a great deal of nostalgia and charm in it.
  6. A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. The story of the night the Titanic sank. A marvellous book I read recently, it is still, more than 50 years after it was first published, considered to be one of the best Titanic books.
  7. Typhoon by Joseph Conrad. A terrifying tale of a ship caught in a storm.
  8. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. Besides being a cracking espionage thriller, it is also full of the joys of sailing and being on the water.
  9. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. A tense and sometimes claustrophobic tale of a cat-and-mouse game played between a Soviet submarine captain and the navies of the Soviet Union and NATO.
  10. The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw. The account of the captain of a fishing boat of life at sea and of one particular fishing tour.

If you crave more titles

Honourable mention:  
  • Sea Crow Island by Astrid Lindgren.

Sea books on my reading list:
Life of Pi by Yann Martell.
Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin.
Percival Keene by Frederick Marryat.
Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum.
Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz.
The Sinbad Voyage by Tim Severin.
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger.