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.

Synopsis:
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?

Review:
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.