Books in March ’13

Spring is finally here. Yay! It’s been a dark, depressing, and stressful winter, but now I’ve unwinded and feel optimistic about things again. I had my candidate’s essay presentation, a terrifying situation for someone with performance anxiety, but it went very well and I’m pleased. Then rolled on the Easter holidays, which I’m currently enjoying. Next week I will return to my essays and schoolwork, but for one more day I’m going to just relax and enjoy reading.

At the beginning of March I spent a few days with my friend in Amsterdam. I didn’t get around to writing about it, but I assure you, Amsterdam is a wonderful city and well worth a visit! I really enjoyed it, not least because language is not an issue there: it’s probably the most international city I’ve ever been to!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four

When a beautiful young woman is sent a letter inviting her to a sinister assignation, she immediately seeks the advice of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.

For this is not the first mysterious item Mary Morstan has received in the post. Every year for the last six years an anonymous benefactor has sent her a large lustrous pearl. Now it appears the sender of the pearls would like to meet her to right a wrong.

But when Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick Watson, aiding Miss Morstan, attend the assignation, they embark on a dark and mysterious adventure involving a one-legged ruffian, some hidden treasure, deadly poison darts and a thrilling race along the River Thames.

(Back cover of Penguin Sherlock Holmes Collection edition)

Of course I know I enjoy ACD’s Sherlock Holmes stories, but this one was just really great. I don’t know whether it came at a good moment or whether it was just brilliant, but I enjoyed myself so much I dreaded finishing it and having to pick up something else.

The romance-y bits with the good Dr Watson and Miss Morstan were, I felt, a little annoying, as they seemed kind of unrelated and the whole affair didn’t seem reasonable, but as someone pointed out, men see love in a different way from women, so maybe it’s just that?

Published: 1890

Pages: 153 (Penguin Sherlock Holmes Collection 2011)

Lucy Worsley: Courtiers – The Secret History of the Georgian Court

Kensington Palace is now most famous as the former home of Diana, Princess of Wales, but the palace’s glory days came between 1714 and 1760, during the reigns of George I and II . In the eighteenth century, this palace was a world of skulduggery, intrigue, politicking, etiquette, wigs, and beauty spots, where fans whistled open like switchblades and unusual people were kept as curiosities. Lucy Worsley’s The Courtiers charts the trajectory of the fantastically quarrelsome Hanovers and the last great gasp of British court life. Structured around the paintings of courtiers and servants that line the walls of the King’s Staircase of Kensington Palace—paintings you can see at the palace today—The Courtiers goes behind closed doors to meet a pushy young painter, a maid of honor with a secret marriage, a vice chamberlain with many vices, a bedchamber woman with a violent husband, two aging royal mistresses, and many more. The result is an indelible portrait of court life leading up to the famous reign of George III, and a feast for both Anglophiles and lovers of history and royalty.

(Goodreads)

I love Georgians, but my interest has so far focused on the fourth George. This book, however, concentrates on the first two Georges, their consorts, and the people who inhabited their courts. Each chapter is named after a central person, such as Peter the Wild Boy, but don’t exclusively look at only the title person. It was certainly interesting to get a view of the feuds between father and son, queens and lovers, and what the people who witnessed it all thought of these complicated games of power.

Published: 2010

Pages: 334

John Fowles: The French Lieutenant’s Woman

In this contemporary, Victorian-style novel Charles Smithson, a nineteenth-century gentleman with glimmerings of twentieth-century perceptions, falls in love with enigmatic Sarah Woodruff, who has been jilted by a French lover.

Of all John Fowles’ novels The French Lieutenant’s Woman received the most universal acclaim and today holds a very special place in the canon of post-war English literature. From the god-like stance of the nineteenth-century novelist that he both assumes and gently mocks, to the last detail of dress, idiom and manners, his book is an immaculate recreation of Victorian England.

Not only is it the epic love story of two people of insight and imagination seeking escape from the cant and tyranny of their age, ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is also a brilliantly sustained allegory of the decline of the twentieth-century passion for freedom.

(Goodreads)

The first out of three required books for the post-modern historical novel class. I liked the style and the detail, but disliked the occasional bits where there was clear condescension towards the Victorians and constant reminders that the novel has been written during the 1960s. Some of the historical details were elaborated on too much to my liking, although that is naturally a personal preference: I consider myself fairly familiar with Victorian England, and therefore not everything needs a page-long explanation.

I was also strongly reminded of two Victorian books while reading: Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, in the way in which the narrator works (metalepsis and the difficulty of categorizing him), and Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in the way the plot worked. It was not quite the same plot, particularly towards the end, but there are some of the same elements in the beginning.

I suppose it was a nice book, but I have a dislike towards post-modernism (as well as modernism). Our teacher went on and on about how modern a woman Miss Woodruff is, but I merely found her annoying and incomprehensible.

Published: 1969

Pages: 399

Lisa Kleypas: Love in the Afternoon

She harbors a secret yearning

As a lover of animals and nature, Beatrix Hathaway has always been more comfortable outdoors than in the ballroom. Even though she participated in the London season in the past, the classic beauty and free-spirited Beatrix has never been swept away or seriously courted… and she has resigned herself to the fate of never finding love. Has the time come for the most unconventional of the Hathaway sisters to settle for an ordinary man—just to avoid spinsterhood?

He is a world-weary cynic

Captain Christopher Phelan is a handsome, daring soldier who plans to marry Beatrix’s friend, the vivacious flirt Prudence Mercer, when he returns from fighting abroad. But, as he explains in his letters to Pru, life on the battlefield has darkened his soul—and it’s becoming clear that Christopher won’t come back as the same man. When Beatrix learns of Pru’s disappointment, she decides to help by concocting Pru’s letters to Christopher for her. Soon the correspondence between Beatrix and Christopher develops into something fulfilling and deep… and when Christopher comes home, he’s determined to claim the woman he loves. What began as Beatrix’s innocent deception has resulted in the agony of unfulfilled love—and a passion that can’t be denied.

(Goodreads)

I ordered this book from the library for one reason only: I stumbled upon the information that this book contains a hedgehog. Yes, as bizarre as that may sound, that was the real reason. This is also the first book of Kleypas’s that I have read.

The first thing that caught me was my own expectations. I thought I was starting a Regency romance – when a man returning from war is mentioned in context of historical romance I tend to automatically think of Waterloo – but, thankfully, there was a date on the very first page, indicating this was actually Victorian, post-Crimean, to be precise. Not that it changed my reading very much: I merely didn’t feel scandalised when waltz was danced at an assembly (or some such detail).

In general, I found the plot a little blotchy. I would have liked the conflict to remain unsolved for longer, although I’m sure there are plenty of readers who would like this book exactly because there is no particularly dramatic barrier between the hero and the heroine. There was also too much explaining, and by that I mean, little trust in the reader’s knowledge of the era. I know, I know, things must be explained and people will learn them, but here it was too explicitly done for my taste. In some scenes, conversation didn’t feel quite naturally exactly because of the explaining: anyone living in England around the late 1850s would have known exactly who Nelson was, without further explanation.

But this one made a very nice Saturday’s reading, and kept me from stressing too much. Took me seven hours to read, which was exactly what I needed: a few hours of distraction from schoolwork.

Published: 2010

Pages: 317 (Piatkus Books 2010)

Peter Ackroyd: The Fall of Troy

Sophia Chrysanthis is initially dazzled when the celebrated German archaeologist, Herr Obermann, comes in search of a Greek bride who can read the works of Homer and assist in his excavations of the city he believes is Ancient Troy.

But Obermann’s past turns out to be full of skeletons and when a young American arrives to question the archaeologist’s methods and dies of a mysterious fever, Sophia wonders just how far he will go to protect his vision of Troy. Soon a second, British, archaeologist arrives, only to fall in love with Sophia, and as their relationship begins to parallel their Ancient Greek counterparts events move towards a gripping and terrible conclusion.

(Back of the Vintage 2007 paperback)

Another required book for the post-modern historical novel class. Having established that I do not like the genre, this one came as a pleasant surprise, despite the teacher having spoiled it thoroughly in class. I’m not going to spoil you about the contents. Suffice to say it’s very intriguing, and Obermann’s character in particular. He’s sly, narcissistic, and completely obsessed with finding the ancient city of Troy. The story is loosely based on the excavations of an archaeologist called Schliemann in the late 19th century – this knowledge is helpful in setting the time, although even knowing it I kept forgetting this was a book set in the late 1800s and not the early decades of the 1900s. (Too much Poirot, I expect.)

Do read it. Once Obermann’s character starts to reveal itself, the book is a real page-turner. I was up half the night finishing it!

(The things I saw in it are very different from the ones the blurb picks up, so I don’t think it’s all that accurate, but obviously there are lots of ways to read it!)

Published: 2006

Pages: 215 (Vintage 2007 paperback)

Toni Morrison: Beloved

Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

(Goodreads)

Third and last of the required books! I’ve read one of Morrison’s works before – The Bluest Eye when I was, I think, in high school – and so she’s not completely new to me. I have to say that the first book I read left a much deeper impression, perhaps because of the topic.

However, Beloved was very interesting. It’s a puzzle, and you get new pieces as the story proceeds. Questions are answered just as you stopped thinking about it. Information comes from several points of view, and the narrative time jumps back and forth in a way that requires some attention. I read fairly quickly, this being a school requirement, but at a normal pace you’re sure to get a lot out of it.

Having said that, I’m not at all sure what exactly happened in the book. It veers towards the magical, and that leaves the story rather open.

Also, some scenes made my brain create visual images on basis of Tarantino’s Django Unchained. I was reminded of the film on occasion.

Published: 1987

Pages: 275

Julia Quinn: Splendid

American heiress Emma Dunster has always been fun-loving and independent with no wish to settle into marriage. She plans to enjoy her Season in London in more unconventional ways than husband hunting. But this time Emma’s high jinks lead her into dangerous temptation…

Alexander Ridgley, the Duke of Ashbourne, is a notorious rake who carefully avoids the risk of love… until he plants one reckless kiss on the sensuous lips of this high-spirited innocent. Soon sparks – and laughter ­– fly when these two terribly determined people cross paths during one very splendid London spring Season…

(Back cover of Piatkus 2010 edition)

Splendid is Quinn’s first book, and, as she herself states in the foreword, not as refined as her subsequent novels. The point of view jumps erratically and the names (especially those that are not known to the current PoV character) jump with them, creating a little confusion as to whether characters are already acquainted or not. The plot works, but is drawn out too much at the end – the final scrape the characters find themselves in feels unnecessary. Also the fact that Alex has returned from war but shows no sign of this (this is brought up briefly in a casual remark) bugs me.

However, for a first work, nice, although I do not generally take to American heroines.

Published: 1995

Pages: 396 (Piatkus 2010 edition)

Julia Quinn: Dancing at Midnight

When a suitor tells Lady Arabella Blydon that he’s willing to overlook her appalling bluestocking tendencies on account of her looks and fortune, she decides to take a break from the Marriage Mart. So during an extended stay in the country, she never expects to meet Lord John Blackwood, a wounded war hero who intrigues her like no other man.

Lord John has lived through the worst horrors of war, but nothing could have been as terrifying to his tormented heart as Lady Arabella. She is intoxicating, infuriating… and she makes him want to live again. Suddenly he’s writing bad poetry and climbing trees in the pitch-dark night, just so he can dance with her. But when the harsh light of day replaces the magic of midnight, can this tormented soul learn to love again?

(Back cover of Piatkus 2009 edition)

A sequel to Splendid, this book concentrates of Emma’s cousin Belle. This book is already obviously better crafted than its predecessor, although the points of view are still erratic. I do like the heroine and hero though: Belle is stubborn and a bluestocking to the bone. I did not appreciate the old let-him-think-I’m-going-to-marry-someone-else trick, but at least she had the decency to be ashamed of it. John’s trauma and self-loathing weren’t quite believable, and he, like Alex in the previous book, doesn’t have much of a trauma of the war itself, although he is still slightly paranoid of unexpected noises and a light sleeper.

My favourite character, without a doubt, is Belle’s chaperone. If you read the book you’re sure to see why.

I did like Dancing at Midnight better than Splendid, and I hope the third book in the trilogy proves to be the best of them. Now I only need to get it from the library…

Published: 1995

Pages: 375 (Piatkus 2009 edition)

A much better month than the last, I must say. I feel quite accomplished! Hopefully I can keep this speed up.

Currently reading:

Stephanie Laurens: The Lady Chosen, first book in the Bastion Club series

Books bought this month:

Amsterdam has a Waterstone’s and an American Bookcenter. And an English Bookstore. I can’t pass a chance to buy Heyer for my collection, Courtiers I got half price ­– and you won’t believe how I got Warbreaker! My library has a rotation shelf (my unofficial word for it: a shelf you can put your unwanted books on and take whatever’s there) and suddenly I noticed someone had left Sanderson there. I still can’t believe my luck. I got a free Sanderson! 😀

One more month of school! Happy Easter, and enjoy the spring!

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