Tag Archives: popular history

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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Books in June ’12

Hello hello!

Although my reading time was largely eaten up by work during the last two weeks of June, I managed a respectable amount of books – two of which were on the list, yay!

This month, I’ll do a little twist with this monthly thing. I’m sure it will be easier and more pleasant to you guys if I split the monthly post into a romance and a fantasy/SF/literary post. We’ll see how that works! Here’s the latter, and it will be followed up by the romance books.

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations

Great Expectations (1861) is a favourite among many Dickens readers. In addition to its endearing hero, Pip – a blacksmith’s boy, desperate to escape his humble background – the story is populated by a vivid cast of characters, from the convict Magwitch to Miss Havisham who, jilted long ago, still wears her wedding down and, for revenge, schools the beautiful young Estella in the art of malice towards men.

When Pip receives a legacy and promptly leaves for London to become a gentleman, only then does he begin learning about the gulf between appearances and reality.

(Back cover of the Arcturus edition)

BBC’s wonderful new series of this book was just recently aired here, and I loved it to bits. I’d of course thought of reading this book anyway, but what really pushed me into it was the series.

This is not something I say often, so take notice: the series was better than the book. I know it’s Dickens, and it has merits, but it was a two-week struggle for me. Oliver Twist didn’t give me this kind of trouble. Great Expectations is rambly. It has a lot of bits that seem completely unnecessary, although some of them give a better sense of minor characters. But do we really need to get a better feeling of the minor characters? Not really. I’m most interested in Miss Havisham and Estella, and was hoping that the book would shed more light on them. Didn’t happen, unfortunately, and most of the book I got through by thinking of the series, to make it more interesting. (I mean, Herbert Pocket was played by Harry “Viserys” Lloyd, quite charmingly I might add!)

So if you want to read Dickens, I don’t think this one would impress. I still intend to read David Copperfield, hoping it would be a mix between Expectations and Oliver.

This was also a book off my summer reading list! Hooray!

First published: 1861

Pages:  445 (Arcturus Books)

Douglas Hulick: Among Thieves

Ildrecca is a dangerous city, if you don’t know what you’re doing. It takes a canny hand and a wary eye to run these streets and survive. Fortunately, Drothe has both. He has been a member of the Kin for years, rubbing elbows with thieves and murderers from the dirtiest of alleys to the finest of neighbourhoods. Working for a crime lord, he finds and takes care of trouble inside his boss’s organization – while smuggling relics on the side.

But when his boss orders Drothe to track down whoever is leaning on his organization’s people, he stumbles upon a much bigger mystery. There’s a book, a relic any number of deadly people seem to be looking for – a book that just might bring down emperors and shatter the criminal underworld.

A book now conveniently in Drothe’s hands…

(Back cover of Tor 2010 edition)

In preparation for the second book in Hulick’s series of Tales of the Kin, I reread the first one. I was hoping I would like it more than last time. Nope. It is a good book, and it’s very hard for me to figure out whether there is anything wrong with it. It comes so unbelievably close to breaking the barrier between kinda interesting and totally awesome. In the end, it’s just a little too polished, a little too clinical to really get to me. The story is interesting, the characters relatable and my, do I love the jargon, but something is clearly missing.

However, I do like this book. I’ve given it three stars on Goodreads, and ma teetering on the brink of four. Exciting to see how the second book, Sworn in Steel, will be. I’m hoping it will lose all that keeps me from completely immersing myself into Among Thieves while keeping everything that makes me like the book.

Published: Tor 2011

Pages: 414

Eleanor Herman: Sex with the Queen – 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics

In royal courts bristling with testosterone—swashbuckling generals, polished courtiers, and virile cardinals—how did repressed regal ladies find happiness?

Anne Boleyn flirted with courtiers; Catherine Howard slept with one. Henry VIII had both of them beheaded.

Catherine the Great had her idiot husband murdered and ruled the Russian empire with a long list of sexy young favorites.

Marie Antoinette fell in love with the handsome Swedish count Axel Fersen, who tried valiantly to rescue her from the guillotine.

Princess Diana gave up her palace bodyguard to enjoy countless love affairs, which tragically led to her early death.

In this impeccably researched, scandalously readable follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Sex with Kings, Eleanor Herman reveals the truth about what has historically gone on behind the closed door of the queen’s boudoir.

(Goodreads)

I’ve been meaning to read this book forever, and now I finally got around to it. It was vastly entertaining, although I suspect one would have to hold a special place for popular history in their heart to really enjoy it. This book does not offer you solid facts and brutal truths; it’s about love, intrigue and the occasional politics, and concentrates more on the scandal than anything else.

To any Finns who might find themselves interested: the translation is not the best possible, and some word choices are awkward, not to mention some grammatical structures. These don’t spoil the experience too much, but it gets rather annoying when you can see what the original sentence has been, even if it has been an idiomatic expression in English.

But in any case it was an entertaining book, and I think I will read its predecessor, Sex with the King as well.

Published: William Morrow 2005

Translation: Maria Lyytinen (Gummerus 2008)

Pages: 311

Patricia Briggs: Cry Wolf

Anna never knew werewolves existed, until the night she survived a violent attack… and became one herself. After three years at the bottom of the pack, she’d learned to keep her head down and never, ever trust dominant males. Then Charles Cornick, the enforcer- and son- of the leader of the North American werewolves, came into her life.

Charles insists that not only is Anna his mate, but she is also a rare and valued Omega wolf. And it is Anna’s inner strength and calming presence that will prove invaluable as she and Charles go on the hunt in search of a rogue werewolf- a creature bound in magic so dark that it could threaten all of the pack.

(Goodreads)

I didn’t think I’d read more Briggs, but my current werewolf kick left me little choice. It wasn’t for nothing – this first book in the Alpha and Omega series suited me much better than the Mercy Thompson series. The unfortunate part is that you apparently need to read Mercy books, at least the first one, to know what’s going on in Alpha and Omega. It’s probably not absolutely necessary, but I think it’s helpful, as Cry Wolf explains but not in much width. One of the reasons I think I might like this series more is the leading lady, Anna, whom I find much more relatable than Mercy. And Mr Alpha, Charles, is nice as well. In other words, the main characters don’t bug me, which is always a good sign. This series is also more about werewolves, seeing as both the main characters are of the species, and it feels better than having a shapeshifter around.

So I would recommend Cry Wolf over Moon Called, although you benefit from reading the latter first. We’ll see if reading the second Mercy book is helpful with reading the next Alpha and Omega book.

Published: Ace 2007

Pages: 307 (Orbit 2009 edition)

Maggie Stiefvater: Shiver

Grace and Sam share a kinship so close they could be lovers or siblings. But they also share a problem. When the temperature slips towards freezing, Sam reverts to his wolf identity and must retreat into the woods to protect his pack. He worries that eventually his human side will fade away and he will be left howling alone at the lonely moon. A stirring supernatural teen romance.

(Goodreads)

I was in the country when I read this, and boy, did my fingers itch to get to a keyboard so I could type out what I thought! (I have old-fashioned notes for this. A full page of them.)

First of all, there’s an interesting twist to the whole being-a-werewolf thing in this book: temperature. Basically, when the weather gets cold, you turn if you have been bitten. For the summer, you get to be human. Until you get older. This is something I haven’t seen before, and as such it appealed to me.

HOWEVER. The plot progresses slowly, and I felt this series (yes, it’s a trilogy) could have been just put to one book. The love story between the POV-characters Grace and Sam doesn’t feel real, and Grace is probably a cousin to Bella Swan as far as personality is concerned. Sam I liked a whole lot, as well as his father figure Beck. Sam even managed to get a few tears out of me towards the end of the book, which was well done. Unfortunately, this is not enough to make me read the rest of the series. The mysteries left unsolved in the end are not interesting enough, and the chemistries between people are rather predictable.

Next up, a spoiler that I need to get out of system. Only read if you’ve already read the book or have absolutely zero interest in it:

You can’t give meningitis to someone by injecting blood from someone who has it. Meningitis spreads by droplet infection. Also, I don’t think it’s a good idea to inject blood into someone without checking blood type. Not sure what effect a small amount would have, but I wouldn’t do it at all. The point of wanting to someone to get infected with meningitis was to give them a really high fever. I consulted my father the doctor, and he said typhoid fever would be a much better solution.

The point of the spoiler in short: I wish authors did their research. Ugh.

Not going to read the rest of the series. Just not interesting enough. A shame, as I wanted to like it – but just as I’d heard, it’s pretty much just Twilight with werewolves.

Robin McKinley: Sunshine

There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake for years, and Sunshine just needed a spot where she could be alone with her thoughts. Vampires never entered her mind. Until they found her.

(Goodreads)

Sunshine has some features that are familiar from my previous experiences with McKinley, most prominently the heavy descriptions and the self-reflection the main character goes through. This book wasn’t exactly like I imagined it would be, but it was good nonetheless. It doesn’t exactly offer anything new on vampires, which was surprisingly… fresh. The vampires are not the point. It’s about the society, and about how Sunshine fits into it, and how she sees and understands herself.

McKinley has a very firm grasp of her craft, and you can trust her books to be quality. Just don’t expect any light conversation or frivolous humor – McKinley makes the latter dry, without losing any of the fun. You’re in good hands if you decide to go with her.

Published: Berkeley Publishing 2003

Pages: 405 (Jove 2004 edition)

So here’s the not-romance books this month! In these ones I’ll also add the “currently reading” and “books purchased” bits, just as usual.

Currently reading:

The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

Books bought this month:

Ahem. That’s quite a lot, I know, but my bookstore had 20% off all the paperbacks, so… Yeah. And I got my first salary. And it was my birthday this month (although that got me only one book). And we went second hand book shopping with Kay. So… Yeah. I also bought Redshirts by John Scalzi, but it hasn’t arrived yet. Oh, and I got my dad Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies for his birthday. I’ll read it once he’s done.

So there it is! Next up: the romance post!

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