Sunday, 30 January 2011

8. "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali

Publisher: Black Swan
Page count: 496 pages
Date begun: January 29th, 2011
Date finished: January 30th, 2011

Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. It's an international bestseller and was turned into a movie in 2007. It's been sitting on my shelf since 2004, and has been moved with my stuff from Scotland to Norway. It was Monica Ali's debut novel, and the cover and first three-four pages are covered with quotes from rave reviews from literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic. I'm wondering if they read the same book as me, but more on that later.

Nazneen is born in a small village in Bangladesh in 1967 and at first appears to be stillborn. She miraculously draws breath and starts screaming after a minute or two, but refuses to nurse for the first five days of her existence. Her mother is determined to leave her to her Fate, rather than interfering with said Fate and taking the baby to the nearest hospital. After five days, the baby finally starts eating, and Nazneen is told throughout her childhood and adolescence in rural Bangladesh that she must never stand in the way of her Fate, but calmly accept all life throws at her. Her younger sister, the beautiful Hasina has no intention of accepting the traditional path her parents have planned for her, and runs off with the nephew of the village's saw-mill owner to make a love marriage. Shortly after, eighteen-year-old Nazneen is married off to a fat stranger twenty years her elder. Having been raised to be compliant, she doesn't protest, even when he takes her far away to London, England.

Nazneen knows no English and spends most of the early days of her arranged marriage confined to a council flat, cleaning, dusting and cooking. Her husband fancies himself a great scholar, with a degree in English literature from Dhaka University. He occasionally has the local doctor over for dinner, and is sure he will be promoted in his job soon, as he has a much better education than many of his colleagues. Nazneen treasures each new English word she learns as a gem, and founds diversion from her monotonous life by watching glamorous figure skaters on the TV occasionally. She is aware that she is lucky - her husband doesn't hit her, and buys her new saris or anything else she might want, but neither does he understand why she'd want to learn to speak English or leave the confines of the council estate once in a while.

Years pass, Nazneen becomes the mother of two girls, and gets to know most of the the other housewives in the Bangladeshi community near London's Brick Lane well. Her husband is still full of dreams and schemes for making enough money to take the family back "home" to Bangladesh, where the girls can be raised the "proper" way, without all the influence of English society. Nazneen, despite her quiet discontent, is aware that she is much better off than her sister Hasina, who keeps writing every so often. Her love marriage didn't turn out well and as the years go by she ends up worse and worse. Nazneen tries to get enough money put aside to send to her sister, but it's difficult when her own family barely has enough to get by on, and her husband won't let his wife break with tradition and get a job as well.

This book is nearly 500 pages long. It's a very detailed description of immigrant life in London from the 1980s to early 2002, and shows the many difficulties faced by young women brought over from "the old country" through arranged marriages. The meal Nazneen cooks, the clothes she wears, the contents of the flat she lives in, the council estate, Brick Lane and all the people in Nazneen's life are described in painstaking detail. The letters from Hasina are written with a limited vocabulary and poor grammar, which again adds authenticity, but also makes them (at least for me, an English teacher) painfully difficult to read without getting a headache. Despite the great attention to detail and local colour, I found the book dreadfully dull.

I shall from now on think of Brick Lane as the literary equivalent of Woody Allen's film Match Point, which was also lauded by critics everywhere, and which nearly bored me to tears. I'm still convinced all those enthusiastic movie critic saw a different Match Point from me, one that was actually worth all those rave reviews. Same with this - perhaps all those book reviewers read a different book, coincidentally called Brick Lane, which was not a dreary 500-page slog. This book is being donated to charity as soon as possibly, as I'm definitely never reading it again, and I won't have it taking up precious book shelf space any longer either.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

7. "Archangel's Consort" by Nalini Singh

Publisher: Berkley
Page count: 352 pages
Date begun: January 28th, 2011
Date finished: January 29th, 2011

First of all, there are almost certainly what some people would call spoilers for the first two books in the Guild Hunter series in this review, so don't read it if you're sensitive about that sort of thing and haven't read either of the two first ones already. Secondly, for the slow kids at the back - this is the THIRD book in a series, and it wouldn't make much sense to someone who hasn't read the other two - so if you're curious, go start with Angels' Blood, it's dead good, I promise.

There are natural disasters occurring all over the world - earth quakes, flash floods, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, monsoons, freak cold spells, you name it. There are also incidents of vampires breaking free of the control of their angel masters and going on murderous rampages, sometimes even teaming up in large groups. Angels and Guild organized vampire hunters have their hands full trying to stop the murderous vamps and contain the damages, while trying to prevent further bloodshed and carnage. All of these things are portents that one of the most powerful supernatural beings in the world is waking from its millennia-long slumber.

Elena Deveraux, Guild Hunter turned angel, is returning to New York for the first time since her remarkable transformation. She and Raphael (Archangel of New York and her lover) are aware that despite the many other things going on, there will be a media frenzy, as Elena is the only created angel in history. Elena worries most of all about the reaction of her father, who coldly threw her out of his home when he found out she was a Hunter. In addition, she's plagued by the recurring nightmares of her two older sisters' brutal murder and her mother's subsequent suicide. Only her growing feelings and increasingly stronger bond with Raphael keeps her from breaking down.

Elena is called to the prestigious boarding school upstate where her two younger half-sisters attend. One of the out of control vampires has broken in and killed two girls, one of them the best friend of Elena's sister Evelyn. Shortly after, Elena's summoned to her father's home and discovers that her father's callous treatment of her years earlier was massively hypocritical, as vampire hunting clearly runs in the Deveraux bloodline, and unlike Elena, her half-sisters have a mother around to stand up for them and protect them.

Several of the Archangels around the world are behaving in erratic and unexpected ways, influenced by the awakening of the sleeping Ancient. Raphael starts having visions which suggest that the Ancient is his own mother, the oldest known Archangel, who was completely insane when she went into her hibernation, but who also left Raphael with every bone in his body and wings broken on a field in the middle of nowhere the last time he tried to stop her from causing massive destruction. The damages she's causing unconsciously when still rousing suggests that her power still vastly surpasses that on any other living Archangel, and if she's still insane when she fully wakes up, Raphael may have no other choice but to try to kill her again, to prevent her from destroying the world...

Nalini Singh's Guild Hunter series is very enjoyable, and the growing closeness and bond between Elena and Raphael makes the core romance of the series interesting rather than sappy. Because they are both strong personalities, not used to compromising, they rarely agree even though they love each other passionately. Raphael is overprotective of his fragile, newly immortal consort, and Elena is pissed off that he won't let her go anywhere without a bodyguard. The reaction of her chosen family in the Guild to her miraculous change is nice, and Singh has created a very colourful (literally - I don't think I've come across anyone in this world whose not at least bi-racial, with a wide range of skin, hair and eye colours) cast of supporting characters, both in the Guild and among Raphael's most trusted advisers, a mix of angels and very strong vampires.

There is a build-up of tension all throughout the story, with not just one, but two necessary confrontations needing to be resolved towards the end. I'm not sure I'm entirely satisfied at the conclusion Singh gave this book, she leaves a few too many plot strands dangling in thin air for my taste, and there are some things that just don't get a satisfactory explanation. There are also seeds planted for future stories, with Raphael suggesting that Elena's mother was more than just a normal human woman, and as the book was a quick and enjoyable read, I will absolutely be continuing with the series.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

6. "The Thorn Birds" by Colleen McCullough

Publisher: Virago Press
Page count: 592 pages
Date begun: January 17th, 2011
Date finished: January 24th, 2011

The Thorn Birds is one of my favourite books, a fact that was only confirmed more firmly to me when I reread it yet again. Normally I would not blog a book I had read more than once for Cannonball, but I'm going to make an exception this one time for three reasons:
1) It's been more than 5 years since I last read the book
2) It's the first time I ever read the book in English. All previous times I read the book, I read my Mum's Swedish translation. Not entirely the same thing.
3) I really wanted the challenge of blogging a book I like so much.

Mary Carson is a hugely wealthy widow who rules her enormous sheep farm Drogheda with an iron fist. She refuses to remarry, as she won't play second fiddle to any man, and she enjoys the attention and respect given to her by the men in the area, well aware that she would not have it were it not for her money and power. She enjoys matching her wits with the local priest, young and ambitious Father Ralph de Bricassart, whose been posted in the area (pretty much the back of beyond) as punishment for insulting a bishop. Ralph knows that a hefty bequest from the widow to the Catholic Church would mean his mistakes would be forgiven, end his exile and push him up the ladder of the Catholic hierarchy.

As she has no heirs, Mary sends for her younger brother Paddy, who lives with his family in New Zealand in relative poverty. Both from Ireland, Mary succeeded rather better than her brother, in marrying a wealthy man and surviving him. She knows that Paddy has numerous sons, and feels he can prove his worth by working as an overseer on Drogheda until her death. Paddy brings Fiona ("Fee"), his aristocratic, but exhausted wife, their only daughter Meghann ("Meggie"), and their five sons to Australia, where they are met by Father Ralph, who is immediately taken with the young, skinny red-headed girl who seems so neglected by most of her family.

The wife of a traditional man, and the mother of five sons, works extremely hard, taking care of the household, with hardly any help from her menfolk. She waits patiently for Meggie, her only daughter to grow old enough to help her with her many chores, but has little time or affection for the girl, focusing most of her affection on the boys, and chiefly, her eldest son, Frank - the only one who isn't red-headed like all the other Clearys. With only Frank having shown her any special attention before, Meggie becomes extremely fond of the Priest who actually sees her as her own person, and not just another mouth to feed.

As the years pass, and Fee has three more sons, Meggie helps her more around the house, but also grows lonelier. After a huge fight with Paddy, Frank learns of his true paternity and runs off to be a boxer. Fee becomes a lot more withdrawn, and the only brother who ever seemed to notice Meggie is gone. When her baby brother Hal, who Meggie pretty much raised single-handedly, dies at the age of four, Meggie is crushed. She turns more and more to the friendly and supportive Father Ralph.

The Clearys are grateful to Ralph for all his help. As well as being the parish priest, he is not above helping on the sheep station when there are floods, storms and fires. Only Mary Carson is jealous of the attention he gives the Clearys, and especially the little girl Meggie. She claims to be in love with him, and keeps trying to tempt him to break his vow of chastity. As Meggie grows older, she gets even more suspicious of their closeness, even though Ralph is eighteen years older than Meggie. Close to death, Mary gives one last huge ball, and attempts to tempt Ralph to her bed. He laughingly refuses her. The next morning, Mary is dead, and has altered her will, so that Paddy and his family no longer inherit the sheep station and her huge fortune of thirteen million pounds, but it all goes to the Catholic Church. She leaves the decision of revealing the new will to Ralph, who can choose to give Meggie and her family unimaginable wealth by destroying it, or submit it to her lawyers, and become a true golden boy of the Church.

Ralph chooses his career, and Paddy and his family are quite happy to be left as overseers of Drogheda, with salaries so high they will never want for anything. Ralph moves away, and moves up in the Church hierarchy, but is unable to forget about Meggie Cleary, who he sold for thirteen million pieces of silver. Meggie's affections for Ralph change from the devotion of a girl, to school girl crush to passionate longing. Even when she gets married, she refuses to give up her dream that one day, she will succeed where Mary Carson couldn't, and tempt Ralph away from his beloved Mother Church, if only for a brief time.

This year, The Thorn Birds is 35 years old. It's an epic family saga that tells the story of a family, from 1915-1969. It's a love letter to Australia, and the hard work of the people in that country. It's a family chronicle, a love story, a war story, a story of lost opportunities and anyone who expects it to be just one thing, will be disappointed. It features four very different, and incredibly strong women, over three generations and how they support and challenge the men in their lives.

Mary Cleary Carson, Fee Armstrong Cleary, Meggie Cleary O'Neill and later Meggie's daughter Justine, are all amazing female characters, who are strong, complex, stubborn and occasionally rather unlikeable. Mary Carson becomes a manipulative and resentful old lady, who betrays her own blood and their hard work for her mainly to score a final point against the priest who refused to give into her. Fee is hard-working and a very long-suffering wife, but pines for a lost love, favoring one child over all her others, not realizing what a wonderful thing she has in her actual husband until it is too late. Meggie is stubborn and so single-minded in her love for Ralph that she rushes into a highly unsuitable marriage just because the man looks a bit like him, and then repeats her mother's mistake of favoring one child over the other. Justine, always in the shadow of her brother, is so fiercely independent and self-sufficient that she refuses to get attached to anyone, and nearly loses out on love because of it.

I think I've now read the book 7 or 8 times. I was in my early teens the first time I read it, and that's more than 15 years ago now. It never fails to make me cry in some places, and laugh in others. I occasionally want to slap, shout at or strangle some of the characters, but I also want to experience life through their eyes. It's a book that deserves a much better adaptation than the 1983 miniseries they made of it, starring Rachel Ward and Richard Chamberlain, which focuses only on Meggie and Ralph's love story, and gets much of that wrong too. It's a book frequently compared to Gone with the Wind, but it deserves so much more praise, as it's vastly better written, much more entertaining, and features a much better cast of characters than GotW. If you haven't read it, you should really give it a try.

Monday, 17 January 2011

5. "Cold Magic" by Kate Elliott

Publisher: Orbit
Page count: 544 pages
Date begun: January 15th, 2011
Date finished: January 16th, 2011

Cold Magic is set in a world where much of the continents are covered in ice. In many ways it is similar to ours in the Victorian age, on the brink of an industrial revolution. In the cities factories, gas lights and dirigibles are beginning to appear, and the new technologies are taught at the University to young men and women alike. The Cold mages, keepers of the old order, are strongly opposed to these new developments, and claim that they will destroy society.

Catherine "Cat" Hassi Barahal is an orphan. She has been raised alongside her two month younger cousin Beatrice "Bee" since her parents died in a drowning accident when she was six. Her father was an explorer, and her mother a soldier deserting the army of a Napoleon-like general who tried to take over most of the continent of Europa and was imprisoned on a small island for his crimes. Cat loves reading the comprehensive journals he left behind and she dreams of one day exploring the world for herself. One evening, shortly before her twentieth birthday, an imperious Cold Mage shows up on her uncle's doorstep, to collect on a contract made years before. Before Cat can make sense of anything, she finds herself married off to the Mage in a hasty, magically binding ceremony and forced to go with him. Her uncle is given a mysterious parcel in return, and claims the contract has been fulfilled.

Andevai, the Cold Mage, is young and handsome, but also cold, arrogant and aloof, and doesn't exactly seem any happier with the arranged marriage than the deeply confused Cat is. She keeps trying to get information out of him, but he treats her with disdain and silence. Things do not get better once they have to flee in the night, chased by an angry mob after Andevai has blown up the dirigible stationed outside the city. Cat is further confused when the driver and footman of the Cold Mage's coach appear not to be human, but creatures of the spirit world (think like the Fey), call her kin and give her a magical sword of cold steel. Cold steel can sever the soul from a person's body with a mere cut. The sword appears as a cane by day, and while he is clearly a very powerful mage, her new husband doesn't seem to discern the true nature of the weapon.

After several days of travel across an ice-covered country, Cat arrives with her strange, new husband at Four Moons House to meet the head of his Order, and is quickly humiliated when she keeps making mistakes during the series of complicated rituals they have to go through, since Andevai has not deigned to instruct her in anything that will be expected of her. To make matters even worse, the mansa (head mage of the order) declares that Catherine is not the Hassi Barahal daughter that Andevai was sent to marry, she's not a Hassi Barahal at all. The contract was written so the mages would get control of Bee, and Cat's aunt and uncle somehow managed to manipulate the situation so Andevai married her instead. Furious at Andevai's failure, the mansa demands that he rectify the situation by going back to the city to marry Bee instead. Only, as his marriage to Cat is magically sealed, it cannot be dissolved except through the death of one of the parties.

Reeling from the shock that her parents are apparently not who she thought they were, that her relatives that raised her sold her into marriage to save their own child, and that the husband she recently acquired now has to kill her, Cat flees Four Moons House, and is helped to escape by the mysterious servants who drove her there. She finds refuge in the village where Andevai's relatives live. They chose to give her sanctuary for the night, even though they know that sheltering her from the wrath of Four Moons House can have dire consequences. Andevai eventually catches up with her, and they sword fight. Cat is cut on the chin by Andevai's cold steel sword, and her blood spatters on a signpost at the crossroads. She wakes up in the Spirit World, which runs parallel to the normal world (although time passes differently there.) At first she thinks she may be dead, and things just get stranger when a pride of large saber-toothed cats seem to first follow her and then protect her from her pursuing husband. Cold mages gain their powers from the Spirit world, but are powerless within it. This, and other tantalizing things about her true parentage, are among the things Cat learns as she tries to reach the city to save Bee from the Mages.

This really very long summary is only about the first third of the book, and while it took me a while to get into the story and figure out what was going on (which can be really rather tricky when the entire story is told from Cat's POV and she has no idea what's going on either), the story was also fascinating, and the world Kate Elliott has created was incredibly vividly described in every detail. The relationship between Cat and Bee is wonderful, and you understand why Cat would risk her own life to save her cousin, even without understanding why the Mages forced the Hassi Barahal family into the contract in the first place. She is devastated both by her aunt and uncle's betrayal and by the news that the man whose journals she's nearly memorized is not her real father. She feels helpless and rootless and needs to find out the truth to her origins, as well as why the Spirit creatures called her kin. She is strangely attracted to Andevai and can't seem to hate him, even when he's mean and stand-offish and even has to chase her down to kill her so he can force her cousin into marriage. As the story progresses, she grows to understand him further, and understands more of his initial actions. Andevai, too, is forced to reevaluate his situation and position within Four Moons House.

As well as the slowly unraveling mystery of Cat's true identity, the hold the Mages have over the Hassi Barahal family and why they want her cousin Bee, there are also social and political elements to the story. The Napoleon-like general has recently escaped his island prison, and is rumoured to slowly be gathering support again. The technological revolution is approaching, despite the militant opposition of the Cold Mages. They claim that too many technological advances will create unbalance with the Spirit world, and there could be chaos if the industrialization is not halted.

I think what I'm trying to say is that Cold Magic, the first book in Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy is very complex, and while for a lot of the book I was confused and had little to no idea of what was going on (maybe because I was reading it really fast), I was also gripped and fascinated, and kept reading more, prompting me to finish it in a mere two days. If the next two books in the series are as good, and answer the questions and resolve the situations set up in this one, then I suspect I will love the book once I read the whole series. As it is, I'm still a bit confused, but absolutely intrigued to read the rest of the series.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

4. "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" by Alan Bradley

Publisher: Bantam
Page count: 416 pages
Date begun: January 13th, 2011
Date finished: January 14th, 2011

Eleven year old Flavia de Luce lives with her father, Colonel de Luce, and two older sisters in a stately home near a quiet English village sometime in the 1950s. Her great passion is chemistry, and she is lucky enough to have the run of her own lab, courtesy of one of her ancestors. Normally she keeps herself busy by devising revenge on her older sister by injecting her lipstick with poison ivy. However, when she late one night overhears a mysterious stranger arguing with her father, implicating Colonel the Luce in a murder, and then finds the same stranger dying in the cucumber patch the next morning, she decides that she will solve the murder, and amaze the local police with her brilliance.

Could the arrival of the redheaded stranger and his subsequent death have anything to do with the dead bird found on their doorstep a day earlier? Who ate a slice of the housekeeper's bland custard pie? Could Colonel de Luce, Flavia's beloved father, actually have helped kill a man in his youth? How are the stranger and Flavia's father connected? Will Flavia's experiment with her sister Ophelia's lipstick have a satisfying result?

Having a brilliant child as the protagonist and main narrator of your debut novel is a risky venture, but Alan Bradley pulls it off, mainly because Flavia really is extremely clever, well read, proud and quite vindictive. It's easy to understand why her older sisters get exasperated with her and occasionally team up, hogtie her and leave her in cupboards, but also delightful to see how Flavia outwits them and gets revenge by melting down their pearls or poisoning their make-up.
Riding her bicycle, questioning various villagers, using the public library and her own deducting skills, Flavia sets out to solve a murder and clear her father's name of any wrongdoing. She's fiercely loyal and very kind to the family retainer, who's shell-shocked after the war, loves her absent minded father and envies her sisters their memories of their long dead mother, who died when Flavia was just a toddler.

As far as I can tell, Alan Bradley has written at least two more Flavia de Luce mysteries, being released later this year, and I can't wait to read them. I hope we find out more about Harriet, the adventurous and clearly much missed mother, in the sequels, as well as see more of Flavia's experiments with poisons and chemicals.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

3. "Temeraire" by Naomi Novik

Publisher: Voyager
Page count: 442 pages
Date begun: January 9th, 2011
Date finished: January 12th, 2011

Imagine a world where dragons existed, and were used by the various nations of the world as a sort of historical air force. Naomi Novik has created such a world. Britain is trying to repel Napoleon's invasion, and have a much smaller number of combat capable dragons than France.

Captain William Laurence's life is changed completely after his vessel The Reliant captures a French ship off the coast of Madeira. On board they find a dragon egg, and it's about to hatch. The dragons go feral unless they are harnessed right after hatching, before they are fed for the first time, and the person who harnesses them becomes their handler and rider. When the egg hatches, the dragon inside ignores its chosen handler, and approaches Laurence, who has no choice but to harness it and name it(as Britain need all the dragons they can get) , and in doing so, give up the rest of his life to becoming a aviator.

As dragon handlers have to devote the rest of their lives to their dragons, they have no prospects of further promotion, they can rarely settle down and marry, and they usually have to live in remote areas where their dragons won't freak out most of the populace. Laurence and his crew are at first very dismayed about his fate, but within a few days, Laurence has already bonded quite firmly with Temeraire, who proves to very intelligent and a very inquisitive creature. By the time they get to Madeira and it's determined that Temeraire is a very rare Chinese breed known as an Imperial, Laurence is no longer sorry to be bonded with his dragon and determined to make the best of his new situation.

Laurence and his quickly growing dragon have to go to Scotland for training with other dragons in the British aerial corps, and grow ever closer, as they discover the traditions and ways of other dragons and their crews. They have to take part in complex areal maneuvers, Laurence needs to prove that he is worthy of captaining Temeraire, even though he is a navy man and most officers in the aerial corps have trained for it since they were adolescents. The threat of an invasion from France looms, and they don't have a lot of time to get Temeraire and Laurence fighting fit.

I've actually had this book on my shelf for going on three years, and read several reviews of it, but never really felt a pressing need to read it. Once I did, it grabbed my attention and didn't let go, and the only reason I didn't finish it sooner is that my work (mostly) and social life (a little) got in the way. Having read up on the sequels, and seeing that apparently the series goes downhill after a few books, I'm in no real hurry to read more right now (also, trying to diversify more for CBRIII), but I very much enjoyed the world-building, the characterization of the various captains of the aerial corps and their dragons (I want a dragon of my very own), especially Temeraire himself.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

2. "Stranger" by Zoë Archer

Publisher: Zebra
Page Count: 463 pages
Date begun: January 1st, 2011
Date finished: January 8th, 2011

Stranger is the fourth and concluding book in Zoë Archer's Blades of the Rose series, and as such, is not the best book in the series to start with. The other three books, Warrior, Scoundrel and Rebel can all be read independently of each other and in every which order, but to fully get the story in this one, one should at least have read Rebel first.

Catullus Graves is the genius inventor of gadgets (think Q in Bond) for the Blades of the Rose, a group of adventurers from all over the world dedicated to keeping the magic in the world from the knowledge of people in general, and safe from the ruthless Heirs of Albion, an organization of men determined to claim as much of the world's magic for themselves, so they can further the greatness and dominance of Britain, conquering and oppressing. Catullus has reached the age of forty-one without meeting any woman who can distract him from his calling of science and inventions, living a solitary existence, happy to provide his fellow Blades with inventions to help them on their quests and adventures around the world. Until he meets Gemma Murphy, a determined and ambitious female reporter from Chicago, who having heard Catullus and his two companions (also Blades) talk about mysterious and exciting dangers at a trading post in Canada, follow them to London, sensing a story that could ensure her journalistic career.

Catullus and his companions, Nathan and Astrid (the main couple of Rebel) can't allow Gemma to write about the struggle between the Blades and the Heirs, but as they arrive in England, and quickly have to flee for their lives from the murderous Heirs, they have no choice but to take her along with them either. The attraction between Catullus and Gemma is quickly very obvious, but Catullus is unsure of whether she's just using her ample feminine charms to get a story, or if she actually likes him. In his experience, women find his distracted nature and complete inability to say the right thing off putting. Gemma, on the other hand, finds it intriguing that Catullus never objects to her being a driven female journalist, just to her writing the truth about his friends and their quest to keep magic safe. Her former fiancee tried to get her to give up her calling, and change her to conform more to a traditional female ideal.

Nathan, Astrid, Catullus and Gemma have to try to make it to the Blades' headquarters in Southampton to warn them that the Heirs, now in control of the Primal Source, the most powerful magical artifact in the world are about to activate it, and when they do, can achieve all their dreams and wishes for world domination. When the first sign of their dreams of dominance magically manifest as a famous figure of British mythology, they have to find the means to stop him, before magic tears up the countryside, and the Heirs fully control the source and take over the world. The Blades from all over the world will have to battle the Heirs once and for all.

Several of the review sites I follow have raved about Zoë Archer and her novels that combine romance and adventure. The three previous books got a little bit samey, following pretty much the same template - a couple of different, but both strong-willed characters meet and fall madly in love while on the quest for magical artifact, while escaping the obstacles put in their path by the dastardly Heirs. Artifact recovered, big battle against the Heirs at the end. This book follows the same template, but as it's on a bigger scale, and the quest isn't really to find one magical artifact, but more the means to stop the entire world being taken over, and it's obvious that the battle at the end will be the big, decisive one, I didn't mind so much.

Quite a few reviewers complained that the book was a let down for them because Catullus, who appears as a supporting character in the other books and whose marvelous inventions frequently help save the day, doesn't actually do that much actual inventing in the book. Since I was forewarned not to expect this, I didn't mind, and he and Gemma make a good couple. Also, the battle at the end features a huge dragon rampaging in London, what's not to like about that?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

1. "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Page count: 256 pages
Date begun: January 1st, 2011
Date finished: January 4th, 2011

Juliet Ashton is travelling around Britain in 1946, promoting her wildly popular book Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War, a collection of humorous newspaper columns written all through the Second World War. She is trying to come up with a topic for her next novel, and having very little luck. One day, she receives a letter from a man in Guernsey, who's ended up with a book she once owned, telling her interesting things about something called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, founded quite accidentally during the war. Juliet is fascinated by the story of its founding, and is soon corresponding not only with Dawsey Adams, who wrote her the first letter, but with a number of diverse members of the Literary Society.

As she continues to travel around, talking up her last book, being wined and dined and wooed by a wealthy American publishing magnate, she keeps getting letters from the members of the Society at Guernsey, and learning more and more about both the society, and life for the people of Guernsey during the war. She makes a number of dear friends, and decides to travel to the little island to do research for a possible new book, all about the German Occupation of Guernsey.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was written by Mary Ann Shaffer, but finished by her niece Annie Barrows after Shaffer became very ill after the manuscript was sold to a number of publishers, and unable to edit and finish it herself. It is an epistolary novel, the entire narrative is made up of letters. Letters from Juliet to Sophie, her best friend, who is married to a Scotsman and living in Oban. To Sidney, Juliet's publisher and Sophie's older brother. To and from Dawsey Adams, Amelia Maugery, Eben Ramsey, Isola Pribby and other members of the Literary Society, and through the various letters we get to know Juliet, Sidney and all the rich and complex characters of Guernsey, as well as the fascinating story of how the Literary Society was founded to cover up a secret roast pig dinner from the Germans. All the letters have very distinct voices, and although there are a number of characters to keep track of, I never found it difficult to follow the plot or keep the people apart, as they have such distinctive personalities and writing styles.

The book is in turns very funny, delightfully quirky and at times deadly serious and very sad. Mary Ann Shaffer did a lot of research on Guernsey during the Second World War, and the Occupation was not an easy one. While the book is a work of fiction, it is based on real event and inspired by real people, and while for the most part I was smiling broadly while reading, certain parts also brought tears to my eyes and nearly had me crying. It's not a very long book, but very well written, and the impression that you get the privilege of peeking at other people's personal correspondence made it a somewhat different, but very pleasant reading experience.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

End of 2010 review - start of Cannonball III

So another year is finished, and because I like this sort of thing, I have looked through my reading list of 2010, and tallied up the results. While I read a very impressive amount during last year's Cannonball period - November 2009 to October 2010, the tally for my entire 2010 is not quite what I'd have hoped, but still a stupidly huge number of books and pages.

In 2010 I read a total of 57728 pages, I'd hoped to be able to clear 58000, but as I got ill quite a bit in December, and we bought ourselves a Nintendo Wii, some things got in the way of reading. So 2009 was absolutely a more impressive reading year in total.
I read 125 new books, reread 25, and I read 7 comics trade paperbacks. Breaking it down into genre, because I like to do so, and this is my blog, the tally looks like this:

Non-fiction: 2
General fiction: 10
Fantasy: 16
Paranormal fantasy: 27
Young Adult (again mostly, fantasy): 30
Romance: 42
Mystery/crime/thriller: 22
Sci-fi: 1 (that would be the Doctor Who novel)
Comics: 7
Grand total: 158 books

Cannonball III runs from January 1st to December 31st this year, and I am obviously taking part. I managed to blog 100 books last year, and the goal is to do at least as many this year. I'm going to try not to get massive backlogs this year, because that was always a hassle last year, but knowing me, it will still happen on occasion. I've not got set plans for what I want to read, and will most likely just read what I please, but I have some books that have been on the To Be Read pile longer than others, that I will try to get through in the course of the first 52. Not actually going to write what said books are here, though, to lesson the sense of failure if I DON'T manage to read them. The blog will certainly be updated a lot more frequently than it has in the past few months, though. So watch this space.