Sunday, January 30, 2011

At Home

The title: At Home: A Short History of Private Life 
The author: Bill Bryson
Publication: Random House, 2010 

Got it from: The libarary

I was so lucky last fall when my two favourite non-fiction writers published great big books on fascinating subjects.* Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life is similar to his amazing A Short History of Nearly Everything, except that it deals with minutiae instead of larger things. It's timely too, as my husband and I have recently purchased our own Victorian-era home. And because it's Bryson, it's fascinating.

Homes, he explains, are not where people go as refuge from history, it's where history ends up. Everything large and small that we take for granted about our homes once had to be thought of by somebody and refined many times. Taking as an example his own house, an 1851 English rectory, he guides us through each room and its history and evolution, including the objects within. The journey sometimes takes us around the world (for example, when describing how the spice trade ends in our spice drawer) but more often than not what we are familiar with in Britain and North America originated in Victorian England.

Don't expect this book to be linear in any way - following Bryson's stories is a bit like running around a maze, but who cares when the hedges are so fascinating? Being obsessed with 19th century history, I already knew a lot of this stuff, but I was particularly fascinated with his description of the evolution of houses from simple buildings with just one room to the complex stately homes of the modern era. One particularly interesting fact is that second stories were only made possible with the invention of fireplaces (as opposed to open hearths) in the middle ages.

A few recurring themes seem to run throughout this book. The first is that we can't imagine how comfortable houses were before the turn of the 20th century, but then again life in general was pretty uncomfortable. The other is that nothing about houses as we know them is by chance. He cites several examples of architecturally-mad individuals who designed houses that would be considered crazy by any standards. A prime example of this is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's DIY project for something like fifty years, which contained countless oddities, including a dumbwaiter in a fireplace and a set of doors where one opened when the other did. And don't even get me started on Biltmore. It had its own village. Its own village.

This is one of those books that is both enjoyable to read and a reference to return to for years. I can't think of any book I've read in the past few years that more deserves to be elevated to non-fiction classic than At Home.

*More on Simon Winchester's Atlantic later this year.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mr. Impossible

The title: Mr. Impossible
The author: Loretta Chase
Publication: Penguin, 2005
Got it from: The Book Depository, 2010

Never let it be said that I will pass up a book involving a) Victorian Egypt; b) adventure; c) romance. Inevitable comparisons must be made to Amelia Peabody - can anything be as good as that series? Alas, no. Can fun times be had, a la The Mummy? Heck, yes.

Daphne Pembroke is a scholar and a widow whose late husband was, unfortunately, a lot older and a big jerkass. He tried to curb Daphne's passion for sex and learning and was pretty successful at making her feel like she was a deviant. Since she was only nineteen when she got married, she spent a long time building walls to save her hidden self. Now it's ten years later, she's a filthy rich widow and her brother Miles has gotten himself kidnapped, because everybody assumes he's the brains behind the brother-sister duo. Being more of a cerebral person, she ends up hiring notorious bad boy Rupert Carsington (who has, like, a million sexy brothers who all get their own romance novels) to help her rescue him.

Of course the whole thing goes awry because the two of them end up in lust as well as fighting all the time. Rupert pretends to be dumber than he is, but he's in awe of Daphne's smarts even as he's scheming to devise ways to get into her skirts. And what's a chase across the Egyptian desert without lots of brawls, bad guys, sandstorms and getting lost in pyramids? It's the perfect place to escape to on a cold January night. I never get tired of reading about Egypt, especially this time of year, and I hope I never do.

I didn't love this quite as much as The Devil's Delilah but you can expect to see more Loretta Chase reviews here in the future. Also, a friend of mine gave me a whole slew of Egyptian-themed romances for my birthday last year so expect more of those too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pies & Prejudice

The title: Pies & Prejudice
The author: Heather Vogel Frederick
Publication: Simon and Shuster, 2010
Got it from: The library

Yep, I called it in the last one. In this fourth Mother-Daughter Book Club outing, the girls are definitely growing up and becoming more mature. Emma and her family head to England for a year (lucky ducks) and decide to videoconference their book club so they can all read Pride and Prejudice. True Janeites will recognize a ton of Austen names slipped in, such as Emma's school being named Knightley-Martin. And of course, many Austen-like characters abound. Emma's got her own Mr. Collins, a local boy named Rupert, and a snooty Caroline Bingley named Annabelle. Back in Concord, the family Emma is swapping with have two boys of their own, a Mr. Bingley named Simon, who Megan falls for, and a Mr. Darcy named Tristan who clashes with tomboyish Cassidy.

It always amazes me just how busy these girls are, and I suspect the author had extensive flowcharts just to keep track of everyone's schedule. Jess continues at boarding school, disappointed that Emma's brother is away for the year - but longtime readers need not fear, as there is a satisfying resolution to that saga. Cassidy starts a little girl's hockey team and is forced to pair with moody Tristan to help him practice for an ice dancing competition, a la The Cutting Edge. Megan starts a snarky fashion blog called Fashionista Jane
that lands her in hot water when she discovers the object of her affection, Simon, is not such a fan.

There's a lot of characters and plotlines to keep track of, so it's definitely not recommended you start with this one if you haven't read any of the others. It doesn't offer a lot of surprises but it's extremely fun all the same and is an improvement over the last one, which I felt was the weakest of the series. I've really enjoyed watching the girls grow up and I am keeping my fingers and toes crossed that there will really be a fifth one like the author has hinted. Having thought I'd reached the end of the series, it was a pleasant surprise.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Fossil Hunter

The title: The Fossil Hunter
The author: Shelley Emling
Publication: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Got it from: DC, Xmas 2010

You've probably never heard of Mary Anning, but without her our knowledge of fossils and dinosaurs would be considerably poorer. In 1811, she discovered the first complete dinosaur skeleton at only twelve years of age. She spent a lifetime uncovering extraordinary fossils in her hometown of Lyme Regis, but never received proper recognition because she was a woman.

It's hard to comprehend the tremendous strides in science that occurred during the 19th century. In 1800, the world was thought to be a only a few thousand years old, and everything on it, including plants and animals, never changed. The concepts of Ice Ages, evolution and dinosaurs simply did not exist. We tend to think of our own era as one of rapid change, but imagine having your entire view of history swept out from under your feet and replaced with something completely astonishing. It must have been frightening, like suddenly viewing the world upside-down.

For Mary Anning, the poor daughter of a carpenter, it would have been even more incomprehensible. Yet Mary was at the very heart of the discovery of dinosaurs. Learned scientists of the day flocked to meet her and learn about her latest discoveries, men at the forefront of the fossil revolution, including Henry De la Beche, Charles Lyell and Louis Agassiz, the man who first proposed the idea of ice ages. At a time when "gentlemen scientists" stayed comfortably in labs and lecture halls, Mary was scrambling over cliffs in all kinds of weather and practically breaking her back working to extract fossils. It was her discoveries that led to scientists identifying dinosaurs and later influencing Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution. She even inspired the tongue twister "she sells seashells by the seashore."

But for all her effort, she received almost no recognition, was scorned by the people of her town, remained poor all her life and was barred from even attending lectures about her own discoveries. One can't help but feel indignation at Mary's plight. She remained forever at the periphery of the exciting times she lived in, hungering for more scientific knowledge and was by all accounts considered an extremely intelligent woman who impressed her scientific friends. Her life, however, was one of hardship and struggle right up until her death.

Shelley Emling brings Mary to life from the few remaining letters and journals that remain detailing her life. The Fossil Hunter is as much about her as about the history of the early 19th century in which she lived. It's a fascinating story that reads almost like a romance between Mary and fossil hunting, bogged down only in parts by the author's unfortunate tendency to repeat herself. It's a story that deserves to be told about the birth of paleontology and the woman who made it all possible. It's a refreshing change to read about the accomplishments of somebody in science who isn't a man, and I hope everybody interested in the history of fossil hunters reads this and understands what a remarkable contribution Mary Anning made to the field.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Regency Christmas Magic

The title: Regency Christmas Magic
The author: Amanda McCabe, etc.
Publication: Signet, 2004
Got it from: Er...don't actually remember. It was probably either Hannelore's or the library book sale, c. 2008-2009.

File this under totally weird coincidence. As I was looking for a picture of this book cover online, I was thinking about my last post. I finally found a picture I could use, and it turned out to be from a post of somebody who wanted to know who the identity of the man on the cover. He also talks about the plight of the familiar yet anonymous romance cover hero.

Read it. It's funny.
"...virtually every time he has female company, he’s got designs on that company. Designs, and a signature move – he’s doing that not-so-subtle hand-slide in almost every setting, a wonderful gesture that’s both assertive and non-threatening."

You know what would be awesome? A romance story in which a reader falls for a particular cover model and buys all his books, and then gets to romance him in real life.

So on with this book:

Upon a Midnight Clear by Amanda McCabe - This was definitely an unusual character story. The heroine is a black woman from Jamaica and the hero is a scarred ex-naval captain. They are both outsiders in their community because of the way they look. He comes across her one night when she's practicing spells and they turn out to have a lot in common. Together they start to find acceptance in their small English village and realize they're falling in love. A sweet story.

The Ultimate Magic by Allison Lane - This was the funniest story, with lots of characters and misunderstandings and snappy dialogue between the hero and heroine. Before the story even begins, we're made to understand that the heroine has caused disaster whenever the hero is around, and when they meet again in the opening scenes he's all, "oh no, not you again!" I like stories with lots of intrigue and house parties, so this was a good one.

The Two Dancing Daughters
by Edith Layton - In this story a former soldier is hired to find out where his two daughters are sneaking out to every night, as his servants are under some sort of spell. Obviously very similar to the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I found this one a bit dry. The romance wasn't a big part of the story and the hero and heroine were somewhat boring.

The Enchanted Earl
by Barbara Metzger - This story was probably more like a real fairy tale than any of the others. A widow is trying to host a magic show on Christmas Eve and gets some rather unruly real fairies instead. She meets an old magician who is able to help her get rid of the pesky spirits. But is he more than he seems - is he actually a handsome earl in disguise? Of course he is, silly.

The Green Gauze Gown
by Sandra Heath - Limp title, best story of the bunch. A widow with two sons returns to England and encounters an old flame. Years before, she had a romantic connection with a man named Harry, but married his best friend because of the romantic letters he wrote her. Of course, it turns out that they were Harry's letters all along. The hero in this one is definitely atypical - he is crippled and needs a cane, he's fair and wears spectacles - but he makes up for it in his passion for the heroine. Love the second chance stories and this one was a good one. Also loved Harry's matchmaking younger sister, she reminded me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey.

New Year's resolutions - read more, as always.