Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas Carol

The title: Christmas Carol
The author: Flora Speer
Publication: Love Spell, 1994
Got it from:  Sony Reader Store, 2013

Argh, I thought as I read this.  And argh again.  Because I am so confused as to what I think of this book.  In some ways I enjoyed it.  In other ways I was extremely frustrated by it.

This book is essentially about a modern-day lady Scrooge.  Carol Simmons lives in 1993 London.  The lady she was employed to be a companion to, Lady Augusta Marlowe, has just died.  Carol is an extremely bitter young woman.  Her dad was a businessman who committed suicide after losing his money in the 1980's financial crash and she was badly used in a previous relationship.  Carol has cut herself off from the world, refusing to help anyone in need or even make her own life pleasant or comfortable in any way.  Just after the funeral and during the Christmas season she is visited by the ghost of Lady Augusta, who was just as cold-hearted as Carol, in order for Carol to see the error of her ways.

In the first half of the book, Carol visits Regency London and inhabits the body of a woman very much like herself, Lady Caroline. She falls in love with Caroline's fiancee, Lord Nicholas, a man who at first seems indifferent but later reveals another side.  In the second half of the book, Carol travels to a dystopian 22nd century London where she meets another version of Lord Nicholas and helps him and and his friends take down a corrupt autocratic regime.

The insanity of old school romance time-travel plots wasn't my problem.  The weirdness of going from Regency London to Terminator 2: Judgement Day didn't bother me.  My problem was that this book seemed to be written by two different people.  I thought Carol's relationships with the various Nicholases she meets and the world-building of the past, present and future were very good.  I enjoyed those aspects.  But oh my goodness, this book needed an editor.  There was so much extraneous detail and repetition that didn't need to be there.  There were so many detailed descriptions of clothing and food that I kept wondering if there was some sort of hidden meaning to it all, only to find out that no, it was just superfluous padding.  And oh my lord some of the dialogue was so, so bad in the, "as you know...let me now tell you in painstaking detail something you would already know if you were a character, but it's actually for the reader," kind of way.  And I'm sorry, the Scrooge story and Carol's subsequent transformation just didn't feel organic.  Outside of Victorian London, the giving selflessly to the poor thing just feels like the author is beating the poor reader over and over with a kindness stick.  As for the ending, the plot packages were wrapped up so tightly that even the jaws of life couldn't pry them open.*

Was it a guilty Christmas pleasure?  The answer is...sort of.  As I say, I did think some of the atmospheric stuff was good, especially Carol's first ghostly appearance in the future and the visits from Lady Augusta.  But the pacing just seemed so strange, and the book felt way too long.  I don't know, I just finished it today so maybe I will need to revise my opinion in the future.  

My Past Self: 3 1/2 stars and one duke
My Present Self: 2 1/2 stars and a can of Cranberry Gingerale
My Future Self: 4 stars and a robot servant

*And that's not a good thing.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

(Source: The Daily Mail)

Looking back on 2013, it wasn't a particularly great year for reading. (I know, I know.  I said the same thing last year).  I didn't accomplish nearly as much as I'd hoped.  It was a busy year for a lot of reasons, and reading just fell by the wayside.  I ended up skimming and thus not reviewing quite a few books.  There were also quite a few "meh" books that I just didn't feel like writing about here.  As a result, posting was quite sporadic.  It gave the impression that I wasn't reading much, which wasn't true.  I was reading every day.

Anyway, last year I left a series of "clues" as to what books I'd be reading, and I did get to all but one and a half of them.  See if you can figure out what they are.  Answers posted around New Year's!

1. One First Lady
2. Two sets of magicians
3. Three ladies of Christmas
4. An intrepid woman reporter
5. The real lives of Downton Abbey  (moved to 2014)(?)
6. Pirates!
7. The secret history of a major city
8. A classic children's book I've never read
9. A very "viral" book
10. Lost books  (this one is a work in progress.  I am about halfway done).
11. A dear enemy
12. A prairie tale

Monday, December 9, 2013

My Dearest Enemy

The title: My Dearest Enemy
The author: Connie Brockway
Publication: Dell, 1998
Got it from:  Amazon 2010?

I was holding my breath for this book, waiting to see whether it would be delicious or another "let's throw this at the wall in frustration" title.  See, I adored Bridal Favors but had serious, serious issues with As You Desire.  Thank the sweet lucky stars that this book was more like the former.

The story revolves around Lily Bede, a suffragist who is dead set on being independent and remaining single.  (There is a back story here.  You have to read it to understand her cause, but it makes a lot of sense).  Lily is a cousin of sorts to the Thorne family.  The patriarch of the Thornes, Horatio, is a complete jerkass who wills his estate Mill House to Lily, provided she can turn a profit on it after five years.  If she does not, she loses the house and gets an allowance only if she renounces the suffragist cause.  This immediately creates a problem, because Mill House was also promised to Horatio's nephew Avery.  Horatio, being the nice guy he is, also has it in for Avery because Avery suffers from asthma and he considers him to be weak and unmanly.

Horatio dies.  Lily takes up residence at Mill House and Avery, to bide his time, wanders around the world.  One of Lily's responsibilities is to provide Avery with an allowance, so they begin a rather snarky correspondence.  (A relationship that starts with letters?  Yes please!)  Then, just before the deadline at the end of five years, Avery shows up.

This book was pure perfection. It was laugh-out-loud funny, believable, and heartfelt without feeling too sickeningly sweet.  Every chapter held my attention and felt like an important part of the story.  I loved how Avery, even though he had an awful childhood where he was bullied for having asthma, doesn't necessarily feel bitter or compelled to take out his frustration on others.  He's very kindhearted, especially when it comes to his nephew, who also suffers from asthma.

And oh, the romantic screwball comedy.  Avery and Lily are both intellectuals, and they have at it like pros.  One of my favourite bits is when a fellow explorer of Avery's is explaining a situation they had faced in the jungle:  "...I remember once, in Brazil, when guides had run off with some hostiles and we were left to founder about on our own for, oh Lord, at least a month...'Here now, chaps.' [Avery] said, 'If Miss Bede does not worry about our welfare, why should you?..Why, and I quote Miss Bede, God takes care of fools and children thus, being men, you are doubly safeguarded against misadventure.'"  

No wonder it rates on All About Romance's top 100 romances of all time.  (Below As You Desire.  Sigh.  There is no justice in this world). 

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Ape Who Guards the Balance

The title: The Ape Who Guards the Balance
The author: Elizabeth Peters
Publication: Avon, 1998
Got it from:  Maine, 2009

I've been having a hard time getting around to writing this review, for a number of reasons.  If you've been following this blog for awhile, you know that I've been reading the Amelia Peabody series at the rate of approximately one book per year.  This year I was finally going to catch up to myself, in a "this is where we came in" way.  The Ape Who Guards the Balance was my very first Amelia Peabody mystery, which I read when I was seventeen, and it was my first introduction to the amazing Elizabeth Peters.

And then on August 8 of this year, Elizabeth Peters died.  I was - or should say, am - heartbroken.  Nobody wrote quite like her.  No other author, with the exception maybe of L.M. Montgomery, has written more novels that I've enjoyed.  She left behind an endlessly delightful body of work.  To pick up an Elizabeth Peters (or her pseudonym Barbara Michaels) novel is to read an intelligent, funny, romantic book with a strong heroine.  (Even the ones written in the 60's and 70's, a rare thing in itself).  Any of her books is going to be a treat, but it's the Amelia Peabody series that she will be (deservedly) remembered for.

Reading this book, I felt like I was catching up with old friends.  I remembered almost nothing from my original reading of it, so I was pleasantly surprised by the ending.  The events of The Ape Who Guards the Balance take place in 1907.  Owing to Emerson's feuds with various authorities, the clan are forced to excavate in a less-than-stellar site in the Valley of the Kings.  The Victorian era is still very much present and the game of the day is to make the splashiest find with the most treasure.  Somewhat humiliated but not deterred, the Emersons embark on their dig and it's not long before murder turns up.

Amelia Peabody is ever the proto-feminist and Peters cleverly weaves the early history of the women's suffrage movement into the story.  "Pray do not detain me, Emerson," Amelia says calmly in what may be the most hilarious first page ever. "I am on my way to chain myself to the railings at Number Ten Downing Street, and I am already late."  The Emersons' adopted daughter Nephret is also breaking barriers by becoming a medical student and she becomes a crusader for the grassroots women's education movement that is taking place in Egypt.

More and more the series is becoming focused on the children and large chunks of it are told as their diaries and memoirs.  It's rather a shame, because nobody holds a candle to Amelia as a narrator, and the sexual tension between her son Ramses and Nephret isn't half as hot as that between Amelia and Emerson (and more shirts get ruined, obviously).  And speaking of hot, the Master Criminal himself, Sethos shows up toward the end, which instantly sends the rating through the roof for me.  (I don't want to spoil anything but that train scene at the end - *dies.*)  My only complaint is that the book is just too long.  I do like to know the details of their everyday life but there was just too much we ate this-and then I wrote this letter-and then we sat on the porch, etc.  With about a hundred pages trimmed, this book would be almost perfect.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Colonial times, writing spaces and other miscellany

In preparation for my visit to New England, I read large chunks of Alice Morse Earle's Home and Child Life in Colonial Times (abridged from two of her earlier books).  What makes her history so fascinating was that she wrote at the end of the 19th century and could record many first-person accounts from the elderly people in her community about their lives and those of their parents and grandparents.  

This book is full of all kinds of funny gossip and stories about life in America before 1850.  The author is not afraid to interject with her own opinions, such as when she calls early children's books dry and tedious.  I was frequently amused by her references to "life in olden days" as opposed to "now," which for her that meant the difference between things like buying ready-made ink versus making it yourself from bark(!)  There are some excellent sections on what school was like, the reason the Colonials had such good handwriting, early toys, etc.  As an aside, I was amused by her account of the primitive mail system that existed in the 18th century, and the story of one mailman who liked to skate down the Hudson River with letters on his back while he knitted socks and hats.

Reading about homes, and then coming back to my own, helps me see mine with new eyes.  I am extremely fortunate to have my own "creative" room that is just mine (and the only room in the house where my husband can't leave a mess!)  I think everyone who does anything artistic needs their own creative space. 

I'm not a big fan of the popular minimalist trend.  I like to have things neat and tidy, but I also think you should surround yourself with things you love, have meaning for you and inspire you.  Here are some shots of my creative space:

This is my desk, where I write all my letters, blog, scrapbook, etc.  I have it set up facing my window.  During the daytime, I love to open the blinds and watch the trees, birds and squirrels outside. 

The desk itself is a family heirloom.  It used to be a lot messier, but a few months ago I was inspired by a secretary I saw at an antiques store.  I bought a really cheap (under $10) desk organizer to hold all my notepads, maps, etc. 

On the left is a mug from Stonehenge that my grandmother bought me on a trip to England back in the 1990's.  I've used it as a pencil/pen holder ever since.  The Canadian flag is from this year's Canada Day celebrations.  Beside it is a notepad of CBC logos that I bought in Toronto earlier this year.  Beside the mouse is a beautiful glass coaster with real pressed flowers.  On the right you can see a stack of recently acquired paperbacks waiting to be read an reviewed!

I'm not really into Pinterest.  I like to keep an actual bulletin board of things I enjoy, like postcards and a sprig of flowers from my garden.

Just right of my desk is a painted piece of slate I brought back from a memorable trip to Wales when I was 16.  And of course my Sherlock calendar!

Beside that, I have one book case just for romance novels.  In  the cupboards below I keep presents and my scrapbooking and mosaic supplies.

I bought this blue box a few years ago to hold all my letters in chronological order.

Just beside my letters I keep all my envelopes and note cards.  The Christmas box is one of my favourite objects and holds several years' worth of Christmas cards.

Beside my book case, I like to hang all my cloth bags that I've collected over the years that I use mostly to carry library books.  The "Little Women" bag on top came with me to Concord!

To the right of the door is my "messy bookcase."  A while ago I attempted to roughly organize the books by genre.  You may recognize some of the books I've reviewed on this blog over the years.  This is just a sample of my collection, the rest are elsewhere in the house.

Whenever I travel, I like to collect a miniature of the local famous landmark.  I bought all but the Eiffel Tower, which was given to me by a friend (left to right: CN Tower, Big Ben tower, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Colosseum).  Just behind it you can see a silver box that I got for my high school graduation and a painting done by a close friend.

Continuing our circle around the room is the futon where I like to relax with a good book.  The Jane Austen pillow was a birthday gift from my sister from a few years ago.  The blanket was another graduation present made by a family friend.

Right above that is a poster of 18th century objects.  It used to have a frame but unfortunately one hot and humid summer day the hook fell down and the frame broke.  It will be replaced, eventually.  Beside that is my "world at night" poster that I bought in grad school. 

And now we have made a full circle!  The Sense and Sensibility iPod charger is another gift from my sister, and the Provence candle a gift from a friend.  And the laptop of course is where all the magic happens...

Thank for coming with me on a tour of my creative space!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

October holiday

It's been awhile since I last posted - October has been a very busy month.  I started a new job at the end of September and now I'm on holiday enjoying an absolutely gorgeous Massachusetts fall.  This is the place to be for enjoying the season.  The air is crisp and cool, the trees are ablaze with colour and the leaves are so thick on the ground you literally have to wade through them.  Everywhere people have decorated their homes with pumpkins, spiders and scarecrows.  At night the narrow windy streets are pitch black except for the occasional lantern - you almost expect to see the Headless Horseman riding toward you.  All my life I've dreamed of visiting New England at Hallowe'en and now I get to live my dream.

And speaking of living my dreams - I visited Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott and the real-world counterpart to the March house in Little Women.  (I'm currently reading Louisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology, review soon!).  We are staying in an 18th century farmhouse just outside of Concord so this was one of my first stops.  Most of my vacation destinations are inspired by books I've loved and this one has been almost twenty years in the making.

(Photo of Orchard House taken by me two days ago).

It's difficult to put into words just how much visiting Orchard House meant to me.  Little Women was one of the defining books of my childhood.  I read it a number of times when I was young, but I vividly recall reading it one November afternoon during school reading period when I was twelve, and it just spoke to me.  The following January the movie with Winona Ryder came out and it really cemented the story in my psyche. 

On our tour of the house, there were some young girls who were probably around twelve in our group.  For the most part they seemed to be enjoying themselves, but it was obvious they weren't super impressed.  They flopped on the ground, fidgeted and didn't seem to know the basics of the story.  You could tell it was just another outing for them, no more meaningful than a visit to the mall or a class trip.

I thought about what it would have meant to me, twenty years ago, to have been able to visit this house.  We didn't get to travel much when I was growing up, and books were the only means I had to see the world for most of my life.  To me, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy were my sisters.  As we walked through the rooms, I had the overwhelming sensation that I was meeting childhood friends for the first time in real life.  I was trying so hard to listen to what the tour guide was saying, but I was having difficulty not crying.

After the tour my husband and I sat outside on a bench in the twilight so I could absorb the fact I was really there.  And I have to wonder, does anything ever touch you so much in life as a book you love in childhood?  I doubt anything on this trip will be as meaningful as my afternoon at Orchard House.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Little Blog on the Prairie

The title: Little Blog on the Prairie
The author: Cathleen Davitt Bell
Publication: Bloomsbury, 2010
Got it from:  The library

Gen is just an ordinary 13-year-old when her mom signs her family up for a summer at "Camp Frontier," where the participants all have to live 1880's-style.  Like any modern teenager would, Gen hates it at first.  Forget the cuddly version of prairie life, with Melissa Gilbert running through a sunny field.  The real frontier was non-stop labour and no modern comforts.  Gen's only respite is the phone she snuck into camp, which she uses to text her friends back home.  Unbeknownst to her, her texts are turned into a blog that goes viral.  

The author clearly, clearly used the PBS show Frontier House as an inspiration (right down to the preparedness contest, the starving dad and the little boy crying over killing chickens).  I watched that show this summer, and I couldn't help making comparisons - more so than to the actual Little House on the Prairie series.  If anything, this book drives home just how much frontier life would have sucked.  Hard.  I doubt I could have lasted a month there.  And there's no sugar-coating it for Gen: everything - from the nastiness of the outhouse to near-starvation to the mind-numbing hard work of hand washing laundry to the cramped, primitive living space - sounds like a slightly sunnier Soviet Labour Camp.  No wonder Gen practically passes out in ecstasy when she discovers a secret "electricity shack" complete with Internet and Diet Coke.

Then there's the relationship between Gen's family and the three other families living in Camp Frontier.  There's a love interest for Gen - a boy named Caleb, who at times is a little too good to be true for a teenage boy.  There''s good times, like a kick-the-can game that brings the kids together having fun.  But mostly what the families battle with is jealousy and resentment of one another's accomplishments and living conditions.  There's clearly a "holier-than-thou" attitude that drives a wedge between all the families and that Gen's family in particular resents, having the least experience with frontier living.  A sociologist would be fascinated by the way modern societal niceties break down under primitive living conditions.

There's also a "Nellie Oleson" character, the daughter of the camp's owners, who is over-the-top mean to Gen because of her raging jealousy over Gen's normal life.  One can't help but read a warning into the dangers of parents isolating their children with their own warped ideas about what reality should be.

As a YA novel, I enjoyed this one much more than Going Vintage, a novel with a similar theme, mainly because the main character immerses herself so much more completely in the past.  Even though the story went on a bit too long at the end and Gen sometimes seemed too mature for her age, she was very likeable character and this was a pleasant, fun read.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Quick reviews: Sex, Pirates and Mr. Darcy

I didn't want to go into full reviews for any of these books so I'm introducing quick reviews!

The title: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
The author: Gideon Defoe
Publication: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2004
Got it from:  The library

Ridiculous is not too strong a word to describe this silliness.  A whopping 135 pages long (with comprehension exercise and words to know included), the joke of this whole book revolves around how absurd pirates are.  The Pirate Captain and his crew live in a strange 19th century/modern world hybrid where people are dispatched in various gruesome ways and their love of ham is a running joke. Sprinkled throughout are factual footnotes on historical personages appearing in the book - or, indeed, anything.  Most of the humour is groan-worthy bad, but there are some genuinely funny moments such as when The Pirate with a Scarf and Erasmus Darwin play a game of Animal, Vegetable or Mineral while meeting their doom strapped to the cogs of Big Ben.  Special note should be made of the fact that the chapter titles (Battling the Octopus!, etc), while appropriate to most pirate adventures, have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the respective chapter.  Teenage boys and pirate fanatics will love this, everyone else can skip to the cute Aardman movie released last year based on the book.

The title: Mr. Darcy's Guide to Courtship
The author:  Emily Brand
Publication: Old House, 2013
Got it from:  AG, B-day 2013

Speaking of foolishness, we have this book, written as if it had been dictated by a pre-Lizzie Mr. Darcy.  "The Secrets of Seduction from Jane Austen's Most Eligible Bachelor" reads like a one-note joke - he's a jerk!  Ha ha!  It stretches the limits of credulity to suppose that a man who could fall for Elizabeth Bennet would ever advise women to not be opinionated and lively.  But no matter how tongue in cheek this book is meant to be, there is simply no excuse for paragraphs like this: "Ladies, if you have failed to secure a husband by the age of thirty - at which point the bloom of youth will fade most desperately - admit defeat and harden yourself to the idea of not being worth looking at.  A single woman of nine and twenty ought not to expect to feel or inspire real affection again."  Here's some advice of my own: "Young women of six and twenty should not attempt to imitate the wit and genius of Jane Austen.  Wait a few more years until you have something better in you in than this unfunny, tiresome book."

The title: The Read Deal
The author: Debbi Rawlins
Publication: Harlequin, 2010
Got it from:  MC, B-day 2012

I enjoyed this book much, much more than I thought I would.  Emily Carter is hoping to break out of her stay-at-home rut so she signs up for a sightseeing adventure in New York City over Thanksgiving.  On an impulse, she buys a copy of Erotic New York and accidentally ends up leaving it behind in the cab she's sharing with a good-looking guy.  The guy turns out to be Nick Corrigan, a star baseball player.  I don't normally go in for sports-themed romance but this one worked for me as it takes place in the off-season.  It dealt a lot more with the realities of sports fame than the game itself.  What really worked for me is how darn likeable the characters were.  The romance was definitely pure fantasy, but the warm-and-fuzzy kind that felt so feel-good and satisfying.  And I love holiday getaway romance, especially the cold-weather kind.  Total thumbs up.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Full Frontal T.O.: Exploring Toronto's Architectural Vernacular

The title: Full Frontal T.O.: Exploring Toronto's Architectural Vernacular
The author: Patrick Cummins and Shawn Micallef
Publication: Coach House Books, 2012
Got it from:  Oakville PL

I'm completely in love with Full Frontal T.O. and I want to share this book with everyone.  Photographer Patrick Cummins has spent more than thirty years documenting Toronto and in this book he shows (along with text by Shawn Micallef) photos of the same building over the course of decades.  I find this kind of thing absolutely fascinating and I spent hours pouring over tiny details in each photo.  Many of the houses and stores show the marked changes in the 80's, 90's and 2000's.  For instance, a furrier in 1988 becomes a Money Mart in 2001.  Some neighbourhoods slowly decay over time, others become gentrified and old buildings get a facelift.  Old labelscars are revealed anew thanks to Cummins's time lens.  

Perhaps this book strikes a particular chord with me since it's a city I visit several times a year and it covers my entire lifetime (early 80's-present).  I love how he captures both ugly and beautiful stores and buildings and somehow manages to make them all fascinating.  Every picture on every page tells a story and then some - I found myself wondering about the lives of the people who lived and worked in these spaces.  

Some great examples from the book can be found here.  If you want to lose several hours of your life in a good way almost all of his photos are stored here

Monday, September 2, 2013

Going Vintage

The title: Going Vintage
The author: Lindsey Leavitt
Publication: Bloomsbury, 2013
Got it from:  The library

The plot:  16-year-old Mallory has just found out her boyfriend Jeremy has been cheating on her via an online game called Authentic Life and leaves him an angry message on Friendspace.  The next day, while going through her grandmother's basement, she uncovers a list her grandmother made when she was 16 in 1962: sew a dress for homecoming, run for pep-squad secretary, etc.  Still hurt and angry, Mallory decides to swear off all technology and complete her grandmother's list.  

My thoughts: Wow, it's been awhile since I did a contemporary YA review - apparently my last one was Little Miss Red back in May 2010.  Ever since Meg Cabot finished off the Princess Diaries series that same year I haven't found a YA book that's caught my eye.  This one looked like it had an interesting premise.

I have mixed feelings about the book.  At first I thought Mallory was pretty shallow and her commitment to actually living like it was 1962 seemed fairly weak.  But I did feel that she grew as a character, particularly as she learns to see Jeremy for what he really was and her decision that it's okay to go alone to her homecoming dance.  She also learns some pretty valuable lessons about taking off her rose-coloured nostalgia glasses as she uncovers truths about her grandmother's past.  I liked her growing relationship with Jeremy's cousin Oliver, who is a genuinely nice guy despite being a hipster, a species of male considered extremely unattractive by a panel of me.  

My biggest concern with the book is how uninterested Mallory is in her schoolwork.  How often in pop culture do we see teens blowing off their studies and considering school to be boring?  That is outside of my experience.  Sure, some classes could be tedious but I also found a lot of it fascinating as I was encountering it for the first time.  Would it have been too much to have Mallory show an interest in at least one subject?  The most troubling part of the story comes when Mallory essentially plagiarizes a paper on the Industrial Revolution and is never caught out for it.  There is no indication that she is aware of how wrong this is, only an acknowledgment that researching in books is "hard" compared to copying and pasting from the Internet.

Although this was an enjoyable read and did remind me of Meg Cabot, and Mallory does grow some over the course of the book, I would probably rate it a B- because of my conflicted reaction.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918

The title: Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918
The authors: Gina Kolata
Publication: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999
Got it from:  The library

I have been wanting to read a book about the influenza epidemic of 1918 and this one was recommended as one of the best.  Unfortunately it doesn't actually go into as much detail as I'd like about the actual epidemic.  It's almost entirely about what happened after, which is itself a fascinating story.

In recent years there has been more interest in studying this flu, but until the 1990's (ie, in living memory), it was almost as if it never happened.  But the facts are shocking: more people died of the flu in just a few months than were killed in World War I.  What made the disease so horrifying was that it most often struck and killed young adults (aged 20-40).  Until recently, no one knew what it was and what caused it.

The author goes into great detail about the lives of the scientists who in the years after searched for the killer virus.  This is a timely subject for those of us living today, having just gone through the 2009 swine flu epidemic and will probably be facing another one in a matter of years.  The problem was that in 1918 doctors and scientists weren't equipped with the tools and knowledge to combat the virus, let alone to figure out what was causing it.  Modern-day scientists had to do some serious detective work to track down the extinct virus.  In a few cases, they used tissue samples taken from victims and stored in paraffin, in other instances they traveled to the Arctic and unearthed the bodies of victims from permafrost.

Reading this makes me want to know more about the social history of the effects of this disease.  How could 40 million people (most of them in the prime of life) just disappear without it affecting the course of history?  There is some hint at the ripple effects on people's psyches, such as the 1976 American vaccine debacle where scientists and politicians rushed to vaccinate people because they feared another 1918.  Perhaps these are questions to be answered by another book.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The House on Durrow Street

The title: The House on Durrow Street
The authors: Galen Beckett
Publication: Spectra, 2010
Got it from: Amazon b-day money 2012 (thanks sis!)

The House on Durrow Street is the sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent (my review can be found here.)  There are some minor spoilers for the first book in my review below.

The narrative splits the three main characters and separates them for most of the 700-page novel.  Having married Mr. Quent in the last book, Ivy, her sisters and new husband take up residence at the Lockwells' old house on Durrow Street.  It is currently under renovations to restore it to its former glory, and the workmen uncover several secrets about the house, chief among them a set of doors which had formerly been walled up.  Some of the most interesting scenes in the book involve Ivy's investigations into the life of the house's original owner, Dratham, and his work as a magician.  Another key in the form of her father's journal is uncovered, which provides Ivy with more clues to the house's secrets as well as her father's younger years.  Meanwhile, Mr. Quent's work for the government sees the family rising in rank.  Ivy suddenly finds herself moving in more exalted circles and making friends with nobility.

While this is going on, Rafferdy is still in love with Ivy and trying (unsuccessfully) to get over losing her to Mr. Quent.  He finds some distraction in taking his father's place in parliament, which provides the reader with an insight into the political machinations of Altania.  Rafferdy also joins a secret magician's cult that is not as it seems.

And then we have Garritt, who has taken up a relationship with the illusionist Dercy and is supporting himself and his sister through his work as a church clerk.  Garritt slowly uncovers his talent for illusions while nursing a dream of entering the priesthood.  His ambitions are stymied by the fact that both illusionists and gay men are banned from the priesthood.

Once again I was drawn into the author's well-crafted world.  This is not by any means a page-turner.  It is meant to be read slowly and savoured like a twelve-course banquet.  The messages are subtle and the action is all character-driven.  Beckett is the master at dropping intriguing little hints at things but not quite following up with definite answers.  For instance, in a book Ivy reads, it's suggested that their world once had regular days like ours instead of days of varying length - will we discover that this novel actually takes place in the future?   There's also some suggestion that Altania was once a more matriarchal society, with women/witches having strong ties with the Wyrdwood.  In fact, I loved how focused this book was on the Wyrdwood, the ancient forests of Altania (and clearly a reference to the old forests of England).  I love the idea of the Wyrdwood having almost human-like sentience and the power to defeat enemies.  Basically I love trees and wish I could communicate with them like Ivy.  It seems way cooler than just being a regular old (male) magician.

There's so many little things in this book that I could talk about that I almost could have done chapter-by-chapter blogging.  However, I will leave it at this and say that if you enjoyed the first book, you will undoubtedly love this one.  Can't wait for number threee.

And speaking of which:

My predictions for The Master of Heathcrest Hall

Rafferdy will continue to wear awesome outfits and carry his vanity cane.

Sashie will jump off a cliff.  (Just kidding.  Although I wish that were true).

Mr. Quent is going to die.  This is unfortunate because I quite like him.  But I'm sorry, the man is toast.

Garritt will finally catch a break.

The man in the Black Mask will turn out to be Dratham.

The people of Altania will stop fighting, band together, and defeat the Ashen with the help of the Wyrdwood.

Ivy and Rafferdy will finally resolve their unresolved sexual tension.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

British things

I am close - very close - to having some new reviews up soon!  In the meantime, I have been thinking a lot about how so many of the books I read and shows I watch are British.  I've been a huge Anglophile ever since my family lived in England for a year when I was little.  There's something about fiction set in Britain that just appeals to me.  I love their mysteries, their histories and especially their sense of humour.

In honour of absolutely nothing, I thought I'd pull together a list of my favourite British movies and TV shows.  This is not a list of ones I consider "the best," just ones I happen to love.  I'm hoping to do one for British books soon too.  So brew yourself a nice cup of English tea and enjoy!

(This list is not in any particular order!)

Pride and Prejudice 1995

It's become kind of a cliche to admit you love this version of P&P, but it really is excellent.  Forget all the wet-shirt Darcy nonsense and enjoy Jennifer Ehle's performance as an intelligent and thoughtful Lizzy.  The 1980 version with Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul is also really well done and often overlooked in the shadow of its more famous counterpart.

Downton Abbey

Again I'm stating the obvious here, but this soap opera is very addictive.  My favourite is the first season.  The second season was okay and the third season pretty much jumped the shark for me - but I keep coming back anyway.  I especially loved the feminist Lady Sybil and her Irish revolutionary chauffeur romance storyline from Season 1.


I first saw this show on a visit to England in 1999 and I've loved it ever since.  (By the way, the episode I saw was the infamous Puritans vs. the "rude turnip.")  The series set in the Regency period is absolute perfection.  Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson are delightful as the sarcastic and exasperated Blackadder and mentally unstable dogsbody Baldrick, respectively.  And forget House - Hugh Laurie is at his best as the insanely dim-witted Prince of Wales.  Stephen Fry also has a wonderful cameo as a bullying Duke of Wellington.  The episode "Dish and Dishonesty," where Baldrick gets elected as an MP, is one of my favourite episodes from any show, ever.

Doctor Who  (New series 1-4)

I will admit up front I've never seen the original Doctor Who and I had no interest in the show after series 4.  However, I loved the Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant years.  Even though there were some seriously dark moments in the show,  it never lost its sense of fun.  Highlights for me include the introduction of Donna in "The Runaway Bride" and the three-story arc of the Master's return at the end of series 3.

Sense and Sensibility 1995

Not surprisingly, there are a number of Jane Austen movies on this list.  This version of S&S was my first introduction to the world of Jane Austen when I saw it in the theatre as a thirteen-year-old.  I instantly fell in love with the Regency era through this movie.  I still enjoy watching it - not just for the great story, but for the wonderful settings and costumes.  (Fun fact: I got a private tour of Montacute House, where the Palmers live, on a visit to England in 2006).   Although many people think of Snape when they think of Alan Rickman, for me he will always be Col. Brandon.  And speaking of Alan Rickman -

Love, Actually

It's hard to believe it's been ten years since I first saw this warm and fuzzy movie in the theatres.  Describing its many tangled plotlines is almost impossible if you haven't seen it, but here are some highlights: Bill Nighy playing a hilarious and awful aging rock star, Colin Firth having his heart broken and mended in France; Martin Freeman being adorable and Martin Freeman-y; Hugh Grant playing a prime minister who falls for one of his household staff.  And that leads me to...

Bridget Jones' Diary

Even though I'm not a fan of chick lit and bumbling heroines, I just can't help loving this movie.  I  always end up rooting for Bridget, who is a screw-up but less awful than everyone else around her.  The wimpy fight between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant toward the end gets major bonus points, as does the fact that the story is based on Pride and Prejudice.  Bonus points also to Colin Firth for being so cute as Mark Darcy and James Callas for playing Bridget's flamboyantly sassy guy pal.  And yes, I even love the sequel that everyone hates and will watch it every time it's on TV.

Black Books

Honestly, everything Graham Linehan does is pure gold and I can't decide which of his creations I like best, so I'm just sticking them all on this list.  In Black Books, Dylan Moran plays a disheveled (and that's putting it nicely) bookstore owner, whose only contact with the outside world are his customers and his friends, alcoholic Fran (Tamsin Grieg) and cheerful assistant Manny (Bill Bailey).  My favourite episode is Locked Out, where Bernard has to survive one night in the outside world and ends up working for a fast-food restaurant, Fran goes ga-ga over a deep-voiced man, and Manny has to resort to eating bees to survive.  It's even crazier than it sounds.

The IT Crowd

I was only introduced to this show recently, and already it's in my top 10.  In The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan proves he's the master at finding ensemble casts that compliment each other perfectly.  Katherine Parkinson plays Jen, an IT manager who knows nothing about IT, but is great at reining in her wayward employees and wearing fabulous outfits.  Her two uber-nerd employees are Roy (Chris O'Dowd), a scruffy and somewhat lecherous Irishman, and Moss (Richard Ayoade), who is a technical genius but can't comprehend the real world.  Expect lots of insanity and comedy of errors.

Father Ted

Graham Linehan's first show isn't technically "British" but the humour definitely is.  Dermot Morgan plays a disgraced priest who is banished to Craggy Island, a remote parish off the west coast of Ireland, as punishment.  There he must share a parochial house with two deranged priests: Father Jack, who is constantly drunk, angry, and insane; and wide-eyed man-child Father Dougal (Ardal O'Hanlon).  My favourite episode is "Speed 3" but it's too ridiculous to even describe.  If you like your humour beyond absurd, you'll love this.

Hot Fuzz

I can't even talk about how much I love this movie.  My brain pretty much imploded with laughter the first time I saw this and I haven't gotten it back yet.  All I'll say is: if you love traditional British murder mysteries, but love seeing traditional British murder mysteries turned on their head even more, you need to watch this movie.  I think I've seen it five times now and I'm still catching new jokes that fly fast and furious.  I'm impatiently waiting for The World's End.

Northanger Abbey (2007)

Of all the newer (post 2000) adaptations of Jane Austen, this one is my favourite.  NA is my second favourite Jane Austen, and this is a fun adaptation.  JJ Feild plays a teasing and flirtatious Henry Tilney, and  Felicity Jones strikes just the right note as the daydreaming Catherine Morland.  Look out for a pre-famous Carey Mulligan as the scheming Isabella Thorpe.

Emma (1996)

In my opinion Kate Beckinsale's version of Emma is better than Gwenyth Paltrow's.  It felt truer to Austen, more British and less "Hollywood."  I re-watched it a few years ago when I re-read the book and enjoyed it just as much as when it originally aired.

The Vicar of Dibley

This is not just one of my favourite British shows, but one of my top three favourite shows of all time.  It's my ultimate go-to, cheer-me-up comfort show.  Dawn French plays a female vicar who goes to work for a sleepy little English village called Dibley.  She ends up being the only sane woman in a village of loveable loonies.  Let me just say that I want to live in Dibley in general and the vicar's house in particular.  Not to spoil anything if you haven't seen the show, but Richard Armitage shows up at the end as a handsome stranger and - SWOON!

The Office 

 Even though Ricky Gervais's character makes you extremely uncomfortable, I was hooked on the original version of this show.  Tim and Dawn's will-they-or-won't-they romantic storyline had me on the edge of my seat.  The Tim vs. annoying co-worker Garth sub-plot was also extremely funny and so true to real life.


Okay, so maybe I have saved the best for last after all.  This show could hardly get more perfect in terms of cast, script and setting.  The British have done their duty to women the world over by giving us extremely excellent chocolate and the combination of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  And on behalf of women everywhere - thank you, England!

There are so many other great British TV shows and movies that I enjoy, but that's all I have time for now.  Please let me know if I've made any huge omissions!

ETA:  I can't believe I forgot to add The Supersizers!  My favourite documentary series.  Giles and Sue are so funny and great together.  The perfect mix of hilarity and history!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Thief of Shadows

The title: Thief of Shadows
The author: Elizabeth Hoyt
Publication:  Hachette, 2012
Got it from: Indigo Saint John, 2012

This book suffered from an unfortunate case of "lateritis."  I was reading it and enjoying it, and then whoops, I was going away on vacation.  Then I picked it up and started reading it again, and oops, I had to read some books that were due back at the library.  The end result was that my reading of this book was very fragmented.  Which is a shame, because I thoroughly enjoyed it and it did not deserve to be kept on the back burner.  But such is the case when you have a TBR list as enormous as mine.

This is the fourth book in the Maiden Lane series, set in early 1700's London.  (Note - I have not read the other books in the series).  The hero is Winter Makepeace, a very serious, almost humourless manager of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children - at least by day.  By night he is the Ghost of St. Giles, a masked crimefighter who protects the innocent and rescues people in one of London's most notorious slums.  Lady Isabel Beckinhall is a widow who rescues the Ghost one night and likes what she sees.  She is also on a charity committee for the orphanage, and Winter is in danger of being ousted as manager.  Isabel must tutor him in the ways of polite society so he can keep his position.  He doesn't take the tutoring well.

I loved this book.  The 18th century is an unusual setting for a historical romance, and it made the whole masked crimefighter plot more believable.  (FYI - I bought this book for the masked crimefighter plot.  It's possibly my most favourite romance trope).  The differences between the hero and the heroine made for an interesting dynamic.  Isabel is a full six years older than Winter (she's 32), and she's rich, titled, and worldly.  By contrast, Winter grew up in poverty, is very straightforward and practical and has no experience in the world of the aristocracy - and he's also a virgin.  Winter is a great hero and a refreshing change from the usual rogues and rakes.  He cares deeply about the children in his care and uses his alter ego as the ghost to stop their abuse.  It's fun to watch Isabel turn him into more of a badass, in a sexy way.

I have only one minor quibble with the book.  Characters from the other books in the series kept popping up or were referenced and I couldn't keep them straight.  I suppose that can happen when you want someone to read the whole series.  But I can't complain too much since I really enjoyed the book. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Queen Victoria's Book of Spells

The title: Queen Victoria's Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy
The author: Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (editors)
Publication:  Tor Books, 2013 
Got it from: The library

"Gaslamp fantasy," as the introduction to this book explains, is a work of fantasy set at any time during the era of gaslamps (primarily the nineteenth century).  The idea immediately conjures up steampunk, although that is just one subgenre of gaslamp.  (Incidentally, only one of the short stories in this anthology is what I would call steampunk: "Their Monstrous Minds," a Frankenstein retelling by Tanith Lee.)  The stories in this collection are all over the place: some deal with Queen Victoria, others with subjects like the Great Exhibition, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dickens, the cholera epidemic and spiritualism.  All the stories have some aspect of the fantastic.

As with any collection of short stories, I enjoyed some more than others.  The most lighthearted is the title story by Delia Sherman, in which a modern-day scholar discovers that Queen Victoria may have used magic for her own selfish ends.  "The Unwanted Women of Surrey" by Kaaron Warren highlights the vulnerability of women who were considered mentally ill in the Victorian era, set amidst the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1854 (an event I've been interested in since reading Steven Johnson's fascinating book The Ghost Map.)  "Estella Saves the Village" by Theodora Goss is a fun story of Victorian literature lovers as it imagines a village inhabited by characters from Great Expectations, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre and Sherlock Holmes, etc and in which Estella must solve a mystery a la Flavia de Luce.  The real reason I picked up this book was for Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer's "The Vital Importance of the Superficial."  Fans of Sorcery & Cecelia will not be disappointed by this laugh-out-loud story told in letters. 

But if I remember one story above all others, it will be James P. Blaylock's fascinating and eerie"Smithfield."  In it, Arthur Conan Doyle is photographing a street on London on the last night before it gets electricity.  It's a brilliant meditation on what we lose with progress.  With perpetual daylight, have we lost the ghosts of the past?  It perfectly encapsulates what I find fascinating about the nineteenth century, which I consider the key turning point in history, where the old world meets the modern one.  At the end of the story Blaylock states, "I'm not at all fond of the idea that the world as I've come to know it is passing away."  Any thoughtful person would agree.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Marked Man

The title: A Marked Man
The author: Barbara Hamilton
Publication: Berkeley, 2010
Got it from: Amazon b-day money 2012 (thanks sis!)

Boston, 1774: Just ten weeks after the Boston Tea Party, the city is holding its breath awaiting retribution from the king.  Amidst days of endless sleet, Abigail Adams is approached by a young friend, Lucy Fluckner: her lover is accused of murdering a royal representative to the colonies.  Abigail knows that the accused, Harry Knox, is involved with her cousin Sam and the other members of  the Sons of Liberty.  There is a danger that if convicted, Harry might be coerced into revealing the names of the other rebels.  While John travels afield to do his duty as a lawyer, Abigail must unravel the clues that point to the real murderer, while facing considerable danger herself.

There's so much I like about this novel and so much I could say.  Barbara Hamilton (a pseudonym for prolific writer Barbara Hambly) does an excellent job in this second Abigail Adams mystery, and her knowledge of the people and customs of the era is mind-boggling.  It is a time and place in history that holds so much fascination for me, because it is so unique: a group of intellectuals who foment rebellion against an oppressive regime and rouse the support of the common people in the process. They're a circle of neighbours and acquaintances who use their knowledge of history and politics to dare to imagine a different, better way of life.  I love all the characters in this world: irascible John, forever turning to the classics for inspiration and guidance; cunning and daring Sam Adams; brave and reliable silversmith Paul Revere; young and idealistic printer Harry Knox; and most of all Abigail herself, resourceful, intelligent and playful all at the same time.

It's Abigail who forms the heart and mind and soul of the stories - she's not just a sleuth in the background, her life with all its trials and routines is at the forefront.  She is first and foremost a women in 18th century America with strong Puritan values, and therefore has strong ties to church, family and home life.  It's hard not to sympathize with her when she feels the exasperating contradiction between knowing she should be doing the household chores and hating them "like the mouth of hell."  And it's easy to see why a woman with her intellect would feel a strong urge to solve a mystery rather than try to separate squabbling children or do endless rounds of thankless washing.  Reading this, one has the sense that proud as she is of her home, she also wants something more than what is allotted to women of her time.

Here, too, we get tantalizing hints that she's unconsciously nursing a crush on her ally throughout the series, the British Lieutenant Coldstone, a man whose principles and intellect match her own.  Naturally she's appalled that people would think there is anything untoward in their relationship and she of course would never dream of betraying her beloved John.  But early on in the story, when she knows she needs to visit the officer again on Castle Island, she has a fleeting "twinge of regret" when she thinks of him.  This is all we get until later on in the story, where she describes him to herself as "extremely comely."  It's one of those clever little teases the author throws in, like name Coldstone: at first we assume it's because he's a stiff-backed and standoffish, but I rather like my own theory, that it's because he's a stone cold fox.

The pleasure here is in the place more than the mystery (alas, I guessed the murderer straight away) and in that Hamilton succeeds wonderfully.  Now if only I could stop worrying that the latest book in the series, #3 (published in 2011) won't be the last.  The author has given hints about Abigail solving crimes with Martha Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and I'll be sorely disappointed if she doesn't.