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Archive for November, 2009

This rather beautiful books tells the story of three women, two of whom – Aibileen and Minny – are black maids working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s, when racial segregation meant that black and white people could not mix socially, could not use the same restaurants, and could not go to the same hospitals or churches.  The third woman is a white girl named Skeeter, who comes home from college with dreams of becoming a writer.  She eventually decides to write a book about what it is like to be a black maid working for a white family, and she, Aibileen and Minny become embroiled in an exciting and potentially dangerous project.

I’m not sure I can accurately put into words how much I enjoyed this book.  The three narrators’ voices (Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter) come through beautifully and each character is distinct and wholly believeable.  We see each character’s life through their own eyes, and watch as they cope with their own problems (Aibileen is still grieving over the death of her son, and trying hard to make the young child she looks after grow up to be a nice person; Minny lives with an abusive husband and several demanding children; Skeeter has an over-bearing mother who won’t explain the sudden disappearance of Skeeter’s beloved childhood maid).

As well as the three central characters, there are a multitude of other people of great importance to the storyline.  Hilly Holbrook is a long time friend of Skeeter’s, but the bond between them is pulled very taut as the hypocritical and bigoted Hilly dislikes Skeeter’s desire for awareness and change.  Their other best friend, Elizabeth Leefolt, is Aibileen’s boss and it is her daughter who Aibileen cares for (seemingly far more than Elizabeth does).  However, my favourite of the ’supporting’ players is Celia Foote – Minny’s boss, who herself feels an outsider, as Hilly and her friends consider that she is not good enough to associate with them.

Historical events such as the death of JFK and Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech are covered here, adding to the already very real sense of the time in which this novel is set.

One of the things I most admired about the novel is that the author does not just show the characters as either good or bad.  She shows them as totally believable people.  Some of the nicer people sometimes do less-than-good things, and some of the not-so-nice characters in the book can show that they have a heart.

I loved this book, and would say it is definitely my favourite book out of all that I have read this year.  It’s thought-provoking, funny in places (look out for the scene with the toilets), and it made me cry in other places.  I was riveted throughout; my attention was grabbed on page one, and was held right through to the last page.

Utterly fantastic read, and very strongly recommended.  10/10

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Click here for my review of the 2011 film adaptation.

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Ewan McGregor plays a journalist named Bob Wilton, who while trying to get over his broken marriage, meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who claims to be a former member of the US Army’s First Earth Battalion, an elite force trained to use their psychic powers to help them change the way the world thinks of war.

During a road trip into Iraq (during which the two men are kidnapped, rescued and find themselves lost in the desert), Cassady tells Wilton all about the training he underwent in the 1980s, under the command of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges).   Also in the Battalion is Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) who becomes an intense rival of Cassady, due to their conflicting views about the the First Earth Battalion should utilise their skills.  Cassady reveals how he eventually became disillusioned with the  Army life after using his powers for bad rather than good (he manages to stop a goat’s heart using his own willpower).  Now though, Cassady is on a mission, the likes of which are not revealed until the end of the film.

Despite the subject matter this is a comedy – and very funny it is too.  George Clooney plays his role with his familiar easy charm and is an endearing and likeable character.  Jeff Bridges, as always, is superb in his role of the New Age believer Django, and Kevin Spacey is suitably sly and cruel for him to make Hooper a truly unlikeable character.  The only actor who I felt was not up to his usual standard was McGregor – his attempt at an American accent was not great, and I think it would have been better if he had been cast as a Scottish journalist.  However, his natural charisma carried him through.

There are plenty of laugh out loud moments in the film, and I left the cinema feeling light hearted and very satisfied.  Recommended.  (Incredibly, the movie is based on actual events, and most of the main characters are based on real people.  McGregor seems to be based on the British journalist Jon Ronson, who wrote the book on which the movie is based).

Year of release: 2009

Director: Grant Heslov

Writers: Jon Ronson (book), Peter Straughan

Main cast: Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey

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In medieval 1193, while the King, Richard the Lionheart is held captive by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, many people in England find themselves short of food and provisions, due to the efforts made to raise the ransom for the King’s release.  In Hawkenlye Abbey, things are no different, and Abbess Helewise is struggling to make ends meet.  So she is delighted when her son Leofgar arrives for a visit with his wife Rohaise and their young son Timus.  However, it soon becomes clear that Leofgar and Rohaise are hiding something; Rohaise is terrified of her own shadow, and Timus barely speaks.  As the family stay at the Abbey, their states of mind improve and things seem to be getting better. However, when a man is found hung, strung from a tree near to the Abbey, Leofgar, Rohaise and Timus leave the premises unannounced and are nowhere to be found.

Aided by her faithful friend, the Knight, Sir Josse D’Acquin, Helewise sets out to solve the mystery of the man’s hanging and her own son’s disappearance.  In doing so, she has to look into her own past, when she was a wife and mother to the handsome Ivo, and ask herself if her husband’s family were really the good people that she believed them to be.

This book is one of a series set around Abbey Hawkenlye, with the Abbess at it’s centre.  However, this was easy to read as a stand-alone novel, and I did not feel that lack of knowledge of the background of the characters hindered my reading at all.

The story moved along quickly, without ever feeling too rushed.  It is an undemanding read, which made it perfect for curling up with to relax.  The mystery at the heart of the story was intriguing enough to hold my interest throughout, and I found myself engrossed enough to consider reading the other books in the series.

The sense of the period in which the book was set was conveyed well, but this book was really more about the events which happened, rather than portraying life in the medieval period.  For instance, the situation with the captivity of Richard the Lionheart was mentioned only at the beginning of the story, and in no way really effected the events in the book.  I also enjoyed the parts where Helewise reminisced about her past – for readers of the whole series, I imagine this may have filled in a lot of gaps about the character’s life.

Having said that, the characterisation wasn’t brilliant.  Josse was extremely likeable and was probably my favourite character throughout the book. However, there was little exploration of the other characters.  However, this did not detract from my enjoyment.

Overall then, this is a leisurely read, and I don’t believe that a special interest in the medieval period is necessary for this book to be enjoyed.  I would certainly read more by this author.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Lincoln Rhyme is New York City’s best Criminalist, who has helped solve some of the most perplexing crimes that have been committed in the city.  He is also a quadraplegic, as the result of an accident at a crime scene, three years before; and has decided to kill himself.  But then the Police need his help.  Someone is committing brutal and seemingly random attacks in the city, and the only person who can solve the clues left behind is Rhyme.  However, Rhyme can’t walk the crime scenes himself, so he needs somebody to do it for him.  Amelia Sachs is working her last shift as a Patrol Officer, before she transfers into Public Affairs. But the scene she stumbles across in the morning, leads her head-first into a new investigation, where she finds herself being the eyes and ears of Lincoln Rhyme…

This is the first novel in the Lincoln Rhyme series, and I felt that it did a great job of introducing the two main characters, Rhyme and Sachs.  The story itself had a lot of twists and turns, and there were some genuine surprises along the way.  I was never able to second guess what was going to happen, and the action moved along at a fast pace, making me want to keep reading.

As well as the main storyline, about Rhyme and his hastily assembled team trying to solve the case, the relationship between Rhyme and Sachs is explored, and as a result, I felt that I got to know the two characters well.

The other characters weren’t so well developed (with the exception of Rhyme’s aide Thom, who I adored), but that did not detract from the enjoyment of the book.  As this is the first in a series, there is presumably plenty of time to get to know the others.

I did feel that at times, the storyline about the kidnappings stretched credibility somewhat.  Rhyme is certainly supposed to be brilliant, but on occasions he seemed able to deduce something very specific from the vaguest of clues.  This is the course the character’s job, but it did feel slight unbelieveable.  However, there was enough excitement and intrigue in this book for me to forgive that minor niggle.

Overall, this is a cut above a lot of other crime based novels, and is very cleverly written.  (it’s very evident that Deaver has done his research with regards to forensic work and equipment).  A highly recommended read.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Anne Boleyn is one of the most famous Queens of England. Typically in literature she is described as the manipulative schemer who lured Henry VIII from his devoted wife Katharine of Aragon and later met her death on (probably trumped up) charges of Adultery, Incest and Treason.

In this book, Denny presents a different view of Anne, as a victim of Henry’s cold blooded-ness.  She asserts that Henry relentlessly pursued Anne, who resisted because of his marriage to Katharine.  Anne finally succumbed to Henry’s advances and was then cast aside when it no longer suited him to be married to her.

The book is written in a very ‘readable’ way.  I often find non-fiction to be somewhat dry; however this book flowed easily and held my interest throughout.

It has obviously been very well researched, and Denny is clearly a Boleyn enthusiast, with a lot of passion for her subject.  However, this is a double edged sword.  While I firmly believe that it is important for any biographer to really care about their subject, Denny’s own view means that this book is extremely biased.  Katharine of Aragon is described as a vicious, manipulative and unreasonable woman, who lied to fulfill her ambition to become Queen of England.  Anne is painted almost as a saint, who could do no wrong and was blameless in every respect.

Joanna Denny wrote this book to bring balance to the general view of Anne; however, she has not created balance but has merely tipped the scales all the way to the other side.  She claims that the critics of Anne are biased – and this may well be true – but unfortunately, Denny shows herself to be equally as biased.  The women in Anne’s world are portrayed as evil and two faced, with the exception of Elizabeth I, Anne’s daughter.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Anne or the Tudor period, but I do not think that this book is ‘the truth’ about Anne Boleyn, as the author claims.

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Fine Just the Way It Is is Annie Proulx’s third collection of Wyoming stories. There are nine stories in this collection, and as usual, most of them concentrate on depicting the hard life of ranchers, politicians and cowboys, and the arguably even harder life of their wives.

As always, Proulx gives a subtle build up in each story, and then hits the reader with a punch right where it hurts. Drama and a large dose of irony collide, sometimes peppered with a little humour.  Occasionally she depicts real flashes of happiness in her characters’ lives – such as when Archie and his young wife set up home in ‘Them Old Cowboy Songs’ or when young Dakotah feels a rush of love which she never could have imagined when she has a baby in ‘Tits Up in a Ditch’.  But although these moments of happiness are not generally expected to last long (at least not to any reader familiar with Proulx’s writing), events still manage to surprise with the way that they seemingly come out of the blue, although on reflection they were probably always inevitable.

Two of the stories are comedic, and are actually set in hell, where we meet the devil – a mischievous but charismatic character, who travels around in a golf buggy and devises a plan to make life more interesting in certain areas on earth.  In another story, a woman wants her grandfather to tell his life story for posterity, but he fails to convey what he actually feels.

Annie Proulx’s writing is always very ‘clean’ – she never uses spare words, and indeed they are not necessary, because she has the ability to transport her reader to the landscape in which the story is set, in just a few words.

I preferred this book to the first collection of Wyoming Stories (Close Range, which featured the love story Brokeback Mountain), but didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the second collection (Bad Dirt).  Overall though, I would certainly recommend this book to other readers, and would actively seek out more of Annie Proulx’s writing.

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