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Archive for March, 2010

 

Catherine Morland is a young lady, naive but well intentioned and good natured, and a lover of Gothic novels.  When friends of her family take her to Bath, to introduce her into society and increase her social circle, she makes friends with two particular families.  The first are the Thorpes, and a close friendship quickly develops between Catherine and the eldest Thorpe daughter, Isabella.  Isabella’s pompous brother John takes a fancy to Catherine, but the feeling is not returned.  The other family she befriends are the Tilneys – and she is immediately attracted to Henry Tilney, a witty and charismatic young man, although she is not sure that her feelings are reciprocated.  When Henry and his sister Eleanor invite Catherine to stay at their home, Northanger Abbey, her over-active imagination, caused by her love of novels, starts to go into overdrive!  But more adventures await Catherine at the Abbey, and her resolve will be tested…

After reading this book, I looked at some reviews of it, and it would appear that this is probably the most maligned book that Jane Austen wrote.  However, I found it delightful and perhaps more accessible than some of her other works (all of which so far I have enjoyed).  Austen’s famous wit shines throughout; my favourite sequence was the teasing conversation which passed between her and Henry on the way to Northanger Abbey, where he played on her imagination – in consequence, she imagines all sorts of things when she arrives at their destination, with hilarious results.

Catherine is a lovely heroine, although a less obvious one than some of Austen’s other heroines.  In fact, Austen herself often addresses the reader directly, acknowledging that this is a book which she has written, and making reference to Catherine’s qualities as the heroine of such a story.  The other characters are also very well drawn, in particular Henry Tilney and the vivacious but self-absorbed Isabella Thorpe.

Essentially, this is a charming coming-of-age story, where we see Catherine learn about herself and the world around her, and deals with disappointments and uncertainties in life and love.

The writing is fabulous – descriptive and witty, and capable of first making the reader laugh out loud, and then in the turn of a page, making them wonder what is going to happen.  It was impossible not to warm towards the main characters, and I certainly found myself caring about what happened to them.

I won’t give away the conclusion of the story for anyone who has not read it – Austen fans may well be able to guess at the flavour of the ending of it in any event.  However, as is so often the case with Jane Austen, the destination is less the object of reading than the journey.  Highly enjoyable, very charming, and definitely recommended!

(For more information about the author, please click here and here.)

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In this seventh book in the Inspector Montalbano series, the Sicilian Inspector has become disillusioned with his job, and suspicious of the ethics of those he works for.  He is worried that he is past his best, and seriously considers resigning.  So his mood is not improved when he is out for an early morning swim one day, and suddenly finds himself sharing the sea with the corpse of a man who has clearly been dead for some time.  Trying to discover the identity of the deceased proves an arduous task.

Montalbano also finds himself getting involved in the plight of a young immigrant boy, which leads him into the murky world of illegal immigrant trafficking, and putting his plans for resignation on hold.

As in the previous books in this extremely entertaining series, the Salvo Montalbano is grumpy, sarcastic and sometimes just plain rude, but still manages to endear himself to the reader, with his strong morals and eagerness to do the right thing (and love of good food!).  The usual supporting cast are all in evidence, from the steadfast Fazio, to the showy (and now married with a child on the way) Augello, and the bumbling, but frequently hilarious Catarella.  The book is filled with the series’ trademark mouthwatering descriptions of Montalbano’s beloved local cuisine, and the Sicilian atmosphere almost leaps off the page.

This book however, is somewhat darker in tone than those which precede it.  Questions are raised not only about Montalbano’s ability to do his job, but also whether his health is all it should be.  The nature of the enquiry – into the illegal trafficking of immigrants, and specifically children – takes the reader into an uncomfortable area.  None of this is a critcism however; this series tends to get better with every book, and this is possibly my favourite so far. 

An excellent read, but I would urge anyone wanting to read any of the Montalbano series, to start at the first book and read through them in order. 

 

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In a fit of pique, an eight year old girl wishes that her mother was dead, and blames herself when her mother does actually die that night. From then on, our unnamed narrator chooses a life of loneliness and isolation – while she has a job and sees people, she never gets close to them emotionally. Her brother persuades her to move to Florida, where he lives with his wife, and it is there that she is struck by lightning. However, she survives, albeit with some physical conditions brought on by the strike, and hears a story about a man who was struck by lightning, and who died for 40 minutes before coming back to life. She seeks out this man – Lazarus Jones – and discovers that there is fire inside him. Literally. He can set paper alight by breathing on it, and when the narrator has a relationship with him, he burns her when he holds and kisses her. Their relationship is obsessive and intense, but eventually they both reveal the secrets they keep hidden inside themselves.

Unfortunately, while this book is clearly well written, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. The narrator was unsympathetic and I almost disliked her; certainly I stopped really caring what happened to her. I didn’t feel the intensity of the relationship between her and Lazarus, and neither did I believe it. Maybe this was the wrong book at the wrong time for me, but I found elements of the story hard to ignore, or tedious. The narrator’s frequent references to fairy tales grated slightly, and I was unable to suspend disbelief at the more mystical elements of the book. However, on the plus side, the writing did flow easily and was very eloquent in places. There were also some characters in the book which were far more interesting and likeable, such as the narrator’s brother Ned, and her friend Renny. Overall however, this modern day fairytale left me underwhelmed.

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In 1989, the world watched as the Berlin Wall – a symbol of oppression at its most blatant – was brought down.  The atmosphere was euphoric and everyone who saw those scenes knew that they were watching history being made.

Peter Millar is a British journalist, who had spent several years living in East Berlin, and who found himself literally caught in the middle of the celebrations, stuck at Checkpoint Charlie, trying to make sense of what was happening, while piecing together a story for The Sunday Times.

In this book, he describes the events that led to the wall being built, and what life was like for those on the Eastern side of it. People suddenly found themselves separated from family members, or forcibly ejected from their homes.  Living conditions were poor, and the economy crumbled.  Unlike most journalists who reported on the Wall and the division of a country, Millar has an on-the-ground view of events, as he lived through them personally.  The book also talks about how he initially fell into journalism (almost by accident), and worked in Fleet Street in the 1970s, before he became a foreign correspondent, and found a local public house in East Berlin named Metzer Eck.  There, he made some good friends and uncovered a lot of local opinion about life under the rule of the Soviet Union.

The political blunders and deliberate misunderstandings that led up to the demolition of the Berlin Wall are well explained and interesting.  Millar discusses how life changed for people on both sides, when Berlin became one city again. He also relates how, some years later, he went to look at his own file kept by the Stasi Police (who spied on the citizens of East Berlin), and discovered who, if any, of his friends had fed information about him to the Stasi.  This chapter was the most chilling for me.  It was commonplace for microphones to be hidden in the walls of people’s apartments, and for certain citizens to be kept under surveillance from dawn to dusk.  A day out for Millar with his wife, when they did nothing more than go to a beach for a picnic, is described in minute-by-minute detail.

Millar is an engaging narrator, with a wry wit.  However, his good natured sense of humour never lets the reader forget that this is a story of oppression and dictatorship; that the people described lived their lives under constant watch and distrust.  It is written in a chatty tone, but it is about a very serious subject.  Highly informative, well researched and extremely interesting.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

 

 

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Miss Pettigrew is a down on her luck governess, who is given the chance to work for the glamorous Miss LaFosse, a beautiful night club singer.  Miss Pettigrew has never had friends, never been kissed, and has had no fun in her life.  She is soon drawn into Miss LaFosse’s exciting life, and finds herself rescuing her new friend from unsavoury men, and attending social events and night clubs.  Soon, Miss Pettigrew is experiencing everything which she thought had passed her by, and she finds herself wanting to live her life to the fullest.

This Cinderella story is an amusing and wonderfully entertaining novel.  Miss Pettigrew is a very likeable heroine, and Delysia LaFosse is a wonderful character, taking the part of Miss Pettigrew’s Fairy Godmother, who shows her a life full of adventure and laughter which was previously unimagined.

The writing is charming and this was a gently told lovely tale, which was perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon curled up on the sofa.  It is populated with lots of colourful characters and amusing situations, with a very endearing central character.  I really enjoyed seeing the day through Miss Pettigrew’s eyes.

Overall, this is a sweet, old fashioned fairy tale, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.  

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This is John Grisham’s collection of short stories, all of which are set in America’s Deep South, in the fictional Ford County.

There are seven stories in the collection, and they are by turns, touching, funny and insightful. 

The book starts off with ‘Blood Drive’ – an amusing tale about three hapless men on a mercy dash to Memphis.  Unfortunately there are a number of distractions along the way!  This story was very entertaining and made me laugh on a number of occasions.

The second story is ‘Fetching Raymond’, about two brothers who take their mother to see her third son in prison.  Raymond is intelligent and manipulative, but whether his guile will help him now, remains to be seen.  This was one of my favourite stories in the collection; Raymond made for an irritating, exasperating but ultimately pathetic character.

‘Fish Files’ tells the tale of a small town lawyer who suddenly sees a chance to make big money and escape his humdrum life.  An interesting tale which ended up very differently to how I had expected.

The fourth story is ‘Casino’ and is about a man who learns the intricacies of gambling in order to ease his broken heart and gain revenge.  This was the one story in the whole collection which didn’t really work for me.  I did feel that a knowledge of casinos and how certain card games were played would have helped.

‘Michael’s Room’ describes the ordeal of a lawyer who is forcedby gunpoint to see the results of his legal wrangling in a case years earlier, where he was able to deny a family with a disable son, the compensation which they so obviously deserved.  It was a thought provoking story, with an abrupt end – I would actually have liked to see how the tale progressed beyond the short story.

‘Quiet Haven’ is about a conman working in an old people’s home.  Despite his intentions, he is one of the only person to show compassion and tenderness towards some of the people in his care, and it was hard not to like (or at least have some respect for) him, although he made no attempt to hide his less-than-pure actions from the reader.

The final story in the collection was also my favourite.  ‘Funny Boy’, set in the late 1980s in Ford County, describes how a young man with AIDS returns to his home town after living in San Francisco and New York.  He has come home to die, but despite his illness, people in Clanton, Ford County are largely unsympathetic, due to both his homosexuality and his illness.  Lack of understanding about AIDS is demonstrated in the way people refuse to shake his hand, or refuse to even touch anything which he has touched (it’s worth remembering that in the late 1980s, AIDS was a relatively newly discovered condition and there was far less understanding of it than there is now).  However, he does form one connection of sorts with an elderly black lady namd Emporia who agrees to look after him in the hope of securing her own home as payment.  This story made me both angry (at the attitude of people towards Adrian and his condition) and sad.

It’s easy to see why John Grisham has sold as many books as he has.  He simply tells a great story in an engaging fashion, and it’s easy to lose yourself in one of his books for a few hours.  Short stories don’t always hold the reader’s attention in the same way as a full length novels – there is less time to devote to characterisation and twists and turns – but these stories were very enjoyable.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Lucifer Box is the narrator and hero of this tale.  He is London’s foremost portraitist, and a charming wit and dandy, with an eye for pretty ladies (and men).  He is also a secret agent in the employ of His Majesty’s Government, in Edwardian England (who lives at number 9 Downing Street, no less – as he says, “Well someone has to live there”).  He is tasked with investigating the mysterious deaths of two eminent professors, and the murder of one of his fellow secret agent in Naples.  As Lucifer heads to Naples himself he finds himself drawn further and further into the mystery.  He tells the story in his own inimitable style, peppered with saucy wit and smart witticisms.

This is a hugely enjoyable satirical romp – Lucifer is perhaps the James Bond of his time, and finds himself entangled in many outlandish and incredible situations, which require all of his guile and cunning to extricate himself from.

Both Edwardian London and Naples are brought vividly to life, and Box’s descriptions of Pompeii made me want to visit that famous site.

Lucifer himself is a terrific hero – he is brazenly immoral, doubtlessly charming and the sort of rakish cad who I couldn’t help liking, despite myself.  The writing made me laugh out loud on several occasions, and it was impossible not to root for him.

The supporting cast of charcters have wonderful names such as Christopher Miracle, Kitty Blacklash and Charlie Jackpot, which add to the fun and served to remind me of the satirical nature of the plot when things sometimes took on a slightly more serious nature.  Yes, it requires the reader to suspend belief, and yes it is an outrageous story – but that’s fine, because that is exactly what it is supposed to be.  The subtitle of the story is ‘A Bit of Fluff’ – and that sums the book up perfectly.  It’s not to be taken seriously, it’s meant to be funny, sharp and pure entertainment.  And that’s precisely what it is. 

I very much look forward to reading the next book in the series.

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