Saturday, 22 March 2014

Reading for Spring

I am signing up to do the Once Upon a Time challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel DroppingsThe themes for the challenge are fantasy, folklore, fairytale and mythology. I've had in mind the books I want to read for some time, and they are as follows;

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
Described an 'urban fantasy full of vampires, werewolves and shape-shifters' it is set in London in 1878. It's the first book in The Infernal Devices series.

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin
This is another first book in a series (the Matthew Swift novels) and is again set in London. 'Enter a London where magicians ride the Last Train, implore favours of the Beggar King and interpret the insane wisdom of The Bag Lady'.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch
This is more of a known quantity because it is the fourth in the series and I loved the other three. A police procedural, the hero is PC Peter Grant an apprentice wizard who works for the Metropolitan Police. (London again, I didn't realise how London-centric the list was until I've started typing it out).

Any Other Name by Emma Newman
The second in the Split Worlds trilogy. I've actually had this on my shelf for ages, but I was waiting for Once Upon a Time to read it. The blurb says 'It's Downton Abbey with magic, in Bath's secret mirror city'. That sounds impossible to resist.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
This is a re-read. I loved it when I previously read it and am hoping it's as good as I remember.

That's my list, and I'm looking forward to getting started.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Wedlock by Wendy Moore

This is the story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, born in 1789, the attractive, educated and pampered only child of an extremely wealthy County Durham coal magnate. Her father died when she was a child and she almost immediately became a target for fortune hunters. In Georgian Britain rich people did not often marry for love, and this was the case with Mary Eleanor. Her first marriage, to the Earl of Strathmore, wasn't happy, but fairly brief; he died after they had been married for eight years. But it was idyllic compared to what happened next.

Andrew Robinson Stoney was an Irish soldier. He was handsome, charming, and extremely manipulative. He had already been married and the gossip was that he had driven his first wife to her grave by his ill-treatment. Unbelievably he tricked Mary Eleanor into marrying him by pretending that he was dying. Once they were wed he made a miraculous recovery. Mary Eleanor's life from then until the end of her marriage was a living hell.

After her marriage she no longer had any rights over her own money and Stoney kept her almost penniless. He was physically and emotionally abusive. He kept her from seeing her mother and her friends, she was often a prisoner in her own home. She was rarely given enough to eat and became thin and gaunt. She was a clever woman and had a keen interest in botany and science but Stoney prevented her from pursuing those interests.

This is all shocking enough, but what amazed me the most was that there seemed to be nothing she could do to save herself. Plenty of people knew what was going on but nobody stepped in to help her. Stoney was a master of disinformation and he let it be known that Mary Eleanor was irrational - almost deranged - and people believed him. When help finally did come it wasn't from anyone in her own social class, but her servants who rescued her. Those with the most to lose risked everything, while those with the power stood and watched.

I thought this was a fascinating and horrifying book. Domestic abuse still happens today of course, and women still stay with abusive men, through fear, or being so beaten down that they can't see a way out. But at least it's a subject that's talked about, and there are laws to protect women, and refuges for them to go to. Mary Eleanor had none of that. Though she attained a measure of peace in her later years, because of Andrew Stoney Robinson the happy life she could've had and the good she could've done in the world through her patronage of scientific endeavours never happened.

(Incidentally, Mary Eleanor's grandson John and his wife Josephine founded the Bowes Museum, which I wrote about here.)

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley

Running is something that I liked as a child. I am one of that strange breed who actually enjoyed cross-country at school. But running (in fact all sport) stopped when I left school. I can't say that I've particularly missed it. On the other hand I am quite often tired these days and have got significantly heavier over the past few years. Lack of exercise has got a lot to do with that. My son joined our local running club a couple of years ago and that stirred in me some long-forgotten urge to run. But only enough to make a couple of half-hearted attempts and then give up. Then I heard about this book and ordered it from the library. I started it straightaway and finished it in about two days.

Alexandra Heminsley is a journalist who hadn't done any sport for years and didn't think of herself as an athletic person at all. But she decided that she wanted to run.

That was it, I was going to run round the block. I had high hopes: hopes of the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel and the speed of a gazelle. Defeated by gyms, bored by sanctimonious yoga teachers and intimidated by glossy tennis clubs, I decided it was time to end a lifetime spent believing myself to exist on the outside of sport. I would return powerful and proud, the city still reeling at the sight of my grace and speed on the pavements of Kilburn.

Suffice to say it didn't turn out as she planned. But she didn't give up and by sheer tenacity and perseverance turned herself into a runner.

It's very funny, there's plenty of stuff like the paragraph quoted above. She doesn't mind laughing at herself (she fell down while trying to high-five spectators at her first marathon), and she is honest about her setbacks as well as her successes. It is also quite moving, she writes about how running helped her reconnect  with her father with whom she'd had a loving, but quite distant relationship. He had been a keen runner and it gave them a shared interest and something to talk about.

There's lots of practical advice as well; about kit, injuries, what to take to a race. All in all I think it's an ideal book for women who think they might like to run. I found it very inspiring and am running again. Very slowly, and not in daylight - but it's a start.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

THE SHAMBLING GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITYI already had this on my TBR list when I was lucky enough to win a copy on a Goodreads giveaway. Urban fantasy is a relatively new genre for me, but it's fast becoming one of my favourites.

Zoe Norris is forced to return to her home town of New York after the break-up of a bad relationship. She is a book editor, so when she sees an advert for a job editing a travel guide to the city, she applies. It transpires that this will be a guide for the supernatural and paranormal denizens (known as the coterie) of New York, creatures who up until this point Zoe hadn't known existed. She will be the only human working on a staff which includes vampires, zombies, and a death goddess. Not all her colleagues welcome her presence.

The balance between humans and the coterie is carefully preserved. Most humans are blithely unaware of the coterie, and the coterie are monitored and controlled by an organisation called Public Works. But now it seems as though someone is deliberately sabotaging this balance, which could have catastrophic consequences.

This is the first in an intended series of Shambling Guides and as such there was quite a lot of explanation to get through establishing the world in which Zoe finds herself. I thought this was done in a very light and easy way - I didn't feel like I was just having a load of exposition dumped on me. It's a humorous, fun book. Between each chapter is an extract from the guidebook Zoe is editing; for example this on mid-town architecture,

While the humans will be checking out the Apple Store for expensive computers and gadgets, we encourage any visiting coterie to stop and admire its all glass structure. It is actually crystal, and was built by a race  of apini demons native to the southern US.

If you enjoy Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant books I'm sure you will enjoy this. I'm certainly going to look out for more books by Mur Lafferty, and I'm looking forward to the next in this series.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I have enjoyed Simon Sebag Montefiore's TV series, most recently the one on the history of Byzantium, but I have never read any of his books. So I was delighted to receive this one from the publisher and curious to find out if I would enjoy it.

It opens in the final months of the Second World War with the shooting of two teenage friends in Moscow. However, as one of the investigating policemen says, 'These aren't just any dead children.'  Their parents are high up in government, as are the parents of their friends. They belonged to a secret club called The Fatal Romantics Club, seeming innocent and childish, but suddenly under the glare of the investigation it becomes much more. The inquiry into the deaths becomes like a sinkhole opening up in the lives of everyone who knew this boy and girl. It gets bigger and bigger and more and more people are drawn in - friends, siblings, parents, teachers.

I thought that this book was so good at evoking the poisonous atmosphere of Stalinist Russia. It's not something I know much about, I recognised very few of the real life characters in it. Being close to Stalin was no guarantee of safety. He was so unstable and capricious that you could be his favourite one day and arrested the next. No-one could reveal the slightest suggestion of doubt in his leadership. No-one could be trusted, not even your own family. There was always someone prepared to betray, either through ambition, or fear, or because they genuinely believed in communism. I actually found some parts of it quite distressing to read.

In the afterword Simon Sebag Montefiore writes, "This is not a novel about power but about private life - above all, love." I much preferred the parts of the story about the politics to the parts about the love affairs. The horror of being caught in the web around Stalin with no way to escape, and no choice but to play the game to survive was so powerfully rendered. I also found the descriptions of how the mothers felt when their children were being arrested very powerful and moving. They were so terrified and so helpless.

I really enjoyed this, it's a proper page-turner and kept me gripped to the end. I will definitely read more by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Havisham by Ronald Frame

HavishamMiss Havisham is one of the most fascinating characters in literature. Devious, manipulative, perhaps
mad. A dreadful thing happened to her, but dreadful things do happen to people and for the most part they soldier on. Why was Miss Havisham so completely devastated that she chooses not to engage with the world, but to exist in a twilight state, in a moment frozen in time? This novel attempts to show how she came to be sitting in an ancient wedding dress, next to a mouldering wedding feast, loving no-one and no-one loving her.

Ronald Frame shows Catherine Havisham as the indulged only child of a successful brewer. Her mother died when Catherine was born and her father is busy with the business. Catherine is left a lot of the time to her own devices.

My father must have supposed that no other child could have had a happier time of it than I did. He showered me with gifts, which he didn't consider treats but things I had a perfect right to enjoy. But even amplitude and generosity pall. When I was by myself, I had a finite amount of imagination to help me play; when another child was brought along, I became possessive, only because I was afraid of having to reveal my embarrassment at owning so much.

Her father wants her to move up in the world and educates her as such. She is outwardly worldly, but because of her secluded childhood has very little understanding of other people's feelings and motives.

There are tragic hints of what is to come; as a young woman she acts in tableaus, staged scenes just as her wedding day becomes like a stage set. When she meets Compeyson I was hoping against hope that this time it would turn out differently! But of course it didn't.

The story is narrated by Miss Havisham at the end of her life. She is quite honest with herself, though perhaps not quite so honest to Pip or Estella. Jaggers the lawyer is the only one with whom she seems to be able to let down her guard. It is a tragic story, she wasn't a bad person but there was nobody in her whole life who she could trust (actually that's not quite true but she didn't recognise the worth of that person). Her pampered life and her lack of imagination didn't allow her to expect that her life would be anything other than gilded and glowing. When it didn't turn out that way she didn't have the resources to deal with it.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

jacket image for The Quincunx by Charles Palliser - large versionThis was the final one of my chosen rereads for 2013, though it did slip over into 2014. A chunky, labyrinthine Victorian pastiche it is perfect for reading on cold winter nights. It's a book you have to throw yourself into wholeheartedly, if you just read a couple of pages at a time it would be very difficult to follow the story. And it would probably take you the rest of your life to finish it. I thought I didn't remember any of it, but as I got into it I realised that it was coming back to me.

The story concerns John Huffam who at the beginning of the novel is a young boy living with his mother in an English village. They are not wealthy, but live comfortably. However John is aware that his mother has secrets. She is very protective of him and he is allowed very little freedom. They don't seem to have any friends and strangers to their door are treated with suspicion and even fear.

The death of a relative John has never even met sets off a train of events which will radically alter John's life. This relative was paying John's mother an allowance and without it seems that they will sink  inexorably into poverty. In early Victorian times of course this was a terrifying prospect, as it probably meant the workhouse, or death. During this time John discovers his mother's secret; a document which is in his mother's possession which could prove vital in establishing the heir  to a disputed fortune. John could be the heir, but so could other people, some of whom are extremely ruthless.

John is thrust into a life for which he is ill-prepared. He has to live by his wits and doesn't know who to trust. Sometimes it is pure luck that keeps him alive. It seems that his life is to be a tragedy. But somehow he keeps going, determined to live.

At almost 1,200 pages it is a book that I find impossible to summarise. But if you've got the time to set aside for it, I would recommend it as an engrossing story.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell

Flappers: Women of a Dangerous Generation
I was looking forward to reading this book from the moment I heard about it. I'm really attracted by this period in history, and I love biographies. My reading about and from the early twentieth century has expanded greatly since joining the Bright Young Things group on Goodreads last year, and I think that group may be where I first heard about this book.

The six women Judith Mackrell writes about are: Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka. I'd heard of all of them but didn't know a great deal about any of them. What they have in common is that they were young women in the 1920s, a time of social upheaval and years in which women were becoming more independent. Of course their lives weren't representative of most women's lives at the time. Most women probably lived lives which weren't very different from the lives of their mothers and grandmothers. But these six, and others like them became famous and young women of the time aspired to be like them. Even if working class women still didn't have many opportunities they could now have aspirations and role models. Tallulah Bankhead in particular had fanatical young women admirers who queued for hours to see her performances.

With the exception of Josephine Baker, all these women came from wealthy backgrounds, though in the case of Tamara de Limpicka she lost everything when she was forced to flee Russia during the Revolution. I particularly admired Tamara. She had led a pampered life in Russia and the change to a life of relative poverty in Paris must've been a tremendous shock. Her husband (and many others) did not have her ability to create a new life.

It was a mystery to Tamara how her confident playboy of a husband could become so unattractively mired in depression.......It was one reason why, when Tamara found the resolve to turn her life around she did so entirely on her own terms and without bothering to consult Tadeusz. Once she had decided to become a professional painter she immersed herself completely in the project, certain that from now on her own ambitions would take precedence over his.

One of things that is made very clear in this book is how hard it is to be a trailblazer. All of these women had ambitions which were way ahead of what society was prepared to accept. Alcohol and drugs feature heavily in a number of these stores, a comfort in lives which were often unhappy. The most successful professionally was Josephine Baker, a woman who came from almost unimaginable hardship to become an international superstar whose fame endures long after her death. She never achieved the stable personal life she craved. In comparison Diana Cooper did have a stable home life, but at the cost of giving up a promising career in the theatre.

I loved this book, just as I loved Judith Mackrell's book about the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova. These were exceptional women and they lived in fascinating times.