2 Mar 2013

"The Nonesuch" by Georgette Heyer

I mentioned "The Nonesuch" by Georgette Heyer in my last post but I wanted to devote some more paragraphs to it, because as you could tell, I really enjoyed it! So much so that I spent two night in a row reading with a torch under cover of the duvet so as not to keep my boyfriend awake with the light. 

As with so many other Heyer's novel the centre of this story is a romance - well more than one romance actually - but what I found more interesting was the dynamic between the two central female characters.

Ancilla Trent is a genteel 26-year-old woman who has fallen on hard times and has taken up a role as a governess in Yorkshire - truth be told, she is more than a governess, she is a companion and guide for a young woman who is so self-obsessed and wild than only Ancilla can control her. Tiffany Wield is the young woman in question. She is beautiful beyond belief but her beauty is also her weakness as she is so used to being admired and spoiled that she has developed into a narcissistic and cold young woman with no thoughts for anyone but herself. She looks up to Ancilla and allows herself to be guided by her advice but even this slight degree of control is tested when two men come to the neighbourhood. 
Sir Waldo Hawkridge, known as the Nonesuch due to his athletic skills and popularity in society, comes to the neighbourhood with his nephew, the young Lord Lindeth. They are expecting to spend only a short time int he countryside but they are quickly accepted into the upper circles of the neighbourhood and Lindeth becomes taken with the beautiful Miss Wield. 
Sir Waldo sees through the beautiful exterior of Miss Wield and senses her lack of feeling and her need for attention and he does what he can to spoil their blossoming romance. Meanwhile, Ancilla is struggling to keep up her self-imposed role as old maid and strict governess and finds herself yearning for her carefree days as a young gentlewoman. 

The differences between the misses Wield and Trent provide the dynamic that drives the story forward. The message is clear - what counts is not what is on the outside but what is on the inside. It's not a new or original message but it's true and here it comes wrapped up in a great story so I can only recommend that you give it a go.

27 Feb 2013

"Nature Girl" by Carl Hiaasen

It's quite rare for me to read book after book by the same author (unless that author is Georgette Heyer - you may have noticed...) but in the last couple of months, I have become very fond of the writing of Carl Hiaasen. He has a real talent for the comedic and sarcastic style that so many authors wish they could pull off and he creates characters that are easy to relate to and care about.

In "Nature Girl" he introduces us to several of these, most notable of which are Honey Santana, a single mom living in a Florida trailer park with her son Fry, a clever and overly mature for his age teenager. In most homes, computers are protected so that children don't have access to specific websites but in this trailer, it's the other way round - Fry has put control on the computer to limit his mother's use of it because Honey is more than a little wacko and when she gets obsesses about something, she is apt to do something pretty stupid.
Which is just what happens when an unfeeling douche of a telesales guy calls Honey and Fry in the middle of dinner to sell them something they don't want, at a price they can't afford. The call spirals into a fight and Honey snaps and starts putting together a plan to get back at the sales guy.
So starts an adventures on Dismal Key in the Everglades which involves (in no particular order):

  • A Seminole Indian bearing the name of Sammy Tigertail and weighed down by a heavy identity crisis. 
  • A college girl gone wild. 
  • A semi-famous mistress of a murderer with a body that drives men wild. 
  • A hapless telesales guy who has lost his job and is about to lose his wife. 
  • A divorced man named Perry Skinner whose ex-wife Honey is a real basket case (...). 
  • A bunch of born-again christians. 
  • A disgusting and deranged sexist fish monger. 

Chasing each other around the small island, they all have personalities that are to some extent outside of the normal and when they are mixed, a true mayhem of misunderstandings and calamities break lose making for a hilarious story about forgiveness and about how sometimes, the most best people are the ones we call crazy.

23 Feb 2013

A Regency Feast - thank you Georgette Heyer!

When it comes to comfort reading, reading to escape everyday life for something a little more glamourous and romantic, nothing beats a Georgette Heyer regency novel. Heyer was hands down the best at creating enchanting regency fairytales with intelligent, sensible heroines and dashing beaus. Some Heyer novels are better than others though - which makes sense when you consider how many she wrote... So here are my three Heyer favourites:

"Regency Buck" 
Set in 1811-1812, this is the story of the calm, cool and collected heiress Judith Taverner who comes to London to become part of the ton. She is set at being a success, even if she has to battle her formidable guardian, the fashionable Earl of Worth, who has very little interest in introducing Judith and her brother Peregrine into society.
Judith Taverner is a classic Heyer heroine; full of courage and determination with plenty of intelligence but also with a warm heart. She's an It-girl and a trendsetter and her story is captivating - I've read it at least five times and it remains a favourite.

"The Grand Sophy"
The Grand Sophy is the nickname of a young lady who has grown up on the continent but is sent to family in London in time for her coming-out. Sophy is different from the other girls in the city, her childhood has been one of freedom to do or speak as she wants and she continually shocks her surroundings with her free spirit. Like Judith Taverner, Sophy is a woman with a tremendous personality and a chic taste in attire and in this novel, Heyer shows this even more clearly by giving Sophy an adversary whose virtues are in line a more traditional female ideal of demure femininity.

"The Nonesuch"
The heroine of this Heyer novel stands apart from the society beauties of "Regency Buck" and "The Grand Sophy" - Ancilla Trent is a genteel 26-year-old woman who has fallen on hard times and has taken up a role as a governess in Yorkshire. She is gentle and intelligent, reserved and self-confident without the outgoing liveliness of Judith and Sophy. When the Nonesuch, Sir Waldo Hawkridge comes to the neighbourhood with his nephew, Ancilla's young charge, the beautiful but cold Tiffany Wield, wants the attentions of both gentlemen. The differences between Ancilla and Tiffany are what drives this novel with Sir Waldo being the catalyst showing how all that glitters isn't gold and not all gold glitters.

Of the three heroines, Judith Taverner is the woman, most of us would want to be, Sophy is the girl we'd admire and try to live up to and Ancilla is the one we would tell our deepest secrets. Heyer is a fabulous talent for bringing interesting and engaging women to life in stories and if you are looking for new fiction-friends, I suggest you start here!

17 Feb 2013

"Brightness Falls" by Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney does vacuous, shallow, wealth-drugs-or-fame obsessed characters really well, better than most other writers and so good that it rivals Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy from "The Bonfires of Vanities".

"Brightness Falls" is the ultimate recession-read, a story of having it all and still wanting more, much more. It's a story of a world where the super-rich make the wealthy look poverty stricken, it really messes with your sense of perspective - a bit like a fashion spread in Vanity Fair actually.

It's the late 1980's and Russel and Corrine Calloway have a great life. She's working in bank, making pretty impressive money while still maintaining to be a very decent human being and work in a soup kitchen - a sort of America's sweetheart in designer suits and cocktail dresses. He's in publishing and although he is good at his job, he is restless and impatient to do more and get more. They met in college and have been a golden couple ever since, the people that everyone else looked up to and wanted to be, the ones who had fabulous dinner parties and were beautiful and successful.
Then Russell gets the opportunity to make take part in a deal. A big deal, one that could shake the New York publishing scene. But everything comes at a price and to pursue his dream of big business and a place in publishing history, Russell must ally himself with ruthless investor Bernie Melman for whom everything is for sale - a corporate devil who is evil incarnate and clad in a great suit.

With the ambitions of 1980's yuppies come also the classic sufferances - depression, drug dependency, eating disorders, infidelity and a life spiraling out of control. It's a story with a morale about how everything comes at a price, about the greed danger of greed and "you don't know what you've got til it's gone".

"Brightness Falls" lacks the humour and satirical elegance of some of McInerney's other books such as "Model Behaviour" or "Story of My Life" but it has Corrine who with her likeability and frailty is a guide leading the reader through the story while promising that the world is not as awful as men like Melman and her husband make it. She is the reason that I would read this book again - because I connected with her in some way - and I admire McInerney for his ability to create such an engaging character.
Read it as a warm-up if you like 1980s stories of excess and hubris and then follow it up with "The Bonfire of Vanities" by Tom Wolfe, the iconic read on this topic.

16 Feb 2013

Massimo Carlotto: "The Master of Knots"

This is going to be a short review because I really don't have a lot to say about "The Master of Knots" by Massimo Carlotto. Just not my type of book, I guess. I'm not the biggest fan of crime fiction but I do it enjoy it once in a while - especially writers like Jo Nesbo and Jussi Adler-Olsen or Andrea Camilleri, if we're talking Italian. So I had some hope for this one - I was basically expecting something like an Italian Nesbo which is asking a lot, I will admit... 

The plot is something to do with the S&M underworld of Northern Italy and although it's not something that I know a whole lot about (see my 50 Shades of Booooring review), the author came across as really judgmental to me. Or at least his characters did. It seemed like everything that the S&M-related characters got up to was blamed on their "sexual deviancy" and there was much too much talk of shame and disgrace for my taste. 
Especially when you consider the fact that the characters were pretty boring at the best of times. The main character is a private investigator/club owner who is terribly traumatized from the years he spent in prison, innocently convicted of something pretty vague. His business partners are pretty much carbon-copies of him and it all got a bit blurry for me because they were all pretty cardboardy and one-dimensional. 
The plot lacks imagination and not even the so-called sexual deviancy can save it from being bland, boring and un-engaging. 

Summing up this novel in one word, I would say: meh. Nevermind. Moving on to the next book swiftly and definitely not re-reading this one. 

11 Feb 2013

"The Terracotta Dog" by Andrea Camilleri

I'm not really a big fan of crime fiction. It is a genre that is encumbered with more than an average amount of bad writing and often the characters are lifeless and cardboard-y as they are little more than supporting roles being overshadowed by gruesome murders. There are a few exceptions though. I have a real fondness for Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole, although the murders in that particular series are usually very gruesome, and Carl Morck from Jussi Adler-Olsen's series about Department Q. 

Another crime fiction hero that I have a fondness for is their Italian counter-party, Inspector Montalbano who is created by the author Andrea Camilleri. Where Hole and Morck are socially inept, frontline combat types who have little understanding of the finer things in life. Montalbano is a different sort of gentleman altogether, although not exactly a social animal, he does have friends and does attend the occasional dinner party. He is a part of a local community and that plays a vital role in his work, being able to draw on old acquaintances and friends for information and inspiration. 

In "The Terracotta Dog", Montalbano is investigating a mafia related crime involving caves on the beach being used for smuggling. The caves, it turns out, are more than just a convenient meeting place for smugglers, it is also a tomb to two heavily decayed bodies, who are holding each other in death and are being watched over by a large terracotta dog. This is a mystery so intriguing that it is impossible for Montalbano not to investigate it, even though it is obviously an old crime and even though him and his colleagues have work enough already. In his quest to find out who the couple are and why they were entombed in the caves, Montalbano is led to stories from the Second World War where Sicily was plagued by the utmost poverty and destitution. 

For me the plot was nothing special. It wasn't really a riveting story but what makes it much more than an average book are the little touches that Camilleri uses to spice up the story. Montalbano's love of good Sicilian food is a recurring theme and one that I love - it's rare for a crime fiction novel to make you want to cook more! All in all, it is these touches of Italianess, of history and culture, that makes this really come to life - that and the wonderful dry sense of humour of Inspector Montalbano. Read it if it you (like me) have a love for Italy and enjoy a little mystery here and there. 

10 Feb 2013

Venturing into new territory

Ever found yourself in the kitchen, cooking the same old dish once again (possibly for the fifth or six Monday in a row, Monday being a particularly imagination-less day in my world)? That's where I am right now - void of imagination, in a place where doing another green curry or another roast chicken is inconceivable because i might end up so bored that i can't eat it... So now is the time to try something new and in this spirit, I have bought two cookery books, none of which are Italian (quite an achievement for me!). 

Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi
Yesterday, the wait to get a table for lunch at Ottolenghi in Islington was more than an hour so in the end, we gave up and found somewhere else to eat and gossip. Being no big fan of waiting for hours on end for a table, I will be attempting to cook some of their delicious dishes myself instead. 

The Guilt-free Gourmet by Jordan and Jessica Bourke
No dairy, no wheat, no sugar. Great for those days where you've been really good in the gym and don't fancy spoiling it by refueling with pasta or pancakes. 

6 Feb 2013

"The Black Sheep" by Georgette Heyer

Few authors can do for me what Georgette Heyer does. Her novels make me instantly feel relaxed and comfortable. They're like the facials of the world of books, a little haven that allows you to escape real life for a bit. Yes, it romances but they're well-written and few authors have chronicled Regency Life for the upper classes as she has. 

I'll come straight out and say that "Black Sheep" is not among my fave Heyer novels. It's cute and good but it doesn't reach the levels of "Frederica" or "The Grand Sophy". 

The story is a classic Heyer tale: Abby Wendover is, with her 28 years, officially on the shelf and as such she considers herself much too old to be treated as a girl. She is, in her own mind, a respectable spinster. Abby is unmarried by choice, although she has had offers, she has never really been in love and with her keen wit, dry sense of humour and independent spirit, few men can match her and as she has an independent fortune (not a large one), she doesn't have to marry for practical reasons. 
Instead she lives in Bath with her older sister Selina and her ward, the beautiful barely out of the school room miss, Fanny. They are part of the inner circle in Bath and it is a comfortable life but when Abby comes back from a stay with her other sister, drama is looming on the horizon. Fanny, an heiress, fancies herself in love with the fashionable Stacy Castlereigh but Abby is certain that he is nothing but a fortune hunter, so when the young man's uncle Miles Castlereigh shows up in Bath, Abby quickly tries to enlist his help. 
Miles Castlereigh has just returned from India and makes no secret of his lack of interest in polite manners and conventions and he couldn't care less about his nephews schemes, he is very interesting is Miss Abby Wendover. A true Heyer plot is unfolding... 

If you're a Heyer fan, like me, you'll enjoy "Black Sheep". Abby is a great main character with lots of personality, my only complaint is that it would be good to have more of her. Similarly main of the minor characters are not built robustly enough and end up a little one dimensional. The story is great and the ending was fantastic, classic Heyer, so it's a really good read. However, if you've never read Heyer before, I suggest starting with another one of her books such as "Regency Buck" or "The Grand Sophy". 

3 Feb 2013

"The Hottest Dishes in the Tartar Cuisine" by Alina Bronsky

Sometimes a narrator will tell the story with real feeling, drawing you in and playing on your heartstrings. Giving you unlimited access to their thoughts and feelings and the way that they see the world. And some narrator's are just downright unreliable, giving you heir version of events and leaving it to you to figure out what really happened. Rosalinda, the main character of Alina Bronsky's "The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine" is one of those narrators. 

Rosalinda is, at least according to herself, a very capable woman. She is clever, intelligent, beautiful and with more energy and gusto than most. At least according to herself. In reality she is incredibly forceful and downright manipulative, stopping at nothing to get what she wants. When we first meet her, she is the mother of the 17-year-old disappointment Sulfia who is neither clever nor pretty and when it turns out that she is pregnant, Rosalinda does her very best to provoke an abortion. It doesn't happen which turns out to be for the best because her little grandchild Aminat becomes her most precious - I was almost about to write possession... 

In Rosalinda's view, noone can take care of Aminat like she can and she completely designs her life around Aminat and the many hopes that she has for her future. The book follows them for the next thirty years, as Rosalinda repeatedly marries off Sulfia to one hapless husband after the other and eventually succeeds to sell Aminat to a sleazy, cheap, disgusting German in return for him marrying Sulfia and bringing the three of them to Germany. It is a family tale like none you've ever read before and it's a fabulous story, fabulously well-written. 

I absolutely love the unreliableness of Bronsky's narrator. Everything she says is so tainted by her own interpretations that it is almost impossible to distinguish what actually goes on and her cunning ways and at times evil manipulation is depicted by herself as almost saintly behaviour. She never does anything for herself, everything is done for others. 

At the same time, the author manages to occasionally take a step back from her narrator and show us who she really is - but it is done with a sly, dry humour. Actually humour is what saves the storyline because if you look at it, it is an incredibly sad story. But it is told with such humour, compassion and attention to absurdness that it doesn't come across as sad. It almost becomes a testament to life despite trouble and difficulties, to survival even against the worst odds. 

It is a fantastic book  - I'm pretty sure that it'll make it unto the Best Books of 2013 list in a year's time. It's dramatic, sad, poignantly beautiful and told with skill, intelligence and humour!

29 Jan 2013

"Skios" by Michael Frayn

Looking for the perfect read for a holiday or a relaxing Sunday? One that will make you laugh with intelligent twists? Look no further than "Skios" by Michael Frayn... 

Skios a is a little paradise on earth, a warm, sunny Greek island in the middle of a glittering, blue sea, is the setting for an annual event where glamour meets science, the Fred Toppler Foundation's annual House Party. Nikki Hook, PA to Mrs. Fred Toppler, the dancer formerly known as Bahama LeStarr, is in charge of making the House Party a roaring success and she is damned if anything is going to spoil this opportunity to secure a promotion. Lightly tanned with discreetly blonde highlights, she is the embodiment of efficiency, when she's waiting in the airport to pick up the guest of honour Dr. Wilfred Norman. Unfortunately, the good-looking, charming man introducing himself as Dr. Wilfred Norman is not actually the distinguished doctor but instead professional charmer and chancher per excellence, Oliver Fox.

Oliver Fox is a ladies man with a penchant for making up identities. In certain London circles (among socialites and hedge fund wives), he is notorious. He party trick seems to revolve around picking up needy women and then sponging off them for as long as possible. This particular weekend, he has come to Skios for a hot weekend with a woman whose rich financier fiancee is away on a weekend trip but when he spots the dishy Nikki in the airport, he suddenly decides to try out the identity as Dr. Wilfred Norman.

Enough to say that hilarity ensues with Oliver Fox playing the important academic dignitary and explaining away to fellow scientists as only a true conman can and Dr. Norman enjoying the dubious honour of being trapped in a secluded villa with a beautiful woman who seems to think that he is a rapist.

"Skios" by Michael Frayn was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize and for a reason. It combines hilarious with elegantly written in a way that very few authors can while creating characters that engage  the reader and come to life. Many authors who master the comedic genre rely largely on the plot to carry them but in "Skios", the characters are what drive the story and bring forward the laughs. This is holiday reading for the intelligent reader who wants a little more and I can recommend it as the  most perfect entertainment for an afternoon on the beach or in the garden. 

27 Jan 2013

Showcase Sunday

Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea hosts a Showcase Sunday which is always quite fun and today I thought that I'd take part. This is what I have bought this week and will be reading in coming days: 

"The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine" by Alina Bronsky (LOVE the title!)

"The Pursuit of Italy" by David Gilmour (non-fiction and an attempt to mend my knowledge gap about Italy)

"Headhunters" by Jo Nesbo (want to see the film, have to read the book first)

What did you get your hands on this week? 

26 Jan 2013

"Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiaasen

Chaz Perrone is a douchebag, this is clear from the first page of Carl Hiaasen's "Skinny Dip" where aforementioned Mr. Perrone's wife is taking a headfirst, involuntary dive from a cruiseship into the ocean. Having somehow gotten in the way of her husband's plan, Joey Perrone finds herself thrown overboard in a pretty callous attempt at her life and as she hits the waves, she's not sure how she will manage to survive for long enough to swim ashore. With the help of fury, swim training and a bale of pot from Jamaica, she clings to life and finds herself being rescued by illegal drugs and a gruff lonesome ex-cop living a life of solitude on a small island off the Florida coast.

Although furious with Chaz for his deceit, Joey is in no way ready to go to the police, instead she wants to take revenge. No turning the cheek for this scorned woman who enrolls her rescuer, Mick, to help her get back at Chaz. She's not out to kill him, just drive him crazy enough to get him to admit exactly why he wanted her dead. 

"Skinny Dip" is a hilarious story of an avenging angel (Joey) who armed with a gold AmEx, Italian shoes and with a somewhat reluctant but very competent companion in tow (Mick) sets out to destroy the life of her hopeless husband. 

This is my second Hiaasen novel and it was even funnier than my first ("Star Island", reviewed earlier this month) and the strength is in the characters: 

Joey is the American dream, the girl next door. She has inherited a vast fortune but has earmarked it for charity and her only extravagance is a bit of clothes and Italian shoes. She's a clever, capable, big hearted and a little naive blonde who is hard not to love. Somehow she reminded me of Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse - one of those girls that you would love to hang out with. 

Mick is a real man and a real loner. Not in touch with his feelings in any way whatsoever, he has several failed marriages behind him and prefers the company of his dog. 

Chaz is ... indescribably annoying. A biologist with no respect for nature at all, he will happily sell his soul, his wife and his dignity for money. He is an inexcusable playboy who is guided by his genitals in all matters where he is not guided by money. Yes, there is very little to recommend him apart from his good looks and he his the perfect (if somewhat dumb) villain. 

It is these three characters, along with a range of minor characters, that makes "Skinny Dip" work. That and the many plot twists and these characters will have you laughing out loud and maybe read half the night (like I did) because it simply is a hoot. 

23 Jan 2013

"Shadow of Night" by Deborah Harkness

Since I finished "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness in September 2011, I'd been looking forward to reading the sequel, "Shadow of Night", like a little kid looks forward to Christmas. And then the other day, it arrived in my mailbox and suddenly all my excitement vanished because what if... oh dare I write it... it didn't live up to the expectations set by the first book in what will in time be a trilogy? So I braced myself for disappointment and started reading, almost sure that I would not fall in love. 
How wrong I was (once I again - I never seem to learn) because although the first few pages were a warm-up session where I re-acquainted myself with Diana Bishop and Matthew de Clermont, I quickly settled back into the story and found as much to love in "Shadow of Night" as I did in "A Discovery of Witches". 

The story starts right where the story in the preceding book left off and if you haven't read that one, this will make little sense, I'm afraid but I will try to avoid spoilers by not explaining too much.  Matthew, a vampire, and Diana, a witch, have come to realise that in order to gain access to the mythical manuscript that might hold the key to the secrets of witches, vampires and daemons, they will have to travel back in time. Using Diana's newfound skills as a timetraveller, they journey back to 1590 where Matthew was a part of a circle around Queen Elizabeth I and friends with all sorts of notables. Even Shakespeare makes an appearance and although this could lead to some cringing, Harkness manages the staging of real historical persons in a paranormal setting much better that most. Kudos to her, I'm actually really impressed. 
The couple, whose love is illegal in the eyes of the Convention governing the Creatures (vampires etc.) are also hoping to find a teacher for Diana in this distant past. Somehow who can decipher her unruly magic and teach her how to harness it. Easier said than done.
Instead of spending a couple of weeks in the past, as originally planned, they end staying for a year or so and during this time, they accomplish an awful lot including traveling from Oxford to London to France and to Prague. I won't go into more detail here - keeping the spoilers at a minimum - it suffices to say that there is drama and romance enough for all in this tale!

Drama and romance is not enough, as we all know, and then it's rather luckily that not only can Harkness make up a great paranormal historical fiction piece, she can also write. And she has the research background and understanding of history that makes this stand out for it authenticity - yes, I said authenticity about a book with vampires in it, deal with it. 
Harkness is an inspiration in that her book is such a piece of quality work. It has obviously taken time and hard labour to produce but it has been worth it for it is splendid. The characters are fascinating and has plenty of psychological depth, the plot is well thought out and gripping and although a few too many historical celebrities have cameos, it is well-written with a mature tone to it that I find lacking in most paranormal stories. 
Summing it up, I'd say it's a triumph for Harkness. Now please go back to writing so we can have the last book in the trilogy. I can't wait!

20 Jan 2013

You don't mess with Mr. Darcy - "Death Comes to Pemberley" by P. D. James

Any book that puts the word "Pemberley" in the title is setting itself up for scrutiny because there are a lot of girls out there (myself included) to who Pemberley is pretty much sacred. You don't mess with Mr. Darcy. Nobody puts Lizzy in a corner. So a crime fiction novel featuring Mr. and Mrs. Darcy better not pollute the shades of Pemberley as Lady Catherine de Bourgh would say. 

"Death Comes to Pemberley" by P. D. James has a lot going for it. It is written by a capable author with a long career and plenty of successful novels to her name and it is true to the style and ways of Jane Austen. 

The plot is very different, however, from the Jane Austen novels as it is resolutely a crime fiction novel.     It is the night before a big ball at Pemberley and the Darcys and their closest friends are enjoying a peaceful night before the partying when a carriage comes hurrying towards the house at such a great speed that it almost topples over. It stops in front of the house and out of the carriage comes a hysterical,  screaming Lydia, Mrs. Darcy's fateful younger sister who ran off with the scoundrel Wickham. 

A murder has been committed in the forest next to Pemberley and all evidence points to Wickham being the murderer. To the proud Mr. Darcy this is a terribly difficult situation - by marriage, he is Wickham's brother and he has to put all of his hatred of the man to the side and do his best to keep him from the gallows. 

The strength of this book is the writing and the low-key plot line which keeps it as close as possible to Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" but at the same time this somehow is also the weakness. Because it stays very close to the original, it doesn't really take anything further. There is no elaborating on the relationship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, between Jane and Mr. Bingley, between Elizabeth and Jane and their less fortunate sisters, so reading it as a sequel to "Pride and Prejudice" doesn't work. 

For me, any book that features the beloved characters from that novel have to put the focus on them and their stories and this one doesn't, it is all about the whodunnit and the trial. Verdict from me is that as a historical crime, it works really well but as a part of the "Pride and Prejudice" fanfiction, it's no good. 

18 Jan 2013

How Can You Not Love a Book...

...that begins like this:

At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise liner M.V. Sun Duchess. Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic. 
I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves. 

"Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiaasen, page 15

17 Jan 2013

Ten Books I'm Gonna Read in 2013

It's the time for resolutions and although I have made any real New Year's resolutions, I'm up for making some bookish ones. One of the things that I really should do is make some headway on my TBR list... So my NY resolution 2013 will be to read the following ten books - what are you going to read in 2013?

10) "A Visit From the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan
Because everyone else seems to have read it... and I don't want to be the one left on the sideline.

9) "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Euginides
Because I loved "The Virgin Suicides" and "Middlesex" and I'm sure I'll love this one. But it's soooo hardback-y and heavy to drag with me on the bus in the morning so I haven't gotten round to reading it yet... (I know, pathetic excuse)

8) "Even Silence Has an End" by Ingrid Betancourt
Because this is non-fiction that you couldn't make up and not in the nice sense.

7) "Shadow of Night" by Deborah Harkness
Her first novel "A Discovery of Witches" is one of favourite (if not just my favourite) paranormal romances and I can't wait to read the sequel. It arrived in the mail the other day and is not on my shelf waiting for me to get going!

6) "The Hottest Dishes in the Tartar Cuisine" by Alina Bronsky
It has been on my TBR for absolute ages so I need to get around to read it this year - I have a feeling I won't regret it!

5) "Life" by Keith Richards
Another one that has been on the TBR for ages. I listen to a lot, a lot of Rolling Stones so how could I not read this one? Actually ashamed that I haven't already...

4) "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky
And a third one from the loooong TBR. I want to see the movie but I want to read the book first, so order to get to the movie, I need to get this one read. Sooner rather than later.

3) "Moranthology" by Caitlin Moran
Her "How to Be a Woman" was one of my favourite reads of 2012 so of course I need to read this book! Sooner rather than later.

2) "The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared" by Jonas Jonasson
This one is supposed to be hilarious, well-written and clever, so what's not to like?

1) "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman
I love Antonio Damasio's "Descartes Error" and I've promised myself to read more neuroscience books so this one is a must read for 2013.

12 Jan 2013

"Last Curtsey" by Fiona MacCarthy

I've always been really interested in the history of women, I love reading about influential women in history and about those points in history when the fates and fortunes of women changed. "Last Curtsey" by Fiona MacCarthy is about a very British rite of passage that a select number of privileged young women had to go through (some more willingly than others) in order to be introduced into polite society. These young women were called debutantes and they came from the most privileged, the wealthiest, titled families and the rite of passage that they went through was called the season, the highpoint of which was the curtsy to the Queen, the presentation at court.  

Fiona MacCarthy was one of these debutantes, actually she was in the last batch of debutantes ever to be presented at court and in "Last Curtsey" she shares the story of the debutantes and their lives during the season. 

It is a fascinating read with host of interesting characters : the debs delights, young men escorting the debutantes to parties, some of whom were branded by the debs' mothers with the "can't be trusted in cabs"; the golden debs who had their pictures featured in magazines, walked in Cardin fashion shows or went on to marry rich and influential men; the independent debs who soon gave up the dresses and dances to pursue careers. And then there are the quaint details and historic notes such as accounts showing the expenses that a budget or a full-scale season would have cost or the musings on the traditional menu at the pre-ball dinners. 

"Last Curtsey" is the story of United Kingdom that is no more and it also hints at why because it is obvious that although the dresses, the balls and the dancing is fascinating at first, it demands nothing more of the girls than that they be pretty and sociable and there are no expectations of careers or achievements beyond marriage and kids. MacCarthy writes sensitively, hiding no flaws but condemning no one for their choices and brings to life a long-gone era in an engaging, interesting and thoughtful manner. 

8 Jan 2013

The Best Books of 2012 - part 2

5. "The City and The City" by China Mieville
A tremendous piece of fiction about an assumedly Eastern European city which has been split into two cities and where citizens must pretend never to notice the other half of their city. Defies genres and enchants readers. 

A classic tale of 1950s office girls striving for more in life - careers, marriages, fame. A mandatory read for lovers of Mad Men. 

3. "Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers" by Stephanie Wellen Levine
The most gripping non-fiction book I have ever read. I literally could not put it down. Levine tells the stories of Hasidic Lubavitcher teenage girls living in Crown Heights, New York, where everyday demands a delicate balancing act of normal teenage pursuits (shopping, gossiping, thinking about boys) and strict observance of orthodox Jewish traditions and rules (kosher food, kosher music and gender segregation). Eyeopening and inspiring. 

2. "The Group" by Mary McCathy 
Interested in feminism or womens rights? Enjoyed Sex & The City but found its values superficial? Drop the boxsets and pick up this book instead. It is a tale of women in 1930s New York, a time and place where the role of women and the traditional gender patterns were changing rapidly and drastically. 

1. "Fear of Flying" by Erica Jong
This is a must read for women born in the 1980s and 1990s because even though it was written in 1973, it was never more relevant than today. It is about the mental emancipation of one headstrong yet insecure young woman and I've probably thought about this book and about its protagonist Isadora every day since I started reading it It and she really made an impression on me and taught me something about letting go of your fears. More than just a book, this is a zeitgeist, a manifest and a must read for young women. 

5 Jan 2013

Top Ten Books of 2012 - part 1

Here we go - the first half of my top ten of books read in 2012: 

10. "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady" by Florence King
One awesome women tells about her life as a Southern lady at a time when being a lady was something that required quite a bit of class and came with a whole lot of expectations. Emotional and hilarious at the same time. 

9. "How to Be a Woman" by Caitling Moran
Hilarious musings about what it means to be a women in our society today. Is it mandatory to have waxes? Who should we look up to as role models? Are we defined by the boys we kiss? Tackling some of the most difficult topics with a whole lot of humour and a completely lack of respect for comme il faut. 

8.  "Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles
New York in the 1930s. Glamourous girls, wealthy gentlemen, dubious playboys and lots of martinis. The perfect escapism read and a really good story to boot. 

"The Stranger's Child" by Alan Hollinghurst
Published in 2011 and already a modern classic, it tells the story of Britain in the last century through a series of linked stories. It all starts out with a love triangle and a poem. 

6. "The Privileges" by Jonathan Dee
The recession read. A story about a middle-class family who makes it big (really big, at least financially) through hard work and cunning investments that more than borders on financial crime. 

4 Jan 2013

"The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach

There are few genres that I genuinely have no interest in. Handbooks on DIY is one of them and sports literature is another. Yet I’ve found myself reading and enjoying what can very easily be termed a book about baseball. I will come clean immediately and say that I know nothing about baseball. Absolutely nothing. I have never watched a game, have no idea what the rules are or how many players it involves or even who might be celebrities in the baseball world. I imagine it to be a kind of upmarket version of rounders with slightly more action and slightly less misses but really, I have no clue. 
So Chad Harbach’s 2011 novel “The Art of Fielding” was an eye-opener. I actually thought the title referred to art made by an artist called Fielding… yes I’m blonde. Sorry. Turns out that’s not the case. Turns out that “The Art of Fielding” is a book (within a book) that young Henry Skrimshander treats as his personal bible. His one passion in life is baseball but he has no real idea of his own talent until he is spotted by Mike Schwarz, a baseball player at Westish College, a fictional but traditional liberal arts college. Suddenly and much to his own surprise, small-town boy Henry finds himself enrolled at Westish on a sports grant, living with decidedly gay roommate Owen who takes him shopping and training at the gym with his new team mates. Slowly but surely Henry grows physically – from a small, lean boy into a bulky baseball player, from a diamond in the rough into a real, recognized talent – but mentally it’s a much more difficult growth for him as the lines between his own dreams and the ambitions of his mentor Schwarz blur.
Westish is also home to President Affenlight, a former Harvard professor who has two loves in his life: his daughter Pella and Melville’s novel “Moby Dick”. Affenlight is a lovely man who has been led on his path of life by events often outside of his control and who has followed his passion for the whale novel and turned it into a career. He lives alone and is quite happy in a lonely way until one day his daughter Pella, a privileged child of academia who ran away from her private education to marry a much older man, returns from her failed marriage in California. Pella is bruised in the way that you only become when you realize that by following your own headstrong ideas and go up against your parents, your friends and conventions, you’ve actually sabotaged yourself. So with nothing more than a bathing suit and a tattered beach bag, Pella returns home to start a new life and kick her anti-depressant addiction.
The lives of all of these characters weave together in stories and each and every one of those stories could have been a book in its own right. The characters are strong and well-written and interesting. They have flaws and are real living people, not just clichés or stereotypes, I wanted to know them. I guess that is the strength of this novel, it’s real-ness and that the characters are relatable, even if wouldn’t know what’s up or down on a baseball.
It is a stunning novel, a piece of art and it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to call it a great American novel. It reminded me in some ways of Tom Wolfe’s “I am Charlotte Simmons” but “The Art of Fielding” is better, more well-written and doesn’t suffer the clichés (and horrible sex scenes) that drag “I am Charlotte Simmons” down. If you have an interest in baseball you have to read it. If you couldn’t care less about baseball, you still have to read it. Because it’s not really about baseball. It is about love, passion, talent, doubt. About following your dreams or following someone else’s dreams.

2 Jan 2013

"Star Island" by Carl Hiaasen

There are books that are written in a way that makes them obvious contenders for a film contract. Like Twilight or Hunger Games. The authors might not have been thinking this when they wrote them (though honestly with the money up for grabs in the movie business, they might have had it in the back of their minds) but the result still is a book that is ready to transition to the big screen. “Star Island” by Carl Hiaasen is one of those books. It is so ready to be made into a film and I’m pretty sure that it would be tagged with words such “Funny movie of the year” or “Action-packed comedy hit”. It has all the elements – it is even set in sunny Florida, mainly on South Beach, and conjures up a sun-shimmering blue ocean, palm tree and babes in bikinis. It is a place for charmed lives and in this place, young actress Ann DeLusia lives a … eh… confusing life. 
Her job might be one of the simultaneously worst and best jobs in the world. On the pro side, it requires little effort and there’s no requirement to be in the office 9 to 5, it also comes with a clothing allowance and business travel. On the con side, she is always on call and it’s not exactly an identity and integrity boosting job… Ann has landed herself the dubious honour of being stand-in for the volatile airhead superstar Cherry Pye. Having managed that difficult transition from the pageant world to international stardom, Cherry is determined to make the most of her fame by doing as many drugs and as many men as possible. She is a skank and most of the time, she is a strung-out, high as a kite skank. Not exactly the perfect employer and Ann's role mostly consists of pretending to be Cherry at parties, where the star herself is too out of it to appear. 
There is a whole industry around Cherrry and another person who makes a living out of her fame is the paparazzo Bang Abbott. In his vision, Cherry is one snort away from a fatal OD and he is planning to be the photographer that captures her final days. Bang Aboott is a pretty pathetic figure and in his quest to get close to Cherry, he ends up kidnapping the innocent Ann instead.
Ann is nothing if not feisty and she takes her kidnapping with a cool head and barbed wit. Throw into the mix a crazy hermit living in the Florida swaps on a quest to save Ann, a greedy property developer, a father of the star with little interest in her life and little conviction of her intelligence, a mother of the star with big ambitions and a manager with no conscience. It is a scenario ready to explode and it is a hilarious read.
Fancy something that'll make you laugh? And make you think of all of the Britneys and Lindsays of this world and wonder if this is what it is really like (disclaimer! You might end up pitying them!)? Then go for a holiday on "Star Island", it's bound to make you laugh. 

19 Dec 2012

"The Odessa File" by Frederick Forsyth

Have you heard of Simon Wiesenthal? If not you seriously need to google him pretty much right now. He was a very special, very cool man who dedicated his life to chasing nazis who had actively participated in the atrocities during WWII. In his quest to bring these criminals (I'm really wanting to write a much less diplomatic word) to justice, he had to give up a lot of things that most people would be reluctant to and his work paid off and some of the most disgusting nazis were made to pay for their crimes.
Simon Wiesenthal is one of the inspirations for "The Odessa File" by Frederick Forsyth, a 1972 novel, which tells the story of a young freelance reporter who finds himself getting tangled up in the chase of a  
man who lead a concentration camp in Riga. Although the Peter Miller lives a disorganized life of reporting and relaxing with his gorgeous girlfriend, the eh... showdancer... Sigrid. When he comes across the diary of an old man who has killed himself, he first regards it as nothing more than an interesting story. But the more he researches and learns about the story, the more it starts to affect him. It is a gruesome tale of a Jewish man who experiences the worst of nightmares under the nazi regime and Peter Miller decides that he must chase down the responsible commander and find out if he is still alive. And if he is alive, he wants revenge or justice or at least to make this beast face his past.

As crime fiction goes, this one is pretty good. At least in my opinion. As historical fiction maybe not so much... But it works for what it is. The only thing that really got to me was the ending, I would have written that differently. But that might just be me. It is a popular book that has sold a lot so it might be that I'm just being difficult... All in all a bit of a meh read for me, should probably have read a Wiesenthal biography instead.

16 Dec 2012

Are you "Brandwashed"? (by Martin Lindstrom)

Have you ever wondered what on earth persuaded you to buy those red skinny jeans/that post-modern poetry collection/the deconstructed flower vase? Or why you religiously choose Coca Cola over Pepsi? Or feel a strange kinship with the royal family?

If yes, then you NEED to read "Brandwashed" by Martin Lindstrom. For anyone not living in the Amazon jungle or rural North Korea, this will be an eyeopener. For those of us regularly trawling shops for things we don't need, this is a jolt, an awakening.
Lindstrom is a brading guru, has been on the Time magazine Influential 100 list and has worked with a number of the world's biggest, most influential companies on their branding strategy. This is a man who knows what he's talking about. And who will scare the living daylights out of you if you think that you're in charge of what you buy.

Did you know that you can target unborn children through music? For example by playing it in shopping malls thereby instilling a sense of familiarity that will mean they are attracted to going to the mall even as toddlers.

Did you know that you can actually be addicted to lip balm?

Did you know that a royal baby is one of the best PR stunts that a royal family can pull and that it often has a great impact on the popularity of the monarchy?

Did you know that the best way to market a product, the strongest, most impactful way is through referrals and recommendations? So next time you buy something your next-door-neighbour recommended, you might want to ask yourself if they have been employed to recommend it...

Do you want to know more? Well then you'll have to get yourself down to your local bookshop and get "Brandwashed" by Martin Lindstrom - it will give you a whole new take on branding and consumerism...

15 Dec 2012

Non-fiction for Real Women

I like a good memoir or a non-fiction book by a strong women who has opinions and experiences that the rest of us can learn from. These women are like on-the-page mentors and have taught me a lot of things while at the same time making me laugh or cry or both as I read their stories. 
"How to Be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran

"Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady" by Florence King

"Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers" by Stephanie Levine

"The Mitford Girls" by Mary S. Lovell

"Female Chauvinist Pigs - Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture" by Ariel Levy

"Mennonnite In A Little Black Dress" by Rhoda Janzen

8 Dec 2012

10 Reasons to Love "Mennonite In A Little Black Dress"

There are a lot (a lot!) of reasons to love "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress" by Rhoda Janzen but here I will pick out ten in the hope that this will convince to read this brilliant book:

1) Janzen grew up in a Mennonite community, left it to become an academic and then went back home to cook and write a fantastic memoir when her hapless husband Nick left her for a guy named Bob that he met on gay.com. She rocks.

2) This quote from page 24: "I hope it's clear by now that the Mennonites wouldn't want me. The only reason they're nice to me is that my dad is famous, my mom makes great pie, and I babysat their kids when I was twelve."

3) Her take on men (from page 62): "Hannah's husband was fabulous. Among Phil's many excellent qualities was the expression of zero interest in leaving his wife for a guy he had met on Gay.com."

4) She manages to make Germanic food such as Platz, Borscht and persimmon cookies sound oddly attractive and I did actually buy persimmons to try the recipes at the back of the book. Thanks Rhoda's mom!

5) Her musings on modern womanhood (page 166): "Consider how impossible it is, for example, to aspire to the role of virtuous woman when professional commitments dramatically interfere with jam delivery to oldsters."

6) Her musings on what makes a man sexy (page 203): "In my opinion, sexiness comes down to three things: chemistry, sense of humour, and treatment of waitstaff at restaurants."

7) Her observations on the sorority that she is faculty adviser to (page 210): "One twelve-degree evening in February, when there was eight inches of snow under a layer of slippery drizzle, my sorority gals celebrated their fellowship by donning denim minis, pink tights, and stilettos."

8) Her explanation of the difference between Amish and Mennonite (page 226): "But the Amish cut away from the Mennonites in 1693 because the rest of us were too liberal. That's rich, no? A liberal Mennonite is an oxymoron if ever there was one."

9) The way she manages her mother who is a typical, practical Mennonite woman who at times approaches life in a different way: "If your mother takes a frozen uncooked chicken in her suitcase to Hawaii, all bets are off. You just go with the flow."

10) The fact that she manages to tell a tragic story about a woman who looks after and takes care of her mentally frail husband who then leaves her when she herself is at her most fragile without letting the grief and the unfairness take over. Instead she turns it into a story about life,  hope and looking towards the future, she is an inspiration.