Monday, 28 April 2014

Cousin Kate - Georgette Heyer

This is an odd one, because it’s historical fiction, written almost 50 years ago. Part of me thought that it might closely resemble modern historical fiction, but that part of me was wrong.

Nowadays historical fiction often tries to focus on realism, on capturing the mindset and atmosphere of the people living at the time. Heyer, however, simply transplants a plucky 60s young woman into the nineteenth century, making her an unfeasibly attractive and outspoken penniless governess. Kate is invited to stay with her rich aunt Lady Broome and her admittedly odd cousin, Torquil, and discovers various dark family secrets along the way.

Virtually every character in this novel speaks in a bizarre kind of slang, which I initially assumed was common 60s slang, but The Sunday Times claims that it is “slang beautifully rendered” – presumably regency slang, or the contemporaneous idea of it. Having lived through neither the regency period nor the 1960s, I can’t say for sure, but it feels a bit jarring to me.

That said, it’s an amusingly melodramatic romance, and a fun light read.

Next up: The Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Fire - Kirsten Cashore

The first thing I have to say is that this book deserves a better cover. The Gollancz version (the one I read) is your typical teen-fantasty ‘girl-with-weapon-standing-on-rock-with-mystic-looking-background’ image. And the part that grates with me most is the fact that, if the image is actually trying to reference any part of the book, the dress should be purple, not red. 

The Dial YA version of the cover is better, featuring a bow and arrows rather than lady-in-dress, and I really like the understated originality of the Clarsen YA German edition.

Inside, Fire is anything but your average YA fantasy novel. The usual elements are there – insular non-time-specific low-tech kingdoms, magical powers, and so on – but Cashore takes it so much further. The protagonist, Fire, has a complexity to her sexual past which is refreshing compared to the coyness YA novels often have about sex. It helps the reader to see her as a rounded human being, rather than a copy-and-pasted heroine. The intricacy of the relationships between all of the characters in this novel is really well done, and leads to some truly surprising and touching moments.

Naturally, Fire does have special powers – what self-respecting fantasy heroine doesn’t? She was born a ‘monster’, a genetic aberration possible in any species, which gives the individual very bright colouring and unnatural beauty, and the power to influence the minds of those around them. Making your heroine inhumanly beautiful is a tricky thing to pull off without making it all feel like a giant piece of wish-fulfillment, but Cashore manages it. Fire sees her appearance as a disadvantage in most situations, and never truly comes to accept it as an integral part of who she is, not even by the end. Cashore also considers the logistics of Fire’s condition; ‘monsters’ are cannibalistic and lust after each other’s blood, which means that she is constantly attracting ‘monster’ insects and that she can’t leave the house when on her period without being mobbed by raptors.

Another aspect I really liked about this novels is that Fire isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of everything. Of course, as the protagonist, she does lie at the centre of the story, but she is only involved in a very small part of the events taking place. The fact that she recognises her insignificance amid grand political schemes and the war sweeping the kingdom adds a sense of perspective not often found in fantasy novels.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one, and am looking forward to reading the other two in the trilogy, Graceling and Bitterblue.

Next up: Cousin Kate, by Georgette Heyer

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Favourite book?

This week's Booking Through Thursday is:

Do you have a favorite book? What do you say when people ask you? (This question always flummoxes me because how can you pick just one, so I’m eager to hear what you folks have to say.)
And, has your favorite book changed over the years?

It's a question that people often ask me when I tell them I love reading, and it's something I really can't answer. For me, that's like asking which limb I'd like to keep. Different books suit different moods, but I've read so many amazing books over the years that I would never be able to pick just one that I like best. The books that really touch me become part of who I am, like experiences of real-life events do.

I suppose the books I enjoy most have changed, over the years, although I've always loved Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. I don't often reread books (there are far too many new books to read for that!) so I've never really had the sensation of reading an old favourite and being disappointed with it.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Book haul

I accidentally went charity-shop book-shopping again today...  Got a good selection of fantasy and historical novels this time, namely: all three of The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks, The Final Sacrament by James Forrester, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, The Last Days of Newgate by Andrew Pepper, and The Coma by Alex Garland. That last one doesn't fall under fantasy or historical, but I studied his first novel The Beach during my degree, and really enjoyed it.

Now to find space on one of my bookshelves! Ha...

Monday, 21 April 2014

The Iron Horse - Edward Marston

I picked this up because it looked like a fun Victorian-set detective story. A severed head in a hatbox is found at Crewe railway station, and Detective Inspector Robert Colbeck is called in to investigate. He soon discovers that the murder is inextricably linked to the upcoming Derby horserace, and events come to a head at the race in question.

The general flavour of the book is good – there are nice little details that ground it in time and place, especially the colourful descriptions of the crowds attending the races on the downs. The characters themselves, however, feel a little too much like cardboard figures rather than fully-developed individuals. Part of that might be because The Iron Horse is the fourth in a series, and shortcuts are made in describing characters who, the author presumes, the reader has already met in the preceding novels. Coming to this one without that backing, the off-hand references to past events in characters’ lives did little more than make me feel a bit excluded.

The plot itself feels a little contrived and confused – even though I only finished reading it last night, I’m having trouble remembering exactly why the murder took place. The vacillation between the three prime suspects, however, prevents the reader fixing on the killer within the first couple of chapters, and does show the process of information-gathering and adaptation of theories within that pretty well.

It’s a nice enough story, a little lazily done, but pleasant enough for a light read.

Next up: Fire, by Kristin Cashore

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

I began this book having only seen the film trailer, and I remember thinking, ‘What’s the point of a murder mystery where you already know who did it?’

Despite featuring a serial killer and beginning with a murder, I discovered this novel is not a murder mystery, but rather a story about healing – the victim’s family coming to terms with what happened to their daughter. Unusually, the narrative is written from the point of view of the dead girl, Susie Salmon, watching her friends and relatives try to rebuild their lives.

The prose has some beautiful turns of phrase, and is, in places, shockingly brutal – the fact that the author suffered rape as a girl makes the whole thing much more poignant, and you have to admire Sebold’s courage in publishing something dealing with issues so personal to herself. The narrator’s presence in heaven justifies the omniscient narrative which allows the reader insight into the minds of all the characters, even the murderer himself.

With the subject matter what it is, The Lovely Bones should not be an easy book to read, and in a way, it isn’t – tear-jerking moments just keep coming. However, a wonderful sense of optimism pervades the novel, and the reader joins the narrator in hoping and willing the surviving group of family and friends to recover from their loss and continue with their lives.

The Lovely Bones is a sensitive and original insight into a taboo subject, and I can honestly say I’ve never read a book like it. (And I’ve read a lot of books!) I’m curious about the film adaptation – I’m having trouble imagining how the narrator’s ghostly omniscience would translate onto the screen without either becoming clichéd and tacky or disappearing altogether.

Next up: The Iron Horse, by Edward Marston

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Island of Dr Moreau - H G Wells

The Island of Dr Moreau is only a short novelette, but, like most of H G Wells’ stories, is thought-provoking and has a lot to say about human nature meeting scientific progress.

The narrator, Edward Prendick, is marooned on an island – human population two: Dr Moreau, whose controversial work got him exiled from England, and his assistant, Montgomery. He soon discovers that Moreau is conducting experiments on animals to transform them into a hideous semblance of humanity. He moulds them, both in body and mind, into disfigured creatures which are not quite animal and not quite human.

This being H G Wells, Dr Moreau’s work backfires, resulting in disaster. We return to London with Prendick, who is a changed man, unable to see anything other than beastly echoes in his fellow humans.

It’s told in Wells’ usual matter-of-fact, documentary style, which lends a solidity and a sense of uneasy realism to the horrors described. The narrator’s disillusionment with humanity has an echo of Gulliver’s Travels, although for different reasons.

A good short tale to dip into, which left me mulling over ideas for some time afterwards.

Next up: The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold