Saturday, October 30, 2010

a sad(ish) Gaps story

Warning: this is going to be a negative review, but in fairness to the author, it has nothing to do with his work on the book (I am sure this is a very good book, since other people much smarter and better read in this field than I am have said so). It's just a reflection of my hopes and expectations for the book. And, I guess, a manifestation of what the Gaps list helps us get out of our systems.

I bought God's War back in 2005 off of a starred Publishers Weekly review. Back then, $35 was a huge amount of money for me to spend on a book (heck, it still is, but I was a bona fide starving assistant back then), but I love to read about the Crusades and have always sought stuff out. The PW review assured me that God's War would replacing the current standard Crusades text (by one Runciman, which yes, I had read in college already).

I was disappointed from the beginning with Tyerman's tone, which was the traditional dry academic, bent on including as many details as possible but without including anything hard, like numbers (let's face it, what we really want to know is always how many people died horribly). I mean, this was hardly Tyler's fault; he is an academic, and wrote an academic text. I guess I was just hoping that someone would finally write a treatment of the Crusades that made the data and the themes easy to digest. Because I know there's a way. And it bothers me that no one ever wants to cover this large topic in a plainspoken and accessible way. I believe a lot of us modern souls could learn a lot from history--this history in particular--if only historians were more willing to distill their jargon and say something.

I'll stop with that line of thought now. I don't mean to open up a basket of snakes about academic integrity, the moral imperative of keeping a neutral tone to data, the sanctity of the white tower, the fact that any written history is already an interpretation, blah blah blah. I was just hoping, when I bought this book, that it would be what I hadn't found elsewhere before--a book about the Crusades that I could recommend to casual readers. It wasn't.

It had already sat on my shelf for almost four years when we embarked upon the Gaps project (now more than a year and a half ago). I put it on the list, because I thought maybe this would finally get me through it. In order to get through it, I marked it into sections. I would try to read about 75 pages a week, and it would take me only three months of Sundays to finish it and have done. I lasted for two weeks on that plan. Well, one and a half weeks. I was thrown off by the fact that nothing felt new or fresh--I was just rereading difficult-to-pick-through historianism with the same content I already knew backward and forward. Six months later, I plowed through another 50 pages, then six months after that, while I was briefly unemployed, I forced myself through another 400. Today, I made myself finish it, and forgave myself much skimming. I hope no one will fault me for crossing it off the list, despite rather light engagement over the last three hundred pages.

Anyway, now I'm done. The Gap is filled. Any writers out there in need of projects? I still vote for a short, accessible, general, thematic, and fun to read history of the Crusades.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Dracula ~ by Bram Stoker (audio version)


"I am Dracula, and I bid you welcome . . . "

An enduring classic with an extremely charming, truly evil, yet almost human monster. I suggest leaving the lights on.

Synopsis:   With a Victorian setting in the late 19th century, a newly practicing attorney/solicitor from England is commissioned to visit a new client for his firm. He is to meet with this wealthy gentleman and stay at his castle in the mountains of Transylvania, while giving him advice on property acquisitions within the UK. The journey starts out decently for Jonathan Harker, but “red flags” pop up as he is warned by the locals and experiences eerie events during his journey to the Count’s country estate.

When he reaches his destination things are not as he was lead to believe. He finds that the Count himself is misleading and extremely intelligent, with a business savvy to match. Most disturbing is when Harker realizes the castle has no servants, parts are in complete ruin, he sees the count doing not very human things, and it appears that he is in fact a prisoner with in the castle. When he finally returns home, the young lawyer is beside himself, and worse yet it appears that he may have been followed. This scary story has only just begun.

Thoughts:   This is a wonderful tale which deserves to be read by anyone interested in classics, horror, and evil vampires. That it was written over 100 years ago and the emotions it incurs are still heart quickening, attest to the universal nature of this horror story and make it an enduring classic.

Set partially in Whitby, an amazing town on the East coast of England with iconic structures which still exist today, the story includes a variety of interesting and well developed characters, with our main character the Count, who is the evil embodiment of a sociopathic killer.

It is all told in letter format - epistolary or diary entries with each character well developed and interesting. Listening to the book in audio format, the telling is done via various voices and is close to perfect - old English accents, changing for each of the characters. I enjoyed it immensely. 

As for rating this classic I would say 4.5 stars. I recommend this version if you decide audio is the way to go for you.

Some Information about Whitby via travel pictures.

Below are pictures which John and I took in 2009 on one of our many visits to England where he is from.  When experiencing this book in its audio format these images helped it come alive for me. I could not help visualize this setting as it was described by the author. Also included below are several links to festivals based in the area, and a picture of our brother in law in full Dracula regalia at one such event which occurred last year in the town.


Whitby is on the Eastern side of Northern England. Set on the North Sea. The water is wild and choppy and very cold even in summer. This picture was taken from the pier which is located at the bay/river mouth and is a Southern outcrop of highland. Making this a perfect spot to watch incoming ships or marauders in this ancient  port city. It is also the spot where the gorgeous abbey is located,

This was taken during the summer June 2009. It was truly cold and windy, the norm for the area. Further to right on the mesa  you can actual see the little bits of the abbey’s spires. It is a key feature in several of the settings described in Dracula.

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Above are two pictures of the ancient abbey. They are described in the book exactly as they are pictured here. It was lovely walking through and inside the abbey, looking up at the architecture. Here is the historical setting for the spot:

The first monastery here was founded in AD 657 by King Oswy of Northumbria. An Anglo-Saxon style 'double monastery' for men and women, its first ruler was the formidable royal princess Abbess Hild. Here, Caedmon the cowherd was miraculously transformed into an inspired poet; here, the future of the English church was decided by the Synod of Whitby in 664; and here the relics of Northumbrian kings and saints were enshrined.

from the non profit site – English

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These are pictures of the hillside town walking down from on top of the plateau where the abbey is situated. We walked down on the cobbled streets from a very very old cemetery that is West from the abbey. On the left you can see across the channel and to the left the man made water breaker, which prevent the wild waters from coming into the river/bay. This water way is an  important setting within the book as well.15137_328923465230_904925230_9798285_6353174_n

To the right is my English brother in law, dressed as Dracula at a local festival held in Whitby, which the entire family attended.

If you are interested further, there is a gothic blog called Dracula in Whitby which gives you up to date information on a variety of festivals happening in the area.

  • Audio CD
  • Brilliance Audio on CD Unabridged; Unabridged edition (September 25, 2005)
  • Genre: Classic Horror

    Normally I would not include links to purchase, however since there are so many version and so you can link to the correct version I have done so on this post.

    Amazon purchasing links - US/UK/Canada or The Book Depository - AUD and Euro.  Amazon is an affiliate (where we only make cents per book) but Book Depository is not.

    Happy Halloween!

  • Thursday, October 28, 2010

    The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

    It’s a couple of years now since I read my first couple of novels by Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost and then The Village. Two very different books and I loved them both.

    Yet I hesitated to read The Victorian Chaise-Longue. Could it possibly live up to such high expectations? Wouldn’t it be awful to not have something new by Marghanita Laski still to read?

    The second problem was solved when Persephone Books kindly reissued To Bed with Grand Music. It was time to open the pages of The Victorian Chaise-Longue.

    Could it live up to my expectations?

    “Will you give me your word of honour,” said Melanie, “that I am not going to die?”

    It is the middle of the twentieth century. Early in Melanie’s pregnancy her doctor found a patch on her lung – an early sign of tuberculosis. She now has a son, but she hasn’t been allowed to leave her bedroom or be in close contact with her child since the birth.

    But now Melanie’s health is improving, and the doctor accedes to her wish to go downstairs and lie upon the Victorian-Chaise Longue.

    It’s a strange piece of furniture. Old, worn and out of keeping with the rest of the house, and yet Melanie was drawn to it. She had to have it.

    Melanie is spoiled, but she has charm and I couldn't help sympathising with her situation. And wondering to what degree her upbringing, her family and society had taught her to behave as she did.

    She falls asleep on her chaise-longue. And she wakes up on it. But she wakes up a hundred years earlier, in Victorian England. Where is she? Why is she being called Milly?

    Melanie thinks she is in a nightmare. She tries to wake up, but she can’t. This is real. She is trapped and helpless.

    Marghanita Laski conveys her feelings quite perfectly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and deeply unsettling. And the more you think the more unsettling it becomes.

    Melanie gradually finds out more about Milly’s life. The similarities in their lives and their circumstances are extraordinary, but the consequences in their different times are starkly different.

    “We seem to be together now, she explained, you and I, both hopeless. I think we did the same things, she told her, we loved a man and we flirted and we took little drinks, but when I did those things there was nothing wrong, and for you it was a terrible punishable sin.”

    It would be unfair to say too much more, but the situation and Melanie’s emotions intensify as the story build to a conclusion.

    The Victorian Chaise-Longue works on more than one level. It is a fine piece of storytelling and it is also a striking analysis of the changing position of women in society.

    And while many authors would make a lengthy novel out of this material, Marghanita Laski distils it perfectly into just 99 pages.

    The writing and the characterisation is as wonderful as my previous experiences with her writing had led me to expect.

    And, once again, Marghanita Laski has come up with a stunning final sentence. How does she do that?!

    The Victorian Chaise-Longue definitely lived up to my high expectations.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    The Tales of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

    This John Newbery Medal Award book was so much fun to read out loud to my son.  Despereaux, a little mouse with big ears, is born. We watch this mouse grow up. His big ears are not the only thing that separates him from the rest of his kind. He hears music, he reads books, he dreams of the Princess Pea...he just is NOT your typical mouse. But as the story unfolds little Despereaux seems to grow in size. This is due to his bravery and "the quest" set before him....he must save the Princess Pea from the dungeon, from the rat who took her to the dungeon, and he must do it alone.
    But, this story doesn't just follow Despereaux.  It also follows a young servant girl named Miggery Sow and a rat named Roscuro.  And you see how these three lives intertwine with the Princess Pea and the dungeon.  It is really quite a clever story with lots of depth in character development.

    I loved the voice in this book. There are many stops and the "Narrator" speaks to the "Reader".  This "Narrator" had questions for us to ask ourselves, which usually were answered a few lines after the question. This really drew us into the storyline as we watched it unfold.

    The drawings in the book are well done and add a depth to the reading.

    Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    Friday Night Lights by HG Bissinger

    I choose to read this because I like football. I did see the movie but that was a determining factor in reading this. I chose to read this because I like football and I wanted to read a good story about one season in the life of a football team. But that wasn't this book. Bissinger is an amazing writer. He won the Pulitzer Prize for a good reason. The prose flowed like poetry. But there was too much about the town and politics of Odessa, Texas. I wanted more about the team, the games. Bissinger gave away the ends of the game too soon. He's not a sports writer. But I wanted to be taken through the game.
    If you've never experienced a high school football game in a town where football is king then you might wonder why an entire town would go to a high school football game. Why a town would treat 16 & 17 year old kids like gods. And those are the questions Bissinger is trying to answer. Not how 30 odd kids survived a season and made the playoffs. But what compels adults to crowd into a stadium on a September Friday night and watch said kids play against other kids. Friday Night Lights examines that phenomena. Gives us outsiders a peek at what it's like to live in Odessa, Texas and cheer for the Permian Panthers.

    Three Cups of Tea

    Talk about an inspiring story...this is one of them.  I read the Young Reader's Edition adapted by Sarah Thomson, which has a great interview in the back of Amira, Greg's daughter. She is just as inspiring as her father, which is so great to see in one so young...she was 12 at the time of this interview.  She challenges kids of all ages to do something and has ideas of ways that they can. 
    Greg Mortenson was separated from his climbing buddies as they descended down K2.  He was found by his porter, but then he lost his way again. He came upon a poor village where they took him in and took care of him.  From gratitude, he left with a promise to return to build them a school for their children.  Tree Cups of Tea tells Greg's story of how a poor boy from the US raised money to build a school for this village and how that promise turned into something bigger than he had planned.
    This was so inspiring for me on so many levels. I won't go into them all, I promise.  But, this quote from Greg is so relevant in my life and speaks so much..."We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly....Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects."  It is so true in my life. How quickly do I worry and work on the project and forget about the relationship.  

    Now to go and have a cup of tea (or coffee) with a fellow friend or about you, you up for it?

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    Jo's list

    My list is mostly classic books I should have read, those by favourite authors that I haven't read, and some which have been on my TBR pile for far too long.  I'll be blogging about them at my book blog, Book Jay.

    1. Pyramids - Terry Pratchett  
    2. Eric - Terry Pratchett 
    3. Small Gods - Terry Pratchett 
    4. The Last Continent - Terry Pratchett
    5. Wintersmith - Terry Pratchett
    6. Making Money - Terry Pratchett 
    7. Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett
    8. Nation - Terry Pratchett
    9. American Gods - Neil Gaiman
    10. Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman
    11. The Marlows & The Traitor - Antonia Forest
    12. The Player's Boy - Antonia Forest
    13. The Players & The Rebels - Antonia Forest
    14. The Subtle Knife - Philip Pullman
    15. The Amber Spyglass - Philip Pullman
    16. Looking For Alaska - John Green 
    17. I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith
    18. The Night Watch - Sarah Waters
    19. The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters
    20. The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton
    21. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
    22. 1984 - George Orwell
    23. A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess
    24. In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
    25. Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut 
    26. Evelina - Frances Burney
    27. Redgauntlet - Walter Scott
    28. Tristram Shandy - Laurence Sterne
    29. Tom Jones - Henry Fielding
    30. Belinda - Maria Edgeworth
    31. The Monk - Matthew Lewis
    32. Clarissa - Samuel Richardson
    33. Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Choderlos de Laclos
    34. Bleak House - Charles Dickens
    35. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
    36. Middlemarch - George Eliot
    37. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
    38. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
    39. War & Peace - Leo Tolstoy
    40. Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
    41. The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James
    42. Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain
    43. Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
    44. Swallows & Amazons - Arthur Ransome
    45. Skellig - David Almond 
    46. Crime & Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky
    47. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
    48. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
    49. I, Claudius - Robert Graves
    50. A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
    51. Orlando - Virginia Woolf
    52. The Waves - Virginia Woolf
    53. Where Angels Fear to Tread - E.M. Forster 
    54. The Longest Journey - E.M. Forster
    55. Howards End - E.M. Forster
    56. A Passage to India - E.M. Forster 
    57. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
    58. Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
    59. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Suzanna Clarke
    60. On Beauty - Zadie Smith
    61. The Bell - Iris Murdoch
    62. The Sea, The Sea - Iris Murdoch
    63. The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst
    64. The Little Friend - Donna Tartt
    65. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
    66. North & South - Elizabeth Gaskell
    67. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
    68. Another Country - James Baldwin
    69. Moon Tiger - Penelope Lively
    70. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
    71. Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
    72. The Quincunx - Charles Palliser
    73. Perfume - Patrick Suskind
    74. A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
    75. Possession - A.S. Byatt
    76. The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver
    77. Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    78. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel 
    79. Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
    80. The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
    81. Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell
    82. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
    83. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
    84. Atonement - Ian McEwan
    85. 100 Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    86. Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follet
    87. Wonder Boys - Michael Chabon
    88. Master & Commander - Patrick O'Brian
    89. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
    90. Villette - Charlotte Bronte
    91. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
    92. Troubles - J.G. Farrell
    93. The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje
    94. Master & Margharita - Mikhail Bulgkov
    95. Holes - Louis Sachar
    96. Tom Brown's Schooldays - Thomas Hughes
    97. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami
    98. Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery
    99. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
    100. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

    Thursday, October 14, 2010

    A Spot of Bother. . .

    Finally another book off my list!

    I also have finished others but haven't gotten round to reviewing them (will do so soon)!

    A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon was described by The Times as a 'humane novel' and I think that is perfect description for this book.

    A Spot of Bother tells the story of retired 57 year old George, who just happens to be slowly losing his mind. But this isn't a bleak story, like Haddon's previous work, he mixes sadness with humour in a heart warming and entertaining way. This isn't just the story of George though, it is also story of his wife Jean and her having an affair, of her daughter Katie and her wedding crisis and of Jamie who can't seem to invite his lover Tony to the wedding.

    Haddon does a remarkable job of changing perspectives with each chapter and portraying each characters unique story and insight. The writing is simple but magnificent with meaning, which draws you in and keeps you reading. I enjoyed reading this book, but also could appreciate the complexity and work that went into writing it. Of all the stories, I found Jamie's to be the most enjoyable to read, and I absolutely loved him, with Ray as a close second.

    My only fault with the story was the handling of Katie & Ray's relationship and Jean's affair. Not going into specifics because I don't want to spoil, but I felt that the end/resolving of both the issues surrounding these relationships seemed to just be resolved. Compared to the indepth and understanding shown earlier, I felt a little disappointed on how these worked out. Perhaps the resolutions were down to the actually characters and their final understanding but I don't know if that was set up were properly done for the reader?I agree with the outcomes, but I felt that the workings of the characters' decisions might have been more indepth?

    Despite this very small fault, I give this book 9 out of ten. The writing was really remarkable, and totally drew me in and put me in George's and the other characters' mindsets and over all did wonderful job of showing the dynamics of a dysfunctional (i.e. normal) family.

    Highly recommend it!

    Saturday, October 9, 2010

    Lament By Maggie Stiefvater

    Wow, I couldn't put this one down. I finished in a day. It's been a while since I read a book I couldn't put down.
    Lament is the story of Deirdre, a 16 year old girl. She plays the harp. One day at a competition, she meet a boy, Luke and her story goes from ordinary to damn interesting quickly. Oh I love fairie folk. I especially like dark fey and their trickery. The story was engrossing. I wanted to know what the fey wanted with Deirdre, about her bizarre aunt, Delia, and the gorgeous boys in her life, Luke and James. Parts reminded me of Wicked Lovely and Except the Queen, but Lament was different. Just the right parts magic, mystery and romance for me.  I'm looking forward to continuing the series.

    Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

    On the eve of the Second World War Charles Ryder, a man without money or powerful relations befriends Sebastian Flyte, the wealthy son of an aristocrat. Sebastian takes Charles home to visit the old family house at Brideshead and gradually, Charles is introduced to the whole family and is drawn into the complicated threads of their relationships.

    Evelyn Waugh was quite disparaging of Brideshead Revisited, saying that "the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful". In a way I guess it's true. There is a clear nostalgia for the England that had been destroyed during the second world war. The aristocratic families that had for so long existed without cause for concern were selling their houses and forced to take greater notice of the world around them. There's one bit in particular where someone (Rex Mottram I think) bemoans the way that Julia's family do business. That of course all changes by the end of the book.

    There's a lot to like about this book. I was fascinated by the relationship between Sebastian and Charles - well, Charles' relationship with everyone really - but Sebastian's tendency to just float along made him both endearing and irritating. To be fair the whole family were like that though - they were all lovely people, but all living in a fantasy world. My favourite character though was Anthony Blanche. He was delightful, and for a relatively minor character he steals the show a bit.

    My most favourite part of all, and the reason why I recommend this book to everyone, is something Sebastian says on page 26. When I read it, I sighed.

    "I should like to bury something precious in every place I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember."

    PS - I've been putting off Bleak House for far too long. Anyone else have it on their horizon?