Monday, 17 September 2012

It's holiday time! *CHEERS*

My plan for today included writing some reviews that could appear while I was on holiday in a super organised fashion like some other book bloggers whose holiday preparation skills I can only be in awe of (yes, Ellie, that's YOU! :-p). Instead, I finished off some work this morning, frantically packed and cleaned this afternoon with only time to spare to write this hasty post...what can I say?  I need a holiday!

Tomorrow, Boyfriend and I are heading over to the USA to visit Philadelphia and New York.  Excited isn't even the word!!  I might actually pop, I'm looking forward to it that much.   

I'm taking a notebook so that I can pen some reviews if the mood strikes but this will mostly be about me being a tourist dork, eating a lot and spending plenty of time with Boyfriend that doesn't include getting ready for work, getting home from work or talking about work :-D

Here's a peek at what's loaded and ready to go on my eReader for the trip:



 I know, I'm excited too.  

Until I get back, HAPPY READING!!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Historical Fiction Review: 'The Gilded Lily' by Deborah Swift


Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis


Winter, 1661. In her short life Sadie Appleby has never left rural Westmorland. But one night she is rudely awoken by her older and bolder sister, Ella. She has robbed her employer and is on the run. Together the girls flee their home and head for London, hoping to lose themselves in the teeming city. But the dead man's relatives are in pursuit, and soon a game of cat and mouse ensues amongst the freezing warren that is London in winter. Ella is soon seduced by the glitter and glamour of city life and sets her sights on the flamboyant man-about-town, Jay Whitgift, owner of a beauty parlour for the wives of the London gentry. But nothing in the capital is what it seems, least of all Jay Whitgift. Soon a rift has formed between Ella and Sadie, and the sisters are threatened by a menace more sinister than even the law. Set in a brilliantly realised Restoration London, The Gilded Lily is a novel about beauty and desire, about the stories we tell ourselves, and about how sisterhood can be both a burden and a saving grace.

Review

When I first finished this book a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't at all sure how I felt about it.  The opening few chapters are a flurry of action but, once Ella and Sadie reach London, the story very quickly settles down and becomes more about the two sisters, what they have to do to survive and how their experiences change them.  There is a simmering tension underneath it all but it creates more of a sense of unease than excitement.  It took me a little while to realise that this is one of the book's greatest strengths, rather than a weakness.  The story reads a little bit slower and it can seem repetitive occasionally but when I think about the queasy feeling I often had while reading, I kind of understood why.   

Characterisation is where this book really shines.  The plot is solid but the characters are genuinely fascinating.  I know that reviewers talk a lot about the characters that they love because they have depth but what about those that you can't love because they have depth?  Because they are so intensely flawed and inconsistent and unpredictably human that you can't completely get behind them, even while your heart breaks for them.  Ella and Sadie both had incredibly traumatic childhoods and they take their traumas with them to London, where they continue to affect how they grow and develop.

Sadie is quite the tragic figure.  Taken away from an aggressive father and lured to London by her selfish older sister, Sadie struggles to blend in because of a birth mark on her face that makes her somewhat memorable.  If you're trying to hide yourself from various people that probably want to hand you, that is obviously far from helpful.  I completely sympathised with her, I really did, but for every moment where my heart hurt for her, there was another where I shook the book a little bit and just wanted her to FIGHT.  Remember when I said that the characters' traumas stayed with them, though?  Even while I desperately wanted Sadie to stick up for herself, I knew that if I'd been through everything she had, I probably wouldn't be up for a fight either.  Likewise Ella, although she is less easy to love.

Almost inevitably, though, there were some things that I found disappointing.  Restoration England was an interesting period of English history (particularly when you consider how much is being made of our monarchy recently!) and I didn't feel that this particular novel made the most of it.  There are some subtle references that are apparent when you know the exact year that the novel is set in (like the decreasing outward respect for the puritan characters) but I would be very surprised if many people (myself included!) would be able to pick out the time period if given this book "blind", so to speak.  I don't want a history lesson in my historical fiction but I do like to get a feel of the period that a book is set in, as opposed to just feeling as though I'm reading something set in the 16th/17th century. 

The ending is also a little twee.  It was something that I had thought about during the book because I couldn't quite see how Swift was going to deal with the fact that she had a criminal for one of her protagonists and an accomplice for another.  I can imagine that a lot of people will think that the ending is perfect.  Loose ends?  All dealt with.  Justice metered out?  I'm less convinced...

Overall:  If you're looking for character-driven historical fiction, you could do a lot worse than The Gilded Lily.  If you're in the mood for something that will drag you through the streets of London without leaving you time to breathe, this isn't quite that book.  If you have a little more time and aren't looking for love/action around every corner, give this a try.

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Date finished:  7 September 2012
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Received from the publisher as part of a HF Virtual Book Tour in return for an honest review
Genre:  Historical fiction
Published: by Pan Macmillan on 13 September 2012


Find the rest of the stops on The Gilded Lily's blog tour here


About Deborah Swift 

Deborah Swift used to work in the theatre and at the BBC as a set and costume designer, before studying for an MA in Creative Writing in 2007. She lives in a beautiful area of Lancashire near the Lake District National Park.  She is the author of The Lady's Slipper and is a member of the Historical Writers Association, the Historical Novel Society, and the Romantic Novelists Association.

For more information, please visit www.deborahswift.co.uk.



Sunday, 9 September 2012

Things I Learnt from 'Shelf Re-Organisation Day'

The shelves in my study have been in disarray for months.  When I bought new books, rather than lovingly place them alongside other books of their genre/author/colour, I instead adopted a Finding-The-Best-Hiding-Place-For-This-Book-I-Shouldn't-Have-Bought system.  I know, I should patent it.  I would have taken a 'Before' picture if I'd actually intended to undertake the long overdue re-organisation.  What really happened, though, was that I wandered in to the study to find something and became obscenely frustrated with the pile of books sat on my desk next to the shelves and decided that this morning was absolutely the best time to re-shuffle.  I'd decided on a genre-based system a while ago on the basis that I often decide what type of book I'm in the mood for very early on in the choosing-next-book process. 

It turns out that categorising books is actually quite hard.  Which is how I ended up crouched down on the floor of the study trying to work out whether my collection of two Sarah Waters novels should live in scary fiction (I don't own anything that ordinary people would term 'horror') because of The Little Stranger or whether they should live in historical fiction because of The Night Watch.  Separating the Sarah Waters novels was inconceivable, obviously...

It also turns out that I had become completely clueless about my own book buying habits.  Things I learnt from Shelf Re-organisation Day include: 


1)  Despite it being the genre I would name as my favourite if forced to name a favourite, I don't own that many fantasy books in paper copy

When I started out, I thought I owned enough adult fantasy and YA fantasy to separate them out onto their own shelves.  The result looks a bit sad...

And by 'sad', I do of course mean, must be fixed via Waterstones very soon.  I'm pretty sure that the main reason behind the surprising lack of fantasy is that the epic fantasy that I favour tends to be...well, epic.  To save my spine from having to suffer the lugging around huge books, I do most of my epic fantasy reading on my eReader.  Sad for my shelves but true.  The only exception to that is my Wheel of Time series in all their edition-switching glory, who share a shelf with my Terry Pratchett books and are peeking into the picture below.  One day, I will re-read that entire series and love them all over again.  That was another thing I decided today.

2)  Although I definitely do love a good historical fiction novel, I don't love it quite as much as my shelves would suggest

I have to confess that the historical fiction shelves have merged slightly with the 'random' shelves.  Some books defy categorisation.  Also sad but also true.  This particular shelf anomaly is probably owing to the fact that my Mum is a big fan of historical fiction and I get a lot of books passed on from her.  That might slow now that she has a Kindle, I suppose, but in the meantime, I have plenty of historical fiction to be getting on with:

The double-stacked shelf (I know, *cringe*) is mostly historical fiction (along with the rogue The Little Stranger - I went with 'historical fiction' for Ms Waters in the end...) and the books being propped up by Morph (or his friend, I'm not sure :s) are the aforementioned random contingent.

3)  I only own 4 non-fiction books

The fact that I can actually count them without too much trauma is a testament to how embarrassing that section is.  The few I do have are snuggled up with my glossy red collection of Vintage paperbacks to make itself feel better.  Boyfriend (who barely ever reads) has more non-fiction than me.  What can I say?  It might make me sound stupid but I'm not just not that big a fan of reading non-fiction in my down time :s

4)  I have far more unread books than I do read ones

That is now mostly owing to the fact that I cleared away some of the read ones that I hadn't been that keen on and put them in a charity shop destined bag.  It was quite fun pulling all of the unread books off my shelves only to find more unread books but it was also a bit worrying :-/

So they're the lessons I learned from sorting out my shelves.  I got rid of plenty of books (most of which were old law books in areas that I don't practice in but for which I have for some reason kept statute books for years but they COUNT dammit!), cleared some space for new ones and made my shelves look beautiful in the process.  I do like Sundays.

PLEASE tell me that I'm not the only dork to spend a couple of hours re-organising book shelves before smiling lovingly at the results?!  Also, feel free to tell me if you have your own system (as long as it isn't better than mine because that might prompt me to have to start the organising exercise all over again...)

Monday, 3 September 2012

Crime Review: 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' by Agatha Christie


Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars


Synopsis


The famous case that launched the career of Hercule Poirot. When a wealthy heiress is murdered, Poirot steps out of retirement to find the killer. As the master detective makes his way through the list of suspects, he finds the solution in an elaborately planned scheme almost impossible to believe.


Review

Yes, that's right, more Agatha Christie.  I figured that it was about time I got acquainted with at least one of Christie's long-standing characters.  Since I've never been that keen on the idea of a superior and nosy older lady (Miss Marple, that means you...), I went with Hercule Poirot.

What I had failed to appreciate was that Poirot doesn't narrate his own stories.  Or at least, he doesn't narrate this particular story.  Instead of spending time in the mind of a quirky Belgian detective, I was instead subjected to the narrow-minded and jealous musings of Captain Arthur Hastings.  Early on in the novel, the strange blend of first/third person narrative works quite well but before too long, I just wanted Hastings to shut up and go away.

I wanted to be charmed and beguiled by a moustached, suave European.  It turns out that I didn't really want to be "on the side" of an amateur investigator who spends a large time going through the same thought process:  "Poirot has noticed something that I haven't - how annoying...Ha - he might have found a clue but he's clearly gone doo-lally and is interpreting it all wrong...Oh gosh!  He was right!  How foolish I am..."  Rinse and repeat.

Narration aside, the plot is a good old classic mystery.  Locked rooms, mysterious poisons, shifty characters and plenty of misdirection. Something is lost because you miss out on Poirot's thought processes - every now and then, he'll find a clue and rush off before coming back for a Big Reveal, which was interesting but didn't have quite the same mystique.  

If you're already a fan of Christie's mysteries, there's plenty here for you to recognise and appreciate.  If you're just starting out (which, seeing as I've only read three, probably includes me!), you might want to start with a stand-alone like the FABULOUS And Then There Were None (reviewed here).  If you're desperate to be introduced to Hercule Poirot, just bear in mind that this isn't Christie's best.

Oh, and also, I starting out reading the eBook version of this and had to abandon it because it kept referring to pictures, plans and notes that just weren't there in the eBook.  In this case, traditional paper will serve you better. 

Overall:  I'm happy to put my time on this one down as investment in future books.  Poirot is everything that I wanted him to be - a kooky, eccentric genius (of sorts).  The story isn't particularly unique and I was disappointed that I didn't get as much Poirot as I wanted to but it's a passable way to spend a couple of hours.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished:  23 June 2012
Format:  eBook/Paperback
Source:  Borrowed from my local library (both formats...)
Genre:  Mystery; Crime
Published: by HarperCollins in June 2004; Originally published in October 1920