Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Teaser Tuesday: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

It is inevitable that as soon as I say that I am possibly that last blogger alive to read this book, there will be a chorus of people saying 'I haven't read it yet", but I am going to say it anyway....

I am possibly one of the last bloggers to read this first book in the Flavia de Luce series written by Alan Bradley. I had borrowed the book a few times from the library, but returned it unread. Last night I was checking my list and realised that I was in danger of repeating that pattern, so so decided to read it once and far all. Now the question to be asked is ... what on earth was I waiting for?

For my teaser this week, I wanted to share a passage from the early part of the book (page 27). Flavia has already displayed the precociousness that she is infamous for, but the humour has also been on display as well. This is a lot longer than the two sentences that are normal for a Teaser Tuesday post, but more about that later. To put a little context around the section, Flavia has just discovered a body in the cucumber patch and she has just led Inspector Hewitt and his two policemen to the body:

I stepped forward eagerly, almost salivating, for a closer look.

"I wonder, Flavia," Inspector Hewitt said, stepping gingerly into the cucumbers, "if you might ask someone to organise some tea?"

He must have seen the look on my face.

"We've had rather an early start this morning. Do you think you could manage to rustle something up?"

So that was it. As at a birth, so at a death. Without so much as a kiss-me-quick-and-mind-the-marmalade, the only female in sight is enlisted to trot off and see that the water is boiled. Rustle something up, indeed! What did he take me for ... some kind of cowboy?

"I'll see what can be arranged, Inspector," I said. Coldly, I hoped.

"Thank you," Inspector Hewitt said. Then, as I stamped off towards the kitchen door, he called out, "Oh, and Flavia ..."

I turned, expectantly.

"We'll come in for it. No need for you to come out here again."

The nerve! The bloody nerve!

I have another couple of quotes to share at some point too. The book is actually chock full of gems!

I have been trying to decide what I wanted to do about Teaser Tuesday. I have been participating in the meme, which is hosted at Should Be Reading, for about two and a half years, and I do still enjoy doing so, but I don't seem to have as much time to be able to go and visit as many of the other participants. It hardly seems fair for me to put my link up expecting others to come and comment on my post when I know full well that I probably won't get to theirs!

The other thing is that often I want to provide a longer tease, like the one above, or I want to actually expand a little bit more on my thoughts about, post teasers from multiple books etc. I guess what I am saying is that I want to move away a little bit from the standard format!

Therefore, if I find a teaser which fits the standard format, then I will link up to the meme and make an effort to connect up with the other participants, but if not, then I will just post whatever, something completely different like a Top 10 Tuesday or maybe not even post anything on a Tuesday at all like last week! Wouldn't that be a shock to the system!

Monday, January 30, 2012

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson

Some times you read a book that makes you grateful that you live in this time and this place. Sure, in 50 years time our grandkids might look back and wonder how we put up with .... whatever, but for the most part here in Australia we have a pretty free and easy lifestyle. I do know though that some times that is not always the case. For example, when I was pregnant and having my ultrasound scans, there were signs everywhere which advised us not to ask to find out the sex of the child as we wouldn't be told. When asked why I was advised that it was to prevent people who didn't want a girl to do anything untoward. That was only 14 or so years ago. And, of course, there are millions of women around the world who have little or no freedom to make choices regarding their own lives.

This book is set in the late 1930s in Shanghai, where life was lived by very strict rules and traditions, especially for girls. Feng is a young, very naive girl who has grown up in the shadow of her elder sister, who in the novel goes only by the name Sister. Sister has been trained from a young age to be all that is desirable in the eyes of the richer families in Shanghai. She knows how to dress, how to perform ancient traditions like the tea ceremonies, how to catch a rich and influential husband for one reason and one reason only - to raise her family up the social ladder.

Feng on the other hand has been left to grow up under the much more relaxed rules of her grandfather; spending time in the gardens, learning the names of flowers etc. It is not expected that she will marry but rather that she will look after her parents when the time comes.

One of the most important things for a socially ambitious family is to never lose face or cause offense to those who are better than them. Therefore, when Sister is unable to fill her obligation to marry, Feng is forced to do so instead despite the fact that she has had barely any training and that she is very, very naive.

She marries into the wealthy Sang family, where traditions are expected to be maintained diligently and her sole reason for existence is to provide an heir. Her husband is initially understanding of her shyness when it comes to intimate matters but things change once the pressure builds from his family.

I found the initial parts of the book to be quite interesting. The author spent a lot of time drawing a picture of what it was like to be a young Chinese woman in those time with no choices over their future and by looking at both Feng and Sister we get to see the two different sides of that. We get details of the lavish efforts that went into attracting the right kind of suitors for a socially ambitious family include the beautiful wedding dress that must be made. For Feng there is also a nice friendship with Bi, the son of the seamstress.

It is after the marriage, and when Feng moves into the Sang home that the narrative started to falter. Part of that reflects the restrictions that were placed on Feng. She was barely allowed out of the home and so we no longer get to see anything of Shanghai through her eyes. In addition, Feng quickly transitions from an innocent young girl to a very bitter woman, from a naive young girl to a woman who knows how to titillate and humiliate her husband, who as a character is very one dimensional throughout the novel. In fact, most of the characters outside of Feng seem somewhat limited. Perhaps this is as a result of the fact that we only get to see these people from her view point, but perhaps there was not enough page time given to them to develop.

It was also difficult to empathise with Feng when she makes a decision in the middle of the book (to say anymore would be spoiling). Yes, we knew why she had made the decision that she had made, but it was not one that I could have made, and her initial actions and reactions were quite hard to believe. It was a relief when the book progressed a bit further and it was at last clear through her thoughts that she was haunted by the decisions that she had made. There were some plot holes in relation to this, particularly in terms of when the husband finds out what she has done, but before she can find out his reaction she fled so as not to have to face the consequences of her actions.

I came to this book as a reader of historical fiction, so I was a bit disappointed to see that after the initial set up, the historical details seemed to fade into black, especially given that there were pretty significant events taking place at the time. For example, the Japanese invasion of China was glossed over in just a couple of sentences and the lead up to the Cultural Revolution was pretty brief. By the end of the novel though, I was glad to see that Jepson did spend some time talking about the Cultural Revolution and the effect that those events had on Feng's life even if the mechanism to get her to that point was a little clunky. Feng looks back on her former life and it is clear that she comes to the realisation of how bitter and terrible she was to the people around her, which is very lucky because otherwise she would have been a completed unlikable narrator.

Whilst this book didn't completely work for me, there were glimpses of promise that included an interesting setting. If you are looking for historical fiction with a Chinese setting I would probably recommend Lisa See, or The Good Earth books by Pearl Buck before this one.

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received the book from them in order to do so. Check out the thoughts of participated on the tour as there are others who appreciated different aspects of the book.

Here is the synopsis of the book:

In 1930's Shanghai, following the path of duty takes precedence over personal desires for every young Chinese woman. For Feng, that means becoming the bride of a wealthy businessman in a marriage arranged by her parents. In the enclosed world of the Sang household  - a place of public ceremony and private cruelty - she learns that fulfilling her duty means bearing a male heir. Ruthless and embittered by a life that has been forced on her, Feng plots a terrible revenge. But as the years pass, she must come to a reckoning with the sacrifices and the terrible choices she has made to assure her place in family and society, before the entire country is engulfed in the fast-flowing tide of revolution.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Salon: Better Late Than Never

I suddenly realised this week that I still haven't managed to post my goals for 2012 in relation to blogging and reading, so this week my Sunday Salon post is going to be doing just that. After all, it would probably be best to do so while the month is still January!

To be honest, most of the goals that I will be setting this year will be very similar to the ones that I have had in the last couple of years, mainly because these seem to be working for me.

Read 150 books -  Last year I read more than 220 books which is the most I have read in a single year. Whilst it didn't feel that onerous getting to that mark last year I still thank that around 150 books is my natural level of reading.

Read 10 books that I owned as at 31 December 2011 - Every year I read less books that I own than come into my house. This is my attempt to try to make sure that I read at least a few that have been on my shelves for a while. I actually have done pretty well with this aim so far this year.

Reading Australian authors - Every year I look at my list of reads and think, gosh, I don't read enough Australian authors. This year I am aiming to read at least 12 books by Australian authors. I rejoined the Aussie Authors Challenge to try and help me meet this goal and I am also participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge as well.

Read some Charles Dickens - A few years ago I aimed to read Dorothy Dunnett, and didn't manage to even crack open a book, and still haven't in fact. Last year I aimed to read a novel by Jane Austen which I did. This year is a big year as it is the 200th anniversary of Dickens birth, so it seems like a good time to revisit his works. I have only read Great Expectations so there are still a number of other books that I can choose from.

Perpetual Challenges - I am aiming to read at least one book for each of the perpetual challenges that I am signed up for like The Pulitzer Project, the Orange Prize Project, and the Complete Booker

Review more - This is what I have written for the last couple of years "Over the last couple of years I have allowed myself to get very lazy about writing reviews of the books I read. I still start a blog post for every book, but not enough of them see light of day! This year, I am going to try to write at least one review a week, preferably more. Need to get back into the habit. I know that that really isn't many, but I do also want to be a no guilt blogger as well, because at the end of the day blogging is supposed to enrich our lives and be fun and not something that we are slave to." All of that is still relevant for this year!

Deadline Reading - I want to back off a little from deadline reading whether it be for library due dates, tours, egalley expiry dates and try to be a little organic in my reading in terms of being able to look at my shelf, or the library shelf and have a little more room to just read what I feel like reading! I am not quite sure how to quantify this one, except in terms of how I am feeling, but I will try to!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Coffee anyone?

After a couple of weeks off from Weekend Cooking, I am back with a quote pages 42 to 43 from Christine Blevins' The Tory Widow, mainly because it made me smile during my commute to work earlier this week.

Crisscrossing the room, Mrs. Merrick carried a tray and Sally handled the coffeepot. Together they visited each customer filling mugs and this day offering a selection of raisin scones and corn muffins. As usual, Jack's table was the last stop on their route.

"Good morning, Mr. Hampton!" The women greeted him unison and together dipped a silly, florid curtsy.

"Good morning, ladies," he answered, equally jovial.

"Coffee today, Mr. Hampton?" Sally asked with a grin.

"Please..." Jack offered up his mug, and as usual she poured him the dregs from the bottom of the pot -  a bitter  sludge of grounds mixed with eggshells - coffee so thick he could easily get his spoon to stand upright in it.

Widow Merrick tipped her tray, which was empty save for a lone raisin scone. "Can I tempt you today, Mr. Hampton?"

"Thank you, Mrs. Merrick - I think the scone."

"Good choice." Mrs. Merrick plucked up the scone and placed it on her plate. "Sally baked this one special for you."

Sally peered into his mug with some concern. "Och! The coffee seems a bit on the strong side this morning Shall I brang ye a lump of sugar and a wee bumper of cream, Mr. Hampton?"

"No need, Sally, this coffee is perfect." Jack pushed his spoon through the muck in his cup. No amount of cream would salvage this brew, and at any rate, as he knew from past experience, any cream brought to him would be curdled, and the lump of sugar would more than likely be a lump of salt.

"Well then" - Anne Merrick smiled - "enjoy!"

Jack was subjected once again to the ridiculous tandem curtsy before they left him to stand at the back of the shop, arms akimbo, watching his every move.

Jack eyed the scone on his plate. Sprinkled with a generous amount of brown sugar and baked to crusty golden perfection, it looked delicious. The regular customers always raved about the quality of the fare produced in the widow's kitchen. He broke the scone in two to expose a soft, crumbly interior, loaded with plump black beetle bugs. Jack pushed the tainted scone and coffee aside. Sally and Anne scampered back to the kitchenhouse, giggling.

Among the many dreadful things he'd been served since becoming a regular at the Liberty Coffeehouse were scones burnt to a charcoal crisp, muffins sprinkled with mouse droppings, cakes frosted with dung and puddings drenched in what smelled like horse piss. The clever women contrived to couple the friendliest, most charming service with the meanest, most rotten fare. The most insidious being the servings where the food seemed perfect and he could discern nothing amiss - steaming coffee, rich cream, sweet sugar, lovely baked goods. Suspecting the food might be laced or injected with some undetectable poison or emetic, Jack could do nothing other than pay for the wonderful fare left uneaten on his plate. Those were the days when the laughter coming from the kitchens was the loudest.
You have to wonder why Jack keeps on frequenting the Liberty Coffeehouse!

If you feel so inclined to share, let us know if you have ever found something untoward in a meal!

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs

Friday, January 27, 2012

In the Reviewer Spotlight

Just a quick note to say that Jenny from It's All in the Details has invited me to answer her Reviewer Spotlight questions!

You can read my responses here.

Bookish Quotes: Wuthering Heights - a literary sensation

I don't intend that I will normally do multiple Bookish Quotes from the same book, but it was hard to go past this description which comes from page 225 of Olivia and Jai by Rebecca Ryman.

Olivia, tiring of her aunt's constant and tedious carping, took her book into the garden to read in peace, if that was the word that could be used considering the frantic impatience with which she awaited tomorrow night. The novel she was reading, Wuthering Heights, had been sent to her aunt from England by her Cousin Maude. It was, wrote Cousin Maude, creating a literary sensation in London. Although a poignant and daring love story, it had been written by an unknown spinster named Emily Bronte, the cloistered, unworldly daughter of an impecunious Yorkshire clergyman. Olivia's choice of reading was therefore fortunate: the book was so gripping, so moving and written with such beauty and passion that she could hardly bear to put it down.
Almost makes me think I should make the effort to read Wuthering Heights.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Australian Women's Writers Challenge reading list

Today it is Australia Day which means a day off work and the opportunity to spend time with friends. A bit later today I am heading off to a barbecue, and then coffee with some bookish pals but before that I thought it might be time to actually look at the books I have sitting around on my various bookshelves (both real and virtual) and see what books I have that would be eligible for the Australian Women's Writer Challenge that I am participating in this year.

I haven't actually gone through my whole shelf for the Books I Own, but rather concentrated on the books that I have acquired during the last year or so. I will therefore have other books that might qualify sitting around as well.

I fully expect this list to change before the challenge finishes but I wanted to at least start to get a list together.

Library Books

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan
The Briny Cafe by Susan Duncan
Blood Song by Rhiannon Hart
Ridiculous Expectations by Merridy Eastman
Flood Tide by Judy Nunn
Grace and Glory by Sofie Laguna
Duet by Kimberley Freeman

Books I Own

Liar Bird by Lisa Walker
Tree Speaker by Katie W Stewart
Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti
The Three Loves of Persimmon by Cassandra Golds
The Push by Julia Lawrinson
The Courier's New Bicycle by Kim Westwood
Golden Earrings by Belinda Alexandra
Lola's Secret by Monica McInerney
Shadow Kin by MJ Scott
Boomerang Bride by Fiona Lowe
Thief of Lives by Lucy Sussex
Viper's Kiss by Shannon Curtis
Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Power and Majesty by Tansy Roberts Rayner
Soul by Tobsha Learner
Tremble by Tobsha Learner
Yearn by Tobsha Learner
The Wedding Shroud by Elisabeth Storrs
My Reckless Surrender by Anna Campbell
The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie
Wings of Fear by Helene Young
Beneath the Shadows by Sarah Foster
The Company Articles of Edward Teach by Thoraiya Dyer

I guess you could say that I have enough to go on with then!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Library Loot: January 25 to February 1

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

I wanted to start this week by saying thanks to Claire for hosting Mr Linky for the last couple of weeks as a result of my unexpected time away!

Taking an unplanned week away does really bad things to your library queue! To be fair, so many books had come in at the same time I wasn't really going to be able to pick them all up, but there were a whole heap that had come in and were sitting there forlornly waiting to be picked up but had to go back to the shelves instead. I will rerequest them eventually (if I can remember what they all are!).

Here is the loot that I did get when I finally ventured to the library on Saturday:

Down by the River by Robyn Carr - the third book in the Grace Valley series.

Twice Tempted by the Rogue by Tessa Dare - Second book in the Stud Club series.

Decent Exposure by Philippa Ashley - Recently I read Carrie Goes off the Map by this author and thought that her brand of British chick lit was quite good. I seem to prefer British chick lit to American chick lit a lot of the time.

Duet by Kimberly Freeman - I have borrowed this before but returned it unread. At the end of last year I read her latest book, Wildflower Hill, and now I am determined to work through her backlist!

What loot did you get? Share your loot by adding your Library Loot post link to Mr Linky below:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Affinity by Sarah Waters

From the award winning author of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, shortlisted for both the Orange and the Man Booker Prize.

Now you know why you are drawn to me - why your flesh comes creeping to mine and what it comes for. Let it creep.

From the dark heart of a Victorian prison, disgraced spiritualist Selina Dawes weaves an enigmatic spell. Is she a fraud or a prodigy? By the time it all begins to matter, you'll find yourself desperately wanting to believe in magic.

Time for another joint review. This time it is with Kelly from The Written World (who has an awesome new blog template!). This time we are talking about Affinity by Sarah Waters - an author I have been meaning to read for ages but never quite managed to do so! Kelly's thoughts are in blue and mine in black!

Kelly: I am always happy to pick-up a book by Sarah Waters. What did you think of this book overall? What made you choose it over the other Sarah Waters that you haven’t read yet?
Marg: Actually, this is my first Sarah Waters, so the main reason for choosing it is that it is one of the Waters books that you haven’t read! How many have you read and how did this one compare to the others that you have read?

Kelly: Really? I totally had it in my mind that you read The Night Watch. Well, you are in for some treats! I really liked The Night Watch because it takes place during WWII. I knew little to nothing about Sarah Waters, but the setting appealed to me and I decided that I had to read it. Then, I actually discovered that Waters was very popular and I had been missing out. The other book I read by her was Fingersmith. It seemed a lot different than The Night Watch. If I remember correctly, it has been a while, The Night Watch started from the end and went to the beginning. There were no real mysteries compared to the atmospheric novel Fingersmith. This book was a lot more like Fingersmith, though. It was gothic in nature, there were twists and turns (but not like Fingersmith), and you may or may not know how it was going to all play out in the end. I really enjoyed it, though. Fingersmith remains my favourite, though, and I just feel like The Night Watch is not something that really can be compared because it is different.

What did you think of this book as your first taste of Sarah Waters, then?

Marg: I own Night Watch. Just haven’t read it yet!

I thought I had a fair idea of what to expect from a Sarah Waters book, but I found it quite a bit more literary than I thought it would be! The topic itself (spiritualism in the late 19th century) was fascinating but the strength of the book really was towards the end. The tension built and I couldn’t wait to see what happened.

Kelly: I consider that her true talent. She writes interesting beginnings, but as the book gets going it really comes into its own and you are flipping the pages to find out just what is going to happen next. So far I have enjoyed that with all of them.

I agree with this book that spiritualism in the late 19th century was a very interesting topic. She wrote so well that once in a while I almost believed in spiritualism. I was curious about how it was all going to be explained out in the end.

What did you think of the characters?

Marg: I thought the characters were really well done. The major characters were all multi faceted and I thought that the way that the reliability of the two main characters was written was interesting.  In a way, our main character Margaret seemed to be a bit of an unreliable narrator. We knew that she had had an illness (as described in the book) and she seemed to be unsure of herself, and especially of the things that were happening to her. She seemed to strengthen through the novel though. I felt so sorry for her at the end, especially in the light of the restrictions placed on women in Victorian society, especially those who don’t fit the mould of what is seen to be normal.

With Selina’s past story interwoven through the narrative, I certainly started off with the assumption that she was a charlatan and yet as the spooky events started her character was so compelling it was hard to have doubts about her!

I thought that the setting in the Victorian prison was totally a character in this book. The atmosphere was dark and brooding and very claustrophobic and the various warders helped create that feeling as well.

Were there any of the episodes that Selina caused that were a bit scary to you?

Kelly: I thought the characters were well done, too. Sarah Waters is very gifted at writing characters that stick with you long after finishing the book. Margaret and Selina are two such characters. I felt bad for Margaret. She was a lesbian in Victorian England. It was not exactly the accepted lifestyle. The first woman she loved married her brother and then the events of her relationship with Selina were heart-breaking at times. That was not exactly apparent from the beginning, but as we began to know Margaret better it became more apparent. This is the saddest book I have read by Waters so far.

I agree. I never entirely trusted Selina, but the events she conducted were explained in such detail it was hard to see them as untrustworthy. I think that is what makes a gifted charlatan. If she wasn’t good at what she did; she would not have any customers. She was gifted at selling her act and making people feel compelled to do things for her. She just basically creeped me out, though. I am thinking it was because I had read Waters in past and knew there were usually major plot changes that lead me to not entirely trust Selina. There were just moments where I couldn’t entirely explain why what she was saying was a lie. I look at all the episodes that Selina caused as a whole and think she was just scary in general. She seemed like such an innocent, but there was a calculating mind behind everything she did. She was gifted at manipulating.

Did you think the book was believable for the time in which it was set and the events that occurred?

Marg: I definitely thought it reflected the time it was set in. To be a women in Victorian times was restrictive enough, let alone a lesbian woman, and throw in her health issues and it is no wonder that she was quite unhappy at times. I can’t help but be anxious that she is going to continue to be very unhappy after the events at the end of the book, and having to face her family will be difficult for her.

Do you like the diary entry format of the story?

Check out part 2 of the review at The Written World

Threaded comments

Trying out the new blogger threaded comments to see if it works or not.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Salon: My unscheduled blogging break

Given that the last time I went fishing was probably 25 years ago and I don't really have any intention of doing so in the next 25 years, I should probably come clean and say that I didn't really go fishing in the last week.

Instead, my longest break from blogging in six years (I think anyway) was caused by the need to make an emergency dash to Perth to say goodbye to my grandfather who died on Wednesday morning at the age of 102.

A couple of years ago, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, I wrote a post that talked a little about his life, and this photo was taken at the 100th birthday celebration. It is one of the few that I have with him as an adult.

Photo by Chad Taylor Photography. If you are in Perth and need a photographer check him out  (my cousin)

It's been an interesting week really.

We knew that it was getting close to time, so we originally were thinking about heading over to Perth on the Friday night, but we held off booking, and then we talking about going on Wednesday morning, but then in the end we flew out in a massive rush on Tuesday night. At 4.50pm on that night we decided we were going, and at 7.30pm we were at the airport and in the intervening time, I had trained my boss how to do something that had to happen the next day, spent an hour getting home, packed and driven to the airport which is about 40 minutes away. Fastest pack ever....and I didn't forget anything other than hair ties! It was a good job that we did go on Tuesday night as we got to spend a couple of hours with my grandparents. We were just about to go back to the nursing home on the Wednesday morning when we got the call to say he had passed.

In some ways it was kind of an odd feeling that came over me at his passing. My mum moved us away from our family when I was 10 years old and so we only got to see my father and my grandparents for short times during holidays. Really, at the end of every visit for the last twenty years, I have walked out thinking that this will be the last time, trying to hold it together so that they couldn't see how upsetting it was each time, and I know that my grandfather, in particular, was doing the same. To know that this time was really the last time was hard, but also a relief as he had been in pain for a long time. His mind was quite active up until the last few months, but his movement was extremely limited and painful.

What also made this time quite emotional was that my cousin's eldest son was involved in a terrible accident the day after my grandfather died so there was lots of concern relating to that. He will be alright eventually, physically at least, but his best mate died and so there will definitely be a long road to recovery.

Overall, there was only a hint of family drama but it was pretty low key which was fantastic. In fact, one good thing that came out was that all of my cousins were in the same place at the same time, something that my grandfather would have loved. I don't think that has happened before, but I could be wrong. The oldest cousin has been estranged from the family for a long time and with us living interstate we weren't always at family events and my two youngest cousins weren't born before we left. I don't necessarily think that this will fix the estrangement but it was great to see him take his place at the grave and to have everyone together however briefly.

What I can't begin to imagine is how my grandmother is feeling. They have been married for 69 years and I just don't know how I would face the idea of going back home to know  that your husband is not going to be there. There is a chance that maybe she will decide to go to a care facility. She was also in the same hospice as my grandfather as she currently has a broken leg so they were able to share a room right up until a room.

I was a little bit cheeky while we were away. My grandmother and a couple of my cousins are real readers, and so my grandmother often has a pile of library books that my cousin gets for her. I walked into the hospice room and noticed the books there immediately - especially an old, out-of-print novel by Susan Carroll which is one of the few books by her that I haven't read! While we were sitting up with my grandmother on the first couple of nights I started it, and ended up finishing it while we were away. Other than that, I really didn't do a lot of reading while I was away - I just wasn't in the right space mentally.

I have started to make up for it since I have been back, but my library queues and Netgalley queue were all in a bit of a mess! Oh well!

Currently Reading

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson - I was supposed to post a review of this last week but completely forgot about it in the rush to get to Perth. My review will now be posted in the next week.

Trouble at the Wedding by Laura Lee Guhrke

Reading Next

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - my next book club choice.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bookish Quotes: The Maharaja's library

Like so many of my fellow readers, I love it when an author has their characters talk about their love of reading or libraries, or specific books from the past! I am guaranteed to stop reading and go back and reread a passage again if they do so that I too can savour the words and emotions expressed.

I therefore thought that I might start to share some of these bookish quotes on an irregular basis. It won't be with every book, but just when I remember or, you know, have nothing else ready to post or whatever! Sometimes the quotes will only be short and other times long but hopefully they will capture the imagination of my fellow readers. And if they happen to entice other readers to pick up the book in question then that is an added bonus!

The first of these quotes comes from pages 106-108 of Olivia and Jai by Rebecca Ryman and has the title character, Olivia, being invited into the library of the Maharaja. The book is set in colonial India, and if you like a good old fashioned saga then this could be a book for you!

An early night was called for, but, still charged with excitement from everything she had seen, experienced and heard, Olivia felt not the least sleepy. "I am in the habit of reading awhile before I got to bed. My uncle tells me you have an extensive library here with a fine collection of rare books. May I be permitted to browse there for a half hour?"

Olivia's request pleased the Maharaja, and an aide was immediately dispatched to unlock the library, housed in a separate building, and prepare it for her perusal. She bid Kinjal good night, for they would not now meet before the morning, and followed the Maharaja across the compound. During the slow, leisured walk they discussed books. "Bernier's travel diaries about India might interest you, Miss O'Rourke, and perhaps Kalidasa's epic poem, Shakuntala. I have translations of both in English." They chatted for a few more minutes on the steps of the library, a handsome white single-storied building with scarlet bougainvillea spilling over the portico, and then the Maharaja excused himself, pleading matters still to be attended to for the shoot. "We are truly delighted that you are with us, Miss O'Rourke," he said; then, with visible hesitation he added in a murmur something that was extraordinary, "but I sincerely hope you never have occasion to regret your visit."

For a moment Olivia stood rock still. There was a gusty breeze blowing and the Maharaja's voice had been low; after brief introspection Olivia decided that the two had combined to deceive her ears, for there could be no logical explanation for what she thought he had said. With a shrug, she abandoned her bafflement and went inside.

Like the evocative aroma of damp earth, there is also something universal in a room filled with old books. Glass-fronted cupboards lined with velvet stood open for her benefit; calf-bound volumes, neatly labelled and stamped in gold with the crest of Kritinagar, were arranged in order of language and subject. Ledgers, also bound and crested, gave cross references and relevant information in that immaculate, decorative calligraphy that was a natural product of Indian aesthetics. On the reading desk a paraffin lamp threw a bright pool of light in which were placed three or four books meant for her attention. With a discreet cough the aide walked into an adjoining chamber and left Olivia to her own devices.

As she slipped into the seat and cautiously fingered the bound volumes, Olivia washed over with nostalgia for her father's precious collection of books, which had been her responsibility to look after, and for Sally MacKendrick's one-room lending service, which went by the rather grand name of the "library". Sally too loved books and they had together spent many hours of contentment labelling, cataloguing and arranging the collection her father had helped Sally acquire as a small business after Scot MacKendrick had fallen prey to a band of claim jumpers at the mines where he worked. The lingering mustiness in the air of the Maharaja's library was like a whiff of home, but the rest of the environment she was in now contained an element of unreality, a dreamlike ethereality that seemed to remove her into quite another dimension, one she could not quite assimilate.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Deep in the Valley by Robyn Carr

Welcome to Grace Valley, California---where blood runs thicker...ties bind stronger...and love is all the more sweet. 

Visitors to the town often remark about the valley's peace and beauty---both of which are plentiful. Unlocked doors, front porches, pies cooling in the windows---this is country life at its finest. But visitors don't always see what lies at the heart of a community. Or just beyond... 

June Hudson grew up in Grace Valley, the daughter of the town doctor. Leaving only to get her medical training, she returned home and followed in her father's footsteps. Some might say she chose the easy, comfortable route...but June knows better. 

For June, her emergency room is wherever she's needed---or wherever a patient finds her. Always on call, her work is her life, these people her extended family. Which is a good thing, since this is a town where you should have picked your husband in the ninth grade. Grace Valley is not exactly the place to meet eligible men---until an undercover DEA agent suddenly starts appearing at all sorts of strange hours. 

Everybody has secrets down in the valley. Now June has one of her own.

Today, I am bringing the first half of a buddy review that I have done of Deep in the Valley by Robyn Carr with Bree from All the Books I Can Read. As I have mentioned before, Bree lives about ten minutes from me, so we meet up semi regularly and always have a lot of fun chatting about the books we are reading, and giving each other recommendations! It was fun to have a written conversation about a book too, even though the post took much longer to complete than it should have as a result of my unexpected hiatus! Sorry about that Bree!

Bree's thoughts are in italics. Don't forget to head over to her blog to check out the second part of the discussion too!

M: The obvious place to start really is with a comparison to the Virgin River series that we both enjoy reading a lot. For me this was almost as if all the drama of three or four Virgin River books was crammed into one book, and then mixed with half a relationship. What did you think?

B: That certainly did seem the case. This book seemed longer but with...less of a main romantic storyline at the front. It’s obviously going to span out over a couple of books rather than 1 couple hooking up in 1 book, VR-style. But there are many characters and situations in this novel that seem straight out of of VR - almost as if Grace Valley IS Virgin River and vice versa. They could easily be the same town actually. We get the same issues, the same population basically doing the same things. All that’s missing is Jack’s Bar!

M: It is interesting to see that there is no Jack type of character, although June, the town doctor certainly came close to being that unifying character that the town looks to for leadership and for direction. Did you like June? Did you relate to her? I could relate to some of her feelings, particularly those relating to being single and having people suggest that the life that you have should be enough, when there is still a big whole in your life.

B: I didn’t -not- like June. But I’m not entirely sure I liked her either because I think that she came off as just a little too condescending at times. The way in which she reiterates that she chose to come back to Grace Valley, that she knows the town, that she knows the way in which things work and her judgement of poor John Stone, the city doctor looking for a change. She really did not handle the situation that arose with him very professionally, or confidently at all. I did like her relationship with her father and her aunt (although I see similarities again between those two characters and town icons in Virgin River) and her friendship with the local sheriff (who you’ll remember from his cameo in a Virgin River book!). Do you think this book is different enough to warrant being another series? Or should it just have been incorporated in as a Virgin River book or special edition?

M: I guess the thing to remember is that Deep in the River was actually written a number of years before the first book in the Virgin River series and so if anything, it should have been the other way around! It seems to me, without having actually read the other two books in the trilogy, that this book provided the blueprint for Virgin River with the common themes, but the Virgin River books are more romance focused and tend to be mainly dealing with one major issue at a time rather than the several that we had in this book.

This is a purely hypothetical question seeing as we both did read VR first, but if you read this book before the Virgin River series, could you see yourself becoming as hooked on Robyn Carr’s books in the way that we both have become?

B: See, I’m so ingrained in VR that I forgot this was published first! It felt a little weird reading about characters who play bit parts in that series, as being full on MC characters in this series. I think that if I had of read these first, I may never have read the Virgin River series although I think her writing and storytelling has improved immensely between these books and the VR books, so I’m glad I read those first, and not this one. This book for me, was too long and a bit too rambling. It could’ve been trimmed down to 300-350p and not lost anything. Ok I’ll reverse my question - having read THIS one, do you now think that Virgin River series loses a little something that made it special? The small town feel, the community spirit, the ways of getting things done (ie doctors etc being paid in produce by the less well off farming folk, the benevolent wealthy resident who donates money/services that the town needs) seemed really different and original to me at first, but now I realise that it’s all been done before in this series! Grace Valley felt like a rehashing of Virgin River, because I’ve read all the VR books first...but is VR just a better written rehashing of Grace Valley?

M: If I had of read the Virgin River series which is possibly a big if if I had of read this book first because I may not have actually picked those up, then you still would have read it because I would have nagged you until you did! *grin*.

I don’t know that this impacted my feelings about the Virgin River series, although I guess I was a little surprised to realise how much some of the Virgin River books were a rehash of this series. The VR books are definitely better written than this one which was just so crammed with people and events that there wasn’t any space to relax into the story in the same way I do with a VR book! I think it helped that June and John haven’t appeared in many of the recent VR books. If they had of been in the most recent ones I read it might have been a bit more of a shock. Tom, the town policeman did appear in a later book but it was one that I wasn’t as keen on as usual in the series so he kind of wasn’t on my radar as such.

Shall we talk a little about the story itself?

Head over to Bree's blog to see part 2 of our thoughts

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Discovery of Witches giveaway winner

I must start by apologising for the delay in announcing the winner of the Discovery of Witches giveaway. I had to travel interstate unexpectedly and so I had limited internet access through my phone and I wasn't going to try writing long blog posts on that! I arrived home at 3am this morning and had to go to work, so I am literally posting this and then going to bed to try to sleep.

Without further delay.....

I used a random number generator to determine the winner, and the person whose number came up is

Aarti from Booklust

I will be in contact with you shortly Aarti. I hope you enjoy your book.

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Brief Hiatus...

Marg will unexpectedly be gone until the weekend or early next week. 

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sunday Salon: National Year of Reading

Some Sunday's when I sit down to write my Sunday Salon post I have no idea what I am planning to post about. Other weeks I have the one idea so that makes it easier, but the best kind of weeks are those weeks when I have a myriad of ideas to choose from! This week is one of those weeks. I haven't yet posted my reads for December or my reading resolutions for 2012, and I intended to also create a list of possible reads for the Australian Women Writers Challenge and then there is a half written post about something else as well.

Instead though, I want to focus on something that is very exciting. This year in Australia is the ....

Sounds cool right?

There are a number of celebrities including sports people, politicians and authors who have been appointed as ambassadors to helps spread the word about reading.

The aims of National Year of Reading are (from the website):

The National Year of Reading 2012 is about children learning to read and keen readers finding new sources of inspiration. It's about supporting reading initiatives while respecting the oral tradition of storytelling. It's about helping people discover and rediscover the magic of books. And most of all, it's about Australians becoming a nation of readers.

Nearly half our population can't read with any fluency. It's a shameful and worrying statistic. We've identified three goals which will help us turn Australia into a nation of readers and encourage a reading culture in every home:

  • For all Australians to understand the benefits of reading as a life skill and a catalyst for well-being;
  • To promote a reading culture in every home; and
  • To establish an aspirational goal for families, of parents and caregivers sharing books with their children every day.

Next year will see a whole heap of amazing, fun, reading activities taking place around Australia and online, so people of all ages, from different backgrounds, can discover and rediscover the joy of reading.
In addition, the organisation behind the National Year of Reading are raising funds for two very good causes - the Indigenous Literacy Foundation which aims to promote literacy to indigenous people in Australia, and the Pyjama Foundation which is actually a new organisation to me that aims to provide volunteers to read to children in care every day.

There are lots of activities that are going to take place during the year. So far, there has been a popular vote for the books that represent each state.

There's lots happening, and it is very exciting to see what happens next with this great opportunity to promote the value of reading here in Australia.

The last couple of weeks I have forgotten to add the details of what I am currently reading and what's up next!

Currently Reading

Olivia and Jai by Rebecca Ryman (set in colonial India) and Angel's Blood by Nalini Singh (for my romance book club).

Reading Next

The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

All That I Am: A Novel by Anna Funder

As you may or may not know, I find the subjects of World War I and World War II to be completely fascinating. I love reading about the bravery of people who were put in desperate situations, about the relationships that they formed under such duress and so much more. Many of the stories that I have read and enjoyed over the years have taken place against the background of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and other minorities, and often feature those local people who took up against the oppressors in any way they could, often at great personal risk.

It is very easy to forget that those tools of oppression were turned first against the Germans themselves - those people who tried to oppose Hitler's regime as it came to power, again often at great personal cost. The first concentration camps were built not house Jews, but to house the growing numbers of political opponents in the 1930s.

Australian author Anna Funder has chosen to tell this story - one that I can't remember hearing much about before. Her story takes place during the 1930s as Hitler came to power. She chooses two storytellers to reveal the events that were happening - the first is Ernst Toller who is in a New York hotel room in 1939 writing his autobiography and the second is Ruth Becker, an elderly lady who is living in Sydney and who receives a copy of Toller's book bringing back all sorts of memories from those turbulent years - memories of those she loved, those she lost, those she was betrayed by.

And yet, even though Funder has these two different perspectives relating the events of that time to us, neither Toller or Ruth are the central character. That honour belongs to Dora Fabian who is Ruth's cousin and Toller's former employee and lover.  Even both Toller and Ruth acknowledge this (from page 358):

Toller was always kind to me, but it was clear he inhabited a different sphere. I was neither beautiful nor important enough to occupy a place in his world. But he did not send me this life of his with Dora put back in because I am her cousin. He has sent it because we had her in common. We were the two for whom she was the sun. We moved in her orbit and the force of her kept us going.

Ruth and her husband Hans, Toller, and Dora are all part of the vociferous opponents that the Nazis need to silence, anyway they can. Even when in exile though, they seek to keep trying to inform the world of the dangers of allowing Hitler to continue to reinforce his power unchecked.

Dora herself seemed to be quite the amazing figure. She took risks that seem quite unbelievable and yet the fact that they are true adds a great deal of poignancy. She loved freely if not always deeply, lived life to the full as much as possible and was able to gain access to some of the most influential people of her time in London and beyond in the course of her efforts to shed light on events taking place in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.

I have to wonder what the author was trying to achieve by having Dora as the central character but using the two different voices to relate the events. They both did bring different aspects of the story to life, but at times their own stories distracted rather than enhanced the narrative. Of the two, I found Ruth's most interesting, especially in light of her story of how she came to be in Australia.

Most of the characters and events are based on real life which should lend the story a great deal more fascination, and yet for me, the narrative really didn't work all that well until probably the last third of the book. In that section, the adrenalin was pumping just a little bit as I realised who the ultimate betrayal would come from, what the final events of the book were going to be. Before that, however, I found the pace of the novel to be quite slow and ponderous and it was difficult to maintain all that much interest. There is some promise in the novel though. The author does have some lovely turns of phrase and seems to be able to identify forgotten stories that are very interesting.

Anna Funder enjoyed great success with her first book, Stasiland, which was a non-fiction account of life behind the Berlin Wall. Whilst this novel didn't work for me on every level, I will be making an effort to read Stasiland as I have heard lots of good things about it.

Ruth Becker, defiant and cantankerous, is living out her days in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. She has made an uneasy peace with the ghosts of her past - and a part of history that has been all but forgotten.

Another lifetime away, it's 1939 and the world is going to war. Ernst Toller, self-doubting revolutionary and poet sits in a New York hotel room settling up the account of his life.

When Toller's story arrives on Ruth's doorstep their shared past slips under her defences, and she's right back among them - those friends who predicted the brutality of the Nazis and gave everything they had to stop them. Those who were tested - and in some cases found wanting  - in the face of hatred, of art, of love, and of history.

Based on real people and events, All That I Am is a masterful and exhilarating exploration of bravery and betrayal, of the risks and sacrifices some people make for their beliefs, and of heroism hidden in the most unexpected places. Anna Funder confirms her place as one of our finest writers with this gripping, compassionate, inspiring first novel.

This book counts for the Aussie Author Challenge, The Australian Women's Writers Challenge and the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and also for Australian Literature Month being hosted over at Reading Matters during January.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Library Loot: January 4 to 10

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!
I think the holidays have thrown me a bit out of kilter. I swear it was my turn for Mr Linky this week so when I suddenly realised that I hadn't been to the library yet and so would have no loot, I rushed off to pick up my library holds ... and then got home and realised that I had it last week so it is Claire's turn! Oh well. At least I have loot now. The kind of weird thing is that my library system had a 60 day check out period during December as a Christmas gift to it's patience. What this means is that all the books that I borrowed today are actually due back before any of the books I have borrowed in the last month!

Can't Stand the Heat by Louisa Edwards - I recently read the first book in Louisa Edwards second trilogy, but there are no other books available from the library in that trilogy just yet. This book is the first book in her debut trilogy.

Just Over the Mountain by Robyn Carr - The second book in the Grace River Valley series, and you know...it's Robyn Carr.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley - I have been meaning to read this book for the longest time!

Instant Attraction by Jill Shalvis - Another author who is rapidly becoming a favourite. I have read all the books that are currently out in the Lucky Harbor and Animal Magnetism series so I thought I would try this series now.

By the way, I am currently giving away a copy of A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. Check out all the details at the giveaway post (which also happens to be my list of favourite reads for 2011)!