Still trying to catch up

>> Monday, April 28, 2008

A bit of everything, in a short-ish round-up:

TITLE: A Walk in the Woods
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson

This was a reread of one of my favourite Brysons, and I had a blast as I followed him and the hapless Katz in their walk through the woods. The humour, as always, is top-notch and hilarious. The portrayals of the people he meets while on the trail are deft and entertaining, making them into comedic figures but without making them into caricatures. That's the main thing I like about his humour: it might get scathing sometimes, but it's never cruel.

The book also contains some more "educational" information on the Appalachian trail and the different woods they walked through. This was really interesting stuff, and narrated without ever falling into dullness or infodumping. And through the entire book, his love and respect for the trail and what it represents shines through.


TITLE: The Warlord's Mistress
AUTHOR: Juliet Landon

After all those years of asking for more varied and original settings for historicals, it seems someone has noticed and decided to give us what we were asking for: Mills & Boon. In The Warlord's Mistress, Juliet Landon takes us to Roman Britain and gives us a Celtic heroine who falls in love with a Roman tribune.

Dania is in a bit of a pickle. Her clan has been experienced a bit of bad luck and when the powerful druid (who has it in for her) demands that she be sacrificed to the gods, they seem ready to go along. Thinking on her feet, she manages to convince them she might do them more good if she sets up residence in the nearby garrison town of Coria and spies on the Romans for them.

Years later, she's established herself there and her House of Women (a kind of very classy brothel, patronised by high-ranking Romans) gives her the perfect source of information she can send back to Boar Hill. But then a new tribune arrives, the attractive and dangerous Fabian Cornelius Peregrinus. He's much more intelligent and perceptive than any of the previous authorities, and this puts Dania's plans in jeopardy.

I enjoyed this one very much, but not really because of the romance. What I loved was the fascinating and vividly painted setting and Dania's identy conflict, with her conflicting feelings towards her clan. This was very well done, and I couldn't help but understand why she still felt loyalty to them even though she saw the not-so-good aspects perfectly way. I liked that this conflict was somewhat reflected in Fabian's feelings for his own role and government. Throughout most of the book this seemed like an unsolvable problem, but Landon did find a good, satisfying solution.

The romance wasn't bad, but I didn't find it particularly interesting or compelling. I never completely got why they would fall in love with each other. But well, at least they weren't annoying together. The only real problem I had with the book was at the beginning, because the writing was very bit overblown and purple, especially when Landon is describing Dana's oh-so-amazing and irresistible beauty. Fortunately, that tapered off a bit as the book progressed.


TITLE: North and South
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Gaskell

I blame KristieJ and her crusade for me picking up this one. Well, indirectly. Kristie made me want to watch the miniseries (which I now have thanks to Ana... though I haven't watched it yet *blushes*), but before I did that, I wanted to read the book. Fortunately, being a classic, I was able to find it quite easily in my library.

I'll save most of my comments for when I watch the miniseries, so just a bit of a taster now. I really liked the combination of social commentary and a strong love story, especially because the love story in many ways reflects and illustrates the conflict. From a completely modern perspective, though, it was a bit hard for me to really like the main characters (Margaret, with her initial disdain for people she considered "shoppy" and John's reaction to thinking Margaret might have been alone with a man). However, I was able to put myself in the mindset of the times and enjoy the story anyway. I couldn't really love the romance, but I can see how it could be really wonderful in the miniseries, and I'm really looking forward to that.

The only thing I didn't like at all was the sense of melodrama that permeates some parts. Let's just say that the scenes with Nicholas Higgins and his sick little daughter didn't cause the effect Ms. Gaskell must have intended. My reaction was more on the line of "oh, give me a break, what nauseating mawkishness" than "oh, that's so saaaaaaad!".


TITLE: The Venetian's Mistress
AUTHOR: Ann Elizabeth Cree

Like The Warlord's Mistress (huh, I've only just noticed the very similar titles), this is one of those M&B historicals with exotic and original settings. Unfortunately, as it often happens, the story didn't live up to the setting, and in this particular case, the setting itself didn't live up to the concept either, as there was no real sense of place.

Cicely Renato is a widow, an Englishwoman living in Italy, in the home of her late husband, an Italian. Her grown, although still very young step-daughter lives with her, and Cicely is drawn into trouble when Mariana falls in love with a young man from a noble Italian family and he seems to return her regard. They're much too young to get married, so both Cicely and the young man's uncle, the Duke of Severin, are against the match. And there's also the fact that there seems to be an old quarrel between the Severin and Cicely's husband's family. But when Mariana elopes with her beloved, Cicely and Severin are thrown together in trying to find them before it's too late.

The best word to describe this book is tepid. I thought Cicely and Nico, the duke, were both nice enough, but they weren't very interesting. Nor did they have much chemistry between them. The plot was supposed to be exciting, with old enemies and chases and an old murder which seemed to be affecting the present as well, but I found it much too easy to put the book down.

The plot about the old murder (not that it's acknowledged as a murder at the beginning of the book, but it's pretty obvious that it was), was probably the worst part of the book. It was awfully half-baked and I knew who the villain was from the moment that character was introduced. Plus, the character of Barbarina, Cicely's sister-in-law was incredibly frustrating. She knew or suspected everything and kept saying cryptic, suggestive things, but then would always refuse to explain. No reason why she would, and no reason why Cicely wouldn't just shake her until she spoke.



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