Two charming reads

>> Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This is the word that came to mind when I read these two books: they were utterly charming. But they had other things in common, too, like the strange fact that I just couldn't put them down until they were finished, even though on reflection, they were hardly thrilling!

TITLE: The Uncommon Reader
AUTHOR: Alan Bennett

This slim book imagines what would happen the Queen (Queen Elizabeth, that is; on reread just before posting, it occurs to me that she's not the only Queen out there!) were to become a reader.

The naughty behaviour of one of her corgi leads the Queen to stumble upon a mobile library on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Her sense of noblesse oblige, in turn, leads her to borrow a book, just out of politeness. The reading bug doesn't take long to strike her, and she's soon playing hooky to stay home in bed with a book and driving her equerries* nuts by asking innocent and bewildered members of the public what they're currently reading.

I think what I liked best about this book was how it humanised the character of the Queen, while not falling into clichéd "she's just like you or me!" territory. The character remains The Queen, someone shaped by experiences very far from those that shaped "you or me" (for instance, she doesn't get Austen, because those minute class differences that form such a larg part of Austen's novels are meaningless to her, dwarfed by the difference between her class and that of even the most elevated of Austen's characters). Only once she becomes a voracious readers, certain traits emerge in her character that I'm sure all the readers of this blog will recognise without much trouble.

Up to a point, that is. As the ending approaches, what emerges is the idea of wanting to write as a natural and necessary continuation of a love of reading. It seems according to the author, after a while, it's just not enough to read, it will necessarily lose its charm. The "necessary" bit was what bothered me somewhat, mainly because it was an instance in which I could detect the author's hand in the story, temporarily suspending my suspension of disbelief. Why? Because I think there is a tendency in many writers to consider readers as wannabe writers as well, and I think that's where this came from.

Still, that was just a small bit of what was otherwise a book that rang true. Even though nothing momentous happens (until the end, that is!), Bennet's voice and the humour wih which he narrates the little things makes them just fascinating.

* Equerry: an officer of the British royal household who attends the sovereign or other member of the royal family (I had to look it up).


TITLE: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
AUTHOR: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This is an epistolary novel, taking place only a few years after the end of the Second World War. Writer Juliet Ashton spent the war writing humourous newspaper columns intended to keep morale up. That work has made her a household name, but she's now ready to try something else. But what? Inspiration seems elusive, until she receives a fortuitous letter from Guernsey.

The writer of the letter, a Dawsey Adams, has purchased a novel that once belonged to Juliet, and wonders if she knows more about the author and his œuvre (ah, those pre-Internet days!). Other details in the letter, however, capture Juliet's attention, and soon she's corresponding not just with Dawsey, but with the entire membership of his Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and learning the moving details of what it was like to live under German occupation during the war.

This is a book of two halves. The first is basically what I've described above: Juliet finding inspiration for her new novel in the recent history of Guernsey and becoming friends with its inhabitants through their correspondence. She also dreams of some day, hopefully soon, visiting her new friends. And in the second half, she does.

It's not that the second part is bad, but the first was just so much better! Learning about what happened during the war (like Juliet, I knew the Channel islands had been occupied, but hadn't really though much about what exactly that would have implied), but also learning about the people of Guernsey. There's quite a few of them, but each and every one of them came alive and became an individual being to me.

I suppose in the second half we continue learning about those things, but there's also Stuff happening, and that changed the whole feel of the book for me. Of course, I can't really complain, as that stuff involves a very nice romance, as well, which I did like very much!



Two authors I love, but mixed results

>> Thursday, January 15, 2009

TITLE: Demon Bound
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I've come to expect that from Brook, and she didn't dissappoint with this story about creepy Alice and sweetie puppy-dog young (for a Guardian) Jake. The plot is straightforward (for the author *g*): right before she was turned, Alice made a bargain with a demon that she's since come to regret. It's unthinkable that she might fulfill it, but if she doesn't, the eternal torture she'll undergo will be just as unthinkable. Nothing to do but desperately search for a loophole that might allow her to escape it completely, a search in which Jake is determined to help her. And as they do, Jake begins to think that creepy Alice isn't so creepy after all (even with the spiders and all that).

What can I say that I haven't said before in my previous reviews of this author's work? The characters are fantastic... complex, real, fascinating and very individual. Brook really delves into what makes them tick, and succeeds in making them come alive. And not just the protagonists, everyone around them (including characters from previous books) is just as well characterised. Also, the worldbuilding is top-notch and feels like it's going somewhere, somewhere I can't wait to explore. How long until Alejandro and Irena´s story?


TITLE: The Laughter of Dead Kings
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Peters

This is a new book in Peters' Vicky Bliss series, after an interval of almost 15 years. As much as I love the original 5 books in the series, I wasn't really anticipating this one. To me, Night Train to Memphis had provided a perfectly good close to the series, and I would much rather had got a new stand-alone Barbara Michaels (or a stand-alone Peters, or a new entry in the Jacqueline Kirby series... now *that* one could use some closure!).

Fortunately, not having had my hopes too high, my dissapointment wasn't that huge. Still, it was a bit sad to read this competent-but-not-special romp. A bit like meeting up with old friends you thought were amazing years back and realising that they're not that interesting. The plot was serviceable, but a bit meh, the characters were nice, but lacked the zing they used to have, and the offbeat-but-oh-so-romantic feel of John and Vicky's relationship was gone completely. Eh, well, I did quite enjoy it.

BTW, something that I thought was really interesting was that Peters made no attempt to set the book right after the last one (which would have been in the mid-90s), even though the action is supposed to take place soon after NTTM. Nope, this is set in the present, complete with blogs (and yay! she clearly understands the difference between a blog and a website!). Weird, but it worked.

MY GRADE: A B, and I'm being quite kind.


Delicious, by Sherry Thomas

>> Tuesday, January 13, 2009

TITLE: Delicious
AUTHOR: Sherry Thomas

PAGES: 432

SETTING: Late 19th c. England
TYPE: Straight romance

REASON FOR READING: Because I loved Private Arrangements (haven't reviewed it yet, but I hope to do so soon).

Famous in Paris, infamous in London, Verity Durant is as well-known for her mouthwatering cuisine as for her scandalous love life. But that’s the least of the surprises awaiting her new employer when he arrives at the estate of Fairleigh Park following the unexpected death of his brother.

Lawyer Stuart Somerset worked himself up from the slums of Manchester to become one of the rising political stars of England’s Parliament. To him, Verity Durant is just a name and food is just food until her first dish touches his lips. Only one other time has he felt such pure arousal—a dangerous night of passion with a stranger, a young woman who disappeared at dawn. Ten years is a long time to wait for the main course, but when Verity Durant arrives at his table, there’s only one thing that will satisfy Stuart’s appetite for more. But is his hunger for lust, revenge—or that rarest of delicacies, love? For Verity’s past has a secret that could devour them both even as they reach for the most delicious fruit of all…
THE PLOT: The summary above is perfectly good (and if I have to actually write a summary, this will never get posted. I'm still slooowly sliding back into writing reviews, after all.)

MY THOUGHTS: Yep, I know who I'm voting for as fave debut author in this year's All About Romance readers poll. Interesting characters, beautiful writing, cool setting and historical romance that's wholly character-driven? Yum.

The latter can't be understated, btw. I bet it's a lot harder to write stories where the tension comes purely from the characters and their relationships (as opposed to from half-baked suspense plots), and not have them lose steam. But Thomas succeeds completely in this. Why? I think because of the characters. They were truly interesting, and I loved them all. Verity is my favourite kind of heroine: strong, resourceful and a woman who can rescue herself, thank you very much. But at the same time, she's not perfect and has her vulnerabilities. Her back story was truly moving, and made perfect sense in making her the woman she was now. And the same could be said about Stuart, actually. His childhood and his position made it practically impossible for him to deviate in any way from society's expectations and still keep his position. It was even more moving, then, to see the risks he was willing to take for his Cinderella. I always enjoy seeing a staid, conservative hero being brought low :-)

The relationship between them was sensual and exciting. Both "stages" of it were amazing, actually. The original relationship, 10 years earlier, when Stuart fall in love with the mysterious woman he only knows as Cinderella was beautifully told, through flashbacks. This is a device I'm not that much of a fan of, but Thomas uses it to great effect. And then the present day story was even better, with Stuart becoming more involved every day with this cook whose face he's never seen and whose cooking captivates him. I've read some criticism of the fact that he pretty much fell in love with Verity again without even seeing her face, mostly through the food she prepares for him. Well, I had absolutely no problem with this. I bought it, hook, line and sinker. This is something I tend to love, actually. I'm thinking of the movie Like Water for Chocolate, or Anthony Capella's The Food of Love. The idea of expressing feelings through food is something that intrigues me, and this is what was happening in Delicious, the reason why Stuart reacted to Verity's food as he did.

I also liked the complexity of both Stuart and Verity's relationships with Bertie, but especially the former. I assumed at the beginning that Bertie was going to be a villain, but his depiction was quite a bit deeper than that, and I thought it made the book all the better. And same thing about Lizzie, Stuart's fiancée: she could easily have been made into an evil other woman character, but instead, we get a fun, exciting secondary romance starring her.

Oh, and last, but not least, the language was truly delicious (heh). It reminded me of Judith Ivory... especially her two Judy Cuevas books, Dance and Bliss (might have been the setting, as well, even though Delicious was set in another country and a couple of decades earlier), in that it was rich and lush, without ever crossing into purple territory.

And now we come to the slightly painful part. Delicious was an A right until near the end. However, I thought it felt a bit anticlimactic and lost a lot of steam after the big scene where Stuart finally recognises Verity and reacts to this. After that, I felt that the action didn't have nearly as much energy as it had been having previously. I can pretty much pinpoint the scene after which things started going downhill (not a very steep hill, so I still enjoyed the descent, but it was a hill, all the same): when Stuart tries to resist opening the door, thinking it's Verity. This scene was brilliant and wrenching, but after this, I could hear a pfffffff-like deflating sound. And I must say, I really disliked the way things with the Duchess were solved. I didn't buy for a minute her convoluted justifications for her actions, plus, it felt like a bit too much narrative... too much telling and not enough showing. It just didn't go with what the rest of the book was like.

Still, the book was strong enough until that point that this is a B+. With two absolute winners, I can't wait to see what Thomas comes up with next.

MY GRADE: Er, just said it: a B+.


Blog template by

Back to TOP