Christmas break

>> Friday, December 11, 2009

I'm packed (mostly), Christmas presents are wrapped and my flight to Uruguay leaves tomorrow. The year's gone by incredibly fast, and it's been an eventful one, in the best possible ways. Still, it'll be nice to go home, see the family again and relax. I'm spending the first few days in Montevideo, probably running errands and taking advantage of those things that are a lot cheaper than here in England, but then I'm spending a couple of weeks in Punta del Este (see picture, taken last year at the entrance to the town) doing absolutely nothing and lying on the beach.

I know it's a bit early, but I'd like to wish all my visitors a very happy Christmas and an excellent beginning of 2010. Unless I'm seized by an irresistible desire to blog while on the beach, I'll see you all in January!

Rosario xx


DNF roundup

>> Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Here are a few books I started and didn't finish, for different reasons.

TITLE: The Secret of Lost Things
AUTHOR: Sheridan Hay

This sounded just like my sort of thing, a sort of literary mystery. I only got as far as the young heroine arriving in a new city and getting a job at a bookstore that I only wish existed in real life. Very vivid descriptions, you could just see and smell the stacks of books. I think I stopped reading when there were hints of a mysterious manuscript.

What I read was good, but I think I just wasn't in the mood for it. This was over year ago, when I moved from Nottingham to Liverpool. I started and read a few pages at a time for a few weeks, and then when I moved I had to return it to the library. I thought I'd borrow it again from my new local library, but I haven't yet. And given the time that's elapsed, it's probably time to label it officially a DNF.

TITLE: The Colour of Magic
AUTHOR: Terry Pratchett

I picked this one up after reading and adoring Good Omens, written by Pratchett in colaboration with Neil Gaiman. I'd tried Gaiman writing on his own before and hadn't been able to finish the book, but I hoped Pratchett would work better. No such luck, the humour just didn't appeal to me. Seems like I like their voices in combination, but not on their own.

TITLE: The Dead and the Gone
AUTHOR: Susan Pfeffer

I loved Pfeffer's realistic post-apocalyptic Life As We Knew It. The Dead and The Gone takes place simultaneously, but in New York City, which is experiencing even more dramatic disasters. I didn't get too far with this one, basically because it's clear from the beginning that it will be much more of an adventure read than the relatively quiet LAWKI, and I just wasn't in the mood for that. I'll probably come back to it when I am in the mood, but it's been such a while, that I'd better stick a DNF on it this time around.

TITLE: The Pregnancy Bond
AUTHOR: Lucy Gordon

Loved The Italian's Wife By Sunset, and this was the only other book they had in my library by Lucy Gordon. To be honest, I can hardly remember it. From the basics I remember, the hero and heroine get divorced (he might have cheated?) and then they sleep together anyway and she gets pregnant. It just didn't capture me at all, mostly because it featured characters acting in illogical ways I just couldn't understand.


Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

>> Sunday, December 06, 2009

TITLE: Half of a Yellow Sun (book website)
AUTHOR: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial

SETTING: 1960s Nigeria
TYPE: Fiction

REASON FOR READING: It was chosen for my book club

A masterly, haunting new novel from a writer heralded by The Washington Post Book World as "the 21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe," Half of a Yellow Sun recreates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra's impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria, and the chilling violence that followed.

With astonishing empathy and the effortless grace of a natural storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves together the lives of three characters swept up in the turbulence of the decade. Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Olanna is the professor's beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the charisma of her new lover. And Richard is a shy young Englishman in thrall to Olanna's twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance and they must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.

Epic, ambitious, and triumphantly realized, Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel about moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism, about ethnic allegiances, about class and race—and the ways in which love can complicate them all.
I must admit, I wasn't thrilled to hear this was the book I needed to read for the first month I joined the book club. For starters, it's quite a long book, and the book club meeting was some 3 days away when my friend invited me to join. Mostly, though, this just didn't sound like something I'd like at all... a saga set in a war-torn country? Hmm, not really my thing.

But given that part of my reason to join the book club in the first place was to broaden my reading and push myself outside my comfort zone, I pressed on. And I'm really, really glad I did, because Half of a Yellow Sun was truly fantastic and extremely readable. I started reading it and immediately was absorbed by the story. By the time the book club meeting took place, I'd finished it.

Set in Eastern Nigeria in the 1960s, it follows a group of people as their country heads towards and suffers through a civil war. Ugwu is a 13-year-old boy from a remote, rural small village, who joins the household of university professor Odenigbo as the book starts, and whose horizons start broadening considerably as a result

Odenigbo is one of those militant intellectuals from privileged backgrounds (and living privileged lives) who were so prevalent in the 60. I certainly knew quite a few people like that in Uruguay. His live-in lover is Olanna, a young woman from a rich and politically-connected family, for whom being Odenigbo's "mistress" is yet another form of rebellion against her family and the statu quo.

Olanna's twin, Kainene, is her opposite. She's heavily involved in running the family business interests and much more pragmatic than idealistic Olanna. Kainene becomes involved with an English writer, Richard, who's fascinated by her.

These are all interesting characters, but what I found most gripping, what kept me turning the pages, was seeing events in Nigeria unfold through their eyes. With them, we see the seemingly peaceful and well-integrated country, one with a long way to go, but with a hopeful future, disintegrate as religious and tribal tensions increase so much that the Igbo people (of whom our African characters are part) get to the point of secession, triggering a civil war. And seeing the events that way makes them more immediate, more relatable than simply reading about them in a history book.

I had only the barest knowledge of the events that take place during the book. I remember that as I was growing up during the 80s, my mom's point of reference when describing someone who was very think was "She looks like she's from Biafra", so that particular element wasn't a surprise. However, the rest of it was. I resisted the temptation to google, so although I knew things were going to get bad, the actual events were as unexpected to me as to the characters.

It sounds like a harrowing read from my description, but it reads surprisingly smoothly. There's some horrific moments that are very hard to read (and characters we love sometimes act in ways that are even harder to stomach) but as a whole, this is a very accessible, very readable book. Maybe it's because of the structure Adichie uses, which is to alternate sections from early and late in the decade. She manages to keep this from being confusing in the least, and it works so that whenever you're about to stop reading because the horrors have become too much, you're whisked to a more peaceful time, when the drama comes from the characters and their relationships, rather than war. And this might make the book easier to read, but it's no cop-out, because the genteel atmosphere of those sections makes the descent into savagery even more shocking.

An excellent book, probably the reason why we were able to discuss it for hours at the book club meeting!



To Beguile a Beast, by Elizabeth Hoyt

>> Friday, December 04, 2009

TITLE: To Beguile a Beast
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Hoyt

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Warner Forever

SETTING: 18th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Legend of the Four Soldiers series



Reclusive Sir Alistair Munroe has hidden in his castle ever since returning from the Colonies, scarred inside and out. But when a mysterious beauty arrives at his door, the passions he's kept suppressed for years begin to awaken.


Running from past mistakes has taken legendary beauty Helen Fitzwilliam from the luxury of the ton to a crumbling Scottish castle . . . and a job as a housekeeper. Yet Helen is determined to start a new life and she won't let dust-or a beast of a man-scare her away.


Beneath Helen's beautiful fa├žade, Alistair finds a courageous and sensual woman. A woman who doesn't back away from his surliness-or his scars. But just as he begins to believe in true love, Helen's secret past threatens to tear them apart. Now both Beast and Beauty must fight for the one thing neither believed they could ever find-a happy ever after.
Alistair Munroe was horribly tortured and disfigured after taken captive in the Americas in the ambush attack that forms the basis for this series. After experiencing some very cruel reactions when appearing in public, he's exiled himself to his keep in the middle of nowhere in Scotland.

Helen has been the mistress of a duke since she was very young. In the past few years he's lost interest in her, but they have two children together, and this is a very jealous, possessive man. He's made it clear to Helen that if she ever attempts to leave him, he'll take the children, and she'll have absolutely no recourse. Before this happens, Helen decides to run away and take the children with her. But where to go?

At the end of To Seduce a Sinner, we saw the heroine, Melissande, do a bit of matchmaking by deciding that Alistair needs a housekeeper and Helen will do. Alistair doesn't agree at first that he needs or wants a housekeeper, but Helen is determined to stay and demonstrate that he does.

It was a good story, but a bit less angsty than I was expecting. No "I'm ugly -no one could want me" from Alistair! Which was pretty refreshing, actually. Still, I couldn't help but feel that there was some zing missing from the romance, nothing really keeping them apart and no reason why they couldn't have got together earlier. Other than the threat from the big, bad duke, that is, but I'll come to that later.

Both Alistair and Helen are good, decent people, but come to think of it, I was more interested in the growing relationship between Alistair and Helen's quiet, withdrawn daughter, Abigail. That was really well done, and provided a lovely insight into Alistair's initially gruff attitude.

Something I love about this series is the overarching storyline about the search for the traitor that brought about the massacre in which Alistair was injured. It's been quite prominent in previous books, but less so in this one. It seems to have been substituted by the more traditional suspense subplot of the duke's impending threat, and I thought that was less successful.

So, not the best in the series, but a good read, nonetheless.



Just One Of The Guys, by Kristan Higgins

>> Wednesday, December 02, 2009

TITLE: Just One Of The Guys
AUTHOR: Kristan Higgins

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance / Women's Fiction / Chick Lit medley

REASON FOR READING: Because I loved Catch of the Day so much.

Being one of the guys isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

So when journalist Chastity O’Neill returns to her hometown, she decides it’s time to start working on some of those feminine wiles. Two tiny problems: #1 — she’s five-foot-eleven of rock-solid girl power, and #2 — she’s cursed with four alpha male older brothers.

While doing a story on local heroes, she meets a hunky doctor, and things start to look up. Now there’s only one problem: Trevor Meade, her first love and the one man she’s never quite gotten over — although he seems to have gotten over her just fine.

Yet the more time she spends with Dr. Perfect, the better Trevor looks. But even with the in-your-face competition, the irresistible Trevor just can’t seem to see Chastity as anything more than just one of the guys…
I liked Just One Of The Guys well enough (ETA: and remember this, because I get really bitchy later in this review! I really did like it in spite of all the moaning coming up!), but I think it suffered from me reading it soon after Catch of the Day. The plots were quite similar, both starring heroines who've happily moved back to their hometowns (both small, coastal towns) and who are at a point in their lives where they want to settle down and get married and are ready to do something about it. Both Chastity and Maggie try different methods, including internet dating, and disasters ensue. And by the end, they realise the perfect guy was always right before their eyes. At the same time, they're dealing with their families, especially with the fact that their parents' marriage is in trouble.

The books do have a different feel to them, it's not actually as if Higgins is just rewritting the same story, but there are a lot of similarities, and a lot of the same ground is covered. And unfortunately, in pretty much every element, I thought COTD did it better.

Take the heroines. In COTD, I unconditionally adored Maggie. When she got into a scrape, I wanted to hug her and tell her not to feel bad, that it wasn't her fault (even when it was!). Much as I did like her well enough, I just didn't feel that way about Chastity. When she got in a pickle, my reaction was annoyance, more along the lines of "Oh, for heaven's sake, could you be any more pathetic?"

Why? I'm not sure I can pinpoint it. Maybe it was partly her almost willful incompetence at being girly, combined with the fact that the portrayal of other women in the book (probably designed to contrast with Chastity's "genuineness") really put me in a bad mood. They're all desperate, brazen hussies, you see. The way some situations were described annoyed me: so and so had to beat women off with a chair and whip, Trevor goes into a bar and 3 minutes later 5 women have pressed slips of paper with their phone number on them into his hand. I know it's a bit of comedic license, but come on. I've never seen anything like that happen. I've lived in a few different places, even in different continents, and the women have always had a bit more dignity than that!

Also, just getting something off my chest here: I'm tired of internet dating being presented as a desperate thing to do. It's not, at least not anymore. I don't know anyone my age (early 30s) who's single and hasn't tried it, and most are not in it because their ovaries are decaying, or anything horrible like that. It's just a logical way to meet people, and as safe as any other, as long as you're sensible. Authors: stop being hysterical about it! (And of course -you guessed it- in COTD it's portrayed as something perfectly normal, unlike here. Sigh).

The romance had its good things, but also some not so good. Chastity has been in love with Trevor forever, but after a brief lapse while both where at university, Trevor has just treated her as one of the guys. It's clear to Chastity that nothing's ever going to happen, and since she does want to find a partner, she does her best to develop a relationship with someone else who seems perfect for her. I really liked what Higgins did here, and I liked how that ended.

The problem is that it's just as clear to the reader as it was to Chastity that Trevor doesn't like her that way. So when it turns out that he does, this just comes out of nowhere. Of course, the book's written as a first person narrative, from Chastity's point of view, and we know only what she knows about what's been going on inside Trevor's mind. But in COTD, it was a similar situation, and yet it was obvious to us readers that Ethan was really, really into Maggie. Here, I couldn't have guessed one way or another.

Clearly I'm in a bad mood today, because this has been all bitch, bitch, bitch. When I wasn't feeling actively annoyed, I really did enjoy the rest of the book. Higgins' writing is wonderful, you just breeze along, and the town and Chastity's friends and family come alive beautifully.



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