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A proper old-fashioned time-travel book, sub-genre voluntary but limited, of the sort that I used to love, with a very du Maurier unreliable narrator. The local history was evidently researched very thoroughly, but the book wore its learning lightly. I found myself captivated not so much by the fourteenth century parts, as the narrator was, but by his obsession with the past and the way it slowly destroyed his marriage, his health, and perhaps his sanity. Wonderfully chilling last line.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/7625667
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Young man with plague comes to abbey for medical assistance, gets bashed on head. A medieval murder mystery in the Cadfael tradition, though not nearly so convincing as Peters' work. I never quite felt that Clare had really got into the medieval mindset. There was nothing that I could put my finger on as being factually wrong (though I have serious doubts about monks and nuns living practically together under the rule of an Abbess, but I'm willing to be corrected on that), and it seems excessively nitpicky to criticise the modern use of modern words ('preview'; 'coma', etc) when nobody would be speaking English as we know it anyway, but it just didn't gel.

Another, more personal (by which I mean that other readers may not care at all), issue was the mixing of genres, or, rather, the way that the supernatural is unquestioningly accepted by the omniscient narrator. This was something I always thought Peters did rather well, finding room for faith and doubt to dwell together, without denigrating the one or demolishing the other. While the supernatural plot doesn't have much to do with the mystery, it sat ill with me.

The mystery itself was reasonably interesting, though the reader was never allowed to do any work.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/6860565
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As the title suggests, a variation on the Cinderella story from the point of view of one of the stepsisters. As it happens, I'm not actually convinced by the title, which sets the wrong tone - one expects something with more of a 'chicklit' flavour, I think... it does make more sense as you approach the end, but I'm not sure that's worth the cognitive dissonance through the rest of the book.

I did like the early modern Dutch setting (very skilfully evoked) and the emphasis on art. I was not so happy about the increasing vilification of the stepmother - if one has to redistribute the villainy in Cinderella, why does it have to be among the women? I'd have liked to see some more interrogation of the systems that put them in this situation in the first place; Maguire does make an effort, but it feels very half-hearted.

Nice try, but always felt it could have been done better.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/9981161
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Unusually for a Howatch, I let this lie for several months after I'd read the first section. This is the first of her super-epic-historical-romans-à-clef, and it seems she hasn't quite got into the swing of things yet. The historical period in question is the reign of Henry II and his two sons; Howatch has translated them to turn-of-the-century Cornwall, and made the realm of England a mouldering folly of a country house. Helpfully, she has included quotations from actual history books so you know who she's really talking about - it would have been useful if she'd kept that up in later books which would have made me feel less stupid. As the beauty of this particular style is how she translates the people, places and incidents, I don't want to give too much away, but I was particularly struck by how she manages Philip, the Richard I character, which is very bold but yet makes perfect sense in context.

Having been thinking a lot recently about unreliable narrators, it struck me how efficiently Howatch leads one up the garden path. One is inclined to trust the narrator; one does tend to identify the narrator, and the way she closes the door at the end of each section and lets an antagonist loose on the person who's just spoken can be quite a shock. She is good at characterisation, but bad at distinguishing voices (if I had a quid for every character in this book who says 'of course I realise that...' I could buy a couple of pints at least, and if I included her entire oeuvre it would be a couple of rounds).

But that's not news. What has struck - and disappointed - me in this particular book is the lack of resolution. A couple of times I have caught myself thinking 'oh, I must finish Penmarric...' before realising - I have. Perhaps finishing with King John was not a good idea.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10056864
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A detective story set in Stalin's Russia, centred on the fate of the Romanovs. I have to admit that this didn't do much for me - it was OK, but I found the actual history in the back far more interesting than the story. The general air of Tsariolatry, while in character for the main character, felt rather dismissive of the valid concerns of the Russian people, and put me off. I also found the extensive flashback sections in italic type difficult to read - physically, I mean, not emotionally.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10482021/
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A three-in-one edition comprising Venus in Copper, The Iron Hand of Mars, and Poseidon's Gold. After this I think Davis ran out of elements. Never mind. These are possibly the only Falco books I have read in the correct order; fortunately this doesn't make too much difference, as Davis is good enough at characterisation (and not relying on the reader having read all the other books in order) for me to keep a reasonably good grasp of who was who and what was what.

I've not really much new to say about these. Venus in Copper is a potential grooms-in-the-bath case; The Iron Hand of Mars deals with Germany - the Roman Empire and beyond; Poseidon's Gold has Falco in more trouble than usual, and involves his disreputable and amusing family. (I love reading about other people's disreputable families.) All told with the usual wit and good humour, not to mention the sense that, though the past is a foreign country, they speak the same language there. I enjoyed these.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10063696/
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Another instalment in the Falco series, which I am reading wildly out of order, but it doesn't really seem to matter much. I am reading less for the mystery and more for the local colour, which is effective and hilarious, and while I dare say it's an idealised picture of ancient Rome (or, in this case, Spain), it's an engaging one.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10125893/
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These days I learn most of my history from novels, but perhaps that's not such a bad thing. At least novelists will admit that they made bits up, or left things out because they didn't fit. More to the point, one learns that there is something to learn about a time or place one hadn't really thought about. Such is the case with Lisa See, as much with Shanghai Girls as with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I read last year.

See deals here with what seems to be a favourite theme: the changes of a relationship between two women. In fact, if one leaves time and place out of it, the plot is basically that of Snow Flower: love, hate, deception, loyalty, and one's inability to know oneself without the help of those one knows. However, time and place are vital, because the Shanghai girls are physically resident in the city of the title for only a few chapters; the rest of the novel is a story of escape, travel, immigration and integration in America, and it's this that makes it fascinating. I knew a little bit about the Chinese American experience in the mid twentieth century from reading the Wikipedia article on Anna May Wong; the rest was all new, and more than compensates for the duplicate plot.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/8129030
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It's been a long time since I read any Cadfael, and what I didn't remember about it was the gorgeous word-painting, scene setting. It was a joy to read this just before setting out for Wales; while we won't be going anywhere near Shrewsbury, the theme of travelling westwards runs very strongly through this book, and made me nostalgic for the Marches, where I grew up. The mystery itself is diverting enough, but it's really worth reading for the scenery.
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I was expecting to enjoy this one more than I actually did. After all, the 1900s, railways, York - what more could one want? But it somehow failed to thrill, and it was quite an effort even to get through it. About three quarters of the way through it suddenly picked up pace and was then quite interesting until the end. I skipped the preview of the next book in the series, though, and probably won't pick up any more of them.

Martin seems to have done his research in so far as the railways go; I wasn't convinced, though, by some of the dialogue, particularly the way all the villains addressed each other by first names. I suppose it made them a bit more sinister...

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10065642/
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This book is made of weapons-grade WTF. After I'd realised that it wasn't in fact a historical romance but a thriller with a side of historical romance I boggled slightly less, but trust me, I really didn't need a rape scene in olde Englisshe followed swiftly by a large chunk lifted from Julian of Norwich. This all makes sense later in the book, but doesn't stop me being mentally scarred in the mean time. So yes; the first half is nicked from Julian (who deserves far, far better); the second from The Collector. And I am pretty sure that Anya Seton does the same thing far, far better in Green Darkness.

It was quite interesting to read this as a Surrey resident, half knowing my way around Shere. I think, though, that this suffered from the same problem that afflicts many amateur authors who set their books in places they know well: throwing place names here, there and everywhere, without considering that the reader may not have such an extensive mental map.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/8595045
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This took me a while to get into, but once I had I was hooked. This novel comprises three narratives, two set in the 1910s and one in the 1970s, and deals with the protagonists' travels to and experiences on Te Pito O Te Henua/Easter Island. I was most drawn by Dr Greer Farraday, her research, and her backstory, which was the exciting sort of science - groundbreaking discoveries, academic fraud, extinction, all that sort of thing. As the three stories came together, however, I started paying more attention to the other two. I like the way that Vanderbes leaves some conclusions for the reader to draw; it's nice to be treated as if one were half-way intelligent. I was relieved, too, that the early hints of a tedious faith vs science battle were averted.

One thing I would say is that I was never convinced by the setting - the setting in time, that is; the landscape is very vividly portrayed - the writing around Elsa, Alice and Beazley's expedition always felt a little off, in a way that I can't quite put my finger on. It may be the use of the continuous present; whatever it is, it doesn't feel like 1912. Similarly, Greer et al feel as if they're wandering around in the mid nineties, not the mid seventies, and it's only the challenges faced by Greer's female classmates (who seem to have been shoved in to indicate precisely this) that reminds us that it was a tough life for a woman in academia way back when, oh, and by the way, we are dealing with way back when. The faux military history sections are by far the most convincing stylistically.

Overall, though, I'd recommend this.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/6378748/
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All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Unless you're in a Susan Howatch novel, in which case each unhappy family will feel irritatingly reminiscent of something you're sure you've read before, and then you get to the end and she tells you which episode of classical/medieval/church history it's based on, and you will feel very stupid. And, in my case, lazy, as I was fully expecting her to pull the same trick, and it's not as if she didn't leave clues liberally scattered around this one. And I've read Katherine... oh well.

Anyhow, this is a real brick of a novel, over eleven hundred pages of small print encompassing four generations of sex, death and foul language. (I assume this one was written before Howatch got religion, but, thinking about the last section, perhaps not, after all - Starbridge and after are equally full of sex and death, but more God and less swearing on the whole.) I must admit that I was beginning to flag around about page nine hundred and fifty, but, having ploughed through to the end, feel vaguely rewarded.

I will leave it a while before I move on to Penmarric, which is one of the few Howatch sagas I haven't yet read; having just looked her up on Wikipedia, I know which episode of English history that one's based on.
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A short and early Howatch, and not really very impressive. Regency setting doesn't work, not least because all Howatch's first-person narrators sound the same, and when this one is a seventeen year old girl as opposed to a middle-aged twentieth century clergyman, it's a little disconcerting. The mystery was not very interesting, and there were some very irritating assumptions in there.
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A book with a beautiful sense of place. Not a novel, Cather said, a narrative, and certainly it seems to meander along at its own pace, with no plot to speak of, but not troubled by that. It's more a fictionalisation of history. The meticulous research is evident, and manifests itself not so much as a history lesson as a work of art. My mental picture of New Mexico as it was is now considerably more detailed.

I did find myself getting twitchy at the missionary-heroes, because this is a part of post-colonial guilt that gets to me more than most, but as missionaries go Bishop Latour and Fr Vaillant are inoffensive, Latour particularly so. (His thoughts on the two great evils vanquished in his lifetime, for example...) Cather succeeds in making good people interesting, and that's not an easy task.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/9968361
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A frustrating book. This was a mildly interesting story in a very interesting setting - Greece's leper colony on the island of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete - but so poorly written that it was a real struggle to get into. Point of view shifts every paragraph, telling not showing, and cardboard characters combined to make an unconvincing narrative. The portrayal of Anna, the older sister, was particularly irritating - bad-tempered, selfish, and sexually voracious, with little understanding from either the author or the other characters. That said, she was at least memorable, unlike the rest of the cast.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/359-8138592
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Another Falco - nothing special, but good fun, and suggesting that winter celebrations and associated provocations change little from age to age. If I'm honest, I don't read these for the mystery, but for the laugh.

Davis is easily the best proponent of dramatis personae that I've come across - hers are humorous and helpful.
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Now, here's an author I like. And here's a genre I like: classical historical fiction, woman-focussed. Like Adèle GĂ©ras' Troy, Ithaka and Dido, but better. Le Guin fills out a character barely mentioned in The Aeneid, evokes pre-Roman Italy convincingly (the religious aspects, too - very sensitive and believable), adds the female side of things back in, and does the lot without bashing Virgil. Fantastic.
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The only crime in Ibbotson's world is to be nouveau riche. Or nouveau riche and female.

Re-read, prior to bookcrossing. I do enjoy these, though they are all exactly the same. Here's what I wrote about it last time round:

I approached this with some trepidation, due to the frankly diabetic coma-inducing candy-floss pink cover, but remembered that a) I was very keen on her children's books (Which Witch?, etc) when I was little, and b) some people on LJ had recommended her adult stuff. It was a sweet and fluffy book and reminded me more of Lorna Hill's Sadler's Wells series than anything else, being very difficult to put down, but displaying some horrendous snobbery that I didn't dare prod too much. Despite covering some of the same ground (post-war, though different war, setting, estate Going To Dogs for lack of money, ill-advised engagements) as The Little Stranger, totally different. Fun, if you didn't think too much about it. Won't send to charity shop just yet.
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I picked this book up and put it down again several times, on several separate visits to the same charity shop, before eventually deciding to buy it. I'm glad I did; it was a lovely, affirming story.

I was originally put off the fact that it deals extensively with the Romantics, who to be frank I find a bit of a bore. However, given that one of them was Mary Wollstonecraft, I succumbed.

It was a bit odd, actually. Imagine an AU where a girl who was very similar to Mary Wollstonecraft went to Mary Wollstonecraft's school and echoed a number of her life choices. And imagine that there was a family very similar to the Wordsworth family, but that the Wordsworths still existed and in fact the Saygood family occasionally went to see them.

It was quite disorientating, and I'm not quite sure what the aim was. I can understand a reluctance to write about historical figures - but then, why put them in at all?

That aside, this was a very good read. Not only did it shed some light on a side of the Romantic movement I'd not thought about much (namely, what was going on the other side of the Channel) but it was primarily a story of female friendship, loyalty, love between mothers and daughters, and feminism.


Extract )

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