Friday, January 28, 2011

The Holy Thief - Ellis Peters

the holy thief
ellis peters
c. 1992
275 pages
completed 1/12/2011

read for: historical fiction challenge, page to screen challenge

*may contain spoilers*

In the height of a hot summer, in late August of 1144, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, deferred to the heat of the sun, and made the final, fatal mistake of his long and opportunist career.

Ramsey Abbey had fallen prey to a band of soldiers of the Empress Maud's party who had left their cause for the more fortuitous pursuits of ransacking and pillaging northern England. The sudden death of Geoffrey de Mandeville left them without a leader and the monks were able to reclaim their abbey. Sub-Prior Herluin and his enigmatic companion Brother Tutillo travel to Shrewsbury in search of money, supplies, and labor to aid in Ramsey Abbey's rebuilding. They stay long enough to help the monks of Shrewsbury protect their treasures against a tremendous flood. When the flood is over and the monks of Ramsey leave, Shrewsbury discovers its most precious treasure, the bones of St. Winifred, is missing. It's quickly discovered to be making its way to Ramsey. Brother Cadfael aids Hugh Beringar to discover if the theft was the work of a man or if St. Winifred herself made her way into the cart. But before the matter can be settled, Cadfael and Hugh may find their holy thief to be a murderer as well.

As the penultimate book in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles, The Holy Thief doesn't disappoint. Brother Cadfael is right in the thick of things, befriending and aiding the accused, breaking some abbey rules in order to investigate, conferring and conspiring with Hugh and Abbot Radulfus. I was pretty disappointed with the last installment (see: Summer of the Danes), but this one was back on track.

Cadfael's relationship with St. Winifred has always been an element of these books that I've really enjoyed. Sometimes Cadfael can come across as slightly too practical for a monk so witnessing their communion is always nice, especially considering what's actually in St. Winifred's reliquary. I also really appreciated the balance between Cadfael's practical feelings on the trial by bible element of the theft (a scene I really enjoyed) as well as his experience of the miraculous as he interpreted the words. Though he knows those can easily be rigged and interpreted in many ways, the words spoke to him very specifically.

In every installment in the series there is always at least one set of lovers (one of which is usually the accused) that Cadfael helps to bring together. And USUALLY I always like them. There have been occasions where I wasn't wild about one or the other (again Summer of the Danes springs to mind). In this case, I liked both characters separately, but the two together left me cold. First off, they didn't interact a whole lot so I wasn't able to see and understand them falling in love. They seemed a little mismatched to me.

I always love when one of these books makes reference to characters and events from previous episodes. And this one had lots of shout outs: Brother Columbanus, Liliwin, and Soulien Blount, all from different books. Nice.

I only have one more to go. I'm going to be so sad to see the series end. :(


As I read this in part for the Page to Screen Challenge, check out my review of the 1998 TV-movie version here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Scaramouche - Rafael Sabatini

rafael sabatini
c. 1921
406 pages
completed 1/8/2011

read for: historical fiction challenge, page to screen challenge

*may contain spoilers*

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

Distraught after the murder of his childhood friend, Monsier Philippe Vilmorin, for his "dangerous gift of eloquence," Andre-Louis Moreau vows to see justice done. After being brushed off by the law due to the murderer being a Marquis, Andre-Louis takes to the streets of France to incite the Third Estate against the over privileged nobility, continuing the work Philippe died for, though he himself doesn't believe in his friend's idealism. His speeches, echos of Philippe's words, are considered treasonous, and Andre-Louis is forced to go into hiding. He takes up with a band of improvisational actors in the tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte, but he doesn't forget his vow to avenge Philippe or the politics that drove him into hiding. Andre-Louis's life becomes an adventure of secrecy and swashbuckling sword fights, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, during which his original cynicism may yet become the idealism of his friend.

First off, I always love a strong and memorable opening line and this is definitely a great one. And it really sets the tone for the rest of the book. I don't often notice an author's particular writing style and sentence structure unless it annoys me, but this is one of the times when I noticed how much I felt it added to the story.

Plot-wise I found this book to be constantly engaging with elements of both drama and comedy. It had a good balance of both which I found refreshing. Sometimes adventure/swashbuckling stories like this can take themselves a little too seriously and be too straightforward. And at other times they can try to be a little too hyper-aware and fall over themselves trying to be in on the joke. I hope that made sense. There was a lot of humor, especially in Andre-Louis' scenes with the acting troupe, and some rather dark comedy when Andre-Louis would address the National Assembly after killing other Assemblymen in duels. Yet there was constant drama as well, both political (this is the French Revolution, after all) and much more personal.

I found certain aspects of the personal drama to be a little soapy (the identity of Andre-Louis' mother was obvious as soon as the woman was introduced, even though Andre-Louis had no idea), but for the most part it was deeply complex (I was SHOCKED by the identity of Andre-Louis' father). One aspect that really made the book enjoyable for me was the fact that the villain, the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr, is introduced very much through the eyes of Andre-Louis and Philippe and so for the first half of the book he seems like nothing more than a monster. However, as the book goes on the reader is able to see him through his own eyes and really come to understand some of his motivations making him much more complex and more man than monster. At first these scenes seemed so incongruous with the way Andre-Louis viewed him, but eventually I was able to put all the pieces together to understand him more. By the end he's much more an antagonist than a straight up villain.

The last time I read a book that focused so much on the politics of the French Revolution, I really wasn't able to comment on the historical accuracy of that book (see: Mistress of the Revolution). This time, however, I was just coming off a history class on the French Revolution. I have to say, it's extremely enjoyable to read a historically set book and really feel like you have a solid grasp on the history of the time. I mean, let's be for real, one class hardly makes me an expert or anything, but having that knowledge really enhanced my enjoyment. I even have a historical quibble! In the book, Andre-Louis went from a member of the National Constituent Assembly to the Legislative Assembly newly created under the constitution of 1791. This would have been impossible, however, as Robespierre passed a "self-denying ordinance" barring any member of the National Assembly from sitting for the Legislative Assembly. This one quibble in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book, though. In fact, it just made me feel smart. If there had been lots of mistakes, that would have been another story...


As I read this in part for the Page to Screen Challenge, check out my review of the 1952 film version.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gilded history...

NewSouth Books is publishing a newly edited version of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which is raising a bit of controversy in the literary world, from what I understand. For those who don't know, the new edition removes all use of the "n-word" (which is used, I believe, over 200 times in the course of the novel) and replaces it with the word "slave" in order to update the book for 21st century political correctness and encourage more teachers to include this book in their curriculum on American literature. I don't want to get into any big debate on whether or not this is censorship (in my personal opinion it's not exactly, seeing as the editor doesn't want or expect this edition to take the place of all non-edited's more like the radio version of a pop song), but I did want to express some thoughts I had on the subject.

In my opinion, this change doesn't make sense and significantly affects certain key elements of the novel. First and foremost, I feel it's important to point out that those two words are in no way interchangeable. As deplorable an institution as slavery is, the word "slave" isn't derogatory. It's an accurate label and description of certain people's social status at the time. The "n-word," however, is a term deeply rooted in hatred and racism. Replacing one for the other completely changes the connotations of Huck's character and his relationship with Jim, which are the crux of the novel. Secondly, this change takes away from the historical accuracy and authenticity of the novel. Such blatant racism was a defining characteristic of this time period. To erase that from the book is just an attempt to sweeten our history and there's no need for that. All peoples have periods of their history that they look back on with regret. Slavery is just one of America's, for instance. To cover it up in this way is a disservice.

I know one argument for this new edition is the idea that it will get it taught in more schools. It was taught in my eleventh grade English class. Granted, I live in an area with a rather low African American population with not one African American student in this particular class which could very well have some baring on any lack of controversy we found. As a pinnacle of American literature, I strongly think it should be taught in schools. And yes, removing that particular word may help it get into classrooms. But at that point, do we even want it in classrooms if it's a misrepresentation of history?

Like, I said, just some thoughts I had on the subject. Feel free to disagree with me... And for a really in depth analysis of the editor's introduction to the new edition and a rebuttal to his arguments, read Adam's post at Roof Beam Reader. He's much more articulate than I am, and makes a compelling argument.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

No Name - Wilkie Collins

no name
wilkie collins
c. 1862
610 pages
completed 12/22/2010

read for: wilkie collins mini challenge, penguin classics

*may contain spoilers*

The hands on the hall clock pointed to half-past six in the morning.

Andrew Vanstone and his lady have a secret. Despite having two daughters who are quite grown up (Norah is 26 and Magdalen 18), Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone have only just last week gotten married. Due to English law in the 1840s, a wedding makes any previously written will completely null and void and unless specifically provided for, any illegitimate children unable to inherit. On their way to a lawyer to rewrite their will, Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone are accidentally killed, leaving Magdalen and Norah's future in the hands of their miserly and cruel uncle. Once realizing their uncle has no plans of following his brother's intentions and providing for her and her sister, Magdalen ventures into London with the aide of a charming swindler and his wife with a plot to reclaim her fortune and her name.

Out of the three Wilkie Collins novels I've read so far, this is probably my least favorite. That being said, it's still one of my favorite reads of 2010. Wilkie Collins has definitely become one of my favorite authors, and I plan to read many, many more of his works. Unlike the others I've read, No Name wasn't a mystery or detective novel. There were some mysterious happenings in the first few chapters, but the family secret was quickly revealed as the major conflict for our heroine and not the end discovery. As such, No Name became a revenge thriller, with Magdalen Vanstone fighting to reclaim her fortune and more importantly her identity. In this novel, Wilkie Collins made sure to include a good deal of social commentary on inheritance laws of the time, some of which seem quite bizarre (such as a wedding completely voiding any wills previously made by the couple, either male or female). Magdalen lost her name and her fortune on a mere technicality, despite the obvious plans of her beloved father.

For me, the story took a little while to really pick up, which is why I've labeled it as my least favorite among the three. Magdalen didn't really begin her schemes of revenge until well after half the book had gone by. I realize that certain things needed to be established, such as her family life before the deaths of her parents and her ability on the stage, and those parts were interesting and well written, but 300 pages is a lot to go through before the REAL story starts. Once she took up with Captain Wragg and she began her battle of wits against her enemy's housekeeper Mrs. Lecount (who was rather reminiscent of Count Fosco from The Woman in White) things really took off and became unput-down-able. Their scams were pretty ingenious and well executed and actually made me quite anxious through a good deal of them. So while not as consistently exciting as some of his other suspense novels, in the end it was still an incredibly thrilling read.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

A few last minute additions...

Okay, it's official. I've gone insane and am signing up for two more challenges I'll never finish. To be fair, a lot of the books on these two lists are crossovers from other challenges (and one reread), but there are still a fair number of new ones, too. So here goes.

First, as a major lover of the movies, I'm joining the 2011 Page to Screen Challenge. I've decided to attempt the third level, so 15 books. 20 seemed like too many, but 10 was too few. Really, I want to do 12 to fit beautifully into the 12 months of the year, but 15 works, too. I'm also planning to participate by both reading and watching, so I'm going to watch all the movies too. My books will be...

1. Scaramouche - Rafael Sabatini
2. The Holy Thief - Ellis Peters
3. Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence
4. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
5. The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
6. La Mort d'Arthur - Thomas Malory
7. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
8. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
9. I Will Repay - Baroness Emmuska Orczy
10. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
11. Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen
12. The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
13. Mystic River - Dennis Lehane
14. Eduring Love - Ian McEwan
15. Harry Potter - JK Rowling

And the other is the Historical Fiction Challenge. What with my love of history and all, this one's kind of obvious for me. And in this instance I decided to just go crazy and choose the highest level "severe bookaholism," or 20 books. I know. Right after I posted above that 20 was too many. My books will be...

1. Scaramouche - Rafael Sabatini
2. The Holy Thief - Ellis Peters
3. Full Dark House - Christopher Fowler
4. Of Love and Other Demons - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
5. Brother Cadfael's Penance - Ellis Peters
6. The Glass of Time - Michael Cox
7. I Will Repay - Baroness Emmuska Orczy
8. The Diamond - Julie Baumgold
9. The Revolt of the Eaglets - Jean Plaidy
10. The Blue Star - Tony Early
11. The Heart of the Lion - Jean Plaidy
12. Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen
13. The Maiden with the White Hands - Rosalind Miles
14. Small Wars - Sadie Jones
15. When Christ and His Saints Slept - Sharon Kay Penman
16. The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
17. Dragonwyck - Anya Seton
18. The White Queen - Philippa Gregory
19. The Day the Falls Stood Still - Cathy Marie Buchanan
20. An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro

Saturday, January 1, 2011

By the end of January

Okay, starting a bran new year. Last year ended kinda crappy on the book front. I don't know what happened to the last few months but things just kind of petered out. But it's a new year with new challenges and new goals. Hopefully I can be more productive this year, but you know...probably not.

Books to Read by the End of January
Scaramouche - Rafael Sabatini
The Holy Thief -Ellis Peters
Full Dark House - Christopher Fowler
The Fourth Bear - Jasper Fforde
Lady Chatterly's Lover - DH Lawrence
Company of Liars - Karen Maitland

A little challenging for me. Let's see if I can cross everything off...

To be read...

Lady's Maid - Margaret Forster
Voltaire's Calligrapher - Pablo de Santis
Haweswater - Sarah Hall
The Distant House - Kate Morton
The Land of Green Ginger - Winifred Holtby
The Greek Maiden and the English Lord - Patty Apostolides
Polyxena - Herb Allenger
The Letter Opener - Kyo Maclean
We, the Drowned - Carsten Jensen
Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry
The Colour - Rose Tremain
Love is a Mix Tape - Rob Sheffield
The Sherlockian - Graham Moore

13 new books...

As of 2011...

100 Greatest Novels: 23 out of 100 (23%)
1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Original): 51 out of 1001 (5.1%)
1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Updates): 2 out of 293 (.7%)
Entertainment Weekly's New Classics: 17 out of 100 (17%)
Penguin Classics: 54 out of 695 (7.8%)

Books Read in 2010

1. The Heretic's Apprentice - Ellis Peters 5/5
2. The Virgin of Small Plains - Nancy Pickard 5/5
3. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera 3/5
4. Confessions - St. Augustine 4/5
5. Sir Percy Leads the Band - Baroness Emmuska Orczy 4/5
6. Innocent Traitor - Alison Weir 5/5
7. Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro 4/5
8. The Romanov Bride - Robert Alexander 3/5
9. Niccolo Rising - Dorothy Dunnett 4/5
10. The Whiskey Rebels - David Liss 4/5
11. What They Fought For - James McPherson
12. The Crusader - Alexander Eisner 4/5
13. The Road - Cormac McCarthy 1/5
14. Mistress of the Revolution - Catherine Delors 4/5
15. Sister Carrie - Theodore Dreiser 4/5
16. The Potter's Field - Ellis Peters 5/5
17. The Adventures of David Simple - Sarah Fielding 1/5
18. The Last Queen - CW Gortner 5/5
19. Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt 3/5
20. The Gathering - Anne Enright 3/5
21. Belong to Me - Marisa de los Santos 4/5
22. Like Mayflies in the Stream - Shauna Roberts 3/5
23. The Coffee Trader - David Liss 4/5
24. The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins 5/5
25. Broken Paradise - Cecilia Samartin 4/5
26. A Prayer for the City - Buzz Bissinger 4/5
27. The Queen's Lady - Barbara Kyle 3/5
28. Jim the Boy - Tony Early 4/5
29. The Summer of the Danes - Ellis Peters 3/5
30. Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey 5/5
31. Cleopatra Daughter - Michelle Moran 4/5
32. On Beauty - Zadie Smith 3/5
33.The Known World - Edward P Jones 1/5
34. Possession - AS Byatt 1/5
35. Peony in Love - Lisa See 4/5
36. Looking for Alaska - John Green 4/5
37. Beloved - Toni Morrison 1/5
38. Candide - Voltaire 3/5
39. No Name - Wilkie Collins 4/5

Favorite Fiction: Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey
Least Favorite Fiction: The Adventures of David Simple - Sarah Fielding
Favorite Nonfiction: A Prayer for the City - Buzz Bissinger