Saturday, 23 September 2017

Review: The Square Emerald

The Square Emerald The Square Emerald by Edgar Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fabulous detective romp with a "girl" detective - who is one step ahead of everyone (including the reader) and generally has jolly good fun solving the case.

There are several passages that are either sexist, racist, or classist (for want of a better word), but I don't think that's surprising given the book was written in 1926. I do think that a book should be judged by the standards of when it was written rather than today's standards. Therefore, given that it was written two years before women got equal voting rights, it's actually pretty enlightened. In fact, Leslie Maughan is a much more well-rounded character than some of the drippy heroines you see in some of today's films and books.

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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Review: Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absorbing account of Galileo's life, covering his scientific discoveries and (of course) his heresy conviction. I was vaguely aware that he had to spend the last years of his life under house arrest because he had temerity to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way round (well, write a book that suggested Copernicus, who first came up that view, may have had a point), but I never realised quite how harshly he was punished. He wasn't allowed to publish books or even teach after his heresy conviction (though he didn't exactly obey the spirit of this law - such an approach had got him into trouble in the first place). The worse thing he was, according to Sobel, basically persecuted because the the Pope at the time needed to prove a point rather than actually believing Galileo went against scripture.

However, this book is also about his daughter Virginia (or Suor Maria Celeste when she became a nun). Galileo packed both of his daughters off to a nunnery when they were young teenagers, which seems an awful thing to do by today's standards. But, actually, it was their best option - as they were illegitimate, they had flip all chance of marrying well. Virginia probably had opportunities she never would have done otherwise - she was essentially the convent's doctor (technically, apothecary). Judging by the letters she sent to her father, she was a bright and capable woman. One can only imagine what she could have achieved had lived in enlightened enough times to allow it.

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Sunday, 3 September 2017

Review: World of Strangers

World of Strangers World of Strangers by Nadine Gordimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before reading this book, I'd never heard of it or its author Nadine Gordimer. I came across it through the Bookishly Tea and Book club - a subscription service that, each month, provides you with a vintage paperback, some teabags, and some stationery.

To be honest, at first glance, I wasn't impressed; it looked dull and worthy. But, I quickly became hooked within the few first pages. This compelling story raises important questions about what we do when we see injustice but are not directly affected by it (i.e. such as being, as is the protagonist of this book, a white Englishman in Apartheid South Africa) - Do you accept it? Do you try to fight it (and risk isolation?)? Or do you sit on the fence?

Gordimer doesn't provide any answers - though, shortly after this book was published, she did become actively involved in the anti-Apartheid movement - but she does highlight the need to recognise your privilege (in this case, white privilege). A message that's still important today.

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Sunday, 20 August 2017

Review: Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a biography, nor does it pretend to be, of Anne Bronte; it's a passionate, well-written defence of the oft-neglected third Bronte sister. Ellis argues that this Bronte was not the patient, sweet-natured mouse that she is often portrayed to be, but instead was a radical - daring to focus on reality where her sisters retreated into their respective fantasies.

Given that there's actually very little known facts about Anne's life, Ellis has to resort to lots of "perhaps" and "maybes" and infers a significant amount from Anne's works (including her letters) - meaning there's a lot of guess work. But, I think this makes for a far more interesting book that would otherwise be a slim volume that added nothing new to the much-told Bronte story.

What I didn't like is that she paints Charlotte Bronte to be the villain of Anne's life, who she accuses of dismissing her little sister as a wallflower and rubbishing her second book. I just don't think that's fair (I am biased; Jane Eyre is my favourite book of all time) because while Charlotte was highly critical of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she was also trying to defend her sisters from various critics and, as Ellis herself notes, was in a constant state of self-denial (ie. she had serious issues). . Plus, ultimately, Charlotte - however close she may or may not have been to her youngest sister - knew Anne far better than Ellis can possible do from letters and diaries etc.

Ultimately, this call to arms puts the spotlight firmly on a woman who had the misfortune to be a sister to not just one but two icons of 19th century literature. Undoubtedly, were if not for Emily and Charlotte, Anne would be recognised as an icon herself (even she hadn't died of TB aged 29). With this book, Ellis lets Anne stand on her own two feet rather than in the reflected glory of her better-known siblings.

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Friday, 18 August 2017

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall years ago, but decided to re-read it in preparation for reading Samantha Ellis' biographer of the somewhat neglected third Bronte sister Anne.

This powerful novel was ground-breaking in its time (a bit too ground-breaking - no-one liked it) charts the story of a woman forced to make difficult choices to protect her son. The dilemmas she faces make you realise how restricted women's lives were back in the 19th century. (Your job was basically to marry and produce offspring. If your marriage was horrific, you had very little choice but to make the best of it).

It does suffer by comparison with the novels of the better known Brontes as it lacks the passion of those works. That said, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a much more realistic account of what would happens if a Byronic hero looks your way and, certainly, the main character (and thus, Anne) would argue that passion is over rated.

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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review: Star Struck

Star Struck Star Struck by Val McDermid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another easy read featuring the Private Eye Kate Brannigan. It really doesn't matter what the crime is about - you know that Kate will solve it without too much difficulty (particularly as she always seems able to rely on a crew of mates with various talents to help her).

There are only six books in this series (this being the last), which I think is probably a good thing. I struggled with the previous novel, Blue Genes (artistic license gone too far), and there's only so many times you read about a character's desire for vodka and pink grapefruit juice without getting a little fed up of it!

While I suspect McDermid's Tony & Carol series will be too grisly for me (they are significantly more violent than this series), I do want try some of her other series.

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Saturday, 29 July 2017

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having loved The long way to a small, angry planet, I was reluctant to read this "sequel" - though it directly follows the events of the first book, it concentrates on different characters - because I was worried it wouldn't be as good and, therefore, spoil the memory of the first. I needn't have worried.

It doesn't quite have the same magic of The long way, but nothing does the second time around. I still thought it was a well put together novel with good characters. Yes, you could accuse it - just as you could The long way - of being sentimental. Both have the core theme, after all, that family comes in all shapes and forms and is about who you connect to rather than you who you are genetically related to. But, it's no bad thing to focus on what life could be like if we just tried - particularly given the awful things that have been going on in the world of late.

There's apparently a third Wayfarers novel in the work and, this time, there'll be no reluctance on my part. I will be reading it as soon as it is published.

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