Archive for February, 2009

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

This is the second book in the Temeraire series, set in an alternative version of the Napoleonic War in which England has an Air Corps consisting of fighting dragons. Temeraire is one such dragon, and the one I completely fell in love with in the first book. Thank to the author I’m genuinely quite upset that dragons don’t really exist and I can’t ever have one 😉

I loved this book almost as much as the first. I say ‘almost’ not because it isn’t as good but because I was so excited at discovering a new series I knew I’d love when I read Temeraire, and as much as I loved this one it was less of a surprise if that makes sense. So no fault of the author’s there, the book is still fabulous and Temeraire is just as awesome. Possibly more so, because he can now speak three languages. There were also a few very minor editing quibbles I had which jarred a bit because I really can’t fault the rest of it. These are so minor, however, that it would be churlish to focus on them.

On to the good stuff: in this installment Temeraire and Captain Laurence must travel to China. China is not at all happy that a Celestial is in active service, as they are only intended to have royal companions, and demand his return. Neither Temeraire nor Laurence are at all happy with this and the journey is made in the hope that they won’t be separated. It’s a long and arduous journey, too far to fly and so made on an enormous dragon-transporting ship. The journey makes up most of the book, and just when you think it’s nearly over there’s the stay in China itself.

There’s so much packed into this book that again I had real problems putting it down. There are sea battles, sumptuous blankets, conspiracies, assassination attempts, gorgeous descriptions of China, meeting Temeraire’s family and an emperor, ghostly goings on, Christmas, Chinese New Year, a bit of not-so-friendly rivalry, a quite nasty skirmish on land and Temeraire’s growing realisation that, actually, his treatment in England isn’t all that great. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny  in places, and again managed to make me shed a tear (although admittedly I am soft beyond belief).

I definitely recommend this series and will be rushing out for the next one as soon as I can. Only being in a hotel in the middle of nowhere for the last few days has delayed me.

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Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

This is my second non-fiction read, so I’m going reasonably well with that goal I think. It’s one I’ve been looking at on and off for a while – it sounded like the kind of thing I’d enjoy but often seemed to be marketed as a kind of self-help book, which put me off a bit. Guess I should have gone with my first instinct…

…which is what this book is all about. It looks at our ability to process a huge amount of complex information in a very short space of time – the time it takes to blink – and act accordingly. Illustrated with very accessibly examples and with the science described in an easily digestible way it covers why we should trust our gut reaction and what happens when we don’t, but also at the sometimes catastrophic consequences of when it goes wrong. It’s interesting that there are times when adding that extra time makes a huge difference and how that has affected, for example, police procedures. The author is based in the US and therefore draws examples from there but that in no way reduces their relevance.

I’d definitely recommend this and will be looking out for his other books.

Knife by R J Anderson

This caught my eye about a week before I bought it on account of its shiny cover (I’ve been compared to a magpie on several occasions). Not only was it shiny, but the shiny was different colours when you held it up to the light at different angles. Book sold.

It’s the story of a fairy (of the occasionally prickly, too curious for her own good variety) in  a dwindling group living in The Oak. They no longer have much magic and, with the exception of a select few, are banned from leaving The Oak due to the dangers lurking outside, with humans among the greatest of these. She is curious about the outside world, and particularly the people – to describe it any further would be giving the plot away so I won’t.

It is very obviously a kids’ book, and is therefore a fairly simple and short read. The characters and story do have depth to them but it wasn’t as satisfying as an adult book would be in some ways. That said it was an enjoyable read, was always going to suffer a bit from being read directly after Temeraire but I liked the characters and the story, while a bit predictable in some places, kept me wanting to read more.

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

I fell utterly in love with this book and will definitely be buying the rest of the series.

I’ve been looking at the series in the fantasy section for a while; it’s not a genre I’m hugely familiar with so, despite being attracted to the cover art (the basis for an alarming number of my book choices) I hadn’t bought it but decided to go for it, and I’m really bad I did.

The book is set during the Napoleonic War in an alternate version of history in which, along with the usual armed forces, there is also the Air Corps which uses dragons. They dragons are intelligent to varying degrees and can talk. There is no magic or other fantasy in the book so it all fits very well and you could almost imagine that dragons really did exist. It starts with a Navy captain taking possession of a French ship along with its cargo which happens to be a dragon egg. With dismay the crew realise it’s about to hatch – dismay because dragons will only imprint on one person who then has to remain as their handler, a role that pretty much giving up any life outside the force and is generally met with disdain by the rest of society. When the dragon hatches it imprints on the Captain (who names it Temeraire), and this first book in the series mostly tells the story of Laurence and Temeraire adjusting to their new lives.

I grinned almost the whole time I was reading, apart from one section that made me cry, and I defy anyone to get through the book without wishing for a talking dragon. I’m giving it 5 out of 5 despite the fact that it doesn’t have the same depth as, say, This Thing of Darkness. It’s a reasonably short and easy read but hugely enjoyable.

The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White

I figured this would be a good place to start with my Arthurian Legend goal. It was fun for the most part, and I really really wanted to love it but I just didn’t.

It tells the story of Wart, ward of Sir Ector, and his childhood growing up with Sir Ector’s sun Kay, who is destined to be a knight. The magician Merlyn becomes their tutor and his lessons are unusual to say the least – they tend to involve turning into something (fish, snake, bird) but there’s the occasional battle alongside Robin Wood (whose name people get wrong all the time).

There’s a lot about this that’s utterly delightful. The description of Merlyn’s cottage is fabulous, Merlyn is endearing but Archimedes the owl is awesome and the lessons, particularly those that involve transforming into something else, sound like just the sort of lesson everyone would love. The ending, which everyone knows, was great and was particularly well done in how Wart’s lessons tie together to help him get the sword out of the stone. For some reason, though, the bits in between just didn’t hold my interest, and that hampered my enjoyment of the book a little bit.

I haven’t seen the Disney version but I’d be interested in doing so to see what they’ve made of it – I imagine most of it translates brilliantly into an animated film.

Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life by Neil Gaiman

I’d have enjoyed these more if I’d read them the right way round… They were both still very good though.

I’ve been looking at graphic novels more this year and have read the first collection in the Sandman Library. In the last story Death turns up and I think I preferred her character. I went back to the library for more Sandman but the next book wasn’t there, so I picked up these instead, and I still think I like her more.

The High Cost of Living tells the story of her day as a mortal, takinggreat delight in simple things like eating, going to a nightclub etc while also searching for a 250 year-old mad woman’s heart. The Time of Your Life concentrates more on some characters who pop up briefly in the first one (which made more sense once I’d realised that). I didn’t like this as much, but it was still very good.

Definitely looking forward to more Sandman now 🙂

Why Not Catch 21? by Gary Dexter

I picked this up from the library after reading about it on LibraryThing. Why Not Catch 21? is a collection of newspaper columns, each one telling the story of how a book or play came to be named.

I hadn’t read, or even heard of, everything in this book so clearly I’m not very cultured! However the chapters about books I didn’t know were interesting, and the ones about books I do know were fascinating. It covers a huge time period and a variety of genres (going from Utopia to Winnie the Pooh to Catch 22). Because of it’s structure it’s a very easy book to dip in and out of but still contained a lot of information. Worth reading.

This is also my first non-fiction book of the year, and one of my goals is to read more non-fiction, so I’m on my way to achieving that one.

Gold by Dan Rhodes

After Henry VIII, which was huge, I was after something shorter and lighter. This book was both, coming in at just under 200 pages, and had been recommended by Dave Gorman on his blog, after which I’d picked it up from the library.

I mostly loved it, and I’ll come back and qualify that in a bit.

On the surface not a lot happens in the book. It’s the story of Miyuki who his on her annual holiday to a small Welsh coastal village. The book is divided into days rather than chapters and follows what she does which is mostly pretty mundane – joining in the pub quiz, eating the kind of rubbish she doesn’t eat at home, going for walks and reading. You don’t learn much about any of the characters but you feel like you know them anyway, and they definitely have memorable names (Tall Mr Hughes, Short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw being among them). The book has a fairytale feel, almost like the film Amelie. It’s the perfect book for snuggling up under a blanket with a hot chocolate and I loved being lost in the first 197(ish) pages.

The last page managed to shatter all that with an ending that was very ambiguous, but at the same time didn’t seem to be a happy one. I don’t like my books to end ambiguously, and ideally I like them to end happily. It pulled me right out of the happy fluffy mood and made me feel distinctly uneasy. I suspect that was the point, and it appears that isn’t unusual for Dan Rhodes’ writing, but it did spoil the book for me.

I’d still recommend it, but I’m in two minds as to whether I’ll explore his work further.

The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George

This was a recommendation on Library Thing. I knew a reasonably amount of Henry VIII’s reign from my History A-level but that was a frighteningly long time ago now, and I thought it would be interesting to read things from his (fictional) point of view.

This was a very long book for me at just over 900 pages but wasn’t heavy going at all, it rattled along. Usually with longer books I read something alonside it but I didn’t want to for some reason. It didn’t grip me as much as This Thing of Darkness but was well written. There’s no bibliography but it does seem to be well researched.

The book is written in the form of Henry’s journal, with occasional notes from his fool. This works well to give the background of things, or to explain times when Henry wouldn’t have been able to write about what was going on. It’s cleverly done and convincing. I don’t think it’s changed what I think about him particularly but I did feel quite sorry for him at the end.

I’ll be reading some of her other books I think, and am especially interested in the one about Mary because my knowledge of British history is fairly slim after the year 1539, and this (along with some reference material to look things up) is a great way to learn more. I’m also interested in reading more about Henry VIII’s wives, though I don’t know whether Margaret George has written anything from their point of view.

Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn

I picked up Silent in the Grave, the first book in this series, following a glowing recommendation on another blog and I wasn’t disappointed. It started with a death, which turned out to have been a murder, and followed the investigation by Nicholas Brisbane, a slightly grouchy mysterious figure, and Lady Julia Grey, the victims wife. It was great, and I’d been very excited about reading the sequel.

Silent in the Sanctuary gets off to a necessarily gentler start – you can’t really start in the thick of the action in a sequel and it had to cover what Julia Grey had been up to, and manoeuvre her and Brisbane back together. It was well done, and the story didn’t lose anything for it. In fact I quite liked the chance to get to know the family and characters a bit better.

It didn’t take me long to read, mostly because I was enjoying it so much I raced my way through it. Grey and Brisbane are fantastic characters and work really well as a double act and the tension between them never gets tiresome or ridiculous – the will-they-won’t-they provides an edge to the story and a more pleasant backdrop to some of the grizzly goings on. The incidental characters are all likeable and believable. I didn’t guess whodunnit and there was plenty of humour along the way.

The next book in the series is due out in March I believe, and I’m really looking forward to it.

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