Saturday, 25 September 2010

Seven Cities of Gold

I borrowed this from Confluence recently. It's a beautifully written book with a lyrical quality that one doesn't often find in prose.

I jumped straight in to the story, skipping the explanatory note at the beginning. Possibly I would have found the story easier to understand in terms of geopolitical stuff if I had read it first. Also, I would have liked for this book to have had a map so that I had a clearer idea of the geography and whereabouts events were taking place. As it is I found the story fairly easy to follow without it, though there were a number of questions I had.

This is not the sort of book that ties everything up neatly for the reader. This is the sort of book that leaves you with questions. Nagging thoughts that simmer in the back of your brain as you try to work out just what exactly it is that things are supposed to mean and whether or not you got all the nuances that you were supposed to.

If you don't like to think about things, especially those complicated things that make people uncomfortable, then this is not a book you should read.


A long time ago I read one or two of Cornwell's novels and wasn't particularly impressed. They reminded me a good deal of Kathy Reichs' novels. Occasionally Reichs' novels are worth reading, but on the whole they're extremely repetitive and I don't find I care at all about the characters.

This time, however, I've come away with a far better feeling for Cornwell's writing. I'm still not sure how I feel about having a medical examiner be the main character - a similar problem to Reichs' work, as well as Tess Gerritsen and a multitude of tv shows. Medical examiners, crime scene techs, lawyers, all these people are not detectives. They have their own jobs to do and they do them. I'm fairly sure that in real life these people rarely try their hand at police work on an active investigation. Which is part of the reason that I tend not to read these sorts of crime novels. I'm going to be making an exception for some of Cornwell's others though.

There's a very simple reason for this. The characters are engaging and believable. I care about them. I'm interested in what happens to them. Even the ones that I might not particularly like (actually, barring the niece I don't think I actually like any of them). Cornwell writes well and, more importantly, she writes engaging mysteries and doesn't screw up the science (reason number one that I can't watch any of those ridiculous tv shows without yelling at them or giving up in disgust). Another thing I particularly enjoyed about this book is the complete lack of Agatha Christieness. The bad guy is not someone that we've met. We don't know anything about him. While those sorts of books have their place and I really enjoy them, they're not always very realistic. In most cases of serial murder there's almost no chance that the bad guy is someone involved in the investigation, though those do make for fascinating stories. There's a realism to Cornwell's conception of crime that I really enjoy.

The Two Towers

I love this book. It's my favourite part (I know, I said the same about Fellowship and I'll probably say it again for RotK). One of the most interesting things about it is, in the words of a truly awful song, 'there's no beginning, there'll be no end' ('Love is All Around' by Wet Wet Wet, if you're wondering). This is the middle of the story and there is no real beginning and no real end - those are in the other books. This dives right in to the adventure and makes no attempt to tie the ends off. It does, in fact, end off on a cliffhanger.

I am particularly fond of the last chapter, The Choices of Master Samwise. It's such a fascinating insight into the relationship between Sam and Frodo from Sam's perspective. It's also interesting to see the way in which Sam considers his choices and eventually decides what it is that he's supposed to do. There's something poignant about the whole chapter, as Sam grieves and then finds his strength. His confusion is so real and the whole section is incredibly moving.

I'm also extremely fond of anything that involves Eowyn. She's the single major female character in the entire volume. I love Eowyn. She loves and she despairs. She's bound by the culture and the time period in which she lives and yet she manages still to be headstrong and independent. I love watching her character develop. Even though, in this book, one merely glimpses her a few times, one can feel her strength and her desperation behind the scenes and from what people say about her. At least, I think you can, I may be projecting because I've read it so many times I know the characters better than I know myself.

Of course, the heroes of Gondor and Rohan appear here for the first time. Faramir and Eomer. Both are honest, law-abiding men. And yet they're not afraid to bend the laws of their countries (and, really, as heir-apparent in both cases they're probably two of the few who can). These are strong, confident men who trust in their judgement. They believe that they can tell the truth of your intentions and what is best and right to do. They will not take the easy path. They will always do what they believe is right. These are the kind of men that you want to have as your leaders.

My extra super favouritest thing about this book? Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest with the ents. I love Treebeard's speeches. I love the contrast of the tiny, quick hobbits with the enormous, deliberating ents. I love love love the scene where the party from Helm's Deep arrives on the edge of the ruin of Isengard and is greeted by the hobbits. The reaction of the Fellowship members and Theoden, with Gandalf amused in the background is something that I read two or three times every time.

I could probably write a ten page essay on the things I love about this book, but I won't. I'll just leave you with the highlights.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

It seems wrong, somehow to say that I really enjoyed a book about the Nazis. Somehow, it seems like it's an endorsement of their ideology and the things they did. I don't agree with them about anything, but I find them fascinating. I'm an archaeologist because I'm interested in people and people are easier to deal with when they're dead (apparently this is different for kittens). I have an abiding interest in World War II and Nazi Germany, for which I blame my high school history teacher, Sue Harsant. Nazis fascinate me because they took the treatment of other human beings to an extreme. I don't understand how they did the things they did. I don't know how some of them turned a blind eye to the things that were going on. I hope that if I keep reading, I'll figure it out.

I'm also interested in reading some alternative histories. There were so many points during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and during the war, where everything could have been ended so much more quickly. Where everything could have gone on for so much longer. Where quite a different result could have come about. I'd like to know what people think might have happened in those cases. I hope that it will give me some insight into the ways in which these people thought and why things happened the way they did.

This book is a fantastically detailed history of, as it says, the rise and fall of the Nazis in Germany. This book was originally published in 1960 and it shows. There's a slight hint of sexism, but given that almost no women played important roles in this conflict, I can forgive that as a product of its time. There's a severe anti-Nazi, anti-Hitler thread to the book, and given what they did I can forgive that. I would have preferred the book to be slightly more objective, but given the incredible access to sources that Shirer had, as well as the fact that he was on hand as a journalist at many of the events chronicled I'm willing to forgive his subjectivity. He can't view this as one completely objective for the simple fact that he was there, he experienced it. I will also note a fair amount of scorn for the blindness of other leading politicians and say that he was just as biased against them as against the Nazis (well, maybe not quite, but a bit). I could have done with less of the "good christian men" motif - many Nazis considered themselves good christian men as well and as someone who thinks that organised religion is responsible for a great deal of the worlds ills having it so regularly referred to was rather grating. Also, it needed a map. You can never have too many maps and this book had none.

If you're not interested in WWII or the Nazis or any of that, don't bother. If you are, this is a must-read.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

WH Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now, put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

This book first came to my notice when my one and only not-normal aunt (her words) recommended it to me. The copy I have belongs to my sister, a gift to her one christmas, possibly from me (it's so hard to remember, but I strongly suspect that it was so). I enjoyed this book, though I gather that others haven't. It's a history of detection in England and the detective novel. It's a biography of Mr Whicher and the Kent family. It's also a fascinating mystery about a murdered child.

If you only like the kinds of mysteries where everything is accounted for and 'solved' at the end, then this is not a book you should read. While, technically, the crime was solved when someone confessed, there were still unanswered questions and unexplained facts. There are ways to account for this, but one does not come away from this book feeling that the mystery has been solved satisfactorily. In many ways the book is rather depressing as one vicariously views the British media and public ruin the lives of both the family involved and the detectives trying to solve the case.

An interesting book. I enjoyed it, but I'm not really sure how I feel about it.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Sinner

My first Tess Gerritsen. I've been trying to find the first in her Rizzoli & Isles series (The Surgeon), but I haven't managed, so I gave in and read this one because it involved nuns and we all know I'm a sucker for stories with nuns. This was an interesting book, both because it was unexpected and because it was typical. There were some twists that were obvious and it didn't take me too long to cotton on to who the killer was (in that I figured it out the second or third time we saw him). The motivations, however, were far more interesting and not something that I could ever come up with.

This is a recommended read. I'll be looking out for both others in the Rizzoli & Isles series as well as other books by this author. I might even watch the tv show.

The Secret

Another book I was paid to read. I approached this one with reluctance and an immense amount of scepticism. This book is a treatise on positive thinking. It takes the common practice of affirmations to an extreme. There's not a whole lot I can disagree with here (if you think of happy things, you'll be happy, if you don't you won't), but then, there's not a whole lot to this.

At first glance, this doesn't seem so bad. But you need to consider the flipside of all this positive thinking. If anything bad or unpleasant happens to you, it's all your fault. You weren't thinking positively enough. If you are attacked and nearly killed, well you shouldn't have been so fearful. You attracted that attack. Got cancer? All the result of negative thinking. Been fired? You were too worried about losing your job. This is not only a treatise on positive thinking, it's a treatise on blaming the victim. Positive thinking is one thing, but one needs to understand that there are forces beyond an individual's control. Other people, for a start.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Good Reads

There's a new thingie down on the side of my blog. I've discovered the website Goodreads. It's very cool. It keeps track of books you've read, books you're busy reading and books you want to read (I have a lot of those). You can make friends, see what they're reading or have read (or want to read), see how similar your taste in books is. Also, they give books away. Advance copies of books, at that. So, you should sign up and then we can be friends and you can give me all your books. Or something.