Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Agency: A Spy in the House by YS Lee

A young thief rescued from the hangman's noose finds herself catapulted into a new life at a charity school for young girls. Little does she know that not all students are destined to be governesses, ladies companions or even marriage material. For a girl as intelligent and skilful as Mary there is another option, join a detective agency as an undercover agent. So begins Mary's first adventure as the spy in the house.

Mary is sent to act as a ladies companion to the stuck up Miss Angelica Thorold. Her father is suspected of dealing in illicit stolen artefacts from India and it is hoped Mary may over hear a useful conversation or two. What she doesn't expect is that she isn't the only one investigating the Thorold's. Mary is tasked only to observe the family but when nothing useful comes to light she ignores her brief and takes matters into her own hands. Will Mary survive her first assignment or will this be her last?

Set in Victorian London, this book is quite a charming story of intrigue and mystery. It is not a murder mystery as such (although eventually murders do occur) and arguably Mary's mission is quite dull. Thankfully Mary's interpretation of how to get results creates much of the interest in the storyline. There is also a dark secret in Mary's life to add a bit of mystery and I admit when it is finally revealed I didn't see it coming, although there are hints as to what it might relate to at various points prior to this.

The characters are fairly well written although Angelica Thorold really doesn't become three dimensional until towards the end of the book. There is also very little in the book of Mr Thorold who is the suspect under surveillance. In a way this is to be expected as Mary's role in the household does not allow much contact with the men of the household. In fact YS Lee's grasp of social convention in this period is pretty good. However it does leave you feeling as if there is a bit of a hole in the investigation. It could be argued that the other agent's role is to look more thoroughly into Mr Thorold and we never really find out who this other agent might be. It all does make sense when you think about it for a while but in terms of the storyline does make it slightly less interesting.

One thing I wasn't so keen on was the relationship between Mary and James Easton. He is a pretty irritating character and you just don't want him to be Mary's romantic interest. In fact the 'romance' side of things is the part of the storyline that is most jarring. It's not terribly well constructed and whilst you know this is meant to be the romantic element in the book it doesn't feel all that well... romantic. In fact when they kiss it’s rather out of the blue and doesn't do much for the storyline at all. I think this element of the book needed to be written slightly better or just left out altogether IMHO.

The ending in some ways is rather unexpected, which is good! I don't generally enjoy books where I know 'who did it' before I get to the end of the first chapter. The ending does keep true to the overall theme of the book though, that women can be independent (for good or ill) and will find ways to be independent regardless of the consequences.

Quite where the series will go from here is anyone’s guess. I personally am hoping that the next book will allow Mary a chance to do more than just sit in a corner and watch. However, it is difficult writing a strong female character that has the chance to partake in an adventure in a period when women had few opportunities. I wouldn't want YS Lee to write something wholly out of context of the period but I just feel as if I needed something lightly more.

All in all, it was quite an enjoyable read and I was sad to finish the book. It is a different concept and could be a good series.

*4 stars*

Back after a long break

It has been a few years but I have decided to resurrect this book review blog. I now have a Kindle and find myself reading many, many books. Some are good, some are not so good but I would like to share. I can’t promise my reviews will be exciting, entertaining or even well written but hey, it’s a hobby :) Feel free to post your comments and browse through the blog. There are links to the right hand side to help you browse. Alternatively use the tags at the bottom of my posts to help you find books on a similar theme. I’m writing a review at the moment so keep your eyes peeled!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Westminster Poisoner by Susanna Gregory

Christmas 1663. The winds are howling and the weather is bleak. There is an old wives tale that when the wind is blowing a gale it is a sign that an important person will die. So far two important clerks have been found dead, fanning the flames of this tale. Chaloner is put on the case by the Lord Chancellor, alongside Colonel Turner, a dandy with an eye for the ladies. The clerks have been poisoned and the Chancellor already has a suspect, another clerk called Greene. Chaloner is reluctant to agree and sets out to prove Greene's innocence. In addition to this, Chaloner and Turner are given the task of finding out who stole the famous Bernini sculpture of the King. As if that wasn't enough the Chancellor decides he will only retain the services of one of the men, therefore turning both cases into a competition between Turner and Chaloner. Determined to retain his post, under threat from the King's chief of spies and trying to protect his master from this season's Lord of Misrule, Chaloner has his hands full.

This fourth installment of the Chaloner series was another good addition to her historical mystery books. Set in the years shortly following the Restoration, it captures very well the excesses and fears of the time. As those who have read Susanna Gregory books know the main facts in the book tend to be historically accurate, with the details of these and her research provided at the end of the book.

Whilst possible not as fast paced as previous escapades it certainly has it's moments. Chaloner's famous hat comes in very handy! The character of Chaloner is further developed in this book, along with his relationships with others. He is finally beginning to try and fit in in this Restoration world. There is even a mention that he has taken to using his real name rather than covering it up as his uncle was one of those who signed Charles I death warrant. He has even started a promising relationship with one of the Queen's serving women. There are reminders throughout the book though about trusting everyone which includes a bit of a twist at the end of the book that I really didn't see coming. There are many new characters to replace those that have left such as Leybourn, who played a significant role in 'The Butcher of Smithfield' and those who appear less, such as Thurloe.

I did enjoy this book very much and whilst there probably were not quite as many twists and turns and revelations as the previous installment in this series it was certainly a good read.

*4 stars*

Other books by Susanna Gregory include:
*A Conspiracy of Violence: First book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*Blood on the Strand: Second book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*The Butcher of Smithfield: Third book in the Thomas Chaloner series

I Coriander by Sally Gardner

Coriander was born in 1643 to a loving mother and father, a wealthy merchant in London. One day her mother dies and it is not long before her father remarries, an unkind, unloving Puritan. Bullied and beaten by the step-mother and her preacher Coriander one day finds escape in another world. It is not long before she in embroiled in fighting evil in both worlds. Not only must Coriander survive the plots against her, she must also survive in the tumultuous world of the Commonwealth, where Royalist sympathizes are quickly quashed. Can she rescue herself and all those dear to her?

I have to say when I found out which period this book covered I was quite excited. I an an English Civil War re-enactor so 17th century is a period I love. Also having read 'The Red Necklace', also by Sally Gardner, I had high hopes for this book. I was not disappointed on either account. It was a very beautifully written book, which really evoked 17th century life and yet managed to weave in a lovely fairy story without it seeming too contrived.

The historical accuracy of the book is not bad. I suspect true experts of this period would be able to poke a lot of holes in it but I could see no particularly glaring errors. The ideas about witchcraft, the Puritanical extremes and the fear felt by ordinary people in the days of the Commonwealth were all well executed. I even liked the depiction of the Doctor and his remedies, something which may seem incredulous from a modern standpoint but there were some really daft remedies going around at the time.

The clever interweaving of the real events of 17th century London, such as the execution of Charles I, and the fairytale were brilliant. It was almost believable that there could be a fairy world just beyond our own. It felt like a good old fashioned fairy tale, carefully grounded in reality but with wonderful fantasy. I really did enjoy this combination.

The book is intended for children and young adults so don't expect it to be long, intricate and deep. It is an enjoyable little read, perfect holiday reading or on a wet afternoon with a hot drink. It really evokes for me warm childhood memories of lying on my bed and escaping to new worlds. If you're looking for a light read but with a historical bent and you don't mind fairy tales this is the book for you.

*5 stars*

If you enjoyed reading this book why not try The Red Necklace also by Sally Gardner?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Latest news from the Historical Fiction Book Club

The Historical Fiction Book Club is busy nominating books for the next round of reading. So far the following books are up for voting,

Ratcatcher by James McGee - crime thriller set in Regency London
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks - fictional account of Eyam, the Derbyshire village that quarantined itself in 17th century when plague reached it from London
The Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden - fictional account of Genghis Khan's early years

For more information about these books click here where I have prepared a synopsis and links for each.

Some very different choices so far! If you fancy joining the group visit us here. Nominations for books to read ends on Tuesday 24th March so you still have time to join and make your suggestions! Voting follows and we will start reading the book with the most votes on Saturday 28th March.

So if you enjoy reading reading historical fiction but don't know what to choose next or want to try historical fiction come along and join the group. It's all based online so location doesn't matter. You never know, you might find a new author that you like :)

Update (28/03/2009) - We have chosen to read Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks this time round.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Historical Fiction Book club

Is anyone out there wanting to join a book club for Historical Fiction? If so, I've started one at Booksprouts. It's open to anyone and I'm hoping it will be a great way for all of us who like our fiction set in the past to find new and interesting books and authors. So if you want to find out more or fancy joining visit Historical Fiction Book Club.

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner

One winter's night in 1789, three performers of a magic show from a local theatre in Paris are summoned to the chateau of the Marquis de Villeduval after another successful performance. Whilst preparing to make their way the youngest of the trio, an orphan boy called Yann, hears a strange voice warning him not to go. He tells his comrades, Topolain the magician and Tetu the dwarf, about the warning but they dismiss it as irrational fear. Little do they know what lies in store for them. At the chateau is the mysterious Count Kalliovski, who recognises Topolain and Tetu from his past. Eager to remove those that could show his hidden past the Count manages to kill one of the performers. The other two flee, with the help of the crippled and ill-treated Sido, daughter of the Marquis.

Thus begins a story set over a five years of the early stages of the French Revolution. Whilst Yann manages to make it to England and freedom, Sido is forced to find ways to survive the growing terror and Kalliovski's unwanted advances. Yann works to uncover the truth of his past and understand the meaning of the red necklace he stole from Kallioski as he flees. Will the pair survive?

This is an exciting and fascinating book that hooked me in right from the start. Gardner skillfully makes you interested in all the characters without giving too much away. We know very little about Yann for example, probably as much as he knows about himself, and learn more about him as he learns more about his heritage. The same too can be said for Sido. You care for the central characters and have a real desire to find out what will happen next.

What is also particularly skillful about this novel is that it shows how the French Revolution occurred, slowly, piece by piece. It is sometimes easy to forget that they didn't just drag Louis, the Royal Family and members of the aristocracy to the guillotine on a mere whim, nor did it happen overnight. The terror builds gradually and you begin to understand how many of the noble families got caught. Whilst it's easy with hindsight, we can imagine and understand better how the Revolution was seen through the eyes of those at the time. I don't pretend that this is the most historically accurate book ever. The book focuses more on the aristocracy's experiences and those of their servants than of the average inhabitant of Paris during this period.

The book is pretty chilling in places and it really reminds you how brutal human beings can be. There are some rather graphic sections and whilst this book is often found in the children/young adults section of the library I would not recommend it to pre-teens or even younger teens in some instances. There is once scene towards the end of the book that shows how one sentence can cause a crowd to turn into an angry, murderous mob. This book should be read to remind us of how quickly law and order can disintegrate and how atrocities can occur. It can be too easy to see what is happening in Africa, the Middle East and areas of Asia and forget that Europe was once like that, and could easily return to that.

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to older teens and adults who have an interest in this period. I would also recommend it as a great book for getting older children to learn about human nature. The next book in the series, 'The Silver Blade', is due out at the end of April. I can't wait to read this or the other Sally Gardner book I have picked up 'I Coriander' which is set in 17th century England.

*4 stars*

Read for Historical Fiction Book Club. For more information about the club, click here

If you enjoyed this book why not try I Coriander, also by Sally Gardner

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon

It’s 1854 and British troops are fighting hard in the Crimea. Mariella sits in London, sewing for the war effort and making scrapbooks whilst her cousin Rosa and fiancĂ© Henry go to Russia to help the wounded. When Henry falls ill and they loose contact with Rosa, Mariella finds herself drawn to the Crimea to find some answers. Whilst on this adventure she is forced to reflect on her relationships with Rosa, Henry and the rest of her family and realise she has been blind to the truth.

The Rose of Sebastopol is an interesting study into the relationships between Mariella and those around her. Mariella’s character is reserved, introverted and she has set herself specific boundaries. Rosa’s character is the complete reverse of this, she is outgoing and feisty. Whilst Mariella has a tendancy to start a project and see it through, Rosa, for the most part, appears to move from project to project without necessarily finishing any of them. The only two constants in Rosa’s life appear to be her desire to nurse and her love for Mariella. This character study can serve as a warning to the reader to not allow themselves to limit their lives like Mariella, but also to adopt some common sense unlike Rosa.

The book serves to show the misery of the Crimean War. Troops were under prepared, poorly equipped and were fighting a war that to many was not justified. There was tremendous loss of life, both on the battlefield and in the hospitals where medical provision was exceedingly poor and hygiene dire. References as made to Florence Nightingale in the book, as Rosa wishes to emulate her, and for those with an interest in Nightingale and nursing in the Crimea this is a book well worth reading.

The author’s use of flashbacks in the book, whilst trying to flesh out the characters and their history, does prove at times to be confusing. Readers should take great care to note the date and place at the top of each chapter (if they are noted) in order to keep track of the storyline.

The book is engaging and thought provoking, well written and well researched. However the book is not suitable for those looking for a light hearted and uplifting read. Those who want a more challenging book, a book that draws on this specific period of history and who have an interest in human nature in respect to love and faithfulness, this is the book for you.

*3 stars*

I have tried to write this review using the suggestion made by Amber in the comments to Michael Scott’s ‘The Alchemyst’ (click here to read those comments). It is not my usual style but I hope that readers find this new style of more use. I would very much welcome comment on this so please click on the post a comment button below and add them. Remember you don’t have to be a member of Blogger to do so! Alternatively you can send me an e-mail (see my profile for more details).

The reason I have only given this book 3 stars is that whilst is it well written and a good book, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Although I have tried to be objective with my review I felt I had to be honest about how I rated it.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

Twins Sophie and Josh Newman have managed to get summer jobs in San Francisco just across the road from each other. Sophie is working at a coffee shop and Josh is working in a bookshop owned by Nick and Perry Flemming. Then one afternoon a mysterious group appears at the bookshop and turns John and Sophie's worlds upside down. Nick and Perry are no ordinary people. Nick is none other than the famous 14th century alchemist Nicholas Flamel who is reputed to have discovered the secret of eternal life. Perry is his wife Perenelle, a gifted 14th century sorceress. The mysterious group is determined to wrest the secrets of eternal life from the pair and help the dangerous Dark Elders re-take the world and destroy humankind. When the twins interfere in their plans they are forced to join Nicholas on the run and it soon becomes clear that perhaps their intervention was no accident. Perhaps they are the ones spoken of in prophecy who will save humankind. Find out in this first installment of the 'Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel' series.

Its been some time since I've read a good children's fantasy book that draws on so much history, myth and legend. It is a real treat as I have always loved reading myths and legends and Scott has managed to interweave them into this story so beautifully. There are Greek/Roman gods, Egyptian Gods, Celtic gods, Norse gods, references to Arthurian legend, the Great Fire of London, a famous Elizabethan astrologer and much more besides. It really is a good book if you want to introduce children to a whole host of trivia and expand their knowledge whilst at the same time reading an enjoyable book. It would hopefully lead to them reading greek myths and Arthurian legends :)

The book has a good mix of fantasy, reality (although I do question 15 year olds knowing how to drive and not being stopped by the police....) and adventure. It is very readable and has very good pace. I found it very enjoyable and couldn't put it down.

I would definitely recommend people who like children's fantasy books (like Inkheart or Eragon or Artemis Fowl) to give this a try and I would definitely recommend adults encouraging their kids to read it.

*4 stars*

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Back after a break

Hi everyone

Well I'm back to reading after a break over the summer holidays. I don't know why it happens but I sometimes go through periods where I just don't feel like reading. The up side to this is that when I come back to reading I enjoy it so much that I think that by taking a break it increases my enjoyment.

I've posted the first of two reviews I want to do based on some of the books I've read over the last couple of weeks. Both are fantasy books. Brisingr is the third in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. The Hickory Staff is the first of a series of books by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon called the Eldarn Sequence. This is a similar type of fantasy to Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series, the our world and a fantasy world cross over.

I am going to try and read books other than my staple diet of historical crime fiction and fantasy over the coming months. One of the fans of this blog (you know who you are my friend) has suggested I should try to read some Asian books. Now I don't know if I'll be able to manage this but I have two books I'm intending to try (copies in local library permitting). They are A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Whether this fulfils the request, I don't know but I feel its worth trying new things.

So there you go, all suggestions are welcome and very much appreciated! So feel free to drop me an e-mail or leave a message on this blog :)

I look forward to another good season of reading.

The Hickory Staff: Eldarn Sequence Book 1 by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon

In a sleepy town in Colorado Steven Taylor, assistant bank manager, has been given the thankless task of going through the safety deposit box lists and working out which are live and which have not been touched for years. What he doesn't expect to find is a box that has been left untouched for 135 years, used only once. When Steven's curiosity gets the better of him he finds a way to break into the box, landing him and his house mate Mark into a whole heap of trouble.

Meanwhile, in a land far far away, the royal families across the land of Eldarn are quickly being destroyed by disease, treachery, lunacy and grief. Only one survives and begins a reign of terror across the whole continent that will last centuries. It is the portal to this terrifying dictatorship that Steven manages to find and accidentally falls through along with Mark. Here they meet the local resistance and find themselves caught up in a plot to free all of Eldarn. Can they survive, rescue Eldarn and manage to find a way home? You'll have to read it to find out :)

I do like a good fantasty book. I thought Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind was fantastic but after reading the first 6/7 books in the series got a bit bored with the recycled storyline (boy meets girl, something separates them and they spend the rest of the book trying to be with one another again). I also love kids fantasy like Harry Potter and Eragon. So when I saw this book in the Sci-fi and Fantasy section of Waterstones last year I made a mental note to borrow it from the library sometime and give it a try.

When I first started reading it, I won't lie, I found it hard going. The story kept jumping to different scenes in different places at different times. The story seems to lack any cohesion until you get to about 70 to 100 pages in. Then the story really gets going and the first bit of the book gradually starts making sense. So whatever you do, when you try this story, get 150 pages in at least before deciding whether or not to give up.

I like this book, it's a good honest bit of fantasy with all the things you want, strange new worlds, magic, an adventure, good vs evil and a little bit of romance thrown in for good measure. Characters have flaws (such as Steven's obsession with maths puzzles :) ) and not everyone has a happy ending. It is the first book in a trilogy but its good enough to have me wanting to read more, particularly as it ends on a tremendous cliff hanger and given the rest of the book you really don't know what will happen.

There are some irritating aspects to the book. The periodic references to Mark being black and the racism he does or does not encounter don't seem to make much sense. They come across as the authors having a periodic dig about racist attitudes and a need to remind the reader of Mark's origins. I can't rule out that further along in the series this will all make sense but it still comes across a little irritating at times. What relevance does it have that the character is black? Should they be singled out for that?

As well as Mark being singled out, one of the characters in this book can unexpectedly do magic. Whilst there are some clues being laid in the second book as to why this is, you do feel its a bit too much to believe and too much of a coincidence in this first book. You got along with it because you have to, but in some ways it feels as if its taken for granted. There's very little working out why or learning how to use it or anything like that. It just feels a little odd!

For fantasy fans out there who have read things like Terry Goodkind and Charles Stross' Merchant Princes saga I would definitely recommend giving this one a try.

*4 stars*

Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

*Warning: This review may contain spoilers for those who have not read Eragon or Eldest, the first two books of this series*

Brisingr directly follows on from where Eldest left off. Eragon, now half elf and half human, has to come to terms with the betrayal of Murtagh and the revelations about his parentage. Whilst struggling with this he must also assist his cousin Roran in saving his beloved Katrina, avenge his uncle, fight for the Varden, remove the curse he unwittingly bestowed on a young girl, fulfil his obligations to the dwarves and continue his training. As if that wasn't enough he needs to find a way to defeat Murtagh, Thorn and eventually Galbatorix. Having barely escaped with his life after his last encounter with Murtagh the odds are overwhelming against Eragon. With so many pledges and tasks it seems as though Eragon will have his work cut out for him, especially when his pledges conflict with one another. Follow Eragon as he continues to work his way to his ultimate task, with enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes til the final page.

I couldn't wait to pick up the next book in the Inheritance series and I was not disappointed. Paolini has once again brought Alagaesia to life with its multitude of races and varying topography. It was a delight to re-enter this world and pick up where we had left off, straight after the battle where Murtagh and Thorn defeat Eragon and Saphira.

As you can tell I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but some may find this latest installment not what they expected. It is a little slower than previous books, with somewhat less action. However the book does deepen our knowledge of the characters and provides us with some interesting insights. Paolini explores the themes of power, obedience, justice and family in this book. There are several points at which characters are forced to make decisions that affect our notions of these ideas. For example one character is forced to have another punished for disobeying orders, despite the fact that by doing so the character saved lives and made the mission a success. Paolini is forcing us and the characters to see the wider picture. There is definitely a sense of 'every action has a consequence' and some of the actions from previous books, like the blessing of Elva and his promise to undo the curse. There is a feeling of wrapping up loose ends as Eragon begins to fulfil some of his promises which I think is a great thing and leaves the way open for the final book to concentrate on his quest to defeat Galbatorix.

For those who were hoping to find out what would happen in the end, obviously this book does not give the answer. In some ways it can be seen as a bit of a filler to stave off the main event, but I didn't feel it was any less enjoyable for this. I still couldn't put the book down and had at least two nights when I looked at the clock, swore and raced off to bed :)

For people looking for something original and new, perhaps this isn't the series for you. What I love about this series is that it combines some standard fantasy ideas like dragons and elves and quests and battles, in a comfortable and engaging way. It takes me back to the sort of books I read as a child and the films I grew to love. They are exactly the sort of books I would curl up on the sofa with when I'm feeling down and just escape to.

So if you want fantasy that is light, enjoyable and interesting, I would definitely recommend the Inheritance cyle.

*4 stars*