Sunday, 23 February 2014

nine.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves (2014)
Vera Stanhope #6 

 On their way home on the Metro, Detective Joe Ashworth and his daughter Jess discover a dead woman in their carriage. The woman is running a small B&B on Harbour Street. The police has a hard time finding a motive for the killing as the victim seemed to have lived a quiet life. But even the quiet ones have their secrets.

The sixth Vera Stanhope novel, and this is the one I liked the least. I just didn't get as sucked in as I normally have when reading Ann Cleeves' novels. This novel was more narrated by others than Vera, and although it was nice to finally get into Holly's mind, it didn't do anything for the story. And the plot didn't convince me at all.

Hopefully the next one will be better, and I have really enjoyed the other Vera Stanhope novels, so read them! And also watch the series. 

Saturday, 22 February 2014

eight.

Harvest by Jim Crace (2013)

“Any hawk looking down on the orchard's cloistered square, hoping for the titbit of a beetle or a mouse, would see a patterned canopy of trees, line on line, the orchard's melancholy solitude, the jewellery of leaves. It would see the backs of horses, the russet, apple-dotted grass, the saltire of two crossing paths worn smooth by centuries of feet, and two grey heads, swirling in a lover's dance, like blown seed husks caught up in an impish and exacting wind and with no telling when or where they'll come to ground again.” 

The Village is just a few houses inhabited by the families who work at the estate owned by Master Kent. When three strangers arrive, Walter Thirsk sees it as an ominous sign. The same night, a barn burns down, and the strangers are accused of the fire. The week following the fire sees dramatic and unforgivable changes in the Village.

A dark tale with the beautiful and rhythmic language. You get pulled right in and you are just waiting for disaster to strike. I learnt so many new words while reading this. I could probably have quoted the entire book. And as with every good book I read, I have trouble praising it. You just have to take my words for its greatness. Needless to say that Jim Crace is an author I will read more of.  
“I am excused, I think, for wondering if I am the only one alive this afternoon with no other living soul who wants to cling to me, no other soul who'll let me dampen her. The day has ended and the light has snuffed. I'm left to trudge into the final evening with nobody to loop their soaking hands through mine.” 

seven.

Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang (2013)
The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

Empress Dowager Cixi, born in 1835, ruled China until her death in 1908. She was the one who modernised China, and fought wars against Japan and the great European powers. But as Cixi was just the Empress Dowager she had to rule behind the curtain and make sure that the Emperor was under her thumb.

Because she was just a concubine, and not married to the Emperor, she was not entitled to any power. But the Empress had not given birth to any sons, something which Cixi managed to do. When the Emperor died, her son, Tongzhi, was made the Emperor and Cixi, along with the Empress, were upgraded to Empress Dowagers. As Tongzhi was only 5, the Empress Dowgers were in charge. They also staged a coup which resulted in the removal of the Emperor's advisors and the insertion of Cixi's trusted men.

Her son became the ruler when he was married. Cixi stayed away from politics, but she didn't agree with her son's decisions. Tongzhi died in 1875, and because he had no sons, a boy was chosen and adopted by the Dowager Empresses to become the new Emperor. When Ci'an died in 1881, Cixi became the sole ruler until the boy, Guangxu, was old enough to rule himself.

In this period, Cixi had a lot of enemies. The most famous one was Wild Fox Kang who tried to murder Cixi several times. He didn't succeed and Cixi found out about it. She believed that the Emperor himself was in on it, and successfully put him in house arrest so she again became the ruler, and this time she was in power until her death. This period was marked by the Boxer rebellion and the following war with the European powers. And after the war, China needed to reform in order to survive.

Although the book gives a detailed account of the life of Cixi, I never felt that I got to know her. I found her boring, and I also felt that Jung Chang spent a lot of time defending her. It also gives a detailed account of China at that time, and I definitely learnt a lot about Chinese history.  I became more fascinated by Wild Fox Kang, and I'm glad that Jung Chang wrote so much about him as well. The collection of pictures in the end was also very fascinating.

I'm going to read Wild Swans later this year, and Mao is also going to be read sooner or later, probably as a part of Ingalill's superb biographies reading circle which this book was a part of.


Sunday, 9 February 2014

six.

the Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)

 Walter Hartright has got the job as a drawing master to two young girls, Ms. Laura Fairlie and her half-sister, Marion Halcombe. On his way there, he helps a woman dressed in white to escape from her followers. When he finally met Laura, he is struck by how she looks like the Woman in White. He (as all good heroes) falls in love with Laura, but she is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde and decides to marry him. Sir Percival Glyde is a terrible man with a terrible plan along with his Italian accomplice Count Fosco.

The book is narrated by the person who has most insight at that time, and the best is that the narrations are different. I was laughing hard when reading Laura's hypochondriac uncle's narrative.

Based on the cover and the title I thought this would be a ghost story, but instead it is one of the first sensations novel; a mix of Gothic literature and the psychological realism of the domestic novel. It is also said to be one of the first crime novels. It is entertaining, as all Gothic novels are, and one can write pages about the female portraits. Marion is the smart spinster, completely devoted to her Laura. And Laura is the stereotypical weak blonde who cannot see danger when it's in her face. But Count Fosco is definitely my favourite character, despite being the villain.

I think it's a tie between the Moonstone and the Woman in White as my favourite Wilkie Collins novel. I just downloaded about 7 more of his works to my Kindle and I hope they are as good as his famous works.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

five.

the Birds by Tarjei Vesaas (1957)

 Mattis is the village idiot, and he knows he is different from every one else in the small village where he and his sister, Hege, live. They are in their 40s, and poor as Hege makes a living sewing clothes, while Mattis is unable to work more than a day because of his thoughts. Then Hege suggests that Mattis should become the boatman on the lake just to get him out of the house, and one day he actually gets a passenger in his small boat. The passenger is looking for a place to stay, so Mattis invites him to stay with them, and this changes things around the house.

So Vesaas is one of those authors I have been putting off reading for years as every one I know loathes his books. Is is because they were forced to read him at school? I didn't find anything loathsome about the book, in fact I got hooked. It was easy to get into Mattis' narrative.

It is interesting to read Mattis opinion of himself and those around him. He knows he's different and not as smart as the others, and he often blames his sister for not understanding him. I also like how we don't ever get to know Hege's thoughts, and that it leaves you guessing how she is dealing with living with a brother who is mentally challenged. But perhaps the book is better with just Mattis' narrative.

Bjørg has made an off-the-shelf challenge and this is my contribution to a book by a Scandinavian author. It's been on my shelf for nearly two years, so it was about time. Next round it will be a book set in Africa.

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