Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke #AtoZ #60Books

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge, as well as my 60 Books Challenge: a book with magic.

Set in the early nineteenth century, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell contains a rare mixture of historical fiction and old magic that is hard to find these days.

There used to be magic in England. But at the time the book is set in, it has been reduced to old myths and folklore. Even The Learned Society of Magicians is purely theoretical and  does not know any tricks – they merely exchange the stories of old.

Except for the reclusive Mr Norrell. As the only practical magician, he brings magic back to England. He is learned, and studied the old tales and their warnings. Norrell is a respectable gentleman. So when a young man called Jonathan Strange discovers that he does have magical powers and shows interest in the old magical legends about the Raven King, Mr Norrell becomes his protegé.

But while Norrell is restrained and cautious, Strange soon becomes interested in wilder, more perilous forms of magic and their uses, and thus endangers everyone he knows. Can old magic be restored to England? And are the stories about the Raven King and a creature only known as Gentleman true?

The entire book is beautifully written in era-specific language, which really helps bring the story to life. It’s got a little bit of Austen and Wilde, maybe even some Poe, but also a bit of old-fashioned fairytales from the likes of Andersen or the Brothers Grimm. It’s a long read at 1,006 pages, but it is worth it. It’s a very immersive tale, full of intriguing characters, all flawed in one way or another. The relationship between Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, which ranges from friendship and mentorship to rivalry and everything in-between, is the backbone of the entire story. The magic is woven around it, gradually and skillfully, and continuously goes deeper and deeper until the lines between reality and folklore are blurred.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is historical fantasy at its finest.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release Date: September 5, 2005
Pages: 1,006
ISBN:  978-0747579885

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie #60Books

And Then There Were None is arguably the very best story the Grande Dame of Mystery Fiction, Agatha Christie, has ever written.

Originally published under the title Ten Little Niggers (orTen Little Indians – back then these terms were not yet considered offensive), the story is about ten seemingly unrelated people who are lured to a remote island under false pretences. What starts for some as a holiday, and for others as a job offer, soon turns into a game of life and death.

Handpicked by someone only calling themselves U.N. Owen, these ten people are soon trapped on a barren island with no means back to the mainland and no choice but to wait for a boat.

Central to the story is a poem and the decoration of ten figurines in the house on the island. In some editions it’s called the racial terms that made up the original titles, although more recent editions call the poem “Ten Little Soldiers.” All of the soldiers die or disappear, and one after the other, the figurines disappear, just as another guest turns up dead.

Unlike Christie’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot stories, there is no clever sleuth here to work it out for the reader. No clues are collected or analysed, it’s a race against time for the ten frightened guests who have to work out whether there is a murderer among them or someone else made it to the island. It’s a thrilling read, a page-turner to the very last word that leaves the reader baffled.

This story is THE whodunnit classic. Full of plot twists and red herrings, And Then There Were None stays gripping to the very last page, just as the protagonists stay classy and reserved in true British fashion. Even as the number of suspects decreases, readers are left wondering who the killer is and what their motives are.

Agatha Christie truly is a legend.

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: And Then There Were None
Author: Agatha Christie
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: March 1, 2003 (First published November 6, 1939)
Pages: 317
ISBN: 978-0007136834

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is possibly one of the most scathing pieces of satire ever written. And yet, many will remember it only as a childhood story about Lilliputians.

The book is actually divided into four parts, and Captain Lemuel Gulliver’s shipwreck on the island of Lilliput, on which people are only six inches high, is only the first part of it all.

Personally, I think that the story about Lilliput is so memorable, because nobody knows how to pronounce the other places Gulliver visits on his travels (with one obvious, not-made-up exception). He meets the Blefuscudians while living with the Lilliputians, and eventually travels to Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, Japan and the country of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos.

It’s understandable why children love this story. Swift’s description of the people and places, from the tiny Lilliputians, the giants of Brobdingnag and the flying island of Laputa are incredibly imaginative. Gulliver’s accounts of his travels make for adventurous tales any escapist will love. But the true genius of his writing is his clever disguise of his satire, which spares no-one. From British politicians of the eighteenth century, English society as a whole, religious beliefs, philosophers and scientists to the readers themselves, Swift is quite outspoken when you read between the lines. Often disguised as Gulliver’s actions or observations from the cultures he visits, they draw paralells to the real world of Jonathan Swift’s time.  Plus there is the definite parody of Robinson Crusoe which had only been published a bit earlier.

Gulliver’s Travels is a classic for young and old. Even without knowledge of eighteenth century politics and society, it’s an entertaining read that has stood the test of time.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Gulliver’s Travels
Author: Jonathan Swift
Publisher: Penguin Popular Classics
Release Date:  1994 (Originally published in 1726)
Pages: 329
ISBN: 978-0140623642

The Assistants by Camille Perri

Camille Perri’s The Assistants is a modern-day Robin Hood-esque tale of opportunity, financial gain and a sense of entitlement.

Tina works as an assistant for a media mogul. Like many others of her generation, she is highly educated, stuck in an unfulfilling and underappreciated job, and saddled with student loan debts.

So when she is handed a cheque that could end her financial troubles without anyone noticing where the money has gone, she takes her chance. What started as a means to an end soon spirals into illegal money laundering.

On the face of it, The Assistants would make a good, light-hearted movie about the trials and tribulations of recent college graduates struggling to find a proper job while trying to make ends meet. There is humour, blackmail and love. It has got the pace it needs, reads well, features a beautiful protagonist and a clever scheme. But said beautiful protagonist is also the problem.

Tina herself does very little out of her own choices. She gets dragged along by colleagues and friends, guided by the actions and decisions of the people around her. While she is the face of it all, she is not the mastermind. She commits crimes and gets away with them, while others convince her to keep going back for more. Self-pitying and self-righteous, Tina is a bit too whiny to be a proper heroine. She is meant to be competent but comes across as easily manipulated and bullied.

The Assistants is nonetheless an enjoyable read, which I would have no problems recommending for light entertainment and vacation reading. Tina’s initial situation may hit a bit too close to home for recent graduates, though.

My Rating: ♥♥♥

Title: The Assistants
Author: Camille Perri
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: May 3, 2016
Pages: 288
ISBN: 978-0399172540

 

The Assistants by Camille Perri was provided to me as an
Advance Review Copy in eBook format by
Penguin Random House’s FirstToRead

Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs is a real treat for fans of forensic anthropology and mysteries. This is the eighth novel by Kathy Reichs that features forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan as the protagonist, who can tell a person’s life story just by looking at their bones.

That name Temperance Brennan may ring a bell for some who are fans of the TV show Bones. It has to be noted, though, that TV’s Temperance Brennan is not solely based on the character in the book, but is more a mixture of book Temperance and the author herself, as Dr. Reichs is a real-life forensic anthropologist.

The story starts in Canada, where the body of an orthodox Jew is found and Temperance Brennan investigates his death. However, there seems to be more to the case than meets the eye, as a stranger draws Brennan’s attention to a photograph of a skeleton that may hold the key.

The catch? The skeleton is ancient, and all the clues lead her to Israel.

Cross Bones has a greater and possibly more irritating mystery at its centre than most of Kathy Reichs’ other Temperance Brennan novels. Of course this is a work of fiction, but after all these years, could a skeleton still be identified as a contemporary of Christ or even the remains of Jesus himself? And how could they possibly relate to the dead man in Montreal roughly 2.000 years later?

Reichs’ writing style is assured, her plots are engrossing. And the attention to detail is second to none. Because feisty Tempe Brennan was created by someone who is a highly-ranked expert in her profession, all the scientific details and procedures are spot-on. Where many detective stories ignore proper protocols to keep the plot going, scientific correctness is as much part of the plot as the murder investigation when it comes to Kathy Reichs.

Temperance Brennan is a superb character, highly capable, feisty, clever, scientific and compassionate. She comes across as very human in a profession not only often dominated by men, but also often seen as cold, clinical and detached due to its constant association with death.

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Cross Bones
Author: Kathy Reichs
Publisher: Arrow
Release Date: 2006
Pages: 481
ISBN: 978-0099441496

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Bonjour Tristesse is one of those novels misunderstood teenagers would love. Written in 1954 by an 18-year-old author, it tells the story of 17-year-old Cécile and her amoral and carefree father.

Cécile herself is not so squeaky clean either. She’s the epitome of a smart but spoilt-rotten teenager in the French Riviera, who’d rather spend her days lazing on the beach with a slightly older lover than studying as she should.

Her father Raymond is a young, widowed womanizer, whose latest flame Anne is not much older than his daughter, a fact Cécile resents. With her father fixing to marry a Anne, who is in her early 40s and treats her like the child she is, Cécile takes matters in her own hands trying to destroy her father’s relationship.

Considering Bonjour Tristesse was written by a teenager, the writing style is excellent. However, most of the characters act incredibly immature – adolescent even. Except Anne, who seems to be the only adult. It could be a reflection of the author’s age that all the people in the story are basically teenagers. Cécile’s motivation behind her scheme rings familiar to all adolescents who had to deal with having to share their single parent with someone new.

While the book is classed by some as a “Great Love Story,” I will have to disagree. The love is neither great, nor happy, and the protagonist’s devastating scheme only screams of immaturity and entitlement.

My Rating: ♥♥♥

Title: Bonjour Tristesse
Author: Françoise Sagan
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Release Date: June 17, 2008 (originally published in 1954)
Pages: 160
ISBN: 978-0061440793

Note: The version I read is an old family heirloom from 1961 with an orange cover. However, there is no copyright page or any indication where that particular version was published and I have been unable to find it online.

Hard Red Spring by Kelly Kerney #60Books

Kelly Kerney’s Hard Red Spring brings one hundred years of Guatemalan history to life.

Told through the eyes of four American women who witness four different periods of the twentieth century in Guatemala, this novel beautifully combines historical facts with memorable fiction.

Hard Red Spring also takes a look at the cultural divide, not only between the Guatemalans and the four American women, but also the different cultural groups in Guatemala, notably the Mayans.

The 1902 disappearance of a young girl is the red thread linking the four women, but the real protagonist of this novel is the country it is set in. Multi-dimensional and dynamic, the story remains as intriguing as it is heart-breaking to the very last page.

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Hard Red Spring
Author: Kelly Kerney
Publisher: Viking
Release Date: March 29, 2016
Pages: 448
ISBN: 978-0525429012

Hard Red Spring by Kelly Kerney was provided to me as an
Advance Review Copy in eBook format by
Penguin Random House’s FirstToRead

#WeekendCoffeeShare: If We Were Having Coffee… On March 26

Welcome to the Weekend Coffee Share, a blog hop by the lovely Diana over at Part Time Monster. Every weekend we get together for virtual coffees and a little casual chat.

As a book blog, I will do my best to keep my topics bookish.

Have you read any good books recently? Can you recommend any? I am currently reading The Assistants by Camille Perri as an ARC. It’s a corporate story about embezzlement and education getting you no further than a PA’s job.

I am also currently still reading Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, as well as The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. I usually have at least one eBook and one paperback at the same time.

What I really got into this year is audiobooks. It’s really nice to listen to them in the car,sort of like having someone in the car with you who is talking to you. So far, I’m on my 9th audiobook. Currently, I am listening to a full-cast production of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (can you see a trend there?). I love this one! Narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi, with a cast including Robert Madge as Bod, Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Owens and Mrs. Lupescu, Andrew Scott as Jack the Man, as well as Lenny Henry, Reece Shearsmith, Emilia Fox and Neil Gaiman himself.

What’s your opinion on audiobooks? Do you listen to them? Do you prefer a “proper” reading or a full-cast production with voices and sound effects?

Anyway, I’m on a bit of a deadline with one review, so I need to get back to it. But thank you for having coffee with me today! Check out the other Weekend Coffee Sharers as well!