Saturday, 22 March 2014

Reading for Spring

I am signing up to do the Once Upon a Time challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel DroppingsThe themes for the challenge are fantasy, folklore, fairytale and mythology. I've had in mind the books I want to read for some time, and they are as follows;

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
Described an 'urban fantasy full of vampires, werewolves and shape-shifters' it is set in London in 1878. It's the first book in The Infernal Devices series.

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin
This is another first book in a series (the Matthew Swift novels) and is again set in London. 'Enter a London where magicians ride the Last Train, implore favours of the Beggar King and interpret the insane wisdom of The Bag Lady'.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch
This is more of a known quantity because it is the fourth in the series and I loved the other three. A police procedural, the hero is PC Peter Grant an apprentice wizard who works for the Metropolitan Police. (London again, I didn't realise how London-centric the list was until I've started typing it out).

Any Other Name by Emma Newman
The second in the Split Worlds trilogy. I've actually had this on my shelf for ages, but I was waiting for Once Upon a Time to read it. The blurb says 'It's Downton Abbey with magic, in Bath's secret mirror city'. That sounds impossible to resist.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
This is a re-read. I loved it when I previously read it and am hoping it's as good as I remember.

That's my list, and I'm looking forward to getting started.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Wedlock by Wendy Moore

This is the story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, born in 1789, the attractive, educated and pampered only child of an extremely wealthy County Durham coal magnate. Her father died when she was a child and she almost immediately became a target for fortune hunters. In Georgian Britain rich people did not often marry for love, and this was the case with Mary Eleanor. Her first marriage, to the Earl of Strathmore, wasn't happy, but fairly brief; he died after they had been married for eight years. But it was idyllic compared to what happened next.

Andrew Robinson Stoney was an Irish soldier. He was handsome, charming, and extremely manipulative. He had already been married and the gossip was that he had driven his first wife to her grave by his ill-treatment. Unbelievably he tricked Mary Eleanor into marrying him by pretending that he was dying. Once they were wed he made a miraculous recovery. Mary Eleanor's life from then until the end of her marriage was a living hell.

After her marriage she no longer had any rights over her own money and Stoney kept her almost penniless. He was physically and emotionally abusive. He kept her from seeing her mother and her friends, she was often a prisoner in her own home. She was rarely given enough to eat and became thin and gaunt. She was a clever woman and had a keen interest in botany and science but Stoney prevented her from pursuing those interests.

This is all shocking enough, but what amazed me the most was that there seemed to be nothing she could do to save herself. Plenty of people knew what was going on but nobody stepped in to help her. Stoney was a master of disinformation and he let it be known that Mary Eleanor was irrational - almost deranged - and people believed him. When help finally did come it wasn't from anyone in her own social class, but her servants who rescued her. Those with the most to lose risked everything, while those with the power stood and watched.

I thought this was a fascinating and horrifying book. Domestic abuse still happens today of course, and women still stay with abusive men, through fear, or being so beaten down that they can't see a way out. But at least it's a subject that's talked about, and there are laws to protect women, and refuges for them to go to. Mary Eleanor had none of that. Though she attained a measure of peace in her later years, because of Andrew Stoney Robinson the happy life she could've had and the good she could've done in the world through her patronage of scientific endeavours never happened.

(Incidentally, Mary Eleanor's grandson John and his wife Josephine founded the Bowes Museum, which I wrote about here.)

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley

Running is something that I liked as a child. I am one of that strange breed who actually enjoyed cross-country at school. But running (in fact all sport) stopped when I left school. I can't say that I've particularly missed it. On the other hand I am quite often tired these days and have got significantly heavier over the past few years. Lack of exercise has got a lot to do with that. My son joined our local running club a couple of years ago and that stirred in me some long-forgotten urge to run. But only enough to make a couple of half-hearted attempts and then give up. Then I heard about this book and ordered it from the library. I started it straightaway and finished it in about two days.

Alexandra Heminsley is a journalist who hadn't done any sport for years and didn't think of herself as an athletic person at all. But she decided that she wanted to run.

That was it, I was going to run round the block. I had high hopes: hopes of the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel and the speed of a gazelle. Defeated by gyms, bored by sanctimonious yoga teachers and intimidated by glossy tennis clubs, I decided it was time to end a lifetime spent believing myself to exist on the outside of sport. I would return powerful and proud, the city still reeling at the sight of my grace and speed on the pavements of Kilburn.

Suffice to say it didn't turn out as she planned. But she didn't give up and by sheer tenacity and perseverance turned herself into a runner.

It's very funny, there's plenty of stuff like the paragraph quoted above. She doesn't mind laughing at herself (she fell down while trying to high-five spectators at her first marathon), and she is honest about her setbacks as well as her successes. It is also quite moving, she writes about how running helped her reconnect  with her father with whom she'd had a loving, but quite distant relationship. He had been a keen runner and it gave them a shared interest and something to talk about.

There's lots of practical advice as well; about kit, injuries, what to take to a race. All in all I think it's an ideal book for women who think they might like to run. I found it very inspiring and am running again. Very slowly, and not in daylight - but it's a start.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

THE SHAMBLING GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITYI already had this on my TBR list when I was lucky enough to win a copy on a Goodreads giveaway. Urban fantasy is a relatively new genre for me, but it's fast becoming one of my favourites.

Zoe Norris is forced to return to her home town of New York after the break-up of a bad relationship. She is a book editor, so when she sees an advert for a job editing a travel guide to the city, she applies. It transpires that this will be a guide for the supernatural and paranormal denizens (known as the coterie) of New York, creatures who up until this point Zoe hadn't known existed. She will be the only human working on a staff which includes vampires, zombies, and a death goddess. Not all her colleagues welcome her presence.

The balance between humans and the coterie is carefully preserved. Most humans are blithely unaware of the coterie, and the coterie are monitored and controlled by an organisation called Public Works. But now it seems as though someone is deliberately sabotaging this balance, which could have catastrophic consequences.

This is the first in an intended series of Shambling Guides and as such there was quite a lot of explanation to get through establishing the world in which Zoe finds herself. I thought this was done in a very light and easy way - I didn't feel like I was just having a load of exposition dumped on me. It's a humorous, fun book. Between each chapter is an extract from the guidebook Zoe is editing; for example this on mid-town architecture,

While the humans will be checking out the Apple Store for expensive computers and gadgets, we encourage any visiting coterie to stop and admire its all glass structure. It is actually crystal, and was built by a race  of apini demons native to the southern US.

If you enjoy Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant books I'm sure you will enjoy this. I'm certainly going to look out for more books by Mur Lafferty, and I'm looking forward to the next in this series.