Montreal, Quebec, Canada | Member Since 2011
I discovered Agatha Christie in my teens, when the prospect of every one of her books was a promise of excitement and thrills. Revisiting some of her most well-liked titles in the past few years, I was more often than not left slightly disappointed; of course the novelty of Chirsite's style and approach had worn off and simply could not seem as original as it had long ago, and the whole concept of "comfort reading" hadn't quite taken hold of me yet. Strange that I had never read this first instalment in the series before. Set in a great mansion, the Styles Court of the title, an elderly heiress is suspected of having been murdered by strychnine poisoning. Captain Hastings is a guest at Styles and suggests to bring in Hercules Poirot to quietly work out the mystery and avoid alerting the media in what is a high profile case and most likely a crime motivated by greed. Published in 1920, there are several references to the Great War, giving this novel a historical context, something I have never noticed with the other books in the series. The characters of Hastings and Poirot seem fully formed, and Poirot's methodology already well in place, and I was once again won over by the charm of what is by now a comfortably familiar formula with two well-known main characters. David Suchet's delivery is of course impeccable.
This book by the fine historical novelist Barry Unsworth is set in 1149 Palermo, Sicily, where power struggles between East and West have left King Roger hard pressed to maintain his throne. Both the Pope and the Bishop of Rome refuse to recognize his rule, and Conrad Hohenstaufen (ruler of the west) and Manuel Comnenus (ruler of the east) are threatening to invade Sicily to secure their powers. Palermo has always been tolerant to various ethnic communities, but a Christian group is making false accusations against Muslims, Jews, and other "outsiders" to take over power.
Thurstan Beauchamp narrates this story. He is a young man still, the son of a Norman knight and a Saxon mother. He works in the Diwan of Control, the central financial office at the palace, where his employer is Yusuf Ibn Mansur, a Muslim man with political savvy and of unimpeachable honesty who is willing to help Thurstan become influential if he can avoid falling into one of the dangerous political games the various factions are playing against each other. Traveling throughout Europe as "Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows," Thurstan finds a group of five Yazidis, including Nesrin, a belly dancer with uncommon talent, and immediately hires them to come to Palermo to perform for the king. He is drawn to Nesrin's great beauty and allure, but things take yet another turn when he meets again with the Lady Alicia on the same trip, once his great love when he was still a boy and she then just a girl also. Now she has returned from the land of Jerusalem as a widow of considerable wealth, and seems just as taken with Thurstan, who finds his love for her has not abated over the years.
Further complicating matters, we learn early on that Thurstan's most cherished dream has been to become a knight and fight in the crusades, as his father has done before him, though this opportunity was taken away from him just when it seemed about to be realised. Now with Lady Alicia's return on the scene, many opportunities beckon. The novel builds up at a moderate pace, all the while filled with period details which inform us about aspects of daily life in 12th century Palermo. Thurstan, narrating in the first person from the vantage point of a period after the events have taken place, is a personable main character, whom we cannot help but empathise with though he makes many grave gaffes and mistakes, and much as his naivety and youth show he has yet much to learn, we see the events though his eyes before he had gained the advantage of hindsight, so that the reader is offered only glimpses of the whole, until a complex mystery is revealed.
A jewel of a book which I can't wait to listen to again to pick up on all the fine intricate details I may have missed the first time. I also loved Andrew Sachs' narration in this audio version.
The grandson of that famous other Freud, Sigmund, Lucian Freud became one of the most famous artists of the late 20th and early 21st century while fiercely resisting any sort of public exposure, including having his photos taken or giving interviews for most of his lifetime. Geordie Greig contrived after years of repeated efforts and conniving to secure a series of breakfast interviews with the notoriously monomaniacal artist, and also interviewed friends, former lovers and models after Freud had passed away in 2011; only at that point were they willing to break the vow of silence they had kept, which they weren't willing to breach before, even if Freud had acted in outrageous ways toward them, because somehow under the influence of the immense charm and influence he had exerted on them. Freud had not been above employing thugs to threaten journalists and reporters who had been working on biographies of him, so fear of his wrath was as effective a silencer as the rest.
His tremendous talent and the one passion which guided his whole life and to which all sacrifices were made was his art, which eventually evolved to his signature paintings of nude models, often of friends and his family, including his own children, or of people he met who were willing to pose for him over many months and for sessions lasting very long hours. As a person he seemed to have more disturbing faults than can be enumerated, and as a father probably sent all his children into lifelong therapy (my own conjecture only). His other singular passion was sex, which he reportedly indulged in as frequently as he could with little regard for convention, and consequently, of children, he had fourteen recognized daughters and sons, two from his first wife and 12 from various mistresses, but none of them ever had much contact with him; he gave everything he had to his art and then some, always seeking to perfect himself in that single sphere of life, which ended up paying him back handsomely in the literal sense of the word. Love him and his work or hate him, he was a fascinating character, very well read and full of culture and stories. This book, both gossipy and filled with interesting tidbits and background information about some of his most well-known paintings, is a real treasure-trove and also a great treat in the audio format as narrated by John Standing, an actor and an aristocrat who might very well have been among the kind of people Freud himself would have happily associated with in his long and fruitful lifetime.
I borrowed the print edition from the library to see what I may have missed, suspecting it was probably illustrated with many of the paintings mentioned in the text and featuring pictures as well, and that is indeed the case, so I'd say both audio and book are worth getting your hands on.
Fiona Maye is a British judge assigned to child welfare cases. One of her more recent cases has involved deciding against the parents of conjoined siamese twins who shared vital organs. One of the twins had chances of surviving if the twins were separated, while the other was sure to die. If they were not separated, both would have died. The parents wanted to let God and nature take their course. Fiona made the decision to let the stronger twin have a chance at life. Fiona's difficult professional life has had repercussions on her long-term marriage. Now nearing sixty, she no longer craves intimacy with her husband after all the accumulated stress. Her husband on the other hand decides what he needs is one last grand passion and wants to have his cake and eat it too, so tells Fiona he'd like to have an affair with a young woman, yet keep the marriage intact, which doesn't suit Fiona in the least.
Then another complicated case falls in her lap. A young Jehova's Witness, not yet eighteen years old, the age of medical consent in England, is urgently in need of blood transfusions. The hospital has made an appeal to the court, as without the transfusions, the leukemia he suffers from is bound to kill him in a painful way. Both the parents and Adam, the young man himself, are against the procedure on religious grounds, though the parents ultimately leave the choice in Adam's hands. For reasons she doesn't quite understand herself, Fiona feels compelled to make the trip to the hospital and meet Adam in person to see what should be done, and eventually persuades him to go through with the procedure. The consequences will have far-reaching consequences.
This was a very good book and ultimately seemed to me more about relationships and the impact individuals have upon each other than about medical and legal issues, which ultimately, was much more interesting to me. Excellent narration by Lindsay Duncan—I would gladly listen to more audiobooks read by her.
This isn't an actual review. More a comment to warn potential buyers that this audiobook is mislabelled as being "unabridged" and is actually cut approximately by half. The book is just over 300 pages and the corresponding audiobook should therefore be over 10 hours. I didn't notice the length when I purchased it, just got excited because I love Tim Pigott-Smith as a narrator, and he does indeed deliver a great performance here. But do yourself a favour and get your hands on the complete work because J. G. Farrell is a fabulous writer and the details in his novels are worth poring over.
London, 1922. Frances Wray and her aging mother have been living together in their large villa in Camberwell, a district in south London, all on their own, ever since Frances's two brothers were killed in the war, her father's death following shortly after, leaving both her mother and her in reduced circumstances, when it was discovered Mr. Wray had made bad investments and had left his widow and daughter debts to pay. They've had to let go their servants, which is bad enough for ladies of their genteel standing, but worse still, this has left Frances no choice but to take on all the hard chores of keeping house herself, which is something too shameful to reveal even to their closest relations. Barely able to eat their fill, they've decided to take on paying guests; the word "lodgers" will not enter their vocabulary, for they refuse to think of themselves as landladies, something too common to consider without evoking disturbing feelings. Then Lily and Len Barber erupt on the scene. They've arrived a little bit later than planned with all their possessions, ready to move into the top floor, which Frances has cleared, moving her mother into what was once the dining room downstairs, and only keeping her own bedroom up next to what will be the Barber's quarters. Leonard Barber is a clerk at an insurance company, a redhead, cheery and rather loud, while Mrs. Barber seems quite young, early 20s, very pretty but obviously done up and just slightly vulgar with the bright colourful clothes and clinking accessories she wears, and soon too the decor comes to resemble her personal style, which isn't exactly to Frances's liking. Frances is dismayed by all this. She has long ago resigned herself to her life as a spinster and life-comanion to her mother, even though she is still only twenty-six, expecting few pleasures and deriving satisfaction from her responsibilities and the familiarity of the grand old house and neighbourhood she has grown up in. But the Barber's arrival brings many changes, and after the initial resistance, Frances finds herself caught up in a whirlwind, not the least of which starts with the unlikely friendship she develops with Lilian Barber across the class divide.
For the first half of the novel, we are very much observing a rather slow-paced women's domestic fiction kind of story, which is all about nuance and minute detail meticulously and beautifully observed, bringing the house and it's residents and their interactions vividly to mind. But there is passion and plenty of excitement too, which will probably keep the general fiction reader going. By the time the mid-point is reached, suddenly events take a big dramatic turn. I won't reveal the exact nature of these events to avoid any spoilers, but suffice it to say there is a crime which is transformative both for the characters and for the novel itself, which now moves from the domestic to a more public realm. Now the law and the police are involved, a scandal erupts in the newspapers, there is a famous court case, and the tension keeps mounting, and through it all, Sarah Waters keeps us wondering about the fate of our main protagonists.
I thought this was a great read, and part of the enjoyment for me was actress Juliet Stevenson's impeccable narration, during which she gave each character a very distinct personality and voice and truly made you the reader actually live through the entire experience more vividly than I know I would have, had I merely read the words on a page with my limited imagination. I found some parts were a bit slow, and some were repetitive and maybe unnecessary and made the novel overly long, but these were balanced by great story elements and some surprises thrown in. I can't say I'm overly fond of romance in any form, and that aspect of the novel, which is rather an important one as the plot basically evolves around that theme, was extremely well executed, though I was still made uneasy by the actual sexual elements, though these will no doubt tantalize many readers. In all, definitely a worthwhile read and a very well executed novel.
On the day of her retirement from the sweets factory where she has been working for over 40 years, Miss Jean Hawkins has resolved this to be the last day of her life, and she had made all the necessary preparations to that end. Then she goes in to her last day of work and is given as a cheap retirement gift a five-year diary, and she takes this as an order from above that she's been given a five-year sentence to live, and that furthermore, she must fill a page from the diary every single day. Miss Hawkins has had up till then a rather sad and uneventful life, growing up in an orphanage, from which she took away mostly unhappy memories of the nasty Matron, who held her back from being adopted into a foster family because she was a good helper around the orphanage, and properly trampled down on any sense of self or individuality, among other minor horrors, and also of finding young Morris's body, a fellow orphan girl who took her life by hanging herself with the rags used as sanitary napkins, shortly after beginning her menstruation, after which Matron had convinced Miss Hawkins she had had a nasty nightmare and the event never took place, even though Morris was never seen again. In short, nothing since then has come into her life to make her forget these sad events, and nobody in all her decades at the factory has ever even bothered to find out what her first name was beyond the 'Miss', so that she has little to say for herself in that diary, until the day she has a sudden inspiration to give herself orders which she must follow up on and then tick off once they are accomplished. At first she starts with easy to accomplish things, such as "watch tv" or "take a long walk", and eventually she becomes more daring till she works her way up to "meet a man" then once that's accomplished, "have the man kiss you", no small thing for a woman who is still a virgin by her mid-sixties.
Rubens's writing is excellent, and her black humour just as excellently mordant as I enjoyed it to be in The Waiting Game, my first book by her, but somehow I couldn't enjoy this novel as much. For one thing, Miss Hawkins is such a pathetic character and so self-deluded, which in and of itself wouldn't have been so bad and might have been very amusing to me if there hadn't also been a man present to take advantage of her foolishness and rob her of all she had, a situation which I couldn't help but find unbearably sad. There's the way in which she goes about finding a man, which is initially very pathetic yet quite funny. It's mostly in the details, but in essence, she goes to the library and stands in the religious texts sections and there tries to grab the first man she sees by calling out to him "isn't it a nice day?!", and sure enough, eventually she does bump into a man and run her line by him, even though it happens to be raining by then. That he happens not to seem particularly interested and then shortly establishes that he lives with his mother who never lets him out of her sight other than to go to the library to get her lurid thriller novels which he picks out purely by how graphic the covers look doesn't deter our heroine, nor does the fact that he turns out to be a perfect cad who expects her to pay for everything. No self-respecting woman would give a man like that the time of day, but our poor Miss Hawkins has no notions of self-respect, so instead she finds him all the more appealing for it and is willing to enter into a little game with him, and furiously expends her frustrations in an endless scarf knitting project, where she puts all her anger about Matron, which has never abated, even after all these years, into every stitch, never once considering that the man who has been taking advantage of her and stealing her savings should be the target for her anger instead of all the girlish fantasies she indulges in over several years to come.
While I'm able to see the humour in the situation, it also cuts a bit too close to the bone. How many times have we women deluded ourselves to make untenable situations seem rosy just in order to keep going? In that sense, this book is truly brilliant, which is probably what garnered it a shortlisting for the Booker Prize in 1978, but I rated it based on the reading pleasure it did or did not give me, and in this case, while I enjoyed it, I was also rather looking forward to getting to the end of a difficult ordeal. All the same, recommended—Rubens does have such a great wicked sense of humour—but with some reservations of course.
The narrator Nicolette McKenzie was excellent on this audio version, but there is a very minor glitch, with one 3-second bit that was obviously intended to be edited out and left in by mistake.
This is without a doubt among the best books I've read this summer, and indeed, all year. I've been meaning to read Bernice Rubens's books for several years now, ever since a reviewer on a book site I frequent brought her to my attention. Until then, I wasn't really aware of her work. I'd heard of the movie Madame Sousatzka, based on her novel, because Shirley MacLaine had played the lead role, but had it not been for this reviewer, Rubens might have gone on being completely unknown to me for decades longer, which would have been a sad loss. As it is, I've slowly been accumulating some of her books, and was delighted to discover Isis Publishing had recently put out audiobook versions of a number of her novels, all read by very good narrators.
The Waiting Game of the title takes place at Hollyhocks, a distinguished home for the aged close to Dover, where only the gentry need apply for admission. Matron, who keeps things well in hand, has always seen to that, and she has always been able to sift the scent of class from the other less pleasant effluvia of aging. Lady Celia is queen among the patrons, being the only one of the residents holding a title, and all the other residents defer to her in all matters. Of course nobody has any idea she makes a comfortable living with a thriving blackmailing concern which she runs with the help of a partner and Mr Venables, aka The Ferret. Yet, though they all show her respect, most of the residents dislike Lady Celia because their instinct tells them she will outlast them all. Jeremy Cross has more reason than most to hate her as he's made outliving everyone his one and only obsession. He keeps a constantly updated list of those who have passed away before their time and has every intention of outliving all the other residents at Hollyhocks, especially Lady Celia.
Each resident in the house has his or her secrets and when newcomer Mrs Thackeray arrives, she and Mrs Green become friendly and embark on seemingly harmless fantasy-ridden retellings of the past. After all, Mrs Thackeray had endured a miserable and sexually abusive marriage which isn't fit to talk about, while Mrs Green, well.. she perhaps has more reasons than most to wish to reinvent herself. Of course, for the most part, only the reader is privy to everybody's secrets, though in the end a very big surprise is revealed to everyone. I admit I saw it coming, but this didn't take away from my pleasure one bit.
I'm not sure why it is I enjoy reading about elderly people so much (and here I should specify when I say 'elderly', I do mean old and frail enough to need to be in retirement homes!)—it probably has to do with the fact that having lived so long, and lived through many generations, they've inevitably accumulated life experiences, have fully blossomed into the unique individuals those experiences have forged them into, and invariably have stories to tell, and in the hands of skilled writers, these characters can yield pure magic. Two of my all-time favourite novels feature men and women who are in the winters of their lives: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark and All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Both gems which I intend to revisit often and heartily recommend.
I can see lots more Rubens in my future, and this was a great place to start. Narrator Anna Bentinck does this novel full justice. Much recommended.
At the head of the Elliot family is the baronet Sir Walter, a widower and a vain man who lives beyond his means and makes up his mind about people solely based on their appearance and station in life. His eldest and his youngest daughters take after him, to great comical effect, but Anne Elliot, his middle daughter, is quite different. She's a great reader of poetry and has never forgotten her first romantic attachment to Captain Frederick Wentworth, a romance which took place eight years before the story begins. But like all well bred young ladies of her day, she let herself be persuaded by a close friend of the family, Lady Russell, to break off the engagement because of Wentworth's apparent lack of fortune and prospects. But Wentworth is back, now having acquired great wealth and looking for a wife, and anyone will do, as long as she is fond of the navy. Anyone that is, but Anne.
This, the last novel Austen wrote as she was dying, is a story imbued with a sense of loss, missed opportunities and regret, but of course in the end, love must conquer all and hope wins the day.
This audio version by the ever-perfect Juliet Stevenson was quite a treat.
McWhorter's short book is obviously aimed at the public at large and in the audio version at least, he is a narrator who is engaging and fun and obviously doesn't take himself too seriously, which kept me going even the more arduous bits (I've always had a hard time with grammar). He uncovers some links in the English language which are surprisingly overlooked by most linguists, among others, the connection between the spoken languages of the Celts as well as the Welsh and Cornish who had populated Britain before the invasion of the Germanic tribes, pointing out that not only words, but grammar itself was influenced by these origins. Why historians have ignored these particular linguistic connections is anyone's guess, and he advances some theories which are interesting.
A noteworthy reminder for the modern reader is the fact that language was transmitted purely orally and on the fly, with no formal schooling in existence and was almost never put in writing, with the bulk of the population being illiterate, besides which written and oral versions of languages were often vastly different (for example, Latin exclusively in many Mediterranean countries for written matter, and Arabic, even to this day different in daily speech and printed matter).
He also goes over quite a bit of ground in this section about the use of "unnecessary do" in the modern English language, as in "do you think this is a good idea?" It took me a while to understand this concept, because we use (unecessary) 'do' so much in our regular speech that we don't even think about it, but it seems no other Germanic languages use it this way.
The end section was of particular interest to me, because having studied in grade school in Israel, I learned how Hebrew was a semitic language which at one point evolved from Phoenician, and here McWhorter makes the argument that even the proto-Germanic language, from which modern languages such as English, German and Dutch evolved, through the sea travels of peoples such as the Phoenicians, probably had similar influences as well.
An overview more than anything, but fascinating in parts.
Gwyneth and her entire family has always believed that her much more beautiful, better poised and much better educated cousin Charlotte had inherited the time travel gene, as Isaac Newton had foretold. The onset of the symptoms first appear during the gene-carrier's teens; headaches and dizziness and then out of the blue he or she is transported sometime in the past (never the future since it hasn't happened yet) for no longer than a couple of hours. Charlotte has been meticulously prepared all her life for this, but when Gwen suddenly discovers the hard way her mother has held back secrets from her and she lands in another century much to her surprise, the family is forced to accept this reversal of fortune.
There's some allusion to an alchemical secret and a circle of 12 which Gwyneth completes with the confirmation of her genetic capabilities which I guess gets worked out in the course of the next two books. Of course, she has a love interest, in the shape of a fellow time traveler and distant cousin, Gideon de Villiers, who at first seems to despise her and to show a marked admiration for the ravishing Charlotte, but soon comes to appreciate Gwen's spunk and ability to handle situations on the fly.
I don't always appreciate YA literature, often finding it too fluffy and predictable to my liking, but this summer my teen self seems to be enjoying the diversions I'm offering it, and this first book in the trilogy was so much fun that I'll be looking for the next two books soon to find out how Gwen fares in the end and what the 'ultimate secret', which one of her cousins is working hard to kept hushed up—supposedly for the good of all—is.
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