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M. K. Burton
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The Lieutenant
The Lieutenant
by Kate Grenville
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth it just for the middle, 22 Feb. 2010
This review is from: The Lieutenant (Paperback)
Daniel Rooke's childhood is miserable; as a smart boy born to poor parents in eighteenth century England, doors eventually open for him but he constantly struggles to fit in. In 1788 he seizes the chance to go on a mission to New South Wales as an astronomer, hoping to finally break out of his position in the lowly marines and become a scientist. That doesn't quite happen; instead, in his solitary makeshift observatory, Rooke forges a friendship with the Aborigines, one in particular, that has an astonishing effect on his worldview and brings into sharp focus the issues with British imperialism.

The Lieutenant is a short, quick read, but no less affecting for all that. The book is written in third person and the beginning went very quickly, which made me feel somewhat detached and a bit frustrated, but as soon as Rooke is in the war, I was immensely wrapped up in his story. His journey to Australia was outright fascinating. More than anything, it showed the arrogance of the British soldiers, convinced that the natives would immediately like what they had to bring, want to hang around them, and be grateful for their company even after they were forcibly captured! I was astonished. I knew this sort of thing happened in the Americas but it still made me so angry.

Luckily, Rooke shared my feelings, and I loved the friendship he shared with the native girl and his diligent attempts to learn their language for the sake of speaking to them, not to become famous like one of the other crew members. I really felt that he was trying to understand them and he treated them like the people that they were. He was just a really admirable, clever man, and even though I couldn't entirely get inside his head, I got enough of his intentions to really like him, and his actions were above reproach as long as he knew what he was doing.

I did think the beginning and the end were brief and sort of disappointing and detached, but in my opinion the entire book was worth it for that great middle section when Rooke tries to learn about another culture without imposing his own Britishness on it. He's clearly rebuked when he does. I was happy to learn that it was based on a true story and a soldier did attempt to learn the language from a young native girl, although the author says clearly it's fiction and should not be taken as history. Even so, knowing that at least one man attempted to understand, rather than oppress and change, makes for a great story and reminds us that some people do buck the trend of history.


The Glass Room
The Glass Room
by Simon Mawer
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, thoughtful book, 22 Feb. 2010
This review is from: The Glass Room (Hardcover)
Newly married Viktor and Liesel Landauer want to build a house for themselves, but not just any house. Viktor is the head of a huge car company in their newly created Czechoslovakia of the 1920's, and they want a completely modern, free building, sparing them from the confines of heavy castles and palaces. In that house, the centerpiece is the Glass Room, a space filled with windows, light, and purity. Those windows, however, cannot restore light to the souls of the people who live and eventually work within the house, setting their darkness of spirit in sharp contrast with the beauty of the room itself.

Everything fits perfectly together in this book. The language is beautiful, the plot is interesting and ends perfectly, and the characters are multi-faceted and interesting. It highlights an obviously important period in history but from the slightly different viewpoint of the various ethnic groups in Czechoslovakia, living in a country constructed by a treaty and consistently struck with severe issues. There's a lot of fiction (and, obviously, non-fiction) about World War II and its aftermath out there and I think this book took another angle to distinguish itself, and it worked.

It was interesting that eventually, while their house is occupied by others, Viktor and Liesel lead the strange life of exiles from Nazi Germany and the countries they've taken over. I can't recall if I ever read a book about where the rich went when they fled, but it was interesting, especially when they tried to move again to a more permanent home and had to deal with other countries' stupid prejudice. As we know in the beginning, they make it through. It isn't all sunshine and roses for the characters, though, as those left behind endure the incredibly difficult experiences forced upon them by Nazi occupation and imprisonment in concentration camps.

I also really liked that the house itself was almost a character in the book. It's used for different purposes throughout, but everyone has their own relationship with it. It makes them feel certain ways, reminds them of their lives - in certain ways, the house's open spaces tempt them to do what they might not do otherwise. It's an interesting dynamic.

I can definitely see why The Glass Room was nominated for the Booker Prize. It exposes the darkness and the light within people, while exploring an interesting and slightly different aspect of a war that impacted so much of our culture. Very worth reading.


Mister Pip
Mister Pip
by Lloyd Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Award-worthy, 22 Feb. 2010
This review is from: Mister Pip (Paperback)
Matilda's small island of Bougainville is at war. The redskins are invaders and many of the young men from her village are engaged in fighting them; she lives her life constantly tense and alert, deprived of many of the privileges she experienced in her youth. There is no electricity, no running water, no schools, and the villagers must live off the land. There is just one white man left in the village, and eventually he takes initiative and starts a school. His teaching consists mainly of reading Great Expectations aloud to the class, and Matilda for the first time discovers the power of literature.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this book. I absolutely loved when the teacher, Mr Watts, began reading Great Expectations. It was just magical to see Matilda learn about stepping outside of her life for the first time, and she remarks that she feels like she knows Pip and is completely bound up in his story. She felt like a kindred spirit after that. The book started out so charming. The war parts, however, made me distinctly uncomfortable and sad, as one might expect, so the book was certainly not all a joy, and it's hard to say I enjoy people being hacked into pieces. It all seems to happen very abruptly, especially when I realized that the author was trying to convey a message about morality. He asks us to consider what a good person is and what a good person does, and the result was quite shocking and upsetting.

I much preferred the parts on the island to the end of the book, but I appreciated that too. I can understand why Mister Pip was shortlisted for the Booker prize. It's such a compelling tale about the power of story and really looks at the consequences of our actions, the horror of war, and simple goodness. I was really surprised by what I got out of this slim volume, and I definitely recommend it.


Mudbound
Mudbound
by Hillary Jordan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, but not easy to read, 22 Feb. 2010
This review is from: Mudbound (Paperback)
Laura thought she was destined for spinsterhood until Henry McAllan chose to make her his wife. What she didn't bargain on was his desire to own land, and their move to a cotton farm a few years later with two small girls. Laura hates the farm, which she and her daughters christen Mudbound, and hates her father-in-law, who has no place to live but with them. When World War II ends, Henry's brother Jamie comes to stay with the family, and so does Ronsel Jackson, the son of the sharecroppers nearby. Sharing the common bond of fighting men, Ronsel and Jamie become friends of a sort, in a way that no one in the South will tolerate for very long.

It's hard to say I liked this book, but it was compelling and completely horrifying in parts. This is particularly so because most of the characters in the book are very racist. I know people genuinely thought like this when and where this book is set, but it bothers me and I can't understand it (which, I suppose, is a good thing). I wanted all the characters to stop being close-minded, to think more like Jamie, who sees Ronsel as a person despite the color of his skin and respects the military achievements that he made.

The book rotates between viewpoints, giving us insight into all of the characters' heads. We can witness Laura's unhappiness, Henry's land-lust, Jamie's jitters and bad memories. Ronsel's memories of war in Europe were for me the most affecting. He describes the difference it made in Europe when he was defined as a man, not as a black man; the wonder of having a white woman fall in love with him and everyone make him feel like he was valued. He had to be my favorite character and my heart broke for him over and over again, stuck in a racist town working on a farm where he'd never be appreciated the way he should have been.

Mudbound is a powerful and affecting book, but it won't leave you happy. It will leave you unsettled and anxious to change the world, correct anyone who might still feel this way. It's an evocative and moving picture of the American South, but I hope it has changed very much.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A truly moving work, 26 Jan. 2010
Renee Michel is, at first glance, a nondescript middle-aged concierge of an apartment building in Paris. But she cultivates that image, and underneath her purposely plain exterior is a quick, intelligent brain. She uses her job as a way to hide her vibrant interest in philosophy, books, movies, and beauty. Upstairs lives a 12-year-old girl named Paloma who has determined to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday because she cannot handle being so disdained and undervalued. Both of their lives are set on a collision course when one of the upstairs neighbors falls ill and everything in the apartment building begins to change.

It's hard to review a book in which I really disliked the first 100 pages and loved the following 200. At first it just seemed consumed with philosophy. Nothing was happening, Renee was constantly musing about things I don't understand or particularly care about, and Paloma was completely doom and gloom about her life and her family. Honestly, I don't like philosophy and never have. It just seems like a lot of musing about nothing particularly interesting. And then the neighbor died, and someone else moved in who changed everything. And somehow the characters' musings became about life, and love, and missed opportunities, and caring what you do in the world. They became more relevant and more interesting.

It's hard to go on without spoiling why this book became great. It's when the characters collide that it happens, and they recognize in themselves people that are just like them. It's a shout-out against the class system and defies Renee's idea that because she began life as a poor woman, that rich people will always harm her and take advantage of her. It does its little bit to show that people are all just people and we never know what's going on in someone else's head. I'm not sure the ending didn't really take away that message, that association with rich people will harm poor people, but it really moved me. It made me wonder if Barbery was reflecting on the way things are in France at the moment. I've never been there, so I don't know how strong the class system still is, but reviews online (and this book) seem to suggest that it is still very present.

Anyway, I would really recommend The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I'd just suggest to stick to it a little longer than you might a normal book. It's fairly short, but it is quite a touching journey.


Heart's Blood
Heart's Blood
by Juliet Marillier
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Juliet Marillier never disappoints, 15 Jan. 2010
This review is from: Heart's Blood (Hardcover)
Caitrin arrives at Whistling Tor having fled her entire life. After her father's death, she was abused by her distant cousins to the point where she runs away with only her writing box, for she is a scribe by trade. Whistling Tor is not the average Irish town. The lord is reclusive, bound to the hilltop, and the villagers are frightened to go away and fear he does not care for them. Throwing caution to the wind, Caitrin travels up the hill when she hears that the lord is in need of a capable scribe that can read Latin and Irish.

I adore Juliet Marillier's work. I won this book in a giveaway before its release and I can't express how excited I was to read it. I have huge expectations for this author and the best part is that she hasn't let me down yet. Her fantasy world, with strong characters and often a large romantic sideplot, simply appeal to me in every way. Heart's Blood was no exception and I loved it. This book is all about moving beyond the past and forging a new future.

Caitrin is interesting because she is a very damaged heroine. She's been abused and lied to by people who claim they are her family. Her sister married and left her, not realizing what would happen. She flinches every time a man gestures in her presence. At the same time, she has a core of steel that hasn't been beaten down, and a very large part of this book is her recovering her strength, her ambition, and her determination to live her life. I loved Caitrin's character development. I felt like her struggle was very realistic; even when she knows, realistically, a man isn't going to strike her, she's been beaten into submission and it takes a long time for her to stop reacting in fear. Her struggles and her move towards becoming a courageous new woman makes her a character to cheer for. Besides this, she is a scribe and she's often busy researching, an activity close to my heart.

Anluan, the lord of Whistling Tor, has been convinced of his own inferiority for a long time. He's disabled from an illness, and moreover is bound to the hilltop because of his ancestor's dark sorcery. That is due to the host - a hoard of ghostly figures brought back from the dead by accident who are only kept in control by the lord's presence. They need to prove themselves, too. Every character, except for ultimately the villain, has something to grow beyond.

I loved both the story with the host, which has several members we get to know, and Nechtan's sorcery, and the romance between Anluan and Caitrin. It takes true courage and strength for them to get past their individual handicaps and grow into loving one another, not to mention believing that they love each other. It's beautifully done and this book is amazing. I grew to realize the ending of the host story before Caitrin did, but that didn't make her revelations any less fascinating and compelling. Besides that, I love Marillier's writing. I was doing nanowrimo while reading this and realized that I was actually imitating her writing, which is embarrassing, because I just love it so much.

"Had it been Anluan whose presence I had sensed before, standing in the doorway watching me without a word? He was seated on the bench now ... White face, red hair; snow and fire, like something from an old tale ... I found it difficult to take my eyes from him. There was an odd beauty in his isolation and his sadness, like that of a forlorn prince ensorcelled by a wicked enchantress, or a traveller lost forever in a world far from home."

I loved Heart's Blood. This is quite simply a perfect book for someone who enjoys fantasy and romance, and perhaps a little poking about in old books.


The Dark Rose: The Morland Dynasty, Book 2
The Dark Rose: The Morland Dynasty, Book 2
by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars History is not this rosy, 15 Jan. 2010
The Morland family has survived the Wars of the Roses to see the Tudors take the throne of England. French Paul, the great grandson of the founders of the dynasty, now runs the Morland properties, but struggles with jealousy of his half-siblings and dislike of his wife. Only his mistress in the city of York brings him happiness, but she also brings strife within his family. Meanwhile, Paul's niece Nanette becomes a beloved maid to Anne Boleyn, witnessing first hand the conflict and drama inherent in the Tudor court.

This second volume in the Morland dynasty may mark my abrupt end of reading the series. This is just far too romanticized a version of history for me. Most historical fiction does it to some extent, but this goes a little too far. It's like a story you would tell a small child, rather than an attempt to actually imagine history as it might have been, at least as far as I'm concerned. When Nanette has witnessed the many murders of Henry VIII, including that of her friend Anne Boleyn, and still manages to see these murders as something that just had to happen and doesn't fault him at all for it, I just have to take exception to that. Yet the characters that don't appear are purely villainized, like Henry's next wife Jane Seymour, who is called something like the honey scorpion.

The author clearly attempts to have characters with multiple sides to them. Paul's bastard son is one such, as the author makes him a love-starved boy that finally seeks vengeance on the father who never gave him what he needed. Despite that, everything just feels painted with a rosy brush. Of course Adrian would have been a good man if he'd been given love. Of course the council would never do anything evil, even though clearly the king would never do anything evil either. There is incest in here that made me distinctly uncomfortable, but no one seems to mind when an uncle marries his niece, even though the characters mention the difficulty they might have with it.

The entire series has a nice dynastic feel that I like, but overall I feel like I'm reading a fairy tale that has little to do with actual history. For that reason, I'm unsure if I'll continue. The Dark Rose was entertaining, but I think I'd rather spend my time reading something with a historical feel instead of a rosy "oh-wasn't-the-past-great" one.


The Bird Room
The Bird Room
by Chris Killen
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Darkly comic tale of obsession, 5 Jan. 2010
This review is from: The Bird Room (Paperback)
Since he is such a socially awkward person, Will is astonished when Alice spontaneously makes her interest in him clear. She's Will's first girlfriend, as well as beautiful and smart. He can't stop obsessing over her and worrying what's going to go wrong. As always happens in such situations, his obsession begins to drive Alice away, and it's only then that Will's passion displays its most damaging consequences.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book and I was surprised, in a pleasant way, by what I found. This book reads partly like an example of how not to conduct a relationship. The situations are occasionally as sad as they are hilarious, but it's impossible not to laugh. The author has taken obsessive love to an extreme which is difficult to believe in, but which provides uneasy entertainment nonetheless. We know there is something sad and wrong with these people, but at the same time they are mocking themselves.

The book alternates narration, using first person only when Will has the viewpoint perspective and third person for the other character. This gives the reader an insight into his uncomfortable and obsessive mind, since otherwise we'd have no reason as to why he behaves the way he does, but at the same time contrasts his inner thoughts with his outer appearance and behavior.

The Bird Room doesn't flinch in describing any aspect of these relationships. A lot of the novel is obsessed with sex, as young people in new relationships generally are. One of the characters is an actress using her body to get by and to erase her previous school persona, so there really is a fair amount of graphic content. The book feels edgy, using the characters' sexuality to portray the other happenings in their lives. Helen, always lacking confidence, feels beautiful when a man wants her enough to sleep with her. Will needs Viagra to encourage him along when his obsession with Alice takes control of his life.

A darkly comic tale about the extremes of obsession, The Bird Room manages to finish with hope and provides some very provoking thoughts to consider. This little book is worth a read for those who enjoy character studies.


The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal
The Madness of Queen Maria: The Remarkable Life of Maria I of Portugal
by Jenifer Roberts
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.95

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating woman, 17 Nov. 2009
Portugal's first reigning female monarch, Queen Maria I, was plagued with a poor family history that led to extreme mental instability and unhappiness in her later life. In this new biography, Jenifer Roberts explores the queen's youth, dominated by a powerful member of the aristocracy, her reign, and her unhappy death in exile in Brazil. The author gives voice to Maria's struggles and provides an illuminating picture of an absolute monarchy on the brink of destruction as discontent reached a fever pitch throughout Europe.

Queen Maria is a surprisingly interesting figure. It's always refreshing to find a woman in history who is not controlled by men. While Maria's childhood was dominated by her grandfather, father, and prime minister Pombal, when she came to the throne she genuinely took control. Though she was advised by men, she embarked on her own journey to restore religion, undo the wrongs she believed her forebears had done, and appointed her own advisors with the help of her mother. Before she lost her senses due to hereditary mental illness, seemingly brought on by six deaths in her family in a very short period of time, Maria actually seemed a good queen and one that her people liked.

Many of the quotes in this book are from the perspective of British ambassadors at the time, which made the book that much more interesting for me. I have a generally good grasp of British history at this period and it was very illuminating to see the comparisons made. The same physician who successfully (for the time) treated George III was called in to treat Maria's madness but failed. Maria is a part of the world stage, so we also hear about the monarchies of France and Spain as well as the revolution in France and how it affects the political situation in Portugal. As a result the book, while short, is a complete picture of this period in history, so volatile and prone to change as we with hindsight can see and consider.

The back cover copy says that the book reads like a novel and I would certainly agree with that. It's very readable and unfolds as a story should, particularly before Maria's madness strikes. From the prologue, we know how that happens, and the rest of the book reveals the history of her life. The shortest period covers Maria's madness, but given that she was in a convent for much of this time, there probably was not much to say. Endnotes are used throughout the text for references, which appears to be the trend in popular history. The author has also included an extremely useful introduction and several appendices, including the original account of the royal family's visit to Marinha Grande, the home of an Englishman in charge of the glass factory, which inspired this work. There is also a list of all the personalities mentioned, an explanation of the Portuguese words and other unfamiliar terms, and more. There is no point at which any reader could be confused and it was easy to find that I was learning quite a bit more about Portugal than just on the queen herself.

Overall, this is a very well done, comprehensive account of a fascinating queen. I very much enjoyed reading it and felt that I learned a lot, particularly given how ignorant I am about Portugal. I highly recommend The Madness of Queen Maria.


The Thief (Thief of Eddis)
The Thief (Thief of Eddis)
by Megan Whalen Turner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great on so many levels for adults AND kids, 13 Nov. 2009
After bragging that he could steal anything, and promptly laying his hands on the king's seal, Gen finds himself in prison for that very theft. That is, until the king's magus recruits him for the ultimate theft in another country, a treasure that no one has ever managed to steal. Of course Gen accepts, but he has ideas of his own, and he knows that once he gets out into the open, nothing is going to hold him back from freedom.

I've widely heard that this is the least of all the books of the series but I loved it. I adored the characters. Gen is a trickster and a liar, but he is just so clever. I really wanted him to succeed in his mission, whatever it finally turned out to be. I enjoyed the conflicts between all the travelers as they went along and the realistic way their relationships changed and grew. The magus genuinely learned who Gen was and what he was capable of and it was remarkable to watch his respect for Gen grow as the journey continued. In the beginning, Gen was marginalized, a prisoner and a thief, but as his companions got to know him, they considered him a person. I love books that do this and show how people are forced to reconsider those they classify as "other".

The book is written in first person, which really works, but its difference lies in the fact that we still don't know all about Gen. He doesn't reveal who he really is or his past until the end. We're given little tantalizing glimpses, like when he talks about his family and lets us know that it's a big one, but his secrets for me kept the whole book very interesting. I wanted to know more about him.

I thought overall that this was a great little adventure story about identity. It's well-written, with nice imagery, but the characters really stole the show for me. There was a reason I immediately picked up The Queen of Attolia and just writing this review has made me really long to read The King of Attolia as soon as possible. If you enjoy YA fantasy and haven't read The Thief yet, I highly, highly recommend it.


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