Saturday, January 01, 2011

Where I went on my winter vacation

Happy New Year, everyone!  Here's to much more good reading in 2011.

I've spent only a few days at work over the last two weeks, something I'll have to do more often.  Normally I get to read for only a couple hours each night, after spending the day in meetings and and teaching undergrads how to do database searches.  It's been nice to approach a novel from a relaxed frame of mind for a change.  Over break, I got to spend time traveling the world, from Australia to England to Thailand to Greece, all from the comfort of my cat hair-covered sofa.

I started out in modern-day Australia and went back to early 20th-century Cornwall while solving the mystery of a young girl's abandonment on the Sydney docks Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden is the type of book I prefer above all others: engrossing multi-generational sagas with a strong mystery component, the more complex the better.

Afterward, I took a jaunt to 1920s Paris in the company of Eileen Gray, the Irish decorator whose chic furniture designs took the art world by storm.  As the ninety-year-old Eileen opens up about her private life to a modern-day journalist, they establish a tentative rapport, and both find themselves changed by their conversation.  Patricia O'Reilly dedicates her slim literary novel to the enigmatic Ms. Gray, "who, I suspect, would not approve."

Then it was back across the Channel to Norfolk, England, in the present day, as world-famous concert pianist Julia Forrester gets drawn out of mourning when a mystery begins unfolding before her eyes.  As her grandmother reveals the story behind a long-hidden World War II-era diary, Julia learns about the troubled marriage of Olivia and Harry Crawford, the former owners of the nearby Wharton Park estate.  Julia's grandmother Elsie had served as Olivia's lady's maid until her retirement.  The action sweeps from the genteel English countryside to the heady, exotic atmosphere of Bangkok before the novel comes full circle.

Like Forgotten Garden, Lucinda Riley's Hothouse Flower is another 600-pager (or close) and I was sorry to see it end.  The two are somewhat similar in terms of plot (family secrets from the past get unearthed by later generations) but I found them very different style-wise.  While the Morton had me on the edge of my seat, the Riley kept me comfortably settled within it, though I was just as glued to the pages.  The latter also has more of a romantic bent, and the mystery isn't as layered, though there were a few surprises I didn't see coming. [Note: The US title is The Orchid House, published in 2012 by Atria.]

Having tackled two chunksters, I thought I'd give this doorstopper a try next.  I'd picked up an ARC at a long-ago BookExpo and felt guilty about neglecting it for so long.  So off to a magically-tinged pre-Regency England it was.

After seventy pages, though, the story hadn't grabbed me, and my wrists were starting to sag under the weight.  This may be one for the Kindle, or to listen to on audio.  Oh well.  Two out of three ain't bad.

My growing pile of review books was making me feel guilty by this point.  I jumped over a century ahead in time to 1920, as a series of brutal murders is stirring up fear amongst the residents of a village along the South coast of England.  I'll be posting a review of Charles Todd's A Lonely Death in the near future.

Finally I landed in ancient Greece with Victoria Grossack and Alice Underwood's Children of Tantalus, first book in a trilogy about Niobe, Princess of Lydia.  I'm 100pp in, and so far it's a nice, easy-to-read mix of mythology and history.  Most of what I know about Niobe comes from a line in Shakespeare's Hamlet, so I'm curious to learn the rest of her tale.

I bought this one on the strength of the author's previous novel, Iokaste (now retitled Jocasta), a prequel/retelling of the Oedipus myth from a female viewpoint. I misplaced my original copy of Iokaste so am glad it's available again.  Both are self-published PODs in English, though were picked up by a mainstream publisher in Greek translation.

And there you have it.  Where did your vacation reading take you?


  1. Presently in 1930s England - just finished India!!! I like your concept and I like your list very much. Thanks.

  2. Just left modern-day NYC and the magical world of Fillory thanks to Lev Grossman's The Magicians, and am now firmly planted in 12th century England and Europe through Sharon Kay Penman's Devil's Brood.

    You had a great reading vacation, Sarah. I'm looking forward to reading The Hothouse Flower! I've been told by several people that it takes about 100 pages to get into Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norell. I've tried twice, but have never made it past page 75. I'm going to try again in a month or two.

  3. Happy New Year, Sarah! What a fun post, with more unknown-to-me books I am inspired to look into (the Storrs book of your previous post sounds intriguing, too). As for me, I left 19th century Afghanistan this morning and am headed for Ancient Greece.

  4. Apart from Elisabeth Storr's "Wedding Shroud", I've been taking a vacation from HF and reading Colin Cotterill's wonderfully out there, qurky set of mysteries set in Communist Laos in the mid-1970s. The main character is an elderly doctor appointed State Coroner due to lack of anyone else remotely suitable. (They've all hopped it over the Mekhong to capitalist Thailand). Dr Siri is an ornery old cuss who doesn't suffer fools gladly, but is sharp as a tack, compassionate and possessed of a hilarious, dry sense of humour. Oh, and he is visited in his dreams by his "patients", who provide him with cryptic clues about their deaths. Fabulous stuff.

  5. Ah, it sounds like everyone's reading travels have been just as entertaining. India sounds like fun, and Devil's Brood was excellent. I tell myself I may pick up Strange & Norrell again, but to be honest, I probably won't, not with so many other books around here I haven't read. I heard via Twitter that the audio version was worthwhile, though.

    19th-c Afghanistan - will that be appearing in a later blog post, Danielle? I hope it might be.

    Annis, I've been meaning to try the Cotterill series. The unique setting interests me, as does the dry humor.

  6. I used up two full pads of Post-its while reading the Afghanistan novel, so yes, I think it is safe to say I will be blogging about the book within a week or two. Unfortunately, I was frowning while using half of those notes, so I have a lot of sorting out of my thoughts to do first!

  7. Apologies, forgot to add:

    Annis and Sarah, Cotterill's The Coroner's Lunch is on my bookshelf right now. I am so looking forward to reading it within the next month.

  8. I visited imperial Rome thanks to The Love-Artist, 18th century Caribbean thanks to The Noble Pirates, and in the midst of alternative 19c America with Thirteenth Child (like a combination of Harry Potter meets Little House on the Prairie: how could I not love it?).

  9. Danielle, I look forward to your comments! I have a guess about what book it might be, but I'll wait and see if I'm right.

    Julie, what did you think of Love-Artist? What I've heard about Thirteenth Child (aside from the controversy) made me think of Orson Scott Card's alternative frontier series, which I read and enjoyed quite a while ago.

  10. I was lukewarm on Love-Artist. I really liked the writing, but I just couldn't care a whit about Ovid, sad to say. I saw no real change (for good or ill) and I kept waiting, hoping I would, but about 3/4 in I just gave up, sad to say. I love the way she evoked the world and the mysteries, however.

    I hadn't heard about any controversy surrounding Thirteenth Child - I'll Google when I've finished the book :)

  11. Ovid was too self-absorbed for my taste, even from the beginning - more of an anti-hero than a hero. He takes a turn for the worse towards the end, and redemption, well, there really isn't any. For one such as he, though, that fit!

    I'm not sure what to make of the controversy, not having read the book, but it's a nice change to have historical fantasy set in the US.

  12. Hi again :) I finished off Thirteenth Child and thought it was pretty good, with a number of caveats. The concept is awesome, the voice is charming, the world-building is excellent, and I love the setting. However.

    * I kept hoping for something of consequence to happen for a good long time, but it seems the book relies on charm - I take it that it's the first book in a series so she spends a long, long time on world-building, setting the tone, and introducing the characters
    * That said, character development is on the sketchy side
    * Race is problematic throughout - I won't go into details in case you don't want to be spoiled.

    So, 3 stars out of 5. Lots of potential, lots of charm, not sure the good outweighs the bad.

  13. Thanks for reporting back on it. One reason I don't read as much fantasy fiction as I used to is the focus on trilogies. I'm wary of starting a new book knowing the end of the story is two books (and several more years) away -- and that it takes that long to fully develop the world and its characters.

  14. Sarah and Danielle – I hope you enjoy Colin Cotterill’s books as much as I did. Cotterill’s half-affectionate, half-exasperated portrayal of a politburo government drowning in administrivia is excellent, and reminded me of nothing so much as the English Puritan regime of the 17th century. Initiative and originality are regarded with suspicion, and people encouraged to rat-out others showing such tendencies and/or stepping off the straight-and-narrow party line; ideological principles must be adhered to however ridiculously unworkable in practice; and occasions like traditional festivals where the people might actually enjoy themselves banned or stripped of anything which made them fun.

    The fantasy element gives a glimpse of the cultural consciousness of the Lao people as shaped by ancient mythology and beliefs. I found that an interesting and effective technique, especially in light of recent discussions about HF which is scrupulous about historical accuracy, but fails to take into account period mindset and attitudes shaped by belief systems now quite alien to us. I thought Elisabeth Stroud achieved this admirably in “Wedding Shroud”.

  15. Thanks for the additional details, Annis. I think I'll have to seek these books out, and I'm especially intrigued by the fantasy element. Do they need to be read in order? I have a couple of them around here, but they're later volumes in the series.

  16. I would suggest reading them in order, because although each book deals with a different case, there is an on-going background story involving the histories and development of the different characters and their relationships with each other.

  17. Good to know, I'm not too far behind then (I have #3 but not the first two). I see the author has a very creative & entertaining website!

  18. To London - I read The Book of Fires, about a female apprentice to a fireworks maker in 18th-century London. And then to England, Germany, Russia and the U.S. - I'm currently reading Ken Follett's excellent Fall of Giants.

  19. Both Book of Fires and Fall of Giants were winners for me.