Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Case of the Generals Thumb by Andrey Kurkov

Author: Andrey Kurkov
ISBN # 1843430169
Publisher: Harvill Press
First Published: 1999
184 pages

A Russian General is murdered. But why? And, more importantly, what has happened to his thumb? Viktor Slutsky, a young police lieutenant, is sent to investigate it. So, independently, is Nik Tsensky, a former military interpreter. We read, in parallel, their two stories as they travel across Europe, pawns in a much more complex game than they could possibly suspect. On the way, they meet Sergey, a larger-than-life hit-man and hearse-driving sociopath, who has somehow acquired a deaf-and-dumb blonde girlfriend and a tortoise to whom he becomes devoted As the two investigators gradually close in on the secret, they become involved in a battle between the Russian and the Ukranian secret services over the fabled KGB "Red Gold". This is another brilliantly inventive black satire, which will both enlighten and entertain.

If I hadn’t read the above blurb, I wouldn’t have had the faintest clue what this novel is about, as the narrative jumped around so much I never knew whether I was coming or going. It’s so short that I felt very little time was given to the characters, so I never felt I was learning even the basics about them, and the story felt fractured and rushed. It may be that it suffered a little in the translation, but this failed to grip me at all and I often found myself being forced to re-read entire passages to try and make sense of things. It didn’t make any difference – I still felt both bored and confused – a combination I’ve never experienced so fully while reading anything else. I was singularly unimpressed by this stilted story and was thankful that I even made it to the end.

Rating: 4

Friday, July 28, 2006

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

Author: Lynne Truss
ISBN # 1861976127

Publisher: Profile Books

First Published: 2003

209 pages

When social histories come to be written of the first decade of the 21st century, people will note a turning point in 2003 when declining standards of punctuation were reversed. Linguists will record Lynne Truss as the saviour of the semi-colon and the avenging angel of the apostrophe.

As one of those people described in the book as “sticklers”, this really struck a chord with me – I know I’m far from perfect when it comes to
punctuation, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve cringed over a mangled sentence and a massacre of epic proportions stewing innocent punctuation all over the page! Truss manages to make the basic rules of punctuation not only interesting but fun, and anyone who’s ever ruefully shaken their heads over a sign advertising “POTATOE S” will identify with everything the author is trying to say.

A perfect gift for the stickler in your life.

Rating: 7

The Wicker Man by Robin Hardy & Anthony Shaffer

Author: Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer
ISBN # 033039018X
Publisher: Pan Books
First Published: 1978
285 pages

A novelization of the Anthony Shaffer script, this is a tale of a Highlands policeman on the trail of a missing girl being lured to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. As May Day approaches shamanistic and erotic events erupt around him. Was the girl a human sacrifice?

If you’ve seen the classic film, grab the book, fast! All those little bits that were lost in the cut are left in place here; completing the story and making it feel far more satisfying. Of course, if you’ve already seen the movie, you’ll already be able to visualise the stars and any fan will love getting deeper into the background of the virginal policeman and the wanton, Pagan islanders.

And if you haven’t seen the film – what are you waiting for? Give your eyes a treat! They don’t make them like that any more! Then, when you’re done, come back and read the book too – you won’t be sorry.

Rating: 7

How to Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints) by Kathy lette

Author: Kathy Lette
ISBN # 0743248066
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
First Published: 2006
326 pages

All women want to kill their husbands some of the time: "Where there's a will, I intend to be in it," wives half-joke to each other. Marriage, it would appear, is a fun-packed frivolous hobby, only occasionally resulting in death. But when Jazz Jardine is arrested for her husband's murder, the joke falls flat. Life should begin at 40 - not with life imprisonment for killing your spouse. Jazz, stay-at-home mum and domestic goddess; Hannah, childless career woman; and Cassie, demented working mother of two are three ordinary women. Their record collections are classical, not criminal. Cassie and Hannah set out immediately to prove their best friend's innocence, uncovering betrayal, adultery, plot twists, thinner thighs and toy boys aplenty en route but will their friendship survive these ever darker revelations? Sexy, funny and wise, Kathy Lette's irresistible new novel is about women not Having It All But Doing It All. It's about how today's mother is often a married lone parent. It's about the fact that no woman has ever shot her husband while he was vacuuming.

While reading this book I was subject to odd looks from my colleagues as they watched me laughing to myself in the corner of the cafeteria.
I had to explain to several very worried-looking colleagues that no, it’s not a DIY manual and I am not planning the gruesome murder of my beloved spouse; it is merely an incredibly funny novel which really appealed to my wicked sense of humour and I just happen to have a laugh so evil it’s developed a sinister personality of its own.

The chapter titles alone are enough to set me off on a giggle-fest:

Ch 5 If He Wants Breakfast in Bed, Tell Him to Sleep in the Kitchen
Ch 10 The Reason I Don’t Tell You When I’m Having an Orgasm Is Because You’re Never There
Ch 19 I’m Having My Period So Can Therefore Legally Kill You
Ch 25 Where There’s a Will, I Wanna Be In It

Sincerely though, I highly recommend for all you lovely ladies to pick up a copy of this hysterical look at marriage gone awry… and then delight in terrorising the man in your life by grinning like a maniac while reading it in his presence.

Rating: 8

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Author: Lionel Shriver
ISBN # 1852428899
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
First Published: 2003
400 pages

Two years ago, Eva Khatchadourian's son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high-school students, a cafeteria worker, and a popular algebra teacher. Because he was only fifteen at the time of the killings, he received a lenient sentence and is now in a prison for young offenders in upstate New York. Telling the story of Kevin's upbringing, Eva addresses herself to her estranged husband through a series of letters. Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son has become, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about both motherhood in general and Kevin in particular. How much is her fault? Lionel Shriver tells a compelling, absorbing, and resonant story while framing these horrifying tableaux of teenage carnage as metaphors for the larger tragedy - the tragedy of a country where everything works, nobody starves, and anything can be bought but a sense of purpose.

If you’re planning on reading this book at all, please don’t read any further, as it really will spoil it for you – I’ll be talking about major plot revelations.

The thing that disappointed me most is that the “major revelations” seemed very obvious to me:

1. The very fact that there were no replies shown to any of the letters led me to believe that Franklin either really hated Eva or was dead. I very quickly decided that he was deceased due to the romantic picture she kept painting of him being the All-American guy – she was almost reverential about it, so from this, I already had the idea he was a goner and that he’d most likely been killed by Kevin.

2. The details of the actual massacre weren’t given – no numbers, no mention of the weapon – the reader is just left to assume that it’s a gun. However, as soon as Kevin took up archery, I thought it was very obvious that this was his weapon of choice. I also thought the non-mention of specifics made it too obvious that his father was also a victim and therefore was dead (see note 1).

3. The fact that the daughter was never mentioned in day-to-day moments other than to say that she was “with
Franklin” led me to believe that she was also dead and was murdered by her brother.

Character-wise, I found the Eva to be whingy,
Franklin to be a wuss, Celia was clingy and annoying, and Kevin was an arrogant, cold, creepy child who needed a good slap.

Horrid as this is going to sound, I wanted to cheer when Eva threw her six-year-old son across the room and broke his arm. Like Kevin, I was just pleased to see some kind of reaction at long last and, frankly, I hated the kid so much I wouldn’t have blanched if she’d broken more than his arm! I’m not advocating child abuse in any way, it’s just that I felt so little sympathy for anyone involved, and the kid was so obnoxious I wanted him given a good-and-proper spanking!

Action-wise, absolutely nothing happens for almost the first half of the book, making it very slow-going and an incredible chore to read. If I hadn’t been reading it for the Posh Club I wouldn’t have bothered as I was so bored with it that I was opting to do displacement activities such as doing the washing up, rather than read it for lengthy stretches.

My major beef, however, was with the style of writing itself. If you’re going to write a book that’s supposed to be a series of letters, at least make them plausible as letters! I have never heard of anyone writing huge swathes of dialogue and going into such intricate detail of events at which the addressee was present. If you were relating to a mutual event or conversation, at most you’d say “Do you remember the time we went to ___ and you said ___?” That would be it. I know the detail has to be included for the plot to unfold, but this felt false. If it had just been written as a novel without the whole “letters to
Franklin” theme, it wouldn’t have been so bad. In the end, I had to ignore it completely in order to carry on.

The big turn-around with the “loving his mother after all” at the very end felt like the biggest cop-out ever. It felt incredibly contrived and made me want to throw the book across the room as I felt I had wasted my time (and such a lot of it!) with this book.

As you can gather, I found very little, if anything, to recommend We Need to Talk About Kevin. In fact, the very title is a misnomer – it should maybe have been called We Needed to Talk About Kevin, as they rarely did in any significant way and it’s the one thing that might have made a difference to everyone concerned.

Rating: 3

Emma by Jane Austen

Author: Jane Austen
ISBN # 0755331486
Publisher: Headline
First Published: 1815
484 pages

Often said to be Jane Austen's most perfect novel: Beautiful, clever and rich, Emma Woodhouse thinks she knows best. She only wants to help others arrange things as she thinks they should be done, and convinced she's just not destined to find true love herself, she believes that she must instead devote herself to playing Cupid for others. But absolutely nothing goes to plan - and in the process, Emma has a lot of learning to do: about others, but most of all about herself...

Only 3 chapters in, I wondered if I was being coerced into seeing Emma as she is seen by Mr. Knightley, as he appears to feel she is a thoroughly spoiled creature who is completely enamoured of her own cleverness - exactly as I did. One could almost believe that the story is actually being narrated by Mr. Knightley & that he is including himself as a character in the third person.

As much as I could appreciate it, I can't say I'm actively enjoyed this novel. I found too many of the characters thoroughly annoying in a million little ways and just couldn't see the attraction towards any of them as people. I know for a fact that if I were stuck with Highbury Society as shown here, I'd shun the lot of them. Except, perhaps, Mr. Knightly, as I found I agreed with him and felt he was not in it nearly enough for my liking.

I did, however, persevere to the end, as I was determined to finish it. I'm eventually got to grips a little more with the excessively formal style, but found it felt stilted when in the reading and, as a result, it felt like it took forever to plough through.

I think that the main part of the problem was that I found the lives of those in Regency Society very trivial and the heroine, vacuous and pointless. I'm more used to something a bit meatier in my historical choices, such as the Elizabethan or Tudor courts, or Roman legions in Britain, whereas all those polite exchanges and constant gossiping wore on my nerves a little.*

Unfortunately, Emma has not tempted me to read any more of Austen's novels, which is a shame, because I had intended to, but I don't think I could stand to wade through them now.

* I'm aware that this doesn't actually qualify as historical fiction, as it was written as a contemporary novel, but it feels like historical fiction to me, if rather more bland than my usual tastes.

Rating: 6

Broken by Kelley Armstrong

Author: Kelley Armstrong
ISBN # 1841493422
Publisher: Orbit
First Published: 2006
444 pages

Book 6 in Kelley Armstrong's supernatural series marks the return of werewolf Elena Michaels from Bitten and Stolen. When half-demon Xavier calls in the favour Elena owes him, it seems easy enough - steal Jack the Ripper's 'From Hell' letter away from a Toronto collector who had himself stolen it from the Ripper evidence boxes in the Metropolitan Police files. But nothing in the supernatural world is ever as simple as it seems. Elena accidentally triggers a spell placed on the letter, and manages to tear an opening that leads into the nether regions of Victorian London. Toronto may be looking for a tourism boost, but 'Gateway to Hell' isn't quite the new slogan the city had in mind…

This was a very welcome return to the lycanthropic inhabitants of Stonehaven (they have been relegated more to the background over the last three installments in the series) and although I didn’t feel this quite lived up to Bitten and Stolen, it came pretty close! There were times that I felt Elena was perhaps being a little reckless for someone who is pregnant and very vocal on the subject of being careful whilst carrying her child and this detracted a little from the reality that Armstrong has carefully constructed as a home to her characters.

The supernatural aspect of the Ripper legend was a nice twist on an old and well-loved theme, and there was the element of sleuthing as well as the usual thrills, chills and spills you’d expect from the Women of the Otherworld series.

All in all, Broken is an excellent addition to the WotOW catalogue and I very much look forward to seeing how Armstrong further develops her characters in future novels.

Rating: 8

Undead and Unwed by Maryjanice Davidson

Author: Maryjanice Davidson
ISBN # 0749936452
Publisher: Piatkus
First Published: 2004
280 pages

'The day I died started out bad and got worse in a hurry...' It's been a hell of a week for Betsy Taylor. First she loses her job. Then she's killed in a freak accident only to wake up as a vampire. On the plus side, being undead sure beats the alternative. She now has superhuman strength and an unnatural effect on the opposite sex. But what Betsy can't handle is her new liquid diet...And whilst Betsy's mother and best-friend are just relieved to find out that being dead doesn't mean Betsy's can't visit, her new 'night-time' friends have the ridiculous idea that Betsy is the prophesied vampire queen. The scrumptious Sinclair and his cohorts want her help in overthrowing the most obnoxious power-hungry vampire in five centuries. (A Bella Lugosi wannabe who seen one to many B-movies.) Frankly Betsy couldn't care less about vamp politics. But Sinclair and his followers have a powerful weapon in their arsenal - unlimited access to Manolo Blahnik's spring collection. Well, just because a girl's dead - er...undead - doesn't mean she can't have great shoes...

Betsy is exactly what you want in a Vampire Queen – smart, sassy, sexy and a whole lot of other words beginning with “S”. Davidson’s sense of
humour is dark, wicked and verging on the ridiculous, but it never seems forced and the tone is always kept light. The plot is fast-paced and the characters are engagingly quirky and all too human – even the ones who aren’t human any more.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted giggle on your holiday, you could do a lot worse than to pick this one up at the airport. And look out for the rest of the series, as it looks set to be well worth a giggle!

Rating: 7

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Author: Vladimir Nabokov
ISBN # 0140 264078
Publisher: Penguin
First Published: 1955
315 pages

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin,
my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth, Lo. Lee.Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly in school. She was Dolores on the dottedline. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

So begins one of the most controversial novels of modern times, charting the unconventional relationship between the older man, Humbert Humbert, and a girl of twelve. It’s a tale told from the point of view of Humbert (a character so good they named him twice!) and is surprisingly persuasive in garnering sympathy for a man who is, essentially, a pedophile. The torment he suffers through his obsession with Lolita and the length to which he will go to possess her are beautifully told – at times poignantly poetic – in a style that illustrates the authors love of a language which isn’t his mother tongue (I could almost cry at how beautifully he writes!).

This is truly a modern classic and the subject, though fraught with danger, is tactfully engaged so that the reader is forced to re-evaluate conventional thinking in terms of relationships between adults and children who are often less innocent than one might believe. It’s a tale of epic proportions, a telling commentary on life, love and obsession, and an amoral love letter to every nymphette who ever lived.

Rating: 8

Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe

Author: Michele Jaffe
ISBN # 0141319763
Publisher: Puffin
First Published: 2006
302 pages

Jas thinks that everyone has a super power: Everyone, that is, except herself - unless you count her extraordinary ability to get herself in trouble. But the last thing Jas expected to do on her family holiday in glitzy Las Vegas was to survive a cat attack and solve a celebrity murder mystery. As she finds herself tracking an unknown killer through a bevy of Vegas parties, Jas develops a huge crush on the possibly evil - but gorgeous - Jack, and manages to collect some valuable life lessons for her "Summer Meaningful Reflection Journal" along the way. Little Life Lesson Number 5: when you go to prison, try not to be wearing a bikini. But despite a few 'mishaps', Jas finally solves the case. And to top it all off, Jack isn't evil, and has a bit of a crush on Jas too. Perhaps she does have some super powers after all...

If you’re looking for fun, fashion and super-sleuthing, then look no further than Michele Jaffe’s heroine, Jas Calihan! Jas attracts trouble like moths to a flame, so when she tries to enjoy a family holiday in Las Vegas, it’s no surprise to her friends that she ends up embroiled in a mysterious plot involving kidnapping, murder and incredibly good-looking guy who’s totally Visa (read the book – you’ll know what I mean!).

This is the first in what promises to be a witty and hilarious series – it have me giggling from the get-go and guessing till the last minute. It’s jam-packed with action, adventure and the occasional haiku, yet still manages to keep things real. Not to be missed!

Incidentally, my own superpowers are speed-reading and an ability to run down flights of stairs whilst carrying full mugs of hot coffee – without spilling a drop!

Rating: 8

The Rainbow Bridge by Aubrey Flegg

Author: Aubrey Flegg
ISBN # 0862789176
Publisher: O’Brien Press
First Published: 2004
269 pages

Over a century has elapsed since Louise sat for her portrait. The painting has passed from person to person, unsigned and unvalued. Then, in 1792, as Revolution sweeps through France, Gaston Morteau, a lieutenant in the Hussars, rescues the canvas from a canal in Holland. Louise becomes a very real presence in Gaston's life, sharing his experiences -- the trauma of war, his meeting with Napoleon. When events force Gaston to give up the painting to the sinister Count du Bois, Louise becomes embroiled in a tale of political intrigue and Gothic horror. In the ashes of the Delft explosion, Louise made a choice for life. Now she has to face the realities of love, loss and pain that this life brings.

Set during the French Revolution, the second in The Louise Trilogy is packed with the excitement, danger and trauma of war as well as taking a look at the people left at home, away from the battlefield. Despite being the second in a trilogy, The Rainbow Bridge can easily be read and enjoyed without having previously read its prequel, with no loss of enjoyment or understanding of the plot.

Even when dealing with the universal themes of love, loss, pain and hardship, this is surprisingly upbeat and hopeful, never becoming maudlin or trite, and instead is an engaging tale of changing relationships and survival during a time of great upheaval that would change France forever.

Rating: 7

There Once Was a Boy Called Tashi by Anna & Barbara Fienberg

Author: Anna and Barbara Fienberg
ISBN # 1741141982
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
First Published: 2006

When Gloomin the ogre tramples the village, Tashi must find what he's looking for, or else the village will have years of the Gloomin winter. There once was a boy called Tashi, who had a way with witches and warlords. He wasn't afraid of giants, or ghosts, or the wicked baron by the river, but never, ever, had he dreamed of an ogre such as Gloomin. When the ogre tramples into the village, the Magic Warning Bell screams out, and the people all hurry into their houses. Only Tashi is brave enough to face the Gloomin...Step into the magical world of Tashi.

Tashi is an inquisitive fellow who will delight both toddlers and young readers. The bold print is clear and easily read and the accompanying pictures are delightful. This fable of a courageous young boy imparts a lovely lesson – that with a little bravery and understanding, we can find the best in others. Highly recommended.

Rating: 8

Happy Birthday, Jamela! by Niki Daly

Author: Niki Daly
ISBN # 1845074025
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
First published: 2006

It's Jamela's birthday, and she and Mama are off to buy some new shoes. As soon as Jamela sees the Princess Shoes with their sparkly buckles and little satin bows, she falls in love with them, but Mama points out that she'll have to wear the shoes for school too, so a sad Jamela ends up with sensible black shoes. Alone in her room, Jamela tries her best to make the shoes look princessy with beads, glitter and glue - and only succeeds in making Mama very angry indeed. But a lady called Lilly thinks Jamela's decorated shoes are fabulous.

This beautifully illustrated story is bursting with life and excitement. Very young children will love having it read to them whilst looking at the brightly coloured pictures and young readers will enjoy the fun tale of Jamelia, who takes matters into her own hands when she is disappointed by her boring school shoes.
Here, a child with a bright idea discovers self-worth with the help of a friendly and artistic adult and finds that a little hard work can have the nicest results!

Rating: 8

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

Author: Mitch Albom
ISBN # 0751536822

Publisher: Time Warner

First Published: 2003

231 pages

Eddie is a grizzled war veteran who feels trapped in a meaningless life of fixing rides at a seaside amusement park. As the park has changed over the years - from the Loop-the-Loop to the Pipeline Plunge - so, too, has Eddie changed, from optimistic youth to embittered old age. His days are a dull routine of work, loneliness, and regret. Then, on his 83rd birthday, Eddie dies in a tragic accident, trying to save a little girl from a falling cart. With his final breath, he feels two small hands in his - and then nothing. He awakens in the afterlife, where he learns that heaven is not a lush Garden of Eden, but a place where your earthly life is explained to you by five people who were in it. These people may have been loved ones or distant strangers. Yet each of them changed your path forever. One by one, Eddie's five people illuminate the unseen connections of his earthly life. As the story builds to its stunning conclusion, Eddie desperately seeks redemption in the still-unknown last act of his life: Was it a heroic success or a devastating failure? The answer, which comes from the most unlikely of sources, is as inspirational as a glimpse of heaven itself.

At first glance, I thought this would either be deeply depressing or incredibly deep; it turned out I was wrong on both counts. This is actually a very light, easy read, with a gentle style and a positive outlook on both life and death, which ultimately shows that every life, no matter how trivial it may seem at the time, impacts on every life touched. Presented in dual form as a “diary” of Eddie’s various birthdays and lessons learned in the afterlife, this is a novel that is easily read in small bites and each section flows organically into the next. The birthday chapters give more in-depth background to the main character’s life and the frustration he felt at “never getting anywhere”, whereas the lesson chapters explain the twists and turns of his life and add a little more reason and a feeling of completeness to each section.

It’s not a terribly deep book (everything seems to be on the surface level – all laid out for the reader who doesn’t have to figure anything out for themselves), but it’s a very gentle book that seems to speed by (it’s not terribly long, either). It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is and that’s rather refreshing.

All in all, it’s a very pleasant way to pass a summer’s afternoon in the garden.

(The Five People You Meet in Heaven was made into a Hallmark film, starring Jon Voigt and Emy Aneke, in 2003).

Rating: 7

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Author: Elizabeth Kostova
ISBN # 0751537284
Publisher: Time Warner
First Published: 2005
704 pages

Late one night, exploring her father's library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to 'My dear and unfortunate successor'. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of - a labyrinth where the secrets of her father's past and her mother's mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history. In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright - a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil. Elizabeth Kostova's debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions - a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful - and utterly unforgettable.

Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil. This novel blends fact and fantasy, history and the present.

From the outset, a large amount of historical information is laid out for the reader, so that, at times, this novel reads as rather text-bookish, but none of the information is extraneous and every fact presented winds itself into the storyline and makes it all the more interesting. Having read Dracula years ago at school, it was interesting to see how much I remembered and how much of the history was new to me, as well as delving into another culture in a time just slightly before our own.

I found that I occasionally lost track of which character was narrating the tale if I only had short periods of time for reading, but on the whole it was easy to decipher who was narrating after a short while and the threads picked up again. The story was slow-moving at times, with quite a lengthy lull in the middle, after which the pace quickened once more until it felt slightly rushed at the end, but, nevertheless, the closing chapters felt quite satisfying and the ending seemed quite natural.

Even if this novel is sometimes a little dry, it’s worth sticking with it, as none of the historical information is actually superfluous and, in fact, it actually adds to the story at later stages. The format of letters works rather well and is reminiscent of the diary-entry style of Bram Stoker’s classic, Dracula, which is a nice touch. It might be a hefty tome, but don’t let that put you off – it’s definitely worth a look and is a very enjoyable read.

Rating: 7

Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

Author: Mineko Iwasaki
ISBN # 074343059X
Publisher: Pocket Books
First Published: 2002
334 pages

'I want you to know what it is really like to live the life of a geisha, a life filled with extraordinary professional demands and richly glorious rewards. It is a life in which I was a pre-eminent success; many say the best of my generation. And yet, it was a life that I found too constricting to continue. And one that I ultimately had to leave. It is a story that I have long wanted to tell. My name is Mineko.'

Mineko begins with her initiation into the profession she would perfect. Following her blossoming over the years, we learn all about the intricate training and rigid education system by which Japanese girls become geishas, and the extraordinary foundation of wealth upon which their culture rests.

This is quite possibly one of the most intriguing autobiographies I have ever read. Having loved the novel by Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha, I delved into the true story of one of the most successful Gion Geiko of recent history, translated from her own words by Rande Brown without losing any of her own voice. Mineko’s story is told in such a gentle and picturesque way that one is instantly transported to a time and place where women have devoted their lives to art and the pleasure of their patrons; the “flower and willow world” where traditional entertainment and intricate ceremonies have been preserved and revered for centuries: The women are shown as being strong and independent as well as sometimes ruthless in their ambition to be the very best, with grueling schedules and a proud tradition of ancient ceremony – they are artists of the highest caliber and treated as such within their widely misunderstood culture.

Far more engaging than Memoirs of a Geisha, this is the real deal with the bones of the industry laid bare for all to see; a story that will stay in the memory long after the covers have been closed.

Rating: 9

Orphan of the Sun by Gill Harvey

Author: Gill Harvey
ISBN # 0747579008

First Published: 2006

310 pages

Thirteen-year-old orphan, Meryt-Re, lives with her uncle's family in the ancient Egyptian village of Set Maat, the home of the pharaohs' tomb-builders. Under pressure to marry Ramose, a dull, plodding stonecutter, she resists, and begs for guidance from the gods, but she's unable to decipher the message behind her vivid dreams. When her cousin falls gravely ill, her uncle accuses her of turning the gods against him and banishes her from the house. Meanwhile, Meryt discovers other strange and suspicious activities going on in the village: Why is Userkaf, a boisterous draughtsman, trying to cause trouble by making accusations against one of the foremen? And why is his servant girl stealing precious and holy gold amulets from the embalmers? Meryt's worried too, that her aunt Tia seems to think that her father has not gone peacefully to the Next World, and when she discovers Tia is not the only other person to have been making offerings to him in his tomb, she is even more puzzled. It is not until she meets Teti, the village wise woman, that Meryt can begin to unravel the meaning of her dreams and in so doing, solve the mysteries surrounding her.

Meryt-Re is a very likeable character and it’s very easy to identify with the troubling times she faces. Being solely dependent on the good will of her uncle, she struggles to stay in his good graces in a time when superstition is rife, especially as she has a rather troubling gift is one she would prefer not to have and this has made him wary of his niece. This makes for an interesting study in family dynamics; an excellent backdrop against which the mystery unfolds as Meryt-Re uses her unusual abilities to determine the truth in some disturbing events in her life.

The historical aspect of this novel is intriguing in itself and the rich world of ancient
Egypt has new life breathed into it through Gill Harvey’s writing and the sights and sounds of ancient Egyptian are vividly drawn, so that the reader really feels a part of that era.

This book is a treasure not to be missed!

Rating: 8