29 April 2013

A History of English Food

Title: A History of English Food
Author: Clarissa Dickson Wright
Year published: 2010
Pages: 455
Time It Took To Read: A couple of months, largely read during meals

I borrowed this signed edition off my Mum a few months ago, and have been gradually getting through it when eating. I read when I eat, because I'm odd like that.
I'm fascinated by what people ate in ye olde days. The lack of detail about food in history, and historical fiction, annoys me. It's such a cliché: kings are always eating vast banquets, whilst commoners nosh down gruel. I've read a few books on the history of eating in Britain, but this is probably the book with the grandest scale. It begins in medieval times and carries on to the present, with a considerable portion of the book dedicated to the last 150 years.
It is exceptionally  readable and interesting. I love Clarissa Dickson Wright's presenting style, and her greed and adoration of food - never trust a thin food writer. The book does suffer very slightly from her continuous personal comparison of food then and food now. I see that she's comparing the similarities of diet, particularly in the country, then and now, but it does make her sound like she grew up in 1482, on a tenant farm.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book anyway, and there's a collection of medieval recipes in the back that I'm quite tempted to try. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in food, or British history. Om nom nom.

Book count: 24/50

20 April 2013

The Kingmaker's Daughter

Title: The Kingmaker's Daughter
Author: Philippa Gregory
Series: The Cousins' War Book 4
Year published: 2012
Time It Took To Read: A dreary afternoon

The latest Cousins War book concentrates on Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. He was known as the Kingmaker, due to his key role in overthrowing Henry VI and putting Edward IV on the throne. He wanted to be the power behind the throne, and used his daughters to enable that, choosing to marry one daughter - Isabel - to the King's brother, and the other - Anne - (when the tides turned), to Henry VI's only son. Gregory implies that his eventual aim was to get one of his daughters on the throne, so he could continue to control things after Edward IV's secret marriage (covered in The White Queen) to Elizabeth Woodville altered the dynamic of court.

This was a much better read than the last in the series. Gregory admits there is little contemporary evidence for Anne's actions and reasons, but manages to weave a convincing narrative that places Anne at the heart of events, explaining her second marriage and gradual determination to stop being a pawn in men's games. The book is also littered with heartbreak - the birth of Isabel's first child made me weep, and I so rarely show any emotion. I mean, I had PMT, but even so. 
I really enjoy this series primarily because it covers a period of history which is mainly known for battles and politics. Gregory manages to inject feminism into a wholly misogynist period, whilst also making the familial relationships obvious, and giving these shadowy characters life. It is a shame that the book was written before the body of Richard III was confirmed to suffer scoliosis, as it is dismissed as weakness and witchcraft. It seems that Gregory aims to put the death of the Princes in the Tower at Henry VII's feet. As the final book, The White Princess, concerns his eventual wife, this may be mostly for dramatic effect.
I look forward to reading the final book when it comes out in paperback, and seeing how the strands of story meet in the end.

Book count: 23/50

15 April 2013


Title: Sepulchre
Author: Kate Mosse
Series: Languedoc Trilogy, Book 2
Year published: 2007
Pages: 784
Time It Took To Read: A particularly ungodly morning

This is the first Kate Mosse book I've finished. I started Labyrinth, but then dropped it in a puddle, ruining it completely. I suspect this book may well have say, desolate and unread, upon my shelf for some time except that I decided to take it to France this weekend - something fairly undemanding to read on the ferry.
As it happened, I read it while under the worst attack of diarrhoea I've ever suffered, yesterday morning in Verdun. I don't think I like Verdun anymore. 
It's set in the same place (in the South of France), in two separate times - 1891 and 2007. In 1891, a girl and her brother have gone to stay with their aunt, and the girl discovers a dark mystery in the grounds of the house. In 2007, an American woman believes her family history is linked to the same house. The two stories unfold, each lending explanation to the other. It's a similar technique to Labyrinth.
The twists of the story are predictable as hell, though the narrative is good. I find it slightly irritating that occasional French phrases are slipped into the dialogue, between two French people, speaking French, moreso when the language occasionally shifts to Occitan. I get that it's supposed to be evocative of the region, but it grates. There is a vague subplot about Debussy that fades out completely after the first third, until the epilogue. The historic villain is an absolute nutjob - charming, intelligent, vicious and insane - which is always good. However, the modern villain is an idiot caricature of the Richard Hillman type. 
All in all, I enjoyed the book. It was, as I thought it would be, a holiday book - undemanding, unsubstantial,  and addictive and it made a very nasty tummy bug eminently more bearable.

Book count: 22/50

6 April 2013

A Discovery of Witches

Title: A Discovery of Witches
Author: Deborah Harkness
Series: All Souls Trilogy Book 1
Year published: 2011
Pages: 589
Time It Took To Read: Two days, in which I did little else

Ah, Vampire mythology. I've read a lot, seen a lot; and everyone's got their own interpretation. My first vampire book was Interview With A Vampire, which intrigued me, but also slightly revolted me. Then came the GODAWFUL Twilight series. Now, I like the Southern Vampire Mysteries (True Blood) as a bit of light reading. 
I got this book for my birthday LAST year (my birthday was on Wednesday) and asked for it because of the witch element rather than the vampirism. I really enjoy supernatural fiction in general, possibly because my mother wouldn't let me read any when I was young, making it rather irresistible.
I took an hour or so to get into it. The plot is that a witch - Diana - finds something that everyone wants, and falls for a vampire - Matthew - along the way. So far, so Twilight. And in many ways it DOES take a lot from the Twilight series - the vampires can daywalk, they generally avoid eating from humans, the old fashioned manners of the vamp contrast with the modern independence of the woman, and OBVIOUSLY their love is FORBIDDEN by all and sundry.
But there are many ways in which it is definitely NOT Twilighty. Diana, for a start, is a witch, not a puny human. She has no desire to be changed into a vampire, at least not to begin with. She's a historian in her early 30s, researching the genesis of modern science via alchemy. The author is a science historian, and the whole book is full of fascinating historical and scientific facts. This makes it a meaty read. There's also not too much blood. I am a bit squeamish; fine in the flesh, rubbish reading about it. It will make my history of medicine module next year FUN.
I read the book AVIDLY - literally, I did nothing else yesterday, much to the chagrin of my bored children - but found the pace frustrating. As I reached the end of the book and realised there was no tidy conclusion, I started to get a bit angry. How could the author NOT conclude an almost-600-page book? BEAST! Then I looked on Amazon and found out it's part of a trilogy (not advertised on the book), ordered the next one and relaxed.
Awesome book, in short. If you like the mythology, but hate the flimsy, formulaic trashiness of most supernatural books, give this a try.

Book Count: 21/50

2 April 2013

To Kill A Mockingbird

Title: To Kill A Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Year published: 1961
Pages: 309
Time It Took To Read: Two days

I take little joy in classic literature most of the time. It reminds me of my GCSEs and AS levels, when reading was for critical analysis, not pleasure. This means that I have actively avoided a lot of very good books, for no better reason than they have, at some point, caused a class of 17 year olds to bury their heads in their arms because they just don't CARE WHY JED TURNED UP AT THE BALLOON ACCIDENT, CHRIST MCEWEN STOP GOING ON, YOU JOYLESS WANKER (Enduring Love there, still scarring me after 11 years).

So, my sister lent me this, after expressing deep disbelief that I'd never read it, and I devoured it in two days. I like Southern fiction. It's an alien universe, with its own culture and ideology, one of the many reasons I think the True Blood stories work so well there.
The story centres on a rape trial, but is about inequality, racism and hypocrisy. It is set in the mid-30s, in Maycomb, Alabama, and centres on the Finch family. Atticus is a lawyer, and a widow; father to Jem and Scout. Scout, our narrator, is 6 at the beginning, and nearly 9 by the end. She is a vehement, spitting, fighting  kitten-child, with a strong sense of injustice. The world, through her eyes, is a mass of contradictions, and her struggle to understand them becomes the reader's struggle.
The heart of the story is racism, both cultural and direct. A black man has been charged with the rape of a white woman, and the whole area is baying for blood. Atticus has been elected to defend the man, which gains the ire and insult of the community. Nobody is willing to consider that the man may be innocent. Slavery has been abolished for nearly seventy years, but the black community are still seen as inferior, dangerous and subhuman.
Scout, however, is more concerned with trying to rehabilitate her mysterious neighbour Boo Radley, not seen in her lifetime.
The characterisation is sublime, and evocative. The world of Maycomb, with all its contradictions and imperfections, is easily envisioned. Passing events in their lives, like the arrival of snow or a mad dog, are given all the meaning that they would have for a growing child.  The atmosphere of the looming trial, is palpable. Its drama, humour and significance is perfectly expressed. The ending is shocking, but ties everything together.
Amazing book, in short. One everyone should read, especially those who take civil rights and equality for granted.

Book count:  20/50