Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 

Reading progress update: I've read 22 out of 692 pages.

The Thorn Birds - Colleen McCullough

"Until 1776 over a thousand British petty felons were shipped each year to Virginia and the Carolinas, sold into an indentured servitude no better than slavery. British justice of the time was grim and unflinching; murder, arson, the mysterious crime of “impersonating Egyptians” and larceny to the tune of more than a shilling were punished on the gallows. Petty crime meant transportation to the Americas for the term of the felon’s natural life."


Well, I learn something new every day. The phrase "impersonating Egyptians" caught my eye and I had to look it up. Apparently, the phrase refers to "gypsies" and "vagabonds" and essentially just poor people, who had been criminalised under the vagrancy laws.


The 1744 Vagrancy Act listed the following who could be prosecuted under the law:


- Patent gatherers, gatherers of alms under pretence of loss by fire, or other casualty

  • - Collectors for prisons, goals, or hospitals
  • - Fencers and bear wards (those who travel with a bear or dancing bear)
  • - Common players of interludes
  • - All persons concerned with performing interludes, tragedies, comedies, operas, plays, farces or other entertainments for the stage, not being authorized by law
  • - Minstrels and jugglers
  • - Persons pretending to be Gypsies, or wandering in the habit of Gypsies
  • - Those pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or fortune telling
  • - Those using subtle crafts to deceive and impose, or playing or betting on unlawful games
  • - All persons who run away and leave their wives and children
  • - Petty chapmen and pedlars, not duly licensed
  • - All persons wandering abroad and lodging in alehouses, barns, outhouses or in the open air, not giving a good account of themselves
  • - All persons wandering abroad and begging, pretending to be soldiers, mariners, seafaring men, pretending to go to work in harvest
  • - All persons wandering abroad and begging

"There is little evidence that strolling players and Gypsies were prosecuted with any regularity under the Vagrancy Acts, but prostitutes, seasonal workers, street pedlars and aggressive beggars certainly were. The inclusion of a separate provision for the punishment of individuals who simply threatened to desert their families, also ensured that almost anyone lacking property or position might be prosecuted under the title of a vagrant." (Source: London Lives 1690 to 1800)

Booklikes-Opoly - BrokenTune's Game Updates

The Thorn Birds - Colleen McCullough Farewell Leicester Square - Betty  Miller

June 22nd:


Ongoing Free Friday read: Farewell Leicester Square by Betty Miller


Bank account: $101

Dice roll:


3 5

Timestamp: 2017-06-22 20:01:15 UTC


....which takes me to: Main Street #11 - Read a book that takes place between 1945 and 1965 or that was written by an author who was born before 1955". 


There are so so many books to choose from that will fit this task. However, I kinda succumbed to watching The Thorn Birds - The Missing Years the other night and spent most of the time raging how rubbish this "sequel" to the original Thorn Birds is. Of course, I did not manage to change channels and watched the whole thing despite my outrage, but that is not the point of my mentioning it at all. What I took away from watching it is that I really want to re-read the original book.


Although the story of The Thorn Birds begins before 1945 (and I believe ends in the late 1960s....I can't remember, which is another reason that I need to re-read this), the book still qualifies because Colleen McCullough was born in 1937.


My kindle edition has 673 pages.


Judge all you like, The Thorn Birds is a damn fine book.



-read more-

On the Proper Use of Stars

On the Proper Use of Stars - Dominique Fortier, Sheila Fischman

On the Proper Use of Stars has been sitting on my shelf for two years and I was really excited when I finally was able to pick it up and read it. You see, I have been intrigued by the Franklin Expedition for quite some time.


Anyway, this is a fun read that tells the story of the expedition from the alternate points of view of Franklin's first officer and captain of the Terror, Francis Crozier and Lady Jane, Franklin's wife.


It's an interesting mix of perspectives: One describing the ships crew's life and their appreciation of Franklin. The other describing Franklin's personal life. The result is that we get a pretty good idea of all three characters, as well as detailed descriptions of the trip, the politics around it, the geographical knowledge (or lack of) and lot of fun historical bits - many of which are about tea. (See earlier post on tea here.)


Fortier managed to create a well researched story with lots of atmosphere, and lots of irony, and fun. The only problem I had, and this is entirely my own issue with historical fiction, is that for me really great historical fiction does not read like neither fiction nor non-fiction. There is a fine balance that makes me want to accept what is written without wanting to ask for sources or without questioning whether something really happened.


On the Proper Use of Stars did not quite manage this. Again, this is not necessarily a fault in the book, but probably more to do with my expectations.

Reading progress update: I've read 57 out of 263 pages.

On the Proper Use of Stars - Dominique Fortier, Sheila Fischman

"I must warn you, Lady Jane, this is extremely strong.

People have told me that it sometimes causes palpitations in ladies, and therefore is more appropriate for gentlemen, whose tastes it matches more closely."

Lady Jane was no longer listening. Eyes closed, she was savouring the exquisite infusion that scarcely pricked her tongue and warmed her throat delightfully.

"Dear Mr. Thompson, I should like to purchase your entire stock."


Yup. They are talking about tea. Chai to be precise. Not for the first time, either. Twinings got a bit of a roasting a couple of pages ago.

[About Lady Jane's tea broker] "It was said that he turned down more clients than he deigned to accept and that among the rejected - obviously displeased - were certain members of the royal family, condemned to sip the dull blends of Mister Twinings that had plagued their mothers and grandmothers before them."

Well, I would argue that it should be "Mister Twining" without the "s", but other than that, I can empathise with the need to stock a strong and flavoursome blend. Talking of which...



Trackman - Catriona Child

Nobody bothers about shoplifters much these days. It's not like Trainspotting. No chases along Princes Street.

The guy's out of the shop and away by the time I get to the top of the stairs, so I head back down to the basement. Chris, our overweight security guard, ambles up to the counter eating a bag of crisps. 'I'm on a break. What do you want?' he says to me, spraying salt and vinegar. I point at the blackened cord and the charity box hanging from the counter.

You don't realise how many crazies there are in the world until you work in a shop.

Trainspotting is what first came into my mind when I started the book, but there was also an undertone of something else, something softer.


This is probably the first RL book group read that I really enjoyed, but I think the rest of the group may struggle with, and not necessarily because of the references to song titles throughout the book.


Davie, the MC, is struggling to keep sane. He's affected by grief and can't find a way to cope with it. One day, he is given an MP3 player by a homeless man in Edinburgh. The gadget seems to be broken, but every now and then it comes to life and demand that Davie let's a stranger listen to a song.


We don't know whether this part is real or in Davie's head but it is his way of trying to find a purpose in life and to find a way to remember.


Trackman has been an interesting way to look at grief, mental health, the recognition of the impact of small good things, the kindness of strangers.


It's not a book I would have picked up by myself, but I am glad I read it.




Ovid: Metamorphoses

Metamorphoses - Denis Feeney, Ovid, David Raeburn

This book is phenomenal.


I had read parts of the Metamorphoses in high school, and my focus then was on the language and structure of the text, not so much on the stories. That's just what happens when you're trying to learn how to translate texts from Latin. 


When I picked up the book again earlier this year, I had no such restrictions (and no deadline) and I was looking forward to reading Ovid's history of the world - from its creation to Julius Caesar.


What I was looking forward to even more, was to read about the myths and legends that have informed so many other works from Dante to our own contemporaries like Ali Smith, and find out more about Ovid's view of the world in 8 AD.


Yes, Ovid's view. The Metamorphoses may be a collection of ancient Greek and Roman myths, but there is a slant to them that is influenced by Ovid's view. Some of the myths differ from the earlier versions found in the works of Hesiod and Homer, and then there are stories about Julius Caesar and Pythagoras that are not based on ancient myths but are informed by Ovid's time. The book, or rather the last book of the 15 books of poems that make of the Metamorphoses, ends with Ovid praising Augustus. Incidentally, it was Augustus who banished Ovid from Rome at about the same time that the book was finished - the reason for this remains one of the unsolved mysteries of history.



Anyway, more about the book: The book starts with the creation of the world and tells of how the world was transformed by the elements and by man, going through different ages, and finally focusing on the stories of gods and men and the many transformations that take place when they interacts.


Transformation, as the title says, is the theme of the book: some are literal when people are transformed into plants or animals, some are less tangible, for example when Medea loses herself to witchcraft, and finally the philosophical theories that Ovid describes in the story about Pythagoras, who believes in a continuous and fluid world in which everything is temporary, and in which everything is in a state that changes into something else, and in which existence is thus infinite.


It's very zen for a 2000 year old book (that is not a major religious text) right?


This probably is what surprised me most about the book: how many times I caught myself being astounded to read about concepts that seem a lot more modern. 


Medea and mental illness, for example. Ovid does not tell the full story (and yes I will dig out Euripides' work to find out what drove her over the edge!) but by his leaving out such detail, I can't but marvel about what Ovid's audience would have made of it. Would they also have wondered about what caused her breakdown?


Or, the stories of individuals struggling against higher powers, fate, or society.

Ancient gods were assholes. Not many of the stories have happy endings, and in some, even happy-ish endings are pretty sad. However, all of them have a message, which is why Ovid selected them, and which is why so many of the stories have permeated Western culture. Even if they now only exist by reference to a name and most people won't know the story behind the reference.

My favourite of those, probably is the story of Arachne. I'm not a fan of spiders, and I had imagined all sorts of variations of a horrible monster to be the origin of all spider-related words. But no. Arachne was a master waver who dared to enter into a weaving contest with Athena. Long story short, in Ovid's version, Arachne dared to show how unfair the gods and goddesses are and she dared to defeat Athena. Athena throws a fit of rage and destroys Arachne's tapestry. Arachne hangs herself in a fit of rage. (Yeah, I don't get this part - revenge suicide???) Athena, again, out of rage over Arachne's suicide turns her and her into a spider.

Now, this is not the most logical of stories, granted, but I love that the story's metaphorical content is still applicable. I won't be able to look at spiders with quite the same level of aversion again. Well, some of them at least. Most will still freak me out.


So, yes, this book took me a few months to finish, but it was a lot to digest. A lot of stories that required some thought, a lot that just needed a break before getting to the next one. It was an amazing book. After 2000 years, this is still entertaining, thought provoking, and beautiful.


In his epilogue, Ovid proclaims that his work will make him immortal:


Ovid does still live in his fame, and for all the right reasons.


Lastly, a word on the Penguin 2004 edition with David Raeburn's translation: It rocks. There are plenty of free or cheap translations avaialble on the internet. I tried a few of them, but none really worked. I found those translations to be either too literal or too liberal. Raeburn's work combines a great balance of keeping close to the original text while still creating a work of poetry, and even keeping the original rhyme scheme.

Reading progress update: I've read 598 out of 723 pages.

Metamorphoses - Denis Feeney, Ovid, David Raeburn

Pythagoras was a vegetarian?


I did not know that.


According to Ovid, he was the first. Not a claim that seems realistic, but that is neither here nor there.  I'm more intrigued by the fact that Ovid actually includes that particular discussion in a narrative about Pythagoras, when I suppose there are plenty of other stories about Pythagoras whose, in Ovid's words,

"mind came close to the Gods,

remote as they are in the heavens above; what nature debarred

to human vision he saw with the eyes of the spirit within him.

All that this insight, backed by untiring effort, discovered,

he wanted to share with others. His audiences listened in wondering

silence while he explained how the universe first began,

discoursed at length upon causes, defined what Nature and God were,

showed how the snow was formed and what was the source of the lightning;

whether the winds or Jupiter thundered from clouds in collision;

the reason for earthquakes, the laws which govern the stars in their courses,

and all the secrets of nature.

Fascinating stuff.

Buddy Read: Reading progress update: I've read 70%.

The Circular Staircase -  Mary Roberts Rinehart

Who'd have thought this story even has elements of an action movie?

Buddy Read: Reading progress update: I've read 59%.

The Circular Staircase -  Mary Roberts Rinehart

“Doctor Walker,” I said tartly, “I fail to see any humor in the situation. Since I came here, one man has been shot, and another one has died from shock. There have been intruders in the house, and strange noises. If that is funny, there is something wrong with my sense of humor.”

“You miss the point,” he said, still good-naturedly. “The thing that is funny, to me, is that you insist on remaining here, under the circumstances. I should think nothing would keep you.”

“You are mistaken. Everything that occurs only confirms my resolution to stay until the mystery is cleared.”

I'm enjoying this. It's like Murder She Wrote but set in previous decade. Just like J.B. Fletcher, our MC seems to somewhat attract mayhem and the scorn of the local physician.






BL-Opoly Free Friday Read #1: Farewell Leicester Square

Farewell Leicester Square - Betty  Miller

I was hoping to settle down with any of the books on my currently reading shelf tonight but I ended up grabbing the book nearest to me for a sneak peek and ended up reading a couple of chapters. 


So, I might as well make Farewell Leicester Square my official Free Friday Read.

Reading progress update: I've read 7%.

The Circular Staircase -  Mary Roberts Rinehart

I'm getting distinct vibes of The Ghost and Mrs Muir. I love it.

"The discovery of a small picture fallen from the wall of the drawing-room was quite sufficient to satisfy Liddy that the alarm had been a false one, but I was anything but convinced. Allowing for my nerves and the fact that small noises magnify themselves at night, there was still no possibility that the picture had made the series of sounds I heard. To prove it, however, I dropped it again. It fell with a single muffled crash of its wooden frame, and incidentally ruined itself beyond repair."

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth: A Signature Performance by Tim Curry - Jules Verne

The next day the sky was again overcast; but on the 29th of June, the last day but one of the month, with the change of the moon came a change of weather. The sun poured a flood of light down the crater. Every hillock, every rock and stone, every projecting surface, had its share of the beaming torrent, and threw its shadow on the ground. Amongst them all, Scartaris laid down his sharp-pointed angular shadow which began to move slowly in the opposite direction to that of the radiant orb. My uncle turned too, and followed it. At noon, being at its least extent, it came and softly fell upon the edge of the middle chimney.

“There it is! there it is!” shouted the Professor. “Now for the centre of the globe!” he added in Danish.

I looked at Hans, to hear what he would say. “Forüt!” was his tranquil answer.

“Forward!” replied my uncle.

It was thirteen minutes past one.

Jules Verne was one of my favourite authors when I was a kid. My mom loved his stories, too. Twenty Thousand Leagues and In 80 Days made repeat appearances at our bedtime reading. However, for some reason we never read Journey to the Centre of the Earth. We have both watched the film more times than many others, of course, but we just didn't get around to the book.


The film starring James Mason is a classic that I still love to watch, even tho I know certain parts of the dialogue by heart now.



So, imagine my surprise when I started the book and Prof. Liedenbrock did not reside in Edinburgh but in Hamburg! 


And this was just the first difference between the film and the book, which meant that reading the book was not spoilt much by the film but actually intrigued me to see what other departures the film had taken from the original story. 


It turns out, there are quite a few departures. Most regrettably, the book does not feature Gertrude. 



Where the book shines, tho, is in the descriptions ...

At last, at eleven in the sunlight night, the summit of Snæfell was reached, and before going in for shelter into the crater I had time to observe the midnight sun, at his lowest point, gilding with his pale rays the island that slept at my feet.

and the the inspirational science:

If the grotto of Guachara, in Colombia, visited by Humboldt, had not given up the whole of the secret of its depth to the philosopher, who investigated it to the depth of 2,500 feet, it probably did not extend much farther. The immense mammoth cave in Kentucky is of gigantic proportions, since its vaulted roof rises five hundred feet  above the level of an unfathomable lake and travellers have explored its ramifications to the extent of forty miles. But what were these cavities compared to that in which I stood with wonder and admiration, with its sky of luminous vapours, its bursts of electric light, and a vast sea filling its bed? My imagination fell powerless before such immensity. I gazed upon these wonders in silence. Words failed me to express my feelings. I felt as if I was in some distant planet Uranus or Neptune  —  and in the presence of phenomena of which my terrestrial experience gave me no cognisance. For such novel sensations, new words were wanted; and my imagination failed to supply them. I gazed, I thought, I admired, with a stupefaction mingled with a certain amount of fear.

I don't like to use the term "science fiction" in relation to Jules Verne. Even tho he may be one of the first Sci fi authors, it just does not feel right to just put his works into a specific category like that. 


For example, he also includes social commentary on the science of the times, which really brings out the side in his books where he challenges and questions science. When I think of "sci fi", I mostly have this idea of books and stories where science is accepted and developed as an integral part of the plot, not one where the plot and story is used to motivate people to ask questions. Of course, it may just be that I have this all wrong. After all, I do not tend to read many books that carry the sci fi label. 


Still, there is something very special about Verne. In his commentary on the science of his time - this book was written in 1864 - Verne seems very circumspect. He does not just mention the scientists of his own nation, but includes references to those of any nation that he found useful in his narrative. There are two aspects in this that really struck me: For one, I'm intrigued now if other writers at this time did the same or whether they contained their focus in some way.


The second aspect to this that struck me is how "modern" this approach seems, when maybe it isn't? I mean, I know that universities have always had an exchange of ideas and scientist and proud themselves on the ability to be global leaders in providing knowledge. Yet, in the age of Brexit etc, where universities are warning of the impending "brain drain", it just struck me as amazing that a purveyor of popular fiction, which is often now classed as children's literature, could have so fully embraced the idea that scientific discovery is made by all nations and to benefit of all mankind, and cannot be achieved by a single nation in isolation.


Anyway, I will get off the soap box. Maybe I just spent too much time this weekend huddled around a bbq with my international scientist friends.


There are so many fantastic and fantastical elements to Verne's stories that I love that I cannot list them all in a review. What I did on finishing this book, tho, was to call my mom. As some of you may know, my mom and I have been to Sicily recently. So, when I finished the book and found out that the island of Stromboli features in this story, I had to let my mom know. We had a fun time watching a lot of people being sea sick on the way back from Stromboli. (Trust me it was funny - but you probably had to be there...) 

So, when Prof. Liedenbrock essentially makes the same journey, it lent an additional "colouring" to the scene. 



Needless to say, I absolutely loved Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and I wish people would read more Verne again. My mom now will (she's off to the library tomorrow). As for me, I certainly look forward to my next encounter with his genius also. I quickly downloaded the Delphi collection of his complete works, which seem to be one of the better annotated collections that contains the unabridged works in a professionally edited format. I had tried a few other titles for the kindle, but some turned out to be either the abridged or pretty unreadable. (I would strongly recommend trying a sample of any Verne book in kindle format if possible. The Amazon description will be of no help whatsoever!) 


I should also add that Tim Curry's reading of this book was divine. 


Before I Go to Sleep

Before I Go To Sleep - S. J. Watson


Christine has an extraordinary problem: ever since a specific event, her memory is impaired so that she suffers amnesia every time she goes to sleep. 

The next morning, she has to relearn her own life's story. Every single day.


When she finds a note in a journal that says "Do not trust Ben." things start to unravel.


Huh. So, this was a debut novel. A debut novel that kept me intrigued from the start to the very end, and made me consider whether I really needed to keep appointments today.


I did end up going out but regretted it half-way through my exercise in the park session, and was longing to get back to the book. That does not happen that often, even with the most gripping of mysteries.


There is not much that I can say about the plot or the characters without giving away spoilers. However, I really liked how the author fleshed out Christine, our MC. So much so, that I was under the impression that S.J. Watson was a woman. I only found out my mistake after I looked up what other books he had written.


While the characters were fantastically real, there were a few issues with the plot by way of loose ends and I also had a problem with the pacing of the novel - until it dawned on me that the repetitive writing emphasised the repetitive efforts of our MC to try and piece together the fragments of her own life every day to find out who she is and what happened to her.


I had several theories throughout the book but I am delighted to say that I was not able to see the solution until the last few chapters when I was literally sitting on the edge of my chair to find out what happened next.

Reading progress update: I've read 87%.

Before I Go To Sleep - S. J. Watson



I just cannot put this book down!!!


Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories - Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami

DNF @ 39%


These stories are not bad but I just can't muster any real enthusiasm for them.


It is not helped by the stories being unconneced and by themselves not being great examples of the short story format.


Of course, they were not written as short stories in the Western literary sense. It's just that the way they are written is boring me stiff.


Maybe I'll pick this up again at a later date, but right now, this is not working for me.

Reading progress update: I've read 8%.

Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories - Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami

My current BL-Opoly roll took me to a square that gave me a lot of options:


Read a book set in Africa or Asia, or that has an exotic animal on the cover.


I had all day to consider this. I've been really wanting to re-read James Clavell's Asian Saga for a while. On the other hand, I discovered I have A LOT of books set in Asia that I have never read. So, I'll start with one of them: Rashomon.


Amazon tells me that both my kindle and the paperback editions have 320p., which equals a potential reward of $3 for the BL-Opoly account.

Currently reading

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
Progress: 64/692pages
Farewell Leicester Square by Betty Miller
Progress: 113/309pages
Der Kämpfer im Vatikan: Papst Franziskus und sein mutiger Weg (German Edition) by Andreas Englisch
Progress: 46/374pages
Das Wunder des Baums by Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Progress: 19/295pages