Sunday, October 31, 2010

Summer Reading List

Well, for some of you October 31 means Hallowe'en, but for me (and most other students in Australia) it means exam crunch time. So unfortunately its time to take a hiatus from reading enjoyable literature and start reading and re-reading boring, uninteresting lecture notes.

Just to keep you interested, here's a non-exhaustive list of what I intend to read this summer. Some of these are new reads, some are favourites that are needing some TLC. Making this list gives me something to look forward to doing in all that free time that used to be taken up with procrastination study :)

Mary Queen of Scots - Antonia Fraser
The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown
The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Dune - Frank Herbert
The Audacity of Hope - Barack Obama
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
The Red Queen/The White Queen - Philippa Gregory
The Namesake - Jhumpi Lahiri
Lady Chatterley's Lover - D.H. Lawrence
Watership Down - Richard Adams

Hope all of you out there are finding exam preparation bearable - just hold out for summer!!! And if you're in the northern hemisphere, I hope you have a great holiday season! See you in a few weeks!

xx

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Virgin's Lover - Philippa Gregory (2004)

The Virgin’s Lover is the third in a series of books about the Tudor monarchs. It follows on from the success of Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl detailing the relationship between Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary. This novel deals Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen and her eponymous lover Robert Dudley. Breaking away from the classroom history lesson, Gregory delivers a story filled with real characters and a vivid insight into 16th century politics.

Genre: Historical Fiction/Romance/Politics

Synopsis:
The year is 1558 and twenty-five year old Elizabeth I has been crowned Queen of England. For her, this is the fruit of years of uncertainty and neglect and her moment to finally rise to glory. For her followers it is their chance to redeem themselves after the persecution of the old queen. Among them is Robert Dudley, son of a disgraced courtier. Dudley is handsome, captivating, sexually alluring to the young Queen…and married.

In the countryside, Dudley’s wife Amy awaits him with all the love and adoration of a newly married bride. She desires above all a quiet country life with him as her constant companion. Far from returning her love, Dudley soon begins to see her as a nuisance and burden. As his intimacy with the Queen grows, he begins to dream about the ultimate prize – being the husband of Elizabeth and King of England.

Review:
Everyone learns about Elizabeth I at school, but what we don’t learn is the person behind the name. Philippa Gregory brings the queen to life, and brings a whole host of interesting characters along with her. The Virgin’s Lover is definitely not a history book, although the main characters are all real. It is a re-imagining of a time long past, building a rich background to fit the facts.

The characterization throughout is splendid – Gregory shows the good, the bad, and the ugly of all her players. Elizabeth is a complicated mix of naivety, ruthlessness, youth and political animal. She is realistically shown as being torn between her love for an unsuitable man, and her destiny to be a powerful Queen. By far, she is the most fascinating character in the book. Her rival Amy Dudley comes in a poor second. Although the loving yet betrayed wife should get some automatic sympathy, Amy becomes more irritating as the story progresses. This is partly due to her constant bewailing and partly because the reader wishes she would eventually punch her unfaithful husband in the face.

The Virgin’s Lover has a great political edge to it. The time spent on Amy’s perspective can feel dragged on due to the lack of action. However, the action occurring back at court is so fraught with sexual and political tension that the reader is compelled to keep reading on. This book is especially interesting when you consider that Elizabethan England was still very much a man’s world, and the new queen was constantly threatened by opposing political factions. At the centre of the story is the question of her marriage – who will be her consort and the ‘real’ ruler of England?

Although much more can be said about this book, the real point of the review is to rank its readability. I would say this is a must-read if you already enjoy politics and/or history. Be warned though, this is not a textbook (there are multiple historical inaccuracies that the author has ignored in order to create a more interesting story). If not, this may not be the book for you. It does have a crime/suspense element to it, but I feel that some people may find it daunting and arduous to complete. And if you enjoy this one – check out the rest of the Tudor series at http://www.philippagregory.com/work/tudor/
x

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Temple - Matthew Reilly (1999)


Author Matthew Reilly is a homegrown Australian who couldn’t catch a break with publishing his first novel Contest at age 19. He took a gamble and self-published it – and man, did it pay off! Now, Reilly has more than ten novels under his belt and movie deals in the works. Temple is one, if not the best, of the bunch. My boyfriend handed me this book with the surety that it would not appeal to a feminine person such as myself. Well the joke’s on him! Turns out archaelogy, science fiction, military and a large helping of gore are just my cup to tea…

Genre:            Science Fiction/Techno-Thriller/Historical Fiction

Synopsis:
Mild-mannered professor of languages, William Race, gets made an offer he can’t refuse when the US Army comes knocking at his door. He is given the chance to translate an ancient and zealously guarded text that tells the location of an Incan temple. Within that temple is an ancient idol with the potential destructive power of a thousand nuclear weapons. The Army wants that idol very badly. Unfortunately, they aren’t the only ones after it.

Race is drawn into the story of the Incan prince Renco and his mission to protect the mighty idol from the Spanish Conquistadors. As the situation in Peru becomes more and more dangerous, Race must rely on Renco’s story in order to survive. Surrounded by enemies who want the idol for their own purposes, Race must cast off the professor and become the unlikely hero.

Review:
If a book could be a person, this one would be Indiana Jones but with the Terminator’s arsenal of weapons. Although well written, Temple is hardly high literature. It has a boyish, video game feel to it that makes it incredibly entertaining but not incredibly satisfying. In fact, I could easily see this becoming a successful box office hit √† la Raiders of the Lost Ark. Reilly tries hard to make the characters multi-faceted and dynamic, but doesn’t approach the fluidity and realism of Dan Brown (whose character Robert Langdon is a near-composite of William Race, although Temple precedes Angels and Demons). Reilly also links the past and present to make a parallel between the modern professor and the Incan prince. At times, the intense action and incredible amount of violence take away from the actual story (hence the video game feel) but the interweaving of the two stories is skillfully done. A definite plus of this story is its unpredictability – there are more twists and turns than Space Mountain. It makes it a book that is hard to put down.

Read this if you enjoy the action, adventure type of novels (and movies!) or if you’re a Dan Brown fan. Matthew Reilly is known for writing fast-paced adventure novels, and Temple is no exception. Don’t be put off by the thickness of the book – it’ll be so gripping that you’ll be asking for more.  If this isn’t your thing, I encourage you to try something new and just read the first chapter. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
x

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bad Science - Ben Goldacre (2008)

For the author, this book is meant to be a wake up call to the ignorant consumers of the world. Ben Goldacre is an Oxford alum and psychiatrist who believes that pharmaceutical companies and prophets of alternative medicine are just taking us for a ride. The book is based on his weekly column in the Guardian (also titled Bad Science). It has spent time in the top 10 on Amazon and was shortlisted for the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. For more information on Ben Goldacre (he gives free speeches if you’re willing to pay his transport costs…) and his fight against bad science, visit www.badscience.net.

Genre:            Non-fiction/ Pseudoscience/ Social Commentary

Synopsis:
Without giving too much away, the main tenet of Bad Science is homage to evidence-based science. Evidence-based science is that which uses the current best evidence in making decisions. In the simplest terms, it means science that can be backed up with real, meticulously reviewed, facts. When it comes to many things that modern society holds dear – fad diets, miracle cures, anti-ageing cosmetics – evidence-based science takes a backseat to clever marketing. Ben Goldacre, a self-professed ‘nerd evangelist’, attacks the quackery of products that are marketed to an unsuspecting audience with no evidence to back their amazing claims. Among his targets are homeopathy, anti-ageing moisturisers, Brain Gym, detox, nutrition therapists, and the media.

Apart from making fun of the more asinine alternative forms of medicine, Goldacre also discusses the importance of knowledge when it comes to your own health. In particular, he explains in quite simple terms how medical trials are conducted and how the results can be interpreted in order to make them more favourable for public consumption. While being both humorous and cutting, Goldacre makes us think twice about trusting someone else with our health.

Review:
As a medical student, this book appeals to me on a deeper level than it might a person with no health-related background. The evils of misguided quacks that Ben Goldacre explores are the same that (real) health professionals today have to deal with. If everyone had read this book before trying a new pill or diet, it would sure make life easier for their doctors.

Although it could easily be a 300-page rant about the stupidity of the modern consumer, Bad Science instead manages to be empowering to the reader. Some of his examples of bad science are downright hilarious. I particularly enjoyed the test to show that Aqua Detox was a load of hokum (Detox and the Theatre of Goo, pg 8). Goldacre also touches on some genuinely scary results of bad science. He attacks Gillian Keith, the Scottish nutrition guru, who claims to have a PhD and be an expert in nutrition. Hundreds of people follow her advice, which includes basing your diet on the location of your acne. He also criticises the media for over-simplifying medicine to the extent that facts become distorted.

If you have a parent/partner/friend who just loves doing detox, or buying collagen-infused face creams, or thinks vaccination is useless – I suggest buying them this book for Christmas. If you are curious about how you’re being made a fool of without even knowing it, or just want to have a laugh at people that are, then this book is a must-read. It’s funny, interesting, thought-provoking and uplifting. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

x

ps. Some further links if you're interested...
Gillian McKeith's official website - http://www.mckeithinteractive.com/
Ben Goldacre's Twitter - http://twitter.com/bengoldacre
Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isnt (British Medical Journal). - http://www.bmj.com/content/312/7023/71.full

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Update: The Second Sons Trilogy

Dear readers,

I just checked my viewing stats and saw that Jennifer Fallon, the author of the Second Sons Trilogy, had posted my review on her Twitter account. I'd just like to say - Jennifer, you made my week! I'm truly honoured that you took the time to read it. Honestly, I could have written an essay's worth of analysis on the series, its that good!

Readers - Jennifer Fallon's other series will also be reviewed, but I like to space out different genres of books for variety. Hopefully you read the review of the Second Sons Trilogy and are inspired to read the series. I'm sure you'll find it as rewarding as I do.

Thanks again for checking out my blog. And special thanks again to Jennifer Fallon - if you're ever in Perth and in need of adoration (and homemade cake), I'm your willing Crasii :) Otherwise I look forward to your future works.

x

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Second Sons Trilogy - Jennifer Fallon (2004)

Dear reader, if you are a fan of fantasy and haven’t yet picked up a book by this talented author then stop everything and go do it NOW! Is my enthusiasm giving away my review already? Probably, but when it comes to Fallon it’s unavoidable. Along with Sara Douglass, Jennifer Fallon has succeeded in putting great Australian fantasy on the radar. I really should have started with her first series – The Demon Child Trilogy, but this one is my particular favourite, and I just couldn’t resist.


It was far too difficult to condense about 3000 pages (3 books) into a few short sentences to make a synopsis, so I'd like to direct you to the author's homepage: jenniferfallon.com.au. Descriptions of each book will be there, plus a lot of cool extra stuff on various aspects of her fantasy world and the process of writing the series. Instead of a synopsis, I've made a list of the main characters with some basic descriptions. Enjoy!

Genre: Fantasy

Main Characters:

Dirk Provin – second son of Duke Wallis and Morna Provin. Intelligent on the level of genius, but with a political acumen that would make Julius Caesar jealous.

Kirshov Latanya – second son of Antonov Latanya. Immature, and obsessed with honour and emerging from his father’s shadow. Engaged to Alenor D’Orlon since childhood. Becomes obsessed with the acrobat Marqel at first sight.

Antonov Latanya – Lion of Senet. Sacrificed his third son in order to end the Age of Shadows. Believes unquestioningly in the divinity of Belagren and supports the Shadowdancers. Power-hungry, ruthless, devious and cunning.

Belagren – High Priestess of the Shadowdancers. A master manipulator – she manipulated the genius mathematician Neris Veran to tell her the date of the second sun’s return, and manipulates Antonov into believing in her own divinity.

Alenor D’Orlon – daughter of Queen Rainan of Dhevyn, heir presumptive. Quiet, dignified and determined. She nurses a crush on her fianc√© Kirsh, who does not return her feelings.

Tia Veran – daughter of Neris Veran, the mathematician who enabled Belagren’s rise to power. She lives in Mil with her drug-addict father and other exiles from Dhevyn, and believes strongly that the Lion of Senet, Belagren and the Shadowdancers should be crushed. Deeply suspicious of Dirk’s motives.

Marqel – Landfall bastard, acrobat with travelling circus, and prostitute. Total psycho completely amoral, foolish, and willing to do anything to further her own cause.

Misha Latanya – first son of Antonov Latanya. Although very intelligent and capable, he is discounted by his father due to his physical disabilities.

Johan Thorn – deposed King of Dhevyn, brother of Rainan D’Orlon. Last known living as an exile in Mil with his wife and daughter.


Review:









So there’s probably not much suspense going on at the point right? You’ve already guessed that I love this series; what you don’t know is why! Let’s begin with plot construction.

Most fantasy stories follow a similar basic plotline. There is the Hero, who has to overcome great odds and often battle with inner demons, in order to beat the Villain, and in doing so save the world. Also, there is usually some element of magic involved. Here’s where the Second Sons is completely different. There is no real magic. Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd law can sum up Fallon’s version of magic here: ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. The people of Ranadon, and most especially Antonov Latanya, are unable to understand the complicated mathematics that Neris Veran uses to accurately calculate the return of the second son (the end of the Age of Shadows). To them, this is magic in the form of the deity ‘the Goddess’, and Belagren is the magician.

The real magic of this story is the intricately woven plot. Every character is involved in multiple schemes in order to achieve their goals. It is interesting to see how the nobler goal of bringing down a tyrant and the pettier one of being the favourite mistress can be achieved through remarkably similar means. The political nature of the plot means the story is interesting and fairly fast-paced, especially books 2 and 3. The twists and turns represent the real unpredictability of the characters.

This series is evidently a comment on the subversive nature of religion. Fallon makes it clear that religion is an effective way of controlling the masses and consolidating power. It also shows the interaction between politics and religion – how one feeds the other. Also, in terms of breaking the fantasy mould, Fallon also has an interesting way in showing how to get the job done. Dirk, our hero, is intelligent enough to realise that bringing Antonov and Belagren down by sheer force is impossible. As a noble and decent person, he’d be expected to launch a hopeless attack anyway because this is the right thing to do. Instead he decides to return to Antonov’s playing field and bring the Shadowdancers down from the inside in the most cunning way possible. In a nutshell, the author's message can be summed up in three words: 'Knowledge is Power'.

Moving on to characterisation, Fallon does an impressive job once again. Dirk is hardly the ideal hero, but he is certainly endearing. Throughout his most Machiavellian schemes, there are always glimpses of the seventeen-year-old boy inside. Contrast him with Kirsh, who’s actions make him seem a villain, but whose motives are conventionally more ‘hero-like’ than Dirk’s. And contrast them both to Marqel. She may appear shallow, but we come to find is so superficial in nature that she has no morals or internal motivators other than her own pleasure. She's a character you love to hate. The only fly in the ointment for me is Tia Veran. She’s meant to be fiery, but she comes off more as a shrill harpy who constantly and purposefully misunderstands Dirk. Thankfully, Alenor (and her cousin - but you have to read the books to find about her) redeems the female cast of this series.

Although the plot is very good, the characters are what make this novel memorable. Fallon leads you through a merry chase of emotions as the story unfolds. My ultimate litmus test of a novel is ‘does it make you think?’ This series will make you think till your brains melt a little. Each character does some right things and some wrong things. Sure, there’s some collateral damage along the way (a few innocent lives lost here and there). The real question is – do the means justify the ends? I suggest you read the series and find out. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.
x




Monday, September 6, 2010

Jurassic Park - Michael Crichton (1990)

Lets start off this blog with a (fairly) oldie but goodie. Jurassic Park is a book that almost everyone has heard about, even if they weren’t geeky cool enough to read it. This may have something to do with the Spielberg blockbuster series it spawned. However, for those of you who were too young to bother, the book itself was very popular upon release. Let’s find out why…


Genre:            Science Fiction/Techno-thriller

Synopsis:
On Isla Nublar, a remote Costa Rican island, a theme park like no other is being made. It is filled with real genetically engineered dinosaurs, with the aim of bringing the pre-historic world to life. This park is the brainchild of the self-indulgent and fabulously wealthy Richard Hammond and sponsored by the genetic engineering company InGen.
Hammond invites a group of experts to survey his new park for the weekend. Among them are palaeontologist Alan Grant, palaeobotanist Ellie Sattler, eccentric mathematician Ian Malcolm, and apprehensive lawyer Donald Gennaro. Also included in the party are Hammond’s grandchildren: dinosaur-mad Tim Murphy and his little sister Lex.
Despite Malcolm’s warnings that the park is inherently faulty and will surely fail, Hammond insists that the group take a tour of the dinosaur-filled island. As Malcolm’s predictions begin to come horribly true, each character is faced with the ultimate goal of humanity – to survive.

Review:
If you enjoy a good page-turner (and who doesn’t) this novel is for you. My copy of Jurassic Park is extremely well worn, and for good reason – the story is great. Of course, a certain amount of acceptance is required. Critics have complained for ages that the premise upon which Crichton based creating the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park is not viable. To them I say, ‘well of course it isn’t – otherwise wouldn’t someone have created some real dinosaurs already!?’. The premise fits into most peoples’ working knowledge of genetics and leads to a well-constructed plot line.
Unlike some of his later works, Crichton really got this one right. It’s no coincidence that this is his best-known book. The story is fast paced and always interesting. It explores many aspects of science – palaeontology, biology, biochemistry, genetics, medicine, mathematics, and the hazier science of human interaction. The storylines diverge and reconnect seamlessly, giving the reader many viewpoints throughout.
All the main characters’ motivations and thought processes are explored in a way that makes them relatable if not always likeable. In particular, the somewhat anti-hero Malcolm makes a lasting impression on the reader. There is also a refreshing lack of stereotype, which lends itself to the originality of the whole novel.
If nothing else, I urge you all to read the book and judge it on its merits. Although I freely admit the movie is also one of my favourites, it has nothing on the original. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

x

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Prologue

Salutations cyberspace,

to those of you who might consider reading more of this blog, let me explain what it's all about. So when I was three, I discovered the magical land of Imagination that could be opened by a key called a Book. Since then, I have delighted in my many forays into Imagination.

Before you write me off as a total crackpot, let me cut to the chase - I simply love reading. It is undoubtably my favourite hobby and my favourite books are as dear to me as close friends. I also love discussing books, and that's what I'll be doing here (where I can be as effusive as I want without anyone's eyes glazing over in boredom).

Please add your opinions to my own - discussing a great book is almost as fun as reading it. Stay tuned for some book reviews, reading lists, random rants and other foolishness.

x