Sunday, March 27, 2011

Heartstone by C J Sansom - Book 13

This is the fifth Matthew Shardlake mystery by C J Sansom. I was introduced to these late last year and have devoured them ever since. Set in one of my favorite historical periods, the time of the Tudors, it sets Shardlake on the trail of two mysteries, putting him in the usual amount of danger as he moves from London to Portsmouth.

From Amazon:

In 1545, times are perilous for London counsel Matthew Shardlake and for his country. While the English, heavily taxed and with their coinage debased by Henry VIII, prepare for a naval attack from the French at Portsmouth, Shardlake takes on a case at the request of Catherine Parr on behalf of her former servant, whose son committed suicide after discovering “monstrous wrongs” against a teenage ward he once tutored. As the 43-year-old, hunchbacked Shardlake seeks to uncover secrets in the ward’s household, he also investigates the past of a presumably sane woman kept for years in Bedlam. Even with the queen’s patronage, the dogged Shardlake is threatened bodily while pursuing answers to both cases, which ultimately pit him against his old court nemesis, Sir Richard Rich.

As usual Sansom captures the period vividly and it's a rollicking good read. Can't wait for the next one!

Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett - Book 12

From Amazon's Booklist:

The daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Catherine was already one of the most learned women in Europe when, still in her teens, she married Arthur, Prince of Wales. His death a few weeks later left her stranded in England until she married King Henry VIII in 1509. Henry’s disappointment over the lack of a son to inherit the throne and his fascination with one of Catherine’s ladies, Anne Boleyn, are used to explain what went wrong with an initially happy union; but Tudor-era politics are never so simple. Tremlett deftly takes the reader through all the twists and turns, and shows us a woman who, rather than being a passive victim, was fully the equal of her husband in conviction and determination. --Mary Ellen Quinn

I've always been fascinated by the Tudors, and read a lot of fiction on the period, so it was interesting to read a non-fiction portrayal of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. Former Guardian journalist Giles Tremlett tells the story well, bringing the known historical facts to life beautifully, and I knew much more about Catherine at the end than I did when I started.  It was a gripping read, every bit as exciting as the fictionalized portraits of that era. One of the best I've read so far in this challenge.

Poke the Box by Seth Godin - Book 11

The sales model for this book was one of the things that interested me most even before I found out what it was about. Seth had the idea of getting as many people as possible to sign up for the pre-release version in order to drop the price - and it worked. When I signed up for my copy, the price was $7.99; by the time I got it, it was 99c.

Poke the Box is all about being an initiator - not just dreaming or planning, but actually doing. It's an inspirational book and an easy read, aimed to get you to do something, and to live with the fact that behind every success is a string of failures.

Here's Amazon's description:

If you're stuck at the starting line, you don't need more time or permission. You don’t need to wait for a boss’s okay or to be told to push the button; you just need to poke.

Poke the Box is a manifesto by bestselling author Seth Godin that just might make you uncomfortable. It’s a call to action about the initiative you’re taking-– in your job or in your life. Godin knows that one of our scarcest resources is the spark of initiative in most organizations (and most careers)-– the person with the guts to say, “I want to start stuff.”

Poke the Box just may be the kick in the pants you need to shake up your life.

I found the book inspiring - and ended it with the feeling that it was time to DO something about all those back burner projects even if they come to nothing; hope you enjoy it too.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Children of God - Mary Doria Russell - Book 10

I could hardly wait to start Children of God, the sequel to Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. This book was obviously meant to tie up all loose ends from the previous novel and it did so in typical non-linear style. Part of the action begins where the last book left off, showing Emilio's attempts to rebuild his life on Earth. At the same time, we find out that someone we thought had died on Rakhat is actually alive, and follow that story. Just as Emilio is achieving some normalcy he suffers a betrayal that sends him back to Rakhat, and we see how some of the questions raised in The Sparrow are answered. All in all, I found this a satisfying read, reuniting me with some of the most interesting characters from the previous novel and giving a sense of resolution.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell - Book 9

My latest read is The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. Here's Amazon's description:

In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being "human." When the lone survivor of the expedition, Emilio Sandoz, returns to Earth in 2059, he will try to explain what went wrong... Words like "provocative" and "compelling" will come to mind as you read this shocking novel about first contact with a race that creates music akin to both poetry and prayer.

The Sparrow is billed as a science fiction book, perhaps because it involves an alien encounter, but it's like no science fiction book I've ever read. It examines the basis for faith, our cultural assumptions and more in an odd but compelling narrative. I wasn't bored while reading this book, though some of the mystical perorations could have been shortened for my taste. Instead, I was fascinated and intrigued. At the start of the novel, you know that something terrible has happened, but it's not till the end that you get the whole story. I won't spoil it by revealing what that is.

The Sparrow is peopled by vivid, richly drawn characters, both human and non-human and an undercurrent of tragedy pervades the narrative. There's a lot of mystery surrounding Emilio Sandoz, the Jesuit priest who's the main character, and it's revealed piece by piece as the story unfolds. Both the best and worst moments of the story revolve around him - the best, when he discovers God as he stands on the soil of a new planet; the worst, when his faith is shattered by a tremendous betrayal.

The test of this book is that I am eager to read its sequel, Children of God. I'll be reviewing that as soon as I can.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Professional by Robert B Parker - Book 8

It's not often that I get a book as a present by an author I've never heard of, but that's exactly what happened with Robert B Parker's the professional. What's even more surprising is that he's written dozens of books. This book is part of his Spenser series.

Amazon's description: "Spenser agrees to help a quartet of married women fend off extortion demands from stud Gary Eisenhower, with whom each has had an affair. Meanwhile, the husband of one of the women under blackmail threat hires some thugs to deal with the matter. The action takes its time getting to a dead body, but, as usual, the smooth, entertaining prose more than compensates for any deficiencies of plot."

The fact that this is the 37th (!) Spenser novel didn't detract from my enjoyment. The backstory wasn't intrusive and the story clipped along at a decent pace. I liked the characters' occasionally sardonic sense of humor and found the book hard to put down. I plan to add the rest of the series to my wishlist (in case anyone asks) and will definitely be reading more of his books in the future.

Star Trek - Book 7

There have been a lot of Star Trek books but this one is the one relating to the most recent film. I'm a confirmed fan of the franchise and have been since I was a girl, so reading this book was a no-brainer. It's a prequel to the shows we know, covering the time when the ensemble cast first come together, many of them meeting for the first time at Starfleet Academy. As usual Kirk is in trouble but manages to save the day against Romulans hell bent on destroying earth (no change there, right?).

This was an easy read but it held no surprises as I saw the surprisingly good movie only last year. That said, it was nice to reconnect with some of my favorite characters. Are you a Star Trek fan?