All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

The Countess And The King – Susan Holloway Scott

Katherine Sedley was born to wealthy parents. Unfortunately her mother suffered from a form of mental illness that resulted in delusions and thinking that she was actually Queen Catherine, barren Queen of England, a myth that is perpetuated by her doctor, who humours and fawns over her. Often Katherine’s visits to her mother upset her so she has little to do with her – her upbringing is mostly done by governesses but her father also takes a large hand in her raising as well.

Sir Charles Sedley is a poet/playwright who spends a lot of time at the various courts of King Charles II and from the time Katherine is around 9 or 10 he begins to take her with him. Young Katherine already has a rather smart wit and swears, can play cards, reads more than just the scriptures. She is exceedingly plain though, a skinny and ungainly child with no real promise in the looks department. Her father keeps her from gaining a position at Court, as he wants more for her than to be a whore. He also wants more than just a match with any old rogue, who would have her hand for her considerable dowry and fortune. Given this fortune, he wants Katherine to be free to marry for love and happiness but Katherine is never really inclined towards marriage.

From a young age she catches the eye of the King’s younger brother, his Grace the Duke of York and they cross paths quite often in Katherine’s youth. It isn’t until she is older though that she becomes his mistress. The Duke of York is some 25 years older than Katherine, older than even her father and onto his second marriage. With Charles II having no sons, James is heir to the throne of England, which causes some problems among the people as he is a Papist, a practicing and devoted Catholic as is his second wife Mary Beatrice of Modena, niece to the Pope in Rome. The Duke of York has problems siring children too, having only two daughters surviving from his first marriage and a vast number of babies that don’t pass infancy with the current Duchess Mary.

Katherine and the Duke’s liaison is a long one, lasting throughout his downturn in popularity and consequent exile by the King in order to calm the population who fear a vast Catholic invasion and seizure of the Crown. There is clamouring for the introduction of an act that would remove James, Duke of York from the line of succession and replace him with King Charles II’s illegitimate son, even a bastard being preferable to a Papist.

But James does become the King and Katherine, who thought that her position as Mistress to him would be like the Duchess of Portsmouth’s role to King Charles, is stunned to find herself in a tangle of vast political webs with King James vowing to abolish the debauchery that was so rampant in Charles’ court and return to moral and chaste times. Katherine is offered the choice of exile to several locations but will she take them up on their ‘offer’ (more like a threat) or will she stay in London to try and win back the man she loves?

The Countess and the King was my third novel read for the 2011 Global Reading Challenge seventh continent, which was free choice. Whilst the two I read previously predominantly dealt with King Charles II and his rather lusty appetite, this one was more focused on his successor, the Duke of York, his younger brother, a practicing Catholic and at times the subject of hatred, violence and the occasional assassination plot from the public, who feared anyone who was not a Protestant. And to have a Papist as the first in line for the throne….definitely cause for panic.

A bit like Nell Gwyn in The King’s Favourite, Katherine is known and applauded for her wit and intelligence but unlike Nell she is not in any way beautiful. Instead we’re kind of beat over the head with how ugly she is with even some of the ‘wits’ at the castle writing poems about her lack of looks. It forms a huge part of the book with Katherine falling prey to a man who doesn’t want her, only her money. She’s often ridiculed by the Court, shunned by the ladies in waiting to the Duchess and ends up falling out with her father over her relationship with the Duke. He introduced her to life within the Palace but did not react well to her becoming a mistress, in a display of hypocrisy that I couldn’t help siding with Katherine over.

The thing that most struck me about this book was that unfortunately, it’s quite sloooow pace wise. It starts when Katherine is about 9 or 10 and although we do skip forward in time occasionally, it’s basically a long time before anything of note happens. She doesn’t become the Duke’s mistress until she’s about 20 or so, maybe even older so it’s a lot of her just wandering around Court in its various locations being ‘witty’ and observing things that are going on. It’s 200 or so pages in to a 400 page book by the time she sleeps with the Duke and from then on it’s much more interesting. I think it might have worked better if the whole book revolved around her relationship with the Duke of York and the political situation of the time, with him being a Papist and the paranoia and hysteria this whipped up. That is all covered, but I get the feeling there could have been more depth to some of the aspects, such as the flippant remarks about Mary of Modena losing yet another baby. The first 200 pages do end up reading like a bit of a waste of time once you reach the really meaty part of the story.

7/10

Book #201 for 2011

I did it! The Countess And The King is the final novel for the 2011 Global Reading Challenge, being the 3rd novel for the seventh continent and the 21st novel read for the challenge overall. YAY!

Books Read For The Challenge:

Africa
African Dawn, by Tony Park (Zimbabwe)
The Delta, by Tony Park (Botswana/Namibia)
Blood Safari, by Deon Meyer (South Africa)

Asia
The Bronze Horseman, by Paullina Simons (Russia)
The Betrayal Of The Blood Lily, by Lauren Willig (India)
Peony In Love, by Lisa See (China)

Europe
The Orchid Affair, by Lauren Willig (France)
The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht (Balkans/Serbia)
India Black And The Widow Of Windsor, by Carol K. Carr (Scotland)

Australasia/Oceania
The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas (Melbourne, AU)
Past The Shallows, by Favel Parrett (Tasmania, AU)
The Secret Ingredient, by Dianne Blacklock (Sydney, AU)

North America
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen (Minnesota, USA)
The Pirate’s Daughter, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson (Jamaica)
Edge of Survival, by Toni Anderson (Labrador, Canada)

South Africa
Every Bitter Thing, by Leighon Gage (Brazil)
Temple, by Matthew Reilly (Peru)
A Thousand Lives, by Julia Scheeres (Guyana)

Seventh Continent
The Empress Of Ice Cream, by Anthony Capella (Restoration Period)
The King’s Favourite, by Susan Holloway Scott (Restoration Period)
The Countess And The King, by Susan Holloway Scott (Restoration Period)

I do wish that I’d found a little more variety in my books set in Australasia/Oceania and not just read 3 set in Australia but 2 of them were just sitting on my shelves and the third I read very late in the year when I was running out of time to get this challenge done! I’ve enjoyed the Global Challenge immensely and credit it with helping me discover some really amazing books and authors that I would otherwise never have read! I’ve completed it two years running now, at medium level last year and at the hard level this year. I’m taking a break from the challenge next year to try a couple of other challenges but I might be back in 2013 if it’s still around.

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The King’s Favourite – Susan Holloway Scott

Nell Gwyn was born poor and a commoner. Her mother and older sister were both prostitutes and Nell herself worked in the brothel at barely fourteen, singing for the punters to earn her coin. Despite the location, Nell held onto her virginity until her mother sought to auction it off – Nell was bought and paid for and went to become the mistress of a tailor.

Whilst she was his mistress, he took her to the theatre and Nell became enthralled with the acting, the stories, even the beautiful girls that walked around selling oranges to the theatre-goers before the commencement of the play. Always one with a quick retort and a sassy remark, Nell was pretty sure she could act on stage even though she could not read. She had a good memory and she knew that she could earn her lines simply by hearing them. She went for the owner and asked for a tryout but he would not touch her while she was still mistress to his friend. Eventually the man who kept her married and Nell was free to move on – first as an orange girl, and then later as an actress.

There she saw the King, Charles the II, who was a frequent theatre-goer, often with his long-time mistress the Duchess of Cleveland, Lady Castlemaine Barbara Villiers and more rarely, the Queen. Nell, who was both beautiful, smart and famously witty, caught his eye first as a girl who sold him oranges and then later when she was up on the stage. Charles would often stop by and see the actors backstage after a performance and his banter with Nell became well known.

Always knowing that fate had something high and special in store for her, Nell becomes one of Charles II’s most devoted mistresses and probably was his mistress for one of the longest lengths of time. She becomes of his favourites (yes I know this book is technically titled The King’s Favorite but refuse to spell it that way) and during their long liaison she bears him two sons and survives the rivalries and intricacies of a Court recovering from the Puritan era of Oliver Cromwell and moving into much more sexually freer one. Charles is well known for his roving eye and large sexual appetite but he also remains faithful on one level to his barren wife, Queen Catherine of  Braganza, who was unfortunately barren (which often seemed to be the way of Queens!). Despite urging from several advisers, he refused to divorce her and take another wife and Nell never expected him to.

A well known figure of the time in history, Nell Gwyn rose from total poverty to become mistress to a King for more than half her lifetime, earning herself houses and riches beyond belief. However despite this, Charles never granted a title to her (unlike two of his other significant mistresses, the aforementioned Duchess of Cleveland, and Louise de Karouaille, who was later granted the title Duchess of Portsmouth) and rumour has it she had to beg for her sons to be granted titles of their own. Despite this, she remained loyal and faithful to Charles until the end, believed to be the only one of his mistresses to do so.

I’m so glad Marg recommended this time period to me to fill the seventh continent of my 2011 Global Reading Challenge because I have to say, I am really enjoying it. Up until last year I wasn’t really a reader of any historical fiction at all, reading mostly contemporary novels but slowly I am filling in some gaps in the timeline. This is the second novel I’ve read set in the court of King Charles II and the protagonist here was an antagonist in my previous book which is always interesting. Sometimes you can develop an opinion of a character taken from history and nothing can change it but because I didn’t particularly enjoy Louise de Karouaille in the previous novel and she was one of my narrators, I was mostly ambivalent towards Nell Gwyn when I started this book.

Nell is noted throughout history for her famous wit and quick tongue and if you didn’t know this before starting the book, then you will certainly know it by the end. Much is made of her famous banter, especially with the King and at Court and often with Louise de Karouaille as the butt of her jokes. In this novel the two are bitter enemies and given it’s from Nell’s point of view, she often gets the better of Louise, particularly in verbal stoushes. It seems the only time Louise triumphs over Nell is a point taken from fact in that she was granted a title, the Duchess of Portsmouth and Nell never was. I actually didn’t find a lot of the much-lauded funny moments funny but it’s evident that many did.

Although I don’t have anything remotely resembling her background, I found that it wasn’t too much trouble to relate to Nell – she was a normal, low-maintenance sort of woman who rarely ever harassed the King unless it was about securing rights for her children. She certainly wasn’t flawless, at times she is portrayed as rude, nasty, and quite frankly, a bit of a bitch – not someone that you’d particularly want to go up against! But Court is a tough world and she played it with everything she had, ensuring the King’s favour for well over a decade, succeeding where many others had failed. She was a go-getter, keeping up her acting for as long as she could before giving it up due to her status. You got the feeling throughout the novel that she wasn’t mistress to the King just because he was the King (although that probably did help) but because she genuinely loved him. She wasn’t just a kept woman, she had her own interests and life and could live independently of the King.

I notice that Susan Holloway Scott has written novels on all of Charles II’s notable mistresses including the Duchess of Cleveland and the Duchess of Portsmouth so in the new year I’ll be looking at tracking them down and reading them to further flesh out my picture of the Court and its workings. I’m sort of interested to see which mistress I’ll like the best when I’m all done!

8/10

Book #198 of 2011

I’m counting this novel towards my 2011 Global Reading Challenge, for the seventh continent which was free choice. My particular topic was 1600s historical fiction. This is the 2nd novel read for the continent and the 20th overall. ONE MORE BOOK TO GO! There was a time when I really worried that I might not finish this challenge….but I’m home free now!

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India Black And The Widow Of Windsor – Carol K. Carr

In the second volume of the Madam of Espionage series, India Black is back. This time she’s summoned to a meeting with Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of England. Queen Victoria, who has been consulting mediums to try and keep in touch with her dead husband Albert, has been isntructed that Albert wishes her to spend Christmas at Balmoral, their Scottish pile. Disraeli has received intelligence that the Scots, who are seeking independence, are possibly planning an attack on the Queen’s life via an extremist nationalist group. As Disraeli has been informed his presence at Balmoral is also required, he wishes French, the mysterious British spy to tag along, and also India. Posing as a maid, India will be able to infiltrate the ranks that would be closed to French and Disraeli and hopefully they’ll be able to avert any incident attempt on the Crown.

India makes plans to leave her brothel in the capable hands of another madam and packs for Scotland. She’s to be posing as the maid to the Marchioness of Tullibardine, a rather elderly and unkempt lady with a formidable reputation as a mistress and also with an unfortunate fondness for partaking in snuff. India has her work cut out for her not only making the Marchioness presentable but also stopping her committing faux pas at the gatherings, especially in front of Queen Victoria herself who doesn’t appreciate bad manners. India is so exhausted keeping up with the Marchioness and also finding time (often in the middle of the night) to meet with French and the street urchin Vincent, who weasled his way into the trip, to exchange information that she mistakes the hints the Marchioness is dropping for the identity of the assassin as hints that the Marchioness knows that India is not really a maid.

When someone tries to poison the Queen’s hot chocolate and there is an incident in the stables that is also clearly an assassination attempt, French and India have to work double time to find out who is behind the attacks before the ball that is to be held. There will be so many people there it will be almost impossible to keep an eye on all their suspects, including a disgruntled groom, a very new footman who has less experience in service than India and a favoured nephew of an Earl who makes no attempts to hide his Scottish nationalism fervour. But are they close to the mark or will they fail in their attempts to identify the chosen assassin before they are successful?

I really enjoyed the first title in this series, India Black. India is such an interesting heroine, especially for Victorian times, being a former prostitute and now madam of her own brothel who, in the first book, inadvertently ended up assisting an investigation of the Crown, putting her in French’s path and endearing her to the Prime Minister Disraeli. When he needs help he calls upon India, he and French believing that she can infiltrate the servant ranks. India is fearless and smart, the perfect choice even though she has very little idea of how to be a maid. Luckily the Marchioness of Tilbardine doesn’t really expect a traditional sort of maid.

The setting for this one was amazing – Scotland in the middle of winter, in a stone castle! I have a huge affinity with books set in Scotland, there’s something about it that attracts me. It fascinates me because it’s where my family are from (albeit many years ago now) and I’m always told how much I look ‘Scottish’ if one can look that. So I enjoy reading books set there immensely, especially if they really give me a feel for the place, which this one did. I could feel the chill in the air and felt like I was right with India getting lost in the maze that  is the castle.

There’s humour in this one, predominantly through moments with the lady India is serving whilst playing her role but I prefer the banter that her and French engage in, of which there are a couple of good scenes but not quite as many as there were in the first novel. We still learn nothing more about French really apart from the fact that he might not be quite so free and unattached as previously thought. The mutual attraction between the two of them grows, which further complicates things but there’s not a lot of real action there (yet). I’m hoping that there might be a little bit more spice in the next book!

Speaking of the next book, a hint was dropped that we may be finding out some more about India’s background soon, which will be very nice. So far we’ve learned very little about our main character, nothing about how she came to the life she leads now. It would be wonderful to learn more about her so hopefully the next book will give us a little of her background, maybe even about the family she must have at least had once!

All in all, this is a nice follow up to the debut, a very enjoyable story that encompasses some funny characters. I almost feel sorry for the poor old late Queen Victoria for the amount of times she’s basically referred to as a fat mess in this book! Although having seen some images of her, it doesn’t seem like they’re too far off the mark, but still. She was their ruling monarch and all!

If you liked the first one (or if you haven’t read it and like sassy heroines with none of this Victorian vapors business and mysterious and handsome spies) then you’ll really enjoy the follow up. And be very keen for the third installment (hurry up!)

8/10

Book #189 of 2011

I’m counting India Black and the Widow of Windsor for the 2011 Global Reading Challenge. It’s set in Scotland and therefore counts to the European continent. It’s the 3rd book I’ve read for that continent so it also gets a big tick off the list. Overall it’s the 16th book read for the challenge. Five more to go!

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A Thousand Lives – Julia Scheeres

Back in the mid 1950’s, a charismatic pastor named Jim Jones founded his own church – the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. It was a church that at first, preached about tolerance and understanding, about how we were all the same on the inside no matter what we looked like on the outside. And in 1950’s middle America, that was something new. And it was interesting to some. A mix of black and white joined this church in its first incarnation and followed Jones to many locations, including Indianapolis and several different places in California. However in 1977, Jim Jones and a large following of Church members moved to the church’s “agricultural” project, a large plot of land of over 3,800 acres in northern Guyana, South America which was then named “Jonestown”.

Frustrated and angered by the way the media was portraying his church in America, Jones had been thinking of fleeing to a country that more matched his ideologies for some time. Others he considered were Russia, an island in the Carribean and briefly, even Canada. In the end it was settled on Guyana because of their leanings to the left and views of the US Government and lack of extradition treaties. Groups were sent to Jonestown in advance of the big move to help set up and prepare for the mass exodus and new, large population.

The followers of the church were promised that Jonestown would be their utopia. Encouraged for some time to cut off all ties with friends and family that were not church members, encouraged to sell their belongings and sign over the proceeds to the church and then live in church dormitory-style accommodation, the shift to Jonestown was just the final step in Jim Jones’ isolation of the members of his church from anyone and anything that threatened the position of total power and authority that he held. What started as an apparently peaceful church that preached integration and tolerance turned into a dictatorship where Jones watched over every member and had an army of spies that reported ‘dissenters’ – sometimes that even included their own family.

Increasingly obsessed with death and using it as a device to show how serious he was about his views, Jones began to preach on how it would ‘free’ them from a corrupt world that would only seek to destroy them. Anyone who seemed unsure was punished, threatened and leaving was not an option. Communication with the outside world was heavily monitored and censored by church officials. Concerned relatives of church members back in the US lobbied the government to investigate Jonestown and send people down there to see what was really going on.

In November of 1978 Congressman Leo Ryan finally succeeded in visiting Jonestown and talking to the church members. Anyone who wanted to leave, he assured them, would be free to do so with his entourage. As several people slowly started to come forward and request safe passage, Jones, who had descended into madness and drug addiction, began to even further lose his grip on sanity (and his isolation from the greater world, as he saw it) and put his terrible plan into action.

Jones recorded a “death tape” where he preached to the community at Jonestown one last time and then, one by one, starting with the children, they were ordered to drink a concoction of poison in a mass suicide. As he had done this before only for them to find that the concoction was not in fact, poisonous at all, some residents were stunned when the children began to die. Some adults tried to rebel and were captured by Jonestown guards and forcibly injected.

Jones himself committed suicide by gunshot, probably last, after everyone was already dead.

It’s very hard to give a summary of the events comprising this book because it deals with close to 20 years and nearly 1000 people. It mostly follows the lives of five church members but there are a lot of people mentioned in this book and I have to be honest and say that it was often hard to keep track of them all, especially as members obviously had the same, or similar names. It also jumped around a bit in time and place as there was so much going on I think it must’ve been difficult to keep the narrative strictly linear.

The Jonestown mass-suicide is such a devastating thing to try and grasp. For example:

  • The final death count was over 900 with 304 of those being minors. 131 victims were under 10
  • At least 70 of the adults had puncture wounds on their body, showing resistance to drinking
  • Only 631 bodies were positively identified
  • More than 200 children could not be identified due to accelerated rate of decomposition and lack of dental/print records
  • Only about half of the dead were claimed and buried by their families
  • 408 are buried in a mass grave at the expense of the government of the time

It’s so sad that there are people out there that gave up everything to try and have a better life for themselves and their kids only for that road to lead to this. Misguided in the end, but people believed in the utopia that Jones claimed he was trying to create, and after it all went wrong some of these people didn’t even get an individual resting place. Parents buried without their children, people buried without their spouses. Some of the families of the victims chose not to claim the remains of their relatives, bitter at the rejection they had faced from the church members.

A Thousand Lives is a frank account of the history of the church and the charismatic man who created it and then destroyed it. It was frustrating as much as it was heartbreaking as I read about strong people who gave up their lives and their futures to this man and then were almost powerless to do anything as he sat back and systematically destroyed both. I know that these people that start these groups (I don’t like using the word ‘cult’ but ultimately that’s what it is) must be powerfully persuasive and adept at picking their victims but that doesn’t make it any easier to understand how people ended up in this situation. Thousands of miles from their families, in an overcrowded setting that was nothing like they were promised that was lacking in adequate housing and nutritious food despite the apparent wealth of the ‘church’.

Shows how one man with a honey tongue and a God complex can make a devastating impact on society.

7/10

Book #183 of 2011

I’m on a roll for books counting towards my 2011 Global Challenge! A Thousand Lives deals with and for a large part, is set in Jonestown, the community in remote northern Guyana at the top of South America. It’s the 3rd book of my South American journey and now that continent is crossed off. Yay! It’s the 15th book read overall for the challenge. 6 books to go! I can do this.

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Blood Safari – Deon Meyer

Lemmer is a bodyguard working for Body Armour, a private personal security company in South Africa. He has a troubled past and he tends to try and keep mostly to himself, in keeping with Lemmer’s First Rule: Don’t Get Involved. Up until now he’s mostly guarded boring government types and hasn’t had a problem with that.

Then he’s assigned to Emma le Roux who wants to find her brother, who has been missing for 20 years. Emma believes she saw his picture on television, as a suspect who is wanted for the murder of poachers. The suspect has the same name as her brother but a different last name and when she makes a call, asking if it could possibly be her brother her house is broken into. They seem more interested in going after Emma than robbing her and although she escapes, she hires Lemmer to watch her back when she decides to further pursue whether or not this suspect could be her brother.

Lemmer doesn’t really believe Emma’s story – or trust her. But he’s being paid so he goes along with her in her quest for answers, trying to track down where her brother might have gone, if he is still alive after all these years and if he really is the man wanted for murder. When a deadly mamba is found in Emma’s room during their stay -and could only have been deliberately planted there- Lemmer is forced to revise his feelings about the validity of this case, and also about Emma le Roux.

The danger to their lives doesn’t stop there. It seems there are people willing to go to any lengths to stop Emma by silencing the both of them – for good. Lemmer is forced to use every trick in the book he can to try and get away without either of them being killed and when Emma is very nearly killed Lemmer feels he has failed in his duty to keep her safe. He decides to go after the men that attacked them, stopping at nothing to exact revenge. Even though he’s one and they are many, he’s got a few things that they don’t.

Following on from reading African Dawn and The Delta by Tony Park I needed a third book set in Africa to complete that leg of the 2011 Global Reading Challenge. I saw Trackers, Meyer’s latest book on the new release shelf at my local library and grabbed that only to find that this one contained Lemmer and was earlier, so I figured I’d better read it first.

I really love Lemmer more than I should! He’s a true bad boy – product of a violent upbringing and hasn’t escaped the cycle, having his own violent past. For the past few years he’s been working as a bodyguard, mostly guarding ministers of Transport and Agriculture with not a lot of excitement going on. That doesn’t stop him from forming his Rules, such as Lemmer’s First Rule (the aforementioned Don’t Get Involved), Lemmer’s Rule of Rich Afrikaners (they’re mostly all wankers) and Lemmer’s Rule of Tiny Women (they will use their tiny cuteness to make you like them). It’s the first rule and the Rule of Tiny Women that are most prominent in this book.

Emma le Roux is a tiny woman. And she tries to use her tiny cuteness to draw Lemmer out of his shell into something resembling a conversation while they’re working together. Despite this, and how much is made of her tiny cuteness, she’s not annoying. In fact she’s a pretty brave and resourceful character. Even though she hasn’t seen her brother since she was in her mid-teens, she’s determined to track him down and is utterly convinced that the suspect in the murders is him, despite the different name. She isn’t put off by the first incident, before hiring Lemmer and even though they face several more along the way, she keeps going, searching for answers and making people talk to her. Of course it helps that she has Lemmer standing right behind her!

I think my favourite thing about this book was Lemmer’s voice. He somehow manages to be both funny and scary at the same time and it says something for Meyer’s skill in writing that he’s so damn likable despite what we learn about him throughout the course of the narrative. He’s unapologetic about who and what he is, which is refreshing and he’s not a cliche. He’s the most interesting character I’ve come across in recent times – I couldn’t get enough of the way in which Lemmer observed things. I’m seriously disappointed there’s not a string of Lemmer novels I can dive into, although I am happy that there’s over half a dozen other Deon Meyer books to read!

What I also enjoyed was that I got a real feel for South Africa reading this book. It’s a country with such a turbulent history (as so many in this region are) and I like learning as I read but in a way that doesn’t make me feel like I am, if that makes sense.  Lemmer and Emma start in the city and then travel, staying at both a luxurious gaming reserve and visiting some remote villages gives a real sense of the vast socio-economic divide and the city life versus the bush life.

Lemmer is a fresh, interesting voice in crime fiction and I really cannot wait to read more books featuring him.

8/10

Book #182 of 2011

Blood Safari counts towards my 2011 Global Reading Challenge! It’s the 3rd novel I’ve read for the African continent which means I can tick Africa off the list – it’s done! And it’s the 14th novel read overall. I can see the light. I just might get this challenge done even though I failed miserably at spacing it out through the year.

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Temple – Matthew Reilly

William Race is an average kind of guy. He’s a linguist, working at a New York university when he turns up to work one day and finds his office overrun with Green Beret’s and important official-looking people. They need his superior language skills to read and translate a found hundred year old Latin American manuscript. Hidden within the manuscript are the directions to a very important tribal artifact – an artifact that has become a hotly contested prize for various powerful factions given that it is made from a substance called thyrium. It is not found on Earth naturally – it can be found only in the parts of meteorites that make it through the Earth’s atmosphere.

William is at first reluctant but the people in his office are persuasive. You only have to translate, they tell him. You can do it while we are en route to our destination (Peru) and then you can turn around and get the first flight home. Intimidated by the entourage, including the Green Beret whose sole job it is to protect Race’s life, he is swept along in an armed escort to the airport where they board a plane bound for Peru. Whilst on board, William begins to read the manuscript and we delve back 400 years into the past into the life of Alberto Santiago, a young monk who is in ‘New Spain’ as part of the Spanish “colonisation’, working in a prison, preaching to those incarcerated who are mostly natives. He is taken by a young native who demands to go free in order to protect something very important to his people. Alberto frees him and goes along with him in the journey to hide the idol from Hernando, the leader of the Spanish invaders who covets it for his own.

When they arrive in Peru, Race decides to stay with the team going in to extract the idol. This is going to prove a lot harder than it sounds as they are definitely not the only team looking for it and the Incans of long ago placed a little insurance policy of their own in the idol’s hiding place to forever warn off the foreigners who may want to come and take it for themselves…

Matthew Reilly books are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. I prefer the Scarecrow novels but I really enjoyed this one. They read like an action blockbuster with lots of explosions, gun fights and spectacular stunts involving planes, helicopters, armored vehicles and just about every other sort of mode of transportation you can think of. At the moment this novel is stand alone but I’ve read an interview where Reilly says he’d like to do another William Race novel and I’d be happy to read one.

Race is supposed to be an average Joe kinda guy. Early 30s-ish, a mild-mannered language professor at a New York university. He’s lived a fairly quiet life after a relationship in college went sour. We don’t get a huge handle on his personal life but safe to say, there seems to be no one that notices when he disappears from home and work to go on this little surprise trip to Peru. Despite the fact that is supposed to be a regular guy, Race turns out to be not only fearless in the face of some situations and creatures that would make the most manliest of men mess their pants, but he also turns out to be a gun expert. And a pretty crack shot. Handy, that!

As the extras in this novel get picked off left, right and centre, Race makes it through relatively unscathed despite all the various enemies having about seven billion machine guns. I really wish that a company would make movies out of Reilly’s novels because they have the potential to be seriously awesome, if done right. I really have no idea about guns and planes and all those sorts of things so I’m sure the picture in my mind looks nothing what is actually supposed to be happening!

I really enjoyed the duel narrative, which is is split between Race in current day and then the monk, Alberto Santiago, 400 years ago as he goes on the mission to hide the Idol from the Spanish invaders. The similarities between the two were a nice touch – Race is the nice guy sucked into something that doesn’t really concern him and ends up playing a vital role (more vital than anyone could have guessed) much the same as Santiago did back in the 1500s.

As always with a Reilly novel, the plot is totally ridiculous but enjoyable and the pacing is fast fast fast! I always feel like I’m running a marathon while I’m reading them, I’m out of breath (or holding it!) waiting for the next big explosion or crazy stunt. Race is no Scarecrow Schofield but he’ll do until I get my hands on Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves!

7/10

Book #181 of 2011

Temple counts towards my 2011 Global Reading Challenge. It is set in Peru so contributes towards my reading for the South American continent. It’s the second book I’ve read for South America and the 13th novel overall.

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The Delta – Tony Park

Sonja Kurtz is a mercenary. Born in what was then known as South-West Africa and forced to flee to neighbouring Botswana during a war, Sonja eventually left Africa for England, joining her mother who had also left Africa to return to the country of her birth. Sonja joined the British Army and served as a soldier and after that became employed by a private company who provide ‘solutions’ to difficult situations.

After a failed assassination attempt on the President of Zimbabwe in which she is double crossed, Sonja is stranded in Africa with all sorts of dangerous people after her. She heads for the only place she feels she might be safe – her childhood home in the heart of Botswana. She’s looking forward to catching up with Sterling Smith, now running the same safari camp her father did many years ago. He’s the man she left behind 20 years ago when she wanted to see the world and do something with herself. Tired of always running, she thinks that settling down in Botswana with Sterling and leaving the mercenary life behind is ideal.

When she arrives, she learns that in Namibia the Government is damming the Okavango and using a hydro-electric scheme to provide the nation with electricity and clean drinking water. This will mean disaster for those downstream of the Okavango in ‘the Delta’ – both the wildlife that rely on it and the country of Botswana, situated where the water empties into a swamp. The damming further upstream will reduce the flow to a trickle, affecting countless numbers of wildlife, already struggling through a drought, and many people in Botswana. At Sterling’s lodge there is currently a consortium of interested parties looking for a way to stop the hydro-electric scheme taking place. Most peaceful avenues have been exhausted and so one of the members, who owns hunting lodges, have called in Martin Steele, the owner of Corporate Solutions….and Sonja’s boss.

Then there’s Sam Chapman, known as ‘Coyote Sam’, a wildlife documentary presenter who is staying at Sterling’s lodge just prior to filming a wildlife documentary in Botswana. When something happens to his production crew and he is unable to contact them, he is stranded in the desert, until Sonja Kurtz comes along. From there, Coyote Sam is also drawn into the plans that Martin Steele has to stop the dam – and Martin needs Sonja to pull them off.

Sonja loves Africa. It’s her home and she grew up here. Now she wants to leave this life behind and settle down, but Martin has always known how to manipulate her so that he gets what he wants. Sonja knows that the money she’ll get from taking part in this plan will set her up for life and she will be able to walk away. But as the event draws closer she begins to realise that she doesn’t know who she can trust – and this might be her last job for Corporate Solutions for other reasons. Someone wants her dead.

After reading Tony Parks most recent novel, African Dawn just a couple weeks ago, I wanted to check out more. I also needed a few more books set in Africa for my Global Reading challenge so I requested a couple in from my local library. The Delta arrived first and I read it in just under two days.

The opening is awesome – we’re introduced to Sonja, who is staked out along a lonely road waiting for the President of Zimbabwe’s road convoy so that she can assassinate him. It all goes haywire and she is stranded alone and hunted in the desert with only a couple of weapons and her wits to get her to a place of safety. She heads to her childhood home in Botswana, searching out safety and her former sweetheart but she finds quite a few nasty surprises along the way.

In another plot, ‘Coyote Sam’ is sort of a Bear Grylls type. He makes his living being dropped into remote locations with a tent and a few supplies and then has to survive until the production crew arrive to get him. Usually there are a few ‘surprises’ along the way for him, such as the time he was given a box of matches with all the heads cut off. When he cannot reach his production crew after spending a couple of nights in the desert, he begins to get worried. This is the worst surprise of all.

These two tie together when Sonja rescues Sam and brings him with her to the safari camp and they find Martin Steele there co-ordinating an attack on the dam. As the film crew are going to film it for their documentary, he sends Sonja along to gather information to further aid them. Despite the fact that the dam is well patrolled and protected after a previous failed attack, Martin has a very viable plan that Sonja knows she can pull off.

Although a fiction novel, The Delta is loosely based (very loosely) in reality. There has been a plan presented by the Namibians to dam the Okavango in the Caprivian region, but this has not proceeded due to environmental concerns about the wildlife and plantlife that would be destroyed in the Delta in Botswana, not to mention how it would affect the Botswana population once the water flow was severely restricted, or even began to dry up. The Delta is the source of a lot of Botswana’s tourism, with safari and hunting lodges operating within it. Angola, Namibia and Botswana, the three countries through which the river flows, are all signatorees to an agreement on how best to share the resources

As well as providing information on the river, the wildlife that it provides for and the people, The Delta also provides a little knowledge about the country now known as Namibia and the politics of southern Africa. It’s by no means a huge part of the story, it’s more to support the plots and there’s just enough information so that you feel informed and know what you’re reading about but not too much that you get bogged down in it, given the myriad of changes in names and governments that a lot of countries in Africa have been through.

The Delta is fast-paced and full of action over the 480-odd pages with never a slow point in the plot. Sonja, despite her often-cold personality is still likable because of her struggle to be doing the right thing by someone important to her and her upbringing which has helped shape the person she is, not to mention the tragedies she has encountered in her adult life, mostly through her dangerous work. Her love of Africa and her home was evident throughout the whole book – Africa seems to inspire a deep loyalty and love in people, no matter what part of it they are from.

The Delta was a great read – this is what I expected of African Dawn but it didn’t quite meet my expectations! I really enjoyed this one and I’m looking forward to my next Tony Park book. My only quibble? That it’d cost much more than $2 million dollars for a viable assassination attempt on Robert Mugabe!

8/10

Book #177 of 2011

I’m counting The Delta towards my 2011 Global Reading Challenge! It is set predominantly in Botswana and Namibia.  It’s the 2nd novel I’ve read for the African continent and the 12th novel overall. More than halfway! I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now.

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Edge Of Survival – Toni Anderson

Dr Cameran Young is a biologist arriving in Labrador, Canada to conduct an environmental impact assessment on char fish in a river close to a nearby mining project. Her results could have the ability to shut the mine down, or move it so she’s not exactly expecting a warm welcome from the local miners who rely on the project going ahead uninterrupted for their livelihood.

What she doesn’t expect to find is a dead body in the toilets of the local bar while she’s waiting for the helicopter that will take her to the offshore research ship that is to be her base for the duration of her stay. Running out and headfirst into Daniel Fox, the helicopter pilot who couldn’t have arrived five minutes ago, Cameran is swept up by Fox into the chopper to get her away from the crime scene and treated by the medical team on the research vessel before she goes into shock. Her and her assistant, the blonde and predatory Vikki who wastes no time going after the handsome former SAS soldier, are to be chauffeured around by Fox for the duration of their study – a slightly awkward situation given the hostility between Cameran and Daniel and the soured one night stand between Daniel and Vikki.

Daniel Fox was burned during an operation as an undercover agent and when his organisation basically hung him out to try he decided to go as far away as he could in order to try and recover from the ordeal. Drowning himself in alcohol and mindless sex with anyone who offers, Daniel is a perfect candidate for the local police to look into for being the murderer. After all, he knew the victim, he has the skills and he’s not exactly giving out the warm and fuzzy vibes. Trying to prove his innocence will be difficult, given his past. But Daniel has discovered that he might’ve found something worth fighting for over here and he’s not going to be framed for any murder, nor is he going to let another one happen.

My Kindle has really gotten a workout the last little while and I received a copy of this one as an eARC from Carina Press and read it pretty much right away. The opening was great, setting a fantastic scene – fish out of water (hehe) Dr Cameran Young and her glamorous assistant Vikki in a bar filled with miners. Cameran needs the bathroom and so she makes the journey alone to the disgusting room and finds a dead body, a young local female who has had her throat slashed. As she’s stumbling back out, enter the hero, the dashing Daniel Fox who is billed as a sort of James Bond, 007 type in manner, and also looks.

I haven’t seen many James Bond movies, mine are strictly limited to the ones that contain Pierce Brosnan as Bond, but I don’t remember him being such an alcoholic control-freak. It’s one thing to be a macho and protective love interest, it’s another thing to be a rude, bossy, domineering jerk which is pretty much what Daniel Fox is. Cameran has diabetes and was diagnosed as a teenager and maintains a strict diet and insulin-injection regime to keep it under wraps. Including the diabetes may have been very important to the author because it’s mentioned way too often and talked about at length way too many times to just be a part of the character decided on a whim. But it’s great for being the catalyst that makes Daniel Fox act like a tool and treat Young like she’s about three years old and can’t take care of herself. He’s always bossily demanding to know when she’s just eaten or when she needs to take her next injection or trying to stop her from doing something because of her diabetes. She’s a grown woman for gods sake, who has managed this condition for many years. Leave her alone! He’s also proof that those afflicted are always the last to know, being utterly oblivious and then in denial about his PTSD from his last mission.

Ignoring the fact that Fox was too overbearing for me, I liked the mystery part of the novel. Trying to figure out who the murderer was and who was trying to frame Fox for it (they were not necessarily one and the same at any one time) was interesting and I enjoyed the little mystery points of view that we got. I wish a little more had been devoted to fleshing out the miners and giving them a voice rather than just being a menacing figure in the background for Cameran’s work. I also liked the secondary characters of the police investigating the murder. They were amusing and well developed and when we were seeing things from their point of view was almost my favourite part of the novel.

A pretty decent mystery but the romance side of it just didn’t really do it for me.

6/10

Book #174 of 2011

Thanks to Carina Press for a chance to read and review this one.

I’m counting this one towards my 2011 Global Reading Challenge! Set in Labrador, Canada it fits into the North American continent which means that my reading for this continent is complete! It’s the 11th book read over all for the challenge.

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African Dawn – Tony Park

Set in Zimbabwe, African Dawn revolves around three families: the Bryants, ex-pat Australian Paul and his wife Pip who run a wildlife park employing local black workers, the Quilter-Phippses with their twin sons Braeden, the dashing armed services hero and the quieter Tate, who works for National Parks and the Ngwenya’s, a poor black family supported and befriended by the Bryant’s.

Starting in 1969 and visiting important years for the families before settling in current day, African Dawn details a broken country struggling to find itself in a bloody and political war where nothing is the same for two days in a row. Paul and Pip are conservationists, running small herds on their farm and they are in danger of losing it as the government seeks to confiscate it for the ‘good of the people’. Paul and Pip know the real reason though – rhino horn trafficking has become incredibly lucrative with wealthy Asians paying around $50,000 US dollars per horn, which will then be ground into a powder and used as a remedy for everything from the flu to cancer.

Paul, now in his 90s, wants to fight to keep his land so he hires Braeden Quilter-Phipps as head of security. Former armed forces, Braeden once saved the life of Paul’s granddaughter Natalie when she was kidnapped by rebels at just 11 years of age. Natalie, all grown up now and a photographer/journalist is writing a book about Zimbabwe and her experiences there. Having lived most of her life in Australia after that traumatic event, she has returned to the country of her birth to reacquaint herself with it and to write her story. She finds herself torn between the brash, overconfident and sure of himself Braeden and his twin brother Tate – quieter, anti-social, harbouring a pain and anger that he has carried around for nearly twenty years. Natalie isn’t the first Bryant woman to be torn between two Quilter-Phipps men – her aunt Hope twenty years earlier had made a decision which ultimately led to her brutal death and the deep-seated hatred the twins now have for one another.

A passionate conservationist, Tate has a radical answer when it looks as though the Bryant’s will lose their farm to corrupt government minister Emmerson Ngwenyas, who harbours a resentment for the Bryant’s after an incident that occurred many years ago. He’s been dabbling in some trafficking and sees the Bryant farm as a perfect way to line his pockets even further. As The Quilter-Phipps’ boys and the Bryant family seek to save their rhinos, it will end in a bloody gunfire that will effect every family involved.

I returned this book to my local library before I reviewed it, which in hindsight, was a bit of a mistake! There were quite a few characters and because it was set in Zimbabwe and some of them were coloured and some white, I can’t remember how to spell some of the names! African Dawn is quite a long book – 500 odd pages in large paperback form and to be honest, it dragged a bit. It took me almost 11 days to read it but I have to say, that’s not entirely the book’s fault. A newborn coupled with discovering the TV show The Big Bang Theory took me away from this book a lot. I watched 4 seasons and 3 episodes of TBBT in just 10 days so there wasn’t much time for reading really!

Some mild ***SPOILERS*** follow here.

My biggest problem with this novel was that a lot hinged on two love triangles: the first is barely touched on but involves Hope, the daughter of Paul and Pip, who is dating Tate but sleeps with Braeden. She confesses to Tate, who spurns her so instead of staying to fight for Tate (which appears to be what she wants) she books a flight straight back to Braeden, which is then shot down by rebels who then find the wreckage and murder everyone who survived the crash that didn’t go for help. Twenty or so years later, Natalie, Hope’s niece returns to Zimbabwe to write a book and we appear to go through the same scenario: she is drawn immediately to Tate and they almost sleep together (but he runs away, tormented by memories of Hope) and so she sleeps with Braeden.

Firstly, I find the relationships a bit, well distasteful to be honest. Sleeping with twin brothers? Seriously, that’s not really very nice, is it? Can’t really think of a better way to betray a guy than to sleep with his sexier, more confident, womanising twin brother (as Braeden is painted). And then Hope is baffled by Tate’s running off and Braeden is furious that Tate didn’t forgive her and blames Tate for causing her death. Oh I don’t know Braeden, maybe you had a hand in it too for not keeping  your hands off someone you knew was your brother’s girlfriend! And Hope well she didn’t waste much time trying to run back to Braeden either. Somehow I find Tate the least to blame in this scenario. And then we go through nearly the exact same thing with Natalie!

I could almost understand if I found Braeden at all an enjoyable and likable character. But he’s mostly a douche – I don’t go in for that overconfident, very sure of himself and his abilities, arrogant kind of jerk. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to understand both Hope and Natalie’s attraction to him. If I am, then that’s an epic fail, because in a novel that included murderers, rhino horn traffickers, Robert Mugabe etc, he was my least favourite characters.

Basically, I wish this novel were more about the plight of the rhinos. It starts off wonderfully, with a much-younger Paul Bryant herding rhinos away from a lake that’s being dammed including a young rhino who makes reappearances throughout the book, and there are sections later on with Tate tagging rhinos and recording their information and the end of the book, which is about saving the rhino population on Paul and Pip’s farm is awesome. But the rest of the book is bogged down in family drama and relationships and I expected more about the rhinos. I expected most of the book to revolve around them and their plight but for me, it didn’t.

However what did work for me was the portrayal of the turmoil that is the country of Zimbabwe. The book spanned a lot of years during which the country underwent a lot of changes and I really got a feel for that. Tony Park is an Australian who also spends a lot of time in southern Africa and this shows. He knows the places he is writing about and his knowledge, which is political, environmental and cultural is crystal clear. I learned while looking up his previous works that one of his novels, African Sky, is the story of Paul and Pip Bryant’s meeting and I’d very much like to read that. I think that with Braeden Quilter-Phipps removed, I would really enjoy his novels, all of which are set in Africa. I think that Tony Park can tell a story and paint a picture of Africa that is very vivid for someone that has never been and is never likely to. It was just a particular aspect of the plot in this instance, that didn’t work for me.

I’m going to request a couple more from my library and see how I go with them.

6/10

Book #168 of 2011

I’m counting this book as one of my reads for my 2011 Global Reading Challenge. African Dawn is set in Zimbabwe, Africa and is the first book I’ve read from that continent and the 10th book overall!)

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The Pirate’s Daughter – Margaret Cezair-Thompson

Ida is just  a young girl in 1946 when Hollywood swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn ends up in Jamaica after a storm sends his boat off course. Her father, a taxi driver, ends up driving Flynn around and then moves into real estate, helping Flynn purchase a Jamaica home when he falls in love with the island. Flynn is in and out of Ida’s life for years and they fall into a relationship when she is still just a teenager and in school.

Ida has dreams of marrying Flynn (who is already married but separated later into the affair) but Flynn absconds after Ida tells him she is pregnant. She ends up giving birth to their daughter and raising her alone at a time when Jamaica is facing trouble and uprising. Her daughter May is precocious and although Ida loves her dearly, she is forced by various circumstances to leave her in someone’s care in Jamaica and go to America to work, to earn enough money to raise her well.

May grows up wondering about her father. Her mother tells her very little about him and she has to piece together bits and pieces herself, especially during her mother’s prolonged absence in America. She meets Flynn just once during her lifetime and he shows her a map that he truly treasures. When Flynn dies of a heart attack, her mother’s wealthy husband, who was also a friend of Flynn’s buys the island in Jamaica where Flynn lived and May gets to live in a house that was previously her father’s. As Jamaica goes through a tumultuous time fighting for independence and peace, May searches for the map her father showed her that one time she crossed paths with him. The conflict will end up on their little island by way of someone who should’ve been a friend and May will learn the truth about the people that have shaped her life.

The Pirate’s Daughter was one of the books I picked up last year in the Borders Warehouse Sale that I went to and I chose to read it for the 2011 Global Challenge this year as I thought a book set in Jamaica was something a bit new and different to the typical choices for that continent. I usually am a bit so-so on books that are truth mixed with fiction and this book proved to be no exception. I didn’t know much about Errol Flynn but I definitely didn’t find him a character I enjoyed having as a part of the book. I found his interest in teenage children disturbing and bordering on pedophilia. Ida is 15 or 16 at the time of their liaison and towards the end of Flynn’s appearance in the book, he is shacked up with a 16yo at 50 years of age (taken from Flynn’s real life – his relationship with a 16yo girl at the time of his death was believed to be sexual and confirmed by the girls own mother). There’s a lot of drinking (a lot of drinking, it seems very ingrained in the Jamaican culture and is done from a young age) and Flynn partying with Hollywood friends, with real names littered throughout. His treatment of the teenage Ida is pretty abominable and it makes it hard to really see him as the sort of figure that Ida does. Despite the way he treats her and the fact that he doesn’t acknowledge May, she continues to idolise him throughout her life and is grieved by his death, even though she sees him only a handful of times again and the last few times, she is married to his friend. It seemed pretty unrealistic and it alienated Ida from me, as I couldn’t really sympathize with her. She also went from a devoted mother of May to a pretty distant one when she went to America, which seemed very out of character.

May herself (the book takes us into her adulthood) isn’t much of a likable or sympathetic character either and she also made some pretty dubious choices, particularly involving men and sex. She embarks on a kind of emotional affair (I don’t think it’s ever actually consummated) with an older man who was a friend of her father and is probably in his sixties and May is a teenager and still in school, about sixteen or seventeen. It’s distasteful, even though it’s not sexual and it just seems to be a theme that’s repeated throughout the book – older men, very young girls. Perhaps it’s more common, or less frowned upon in Jamaican culture, but it was not easy to read this book and enjoy it when there were all these relationships that as I said before, bordered on pedophilia at the most and at the least, involved old men taking advantage of young girls.

Another thing that bothered me was that this book is at least 75-100 pages too long. So much detail, the book just became bogged down in it and it felt like I was plowing through a 900page tome. The history and culture of Jamaica that it evoked was interesting and it was nice to read something different, set in a different setting but ultimately I was never really invested in this story, or the characters. It was mostly just going through the motions reading.

4/10

Book #163 of 2011

I’m counting this book towards my 2011 Global Reading Challenge as part of the North American continent. This is the second book  completed for that particular continent and the 9th book overall for the challenge.

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