Monday, September 27, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: Smith by Leon Garfield

Smith is, with the exception of Catherine Webb’s the Dream Thief, the best YA novel I have read this year.

I have often heard it spoken of by experts in the field of Children’s Literature and I had been desperate to read it for awhile. I did, however, wait until it was just turning into fall, ‘til the chill was creeping in, the leaves changing and the clouds hanging grey and lugubriously low in the sky.

I was well-rewarded for my attention to atmosphere.

Set in a gritty and fascinating maze of Victorian London, the story involves Smith: a beguiling pickpocket who witnesses a murder and retrieves from the victim a document he knows must be of infinite importance.

Smith takes the document and holds it close to his heart--- he is desperate to uncover its worth and why it led to tragedy and determines to solve the case--- only problem is: Smith is illiterate.

So begins this gruff but compassionate boy's quest to Learn to Read. Smith pops in and out of alleys and corners and nooks asking all of the local roundabouts: from magistrates to priests to those holed in the damply decrepit Newgate to Learn Him to Read.

When a fateful encounter with a blind judge changes Smith’s life, Smith learns ever so much about justice, humanity and the mysteries of life beyond the horrors of the street.

Unexpected heroism, betrayal and plot turns--- as well as a dollop of heart and feel-good-ness permeate each spectacularly-written page.

The writing is what most stands out about this book. It is chockfull of consonance, alliteration, symmetry, symbolism, analogies and descriptive paragraphs so delicious they will loll on your tongue for days.

The closest comparison I can think of to the painstaking attention placed to the writing and rhythm ---as well as the dark evocation of London --- is Catherine Webb’s Horatio Lyle series ( which everyone knows as my favourite YA series ever).

Thus, I encourage everyone to pick up a copy. Published in the late 1960s and a Carnegie Medal book, libraries and used bookstores will be a good place to find it.

Enough murder and mayhem and dark alleys to count for RIP!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Scout, Atticus and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by Mary McDonagh Murphy

Scout, Atticus and Boo is the perfect companion piece to the celebration of To Kill A Mockingbird’s 50th Anniversary.

A compilation of interviews Mary McDonough Murphy completed with a range of personalities from tv celebrities

( including Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey ), authors ( including Wally Lamb and Scott Turow ), actors ( the young lady who played Scout in the exceptional 1961 film version) and locals of Monroeville Alabama ( such as Nelle Harper’s minister).

Everyone spoke to the meaning of the book in their lives and determinedly reiterated its importance as one of the most ground-breaking and influential books ever published.

The interviews conducted were exposed in such a natural and conversational tone, I felt like I was sitting in a circle of chairs at a book club. Of course, most lovers of the book championed one of the characters: Scout, the irrepressible Tomboy; Atticus, the emblem of all that is morally right in a crooked society and Boo Radley, the enigmatic “other” whose personal convictions mirror the very heart of the novel’s ethical core.

From the brilliantly embroidered prose of the opening scenes, through Scout’s childhood vernacular, through the painting of one of the most intensely-realized court scenes in literature, each interviewee expressed the novel’s indelible stamp on their lives.

Those, like myself, who are particularly hungry for more about the novel’s elusive author will snatch at the fleeting snippets of her life she keeps so well-hidden. Speculations are made on why she never published a subsequent novel after penning a masterpiece and those who know her personally were quick to evade any judgments regarding her reclusive nature. Instead, Nelle Harper is painted as a humble and spicy woman who avoids the limelight merely because she stepped into it long enough to have her say and stepped out of it when she knew her words had reached the world.

To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the most poignant and influential books to inform my literary “upbringing.” I first read it at 14 and have read it every subsequent year since.

Oft thought of for its major themes and statements regarding Civil Liberties, Equality and Racism ( I capitalize them because they are so integral to this work), the novel remains, for a writer and reader, an exposition in simple yet gloriously well-settled prose.

Those who appreciate Mockingbird for its grand soap-box platform are also those who appreciate deft characterization, the sprinkling of humour in a largely ugly and unfair situation, the little charms and nuances of a father-daughter relationship.

To Kill a Mockingbird, I learned, is not just a world that I can (and often do ) crawl into ---- not just a place, ramshackled and old that I can peek in and explore at the snap of a page. No, it is a world for everyone: no matter race, colour or creed. The universal plight of humanity, the natural instinct for goodness and conscience is reclaimed every time someone rambles imaginatively into 1930s Maycomb.

I felt, having turned the last page of Scout, Atticus and Boo somewhat validated. My crazy love for this book is well-founded! Readers of all walks of life walk away having been met with different experiences---- but vital and important experiences nonetheless.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: the Keeper of Secrets by Judith Cutler

The Keeper of Secrets by Judith Cutler is basically the anti-Sebastian St. Cyr novel though both are set during the Regency. While the St. Cyr novels deal with an overtly grizzly society and mix the horrors of the outskirts with the vicious underbelly of London; Tobias Campion and friends are nestled in shrouded Moreton St. Jude: a village seemingly outset from the crimes of urban centre….

Tobias Campion is a young minister who has recently stepped into clerical role in the small country parish of Moreton St. Jude. Relinquishing his family’s rich status and devoting himself to a higher calling, Toby is confused by the sinister under-workings of the seemingly small and well-functioning town.

Together with his servant Jem and the delightful Dr. Hansard, Toby is forced to utilize his intuition, integrity and deductive skills to solve whether or not one Lord of the Manor was killed by accident and the gruesome murder of a young maid with whom Tobias ( minister or not ) was completely smitten.

The book is wracked with social commentary and minutiae on daily life in rural Regency England. This is the coziest of historical tea cozies and, like the best detective stories, the murder and mystery take second precedent to the charm of daily life and the excellent, if soft-handed, characterization of the village people.

Rather than spouting facts about the Regency period and some of its social inequalities and atrocities, Cutler, instead, couches her humane and inspiring story within the confines of Regency setting. You do not feel you are reading a historical novel because you are so very much involved in the historical novel.
The people and places and little happenstances of every day life are what colour the outlines of this superbly-written mystery.
Though set a century-and-some before, Cutler’s tale reminded me very much of Foyle’s War: another character piece where murder is sewn into the fabric of society and daily life in Hastings, as daily life in Moreton St. Jude, is painted in unobstructed colour. All of the characters are easy to emotionally invest in and the tale plays out in vividly relatable circumstance.
I so look forward to reading Shadow of the Past.
You can read more about Judith Cutler and the Tobias Campion books on her website!

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Today's BBAW topic, Forgotten Treasures, is a favourite: inspiring readers to turn their thoughts to books you, as a reader and blogger, feel may be under-marketed

Well, if you’ve read my blog at ALL… ever... you know that I am passionate about the books I am passionate about.

The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle by Catherine Webb. Subsequent books in the series include The Obsidian Dagger, the Doomsday Machine and the Dream Thief. Take my word for it--- you will never read anything like Catherine Webb’s prose: it is scintillating, shiny, spectacular, fantastic, amazing, splendid, wonderful…..

Catherine Webb has earned the spot of my favourite Young Adult/Teen Novelist ( though she is fast seeping into label of My Favourite Living Writer). I have introduced Horatio Lyle to all of my kindred spirits in an act of Book Kismet that immediately allows me to determine my Best Book Friends. If you like Catherine Webb: you and I are probably meant to be friends.

The Blue Castle by L M Montgomery.

People. People. People. We all know Montgomery is one of my passions and I could rant on and on about how there are two different kinds of L M Montgomery fans in the world: those who subscribe to the Kevin Sullivanesque Anne-verse and those of us who love LM Montgomery’s Life and Lesser Works ( enough to know she came to despise the red-headed orphan and her character’s pronounced hindrance on her ability to creatively excel in other types of fiction.

Montgomery spent more than half of her life in Ontario and wrote every book but Anne IN Ontario. The Blue Castle, however, is the only book in Montgomery’s canon set entirely outside of PEI (and not too far from where I grew up). I sum up my love for it in my With Reverent Hands Post (at BookLust)

I also have taken it upon myself to promote Arthur Slade’s books. This has been a project for years now and I try to do what I can to make sure that EVERYONE KNOWS ABOUT HIM. A fabulous moment occurred when a blog reader/author emailed me and asked: does Arthur Slade pay you commission? I am an author and I would like to see if I could pay you to do the same type of marketing.

HA! What a compliment. I knew, then, I was doing a good job. Jolted is my favourite of his books ( but tends to have a decidedly Canadian sense of humour).

The Jack Absolute series by CC Humphreys

Some of my favourite books to hand-sell as a bookseller. Few customers I served would be able to walk out the door without a copy of something Jack Absolute in their hands. Canadian history reads out of Bernard Cornwell with a Patrick O’Brian chaser. They were just what I needed in university to wile away those hours not spent at the library. The Thinking Person’s Beach Read.

The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch.

“I bought this stupid book because of you!” my friend once told me sardonically “ And now I can’t bloody stop reading it and I am not getting any work done. “

I think the quote above speaks to the book's appeal and engagement.

Of course I am not paid commission. My book love is completely genuine and borne out of a need and passion to contagiously spread the books that make me giggle and clap; screech and tap; that make my fingertips tingle and cause me to ration them so that I don’t reach the end too quickly ---to the world. I want you to experience books I love in the same way I do.

In turn, I appreciate how the blogging community immediately sends me to look up a favoured title on amazon or to the hold shelf on the Toronto Public Library homepage.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: the Dark Deeps by Arthur Slade

Modo and Octavia, under the orders of the complicatedly sinister Mr. Socrates have re-emerged from their last disastrous adventure to trace the whereabouts of a missing fellow spy.

To New York they go, disguised as husband and wife and then to sea where a twist of fate sends the inimitable Modo to the very depths of the abyss.

A french spy, Colette, a man with the amazing power to make himself invincible named Griff and the villainous Captain of the steam-powered submarine ship Ictineo pepper the fast-paced homage to Victoriana.

I must confess that these stories are especially fun for those who are familiar with their source material. Drawing on Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dickens, Hugo ( to a lesser extent in this volume than in the first Hunchback Assignments ) and even Arthur Conan Doyle, this addition to the extremely popular Steampunk genre will be a hit with kids.

The isolating cabin wherein Modo finds himself trapped at the bottom of the Ocean as well as the gruesome circumstances surrounding Modo and Octavia’s missing colleague and the re-appearance of the Clockwork Guild add the thrills and chills needed for the Hallowe’en Season.

I was at a reading of Arthur Slade’s where an adorable child reader pronounced that Modo satisfied all of her “reading needs.” The Dark Deeps is a compelling follow- up to the ˆHunchback Assignments and a perfect addition to the RIP challenge.

As per usual, Slade writes deliciously and there are few contemporary writers whose prose seems so sparkly and alive. Humour (also, as per usual) is threaded throughout and I caught myself laughing aloud more than once: even in public places!

When the cunning spy Octavia ( probably my favourite character in the series) attests : “ I do not cough. I expel air daintily”, I snorted coffee up my nose on my morning train commute. Just before Modo falls deep deep into the ocean, he has a last, fleeting moment to part with Octavia: “He tried to find some final, memorable words to leave her with, but all that came out of his mouth was ‘uh—ohhhhh!’ and he fell into the Atlantic.”

Not wanting to leave Modo without a wily and winsome heroine, Colette and Modo join tentative sides aboard the Ictineo. Colette is as equally as savvy and sassy as Octavia and bemoans her boredom in captivity on the ship: “Twenty-eight day and four hours, not that I’m counting. I hope you like reading books and looking at fish!”

When Colette questions Modo’s being in Iceland, Modo cleverly quips: “We were travelling to Iceland for diplomatic reasons. And smoked cod, of course”

Slade doesn’t really stop. Ever. There is a winning line on almost every page.

Thematically, the emphasis of Utopia and Captain Monturiol’s obsession with an underwater Utopia provides a deep and level contrast to the moments of humour, of monsters and of invisible men. Slade also quotes Coleridge for good measure ( seriously, folks, when was the last time someone threw Xanadu into a kids’ book? )

The only thing the book lacked was MORE OCTAVIA! While Colette was certainly interesting and Griff a surprising foil for Modo, Octavia and Modo’s relationship and the chemistry in the snap-crackle-pop dialogue flitting between them was sorely missed. I can only hope she turns up to greater extent in the next Hunchback novel.

This series is absolutely, tremendously and utterly unique and, as always, proves its writer’s almost ridiculously wide-spanning literary range.

Slade’s narrative voice is like a comfort zone to me: like the smell of pumpkin pie or macaroni and cheese--- it’s something I am so used to and so enjoy sinking into. A tremendously great yarn full of things that go bump in the night ( and at the bottom of the ocean, no less); of gaslight and creaking carriage wheels; of people who are not who they say they are; of steam-powered madness; of distant utopias on strange, green lands--- or on the crust of the ocean’s silvery bottom. The Dark Deeps is an imaginative smorgasbord.

( and while you're at it---- read Jolted ---one of my favourite books ever)

This might seem like a hiatus but it's not, really.


Though I haven't posted here in awhile, it certainly doesn't mean that I have desisted reading.

Should you wish to learn more about what a Christian reads from the Secular realm, please visit my other book blog at A Fair Substitute For Heaven

RIP CHALLENGE: Edgar Allen Poe ( with ratings!!!) Vol. 1

10 ravens= scary as hell

5 ravens= mildly discomforting; but really just me thinking E.A.P was on drugs

1 raven= try harder: that Gilmore Girls Episode with the dueling Raven-recitations when the Poe Society visited Stars Hollow was scarier.

The Pit and the Pendulum:

Bloody hell! I could hear the pendulum squeaking back and forth in creaking time like the deathly toll of a clock. This is one long-played-out-heart-catching-throat-tightening tale of horror.

From the beginning of the story when the narrator ( I am hesitant to say protagonist because it is hard to know anything about him: other than his willful wiles when it comes to executing a desperate plan ) is sentenced to death and he pronounces his absolute hopelessness at his situation; through his captivity in a prison like a damp catacomb; to his reaching through a parade of rats for the heavily spiced meat meant to spring him into even further thirst and madness by his tormentors and finally through his realization that he has been strapped to a board with the dangling axe of a lethal pendulum swinging ever nearer him, I was completely hooked. This is brilliant suspense reading and kept me, as it did the narrator, hanging by a thread.

The fact that the story is set during the trials of the Inquisition painted an even more eerie canvas 10 RAVENS

( read it online)

The Black Cat:

Okay, this one is just gruesome. Poe, you are one strange cookie. There is some thematic relevance pointed when the narrator’s affection for the cat is thus transplanted to the cat when the narrator first kills him.

Yes, there is a dead cat: with a white patch of fur noose-like ringing his neck and one eye gone. There is also a woman. And a wall. And blood and gore and monsters and gore and …..

Weirdness. 6.3 RAVENS

(read it online)

The Masque of the Red Death:

Ummm…. So I guess our friend Poe is into history because here we are again in another century: this time engulfed by the Black Death or Plague. A pompous prince throws a shin dig at his gothic castle and from tile to buttress there is an impending whistle of doom. This castle is populated by several coloured rooms: one a glowing, ethereal red that just forebodes death and destruction. And, well, whatdy’a know…. It does.


(read it online)

The Fall of the House of Usher:

This one begins very much like I imagine Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening to play out. Traveler on the crust of the woods overlooking an estate he knows ----or once knew---- but, it really turns into very much like I imagine Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening to play out if it ended with BLOODSHED, DESTRUCTION and MAYHEM! And people built into walls and houses crashing ( think House of Clennam at the end of Dickens’ Little Dorrit ) and DESTRUCTION and MAYHEM. I bet E.A.P. had trouble sleeping at night. 8.7 RAVENS

(read it online)

The Tell-Tale Heart

Umm. This is the one with the floorboards. And the creaking. And the throbbing and the pulsing and the ….GOOD GOD ….make it stop. It reminds me of that bloody pendulum. 9.0 RAVENS

( read it online)

The Cask of Amontillado

This is the one that you don’t want to read if you are in any way, shape or form claustrophobic. 8.0 RAVENS

(read it online)

More Poe soon to come: including The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl: because if he did such a stellar job of Dickens, his Poe can't be half-bad!


Monday, September 13, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl was a spontaneous addition to my RIP Challenge reading… and a perfect choice.

I am very interested in Dickens. Thus, I was excited to dive into Pearl’s novel about the shady circumstances surrounding Dickens' untimely death and the mysteries unsolved regarding the unfinished manuscript of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Drawing on figures fictional and historical and even Charles Dickens himself, Pearl weaves a splendidly theatrical and at times chilling and horrific yarn about one of the world’s most famous writers and one of literature’s greatest mysteries.

The chapters devoted to the past and, in particular, to Dickens' reading tour of the States are as compelling as those unraveling in present time. While in Boston last year, I was delighted to trace snippets of Dickens throughout the gorgeous historical city and those interested in how massive book events came to pass in the 19th Century will be really intrigued. Also, it was well known that Dickens devoted himself to largely theatrical unveilings of some of his larger-than-life characters ( imagine women swooning as he retold the gruesome butchery of Nancy at the hands of the evil Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist). Pearl’s research on this subject and on Dickens’ literary tour are sublime.

Publishing aficionados will be in heaven with Pearl’s exposition of the trade and especially of Bookaneers: book pirates who would steal into readings, take jot notes and re-sell the material overheard in cheap abridged versions thus completely obliterating the strict ethical code dueling publishers held sacred. I also very much enjoyed reading about the transportation of manuscripts from England for serial publication in the States: a high-stakes game, publishers would have to sneakily pick up the goods whilst stingy and wily bookaneers kept evil watch on the sidelines. It is here that The Last Dickens begins. Publisher James Osgood is horrified to learn that the trusted clerk, Daniel Sand, he sent on a mission to retrieve the last existing installment of Drood before Dickens’ death, has been run down by a cart in the street. The police prove that Daniel Sand was under the influence of opium at the time and while Osgood and Daniel’s sister Rebecca find this highly uncharacteristic, the missing piece of the Drood puzzle requires a trip to England and into a dark and sinister web of characters, plots and deeds.

The Last Dickens splits its time equally between Boston, London and India. The novel (especially the portions in India) focuses greatly on the Opium Trade ( see: Opening Chapters of Edwin Drood ) and Dickens’ son Frank’s military service (Canadians should note that Francis Dickens also served time as a Northwest Mounted Policeman and can read of his adventures in Dickens of the Mounted).

There are some really chilling moments: in an opium den, revisiting a gruesome Boston murder and a tale in a graveyard involving a father whose missing son’s bones rained down upon his head from a hidden roof compartment. The scenes at Dickens’ writing cottage in Gadswill are splendidly atmospheric and the premonitory events following Dickens’ Staplehurst train incident ( a pivotal moment in the author’s life and in the book) are just about as climactic and heart-stopping as one will find in suspense fiction.

The elements of theatricality permeating the tale expose themselves in eerie and grotesque ways: especially when characterized by a female stalker who forces Dickens to read her manuscript aloud in a tragic and darkly humorous scene and by the elusive Dick Datchery---- a sinister and mentally unbalanced figure who claims that since Dickens hypnotized him he has been reincarnated as one of the colourful characters from The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

This novel is very rich and very suspenseful. While there is more than a healthy dollop of history ( especially literary history ) interwoven, it is an engaging read. Pearl certainly understands even the minutiae of the time period and his characters, including Charles Dickens, leap off the page. The dialogue is wonderful and every slight happenstance is rendered with the greatest assertion of verisimilitude. It is one of the best written books I have read in a stint.

I was absolutely smitten.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

this makes me happy....

Y' know Arthur Slade?: best Canadian YA author ever?

yah. him.

Anyways, read this over at his LJ. This picture made me very happy!

And while you're at it, go read this or you can go read this and maybe even pre-order this (which comes out on Feb 13th-- the day before my birthday! huzzah!)

okay. I have a party to go to.

Go read things.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Jewel Box by Anna Davis

The Jewel Box by Anna Davis has been my subway book the past week. I picked it up on a whim at the Reference Library in the Browse section while I was picking up other holds.

It’s not that great--- but it is perfect for the subway.

In the morning while I am sitting, half-awake, I need something light and that doesn’t require a lot of thought: this was the right book.

It was unremarkable but amusing.

Diamond Sharp is London’s gamine and sparkling columnist. Sort of the Candace Bushnell of her day, Diamond recalls swinging 1920s West End Life: martinis, dance clubs, flappers, bobs and the hottest music and wildest men.

In real life, Diamond is Grace Rutherford: a smart if somewhat dourly introspective publicist who lives with her sister, niece and nephew and her mother and yearns for the past.

When Dexter O’Connell, famed, prize-winning American novelist arrives on the scene and awakens elements of the past, Grace and her sister are forced to confront secrets that they have holed silently for years.

I really enjoyed the setting as I have rarely read books set in 1920s London.The love triangle between Grace, Dexter and neighbour John Cramer was a tad redundant but, I suppose, did move the strain on the sister’s relationship to a well-established breaking point.

While I enjoyed the insertion of Grace’s “Diamond Sharp” columns and respected Davis’ handle of the lingo of the age, I couldn’t help but feel something was missing. Some spark or sense of passion.

It all played out very paint-by-numbers. That being said, it was a good pick for wiling subway hours away. Davis mentions in an afterward that the likes of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway inspired the lush and lavish landscape of her gilded tale. This book left me with a hankering to revisit the real thing.

Monday, September 06, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris

Hurrah for Labour Day weekend! I got to finish the first book from my personal RIP Challenge list!

Yesterday during a few beguiling hours in Philosopher's Walk ( a favourite reading spot in Toronto), a pumpkin spice latte warming my hands from Toronto's first chill and today: on the subway, before meeting up with friends to play boardgames, and now, at night in my own little apartment..... I READ! READ! READ!

In the fourth Sebastian St. Cyr Mystery, Where Serpents Sleep, Sebastian is summoned by Hero Jarvis to help him solve the slaughter of eight prostitutes, brutally murdered and then burned inside the Magdalene House for Reformed Prostitutes. Hero is the only witness having been near the Magdalene House doing research on how 18th Century Society determines which women will survive and which will be tossed into the streets by financial circumstances and birth.

An unlikely ally and the daughter of the Prince Regent's First Cousin, Hero proves years ahead of her time. Unlike the other society women of the Ton, Hero is rambunctious, smart, brave and stubborn: a perfect counter to the gentlemanly and darkly enigmatic St. Cyr. Together with Sebastian's usual companions: Tom, his "tiger" and helpmate and Paul Gibson, a veteran and surgeon, Sebastian and Hero race against time to stop a plot that peripherally involves the assassination of Britain's Prime Minister.

Harris, as always, does a wonderful job of keeping the suspense in first-rate order from the beginning of the book. Moreover, she inserts enough factual historical detail to make one insatiable for more of the period after turning the last page.

I preferred this to the first three St. Cyr novels ( though altogether excellent ) because I prefer Hero Jarvis as a companion to Sebastian and not Sebastian's (rather cliche ) lover/actress Kat Boleyn.

Having revealed a plethora of St. Cyr family secrets in past volumes, Harris was able to plot the characters and unravel the mystery without being burdened by side-stories and revelations. For this I was very glad.

This was a perfect addition to the RIP challenge because it was chock-full of suspenseful, scary moments ( including a claustrophobic episode trapping Sebastian and Hero beneath the ground near St. Clement's as the tide threatened to pull in and drown them. Darkness shrouds them with nothing but a flickering lantern to quell their seemingly disastrous fate). Harris does a wonderful ( if gruesome ) job of describing the carnage wreaked on the unwilling victims: culminating in the death of one of the most likeable characters in this instalment.

Throughout, Harris mentions the transition from the age of oil to gas and I was especially intrigued by her expositions on lanterns. I could easily imagine the sleek dark streets, peppered with the transient light of gas. I could smell the refuse lining the ramshackle streets and hear the clop of horse's hooves as Sebastian steals through the London night.

An excellent series pairing two very unlikely people against a callous and horrible series of crimes.

Sebastian remains a winning and complex hero with more than one skeleton in his past. I await the day when we learn more of his experiences in the War and how they shaped his current moral compass.

I can't wait to read more of Hero and Sebastian's dual adventures!

Visit C.S. Harris' website

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Death by Fame: A Life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria by Andrew Sinclair

After my trip to Vienna this summer, I became somewhat enamoured of the enigmatic and ridiculously fascinating Elisabeth or "Sisi", wife of Franz Josef.

The Austrians adore her in the same way that the Brits adore Princess Diana and, like Eva Peron, she remains a figure of conflict: to some an emblem of quiet charity, to others an over-spender who fell victim to a life of excess.

Elisabeth is anything but a slight princess of rigid occupation who settled quietly into the string of the seemingly unending Hapsburg Rule. Sisi was a thinker, a modern woman, an athlete and a sportswoman who, in many ways, forged the path for modern femininity.

A victim to the structure of her marriage ( at 15 ) to Emperor Franz Josef and all too in love with yet fearful of the public eye, Elisabeth was a martyr to the cult of her beauty.

She enjoyed her foot-long tresses ( it took several hours to braid them in regal crown ); her 20 inch waist and her strict physical regime.

Elisabeth's diet ( one of the earliest recorded of anorexia) often saw the Empress undergoing monstrous control: from two glasses of goat's milk a day; to beef broth and a single biscuit: all while strenuously hiking, riding and performing acrobatics in her personal gym.

I was fortunate enough to trace the steps of Elisabeth in two cities: Innsbruck and Vienna.

At the Sisi museum in Vienna, you are walked through the Empress's life and her keen, glorious sense of fashion. You are also led through the Royal Apartments at the Hofburg Palace: which have been kept in the same resplendent fashion which welcomed Elisabeth, her husband and her children. Though she did not occupy as much time at Schonnbrun Palace, there are still traces of her there.

At the Hofburg in Innsbruck, rooms set for the traveling Elisabeth are kept in pristine order.

Elisabeth was a poet who yearned to emulate the style of the great classicists ( and even learned Greek in her latter years); a nomad who couldn't bear the refines of Court life so fled all over the continent; a master hunter ( Sinclair's book notes her riding and hunting skills and even excursions which put her in the path of the great English hunters and even Queen Victoria; and a tortured woman succumbing to melancholia.

Though she spent herself in the case of beauty and precision; she abhorred the feeling that everyone was staring at her.

Several events which catapulted the near end of the Hapsburg Reign ( from the execution of Maximilian to the infamous double-suicide of her son Rudolf and his mistress Marie ) are explored in depth in this expressly readable biography.

The climactic scenes of Elisabeth murdered in Geneva at the complacent hands of an Italian assassin who merely wanted to kill a Royal, not caring which one, are moving.

I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the life of this fascinating monarch.

Sinclair argues that in Sisi's case, like Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco and Diana, Princess of Wales, Fame becomes a harrowing catalyst and while the after-death popularity of each of the aforementioned strains to the point of near-cannonization; the lives of each lived are tumultuous, fascinating and a supreme example of the many contours of human life.