05 October 2011

This Week I've Been Mostly Reading...

...girl books. I try to motivate myself to read long and/or non-fiction books by allowing myself to read something a little lighter in between, as a reward. So over the past week (well, fortnight, really), I've read these books:

1. The First Wife
After finishing Tim Harford's latest book Adapt (for which I spent four months on my library's waiting list), which I enjoyed but not as much as his earlier books (it ended up being rather repetitive and there were too many military examples for my liking), I treated myself to a psy-chick-ological thriller, in the form of The First Wife by Emily Barr, which was recommended either in Stylist or the Grauniad.

The story is thus: Lily was raised by her grandparents after her parents decided they couldn't be bothered to be parents and skipped the country and her upbringing sounds rather off, with very little socialisation and almost no modern technology. After her grandparents die and she is left penniless, she gets a job as a cleaner for an attractive, quasi-famous couple. She falls for the husband but after his wife dies in mysterious circumstances in Spain and Lily appears to be on her way to becoming the second wife, Lily realises that nothing is as it seems. Some of the quoted reviews on the cover suggest comparisons with Don't Look Now and Rebecca are warranted. I'm not sure these are quite merited but The First Wife is a solid, haunting page-turner of a psychological thriller and Lily's naive and often elusive or secretive story-telling did even remind me a little of Never Let Me Go, at times.

2. Wild Swans
Next on my list was Wild Swans (non-fiction and long), which I've been meaning to read for years--since I was at school, at least, as I remember starting to read it on several occasions during free periods but never getting very far. More recently, I had hoped to take it out of my local library but the copy seemed to have been missing for several years. This week, though, they finally had a new copy and I pounced. Wild Swans tells the true story of three generations of Jung Chang's family. Her grandmother had her feet bound and was married off as the concubine of a rich warlord, who spent just enough time to impregnate her before dying, allowing her to marry for love--a much older doctor. Their daughter, Jung's mother, rose through the ranks of the Communist party, marrying a fellow Communist official and painfully giving birth to several children including Jung. After her father criticises Mao, Jung's parents are tortured and she is exiled before eventually winning a place at university and, finally, winning a scholarship to an English university and escaping China. It's a powerful book, packing in huge amounts of the history of China during the 20th century, the upheavals and revolutions, the famines and the constant reversals of fortunes. Chang is an evocative and informative narrator and I like the way the book combines personal history and the history of the country. Oh, and she studied linguistics, which is always nice to see!

3. The Lady of the Rivers
Interesting as Wild Swans was, I needed something lighter again and luckily, my library had just got the new Philippa Gregory book, The Lady of the Rivers, the latest in Gregory's Cousins Wars series, looking at the women of the 15th century who went on to become the wives and mothers of the Tudor kings. Previously in this series, Gregory has told the stories of Elizabeth Woodville (Edward IV's "Kate Middleton") and the foundress of St Jocks'; now, it is the turn of Elizabeth Woodville's mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Jacquetta is married to the Duke of Bedford--the English king's head honcho in France--at the age of 17, after a brief meeting with Joan of Arc (who thinks Jacquetta's gowns aren't very practical for riding).

According to Gregory, Bedford wants her for her Second Sight rather than her body but he soon dies, leaving Jacquetta with the hots for one of his men, a certain gentleman named Richard Woodville. Love matches, it seems, run in this family. I haven't read any further yet but it seems that Jacquetta's second marriage causes the family to fall from favour before they regain ascendancy; well, until her daughter Elizabeth's own marriage to Edward IV comes into question thanks to Jacquetta's alleged witchcraft. This book isn't very different from the other Cousins Wars titles but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm keen to bring my knowledge of 15th century England up to the level of my Tudor knowledge is an enjoyable way to go about it.

Next on my list:

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