Sunday, 29 January 2012

Review: Liar's Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce

I wrote about how much I was looking forward to this book back in OctoberLiar's Moon is the second book in Bunce's Thief Errant trilogy, following StarCrossed.  Bunce very deftly avoids falling into the dreaded "middle book syndrome" because she makes use of a new setting, new characters, and new situation.  In the first book, our protagonist, the thief Digger/Celyn escapes a job gone wrong and hides out with a noble family in the north.  She is slowly drawn into the civil war being fomented by magic users (who are persecuted under the current rulers and, especially, the religious authority of the Celystra).

Liar's Moon, on the other hand, is set in Gerse, Digger's home and the capital of Llyvraneth.  The noose is being drawn more tightly around Gerse every day, as the civil war, led by the Sarists and Prince Wierolf (whom we met in the previous book) comes closer and closer to the city.  Meanwhile, a curfew is in effect and the Greenmen, soldiers of the Inquisition, are rooting out and killing magic users throughout the city.  Digger finds herself in prison (not too surprising) and meets an old friend, Durrell, who has been accused of murdering his wife.

The novel begins as a murder mystery, as Digger endeavours to clear her friend's name, but Digger and Durrell uncover secrets that go right to the heart of the war and discrimination against magic users.  Many of the characters who featured in the first book are off-stage, fighting in the war - I do hope we'll see them again in the next book.  The plot builds slowly at first, then the threads begins to come together, and then its off in a rollicking race to the end of the book.  I myself had to gulp down the last 140 pages last night, all in one go.

I found myself a bit concerned toward the end of the book, because many narrative threads are tied up in the second book.  What would be left for the final book in the trilogy?  And then, wham!, what an ending!  Bunce sets up several exciting possibilities for the direction of the last book in the series, which I really hope comes out soon.

This is a refreshing second book for this series, as it breaks new narrative ground, while still featuring the deft plotting and the fabulous protagonist that made the first book so delectable.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Christmas Oxford Adventures

One of the nice things about sticking around Oxford over the Christmas vacation was that Tim and I got to do some more exploring around the city, including a massive walk around our neighbourhood.  We also visited two museums we had kept meaning to see but hadn't quite got round to: the Natural History Museum and (in the same building, handily) the Pitt Rivers Museum.
The central hall
The Natural History Museum is a lovely neo-Gothic building (thanks to John Ruskin, who said it ought to match the style of the gothic university buildings).  It has all manner of fossils, the last remains of the Oxford Dodo, and artifacts, such as a chunk of  fossilized tree trunk that one can touch.  It also has its share of creepy crawlies, including preserved giant centipede, some of Linnaeus' bees, a real, working bee hive, and a case full of burrowing cockroaches (pictured below).
This museum also hosted the 1860 debate on evolution between Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog") and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.  We could go into the room (which now stores artifacts), but there is a helpful plaque outside.

The Pitt Rivers Museum was so fabulous I forgot to take pictures.  Or, rather, I unjustifiably forgot to take pictures.  The museum was built onto the back of the Natural History Museum in the 1880s and has a massive collection of anthropological artifacts, grouped by theme with few explanatory cards.  The creepiest case was "Treatment of Dead Enemies," featuring skulls and shrunken heads.  There are also large collections of ship models, pottery, spears, jewelry, guns - just about anything you could think of.  My favourite case was one called "Combination Weapons" that feature a cane that could double as a gun.  There was also a strange implement that was part shield, part lance, part knife, and part gun but was probably never intended for actual use.

That same day, we ran across the street to Keble College, the most gorgeous Victorian monstrousity (right up there with St. Pancras Station in London), with connections to the Oxford Movement.
Central quad

Over the vacation, we also made a return visit to the Museum of the History of Science (which originally housed the Old Ashmolean).  We had to see their special exhibit "Time Machines" featuring clocks of all sorts.  I love old clocks - they are just lovely.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Giving a Paper!

I found out about this back around Christmas, but hadn't thought to mention it yet.  I'm going to be giving a paper titled "Africa, Empire, and Masculinity in the Early Writings of Charlotte and Branwell Bronte" at the February 10th meeting of the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Culture Forum here at Oxford.  The theme for Hilary Term is Childhood, and I'll be talking primarily about writing Charlotte and Branwell did between the ages of 12 and 17.  The Brontes' early writing about Glass Town took place in a central African setting, likely influenced by their reading in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine about exploration and the search for the source of the Niger and also the Ashantee wars of the 1820s.

If you are part of the university community and happen to be interested, please do come along.  :)

Here is the poster, which gives the rest of the talks and excursions for the term.  Looks like an interesting line up!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

So It Begins

I had a very productive meeting with my supervisor today.  Well, I've got my marching orders.  In four weeks, I need to submit an introduction and a chapter plan for my transfer paper, which will either make up a large portion of Chapter One or will be all of Chapter One and a section of Chapter Two, depending on how I ultimately decide to split the material up.

This is a bit frightening.  I mean, I realize I'm here to write this thesis, but it's really quite daunting to actually be on the cusp of starting.  I've committed to submitting a rough draft of the 10 k transfer paper for the end of term, which is, if you recall, only eight weeks away.  Ack!

However, I'm also feeling quite excited to be starting.  I've been thinking about this project since Autumn 2010, when I had to come up with a research proposal to submit with my PhD applications.  Since then, I've read a gargantuan amount of Bronte material, criticism, other Romantic and Victorian writing, and done a fair bit of thinking.  Up until recently, I felt like I was looking at a pretty amorphous mass of small ideas and a great deal of material - 6 volumes of early prose and poetry by Branwell and Charlotte Bronte, as well as goodly chunks of Anne and Emily's poetry - and not having much idea of how to wrestle that into one or two original, solid chapters.

That's changing now, thank goodness.  I think I've picked up the major threads I want to follow through the Brontes' works; I have some ideas about how sibling collaboration and influence worked; ways to structure material are beginning of present themselves to me.

But it's really begun now and I have a real, live deadline to meet.  Better get moving.

Monday, 16 January 2012

New Term

Today is the first day of Hilary Term 2012 at Oxford.  (Well, technically the start of term was yesterday, but this is the first work day of term.)

To celebrate, I am shortly off to central Oxford where I will renew, return, and or take out a number of books from at least three different libraries and will attempt to read the 100 or so pages of Branwell Bronte's writing that I still need to read, plus a late novelette of Charlotte's and take a skim through her poetry.  I've also downloaded from JSTOR an edition of her early, incomplete novel Ashworth, which marks a transition from her early writing in the imaginary kingdom of Angria to her later, mature and more realistically grounded fiction.  Should be interesting reading.

While out and about, I'm also planning on posting my application for membership to the Bronte Society - perhaps it's about time.

This term will probably mark a move away from the exploratory reading and thinking I was doing back in Michaelmas, as I need to start work on my "transfer paper", a 10 k word essay that I will submit as part of my Transfer of Status in April.  Only once I pass my transfer (which also, nail-bitingly, involves an interview with two assessors), will I actually hold DPhil status.  At the moment, I am technically only a PRS or Probationary Research Student.  In any case, I need to do some actual thesis writing and soon and I need to start hammering out the approach I'll be using for the thesis and how I plan to structure thing.  Interesting times ahead in thesis-land, that's for sure.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Favourite Reads of 2011

I can tell the year is still new because I insist on dating everything as 2011.  Er, no, Erin, not anymore.  I usually figure out what year it is by the time February rolls around.

Today, I thought I would do a quick run down of my favourite reads from 2011, grouped rather loosely.

As far as I can calculate, I read 30 novels and non-fiction books last year.  I think I should probably aim higher this year.  I also read a number of academic monographs, but I suspect no one else will be too interested in those.

Books Published in 2011

Chime, Franny Billingsley
I reviewed this book here not so long ago, and I'm not sure what else I can say.  The prose is rich and original; the characters are complex; the plot is satisfyingly dark and knotty and twisty.  (YA fantasy) 

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor
Once upon a time, an angel and a demon fell in love.  It did not end well.  I wrote about why I was so looking forward to this book here and I must say that the novel was really everything I could have hoped for.  Very original plot, especially compared to the legion other angel/demon/forbidden love YA novels that are currently out there; fantastic, descriptive, delectable, hilarious prose; well-wrought characters.  This is also a novel that demands to be gobbled up whole.  Caution: this book ends on a total cliff-hanger.  The good news: the sequel is due to come out this fall.  Also, this book really makes me want to visit Prague.  Sadly, I suspect I won't meet any avenging angels there... (YA/Crossover fantasy) 

A Conspiracy of Kings, Meghan Whalen Turner
The long-awaited fourth book in Meghan Whalen Turner's Thief series.  This is one of my favourite reads in part because it was preceded by one of my favourite rereads of the year.  I went through the first three books in the series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia) again.  These are books that have fabulously constructed plots, with fantastic character development and a fun pseudo-Greek setting.  They follow the exploits of Gen, a fantastic thief, with a sarcastic voice and tons of secrets.  And I dare not say more than that.  I would recommend reading these books in order.  A Conspiracy of Kings focuses on a character the reader hasn't seen since the first book, but Turner made me love him just as much as the other characters in the series.  I'm dying to find out what happens in the last two books in the series.  (Children's/YA fantasy)

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente
This is a delightful, hilarious fantasy about September, a young girl who is whisked off to Fairyland, sent on a quest to retrieve a witch's spoon, befriends a dragon named A-through-L (there was a library involved) and must face the evil Marquess.  This is a satirical, modern take on Alice in Wonderland, full of clever literary tricks and absurdities. This is probably aimed at the 9-12 market, but can definitely be enjoyed by adults.  The absurdism reminded me forcefully that I need to read Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (recently turned 50) soon.  Also, I need to hunt down Valente's adult novels.  (Children's fantasy)