Thursday, 24 January 2013

Two quick reviews

This past week has been a story of snow, snow and more snow. Not that we've had feet of the white stuff but just a steady fall, then a slight thaw and then more over the last couple of days. So we have a white garden and the hills around are white but the roads are passable and there hasn't been too much inconvenience. It could have been a lot worse. I've learnt not to venture out in it though, having slipped over on ice in the bad winter of 2010/2011, I'm not keen to repeat the experience, so I mainly stayed in and read, so I have a couple of books to do quick reviews of.

I'll start with this one, Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard.

I picked this up in the library after watching the three part BBC documentary series on Queen Victoria and her children. The doc. was so good and so interesting that I realised I wanted to know more about one of our most famous monarchs. What this book does is chart Victoria's reign from start to finish from the eyes of the people who served her. By that I don't mean those who cleaned or waited or cooked, I mean those higher up the pecking order, Charlotte Canning, lady of the bedchamber, the woman who was in charge of the children, Sarah Lyttleton, Victoria's personal physician, John Reid, her chaplain, Randall Davidson. Also the notorious people she took to her heart, the Scotsman, John Brown, and her personal servant known as The Munchi, who was Indian and could do no wrong, despite driving the whole court completely mad. Victoria's children also figure quite heavily of course and, naturally, her marriage to Albert. When he died she was devastated as she relied on him completely and utterly and clearly loved him to distraction. She was never the same again and, although this book is a very honest account of the queen's personality, her need to control every single thing that went on at court, her stubborness, her tendency to bury her head in the sand when it came to the misdeeds of her favourites, you can't help but sympathise with this very human woman, cut completely adrift when the love of her life dies young. It's heart-breaking and made me ponder on the morality of having royalty at all, even though I do actually believe in the monarchy. I know they live a luxurious life and want for nothing, but goodness me, the price they pay for that is very high. Their lives are not their own, we expect nothing short of perfection from them, shove them up on a pedestal and then complain when they make a wrong move and prove to be human just like the rest of us. Should we really do that to any human being...

Anyway, this was a fascinating book. Hearing about Victoria's life from the point of view of people who knew her better than anyone was rivetting. It sounds like it might be a cushy job, living and working at court but of course it was not (and probably still isn't). The Queen was demanding, there were petty rivalries and jealousies, and people like Henry Ponsonby, who basically ran the royal household - I forget his offical title - was sometimes worked to total exhaustion and ended up being hospitalised in order to recover. So much to say about this book that it's impossible in a brief review, to say it all. If you have any interest at all in Queen Victoria's reign this is a *must read*. It's not a quick read, I took over a week to work my way through it, but it is an extremely rewarding read and well worth the effort.

My second book could not be more different - I like to ring the changes - it's the classic science fiction story, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.

It's 2131 and the Solar system is now a confederation of planets. Mars, Mercury and various moons, including our own have been colonised. A computer known as SPACEGUARD is logging asteroids and their threat to the human race when its radar locates something rather different. It turns out to be a massive cylindrical object, not an asteroid, and has clearly been made by another intelligence. Humans name the spacecraft, 'Rama', and the spaceship, Endeavour, is sent to investigate. Its captain is Commander Norton who has two wives, one on Earth and one on Mars (things are very different in the future, LOL). The commander and his second-in-command enter what is clearly a space-ship, but having absolutely no idea what they will find inside. The interior is huge, about 40km in length 7km wide, and in complete darkness. In order to get to the 'surface' (this is complicated) they have to climb down a staircase which is miles long. The logistics of this place are almost mind boggling but this is the first time humans have had any contact whatsoever with alien intelligence and it must be investigated. It's thought the craft is merely passing through the Solar system, but what if it's not? What if there is another agenda altogether? Time is short and these questions need to be answered.

I feel like I may have read this book before, or rather, like I *should* have read it, but I'm not entirely sure. It felt fresh and new but bits seemed familiar. It doesn't matter. This is one of those odd books where not a huge amount happens. It's not pacey and hugely plot-driven, in fact it's quite casual as it tells you all about physics and how alien civilisations might differ from ours and how they might solve the problem of travelling through space. It sounds like it might it might be rather dry but in fact it's not at all. The physics was quite understandable, though I did struggle with the concept of a sea that went right around a cylinder and didn't fall down. But Clarke makes it clear that that's ok, because the characters in the book are also struggling with this, and many other concepts, in the book. This not a character-driven book. You don't get to know anyone that intimately. The book is really all about the alien spacecraft; I would even say that 'Rama' is the main character in the book. That might seem very odd but it works wonderfully. There's a reason why some of these older sci fi books are called classics and I can easily understand why this one is numbered amongst them. It maintains a sense of awe right the way through, even though you would not call it exciting or even a page-turner. It takes clever writing and a clever writer to achieve that and I can honestly say I absolutely loved this book.

I'll be reading more by Arthur C. Clarke. Oddly enough we lived for eight years in the town where he was born, Minehead in Somerset, although he lived most of his life in Sri Lanka. While we were there, there was talk that he wanted to fund some kind of science centre in the town (he didn't die until 2008). Sadly it never happened, I'm not sure why, but it's rather a shame as it's a small town with a large Butlins holiday camp, and really it could do with something else to offer the many tourists that visit the area, not to mention the children who live there. I think he was rather an amazing scientist and writer and would have loved to leave that kind of legacy behind.
~~~oOo~~~

10 comments:

DesLily said...

wow... it should snow more often eh? you got two books read and I am still on the Roosevelt book! coming up on the last 100 pages though.

I can blame you for my reading this book and London citizens..you should have been a teacher!

Geranium Cat said...

I need to read the Victoria book sometime, it sounds very absorbing. I have a feeling that Rama might have been serialised on the radio at some point - though I might be imagining that, it might explain why it seemed familiar? 'Cos it does to me too, but I'm pretty sure I haven't read it. Have you read Iain M. Banks's Culture novels? Some of his wonderful AI ships are very Rama-like, especially in my favourite, Excession - but their names are more fun, because they name themselves.

Elaine said...

Loved the book on Victoria. Here are my thoughts

http://randomjottings.typepad.com/random_jottings_of_an_ope/2013/01/serving-victoria-kate-hubbard.html

Peggy Ann said...

I would really enjoy the book on Victoria! I hope we get that documentary here in the states!

Cath said...

Pat: That Eleanor Roosevelt book sounded so good... I'm happy to take the blame for it. LOL.

Geranium Cat: The Victoria book is well worth a look.

I don't think I would have heard Rama serialised on the radio. I may possibly have read it in my twenties from the library but am inclined to think I didn't, that it just reminds me of a sci fi short story as I've read so many of those.

As I said on FB I have the first Banks book on the way. You're getting to be dangerous for my tbr pile. LOL.

Elaine: Thanks for the link. I did glance at your review but as I was still halfway through the book I didn't read all of it. Will pop over and read it properly in a moment.

Peggy Ann: I think anyone would enjoy the book on Victoria, it's so interesting and very readable.

fiction-books said...

Hi Cath,

I think that I would enjoy reading 'Serving Victoria', although it would be more of a 'coffee table' book, which I would pick up and browse occasionally, rather than read in few sittings like a novel.

I take on board your comment about expecting too much from one family of human beings, however, I do feel that, as history is only too keen to show us in highlighting previous monarchs decadent and extravagant lifestyles, that they receive copious amounts of cash from the public purse, ie. you and I, so in exchange for that freedom from monetary and lifestyle worries, yes, we have the right to expect a great deal from them!

Anyway, rant aside (I actually am a Royalist, by the way!), thanks for sharing that excellent review.

Take Care, Yvonne

fiction-books said...

Hi Cath,

I think that I would enjoy reading 'Serving Victoria', although it would be more of a 'coffee table' book, which I would pick up and browse occasionally, rather than read in few sittings like a novel.

I take on board your comment about expecting too much from one family of human beings, however, I do feel that, as history is only too keen to show us in highlighting previous monarchs decadent and extravagant lifestyles, that they receive copious amounts of cash from the public purse, ie. you and I, so in exchange for that freedom from monetary and lifestyle worries, yes, we have the right to expect a great deal from them!

Anyway, rant aside (I actually am a Royalist, by the way!), thanks for sharing that excellent review.

Take Care, Yvonne

fiction-books said...

Hi Cath,

I think that I would enjoy reading 'Serving Victoria', although it would be more of a 'coffee table' book, which I would pick up and browse occasionally, rather than read in few sittings like a novel.

I take on board your comment about expecting too much from one family of human beings, however, I do feel that, as history is only too keen to show us in highlighting previous monarchs decadent and extravagant lifestyles, that they receive copious amounts of cash from the public purse, ie. you and I, so in exchange for that freedom from monetary and lifestyle worries, yes, we have the right to expect a great deal from them!

Anyway, rant aside (I actually am a Royalist, by the way!), thanks for sharing that excellent review.

Take Care, Yvonne

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This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cath said...

Yvonne: Yes, you could read this as a coffee-table book. I do keep books on my coffee-table in exactly that way.

Yes, I agree with you that we should expect a lot from the royals as we're paying for them. But what I was really referring to was our need as a society to have kings and queens and the morality of foisting this upon someone who has not asked for it. An accident of birth and you have no life of your own. For all their money and fame, I wouldn't do it in a million years and would resent being told I had no choice but to do so. Luckily our lovely queen was up for the challenge, but it's said it killed her father early and if you think about it, that's a pretty awful thing. It goes back to choice and he had none. Very sad.

I'm very much a royalist too, btw, I just like to ponder these things from time to time.