'Stories' Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio
I was fairly confident I'd find stories I'd like here - partly because I knew Neil Gaiman and Diana Wynne Jones are two of the contributors, and they are 2 of my favourite writers, but also because I trusted Neil in picking writers and stories (Not to say I couldn't also trust Al Sarrantonio, but I am not familiar with his work)
Inevitably there were some stories which I liked better than others, but there weren't any which I disliked, or felt I had wasted my time by reading, although I am sure that there are some I will re-read less frequently than others.
The stories in the collection are not limited to a single genre or theme, which adds a sense of adventure when dipping into the book - you never know what you are going to get!
I was not expecting to find Joanne Harris writing about fading gods hunting one another through modern New York, or Roddy Doyle a darkly funny story about vampires, for instance, whereas Michael Marshall Smith's dark assassination tale is perhaps more what I might have expected from him. Both were very good, and are stores I will undoubtable re-read in the future. Neil Gaiman's own 'The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains' is a very bleak tale of Jacobites, treasure and revenge, and Laurence Block's 'Catch and release' and Richard Adams' 'The Knife' are both chilling. Bycontrast, Diana Wynne Jones' Samantha's Diary is very funny, and will definitely be re-read at the appropriate time of year. The collection is heavy on the darker side, and has certainly made me interested in exploring further the works of some of the contributers.
'Troubadour' Mary Hoffman
Mary Hoffman is primarily known as a writer for young adults, I particularly enjoy her 'Stravaganza' series. This book was also only the YA shelves at my local library; It is a historical novel, with the protagonist being a young noblewoman, Elinor, living in the Langue D'Oc region of Medieval France, and living through the Cathar pogroms and crusade in the early 13th Century.
I found the book interesting - I knew next to nothing about the Cathars or the way they were treated, and the story provides that information, and whetted my appetite to learn more, but I was less gripped by it as a story - I never really felt I got to a point where I cared deeply about the characters, and did have several 'yes, but ' moments - would a group of troubadours really be willing to help their patron's daughter to run away from home? And would such a girl have been quite so shocked by the thought of being married off to a man chosen by her father?
All that said, I did enjoy the book, but I don't think I shall be rushing out to buy my own copy.
Perhaps unfairly, I think I would probably have rated the book more highly had it been written by someone else, so I wasn't comparing it to other books Mary Hoffman has written, but I have very high expectations of her which this book didn't quite meet.
'Between the Woods and the Water' Patrick Leigh Fermor
This is the second part of Leigh Fermor's autobiography charting his travels, as a young man, from England to Constantinople (the first part being 'A Time of Gifts', which is well worth reading, and which you should probably read first, in order to follow the journey in order) In 1933, having left school and finding himself at something of a loose end, Leigh Fermor set out to travel, on foot, to Constantinople. Between the Woods and the Water covers the section of the journey from the Danube to the Iron Gates (Ada Kalah, in Romania)
It is absolutely fascinating, as travel writing but also as anthropology. Leigh Fermor made most of the journey on foot and mixed with peasants, gypsies and down-and-outs, but also, through a series of friends-of-friends and introductions with various members of the nobility and gentry - so he found himself sleeping with gypsies one day, then playing bicycle polo with archdukes the next. The writing is beautiful, and the books give a fascinating insight into the period, as well. Leigh Fermor is clearly very erudite and well read, which means when reading I spent a lot of time making notes of various reference to go & look up later. He rather endearingly assumes that his readers are just as familir with classical allusions, and just as able to read Greek or Latin, so (in the edition I was reading, at least) there are no footnotes, and no translations of classical quotations. Don't, however, let this put you off. If stopping to look up quotations part way through a book isn't your thing, you can skip the Greek and just enjoy the writing!
Bluestockings Jane Robinson
I picked this up on impulse, and found it very interesting - it is a study of women's education, primarily focusing on women's access to, and involvment in university education in England, at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Century, bilding largely on diaries, college records and personal memories. This makes for an interesting read, but does mean that it is difficult at times to determine which experiences are unique to one person, and which are examples of a more general experience.
Similarly, although very readable, it is occasionally unclear when the author has skipped from 1870 to 1920 or 1930! It's certainly an interesting, and very readable introduction to this area of social history, and also a salutory reminder of how far we've come.