Sunday, May 25, 2008

Laura's Review - Small Island

Small Island
Andrea Levy
439 pages

"We Jamaicans, knowing our island is one of the largest in the Caribbean, think ourselves sophisticated men of the world. Better than the 'small islanders' whose universe only runs a few miles in either direction before it runs into the sea." (p. 110)

Set during and immediately after World War II, Small Island tells the story of four main characters: Gilbert Joseph, a a Jamaican man recently returned from active duty in World War II; Hortense, his young wife; Queenie, a young English woman whose husband disappeared during the war; and Bernard, Queenie's husband. The setting moves between two time periods: 1948, and "before," and two settings: Jamaica and England. Each chapter is told from a single character's point of view. This produces a rich, character-driven novel that also brilliantly exposes issues of race, culture, and class. The title at first appears to refer to Jamaica, but quickly becomes synonymous with "small-mindedness" on both of the small islands in the story.

By moving between time periods and points of view, Levy reveals connections between the characters' lives, some of which the characters themselves are unaware of. The plot includes many surprising twists, and I do not want to reveal much in this review. For me, the characters made the novel. I especially liked the strong female protagonists, Hortense and Queenie. Hortense, recently arrived from Jamaica, joins Gilbert as a lodger in Queenie's house. She is young and naive, with high expectations that are dashed when she sees where Gilbert lives, and when she encounters certain realities about being a Jamaican woman living in England in 1948. Queenie has transformed from young wife to independent woman and, being unusually open-minded on issues of race, has made a living renting rooms primarily to "coloureds." She refuses to give in to her neighbors' objections, which leaves her somewhat isolated in her community. She remains strong while also fighting the loneliness of having lost her husband. Bernard's sudden reappearance upsets Queenie's comfortable routine and challenges the relationships she has forged in his absence. The bonds between Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert, and Bernard are strengthened in surprising ways as the novel reaches its climax.

Highly recommended. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers
By Anita Amirrezvani
Completed May 18, 2008

In her The Blood of Flowers, Anita Amirrezvani explored the lives of 16th century Iranian women and the art of making Persian rugs. It was an interesting juxtaposition as rug making was predominantly a male profession during this time, but it was the women, in particular the unnamed narrator, who had a special gift for making these famous carpets.

The narrator is an unmarried 15-year old girl who lived in a village with her parents. Upon the untimely death of her father, the girl and her mother moved to Isfahan, the beautiful capital of Iran, to live with the girl’s uncle, one of the royal rug makers. The women endured continued hard ships in their new home, relegated to live as servants under their family’s roof with bleak marriage prospects for the girl. The narrator though was more interested in rug making than marriage, and under her uncle’s tutelage, she started her unofficial internship (women were not allowed to be apprentices) in the art form of creating Persian rugs. For the narrator, it was her success as a rug maker, not scoring a wealthy husband, that would better guarantee her financial freedom.

However, it was 16th century Iran, and the reality that she must marry became evident to the narrator, especially under the pressures of her mother and aunt. A wealthy horse owner soon offered the girl a sigheh, a three-month marriage contract that could be renewed if the husband was pleased with his wife. In effect, the sigheh was a form of prostitution – money in return for sex – and the best the wife could hope for was to sexually entertain her husband enough to inspire a renewal, or to get pregnant to secure an income as the mother of her husband’s child. Faced with no other prospects, the narrator suffered this indignity to provide income to her family.

The characters in this book were deftly drawn, and the reader felt a real attachment to them, especially the narrator. She was strong and impulsive, often making mistakes despite her best intentions. You saw her growth as a person, and one could not help but root for her. She definitely had a stroke of bad luck and personal issues, but Amirrezvani invested you in her life with each page.

In addition to strong characterization, the passages about making the rugs and the descriptions of Isfahan were exquisite. Amirrezvani’s uses of color to illuminate these sections of the book were unusual and successful – and added great dimension to the story.

I highly recommend The Blood of Flowers to readers who enjoy learning more about the history of women in different countries or who have an interest in Persian history. Anita Amirrezvani was long-listed for the Orange Prize for this book, and it’s not surprising why. It’s a story that will stick with you for a long time. ( )

Friday, May 9, 2008

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This review was originally posted on my blog in June 2006.

In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He "preached men into the Civil War," then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father--an ardent pacifist--and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.

This is also the tale of another remarkable vision--not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, this book is not a book that you read if you want fast moving action. Ostensibly a letter to his young son, it is also a study of the faith of John Ames, particularly in the context of the relationships he had with his family, his parishioners, his best friend, and his namesake who is the rebellious younger son of his friend.

I particularly enjoyed reading of the struggles as John Ames tried to learn how to communicate with his namesake Jack Boughton. Jack is a man who never fitted in anywhere, even in his own family, and the persistence between the two to try and get to understand each other.

The writing is beautiful, and I am sure will touch many people, but for me, I think that this was not the kind of book that I needed to read at this particular moment. It was just too introspective I guess. There were magical moments scattered throughout though. An incident that happened in the late 1800's involving a horse getting stuck in a collapsing tunnel had me laughing out loud on the train, and the ending had me tearing up, once again on the train!

The reason why I read this book now is because it is this month's book in a group I read in. It's interesting looking at the dynamics of the group and seeing who enjoyed it compared to those who didn't. The discussion with this particular book tends to make the reading experience for me! So the rating below reflects my own personal reaction - I might review it later once others add their interpretation and I get extra insights!!

Rating 3.5/5

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

This review was originally posted on my blog back in December 2005. I really cringe when I read some of those early reviews! Oh well. Oh, and the title of The Last Boleyn was changed to The Boleyn Inheritance after I had posted this.


The latest of Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels to be released, The Constant Princess concentrates on the early life of Katherine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII's wives. I have to say that it was so refreshing to read a novel about this time in history that wasn't about all the usual suspects. For example Elizabeth I doesn't even get a mention, although Henry VIII does, and there is even a brief cameo by Anne Boleyn towards the end of the novel.

I learnt so many new things from this novel. I hadn't really ever paid a lot of attention to the backgrounds of Henry's wives other than Anne Boleyn so it was a big surprise to me to learn that Katherine was actually the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain...the same Isabella and Ferdinand who financed Christopher Columbus' journeys to the New World and instituted the Spanish Inquisition.

The description of Katherine's early life in the Alhambra Palace was beautifully described, and made me want to pack my bags to go to Spain to see the places mentioned. I love it when a book does that to me..even though I can't just pack up and go!

We see Katherine in her early life, then as she gets used to marriage with Arthur, dealing with her subsequent widowhood, and waiting to see if she will be married to Henry or not. In effect we watch her mature from being a girl to a woman, all the while remaining a princess of England and Spain.

If I had one criticism of this book, it was that the ending felt very rushed, however having thought about this for a couple of days, maybe the idea behind that was to show Katherine at one of her points of greatest triumphs, and then at one of the lowest points in her life as a kind of contrast. Most fans of English history and historical fiction already know what happens to Katherine, and the end of this book leads quite nicely into the beginning of The Other Boleyn Girl as well.

Gregory writes in a very readable style, and for the most part, manages the changes between first and third person narrative employed in this book quite smoothly. There are however a couple of changes that weren't quite as smooth as they could have been.

Overall, an enjoyable read! I am already looking forward to the next Tudor novel from Philippa Gregory, to be titled The Last Boleyn. This book should be out next November.

Review - Sorry by Gail Jones

In 1930s Britain, a socially inadequate young woman marries an equally awkward young man. His ambitions take them to the Australian Outback, the middle of nowhere, to be greeted by a mixture of amazement, disdain and disbelief by both whites and aboriginals.

To further compound their difficulties they have a daughter, who enters their odd little life and makes it odder still. The mother is a Shakespeare-quoting nervous wreck, the father an over-ambitious, self-deceiver and their parenting style is eclectic, to say the least. The young girl finds companionship with the aboriginal servants and the autistic son of the ranchers from whom they rent their shack of a home.

The combined effects of the climate, post natal depression and sheer misery drive the mother to a nervous breakdown and she is taken to hospital to recover. The father compensates by raping the aboriginals and assiduously following the war in Europe. The daughter flounders along, saved in part by the sisterhood she builds with the new aboriginal servant and partly by the books that she devours.

This untenable situation ends abruptly when the father is stabbed. Mother, daughter and servant are all in the room but it is the servant who is taken away by the police. The daughter is left unable to speak without a stutter while the mother seems more relaxed, almost relieved. But the relationship between mother and daughter does not improve.

The war and the intervention of the Japanese drives them south to Perth where the mother tries to create a more normal life but is again hospitalised. This is the saving of the daughter, her new foster parents not only provide security and stability and a level of love and care she has never experienced, but also seek help for her stutter.

In dealing with her stutter, she is also able to unlock in her mind what happened the day her father died. She realises that she has thought but not admitted to herself that her mother killed her father and that the servant was unfairly arrested. The truth is that she herself murdered her father and that her mother's awkward attempts at making a better life for her have been her efforts to let her daughter know that she should not feel guilty.

After tracking down the servant in her reform school, the daughter tries to set things straight but is disappointed by the servant's unemotional response. The closure she has been seeking is not forthcoming and when the servant dies of pneumonia she is left feeling dissatisfied and drifting.

The striking feature of the novel is liberal use of Shakespeare throughout, not just the plays but the poetry too, Shakespeare is how the mother expresses her anger; she is quoting Shakespeare as her husband bleeds to death. Shakespeare is how the daughter regains her language. Clearly the author is well read in this area and this is a great device for a novel, illustrating how one author can be used to reflect and illuminate such a diverse range of experiences and emotions.

The story is not so strong. Fairly predictable, an acceptable range of characters (though I found the autistic son a somewhat odd addition), a reasonably unique view on both the outback and on the war but no twists or elements that really stand out.

The strength of the novel is the language, not just the Shakespeare but Jones' own language. The descriptions of the outback are original enough to catch the ear. For instance the descriptions of the aboriginal meeting places at river beds, the unlaboured descriptions of their language, their walkabouts and their extended family structures. Somehow she managed to take a bleak tale (you never for a minute think there will be a happy ending, not for mother or for daughter) and give it enough warmth and depth and colour to keep you engaged.

And the title? At the very end of the novel, as the daughter reflects on the dissatisfaction she feels with her reconciliation (or lack of it) with the servant, it finally dawns on her that the one thing she never said to her was "Sorry".

Australia, Africa and Mindspace

Hi folks, I am loving this project. The judges have come up with a great long list, I haven't had a duff read yet and it's not often I can read 5 books in a row and say that.

I have just read Sorry, set in Australia; The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, set in Africa; and the The End of Mr Y, set in, well Mindspace, and you have to read it to find out what that is.

I will be posting reviews shortly but so far I think The End of Mr Y is my favourite (though not necessarily the best).

Look forward to hearing how others are getting on.