Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oryx and Crake - 3M's Review

I love Margaret Atwood, but Oryx and Crake was just too gritty for my taste. This was compounded by the fact that I listened to it on audio. Hearing the graphic descriptions was even worse than reading it. This was my fifth Atwood, and by far my least favorite.

The narrator is Jimmy, code-named Snowman. Crake is a sort of Dr. Moreau figure, while Oryx is a woman caught between the two. I don’t want to give away too many details for those who still want to read it, but if you’re squeamish about graphic s*xu*l situations (including child p*r*o*raphy), I would advise against it. I didn’t get why it had to have that element to the story. I also wondered why the title of the book was named that way, but in the end, I guess it was because Oryx and Crake were the two most influential figures in Jimmy’s life.

I would recommend reading other Atwoods before this one. The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, and The Penelopiad are my favorites so far.

2003, 378 pp. (2/5)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Do You Yahoo?

I have started a Yahoo group for this challenge.

Readers participating in the challenge do NOT have to join the Yahoo group (likewise, readers may join the Yahoo group while not joining the challenge), but I thought some of you might want to. The Yahoo group format provides an easily accessible, interactive forum for readers to discuss the "Orange" books they are reading. At this time, I have no plans to schedule formal monthly group reads; however "buddy reads", as well as informal discussions of the books is definitely encouraged.

EDITED July 29th to add: We will be honoring one author a month in the Yahoo group (August will be Rose Tremain) where members may post links and thoughts about this author, share reviews of her work, read from her body of work, etc... as they wish (there are no requirements that members must participate!). Additionally, we will keep Jill's fabulous Orange July and add an Orange January as a focus on books which have won or been nominated for the Orange awards.

Sound fun? To join use the button below (or in the side bar of this blog).

Click here to join Orange_Prize_Project
Click to join Orange_Prize_Project

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Keep by Jennifer Egan (Jill)

The Keep
By Jennifer Egan
Completed July 20, 2008

The Keep by Jennifer Egan is a story within a story. First, it’s a story about cousins Howard and Danny, reunited to renovate a European castle – while attempting to heal from a childhood prank that scarred them both. It’s also the story of Ray, a prison inmate who was in a writing class, desperately trying to gain his teacher’s attention. You will have to read The Keep to understand how these stories reconcile, but I thought it melded together creatively.

At first, the narrative style used by Egan was a little jagged and hard to get used to. However, once I did, these characters captivated me. Ray and Danny were screaming for attention. Howard was a wounded soul in search for his life’s meaning. Even the writing teacher, Holly, emerged as a complicated yet realistic character.

While The Keep could be characterized as a Gothic novel with its musty castle, old baroness and family secrets, it’s really a story about imprisonment: how humans can imprison themselves into their daily lives, their pasts and their mistakes. Not only are characters physically imprisoned, they are emotionally “kept” too. They don’t reveal true feelings for each other. They try too hard to do what others think they should do. No one really seemed “free” in this story. It’s one of those books that will linger with me long after I completed it.

The Keep is not a book for everyone. But if you’re looking for refreshing storytelling – something a little unconventional – than I would recommend this novel to you. I look forward to reading more books by Jennifer Egan in the near future. ( )

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai (TerriLynn)

Fasting, Feasting is not something I normally would have chosen to read, which is the great thing about this project-- it encourages me to move beyond those stories to which I'd normally gravitate and expands my literary horizons.

Desai's novel, also a finalist for the Booker Prize, explores the lives of a taken-for-granted elder sister, Uma, and a much adored younger brother, Arun, who are both shaped and constrained by the demands of their parents-- in one case a demand not to experience life outside the home and in the other, the demand to be an over-achiever and leave not only home but homeland. The story is skillfully written, with evocative descriptions and even tragic bits of humour however if you're looking for some light, entertaining, summer reading this isn't it. This is more a book for a cold, dreary, January day when you're in an introspective mood and pondering how your family has-- for better or for worse-- helped direct the path your life has taken. I'll leave it to you to judge how Uma and Arun might weigh in on this discussion.

The Remedy by Michelle Lovric (TerriLynn)

Disclaimer: I love Venice-- love, adore, worship, venerate, idolize, cherish, fancy, like-- you get the picture. So any book that is set in Venice, even partially (The Remedy moves between 18th century Venice and London) I'm going to read. And most, unless just horribly written, I'm going to enjoy, especially if the author really knows Venice. And Michelle Lovric really knows Venice. She also knows how to write in the voices of believable intriguing characters and spin an interesting yarn as she proved in the The Floating Book. The Remedy doesn't disappoint. Lately it seems the books I've read are ones in which narration alternates between time and character and this is another one of those novels but done more deftly than most. Valentine and Mimosina tell the stories of their lives and their relationship, and while the reader is privy to the lies they tell each other (sins of commission as well as omission) you keep reading to find out what happens when they each get found out and how the situation is going to be resolved. Will true love, even among thieves, con artists, courtesans and murderers, win in the end? Read this book to find out, and also to find out why you should think twice before taking sweets from a nun . . .

The only criticism I have of the novel are the chapter headings with "recipes" for cures drawn from an early 18th century pharmacology book. As some of the chapters are only a few pages long, the headings became more annoying than enlightening so I ended up skipping them as they interrupted the flow of the story.

The Keep (TerriLynn)

I won't post the publishers description as others have done that. This is one of those books that I don't know if I can say I really enjoyed but I don't necessarily regret reading. A multi-layered story that involves Danny, a wayward glam punk techno addicted slacker who is summoned by his long lost cousin Howie to help him renovate a hotel deep in a remote forest somewhere in Eastern Europe. Indeed, it's the perfect setting for a horror story, however the only ghost that haunts the pages is the memory of a cruel childhood prank that left one cousin traumatized for years and the other wracked with guilt. The novel is also a story within a story and this is where it didn't exactly work for me. I understand what Egan was trying to do but I couldn't help but think it could have been done more smoothly.

The Monsters of Templeton (TerriLynn)

Quick hello first as I'm new to the blog and have eagerly joined the July challenge. While I've been busy reading, I haven't had time to post yet so this morning I'm posting reviews of what I've read over the past couple weeks. Here it goes . . .

From the Orange Prize website:
The Monsters of TempletonWillie Cooper arrives on the doorstep of her ancestral home in Templeton, New York, in the wake of a disastrous affair with her much older, married archaeology professor. That same say, the discovery of a prehistoric monster in the lake brings a media frenzy to the quiet, picture-perfect town her ancestors founded. Smarting from a broken heart, Willie then learns that the story her mother had always told her about her father is a lie. He wasn't the one-night stand Vi had led her to imagine, but someone else entirely. Someone from Templeton.

As Willie puts her archaeological skills to work digging for truth about her lineage, a chorus of voices from the town's past – both sinister and disturbing – rise up around her to tell their sides of the story. Willie discovers the curse of the Temple family runs deep. On the end, dark secrets come to light, past and present blur, old mysteries are finally put to rest, and the surprising truth about more than one monster is revealed.

The Monsters of Templeton is an intriguing tapestry of stories deftly woven together. Willie, the protagonist, returns to her small home town in New York (based upon Cooperstown) in the midst of personal chaos and crisis seeking solace in a place of stability and perceived changlessness. Instead she discovers the "monster" who has reportedly haunted the lake for years has been found dead the morning she arrives, high school characters are changed beyond recognition and her ex-hippe mother, Vi, who she counts on for unwavering predictability has suddenly become a born-again Baptist. As part of her new morality, Vi reveals a family secret that has Willie refocusing some of her self-indulgent angst into solving a mystery about her parentage that uncovers hidden stories of town fathers and mothers (again, loosely based on the lives of the Cooper family including James Fenimore Cooper) while trying to sort out the mess her own life has become. While Willie is whiney, self-indulgent and you just want to smack her and tell her to grow up at times, she is also smart, a smart-ass, and grows on you, especially as she grows during the course of the story. Groff also does a fine job bringing in the voices and stories of the past which can be tricky.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Jill)

Oryx and Crake
By Margaret Atwood
Completed July 17, 2008

In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood took her readers on another dystopian journey, but unlike her The Handmaid’s Tale, this book failed to captivate me as a reader.

Oryx and Crake is the story of Snowman, formally called Jimmy, who was living as the last homo sapien on a beachfront filled with genetically mixed animals and genetically created humans. Through flashbacks, we learned about Jimmy’s childhood - how his father worked at a genetics lab, how Jimmy met Glenn (later called Crake) and how the mysterious Oryx entered both boys’ lives.

Glenn/Crake would evolve into a “mad” scientist, of sorts, making a virus that would kill all humans (except Jimmy), and creating a new species of peaceful, plant-eating humans who only bred during certain seasons. Crake tasked Jimmy with being a guardian of his new species, which Jimmy reluctantly did.

Oryx was an interesting character though I didn’t learn a lot about her. She may have been a subject in a child pornography video that Jimmy and Crake watched as teenagers. Crake eventually hired Oryx for sexual favors, and Jimmy became Oryx’s lover. She flitted in and out of the chapters like a little bird. As a reader, I could never get a hold of her.

Oryx and Crake is rich in social commentary and satire. It’s an alternate but futuristic viewpoint on what may happen if we alter the genetic make-ups of humans and animals. It’s also a story of control and love. While I usually enjoy reading Atwood stories and dystopian tales, my lack of character attachment and disinterest in the story’s scientific elements made the entire novel dull to me. Usually, good dystopian fiction are stories of survival or warning signs of what could happen. For me, Oryx and Crake had neither trait. In all, it was more fiction than science. ( )

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Jill)

Alias Grace
By Margaret Atwood
Completed July 13, 2008

Once again, I am at a loss for words after reading another brilliant fictional work by Margaret Atwood. This time, I was mesmerized by Alias Grace – a complex novel based on the historical figure, Grace Marks, who was convicted of killing her employer and his mistress in 1840’s Canada.

The story of Grace Marks is one of contradiction. While Atwood relied on historical accounts when she could, the many gaps in Grace’s story and her collaborator, James McDermott, was good fodder for a fictional tale. Grace offered many renditions to the story, ultimately maintaining that she experienced amnesia about the murders. McDermott, who hung for the murders, always argued that it was Grace who masterminded the murders. Grace was found guilty, but the judges felt that she was too young, uneducated and na├»ve to be executed for the crime. Instead, she was sentenced to life imprisonment.

This is how we met Grace in this story – as a laborer in the governor’s house during the day and penitentiary inmate at night. A small group, believing in Grace’s innocence, asked psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan to interview Grace, to reach deep beneath her amnesia so the truth could be told about her involvement in the murders. Through these conversations, we learned about Grace’s childhood, career as a servant and eventually the murders.

The story, while predominantly Grace’s, often showed the slow demise of Dr. Jordan, whose life became eerily similar to Grace’s murdered employer. Dr. Jordan was torn between solving Grace’s mysteries and keeping his emotions out of the investigation. Sprinkled in were letters from his mother, which provided great comic relief for me, as she was so passive-aggressive. I probably would want to explore mental asylums in other countries, too, if I had a mother like Mrs. Jordan.

I could never shake the feeling that Grace was smarter than she wanted people to believe. Her calm, collected manner during her arrest, trial and incarceration were interpreted as “guilt,” but I saw it as a woman who was always thinking and calculating her next move. She was a fascinating character study.

I will mention that I was slightly dissatisfied with the ending. Throughout the last half of the novel, I thought the book was heading in a certain direction – but it didn’t. I don’t want to say more in case you haven’t read this book. Despite this, I would highly recommend Alias Grace to Atwood lovers, readers of women’s history and anyone who enjoys a true ‘who done it” story. ( )

Fault Lines

I appreciated the cleverness of the structure of this novel, managing to capture 4 such different stories into four generations of a family (and all still living) was clever.

But "vibrant, richly drawn and captivating"? No.

The central character, Erra, really didn't convince me. Yes, it was a fascinating insight to yet another Nazi atrocity (and of course it is an atrocity, I find the book unconvincing, I am not disputing the historical accuracy), but it was not enough to build a whole novel around.

The ruthless academic grandmother was more convincing but so dislikeable, the great grandson Sol was irritating beyond belief (though what a mother!). Only Randall rang true for me, a whole novel from Randall's point of view I would have found quite enjoyable.

Leaving aside the weaknesses in structure and character, I did find the novel very easy to read and I admired the style that stayed somehow consistent while still reading very definitely as four separate voices.

I would try another Nancy Huston but I am surprised to see this on the shortlist.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Poisonwood Bible - Wendy's Review

Believe this: the mistakes are part of the story. I am born of a man who believed he could tell nothing but the truth, while he set down for all time the Poisonwood Bible. -narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible-

The Poisonwood Bible is a family saga which begins in 1959 when Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist minister, moves from Georgia to the Belgium Congo with his wife and four daughters. His goal, as a missionary, is to bring Christianity to the people living in a tiny village called Kilanga. The novel is narrated alternately by Nathan’s wife Orleanna and her daughters Rachel, Adah, Leah and Ruth May beginning when they arrive in the jungle and continuing through several decades.

This is a novel about a complex region which has struggled with independence, war, starvation, sickness and overzealous interference from other countries. In the midst of this heartbreaking history, the Price family’s struggles are played out in parallel. The family, clearly unprepared for life in the harsh environment of Africa (’We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes…‘) become immersed in a culture rich with spirituality and dependent on community to survive the severe weather conditions and lack of food.

Barbara Kingsolver creates characters whose voices are unique, darkly comic, and compelling. Rachel, a teenager who chooses to save her hand mirror when the village is attacked by a swarm of killer ants, represents the naive and ignorant American attitude toward societies different from our own. Adah, born crippled and mute, sees the world forwards and backwards - a unique vision which allows her to appreciate a new culture. Leah is her father’s little girl - trying desperately to gain his approval…and it is she who changes the most as the novel progresses. Ruth May, the “baby” of the family, is also its ambassador of good will. And finally there is Orleanna, married to a damaged man whose fears and insecurities are turned brutally against his family. It is Orleanna who begins and ends the story.

The Poisonwood Bible is a brilliant work of fiction which encompasses several themes. Kingsolver writes beautifully, and her love of language is played out in Rachel’s comic butchering of phrases and words; and Adah’s tendency towards palidromes and reading backwards.

Nommo, I wrote down on the notebook I had opened out for us at our big table. Nomom ommon NoMmo, I wrote, wishing to learn this wordforward and backward. -as narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 210-

That would be Axelroot all over, to turn up with an extra wife or two claiming that’s how they do it here. Maybe he’s been in Africa so long h has forgotten that we Christians have our own system of marriage, and it is call Monotony. -as narrated by Rachel in The Poisonwood Bible, page 405-

Thematically, the novel examines the ideas of faith, redemption, and forgiveness. More widely, it explores the history of the Congo with all its beauty and terror, the effects of war, and the terrible impact of government when it collides with individuals. Ultimately the novel reveals our humanity when presented with great challenges as each character takes a different path on their way to resolving their own inner turmoil.

This is a novel which begs to be read, if only for its magnificent scope. In The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver demonstrates exactly why she is an author who is lauded and recommended over and over again. It is impossible for me to write a review which will do this book the justice it deserves. I can only say: Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

Highly recommended.

Passages from The Poisonwood Bible

About Faith:

My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit. -as narrated by Leah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 68-

About War:

A war leaves holes in so much more than the dams and roads that can be rebuilt. -as narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 523-

About Who We Are:

The power is in the balance: we are our injuries, as much as we are our successes. -as narrated by Adah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 496-

About Survival:

So what do you do now? You get to find your own way to dig out a heart and shake it off and hold it up to the light again. -as narrated by Leah in The Poisonwood Bible, page 474-

To save my sanity, I learned to pad around hardship in soft slippers and try to remark on its good points. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 200-

I can still recite the litany of efforts it took to push a husband and children alive and fed through each day in the Congo. The longest journey always began with sitting up in bed at the rooster’s crow, parting the mosquito curtain, and slipping on shoes - for there were hookworms lying in wait on the floor, itching to burrow into our bare feet. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 90-

About Grief:

As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 381-

About Destiny:

Had I not married a preacher named Nathan Price, my particular children would never have seen the light of this world. I walked through the valley of my fate, is all, and learned to love what I could lose. -as narrated by Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible, page 381-

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Gathering by Anne Enright (Jill)

The Gathering
By Anne Enright
Completed July 7, 2008

In The Gathering, Anne Enright took a disturbing look at family dysfunction. Told from the perspective of Veronica, a 39-year-old homemaker, the readers learned the ups and downs of being part of her large Irish family, made more complicated as the family dealt with the suicide of Veronica’s brother, Liam.

Veronica’s ghosts were a large part of this novel. Veronica was the keeper of Liam’s childhood secret, and as she grieved for her brother, she had to come to terms with the tragedies that plagued him. She also had to deal with her life decisions: hiding Liam’s secret, marrying her husband, mothering her daughters, and coping with her own mother, who Veronica loved and despised simultaneously.

Enright’s writing style was seductively descriptive. I envisioned the deeply depressed Veronica spiraling out of control, frantically typing her family’s life story as she drank and escaped from her obligations. She was not an easy character to like, but Enright’s writing evoked sympathy and sadness for this character.

In addition to the manic narrative, the reader must muddle through the many phallic references and sexual metaphors that sprung up (no pun intended) in each chapter. I can’t say these themes added to the novel, but they did not appall me either. Perhaps I was too wrapped up in Veronica’s train wreck to care.

All in all, The Gathering was a decent story about being a family member and how one woman dealt with her depression in the face of a family tragedy. If you like stories set in Ireland or are a fan of Booker winners, then I would recommend The Gathering to you. ( )

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Jill)

Half of a Yellow Sun
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Completed July 4, 2008

Admittedly, it was with trepidation that I selected Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for my personal challenge to read Orange prizewinners. So many of my reading friends raved about this book. When a book is so highly regarded, I worried that it would be too high up on the reading pedestal – and in the end, it would disappoint. Furthermore, when I finally got this book, I scowled (just slightly) at its length – 541 pages. Chunksters (what I consider books over 350 pages) rarely hold my interest. Indeed, I was worried.

However, once enveloped in this book, my worries quickly ceased. Half of a Yellow Sun was a book worthy of its praise and its long length. Quite simply, it was an astonishing, gut-wrenching read.

Briefly, it’s the story of the effect of Biafra’s (in southeastern Nigeria) quest for independence in the late 1960’s. It’s also the story of family – both biological and assumed – and how those ties know no bounds. Colorful and unforgettable characters filled each page: Ugwu, the houseboy; Odenigbo, the revolutionary-minded professor; Olanna, Odenigbo’s beautiful lover and her twin sister, Kainene; and Richard, who is in love with Kainene. The reader was swept into Nigerian cultures and lifestyles. Without a doubt, it was an illuminating read.

Adichie did not sugarcoat how war affects civilians. People died, family members went missing, homes destroyed, women raped and children became ill. This book is not for the weak of heart. As a reader, I was torn by my need to take a break from the content and my desire to continue reading because I was so caught up in the story.

I highly recommend Half of a Yellow Sun to anyone interested in reading a profound novel about war, family and the effects of nationalism. ( )

(cross-posted from my blog)

Friday, July 4, 2008

When the Emperor Was Divine - Terri's Review

Since I embarked on Orange July two days ago, I've started on my luscious list of Orange Prize winners or listed books.

First up was When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. What an exquisite book. The story is of a Japanese American family's internment during WWII -- I loved the points of view. I was a ways into it before I realized the main characters weren't named - the author used pronouns only, "he" "she" "the girl" "the boy." You'd think this would distance the reader from the characters, but for me, it didn't at all. Later in the story, the POV changes to first person plural quite subtly, the boy and girl telling the story. Finally the father gets his say and it is quite a dramatic shift.

The story begins when the notice is posted in Berkley - all people of Japanese descent must report to a relocation center. "The woman" - the mother in the story - calmly prepares to evacuate. The children are curious but no one is angry or resentful. We learn that the father has already been removed to a camp - immediately after Pearl Harbor he was taken from their home in the middle of the night, wearing his bathrobe and slippers. One of the children is dismayed - their father never left the house without a hat.

I wanted them to be angry and resentful, not to go so willingly and quietly. I wept when the mother destroyed their Japanese belongings. They lost so much - not just material goods but their spirit, especially the father and mother. The author portrayed the family relationships beautifully, they were so dear with each other.

We follow the children and mother to a camp in the desert in Utah. It is a dull and harsh existence, and they remain there for more than three years. When they return after the war, they are able to move back into their house (many internees lost all their property), but their belongings are gone or destroyed and the house is trashed. Father eventually returns, a broken man who never regains his spirit.

So much racism is based on fear of "other." Otsuka made her characters so real and so "American" (I'm not sure how to phrase this without sounding insensitive or ethnocentric), so like their neighbors in many ways. Their rejection, the hatred toward them was so painful to me because I grew so fond of them - and because, of course, this was a monumental error on the part of the US government (relocations also happened in Canada).

We have come close to repeating this history in the US in the last seven years. We have repeated this history in other countries, imprisoning and torturing many innocent people in Guantanamo , Abu Ghraib and other undisclosed locations. There wasn't a backlash from the Japanese Americans after WWII, even though so many of their lives were destroyed. I fear that the damage being done today is exacerbating the anti-American sentiment around the world; illegal torture and imprisonment is not the answer to terrorism. It must stop and those responsible must be held accountable.

Thanks to those who encouraged me to read this lovely book.
Highly recommend. (4.5/5)

The Tenderness of Wolves (tanabata's review)

by Stef Penney

Fiction/Mystery, 2006
Quercus, trade pb, 445 p.
WINNER of the Costa Book of the Year 2006, Longlist - Orange Prize 2007
Interview with the author
1867, Canada.
As winter tightens its grip on the isolated settlement of Dove River, a woman steels herself for the journey of a lifetime. A man has been brutally murdered and her seventeen-year-old son has disappeared. The violence has re-opened old wounds and inflamed deep-running tensions in the frontier township – some want to solve the crime; others seek only to exploit it.
To clear her son’s name, she has no choice but to follow the tracks leaving the dead man’s cabin and head north into the forest and the desolate landscape that lies beyond it…
The quote on the back of my copy that calls it ‘a fascinating, suspense-filled adventure’ pretty much describes my thoughts on it as well. The historical aspects of the fur trade and pioneer life in northern Canada were very interesting. It wasn’t necessarily fast-paced and full of action but the murder mystery and the search for the perpetrator added suspense. And the fact that the search led them through such harsh terrain was certainly an adventure. A nicely told story with a large, varied cast of characters, it was actually the bitterly cold, snowy landscape, so vividly portrayed, that became the strongest element of the story for me. At it’s core, a mystery, but more than that too. All in all, a very enjoyable read.

Stef Penney talks about the novel:

My Rating: 4/5

*originally posted on my blog here.