Monday, November 23, 2009

Laura's Review - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Marina Lewycka
294 pages

Oh, puh-leeze. This book annoyed me; let me count the ways.

First, we have two middle-aged sisters, Vera and Nadia, who emigrated from Ukraine to UK as children. They don't get along. And they have much angst about this but seem powerless to change their relationship.

Second, we have their father, Nikolai, an elderly widower also living in the UK. He's lonely and a bit naive. And he's writing a history of tractors, and relates the development of the tractor to other events in history. Actually, Nikolai didn't annoy me. I felt sorry for him. Let's move on.

Third, there's Valentina, a 30-something Ukrainian blond bombshell. She has a young son and very large breasts. Valentina convinces Nikolai to marry her in order to provide legal residency and an education for her son. As I mentioned, Nikolai is lonely and naive. And he likes her breasts. So he agrees.

Back to Vera and Nadia. Their father's marriage causes them even more angst. This, I could understand because Valentina turns out to be after Nikolai's money. And she spends it like there's no tomorrow. But Vera and Nadia? They whine, and talk, and fight with one another. Then they whine, and talk some more. Eventually they do something about the situation.

There were some interesting elements to this book, like gaining some understanding of Ukrainian political events that led to the family's relocation in the 1940s. And there was a great deal of humor in the book, especially the portrayal of Valentina who was really over the top. But almost from the beginning, I felt like I knew where the story would go. And the dynamics between the sisters bored me. When the "big reveal" came, which explained why the two were so different in a way that was supposed to be oh so emotional, it just left me flat. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Home by Marilynne Robinson (Jill)

By Marilynne Robinson
Completed October 11, 2009

Home, the 2009 Orange Prize Winner by Marilynne Robinson, was an alternate story to Gilead. While Gilead was a love letter from Reverend John Ames to his son, Robby, Home was the story about Ames’ best friend, Robert Boughton, and his family. It was a clever look at both families, and the peak at small-town life reminded me a bit of Winesburg, Ohio. While I thought Gilead was an okay read, I enjoyed Home much more.

Told from the perspective of Glory Boughton, this book explored the sometimes-complicated relationships between fathers and sons. Reverend Robert Boughton was aging, taken care of by his daughter, Glory, and was getting the surprise of his lifetime – the return of his long-lost son, Jack. Jack was always the wayward son – a thief, drunkard and reckless man. Despite Jack’s flaws, his father always considered him his favorite. Jack had not seen his father in 20 years, and his return home overjoyed his ailing father.

But soon enough, and despite Jack’s best efforts, his return conjured up too many bad memories, and the missteps from Jack’s past continued to haunt him at home. His relationship with his father never took off, and his efforts to make Reverend Ames proud of him fell short.

The theme of returning home was prevalent throughout this story. Jack and Glory had returned home, and “home” brought different emotions for both siblings. For Jack, it was a reminder of his mistakes in a town that always cast suspicion on him. For Glory, it was a reminder of her failure to marry and have children, and reaffirmed her responsibility to keep up the Boughton home for her siblings once their father died – so they too could have a sense of home whenever they wanted.

Home was an intensely emotional book – often complicated to read because of the theological conversations – but one I wish I could have read in college, with the benefit of a professor to guide me through. Home may be where the heart is, but for many, it’s just a memory that’s best left in the past. Read Home is you want to take a painful journey of returning home and reconnecting with family – for better or worst. ( )


Have a Heart Book Giveaway - great books for a great cause. Please consider supporting me in my fundraising efforts for the American Heart Association - and win some great books too! Click here for more info,

Thursday, July 30, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (Jill's review)

American Wife
By Curtis Sittenfeld
Completed July 30, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld is, according to the author, 15 percent based on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. I feel obligated to express that I am not a fan of George W. Bush’s presidency, and the quiet, submissive nature of the First Lady also bothered me. So, with this bias, I approached American Wife with much hesitation.

The story is told from the perspective of Alice Lundgren, a bookish Wisconsin teenager, who later married the boisterous Charlie Blackwell. Alice came off as intelligent, articulate and guilt-ridden throughout most of the story. She was plagued by a car accident from her teenage years, where she killed her love interest on the way to a high school party. Later, she was guilty about stealing her friend’s love interest (Charlie), Charlie’s drinking and drug use, the Blackwell family’s enormous wealth and the thousands of deaths resulting from the war that marked her husband’s administration. Sometimes, Alice acted upon her guilt and tried to make up for these situations; while other times, she kept her mouth shut.

Alice was very human, and her marriage to Charlie was quite realistic – a series of compromises and confrontations that made them a strong couple. Charlie was charismatic but needed the support of others to make decisions. He came across as rude and insulting at times, but when Alice dug her heels in (which was rare), he did concede without issue.

I will not venture to guess how accurately Sittenfeld’s characters depicted their real-life counterparts, but it did make for an interesting story. At times, American Wife was bogged down with too many details, and I wish Sittenfeld spent more time showing Alice as the governor and president’s wife. We learned so much about Alice through her younger years – I almost felt cheated not learning more about her in such public roles.

We will never know what made First Lady Laura Bush tick, but this book, if nothing else, reminds readers that we only see what the media and public relations people want you to see. Sometimes appearances are different than actuality. ( )

Sunday, July 26, 2009

La Cucina by Lily Prior (Jill's review)

La Cucina
By Lily Prior
Completed July 25, 2009

La Cucina by Lily Prior is exactly what its subtitle suggested – a story of rapture. Set in Sicily, this story centered on Rosa – a librarian who used cooking as a way to deal with life’s stresses. She met “L’Inglese” – an English chef – at her library, and immediately sparks flew between them. Between the great food and sex, the two shared a wonderful summer of love under the sun. This part of the novel was steamy in more ways than one!

Then, L’Inglese disappeared, leaving Rosa in total despair. She returned to her family’s farm, spending time with her aging mother, her gaggle of brothers and the great “cucina” where she could cook away her sorrows. At the farm, Rosa rediscovered the joys of farm life and being surrounded by those you love.

La Cucina was, at the basic level, a story about delicious food and sex. For the latter, this book will not be everyone. The sex scenes were gratuitous but not vulgar, but if you don’t like to read about sex, then stay clear of this book. If you love food, however, this is the book for you.

This was the debut novel by Lily Prior, and her “rookiness” showed. Her depictions of Sicily – the sights, sound and smells – were rapturous in themselves. However, the pace of this novel was off, especially at the end where a hundred (important) things were crammed in. I wish Prior made another revision to tighten the time frames. But La Cucina kept me turning its pages, hoping that Rosa found peace and love. In the end, that’s really what I wish for in a book. ( )

Friday, July 24, 2009

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (Jill)

What Was Lost
By Catherine O'Flynn
Completed July 24, 2009

In What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn, characters experienced many versions of loss – from deaths to missing friends to lost ambitions and broken hearts. Central to this story is Kate Meaney – a precocious girl who fancied herself a junior detective. One day, she turned up missing. Neighbors and the press blamed Adrian, Kate’s friend, for her disappearance, and he could never shake the community’s suspicions. He ran away, leaving behind his parents and younger sister.

Fast forward 20 years to Kurt and Lisa. Lisa, Adrian’s sister, was the assistant manager of a local music store, and Kurt was a mall security guard who was haunted by the memory of Kate and his deceased wife, Nancy. Lisa and Kurt became friends and then romantically involved, not knowing that Kate’s disappearance would connect them in many ways.

The story of a missing child is never easy to read, and after O’Flynn masterfully showed Kate to her readers, her disappearance made it even harder. Kate was smart, likeable and unforgettable – the kind of girl you root for in a book. You wanted her disappearance to have some closure, despite the sadness.

I can’t say the same for the other characters in this book. O’Flynn was at her best creating Kate – I wished the whole book was Kate’s narrative. The other characters were regular, and their voyage of self-discovery was predictable. Inexplicably, O’Flynn included narratives from anonymous mall shoppers at the end of some chapters, which added nothing to the story.

What Was Lost was the first book by Catherine O’Flynn, and her writing holds a lot of promise. I was not as mesmerized by this novel as other readers, but there were parts of this book that were outstanding. I will definitely read another book by O’Flynn, hoping her future characters spring from that same creative place where she created Kate. It’s there where O’Flynn shines. ( )

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

Three times married Harley Savage is a master quilter and has a "dangerous streak." Douglas Cheeseman is a gawky engineer who's former wife has described him as a "bridge bore." They both arrive in Kararakook, NSW, she to help set up a pioneer heritage museum and he to direct the tearing down of the old bridge that has been deemed unsafe. Their developing relationship is explored in Kate Grenville's 2001 Orange Prize winning novel and within its' 400 pages lies a gem of a story.The beauty of this book is the detailed development of these two quirky characters, both so unsure of, and reticient to share too much of, themselves. Grenville masterfully, brings them together, and because of her attention to detail, you find yourself cheering them on and hoping that the author doesn't disappoint in the end. She doesn't. Douglas states early on the main theme of the book, "How do people get on?" We find, through these two and other characters, all flawed in their own ways, that most of us struggle with that question in one way or another. Later in the book, Harley states, when talking about the quilt she is making for the town, "Donna's pieces had got her excited, but everything looked good in the beginning. It was only later, putting the pieces together, that it turned into something less than you had hoped. It seemed she would never learn that was the way things always were." Just like life itself.Grenville uses many metaphors to relate her theme through the quilt and the bridge (the Bent Bridge), because they are both alike in many ways. From a distance, through the window, Douglas watches Harley work on the quilt, fitting pieces together, playing the light and the dark off of each other,allowing them to fit without concern that their seams line up, making it all come together so beautifully. At another point, Douglas explains to her what a beautiful, natural product concrete is, how it has no form of its' own until you determine what it will be, how when you combine the flexibility of steel with the strength of the concrete, you get the best outcome for a bridge that will last forever. And isn't that what relationships are all about? The fitting together, playing off of each other, combining qualities of each to complement the whole? Grenville does this so adroitly that I caught myself holding my breath at the beauty of it. The book's title explains, through the characters, what we all expect of ourselves and yet have a very difficult time maintaining. And through the secondary character Felicity, we learn that the idea of perfection is, in itself, flawed.I can't say enough about the beauty of this book. The elegant prose is only part of it. It's also the emotional wallop it provides and its' ability to make the reader sit back and think, "I know exactly what she's/he's feeling. Wonderful read!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (Jill)

By Sarah Waters
Completed July 21, 2009

The story of Fingersmith reminded me of a crazy car ride with no seat belts. Sarah Waters expertly led her readers through plot twists and turns, leaving you near-breathless as you wrapped your head around colorful characters and tricky plot advancements. When I was done reading Fingersmith, I had to pry my hands off the book.

It’s hard to summarize Fingersmith without revealing spoilers. Suffice it to say, this book is set in Victorian England and includes a drafty old house, a crazy uncle, a secluded lady, a pickpocket, an opportunistic bastard and sex. While it sounds like another formulaic Gothic novel, trust me when I say it’s not. Dickens could have created the characters but only Sarah Waters could have delivered them in such a fashion.

Fingersmith wasn’t without flaws and some believability issues, but who cares when you’re ensnarled in good Victorian fiction? I especially loved the exploration of female love and companionship during this time. Many scholars have speculated about how intimate Victorian girls were, who often hugged, kissed, held hands and shared beds for warmth. It’s nice to read how true this affection could be between girls from this era.

For fans of historical fiction, I would highly recommend Fingersmith to you. Fast and furious, I believe most readers will find this stout book to be a real gem. ( )

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Laura's 2009 Goals and Progress

The Orange Prize is my favorite award after the Booker Prize. In 2008, my Orange Prize Project goal was to read 4 winners or shortlisted works, and I read 5. In 2009 my goal is 8. I plan to complete the winners list, including the 2009 winner. I'll be doing most, if not all, of my Orange reading during "Orange January" and "Orange July. "

Orange Prize Winners Read in 2009 (Books will be listed as completed)
2008 - The Road Home (Tremain)
2003 - Property (Martin)
2000 - When I lived in Modern Times (Grant)
1999 - A Crime in the Neighborhood (Berne)
1998 - Larry's Party (Shields)
2009 - Home (Robinson)
1997 - Fugitive Pieces (Michaels)
1996 - A Spell of Winter (Dunmore)

Orange Prize Shortlist Books Read in 2009 (Books will be listed as completed)
1998 - The Ventriloquist's Tale (Melville)

(My complete List of Orange Prize Fiction Winners & Shortlists read can be found here)

Laura's Review - Fugitive Pieces

Fugitive Pieces
Anne Michaels
294 pages

I'll get right to the point: I was disappointed with Fugitive Pieces. Most of the book is the story of Jakob, who is orphaned during the holocaust, and taken in by a Greek scholar named Athos. After the war they move to Canada, and Jakob grows up to become a poet. Then, about 2/3 of the way through the book, the narrative shifts to Ben, a young professor whose life briefly intersects with Jakob's.

I had high expectations for this Orange Prize winner written by a well-known poet. The language was, indeed, lovely. Jakob's story in particular was well told and poignant in parts. But that wasn't enough for me. By and large, I failed to identify with the characters, and didn't care much about the outcome of their lives and relationships. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Laura's Review - A Spell of Winter

A Spell of Winter
Helen Dunmore
313 pages

Catherine and her brother Rob come of age in their grandfather's house at the turn of the 20th century. Their mother left them when they were young, their father died, and they were raised largely by household servants. Their grandfather is an eccentric recluse, and any discussion of their parents is taboo. Catherine and Rob turn to each other for protection and to sort out their cruel and confusing world.

And that's when things get creepy. Although it's not a suspense or horror novel, A Spell of Winter unfolded in a similar way, where the reader anticipates an awful event and can only watch it happen. Several times I said to myself, "no, they wouldn't ..." But the siblings' emotional instability leads them to say and do some pretty bizarre things. And then suddenly World War I broke out and the novel took another turn. The pace accelerated, and the latter part of the novel was rather disjointed, as if Dunmore was using the war to tie up a lot of loose ends.

The book jacket on my copy of A Spell of Winter led me to believe this was a novel about emotional healing: "... as Catherine fights free of her past, the spell of winter that has held her in its grasp begins to break." The creepier parts of the book were more convincing than the supposed healing, which happened far too quickly given Catherine's lifetime of hurt and repression. A Spell of Winter was the first novel to be awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction, but it doesn't live up to some of the later winners. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn (Jill's Review)

I Was Amelia Earhart
By Jane Mendelsohn
Completed July 16, 2009

What happened to Amelia Earhart and her ill-fated flight across the Pacific? The world may never know, but isn’t it fun to speculate? Did the Japanese shoot down her plane? Did she run out of fuel and dive into the ocean? Or, as Jane Mendelsohn proposed in I Was Amelia Earhart, was she was marooned on an island, living off fish and coconuts and having great sex with her navigator?

I Was Amelia Earhart is a speculative account of this famous aviator, who admittedly, I know little about. Amy Adams recently portrayed her in the movie Night at the Museum, and her depiction of Amelia inspired me to grab this book for Orange July. While Adams’ Amelia was spunky and fearless, Mendelsohn’s Amelia was troubled, depressed and suicidal. Lost in an unhappy marriage, Amelia took advantage of the worldwide flight to test her limits, not caring if she lived or died. It wasn’t until something bad happened on the flight – and her subsequent survival on a deserted island – that Amelia found happiness. All her life, Amelia wanted to be free. Coincidentally it wasn’t flying but seclusion that gave her this precious gift.

Short and sweet, I Was Amelia Earhart speculated into the “what ifs” of Amelia Earhart’s fate. Though I disliked the ending, I enjoyed Mendelsohn’s writing style (almost dream-like) and her development of a complicated heroine. It has inspired me to learn more about this famous woman. ( )

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (Jill's review)

Fugitive Pieces
By Anne Michaels
Completed July 14, 2009

I have never been so bewitched and confused by a novel as I was reading Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. Michaels poetically told the story of Jakob Beer, a poet himself, who survived the Holocaust after being rescued by a Greek geologist. The first part of Fugitive Pieces depicted Jakob’s life as a young man, living in Greece and Canada. The second half of the book was the narrative of Ben, an admirer of Jakob’s poetry, whose personal life was spiraling out of control.

Jakob and Ben share many parallels – both were affected by the Holocaust, survivors’ guilt and a strangling inability to show their love. For me, Jakob’s story was more fascinating. His nightmarish grip on dealing with his sister’s death was haunting. His love for Athos, his surrogate father, and his second wife, Michaela, showed hope. And his recollections of World War II were heart-breaking. All in all, his tale was more humanizing.

To find these story lines, though, the reader must wade through Michaels’ prose. To say it was beautifully written would be an understatement. However, there were times when I read a paragraph and scratched my head, wondering why it was part of the book. The meandering prose was distracting only because I could not fit it into the larger storyline. Perhaps Fugitive Pieces is a book best read twice.

With that said, I can’t say I regret reading Fugitive Pieces, but it’s definitely not a book for everyone. I usually recommend a book based on other titles or genres, but I can’t for Fugitive Pieces. It stands alone as a beautiful but tangled book about love, loss and the power of the human spirit. ( )

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (Jill)

The Namesake
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Completed July 10, 2009

A tale of family relationships and the immigrant experience, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri explored the lives of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, who settled in Boston from India, and their children, Gogol and Sonia. The first part of the book expressed Ashima’s difficulties with settling into her new home. While expecting their first child, the couple waited for a letter from a grandmother, which would detail the names of their child. The letter never arrived, forcing Ashoke and Ashima to choose a name for their son, settling on “Gogol,” who was a Russian writer who was influential on Ashoke as a young man.

The story then transitioned into Gogol’s life – and his discomfort with his name. Before college, he changed it to Nikhil, attempting to shed the Indian and family ties that he felt bound him. We follow Gogol through college and architectural school, dead-end relationships and a cultural restlessness. It wasn’t until the unexpected death of his father that Gogol began to feel comfortable with his Indian heritage – though too late to share with his father.

The Namesake spoke in a whisper but delivered strong messages about ancestry, family and culture. I believe Lahiri is a short story writer at heart, and her chapters throughout The Namesake could have stood alone. I found the ending to be endearing, leaving me with hopefulness for Gogol and his family.

Fans of Jhumpa Lahiri should definitely put The Namesake on their shelves. I look forward to reading her latest short story collection, The Unaccustomed Earth very soon. She is one of our most talented storytellers. ( )

Laura's Review - Home

Marilynne Robinson
325 pages

At 38 years old, Glory Boughton has returned to Gilead, Iowa to care for her aging father, the Reverend Robert Boughton. Boughton is a retired Presbyterian minister, and a good friend of the Congregationalist minister, John Ames (the main character in Robinson's Pulitzer-winning book, Gilead). Glory is recovering from a failed relationship and is simultaneously resentful of and thankful for her new routine. One day, her older brother Jack comes back into her life after 20 years away from the family. Jack had a troubled youth in Gilead, and his years away not been much better. He has been in jail, he has an alcohol problem, and there is a lingering issue regarding his relationship with a woman named Della.

It's not clear just why Jack decided to return to Gilead, but both Glory and his father decide to give him a chance. The story moves along at a leisurely pace, much like a lazy summer day. Jack finds much-needed stability, tending to the garden and minor repairs around the house. Glory finds companionship, love, and understanding that she didn't think possible from Jack. And yet, Jack's demons never completely leave him. His status with Della is uncertain. While he achieves a kind of reconciliation with his father, tensions do flare from time to time as Robert is unable to completely let go of past hurts. Jack's relationship with John Ames is also tenuous. Eventually, Jack takes the only reasonable action to alleviate his pain, although as the reader we know it will never really go away.

This is a sad, moving, and yet also surprisingly uplifting book of family relationships, redemption, and grace. Highly recommended. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Laura's Review - Larry's Party

Larry's Party
Carol Shields
339 pages

Larry Weller is an average guy who moved from young adulthood to middle age in a pretty average way. He received a diploma in floral design, choosing the profession more by accident than by choice, and moved "up the ladder" in a small floral chain store. On his honeymoon he became fascinated with garden maze design, and made this the cornerstone of his career. He struggled to form meaningful adult relationships with parents, siblings, and women. But as Larry moved from this twenties through his thirties and forties, he matured, "found himself," and made peace with key figures in his life.

Reading Larry's Party is like watching selected scenes from a movie. Each chapter covers a short time in Larry's life and is self-contained, almost like a short story. Shields provides details as if previous chapters had not been written; for example, well into the book she described Larry's parents, and his education, even though earlier chapters covered these aspects of his life in detail. At the beginning of the book, Larry is in his late twenties; by the end, he is 47 -- the same age as I am now. I could relate to Larry's journey through adulthood, and think this book may be more enjoyable for older audience. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Laura's Review - A Crime in the Neighborhood

A Crime in the Neighborhood
Suzanne Berne
285 pages

One summer evening in 1972, a young boy was brutally murdered behind a suburban shopping mall. His death sent shock waves through the neighborhood; this crime was unprecedented. The murder and related events are retold by Marsha, a 10-year-old girl. She becomes a bit obsessed with the murder and imagines herself a private investigator, collecting "evidence" in a notebook. But at the same time, Marsha's own life has been turned upside-down by dysfunctional family relationships. The reader quickly realizes Marsha may not have a firm grasp of the situation.

In fact, over the course of the novel several "crimes" are committed: husband-wife betrayal, deceit between siblings, squabbles and mistrust between neighbors. Some are incidental; others have significant after-effects. Suddenly it becomes clear that solving the murder is not the point of this Orange Prize-winning novel. It starts out as a mystery, but ends with insights on a deeper crime: man's inhumanity to man. Recommended. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Laura's Review - The Girls

The Girls
Lori Lansens
343 pages

Rose and Ruby, "the girls" in this novel, are conjoined twins. In fact, at 29, they are the oldest surviving craniopagus twins (joined at the head). Raised by Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash, they now live independently and work at the town library. Rose, the more intellectual and bookish of the two, sets out to write their life story. She asks Ruby to contribute her own writings. The result is The Girls, a story that is both enlightening and touching.

Rose and Ruby have overcome a myriad of physical challenges just to live life day-to-day, and are faced with numerous medical issues. They can only view each other through mirrors. This means that although they have spent every moment of their lives together, their experiences and observations are sometimes vastly different. They have also kept secrets from each other. There is a scene where one twin observes a situation she knows will greatly disturb the other twin (who cannot see the situation herself). This is revealed in the novel but, because the twins do not share their chapters with each other, only the reader knows the full story.

Lori Lansens does a brilliant job of describing the significant challenges faced by conjoined twins, while also portraying the twins as everyday people possessed of typical emotions, ambition, and dreams. I also appreciated Lansens' technique of intertwining the twins' stories, revealing different aspects through each girl and allowing the reader to form the full picture of their lives. All in all, quite a thought-provoking read. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Orange July Reading List

July 1 is just a few days away, and I have many wonderful books to choose for Orange July - a personal challenge to read at least one book that has been nominated for or won the Orange Prize. This is the second annual Orange July, and it's taken off like wildfire. I am so excited! I hope you'll consider joining us Orange Lovers for a great month of reading.

My Orange Books


Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1997)
Larry's Party by Carol Shields (1998)

I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn (1997)
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
The Accidental by Ali Smith (2006)

La Cucina by Lily Prior (2002)
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2003)
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2004)
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (2007)
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (2009)

I will be starting with The Namesake, and we'll see what happens after that. Though it's not required, if you do write a review about an Orange July book, please consider leaving a copy of your review on the Orange Prize Project blog so others can view it.

Twitter Users

Please use the hashtag #orangejuly if you tweet about Orange July.

Enjoy your Orange July!

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Hi everyone,
Thought I would introduce myself. My name is Sherrie. I have a blog called
Just Books that I review books I've read, participate in reading challenges and a few other things. I am always looking for good books to read. I happened to stumble onto The Orange Prize Project while out hopping around blog land. I am so glad I found this. I have already read several books from the list posted here. I am going to put the books I have already read and a link back to that review.

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood 1997 "F"
The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers - Xiadu Gue 2007 "F"
How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff 2005 "F"

The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Monk 2002 "F"
Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold 2003 "F"

I am looking forward to reading lots of great books here!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Award for New Writers - Winners and Short Lists: 2005- Present

About This Award:

The Orange Broadband Award for New Writers is open to all first works of fiction written by women of any age or nationality and published in the UK between 1 April of the year before the prize is awarded and 31 March of the year in which the prize is awarded. Emphasis is on potential and emerging talent.

Short story collections and novellas are also eligible.


The Boy Next Door, by Irene Sabatini - WINNER
The Book of Fires, by Jane Borodale
After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, by Evie Wyld


An Equal Stillness, by Francesca Kay - WINNER
Miles From Nowhere, by Nami Mun
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, by Ann Weisgarber


Inglorious, by Joanna Kavenna - WINNER
The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff
The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, by Lauren Liebenberg


The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly - WINNER
Poppy Shakespeare, by Clare Allan
Bitter Sweets, by Roopa Farooki


Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman - WINNER
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by Yiyun Li
The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin


26a, by Diana Evans - WINNER
Lucky Girls, by Nell Freudenberger
How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

Orange Prize Fiction Winners and Shortlists: 1996 to the Present

About This Award:
The Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction is awarded to women of any nationality who have written the best, eligible full-length novel in English. Eligible works must have been
published for the first time in the United Kingdom between 1 April of the year before the prize is awarded and 31 March of the year in which the prize is awarded.
Translations of books originally written in other languages are not eligible for the prize.


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller - WINNER
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett


The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht - WINNER
Room, by Emma Donoghue
The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna
Grace Williams Says It Loud, by Emma Henderson
Great House, by Nicole Krauss
Annabel, by Kathleen Winter


The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver - WINNER
The Very Thought of You, by Rosie Alison
Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, by Monique Roffey


Home, by Marilynne Robinson - WINNER
Scottsboro, by Ellen Feldman
The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey
The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt
Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Deirdre Madden
Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie


The Road Home, by Rose Tremain - WINNER
Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston
The Outcast, by Sadie Jones
When We Were Bad, by Charlotte Mendelson
Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill
Lottery, by Patricia Wood


Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - WINNER
Arlington Park, by Rachel Cusk
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo
The Observations, by Jane Harris
Digging to America, by Anne Tyler


On Beauty, by Zadie Smith - WINNER
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel
The Accidental, by Ali Smith
Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, by Carrie Tiffany
The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters


We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver - WINNER
Old Filth, by Jane Gardam
The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman
Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka


Small Island, by Andrea Levy - WINNER
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard
Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ice Road, by Gillian Slovo
The Colour, by Rose Tremain


Property, by Valerie Martin - WINNER
Buddha Da, by Anne Donovan
Heligoland, by Shena Mackay
Unless, by Carol Shields
The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith
The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt


Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett- WINNER
No Bones, by Anna Burns
The Siege, by Helen Dunmore
The White Family, by Maggie Gee
A Child's Book of True Crime, by Chloe Hooper
Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters


The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville - WINNER
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
Fred & Edie, by Jill Dawson
Hotel World, by Ali Smith
Homestead, by Rosina Lippi
Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley


When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant - WINNER
If I Told You Once, by Judy Budnitz
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
The Dancers Dancing, by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith


A Crime in the Neighborhood, by Suzanne Berne - WINNER
The Short History of a Prince, by Jane Hamilton
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
Paradise, by Toni Morrison
The Leper's Companions, by Julia Blackburn
Visible Worlds, by Marilyn Bowering


Larry's Party, by Carol Shield - WINNER
Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis
The Ventriloquist's Tale, by Pauline Melville
The Magician's Assistant, by Ann Patchett
Love Like Hate Adore, by Deirdre Purcell
The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve


Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels - WINNER
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood
One by One in the Darkness, by Deirdre Madden
Accordion Crimes, by E. Annie Proulx
Hen's Teeth, by Manda Scott
I Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn


A Spell of Winter, by Helen Dunmore - WINNER
The Book of Colour, by Julia Blackburn
Spinsters, by Pagan Kennedy
The Hundred Secret Senses, by Amy Tan
Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler
Eveless Eden, by Marianne Wiggins

The Orange Prize for Fiction - Long Lists (1996 - Present)

For those readers wanting to really stretch, I've included additional books which appeared on the Orange Prize for Fiction Long List for each year.


Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
On the Floor by Aifric Campbell
The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay
The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
There but for the by Ali Smith
The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard
Tides of War by Stella Tillyard
The Submission by Amy Waldman  


Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela
Jamrach's Menagerie, by Carol Birch
The Pleasure Seekers, by Tishani Doshi
Whatever You Love, by Louise Doughty
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
The London Train, by Tessa Hadley
The Seas, by Samantha Hunt
The Birth of Love, by Joanna Kavenna
The Road to Wanting, by Wendy Law-Yone
The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer
Repeat it Today with Tears, by Anne Peile
Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, by Lola Shoneyin
The Swimmer, by Roma Tearne


The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton
Savage Lands, by Clare Clark
Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig
The Way Things Look to Me, by Roopa Farooki
The Twisted Heart, by Rebecca Gowers
This is How, by M.J. Hyland
Small Wars, by Sadie Jones
Secret Son, by Laila Lalami
The Long Song, by Andrea Levy
The Wilding, by Maria McCann
Black Mamba Boy, by Nadifa Mohamed
The Still Point, by Amy Sackville
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters


The Household Guide for Dying, by Debra Adelaide
Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold
Their Finest Hour and a Half, by Lissa Evans
Blonde Roots, by Bernardine Evaristo
Strange Music, by Laura Fish
Love Marriage, by V.V. Ganeshananthan
Intuition, by Allegra Goodman
The Lost Dog, by Michelle de Kretser
A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight, by Gina Ochsner
Evening is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samarasan
American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld
The Flying Troutmans, by Miriam Toews
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, by Ann Weisgarber


The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani
The Room of Lost Things, by Stella Duffy
The Keep, by Jennifer Egan
The Gathering, by Anne Enright
The Clothes on Their Backs, by Linda Grant
The Master Bedroom, by Tessa Hadley
Sorry, by Gail Jones
The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam, by Lauren Liebenberg
In The Dark, by Deborah Moggach
Mistress, by Anita Nair
The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak
The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer
The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas
Monster Love, by Carol Topolski


Poppy Shakespeare, by Clare Allan
Peripheral Vision, by Patricia Ferguson
Over, by Margaret Forster
The Dissident, by Nell Freudenberger
When to Walk, by Rebecca Gowers
Carry Me Down, by MJ Hyland
The Girls, by Lori Lansens
Alligator, by Lisa Moore
What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn
The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney
Careless, by Deborah Robertson
Afterwards, by Rachel Seiffert
Ten Days in the Hills, by Jane Smiley
The Housekeeper, by Melanie Wallace


Minaret, by Leila Aboulela
Harbor, by Lorraine Adams
Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman
Watch Me Disappear, by Jill Dawson
House of Orphans, by Helen Dunmore
The Constant Princess, by Philippa Gregory
White Ghost Girls, by Alice Greenway
Dreams of Speaking, by Gail Jones
Lost in the Forest, by Sue Miller
Rape: A Love Story, by Joyce Carol Oates
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld
Frangipani, by Celestine Hitiura Vaite
The Position, by Meg Wolitzer


Away From You, by Melanie Finn
Black Dirt, by Nell Leyshon
Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson
Escape Routes for Beginners, by Kira Cochrane
The Falls, by Joyce Carol Oates
It So Happens, by Patricia Ferguson
The Mysteries of Glass, by Sue Gee
Nelson's Daughter, by Miranda Hearn
The Remedy, by Michele Lovric
The River, by Tricia Wastvedt
The Great Stink, by Clare Clark
Tatty, by Christine Dwyer Hickey
The Zigzag Way, by Anita Desai
Ursula, Under, by Ingrid Hill


Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
The Sari Shop, by Rupa Bajwa
Kith and Kin, by Stevie Davies
State of Happiness, by Stella Duffy
The Flood, by Maggie Gee
The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall
Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
A Visit from Voltaire, by Dinah Lee Kung
Gilgamesh, by Joan London
The Internationals, by Sarah May
Love, by Toni Morrison
The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

2003Special, by Bella Bathhurst
Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros
English Correspondence, by Janet Davey
Dot in the Universe, by Lucy Ellmann
What the Birds See, by Sonya Hartnett
What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt
War Crimes for the Home, by Liz Jensen
The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel
In the Forest, by Edna O'Brien
Fox Girl, by Okja Keller
When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka
Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
The Cutting Room, by Louise Welsh
Water Street, by Crystal Wilkinson


Pop, by Kitty Aldridge
A True Story Based on Lies, by Jennifer Clement
Now You See Me, by Lesley Glaister
The Element of Water, by Stevie Davies
Five Quarters of an Orange, by Joanne Harris
Niagara Falls All Over Again, by Elizabeth McCracken
The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk
Middle Ages, by Joyce Carol Oates
The Story of My Face, by Kathy Page
Crawling at Night, by Nani Power
La Cucina, by Lily Prior
The Hero's Walk, by Anita Rau Badami
Sister Crazy, by Emma Richler
The Dark Room, by Rachel Seiffert


The Hiding Place, by Trezza Azzopardi
In the Blue House, by Meaghan Delahunt
The Last Samurai, by Helen Dewitt
Fish, Blood & Bone, by Leslie Forbes
The Wild, by Esther Freud
Dog Days, Glenn Miller Nights, by Laurie Graham
Nowhere Else on Earth, by Josephine Humphreys
Ahab's Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund
From Caucasia, with Love, by Danzy Senna
The Bonesetter's Daughter, by Amy Tan
The PowerBook, by Jeanette Winterson
MotherKind, by Jayne Ann Phillips


The Translator, by Leila Aboulela
Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
Fasting, Feasting, by Anita Desai
A Dangerous Vine, by Barbara Ewing
Danny Boy, by Jo-Ann Goodwin
A Sin of Colour, by Sunetra Gupt
Born Free, by Laura Hird
Everything You Need, by A.L. Kennedy
The Hunter, by Julia Leigh
Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott
Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith, by Gina B. Nahai
Island, by Jane Rogers
Last Chance Texaco, by Christine Pountney
What the Body Remembers, by Shauna Singh Baldwin


Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge
The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett
In A Fishbone Church, by Catherine Chidgey
Crocodile Soup, by Julia Darling
Restitution, by Maureen Duffy
Trumpet, by Jackie Kay
Comfort Woman, by Nora Okja Keller
Buxton Spice, by Oonya Kempadoo
The Vintner's Luck, by Elizabeth Knox
Marchlands, by Karla Kuban
The Giant O'Brien, by Hilary Mantel
The Most Wanted, by Jacquelyn Mitchard
A History of Silence, by Barbara Neil
Evening News, by Marly Swick


Bitter Grounds, by Sandra Benitez
Man or Mango? by Lucy Ellmann
Gaglow, by Esther Freud
The Aguero Sisters, by Cristina Garcia
The House Gun, by Nadine Gordimer
The Breaking, by Kathryn Heyman
Round Rock, by Michelle Huneven
Ark Baby, by Liz Jensen
Undiscovered Country, by Christina Koning
The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska
Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen
Impossible Saints, by Michele Roberts
The Underpainter, by Jane Urquhart
Baby Love, by Louis Young


Every Man For Himself, by Beryl Bainbridge
Death Comes for Peter Pan, by Joan Brady
The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The Last Thing He Wanted, by Joan Didion
The Cast Iron Shore, by Linda Grant
The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, by Siri Hustvedt
The Autobiography of My Mother, by Jamaica Kincaid
With Child, by Laurie R. King
Fall On Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald
All the Blood is Red, by Leone Ross
Red Leaves, by Paulina Simons
Anita and Me, by Meera Syal
Gut Symmetries, by Jeanette Winterson
The Frequency of Souls, by Mary Kay Zuravleff


The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker
Official and Doubtful, by Ajay Close
The Rape of Sita, by Lindsey Collen
Keeping Up with Magda, by Isla Dewar
The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Private Parts of Women, by Lesley Glaister
The Passion of Alice, by Stephanie Grant
Egg Dancing, by Liz Jensen
So I Am Glad, by A.L. Kennedy
Never Far From Nowhere, by Andrea Levy
Mother of Pearl, by Mary Morrissy
Promised Lands, by Jane Rogers
River Lines, by Elspeth Sandys

Monday, June 1, 2009

Laura's Review - Sorry

Gail Jones
230 pages

Sorry opens with 10-year-old Perdita Keene witnessing her father's brutal death. Perdita's parents (Stella and Nicholas) moved from England to the Australian outback as newlyweds; Nicholas was stationed there as an anthropologist, studying native Aboriginal people. They lived on a remote ranch belonging to the Trevor family. Nicholas was remote and unfeeling; Stella was mentally unstable. Perdita's education was provided by Stella, and centered almost exclusively on the works of Shakespeare. Perdita's only friends were the Trevor's deaf-mute son, Billy, and a teenage Aboriginal housekeeper named Mary. After the tragedy, Mary confessed to murder and was sent away to a reform school in Perth. Nicholas' murder was never discussed. Perdita repressed all memories, developed a stutter, and lost herself in books:
Because we were stranded together and because I stuttered, we read. there is no refuge so private, no asylum more sane. There is no facility of voices captured elsewhere so entire and so marvellous. My tongue was lumpish and fixed, but in reading, silent reading, there was a release, a flight, a wheeling off into the blue spaces of exclamatory experience, diffuse and improbable, gloriously homeless. All that was solid melted into air, all that was air reshaped, and gained plausibility. (p. 43)

In the years that followed, Stella was in and out of hospital for psychiatric treatment. The Trevors cared for Perdita, until events of World War II forced evacuation to Perth and the families separated. Stella and Perdita were forced to live on their own for the first time, and Perdita found herself an outcast in the local school. Slowly, and with the help of kind souls who shall go nameless so as to avoid spoilers, Perdita begins the process of piecing together her past and rebuilding her life.

The story itself is a compellingly good read. And it operates on a deeper level as well. In an author's note, Jones writes, "The word 'sorry' has dense and complicated meanings in Australia.' " She describes the historical context of Sorry Day and the Stolen Generation, in which indigenous Aboriginal children were removed from their families. Jones touched on issues of prejudice, separation and assimilation, and when she addressed the need for apology this novel suddenly struck me as hugely allegorical. This book combines rich characterizations with deep emotional impact -- always a winning combination for me. This is a beautiful, moving book. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Who is going to win the Orange Prize 2009?

I have now read all six books short listed for the Orange Prize 2009. Overall, I wasn't very impressed with the quality of books which made the short list. I think that the judges this year must be fans of literary fiction, particularly books which are reflective and full of wisdom. I prefer great characters and a complex plot, so I didn't get much pleasure from reading the final six.

So who is going to win the Orange Prize this year?

Here are my thoughts on each book's chances.....

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt


My review

I don't think this has a real chance of winning. Some people enjoyed it, and it does have some interesting literary devices in it, but overall it doesn't have the feel of a prize winning book.

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden


My review

There is an outside chance that this could win the Orange Prize. Fans of literary fiction really enjoy this book, and lovers of general fiction (like me) do not find anything wrong with it. It is a nice gentle read, and it does have a great ending. If the judges are a mixture of literary fiction and general fiction lovers then they could well compromise on their favourite book by agreeing to choose this as a winner.

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman


My review

I don't think this has a realistic chance of winning. There is nothing wrong with it, but it doesn't have that magic spark. It is a reasonable read about an important historical case, but I think it did well to get nominated.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

My review

I think that Home has a very real chance of winning the Orange Prize. Fans of literary fiction love this book, they rave about it being their favourite book of the year, and how amazing the poetic prose is. I didn't enjoy it at all, but I've a feeling that the judges do and so it will probably win.

The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey

My review

This my favourite by a long way. The writing was so moving and thought provoking. It was in a league above the rest for me and I really hope that it wins, but I'm not that sure it will.

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie


My review

Burnt Shadows has an outside chance of winning. The plot is very ambitious, and I don't think it quite worked, but everyone enjoyed it to some extent, and there were quite a few literary devices to please those judges. I wouldn't be overly surprised if this managed to sneak through to win, as not many books try to achieve the things this one does.

The winner is announced on 3rd June, and I really hope that The Wilderness wins, but if I had to place a bet I'd put my money on Home.

Have you read any of the shortlist?

Who do you think will win?

I look forward to hearing your opinions!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Road Home by Rose Tremain (Jackie's Review)

The Road Home tells the story of Lev, a migrant worker from Eastern Europe, travelling to England in the hope of finding enough money to support his mother and daughter, back in his home country. Still grieving from the death of his wife, he tries to build a new life for himself in a country where he doesn’t know anyone, and struggles to understand many of the English customs.

The detailed observations of London made me see my own country in a new light. Some of the things that I see every day were described so vividly that I saw them through new eyes, those of a migrant worker coming to the UK for the first time, and what I saw was both unsettling and true.

The writing style was reminiscent of A Fine Balance, which is very high praise from me, as Rohinton Mistry’s book is currently my favourite of all time. I loved the detail, and the emotion behind the words.

I’m not sure how realistic many of Lev’s experiences were; opportunities continually seemed to land in front of him, and I’m sure life for a real migrant worker would actually have been much tougher, especially in the first few weeks.

I was a little disappointed with the ending. It was so neat that it was as if the final chapter had been written first, and then everything else fanned out backwards from this point, rather than a natural progression from beginning to end. It was also a bit predictable from about the halfway point, but I’m willing to forgive these few niggles, as this really is a great book. It is packed with emotion, and enforces the message that family and friendships are more important that anything else in the world.

This book isn’t for everyone, as it is slow in places, contains a lot of observational passages, and the number of stereotypes will make some people cringe. I loved it, despite it’s flaws. It is a worthy winner of the Orange prize, and I recommend it to all lovers of well written fiction.


Originally reviewed here.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

2009 Lists Announced...

The shortlist for the Orange Prize for New Writers 2009 has been announced and includes:
  • An Equal Stillness, by Francesca Kay
  • Miles From Nowhere, by Nami Mun
  • The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, by Ann Weisgarber

Also the longlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009 has been announced and includes:
  • The Household Guide for Dying, by Debra Adelaide
  • Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold
  • Their Finest Hour and a Half, by Lissa Evans
  • Blonde Roots, by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Scottsboro, by Ellen Feldman
  • Strange Music, by Laura Fish
  • Love Marriage, by V.V. Ganeshananthan
  • Intuition, by Allegra Goodman
  • The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey
  • The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt
  • The Lost Dog, by Michelle de Kretser
  • Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Deirdre Madden
  • A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
  • The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight, by Gina Ochsner
  • Home, by Marilynne Robinson
  • Evening is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samarasan
  • Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie
  • American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • The Flying Troutmans, by Miriam Toews
  • The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, by Ann Weisgarber

Look for the shortlist for this prize on April 21st.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout (Jill)

Amy and Isabelle
By Elizabeth Strout
Completed March 14, 2009

Elizabeth Strout is a master at creating female characters that grow on you as you read the story. This was the case in the brilliant Olive Kitteridge - and the case in my latest read, Amy and Isabelle.

Isabelle Goodrow was a well-meaning but insecure woman who was raising her teenage daughter, Amy. Isabelle felt that she was doing a good job as a mother until she discovered Amy’s affair with her teacher. Isabelle was devastated. She was torn between reporting the teacher and keeping Amy’s secret in a gossip-ruled town in which Isabelle so desperately wanted acceptance. More importantly, Isabelle felt betrayed by her daughter and jealous of her sexual escapades. Amy became a daughter she didn’t know anymore.

Meanwhile, we learn about Amy – a beautiful but shy teenage girl who, like her mother, was unconfident and tried her best to fit in. Amy did not see her mother as an expert on life, mostly because Isabelle was so reserved, and easily fell into the arms of her knowledgeable teacher. Little did Amy know that she was living a life parallel to her mother’s teenage years.

I loved how Isabelle developed from a smug, self-righteous woman to an open-minded, accepting mother and friend. As I first started to read about Isabelle, I kept thinking that she needed to lighten up. However, I realized that her quiet reserve was a front because she was always worried what people thought about her. Amy was another interesting character – Strout offered up pieces about Amy, but I did not feel any resolution to her insecurities.

If you enjoy reading about mother-daughter relationships, then I highly recommend Amy and Isabelle to you. I can’t wait to read Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. ( )

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Looking Ahead: 2009

Here is the schedule for announcements of award long lists, short lists and winners:

Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction & Award for New Writers 2009

17 December 2008
orange arrowjudging panels announced

18 March 2009
Orange Prize for Fiction longlist

7 April 2009
Orange Award for New Writers shortlist

21 April 2009
Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist

1 June 2009
Orange Award for New Writers shortlist event at the Southbank Centre, London

2 June 2009
Orange Prize for Fiction shortlisted writers' event at the Southbank Centre, London

3 June 2009
Awards Ceremony

Saturday, January 31, 2009

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Jill)

We Need To Talk About Kevin
By Lionel Shriver
Completed January 30, 2009

When I started We Need To Talk About Kevin, I did so with hesitation. Several readers commented how it was depressing, the characters were unlikable and the subject was uncomfortable. Admittedly, that’s exactly how I would summarize this book. I couldn’t wait for it to end. It was like approaching a car accident, rubbernecking to see what happened and then hurriedly speeding up to get past it.

It’s the story of Eva, written as letters to her estranged husband about their son, Kevin, who killed students and teachers at his high school. Eva is self-loathing, egocentric and probably not the best candidate to be a mother. Through Eva’s descriptions, we learn that her husband was overly optimistic, turning the other cheek at Kevin’s flaws. And Kevin is portrayed as angry and troubled. I am not sure if he had a happy moment in the book.

Like any parent, Eva dissected every moment of her child’s life to determine what went wrong. How did she make Kevin into this murderer? She chronicled her hesitancy to have children, her failures to breastfeed and her unattachment to her son. We learned a lot about her mistakes but little about any successes. Perhaps there were none to write about.

(As a side note, this book made me contemplate how our society scrutinizes parents so heavily when their child murders, but if a 25-year-old man committed the same act, the parents rarely come into question. Moreover, parents always scrutinize themselves, no matter the age of our children.)

We Need To Talk About Kevin didn’t move me like it did other readers. I preferred Jodi Picoult’s treatment of this subject in Nineteen Minutes. It was better rounded, giving you an overall view of the players involved in a school shooting. While I didn’t like the story, I did find Lionel Shriver’s writing to be superb and would read another book by her. We Need To Talk About Kevin just wasn’t my cup of tea. ( )

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Element of Water - Mandy's Review

They were of the future, not the past, she and Wolfi; young and modern. They could shake off the burdens that made the older generation crooked, stumbling forward whilst peering back over their shoulders, sly-eyed, hagridden, concealing their shames and stigmas. Each carried his secret like a suitcase, kidding himself that it was invisible to others. Superciliously, they dared you to demand, Open up that case. Let’s see what you’ve got in there. Renate. Karl. Mr Quantz even. Patterson. The Frauleins with their smut about Jews. Admirals. Issie and Wolfi, Wolfi and she, would live in a new world, free of all that. (p142)

When I signed up for this blog I was hugely excited to discover that Stevie Davies had made the Orange longlist in 2002 with The Element of Water. Not only is Stevie Davies one of my favourite contemporary authors, but The Element of Water was one of the few novels of hers I’d yet to read.

The events of the novel circle around Lake Plon, Germany, in 1945 and 1958. Once home to the retreating Third Reich, the area has now been turned into a school for British Army children. Our fresh-faced protagonist Isolde (Issie) arrives to take on a teaching job, eager to start a new life, but instead discovers a past that is difficult to shed. Objects are being retrieved from the bottom of the lake, everything from medals to a violin; and Issie discovers a disturbing connection between this Nazi memorabilia and her absent father.

The atrocities of World War II are juxtaposed with the institutionalised cruelty displayed at the school thirteen years later. We are shown an ingrained hostility, employed as much by the German and British staff as the students themselves. Issie attempts to stand up to what is going on but finds herself unable to bring upon change before tragedy occurs.

Davies bravely and deftly tackles the major themes of identity, guilt, forgiveness and complicity. Whew, sounds rather heavy doesn’t it? Yet the outlook is not entirely bleak. Those partial to a little romance can lose themselves in the lyrical portrayal of the developing love between Issie and Wolfi. Those of us concerned with the bigger picture should thank Stevie Davies for snatching the wool from our eyes, making us better equipped to quell similar brutality in our own times.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

We Need to Talk about Kevin - Jackie's Review

We Need to Talk about Kevin won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2005.

It is an incredibly powerful book in which the narrator, Eva, describes the events in her life leading up to the day her son went on a killing spree at his high school.

The book deals with one of the few remaining taboos in our society: a mother, who doesn’t like her own child. She feels invaded by pregnancy, and before her son is even born she is scared of him:

….any woman who passes a clump of testosterone-drunk punks without picking up the pace, without avoiding eye contact that might connote challenge or invitation, without sighing inwardly with relief by the following block, is a zoological fool. A boy is a dangerous animal.

Once her son, Kevin, is born he is a difficult baby. He cries constantly and Eva becomes more and more alienated by him. He grows into a difficult toddler and Eva slowly loses control of him.

Having done much research on ’spirited’ children, I did, however, feel that some of Kevin’s behaviour was unrealistic. A single child would not have displayed the strange mixture of reactions that Kevin did.

Eva is also supposed to be a powerful, high flying business woman, who must be of reasonable intelligence, so I find it hard to believe that she would accept things the way they were, and make no attempt to find solutions to her problem. She is rich enough to be able to employ any number of psychologists, or even just read a few books on the subject. I don’t really understand why she failed to do this.

Despite these minor flaws, this book was a great read. It was very thought provoking, and would be perfect for a reading group, as there are so many discussions that arise from it. Are all children sweet, innocent things, or are some born evil?

I couldn’t see how anyone could claim to love children in the generic anymore than any one could credibly claim to love people in a sufficiently sweeping sense as to embrace Pol Pot, Don Rickles, and an upstairs neighbour who does 2,000 jumping jacks at three in the morning.

And how much of a child’s actions can the parent be held accountable for?

When you’re the parent, no matter what the accident, no matter how far away you were at the time and how seemingly powerless to avert it, a child’s misfortune feels like your fault.

This a very important book, especially for new parents. It will remain with me for a long time, and I will be encouraging all my friends to read it - just so I can talk about it!

Highly recommended. Especially for reading groups.

Originally reviewed here.

Fingersmith - Wendy's Review

We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. - from Fingersmith, page 7 -

Sue Trinder has been raised among thieves - an orphan who has never met her mother. The woman who has cared for her is Mrs. Suksby who takes babies from their mothers for a fee. The house on Lant Street where they live teems with characters such as Dainty, a girl with her own questionable past and Mr. Ibbs who buys stolen goods. Then one dark, rainy night a man arrives with a proposition to make them all rich.

In the passage stood a man, dressed dark, wet through and dripping, and with a leather bag at his feet. The dim light showed his pale cheeks, his whiskers, but his eyes were quite hidden in the shadow of his hat. I should not have known him if he had not spoken. - from Fingersmith, page 19 -

The man - known as Gentleman - hatches a scheme to send Sue, disguised as a maid, to the home of Maud Lilly and befriend her. A large sum of money is at stake, and the plot to get it means tricking Maud into marrying Gentlemen and then confining her to a mental hospital. From this point forward, the novel moves steadily forward with unexpected twists and turns which kept me reading long into the night.

Sarah Waters has written a gothic novel filled with evil villains, betrayal, lies, love, debauchery and shocking revelations. Set first on the dirty backstreets of the London Borroughs, the novel then moves to the dark and eerie rooms of Briar - a dilapidated mansion where Maud is being raised by her cruel uncle. The writing is provocative and rich, creating the atmosphere of a period Gothic setting filled with suspense and things that creep in the night. The dialogue is pitch perfect, the characters convincingly wrought. But it is the plot - unnerving and constantly shifting - which reels the reader into the story and keeps the pages turning.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel which uncovers the sinister underbelly of the human soul. Gentleman is the perfect villain - handsome, mysterious and evil. Just when the reader thinks she knows where the story is taking her, there is a twist and it goes in another direction. No one is as they seem.

Waters has written a book rich in period details and lush with complex characters. Ingeniously plotted and sexually charged, this is a novel you do not want to miss.

Highly recommended.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Short of History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (Jill)

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
By Marina Lewycka
Completed January 24, 2009

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was indeed a history of tractors. However, this was also a story about the battles between parents and their children, manipulative romances and surviving the harshest of circumstances. This book with the clever name had many layers – some were good, some got old – but all fed into a delightful book.

At the surface, this book was about Nadia, her sister Vera and their aging father, who had fallen in love with a 36-year-old Ukrainian woman. Valentina clearly wanted to marry Nadia’s dad to ensure a British visa. Despite the daughters’ protests, the two married and shared a life of fighting, verbal abuse and general misery. Eventually, Dad (convinced by his daughters) wanted to divorce Valentina, but this became an enormous task. The ups and downs of their relationship hogged the story line, and after 100 pages, it became frustrating and burdensome. If it were not for the other themes in this book, I would have abandoned “Tractor History.”

Once I muddled (or ignored) the love/divorce story, I found layers that better fit my literary tastes. By spending time with her father and sister, Nadia discovered how her family immigrated to England from Ukraine after World War II. Nadia’s parents did not have an easy start to their marriage – either living in paranoia of Stalin’s purges or surviving a German work camp during the war. Through her family history, Nadia learned about the true meaning of survival, which made her father’s current drama seem so inconsequential.

I also enjoyed the short blurbs that were, in fact, a short history of tractors in Ukrainian. Nadia’s father was an engineer and an expert in tractors. Throughout the book, he shared snippets of his “short history.” These passages showed how technology, though intended to improve our lives, should not take over how we live.

Also, The "rights” of immigration were central to this book. Two sides of the immigration question emerged: people who emigrate to escape a tyranny and those who escape to better their lives financially. Nadia’s family was from the first camp, escaping Stalin, communists and Nazis. Valentina was from the second – trying to escape the financial chaos of Ukraine. Which one had the most “right” to settle into another country? Was one reason better than the other?

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was short-listed for the Orange Prize and became a bestseller around the world. I would recommend it to those who like to read about family relationships or Orange Prize books. For me, the love drama was a bit overdone, but overall, Marina Lewycka’s book is a good one. ( )