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. ( )

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi (Jill)

The Hiding Place
By Trezza Azzopardi
Completed January 18, 2009

Trezza Azzopardi in her debut novel, The Hiding Place, took readers on a journey of heartbreak, family dysfunction and lost dreams. For sure, this book was not for the weak of heart. It’s meant to be digested slowly and in parts, so that each chapter wields its literary punch in slow succession.

The Hiding Place was narrated by Dolores (Dol), the youngest of six daughters. Dol’s father was a Maltese immigrant who settled in Wales after World War II. In many families, the youngest are “babies,” Dol never was coddled or overly adored. At one month old, she was involved in a house fire that left her hand disfigured. Most of her older sisters tormented or ignored her, and her parents were too busy to give her much attention.

The rest of the family was interesting, but they were heart-breaking characters. Dol’s father was a gambling, two-timing, disloyal man who would do anything (including “selling” one of his daughters) to get ahead. Dol’s mother was emotionally unstable, forced to look the other way at her husband’s indiscretions. The older sisters came in and out of focus, but much of the attention was paid to Fran – a pyromaniac who loved to watch houses and shops burn down. This was not your Ward Cleaver family.

The story opened and ended with the daughters facing the funeral of their mother, with the family history told throughout the middle. As I read the family’s past, I was cautious about Dol’s memory because she was only five years old when her family disintegrated. How much could she really remember? How accurate was the retelling of her family’s past?

Despite the darkness of this book, I found The Hiding Place to be an enthralling read. It showed how the ones you love can hurt you the most. Family dysfunction, while the stuff of good stories, is a hard pill to swallow when you’re reading it. If you like books about family relationships, secrets and dynamics (much like The Gathering by Anne Enright), then I think you will find The Hiding Place a novel worth reading. ( )

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Road Home - Wendy's Review

He tugged out the photograph, tugged with trembling hands, and set it down on the bar top. And he looked at it and saw that it had faded. All the once-bright colors were vanishing, leaving only a trace of themselves, tinged with green, with the bluish green of the sky…when evening was coming…the sky behind Auror… - from The Road Home, page 237 -

Lev is 43 years old and forced to leave his rural East European town to seek work in London. He has been widowed (his young wife Marina having died from Leukemia) and must support his daughter Maya and his elderly mother who remain behind in Russia. Lev barely speaks English and is at first bewildered by London. But Lydia, a woman he meets on the train, helps him find a job working in a posh restaurant where he meets the sexy Sophie. Lev eventually finds lodging with an Irishman named Christy Slane who is also experiencing loss.

Then he looked at Christy, standing in the doorway, as though not wanting to come into the room, his hands held at his sides in a helpless way, and Lev was transfixed for a moment, recognizing something of himself in the other man, some willingness to surrender and not fight, some dangerous longing for everything to be over. - from The Road Home, page 77 -

He was gradually coming to understand that the Irishman’s loneliness was nearly as acute as his own. They were the same kind of age. They both longed to return to a time before the people they loved most were lost. - from The Road Home, page 80 -

Lev’s story is painful at times. He misses Marina - cannot seem to get past the loss of her - and struggles to save money to send home to his daughter and mother. His future seems hopeless and he misses his country and his best friend, Rudi - a gregarious man whose love affair with an American Chevy and his fondness for life make him immediately endearing.

Rudi was everything this story made him out to be - and more. He was a force of nature. He was a lightning bolt. He was a fire that never went out. - from The Road Home, page 277 -

It is largely Lev’s friendship with men like Christy and Rudi which elevates him past his grief and imbues him with hope. When Lev recalls a hiking trip with Rudi to an isolated cave shortly after Marina’s death, the reader begins to see there will be a future for him after all.

It was at this moment - with Rudi halfway up the ladder - that he heard himself whispering to his friend, “Don’t look down…don’t look back…” and he felt that he suddenly understood why Rudi had brought him here and that the thing he had to embrace was the idea of perseverance. - from The Road Home, page 127 -

The Road Home is a character driven novel about loss and identity. It is a novel which reminds the reader that the past must sometimes be left behind in order to move forward. Dreams are the fuel for overcoming obstacles in this story of a man who must leave his home in order to find it again. Lev is a dreamer and a romantic. He is a character who readers want to see succeed, a man whose flaws are surpassed by his kind and vulnerable heart.

Rose Tremain has yet to disappoint me - I’ve read Music and Silence (reviewed here) and The Colour (reviewed here) and found them both outstanding. Tremain’s novels are written with sensitivity and insight into the human condition - and The Road Home is perhaps her finest work. This novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008.

Highly recommended.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Small Island by Andrea Levy (Jill)

Small Island
By Andrea Levy
Completed January 15, 2009

In her Orange Prize winning novel, Small Island, Andrea Levy gave a voice to a probably forgotten and unappreciated aspect of World War II England – the service of Jamaican soldiers and their emigration to the “Mother Country” after the war. During World War II, Jamaica was a British colony, and many Jamaican men volunteered for military service. Many men hoped that their service would offer them opportunities in England after the war. In Small Island, we get a glimpse on what happened to the Jamaican immigrants once they arrived in England.

This novel focused on four main characters: Hortense, a stubborn Jamaican woman whose dream was to always live in England; her husband, Gilbert, who served in the RAF and tried to carve a living in London; Queenie, Gilbert’s landlord; and her husband, Bernard, who was missing for three years before turning up at home. Through these narratives, the reader received a hard look at the racist treatment of Jamaican people – it was definitely reminiscent of how African Americans were treated in our country during this time. If Small Island succeeded at anything, it clearly showed how Jamaicans (and other minorities), despite their service during World War II, were not given a fair shake in British society.

While I enjoyed most of this novel, I felt dragged down by Bernard’s narrative. He was the most unenlightening of the four, and he was a hard character to like (racist, sexist and meek). Additionally, I did not like the “surprise” aspect to the ending. It was a little predictable and weighed the story down.

However, despite these reservations, Small Island taught me something historically that I did not know before, and for that, I am glad to have read this book. ( )

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Mandy's Review.

I won’t bore you with the basic premise of We Need to Talk About Kevin. If you are reading this, I’m sure you know it is constructed as a series of letters from a mother to her husband, as she tries to make sense of her son’s recent killing spree.

Let me start by telling you what I like about this book. Shriver is a master of structure. She knows exactly what to tell us and when, withholding certain information until exactly the right moment and then dangling just the right amount in front of our eyes, drawing us deeper and deeper into the murky depths, just when we thought we couldn’t take any more. Although this is a difficult and painful book to read, I read it reasonably quickly, precisely because of this luring quality.

The grand questions Shriver tackles are also brave and admirable. Nature vs. Nurture; Good Vs Evil; Conjugal Roles and can we/ should we love our children, no matter what? Yet these issues are clouded somewhat by one of the book’s major flaws.

On page 307, Kevin says to his mother, ‘Is there anything or anybody … you don’t feel superior to?’ Here, he grasps exactly what is wrong with the book. Eva is constantly and tirelessly superior for 400 pages. Franklin is blindly optimistic to the point of tedium - and, here’s the rub, Kevin is so constantly bad, that there’s absolutely no possibility that anyone could love him in any meaningful way. In fact, by about a third of the way through, his actions fail to shock me, I’m rolling my eyes and thinking here we go again.

In other words, the characters are flat, to the point of being one dimensional. I find myself wishing that once, just once, Franklin would lose his temper with Kevin; that Kevin would - I don’t know - offer to help with the laundry or something and that Eva could narrate just one incident without some clever, sarcastic aside. My problem is not with disliking the characters, I’ve read many books where I’ve hated characters with a passion and yet still cared what happens, because I believe in them.

To me, We Need to Talk About Kevin was like watching Tom and Jerry, where one of them (Tom? Jerry? Who cares? And that is just my point) gets flattened by a steam roller again. Shriver would be more qualified to make us uncomfortable if Eva was a little more like us, if Kevin was more like our kids, sometimes good, sometimes bad. It would have been a better book, if I’d been left thinking, there but for the grace of God, rather than, well, that’s all right then.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Laura's Review - When I Lived in Modern Times

When I Lived in Modern Times
Linda Grant
260 pages

I felt as if we were all half here and half somewhere else, deprived of our native languages, stumbling over an ugly ancient tongue. We knew that we were to be remade and reborn and we half did and half didjn't want to be. We were caught up in a plan to socially engineer our souls ... to emerge as molten, liquid, golden Jewish humanity. (p. 105)

In 1946, Evelyn Sert left London for Palestine, to be part of Israel's formation. Her first few weeks were spent on a kibbutz, but she quickly tired of the menial labor. She befriended a young man named Johnny, who took her to Tel Aviv. Once there, Evelyn found work as a hairdresser and moved between the Jewish and British communities, feeling uncomfortable in both. Meanwhile, as political events intensified, so did her relationship with Johnny. Evelyn lived in denial of Johnny's involvement in the political movement, unwittingly contributing information to support his cause and ultimately getting in over her head.

I enjoyed the first half of this book as Evelyn settled into a new life in a new country. But my enthusiasm waned as she moved aimlessly from one situation to the next. I found Evelyn & Johnny's relationship a bit of a stretch. It was not clear what she saw in him, or why he would be devoted to her. This book would be interesting to those wishing to learn more about the birth of Israel, and it puts today's events in historical context. However, I was hoping for a more character-driven novel and in that respect I was disappointed. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fugitive Pieces - Anne Michaels (Jackie's Review)

Fugitive Pieces won the Orange Prize for fiction in 1997.

Jacob Beer is a Jewish poet, who was found by Athos, a Greek scholar, after he escaped from Poland. Jabob was ophaned after the Nazis killed his family, so Athos smuggled the 7 year-old boy back to Greece and reared him as a son.

The writing in this book is very skilled, but I felt it fell in to two very seperate sections. The modern section was very normal, but I found the characters quite irrating. They were too perfect, and the fact that Jacob seemed to be equally burdened by the gravity of his intellect, as we was by his memories of the Holocaust made him difficult for me to like.

The interwoven story of the persecution of the Jews was too graphic for me, and I wish that I hadn’t read it, as I’m sure that they will return to haunt me. The juxtapostion of the two stories intensified the emotion, and it was so disturbing that at times I could barely read it.

The character of Ben is introduced towards the end of the book, and I have to admit that it took me a while to realise this was a completely new person. His voice was so similar to Jacob’s that I failed to realise he was someone new. This lead to some confusion, and I still don’t really understand why he was added to the book.

Overall I think the book was just too abstract for me to appreciate. The narrative didn’t flow very smoothly, and although some parts were vividly described, it was too distressing to be a good read.

Originally reviewed here.

Mandy: Introduction, Reading to Date and Goals.

Hello everyone. I’ve always followed the Orange Prize quite religiously and so, when I stumbled upon this blog, I couldn’t resist joining up.
I intend to take part in Orange January and Orange July and also read many more listed books throughout the year. I have plenty of unread short and long listed books on my shelf, so, for January, I intend to try to read what I already own, rather than buy any more books. After reading some of the reviews on this blog, I can tell I’m going to fail this task miserably!
I will be treating long listed/short listed/new writers and winning books in the same way. If the book appeals to me I’ll be reading it, whatever category it falls in to. I’m ashamed to say, I’ve read none of the new writers. I intend to change this.
Here is a list of the books I’ve already read;

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel
The Accidental, by Ali SmithThe Night Watch, by Sarah Waters

The Remedy, by Michele Lovric

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
Kith and Kin, by Stevie Davies

Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Anita and Me, by Meera Syal

The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Laura's Review - Property

Valerie Martin
193 pages
Set in the 1830s, Property is the story of Manon, the wife of a Louisiana sugar cane plantation owner. Manon despises her boorish husband and is justifiably resentful of his affair with her housemaid Sarah, which has produced two children. She is disturbed by his cruel brutality towards his slaves. And yet, she cannot escape values shaped during her own childhood in a slaveowning family. She holds her own father in high regard for having been a more compassionate owner, but fails to see the injustice of humans as property.

Manon's days of idle leisure are interrupted both by her mother's illness and a slave revolt, Sarah's escape, and the subsequent effort to track her down and return her to Manon. These events provide some movement and force to the plot. The novel provides an unusual perspective -- that of a woman slaveowner -- and it definitely held my interest. However, in presenting Manon's story, the author appeared to maintain a rather neutral position on slavery. It seemed I was supposed to side with Manon in wishing for Sarah's return, when I wanted nothing more than for Sarah to find freedom. I believe this was an accurate portrayal of a certain type of individual during that time period, but I was unable to identify with her, which dampened my enthusiasm for this novel. ( )
My original review can be found here.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Girls by Lori Lansens (Jill)

The Girls
By Lori Lansens
Completed January 5, 2009

The Girls by Lori Lansens was the story of Rose and Ruby – twins conjoined at the head, who were writing about their lives as connected but separate people. Set in Canada, Rose and Ruby became local celebrities whose lives were full and enriching, surrounded by people who loved them and accepted by those in their community.

Rose was the primary narrator of this story. Her sections of the book focused mostly on the history of her parents, Uncle Stash and Aunt Lovey, and the events of the twins’ childhood and teenage years. Rose was a writer, so her pages read more like a book or a piece of fiction. Ruby would pipe in occasionally with her own chapters, which focused more on the twins’ present lives and their future. Ruby’s sections read more like a diary – much more casual but equally enthralling. The combination of both narrative styles made The Girls a fun but enlightening read.

I was fascinated with Lansens’s depiction of Rose and Ruby. At first, I wondered how hard it would be to share my entire life connected to my sister – with no sense of privacy, the inability to do something without my sister tagging along and the public stigma that they must have endured. However, by the middle of the book, I forgot that the girls were conjoined. They emerged as separate characters to me. In fact, it was only when Lansens mentioned something about their conjoining (such as using mirrors to see each other) that I remembered Ruby and Rose were connected. These characters evolved into their own women – with their own temperaments, dreams, loves and fears – and I loved reading every word of their lives.

The Girls was long-listed for the Orange Prize and an example of excellent contemporary fiction written by a woman. If you love great character-driven fiction, then The Girls is for you. ( )

Monday, January 5, 2009

Digging to America - Anne Tyler (Jackie's Review)

The book revolves around two very different families who, unable to have children of their own, adopt Korean baby girls. The families meet at the airport when the new babies arrive in America.

It is an interesting premise for a book, as the two families are very different, both in background, and their attitudes to bringing up children. The Iranian family immediately dress their new baby in jeans, while the American family acquire traditional Korean costumes and read her Korean folk stories. The book revolves around the 'arrival day' parties that the families throw each year to commemorate the day they were united with their babies.

There were lots of interesting subjects raised in the book, from national identity, and customs, to adoption and methods of childcare, but unfortunately they were not investigated in any depth. The characters were too numerous for us to generate any real feelings for them, and the plot failed to develop beyond the repetition of the party each year. By the end of the book I was very bored with it, and had lost count of the number of 'arrival day' parties that had occurred. The characters were well observed, but they were too ordinary, and nothing exciting happens to them during the course of the book. This could have been overcome by having an emotional insight into their lives, but unfortunately this failed to happen.

Overall, I was very disappointed in this book, and won't be rushing out to read her others.

Originally reviewed here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sorry by Gail Jones (Jill)

By Gail Jones
Completed January 2, 2009

“Sorry” – five letters, two syllables, and maybe one of the hardest words to utter in the English language. And for the great nation of Australia, it’s an especially important word – one that many say, feel and think despite political issues. It’s an apology to the Aboriginal people for their years of mistreatment and prejudice, and the cornerstone of Gail Jones’s phenomenal book, Sorry.

Sorry was the story of young Perdita – a girl being raised by unfit parents who found solace and love with her Aboriginal nanny, Mary. Together with her friend, Billy, Perdita and Mary explored the bush, learned about native culture and found a sense of family that was stronger than any blood relation. When tragedy struck, their love proved even stronger, surviving the test of time and separation. I don’t want to give away too much but know that the plot was simple, moving and heart-warming. It reaffirmed that love has no boundaries or prejudice.

Jones wrote Sorry with such beautiful language – a wonderful tribute to her native country. Moreover, one cannot overlook the larger theme – an apology – that permeated throughout this story. Set in World War II, it not only explored the history of the treatment of Aboriginal people, it also shed light on how Australia dealt with the threat of Japanese invasion. From a historical standpoint, Sorry was insightful and educational.

I simply cannot rave enough about this book. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves to read. That’s it – anyone (in fact, everyone) should read Sorry. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with this touching story. ( )

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Laura's Review - The Road Home

The Road Home
Rose Tremain
365 pages

Out of work and mourning the loss of his wife, Lev leaves his Eastern European homeland on a bus bound for London. Lev begins life in London homeless and nearly penniless. Lydia, a woman he met on the bus, uses her personal connections to help Lev secure inexpensive accommodation and employment in a restaurant. This is then a springboard for relationships both friendly and romantic, and he begins to develop expertise in food and the restaurant business. His journey is filled with hardship, ranging from typical "fish out of water" scenarios to more serious ethnic prejudice. Whenever trouble strikes, he turns to Lydia for support, but abuses this relationship by failing to realize how their paths have diverged during their time in England.

Lev is also plagued by worry about those he left behind. He is in frequent phone contact with his friend Rudi, a carefree contrast to the conservative and somber Lev. Lev's relationship with his mother is primarily about money, which he sends home regularly to provide for her and his young daughter Maya. One day, Lev learns that his home village is threatened and he must develop a scheme to save his family and friends. The Road Home recounts Lev's struggles as an immigrant, and the inner journey of coming to terms with his past, dispensing with demons, and establishing a new direction for his life.

I was instantly drawn into Lev's story. His loneliness and isolation were palpable. The important figures in his life, both at home and in England, were rich and believable. In some cases, it was a bit too obvious the purpose Tremain had in mind for each character; however, this did not diminish my enjoyment of this prizewinning novel. ( )
My original review can be found here.

Wendy's Progress List

UPDATE January 3, 2009 - MY GOALS FOR 2009

My goal for 2009: 10 books from this list


  • The Road Home, by Rose Tremain (2008)
  • The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly (New Writers 2007)
  • On Beauty, by Zadie Smith (2006)
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)
  • Small Island, by Andrea Levy (2004)
  • Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett (2002)
  • The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville (2001)
  • Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels (1997)
  • A Spell of Winter, by Helen Dunmore (1996)


  • Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston (short list 2008)
  • The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer (long list 2008)
  • The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff (New Writers short list 2008)
  • Digging to America, by Anne Tyler (short list 2007)
  • What Was Lost, by Catherine O’Flynn (long list 2007)
  • Minaret, by Leila Aboulela (long list 2006)
  • The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman (short list 2005)
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, by Marina Lewycka (short liet 2005)
  • Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson (long list 2005)
  • Ice Road, by Gillian Slovo (short list 2004)
  • The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler (long list 2004)
  • What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt (long list 2003)
  • In the Forest, by Edna O’Brien (long list 2003)
  • Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold (long list 2003)
  • Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (short list 2002)
  • Five Quarters of an Orange, by Joanne Harris (long list 2002)
  • Amy and Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout (short list 2000)

The books I've read from winners and shortlists are highlighted in orange. The books I've read from the longlists are highlighted in green; ratings, links and reviews as indicated.

I've gone through my current stacks of TBR books and found a number of Orange Prize winners and nominees. In the lists below, I have italicized those books I hope to read in 2008.

The Orange Prize for Fiction


The Road Home, by Rose Tremain - WINNER (Read January 16, 2009; rated 5/5; read my review)
Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston
The Outcast, by Sadie Jones (Read February 2, 2008; rated 3.5/5; read my review)
When We Were Bad, by Charlotte Mendelson
Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O'Neill
Lottery, by Patricia Wood

From the Longlist:
The Gathering, by Anne Enright (Read March 9, 2008; rated 4.5/5; read my review)


Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - WINNER (Read January 7, 2007; rated 5/5; read my review)
Arlington Park, by Rachel Cusk
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai (Read March 17, 2007; rated 4.25/5; read my review)
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo
The Observations, by Jane Harris
Digging to America, by Anne Tyler

From the Longlist:
What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn


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 (read February 12, 2008; rated 4.5/5; read my review)

From the Longlist:
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (read in 2006; rated 2/5)
Minaret, by Leila Aboulela


We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver - WINNER
Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (read May 29, 2007; rated 3.5/5; read my review)

The Mammoth Cheese, by Sheri Holman
Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

From the Longlist:
Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson


Small Island, by Andrea Levy - WINNER
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (Read in 2006; rated 3.5/5)
The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard (Read August 9, 2007; rated 4/5; read my review)
Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Read January 24, 2007; rated 5/5; read my review)
Ice Road, by Gillian Slovo
The Colour, by Rose Tremain

From the Longlist:
The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler


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

From the Longlist:
What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt


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 (Read January 24, 2009; rated 5/5; read my review)

From the Longlist:


The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville - WINNER
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Read August 4, 2007; rated 4.5/5; read my review)
Fred & Edie, by Jill Dawson
Hotel World, by Ali Smith
Homestead, by Rosina Lippi
Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley

From the Longlist:


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 (Read in 2003; unrated)

From the Longlist:
The Translator, by Leila Aboulela (Read March 23, 2007; rated 4.5/5; read my review)


A Crime in the Neighborhood, by Suzanne Berne - WINNER
The Short History of a Prince, by Jane Hamilton
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (Read July 12, 2008; rated 5/5; read my review)
Paradise, by Toni Morrison
The Leper's Companions, by Julia Blackburn
Visible Worlds, by Marilyn Bowering

From the Longlist:


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

From the Longlist:


Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels - WINNER
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood (Read May 14, 2007; rated 4.5/5; read my review)
One by One in the Darkness, by Deirdre Madden
Accordion Crimes, by E. Annie Proulx (Read 2006; rated 2/5)
Hen's Teeth, by Manda Scott
I Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn

From the Longlist:
Fall On Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald (Read April 28, 2007; rated 4/5; read my review)


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

From the Longlist:
The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker (Read December 25, 2008; rated 4.5/5; read my review)

Orange Prize for New Writers


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

The Ghost Road - Wendy's Review

Hallet was lying on his back, hands clasped behind his head, nothing much visible from Prior’s angle except his chin. How appallingly random it all was. If Hallet’s father had got a gleam in his eye two years later than he did, Hallet wouldn’t be here. he might even have missed the war altogether, perhaps spent the rest of his life goaded by the irrational shame of having escaped. ‘Cowed subjection to the ghosts of friends who died.’ That was it exactly, couldn’t be better put. Ghosts everywhere. Even the living were only ghosts in the making. - From The Ghost Road, page 46 -

The Ghost Road is the third and final book in Pat Barker’s WWI trilogy - and it is by far the best of the series. The novel takes place in the waning months of the war and continues the story of Billy Prior who has returned to the front lines in France along with Wilfrid Owen (who previously spent time with Prior at Craiglockhart recovering from a breakdown). Neither man believes in the war, but are there out of duty to fight side by side with their comrades in arms. Psychiatrist Dr. Rivers continues to play a prominent role in this novel, seemingly safe from the war at his post in a London hospital. Dr. River’s memories of a time spent studying headhunters in the South Pacific run parallel to Billy’s story.

Barker weaves these two story lines together, deftly showing a culture of death and war amongst the South Pacific tribe linked to the mentality of modern society which supports the war in France.

Head-hunting had to be banned, and yet the effects of banning it were everywhere apparent in the listlessness and lethargy of the people’s lives. Head-hunting was what they had lived for. Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war. - from The Ghost Road, page 207 -

Barker’s prose is harsh yet poetic - a ying and yang style which draws the reader into the lives of the characters.

The roar of the approaching train startled the birds. They rose as one, streaming out from under the glass roof in a great flapping and beating of wings, wheeling, banking, swooping, turning, a black wave against the smoke-filled sky. Prior and Sarah watched, open-mouthd, drunk on the sight of so much freedom, their linked hands slackening, able, finally, to think of nothing, as the train steamed in. -from The Ghost Road, page 85 -

Billy Prior is a largely unlikeable character with his gritty, sardonic view of life - and yet he becomes a sympathetic symbol of all that is wrong with war. And as the reader turns the final pages, it is with the conviction that war is not worth it.

The Ghost Road is a simply wrought, yet beautifully constructed anti-war novel which is graphic and disturbing. Barker spares her reader nothing and shows the violent nature of human beings in the depiction of loveless sex and ruthless battles. This novel - which won the 1995 Booker Prize - should be read as part of the larger trilogy to gain its full impact.

Highly recommended with a caution that some readers may be offended by violence, graphic sexual scenes and realistic language.


How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (Megan's Review)

How I Live Now begins with the 15-year-old and obviously troubled Daisy arriving in England to spend the summer with her aunt and four cousins that she barely knows. Leaving life in New York where the weight of people's pity that her mother died in childbirth combined with life with her "evil" and now pregnant step-mother is a relief for Daisy whose desperation to be loved mixes all up with using self-starvation as a weapon against parents who don't seem to understand. Daisy finds solace at her Aunt Penn's isolated farmhouse where her odd but affectionate cousins wrap her up in their idyllic world where school consists of reading books and communication is totally possible even outside the limitation of speech.

I made up my mind to ask Aunt Penn some of these questions when she came back from Oslo but I guess what you really want to know are the things you can't ask like Did she have eyes like yours and When you pushed my hair back was that what it feels like to have your mother do it and Did she ever have a chance to look at me with a complicated expression like the one on your face, and by the way Was she scared to die.

As the summer wears on, Daisy is sure that she's found a place she can belong in the Back of Beyond with her cousins, Osbert, the eldest, who feels some responsibility for the rest but can't be troubled to do much about it; Piper, the youngest, who eagerly sweeps Daisy into their lives with her disarming sweetness; and twins Isaac and Edmond, the former who seems to be able to talk to animals but is strikingly wordless among people and the latter who Daisy feels a bit more for than is generally acceptable in a cousinly relationship. Even as Daisy begins to live her truest life, it is crumbling around her as a war sneaks into the countryside, upending all of their lives forever.

...sometimes I forgot to count Isaac because he could go days without saying a single word. I knew Aunt Penn wasn't worried about him because I heard her say to someone that he'd speak when he was ready to speak, but all I could think was in New York that kid would have been stuck in a straitjacket practically from birth and dangled over a tank full of Education Consultants and Remedial Experts all snapping at his ankles for the next twenty years arguing about his Special Needs and getting paid plenty for it.

How I Live Now is beyond description. The summary covers only the barest bones of a story that is surprisingly unique and oddly magical. Daisy is a brilliant teen narrator, obviously damaged and cynical when it comes to her life thus far and also desperately vulnerable and in need of love in a way few around her seem to understand. Her narration races along in stream of consciousness style with capital letters used frequently for emphasis in a way that is decidedly teenage. It crackles with insight and captures her cousins from an outsider's inside point of view, picking up on their sort of spiritual wavelength even when she is yet unable to be a part of it.

The beginning of the story paints her Aunt's run-down country farmhouse like a paradise and her cousins like Daisy's long lost soulmates, just as Daisy must see them. So, then, it is that much more jarring when a war begins in a decidedly non-traditional sense, slowly slashing paradise to pieces, separating the cousins, and subjecting them all to the harsh realities of an ultimately violent enemy Occupation. Even then, though, Daisy is finding herself and living a truer life than ever before as she discovers real love and learns that she would do anything to live for it.

I wanted to tell someone that this was it, the end, I couldn't go on any more with my own misery plus Piper's, which was so much worse. I felt full of rage and despair, like Job shaking his fist at God, and all I could do was sit with her and stroke her hair and murmur enough, enough, because that's what we'd both had.

Originally reviewed here.

Friday, January 2, 2009

3M's Goals for 2009

I hope to read at least six Orange winners in 2009, starting with Fugitive Pieces for Orange January. I might try to read Larry's Party in January as well. Ideally I'd read 3 winners in January and 3 for Orange July. These are the leading contenders for '09:

  • 2009 winner
  • 2008 The Road Home, by Rose Tremain
  • 2006 On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
  • 2005 We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
  • 2004 Small Island, by Andrea Levy
  • 2003 Property, by Valerie Martin
  • 2002 Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
  • 2001 The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville
  • 2000 When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant
  • 1998 Larry’s Party, by Carol Shields
  • 1997 Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels