Friday, December 31, 2010

Orange January Starts Tomorrow - Prizes, Fun and Great Books!

(Cross posted from my blog)

While I know many of you (including me) have already started your Orange January reading, the fun officially starts tomorrow. Here's a quick recap to get you ready for a month of "Orangey goodness."*

LibraryThing Group
We have assembled a wonderful group of readers on LibraryThing for Orange January. Please consider stopping by, introducing yourself and setting up a thread of your Orange January 2011 books.

Facebook Page
The Orange January/July Facebook page is already 80 strong! If you are on Facebook and haven't liked this page, please do so! Remember, I will be posting this month's prizes and activities only on the Facebook page, so please don't miss out.

Orange Prize Project
If you write reviews about your Orange January books, please consider posting them on the Orange Prize Project blog. It's also a great place to figure out what Orange books you want to read.

A word about the prizes
The prizes start tomorrow! I will post the day's activity or question on the Facebook page between 6-8am EST. You will have until 9pm EST to complete the task and leave a comment on the post. Check out my earlier post for complete prize details, including the list of books up for grabs.

Special note: You may like the day's activity or question but don't want to win the book. Feel free to participate anyway! In your post comment, denote that you don't want to be included in the drawing.

Any questions? Just let me know in the comments or e-mail me at Let the Orangey Goodness begin!

*I stole the term "Orangey Goodness" from my friend, Laura. I plan on using it every day in January!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert (Jill)

The Dark Room
By Rachel Seiffert
Completed November 30, 2010

Over the past year or two, I have been drawn to books about World War II. Most are told from the perspective of the Allied nations or Jewish people affected by the Holocaust. I am glad to have stumbled upon Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, which offers the perspective of the average German citizen affected by World War II.

The Dark Room is divided into three separate stories:

1) Helmet is a young photographer’s apprentice, whose family supported Hitler and prospered during The Third Reich’s heyday. Even at war’s end, Helmet still clung to Nazi Germany’s ideals. Then, one day, he stumbles into a round-up of gypsies by German soldiers and sees the gross mistreatment of these people. He took pictures of the atrocity and ran away from the scene. As he reflects over his photos, you feel his heartbreak for a nation lost in so many ways.

2) Lore is a teenage girl – one of six children – who must embark on a treacherous journey from Bavaria to Hamburg at the end of the war. Through Lore’s journey, you see how war affected the home front and the people who once were bound by the same cause. No longer united, they stole and cheated from each other. Like Helmet, Lore didn’t realize Germans was killing innocent people, until she saw pictures posted in a village. Confused by what she saw, she befriended a young man, Tomas, who confirmed the genocide. Lore was devastated, especially as she considered her father and brother might have been involved in these mass murders.

3) Michael is a school teacher living in 1990’s Germany who began wondering why his grandfather had been imprisoned for so long after World War II. He began to research and learned that his grandfather was part of the Waffen SS, the elite police force of the German Army. He traces his grandfather’s service to Belarus and traveles there to learn more. The important theme in Michael’s section is national guilt – how after 50+ years, some Germans truly mourned what their country did, while others didn’t grasp it, or were too far removed from the war to be impacted. Michael, though, couldn’t forget and carried the weight of guilt for his whole family.

Admittedly, The Dark Room is a bit bleak, but Seiffert pulls you right in so you can experience the characters’ emotions. Seiffert writes simply but effectively, and her sparse prose adds to the brevity of her stories. Despite the grim subject matter, I found this book to be enlightening and engaging – and would highly recommend it, especially to those who believe, like me, that war has no true winner. ( )

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: Molly Fox's Birthday

Title: Molly Fox's Birthday
Author:  Deidre Madden
Published:  2008, Faber and Faber
Genre:  Contemporary Fiction
Accolades:  2009 Orange Prize Finalist

It is June 21st and Molly Fox the acclaimed stage actress has lent her home to a close friend while she is in New York City.  Her friend, a play write who is struggling with writing her next play, is distracted and starts thinking about her friendship with Molly as she wanders around Molly's house noting items that are dear to Molly and begins to wonder if she really knows who Molly is and if anyone really understands the heart and motives of another.

I am going to state up front that this is one of the best books that I read this year.  At first appearances this book seems to be a slight and effortless read.  It takes place in one day and moves seamlessly from morning to night as Madden reveals the layers and depths of her characters through their relationship with the play write.  Her writing is creative and thoughtful as we discover who the characters are:

"Fergus was a dangerous man, with his tenderness and his charm and the deep and unending darkness of his mind that was an abyss into which Molly might vanish one day if she wasn't strong enough." (page 149, Molly Fox's Birthday)

and just when the reader and the play write have formed their opinion about a character - in this instance Fergus- we are given another layer and discover that we really didn't know who he was at all.

"Fergus was a man of wisdom and acute moral knowledge.  He had had the courage and insight to inspect his own life more closely than most dare to do, and he had compassion and forgiveness for those who had hurt him." (page 155, Molly Fox's Birthday)

The questions that this book challenges are interesting ones: how well do you really know those who you think are the closest to you? and what happens when they do something so out-of-the-ordinary that they seem like strangers? and will that change you?  This book leaves the reader thinking about the characters and pondering their own realtionships - fabulous.

My Rating: 5 out of 5
Note: I read the U.S. 2010 Picador edition

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Exciting Orange January News!

Hi everyone! Pardon the repost, but I wanted you all to check out some changes to Orange January 2011.

You can read my blog post here.

Thanks for participating!
Jill (mrstreme)

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Weight of Water - (Beachreader)

Title: The Weight of Water
Author: Anita Shreve

Published: 1997, Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Mystery
Accolades: 1998 Short list for The Orange Prize

Around midnight on the evening of March 5th, 1873 two women were strangled and hacked with an axe on Smuttynose Island in the Isles of Shoals, a group of islands off the coast of New Hampshire. Another woman survived being murdered by hiding in a cave until help arrived. Though a man was found guilty of the crimes and later hung, there has been continual debate in this seaside community that the real murderer escaped justice and that an innocent man was killed. In 1995 a woman photographer arrives to investigate the murders and finds her self caught-up in the treachery of the past which will end up shaping her future.

Based on the true story of a century-old murder case Anita Shreve has blended fact and fiction in an engrossing tale of pain, loss, and obsession. The book is really two stories in one. The first story takes place in modern time and is the story of Jean, the photographer, and her concern that her marriage is ending and her husband is having an affair. The second (and much more interesting) story is the written account of Maren Hontvedt, the women who has survived the murders, who on her deathbed has decided to tell what really happened on the evening of March 5th.

I have mixed feelings about this book. The mystery surrounding the murders of the women was fascinating and Shreve has masterfully woven a tale of increasing tension and suspicion that when the murderer is finally revealed I was surprised. My problem with the book was the characters - especially the characters of Jean and her husband. They were rather - blah. They seemed to be floating around their lives and there wasn't enough emotion or motivation to make me really care what happened to them. I found myself skimming their section of the book to read about Maren's account of what led to the murders. What happens to Jean and her husband felt almost contrived and the last chapter had me wondering - huh?

My Rating: 3 out of 5

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Laura's Review - The Siege

The siege of Leningrad began in 1941, when the German army cut all land connections into the city, disrupting energy, water, fuel, and food supplies. The result was a famine of epic proportions. Anna, a 23-year-old nursery school assistant, lives with her father Mikhail and much younger brother Kolya in an idyllic pastoral setting. They grow their own food, preserve jams, and tend flowers. As the army approaches, countryside living becomes more dangerous. Anna and her family join others in migrating to the city, where food supplies are believed to be more plentiful. Once there, they find shops have been looted and most goods are available only on the black market.

At first Anna works as part of a defense crew, and her father also volunteers his services for the war effort. But then Mikhail is injured, and Anna assumes a "head of household" role. She also meets Andrei, a young doctor who treated her father, and who is working round-the-clock shifts caring for the sick and injured. Anna and Andrei feel a strong attraction to one another; soon the family offers him shelter, and they are also joined by Marina, a family friend.

With each passing week, the German army tightens its grip on the city. The basics of daily living go from being scarce, to completely unavailable. Food is rationed, and people resort to violence to get hold of additional ration cards. The rations are gradually reduced as officials calculate and recalculate how long supplies will last. Hunger claims one life after another. Winter approaches, and there is no energy for heat, no water for bathing or drinking. And yet Anna works tirelessly to provide for the group, sacrificing portions of her own ration for Kolya and bundling him up in clothes and blankets each day. She scrapes together funds to buy a wood stove, and scavenges for wood while also burning books and furniture. She never gives up, even as her own body weakens. The bond between Anna and Andrei shifts from one of passion, to one of intense commitment to survival.

This book was simply amazing. Helen Dunmore conveyed the physical and mental effects of extreme hunger and cold in such a powerful way:
You wake yourself, snuffling around in the bedclothes. A load of blankets and coats weighs you down, but you're still cold. Your feet are numb and your breath comes short. The cold settles in your back and makes your spine hurt. You must breathe gently. You must not be restless. Every movement destroys energy which you no longer possess. (p. 191)
And she also brought strong emotion to the story, such as the moment when Anna reflects on how she used to take things for granted:
It's her father's breathing, back in the apartment, that keeps her pinned here. All her life he's been breathing. Why didn't she count those breaths when she had the chance? Why didn't she stop still and listen, on just one of those bad-tempered mornings when she was late for work and Kolya was whingeing that he didn't want his porridge because he always had porridge every single day? She'd never once stopped to bless the fact that her father still breathed. She certainly never stopped to bless the everyday porridge. (p.231)
Reading The Siege, one can't help getting caught up in the lives of these characters as they face one obstacle after another. It's hard to imagine how anyone could have survived under such extreme conditions, and yet people did. In this powerful story, it was their hope and love for one another that sustained them through some of the most horrific situations imaginable.

My original review can be found here.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nadifa Mohamed's Black Mamba Boy

Nadifa Mohamed's Black Mamba Boy
Harper Collins, 2010

And it's a story that I think hasn't been told before": that’s how Nadifa Mohamed describes her first novel,
Black Mamba Boy in this video.

Maybe that’s a tall order for a novel in 2010. And, then again, maybe not.

Consider this. In 1990, the Columbian Ministry of Culture set up an itinerant library, whereby donkeys carted practical tomes on agricultural techniques, water filtration, veterinary medicine, and sewing patterns to serve distant rural populations. The books were made available centrally to villagers and, after a time, they were swapped out for new selections.

Each of these loaned books was returned properly when it was time for the exchange, until one village refused to return one book: The Iliad, which, eventually, was given to them to keep. “They explained that Homer’s story exactly reflected their own: it told of a wartorn country in which mad gods wilfully decide the fate of humans who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be killed.”*

Maybe the characters in Black Mamba Boy would believe Homer’s story exactly reflected their own. In fact, you can easily imagine Nadifa Mohamed’s characters in Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan making the same claim that the Columbia villagers made. And certainly this debut novel tackles epic themes (although I haven’t read The Iliad straight through, so I can’t offer more direct parallels than the villagers’ comments).

Nadifa Mohamed tells her father’s story through Jama: “I am my father’s griot, this is a hymn to him.” A griot is a wandering poet and storyteller, who is considered a repository of oral tradition in African countries, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Mohamed’s tale begs to be read aloud from the first page.

The attention she pays to descriptions that encapsulate a scene, the scarce bits of direct dialogue, the long phrases that follow one another like bread crumbs through the woods: I read more than half of this novel aloud, which also slowed me down, and I think that’s a good thing because despite the swath of time this novel covers, this prose doesn’t want to be rushed.

You would want to take your time anyway if the setting was unfamiliar, and there’s a map at the novel’s opening to help you place the characters and the events of the story. (Actually, I would have found a glossary helpful too, but I realize it would have put off some readers, and I managed okay without it.) Here’s a sample of the way that Nadifa Mohamed brings the land to life:

Djibouti was low-down and hot, it looked even more barren and fearsome than Somaliland and the few trees that dared exist held up their arms in defeat. Rocks cracked open in fifty degree heat. The earth was bleached white and the few comforts that the Somali desert shyly held out, blossoming cacti, large matronly bushes, lush candelabra euphorbia, were here maliciously denied. The air had a corruption to it, a mingled scent of sleaze, sweat and goat droppings. (79)

In some ways, however, the novel’s themes traverse geographic and cultural boundaries. For instance, above all, Jama longs for his mother and father, for a place to belong.

“Jama looked up at the sky, beside the moon was a bright star he had never noticed before, it flickered and winked at him. As Jama squinted he saw a woman sitting on the star, her small feet swinging under her robe and her arm waving down at him. Jama waved to his mother and she smiled back, blowing shooting star kisses down on him.”

“All those promises his mother had made about him being the sweetheart of the stars looked to him as if they would finally come to pass. He was going to be a normal boy with a real father, he wanted his father above anything else in the world, he was becoming a man and needed a father to light the way. Jama had so many questions for Guure. Where did you go? What have you being doing in Sudan? Why did you not come back for me? Jama felt ready to explode; his sentence was finally over.” (99)

But Jama’s sentence is not over; one hundred pages — one third of the way — into the narrative and, really, his search is just beginning. And, although it is epic in nature, although the tale strikes universal chords, what Nadifa Mohamed says is true: Jama’s story has not been told before. She explains that experiences like her father’s are “often written about but very rarely have their perspective represented” and she has brought that to Black Mamba Boy.

* This anecdote is relayed in Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (230), based on a personal interview conducted in Bogotá May 25, 2001. If you have one (a library), and don’t have a copy of this one (Manguel’s book), you should get one (978-0-676-97588-8). Right now.

PS I originally posted this to Buried In Print.

Andrea Levy’s The Long Song

Andrea Levy’s The Long Song
Hamish Hamilton, 2010

When I picked up my copy of The Long Song from the library, I hadn’t read any of Andrea Levy’s novels (this being her fifth), so I didn’t have any expectations.

That changed when I read the first paragraph, and almost immediately, because its first sentence is just the sort that I love: “The book you are now holding within your hand was born of a craving.”

See, this reminds me of some of my longtime-favourite quotes. Like this from Dionne Brand: “Writing is an act of desire, as is reading.” And this, from Nicole Brossard: “Reading is food.” (There are more bookish quotes if you browse the tabs above.)

So that first sentence of The Long Song made me smile. Yes, it definitely did. But not in a comfortable way, because this could be the magic of a good first line. No, I was smiling, but in a nervous way, like I’ve just been introduced to someone that someone else thinks I’ll really like, but I’m not entirely sure yet and the pressure is on.

And then I read: “My mama had a story — a story that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son.”

Now, I realize that this conceit is not to everybody’s taste, but I love the Dear Reader convention. I love to be addressed, to have the space that is traditionally reserved for me be openly acknowledged. (Still quote-hungry? Here are some on that very subject.)

So my smile eased into something more comfortable. And, then, a few pages later, I find: “Reader, my son tells me that this is too indelicate a commencement of any tale. Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink.”

Yes, please.

“Go to any shelf that groans under a weight of books and there, wrapped in leather and stamped in gold, will be volumes whose contents will find you meandering through the puff and twaddle of some white lady’s mind.”

No twaddle, thanks. This here is just fine. And more, please.

But then, halfway through the novel.

“And this is why I can go no further. This is why my story is at an end. For I know that my reader does not wish to be told tales as ugly as these. And please believe your storyteller when she declares that she has no wish to pen them. It is only my son that desires it. For he believes his mama should suffer every little thing again.”

:: insert remembered moment of reader’s panic ::

Don’t worry: I told you, it’s halfway through the novel. She keeps on with her story and I’ll be keeping on with Andrea Levy. Terrific storytelling!

What do you think of the Dear Reader approach? Do you find it welcoming or irritating? Have you read any of the author’s other novels or do you mean to? Do you have a particular favourite?

PS I know I’ve hardly said anything about the story but I don’t believe that anybody could tell it better than she did. Andrea Levy’s website offers details and an extract if you need more.
SPS I originally posted this to BuriedInPrint.

Eleanor Catton`s The Rehearsal

Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (2008)
McClelland & Stewart, 2010

I felt like a teenager when I started reading this novel. I’d switched purses seasonally and forgot to transfer my housekeys, so I ended up sitting on the front porch for a few hours waiting for Mr. BIP to come home.

I forgot my keys a lot when I was a kid, so if I hadn’t already been a reader, I probably would have become one from the need to fill time whilst waiting for someone to come home and let me in.

I often stopped at the school library or the local library on my way home from high school, and I always had reading material at hand, and I had luckily stopped at the public library that afternoon for The Rehearsal, so my porch-sit was actually quite enjoyable.

(Actually, it was all the more so because I couldn’t possibly feel guilty for reading because I really had no other choice, not being able to get in to do the myriad of chores that I’d actually planned to do when I got home). It was a beautiful near-summer day and I pulled a bag of pistachios from my purse and nestled into the cushioned chair to read more than 250 pages — before heading down the block for an iced americano and the use of a pay phone.

It was a comfortable set-up, but not a comfortable read: Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal captures adolescence and coming-of-age-ness with an unflinching honesty. The complexity of her characterization is almost overwhelming at times and, appropriate to her characters’ world-revolves-around-me lifestage, everyday events and exchanges are observed and analyzed with a peculiar intensity.

“It is a mark of the depth of their wounding that they are pretending they suspected it all along. Everything that they have seen and been told about love so far has been an inside perspective, and they are not prepared for the crashing weight of this exclusion. It dawns on them now how much they never saw and how little they were wanted, and with this dawning comes a painful reimagining of the self as peripheral, uninvited and utterly minor.” (59)

It’s spot-on, isn’t it. Belonging and alienation, identity and searching, importance and insignificance: these are contrary times. The varying perspectives, the constant shifts in focus that underscore the larger question of what is real and what is portrayed, what exists and what is performed: it’s disorienting.

But “…you must start with a thing itself, not with an idea of a thing. I can see what I am holding in my hand. I can see its weight, its shape and its texture. It doesn’t matter if you can see it yet or not: the important thing is that I can.”

The Head of Movement at the drama school explains this, but I’m pulling it out to demonstrate that the same is true of Eleanor Catton: it doesn’t matter if you can see it or not, she is up to something, right from the start.

The novel begins with alternating segments told from the perspective of schoolgirls (including Isolde, whose sister Victoria has been implicated in a scandal/crime/pantomime involving the jazz band teacher Mr. Saladin) and their saxophone teacher; the second chapter adds drama classes to the first’s music classes, fleshing out ::cough:: another layer to the performance theme. And this? This is the straightforward part.

If you enjoy literary fiction not just for a good story, but because you like to marvel at the way in which a good story can be constructed?

If you read literary fiction not just because it raises questions and gets your readerly-ness spinning, but because the degree of spin is sometimes so disturbing that you lose your reader’s centre and are forced to reset your own understanding of narrative truth?

If you like the idea of spending more time talking about a book than you’ve actually spent reading it, even though you might end up less sure about some aspects of it when you’re done talking than you did before you started?

Then I think you would enjoy The Rehearsal. (I do enjoy a good puzzle myself, and the layers in Catton’s novel are fascinating, but it was my interest in coming-of-age novels — and the number of years I spent in music classes as a kid — that sealed the bookish deal.)

Why else might you want to read Eleanor Catton’s debut novel? Well, as Stanley says “Because if somebody’s watching, you know you’re worth something.” And there are a lot of people watching Eleanor Catton. The reasons for that are twofold, I’d say. [Note: Rehearsal inside-joke.]

PS This was originally posted at BuriedInPrint and I just realized that I should have been cross-posting those reviews here too.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey (Jill)

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
By Monique Roffey
Did Not Finish

Sometimes, I can get hung up on a part of a story – to the point where it plagues my entire reading experience. This is what happened while reading The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey.

The book is divided into chronological sections, starting with 2006 and then going back to 1956, 1963 and 1970. So, when Roffey introduces us to the main characters, George and Sabine, we are meeting their 75-year-old versions (with most of their lives’ experiences behind them). For the first 189 pages, it was difficult to like George and Sabine. George was a lifelong philanderer – selfish and egotistical. Sabine drank and smoked excessively, and liked to pick fights with George and their daughter. As I muddled through these pages, reminding myself that the book will reveal more about these characters, something happens. Sabine beats her family dog. The scene was only a few paragraphs long but affected me tremendously. So tremendously that as I moved to the earlier years of the characters’ lives, I could not forget what Sabine did.

120 pages from the end, I couldn’t bear reading about Sabine anymore. I was done with her. I placed my bookmark in front of the next chapter, put the book aside and thought about what to do next. Ultimately, I decided to walk away from The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.

Despite my abandonment of this book, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Roffey’s writing talent and her fascinating exploration into Trinidad’s history. Indeed, many aspects of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle were appealing. Perhaps I can come back to it once I let go of my distaste for Sabine. Until then, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle will sit on my shelf; my bookmark marking the spot where I said no more.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Laura's Review - Burnt Shadows

There was something she had learnt to recognise after Nagasaki, after Partition: those who could step out from loss, and those who would remain mired in it. (p. 149)
Burnt Shadows is a moving story of war and prejudice spanning more than 50 years and 5 countries. It begins in 1945 Nagasaki, just before the bomb drops. Hiroko Tanaka is 21 years old and engaged to Konrad Weiss, a German living in Japan. The reader has just enough time to appreciate her idyllic world and the promise of love, when suddenly everything changes. Hiroko survived; Konrad did not. The title comes from a description of the bomb's aftermath:
Days -- no, weeks -- after the bomb and everything still smelt of burning. I walked through it -- those strangely angled trees above the melted stone, somehow that's what struck me the most -- and I looked for Konrad's shadow. I found it. Or I found something that I believed was it. On a rock. (p. 78)
Hiroko leaves Japan for India, where Konrad's sister Ilse lives with her British husband James. Hiroko and Ilse become close friends. Hiroko marries Shajjad Ashraf, and in 1947 the Partition forces them to start a new life in Pakistan. They have a son, Raza, and remain friendly with Ilse and her son Harry. Hiroko is a constant presence, struggling throughout her life to come to terms with the impact of the bomb. The focus of the story gradually shifts to Raza, whose mixed ethnicity creates both opportunities and challenges. The final chapters are set in post-9/11 New York City, where a country built through immigration is suddenly seized by fear, and driven to conformity:
But then, things shifted. The island seemed tiny, people's views drunken. How could a place so filled with immigrants take the idea of "patriotism" so seriously? (p. 295)
There were several points where I was afraid the book might develop into one big cliché, but fortunately that never happened. In every era and every setting, Kamila Shamsie maintained a steady drumbeat of messages about war, race, and bigotry. And the ending was far from neat and tidy, clearly showing these issues will remain with us for a long time.

Addendum (27 July 2010): I lowered the rating by half a star. The first half of this book is very strong, but the second half is not as tightly written, and some of the situations are less believable. The overall theme and message had a strong impact on me, leading to an initial 4-star rating, but on further reflection, it didn't quite stand up to other 4-star reads.

My original review can be found here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Laura's Review - The Invention of Everything Else

Nikola Tesla was a Serbian inventor who came to the United States in the late 1800s. The Invention of Everything Else is a fictional account of his friendship with Louisa, a chambermaid at the Hotel New Yorker, where he lived. Louisa lives with her father Walter, who works as a night watchman at the New York Public Library. One day Louisa's curiosity leads her into Tesla's room (which is to be cleaned only upon request). Tesla discovers her reading through some of his papers. Despite this, they become friends and Louisa learns a great deal about Tesla's life and work.

Meanwhile, Louisa's father spends most of his time with an old friend, Azor, who is working on a time machine. He lives in hope that Azor will be able to reunite him with his dead wife, Freddie. And a young man named Arthur has turned up out of nowhere, claiming to know Louisa from elementary school. They are attracted to one another, although it's not clear why. Arthur also pals around with Azor and Walter, assisting them with the time machine.

The story was rather disjointed. The sections describing Tesla's life and career were most interesting, and Tesla was a likable character. But the fictional characters and their relationships were not believable. Why didn't Tesla kick Louisa out of his hotel room when he discovered her rifling through his stuff? How did Arthur become so strongly connected to Louisa and Walter? Why did Louisa care for him, and why did Walter and Azor include him in their work?

I followed the story with interest, and had no problem suspending disbelief as Walter and Azor worked on the time machine. But overall, it seemed Samantha Hunt was trying to do too much with this book, and in the final analysis it just didn't all come together. This is a somewhat engaging read, but not what I've come to expect from Orange Prize nominees.

My original review can be found here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer (Jill)

The Septembers of Shiraz
By Dalia Sofer
Completed July 18, 2010

Dalia Sofer’s debut novel, The Septembers of Shiraz, shows how detrimental the Iranian Revolution was for many of Iran’s citizens. Isaac Amin was a rare gem dealer who was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards in September 1981. Isaac was Jewish and had prospered well under the Shah, which made him suspicious in the eyes of the new regime. He was transported to prison where he was questioned, tortured and accused of being a Zionist spy.

The story shifts from Isaac’s point of view to that of his wife, Farnaz; his young daughter, Shirin; and his son, Parviz, a college student living in New York. The alternating viewpoints showed how each family member dealt with the sudden disappearance of Isaac. With emotions ranging from fear to courage, the Amin family tried to manage their day-to-day lives without the presence of their patriarch.

I found The Septembers of Shiraz to be a captivating read. The Iranian Revolution is an unfamiliar topic for me, and the rigid conditions of this time make me wonder how anyone escaped arrest and execution. I rooted for each member of the Amin family as they struggled with Isaac’s imprisonment. Sofer’s writing style was lyrical yet approachable, drawing her readers into the story. If you are a fan of historical fiction, I would recommend this amazing story. I look forward to more books by this talented young author. ( )

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Small Wars by Sadie Jones (Jill)

Small Wars
By Sadie Jones
Completed July 14, 2010

In Small Wars, the second novel by Sadie Jones, explores the impact of “small wars” on countries, citizens, servicemen and their loved ones. When you read a novel by Jones, you expect an intensive read. Small Wars is exactly that – a novel that keeps you thinking about its characters long after finishing the book.

Hal Treherne is a young major in the British Army. He comes from a family whose men held distinguished careers in the army, fighting in great English wars throughout history. Hal has no war to fight, until he is stationed in Cyprus, a nation whose interest to England becomes exceedingly higher as the conflict in the Suez Canal erupts in nearby Egypt. Cyprus had a small war of its own, trying to break free of British rule. The country’s desire for independence resulted in terrorist activity, and Hal finally gets the war he’s been trained for. However, it’s not the war of his father or grandfather. There are no trenches, fronts or battlefields. Instead, it’s house-to-house searches, land mines and torture. Hal learns that he’s not emotionally equipped for this type of warfare and begins to question his service in the army.

Meanwhile, Hal’s wife Clara arrives in Cyprus with their twin daughters, and tries to create a life in this tumultuous country. At the beginning of the book, you sense a deep love between the couple. However, as conditions sour in Cyprus and Hal becomes traumatized by its events, you watch as this marriage crumbles. They fail to talk to each other, and Hal takes out the atrocities of the war on his wife. He eventually arranges for Clara’s departure to a “safer” part of Cyprus, but in a country involved in a small war, there are no safe havens. Eventually, Clara and Hal face an enormous tragedy that will make or break their marriage.

I was unaware of this portion of British history, and I found that Jones’ research about Cyprus during the 1950’s to be enlightening. I couldn’t help but draw parallels from the small war in Cyprus to those being fought in countries throughout the world today. The places have changed, but the lessons have not. I applaud Jones for tackling this sensitive subject and for doing so in such a provocative way. I would recommend Small Wars to those readers who enjoy reading intense fiction or books focused on military history. It’s a book that will leave its fingerprint on me for a long time. ( )

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Accidental by Ali Smith (Jill)

The Accidental
By Ali Smith
Completed July 10, 2010

Truth be told, I don’t know how to fairly review The Accidental by Ali Smith. It’s a story that follows the dysfunctional lives of the Smart family and the emergence of Amber, a young woman who crashes the Smart’s summer home one evening. Amber’s presence helps members of the family deal with their individual grief, though the reader never quite learned why Amber was there.

The four Smart family members take turns narrating a chapter. My favorite chapters were told by Astrid, a young girl who likes to videotape everything. With a director’s eye and a stream of consciousness that James Joyce would appreciate, Astrid’s perspective matched her age: big ideas, rambling thoughts and a curiosity about life. Also interesting was her brother’s narrative: Magnus was depressed about the suicide of a fellow classmate and felt at blame for the girl’s death. Smith’s strength is not character development – you never get a full picture of each character – but the snippets she showed of the kids were insightful and captivating.

Smith’s writing style takes a while to get used to. You’re dropped into the middle of each character’s thoughts, and you might need several chapters (as I did) to get into the writing style. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite way of storytelling, and I felt it put up barriers around the characters and their stories. Additionally, the ending was disappointing, and after trudging through this book, I was hoping for something a little more gratifying.

It’s hard to recommend The Accidental because it was a “meh” book for me. I encourage future readers to look at other reviews before deciding on this book. I think it’s a book you either like or don’t; I hate to say that I am in the latter group. ( )

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Laura's Review - The Outcast

When he was only 10 years old, Lewis Aldridge witnessed a terrible tragedy. Unable to express his feelings and shunned by his father, Lewis grew up a troubled young man. The Outcast opens with a prologue set in 1957, when 19-year-old Lewis is returning home after two years in prison. Sadie Jones then takes her readers back in time to recount Lewis' childhood and the events that led him to commit a crime.

Lewis' father Gilbert served in World War II, and when he returned home in 1945 Lewis was only 7. He didn't really know his father at all, and struggled with his intrusion into the family and his close relationship with his mother. After the tragedy, Lewis withdrew into himself. The other children in his village didn't know how to respond to him, and the adults were disturbed by his silence. In his teens, Lewis expressed his intense grief and self-loathing in increasingly harmful ways, eventually leading to imprisonment.

As Lewis' life fell apart, he couldn't help but compare himself with the Carmichaels, a model family in his village. Dicky Carmichael was Gilbert's boss; he and his wife Claire host an annual New Year's party and weekly Sunday lunches, all with plenty of cocktails to go around. Dicky and Claire's older daughter Tamsin is a beautiful young woman who knows how to use her sexuality; their younger daughter Kit is precocious and cares deeply for Lewis. But the Carmichaels have dark secrets of their own, which remain carefully concealed even as the Aldridge family's troubles are exposed to public viewing.

When Lewis is released from prison, he is thrust back into village society and gossip, and struggles to find his way. He gravitates toward the Carmichael girls, even as their parents reject him because of his criminal record. Tensions escalate, particularly after Lewis discovers the Carmichael secret, and all hell breaks loose.

I read this book in two days, because I just couldn't put it down. Lewis is a sympathetic character, and I was pulling for him throughout. He had been through so much, and had so little support. It was easy to see how he became so troubled, and I nearly cried whenever he began to go off the rails, or struggled with his place in society. The Outcast is intense, dramatic, and highly recommended.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (Jill)

Bel Canto
By Ann Patchett
Completed July 4, 2010

Imagine being held hostage for more than four months in a luxurious mansion in a South American country. Negotiations are at a stalemate, and the terrorists holding you are nothing more than a gang of armed teenagers led by three generals. You outnumber your captors, and they are pretty lax with their rules. Despite the odds, you never try to escape. Why? Because your life as a hostage allows you to become a new person – a person that you couldn’t be in your real life. It’s this theme that is the cornerstone to Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

The group was assembled to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese industrialist, Mr. Hosokawa. They were foreign dignitaries, priests and government officials – and the character that tied them all together was Roxane Coss, the American soprano who was the evening’s entertainment. Once the terrorists invaded the mansion, it was Roxane who called the shots. She used her lovely voice as collateral and was able to negotiate shampoo, food and other amenities for her fellow captives. In turn, she sang for the terrorists and hostages – and they all fell under the spell of Roxane’s music.

Spending months together blurred the lines between the terrorists and hostages. Together, they played chess, took reading lessons, cooked and made love. The hostages, mostly older men, showed fatherly affection to some of the terrorists. With this attention, the teens began to blossom. A boy could sing, a girl could read, another could play chess. They transformed from being jungle children to individuals with hearts and souls – all wanting love and approval.

Bel Canto runs at a slow pace, which probably won’t suit many readers. However, if you love character-driven stories, this is the perfect book for you. My only complaint was the epilogue, which tied together some unnecessary loose strings. Sometimes, stories just need to end on its tragic note – because that’s what happens in real life. Other than this small flaw, I enjoyed Bel Canto and look forward to reading more fiction by the talented Ann Patchett. ( )

Laura's Review - The Lacuna

The Lacuna is a brilliantly crafted novel, part historical fiction and part political statement. Its protagonist is Harrison Shepherd, an American-born author who spent his childhood in Mexico, and most of his adult life in the United States. As a young boy in Mexico, Harrison spent hours in the sea, exploring underwater wildlife and la lacuna: "Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things. ... It goes into the belly of the world. (p. 35)" He later found work as a secretary and cook for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and became acquainted with Leon Trotsky who lived with them during part of his exile.

The book is presented as a compilation of Shepherd's diaries, kept religiously almost since he could write. Shepherd's stenographer Violet Brown transcribed the diaries after his death. And in this labor of love the English definition of lacuna applies:
The notebook that burned, then. People who make a study of old documents have a name for this very kind of thing, a missing piece. A lacuna, it's called. The hole in the story, and this one is truly missing still ... (p. 112)
Shepherd became a famous author, writing adventure and romance novels set in Mexico. He was unmarried, and somewhat of a recluse, emotionally scarred by certain events in his life. In the late 1940s he found himself under FBI scrutiny, after they discovered his previous association with Trotsky. Kingsolver writes convincingly about the growing hysteria in the country during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee:
"Whenever I hear this kind of thing," he said, "a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, 'How can he be such a sap? Now I can be sure that man is a Red.' A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner." (p. 443)
While the story dealt directly with McCarthyism, I don't think Kingsolver was only writing about that era, over half a century ago. The second half of The Lacuna reminded me of the years immediately following September 11, 2001: the prevailing American public opinion, and resulting public policy. This was a clever way for Kingsolver to express her own political views. And at the same time, she wrote a complex story with likable characters and a conclusion that tied a number of elements together in a most satisfying way.

My original review can be found here.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kingsolver WINS 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction

...Just announced today.

"We chose The Lacuna because it is a book of breathtaking scale and shattering moments of poignancy," Daisy Goodwin, chair of judges said.

Have any of your read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver yet?

WINNER announced: New Writers Award 2010

The Orange Prize judges announced the winner for the 2010 Award for New Writers...

The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatani

Have any of your read this one yet?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Orange Prize Survey Results are in!

Thank you to the 37 respondents to the Orange Prize survey. It was a tough match. Check out the results!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (Jill)

The Lacuna
By Barbara Kingsolver
Completed June 6, 2010

In The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver assembles a moving story about a character who becomes a victim of his times. Harrison Shepherd could never find a place to call home. An American boy living in Mexico, Harrison survived through his ability to cook good Mexican food and gift for writing. His youth was spent among Communists – namely Mexican painters Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo, and displaced Russian revolutionary Lev Trotsky. While politically ambiguous, Harrison was loyal to his employers – typing letters, mixing plaster and cooking dinners. After Trotsky’s murder, Harrison felt alienated by the country he called home and decided to head north to the country of his birth.

Unfortunately, Harrison’s time in the United States was equally disillusioning. Embracing the wartime hopefulness of Americans, he began a successful career as a novelist writing about ancient Mexico. Harrison had a few years of peace and happiness, until the U.S. government began investigating citizens for communist loyalty. Harrison’s time in Mexico made him an easy target, and he fell victim to McCarthyism – alienated once again from a country he tried to turn into home.

Lucky for Harrison, he had a loyal and intuitive stenographer, Violet Brown, who helped him navigate these murky waters. She typed his letters, fed his creative soul and counseled him on how to deal with the claims of anti-Americanism. She saw grace and talent in her employer, and Violet did everything she could to protect him (mostly from himself).

The Lacuna has troubling similarities to modern America. Kingsolver exposes the injustices and paranoia that can grip a nation. Her book could serve as a warning to people about what happens when fear overrules reason: Innocent people are tossed aside, personal justice is stepped on, and people become suspicious of their neighbors, co-workers and friends. For a person like Harrison Shepherd, it becomes a hole that one cannot emerge from.

Told with beautiful language and witty dialogue, The Lacuna is Kingsolver at her finest. This book is highly recommended to readers of “serious” fiction – who enjoy stories full of symbolism, foreshadowing and politcal thought. ( )

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Cast your vote for the 2010 Orange Prize Winner

On Thursday, June 9, the winner of the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction will be announced in London. But if you were one of the Orange Prize judges, who would you pick for the winner?

Cast your vote in the 2010 Orange Prize Winner Survey and let your voice be heard!

The survey is open until midnight EST, Monday, June 6, and the responses will be announced on my Examiner page on Tuesday, June 7. And check back there for the Orange Prize Winner announcement.

Take The Orange Prize Survey

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Getting Ready for Orange July 2010

Orange Prize for FictionI am very excited about this year's Orange July, and I hope you all will join the fun. As a reminder, Orange July is when you commit to read at least one book that has won or been nominated for the Orange Prize.

As you think about what books to read, here are some helpful links:

Past Orange Prize Winners and Nominees
2010 Orange Prize Long List
2010 Orange Prize Short List
Orange Prize Project Blog
Orange January/July Facebook page
Orange Prize on Twitter
Orange January/July on Twitter

#opf2010 - if you tweet about Orange Prize 2010
#ojj - if you tweet about Orange July

Are you planning on participating in Orange July? Make sure to leave a comment to let us know - and please spread the word on your blog, Facebook page or Twitter profile!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison (Jill)

The Very Thought of You
By Rosie Alison
Completed May 21, 2010

Before being shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize, The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison had not been reviewed by a major literary critic. Now, many reviewers and book lovers are catching up, and reviews are coming in about this dark horse in the Orange Prize race.

The Very Thought of You begins right before England declares war on Germany during the Second World War. Eight-year-old Anna Sands is beginning her journey as a refugee to the English countryside, dispatched by her mother who feared London would be bombed during the war. Anna arrives at the estate owned by a childless couple, Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton. There, Anna assimiliates to a new routine with school, friends and country life. She witnesses, though, conflicts of love and lust that are well beyond her years.

Alison’s depiction of England and the child refugee’s life was eluminating. It’s amazing the sacrifices the English made during this time. Despite the atrocities of war, “regular” life trudged on – a poetry assignment, the purchase of blankets, a daily prayer.

While the historical aspects of The Very Thought of You were interesting, the numerous love issues of the adult characters were troubling. Three marriages were in shambles, with couples cheating on each other, and a general sense of selfishness was abound. It was adultery overkill. Alison should have focused on the demise of one couple, Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, who presented the most interesting case of why a marriage could fail. The rest of the love affairs distracted from the story.

Despite this, I was enamored by Alison’s characters, especially Anna, and intrigued by the historic setting of the story. Alison’s writing style was swift and moving. I would recommend The Very Thought of You to anyone interested in the lives of those on the British homefront during World War II. ( )

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Lizard Cage - Wendy's Review

Men have often reduced his voice to gasps and weeping. They have crushed the power to speak from his body, from many bodies. But words written down outlive the vulnerability of the flesh. His songs still fly through the air like swallows. Recorded words can be passed along. In one form or another they will be passed along. Movement is their essential nature. – from The Lizard Cage, page 138 -

Teza is a Burmese singer, a man whose voice and songs fills the hearts of those who are horrified by the military dictatorship who has slaughtered thousands and silenced even more. It is for his voice that Teza is arrested and imprisoned in “the cage”…a prison where torture and starvation are the norm. Karen Connelly’s absorbing novel centers around Teza and his imprisonment…and it is a heartbreaking story.

As a practicing Buddhist, Teza feels enormous guilt when he is driven to kill the lizards in his prison cell in order to avoid starvation. He attempts to live a spiritual life, often meditating to survive the brutality within the walls of his confinement. Teza befriends the senior jailer, Chit Naing, a man who is sickened by the treatment of prisoners and sympathizes with those who are against the government.

Teza refused to act like a prisoner, which freed Chit Naing from acting like a jailer. For Chit Naing, the illicit friendship was dangerous, though he was sure he could trust Sammy not to betray them. – from The Lizard Cage, page 87 -

After a particularly brutal beating, Teza is moved from solitary confinement to another part of the prison where he meets a twelve year old boy. “Little Brother” has grown up in the cage after being orphaned and is not a prisoner – instead he lives among the guards and prisoners…a lost boy who is seeing far more than any child should see.

This place of brick buildings and high walls is his school and his playground and his home. He does not think of it as strange. He remembers-forgets playing with other children in the village, a long, long time ago – when he was very small. In their kindly misguided way, the Thais are right, and the boy agrees: the prison is no place for little children. Fortunately he is not a little child. The screams in the middle of the night, the sounds of torture, the growls and stifled cries of fighting, of men raping, being raped, the stench of human shit in the dog cells, the clear evidence of men going mad or becoming cruel, the sight of men sobbing, of men dying: he is old enough to know about these things. – from The Lizard Cage, page 190 -

The Lizard Cage is a brutal, searing novel…but it is about far more than the violence within the walls of a Burmese prison. This is a book which examines freedom – the freedom to speak, to read, to write – freedoms which are staunched and punished in a country where the military dictatorship controls everything. In Connelly’s novel, the endurance of the human spirit is revealed as Teza refuses to hate those who imprison him, as a guard makes the choice to be human rather than follow orders, as a hardened criminal protects and nurtures a young boy, and as that young boy learns that in a world of violence there may be those he can trust.

A pen and paper become symbols of freedom in The Lizard Cage – objects that seem so small, and yet represent something much larger.

As long as there is paper, people will write, secretly, in small rooms, in the hidden chambers of their minds, just as people whisper the words they’re forbidden to speak aloud. – from The Lizard Cage, page 57 -

The Lizard Cage is beautifully crafted, honest, and relentlessly heartbreaking. I grew to love Teza, a man who should have no hope and yet is able to still find beauty in the world…a spider spinning her web in his cell, the industriousness of the ants in the walls, and the blueness of the sky seen through a small window. Teza’s hope and love radiates out from him changing the life of one of his jailers, and touching the life of a small boy whose future is still ahead of him. In a novel which reveals the worst that humanity has to offer, Teza becomes a bright and shining example of hope and goodness.

Connelly’s writing is beautiful. I marked passage after passage as I read. Tears pricked at my eyes. I held my breath as I turned pages, afraid for the characters. I just could not stop reading, even when I knew the story would not have a happy ending for at least one of the characters. Novels like this one are a testament to the power of words and stories.

Karen Connelly won the 2007 Orange Prize for New Writers for The Lizard Cage – and it is evident why she won this prize. Although Connelly does not spare her reader the violence and torture found inside Burmese prisons, she allows for hope and the beauty of the human spirit.

I was immensely touched by this novel. It made me cry. It made me angry. It made me appreciate the courage of artists living in Burma. It made my heart bleed for the children caught in the chaos. The Lizard Cage is a must read for those who do not want to hide from the realities of our world. Hope for change is in speaking and writing about that which we would rather not hear.

Highly Recommended.

Monday, May 10, 2010

2010 Orange Award for New Writers - Short List

On April 13th, the short list for the 2010 Orange Award for New Writers was announced:

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

2010 - Orange Prize Short List

I'm a bit late posting this...the Orange Prize judges chose a short list on April 20th and these were the selected titles:

The Very Thought of You, by Rosie Alison
The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
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

The winner will be selected on June 9th.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New Member Introduction

I find that I keep reading Orange Prize books (either winners, or short or long listed). I don't really do this on purpose but since I like well-written books by women it kind of makes sense. Now that I'm part of this blog project I will try to be more organized in my approach. In the next few weeks I will be posting some current and some older reviews of Orange Prize books. My blog is called A Book a Week. Come visit me there, too!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Orange January/July is now on Facebook

Come one, come all to the fan page for the Orange January/July Facebook page.

This is an interactive fan page - feel free to post pictures, events, links or join the discussion group. Have fun!

The Little Stranger - Wendy's Review

The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop – to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration… - from The Little Stranger, pages 353-354 -

In a small English village in Warwickshire sits a Georgian home called Hundreds Hall. It was once an elegant mansion with beautiful grounds and many servants to keep its rooms flawless. But the war has taken its toll on the people and economy of England, and Hundreds Hall is now in decline with crumbling masonry, weed-choked gardens and leaky ceilings. Dr. Faraday, the local physician, had visited the mansion as a child and his mother was once a maid there, so he is shocked at what the once beautiful home has become when he is called out to see an ailing servant girl. He quickly befriends those still living at Hundreds Hall: the elderly Mrs. Ayres and her two adult children… Roderick (who is crippled from the war), and Caroline. Within a short period of time, strange things begin to happen – scorch marks appear on the walls, the telephone rings in the middle of the night and then goes dead, and the family dog acts out of character. Are these events caused by a ghost, as Betty the young servant girl believes, or something far more sinister?

Sarah Waters’ newest novel is Gothic in style. Set in post-war England sometime in the the late 1940s and narrated by a questionable narrator (Dr. Faraday), the story unfolds slowly at first but then picks up about mid-way through the book. Waters takes her time to carefully develop her characters and introduces the theme of class differences early on when it becomes evident that Dr. Faraday has never relinquished his dismay at being the son of a maid, and the Ayreses (despite their current bleak economic situation) will always consider themselves a family of means.

As in all good Gothic novels, Hundreds Hall becomes a character in the book. The descriptions of the house’s decline, its dark and gloomy halls and closed off rooms with peeling or mildewed wallpaper, seems to be a metaphor for the economic decline of the times. Beneath its crumbling exterior, the house also holds family secrets and tragedy.

Waters gives clues as to the malevolent presence in the house, but it is not until the end that I was certain of its origins…and then I was thrilled by Waters’ deft manipulation of her story. As with all of her work, Waters’ writing is sophisticated and satisfying, and filled with descriptions which capture the historical time of the story.

My only complaint, and it is a small one, was the slow pace at the beginning of the book. Waters takes her time to set the stage and introduce her characters, and at times I grew impatient for some action. Once events start to happen, however, the pace picks up. I found myself reading straight through the last 150 pages with barely a break.

Readers who have liked Waters’ previous books and who like a good Gothic mystery, will most likely find The Little Stranger an enjoyable, albeit disturbing, read.

Wendy's Progress List - 2010

I have so many Orange prize winners and nominees on my TBR pile. Instead of setting a goal for 2010, I am simply going to list what I read this year on this post.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (2010 Long List) - COMPLETED April 3, 2010; rated 4/5; read my review on my blog.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Results are in for Orange Prize Survey

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Orange Prize Survey. The results are in! Find out who you think should be on the short list, who should win and what your favorite Orange Prize book is.

Don't forget that we'll be celebrating all things Orange throughout July for Orange July! If there's an Orange book you want to read, it's a great time to delve in!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Orange Prize Survey - Fun in Four Questions!

In honor of yesterday's announcement of the 2010 Long List, I have created a short survey about this year's picks plus the ultimate question: What is your favorite Orange Prize winner?

The survey is open until midnight EST on Saturday, March 20. I will post the results on my page on Sunday. I will let you know when it's posted.

I hope you'll consider participating! It will be fun!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

2010 Fiction Long List Announced

Today the Orange Prize Long List was announced and the nominees are:
  • The Very Thought of You, by Rosie Alison
  • 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
  • The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Secret Son, by Laila Lalami
  • The Long Song, by Andrea Levy
  • Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke
  • The Wilding, by Maria McCann
  • Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
  • Black Mamba Boy, by Nadifa Mohamed
  • A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore
  • The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, by Monique Roffey
  • The Still Point, by Amy Sackville
  • The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
  • The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
Here is the upcoming schedule of announcements:

13 April 2010

Orange Award for New Writers shortlist announced

20 April 2010
Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist announced

9 June 2010
Awards Ceremony

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Terri's Review - The Voyage of the Narwhal

Talking grew difficult; their beards froze to their neckerchiefs and saliva sealed their lips. The wind tore tears from their eyes and froze their lids together.

Thus is the atmosphere in The Voyage of the Narwhal, an historical adventure novel by Andrea Barrett. It is set in the mid-nineteenth century; the Narwhal is a whaling ship that has been outfitted for an Arctic voyage. The mission is to find out what happened to the Franklin expedition, apparently lost some years before exploring the Arctic. It is a bit of a race, as other expeditions have also set out to find Franklin’s ship.

The Narwhal’s naturalist and the book’s main protagonist is Erasmus Darwin Wells. He is the voice of reason on the voyage, compared to the commander, Zechariah Voorhees (Zeke), who is young and daring and doesn’t give much thought to the consequences of his actions. He puts his crew at risk on a number of occasions. He is the commander only because his father funded the expedition and built the ship.

Though I haven’t read many adventure stories, there are some elements here one would naturally expect – daring, danger, hardships, near death experiences, an unhappy crew, an unreasonable commander, and so on. Barrett's brilliance lies in her descriptions of the atmosphere and settings:
...any acknowledgment of sickness made the men nervous. So did the darkness, and the daily task of scraping from bunks and bulkheads the frost that formed from their breath while they slept. It was disturbing, Erasmus thought, to watch the air that had lived inside their lungs turn into buckets of dirty ice. Tossing the shavings over the side, he felt as if he were discarding parts of himself.
Waiting at home for the return of the Narwhal are Lavinia – sister to Erasmus and fiancé of Zeke – and her companion during the men’s absence, Alexandra. We are privy to their lives as well. They set to work hand coloring plates for an entomology book Lavinia’s two other brothers are publishing. Lavinia uses the work to fill her time, but Alexandra takes to the work and begins drawing illustrations for another book. She is the strong independent one and introduces the theme of women’s rights and abilities into the story. She and her family are abolitionists.

This novel holds adventure, intrigue, mystery, and a bit of magical realism right alongside issues of human rights – treatment of and attitudes toward the indigenous people of the Arctic, the Esquimaux, are explored.

Highly recommended (unless you’re trying to keep warm in frigid temperatures!).

Saturday, February 6, 2010

New member, Introduction

::waves to the group::

I just discovered TOPP last week and was thrilled to find that there are many other readers who share my obsession with this prize, which has introduced me to so many of my favourite writers. (If you're curious about what I like to read, there's more about that here. I'm really looking forward to getting to know you book-wise.

There were a few sniffles and whimpers when I realized that I had just missed Orange January, but I'll be ready for July and, in the meantime, I'll be getting steadily Orange-r after the 2010 longlist is announced on March 18th ... shouldn't there be a countdown widget somewhere on this blog? ::grin:: I've really enjoyed browsing the reviews posted here, so many of which only make me want to Read More Orange.

If you were to look at my reading logs for January and February you wouldn't likely recognize me as an Orange Reader, but I have read some other books by OP nominees during that time (like Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead, Jane Urquhart's biography L.M. Montgomery) and I think Marina Endicott's novel Good to a Fault has a good chance of making this year's list.

And my OP reading will increase substantially in the coming weeks: next month I'm planning a wee Pat Barker focus in anticipation of reading her 1996 longlisted novel The Ghost Road and then I will obsessing with 2010's longlist.

The challenge of there being regular additions to the list is that there are always more books and authors to follow up with; I've only read 68 of the OP titles so far, but I know there are many more favourites to be discovered amongst the titles that yet await, so I'm up for that challenge. It's nice to know I'll have company on that journey.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Terri's Review - The Septembers of Shiraz

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

From the first page of The Septembers of Shiraz, you know it’s not going to be a fun or easy read. In September,1981 in the midst of his work day, Isaac Amin, a Jew living in Tehran, is apprehended at gunpoint by two members of the Revolutionary Guards. They transport him for interrogation and imprisonment. His crime? Being a Jew and benefiting from the reign of the Shah; officially he is accused of being an Israeli spy.

Isaac is a gem trader and jewelry designer in Tehran and has led a very comfortable lifestyle, amassing a fortune under the rule of the Shah. His wife Farnaz and ten year old daughter Shirin live with him in a sprawling house with servants and a gardener. His son, Parviz, attends architectural school in Brooklyn. The novel’s chapters alternate between these four characters from a third person POV.

After the fall of the Shah, they realize that their lifestyle, if not their lives, are in jeopardy. The revolution post-Shah has changed life in Iran drastically. No longer is music or dancing allowed, any person of wealth is suspect, and anyone not loyal to Islam is considered immoral and subject to harsh punishment. A list of executions is frequently posted in the newspaper, and the Amins sometimes read of friends being killed. It is difficult to know whom to trust and conversations and letters are often peppered with code words and phrases.

“The Septembers” refers to Isaac’s idyllic time spent in Shiraz in his youth and young adulthood. It is in stark contrast to the September in which he begins his imprisonment. Some of the prison scenes reminded me of The Lizard Cage, a remarkable book about a Burmese prisoner (2007 New Writers winner). Conditions are unimaginable, torture is frequent, survival is tenuous.

As difficult as the subject matter is, I found this a very readable book. The author, Dalia Sofer, was ten when she and her family fled Iran, so I assume that Shirin is a partially autobiographical character. Sofer’s prose is beautiful – for example, when Farnaz picks up a forgotten pair of Isaac’s shoes from a shoemaker while he is in prison, “…she takes them, like a widow leaving a morgue. She walks home with the bag looped around her wrist, the shoes banging against her thigh, as if kicking her for interrupting their repose.” There are many such lovely turns of phrase in this astounding debut novel.

Highly recommended. (4.5/5)

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Jill)

The Lovely Bones
By Alice Sebold
Completed January 25, 2010

The Lovely Bones was the brazen debut by Alice Sebold, who told the story of Susie, a 14-year-old girl raped and murdered by her neighbor. Susie told her story from Heaven - or at least a section of Heaven - and through her eyes, she unraveled a complex story of love, loss and forgiveness.

When Susie entered Heaven, she went to an ideal physical location. However, most of Susie's fellow residents were ones who died from atrocious crimes such as Susie's. This special place in Heaven was intended for healing and letting go of human life. Susie missed her family enormously and watching their grief was heart-breaking for her. She also watched her murderer as he masterfully side-stepped the police and neighbors. Imagine how frustrating it would be to know the man who killed and raped you was not even a police suspect. Worse yet, imaging watching your family tear apart from your loss. It's a perspective of Heaven I had not considered, and Susie's tale left me a lot to think about.

The Lovely Bones was a true page-turner. For me, it was a spiritual novel. For others, it might be a crime story. Either way, Sebold did a marvelous job exposing Susie's family's grief - and showing that a family's ties are the strongest ones of all. ( )

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (Jill)

The Idea of Perfection
By Kate Grenville
Completed January 23, 2010

A word of caution to readers who haven't read The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville. It's like a wonderful homemade soup. You first add the ingredients, slowly stir and then after hours of simmering, it becomes a tasty delight. The Idea of Perfection took a few chapters to get going, but readers who stick with this story are in for a wonderful literary experience.
The book centered on two unforgettable characters - Douglas Cheeseman, an engineer, and Harley Savage, a textile expert. Both characters were visiting a small town in New South Wales on congruent missions. Douglas was dispatched to the town to demolish and rebuild an old timber bridge while Harley was there to help the town create a heritage museum. Eventually, Douglas and Harley crossed paths, and a slow love story began to develop.
Douglas and Harley shared low self-esteem and a lot of romantic baggage. Douglas was divorced, and his first wife called him a "bridge bore." Harley had three husbands - two she divorced and Husband #3 killed himself. Neither felt worthy of love and relationships, and worried obsessively about their social skills. Slowly, Grenville put both characters into story lines together, showing their vulnerabilities and general awkwardness. As the story progressed, they eventually shed - layer by layer - their doubts and insecurities.
While Douglas and Harley were sorting out their feelings, lives and inadequacies, Grenville threw in a third character, Felicity Porcelline. Felicity, on the surface, was the opposite of Douglas and Harley. She was attractive - and knew it - and spent hours trying to preserve her appearance. While she looked great on the outside, Grenville showed readers what was inside Felicity - obsessive, compulsive behavior about kitchen floors and buttons; an unnatural conflict about wrinkles, lines and creases, and what causes them; and constant need for reassurance that she's still attractive to men. Felicity was like porcelain (I wonder if Grenville chose her last name intentionally) - beautiful but fragile. And in that way, all of the characters shared this fragile-like state, though wrapped up externally in different packages.
Through this character-driven story, Grenville showed readers that perfection is nothing more than an idea - a perception held by an individual. The perfect face, perfect marriage and even a perfect bridge are never really perfect. Anyone can find a flaw. However, it's the flaws that make those things so interesting. Fans of Kate Grenville or readers who enjoy intelligent story lines will love The Idea of Perfection. I know I did. ( )