Friday, April 27, 2012

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Jill)

Half Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanHalf Blood Blues
By Esi Edugyan

I always say in my book reviews: When a book can teach me something new about history, then I am a fan. In her highly acclaimed Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan taught me a different perspective of World War II - one that incorporates American and German jazz musicians who shared a common love of music.

 The book is told from the viewpoint of Sid Griffiths, the bass player for an up-and-coming jazz band, The Hot-Time Swingers, who were playing in jazz clubs throughout Berlin. Jazz was hot in pre-World War II Germany, but when Hitler came to power, he considered the music to be "degenerate." This left Sid and his band mates, namely his boyhood friend, Chip, and a black German horn player, Hiero, out of work. The 1939 sections of the story center around the band mates' escape from Germany and their brief time together in Paris.

Fast forward more than 50 years, and the story focuses on elder Sid and Chip, who are returning to Germany for a jazz festival in Hiero's honor.  Sid watched Hiero get arrested in Paris, and he assumed Hiero died, but Chip has information that will test Sid's belief. Once they arrive in Berlin, they decide to travel to Poland to learn what happened to Hiero.

 Many reviewers found Half Blood Blues to be slow-paced. However, I felt the complete opposite: I was completely riveted by the story, turning pages late into the night. This may be the result of my insatiable curiosity about World War II history, but I have to think that Edugyan's superb writing style also played a part. Another common complaint was the jargon used throughout the dialogues: it was a blend of black vernacular mixed in with 1940's slang. Germans were "boots," women were "janes." It did not bother me too much, but I understand where these critiques are coming from.

For me, Half Blood Blues was the complete package: gripping, humanistic, real. I am pleased that Edugyan has been short listed for the 2012 Orange Prize, and I hope lovers of literary and historical fiction will find their way to this book. ( )

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Announcing the 2012 Short List

The Orange Prize for Fiction, the UK’s only annual book award for fiction written by a woman, today announces the 2012 shortlist:
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail) - Canadian; 2nd Novel
  • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) - Irish; 5th Novel
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury) - American; 1st Novel
  • Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (Atlantic Books) - American; 7th Novel
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury) - American; 6th Novel
  • Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury) - British; 3rd Novel
Have you read any of these yet? Which do you think will win?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (Jenny's Review)

Island Of WingsIsland Of Wings by Karin Altenberg
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I hadn't heard of this book before it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, but I'm certainly glad it was brought to my attention. It is a well-researched, historical novel based on the journals of the real minister, Neil MacKenzie, who travels to St. Kilda in 1830 to convert the heathens, whether or not they want to change.

What I liked:
-There is Gaelic throughout the novel, and as someone who has studied Scottish Gaelic (very casually, don't be impressed), I really enjoyed seeing little bits of that. While she borrows some place names for the island from the highlands, it gave additional opportunities to use the beautiful words, and it helped place me there as the reader.

-This is obviously well-researched. It contains a lot of information about the patterns of the birds and the sea, and the extreme hardship of living on the island. It was similar in feeling to a book I recently read set in the Faroe Islands, The Old Man and His Sons, where every bit of survival depends on knowing the best time to kill the birds or hunt the seals.

What I didn't like as much:
-The character of Neil MacKenzie is incredibly frustrating, and perhaps that is true to his journals, but he never grows! He never learns! He never changes. He leaves St. Kilda just as stubborn and possibly more set on being the man in charge.

-The idea that the wife never learns any Gaelic to communicate with the other islanders? I mean, really? None? Can that be true? For her to be more of a redeeming character, she would have needed to immerse farther than also losing her children to the 8-day curse. Or maybe this is a product of the marriage between religion and colonialism.

-The lack of point of view from the St. Kildans. To me, the ancient history of the island, which the St. Kildans clearly are respectful of because of their unwillingness to change, is the more interesting story. I think I would have liked if the author had moved a little farther beyond the facts she was finding. It ends up being a little shallow of a story, with the repeated patterns between Neil and Lizzie, and Neil and his 'congregation.'

Overall, I'd give this about 3.5 stars, and one entire star of that is my own sentimentality for cold weather islands, remote places, and Gaelic. I wouldn't expect it to make the shortlist, but if it does it would have to be because it tells one historic story of a place that has since been abandoned to the birds.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue (Jill)

The Sealed Letter
By Emma Donoghue

Based on the real-life divorce scandal that rocked Victorian England, The Sealed Letter is an action-packed look into the plight of women's rights and the scandals of terminating a marriage. If you ever wondered how difficult it was to obtain a divorce during the Victorian era, The Sealed Letter will answer your questions.

The story opens with a chance meeting between two old friends - Emily "Fido" Faithfull, a women's rights activist, and Helen Codrington, a naval wife. As the two become reacquainted, Fido realizes Helen is miserable in her marriage and has wandering eyes. Helen tells Fido about how neglectful her husband, Harry, is to her, and as the story progresses, the inevitable happens: Helen and Harry separate, and Harry wants a divorce.

Most Victorian couples who wanted to part ways didn't typically pursue divorces. Instead, they made civil and financial arrangements that kept them in separate households. While this is the avenue Helen would have preferred, Harry was out for revenge and willing to risk his reputation for a courtroom drama that would keep London hanging on to its every movement. For me, the courtroom scenes of The Sealed Letter were brilliantly done - a true page-turning saga that epitomized the imbalance of justice between husband and wife. Because Helen was accused of adultery, the lawyers got their chance to talk about sex in discreet terms. It was like listening to 7th graders banter in the boys' locker room. Parts of it were immature; other parts, were hilarious.

What wasn't funny, though, was the misery inflicted upon many characters, including Harry and Fido, as this personal matter became a very public affair. Divorce was nasty business then - and for many couples, it remains tumultuous to this day. Thankfully, women's rights as wives have improved since then, but the fact remains that dissolving a marriage is hard on everyone involved. The Sealed Letter hits the head on this nail - repeatedly and effectively.

I liked The Sealed Letter for its historical look on women's rights, marriage and divorce during Victorian England. Truth be told, I wasn't thrilled with the characters, especially Helen, who was manipulative and cruel. I don't have to like the characters, though, to appreciate a good story, and that's certainly the case with The Sealed Letter. Emma Donoghue is an excellent storyteller, and I think most fans of literary fiction will find value in this moving story. ( )