Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree - Wendy's Review

Short listed for the Orange Prize's New Writer's Award (2009)
I wanted Isaac to say that I meant something to him, that he’d be proud to take me as his wife. Instead, I felt cheap. This wasn’t how I wanted it to be. I had sold myself for a hundred and sixty acres of land. But it didn’t have to stay that way. I’d work hard. I’d prove myself. Isaac wouldn’t be able to do without me. - from The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, page 57 -
It is the early part of the twentieth century and Rachel is a black woman working as a housekeeper in a Chicago boarding house when she meets Isaac DuPree. Isaac is a Buffalo Soldier fighting Indians in the West and he dreams of land ownership – something that is now possible through the Homestead Act (a Federal law which gave an applicant ownership of free farmland called a “homestead” – typically 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River). Rachel is instantly attracted to Isaac, but Isaac is not looking for a wife…until he realizes that marrying Rachel means he will have 320 acres instead of just 160. They strike a bargain that Rachel will turn over her land to Isaac and he will marry her for one year. Fourteen years later, the couple is still together living on the unforgiving plains of the South Dakota Badlands with their five children. 

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is written in the first person narrative of Rachel, a woman who had dreams of her own wooden home but now finds herself barely surviving a drought, and desperate for the contact of other women. Fearful for her children and at odds with her husband, Rachel begins to hatch a plan to escape the Badlands and return to Chicago.

Ann Weisgarber’s novel is the story of one woman, but it takes a broader look at the struggle of blacks to break free of inequality and become landowners. Weisgarber also touches on the plight of Native Americans during the early part of the twentieth century…and about the rigid racial stereotypes which were typical at that time.

Through vivid descriptions of life in a barren and harsh environment, Rachel Dupree lives and breathes in the pages of this novel. Rachel is symbolic of the many women who ventured from civilization into the wilds of the west, helping their husbands to settle the land and facing drought, starvation, accidents and even the dangers of childbirth with courage.

The writing in this novel is unsentimental, Rachel’s voice often matter-of-fact, yet it is surprisingly moving. I found myself deeply engrossed in this very American story of a strong woman’s quest for a better life for herself and her children. Readers who love Pioneer history, will be drawn to Weisgarber’s novel which was short-listed for the Orange Prize’s New Writers Award in 2009.


Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel CantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Suddenly, clearly, he could see her, the way he had been able to see her at twenty, not her physical self at twenty, because in every sense she was more beautiful to him now, but he felt that old sensation, the leaping of his heart, the reckless flush of desire. He would find her in the house, cutting fresh paper to line the shelves or lying across their bed on her stomach writing letters to their daughters who were attending university in Paris, and he was breathless. Had she always been like this, had he never known? Had he known and then somehow, carelessly, forgotten? In this country with its dirt roads and yellow rice he discovered he loved her, he was her. Perhaps this would not have been true if he had been the ambassador to Spain. Without these particular circumstances, this specific and horrible place, he might never have realized that the only true love of his life was his wife.

This passage about Ambassador Simon Thibault's discovery of his life in the crisis of his assignment to a third-world country, is really what the entire novel Bel Canto is about. In the circumstances of the crisis set in motion in the novel's early pages, each of the book's central characters finds his or her own version of Thibault's insight. For some it is love of a person, for some it is some undiscovered or undeveloped facet of himself, but for all, it is finding something at the core which makes life rich and meaningful.

The book begins at a party. It is a birthday party thrown for a wealthy Japanese manufacturer that the unnamed South American country's administration hopes to persuade to build a factory in their nation. It is at the home of the country's under-appreciated Vice President, and the magnate is finally persuaded to come only when his favorite soprano is also invited to sing at the party. The assembled guests are mostly the elite of the country, as well as a few Japanese and foreign executives whose business might follow if the factory were to be built. In addition, a local priest with a profound love of opera has managed to receive an invitation through the intervention of a friend. The country's President should be there, but at the last moment cancels to stay home and watch his favorite soap opera. As the soprano finishes her final selection, the lights go out, and the party is invaded by a band of rebels intent on kidnapping the President and taking him hostage. In time they discover their mistake, and the novel unfolds as they improvise a backup plan with a house full of new hostages.

Ann Patchett will make you crave opera tickets, even if you have never wanted them before. She will make you see the myriad beauties in a single day, as you fall in love with her well-crafted characters. You will join with the characters in their dread and their denial. And at the book's close, you may well be breathless and haunted. This book deserved the Orange Prize and the other prizes and nominations it received. For me this was a 4.5. Marvelous.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Road Home by Rose Tremain (Jayme)

Title:  The Road Home
Author:  Rose Tremain
First Published: Great Britain, 2007 - Chatto & Windus
Genre:  Contemporary Fiction
Accolades:  2008 Orange Prize winner

In order to support his 5-year old daughter and mother, widower Lev must leave his Russian village to find work after the saw-mill closes.  He travels to London where he will work at menial, back breaking jobs as he tries to circumvent the twisting roads that he faces as an immigrant in a new country. Fortunately, he will meet an eclectic group of Londoners who might not have all the answers, but with out realising it, will help Lev to heal after the death of his wife and to recapture his dreams.

I have been thinking of The Road Home for several days and as I reread my brief synopsis it just doesn't do this book justice. I know when writing a review there are clich├ęs and phrases that we write a lot, such as, mesmerizing and thought-provoking, but this book is precisely that a thought-provoking book that has the ability to change a person’s viewpoint: mine specifically.  I consider myself a pretty open-minded person, sympathic to the needs and problems of others, but this book made me question what my perception really was of immigrants and, if I was at least subconcsiously, part of the problem.  Let me explain. 

In The Road Home Tremain has done a brilliant job of really getting into the mind of Lev.  When he feels the frustration of language problems or anger because people think he’s stupid when he has just misunderstood a phrase or word, as the reader, you feel it, too.  When strangers on the streets of London stare at him as if he is a vagrant because his clothes are outdated and he needs a shave you come to understand how much we judge people and how often our perception is wrong.  As I was reading this book I began to wonder if while walking down a street did I inadvertently misjudge someone by their appearance and gave a look that alienated them or made them feel unworthy - shame on me.  

Now Lev isn’t always a nice guy in The Road Home, but he’s sincere in his humanity and in his willingness to change in order to make life better for himself and those he loves. Lev isn't perfect, none of us are, and Tremain has shown us in The Road Home that we have the ability to change, make life easier for someone else, and set our dreams free.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

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

A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I'm not sure it is "extremely funny" or "mad and hilarious" as advertised on the cover blurbs, as a story about the complexities of first-generation immigrants, and the frustrations of blending families, this shortlisted book is a good read.

I liked the snappy dialogue, the quick storytelling, and the frustrating characters. Nadia and Vera are children of Ukrainian immigrants to the UK, actually immigrants themselves (although Nadia may have been born in the UK, I'm not clear). Their mother has passed away and their mid-80s father has become engaged to a Ukrainian who they suspect is after his money.

And he really doesn't have very much money. He is fascinated by "...the relationship between mechanical engineering as applied to tractors and the psychological engineering advocated by Stalin, as applied to the human soul," and is working on a book. Through his book, you get his view of Ukraine, of war and of politics, and through the stories he and Nadia's older sister tell, you learn quite a bit about their early history.

Through the contrast between Valentina and the family, you also see the misconceptions both countries have of each other, and the changes between various sociopolitical systems in the Ukraine.

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel (Jill)

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary MantelThe Giant, O'Brien
By Hilary Mantel

Why does Hilary Mantel get nominated for so many literary awards? Quite simply, she can evoke a time and place like no one else. To say she can write is an understatement. As I finished my latest Mantel selection, The Giant, O'Brien, I literally put the book on my lap and sat in wonderment for a few minutes. She's not just a writer; Hilary Mantel is an artist, and The Giant, O'Brien is proof of her talents.

The Giant, O'Brien is loosely based on two historical figures: Charles Byrne, an Irish Giant whose bones are on display at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and John Hunter, a Scottish anatomist. In this book, Charles Byrne is represented by the fictional Charles O'Brien. O'Brien travels to London to make money so he can restore Mulroney's, a pub in Ireland that was a favorite spot among storytellers. O'Brien was illiterate, but he had an amazing knack for storytelling, drawing from ancient stories of Ireland. O'Brien was surrounded by a motley crew of men, who leached off O'Brien and looked for every opportunity to exploit the giant for profit.

Enter John Hunter, a curious surgeon, whose thirst for knowledge resulted in grave robbing, inflicting paupers with diseases and even using his own body to study syphilis. Hunter sees O'Brien as a unique specimen and becomes determined to acquire O'Brien's corpse for study. Lucky for him, O'Brien's entourage is ready to help.

Set in late 18th century London, The Giant, O'Brien shows the reader the horrors of poverty during this time. Prostitution, thievery, drunkedness and fist fights were common events in poverty-stricken London, and we see it all through O'Brien's gentle eyes. Juxtaposed with the poverty is the quest for medical knowledge through John Hunter's character. Everyone in this book was after the same thing - a better life - whether that meant new explorations of the human body, or a place to unwind and tell stories.

It took some time for me to settle into Mantel's writing style, but once I did, I embarked on an unforgettable tale about greed, poverty and the human spirit. I highly recommend The Giant, O'Brien to people who enjoy reading high-quality literary fiction. This book definitely showcases the artistic talents of Hilary Mantel. ( )

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (Jenny)

 The White Woman on the Green Bicycle: A NovelThe White Woman on the Green Bicycle: A Novel by Monique Roffey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book. The writing transports me to the island of Trinidad, with the heat and the vegetation and the turmoil of centuries of different groups of people moving through. I loved how it was written, with the majority of the story happening in the present, and then other sections going back to the beginning and then moving forward to meet up to where it started.

The story is about George and Sabine Harwood, who come to Trinidad in 1956, right after marrying, and right after Trinidad has achieved 'independence.' Throughout the book, Sabine converses with Trinidad as the curvy green woman stealing her man away, while also writing unsent letters to Eric Williams, the new leader of the nation. There are many conflicts that seem to belong to the island, potentially lacking any possibility for resolution. Sabine ends up loathing the island, and you feel it with her. Her children are also Trinidadian through and through, which isolates her further.

The best opening line:
"Every afternoon, around four, the iguana fell out of the coconut tree."

On Trinidadians:
"Frank stood erect, gazing at the priest, absorbing every word. This was how Trinidadians behaved in church: alert, composed, peering respectfully at the altar, awaiting a miracle. Carnival and Lent. Bacchanal and guilt. Trinidad in a nutshell. This was a nation of sin-loving people who made a point of praying for forgiveness."

"Sabine looked at her daughter, who looked just like George. She was bold like him, clever like him. A Trinidadian, like him."

"Love happens to you... The other person's spirit climbs into you. You feel so much for them. If they get hurt, you hurt. If you hurt them, you hurt yourself."

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Jayme)

Title:  Purple Hibiscus
Author:  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published:  2003, Algonquin Books
Genre:  historical fiction
Accolades:  2005 - Commonwealth Writers Prize, 2004 -  shortlist Orange Prize,  2004 - longlist Booker Prize

Set in Nigeria during the Abacha military regime of the mid-1990s, Purple Hibiscus is a coming-of-age story centering around, Kambili, the daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher and benefactor to the community and church.  To everyone, even family, Kambili, her brother Jaja, and their mother appear to have it all, but what they really have is a religiously fanatic father who enforces his Christian beliefs with physical abuse and horribly punishes them for what he considers heathen-like behavior. It isn’t until they spend a week in the home of their Auntie and cousins that Kambili and Jaja begin to really understand the beauty of their native religion and that there could possibly be other choices,other ways to live. 
This was the first book that I read by Adichie and I keep wondering what took me so long. Written in first person narrative Adichie captures the innocence of Kambili as she maneuvers through the terror of her world.  The vivid details of the abuse was staggering: 

"He lowered the kettle into the tub, tilted it toward my feet. He poured the hot water on my feet, slowly, as if he were conducting an experiment and wanted to see what would happen...The pain of contact was so pure, so scalding, I felt nothing for a second. And then I screamed." page 194

For all the heart ache and pain that Kambili experiences what is most amazing is that this book is about hope and strength.  The courage of the Nigerian people as they try to survive the atrocites of the Abache military regime are mirrored in Kambili's young life.   Adichie paints such vivid imagery of the Nigerian culture and landscape that you can almost feel the sweat running down your back and taste the sweet mango as you walk in the market place with Kambili.

Purple Hibiscus is simply a beautiful and powerful novel that should not be missed. 

Laura's Review - Homestead, by Rosina Lippi

There's a surprising amount of depth and meaning in this slim novel, that builds slowly and quietly through each of its 12 chapters. The story is set in a remote region of the Austrian alps, and told in the voices of women from 1909 to 1977, who managed life, love, and family on their rural homestead.

Life was hard: subsistence farming, few "modern conveniences," limited educational opportunities, and a clear but restrictive definition of a woman's role. Most women made do and were happy; some worked hard to escape. In the opening chapter, Anna, a young mother, receives a mysterious postcard which appears to be from a long lost lover. The post-mistress makes sure everyone knows about it, causing much gossip. Anna imagines the writer and his lifestyle and composes an elaborate reply, which she later abbreviated to a simple acknowledgement and apology, because his card has been misdirected. As this unfolds, the reader is also introduced to Anna's husband and children, characters who will figure prominently in later chapters.

In a rural area such as this, everyone seems to be related to everyone else. Thankfully Rosina Lippi included clan charts showing the genealogy of each homestead. While careful study of these while reading reveals small spoilers, I found them invaluable to keep track of generations and relationships.

Every one of these women was amazing, in their capacity for physical labor, and their commitment to families and to one another. Each chapter reveals details about those who came before, some of which were closely guarded family secrets. This provided the depth I mentioned before, and usually sent me off to re-read earlier chapters, taking new facts into account. When I reached the end, I felt like I had an incredibly rich tapestry in my hands, and I stood back to admire Lippi's achievement.

Cross posted from my blog

Laura's Review - The Accidental, by Ali Smith

Eve and Michael Smart, and their children Magnus and Astrid, rent a house in Norfolk for the summer, hoping to escape the stress of everyday London life. One day a young woman named Amber appears on their doorstep, and everyone is so caught up in their own cares, each assumes she is known to one of the others. Astrid thinks she's a friend of Eve's; Eve thinks she's one of Michael's university students, etc. Amber stays for dinner, and spends the night, albeit in her car. Time passes and before you know it, Amber is firmly entrenched in their lives. She's a dubious role model and mentor to 12-year-old Amber, the object of 17-year-old Magnus' passion, and the one woman Michael wants but can't manage to seduce. Amber also becomes privy to several deep family secrets, some shared with her directly and others obtained through her powers of reason.

It's all very strange, because she's not particularly likeable. You'd think one of the parents would kick her out, but every member of the family is so locked inside their own head that no one understands the effect she's having on them collectively. As Amber inserts herself into the family, she shares remarkably little about herself, and yet manages to get everyone else to let their guard down. Each family member has the chance to tell their version of the story, taking turns as narrator, which enables the reader to get just as deep into each person's psyche as Amber does. Ali Smith used very different writing styles and techniques for each character, underscoring the differences between family members. On the other hand, Amber's chapters are decidedly sparse, so as readers our understanding of her is just as limited as the family's.

I was initially intrigued by Smith's quirky writing, but eventually tired of it. The story seemed about equal parts positive and creepy. Only when the family returns to London does the full impact of Amber's visit become clear, and the whole thing struck me as quite creepy indeed. And while this book gave me some interesting thoughts to ponder, I was left wishing some of the family relationships and related themes were further developed.
Cross-posted from my blog

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (Karen)

Gillespie and I: Jane Harris
Longlisted Orange Prize 2012
Read by me: April 2012
I picked this novel up in an airport bookshop hoping it would keep me so engrossed I wouldn’t notice the length of the flight.  It seemed it would tick all the boxes – historical setting, a sense of mystery and it came from the pen of an author whose name I kept hearing though I had never read nothing by Jane Harris myself.
The story reminded me of Willkie Collins’ sensation and mystery stories and is told at a similar fast pace. It’s narrated by Harriet Baxter, an elderly spinster who recalls a chance encounter 45 years previously with Ned Gillespie – a talented artist who we are soon informed, died before his fame was fully recognised. Harriet meets him again during a visit to the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888 – and quickly becomes close friends with the Gillespie family. Dark shadows hover over their somewhat Bohemian home as one of the daughters begins to behave in an alarmingly malicious way towards her sibling and other members of the household. And then Harriet finds herself propelled into a family tragedy and a notorious court case.
The period atmosphere was convincing. Harriet’s recollections of the past come with lots of detail about  houses, dresses, domestic routines as well as the atmosphere of the exhibition ground.  Unlike many other novels with historical settings, Harris’ manages to avoid dialogue that feels flat and clunky with anachronisms.
The key to this novel however lies not in what we are told but more in what we are not told. First person narrators in novels are frequently unreliable witnesses or interpreters. Harriet Baxter is a master of deception. She portrays herself as a generous-hearted person yet is prone to make waspish comments about the other women in the Gillespie household. She believes herself to be uniquely positioned to  tell the truth about the unrecognised genius of Ned Gillespie and set the record straight about the events in which she was enmeshed as a young woman. But her approach is somewhat elliptical. She makes frequent dark allusions to tragedies yet to be revealed.  ”If only we had known then what the future held in store,” she says early on. Harriet Baxter is such a master of hints and suggestions however that the only way the reader does in fact get to know what really occurred is by following the breadcrumb trail of those clues and by reading between the lines. By the end, you almost feel that you have to read it again for everything to fall into place.
If I had a gripe with the novel it lay in the ending. It didn’t so much end as just seem to peter out as if it had run out of steam. I didn’t feel cheated because the novel had done exactly what I needed it to do – keep be engaged so I didn’t notice the cramped and confined conditions of my journey. But I did expect it to come to some form of a resolution.
Now, with the benefit of a few months gap, I can see that instead of this being a weakness of the novel, it was in fact one of its strengths. Harris, like her narrator, is an arch manipulator, leading me through the labyrinth of her novel and making me believe that all would be revealed. But like Harriet Baxter, she leaves me to work out the truth.

Cross posted from my blog BookerTalk

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton (Jill)

The Rehearsal by Eleanor CattonThe Rehearsal
By Eleanor Catton
Completed July 15, 2012

I was interested in reading The Rehearsal because it's set primarily at an all-girls' high school. As a graduate of an all-women's college, I think the social dynamic of a single-sex educational institution could make a stellar background for a story. And for The Rehearsal, it does provide an interesting foundation, but The Rehearsal didn't focus strictly on the relationship among young women. It was more artsy and cerebral.

The book revolves around a sex scandal between a student and her jazz teacher. The scandal rocks the small campus, disrupting the trust between parents and teachers; students and fellow students; and students and their instructors. Interestingly, the betrayal felt by the students was most startling. The student, Victoria, kept the affair from her friends, and when Victoria returns to school, her friends told her that to be forgiven, she must divulge the details about her affair. Is that a natural reaction? I am not sure.

Meanwhile, Catton throws in two other storylines - that of Stanley, a first-year student at a prestigious drama school, and the saxophone teacher, who is connected to many of the students affected by the sex scandal. (Side note: The conversations between the saxophone teacher and her students' parents were entertaining as heck). All three storylines combine at the end - albeit abruptly - to wrap this story up like a bow.

Here's my main complaint about The Rehearsal: the artful, intelligent aspects of this novel felt contrived - like when you're speaking to someone who talks about classical music just to give you the impression he's intelligent. The story was there; the characters were multi-dimensional and the writing style was provocative. The Rehearsal is Catton's first novel, and I suspect she'll get better and better with time. In the meantime, I will continue to look for books set at all-women's schools and colleges, searching for an intelligent, realistic representation of this unique social situation. If have any suggestions, please let me know. (  )

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Laura's Review - The Song of Achilles

I knew this book would become one of my favorites almost immediately. In just a few pages, I was completely immersed in the story, and found myself picking up the book anytime I had a minute to spare. And it's unusual for a book to bring real, honest-to-goodness tears to my eyes, but this one most certainly did. The Song of Achilles provides back story to one aspect of the Trojan War: the relationship between Achilles and his close friend, Patroclus. As author Madeline Miller wrote in her Reader's Guide,
I found myself particularly moved by his [Achilles'] desperate grief over the loss of his companion Patroclus. Patroclus is no more than a minor character in the Iliad, yet Achilles mourns him with a shocking intensity, unlike anything else in the entire work. Why? Who is this man whose death could undo the mighty Achilles?
Achilles is a mythological figure, son of the goddess Thetis, a sea-nymph, and the mortal Peleus. At the age of 9, he hand-picks the exiled prince Patroclus as his constant companion. Patroclus gains status and privilege, and as the boys grow their relationship strengthens into love. Thetis is displeased and tries to separate them, but their love is too powerful. When armies are assembled to do battle with Troy, Patroclus is there at Achilles' side. Achilles has known for years that he will become the Greeks' greatest warrior; the siege of Troy is his chance to shine. But there are other prophecies that weigh heavily on Achilles and Patroclus, not to mention the reader.

Madeline Miller breathes such life and emotion into her characters. Thetis is frightening; King Agamemnon is arrogant and cold-hearted; Odysseus is crafty. Achilles is beautiful, and the love between him and Patroclus is simultaneously intense and sweet. It's heartbreaking to watch the prophecies be fulfilled, and yet Miller offers an ingenious denouement that is wholly satisfying. This 2012 Orange Prize winner is my best book of the year so far.

Cross-posted from my blog

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve (1998 Shortlist)

In The Weight of WaterAnita Shreve tells a story of pain, jealousy, and passion. Her characters and their closest relationships--with siblings, with partners--are trapped in isolated and claustrophobic spaces. Shreve tells the story of the murders of two Norwegian immigrant women on Smuttynose Island off the coast of New Hampshire in the late 19th century. She explores the 19th Century events in the context of a contemporary photographer's trip to the island to capture the location for a magazine story about the killings. The photographer travels to the island in a small sailboat with her husband, daughter, brother-in-law and his girlfriend. In the course of her research for the photo-shoot, she happens upon a previously unknown document, a letter from the one woman in the family who survived the killings. Shreve alternates sections of this letter, which describes what led up to the murders and what happened on the night they occurred, with the main structure of the book which moves fluidly between the interactions among the family of the photographer and the details of the history of the murder as it was revealed in the trial. In this way, Shreve allows the painful unfolding of events in the two different eras to play out alongside one another.
The book is well-written, with effective pacing and moving detail, but the writing is not, in the end, remarkable. I enjoyed the book, I'm glad to have read it and would recommend it, but it never took my breath away. If three and a half stars were an option, that would be my true rating.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1997 Shortlist)

Alias GraceAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood My rating: 4 of 5 stars

  And that is how we go on. He asks a question, and I say an answer, and he writes it down. In the courtroom, every word that came out of my mouth was as if burnt into the paper they were writing it on, and once I said a thing I knew I could never get the words back; only they were the wrong words, because whatever I said it would be twisted around, even if it was the plain truth in the first place. And it was the same thing with Dr. Bannerling at the Asylum. But now I feel as if everything I say is right. As long as I say something, anything at all, Dr. Jordan smiles and writes it down, and tells me I am doing well. 
While he writes, I feel he is drawing me; or not drawing me, drawing on me--drawing on my skin--not with the pencil he is using, but with an old-fashioned goose pen, and not with the quill end, but with the feather end. As if hundreds of butterflies have settled all over my face, and are softly opening and closing their wings.

But underneath that is another feeling, a feeling of being wide-awake and watchful. It's like being wakened suddenly in the middle of the night, by a hand over your face, and you sit up with your heart going fast, and no one is there. And underneath that is another feeling still, a feeling like being torn open; not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such, but like a peach; and not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting open of its own accord.
And inside the peach there's a stone.

In Alias Grace, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1997, Margaret Atwood tackles a historical mystery from a small town in Canada in the mid-19th Century. Did Grace Marks participate in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress or was she simply an innocent bystander taken hostage by the stable-hand who was convicted and hanged for the crime? The real Grace Marks was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison, and eventually Grace was released. Atwood approaches the events in the tale through the device of a young doctor, Simon Jordan, who comes to interview Grace in order to test methods of dealing with amnesia. The novel alternates between two points of view. Grace reflects on her current situation, as in the quote above, and also provides edited and unedited versions of the answers to questions Dr. Jordan asks her. The other perspective is the young doctor's. He struggles with big and small decisions about his own personal life, while at the same time trying to discern the truth about the crime Grace is accused of committing. Through these two lenses, the novel explores class issues, sex roles, the nature of memory, and the 19th century spirtualism craze, among other themes. The characters are well and sympathetically drawn. Grace is a strong, perceptive and appealing heroine. Her life history has made her both wise and circumspect in her dealings with those around her. Dr. Jordan is younger and more naive, and serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Grace. Atwood begins each section of the novel with selections from literature and from contemporary documents about the historical murder case. The book gets under your skin, and is very hard to put down. In some ways it is the most straightforward and accessible of the Atwood novels I have read, but that doesn't make it a simple book. It's a suspenseful and fascinating read.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson (Jill)

Grace Williams Says It LoudGrace Williams Says It Loud

By Emma Henderson

Grace Williams was born with mental and physical deformities, which were compounded when she was stricken with polio at the age of six. By the time she's 11, her doctors convinced her parents to turn Grace over to a mental institution, and it's there that Grace meets the love of her life, Daniel, who sees through her disabilities. Their story is at the center of Emma Henderson's Grace Williams Says It Loud.

Grace proves to be a delightful narrator - cunning, observant and witty. Through her words, we learn how institutions treated their patients during the 1950's. In fact, the scenes that depict the name-calling, condescension and physical abuse were hard to read, even with talented Grace at the helm. These horrific scenes were juxtaposed with Grace and Daniel's friendship and love - a beacon of light in the storm. You could tell the two found solace through each other.

While the characters were complex and interesting, I was not as enamored with Grace Williams Says It Loud as many other readers. However, I can't pinpoint why. Somewhere in the middle of this story, it lost steam for me, and I skimmed some of the remaining pages. Not enough action? Tired of the institutionalized treatments? I am not sure. In any case, I still recommend Grace Williams Says It Loud and encourage you to read other reviews to get a feel for the book. Grace deserves a large audience, indeed. (  )

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne (Jill)

A Crime in the Neighborhood
By Suzanne Berne

Do you remember when an event happened during your youth that burst your idyllic bubble? For young Marsha, the main character in Suzanne Berne's A Crime In The Neighborhood, two back-to-back events rocked her world: the departure of her father and the murder of a neighborhood boy. Though unrelated, these two events became Marsha's focus during the summer of 1972, changing her life forever.

Berne deftly intermingles these two storylines throughout A Crime In The Neighborhood. We learn first that Marsha's father, Larry, was having an affair with his wife's youngest sister. Marsha's mom, Lois, finds out, and eventually Larry moves away with his mistress - all within a span of a few weeks. Marsha was daddy's little girl, not wanting to take sides, but desperately needing his father's presence in her life.

Then, a neighborhood boy is found molested and dead in nearby woods, sending shock waves over Marsha's quiet community. The neighborhood is on high alert, including Marsha, who begins observing her new neighbor, Mr. Green. She's convinced that Mr. Green is the murderer, and her young imagination begins to convince her more and more as the days progress.

Marsha is precocious, smart and observant - skills that would later serve her as an attorney. She also makes a delightful narrator. In fact, Berne did a commendable job creating all the characters, from Marsha's stoic mother to the panic-stricken neighbors. But I love Marsha's innocence and imagination the best.

A Crime In The Neighborhood can't just be characterized as a murder mystery - it has so many other layers: the state of marriage in the 1970's, political unrest with Watergate and Richard Nixon; and a coming of age tale for a young girl. Winner of the 1999 Orange Prize for Fiction, A Crime In The Neighborhood would be enjoyed by lovers of the Orange Prize and murder mystery fans alike. It truly has something for everyone. (  )

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Home by Marilynne Robinson (Jayme@Beachreader)

Title:  Home
Author:  Marilynne Robinson
Published: 2008, Farrar, Straus, Giroux
Genre:  Literary Fiction
Accolades:  2009 Orange Prize

Last year I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson which was one of my top twelve "best books read" in 2011. Today I finished Home which will be in the running for the top twelve books read in 2012 and has made Marilynne Robinson my favorite author.

Gilead is the story of Reverend John Ames, his faith, and his struggle with his ability to forgive. In Gilead we were introduced to Glory Boughton, who had come home to take care of her ailing father, Reverend Robert Boughton, Ames's closest friend, and to Jack Boughton, Ames's godson and the proverbial prodigal son. Home is the story of Glory Boughton and revolves around the Boughton's home and family. Home focuses on the Boughton's mistakes and failures and how difficult it is to forgive ourselves and those we love. But most importantly, it is the story of home. What does it mean to come home? And can coming and being home really save a weary soul?

In Home Glory has returned to care for her dying father, but also to escape a broken engagement.  In the first few pages we can sense Glory's despair and disillusionment in having to return home;

" Did she choose to be there, in that house, in Gilead? No, she certainly did not... What an embarrassment that was, being somewhere because there was nowhere else for you to be."  page 25

As Glory comes to terms with being back in her parent's home which she deems as a sign of failure, her father receives a letter from her brother Jack who will be coming home after an absence of twenty years.  Jack is the prodigal son, the lost soul who can't forgive himself and is hoping to find redemption in a place that he has never been able to call home.

Home is a subtle, delicate book that questions our ideas of home - ideals that can never live up to our expectations because our true home really lies within our heart and is an expression of our soul. 

Home is not a prequel or a sequel to Gilead because both stories occur at the same time and both books can stand on their own; however, I really feel that if you read Home, you have to promise yourself that you will read Gilead.  They are the two halves to a perfect whole (I would still read Gilead first)

Note:  I read the 2009 Picador paperback edition (my own copy)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy (Jill)

Liars and Saints
By Maile Meloy

In her debut novel, Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy explores family relationships, deceit, truth and religion through the Santerre family. Spanning over four generations, each chapter is told from a member of the Santerre family - some get more of a voice than others, but each person is enveloped in the conflicts that rock the family.

The story opens with Yvette and Teddy Santerre during World War II. We learn that the couple are deeply in love, but their young marriage isn't without struggles, compounded by Teddy's deployment to the Pacific theater. Teddy is insecure and jealous of his beautiful wife, and Yvette wrestles with her roles as wife and mother. The couple have two daughters, Margot and Clarissa, and the story moves quickly to when the girls become teenagers, and a particular night that would change the family forever.

At the surface, the issues facing the Santerre family are the stuff of daytime soap operas, but Meloy writes so eloquently, you hardly notice. The family members individually grapple with truth versus deceit. Is it better to spill the beans or keep things discreet? Sometimes, the choices the family made were ones they want to hide (even from each other), while others need to be aired out. True to life, you don't know if it is a good idea to disclose a secret until after it's done. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Liars and Saints is a solid debut, and I am not surprised to find it on the Orange Prize short list (2005). It's not without flaws, but its pace and story development are spot on. I look forward to more stories by Maile Meloy. (  )