Saturday, January 28, 2012

Laura's Review - Oryx and Crake

Human society, they claimed, was a sort of monster, its main by-products being corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain. It was like a giant slug eating its way relentlessly through all the other bioforms on the planet, grinding up life on earth and shitting it out the backside in the form of pieces of manufactured and soon-to-be-obsolete plastic junk. (p. 243)
Snowman, formerly known as Jimmy, lives in relative solitude, sleeping in a lean-to and scavenging for food and water in a city destroyed by a disaster. He wears a watch, although it no longer functions, and covers himself with a bed sheet as protection from the sun's harsh rays. Snowman also watches over the "Children of Crake," a group of ... what are they? People? Aliens? And how did all this come to pass?

Snowman's entire life is set sometime in a near future, that bears some resemblance to the world we know today. The story takes us back to Snowman's childhood, when his father worked for one of many corporations using science to "improve" the world. Through genetic engineering, they seek to evolve human and animal life to advanced forms, free from perceived weaknesses. But of course that comes with a price to people and society. Snowman and his best friend Crake spend their days in typical boy/teen pursuits, like videogames, but even these have a somewhat sinister aspect. As they grow up, their paths diverge -- Crake is more scientifically minded, and is recruited by a renowned university -- but they meet up again in their 20s, along with Oryx, a beautiful woman they have both admired for years.

Along the way, Margaret Atwood leaves tiny clues, so the reader begins to envision what will happen, and how Snowman ends up as possibly the last remaining human on earth. It's both gripping and highly disturbing. Atwood considers her work "speculative fiction," not science fiction. And Oryx and Crake has the requisite dystopian and apocalyptic elements. It's not my usual fare, but she is so good at it, I could easily imagine Snowman's world, and see the path to it from the world I know today. In writing Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood said she intended to give one answer to the question, "What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?" And frankly, her answer is bleak. It could be a wake-up call. Or we could all just continue down the road we're already on ...

Cross-posted from my blog

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Dancers Dancing by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne (Jill)

The Dancers Dancing
By Eilis Ni Dhuibhne

It's the summer of 1972, and a group of teenagers from Dublin are traveling to east Ireland for "Irish College" - a time when they are immersed in Irish language, food and culture. The Dancers Dancing is a coming of age tale for most of the characters, but it's young Orla who grows the most during this summertime adventure.

Orla and her friend, Aisling, are staying together with two older girls in a country cottage where they walk to the school house for lessons. The idea is to wholly submerge the students into Irish culture. They are not allowed to speak English, and by staying with families along the countryside, they are immersed in the pastoral lives of their fellow Irishmen and women. However, Orla is already on familiar ground. Her family is from the same village, which she tries to hide from her classmates, and Orla spends most of the summer trying to avoid her crickety aunt.

The Dancers Dancing is not a fast-paced, complex novel. It moves steadily with little dips and curves, like a river twisting through the countryside. My frustration with reading The Dancers Dancing has nothing to do with the writing or story; it's my lack of knowledge about the plights of Ireland. I didn't follow the significance of why the teens were being immersed in Irish culture, or fully understand the struggles between the Catholics and Protestants. Dhuibhne assumes her readers have an understanding of these intricacies, but sadly, I do not. Additionally, there was a lot of Irish language in the novel, with not enough context to interpret what was going on. A glossary would have been helpful for this reader.

None of this is the book's fault. I just wish I had more historical and cultural information to more fully appreciate this novel. Despite my frustration, The Dancers Dancing was an enjoyable read. Dhuibhne writes beautifully, especially about the landscape surrounding the students. Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2000, The Dancers Dancing is a light treat for fans of literary fiction. ( )

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Another Challenge--I must be crazy! Beth's first post

I have just signed on for this challenge in response to a fellow "Around the World in 52 Books" challenge member's blog post today. I'm already doing challenges related to the 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die, the Pulitzers, the Nobel Literature Picks, and my own personal challenge to read my way through the Mann and Mann Booker various winner lists. But then I learned about the Orange Prize. I'd already been checking into what it is, and then I saw Pragya's post. I read a lot (roughly 100 books a year, mostly fiction, mostly literary fiction), and my goals this year are to do 100 books, from at least 52 countries, with at least 50 from the 1001 books lists, and at least 12 from the Pulitzers and Nobel authors. Now my goal will be to do at least one of the Orange Prize books each month (although I'm going to give my self a pass for January and count the very embarrassingly small number of books I've read so far from the list. I've read NONE of the new authors winners or short list books, so I have my work cut out for me.

In the real world I'm a psychologist in private practice (though I spent 10 years in academia and may go back), married at 41 to my college sweetheart and with a very enjoyable and exhausting 4 year old daughter now to show for it.

I'll be back soon to post reviews of the books I have already read. I will also be co-posting these entries on my own blog, which is where I review all those other books I'm gobbling away at, and sometimes make other random posts related to the countries my books or their authors are from.

Swamplandia! - Wendy's Review

The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it. When I was a kid I couldn’t see any of these ridges. It was only after Swamplandia!’s fall that time folded into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. If you’re short on time, that would be the two-word version of our story: we fell. – from Swamplandia!, page 7 -

It has been a year since Hilola Bigtree died from ovarian cancer leaving behind her three children – Ava, Osceola (“Ossie”), and Kiwi – and “The Chief,” her husband. Swamplandia!, with their mother at its center, is the family business and the only life the Bigtree children have ever known. Wrestling alligators, selling “museum” trinkets, and entertaining the tourists who arrive on the ferry is what they have always done. But, now things have changed. Their mother’s loss has not only left them achingly alone, but has also left Swamplandia! without a star act. And there is a new game in town by the name of World of Darkness, a garish theme park of twisted rides inside a whale’s digestive tract and pools filled with ruby colored water. Kiwi, nearly seventeen and longing for a college education, runs away from Swamplandia! to become an employee at World of Darkness. Chief Bigtree mysteriously disappears on one of his vague “business trips,” and Ossie, just turned sixteen, seems lost in a world of ghosts and an old dredge boat. Ava, age thirteen, is left to her own devices and resolves to save Swamplandia! and her family before time runs out.

Karen Russell’s Orange Prize nominated debut novel is filled with quirky characters, rambling plot lines, and gorgeous descriptions of the Florida swamps. It is also a darkly constructed story about the individual nature of grief and loss. Each character in Swamplandia! is devastated by the loss of Hilola – a woman whose death-defying act of swimming with the alligators (called “Seths”) opens the novel. It seems that death is all around this family – from the monstrous Seths, to the World of Darkness where tourists are called “Lost Souls,” to Ossie’s flirtation with a dead teenage dredgeman, to Ava’s fantasy of visiting the Underworld and finding her mother. Each character is traveling their own path through grief.

Chief Bigtree, the dad, is oddly disconnected from the reality of his failing business. He seems unaware that his children are falling apart. His reaction to the loss of his wife can only be called denial. Perhaps Ava understands this best of all when she observes:
You could become a fossil in your lifetime, I’d discovered. I’d seen the eerie correspondence between the living Seths in our Pit and their taxidermied brothers in our museum. The Chief could achieve an ossified quality, too, with his headdress skeletally flattened against the sofa back, drunk and asleep. – from Swamplandia!, page 238 -
Kiwi flees the family, and runs from the memory of his mother whose image he keeps taped to the inside of his closet door. He leaves behind the safety of Swamplandia! and enters society where his differences stand out and he struggles to fit in with his peers. Now seventeen years old, he is no longer a child whose eyes are closed to the stark reality of his parents’ world and as he navigates through his grief, he uncovers family secrets and a rage he hardly knew existed.

Ossie escapes reality by slipping into a world of ghosts and fantasy. On the cusp of womanhood, she begins a relationship with the ghost of a dredge boat, slipping out of the house at all hours and spending her time calling up spirits with the help of a mysterious book.
She set off across the muck as briskly as a mainland woman who is late for her ferry. Her footprints filled with groundwater and as I watched a dozen tiny lakes opened between us. Rain blew in from the east while out west the sun burned through a V in the trees, bright and gluey-gold as marmalade. – from Swamplandia!, page 127 -
But is is Ava, narrator of much of the novel, who is the saddest in her grief. She believes her mother has trained her to become the next amazing alligator wrestler. Ava tries to hold her family together, and when that fails, she dreams up a way to save Swamplandia! which includes applying to compete in an alligator wrestling competition, and hand raising a rare red alligator. Ava’s memories of her mother are clear and poignant, and cloaked in a child’s reflections.
Our mother, in several beautiful ways, may have been a little crazy. For example: who dries their clothing with a hurricane coming? Like Ossie, Mom got distracted easily. It was seventy-thirty odds whether she would remember a conversation with you. Her moods could do sudden plummets, and she’d have to “take a rest” in the house, but she’d always emerge from these spells with a smile for us. Until she got sick, I can’t remember our mother ever missing a show. – from Swamplandia!, page 43 -
Swamplandia! is, at its heart, about the love that binds a family together in the face of devastating loss. The strength of the novel is in its characters who are memorable and feel very real. Russell also excels at description of the flora and fauna of the Florida swamps. Where the novel struggles is in the plot which tends to drag until the latter third of book. Russell alternates between Ava’s first person narration and Kiwi’s third person point of view – a technique which tended to break up momentum in the plot. It felt, at times, like Russell could not decide whose story she really wanted to tell. Ava’s voice is, overwhelmingly, the strongest and could have carried the novel alone.

Despite its occasional humor, Swamplandia! is a dark novel which resonates with danger. Reality is often fragile and just out of reach. Not everything is as it seems. It is this haunting quality which carries the reader through the final pages of the book to an ending that stretches believability. In fact, the end of the novel did not endear me to it. Russell quickly wraps up the book and pins a little bow on it, something I found frustrating after some plot twists which took my breath away.

I did not love this book, but I found it interesting. Russell is a talented author whose child characters pulled on my heartstrings, but whose meandering plot kept me from fulling engaging in their story.
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Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (Jayme)

Title:  A Spell of Winter
Author:  Helen Dunmore
Published:  1995, Penguin
Genre:  Gothic
Accolades:  1996 Orange Prize Winner

Isolated on their grandfather's estate after their mother abandoned them and their father is sent to a sanatorium Catherie and Rob rely on each other to navigate the secrets and loneliness of their world until their need for each other crosses boundaries and destroys all they know.

With Dunmore's haunting proses she draws the reader in this dark eerie story  as we are introduced to Catherine, a grown woman, living in one room of a decrepit estate trying to stay warm wrapped in her brother's army coat.  I was hooked immediately and could not let go.  Dunmore masterfully weaves suspense and horror as her tale twists and builds until you wonder how this story will resolve and then two thirds into it you realize that it doesn't - there lies the problem with this book.

Let me explain. I really did like this book.  The sensory details of an English winter had me reading this book wrapped in a blanket and drinking hot chocolate -  that's how atmospheric the book is - I was cold. Dunmore expertly drew me in and with each heightening twist I kept wondering how is she going to end this and I think she may have been asking herself the same question.  After the final crushing event I felt like I was reading a completely different book.  I kept thinking "Huh, what happened, this isn't how I would end it."  This book was to good for pat endings.

Is it worth reading? Absolutely, the writing is exquisite, but maybe you should stop reading in the middle of chapter 23rd that would have been a perfect, creepy ending.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson (Jenny)

Gut SymmetriesGut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson
Relation to Orange Prize: longlisted in 1997
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

While I love her writing as always, this is not my favorite Jeanette Winterson. That honor still belongs to Written on the Body or The Powerbook. It is funny because both of those books have less plot than Gut Symmetries, but I think it is some of the plot in this book that made me enjoy it less.

The story focuses on three people - Alice, a theoretical physicist, who has an affair with Jove, and then also his wife Stella. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, with the title of a tarot card, and some chapters even focus on telling the stories of the parents of the three. I think that and the unfatal cannibalism created an environment where there was too much going on to really capture the intensity of the relationship.

Still, the language is gorgeous. The quotations I've typed up are just more to demonstrate that side of it.

"I know I am a fool, trying to make connections out of scraps but how else is there to proceed? The fragmentariness of life makes coherence suspect but to babble is a different kind of treachery. Perhaps it is a vanity. Am I vain enough to assume you will understand me? No. So I go on puzzling over new joints for words...."

"I know I am a fool, hoping dirt and glory are both a kind of luminous paint; the humiliations and exaltations that light us up... I cannot assume you will understand me. It is just as likely that as I invent what I want to say, you will invent what you want to hear. Some story we must have. Stray words on crumpled paper. A weak signal into the outer space of each other. The probability of separate worlds meeting is very small. The lure of it is immense. We send starships. We fall in love."

Ah, her language! This one made me laugh, because it passes by before you realize what has been said:
"Inevitably it is not only the gastric juices that are stimulated by luxury and fresh air. What could be nicer than preprandial fellatio in a foreign tongue?"

"When we killed what we were to become what we are, what did we do with the bodies? We did what most people do; buried them under the floorboards and got used to the smell. I've lived my life as a serial killer; finish with one part, strangle it and move on to the next. Life in neat little boxes is life in neat little coffins, the dead bodies of the past laid out side by side. I am discovering, now, in the late afternoon of the day, that the dead still speak."

"I do not want to declare love on you... I would love you as a bird loves flight, as meat loves salt, as a dog loves chase, as water finds its own level. Or I would not love you at all."

"The surprise of wings was this love. We did escape gravity. If I flew too close to the sun, forgive me."

"Whatever it is that pulls the pin, that hurls you past the boundaries of your own life into a brief and total beauty, even for a moment, it is enough."

I have another unread Winterson at home that I hope to read this year, and I am eagerly anticipating her autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? that is supposed to come out in March.  She is one of my top three favorite authors of all time, and I'd recommend her to anyone!

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (Jill)

The Little Friend
By Donna Tartt

I am a sucker for books set in the American South. Stories with sweet tea and back porches feel like home. That's why I was eager to read The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Set in Mississippi, The Little Friend seemed to be the perfect book with all the right ingredients; however, by the midway point of this novel, I knew I was knee deep in a clunker.

The edition of The Little Friend that I read was more than 600 pages, and in my opinion, it could have been half that length. The beginning of the book starts out promising. Tartt introduces us to Harriet, a precocious girl who has a strong spirit. We meet her mother, sister and a gaggle of great aunts - all of whom were interesting characters. We also meet Hely (pronounced Healy), who is Harriet's best friend and partner in crime. Quickly, we see that Harriet wants to learn more about the strange and sudden death of her older brother, and she sets her sights on a local man as a possible murder suspect.

Three hundred pages later, we're no further along in the plot then we were in the first chapter. Tartt's tangents were pleasant at first, but by the middle of the book, I wanted to get on with the story.

Finally, Tartt delivers us the inevitable "stand-off," and perhaps I was exhausted or bored or impatient - but the whole ending seemed too far-fetched. After a 600-page investment, I wanted something in return. Sadly, I was disappointed.

On the plus side, though, I commend Tartt for her vivid writing style. Her sentences were beautiful, and she eloquently depicted her characters and setting. It's a shame that the beauty of her writing got lost in a tangled yarn.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2003, The Little Friend has received many accolades, so please be sure to consult other reviews. This just wasn't the book for me. ( )

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Frangipani by Celestine Vaite (Jenny)

Frangipani: A NovelFrangipani: A Novel by Célestine Hitiura Vaite
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Orange Prize: Longlisted in 2006

An enjoyable story of Tahitian culture and the conflict between mothers and daughters. I have the sense it won't stick with me for long, which is why I only gave it three stars, but I didn't have to struggle to get through it.

I really do appreciate when a novel can also describe the setting or the culture in a succinct and memorable way. All the bits and pieces about the connection to the flora, the feminine wisdom passed down, and the use of some of the less universal customs made me feel like I was learning something. The best example was the idea of marriage. In the Tahiti of Frangipani, very few couples are marrying, as traditional wisdom says you should have a child with a man to see what kind of person he really is before you'd ever consider marrying him.

Here is a great example of a description of Tahiti, which just happens to fall during a moment Materena talks to her unborn daughter:
"Materena talks about Tahiti to give her unborn baby girl a general idea of her soon-to-be home.  That place is the scorching sun at midday, the heavy and still humidity before the rain...Materena describes to her the sweet smell of flowers as they are opening up early in the morning, the aroma of coffee brewing in the kitchens, and fresh bread being baked at the baker nearby. She talks about the bright colors everywhere you look; the red and orange hibiscus edges....."
The book traces the theme of mothers and daughters throughout.  Older women often give Materena advice (sometimes requested) on how to raise Leilani.  Some examples just from the pages where she is giving birth:
"Girls hurt their mother from the day they come into the world..."
"It's more painful to push girls into the world because they don't want to be born. They resist. They know what they're in for in this world of miseries."
This was a book I enjoyed but probably wouldn't read again.

Laura's Review - Fault Lines

This multi-generational family saga explores the impact of World War II and Nazi Germany, from some very unusual angles. It's told through the eyes of four 6-year-olds, each from a different generation. The reader meets each generation through Sol, a precocious boy living in California in 2004. His father Randall works as a computer programmer, and circumstances have recently forced him to take a job with higher pay but a much longer commute. Randall has a distant relationship with his mother, Sadie, and is closer to his grandmother, Erra, a professional singer known as Kristina in her youth. Sol's section of the novel ends as the entire family arrives in Germany to visit Erra's dying sister.

From there, author Nancy Huston takes us back to 1945 one generation at a time, from Randall to Sadie to Kristina (all age 6). She peels the onion of family relationships and secrets to show how they came to North America, and the physical and emotional toll wrought by the Nazi regime. I can't say much without spoilers, but their story was not at all what I expected. Judaism and Nazi atrocities played a part, but in unusual ways. And both the family tree and the inter-generational relationships were much more intricate than they first appeared.

I found Erra/Kristina the most interesting character, perhaps because she appeared in each generation's story. She arrived on the scene first as a staunchly independent elderly woman who dearly loves her great-grandson, and is appalled at some of his parents' philosophies. She despairs over their plans to surgically remove a birthmark. Her fears seem irrational, but by the time Kristina appeared as a child, I understood the birthmark's significance and her modern-day reaction was completely understandable. Fault Lines was filled with revelations like this, that really drove home the importance of understanding the societal and familial forces that shape each generation. This was a well-written, enjoyable, and thought-provoking novel.

Cross-posted from my blog

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (Jill)

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
By Xiaolu Guo

Zhuang Xiao Qiao is a young Chinese woman whose parents send her to London for a year to perfect her English. Born to peasants who rise to wealth, Zhuang is sheltered but curious, and she journals her new words throughout her year in England. Early during her stay, she meets a man 20 years older than her, who becomes her lover, and her 'dictionary" transforms into an ode to their relationship.

The romance between Zhuang and her lover is hot and romantic at first, and she quickly learns more about English words and customs. She learns more about her lover too, and she realizes that he's a torn individual - a homosexual man who is lost in the city. Zhuang struggles to learn how she fits into his life. It would have been interesting to read chapters told from the lover's standpoint, but as it is, we get an eye- and earful from Zhuang. Zhuang's never been in love before, and it becomes apparent that her Chinese ideals are on a crash course with her Western lover.

I like how A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was structured. Each chapter begins with an English word, and Zhuang chronicles how she learns about the word's meaning in the context of her new life. Zhuang is very observant and sometimes funny. I grew tiresome, though, of Zuang's relationship and her suffocating ways with her lover. It wasn't a healthy relationship, and as the book ended, I hoped that both characters would move along in their lives.

All in all, I liked A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. It offered a interesting glimpse at the Western world through a Chinese person's eyes and shed light on Chinese culture that I wasn't aware of. If you have patience for the love affair and sexual explorations, then this book would be an enlightening read for most fans of literary fiction. ( )

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Scottsboro - Wendy's Review

Even after all these years, the injustice still stuns. Innocent boys sentenced to die, not for a crime they did not commit, but for a crime that never occurred. Lives splintered as casually as wood being hacked for kindling. Young manhood ground to ashes. – from Scottsboro, page 1 -

Ellen Feldman’s novel Scottsboro is based on the trial of the Scottsboro boys where nine black youths were accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in March of 1931. Eight of the nine were initially found guilty and sentenced to death. The case was later heard by the United States Supreme Court in 1937, and although the lives of the nine were saved, it was almost twenty years before the last defendant was freed from prison. The case has historical significance because for the first time, a mass movement of blacks and whites (led by Communists and radicals) was successfully able to beat the Jim Crow legal system.

Feldman’s fictional retelling of the story introduces the reader to a female journalist named Alice Whittier who gets assigned the story and travels from New York City to Alabama to interview the two women who made the accusation of rape: Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. Both women come from poverty and have been forced to prostitute themselves to survive. Alice feels some empathy towards Ruby, a woman who appears to feel conflicted about the lies she has told. During the actual case, Ruby testified against the boys in the first trial, then later reversed her testimony in the subsequent trials.

The novel unfolds primarily through the voice of Alice, although Feldman also gives Ruby a chance to narrate the story in some chapters. I found Ruby’s voice the more compelling of the two. She is uneducated and highly prejudiced, and yet she seems to have a social conscience. Her extreme poverty and ignorance drive her motivations early in the book. She later becomes a sympathetic character when she tries to do the right thing.
“Ruby Bates would have broken your heart,” I said. “When you see what her life has been like, you can understand why she did what she did. All she’s known is poverty and misery and deprivation.” – From Scottsboro, page 137 -
I expected to really love this novel and instead I found it oddly lacking. Perhaps it was my inability to connect with the primary narrator. Alice reveals little of herself and feels a bit cardboard as a character. At times I felt Feldman was using Alice more as a literary device to tell history, rather than a fully developed character with conflicts of her own. There were times I wished Feldman had chosen to eliminate Alice altogether and instead tell the story from the opposing points of view of Ruby and one or more of the boys.

Because this is an historical case and the outcome is known, I believe Feldman needed to give the reader something surprising or compelling to enliven the plot. Instead, I found the novel lacked adequate tension in order to keep me satisfied and involved in the lives of the characters.

Scottsboro explores the themes of racism, antisemitism, feminism and social justice. Readers who are familiar with the Scottsboro case will not find much new information within Feldman’s novel. The research is thorough and Feldman does an admirable job of laying out the case – but often the novel feels like a piece of non fiction rather than a work of fiction.

Scottsboro was short listed for the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction.
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book through Library Thing’s Early Review Program.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Larry's Party by Carol Shields (Jill)

Larry's Party
By Carol Shields

Larry's Party
is my first Carol Shields book - but it certainly won't be my last. Admittedly, I was dreading this story. I envisioned a testosterone fest - thinking the book was about a self-involved male character who was a womanizer, cheater and full of himself. I couldn't have been further from the truth. Larry Weller was likeable, fallible and beautifully rendered in the hands of the talented Carol Shields.

The book chronicles the life of Larry Weller - an ordinary man with an unusual job. Larry creates mazes, and as he gets older, his work becomes highly sought after. Along the way, Larry gets married (twice), divorced (twice), has a son, moves and has a near-fatal health event. Each chapter focuses on one aspect of Larry's life. Sometimes we learn about his first marriage; other times we learn about the relationship with his son. The final chapter culminates into Larry's Party - a dinner party where he is circled by loved ones and friends - and gets a chance to see his many blessings.

Overall, I enjoyed Larry's Party. If I had to make a complaint, it was the constant repeating of information. I wasn't sure if Shields was trying to make each chapter standalone, but the constant reintroduction of known facts about Larry's life got on my nerves. It's a small complaint, really, and certainly wouldn't prevent me from recommending Larry's Party to other readers.

I look forward to reading more by Carol Shields and am glad to have read this Orange Prize winner. It's the type of character-driven fiction I always enjoy. ( )

Laura's Review - Lullabies for Little Criminals

Baby lives with her father, Jules, a heroin addict. She doesn't remember her mother:
He and my mother had both been fifteen when I was born. She had died a year later, so he'd been left to raise me all by himself. It didn't make him any more mature than any other twenty-six-year-old, though. He practically fell on the floor and died when a song he liked came on the radio. He was always telling people that he was color-blind because he thought it made him sound original. He also didn't look too much like a parent ... I thought of him as my best friend, as if we were almost the same age. (p. 4)
Jules tries to make a living and support his habit by peddling merchandise at flea markets. To stay one step ahead of their landlord they seem to always be on the move. Baby knows how to fit her entire life into a small suitcase. Despite all these disadvantages, Baby is smart and does well in school. She seems determined to overcome the odds, but her world is turned upside down when Jules goes into rehab, and Baby into the foster care system. Over the next year, Baby moves in and out of care, is placed into a remedial program at school, and gets sucked into the unhealthy lifestyle on the streets of Montreal.

Baby narrates her story with an authentic twelve-year-old's voice, and really got on my nerves for the first half of the book. But as her personal hardships intensified, so did my sympathy, and I found myself pulling for her. She was often left on her own for days at a time, and had to grow up far too quickly. I understood why she did what she did, but wished I could influence her choices (I'm avoiding spoilers here).

Such a realistic and gritty story should have been "unputdownable." It thought it was an interesting and unique book, but had no problem setting it aside. It may have just been my mood this past week; I still recommend reading this Orange Prize nominee.

Cross-posted from my blog.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (Jayme)

Title:  The History of Love
Author:  Nicole Krauss
Published:  2005, W.W. Norton & Company
Genre:  Literary Fiction
Accolades:  2006 short list for The Orange Prize

Leo Gursky an elderly man has spent his life hiding.  First as a teenage boy hiding in the forest from the Nazis and later hiding from the memories that haunt him.  As a young man Leo fell in love with a girl named Alma and wrote a manuscript called The History of Love which he gave to her.  But the war tore Alma and Leo apart. The only thing that kept him going is the love he had for Alma who escaped to America during the war. While recovering from an illness in Poland after the war he gave his copy of The History of Love to a friend when he thought he was going to die. The friend moved to Chile and published the book under his own name while Leo went to New York to search for his lost love Alma. But Alma had married someone else when she found out that she was pregnant with Leo's child and thought Leo was dead.  That is only the beginning of the story.  What beautifully unfolds in this heart-wrenching novel is the impact that the published novel The History of Love will have on the past and present and finally on Leo himself.

The History of Love is told by two different narrators Leo and Alma a fourteen-year-old girl who was named after the real Alma in Leo's published book The History of Love 50 years later.  Alma is on a quest to find out about the real Alma and to understand the love between her recently deceased father and mother. OK, are you confused yet? There is a lot to keep track of in The History of Love, but it is well worth the effort. My  advice when reading this book is not to set it down for more than a day.  I began reading the book before the New Year holiday and than company came and I didn't get to it for almost a week. I ended up starting the book over because I had forgotten key events and people and was lost.

The History of Love is a very good book. There are extraordinary passages that will catch in your throat - the truth tends to do that:

"We met each other when we were young, before we knew enough about disappointment, and once we did we found we reminded each other of it." (page 103, the History of Love)

Couldn't you just weep?  The History of Love is not an easy read, but it is an enriching one. It will leave you wondering about how lives are interwoven and the characters will capture your heart.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Afterwards by Rachel Seiffert (Jill)

By Rachel Seiffert

I first became acquainted with Rachel Seiffert when I read her first book, The Dark Room. I was moved by her gentle narrative style, and I was eager to read her second book, Afterwards. Thankfully, Orange January gave me the opportunity to be immersed - once again - in Seiffert's writing.

Afterwards is the story of Alice, her grandfather and her boyfriend, Joseph. At the heart of the story, though, is the effect of post-traumatic stress on veterans. Alice's grandfather flew a bomber in Kenya, dropping bombs on dense forests where faceless people and animals were killed. Joseph was a British soldier who served in North Ireland and carried a deep guilt about his service. While Alice's grandfather had his wife (now deceased) to talk to, Joseph couldn't utter a word - not to Alice or anyone in his family. His silence was deafening, and Alice had to decide on living with the silence or living without Joseph.

I admire Seiffert for keeping the story real, including the ending, and touching on this important subject. The trauma of war on soldiers can't be ignored, and Seiffert does an admirable job showing that, especially with Joseph. The guilt was eating him alive, turning him into a different man. It was sad to watch his transformation as the book progressed.

Afterwards won't be for everyone. You have to become comfortable with Seiffert's writing style and presentation. Similar to Helen Humphreys, Seiffert packs a zillion punches into each word. Sparse but powerful, Afterwards is a story I won't soon forget. ( )

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (Jenny)

The Tiger's WifeThe Tiger's Wife
By Téa Obreht
Finished: January 2, 2012
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel is set in no place.  In other words, the locations are intentionally unnamed or made up throughout the novel, except that there are definite similarities to cities and landscapes of the former Yugoslavia. Obreht does this on purpose to disassociate story from place, since so much of the turmoil in that area of the world is caused by family name endings and minor differences.

The story is about two generations of doctors in a family - the grandfather and the granddaughter, and as the story starts, the grandfather has just passed away. Combined throughout is the story of his childhood, as well as hers, both living through strained peace and chaotic conflict.

Every once in a while, Obreht will step back and set the scenery for the reader. I saw one review that thought this was a misstep, but to me it was a reminder that while this is written in the present day, these places are not the same as what I as the reader know. Each place has so much history - some of the buildings and land ownership date back to medieval times, for instance. In that same spirit, there are two legends that wind throughout the story, that of the tiger's wife, and the deathless man. I loved moving back and forth between the past and present, the story and the reality.

One quotation that stood out:

"In the country's last hour, it was clear to him, as it was to me, that the cease-fire had provided the delusion of normalcy, but never peace. When your fight has purpose - to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent - it has a hope of finality.  When the fight is about unraveling - when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event - there is nothing but hate, and teh long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it."

Crossposted from Reading Envy, which also discusses music and baked goods associated with this book!

Laura's Review - Beyond Black

I have to admit this is not my usual fare: "A modern-day medium and a jaded divorceé navigate the world of psychic fairs, until a crazed spirit guide threatens to pull them over to the beyond -- a place from which they can never return." But it was written by Hilary Mantel, author of the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. And it was nominated for the Orange Prize, just like Wolf Hall. So I had high expectations, but I was ultimately disappointed and unable to finish this, my first book of 2012.

Alison is a spiritual medium, working fairs and stage shows where she brings her audience messages from those who have passed into "Spirit World." Colette, recently divorced, attends one of her shows and later becomes Alison's business partner, helping to organize her diary and the accounts. Alison is haunted by a troubled past, and by many spirits who speak to her routinely. Among these is Morris, her "spiritual guide," a presence from her childhood who is always hanging around and is, frankly, disgusting. Colette brings a sense of order to Alison's life, and working for Alison helps Colette land on her own two feet.

Weird? Yes. Intriguing? Maybe. But dreadfully slow-moving. And then Princess Diana dies, and Alison & Colette meet up with other mediums and fortune-tellers. I thought this might be interesting, but it was more of the same: lots of talk, spirits intruding and making Alison sick, Colette fretting about, and Morris being disgusting. Then Alison & Colette decide to try to get away from all this by buying a house in a new community, and that seems to take them forever. Things weren't looking good for them personally, and I figured anything that happened was going to take a long time. Like another 165 pages. I just didn't have it in me.


Cross-posted from my blog

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel (Jill)

Beyond Black
By Hilary Mantel

I have to admit: I had a hard time writing this review. How can a book be intriguing and boring at the same time? That's the state I find myself in as I put together my thoughts on Beyond Black.

In summary, Beyond Black is the tale of Alison, a psychic, and her business partner/personal assistant, Colette. Their relationship reminded me of "The Odd Couple" - you couldn't get two more different people together. Alison was a big presence - vibrant, full-figured, sweet-smelling and congenial. Colette was a drab sidekick - beige, skinny and condescending. How they ended up together is still a mystery to me, even as I finished the book.

Alison is forever tormented by spirits. Her spirit guide, Morris, is a dirty pig, often found fondling himself (thank goodness only Alison could see him). As the story progresses, Mantel reveals that Alison knew Morris before his death, which opens up the intriguing parts of the book: Alison's tortuous childhood. Bit by bit, Mantel feeds the reader information about Alison's past - what was done to her and what she did. These bite-size nuggets help propel the story; however, it was not enough. Beyond Black is mixed with so much "non-action" that it overshadowed the compelling stuff.

Parts of Beyond Black were darn funny (my favorite scene was Princess Diana talking to Alison), but the most of it was too dark for my taste. The pace of Beyond Black was uneven, and I think it could have been tightened by a good 100 pages. But we all know that Mantel can write - and I look forward to reading my next Mantel selection, The Giant, O'Brien, very soon. ( )

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Jenny)

Case HistoriesCase Histories
By Kate Atkinson

Completed January 1, 2012

Case Histories details three cases (from the GoodReads summary):

Case One: Olivia Land, youngest and most beloved of the Land girls, goes missing in the night and is never seen again. Thirty years later, two of her surviving sisters unearth a shocking clue to Olivia's disappearance among the clutter of their childhood home. . . 

Case Two: Theo delights in his daughter Laura's wit, effortless beauty, and selfless love. But her first day as an associate in his law firm is also the day when Theo's world turns upside down. . . 

Case Three: Michelle looks around one day and finds herself trapped in a hell of her own making. A very needy baby and a very demanding husband make her every waking moment a reminder that somewhere, somehow, she'd made a grave mistake and would spend the rest of her life paying for it--until a fit of rage creates a grisly, bloody escape. 

All three cases are linked to Detective Jackson Brodie throughout the book, but his presence isn't dominant within the text like a detective's story would usually be. In fact, he doesn't do his job in front of us all of the time. Clues are sometimes presented and the reader is left to make the necessary assumptions. "Oh, that means that X, and he must have X." He usually has done these things, but he never is described as doing them.  Since the author did not necessarily consider this book to be in the mystery genre (according to an interview with her in the back of the book), the reader should not be surprised that the form of the book does not follow mystery novel conventions such as case details being articulated, or conclusions drawn. 

The action is often happening "off stage," to an extent where I'm wondering what was in the novel I actually read! It actually manages to focus on two of the Land sisters and the conflict between the two of their personalities, and on the huffing puffing overweight retired lawyer, Theo. These are two of the three families who lost family members to murder, so while the cold cases are being investigated by Brodie, that isn't the story as much as the people making up the majority of this novel. It is an interesting angle. Atkinson has gone on to write more Jackson Brodie novels, so this successful volume becomes the first in a series.