Friday, March 30, 2012

Tides of War by Stella Tillyard (Jill)

Tides of War
By Stella Tillyard

Tides of War
is the first fictional book by historian Stella Tillyard. Told from a multitude of viewpoints, this book focuses on the battlefront and home front of the Peninsular War during the early 1800's.

Tillyard mixes a cast of fictional and real-life characters to tell her story. The novel opens shortly before the British Army sends their forces to Spain to battle Napoleon's invading armies. Captain James Raven is newly married to Harriet, and this campaign will be a test to their young marriage. Meanwhile, General Wellington sees this as the opportunity of a lifetime - a chance to emerge as one of the best British generals of all time. His wife, Kitty, is no weeping Army wife. In fact, she is glad to be rid of her husband and his philandering ways.

As you would expect from a historian, the story was very much a lesson in history. Tillyard examines all aspects and effects of the war, from military battles to the financial nuisances of supporting a war chest. The Peninsular War, though taught to me years ago, were unfamiliar reading ground, and I enjoyed learning through Tillyard's research.

Can historians write good fiction? I think so, but it takes some practice. And practice is what I think Tillyard needs to be a great writer of historical fiction. Tides of War had too many side stories and themes. Here are just a few:

  • The military aspects of the Peninsular War

  • The social effects of war on the home front

  • The strife between democratic government and monarchies

  • Women's rights during early 19th century England

  • Marriage and adultery

  • Industrial effects on the worker

  • The rise of credit in international finance

  • The invention of gas-powered street lamps

  • The investigation of the medical use of blood transfusions

  • The art of Francisco Goya
Too much! To achieve all these themes, Tillyard invented a cast of dozens and devised t00 many subplots. I hope in her next book she can simplify her storytelling.

Tides of War, overall, was an interesting read if you love historical fiction. Long listed for this year's Orange Prize, I tip my hat to Stella Tillyard, the historian, and hope she continues to refine her craft as a fictional writer. ( )

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (Jill)

Gillespie and I
By Jane Harris

Oh Jane Harris - you masterful storyteller. You captivated me with your debut novel, The Observations, to the point that I could barely wait to read your sophomore effort, Gillespie and I. I worried that you couldn't "do it again" - but as I delved into your new book, my worries quickly vanished. Oh yes, you did it again. And marvelously so.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot because I don't want to spoil one thing for future readers. In a quick summary, the story is about Harriet Baxter, a middle-aged, unmarried English woman who takes up residence in Scotland during the 1888 International Exhibition. There, she befriends the artist, Ned Gillespie, and his family: his wife, Annie; Ned's mother, Elpsbeth; and Ned and Annie's children, Sibyl and Rose. As the story progresses, a terrible tragedy strikes the Gillespie family, and Harriet is thrust into the brink of it.

As we learn about Harriet's life in 1888, Harris mixes in Harriet's narrative as an older woman, living in 1933 London. Harriet is writing her memoir but vexed by her live-in companion, Sarah. Why is Sarah so quiet? Why does she not talk about her past? Why does she dress head to toe in Victorian clothing when the styles are much more liberal?

Gillespie and I is a book much like a roller coaster. The first half is full of foreshadowing, with small twists and turns that seem insignificant as you read them. Then, at the end of the first half, the story seems to stall a bit, but I liken it to the "scenic part" of the roller coaster ride - when you're up high and can enjoy the view before being plunged down at break-neck speeds. And the second half of the book is the downward plunge, and you're left holding on, turning each page, almost not believing what you're reading. When the book is over, just like a good roller coaster, you get off and contemplate going for another ride. You want to relive the whole experience and discover things you missed on the first ride.

I've said enough - go get your copy of Gillespie and I and prepare for a literary ride that will leave you breathless, contemplative and thoroughly pleased. ( )

Monday, March 19, 2012

We Have a New Button!

Thanks to everyone who stopped by and voted on the new button for this project. The race was tight, but eventually a clear winner emerged. Please feel free to use this button on your blogs and elsewhere with a link back to this blog:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

New Graphic Anyone?

We've had the same graphic here on The Orange Prize Project since its inception. And today I was thinking maybe it was time for a change. I would love your input! Please vote in the survey below. I'll close the voting in one week and the majority rules!

**If for some reason you are unable to see the embedded survey, please use this link to vote: Click here to take survey

Friday, March 9, 2012

State of Wonder - Wendy's Review

She knew the story of Orpheus, but it wasn’t until the singing began that she realized it was the story of her life. She was Orfeo, and there was no question that Anders was Euridice, dead from a snake bite. Marina had been sent to hell to bring him back. – from State of Wonder, page 124 -

Dr. Marina Singh has turned away from her chosen field of obstetrics after a terrible tragedy, and immersed herself in the safe world of research science with a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company. She carries on a clandestine affair with her boss, Mr. Fox, a man much older than she whose first priority is the financial health of the company. So when the news that Marina’s co-worker, Anders, has apparently perished in the wilds of the Amazon while on a fact-finding mission, the last thing Marina expects is to find herself on a plane to the jungle. Marina is tasked with tracking down the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, a former professor of Marina’s, who is being funded to manufacture a fertility drug. Dr. Swenson has spent years in the Amazon jungle, living with the Lakashi tribe, a group of natives who are exceptionally fertile well past menopause. But, Dr. Swenson answers to no one but herself. Well into her seventies and with a ruthless lack of emotion, Dr. Swenson is incomprehensible and fearless. And Marina is terrified of the woman.
It strikes Marina as odd that all these years later she still remembers Dr. Swenson in the lecture hall. In her mind’s eye she never sees her in surgery or on the floor making rounds, but at a safe, physical distance. – from State of Wonder, page 11 -
State of Wonder begins slowly, but gains momentum as Marina enters the feral world of Dr. Swenson. Plunged into the jungle with its venomous snakes, biting insects, unrelenting heat, and a culture foreign to her, Marina is forced to face her past and re-think her future. She has nightmares of losing her father, and begins to question her relationship with Mr. Fox. She struggles to reconcile the mistakes of her past, and wonders about her own capacity to be a mother.

Ann Patchett’s writing draws the reader fully into the world of the Amazon where morality and ethics have been abandoned by a team of scientists who are determined to make scientific breakthroughs at all costs. Thematically the book takes a look at the divide between cultures, the interference of others in the lives of native populations, and the harm that is often done in the quest for knowledge. Easter, a native boy who Dr. Swenson appears to have adopted, becomes symbolic of innocence lost in the face of “civilizing” native cultures. Easter, the most sympathetic of the characters, is also the most tragic.

Patchett’s novel also asks the question: How old is too old to become a parent? Although on its surface, there is a strong theme centering around motherhood, I was most moved by the examination of the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Fathers in State of Wonder have either abandoned their families (through death or choice) or are simply non-existent. Dr. Swenson’s opinion is that fathers are inconsequential, not to be considered. In this sense, the novel takes a modern look at the role of fathers in the lives of their children.

Patchett writes with authority and a beauty which belies the darkness in State of Wonder. There are lovely passages and breathtaking descriptions. When Marina attends an opera in the city of Manaus, a depressing place full of squalor and heat and sudden downpours, the reader finds herself slipping beneath the skin of the character through the magnificent prose of the author:
Suddenly every insect in Manaus was forgotten. The chicken heads that cluttered the tables in the market place and the starving dogs that waited in the hopes that one might fall were forgotten. The children with fans that waved the flies away from the baskets of fish were forgotten even as she knew she was not supposed to forget the children. She longed to forget them. She managed to forget the smells, the traffic, the sticky pools of blood. The doors sealed them in with the music and sealed the world out and suddenly it was clear that building an opera house was a basic act of human survival. It kept them all from rotting in the unendurable heat. It saved their souls in ways those murdering Christian missionaries could never have envisioned. – from State of Wonder, page 123 -
Despite my overall favorable view of the novel, it is not without its weaknesses. The end of the book felt contrived to me and Marina’s decisions as the novel wound down felt out of character. I wish that Patchett had not wrapped things up so neatly, nor chosen to burden her main character with a cliched choice that demeaned her.  Had it not been for this disappointing finish, I would have rated State of Wonder much higher.

That said, this is a novel that I can recommend if only for its tension, setting, and Patchett’s alluring prose. Readers who enjoy literary fiction and want to be transported to the Amazon, will want to read State of Wonder. This is an excellent book for a book club read because of its multiple themes and moral questions.
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The Night Circus - Wendy's Review

Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. – from The Night Circus, page 381 -

The circus arrives without warning.” This is the first sentence of Erin Morgenstern’s enchanting debut novel, The Night Circus. It sets the tone for a story of magic, love, and imagination. Celia arrives at her father’s home unexpectedly as a young child in the late nineteenth century, and is immediately put into training to become an illusionist. Her father is himself one of the most renowned illusionists in the world, but he is also a dark and menacing man with a penchant for cruelty. One day a mysterious man in a gray suit arrives and a deal is struck – there will be a competition between Celia and a player of the man’s choice, a game of sorts which will leave one person left standing.

Marco is a young boy, an orphan, but he seems to have what it takes to learn the art of illusion, and he becomes Celia’s opponent. Both Celia and Marco are unaware of each other as they are drawn into a circus like no other. The circus travels the world, suddenly appearing and opening its doors from dusk to dawn with its striped tents and unusual and remarkable acts which include fabulous illusions, a contortionist with a mysterious past, and red-headed twins who can see the past and the future. The circus delights those who visit it and attracts a group of people obsessed with following it around the world. As the game unfolds and the players become more defined, Marco and Celia discover something even more magical than the illusions they have been trained to create: love.

The Night Circus is a feast for the senses, conjuring up beautiful scenes and luscious scents. It twists and turns and leaves the reader wondering what is real and what is illusion? Morgenstern shifts the narrative back and forth in time, a technique which adds to the unsettled feel of the novel. I will admit that this time shifting felt confusing to me at first. But eventually, I stopped paying attention to the dates, and simply allowed the story to sweep me forward…and it was when I did this that the novel captured me.

The Night Circus is a wonderful feat of storytelling. It is perhaps this idea of story which resonated the most with me. Stories transport us to places we can only imagine. They have the power to move us emotionally. Sometimes they open a door to a place within us that we had not known existed. And that is what The Night Circus is all about. Morgenstern describes all her stories as being “fairy tales in one way or the other,” and I think that is an apt description of this novel. There is evil versus good, magic, enchantment, and a slip away from reality which is mesmerizing.

As I read this novel, I began to envision Morgenstern’s world of a mysterious circus. This novel would make a tremendous movie.

The book is not without its faults – a lack of depth to the characters, a confusing time shift in the narrative, a plot which is sometimes hard to grasp…but despite these faults, I found myself loving The Night Circus for its originality, allure and spellbinding imagery.

Morgenstern is a young writer with a unique and talented voice. I will be looking forward to her future work with great anticipation. Readers who love the thrall of a story, who wish to be swept up in a world of magic and illusion, and who delight in novels where imagery takes center stage, will want to pick up a copy of this book.

Highly recommended.
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Half-Blood Blues - Wendy's Review

Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines. – from Half-Blood Blues -

Hieronymus Falk, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones are part of a jazz group living in Germany during 1939. It is a dangerous time for blacks in a country where Hitler’s reach is great. They are banned from playing their music, and then an altercation occurs which puts their lives in danger. The group flees to Paris and moves in with the beautiful and sultry American singer, Delilah. But war is coming to France as well, and before long jealousy and betrayal coupled with the uncertainty of war leave the group at odds. One morning when Hiero and Sid go out for milk, Hiero is arrested while Sid looks on, and the young and talented jazz musician disappears. Years later, in 1992, Sid and Chip return to Berlin to celebrate the life of Hiero whose early music has been resurrected. Old rivalries and forgotten history resurface as Sid must come to terms with what really happened in Paris so many years ago.

Esi Edugyan’s Booker nominated novel, Half-Blood Blues, is historical fiction which centers around the world of jazz during the years of World War II. Narrated by Sid in a rich dialect of American slang, it moves back and forth from 1939 to 1992, gradually uncovering the complex and conflicting relationships of the characters. Sid and Chip have an uneasy yet lasting friendship which is marred by the day Hiero disappeared. The dialogue between the men is one of mockery and jesting, and is filled with slang which was, at first, a bit distracting for me. The narrative is a reconstruction of a period in time, filled with musical references which evoke a sense of place.

Delilah is the spark which ignites the tension in the novel – a beautiful woman with a seductive personality who has the power to divide loyalties. Edugyan is quite skilled at character development, giving readers a deep look into the lives of her conflicted characters through the unreliable narration of Sid.

Edugyan tackles the themes of racism, antisemitism, betrayal, and love against the backdrop of the Jazz era in Germany. She is adept at conveying a sense of place through gorgeous descriptive phrasing. As Sid and Chip travel to Poland in 1992 in search of Hiero, they climb aboard a bus “yellow as a toilet inside, the seats foamless and reeking of old piss.
No sooner had we sat down than the driver got out, banged shut all the baggage doors, and come back on board glowering. He yelled some words in Polish, but no one seemed to pay no attention. Then he sat down, pulled out some levers, started the old engine with a roar, snapped his dusty window open. The brakes groaned, the axles hissing under us like asps. And then there was a sound like an enormous pressure releasing, and that huge rusted bus started shuddering on its big tires, rolling slowly out into the dead road. – from Half-Blood Blues -
Despite its strengths, the novel is not without its faults. I found the pacing very slow in spots – surprisingly during the part of the book set in 1939 which I thought would have been the most intriguing. Instead, I found myself most enjoying the narrative with Sid and Chip as old men. Although there is supposed to be some mystery to what exactly happened in Paris and with Hiero, I found the tension in the plot to be a bit underwhelming. The use of dialect in the novel is both a strength and a weakness. Early on, I struggled to stay in the story, battling the unfamiliar jargon and slang. Later, I recognized this vernacular as an effective device to understand the characters better. Still, I think the use of language in the book may be difficult for some readers.

There is no doubt that Edugyan can write. Half-Blood Blues is a laudable and quite literary effort that is really about relationships and human flaws. Edugyan uses a volatile time in history as a backdrop to her characters which will appeal to readers of historical fiction who also appreciate literary fiction.
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Tides of War - Wendy's Review

Dorothy Yallop pressed her shawl and set the iron down flat on the hearth. Behind her through the window the River Waveney spilled out into the meadows and caught the last of the light from the bleached winter sky. A rising breeze moved through the naked willow branches; snow was on the way from the west. In the darkness the current of war came upriver on the evening tide, pushed unnoticed into every rivulet and stream, and seeped into the frosted ground. – From Tides of War, page 12 -

The year is 1812, the place England. The unconventional and personable Harriet Raven is about to say good-bye to her new husband, James, as he leaves for the Peninsular War as part of the Duke of Wellington’s troops in Spain. Thus begins a new chapter in Harriet’s life – that of the wife left behind while her husband fights battles on foreign soil.

Stella Tillyard’s debut novel is sprawling and filled with characters both historical and fictional. Harriet takes center stage in London and is joined by the Duke of Wellington’s savvy and independent wife, Kitty, along with the ever loyal Dorothy Yallop. While Dorothy waits patiently for the return of her husband, Kitty begins to invest her money through a questionable source, and Harriet becomes enamored with Frederick Winsor who is bringing light to London through his newly conceived Gas  Light and Coke Company.

Meanwhile, a bloody war is unfolding in Spain where James Raven, Dr. David McBride, Major George Yallop, Robert Heaton, and the unfaithful Arthur Wellesley (Lord Wellington) wrestle with their own demons and temptations.

The novel moves back and forth from Spain to London and spans the years 1812-1814. Narrated in multiple points of view, it portrays the struggles and strengths of the women who carried on their daily lives in London, as well as the brutal horror of war in Spain – including obscene war crimes, horrible injuries and sexual transgressions. Tillyard’s strength is her ability to bring to life the effects of war, especially for those men who peopled the battlefields.
[...] here in Spain, and in the army, all our pasts drop away from us. Stand in line though we do, the ranks invisibly rearrange themselves so that the ribbons of standing and wealth that tied us together at home fall away. – from Tides of War, page 127 -
Tillyard also illuminates the challenges women faced in the early part of the nineteenth century – their dependence on men, their lack of freedoms, their rather uneventful lives – and demonstrates the unusual freedoms which war brought to them. Not only were most women not allowed to have their own money, but they were also held to a high standard of loyalty…which their husbands were not.
It was not what he had done in Spain. That was to be expected. It was what Harriet had done, her betrayal of her marriage vow. – from Tides of War, page 314 -
Tillyard writes with authority, deftly handling the changes in point of view, and moving the narrative forward. Tides of War has a huge cast of characters and assumes some knowledge of the historical time period. Because of this, I found myself having to reference the character list at the back of the book, and even research some of the history of the time. Despite a slow start, the novel pulled me in and had captivated me by the midpoint.

Readers of historical fiction and those who appreciate a narrative which includes dozens of characters and introduces multiple viewpoints, will enjoy Tides of War.
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Announcing the 2012 Long List

Yesterday the Orange Prize judges announced the long list for 2012 which coincided with International Women's Day 2012. Which of these do you think will make the short list? And which do you think will win?

  • Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg (Quercus) - Swedish; 1st Novel
  • On the Floor by Aifric Campbell (Serpent's Tail) - Irish; 3rd Novel
  • The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen (The Clerkenwell Press) - American; 4th Novel
  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue (Picador) - Irish; 7th Novel
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent's Tail) - Canadian; 2nd Novel
  • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape) - Irish; 5th Novel
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki (Headline Review) - British; 5th Novel
  • Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (Quercus) - American; 4th Novel
  • Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury) - British; 3rd Novel
  • Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (Faber & Faber) - British; 2nd Novel
  • The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) - British; 2nd Novel
  • The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy (Jonathan Cape) - British; 6th Novel
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Harvill Secker) - American; 1st 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
  • There but for the by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) - British; 5th Novel
  • The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard (Alma Books) - British; 2nd Novel
  • Tides of War by Stella Tillyard (Chatto & Windus) - British; 1st Novel
  • The Submission by Amy Waldman (William Heinemann) - American; 1st Novel
Have you read any of these yet? If so, please share your thoughts!