Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

American Chinese Olivia Laguni finds out she has an older Chinese half sister, Kwan Li, after her father’s death bed confession to her mother.  From initially being excited about the prospect of having a sister the six year olds excitement soon evaporates and turns into embarrassment and resentment of her mangled English speaking sister. This embarrassment is compounded by Kwan’s belief that she can see and talk to dead people in the World of Yin. Interwoven with Olivia’s story of her life in San Francisco are the stories told by Kwan of her former life in China.
The sisters are the narrators, with Olivia being the primary one. The main body of the novel has Olivia relating her life in San Francisco between the 1960s and the 1990s. As Olivia grows up she continues to be embarrassed by her half sister Kwan who is twelve years older than Olivia. Kwan’s broken English and her lack of knowledge of American ways creates a climate of bullying and teasing for Olivia as other children perceive Kwan to be a ‘retard’. This childhood trauma and subsequent dislike and resentment of Kwan bleeds through to Olivia’s adulthood and is exacerbated by Kwan’s interference in Olivia’s relationship with her partner Simon.
Kwan, however, unreservedly loves her little sister even when it transpires that because of Olivia, Kwan is sent to a mental hospital due to her belief that she can see dead people.
During Olivia’s childhood Kwan tells her ‘ghost stories’. Stories of the dead people she sees. These stories continue into adulthood and in addition Kwan recounts stories of her past lives.
Convolutedly, Kwan, Olivia and Simon visit China and in particular where Kwan grew up.
The author of bestseller The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan, has crafted an ornate, chiaroscuro like piece of work with The Hundred Secret Senses. The novel is about America and China, life and death, cultural incongruities and the difficulty of filial devotion to one’s siblings.
However, fundamentally the novel is about relationships; the relationship between married couples, siblings, parents and their children and the most difficult relationship we all face, between the living and the dead. Amy Tan handles all these issues with adroit aplomb.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Spinsters by Pagan Kennedy

It is 1968 the day after Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated, Dora and Frannie’s father, passes away after a long illness. Shortly after, the sisters receive an invitation from their Aunt Katherine to live with her.
Living with their Aunt and her black maid Letty proves unfulfilling to the sisters. They decide to visit other relatives and this ultimately results in a road trip through America’s Southern states.
As is evident from my above rating this novella (its word count is only some 63000 words) is not something I could easily recommend.
It is an agreeable and easy read but this only damns the novella with faint praise. I found the book lacking in subtlety and depth. The motifs, allusions and symbols are writ large. The pacifist Martin Luther King Jr is killed while the next day the World War II conscientious objector father of Dora and Frannie dies. America is going through huge changes and turmoil; the Vietnam War, the anti war riots, the race riots, women’s liberation. These changes will irrevocably alter the country, politically, socially and culturally. America’s Baby Boomers were attempting to rip the country from the hands of the pre World War II old guard and pull the country into a modern world. These events are mirrored, in a smaller way of course, in the lives of the sisters. Dora is outgoing, sexually active, gregarious and believes in a brighter future. Frannie on the other hand is old fashioned, strait laced and clings to the past and its apparent certitude.
They drive through Texas but decide not to stop in this particular state due to the oppressive heat. Of course, even five years on the sound of bullets can still be heard reverberating around the Lone Star state.
The conclusions to the all the story threads that weave through the book are foreseeable and rather too neat for a book that uses the America in the 1960s as its backdrop. The Vietnam War raged on for another four years. Nixon became President in 1969 and his Waterloo was still four years away. The times were a changin’ but the old guard still had a grip on the political rudder.
If one was to read The Spinsters as anything other than an allegorical novel then one could find it enjoyable. The author Pagan Kennedy does have an elegant, clear writing style that throws up some wonderful images, a ‘saleslady whose hair was stiff as seven minute icing’.
Dora and Frannie’s feelings of entrapment, loneliness and isolation while caring for their father will resonant with many people in an age where one in four people in the UK care for an elderly parent. The handling of this particular issue is what earned the novella its half a mark.

No’ of pages - 158
Sex scenes – none (there is some mild sexual references)
Profanity – none

Genre - drama

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This fin de si├Ęcle, first person, novel, is at its Austenesque heart a story of decay, hope and incestuous love.
Cathy lives in a large run down country house with her Grandfather, known locally as ‘the man from nowhere’. As Cathy looks back on past events in her life we encounter past inhabitants of the house; her brother Rob, the Irish housekeeper Kate, the mysterious Eileen and numerous servants employed from the local village.
Cathy and Rob’s mother, who was a baby when she arrived with Cathy’s grandfather at the country house, left when Cathy and Rob were very young. Their father has also ‘abandoned’ them due to his mental illness and is being treated at a sanatorium. Their grandfather has retreated into his study from which he very rarely emerges and so Rob and Cathy are largely left to their own devices apart from the able assistance and love of their housekeeper and friend, Kate.  
Secrets and lies are cemented into the very brickwork and foundation of the house and its real and metaphysical decay begins to expose those two fragile elements to householders and visitors alike. These two sides of the same coin seep and bleed through the novel and their exposure is being hurried by the likes of Ms Eunice Gallagher, Cathy and Rob’s former tutor and governess.
This 1996 winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction is like the curate’s egg, excellent in parts. Helen Dunmore’s characters are wonderfully written. As you read through the novel it feels like each line is creating the skin and bone and organs of each character while each chapter is pumping blood through their perfectly, forming bodies. By the end of A Spell of Winter, one feels that one has not only read about the characters but has actually met them.
At times the novel does read like it is part of the Austen oeuvre. Being a lover of all things Austen, this is not a bad thing and may have been the author’s intention. One cannot read of the character Mr George Bullivant without thinking of the first line of Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. Mr Bullivant reminded me Mr Charles Bingley from the same novel, good natured, well mannered, kind and wealthy. His name is well chosen as it means, the good, faithful man. In fact Mr Bullivant is given one of the best lines of dialogue, ‘Thinking of people when they’re not there, it’s one of life’s great pleasures, isn’t it’.
The first line of the prologue, ‘I saw an arm fall off a man once’, sets out a major theme within the novel, decay. Decay of not only the grandfather’s house but of his mind and that of his sons. Decay in inhibitions and ultimately the morals of the two main characters, Cathy and her brother Rob.
The book’s title, A Spell of Winter, Cathy’s favourite time of the year, implies decay. And it is in that winter that Cathy can hide, physically and mentally, within its long hours of darkness.
There are times when the dialogue does not do justice to the rest of the novel. At times it reads like something from a sub romantic Barbara Cartland novel as this exchange between Mr Bullivant and Cathy attests to;
‘You’re cold,’ he said, noticing my shiver, ‘We’ll go into the house.’
‘No, I’m not cold. I like it here.’
‘You like the snow, don’t you? It suits you.’
‘I always think of you outside, in the woods or in the garden.’ said Mr Bullivant.
‘Do you?’
‘Yes, why do you sound so surprised?’
The novel’s incestuous story line could be considered a brave and bold move on the author’s part or simply a contrivance to generate publicity through tabloid moral outrage. Personally, I believe the former reason. Rightly or wrongly I wondered if this was the kind of book I should be reading and enjoying but I also had the same thoughts when reading Nabakov’s Lolita. 
Do I recommend this book? Yes I do. Did it deserve to win to win the 1996 Orange Prize for Fiction? Too early to say as I have yet to read four of the six books that were nominated. But of the two books that I have read from the shortlist, The Spell of Winter and Julia Blackburn's The Book of Colour, Helen Dunmore's is my favourite.

No’ of pages – 313
Profanity – none
Sex scenes – 1 (there are also some mild sexual references)
Genre – Drama/Romance

Originally posted at

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Book of Colour by Julia Blackburn

Julia Blackburn has written a biography or a memoir if you will about the paternal side of her family that goes back as far as her great grandfather. But this is not a conventional, genealogically straight-forward biography. The author swoops in and out of her father and grand-father’s lives through dreams and nightmares, mentally visiting rooms within a large ethereal house each connected by long white corridors. In each room she encounters a place in time inhabited by her ancestors. The author becomes a part of her ancestor’s lives as if by some form of bilocation.
While in this fantastical state of bilocation she interacts most often with her grandfather (whose name we are never privy to), the dark-skinned son of a white missionary and his son, Eliel, the author’s father.  On the island of Praslin, one of the smaller islands of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the white missionary is busy trying to stamp out copulation while simultaneously trying to deny the colour of his own act of copulation. The Missionary’s dark-skinned wife is cursed by a witchdoctor and she and her son flee to the island of Mauritius to try and hide or outrun the witchdoctor’s curse. Julia Blackburn’s father arrives In England aged eighteen having been trained as an Anglican Priest on Mauritius but the curse appears to have followed him over the ocean.
The book is not an easy read. The subject matter is unsettling; racism, self loathing and mental illness, and the writing style has a surreal texture to it. However, if you want an easy read there are plenty of celebrity biographies out there to satiate your appetite.
The book is laid out in a series of short chapters with an average of five pages per chapter. It is said that we have an average of six dreams per night within an eight hour sleep. The short chapters reflect that dream state. They allow the reader to end the dream or nightmare with the close of a chapter. The short chapters allow you reflect and cogitate what you have just read before moving on to the next chapter/dream.
As with any surreal style of art, symbolism features rather heavily. There is a lot of looking out of windows, standing at windows, looking at one’s reflection in windows. There is a barely a chapter that does not mention the act of shaking; the Grandfather shakes, the grandfather’s friend shakes uncontrollably, the author’s father shakes and trembles at various times through the book, Uncle Julius the missionary’s brother shakes Eliel by the shoulders when greeting him and zombies shake themselves free from the ground.
This prevalent image of shaking is not simply a symbol of the fear that the every character in the book feels quite palpably but is symbolic of one of the thematic motifs that run through the book, a curse. The grandfather states that curses are “very hard to shake off”. The curse placed on the author’s grandmother appears to follow the family down through the generations culminating in the Eliel’s mental illness in his fifties.
Here is Ms Blackburn’s strength. Her ability through her rich, layered unpretentious writing has the twenty first century reader believing in witchdoctor curses by the end of the book. Like the curse, racist attitudes rear their ugly head throughout the book. But thankfully the author never lectures or gives an opinion on said racist attitudes. She simply lays out the truth of the matter and allows the reader to find their own feelings regarding this issue. This is rendered in a beautifully, understated passage that has Eliel being handed a book by his new teacher Mr Swann. In the book are the names of local families that are black but like to be thought of as white.
This is the first book review and I have been lucky in finding such a wonderful book to kick off my blog.
Julia Blackburn’s seemingly effortless style is at times beguiling and thought provoking. In the wrong hands The Book of Colour could have quite easily have became polemical and sentimental. The author has allowed the reader a peek into her ancestor’s lives and I believe it is just that, a peek. One can assume that there is so much more behind Julia Blackburn’s biographical curtains.
My only criticism is that the reader is left wondering what became of some of the people within the book; Eliel’s mother who suffered because of mental illness, Evalina Larose, relative or servant, and most importantly Eliel’s father who stayed behind on the island of Praslin. I have so many questions but so few answers. However, it may well be that the author does not have all the answers. It is a small criticism over-shadowed by my admiration and recommendation.

Opening Line - "It was once thought that when your house had been visited by the plague, then it was a good idea to shut a pig in the infected rooms and leave it there for a day and a night".

Memorable Line - "He looks so small and fragile lying there and as I watch I see him fading before my eyes; his body becomes colourless and transparent, the walls of the house around him are as thin as lace curtains."

No' of pages - 180

Profanity - None
Sex Scenes - None
Genre - Biography/Memoir

Christopher's Introduction and Progress List

In a previous life I was an Ecological Scientist but for the past seven years I have been my disabled mum's full time carer. I have always been a big reader especially of women's novels. My favourite novelist being Virginia Woolf.
I recently started to write a blog about the Women's Prize for Fiction. To be more exact, I am reading and writing on all the shortlisted books since the prize began in 1996.
To stop my brain turning to mush I started a English Literature degree through the Open University. I have also started to write short stories and poems.

Below are the books I have read so far.

Julia Blackburn - The Book of Colour 1996
Helen Dunmore -  A Spell of Winter 1996
Pagan Kennedy - Spinsters 1996
Amy Tan - A Hundred Secret Senses 1996
Marianne Wiggins - Eveless Eden. 1996

I have almost finished Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years 1996

Looking forward to many enjoyable hours on this website.