Saturday, December 31, 2011

Introduction and Plans for Orange January (Jenny)

Hi everyone! My name is Jenny and I have a blog called Reading Envy.  I enjoy nothing more than trying to read every book on a list - I annually read the nominees for the Booker, the National Book Award, the Hugo, and the Nebula, and have tried a few others here and there.  I thought it was only fitting that I started out my activity here by saying hello and posting a list!  This is a list of the books I plan to read in January 2012 for the challenge.

The first four are serving cross-purposes, as I'm also involved in a year-long Around the World reading challenge.  When I compared the lists, many were on the Orange Prize lists, so it was easy to put those first in line.  The other books I will list are books that qualify that are sitting around at home, just begging to be read.  Maybe this will help me knock off a few books from my to-read shelf!
  • The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
  • Frangipani by Celestine Hitiura Vaite
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
  • Brick Lane by Monica Ali
  • American Life by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson
This might be too ambitious, but that's how I'm going to start out!

As I went through the lists, I discovered that I have actually read quite a few of the Orange Prize nominees in the past few years.  Without hesitation I can say the favorite that I've read is The Powerbook by Jeanette Winterson, and you can see the others here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Homestead by Rosina Lippi (Jill)

By Rosina Lippi
Completed December 9, 2011

Have you ever selected a book with a good feeling you're going to love it? The story premise sounds interesting, other readers write glowing reviews - even the book cover grabs your interest. Then when you finish the book, you're so excited that you actually loved the book, just like you thought you would? That's exactly how it went for me with my latest book, Homestead by Rosina Lippi.

Homestead is a collection of tales told from the perspective of different women who live in a remote Austrian village from 1909-1977. To help tie their stories together, Lippi provides clan family trees at the beginning of the book. As you're introduced to each woman's chapter, you see her name and clan affiliation, which helps you understand her connection with the other characters in the story. While a woman may be featured in her chapter, she'll appear in other chapters as well. It was a great way to build up different perspectives on the same people.

The women's stories individually are moving, but when taken as a whole, create a fabulous book. Themes of love, loss, deception, greed, farming and raising family all permeate the narratives. The themes are universal, but it's the way Lippi fuses in the Austrian dialect and customs that make Homestead a unique historical read.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2001, Homestead is exactly why I advocate this award. Without its Orange Prize distinction, I may not have found Homestead, which would have been my loss. I hope other readers who enjoy provocative fiction will consider reading this exquisite book. I can't recommend it enough. ( )

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lottery by Patricia Wood (Jill)

By Patricia Wood
Completed December 7, 2011

Perry L. Crandall is not retarded. He'll tell you this several times as he narrates Lottery. But he is several things: wise beyond his years, kind, compassionate and darn right likeable. And he makes Patricia Wood's debut novel a joy to read.

Perry lives with his Gram, works at the local marina and studies words every day. Sadly, when his grandmother dies, he's left to deal with his family - a pack of vultures that pick apart Perry's meager inheritance and send him on his way. Thankfully, Perry also has good friends at work, who take him under their wings and give him a place to stay. Perry is good with money and likes to play the lottery. And then the unthinkable happens - he wins millions from the state lottery. And here come the vultures (aka brothers and sisters-in-law) again.

As you learn about Perry's plight with his family, you just want to call a lawyer for him. But as you read the story, you realize that Perry can handle this. And he does - beautifully. While he deals with his crazy family, he forms a truer bond with his friends. He's generous when he needs to be and lucrative in other places. Perry calls himself an "auditor" - a person who listens to the world around him. And because he listens a lot, he understands what people want and need.

Lottery is a true blue, heart-warming novel. It's not a complex read, and the messages of friendship and love make this book a wonderful story. I highly recommend Lottery to anyone who needs to find hope in humanity. ( )

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Orange January 2012 Giveaways

Check out the books I'll be giving away during Orange January 2012:


When I Lived In Modern Times by Linda Grant (2000)
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2010)

Shortlisted Books:

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett (1998)
Homestead by Rosina Lippi (2001)
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2004)
The Observations by Jane Harris (2007)
Lottery by Patricia Wood (2008)
Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman (2009)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2010)
Great House by Nicole Krauss (2011)

Longlisted books:

Gilgamesh by Joan London (2004)
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (2005)
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (2006)
A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2009)
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weingarber (2009)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2011)
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin (2011)

Finally, other books (maybe a future Orange Prize nominee?):

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
Untold Story by Monica Ali

Sound like fun? I hope so! I'll host my first giveaway on January 1, 2012. For more information, check out the Orange January 2012 blog post, or join us on our Facebook page and LibraryThing group.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Who's ready for Orange January 2012?

Orange January is when you pledge to read at least one Orange Prize winner or nominee during the month of January. It's a great time to explore fantastic books, win prizes and meet new friends. Check out my blog post for all the details!

Monday, November 28, 2011

A mercy by Toni Morrison (Jill)

A Mercy
By Toni Morrison
Completed November 27, 2011

"It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human." - page 195

A Mercy has a quietness about it - as if each character is whispering a secret in my ear. But the message was strong, powerful and riveting. I haven't read a book quite like it before.

The story centers on the trade of Florens, a literate slave girl who comes to the home of Jacob Vaark. Florens' mother insisted the girl be traded away from her, and as Florens settles into her new home, she ponders why her mother would be so willing to give her up. While at Jacob's home, Florens falls under the care of Lina, a Native American woman who tends to the farm and household. Also at the home are Sorrow, a supposedly dim-witted slave, and Rebekka, Jacob's wife.

When Jacob dies unexpectedly, the entire structure of the home unravels, thread by thread. Rebekka is stricken with illness, Florens is dispatched to find help from her lover, Sorrow gives birth to a baby, and Lina can't function out of worry about Florens. Chapters are divided among the characters, adding new perspectives to the tragedy. The most telling chapter was the last, when Florens' mother told her side of the story.

The plot doesn't move really, but as the story weaves in and out among the characters, you get a hard look at the effects of slavery in 1680's America. The moral of the story, though whispered, was still loud and clear: Slavery, in all forms, destroys lives. ( )

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber

Recently, I was asked the question 'Why do you read historical fiction?' I think my answer was something along the lines of being able to eavesdrop on history. Really, the answer could have been to read books like this to find out about little known facts from history. My knowledge of homesteaders in America is very limited and I certainly hadn't given any thought to the fact that there were African-American homesteaders,or to the life that they and their families would have lived.

Rachel and Isaac DuPree are living in the Badlands of South Dakota,  a land that is beautiful but also harsh at the best of times but is especially harsh during a long drought. The novel opens with a disturbing episode as one of the smaller children, Liz, is sent down the well to scoop out what little water remains at the bottom because the bucket can't be used in such a small amount of water as the well is practically dry.

Rachel tells us of her life in the Badlands but also flashes back to episodes from her past, especially back to when she was working in the Chicago boarding house owned by Mrs DuPree. When Mrs DuPree's son Isaac returns on leave from his duties as a buffalo soldier, she has grand ideas of marrying him off to a nice young lady from an acceptable section of society. She certainly doesn't want him marrying the help, but that is exactly what happens when Rachel agrees to join the parcel of land that she is entitled to under the Homestead Act to that which Isaac has already claimed, thus doubling his land size. They initially agreed to a limited time marriage, but they are still together, working hard to maintain their constantly expanding land holdings and their expanding family.

Rachel is in the latter stages of pregnancy when we meet her, and already has several young children, but this life that she has chosen with Isaac was not an easy one and she has also lost two children. She is however proud of the life that she has built with Isaac, having started with nothing, then living in a sod dugout until finally she is living in a wood house that they built themselves. That begins to change however when she begins to questions Isaac's priorities.

I loved reading about Rachel. She was strong enough to make the decisions that need to be made, both for herself and her children. It took her a while, but she got there in the end.

The character that has me thinking the most though is Isaac. I can't quite decide if he is such a driven man that he can think of nothing but acquiring and holding on to land, or if he is just a guy who doesn't easily show or communicate his emotions. He is hard on all of his family but I don't think he is blind to them and just making them do things that they won't like just for his own selfish ends. For example, with sending a terrified Liz down the well, the fact of the matter was that without doing this there would be absolutely no water for his family and they would all die of thirst.

In his mind, he thinks he is doing the right thing by contemplating going off to work in the mines to bring in a steady income and leaving Rachel to cope despite the fact she is telling him quite plainly that she won't be able too. It is obvious though that he is capable of physical affection with Rachel which he shows just by the touch of his hand on her back when she needs it. He does have feelings about his children, evidenced by the tears he sheds at one of the key moments in the book.

Isaac is particularly rigid when it comes to the rules in his own house. He seems to me to be very much of a generation where the father in the house must be obeyed by everyone, including his wife. Some of his rules make sense, but we did get to see more emphasis on the idea of persecution of a minority group with his own refusal to allow agency Indians into his home, or even to meet his own responsibilities in relation to certain Indians who make their way to him. He is discriminated against by certain towns people but he in turn is intolerant of others who he sees as beneath him for whatever reason.

I didn't actually realise for a few chapters that the characters in the book were African-American, and for me, that can be seen as quite a good thing. Whilst a big part of the subject matter of the book is both the isolation that Rachel felt not only living in the middle nowhere with few neighbours, but even more isolating is the fact that there are no other African-American people living anywhere near her. At it's heart though The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a human story - a woman who is struggling to get by in a difficult situation and making the difficult but necessary choices to get the best outcome for both herself and her children. A story of endurance, of courage and of knowing when it is time to make changes.

A couple of years ago I was visiting Perth and I spent some time listening to the stories that my grandfather told about some of the jobs he has done over the years. One of his earliest jobs was clearing areas of land in some of the hilly areas nearby. He had a horse and cart, and himself, and that was it. In another example is having to walk from one town to the next in the country areas of Western Australia in order to get to the next job, and these towns were not close together. All of his work as a farmer and a shearer was hard and it was physical, and is really pretty foreign to the kind of work that his grandchildren get to do. I found myself thinking of his stories as I read this book, mainly because of the sheer physicality of their day to day lives! I suspect that I would be a bit too soft from modern city living to live this kind of life.

When I think of pioneers and homesteaders in Australian terms I think that we are talking more than 150 years ago, and yet this book is very much talking about life in the wilderness, about making a life for yourself in the isolated rural region of the Badlands of South Dakota in America. 100 years ago was a long time ago, but by that time in the cities there was electricity, there was running water, there were cars on the street. It was therefore something of a shock to me to realise that timewise, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was in my grandfather's lifetime! In 1917, he would have been 8 or 9 years old. Giving it some kind of context makes it feel as though it happened very recently indeed.

This is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone who loves to read about times gone by. I am sure that you will cheer for Rachel, just as I did.

Rating 4.5

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Laura's Review - Scottsboro

Inside the courtroom, rows of long windows ran along two walls. They were closed against the noise of the square, and the yellow shades were drawn, but midday light filtered through, cooking the air. An American flag and another for the state of Alabama hung limp on either side of the judge's bench. ... Instead of a jury box, two rows of chairs that swiveled and tipped to allow the jurors to make themselves comfortable were bolted to the floor. In front of each row, a brass pipe, also attached to the floor, served as a footrest. Spittoons stood at regular intervals, each surrounded by the familiar corona of hardened tobacco juice and saliva. (p. 208)
As the title implies, this novel is about the Scottsboro boys, a famous US civil rights case from the 1930s. A group of black men -- boys, really -- were accused of raping two white women on a train. The case was fraught with racism and questionable legal processes that denied the boys a fair trial. Appeals continued for several years. Author Ellen Feldman describes these events through Alice Whittier, a fictional news reporter, and Ruby Bates, one of the two white women. She paints a vivid picture of Alabama in the 1930s: the climate, the people, and the extreme racism.

Readers unfamiliar with the case will enjoy Feldman's ability to bring history to life. As historical fiction, however, it doesn't quite pass muster. The best of this genre (or, at least, the ones I've most enjoyed) go beyond the basic facts and delve deep into the historic characters, embellishing where facts are scarce. Scottsboro provides factual information comparable to Wikipedia's article on the Scottsboro boys. But Alice Whittier is one-dimensional; a vehicle to advance the plot and fill the time between trials. Her storyline was like a superfluous wrapper around the heart of the book. I wasn't interested in her romantic relationships, or the skeletons in her family's closet, because I knew them to be complete fiction. This would have been a better book had Feldman used an actual journalist in the story. Instead the result is something not quite history, and not quite historical fiction.

Cross-posted from my blog

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Laura's Review - When we Were Bad

I love it when I have an unexpectedly delightful reading experience like When we Were Bad. This unobtrusive little novel about a family of English Jews took me completely by surprise. Things start with a bang when the Rubins' eldest son Leo runs away with another woman just one minute before his wedding. Our first impression of Leo's family, then, is seen through their reactions to this scandalous event.

Leo's mother Claudia is a well-known rabbi, one of the first women in her field and highly respected by everyone. She's worked hard all her life, but she's good at what she does, and knows it. Claudia is also intensely committed to maintaining the Rubins' image as the family that has it all. This is all the more important since her book is about to be published. When Leo runs off, her greatest concern is not for him or his relationship, but on keeping up appearances as a family.

Claudia's husband Norman has supported her career all these years, keeping his own ambitions largely to himself. Daughter Frances is married with an infant and two older stepchildren. Two younger adult children, Simeon and Emily, are still trying to establish their independence. All are intensely loyal to one another, and especially to Claudia. She's formidable, and such a strong force in their lives that not one of them will make a move without considering the impact on her. But this also causes a lot of sneaking around. Norman, for example, is working on a book of his own but can't find the right time to tell Claudia. Frances feels trapped by marriage and parenthood, but feels completely alone and unable to ask her family for support. And even Claudia, so cool and collected on the outside, has her own secret problems to deal with.

So much family drama makes When we Were Bad sound like an intense read, but it's served with a generous helping of humor. Just as I was getting all teary over developments in one character's life, something else would happen to make me laugh. Each of the characters are tremendously flawed, and yet completely likeable. On the one hand, I felt I should despise Claudia for controlling everything around her and stifling others. But I loved her for what she had achieved, and for her fierce devotion to her family. As each character's story line moved towards its conclusion, I felt both happy and sad about this family that I'd come to know so well. We went through a lot together over 321 pages, and I won't soon forget it.

Cross-posted from my blog

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Jill)

Case Histories
By Kate Atkinson
Completed October 19, 2011

I have heard so much about Jackson Brodie from my fellow readers that I felt like I knew him. Thankfully, after reading Case Histories, I was still pleasantly surprised by Jackson and the mysteries he planned on solving.

The story wove around three "cold cases" - the disappearance of a little girl from her backyard, the murder of an 18-year-old girl and the whereabouts of a young girl who ran away from home. Ten years later, these cases land in Jackson's lap, and as he uncovers clues about each one, the reader learns clues about what makes Jackson tick.

While the story line was good, I think the allure of this book rests with its characters. Jackson is very likeable. His awesome sense of humor adds brevity to the sadness of each case, including his own tragedies. I also liked the many women who were part of Case Histories: Deborah the crusty secretary, Marlee who was Jackson's precocious daughter and the Land sisters, who huffed and flirted their way into Jackson's heart.

Will I be reading the rest of the books in this series? You bet! I can't wait to see what Jackson is up to next. If you love mysteries and character-driven novels, make sure to add Case Histories to the top of your reading list.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Marg's Review)

Jennifer Egan's spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other's pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.

We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist's couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to aver the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We plunge into the hidden yearnings and disappointments of her uncle, an art historian stuck in a dead marriage, who travels to Naples to extract Sasha from the city's demimonde and experiences an epiphany of his own whilst starting at a sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Museo Nationale. We meed Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life - divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house - and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco's punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang - who thrived and faltered - and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie's catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou's far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertone of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption, and the universal tendency to reach for both - and escape the merciless progress of time - in the transporting realms of art and music. Sly, startling, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers.

With inside cover copy like that, and the fact that this is the book that won the Pulitzer prize and others, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize as well, who needs a review!

When I look back on this book in a couple of years time I think the thing that will still be strong in my memory is the structure of the book - if you could call it structure as such. It isn't a novel as much as it is an interlocking collection of short stories. This isn't a book that goes from point A to point B. It probably starts at point G and eventually gets to point Z with side trips past point A and B.

In my own mind I was trying to think of a comparison to show how this book works and the closest I could come up with was one of those puzzles we used to have as kids where there was a mixed up picture in a square and there was one piece missing so you had to move all the pieces around until the picture was formed. At first you would get occasional glimpses of what the jumbled image was going to look like, but then you would have to break the picture up to make another piece of the puzzle fit. Eventually though, the last piece slides into place and you see the whole image.

Another analogy might be a really long conversation with a very good friend, where you jump topics with ease, reminiscing about the past, talking about the future, and sharing a joke. Never a linear conversation but rather one that starts at one point, and then ends up somewhere completely different and you find yourself wondering how you got there!

Another aspect of structure that was very different in this book is that Egan experiments with all different forms of storytelling. There are chapters written in the form of a magazine column, another in Powerpoint as well as different tenses and points of view. I think the Powerpoint chapter was amazing! The language was sparse, the story barely there on the page, but the concepts and the narrative were still strong enough to be clear for the reader, and I loved that we got to see Sasha's future life.

After looking at the structure, how about the characters. I can't say that I particularly related to the characters that we met in the pages of the book, but such is Egan's skill that you actually didn't need to. Our two main characters are Sasha and Bennie. Sasha is on a date with Alex when her habit of stealing things, anything, causes her to steal a wallet whilst in the bathroom. As she analyses why she steals with her shrink, Alex crosses one of her boundaries without even knowing it. We meet Sasha again as a young woman struggling to make ends meet living as a runaway in Naples, and then through the eyes of her best friend Rob who has plenty of demons of his own.

In the next chapter we meet Bennie, who is Alex's boss. He is a divorced man who is struggling to relate to his 9 year old son. One way that he can occasionally connect is through music, but even that is problematical. Through the book we see Benny with his ex wife in happier times, then we meet him as a youth revelling in the punk rock scene with his friends. We meet his mentor Lou and his very young girlfriend and her friend.

The links as we move from chapter to chapter are at times tenuous, but they are all there for a reason. Along the way, Egan makes comment about some important issues. Not only the power of music to transcend time, but also for example the power of media when a washed up PR person is employed to try and rehabilitate the image of an African dictator.

Another chapter that I really liked, not because it was enjoyable but because of the food for thought it provided, was the final chapter. It is set in New York in the not too distant future and Egan has taken our current obsession with social media and expanded it to the nth degree to come up with a quite scary world where even the youngest child has exposure to the media in a way that is similar to our own world but amplified many times over. A washed up musician is being bought back for a live concert and one of our characters is being asked to find some parrots - people who can spread the word, hype up the event to make it a success, to make it the kind of event that everyone who is anyone will claim to have been at even if they really aren't. In a way it kind of reminded me of a discussion of the difference between buzz and hype and how one, or the other, is generated, whether it is organic or whether there is someone in the background pulling the strings to manipulate the public.

This is the second Egan book I have read and liked. A few years ago now I read The Keep which was a kind of modern, gothicky ghost story. I am not sure why I haven't bothered to go and track down her other books. I will definitely be watching to see what the author comes up with next as she doesn't seem to be afraid to take risks in her writing and to take her readers on the journey with her!

Rating 4/5

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Laura's Review - Annabel

In 1968, a baby was born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake, in a small Labrador trapping village. The birth was attended by a few village women, all close friends. One woman, Thomasina, noticed something unusual right away: the baby had both male and female genitalia. She was the only one outside the family who knew, and supported Jacinta as she struggled to accept what this would mean to them, and to the baby. Treadway decided the baby would be raised as a boy, and while Jacinta felt otherwise, she would not go against her husband. From that moment on the baby was known as Wayne, although Thomasina often called him "Annabel" in private.

Jacinta wished she could raise Wayne as both son and daughter, and only vaguely understood the challenges this could pose for Wayne as he grew up. Treadway desperately wanted a traditional, masculine son, and despaired at Wayne's more feminine interests. As a boy, Wayne was ignorant of the medical details, and knew only that he has to take special vitamins. He felt vaguely different from the other boys he knew, and his closest friend was a girl. While Wayne's medical treatment was costly, the more devastating impact was emotional. Jacinta and Treadway are unable to share their feelings with each other, and gradually this takes a toll. Wayne found it increasingly difficult to relate to either of them, and life only became more difficult as he matured and struggled to find his true self.

Kathleen Winter drew me into this story gradually, and skillfully. It wasn't a page-turner, but I was surprised to find myself emotionally caught up in this book. I despaired at Jacinta and Treadway's broken relationship, and each response to the family tension. My heart wrenched over the conflict between Treadway and Wayne, especially when Treadway's fears led him to destroy something very dear to Wayne. I also felt very sad for Wayne, who had a secret no one could understand, and coped with so much emotional trauma. As he approached adulthood, Wayne began to understand and accept himself, and I closed the book knowing his life would never be easy, but there were glimmers of hope for his future.

Cross-posted from my blog

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Laura's Review - The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger is a good old-fashioned gothic mystery set in the 1940s, in an old and stately English house which is just as much a character as the Ayers family who inhabits it. We first "meet" Hundreds Hall through Robert Faraday, a local doctor whose mother worked in service at Hundreds when he was young. Some thirty years later, he is called out to care for one of the maids, who has fallen ill. There he also meets Mrs. Ayers and her adult children, Roderick and Caroline. The family has come on hard times since Mrs. Ayers became a widow. Roderick is struggling to cope with the estate he inherited. Money is scarce, and the family has been faced with difficult decisions to make ends meet.

Dr. Faraday offers to treat Roderick's war injury with an experimental procedure, free of charge. And thus he inserts himself into the life of Hundreds Hall, and gets all up in their business. He worries endlessly about Mrs. Ayers, and begins to fancy Caroline. At least that's what he tells us, because Robert is the story's narrator. He spends more and more time at Hundreds Hall. When Mrs. Ayers decides to give a party, the first in years, he finds himself on the guest list -- unusual due to their different social classes. Things begin to unravel at the party, when the family dog Gyp bites a young guest and leaves her severely disfigured. Progressively weirder things happen, with progressively greater impact on the emotional well-being of the Ayers family members. And Hundreds Hall falls into an even greater state of disrepair. It appears some sort of ghost is terrorizing the household, and it's very creepy indeed.

I was constantly torn while reading this book. My literary mind wanted to believe there was a ghost because after all, this is a gothic mystery/ghost story. My rational, analytical side dismissed that as nonsense and looked for a rational, analytical cause for all these mishaps. When I finished the book, I still wasn't sure. The ending is such that Waters might have given me the rational answer, which gave the story a chilling psychological thriller angle. Or she didn't, and there was just a lot of inexplicable weird and creepy stuff going on. If I could rewrite the ending, I know what I'd do. But I can't tell you; you'll have to read this book and form your own conclusions. I ended up docking my rating 1/2 star because it all left me rather frustrated.

Cross-posted from my blog

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Observations by Jane Harris (Jill)

The Observations
By Jane Harris
Completed September 11, 2011

The Observations is the story of young Bessy Buckley- a 15-year-old Irish prostitute-turned-maid who stumbles in to a Scottish manor called Castle Haivers. Escaping her past, she convinces the mistress of the house, Arabella Reid, to take her on as a maid, despite shady skills or references. Bessy's tenure begins very strangely as Arabella has unusual requests: Requiring Bessy to stand and sit with her eyes closed for long periods of time; requesting a cup of cocoa in the middle of the night, only to make Bessy drink it; and ordering Bessy to collect her thoughts in a journal that she must read to Arabella every evening.

Strange things are afoot at Castle Haivers, and with each turn of the page, the events get more unusual. Soon, Bessy realizes she's one of a long string of maids in Arabella's past - and that one maid in particular, Nora, who was killed in a train accident, has left an indelible mark on the household. Bessy, out of curiousity and loyalty to Arabella, begins to piece together the mystery of Nora, and as she does, unravels tragedies that can't be undone.

Bessy is a lively narrator with a sharp tongue and street smarts. She could be crass but harmlessly so. Despite her unsophisticated rhetoric, Bessy is a fabulous storyteller and observer of events at Castle Haivers. As she reveals the atrocities of her past, my heart went out to the poor girl, and Bessy became a character I kept rooting for, despite her many blunders.

The Observations could be downright creepy then light-hearted and humorous. Jane Harris is a magnificent writer, and she grabs the Gothic tradition with fierceness. I couldn't get enough of Bessy's narrative, and I often was rapt by the story. I highly recommend The Observations to fans of Gothic fiction - if you liked Fingersmith or The House at Riverton, you will love this book too. ( )

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gilgamesh by Joan London (Jill)

By Joan London
Completed August 28, 2011

Joan London's debut novel is the story of Edith, a young Australian girl who lives in the bush with her mom and sister. Edith knows the realities of hard country living - her parents' farm never taking off after years of effort. When her cousin, Leopold, and his friend, Aram, arrive for a visit, it's a breath of fresh air. Edith and her family are charmed by the young men's stories and antics, and slowly, Edith falls in love with Aram.

After the men leave, Edith begins to plot her own departure, a worldwide journey to Aram's homeland of Armenia. However, Edith didn't realize that Europe was about to burst with World War II, and as she draws closer to her destination, Edith becomes an unwilling pawn in a political chess match.

The fable Gilgamesh is central to this story, and it fits well with the travels of many characters. London does a wonderful job weaving in texts from the poem to help the reader connect the dots between the fable and the story. In fact, my favorite parts of the book are when Edith is traveling - first on a ship around Africa, then to London, Armenia and finally northern Africa. Each stop on Edith's journey gave the reader a snapshot of life during that time.

Gilgamesh is a quick read - very enthralling with fully developed characters and great plot twists. London's writing is subtle but powerful. Fans of the Orange Prize or literary fiction are sure to enjoy this fast-paced novel. ( )

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Laura's Review - Great House

Great House is an unusual novel that makes considerable demands of the reader. The book is made up of four loosely connected stories, but I didn't pick up on that at first. Part I has four chapters -- the first part of each story -- and felt disjointed, like four unfinished, disconnected works with weak character development. At the close of Part I, I was enormously frustrated. I broke one of my cardinal rules and read some reviews of this book. They inspired me to continue reading, and I'm glad I did. I finished the first story in Part II and was flooded with emotion. The same thing happened with the second, third, and fourth stories. And suddenly the book made sense, and I was reminded of a quote I'd flagged early on:
There are moments when a kind of clarity comes over you, and suddenly you can see through walls to another dimension that you'd forgotten or chosen to ignore in order to continue living with the various illusions that make life, particularly life with other people, possible. (p. 14)
I found myself warming to the characters which include a writer telling her life story, an older man reflecting on his relationship with his adult son, a man who discovers a secret his wife kept from him for years, and the adult children of an antiques dealer. Woven through Great House are themes of exile, loss, and betrayal, all in a Jewish context. It was fascinating, and I kept flagging quotes like this:
What is the point of a religion that turns its back on the subject of what happens when life ends? Having been denied an answer -- having been denied an answer while at the same time being cursed as a people who for thousands of years have aroused in others a murderous hate -- the Jew has no choice but to live with death every day. To live with it, to set up his house in its shadow, and never to discuss its terms. (p. 175)
Towards the end I could see how Nicole Krauss was building a kind of metaphor for the Jewish experience:
if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory. (p. 279)
Well as I said, this book does make demands of the reader. I'm not even sure I understood it all, but I felt rewarded in the end.

Cross-posted from my blog

The Long Song - Wendy's Review

Kitty turned to face her master.

‘Come along, Caroline. Hurry. We need to get out of the sun.’

‘Can I take her?’ she asked.

Kitty tried to seize air enough to breathe.

‘Yes, if she’ll amuse you. She would be taken soon enough anyway. It will encourage her to have another. They are dreadful mothers, these negroes.’

‘She’ll be my companion here,’ Caroline said. ‘I could train her for the house, or to be my lady’s maid.’ – from The Long Song, page 41 -

July is born in the early part of the nineteenth century on a Jamaican sugar plantation. Her mother is a black slave, her father the white overseer who is her mother’s rapist. One hot day when July is still just a young child, she is noticed by Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation’s owner who has arrived from England. On a whim, Caroline decides to take July to be her companion, stealing her from July’s mother without a second thought and renaming her Marguerite. The Long Song is July’s story, narrated retrospectively by an adult July many years later. It is not an easy story, spanning decades and taking the reader through the tumultuous years of the Baptist War and the controversial end to slavery in Jamaica. But, it is July’s voice which drives the narrative. Funny, cynical, highly observant and intelligent, July weighs in on racism, violence, and the struggle for freedom at a time when blacks were viewed as property to rich, white landowners.

Only with a white man, can there be guarantee that the colour of your pickney will be raised. For a mulatto who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroon; and the quadroon that enjoys white relations will give to this world a mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino; and the mustiphino…oh, the mustiphino’s child with a white man for a papa will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they at last stride within this world as a cherished white person. – from The Long Song, page 203 -

The Long Song is a brilliant novel narrated by an unforgettable character. July is, perhaps, one of the most memorable female voices I have read in a long, long time. Bittersweet, funny, often devastating…this is a novel which drew me in immediately and held me in its grip to the final page. Andrea Levy writes with an honesty and insight into the human condition that takes one’s breath away.

The Long Song was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize, longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction, a finalist for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and named as a 2010 New York Times Most Notable book. It is, in my opinion, worthy of all these accolades. Beautiful prose, enduring characters, and the evocation of place that vibrates off the page, all combine to create a remarkable novel of historical significance.

Readers who love literary fiction and historical fiction will want to put The Long Song on their must read list.

Highly recommended.

  • Quality of Writing:
  • Plot:
  • Characters:
Overall Rating:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (Jill)

By Curtis Sittenfeld
Completed August 1, 2011

Lee Fiora decided at the tender age of 13 that she wanted to escape her hometown of South Bend, Indiana, and take part in an idyllic rite of passage - boarding school. Despite her parents' lack of financial support, she applied to Ault School in Massachusetts and received a scholarship for her tuition. Prep is the story of Lee's life as a boarding school student - an intriguing look at the socialization of high school students at a prestigious boarding school.

As a graduate of a small, all-women's college, I found many of Lee's experiences very similar: the traditions, hazing rituals, cafeteria food and dorm experiences all seemed like pages from my life history. Attending small, private institutions can be very alluring. Unfortunately, though, for many students, it can turn into a private hell.

High school is tough - the feelings of being left out, socially awkward and trying to second guess everyone's motives weigh down most teenagers. Lee did all this and more. Lee was blessed with a wicked sense of humor but rarely showed it. She had a few good friends but remained aloof with most of her classmates. And when she finally gets the attention of her crush, Lee surrenders herself without a second glance. As I read Lee's story, I commiserated with her plight as a scholarship student in a sea of wealthy kids but frowned at some of her mistakes. Sometimes, Lee was her own worst enemy.

And then I smiled, because that's what being a teenage girl is all about: learning, growing and making mistakes. As Prep concluded, I knew Lee was a better person as a result of her Ault experiences. This story was a great reminder of the journey teenage girls take to become self-sufficient women. If you're a mom to a young girl or a young woman yourself, put Prep high on your reading list. I don't think you'll be disappointed in this enchanting coming of age tale. ( )

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Jayme)

Title:  Gilead
Author:  Marilynne Robinson
Published:  2004, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Genre:  Literary Fiction
Accolades:  2005 - Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2004 - National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, 2006 - long list Orange Prize for Fiction

76-year-old Congregationalist Minister John Ames is dying of a heart condition.  Still capable of preaching and mentally sharp he has decided to write a letter - a journal of his thoughts - to his young son to explain the family's history, who he is, and what he believes.  Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 this quiet, profound book is the story of a life and a faith that can move mountains if only it can forgive.

There are certain books that as soon as you read the first two or three pages you know that it is special - that it will change you somehow - maybe not lightning bolt jolts, but small, subtle movements near your heart.  Gilead was that book for me.  Gilead begins with John Ames counting the blessings of his life and expressing the joy of having found love and having a child in the twilight of his years.

" I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle." page 52

What simple words written or spoken that could be life-changing - some one's salvation - maybe we need to say them to those we love.  As we read on though we discover when the "prodigal son" of a life-long friend comes back to town that John Ames has yet to give the greatest miracle of all - forgiveness. Though Ames is a minister he still struggles with a human soul and Robinson deftly and beautifully describes his torment and his epiphany.

In the bible Gilead means hill of testimony and that is what the book Gilead is for John Ames his testimony of a well-lived life. 

My Rating: 5 out of 5

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Secret Lives of Baba Sagi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Jill)

The Secret Lives of Baba Sagi's Wives
By Lola Shoneyin
Completed July 29, 2011

Bolanle is the youngest and newest wife to enter Baba Sagi's household. The only one of the wives that is educated, Bonanle presents a threat to the other wives - in more ways than one. They are intimidated by her education and concerned that a secret shared by all three wives will be revealed. So begins the plight of the women who are the cornerstone to The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives.

Told from alternating viewpoints, Lola Shoneyin gives her readers just enough to keep the story moving, uncovering small angles of the story with each chapter. We learn about each wife: Iya Segi, Iya Tope and Iya Femi as well as Bolanle and Babi Segi. Individually, their stories are a fascinating look at polygamous marriage and how they came to marry Babi Segi.

While the entire story was engaging, I found the first three wives to be horrible, conniving and distrustful. I didn't like them, even as I learned their "backstories." Baba Segi was even less likeable. Bonanle was the saving grace, and I was usually relieved when I learned the next chapter would be told from her point of view. The ending was sad - unnecessarily tragic - and I let out a big sigh when I finished this book. All in all, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives was just an average read for me. Be sure to check out others' reviews, though, before deciding to read this book. ( )

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Jayme)

Title:  A Visit From the Goon Squad
Author:  Jennifer Egan
Published: 2010, Borzoi Book - Alfred A. Knopf
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Accolades: 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award, long list for 2011 Orange Prize

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a novel that is written as a collection of stories that center around Bennie Salazar a music executive, his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha and the people that weave in and out of their flawed lives. Each chapter is a story that moves through the timeline of Bennie and Sasha's lives and as readers we witness the moments that changed them.

A Visit From the Goon Squad has received critical acclaim, but somewhat mixed reviews from the "everyday" reader.  I understand the division. This book is difficult to pinpoint and to categorize - just writing the first paragraph of this review was hard because it is a difficult book to explain.  But I will tell you that I loved it.  The writing is crisp, honest, and inventive.  There are proses in this book that are so vivid and accurate that I had to stop and read them again and again.

"It's turning out to be a bad day, a day when the sun feels like teeth."  page 60

Time is a key element to the story (The Goon Squad is a reference to time) - it is always there hovering over the characters and they each feel its impact as it changes their relationships, values, and themselves. The book weaves back and forth through a time span of about 50 years starting in the 1970's and ending in a somewhat dystopian 2020.  My favorite chapter is the chapter that is written as a power point by a teenager of today. It is so in the moment - our current time - it is brilliant.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a remarkable, strangely moving story about the one thing we can't escape - the impact of time.

My Rating:  5 out of 5

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett (Jill)

The Magician's Assistant
By Ann Patchett
Completed July 25, 2011

For most of Sabine's adult life, she was in love with her employer and best friend, Parsifal. They travelled together as a magic act and later as antiques experts. They shared an uncommon bond of friendship. Sabine knew her love would always be unrequited. Why? Because Parsifal was gay - and his true love was a man named Phan.

Sadly, both Phan and Parsifal had AIDS, and as Sabine prepared to say good-bye to them both, Parsifal does something remarkable: he married Sabine, ensuring her financial freedom for the rest of her life. Parsifal, however, had secrets too, namely a mom and two sisters in Nebraska who had not seen him in more than 20 years. When they learned about his death, Parsifal's mom and sister came to Los Angeles to meet Sabine. Once united, Sabine and Parsifal's family pieced together his mysterious life.

The Magician's Assistant was a tale like none other. Indeed, a woman married to a gay man near the end of his life was an unusual story development. However, Ann Patchett had more tricks up her sleeve. Incredibly loving and flawed, Parsifal's family showed Sabine what life was like for young Parsifal (then called Guy), uncovering more secrets. Together, they mourn his death and help heal old wounds.

Wonderfully told, The Magician's Assistant was a moving story of love, friendship, family ties and estranged relationships. Each of the story's twists and turns were unpredictable, and while Patchett left the ending open-ended, I was pleased with the strength of friendship among this group of women. Their mutual love for Parsifal brought them together, but their love for each other made them even closer. The Magician's Assistant was a beautiful book, and once again, Patchett swept me away with her magical storytelling. ( )

Friday, July 22, 2011

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman (Jill)

By Ellen Feldman
Completed July 21, 2011

The Scottsboro case was one of many ugly marks in American history. During the 1930's, nine young black males were arrested for raping two white women in Alabama. Despite weak evidence and a wavering testimony by one of the women, each man was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The case was an international outrage and was the most tried case in American legal history. And it provided the background for Ellen Feldman's Orange Prize-nominated book, Scottsboro.

In the book, a young journalist, Alice Whittier, became fascinated with the Scottsboro case, and she convinced her editor to assign her to the trial. Alice was a feature writer at heart and didn't waste time trying to get a human angle. She met each of the nine accused and talked to the two alleged rape victims. Alice could tell that one of the women, Ruby Bates, was lying about what happened. She took personal interest in Ruby, trying to convince her to do the right thing. For Ruby, though, doing the right thing was not an easy thing to do.

The book followed the case and its first appeal, when hot shot attorney, Samuel Liebowitz, agreed to defend the men. Feldman painted a picture of racism, anti-Semitism and sexism that permeated the entire trial. It was downright nasty. As I read the testimonies and court exhibits, I hung on to every word and move by the attorneys, judges and spectators. It was court drama at its best.

I can't rave about Scottsboro enough. The Southern setting, social lessons and moving drama kept me at the edge of my seat. This is my first book by Feldman - but not my last. I highly recommend Scottsboro to anyone who likes to be riveted and moved by a great story. ( )

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Laura's Review - Molly Fox's Birthday

In this quiet, contemplative book, an unnamed narrator spends a day reminiscing about her long-time friend, Molly Fox.
Molly Fox is an actor, and is generally regarded as one of the finest of her generation. (She insists upon 'actor': If I wrote poems would you call me a poetess?) One of the finest but not, perhaps, one of the best known. ... She likes the fear, the danger even, of the stage, and it is for the theatre that she has done her best work. Although she often appears in contemporary drama her main interest is in the classical repertoire, and her greatest love is Shakespeare. (p. 2)
The narrator is a playwright, using Molly's house as a retreat to work on her latest play while Molly is away in New York and London. During the course of a day -- which happens to be Molly's birthday -- she relives significant moments in their lives, and reflects on their relationships with friends and siblings.

The two met many years before, when Molly was cast in the narrator's play, and supported each other through the highs and lows in their careers and relationships. The narrator's older brother, Tom, is a priest who befriended Molly and may have counseled her through some difficult situations. Molly's brother, Fergus, suffers from undefined psychological difficulties precipitated by traumatic events in his childhood.

As the narrator putters around Molly's house, she recounts several events in her relationship with Molly, painting a clear picture but one that seems just a bit too cut and dry. I suspected there was more to the story than she was letting on, perhaps more than she was willing to admit to herself. I began to pick up on tiny clues to a deeper perspective. When Fergus drops in to visit Molly but finds only the narrator at home, he stays to chat and ultimately provides critical insight to Molly's character and history, casting entirely new light on everything that was revealed before.

This was a very interesting study of memory and point of view, and how personal experience shapes relationships.

Cross-posted from my blog

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives - Wendy's Review

“Wipe your eyes,” she said, passing me a rag. “It has been a month since your parents died. This is not your home and it will never be. A girl cannot inherit her father’s house because it is everyone’s prayer that she will marry and make her husband’s home her own. This house and everything in it now belongs to your uncle. That is the way things are.” – from The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, page 135 -

Bolanle is Baba Segi’s fourth wife in a polygamous marriage. She is educated and young, and is a threat to the other wives in more ways than one. When she fails to conceive a child, Baba Segi is bereft and begins to seek answers which may uncover the biggest secret his wives have kept from him yet. Told in multiple and alternating viewpoints, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives explores the polygamist society of Nigeria by gradually revealing the secrets of the women who people the novel.

Iya Segi is the first wife – large and outspoken, she is the unofficial power beneath Baba Segi’s roof. Her plan to humiliate Bolanle and drive her from their home gets lukewarm support from Iya Femi, the third wife who has vengeance on her mind and who would rather see a quicker solution to the problem.

When a plan does not go right, you plot again. One day you will get it right. One day you will be able to damage the person who hurts you so completely that they will never be able to recover. I have told Iya Segi this on several occasions. I keep telling her that we need to find a permanent solution but she does not have wisdom. – from The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, page 74 -

Iya Tope is the second wife, a woman whose compassion is silenced by fear. Forced into an arranged marriage to Baba Segi, Iya Tope has learned to be humble and silent in the face of wrong doing.

As the story unfolds, the lives of each of these women intersect and come together to reveal the larger family of Baba Segi. Other characters are introduced, including Taju, the driver who also harbors a secret, and the many children who live in the house. Although Lola Shoneyin breaks up each person’s narrative by chapter, I found many of the characters’ voices to be interchangeable, and so sometimes I found myself struggling to keep all their stories straight in my mind.

Thematically, the novel probes the rights of women in a polygamist society and in Africa in general. Baba Segi is a self-important, chauvinistic man who sees Bolanle’s inability to conceive solely her fault. His view of sex is all about his own pleasure and he refers to it in crass terms. In general, sex is not portrayed as all that desirable – for the most part, it is represented as a wifely duty for the women with the point being to produce children. Sex for pleasure is largely punished and a source of guilt in the novel.

Shoneyin shows the inequality of women in her book, and all but Bolanle are portrayed as conniving, manipulative and vengeful. It made me wonder how accurate the novel is with regard to women in African society. Ultimately, Shoneyin provides for some redemption and forgiveness in her book about family secrets, betrayal, and disloyalty.

I found this to be an easy book to read. The individual stories are laced with myth, parables and folk lore. I enjoyed the gradual revealing of each character’s secret – a bit like peeling the layers off of an onion. Shoneyin managed to surprise me a bit with Baba Segi’s character who is so stereotypical at the outset, but managed to grow into a person who had depth and empathy by the end of the book.

The plot of this book is original, although the characters felt a little bit undeveloped to me. Shoneyin captures the flavor of a paternalistic society well.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was nominated for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and will appeal to readers who enjoy African literature.

  • Quality of Writing:
  • Plot:
  • Characters:
Overall Rating:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Laura's Review - The White Family

Alfred White has had a long career as a London park keeper. His days are spent patrolling the park, monitoring its condition and making sure visitors adhere to park rules. Alfred is close to retirement, and has seen a lot of change over the years. He longs for the Britain of his youth, during and after World War II. He is especially upset by the influx of foreigners, changing the ethnic mix of his London neighborhood and, consequently, the park visitors.

One day Alfred collapses on the job and is hospitalized. His sudden weakness shocks his wife and adult children, who have grown accustomed to Alfred's firm, controlling hand. His adult children have all gone their separate ways, but are brought back into contact at Alfred's bedside. Darren is an established journalist living in the US, and is on his third marriage. Shirley is in a relationship with a black man, which caused a rift with her father. Dirk has been unable to establish an independent adult life, and lives at home while working in a corner shop. He has developed disturbing extremist political and racial views.

May, the wife and mother, held this crew together over the years. Like many women of her generation, her husband made all the decisions. When Alfred went into hospital, May found she couldn't even withdraw money from the bank on her own. But May is also strong inside, in her own way, and she has a suppressed intellect that remains an important part of her life:
She always liked to have a book in her bag. In case she got stuck. In case she got lost. Or did she feel lost without her books? There wasn't any point, but she liked to have one with her, a gentle weight nudging her shoulder, keeping her company through the wind, making her more solid, more substantial, less likely to be blown away, less alone. More -- a person. (p. 19)
Through short chapters narrated by different family members, Maggie Gee develops the White family's history and the nature of the parent-child and sibling relationships. Each of the children bear scars from their father's discipline and temper. Darren appears successful on the outside, but is deeply wounded inside. Shirley has been unable to have children, and struggles with issues of faith. Dirk is a ticking time bomb, prone to alcohol-infused bouts of temper as he acts out his resentment towards anyone better off than himself. Alfred and May, for all their flaws, have shared a long and loving marriage, and are likeable in their own ways.

This book is not for the faint of heart. There's a lot of sadness, as the entire family copes with Alfred's medical condition. May considers, for the first time, that Alfred may not always be there for her. Alfred struggles with weakness & infirmity. Each of the children relive their childhood and their relationship with Alfred, and rather than bond together each of them struggles individually. There are also many disturbing moments, particularly Gee's portrayal of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. This would have been a 4.5-star book were it not for a too-tidy denouement about Shirley which struck me as both unrealistic and unnecessary. Still, this is a well-crafted story, with a strong emotional pull and an intense and startling climax.

Cross-posted from my blog

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber (Jill)

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree
By Ann Weisgarber
Completed July 18, 2011

Rachel Reeves was a strong-willed, hard-working woman from Chicago who wanted a better life for herself, including marrying a man with "ambition." When her boss's son, Isaac DuPree, came home on leave from the Army, Rachel knew she met the man she wanted to marry. Isaac was determined to improve his lot in life by planning to move to South Dakota to become a rancher. Rachel, seeing her ticket out, approached Isaac about marrying her to help him claim more land - an offer he couldn't refuse. It was then that she became Rachel DuPree - and her personal history as a black wife of a South Dakota rancher came alive on the page.

Rachel's story about living in the harsh conditions of South Dakota was mesmorizing. At the time of the story, her ranch was experiencing a severe drought, and she worried about food and water for her family (which included four children and one on the way). As conditions worsened, Rachel began to yearn for life back in Chicago. For Isaac, though, returning home meant failure - he wouldn't even consider it. Rachel began to ponder her choices, deeply torn between her children and her marriage.

A deep undertone to The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was racism. As a black family, the DuPrees experienced racism in South Dakota, but what was more pronounced was the racism toward Native Americans. Additionally, there was racism among the African Americans, where Northern blacks discriminated against blacks from the South. This book was an eye-opening look at the various forms of racism that plagued the U.S. in the early 20th century.

With its strong characters and themes, A Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a worthwhile read for anyone who likes stories that examine social issues. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2010 and shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers. It's definitely worthy of its accolades, and I look forward to more fiction by Ann Weisgarber. ( )

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison

England, 31st August 1939: The world is on the brink of war. As Hitler prepares to invade Poland, thousands of children are evacuated from London to escape the impending Blitz. Torn from her mother, eight-year-old Anna Sands is relocated with other children to a large Yorkshire estate which has been opened up to evacuees by Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, an enigmatic, childless couple. Soon Anna gets drawn into their unraveling relationship, seeing things that are not meant for her eyes and finding herself part-witness and part-accomplice to a love affair with unforeseen consequences. A story of longing, loss, and complicated loyalties, combining a sweeping narrative with subtle psychological observation, The Very Thought of You is not just a love story but a story about love.
Sometimes you hear about a book and you think to yourself "I know that I am going to love this book" and then when you come to write the review it gives you great satisfaction to be able to say that you were right. And then there are the other books - those ones that sound like exactly the kind of book you are going to love...and you just don't.

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison is unfortunately one of the latter types for me. In theory this is a perfect book for me. I love reading stories set against the background of war, particularly World War II, and whilst I have read about a young person going to stay with a family as an evacuee earlier this year, this is the first time I have read that experience through the eyes of an evacuee who goes to a stately home turned school. The historical setting and the location sound fascinating.

The story starts with 8 year old Anna Sands. She is about to be evacuated to the countryside like thousands of other children were just after the outbreak of World War II but before the bombs actually started to fall on the major cities. After sharing a magical day out with her mother in preparation for their separation, Anna is looking forward to going to the seaside but instead ends up at a stately home in Yorkshire with lots of other children, where the house has been hastily converted into a school. Anna is somewhat remote from the other children emotionally, but feels a connection to Thomas Ashton almost immediately. Thomas worked for the diplomatic corps until he was left wheelchair bound after a bout of polio and is now running the school and doubling up as a teacher for some of the time.

Thomas and Elizabeth are desperate for children, and when I say desperate, I mean desperate, particularly in Elizabeth's case. There is some hope that by opening their home up to become a school they will in some way compensate for their barrenness but it is at best a band aid solution. As a character, Elizabeth suffers from being very two dimensional - the bitter woman who descends to a very dark place. She is not the only two dimensional character who fills the pages by any stretch of the imagination, but she certainly is the most obvious example of this.

Even the secondary characters seem to be caricatures of real people. For example, whilst Anna is pining away in the school in Yorkshire, her mother Roberta is living the high life in London barely giving her young child a thought.

Of the things that bothered me about this book, one of the bigger issues include the fact that the author didn't seem to know what the focus of the novel was. Was it meant to be a story about the evacuee experience of a young girl? Was it meant to be a dissection of a marriage from the point where Elizabeth decided that Thomas was the man for her and made it happen, through his illness and subsequent disability, and then their inability to have children? Was it meant to be the story of the descent of the physical house from family home to empty National Trust property? All of the above? Having finished the book, I can't say that I am sure.

That's not to say that Alison can't turn a phrase, because she most certainly can, and there were sections where I stopped and reread passages because the observations were so strong. For example, from page 82:

It was no comfort to her that William had been heroic, because the soaring death toll had already devalued the worth of any one sacrifice  

and then again from page 105

Sometimes, across the dining room she would glimpse Thomas talking to someone, and her heart would turn over at the sight of his smile. And a memory would come back to her of the longing she had known for him before their marriage. But she knew that now it was only a memory of a feeling, not the feeling itself. 

The couple of lines of the publisher's blurb say that "The Very Thought of You is not just a love story but is a story about love", but I would argue that it is neither of those things, or at least it is not the kind of love that I want to read about or live. Why would anyone want to love if it left everyone unfulfilled for the rest of their days? I guess this kind of ties in with the idea that all the characters in "literature" need to be miserable in order to be worth reading about. I don't get why that needs to be the case, but it is certainly not something that has gone unnoticed when it comes to discussion about the various literature prizes over the years.

Thanks to Galleygrab for giving me the opportunity to read this book!

Rating: 3/5

Cross posted at my blog