Continuing with my new determination to write at least a little bit about all the books I’ve been reading …
Deadshifted, Cassie Alexander
This is the fourth book in the Edie Spence series. I’ve not reviewed any of these books previously on the blog, but this is a series I’ve been enjoying. Edie is a smart nurse who was thrust into the world of paranormal healthcare to save her brother. By this fourth book, she’s met her current boyfriend after a particular failure and she’s left the hospital where the first couple of books take place. She’s on vacation – a well-deserved cruise with Asher, her boyfriend. But things are never really simple for Edie, and they run into someone that Asher used to know in his previous life as an active, not-quite-conscientious shapeshifter. Although I’ve missed the familiar setting of the hospital, this book really threw Edie in the deep end (literally). She’s had to deal with so much and, although the summary of the already-pre-ordered fifth book spoiled the ending somewhat, I was still shocked. Definitely continuing with these.
We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo
I wanted to do a full review of this one, but given how seldom I actually get myself to write full reviews, I thought it was better to get my thoughts down as soon as I could. This book was amazing – it forced me to think about so many issues outside my normal day-to-day existence and reminded me forcefully that there is a reason I want to expand my reading horizons. Darling grows up in Robert Mugabe-era Zimbabwe, now desperately poor and starving in a shantytown called Paradise, though previously her family was moderately prosperous. Though her life in Zimbabwe is a challenging one, to say the least, and she and her friends dream of escape, when she actually does manage to leave her home country she has to confront a huge range of new experiences. One of the most striking parts for me was when Darling can’t understand why her employer’s daughter is depressed and has anorexia. She – as someone who has spent much of her childhood starving – simply can’t understand why a pretty, thin white girl would actively starve herself. Their worlds are too different. And some of the passages about leaving home and trying to decide who you are without your home were unbelievably striking. So worth reading.
Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman
When Piper graduates from college, she still hasn’t decided what she wants to do with her life. And she craves adventure. So, as she describes in this memoir, she gets involved with the older Nora, a sophisticated woman who clearly has a large amount of cash to throw around, and finds herself involved with the drug trade. She wises up after a short period of time and runs back into the arms of her family, landing a good job, a loving boyfriend, and a life she thinks is secure. But it isn’t, and ten years after her crime, Piper finds herself in Danbury, a women’s prison.
Her journey through the prison system was fascinating reading, although I suspect it was easier for her than the other women in a number of ways. She freely acknowledges that her shorter tenure and her frequent visitors were huge factors in helping her cope, but that doesn’t change the essential fact of prison. By far the most shocking part was towards the end, when Piper enters the program meant to prepare inmates for the real world again. Instead of useful advice, like how to rent an apartment or find a job with a criminal offense against your name, the inmates are advised on topics like what to wear; they weren’t even advised on how to use the internet when some of them had never encountered it or a computer in their lives. It’s fairly obvious why some of them simply fall back into the drug trade, which is disastrous. I learned a lot I didn’t know and am glad I read this – I’ve never seen the TV show, so can’t comment on how it compares there.
The Iron Witch, Karen Mahoney
This book demonstrated, quite vividly, that some YA just isn’t for me. In this particular book, Donna is a teenager who was scarred during her youth in an attack which also cost her her parents. Her father was killed defending her and her mother has been mentally unstable ever since, sometimes unable to recognize Donna. She’s raised by her aunt, but has spent her entire life being considered a freak due to the iron scars that twine their way up her arms. Now the wood elves who ruined her life so thoroughly when she was a child have returned, and only she, her best friend Navin, and the mysterious half-fey Xan have a shot at saving themselves.
My attitude towards this book was decidedly “meh”. It’s even complete with a love triangle. I actually kept expecting Xan – the mysteriously sexy object of Donna’s insta-love, as opposed to her nice guy best friend – to turn out to be evil, simply because it all seemed ridiculous to me, but instead all the gooey eyes and instant connection were actually sincere. I was disappointed, similar to how I felt about Daughter of Smoke & Bone. Won’t be reading the rest of the books.
I purchased all of these books.
When Juliet Montague’s husband George leaves her, she’s trapped in a cycle of Jewish not-quite-widowhood. She can’t divorce him without his presence, as under Jewish law the man must divorce his wife, but until he dies, assuming she knows about it, she can’t marry or really even look at another Jewish man. In the conservative Jewish community of her parents, she’s just not treated in the same way as other women, made worse by the fact that she’s spent seven years as a single mother putting practicalities ahead of her artistic nature. When she turns thirty and goes out to buy a refrigerator, which she’s dutifully saved towards, she is instead captivated by an artist on the street who asks to paint her picture for the same cost. Juliet falls into a world of artists in 1960’s London, enriching her life immeasurably.
What this book is really about is how Juliet finds herself – still loving her children as much as ever, but redeeming her own identity as a person. She lost it so easily when her husband left simply because she had to. When she meets the artist, Charles Fussell, she remembers what she felt before she’d met George and regains a part of herself that she lost with him. Through meeting other artists, and eventually embarking on a love affair, she begins to re-discover who she is. This is cleverly symbolized by the fact that each artist she meets tends to paint her, capturing little bits of Juliets throughout her life.
It’s easy to relate to Juliet as a character. She’s not quite a pariah, but she is ostracized all the same. Her parents love her, as she loves her children, but she doesn’t fit in. It’s uncomfortable for her but it’s excruciating in some ways for her children, Frieda and Leonard. They are mocked by the other children for their mother’s status and because they’ve lost their father. Their eventually paths in life diverge but reflect how that struggle helps to form their futures. Frieda becomes a very traditional, strict Jew herself in the vein of her grandparents, while Leonard embraces his mother’s artistic leanings wholeheartedly.
As for Juliet, she does seem to find pieces of herself as she goes along. I got the feeling that wife and motherhood swept her away and her identity was lost to a degree in the search of promoting other people’s happiness. It becomes clear fairly early on why she started hiding pieces of herself away, but when George leaves she simply can’t gain the freedom that might have helped her on that journey sooner.
I’d probably only say that this book was a little bit slow; I actually read the whole book in one day, but split up by several other things. I never really felt glued to the page and I would have been able to set it aside for longer if I’d had to. It’s more of a contemplative book, rather than one with a fast-moving plot.
I enjoyed The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I did Mr Rosenblum’s List. I’ll definitely continue looking out for future books by this author, though. She has a lot of potential and she writes beautifully, with compelling characters. Recommended.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
Piscine Patel is the young son of an Indian zookeeper. A deeply religious boy, he loves every sign of God, even in the animals that his father keeps. When Pi’s family is forced to leave their native India and move to Canada, many of the zoo’s animals in tow on a massive industrial boat, Pi is alternately excited and devastated. When the ship sinks, though, and Pi must battle for his life, devastation, survival, and even religion take on new meaning.
Life of Pi is a book that I had kicking around for more than four years, knowing that other people had loved it but somehow never making the time to read it for myself. The release of the film, and the possibility that I might see a film before I’d read the book that inspired it (gasp), led me to finally pick it up and see for myself what all the fuss was about. What I found was perhaps the first book featuring magical realism that I’ve enjoyed and a striking tale about survival and stories and, in the end, true meaning and whether or not it matters.
I admit that I was a bit perplexed when I first started reading. Nearly a third of the book takes place before Pi has even left India and a surprising chunk of that part of the book is consumed by his religious nature. He decides that he believes in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, praying and taking mentors for each religion. He just wants to worship God, and all ways of worshipping God are sacred to him, an idea which I found fascinating but which didn’t seem related to the part of the book that I knew about, which was the part where he is on a lifeboat with a tiger.
It all makes perfect sense in the end, fortunately, and I think what Martel is trying to comment on is really the nature of story. If you read to the end of the book, he offers two explanations for what happened to Pi on the lifeboat, but it doesn’t really matter what truly happened. Either explanation can be true; one just requires more of a leap of faith than the other. In such a way, religions require that leap of faith, that belief, but at the core of them, the stories are human. I’m an atheist myself but I found the whole story and the end fascinating. It wasn’t what I’d expected at all, and I immediately felt that this is a book I’d like to talk about in a lot more depth, which might take on new significance the more it’s considered.
Regardless of how you take the story within this book’s pages, it’s a moving portrayal of Pi’s spirit and will to survive in the face of elements clearly much larger than he is. Definitely a book worth reading – and now I’m looking forward to seeing the film!
All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.
Retiree Harold Fry has spent most of his life, he thinks, being a failure. He’s let down his son, never advanced very far in his career, virtually separated from his wife Maureen despite living in the same house, and lost the only friend he really made. When he receives a letter from that friend, Queenie Hennessey, dying of cancer 600 miles away in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Harold at first simply writes her a nice note and leaves the house to take it to the post box. When he reaches that post box, he thinks – why not go a little further into town? And so begins Harold’s walk up England and his quest to keep Queenie alive, transforming the remainder of his life for good.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has been getting tons of press lately; lots of reviews from bloggers and a lot of attention from mainstream media too. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and highlighted by Waterstone’s, I found it impossible to resist reading this charming little book for myself. In fact, I bought and started reading it on the same day, very curious to see what all the fuss was about.
What I found was an insightful, truly heart-warming and moving book about an old man’s quest to find the friend he adores. Harold is such a timid soul; he despises attention and has no confidence in himself whatsoever. He’s not seeking attention and he’s not even sure that he can do it. But he reckons, inspired by a girl he meets in a garage, that if he can walk 600 miles, his old friend from work, Queenie, can stay alive, and maybe even get cured. He loves his wife, Maureen, but the gulf between them is now so wide that he doesn’t even tell her he’s going, bringing us to the other half of the story; the woman left behind.
It’s hard to review this book without really giving away much of the story. I didn’t really know much at all and I liked it very much that way. The story is by turns sad, sweet, and even funny sometimes, as we follow Harold on his unlikely journey north. My heart broke for him and Maureen on a regular basis, it seemed, as they played out the memories of their life together, the slow road they travelled together away from love and towards estrangement. The slide towards taking each other for granted, towards settling rather than striving, towards mediocrity. It makes Harold’s journey so, so poignant and perfect in comparison, the completely unexpected act of a man who has always done the expected.
The book itself is written in beautiful, at times deceptively simple and easy to read yet perfect prose, making the story come to life. Harold’s hardships are by no means ignored; he spends a large part of the early walk in serious pain from lack of preparation until he meets a woman who was a doctor once. The descriptions of the English countryside are beautiful, especially in the beginning of the book, and the level of Harold’s reflection is directly tied to his mood. As I read and experienced their past, I was completely swept away by emotion and found myself near to tears more than once.
There is a reason that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has received so much acclaim. It is a simply beautiful, charming, at times heart-rending book that is very much worth your time.
All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.
Three lost souls meet in Athens, where their lives are destined to change forever. Rebecca is a young French painter, fleeing two years as a stewardess with Air France and a life bereft of personality and understanding. While trying to work out who she is, she stumbles upon two men; her first friend in Athens is George, a lonely American Ivy League educated linguist in love with ancient languages, alcohol, and Rebecca herself. But then she stumbles upon Henry Bliss, a Welsh archaeologist, who she suspects can show her not only the secrets of the ancient city she lives in but of her own heart, even though he’s hiding his own secrets from the distant past. Each of them is lost in some way; each of their relationships defines who they are and what they will become in the years ahead.
I’ve heard so very many amazing things about Simon Van Booy that it was only a matter of time before I actually read one of his books. He’s earned acclaim as a short story writer, too, but I always prefer to read novels when given a choice, and Everything Beautiful Began After is his first novel.
After reading the prologue, I was worried that I would find the whole novel somewhat impenetrable – beautiful, but written so abstractly that I’d need to really concentrate to work out the meaning, something I don’t always have the energy for at present. I could grasp what he was trying to do, viewing events through the lens of a child, but I was relieved when the rest of the book was written in a more easily readable style. Still very beautiful, though, as occasionally he jumps out at you with phrases that smack you over the head with meaning, such as:
… truth is just a lie that everyone believes.
And it takes a moment just to let that sink in, how true it is to life, but how it also simply sums up everything that particular character is experiencing at that moment.
All of the characters in this book are very inward-looking, very self-aware, and prone to analysing their own feelings through a microscope. But it’s really about growing and changing, not forgetting tragedies, not getting past them, but accepting them as part of who you are and what you’re going to become. Even just as the title says – everything beautiful began after – and indeed, it’s once you get past and accept the snags of your life that something beautiful can begin.
This is also a surprisingly fast read; I have a relatively small size hardcover version with 400 pages and I absolutely zipped through it. Except for those moments which catch you off guard, and make you stop and think, the book is a smooth and very beautiful read. It is probably worth sinking in and spending a bit more time with it if you can, though I do think it was incredibly powerful to read it in as few sittings as possible, as I did.
Very highly recommended for those who enjoy literary fiction, flat out beautiful writing, and engaged, thought-provoking characters. This won’t be the last time I read a book by Simon Van Booy.
All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
Seven portraits of women reading, seven stories imagined by the author, Katie Ward, about the history of each painting. This brief, beautiful book captures the universal emotions of women throughout history, at all different stages in their lives, all centered around that one activity which many of us love above all others. The stories range in date from the fourteenth century to the imagined future, where the author cleverly ties together all of the paintings and their stories. Each chapter, focused on the imagined history of one painting, is a kind of short story, and can easily stand alone as well as part of the wider collection that is concluded to some degree at the end.
The writing in this book is beautiful and I just adored the way it was structured. I had a good look at the source behind each of the stories – both the real paintings and the inspirations for those which don’t exist or are conglomerates – and thoroughly enjoyed the connections and the differences in style as the novel progressed. Each chapter does feel like its own little story, with its own world and characters. The ending ties them up neatly, but so does the universal female emotion that pervades each. For me, each story highlighted how much we all exist in our own worlds, but how we are all tied together by our very existence. For example, in one of the stories, a teenage girl obsesses over an older painter, imagining herself in love, her feelings so reminiscent of my own immature years that I was completely taken aback. In another, a mourning aristocratic lady asks her artist friend to finish a painting of her female lover, who has recently passed on, and the grief and the emotion contained within just that one story was incredibly moving.
Several reviews of this book have highlighted the fact that it doesn’t contain quotes for speech, and that this makes it difficult to follow; I did not have this problem at all, and I actually enjoyed the flow of the writing. It’s worth noting, though, if that is something about a book that will bother you, but I didn’t even think of it as a complaint until I’d looked at other reviews. All of it was breathtaking, I thought, and Ward’s narrative voice was gorgeous enough to keep me pinned to the pages. It’s as though Ward gave me a window into the minds of the women in each of the paintings, and those thoughts were simply stunning.
I really can’t praise this book enough – Girl Reading is perfect for women who love to read, who love history, who are looking for a book that reminds them of our experiences throughout history. Very, very highly recommended.
I received this book for free for review.
By no fault of his own, twelve-year-old Jack is one of the most ostracized boys in town, and all because of his last name. The Witcher family are considered white trash, and even though Jack is smart, fair, and honest, he is tarred by the same brush that affects all his family. It’s harder for sensitive Jack, who has to deal with all of the follies of adolescent life at the same time he’s shunned by the people who he longs to be friends with. The fact that his brother is suspected of murder doesn’t help. How can Jack reconcile his feelings for his family with his longing to be accepted for once in his short life?
If Jack’s in Love may be the first Amy Einhorn book that I didn’t outright fall in love with myself. Not that it’s a bad book, really; it was fine, and I enjoyed reading it, but it wasn’t that compelling or earth-shaking for me. I was easily able to put it down and come back to it later, and as I read it a while before I wrote this review, parts of it have faded quickly from my mind, so I’m afraid I didn’t find it all that memorable, either.
But there were certainly parts that I did enjoy – for instance, I liked Jack’s character, although the rest of them I was happy to take or leave, and I found the perspective of his struggle to be really interesting. He’s on the inside of a classic “white trash” family, but he sympathizes with both them, especially his mother, and the family whose son has disappeared. It’s seeing two halves of the coin which draws me in to books like this, and which also makes me a little more disappointed that I didn’t find myself loving it.
The book is set in the American south in the 60’s and 70’s, so there are also hints of the racial divide; for instance, Jack’s father is friends with a black man who lives in a certain district, and Jack’s older Jewish friend Gladstein lives in the same place. But that’s about the extent of these tensions; Jack’s love for Myra, the murdered boy’s younger sister, dominates most of the book. This is the part where the book really fell down for me; I didn’t like their romance much at all, and I didn’t believe in them as a couple no matter how young. There were too many barriers, and while a good book would be all about knocking those down, I wasn’t feeling it here.
Anyway, many others have enjoyed this book considerably more than I have; visit the Book Blogger Search Engine for many more reviews. While If Jack’s in Love had its moments, I ultimately found it to be disappointing; regardless, I’ll be looking out for Wetta’s further work as he has a lot of potential.
I purchased this book.
Margaret Prior’s spinsterhood is about to be thrown into glaring relief. Her sister is getting married and her brother has long been wed to Margaret’s friend Helen. As a lady, living in Victorian London, it’s considered an excellent idea for her to devote her time to charitable works. She’d once hoped to spend that time helping her father with his studies, but on his death, her choices have narrowed. She chooses to become a Lady Visitor to Millbank Prison, hoping that her visits will cheer up the inmates. At the prison, she meets Selina Dawes, a spiritualist medium who captivates Margaret almost immediately. As Margaret’s fixation with Selina grows stronger, she begins to fantasize about freeing her, and experiencing a life she’d thought long beyond her reach.
I’ve been thinking about this book ever since I read it – it’s wrapped its way into my head and hasn’t left yet. Sarah Waters never fails to disappoint me with thoughtful, intense books that provide excellent stories, well-rounded characters, and real issues that hover about in my head.
Let’s start with the spiritualist nature of the book, and of Selina herself. Victorians were incredibly keen on ghosts and talking with people who had passed on. In the book I just reviewed, Arthur and George, Julian Barnes also sees Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this light, a little bit, but Affinity naturally goes into much more depth. Like Waters’s later book, The Little Stranger, this novel plays with the extent to which we can believe in characters who experience phenomena that is beyond their understanding. Selina sends Margaret flowers and locks of her hair, and seems to know far more about Margaret than is possible. Nurtured in that atmosphere, it’s easy for Margaret to believe in everything Selina tells her, which I think reflects the relatively common Victorian attitude to acceptance of the supernatural in their everyday lives.
Margaret also has to deal with the difficult reality of being a lesbian in a world that doesn’t really acknowledge their existence. I mean – we have trouble with this today, and over 100 years ago, the situation was much worse. Her first love, Helen, rejected her for the more traditional route of marriage to man – Margaret’s own brother. Now, Margaret is bereft, between the loss of her beloved father and her lover, leaving a massive gap that a girl like Selina could much more easily enter. After all Margaret’s been through, she’s longing for that love, that acceptance.
The story also alternates with Selina’s life before the prison, so we can learn a little bit about how she got there in the first place. Together with Margaret’s story, these two halves combine to make the final twist come to life as we understand it. That twist is something I sort of anticipated, given I’d been warned by Ana that the book was sad, but I didn’t understand what was going to happen until, finally, it did. It is incredibly effective and well done, regardless. I loved the way the book came together with everything making perfect sense – I don’t mind open endings, but there is something satisfying about a book that tells you where you stand.
Well-constructed, with excellent characters and spectacular atmosphere, this is a book that is well worth your time.
Arthur and George are born in Great Britain in the mid-19th century, but their lives couldn’t be any more different. Arthur grows up in Edinburgh, in a shabby but intellectual and loving family, becoming an eye doctor and then a world-famous author. George grows up in rural Shropshire, tortured by farmboys due to his dark Indian skin, but nevertheless persevering to become a published solicitor in Birmingham. George is one of many; Arthur is one in a million. But when George’s life begins to unravel completely, it is Arthur who must come to his rescue, in this deep exploration of race, prejudice, circumstance, and deeply-held beliefs.
Julian Barnes recently won the Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending, which I immediately wanted to read, but since I had Arthur and George on my shelf, I decided it had to come first. To be honest with you, that was a brilliant decision, because I loved this book. It made me think on so many levels, while at the same time providing a cleverly told story set in a fascinating part of history.
The short description I wrote about probably makes it obvious that the Arthur is question is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ridiculously famous for creating Sherlock Holmes, a figure who resonates with us still so strongly that he’s having films and revival novels made about him. He’s less famous for his efforts to reform the law and grant justice to the wrongly accused. One of those cases was that of George Edalji, who is naturally the George in this book. Wrongly convicted of a series of horse murders and threatening letters, even though the letters threatened his own family and the mutilations continued when he couldn’t have committed them, George winds up in prison, and sends a letter to the author of the famous detective stories for help. Luckily for us – and Julian Barnes – Arthur came to help.
Knowing that this was a true story gave it particular resonance for me. The letters quoted within are real letters, including the threatening ones sent to George’s family. What was recorded has been included. Barnes has instead stepped into the minds of the characters and explored what these people might have been thinking and feeling.
In particular, this is a deep exploration of the injustice that was once inherent in the criminal system, but which invites us to work out our own prejudices in the process. We may not condemn George for his half-Indian heritage now, as these Englishmen did, but who do we accuse in his place? I’ll let you read the book to consider this for yourself, as Arthur must when he studies the suspects, but it’s the sort of book to place a reader just slightly on edge, fervently aware of how much and how little has changed.
It’s also an incredibly fascinating case study of two completely different men, who might have grown up in two different worlds, but for the cozy feel of England that seems to steep the book in tradition while carefully probing at these stereotypes that we’re still working to smash. I was kept reading, eager to learn more, and I found both halves of the narrative equally consuming, even before the central characters finally meet. It’s completely engrossing, beautifully written, and convincingly fleshed out. Very highly recommended – thank you, Julian Barnes, for getting my 2012 reading year off to a fantastic start.
All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.
Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli begin their lives together with an arranged marriage and a move to the United States from India. Ashoke is still a student, with ambitions to become a professor, while Ashima stays home to take care of their son, Gogol, who is born shortly after their marriage. The Namesake is really about Gogol, who sits between the generations, watching the effect his life has on his immigrant parents even as he tries to sort out his own culture, to reconcile his Bengali roots with his American present.
I’ve been hearing about Jhumpa Lahiri for years, and actually I’ve owned this book since 2008. Shameful, I know, especially because once I got started reading this I completely fell in love. It wasn’t a hard task to win me over; Lahiri managed it almost immediately by tying Gogol, the Russian author, to the story in the form of Gogol, the character, adding in a whole range of meaning for me as a reader of that particular author. I loved how the author followed the character throughout his life, subtly reminding him of his parents, and simultaneously making him confused and guilty and a little bit wistful.
I’m an immigrant myself, and though not nearly as isolated as Ashoke and Ashima, I still sympathised with the feeling of being in a foreign land, lacking friends simply because you have no basis for knowing people, and essentially feeling isolated. The couple eventually make themselves at home, but there’s always something there that is lacking, even once you realize that you’ve lived in a foreign place for long enough that you’ll never quite fit in at home, either.
The contrast between the experience of the parents and the children when they visit India, for instance, is striking. Though Ashoke and Ashima are happy enough in the United States, they come back to themselves in India. In vivid contrast, their children feel irritated at the absence from home and confused by a different way of life. They don’t enjoy the visits, but their parents relish them and despair at leaving.
This is also a novel about identity, about the confusion between who you individually are and where you’ve come from. Gogol, in typical young adult fashion, seems to discard everything about his culture, including his own name, in a search to figure out who he truly is. It takes a powerful shock to remind him that there’s more to his background, that there are essential threads of his life that he just missed while he was busy asserting that identity. But he quickly swings back the other way. It’s not a simple thing, working out who you are and entangling it from the mess created of your life up to that point, and Lahiri not only recognizes this but pulls it off beautifully.
A quiet but powerful book about identity and heritage, The Namesake struck every chord correctly with me, catapulting itself onto my 2011 favorites list at the tail end of the year. Very highly recommended.