Wednesday 28 September 2011

Song Of The Nile by Stephanie Dray

Song of the Nile is part two in Stephanie Dray's historical fiction series about Selene, Cleopatra's daughter.  I read part one, Lily of the Nile, recently (review) and Song of the Nile picks up the story with Selene's marriage to Juba, which leads to her becoming Queen of Mauritania.   But her ultimate ambition is still to become Queen of Egypt and Selene must plot harder than ever if she is to have any chance of achieving it.

Having Lily of the Nile fresh in my mind meant that it was easy for me to make comparisons between the two.  I felt that both the writing and the characterisations were much stronger in Song of the Nile.  Selene goes through some quite unpleasant experiences during the course of this book, and I thought Dray did a good job of capturing the emotions that would arise.  The court politics and intrigue were dealt with realistically.

I also very much enjoyed Selene's characterisation.  Too often I read historical fiction novels in which the royal characters are depressingly normal and humble.  But Selene was a proper Queen; she was haughty, spoilt, ambitious, demanding and not afraid to show it.  It was refreshing because that's probably how she was in real life.

Despite the good writing and characterisations, I did have some issues with the story.  Dray states in her introduction that this is more a work of fiction than a fictional biography, but I found some of the events unbelievable.  And I'm not talking about the supernatural devices, but the remarkable coincidences to bring some of the main characters together at the right time.  I just don't believe that Helios would have always been able to find Selene.  When I feel that way about a book, it's hard for me to get over it and enjoy the other elements.

So this is a bit of a mixed review.  I thought the book started off strong but soon become a bit over the top.  I do think Dray is a good writer with a talent for characters, but ultimately this wasn't the book for me.

Score: 2.5 out of 5
Source: From the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Sunday Salon: Eating Fresh Food

This Sunday Salon is almost completely unrelated to books, being all about eating fresh food.  I'm not ashamed to admit that when I left home for good (university doesn't count), at the age of 23, I was a fussy eater and unable to cook anything from scratch.  The husband (then boyfriend) and I subsided on pasta sauces out of jars, pre-made chilli sauces and a lot of toast, not having the money to eat out.  We didn't eat ready meals, but nothing was freshly cooked from scratch and eating wasn't a great pleasure.

Then my friend Emma lent me her copy of Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food cookbook, written for complete beginners.  I started with the basics: spicy tomato sauce, spaghetti bolognese, chicken fajitas, hearty soups and beef pie.  I soon found that not only could I cook if I had a decent recipe, but that my food tasted good, so much better than the processed junk I had been eating before.  I learned how satisfying it is when you cook something and someone else visibly enjoys it.

And after that, nothing could stop me really.  I moved on to other cook books and different cuisines and was soon eating far more than I had before.  I discovered that I really do like fish, as long as it's not of the oily variety.  I learned the power of a good salad dressing to transform boring old veg.  I started making curries from scratch and experimenting with different cuts of meat - lamb shoulder, pork belly.  Thomasina Mier's Mexican Food Made Simple inspired in me a love of proper Mexican food, not just chillies and fajitas.  I bought a blender and started replacing my fizzy drinks with fresh smoothies.

The latest step in my fresh food journey has been signing up for an Abel and Cole fruit and veg box. I now get fresh, organic, seasonal fruit and vegetables delivered to me every Wednesday and plan my meals around these.  My goal is to not have anything left each week. Thanks to this box, I've tried many things that I hadn't in my previous life as a salad-dodger.  I've discovered a new love for chard, asparagus and the more unusual varieties of British grown apples.  I've eaten cauliflower cooked about ten ways, and more types of stir fry than I can count.

But the point of it all is that I'm better for it.  I have more energy and my taste buds are more alive.  I'm not opposed to the odd take-out but if I eat processed food out of a can or jar, it just tastes so bland and sugary to me now.  It is more time-consuming than heating up a jar of pasta sauce, but now that I'm used to taking the time and eating properly, it doesn't seem like a hassle anymore.

So I guess you could say that fresh food is one of my soap box issues now.  It drives me mad to see people existing on take-out or claiming that they don't have the time or money to cook properly.  Lacking the skill I can understand, I was there too, but making a fresh pasta sauce takes minutes and a stir fry not much more.  My husband and I both work full time and from home in the evenings too but we make the time for cooking because it's important to us to eat properly and enjoy what we are eating.  We still eat junk every now and again and chocolate does feature in our cupboards, but it's all about balance.

What about you?  Do you think a lot about the food you eat?  And does anyone have any amazing cookbook recommendations?

Saturday 24 September 2011

The Obscure Logic Of The Heart by Priya Basil

The Obscure Logic of the Heart is about the clash between love and religion, religion and personal desires, personal desires and family obligations.  Muslim Lina meets Sikh Anil at university and the pair fall in love.  Her world is broadened through knowing him and he arranges work placements that lead to her starting a career as a human rights activist for the UN.   But their relationship must always remain a secret, and when Lina's parents discover the truth, she is constantly torn in a conflict with no right answer.  Should she choose for herself or her parents?   Tied up amongst all of this is the corruption of the Kenyan government and the effects of the illegal arms trade in Sudan.

Basil's book was a great read.  I rushed through it as I was so caught up in the story and the characters.  What I liked the most about it was that Basil didn't present any simple solutions or any great message of 'love will conquer all'.  By allowing us to see the thoughts of all the main characters, we could see that Lina and Anil's relationship was causing pain for all around them.  At one point the narrative got to a stage where there was no longer any decision that Lina could make that could fix everything, and that seemed realistic.  It was therefore an in-depth look at the issue and I found it affecting.  Even though I couldn't understand the attitude of Lina's parents, not being religious myself, I felt for them as their relationship with their daughter deteriorated.

I also enjoyed the selection of letters interspersed with the main story, about a relationship between a Muslim man and white British woman during the 1960s.  I was naturally curious as to how Basil would tie them to the main narrative and thought she did so in a touching way that made the actions of certain characters a lot more understandable.  The writing in these letters, and in the main story to a lesser extent, was lyrical.  Basil wrote the conflicts within Lina's family especially well, and the dialogue between Lina and her father at certain points was very powerful.

The backdrop of Lina's work with the UN in Sudan and the illegal arms trade from Kenya was interesting too.  At one point near the end of the story, Lina comes to realise that personal suffering can overwhelm concern for any global issue, and I think that is true.  This section of the story also concentrated on the role of our principles in our decisions.  If you love someone, can you still be with them if their family is involved in something morally repungnant?

I haven't any major criticisms to make of The Obscure Logic of the Heart.  It wasn't a happy book, but it wasn't exactly a sad book either.  I found it to be thoughtful and powerful, and a good take on the conflicts that can arise between religion, family and personal choice.

Verdict: A powerful examination on love between people of two different religions.
Source: Transworld Book Group Challenge
Published: 2010
Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Have you ever had one of those days where everything goes wrong?  For Lucy Snowe, the narrator of Villette, her entire life is like one of those days.  Having lost her family at a young age due to mysterious circumstances never quite revealed, she journeys alone to Villette where she becomes a governess for school-owner Madame Beck.  Excelling at her work, she progresses to the station of teacher and has some emotionally fraught entanglements with the people around her.

In many ways, Villette was a difficult book to read.  Lucy was a secretive narrator, holding some information back only to reveal it later and giving the reader few clues about her feelings.  This meant I had to be paying close attention at all times to really get the best out of the book.  But by the time I was half-way through, I was enjoying Lucy's reserve as it made any flashes of real feeling much more profound.  I could also relate to this characteristic of hers; her pride and self-protection.

Another difficulty was the odd conversations written in French.  I understand this adds authenticity but as someone who has never studied French (my school did German and Spanish), I worried that I missed some things.  Bronte did provide just enough English in these sections for me to follow what was going on and it was only occasionally that French was used, but it was tricky for me.

So yes, this was a difficult book and it required much mental exertion but boy, was it worth it.  Bronte's characterisation was simply flawless - very subtle but powerful.  Somehow, without explicitly telling me much about each character, I felt as though I knew them as well as my friends.  From Ginevra, Lucy's self-indulged and lively friend, to Madame Beck, a sneaky puppet-master with her eye at every keyhole, each character was fully formed.  My favourite was Monsieur Paul, the literature teacher.

Bronte's wonderful writing meant I was connected to the characters, especially Lucy.  So at certain points in the book, I was heartbroken right along with her.  And this I think was the true power of the book - Bronte pulls you in and takes you right along with Lucy.  All the other stuff faded into the background for me; the theological discussions, the morality and the pedagogy of teaching.  That was all interesting too, but I was too busy living the book alongside Lucy.

Verdict: Not an easy read, but Villette repays any effort that you put into it.
Source: Kindle
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Sunday 18 September 2011

Sunday Salon: Back to Work / Villette

You may have noticed that my posting rate has slowed considerably lately, and the reason for this is that I went back to work two weeks ago.  After six long weeks of honeymooning and reading as much as I wanted to, it's been quite an adjustment getting back into the swing of busy every day life.

I've had a good start to this academic year.  I have a new class, a new classroom to set up and I'm teaching in a year group that I've never taught in before.  All this results in work being more time-demanding than it was last year, when I had a new class but in the same year group in the same classroom.  It is nice to have a change and a bit of a challenge but it does encroach on my reading time.

Given that I've been so busy and my thoughts are all tied up with school, I don't really know why I decided that now would be the perfect time to read Charlotte Bronte's Villette.  I'm making slow progress with it (my kindle declares I am now 69% done) but very much enjoying it so far.  It's very deep and heart-felt, and it makes Jane Austen's books look positively light and fluffy.  But after I finish it, I'm definitely up for something a bit easier to read.

Work should be settling down over the next few weeks as I get more used to my new working schedule, so I'm looking forward to reading and posting lots more soon.

Saturday 10 September 2011

The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard C Morais

This book suffered from my high expectations because as soon as I got it out of the library, I couldn't wait to read it.  Telling the fictional story of an Indian immigrant to first England, then France, who rises from kitchen apprentice to celebrated three-star Michelin chef, it ticked all of my reading boxes.  Food - tick, other cultures - tick, immigrant experience - tick, faux-memoir -tick.

But unfortunately it was a mediocre book in many regards. I did like the central storyline but the book couldn't seem to decide whether it wanted to be a realistic 'autobiography' or a fairytale.  As a result some of the situations felt very contrived and the main character, Hassan, had far too much luck to make the story credible.

Everything was much too happy too. There are some minor instances of prejudice but for the most part Hassan and his family fit in with rural France incredibly quickly and never miss home.  Hassan gives up his native Indian cuisine in order to be a French chef without a second thought as he accepts immediately that French cooking is 'better'.

The characters were caricatures too.  We had the old-fashioned grumpy French chef who didn't want to accept that an Indian person can cook better than she can.  We had the nasty Michelin inspectors.  We had angry chefs.  We had a stereotypically large and boisterous Indian family.  Which is why I think this novel would have worked much better with a touch of the fantastical, a touch of fairytale.  It could have been a magical book that way.

Despite all of my criticisms, I never wanted to stop reading this book and it did pass the time enjoyably.  The setting of rural France in the first half of the book was described absolutely beautifully and as someone who loves her food, I loved all of the cooking and restaurant sections.  It's clear that Morais loves his food too and did a good amount of research into both French and Indian cuisine.  But overall it just lacked that specialness.

Verdict: Interesting plotline but situations are too contrived and characters too stereotypical.
Source: Library
Published: 2011
Score: 2.5 out of 5

Thursday 8 September 2011

Back To The Books Giveaway Hop WINNER

Using, my winner is:

Linda Kish

who chose to receive Notes On A Scandal.  I've contacted her by email, she has 48 hours to respond.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant

Wherever You Go is a beautifully complex novel about three Americans in Israel.  Yona wants to reconnect with her sister, a settler involved in extremist politics.  Greenglass is an orthodox teacher but having problems with his faith.   Aaron is a college drop-out with family problems who is looking for a way to prove himself or something he can belong to.

Leegant weaves these three very separate lives together throughout the course of the novel and builds up to a dramatic finale.  I found the most interesting character to be Dena, Yona's sister, who had completely devoted her life to one interpretation of her faith and for most of the book was unable to see anything else, including the person she had once been.  I am non-religious so it was fascinating to be given a glimpse of life so led by religion and the different reasons people turn to religion.

For me, the best thing about this novel was how Leegant managed to portray such a broad spectrum of opinion about religion and politics in Israel, and by doing so demonstrated how complex the country is.  I'm not Jewish or Israeli or even American and perhaps have been guilty of oversimplifying Israel and the Middle East in general, thinking things such as "Israelis think that...." or "Israelis are..." and Leegant's book reminded how just how complicated the situation is.

Leegant's book would be a great pick for a book group because it gave me so much to think about and so many questions to ask myself - At what point does religion become fundamentalist?  Why do people turn to religion in bad times rather than good?  Can people with opposing ideologies ever live together in peace?  Can you ever redeem yourself from certain acts?  What issues or causes would you devote your life to?

But I don't want you all to think this was just a stuffy, 'issues' book as it was also a story that was enjoyable to read with characters I came to care about.  I would recommend it.

Source: From the author, in exchange for an honest review.  Wherever You Go is already available in America and is released in the UK on September 17th.
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Don't forget to enter my Back To The Books Giveaway HERE!
Tomorrow is your last chance to enter.

Sunday 4 September 2011

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

The Sandalwood Tree tells two entwining stories of Western women in India at different times.  The main story is that of American woman Evie, living in India in 1947 with her Fulbright scholar husband Martin and son Billy.  A veteran of liberating the concentration camps in WW2, Martin is suffering from shell shock and their marriage is under strain.  As India edges towards partition and the withdrawal of the British, the situation becomes increasingly volatile.

The other story, told around the main one, is a gem of a story about two unconventional Victorian women who grew up reading biographies of intrepid female explorers.  Born in India, Felicity Chadwick takes the unusual step of living on her own, speaking Hindi and becoming involved in charity work.  Seeking escape from the prospect of marriage, her friend Adela soon joins her and the two women become estranged from their fellow British settlers.

This was a book to read slowly and treasure.  Both stories were fascinating, although I have to admit I preferred the Victorian story and would have liked to see a few more chapters about Felicity and Adela.  Even though this was a historical fiction novel set in a different time and place, Newmark retained a strong focus on character and plot first.  The book was really about love in all it's different forms, and the story of Martin and Evie trying to overcome his war experiences was touching.

There was also a vivid sense of place.  Newmark visited India twice whilst writing this book and her writing is full of the sights and smells of the different locations.  I enjoyed being transported away whilst reading and the descriptions of all of the different foods made me crave a curry!  In fact, there was nothing I didn't enjoy about this book and it's one of my top reads of the year so far.

Verdict: A joy to read, highly recommended.
Source: Transworld Book Group Reading Challenge
Published: 2011
Score: 5 out of 5

Don't forget to enter my Back To The Books Giveaway HERE.  It closes September 7th.

Friday 2 September 2011

Lily Of The Nile by Stephanie Dray

Lily Of The Nile is part one in a series of books about the life of Cleopatra's daughter Selene.  Born and raised in Alexandria as the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, she lives a privileged life in a place where women are free to be as intelligent as men.  After Cleopatra is defeated by Octavian, Selene is sent to Rome with her brothers and must learn to comply with the strict rules of Roman life, whilst coming to term with the loss of her parents, her throne and her country.

I love historical fiction but was slightly apprehensive about reading this book as I have read Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter, and liked her portrayal of Selene.  But I shouldn't have worried - Dray's Selene is a strong character, heartsick over what has happened to her but determined to do all she can to make the best of her new situation.  I liked all of the politics in this book and how Selene was able to use her intellect to manoeuvre something beneficial to her out of the emperor.

I also enjoyed the character of Selene's twin brother Helios, and liked how Dray used the two of them to show the reader two contrasting reactions to being defeated by the emperor - Selene chooses compliance in the hope of getting what she wants later on, but Helios chooses to fight.  I would say that characterisation for me was the strength of this novel; Dray bought the historical figures to life and made each distinct.  I particularly enjoyed Julia, the headstrong daughter of the emperor, and Octavia, the former wife of Mark Anthony who becomes devoted to helping his children.

The one thing that stopped me from really loving this book was the fantasy element of it.  I enjoyed reading about the cult of Isis, especially the worship Selene witnesses in the temple, but I wasn't sold on the whole magic thing.  I can believe that Selene believed that Isis could carve hieroglyphics on her arms, but not that it could actually happen.

Verdict: An enjoyable read more on the fiction side of historical fiction with a strong leading character.
Source: From the author in exchange for an honest review.
Score: 3.5 out of 5

And don't forget to enter my Back to the Books giveaway HERE.