Saturday 28 January 2012

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

It's rural Canada in the 1960s and Jacinta Blake gives birth to a child that has features of the both the male and the female.  Advised by doctors who have never seen a true hermaphrodite before, the child is bought up as Wayne around parents that are always anxiously watching him for any signs of 'girlishness'.   When he hits his teenage years, Wayne has problems with hormones and self-identity and must slowly come to terms with being who he is, even if that person is very different from those around him.  Annabel was short-listed for the Orange Prize.

Annabel is a beautiful, haunting book and I can't say how much I enjoyed it.  Winter explores the concept of gender thoroughly - is it biological?  Social?  Hormonal?  I really liked the inter-play of how, having decided that Wayne would be a boy, his parents were constantly on alert and paranoid about normal childhood behaviours - is he being too girly? Is it normal for a boy to like this? Is his voice deep enough?  They had the constant fear that Wayne's 'secret' would be discovered and he would turn into the victim of abuse and prejudice.  In this way, Annabel also said a lot about life in small rural communities.

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was the characters.  At points told from multiple persepectives, all of the characters had real depth about them.  My favourite was Wayne's father, Treadway, who at first seemed stereotypically 'manly' but actually had a lot of acceptance and simplicity about him.   All three characters who knew about Wayne's birth (his parents and Jacinta's friend, Thomasina), were in some way destroyed by the information, the keeping of the secret, and the damage that might be happening to Wayne.  Their stories were just as interesting as the story of Wayne himself.

But what I liked most about Annabel was that it offered no real answers.  There was no happy ending where Wayne finally discovered he was a boy or a girl, there was just compromise and probably difficulties still to come.  Hermaphroditism is a pretty sensationalist issue to write about, but Winter doesn't glamorise it or set out to shock people, she gives a sensitive account of what it might be like to have to accept that about yourself.  She also completely draws you into the world of the book to the extent that you have to take a few seconds to acclimatise yourself to the here and now when you put the book down.

Highly recommended.

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2010
Score: 5 out of 5

Tuesday 24 January 2012

The Keys Of Egypt: The Race To Read The Hieroglyphs by Lesley & Roy Adkins

I was always going to love this book about deciphering hieroglyphics.  During my time at university I took a few modules on linguistics, I love Ancient Egypt and I have visited the Rosetta Stone many times at the British Museum - I could hardly wait to open the cover of this one!  Mainly a biography of the person to finally crack the code, Jean-Francoise Champollion, The Keys Of Egypt places Champollion's extraordinary discovery in context, explaining exactly why it took the world so long to be able to read hieroglyphics and the reaction of the academic community at the time.  

The Keys of Egypt is engagingly written, but it's not the best example of entertaining non-fiction out there.  The pace of events is quite brisk at the beginning of the book but definitely tapers throughout the middle onwards, finally ending with a long description of Champollion's time in Egypt including many page-length quotes from his personal letters.  This meant that the last fifty or so pages did feel like a bit of a slog; I was happy that Champollion had finally achieved his dream of seeing Egypt, I just didn't want to read all of his letters!  Therefore, this non-fiction book probably falls in a category with the vast majority of non-fiction titles; fascinating if you are interested in the subject, a bit tedious if you aren't.

One thing I really appreciated about The Keys Of Egypt was how the authors put Champollion's achievements in their proper historical context.  There was a section on Napoleon's troops discovering the Rosetta stone, several on the political aftermath of the French Revolution and a comparison with the work of Champollion's main rival, Young.  Reading about all the events going on in Champollion's life and his personal hardships (he was born into poverty and never really left it), the Adkins' managed to create a real sense of how big his achievement was and how much he was able to accomplish through hard work and sheer determination.

There were also some strong themes throughout the book.  Champollion was very close to his older brother and the theme of sibling love/respect was a thread throughout all of the sections.  Despite being an academic himself and therefore at high risk of becoming jealous of his younger brother, Jacques-Joseph Champollion often sacrificed his own goals and dreams in order to help Jean-Francoise.  The snobbery and resistance to change of the academic community was another theme - Champollion really had to fight to have his achievements acknowledged, and there were also some sore losers who resorted to plagiarism claims.  It's only really since his death that his accomplishments are freely recognised.

Whilst I loved this book (and will be giving it a high rating), I can see that it wouldn't be a book for everyone, only for big fans of Ancient Egypt and/or linguistics.  If you are after only a brief introduction to the life of Champollion and the decoding of the Rosetta stone (as well as the discovery of many of Egypt's monuments), I would recommend Joyce Tyldesley's Egypt: How A Lost Civilisation Was Rediscovered and the excellent BBC series that went with it.  

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: September 2000
Score: 4 out of 5

Saturday 21 January 2012

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I went into this book not entirely sure what to expect.  I knew it was a gothic tale inspired by books such as Jane Eyre, The Woman in White and Wuthering Heights, and I knew that it was partly about loving books, but I didn't know it was going to be a mystery.  Margaret Lea, the reclusive daughter of a bookshop owner, is summoned to write the biography of the nation's favourite writer, Vida Winter.  But Vida's compulsive storytelling makes it hard to separate fact from fiction and Margaret is soon drawn into a world of stormy weather, moors, desperate love, violence and feral children.  Just what is the truth behind the stories?

There was much I enjoyed about The Thirteenth Tale.  I just adored the beginning section describing Margaret's life in the bookshop and her passion for reading (many quotes were copied out of the book) and found Vida Winter to be a fascinating character.  The writing just glides across the page and I found myself trying to read faster and faster in order to find out what would happen next.  I don't read many mysteries and didn't solve the mystery before the reveal, but I loved looking back and thinking about all of the clever clues I had missed, as well as solving what Setterfield had left deliberately obscure.

Being a bibliophile, I also appreciated the references to some of my favourite books, although they could have been a bit more subtle.  I haven't read The Turn of the Screw, but I did catch the homages to Wuthering Heights (wild love), Jane Eyre (madness, governesses) and The Woman in White.  I tend to enjoy books that attempt to write in the style of these classics (The Historian) and this was no exception.  Of course the writing didn't live up to the standard of the original novels, but I thought it a fitting tribute.

There were parts of this novel I didn't like as much.  The constant reference to twins as the central motif grated on me as the book went on.  There's only so many times I wanted to read about Margaret looking at her 'other self' in a mirror or windowpane, especially as it was described in the same way each time.  I felt the middle sections lagged in comparison with the rapid pace of the end of the book, and I wanted more about Margaret's Mum, who could have been a fascinating character if she appeared in the book for a longer period of time.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys the gothic classics, or a good mystery, or who likes reading books about books.  I'm going to end this review with my favourite quote from the book;
   " In the background is the hiss of the gas heater; we hear the sound without hearing it for, side by side, together and miles apart, we are deep in our books."

Source: Library 
First Published: 2006
Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday 17 January 2012

The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy

It's 1945 in Germany and teenager Elsie Schmidt is keeping out of trouble by helping out at her family's bakery and dating SS officer Josef Hub.  But her first experience of a Nazi party is not all that she thought it would be and it's only the presence of a captive Jewish boy that saves her from a horrific experience.  When that same boy turns up on her doorstep later, she feels she has no choice but to help him in any way that she can.  Sixty years later, Elsie is running a German bakery in El Paso, Texas, and journalist Reba Adams arrives looking for an easy festive story.  But Elsie's life is anything but and Reba is soon drawn in by her tale enough to start questioning her own life and values.

The Baker's Daughter took me by surprise.  Quite simply, I was not expecting it to be as hard-hitting as it was.  I was anticipating a somewhat cosy read but instead The Baker's Daughter confronts some harrowing issues head on.  The story of Elsie's life is captivating and McCoy writes her with such depth that as the reader, you are soon rooting for her.  There's also an interesting side plot about the Lebensborn Program, where unmarried 'racially pure' German girls were basically prostituted out to SS officers to repopulate the Reich.  Elsie's sister Hazel is selected for the program and some of the letters she writes home about her life there and the disabled son she gives birth to are very powerful.

As with any dual-narrative story, one of the narratives was stronger and in this case it was Elsie's story that dominated.  Just under half of the story is devoted to the present day and Reba's struggle to come to terms with her own family history and relationships.  I felt that this part of the story was weaker and could have been made a bit more concise.  Reba just wasn't a fascinating character in the way that Elsie was.  I found Reba's boyfriend Riki and his role in deporting illegal Mexican immigrants (and the parallels to Elsie's life) more compelling than Reba herself.

The Baker's Daughter spans a lot of time and in this case I was glad of that as I appreciated the closure on certain issues raised in the book and I wanted to find out what happened to some of the characters.  Even so, the ending section was quite winding and the book did lose a bit of steam towards the end.  Despite this, The Baker's Daughter was a book that made me think long after I closed it each night and it drew me completely in.  I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction.

Source: From the publisher via NetGalley.
Score: 4 out of 5

The Baker's Daughter is published on the 24th January 2012.

Monday 16 January 2012

Be My Friend On Goodreads!

At the weekend, I finally passed a landmark in my quest to be more organised and you know, actually know what books I own.  I finished cataloguing everything on goodreads, something I have been working on for months.  And by everything, I mean everything - kindle books, netgalley requests and all.

Now that I am all set up, I would love it if you hopped over to my profile and added me as a friend.  I love seeing all the reading updates and little comments on goodreads.  Just don't spend too much time looking the size of my to-read shelf!

My link: here

Sunday 15 January 2012

Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse

Sweet Mandarin is a memoir about the lives of three generations of the same Chinese family; Helen herself, her mother Mabel and grandmother Lily.  Although all three women are mentioned throughout the course of the book, the focus is on Lily, the one who left a hard life in Hong Kong behind to start afresh in the UK.  After working non-stop only to find that her husband has drained all of her money for gambling, Lily grabs the chance when her British employers invite her to join them in the UK as a carer.  Her love of cooking leads her to eventually start a restaurant, and this love of Chinese cuisine and catering is the link between the three generations.  Helen Tse and her two sisters own a restaurant in Manchester called Sweet Mandarin.

Sweet Mandarin was very successful as a memoir.  It gave just enough historical detail to enable the reader to put the family in context, but the real story was the story of the three women.  Lily's life had many twists and turns and she had to rebuild things from scratch numerous times both in Hong Kong and the UK.  The admiration that Helen feels for her grandmother clearly came through in the text and as a reader it was easy to empathise with Lily and want her to succeed as no matter what happened to her, she never gave up.

Tse also portrays Chinese culture very well.  She doesn't ever explain that Chinese culture is x, y or z but instead it permeates the whole book.  Some parts about the value of men over women and the role of wives were difficult for me to relate to but fascinating to read about.  The Chinese village that Lily comes from and Helen eventually visits almost jumps off the page and the description of food in particular was very vivid.

This is quite a brief memoir and not one to read if you want in-depth historical observations (try Jung Chang's Wild Swans for that) but the lives of the women are interesting and well told.  Recommended to anyone who wants to learn more about another culture.

Source: Library (reserved)
First Published: 2007
Score: 4 out of 5

Friday 13 January 2012

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My ongoing quest to discover American literature continues.  So far I've discovered that Hemingway is probably not for me but Willa Cather more than likely is.  The Great Gatsby is my first time reading Fitzgerald and all I knew before starting it was that he famously wrote about the glamour and decadence of the jazz age in 1920s America.

The Great Gatsby is the tale of Jay Gatsby, a self-made man who lives in comfort in a large mansion and holds the kind of parties that people come to from miles around.  Despite having all the luxuries money can buy, he longs only for Daisy Buchanan, an ex of his who is now married.  His neighbour, Nick Carraway, witnesses the tragic consequences of Jay and Daisy's affair.

A few days after reading this book, I'm still not sure whether I liked it or not.  There's no question that Fitzgerald is a very talented writer and he makes remarkably perceptive insights about the characters and events in his book.  I enjoyed his writing so much that I found myself deliberately slowing down my pace and rereading certain sections throughout.  The Great Gatsby is short and very tightly constructed; no word is wasted.  The central character of Jay Gatsby was intriguing and Fitzgerald managed to show his loneliness despite always surrounding himself with people.

I think what threw me off with this book was the author's ambivalence towards the decadence he was writing about.  At some points Gatsby is portrayed as 'living the dream' and Fitzgerald certainly seems to approve but  in other sections he makes it clear that the party-goers are drifting loose from their moral fibres and that the lifestyle doesn't lead to happiness. These parts read as a commentary on the corruption of the American dream and how it had been ruined by too much money, alcohol, greed and selfishness.   I got the impression that Fitzgerald both loved and hated the themes and characters in his novel.

My other quibbles with the book are minor.  Reading it in 2012, the wild parties don't seem as wild as they might have done to a 1925 audience.  I thought the ending was a bit too dramatic.  But The Great Gatsby is well worth reading if only for the beautiful prose;

  "In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whispering and the champagne and the stars." 

I got this book as part of a set with Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and the Damned.  I will be definitely be reading both at some point in the future.

Verdict: Beautifully written classic novel about the Jazz Age.
Source: Owned
First Published: 1925
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Monday 9 January 2012

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachnaik

Although the subtitle of The Winter Palace is 'a novel of Catherine the Great', it's really a novel about a young Polish woman called Barbara (Varvara when she arrives in Russia).  The daughter of a bookbinder, she is orphaned and left in the care of Empress Elizabeth's Court in the Winter Palace of St Petersburg.  Initially a lowly seamstress, her intelligence and quick wit catches the eye of Chancellor Bestuzhev and she is trained as a 'tongue', or spy for a variety of masters.   Eventually, she throws in her lot with Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, the future Catherine the Great and becomes entangled in many plots and intrigues.

The Winter Palace was a well written book, the kind of historical fiction that I enjoy.  It was obvious upon reading it that Stachniak had done her research and was keen to share this with the reader.  Aside from the lives of the main characters, there were lots of smaller facts and details that made it easy to imagine the court and the cast of secondary characters.  There was also a romance about the Russia Stachniak set her story in; she has Varvara at one point feeling homesick for;

 "January nights, white not from the sun that refuses to set but from the silver light of the moon.  For ice floes screeching as they rub again against one another, for rocks in which precious stones look like frozen drops of blood. For sacred places where, in a solemn moment, you can peek into the other world."

Russia itself was almost another character in the novel and the Russian winter was always intruding on the lives of the protagonists.  I loved this element of the writing.

Despite all of this, I didn't love The Winter Palace.  Although I enjoy detailed historical fiction, I felt as though this novel was over-long in parts.  For whole sections of the text, Varvara is away from the Court and the royal characters and these sections could have been shortened.  I was interested in what she did during these times, I just wanted to get back to the main action as well.  And whilst Varvara was a wonderfully drawn character, the royal characters did feel a bit one-dimensional.  It's only in the closing sections that we get a glimpse of the ruthlessness Catherine the Great was famous for, and Peter III comes across as childish, rather than the unpleasant character he really was.

Still, at the end of this novel I felt as though I had learned a lot about a period of history relatively unknown to me.  Fans of Juliet Grey's Becoming Marie Antoinette will definitely enjoy this one.

Verdict: Well written historical fiction with the unusual setting of the Russian court.
Source: From the publisher, via NetGalley
Score: 3.5 out of 5

The Winter Palace is published tomorrow, January 10th 2012.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Why Do I Buy Great Books And Then Not Read Them?


Something that I do too frequently and am trying not to do in 2012 is buy books that I've heard great things about and then proceed to ignore them in favour of books that aren't as good.  I don't know why I do this, but I possess many books that are either critically acclaimed or the subject of much positive hype that are simply sitting collecting dust.  I buy them and can't wait to read them - and then just don't.

Part of the problem in the last year has been review commitments.  It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of review copies, especially when you can actually access the good books from the good publishers on NetGalley, but it does meant that the books I own are getting less love.  I have quite a few to review early in the year but I'm being much stricter with myself and refusing more this year.

Another problem is the hype itself.  Often I see a book reviewed positively so many times that I almost don't want to read it myself - what if I don't like it?  What if it isn't as good as it is supposed to be?  It's easier in a way for me to read more obscure books or books that are not as loved.  I can also be fickle - if I don't read a book very soon after purchasing it, it gets overshadowed by more recently bought books later on.

But this year as a personal goal I want to read some of these great books sitting on my shelf. I have some review commitments to clear first then I hope to get back to my own books. I haven't included my Christmas gifts of The Marriage Plot and The Night Circus in this list, as I'm hoping they won't fall victim to dust-gathering.  The books I already own that I really want to read this year are the following (links take you to goodreads):

1. The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron
2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
3. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
4. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
5. Between Shades Of Grey by Rutya Sepetys
6. The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
7. The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
8. The History Of Love by Nicole Krauss
9. Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen
10. The Memory Of Love by Aminatta Forna
11. Room by Emma Donoghue
12. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Realistically, I am not going to read everything on this list as I also want to read more classics and reread some of my favourites, but I want to make at least a dent in this list.

Am I the only one who does this, buys great books and then doesn't read them?  If you do it too, why do you think this is?

Thursday 5 January 2012

The Girl With Three Legs by Soraya Mire

The Girl With Three Legs is a brutally honest memoir about the horror that is female genital mutilation (FGM).  At age thirteen, Soraya starts being teased by her friends for having 'three legs'.  When she goes to ask her mother what the nickname means, her mother tells her that she is going to receive a 'gift'.  Soraya's flesh is cut off (she describes hearing the sound of the scissors cutting her) and sewn up, leaving her with an opening just the size of a cotton bud/Q-tip.  The memoir describes frankly the medical problems that this caused and the long recovery period Soraya faced when she moved away from Somalia to Europe.  It also covers Mire's later career as an activist, campaigning for the end of FGM.

The Girl With Three Legs is a very successful memoir in that it shines a light on an issue that is important and could do with more attention.  The scenes where Soraya is mutilated and when she faces pain and complications afterwards are graphic and I found myself wincing in horror.  Mire also successfully shows how ingrained the attitudes leading to FGM are in the certain cultures and how it is often women doing this to their daughters for fear of their daughters being seen as unclean. When Soraya becomes an activist in her later life, she faces opposition from her native culture and even ostracism from her own family.  

That being said, The Girl With Three Legs isn't the most well-written memoir I have read.  It seems to jump around a lot and in certain places was hard to follow, especially when Mire describes the Somalian culture at the beginning of the book.  There are also sections when Soraya is going through an incredibly tough time after the surgery that are hard to follow; her descriptions blur into each other and it's hard to always know what she is referring to.  The chapters about Soraya becoming an activist could have been edited down a little.

I am glad I read this book.  FGM does occur in Western countries, where immigrants send their daughters back to Somalia or Egypt for the treatment in their school holidays, or even find a private doctor willing to carry it out for them.  The Girl With Three Legs shows why this is always unacceptable, no matter how tolerant of other cultures we want to be.

Verdict: Memoir about an important issue that is hard to follow in places.
Published: 2011
Source: From the publisher via NetGalley
Score: 3 out of 5

Monday 2 January 2012

Dreams Of Joy by Lisa See

Dreams of Joy is the sequel to Shanghai Girls, which I read and loved back in August.  Those of you who have read Shanghai Girls will remember that Joy had just found out that her mother Pearl isn't really her mother at all but her aunt, and that her biological father is an artist still living in China.  With the impulsiveness and surety of youth, Joy gives up her American life and travels to Communist China to 'help build the New China'.  Looking at everything through rose-tinted glasses, she thinks she has found a rural idyll and a simple life far away from the consumerism and prejudice she has experienced in America.  So she thinks nothing of surrendering her passport, of losing her ability to travel around China, of falling in love with a man from the village (now Dandelion Commune number eight).  Pearl, with the wisdom of experience, can see the trouble her daughter is involving herself with and also abandons everything to travel to China in an attempt to bring her home.

I was apprehensive about reading Dreams of Joy, as I enjoyed Shanghai Girls so much, but I shouldn't have worried - I loved it.  Throughout the whole first half of the book, as Joy embraced Communist China and commune life and all it stood for I wanted to reach through the book and shake her.  Having studied The Great Leap Forward and Communist China, I had a great sense of foreboding and was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Joy is so headstrong and so determined to love everything about China and village life that she is beyond being made to see otherwise, and at a certain point, Pearl has to let her make her own mistakes. Other reviewers have complained of Joy's naivety for thinking everything is charming and perfect in the communes, but I thought it fit with her character - when you are so determined for something to be right, you simply don't see the bad.

In the second half of the book, the other shoe drops as See starts describing the effects of The Great Leap Forward.  Communes were led by leaders that had no clue about farming, leading to mistakes in planting and harvesting and consequently a radical drop in food production.  At the same time, the pressure was on to have higher and higher yields leading to a massive famine, with some estimates putting it at 45 million dead.  People started to abandon and even eat their own babies and children out of desperation.  I thought See effectively conveyed the suffering of people that had been made to abandon the farming practises that they knew worked, for those that they knew wouldn't, but were unable to speak up due to terrible consequences for those that did.  Starving must be truly a terrible way to die.  Other aspects of Communist China are touched upon - meetings where 'rightist elements' are denounced, internal travel restrictions, cruelty towards anyone who had been well off before communism, unrealistic targets and announcements.  As always, See had done her research and wrote about these topics knowledgeably.

Some parts of the plot did require a bit of suspension of belief in the way that the characters were able to move around the country and make plans to leave whilst remaining undetected.  I also missed the character of May, who stayed in America and was only in the novel in the form of letters she wrote to Pearl.  The dynamic between the two sisters was something I enjoyed about Shanghai Girls and this was missing in Dreams of Joy.  But these are minor criticisms compared to how much I enjoyed reading the book - in the final chapters I was reading as fast as I could as I was desperate to see what would happen to Joy and Pearl.  Highly recommended.

Verdict: Excellent sequel to Shanghai Girls that illuminates Chinese suffering during the Great Leap Forward.
Source: Library (reservation)
First Published: 2011
Score: 5 out of 5

Sunday 1 January 2012

Smut by Alan Bennett

I'm going to start this review by stating that I am a big Alan Bennett fan (The Uncommon Reader is amongst my favourite books), so I had high expectations for this collection of two new novellas and jumped at the chance to read and review them via NetGalley.  Smut contains the stories "The Greening of Mrs Donaldson" and "The Shielding of Mrs Forbes" and both are about the secrets behind the net curtains of middle-class England.

The Greening of Mrs Donaldson is about a widower who takes on a job as a 'demonstrator' at the local hospital, which involves her pretending to have various illnesses so that medical students can practise their diagnostic skills.  She also rents out a room in her house to students and this signals a kind of sexual awakening/liberation.   The Shielding of Mrs Forbes, the novella I preferred, is about a middle class, middle aged woman who believes that everything in her family is normal, despite having a gay married son who is being harassed by a police officer and a daughter in law that's having a secret affair with her husband, and who isn't as stupid as Mrs Forbes believes.

Smut was a big disappointment for me.  While there were elements of satire and humour in both novellas, Bennett's writing felt flat, not razor sharp like it usually does. Neither story really hooked me in and whilst I could take a stab at inferring all of the themes that Alan Bennett was covering in the novellas, this lack of an interesting and engaging story was too big of a flaw for me to get past.  The things that happened in the stories seemed random, especially in The Greening of Mrs Donaldson.  I probably wouldn't be as harsh in my review if not for that fact that I really am an Alan Bennett fan, and have read much better from him.  I would advise readers new to Bennett to start somewhere else.

Verdict: For me, a disappointing collection of two novellas lacking the satire and humour of the author's previous works.
Source: From NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Score: 2 out of 5  

Smut is released in the US on the 3rd January 2012.  It is already available in the UK.