Wednesday 31 October 2012

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow is book two in Juliet Grey's Marie Antoinette series.  I read book one, Becoming Marie Antoinette, last year (my review) and very much enjoyed it, so I was pleased to be offered the chance to review the sequel.  Covering the period from Marie's ascension to the throne of France to the beginnings of the revolution, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow plants the seeds of the hardships to come.  Young, childless and kept away from the business of state, Marie Antoinette busies herself with parties, gambling and fashion, alienating a population struggling through economic difficulties.  Her attempts at gaining privacy offend the noble classes and although her heart is often in the right place, she lacks the common sense a good leader requires.   Her joy at finally giving birth to an heir is tempered by gossip and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which signals that the population of France is getting ready to challenge the monarchy.

I was very familiar with the history of Marie Antoinette before reading this or its predecessor as I have read and loved Antonia Fraser's biography of her in the past, so I was pleased to see how much Grey stuck to historical fact.  As with Becoming Marie Antoinette, the amount of research that had gone into Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, was admirable.  I love all of the little details in historical fiction and Grey includes enough of them to make the time period completely and utterly believable.  There are never any jarring anachronisms and I enjoyed all the little details about court etiquette and trends.  I also enjoyed the letters between Marie and her family members as they broke up the narrative nicely.

The character of Marie Antoinette was drawn well.  Grey manages a good balance between making you just sympathetic enough to like her but also showing why France didn't embrace her.  Marie comes across as exactly what she was, a young girl out of her depth with black and white morals that didn't translate well to being the Queen of France.  She is too easily led and thinks that simplistic gestures like donating a bit of money to charity can cover up her massive expenditure.  Grey shows how good intentions aren't always enough and Marie's lack of common sense about her friends and choices ends up starting her ruin. 

Despite these strengths, I had some issues with the pacing of the book.  It covers many years of Marie Antoinette's life and while the first half had a sedate pace, everything seemed rushed through nearer the end and this imbalance bothered me a bit.  There was too much detail about some events and not enough about others.  The whole Affair of the Diamond Necklace wasn't explained properly by Grey, which made the sections about it drag a bit.  Plus, I wasn't a fan of how suddenly other character's perspectives were included when the rest of the book had been written from Marie Antoinette's point of view.  Middle books can always feel a bit slow in places and there was a lot of build up in this novel which I'm sure will pay off in the final volume of the trilogy but which made this volume a bit long and clunky to read.

Overall an enjoyable book, but not quite as good as the first volume, Becoming Marie Antoinette. I'm looking forward to reading the final volume when it's released.

Source: Ebook provided by Historical Fiction Book Tours 
First Published: 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Tour Information

Saturday 27 October 2012

On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe

Black sisters' street refers to Zwartezusterstraat, a street in the red light district of Brussels famous for its African prostitutes.  Unigwe's story starts with three young women learning the news that the fourth woman they share a house with, Sisi, has been brutally murdered.  Although they have kept their distance from each other in the past, this news brings the three women together and they start to share their stories.   Efe had an affair with a married man as she thought this would lead to money and opportunity.  Abandoned after the birth of her son, she agrees to meet Dele, who offers her a new opportunity in Europe, a chance to provide for her son.  Ama is repeatedly raped by her step-father and seeking escape at any cost.  And Joyce is a Sudanese woman caught up in the war who thinks she has found happiness with a Nigerian man, only to have it snatched away by his prejudiced family.  All three are stateless and at the mercy of the madam and their debt to Dele, the man who arranged their transport to Belgium.   They dream of a life free again, but as Sisi learned, dreaming can come at a high price.

On Black Sisters' Street is a heavy-hitting book.  The stories of all four women contain suffering in lots of different forms and happiness is something only rarely snatched at between periods of hardship.  Although the women come across as smart and resourceful, circumstance has made them desperate enough to make a choice that hopefully most of us will never have to face - the choice to become an illegal sex worker.  And for three of the women it is exactly that - a choice.  Joyce is the only one who arrives in Belgium not knowing what is expected of her.   I really respected Unigwe for showing that prostitution can be something gone into with eyes wide open, rather than telling the 'easier' story of women smuggled to Europe ignorant of what their fate would be.  It made for a far more nuanced and subtle book.

Despite the sections dealing with life in Europe, On Black Sisters' Street is mainly a condemnation of the corruption and problems facing Nigeria.  Money, or the lack of it, is a powerful motivator for all the women, especially Sisi, who has a good degree but can't get a job as she doesn't know anyone who can pull the levers of power for her.  Facing a life of living without, she decides prostitution is a better bet than poverty.  Efe and Ama decide the same.  And in some ways, it does turn out to be a good bet - some of the women manage to repay their debts to Dele and go on to live a life that would have been impossible without prostitution.  Again, the inclusion of this by Unigwe makes for a more complicated book.  I'm glad she showed the shades of grey in the issues covered in the story.

Although there is much suffering in the story, Unigwe's writing keeps On Black Sisters' Street from being too depressing overall.  The characters are realists and there's always an undercurrent of hope that life will get better.  It must have been a hard balance to achieve and I'm impressed with Unigwe for managing it.  Overall, On Black Sisters' Street is a well written and sensitive examination of heavy issues and I would highly recommend it.

Source: Library
First Published: 2009
Edition Read: Vintage UK, 2010
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Monday 22 October 2012

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

I've finally finished it!  Three months and 1474 pages of tiny print later, I can consign A Suitable Boy to my 'read' shelf on goodreads.  This post will contain first a general review of the book without spoilers, then a discussion of the third section for the readalong.  The discussion part will contain spoilers, so steer clear if you haven't read or finished the book yet.

A Suitable Boy is the inter-connected tale of four families in post-independence India.  Although the central story is Mrs Rupa Mehra's quest to find a suitable husband for her daughter Lata, Seth's novel is more than that and is best described as a panoramic of Indian society.  From racial tension to religious festivals to adultery, ambition and politics, A Suitable Boy is an epic in every sense of the word.  The many individual stories are told alongside each other in nineteen parts and cover the human condition in all its forms.  I enjoyed reading about Savita's journey into motherhood, Pran's struggle to become an academic, the Nawab Sahib's bewilderment as the world he knew disappeared and the eccentric Chatterji family, who were more liberal and liked to speak in couplets.

If you have the time to invest in it, A Suitable Boy is a very rewarding book.  For me, it's up there with Gone with the Wind and Anna Karenina as a book that I will always remember.  Lata and the cast of characters feel like members of my friends and family; two days after putting this book down for good, I'm missing them.  Towards the end of the book when things start to happen and events get resolved, I was emotionally invested in the outcome each character would have.  Seth made me connect with each one (even if I didn't like them all) and I have a clear visualisation of what each character is about, which is not easy to pull off.  It felt almost like the book got into my soul.

As the scope of Suitable Boy is so broad, there's guaranteed to be something in it for each reader.  I'm a fan of multiple perspective books anyway and the rapid shifting between points of view stopped this long book from becoming tedious to read.  I'm in utter awe at the way Seth managed to wind all of his characters and events together without losing the impact of the story.  There are some plot points not resolved by the end and everything doesn't tie up nicely, but then it's not the kind of book where everything would.  A Suitable Boy does require an investment of time and effort but most definitely repays anything you put into it.

Discussion - Part Three (Spoilers):
I had mentioned in my review of Part Two that events were dragging and the book was becoming a bit of a slog - not so in Part Three!  Suddenly everything seemed to be happening at once and the pace was whirlwind by the last two or three hundred pages.

The main event was clearly Lata's marriage to Haresh.  I must admit to being disappointed with her choice, especially as it seemed to be one so clearly based on the head rather than the heart.  My opinions conicided with Malati's, who felt that Lata had turned down the gold and silver prize in order to settle for the bronze.  Whilst I agree that she could never have married Kabir, much as I liked him (the attitude of her family would have made their life very difficult), I had a soft spot for Amit.  There's one section where Lata is thinking about his poems and Seth writes something like 'they were already a part of her, without her knowing it'; from that point on I was rooting for Amit.  Lata's reasoning sold Amit short; I didn't find him selfish or demanding at all.  Besides, if anyone proposed to me with a beautifully written poem like that, I would certainly accept!  Haresh seemed very drab and unispiring compared to her other choices and it felt like Lata had chosen sensibly rather than for happiness. 

Religious tension was a theme throughout the whole book but it was really hammered home in this section with both the stampede at the Hindu event and the clashes between Hindus and Muslims when their festivals coincided.  I feel like Seth must feel strongly about clashes like this, as the sections dealing with them were powerfully written.  A message of the whole book seemed to be how futile religious quarrels are. I didn't expect events with Maan to take the turn they did, especially after he saved Firoz earlier in the story.  But I saw a different side to him and to Mahesh and this made me appreciate their characters more. 

The third part was my favourite of the three, mainly as so much happened and the pace was brisk.  I'm still reflecting on all the events and looking forward to the release of A Suitable Girl sometime in 2013, that follows Lata's search for a wife for her grandson eighty years after the events of Suitable Boy.  I hope Seth is on track and the book gets published on time.

Thanks to all the readalong participants for giving me the motivation to finally tackle this book; it had sat on my shelf for years prior to this.  I'm glad I finally got the chance to read and enjoy it.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1993
My Edition: Phoenix books UK, 1993 (purchased second hand)
Score: 5 out of 5

Sunday 21 October 2012

Library Loot 1: October 17-23

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.  As someone who uses the library so much they don't have time to read the many unread books they own at home, I decided it was a good idea to start participating!  This week I visited the library in anticipation of finishing A Suitable Boy (which should be today, only 80 pages left!) and finally getting to start something else.  Half these picks were on my wishlist and half were from random browsing.

1. A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman - This is the story of Latha, a servant in Sri Lanka, whose life is tied to Thara, the spoilt daughter of the family she serves.  This book promises to tackle issues of class and prejudice whilst delivering an intense coming of age story in a volatile setting.  I chose A Disobedient Girl as it was already on my wishlist.
2. On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe - Four African women have come to Brussels to work in the red light district.  They are seeking the European promise of wealth but meet only struggle and hardship, including murder.  I first heard about this book on Willa's blog; it promises to be a difficult but important read.  I'll probably start this one after finishing Suitable Boy.

3. The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa - I've heard great things about Ogawa so when I saw this on the 'new to this library' stand, I picked it up and decided to take a chance.  I'm not familiar with Japanese literature at all but this collection of three novellas sounds deliciously creepy.
4. Comes the Night by Hollis Hampton-Jones - Another random pick.  Meade is a nineteen year old girl living in Paris who is emotionally and sexually obsessed with her brother, Ben Ho.  This promises to be dark and disturbing, perfect for this time of year. 

5. Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon - This is an unusual pick for me, I even ventured into the fantasy section of the library for possibly the first time!  But it's a retelling of The Little Mermaid, one of my favourite fairy tales, so it's worth a shot.  I'm looking forward to trying this one.
6. 26a by Diana Evans - I picked this up from a stand recommending books to read during Black History Month.  It's a coming of age tale of Nigerian twin sisters growing up in northwest London.  It won the Orange Prize for New Writers, which is enough to make me bring it home for a while.

Have you read any of the books I picked out this week? 

Wednesday 17 October 2012

On Mammoth Books

For the past three months, I have been reading Vikram Seth's epic novel about post-Independence India, A Suitable Boy.  I am loving it and completely in awe of Seth's talent but it is a mammoth book.  In fact, I think it's the longest book I have ever read.  My edition has 1474 pages and I am currently on 1083.

To make matters worse, the font is ridiculously tiny (see photo to the left!) and there are no page breaks between chapters.    Both of which make the reading feel slower as it seems to take a long time to make any visible progress.

So things will go quiet on the blog whilst I enjoy the last 400-ish pages.  I've been reading this book for so long now that it will be strange not to spend time with the characters any more.  I am so impressed by Seth's ability to create so many fully dimensional characters and link them in different ways.

Before I started blogging, I used to read a lot of chunky books like this as I love a good epic.  But now I catch myself thinking about the gap between reviews appearing on my blog and how long it will take to read a longer book.  And sometimes it puts me off starting them, even if I know it shouldn't.  So this week, I'm burying myself in this book even if it takes ages to read and even if there are no posts on my blog for a week or so.  No pressure, just reading the way I want to read.

Do you read chunky books, or does the pressure of blogging put you off?

Saturday 13 October 2012

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

In the 1940s, four women recently arrived in San Francisco from China start a joy luck club, a chance to get together over dim sum and mah jong and discuss their lives.  As they raise their children the gap between Chinese and American culture becomes more apparent and there are many mother daughter clashes.  The mothers demand the obedience and ambition of Chinese culture but the daughters tend to want the freedom of the American.  Fourty years later, Jing-Mei Woo takes up her mother's place at the mah jong table following her death.  Only by listening to the stories of the older women does she discover that there was much more to her mother than she ever realised.  In her rush to flee the Japanese invaders, her mother was forced to abandon her two young daughters, sisters that Jing-Mei never knew she had.  Her journey to China to meet them sets her on a path to reconcile her Chinese and American backgrounds.

The Joy Luck Club is an excellent rendering of the immigrant experience.  By choosing to focus on four mothers and four daughters, Tan covers in detail what it is like to be a first or second generation immigrant to America and how difficult it can be to pass on your culture in a different country.  As a reader you feel for both the mothers and the daughters;

"They are frightened.  In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they bought to America.  They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English.  They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation."

Although the daughters were easier for me as a Westerner to relate to, the stories of their mothers were more interesting.  The fourth part of the book, Queen Mother of the Western Skies, is all about their lives in China before immigrating to America and this was the most fascinating part.  I was expecting the book to feel a little dated given that it was initially published in the 1980s but this wasn't the case at all.  The actual experiences of the women might have been time-linked but The Joy Luck Club is about more than just that, it's about mother-daughter relationships too and that theme was universal enough to make the book stand the test of time.

The only problem I had with the book was linked to one of its strengths.  I liked that many stories were included as this covered the immigrant experience so well but at times The Joy Luck Club felt more like a collection of short stories rather than a novel.  There's a list of mothers and daughters provided at the beginning but I did find it hard to keep all of the characters straight and especially to remember who was related to who.  I had to keep flipping through the book to find out which mother experience matched with this daughter experience and that was frustrating at times.  Organising the book by generation was a good choice in many ways but the consequence was that at times it was hard to link the characters.

Overall, I'm glad that I finally picked up The Joy Luck Club.  It's deservedly a classic amongst books about immigration to the West and all of the stories in it were engaging and well written. 

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1989
My Copy: Vintage UK, 1998 (purchased second hand)
Score: 4 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See  - Two sisters, May and Pearl, move to America following Japanese attacks on Shanghai.  This is more gritty than Joy Luck Club but is also strong on the immigrant experience and mother-daughter relationships.
2. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok - Kimberly Chang moves with her mother from Hong Kong to New York.  Again, this really shows the gritty side of struggling to survive in a new country and is beautifully written.
3. The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan -This one is a bit different as it's YA and a novel in verse, but it's all about the experiences of Polish girl Kasienka who migrates to the UK as a teenager.  Although it's a different culture and setting, much about starting over in a new country is universal.

Monday 8 October 2012

The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan

If you pressed me to choose, I would say that the Brontës are my favourite classic authors.  I love Jane Austen for her wit, the Russian masters for their epic tales and Stoker for his gothic horror, but the Brontës are just something special.  I've read Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Villette and Agnes Grey and every one was filled with such raw emotional intensity that I feel like the stories are burned in my brain.  Because of this, I approached The Taste of Sorrow with some trepidation.

A fictional account of the lives of Emily, Charlotte and Anne following the death of their mother, The Taste of Sorrow ends with Charlotte's marriage to Arthur Nicholls.  Although Charlotte is the main narrator, Morgan follows each of the sisters and their brother, Branwell, as they struggle to make their way in a world that doesn't quite fit them.  Sent away to an unfeeling boarding school at a young age, Charlotte must watch her older sisters Maria and Elizabeth sicken and then pass away with consumption.  Forced to grow up quickly, the three remaining sisters work as governesses (none of them enjoying it), toy with the idea of opening a school before finally turning to writing and achieving commercial success.  But life is never easy and there are many sorrows for each of them as the book proceeds.

It's always a risk writing a fictional account of historical figures but for Morgan, the risk pays off.  He captures that mysterious, other-worldly element the Brontës are famous for whilst also showing their every-day lives.  Each sister is how I imagined they would be.  Emily is aloof and unconcerned with what society thinks of her and Anne is more sensible and worldly.  I've always enjoyed Charlotte's books the most because of the remarkable perceptiveness in them and Morgan captures this too.  All three sisters feel emotion intensely and that fits what I've seen about intelligent people in 'real life'; I'm sure depression must be a health hazard for intellectual capacity.  The subject of genius is touched upon, but Morgan also shows us the years of practise the sisters had at writing before they wrote their most famous books.  That feeling of not fitting in anywhere is something experienced by all three sisters and something most readers will be able to relate to.

The outstanding feature of The Taste of Sorrow is definitely the characterisation.  The narrative shifts between the sisters and Branwell rapidly, but because all of the characters are developed, this isn't a problem.  There are sections in the book where the narrative becomes repetitive, particularly concerning their experiences as governesses, whilst at other times events happen very quickly.  I don't think there was a need to include parts about all of the homes the sisters worked in as a lot of the emotions involved were very similar.  Contrastingly, I wanted more about getting their novels published for the first time and the attention they received. 

On the whole, The Taste of Sorrow is a sensitive, character-driven portrayal of the lives of the Brontë sisters. I was thoroughly impressed with how Morgan wrote about each sister and their sense of being apart from the world around them.  I think this book will be especially powerful for anyone who has ever felt different or for anyone who feels emotions strongly.  I am prone to ups and downs myself and it was this that hooked me into the book completely as I related to the sisters and it's rare to see these kinds of emotions being examined properly.  Highly recommended, and not just for fans of the classics!

Source: Library
First Published: 2009
Edition Read: Headline Review, 2010
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday 6 October 2012

Charity Shop Book Haul

I love book hunting in charity shops.  I went for a browse this morning and came away with five books, all in good condition, for just under £8.  My haul:

Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne.
When family tragedy strikes, Alice Fonseka, a dreamy, artistic child with a Singhalese mother and a Tamil father, leaves the beautiful island of Sri Lanka.  Unable to bear the injustice of what has happened, her family heads for England.  There, in the cold, urban landscape of London, Alice grows up, with all that this means: struggles, a home in London - and a blossoming of the art through which she expresses herself.  But there is much she cannot find.  Understanding.  Peace.  Lasting love.  Then on the clear summer morning of July 7, 2005, violence crosses her path again.... (from the back cover).

Why I got it: I enjoy books that deal with the Immigrant experience in London.  I've heard good things about Roma Tearne and this is the first book I've seen that addresses the London Bombings.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
In 1949 four Chinese women drawn together by the shadow of their past begin meeting in San Francisco to play mah-jong, invest in stocks, eat dim-sim and "say" stories.  They call their gathering the Joy Luck Club.  Nearly 40 years later, one of the members has died, and her daughter has come to take her place, only to learn of her mother's lifelong wish and the tragic way it came true.   The revelation of this secret unleashes an urgent need in the women to reach back and remember (from Goodreads)

Why I got it: It's been on my radar for years.  I have vague memories of enjoying The Kitchen God's Wife as a teenager.

 The Dark Clue by James Wilson
...A brilliant recreation of the Victorian suspense novel, as the characters from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe, are involved in another dramatic and dangerous investigation, this time emanating from the heart of respectable London society....takes us into Victorian England in all its staggering extremes of poverty and wealth, of slums and stately homes, of public morality and private vice, in an unforgettable tale of suspense (from the back cover)

Why I got it: This was a random find, I didn't even know this book existed until today.  But I love Wilkie Collins and Marian and Victorian England and sensational novels, so I'm all over this one!

Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
On a bitter November evening, young Mary Yellan journeys across the rainswept moors to Jamaica Inn in honour of her mother's dying request. When she arrives, the warning of the coachman begins to echo in her memory, for her aunt Patience cowers before hulking Uncle Joss Merlyn. Terrified of the inn's brooding power, Mary gradually finds herself ensnared in the dark schemes being enacted behind its crumbling walls -- and tempted to love a man she dares not trust. (from Goodreads)

Why I got it:  Surely this book needs to introduction!  Despite the fact that I haven't read Rebecca yet, I saw a glowing review of this earlier in the week and seeing what looked like an untouched copy for £1.99 was too much for me to resist.  It is the perfect time of the year to read gothic tales.

Pirates! by Celia Rees
Nancy Kington, a wealthy merchant's daughter living in Bristol, England in the early 1700's, is sometimes lonely but enjoys the privileges her father's business brings. Minerva Sharpe is a penniless slave's daughter living and working on the Kington's Jamaican plantation. These two young women, united through a set of extraordinary circumstances including a brutal murder, an arranged marriage, and set of ruby earrings, find themselves sailing the high seas in search of love, adventure and freedom—as pirates! (from Goodreads)

Why I got it: I don't read much YA but I love Celia Rees, especially Witch Child.  This sounds like a fun adventure story.

Have you read any of these books?  If so, what did you think?

Friday 5 October 2012

Little Women Readalong: Final Post

This is my last post for the Little Women readalong hosted by Risa at Breadcrumb Reads.  This week, we finished what was traditionally the stand-alone novel, Little Women, but which is now only typically half of the novel as the sequel, Good Wives, is often included in the same edition.  My edition does contain both and I plan to carry straight on and read the rest of the book (in fact, I've already started!).  There will be spoilers in this discussion.

One thing that struck me on finishing the 'first' novel was how happy it is in comparison with what I know is to come in the second volume.  Although Beth does become sick with scarlet fever and there are some tough times for each of the sisters, things all work out in the end.  Mr March comes home from war, Meg becomes happily engaged and everyone else has been improved in some way.  The hardships work to stop the book from becoming overly sweet whilst still allowing it to have a feel-good atmosphere.

My life is a bit stressful at the moment and reading Little Women has been an effective relaxation tool every evening.  I've been taking the book at a slow pace and really savouring each chapter.  There's something about the way Alcott writes the sisters that makes them so real and consequently it's reassuring to read about them and their struggles to be better people.  Each of the girls make mistakes in this latter part of the book (and Laurie is no angel too) and it's therapeutic to see them dust themselves off and carry on.

As I said in my first post, I'm an Amy fan, so I was pleased to see her start to mature and learn to think of others as well as herself by the end of the book.  I still think Amy gets a lot of flack for readers when really, she tries very hard to improve and is even a bit tough on herself;

"I've thought a great deal about 'my bundle of naughties' and being selfish is the largest one in it; so I'm going to try hard to cure it, if I can.  Beth isn't selfish, and that's the reason every one loves her, and feels so bad at the thought of losing her.  People wouldn't feel half as bad about me if I was sick, and I don't deserve to have them."

I still find it hard to warm to Meg.  Her relationship with Mr Brooke isn't developed very well by Alcott so the whole thing feels a bit forced and arranged.  There's no hint she has any feelings for him until his feelings become obvious.  In contrast, the clues that Laurie has feelings for Jo are planted very early on and developed throughout the whole of this book although nothing has happened yet.  Although I know what happens later on, I always find it pleasing that Laurie goes for Jo on the basis of who she is and the way they interact rather than choosing someone based purely on looks. I'm looking forward to reading the next volume although I know it's more full of hardships than the first. 

Thanks for hosting the readalong Risa, I've really enjoyed it!