Friday, April 25, 2008

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

From National Book Award finalist Jennifer Egan, author of Look at Me (“Brilliantly unnerving . . . A haunting, sharp, splendidly articulate novel” —The New York Times), a spellbinding work of literary suspense enacted in a chilling psychological landscape—a dazzling tour de force.

Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe, a castle steeped in blood lore and family pride. Built over a secret system of caves and tunnels, the castle and its violent history invoke and subvert all the elements of a gothic past: twins, a pool, an old baroness, a fearsome tower. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story—a story about two cousins who unite to renovate a castle—that brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation.

Egan’s relentlessly gripping page-turner plays with rich forms—ghost story, love story, gothic—and transfixing themes: the undertow of history, the fate of imagination in the cacophony of modern life, the uncanny likeness between communications technology and the supernatural. In a narrative that shifts seamlessly from an ancient European castle to a maximum security prison, Egan conjures a world from which escape is impossible and where the keep—the last stand, the final holdout, the place you run to when the walls are breached—is both everything worth protecting and the very thing that must be surrendered in order to survive.

A novel of fierce intelligence and velocity; a bravura performance from a writer of
consummate skill and style.

I first saw this book on Amazon and was drawn to the cover. It's taken me a while but I finally got around to reading it last month.

There are two threads of storyline in this book, and at first they seem completely unrelated. The first is the story of two cousins who have just been reunited after many years apart. The reason for the separation is quite horrific. Basically one of the cousins (Danny) deliberately left the other in a deep cave and left him for dead. Howard recovered to be quite wealthy, and has recently bought a castle in Eastern Europe with the intention of creating a hotel where there is no entertainment, no outside contact, only serene surroundings where the guests will be expected to rely on themselves for entertainment...their own imagination.
Danny is quite wary of Howard - not really sure if he has ever been forgiven for the childhood prank that could have been fatal. Howard has given Danny vague reasons as to why he has invited him here and after a nasty incident with the pool, Danny is convinced that maybe Howard is out to get him.

Gradually though, we get to meet Ray who is in prison and he is writing a story for his creative writing course that he is undertaking whilst incarcerated. He is attracted to the teacher, and eventually we find that the story that we have been reading about Danny and Howard is just that...a story. Or is it? The novel within a novel is certainly not a unique idea, but sometimes it doesn't work. This one did, for me at least.

At times the story was humourous - Danny's encounter with the Countess who lives in the Keep and refuses to leave - made me laugh out loud on the train, as did the episode where technology reliant Danny loses his satellite phone. At other times, an intense dissection of human relationships including betrayal, both spousal and familial, the novel is also quite creepy and atmospheric.

The only discordant note for me was the introduction of the point of view of the writing teacher towards the end of the book. I understand why she was injected into the story more at the point where she was, but it felt like an unnecessary story to tack onto the end of the other two story lines that were already completely intertwined!

Originally posted on my blog March 2007

Another Reader On Board

Hi to all Orange Prize fellow readers and thank you to Wendy for setting up this blog - I'm excited to be on board.
I'm fairly new to the blogging world and am just starting to get into the swing of things. My personal reading/writing blog is
I've just had a look at the 2007 Orange Prize list and the books that I have read from that year are:

Winner - Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Shortlist - The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai
Longlist - Carry me Down - M J Hyland
Longlist - The Girls - Lori Lansens

I will have another look at the other lists soon and add a more detailed post - just wanted to introduce myself to begin with.
Looking forward to all the Orange reading!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Review, The Gathering by Anne Enright

We have a word for a woman whose husband dies, and vice versa. But we have no word for those who lose a brother or sister. Yet the bereavement of each leaves the bereaved experiencing much the same depth of loss. A whole part of their life is now remembered only by them, not by the brother or sister who shared it. The traditions and rituals of a shared childhood can no longer be carried out, not even remembered and mocked with hindsight and laughter. And the body that both hugged and kicked, that squashed up on the settee with to watch TV, fidgeted fretfully in the back seat of the car, is gone, never to remind you of other times with a careless shrug, or gesture or grin.

Anne Enright describes a sister’s loss in The Gathering. Veronica, one of twelve siblings has lost her brother Liam. As in all big families, siblings form partnerships or cliques, according to age or circumstance. Veronica and Liam were close, close in age but also because they were sent off together to live at their grandmother’s for a period when their mother was ill.

Now Liam, missing for several years, has turned up dead – suicide. He walked into the sea at Brighton, England, his pockets weighed down with stones, his heart weighed down with ... what? And Veronica has to deal with this. She has to tell her mother and her siblings, identify the body and get it back to Ireland, arrange a wake. She has to deal with her feelings too, which is so much harder. The shock and the bereavement take her back to the memories of childhood and, with a mind ripped apart by grief, she remembers.

She remembers their childhood and the trauma of being sent away and not knowing why. She remembers their adolescence at college and their travels to England. She remembers leaving Liam and coming back to Ireland to make something of herself. And so the guilt creeps in. The guilt of laughing at him when he was younger and struggling to understand himself, and of letting him laugh at himself, treat himself as one big joke. The guilt that she saw that education was a path leading them out of poverty and but when Liam strayed off that path she chose not to go looking for him and drag him back. The guilt of having created her own family with Tom, just two daughters loved and cherished as the individuals she and Liam had never been able to be. Such a different family from the one she experienced hreself, and the only one Liam ever knew.

This is where Anne Enright’s storytelling gift is revealed. This is not a misery tale, but it is raw and angry, savage at times. Yet the prose is liquid and lyrical, concise and personal. And as Veronica stumbles through her grief she tries to piece together a “reason” for Liam’s death, from her own perspective of how their parents treated them and what happened at their grandmother’s. She looks for the reason in the only place she knows, their family. She turns to a history she never experienced and pieces it together (or fabricates it completely perhaps?) from tiny snippets of her grandmother’s life. We as readers experience a gradual, very gradual, blurring of fact and fiction, of memory and invention, of shifts in perspective and jumps in time until we feel as disconnected and lost as Veronica herself.

The end of the novel finds Veronica ready to return to her family life, to the husband and two daughters she has not been able to focus on. She isn’t happy, she hasn’t “got over” Liam’s death but she calm enough, sitting at Gatwick Airport, to acknowledge that her family is her home and to chose to go there.

The end of the novel leaves the reader confused, about the grandmother’s life, about the strange Mr Nugent, and the abuse of the children; still no nearer understanding why Liam killed himself. We are no longer sure that Veronica’s story is any kind of truth at all. Our initial belief in her descriptions of her siblings as psychotic or controlling is shaken; her statements that her husband is having an affair don’t ring quite so true. We do believe that she loved her brother, that whatever else her childhood gave her, it gave her Liam to grow up with. We see how, with that swept away so suddenly and so cruelly, Veronica’s response is not extreme but explicable.

And for that we must thank the author, for an insight into a grief that so many suffer and yet so few write about.

Review - The Blood of Flowers

What a wonderful world this book has introduced us to! Seventeenth century Iran would initially make me think of dust and deserts, shahs and swords, mullahs and mosques, and all those feature somewhere in The Blood of Flowers, but so much more is revealed.

The unnamed craftswoman who narrates the novel (I shall call her The Girl, for ease) is, she believes, cursed by a comet which puts paid to her chances of marriage and happiness. Her father dies, leaving her and her mother dependent on the goodwill of her half-uncle, whom they have never met. The novel takes place in a timespan of barely a year, and in that year The Girl loses her father and her virginity, moves from a tiny village to a bustling city, and develops her talents for carpet weaving into a business idea for carpet designs.

I loved this book because it was such a different world and the detail (which I am happy to take as authentic) was so rich. The Iran that Anita Amirrezvani paints is not dry and dusty but vivid and blooming, and incredibly textured. The bath houses and the women's community within them were especially fascinating as were the descriptions of the houses and the kitchens.

I also loved it because of The Girl. What a Dick Whittington-kind of story. In a culture and society that saw women as possessions to be bought and sold (by the trade called "marriage") The Girl manages to achieve an amazing level of independence.

How does she do that? It would be too twentieth century American to say "because of her skill at carpet weaving and design". Clearly that helped, it gave her a sense of her own worth, it gave her something to add to society and something to trade, but it wouldn't have been enough on its own. Having an uncle who worked in the Shah's weaving workshop was helpful too (and I'll think about the role of the men in the story in a minute), because she needed something to make her understand the value of what she could do.

Her parents set her on the path to independence, they cherished her and helped her develop. Perhaps their devotion made them fall short in showing her her "true" position in society, which led her to make some fairly disastrous decisions later, but they can hardly be blamed for that.

Her sexuality gave her independence. Being offered "temporary marriage" by Fereydoon was a key point in her life, more key than even she and her mother and uncle realised in fact. She gave up the chance ever to have a "proper" marriage (though her prospects for that with no dowry were pretty slim anyway). But she used that to her advantage. Forced to confront her sexuality she realises that she can use it to try to get what she wants. She also realises that she enjoys sex, which must help her not to feel totally objectified by the whole situation.

She didn't achieve independence without any assistance from men, she didn't achieve it despite the men (that again would be too cliched and Amirrezvani is far too subtle for that). Her uncle's contacts and advice are crucial, Fereydoon's interest in her and attitude towards her is important. What she sees of her friend Naheed and her relationship with her polo player informs The Girl about how some see love and marriage. Yet by remaining unhampered by a husband (or without the blessing of a husband as her aunt and mother see it) she has opportunities denied to "properly" married women. And she uses them intelligently.

The combination of events that The Girl experiences takes her from naivety to knowingness, to adulthood in fact. It could so easily have taken her to disaster and to despair. What saved her? Surely the love of her parents, especially her mother, must have helped? Her instinct to create, by knotting and desiging carpets, probably gave her another reason to look beyond the immediate problems of her life. But some inner resilience is there too, what we would call "character" now I suppose, drives her to keep going. I think that is why I liked the book so much. The Girl was someone worth knowing, someone worth reading about and I cared what happened to her. I think so often in historical novels the authors are so busy trying to cram all their research onto the page that they pay too little attention to their characters.

My only complaint is that while I found the voice completely authentic and compelling, I found the language stilted. At best it was flowery and unnecessarily peppered with Arabic terms, at worst it read like a poor translation. I believe the author was trying to convey the difference in time and culture but for me it didn't work.

Hello from SarahA

Hi, having been sent a link to this by Sonia I just had to join. Not in a spirit of oneupmanship but because I really enjoy reading "quality" books (literature as I like to call it) and to discuss them with likeminded people. So thank you for the invitation.

I have been reading since I was 5 (apparently when I finished my first school reading book I came home and told my mum I didn't need to go to school anymore as I had learned to read, clearly that was all I thought school was good for). If work, family and community responsibilities permit then I love nothing better than sitting down to be transported somewhere else for a while. And I can't think of anything that is better for relieving stress or depression than being able to leave your own life for a while.

I have always taken an interest in the Orange Prize so I was actually quite surprised at how few of the winners/shortlisted entries I have actually read. They are:

Kiran Desai The Inheritance of Loss
Anne Tyler Digging to America

Ali Smith The Accidental

Lionel Shriver We Need to Talk About Kevin
Jane Gardam Old Filth
Marina Lewycka A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Andrea Levy Small Island
Margaret Atwood Oryx and Crake

Valerie Martin Property
Carol Shields Unless
Zadie Smith The Autograph Man
Donna Tartt The Little Friend

Sarah Waters Fingersmith

Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin

Zadie Smith White Teeth

Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible

Carol Shields Larry's Party

Margaret Atwood Alias Grace

Amy Tan The Hundred Secret Senses
Anne Tyler Ladder of Years

However, the list does correctly show me as a big fan of Margaret Atwood, Anne, Tyler, Carol Shields, Barbara Kingsolver and Amy Tan. Other authors who have appeared on the list but I haven't read the shortlisted works are Helen Dunmore, Jane Gardam, Jane Smiley and Shena Mackay.

I will be posting up reviews of the books I have read as I go along. So far I have read The Gathering, The Keep, The Blood of Flowers and Sorry. I find I need a little while for the book to settle in my mind before I do a review but with 4 down and I am feeling very excited. The only downside to it is realising how many books there are and how few, all told, I will ever get to read!

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

Once there was a girl who could make glorious carpets from wool tinted with the essence of orange safflowers and pomegranates

In Persia, in the seventeenth century, a young woman is forced to leave behind the life she knows and move to a new city. Her father's unexpected death has upended everything - her expectation of marriage, her plans for the future - and cast her and her mother upon the mercy of relatives in the fabled city of Isfahan.

Her uncle is a wealthy designer of carpets for the Shah's court, and the young woman is instantly drawn to his workshop. She takes in everything - the dyes, the yarns, the meanings of the thousand ancient patters - and quickly begins designing carpets herself. This is men's work, but her uncle recognizes both her passion and her talent and allows her secretly to cross that line.

But then a single disastrous, headstrong act threatens her very existence and casts her and her mother into an even more desperate situation. She is forced into an untenable form of marriage, a marriage contract renewable monthly, for a fee, to a wealthy businessman. Caught between forces she can barely comprehend, she knows only that she must act on her own, risking everything, or face a life lived at the whim of others.

The world of medieval Persia comes alive in this luminous novel, from its dazzling architecture to its bustling markets with their baskets of spices and breathtaking turquoise-and-gold rugs. With spellbinding Persian tales and prose as radiant as the city of Isfahan, The Blood of Flowers is the remarkable adventure of one woman choosing a life - against all odds - on the strength of her own hands, mind and will.
Marg says:

Sometimes it is a real breath of fresh air to read about an unusual time and place, especially when the story is also well written and interesting! The setting for this book in 17th century Persia, during the time of Shah Abbas, and features a young girl who is trying to make her way into the male dominated world of carpet making.

The author was very skilled at weaving together both the story of the girl, but also details about the techniques used in the designing of carpets, in the selection of the colours to make the carpets, and the precision required by the carpet knotters. There are also several old Persian tales that have been interwoven into the narrative, used to illustrate and to guide our young heroine.

When one of the town elders brings back the almanac for the year, the small country town is interested to see what is destined for their lives - for marriages, births, the harvest etc. For one young girl in particular she is interested to hear what is going to come as she is now of a marriageable age. This year is an unusual one though. There has been a comet in the night sky, and everyone knows that that means bad luck. For the small but happy family, that ominous sign comes to eventuality when her father dies, leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves. After running out of resources, including those that were meant to be her dowry, the two head to the big city to request assistance from the brother of the husband and father.

Once in the city, the pair become basically house servants, but the young girl gets to visit the great carpet market making workshop owned by the Shah, which is run by her uncle, and gradually her uncle begins to teach her many of the secrets of the process, including design, colour selection and knotting with the most luxurious of threads.

After being caught acting rashly more than once, the young girl is contracted with a sigheh - a renewable marriage contract, that everyone involved in has agreed to keep this secret. The end result of this is given that there is now no dowry left, the girl is being forced to give away the only thing she has left of any value - her virginity. It takes a long time for our heroine to get used to the ways of her husband and to learn the secret of wifely enjoyment, and there are several times throughout the story that her mother is worried that the sigheh will not be renewed, which means that the contracted price won't be paid. It is quite an interesting contrast. By day the girl is a servant, subject to her aunt's somewhat nasty treatment, using every spare minute she has to learn to make carpets. By night, she is a wife, albeit subject to her husband's whims.

Life then offers a choice - to continue as things are, or to take a chance at having a different and more independent life. There are many lessons to be learned, and many of them are painful. There are times when things get much worse before they get better, but our girl's spirit is strong, and she is willing to learn the lessons that life is teaching her!

This book took 9 years to write, and you can tell that for the author this was a labour of love! It took me a couple of days to read it, and it was a joy to read! Filled with the colour and allure of different cultures and times, this is a really good read. I definitely hope to read more by this author!

Originally posted at Historical Tapestry - September 2007

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Gathering - Wendy's Review

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. -From The Gathering, page 1-

Anne Enright won the 2007 Booker Prize for this novel set in Dublin which centers around a woman’s long repressed childhood memories. Veronica Hegerty is one of twelve children - a large and dysfunctional family with dark and unspoken secrets. The suicide of Veronica’s wayward brother Liam provides the catalyst for Veronica’s traumatic memories to surface. Told from Veronica’s point of view and switching from past to present and back to past again, the story is a twisting tale about the reliability of long buried events and the importance of uncovering secrets. Veronica’s revelations about what happened in her grandmother’s home so many years in the past are tangled up in alternative stories fabricated by Veronica, woven together with guilt and shame.

Veronica is a cold, cynical person - angry with her mother’s passivity, confused about her brother’s choices, and ambivalent about her siblings.

Meanwhile, the train chunters through England, clicketty-clack, and Bea talks on, sitting on my dead father’s knee with a ribbon in her hair, like the good little girl she has always been, and I look at the hills, trying to grow up, trying to let my father die, trying to let my sister enter her adolescence (never mind menopause). -From The Gathering, page 43-

She is a woman struggling in a rocky marriage which is made more unstable by Veronica’s negative view of men. But, she is not all hardness and anger. Veronica’s love for her children leaps from the pages and as the novel unfolds, the reader is drawn to Veronica, wanting to understand her and make sense of her life.

Enright leaves the reader with ambiguity in the end. The facts are hazy and the outcome of all the characters’ futures are unsure.

The power of this novel comes from Enright’s fresh language and her ability to expose her characters’ faults. Time and again I found myself stunned by the searing choice of words and phrasing; the graphic descriptions; and Enright’s ability to take the reader to an uncomfortable place to drive home her point.

The Gathering is a tough book which deals with a difficult subject matter. Enright seems to purposefully set out to shock the reader - dragging her through the muck of dysfunction and pain, stirring up the sediment in the lives of the characters to reveal their souls. Written with a great deal of intelligence, unerringly true to its characters, and staggering in its scope - The Gathering is a novel which is not easily forgotten.

Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Digging to America
By Anne Tyler
Completed April 13, 2008

In Digging to America, Anne Tyler continued her storytelling mastery of family relationships – but added a new twist. This story focused on two families, the Donaldsons and the Yadzans, who adopted girls from Korea. The Donaldsons represented the “typical” American family while the Yazdans represented a “typical” Iranian-American family. The couples became friends, and this story followed their lives during their first several years as new parents.

The story meandered around the ups and downs of families: the best way to raise children, how to deal with the loss of a family member and what happens when a parent becomes ill. Tyler also examined the added dimension of being adoptive parents, especially of foreign-born children. However, the most interesting aspect of Digging to America was the exploration of what it means to be an “American family” and equally important, what it means to be an American. Compelling characterization – especially of Bitsy Donaldson, the overbearing mother of Jin-Ho, and Maryam Yazdan, the traditional Iranian grandmother – elucidated the challenges these families encountered as they learned about each other.

In my opinion, you have to like the soft whisper of Anne Tyler to appreciate the style of this book. I noticed other reviewers commented that Digging to America lacked conflict, an advanced plot or multi-dimensional characters. I can see how one could make these conclusions. However, I would argue these elements are there – just wrapped in Tyler’s subtle style. By the end of the book, I was thinking about what it means to be an American and how easy it is to become cocooned in your own culture. Digging to America was not one of Tyler’s best, but it certainly was not her worst. I would encourage fans of Anne Tyler to give this one a try. ( )

(cross-posted from my blog)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

2008 Short List for New Writers Announced

The shortlist for new writers was announced yesterday and I have added them to the list here.

Any thoughts as to who the winner will be?

Oranges, Peanut Butter and Shiraz

Well at least I now have book number 3 under my belt on my quest to read the 2008 Orange Longlist. I have a countdown clock on my blog which very helpfully reminds me that there's only 57 days to go until the winner is announced. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I feel its presence like a nagging husband in the passenger seat of my car (yes, mine does that too).

I hate to damn with faint praise, but I'm going to use the word "like". Because I did like it. But I'm afraid with the modern cannon of African literature we have at our disposal these days the bar is set very high so I can't honestly say that we have another Gordimer, Nwapa or Adichie on our hands. Good, but not good enough. Sorry ;-(

Right, I'm off to get stuck into "The Septembers of Shiraz" (do you see what I did, with the title of my post? Clever eh?). Send out a search party if you don't hear from me by Sunday.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The long Longlist and the days that are too short!

I'm desperately trying to eat my way through this years Orange Longlist before the Shortlist is announced. Only just over a week to go, and I'm only on my third book. Yikes!

So far I have managed to read Rose Tremains' "The Road Home" (click here to read the review I posted on my personal blog), and Man Booker winner "The Gathering" by Anne Enright (review fresh off the press!). If it was a straight run between the two books "The Gathering" would have it for me, but I'm holding out for some of the other titles on the Longlist. They seem much more my cup of tea.

My copy of The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam arrived from Germany this morning, just in the nick of time. I've been looking forward to reading this so much because African literature generally goes down well with me and I love the title of the book. Oh dear, I'm just so shallow. Dear Reader... I shall keep you posted on how I get on with it.

I hope your own reading endeavours are going well. I'm off to stick my nose in a book. The ironing is just going to have to wait.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Marg's Review: Case Histories

'Investigating other people's tragedies and cock-ups and misfortunes was all he knew. He was used to being a voyeur, the outsider looking in, and nothing, but nothing, that anyone did surprised him any more. Yet despite everything he'd seen and done, inside Jackson there remained a belief - a small, battered and bruised belief - that his job was to help people be good rather than punish them for being bad.'

Cambridge is sweltering, during an unusually hot summer. To Jackson Brodie, former police inspector turned private investigator, the world consists of one accounting sheet - Lost on the left, Found on the right - and the two never seem to balance. His days are full of people clamouring for answers and explanations. A jealous husband suspects his wife. Two spinster sisters make a shocking find. A solicitor investigates an old murder. A nurse has lost her niece; a widow, her cats.

Jackson has never felt at home in Cambridge, and has a failed marriage to prove it. He is forty-five but feels much, much older. He is at that dangerous age when men suddenly notice that they're going to die eventually, inevitably, and there isn't a damn thing they can do about it. Surrounded by death, intrigue and misfortune, his own life is brought sharply into focus.

Ingeniously plotted, full of suspense and heartbreak, CASE HISTORIES is a feat of bravura storytelling that conveys the mysteries of life, its inanities and its hilarities. It is a life-affirming work of profound insight and intelligence.

Jackson Brodie is a former police officer who has set up his own private investigator business. He becomes involved in three old cases, in addition to the one investigation that he already has where he has been enlisted to try and prove that a wife is cheating on her husband. The first case is 20 years old, and involved the disappearance of a 3 year old girl called Olivia Land. The Land family is very strange, and the three remaining older sisters are, what could only be called dysfunctional, and yet can it be that between the three of them, they may be able to provide the key details that will help unlock the mystery of what happened to their younger sister on a hot summer night so many years ago.

The second case has its roots in the apparently open and shut case of a young mother who apparently killed her husband. She asked her sister to look after her young baby, and after serving her time in jail, has now disappeared. Unfortunately the sister has lost track of the daughter and is now trying to track her down.

The third case is over 10 years old, and is about the seemingly random murder of 18 year old Laura Wyre. Her father has never been able to put the death of his beloved daughter behind him, and having collected every scrap of evidence he has been able to find, has asked Jackson to see if he can figure out what happened to her.

Whilst investigating these cases, Jackson also needs to deal with his own personal relationships. His relationship with his ex wife is somewhat hostile, but Jackson is doing his best to be a good father to his young daughter, a task made somewhat more difficult by the fact that Jackson seems to be having a bit of difficulty staying out of trouble at the moment! Jackson is also quite closed off about his past, but in the end some of those events in the past are the very ones that shapes the current Jackson.

Jackson is in many ways the quintessential jaded detective - hard bitten, unable to connect properly with others on many levels, and yet he is also more than that. I guess the word that I am looking for is probably multi faceted.

Woven through the narrative is also the story of a schoolteacher, who has suddenly realised that she is not happy in her life and is getting ready to run to a new life, not for the first time! Which of the cases is she connected to. It makes sense when you read the book, but the other characters are in many ways completely unaware of her.

Whilst this is a mystery book, it is also not a mystery. In some ways it is a character study of the people left behind when crimes are committed. Many of the characters seem to have no other connection other than through Jackson, and yet there are small things that happen in everyday life that also unknowingly connect these people as well. The other interesting thing is that whilst the reader knows the answers to that most basic of questions in any mystery - Who did it? - it is not necessarily the case that the characters have that same resolution.

Overall, quite an intense, but good, read!

Originally posted on my blog August 2007

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun - a work of stunning depth

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi's second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun is a worthy winner of the Orange Prize for Literature. For a story that got off to a slow start initially, it really made me sit up and take notice by the end.

Adichie tells an incredible story of how the Nigerian government and population persecuted and massacred it's own people of the Igbo tribe in the late 1960's.

Told from the perspective of a handful of different characters, the tale follows their individual stories as their lives are torn apart. Their beliefs and values are pushed to breaking point as they struggle to stay alive in a country that doesn't want them and a world that doesn't want to acknowledge they exist.

The stark contrast between life before and after the Nigerian/Igbo civil war, which is beautifully portrayed by Adichie, really emphasises the sense that it is all some horrible nightmare which couldn't possibly be true except that loved ones keep disappearing and dying. For me, more than any other character the story of Ugwu the houseboy embodies this sense of unreality, the impossibility that this good man can do such bad things.
Do read it, and do bear with it. If you enjoyed Achmat Dangor's book Bitter Fruit you'll enjoy this.

Other Books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi;

Purple Hibiscus (2003) winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book in 2005 and shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004

Introducing Sonia (cue fanfare)

Hi, I'm Sonia, and I have loved books ever since the day I could grip them in my grubby little fists. My mum says that I used to sit on the potty for hours at a time with a big stack of books on one side, and I wouldn't get up until I'd read them all and stacked them neatly on the other side of me, leaving a ring shaped groove around my little bottom.

So why am I here writing about the Orange Prize? Well, a couple of years ago I was getting stuck for inspiration for my reading, and so I gave myself the challenge of trying to read the entire Man Booker Prize longlist before judging day. And blow me down, I did it. I got such a buzz from watching the awards ceremony on TV and actually being able to have an informed opinion about the winner.

But after that, such a comedown... what to read next? So I attempted the Orange Prize Longlist (fortunately there was a bit of overlap with Booker that year), and then I tried it again, and again with varying degrees of success. I'll be honest, not every book does it for me, but every now and then I discover a work of pure gold and I wonder at the genius of these authors who for a brief moment transport me out of my tiny existence into another, richer world,

Last year was a bit of a dry year for me in reading terms, as I was starting up my own business, but this year I'm back in the saddle again more determined than ever, and for the first time, blogging my experiences.

Reading the longlist is such a big part of who I am and it's so reassuring to think that there is a group of people out there for whom that passion makes sense...

Orange Prize winners and runners up that I have read before

2007 winner
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Half of a Yellow Sun
2007 shortlist
Rachel Cusk Arlington Park
Kiran Desai The Inheritance of Loss

2006 winner
Zadie Smith On Beauty
2006 shortlist
Nicole Krauss The History of Love
Hilary Mantel Beyond Black
Ali Smith The Accidental
Carrie Tiffany Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living

2005 winner
Lionel Shriver We Need to Talk About Kevin
2005 shortlist
Jane Gardam Old Filth
Sheri Holman The Mammoth Cheese
Maile Meloy Liars and Saints
Marina Lewycka A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

2004 winner
Andrea Levy Small Island
2004 shortlist
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Purple Hibiscus
Shirley Hazzard The Great Fire

2003 winner
Valerie Martin Property
2003 shortlist
Donna Tartt The Little Friend

2002 winner
Ann Patchett Bel Canto

2001 winner
Kate Grenville The Idea of Perfection
2001 shortlist
Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin

2000 shortlist
Zadie Smith White Teeth

1999 shortlist
Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible
Toni Morrison Paradise

1998 shortlist
Ann Patchett The Magician's Assistant

1997 shortlist
Margaret Atwood Alias Grace

1996 shortlist
Anne Tyler Ladder of Years

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Orange Prize Project

Welcome to The Orange Prize Project. This reading challenge is a long-term project in which the participants will read all books that have won or been short listed for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction AND the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers. There is no time limit.

For those readers who want to go further than the short lists, I have also provided a list of the titles which appeared annually on the long list for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Reading from the long lists is not required, by could be viewed as "extra credit!"

You may participate solely on your own blog, or post to this one. If you are interested in participating on this blog, please send an email message to the me at caribousmom at gmail dot com. You will then receive an "invitation" with a link and further instructions.

Guidelines for Blog Participants:
  • Introduce yourself via a blog post, and tell us about any Orange Prize winners you've read previously.

  • You may post a review of each book you've read, even if it was a long time ago.

  • As you read more books, you may post a full review, link to a review on your own blog, or just create a brief post noting the title(s) read. It's up to you!

Labeling of Posts:

  • Always use your name as a label.
  • Use the label, "Progress" for reading list updates.
  • For each prize-winning book read, use the year won, the title of the book and in parentheses an "F" for fiction list or "N" for new writer list (for example: 2007 - The Lizard Cage (N) OR 2007 - Half a Yellow Sun (F)
  • For each short list nominee read, use the year nominated with the word SHORTLIST and in parentheses an "F" for fiction list or "N" for new writer list (for example: 2007 - Shortlist (N)
  • For each long list nominee read, use the year nominated with the word LONGLIST and in parentheses an "F" for fiction list (for example: 2007 - Longlist (F)