Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey (Jill)

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle
By Monique Roffey
Did Not Finish

Sometimes, I can get hung up on a part of a story – to the point where it plagues my entire reading experience. This is what happened while reading The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey.

The book is divided into chronological sections, starting with 2006 and then going back to 1956, 1963 and 1970. So, when Roffey introduces us to the main characters, George and Sabine, we are meeting their 75-year-old versions (with most of their lives’ experiences behind them). For the first 189 pages, it was difficult to like George and Sabine. George was a lifelong philanderer – selfish and egotistical. Sabine drank and smoked excessively, and liked to pick fights with George and their daughter. As I muddled through these pages, reminding myself that the book will reveal more about these characters, something happens. Sabine beats her family dog. The scene was only a few paragraphs long but affected me tremendously. So tremendously that as I moved to the earlier years of the characters’ lives, I could not forget what Sabine did.

120 pages from the end, I couldn’t bear reading about Sabine anymore. I was done with her. I placed my bookmark in front of the next chapter, put the book aside and thought about what to do next. Ultimately, I decided to walk away from The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.

Despite my abandonment of this book, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Roffey’s writing talent and her fascinating exploration into Trinidad’s history. Indeed, many aspects of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle were appealing. Perhaps I can come back to it once I let go of my distaste for Sabine. Until then, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle will sit on my shelf; my bookmark marking the spot where I said no more.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Laura's Review - Burnt Shadows

There was something she had learnt to recognise after Nagasaki, after Partition: those who could step out from loss, and those who would remain mired in it. (p. 149)
Burnt Shadows is a moving story of war and prejudice spanning more than 50 years and 5 countries. It begins in 1945 Nagasaki, just before the bomb drops. Hiroko Tanaka is 21 years old and engaged to Konrad Weiss, a German living in Japan. The reader has just enough time to appreciate her idyllic world and the promise of love, when suddenly everything changes. Hiroko survived; Konrad did not. The title comes from a description of the bomb's aftermath:
Days -- no, weeks -- after the bomb and everything still smelt of burning. I walked through it -- those strangely angled trees above the melted stone, somehow that's what struck me the most -- and I looked for Konrad's shadow. I found it. Or I found something that I believed was it. On a rock. (p. 78)
Hiroko leaves Japan for India, where Konrad's sister Ilse lives with her British husband James. Hiroko and Ilse become close friends. Hiroko marries Shajjad Ashraf, and in 1947 the Partition forces them to start a new life in Pakistan. They have a son, Raza, and remain friendly with Ilse and her son Harry. Hiroko is a constant presence, struggling throughout her life to come to terms with the impact of the bomb. The focus of the story gradually shifts to Raza, whose mixed ethnicity creates both opportunities and challenges. The final chapters are set in post-9/11 New York City, where a country built through immigration is suddenly seized by fear, and driven to conformity:
But then, things shifted. The island seemed tiny, people's views drunken. How could a place so filled with immigrants take the idea of "patriotism" so seriously? (p. 295)
There were several points where I was afraid the book might develop into one big cliché, but fortunately that never happened. In every era and every setting, Kamila Shamsie maintained a steady drumbeat of messages about war, race, and bigotry. And the ending was far from neat and tidy, clearly showing these issues will remain with us for a long time.

Addendum (27 July 2010): I lowered the rating by half a star. The first half of this book is very strong, but the second half is not as tightly written, and some of the situations are less believable. The overall theme and message had a strong impact on me, leading to an initial 4-star rating, but on further reflection, it didn't quite stand up to other 4-star reads.

My original review can be found here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Laura's Review - The Invention of Everything Else

Nikola Tesla was a Serbian inventor who came to the United States in the late 1800s. The Invention of Everything Else is a fictional account of his friendship with Louisa, a chambermaid at the Hotel New Yorker, where he lived. Louisa lives with her father Walter, who works as a night watchman at the New York Public Library. One day Louisa's curiosity leads her into Tesla's room (which is to be cleaned only upon request). Tesla discovers her reading through some of his papers. Despite this, they become friends and Louisa learns a great deal about Tesla's life and work.

Meanwhile, Louisa's father spends most of his time with an old friend, Azor, who is working on a time machine. He lives in hope that Azor will be able to reunite him with his dead wife, Freddie. And a young man named Arthur has turned up out of nowhere, claiming to know Louisa from elementary school. They are attracted to one another, although it's not clear why. Arthur also pals around with Azor and Walter, assisting them with the time machine.

The story was rather disjointed. The sections describing Tesla's life and career were most interesting, and Tesla was a likable character. But the fictional characters and their relationships were not believable. Why didn't Tesla kick Louisa out of his hotel room when he discovered her rifling through his stuff? How did Arthur become so strongly connected to Louisa and Walter? Why did Louisa care for him, and why did Walter and Azor include him in their work?

I followed the story with interest, and had no problem suspending disbelief as Walter and Azor worked on the time machine. But overall, it seemed Samantha Hunt was trying to do too much with this book, and in the final analysis it just didn't all come together. This is a somewhat engaging read, but not what I've come to expect from Orange Prize nominees.

My original review can be found here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer (Jill)

The Septembers of Shiraz
By Dalia Sofer
Completed July 18, 2010

Dalia Sofer’s debut novel, The Septembers of Shiraz, shows how detrimental the Iranian Revolution was for many of Iran’s citizens. Isaac Amin was a rare gem dealer who was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards in September 1981. Isaac was Jewish and had prospered well under the Shah, which made him suspicious in the eyes of the new regime. He was transported to prison where he was questioned, tortured and accused of being a Zionist spy.

The story shifts from Isaac’s point of view to that of his wife, Farnaz; his young daughter, Shirin; and his son, Parviz, a college student living in New York. The alternating viewpoints showed how each family member dealt with the sudden disappearance of Isaac. With emotions ranging from fear to courage, the Amin family tried to manage their day-to-day lives without the presence of their patriarch.

I found The Septembers of Shiraz to be a captivating read. The Iranian Revolution is an unfamiliar topic for me, and the rigid conditions of this time make me wonder how anyone escaped arrest and execution. I rooted for each member of the Amin family as they struggled with Isaac’s imprisonment. Sofer’s writing style was lyrical yet approachable, drawing her readers into the story. If you are a fan of historical fiction, I would recommend this amazing story. I look forward to more books by this talented young author. ( )

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Small Wars by Sadie Jones (Jill)

Small Wars
By Sadie Jones
Completed July 14, 2010

In Small Wars, the second novel by Sadie Jones, explores the impact of “small wars” on countries, citizens, servicemen and their loved ones. When you read a novel by Jones, you expect an intensive read. Small Wars is exactly that – a novel that keeps you thinking about its characters long after finishing the book.

Hal Treherne is a young major in the British Army. He comes from a family whose men held distinguished careers in the army, fighting in great English wars throughout history. Hal has no war to fight, until he is stationed in Cyprus, a nation whose interest to England becomes exceedingly higher as the conflict in the Suez Canal erupts in nearby Egypt. Cyprus had a small war of its own, trying to break free of British rule. The country’s desire for independence resulted in terrorist activity, and Hal finally gets the war he’s been trained for. However, it’s not the war of his father or grandfather. There are no trenches, fronts or battlefields. Instead, it’s house-to-house searches, land mines and torture. Hal learns that he’s not emotionally equipped for this type of warfare and begins to question his service in the army.

Meanwhile, Hal’s wife Clara arrives in Cyprus with their twin daughters, and tries to create a life in this tumultuous country. At the beginning of the book, you sense a deep love between the couple. However, as conditions sour in Cyprus and Hal becomes traumatized by its events, you watch as this marriage crumbles. They fail to talk to each other, and Hal takes out the atrocities of the war on his wife. He eventually arranges for Clara’s departure to a “safer” part of Cyprus, but in a country involved in a small war, there are no safe havens. Eventually, Clara and Hal face an enormous tragedy that will make or break their marriage.

I was unaware of this portion of British history, and I found that Jones’ research about Cyprus during the 1950’s to be enlightening. I couldn’t help but draw parallels from the small war in Cyprus to those being fought in countries throughout the world today. The places have changed, but the lessons have not. I applaud Jones for tackling this sensitive subject and for doing so in such a provocative way. I would recommend Small Wars to those readers who enjoy reading intense fiction or books focused on military history. It’s a book that will leave its fingerprint on me for a long time. ( )

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Accidental by Ali Smith (Jill)

The Accidental
By Ali Smith
Completed July 10, 2010

Truth be told, I don’t know how to fairly review The Accidental by Ali Smith. It’s a story that follows the dysfunctional lives of the Smart family and the emergence of Amber, a young woman who crashes the Smart’s summer home one evening. Amber’s presence helps members of the family deal with their individual grief, though the reader never quite learned why Amber was there.

The four Smart family members take turns narrating a chapter. My favorite chapters were told by Astrid, a young girl who likes to videotape everything. With a director’s eye and a stream of consciousness that James Joyce would appreciate, Astrid’s perspective matched her age: big ideas, rambling thoughts and a curiosity about life. Also interesting was her brother’s narrative: Magnus was depressed about the suicide of a fellow classmate and felt at blame for the girl’s death. Smith’s strength is not character development – you never get a full picture of each character – but the snippets she showed of the kids were insightful and captivating.

Smith’s writing style takes a while to get used to. You’re dropped into the middle of each character’s thoughts, and you might need several chapters (as I did) to get into the writing style. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite way of storytelling, and I felt it put up barriers around the characters and their stories. Additionally, the ending was disappointing, and after trudging through this book, I was hoping for something a little more gratifying.

It’s hard to recommend The Accidental because it was a “meh” book for me. I encourage future readers to look at other reviews before deciding on this book. I think it’s a book you either like or don’t; I hate to say that I am in the latter group. ( )

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Laura's Review - The Outcast

When he was only 10 years old, Lewis Aldridge witnessed a terrible tragedy. Unable to express his feelings and shunned by his father, Lewis grew up a troubled young man. The Outcast opens with a prologue set in 1957, when 19-year-old Lewis is returning home after two years in prison. Sadie Jones then takes her readers back in time to recount Lewis' childhood and the events that led him to commit a crime.

Lewis' father Gilbert served in World War II, and when he returned home in 1945 Lewis was only 7. He didn't really know his father at all, and struggled with his intrusion into the family and his close relationship with his mother. After the tragedy, Lewis withdrew into himself. The other children in his village didn't know how to respond to him, and the adults were disturbed by his silence. In his teens, Lewis expressed his intense grief and self-loathing in increasingly harmful ways, eventually leading to imprisonment.

As Lewis' life fell apart, he couldn't help but compare himself with the Carmichaels, a model family in his village. Dicky Carmichael was Gilbert's boss; he and his wife Claire host an annual New Year's party and weekly Sunday lunches, all with plenty of cocktails to go around. Dicky and Claire's older daughter Tamsin is a beautiful young woman who knows how to use her sexuality; their younger daughter Kit is precocious and cares deeply for Lewis. But the Carmichaels have dark secrets of their own, which remain carefully concealed even as the Aldridge family's troubles are exposed to public viewing.

When Lewis is released from prison, he is thrust back into village society and gossip, and struggles to find his way. He gravitates toward the Carmichael girls, even as their parents reject him because of his criminal record. Tensions escalate, particularly after Lewis discovers the Carmichael secret, and all hell breaks loose.

I read this book in two days, because I just couldn't put it down. Lewis is a sympathetic character, and I was pulling for him throughout. He had been through so much, and had so little support. It was easy to see how he became so troubled, and I nearly cried whenever he began to go off the rails, or struggled with his place in society. The Outcast is intense, dramatic, and highly recommended.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (Jill)

Bel Canto
By Ann Patchett
Completed July 4, 2010

Imagine being held hostage for more than four months in a luxurious mansion in a South American country. Negotiations are at a stalemate, and the terrorists holding you are nothing more than a gang of armed teenagers led by three generals. You outnumber your captors, and they are pretty lax with their rules. Despite the odds, you never try to escape. Why? Because your life as a hostage allows you to become a new person – a person that you couldn’t be in your real life. It’s this theme that is the cornerstone to Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

The group was assembled to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese industrialist, Mr. Hosokawa. They were foreign dignitaries, priests and government officials – and the character that tied them all together was Roxane Coss, the American soprano who was the evening’s entertainment. Once the terrorists invaded the mansion, it was Roxane who called the shots. She used her lovely voice as collateral and was able to negotiate shampoo, food and other amenities for her fellow captives. In turn, she sang for the terrorists and hostages – and they all fell under the spell of Roxane’s music.

Spending months together blurred the lines between the terrorists and hostages. Together, they played chess, took reading lessons, cooked and made love. The hostages, mostly older men, showed fatherly affection to some of the terrorists. With this attention, the teens began to blossom. A boy could sing, a girl could read, another could play chess. They transformed from being jungle children to individuals with hearts and souls – all wanting love and approval.

Bel Canto runs at a slow pace, which probably won’t suit many readers. However, if you love character-driven stories, this is the perfect book for you. My only complaint was the epilogue, which tied together some unnecessary loose strings. Sometimes, stories just need to end on its tragic note – because that’s what happens in real life. Other than this small flaw, I enjoyed Bel Canto and look forward to reading more fiction by the talented Ann Patchett. ( )

Laura's Review - The Lacuna

The Lacuna is a brilliantly crafted novel, part historical fiction and part political statement. Its protagonist is Harrison Shepherd, an American-born author who spent his childhood in Mexico, and most of his adult life in the United States. As a young boy in Mexico, Harrison spent hours in the sea, exploring underwater wildlife and la lacuna: "Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things. ... It goes into the belly of the world. (p. 35)" He later found work as a secretary and cook for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and became acquainted with Leon Trotsky who lived with them during part of his exile.

The book is presented as a compilation of Shepherd's diaries, kept religiously almost since he could write. Shepherd's stenographer Violet Brown transcribed the diaries after his death. And in this labor of love the English definition of lacuna applies:
The notebook that burned, then. People who make a study of old documents have a name for this very kind of thing, a missing piece. A lacuna, it's called. The hole in the story, and this one is truly missing still ... (p. 112)
Shepherd became a famous author, writing adventure and romance novels set in Mexico. He was unmarried, and somewhat of a recluse, emotionally scarred by certain events in his life. In the late 1940s he found himself under FBI scrutiny, after they discovered his previous association with Trotsky. Kingsolver writes convincingly about the growing hysteria in the country during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee:
"Whenever I hear this kind of thing," he said, "a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, 'How can he be such a sap? Now I can be sure that man is a Red.' A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner." (p. 443)
While the story dealt directly with McCarthyism, I don't think Kingsolver was only writing about that era, over half a century ago. The second half of The Lacuna reminded me of the years immediately following September 11, 2001: the prevailing American public opinion, and resulting public policy. This was a clever way for Kingsolver to express her own political views. And at the same time, she wrote a complex story with likable characters and a conclusion that tied a number of elements together in a most satisfying way.

My original review can be found here.