Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Difficult Decision - But the Right One

I posted the first post to the Orange Prize Project blog in February of 2008...nearly 6 years ago! Since that time, hundreds of reviews have been published here by many bloggers just as enthusiastic as I am about a literary prize for women. Last year the Prize got a new name, but it is still a wonderful celebration of women writers and their work.

But, six years is a long time and there have been a lot of changes and challenges in my life - especially over the last year or so. My energy for blogging has dipped - I no longer have the drive to administer multiple blogs and I no longer want the pressure to maintain this blog.

Because I get the stats, I know there are readers still coming here and reading the reviews. It is a nice resource to readers to have this site...and so, the site will stay open (at least for awhile) and the reviews already posted will remain.

The site will be closed for new posts beginning January 1, 2014. What does that mean? Well, I will be removing all the authors from this site (except myself) beginning December 31st. 

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who has contributed to The Orange Prize Project - your insights, reviews, and participation have helped it become a popular blog amongst literary readers. I hope you will choose to keep your reviews posted here, but if you choose to delete any reviews, that needs to happen before December 31st.

I would also like to post a final post at the end of the year with each of your names and a link to your blogs (if you have them) so that readers may still be able to find you and your reviews. I will include any blogger who has posted a review here - even if it was a long time ago! If you want to be included on that list, please drop me an email at caribousmom (at) gmail (dot) com with your name and the name of your blog and a link to your blog site.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Judges announced for Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2014


The judging panel for the 2014 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction has been chosen. They include Mary Beard the Historian, (front row on the left). Caitlan Moran, writer and columnist, (top row on the right). Sophie Raworth, broadcaster, (bottom row, centre). Denise Mina, writer and playwright (top row on the left). Helen Fraser, who will chair the panel, former managing director of Penguin Books Uk and now chief executive of the Girl's Day School Trust, (bottom row on the right).
A good mix of women and I especially like the inclusion of Caitlan Moran who will burst any pomposity that may raise its ugly head during panel discussions.
They will start their judging now of around 150 books. These books have been out forward as contenders for the prize by established publishing houses.
Looking forward to the longlist being announced which will probably be around  March 2014.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Hen's Teeth by Manda Scott

Kellen Stewart is a therapist who on returning from a lengthy sojourn abroad is confronted with the death of a former lover, Bridget Donnelly. She soon learns that while she was away deliberating on her future as well as her relationship with her partner Janine, Bridget’s brother, Malcolm had also died.
Kellen is unsatisfied with the coroner’s report that determined that Bridget had committed suicide. Soon, Kellen becomes embroiled in the seedy under belly of the city of Glasgow: and Bantam hens.
Kellen Stewart becomes amateur detective and like so many literary amateur detectives before her she enlists the help of friends and proves to be smarter than the local police.
Manda Scott’s use of a lesbian protagonist was a brave move back in the mid nineties. At that time it was very difficult to get a lesbian literary lead character to be taken seriously by the mainstream public, media and major publishing houses.
The Scottish writer and internationally renowned crime writer Val McDermid’s first books based around a lesbian detective, Lindsay Gordon, proved a difficult sell. She soon realized that if she wanted to make a living as a writer she would have to change her protagonist’s sexual orientation to straight.
In 2010 in the Independent newspaper, Val McDermid commented on the situation;

“My first three novels, featuring the UK’s first openly lesbian detective, Lindsay Gordon, were published 20 years ago by the Women’s Press, a small feminist publishing house whose output went largely unreviewed by the mainstream press and was ignored by chain booksellers.
Back then, the notion that a commercial house would publish a novel that featured a lesbian protagonist was laughable. I knew that I’d never make a living as a writer if I stuck to writing about Lindsay. Luckily for me, my ambitions to spread my wings and push myself as a writer meant I embraced alternative possibilities.”
           
So, it is with sadness that I have to write that the book is a slightly disappointing read. In 1976, Booker Prize judge Philip Larkin was asked for his thoughts on the books that had been short-listed. Larkin remarked, ‘The books had a beginning, a muddle and an end’.
                This description best sums up my thoughts of ‘Hen’s Teeth’. Many of the characters within the book are wonderfully drawn, in particular Kellen Stewart and Lee Adams but other characters are sketchily drawn; Elspeth Phillips and Janine to name but two.
                This is disappointing especially when it comes to Elspeth’s character as she is a police officer and a lesbian but no mention is made of how she combines these two elements in her life. We never find out if fellow officers are aware of her sexual orientation and if they are what problems, if any, this causes. This would have made an interesting sub-plot.
                Janine was Kellen’s partner for nearly four years. She was one of the reasons why Kellen decided to take a lengthy sabbatical in order to decide if the relationship was what she wanted. But, we don’t learn a lot about Janine and this I believe is a glaring omission for a character who shared the main protagonist’s life. Janine leaves Kellen a few days after her return but leaves the proverbial door open for Kellen to let Jan know what she wants from their relationship.
                Apart from the above-mentioned there are several more glaring reasons for describing parts of the book as a ‘muddle. Here are a few: firstly is Bridget’s dog. The dog, Tan, is killed but some chapters later it is alive and well and lying next to the Aga range and then a few chapters further on it is dead again.
                Next we have the ridiculous scenario where Lee and Kellen decide to break into Malcolm Donnelly’s workplace to retrieve information. They both dress in black with accompanying balaclavas. Both abseil from an adjacent building, over a high security fence and into the grounds of the medical building. It is never satisfactorily described as to how they achieved this feat. Lee manages to pick lock two secured doors but how this is done and what method is used is never mentioned. Then pushing incredulity to its apex two large guard dogs that patrol the ground that encompasses the building are subdued rather fortuitously as Kellen not only knows the dog’s owner but knows the safe word that will make the dogs act like puppies.
                In the books of Ian Rankin or Irvine Welsh to name but two, the city of Edinburgh is written in such a way as make the Athens of the North a distinct character in its own right. Manda Scott’s novel is based in and around the City of Glasgow. However, though various locations are mentioned in the book the City of Glasgow is basically ignored and personally I think that was a missed opportunity.
                As a whole the book is very well written with a mixture of pathos, drama and a dollop of humour. The conclusion and the crime’s dénouement are beautifully written and well paced and results in a very satisfactory ending to the novel.

                Manda Scott proves herself adept at writing within the difficult genre of crime writing. Hen’s Teeth was I believe Manda Scott’s first novel and also the first to feature Kellen Stewart who appears in two other novels, Night Mares and Stronger than Death. As a first novel it has to be congratulated as a standout but flawed novel in the saturated market that is crime thrillers.

Friday, October 25, 2013

One by One in the Darkness by Deidre Madden

The story is set during one week shortly before the IRA ceasefire in 1994. Three sisters, Helen, Sally and Kate relate and recollect their childhood during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland. The catalyst for these recollections is the return of the eldest sister Kate, (who now refers to herself as Cate), who abruptly leaves London where she works as a successful journalist for a glossy magazine as an event has forced her to re-evaluate her life.
The book’s chapters alternate between the return of Cate to Ireland and the three sister’s recollections of their childhood. Cate’s life changing event is not that difficult to guess and strangely it is revealed rather early on the book so breaking any sense of tension regarding that particular plotline.
The sister’s childhood is almost idyllic. Their parents own a farm an hour’s drive from Derry. This distance from the cities and towns of Northern Ireland keeps the horrors of the troubles at arm’s length as it also must have felt to those on mainland Britain. The girl’s only connection to the Irish troubles was during their visits to towns like Antrim where they would witness preparations for the Orange Walk; Union Jacks hung out of windows, Orange arches with symbols of a compass, a set square and ladder painted brightly on them.

“And yet for all this they knew that their lives, so complete in themselves were off centre in relation to the society beyond those fields and houses”

However, this insular life soon changed when the British troops moved into Northern Ireland in 1969. With British Army checkpoints around their county and the subsequent visits to the sister’s farm by soldiers the troubles in its many nefarious guises had intruded into the sister’s childhood.
With the atrocity that was Bloody Sunday in 1972 the troubles also came to mainland Britain with the bombing of the Aldershot Headquarters by the IRA. I mention these events as I believe that the sister’s farm may be alluding to the British mainland during the same period of time of the 1960s and 1970s.
I found the story interesting but not fascinating. Each of the sister’s characters was used as clichéd ciphers for Ireland. The eldest sister Kate loves Ireland but needs to leave its sectarian bigotry and religious intractability and becomes a success which she wouldn’t have found if she had stayed in Ireland. The middle sister, Helen becomes a lawyer and defends terrorists even though a horrific experience has befallen her family. The third sister, Sally becomes a primary school teacher like her mother. She hates and loves Ireland in equal measure but stays due to her loyalty to her mother.
The dialogue is rather lumpen and incongruous. There were times when the dialogue did not ring true especially that spoken by the sisters.
Helen’s gay friend David is a superfluous character and seems only to have been shoe-horned into the story to possibly prove how open minded Helen is.

Of all the fictional books that have been written about the troubles, Cal by Bernard Maclaverty or Gerry Seymour’s Journeyman Tailor to name but a few, One by One in the Darkness in my opinion would find it difficult to a part of the any list of the top twenty books on the subject of Northern Ireland and its conflict.

Friday, October 18, 2013

I was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn

Amelia Earhart is arguably one of the best known aviatrix of the twentieth century. Earhart set many records most notable being the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her death has fuelled as many conspiracy theories as those that surround 9/11.
On June 1937, during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, lost radio contact, ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
Jane Mendelsohn’s novel is a fictionalised account of what happened to Amelia Earhart after she lost contact with Howland Island, her destination, and the navy.
Mendelsohn’s novel is at once a story of a driven, unhappy possibly reckless woman who does not feel alive unless she is flying. The author weaves fact and fiction, the present and the past using first and third person narrative. First person narrative is used as Earhart’s own personal point of view while third person narrative is utilised to portray Earhart’s life. This moving to and fro, in and out of time and space allows the author to blend, like some exotic biographer’s cocktail, layer upon layer of fact and fiction, present and the past, real or imagined until the reader feels drunk from bibliophilic  pleasure.
But there is no hangover or altitude sickness as a consequence of imbibing this particular cocktail. Instead one feels the need to continue drinking the book without stopping for breath or coffee.
The novel is written in the style of a diary with short, usually one paragraph long, entries.

“Back then, a plane was called a ship. There were still cabins and a sense of voyaging. There was a reverence for flight because it was so dangerous. People lost themselves. There was no safety.”

This diary style way of writing gives the novel a sense of urgency. One feels that Amelia Earhart is writing down her thoughts before either she dies, possibly by her own hand, or before she forgets. In the author’s hands Amelia has something of a death wish. The aviatrix is trying to make sense of the world she lives in and the decisions she made. She enjoys the celebrity that has come with her exploits but feels guilty at doing so. She regrets her marriage to the publisher George Putnam but understands that were it not for him she would not have had the success she achieved.

“He’s the husband who made her famous, who devoted himself to her, even when she hated him, even when he hated her back. She needs him so that she can fly, so that she can escape from him, so that she can escape from the very people who worship her.”



At only 146 pages in length the book is short but very sweet. Jane Mendelsohn has taken the ‘goddess of flight’, as she was described by the press, and brought her down to earth by encasing her feet in clay. But, though the author has endowed Amelia Earhart with flaws, insecurities and an occasional hint of self loathing, Amelia Earhart still remains a heroine.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Cordelia Grinstead is a wife and mother to three children. Her husband Sam, a doctor, recently suffered a heart attack, (though Delia, as she is commonly known, refers to it as chest pains). At or about the same time her father died after Delia had cared for him for some time in her own home.
Her children are all teenagers and have become more independent and less reliant on their mother. Delia’s husband has become distant and less attentive. Delia has becoming unsure of her role as a mother, a wife and in the world in general.
While on the annual family holiday with her family and her sisters, Eliza and Linda and the latter’s children, Delia asks a young man who was working on the holiday home to drive her to a place she knows nothing of. She asks the young man to stop at a small town and there she begins a new life with only the possessions she is wearing and what is within her tote bag.
On the surface, The Ladder of Years appears to be a run of the mill novel about a middle aged woman going through the proverbial mid-life crisis. This appearance seems justified when you throw stroppy, mumbling, uncommunicative teenagers and an inattentive older husband in to the mix.
However, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Anne Tyler has written a novel that defies cliché, stereotype and one’s preconceived ideas of what a woman’s mid-life crisis looks like. A clever choice on Anne Tyler’s part was to write the book in the third person. It would have been easier to have written the novel in the first person and allow us the reader to get a better and easier understanding of Delia’s motives and thoughts on her behaviour. But writing the novel in the third person puts the reader at a slight distance from Delia so making it harder to empathize or sympathize with her. It makes the reader have to work that bit harder in getting to understand Delia and her reasoning and in this process makes the reading of the novel that much more satisfying.
I also believe that writing in the third person allows many male readers to follow Delia’s character without feelings of being uncomfortable in their male skin than had the novel been written in the first person. It is possible that many male readers would have found it uncomfortable or off putting to follow the character had they had access to her inner thoughts and feelings. By writing in the third person male readers are allowed to keep their distance and not made to feel that they inhabit a female persona.
All the characters within The Ladder of Years are rounded three dimensional people and as a reader I felt that I knew and understood each of the novel’s inhabitants by the end of the book. This knowing and understanding is from the perspective of a friend of the family and not as a family member. By this I mean that as much as I believed I knew the character’s motives and reasons for what they did and how they lived I still couldn’t be sure I was getting the full picture. This I believe was intentional on the author’s part. I believe that Anne Tyler was trying to communicate that we never fully know someone else even when they are family. There are times in our lives when we feel like we are an outsider within our own family group looking in through a window that becomes more opaque as time moves on.
Anne Tyler’s novel is a well crafted moving and at times funny novel that will not disappoint any reader, even the male of the species.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Eveless Eden by Marianne Wiggins

This novel is both a thriller and a love story inextricably linked to the major events that took place between 1986 and 1991: the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the downfall of the Ceausescu and the subsequent ending of the Communist regime in Romania. In the novel’s foreground are Noah John and Lilith da Vinci, a journalist and photographer respectively, who embark on a torrid affair that will inevitably, like the times they live in, change their lives forever.
I believe that any novel’s protagonists should have at least one good virtuous characteristic, one redeemable trait that a reader can use to justify following the character’s story through the novel. But in Noah John there is nothing to hang that particular hat on. He is a weak, charmless character who commits an abominable act halfway through the book that is never fully addressed. Though this act is an allusion to what is happening and will happen in Germany it still cannot be forgiven and for me was a emotional distraction as I read the rest of the book.
Lilith da Vinci is a more redeemable character but still not that likeable. She is a strong, brave character, sexual permissive and has a belief in highlighting, through her photographs, the horrors of war and the world we live in.
The backdrop that the novel is set against and the protagonist’s part in these events is what makes the novel interesting and worthwhile reading. The novel’s allegorical structure, set as it is within the historically tumultuous five years that shook the world to its political and social foundations, allows the lover’s affair and characterization to reflect and imbue the time they are living through.
Many of the novel’s minor characters are poorly and lazily drawn. For instance Noah’s Scottish friend is called Mac and is a heavy drinker. The author writes some of Mac’s dialogue in the vernacular but spells the words phonetically.
The novel’s backdrop and how these world events and the reader’s knowledge of how these will affect the 1990s and the 21st century is what makes this book readable, not the main characters Noah and Lilith who at times appear nothing more than ciphers to decode a world in upheaval. Then again maybe this was the author’s intention.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

American Chinese Olivia Laguni finds out she has an older Chinese half sister, Kwan Li, after her father’s death bed confession to her mother.  From initially being excited about the prospect of having a sister the six year olds excitement soon evaporates and turns into embarrassment and resentment of her mangled English speaking sister. This embarrassment is compounded by Kwan’s belief that she can see and talk to dead people in the World of Yin. Interwoven with Olivia’s story of her life in San Francisco are the stories told by Kwan of her former life in China.
The sisters are the narrators, with Olivia being the primary one. The main body of the novel has Olivia relating her life in San Francisco between the 1960s and the 1990s. As Olivia grows up she continues to be embarrassed by her half sister Kwan who is twelve years older than Olivia. Kwan’s broken English and her lack of knowledge of American ways creates a climate of bullying and teasing for Olivia as other children perceive Kwan to be a ‘retard’. This childhood trauma and subsequent dislike and resentment of Kwan bleeds through to Olivia’s adulthood and is exacerbated by Kwan’s interference in Olivia’s relationship with her partner Simon.
Kwan, however, unreservedly loves her little sister even when it transpires that because of Olivia, Kwan is sent to a mental hospital due to her belief that she can see dead people.
During Olivia’s childhood Kwan tells her ‘ghost stories’. Stories of the dead people she sees. These stories continue into adulthood and in addition Kwan recounts stories of her past lives.
Convolutedly, Kwan, Olivia and Simon visit China and in particular where Kwan grew up.
The author of bestseller The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan, has crafted an ornate, chiaroscuro like piece of work with The Hundred Secret Senses. The novel is about America and China, life and death, cultural incongruities and the difficulty of filial devotion to one’s siblings.
However, fundamentally the novel is about relationships; the relationship between married couples, siblings, parents and their children and the most difficult relationship we all face, between the living and the dead. Amy Tan handles all these issues with adroit aplomb.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Spinsters by Pagan Kennedy

It is 1968 the day after Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated, Dora and Frannie’s father, passes away after a long illness. Shortly after, the sisters receive an invitation from their Aunt Katherine to live with her.
Living with their Aunt and her black maid Letty proves unfulfilling to the sisters. They decide to visit other relatives and this ultimately results in a road trip through America’s Southern states.
As is evident from my above rating this novella (its word count is only some 63000 words) is not something I could easily recommend.
It is an agreeable and easy read but this only damns the novella with faint praise. I found the book lacking in subtlety and depth. The motifs, allusions and symbols are writ large. The pacifist Martin Luther King Jr is killed while the next day the World War II conscientious objector father of Dora and Frannie dies. America is going through huge changes and turmoil; the Vietnam War, the anti war riots, the race riots, women’s liberation. These changes will irrevocably alter the country, politically, socially and culturally. America’s Baby Boomers were attempting to rip the country from the hands of the pre World War II old guard and pull the country into a modern world. These events are mirrored, in a smaller way of course, in the lives of the sisters. Dora is outgoing, sexually active, gregarious and believes in a brighter future. Frannie on the other hand is old fashioned, strait laced and clings to the past and its apparent certitude.
They drive through Texas but decide not to stop in this particular state due to the oppressive heat. Of course, even five years on the sound of bullets can still be heard reverberating around the Lone Star state.
The conclusions to the all the story threads that weave through the book are foreseeable and rather too neat for a book that uses the America in the 1960s as its backdrop. The Vietnam War raged on for another four years. Nixon became President in 1969 and his Waterloo was still four years away. The times were a changin’ but the old guard still had a grip on the political rudder.
If one was to read The Spinsters as anything other than an allegorical novel then one could find it enjoyable. The author Pagan Kennedy does have an elegant, clear writing style that throws up some wonderful images, a ‘saleslady whose hair was stiff as seven minute icing’.
Dora and Frannie’s feelings of entrapment, loneliness and isolation while caring for their father will resonant with many people in an age where one in four people in the UK care for an elderly parent. The handling of this particular issue is what earned the novella its half a mark.

No’ of pages - 158
Sex scenes – none (there is some mild sexual references)
Profanity – none

Genre - drama

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This fin de siècle, first person, novel, is at its Austenesque heart a story of decay, hope and incestuous love.
Cathy lives in a large run down country house with her Grandfather, known locally as ‘the man from nowhere’. As Cathy looks back on past events in her life we encounter past inhabitants of the house; her brother Rob, the Irish housekeeper Kate, the mysterious Eileen and numerous servants employed from the local village.
Cathy and Rob’s mother, who was a baby when she arrived with Cathy’s grandfather at the country house, left when Cathy and Rob were very young. Their father has also ‘abandoned’ them due to his mental illness and is being treated at a sanatorium. Their grandfather has retreated into his study from which he very rarely emerges and so Rob and Cathy are largely left to their own devices apart from the able assistance and love of their housekeeper and friend, Kate.  
Secrets and lies are cemented into the very brickwork and foundation of the house and its real and metaphysical decay begins to expose those two fragile elements to householders and visitors alike. These two sides of the same coin seep and bleed through the novel and their exposure is being hurried by the likes of Ms Eunice Gallagher, Cathy and Rob’s former tutor and governess.
This 1996 winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction is like the curate’s egg, excellent in parts. Helen Dunmore’s characters are wonderfully written. As you read through the novel it feels like each line is creating the skin and bone and organs of each character while each chapter is pumping blood through their perfectly, forming bodies. By the end of A Spell of Winter, one feels that one has not only read about the characters but has actually met them.
At times the novel does read like it is part of the Austen oeuvre. Being a lover of all things Austen, this is not a bad thing and may have been the author’s intention. One cannot read of the character Mr George Bullivant without thinking of the first line of Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. Mr Bullivant reminded me Mr Charles Bingley from the same novel, good natured, well mannered, kind and wealthy. His name is well chosen as it means, the good, faithful man. In fact Mr Bullivant is given one of the best lines of dialogue, ‘Thinking of people when they’re not there, it’s one of life’s great pleasures, isn’t it’.
The first line of the prologue, ‘I saw an arm fall off a man once’, sets out a major theme within the novel, decay. Decay of not only the grandfather’s house but of his mind and that of his sons. Decay in inhibitions and ultimately the morals of the two main characters, Cathy and her brother Rob.
The book’s title, A Spell of Winter, Cathy’s favourite time of the year, implies decay. And it is in that winter that Cathy can hide, physically and mentally, within its long hours of darkness.
There are times when the dialogue does not do justice to the rest of the novel. At times it reads like something from a sub romantic Barbara Cartland novel as this exchange between Mr Bullivant and Cathy attests to;
‘You’re cold,’ he said, noticing my shiver, ‘We’ll go into the house.’
‘No, I’m not cold. I like it here.’
‘You like the snow, don’t you? It suits you.’
‘Yes’
‘I always think of you outside, in the woods or in the garden.’ said Mr Bullivant.
‘Do you?’
‘Yes, why do you sound so surprised?’
The novel’s incestuous story line could be considered a brave and bold move on the author’s part or simply a contrivance to generate publicity through tabloid moral outrage. Personally, I believe the former reason. Rightly or wrongly I wondered if this was the kind of book I should be reading and enjoying but I also had the same thoughts when reading Nabakov’s Lolita. 
Do I recommend this book? Yes I do. Did it deserve to win to win the 1996 Orange Prize for Fiction? Too early to say as I have yet to read four of the six books that were nominated. But of the two books that I have read from the shortlist, The Spell of Winter and Julia Blackburn's The Book of Colour, Helen Dunmore's is my favourite.

No’ of pages – 313
Profanity – none
Sex scenes – 1 (there are also some mild sexual references)
Genre – Drama/Romance

Originally posted at http://thevoyageout-bookreviews.blogspot.co.uk/

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Book of Colour by Julia Blackburn

Julia Blackburn has written a biography or a memoir if you will about the paternal side of her family that goes back as far as her great grandfather. But this is not a conventional, genealogically straight-forward biography. The author swoops in and out of her father and grand-father’s lives through dreams and nightmares, mentally visiting rooms within a large ethereal house each connected by long white corridors. In each room she encounters a place in time inhabited by her ancestors. The author becomes a part of her ancestor’s lives as if by some form of bilocation.
While in this fantastical state of bilocation she interacts most often with her grandfather (whose name we are never privy to), the dark-skinned son of a white missionary and his son, Eliel, the author’s father.  On the island of Praslin, one of the smaller islands of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the white missionary is busy trying to stamp out copulation while simultaneously trying to deny the colour of his own act of copulation. The Missionary’s dark-skinned wife is cursed by a witchdoctor and she and her son flee to the island of Mauritius to try and hide or outrun the witchdoctor’s curse. Julia Blackburn’s father arrives In England aged eighteen having been trained as an Anglican Priest on Mauritius but the curse appears to have followed him over the ocean.
The book is not an easy read. The subject matter is unsettling; racism, self loathing and mental illness, and the writing style has a surreal texture to it. However, if you want an easy read there are plenty of celebrity biographies out there to satiate your appetite.
The book is laid out in a series of short chapters with an average of five pages per chapter. It is said that we have an average of six dreams per night within an eight hour sleep. The short chapters reflect that dream state. They allow the reader to end the dream or nightmare with the close of a chapter. The short chapters allow you reflect and cogitate what you have just read before moving on to the next chapter/dream.
As with any surreal style of art, symbolism features rather heavily. There is a lot of looking out of windows, standing at windows, looking at one’s reflection in windows. There is a barely a chapter that does not mention the act of shaking; the Grandfather shakes, the grandfather’s friend shakes uncontrollably, the author’s father shakes and trembles at various times through the book, Uncle Julius the missionary’s brother shakes Eliel by the shoulders when greeting him and zombies shake themselves free from the ground.
This prevalent image of shaking is not simply a symbol of the fear that the every character in the book feels quite palpably but is symbolic of one of the thematic motifs that run through the book, a curse. The grandfather states that curses are “very hard to shake off”. The curse placed on the author’s grandmother appears to follow the family down through the generations culminating in the Eliel’s mental illness in his fifties.
Here is Ms Blackburn’s strength. Her ability through her rich, layered unpretentious writing has the twenty first century reader believing in witchdoctor curses by the end of the book. Like the curse, racist attitudes rear their ugly head throughout the book. But thankfully the author never lectures or gives an opinion on said racist attitudes. She simply lays out the truth of the matter and allows the reader to find their own feelings regarding this issue. This is rendered in a beautifully, understated passage that has Eliel being handed a book by his new teacher Mr Swann. In the book are the names of local families that are black but like to be thought of as white.
This is the first book review and I have been lucky in finding such a wonderful book to kick off my blog.
Julia Blackburn’s seemingly effortless style is at times beguiling and thought provoking. In the wrong hands The Book of Colour could have quite easily have became polemical and sentimental. The author has allowed the reader a peek into her ancestor’s lives and I believe it is just that, a peek. One can assume that there is so much more behind Julia Blackburn’s biographical curtains.
My only criticism is that the reader is left wondering what became of some of the people within the book; Eliel’s mother who suffered because of mental illness, Evalina Larose, relative or servant, and most importantly Eliel’s father who stayed behind on the island of Praslin. I have so many questions but so few answers. However, it may well be that the author does not have all the answers. It is a small criticism over-shadowed by my admiration and recommendation.

Opening Line - "It was once thought that when your house had been visited by the plague, then it was a good idea to shut a pig in the infected rooms and leave it there for a day and a night".

Memorable Line - "He looks so small and fragile lying there and as I watch I see him fading before my eyes; his body becomes colourless and transparent, the walls of the house around him are as thin as lace curtains."

No' of pages - 180


Profanity - None
Sex Scenes - None
Genre - Biography/Memoir

Christopher's Introduction and Progress List

In a previous life I was an Ecological Scientist but for the past seven years I have been my disabled mum's full time carer. I have always been a big reader especially of women's novels. My favourite novelist being Virginia Woolf.
I recently started to write a blog about the Women's Prize for Fiction. To be more exact, I am reading and writing on all the shortlisted books since the prize began in 1996.
To stop my brain turning to mush I started a English Literature degree through the Open University. I have also started to write short stories and poems.

Below are the books I have read so far.

Julia Blackburn - The Book of Colour 1996
Helen Dunmore -  A Spell of Winter 1996
Pagan Kennedy - Spinsters 1996
Amy Tan - A Hundred Secret Senses 1996
Marianne Wiggins - Eveless Eden. 1996

I have almost finished Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years 1996

Looking forward to many enjoyable hours on this website.

Chris

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

2013 Winner Announced

Congratulations to A. M. Homes who won the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction award for her novel May We Be Forgiven!

Read the announcement here.

Have you read this book yet? Are you planning to do so?


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Wendy's Review

Mom disappears into thin air two days before Christmas without telling me? Of course it’s complicated. Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try. It doesn’t mean I can’t try. – from Where’d You Go, Bernadette -

Fifteen year old Bee is wise beyond her years and when she scores exceptional grades in school, her parents promise her a trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette, Bee’s mom, is far from your average mother. Once a famous architect in Los Angeles, she now struggles to fit in with the super mothers in the elite Seattle, Washington area. When she disappears only days before Christmas, she leaves behind a guilty husband and a questioning daughter who will go to any extreme to find out what happened to Bernadette. Bee begins to piece together school memos, email messages, newspaper interviews and bits of “evidence” in the days leading up to Bernadette’s disappearance. The result?  A wildly entertaining, sometimes poignant, and often hilarious story about parenting in the 21st century, religion, American culture and finding oneself in the process.

Maria Semple is very funny. Her novel is often bitingly sarcastic as she skewers the superficiality of elitism. Semple has written for the television series Mad About You and also Ellen…and her ability to write satire is unparalleled. I found myself literally laughing out loud at the situations in which Semple’s characters find themselves. The book pokes fun at the green movement, private school parents (and the administrators of those schools), and corporate America, while delivering a tale about the relationship between mother and daughter.

One of the themes of the novel is identity – specifically Bernadette’s identity of artist which becomes lost amid her role as wife and mother. One character from Bernadette’s past observes:
If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.
That observation is prophetic and it is this idea of being true to oneself which ultimately drives the narrative in this delightful book.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette delivers on many levels: great characters, an original plot, and a witty format. Short listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, it also demonstrates that smart women’s fiction has found its way into the literary circles.

Readers who are looking for humor, great writing, originality and ultimately characters who touch their hearts, need look no further.

Highly recommended.

5stars

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Announcing the 2013 Women's Prize Short List

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
NW by Zadie Smith

Which do you think will win?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Follow The Orange Prize Project on Facebook, RSS, or Email

Because many people are going to be impacted by Google Reader's demise in a few months, I thought it might be helpful to some of you on Facebook to be able to follow this blog through Networked Blogs. If you wish to do so, simply visit the widget in our side bar and click on "Follow this Blog." New posts will show up on your newsfeed through the Networked Blogs feature on Face Book.

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask.

I should mention that for those of you who wish to follow The Orange Prize Project blog by RSS feed or email, those options are still available. Just sign up by using the widgets at the top of the sidebar.

Flight Behavior - Wendy's Review



A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense. - from Flight Behavior -
Dellarobia’s life changed at seventeen when an unplanned pregnancy forced her into marriage…the same year she was orphaned when her mother succumbed to cancer. Despite a miscarriage, she stayed in her marriage to Cub, a man whose life is defined by his parents – the rigid Bear and his opinionated and religious wife, Hester. Now, ten years later, Dellarobia is disillusioned with her life as mom to two young children, barely scraping by on a small sheep farm in Feathertown, Tennessee on the edge of the Appalachian mountains. She longs for a brighter future, a more romantic relationship than the one she has with Cub, and an escape from the poverty and sameness of each day. So one day she heads up the mountain to consummate a tryst with the telephone guy. But instead of discovering love,  Dellarobia finds the trees on the mountain aflame with Monarch butterflies. Believing this to be a message from God, she turns back down the mountain and vows to stay in her marriage and make it work. The butterflies soon become a sensation, bringing a team of scientists to Dellarobia and Cub’s farm and upending the tenuous balance in a family which is living on the edge.

Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel explores the impact of global warming and the divide between science and religion. Kingsolver lightens these heavy themes with warm hearted, genuine characters and a finely wrought sense of humor balanced by poignancy. Dellarobia is an insightful, smart woman who has been denied an education. She loves her kids. She grapples with her faith. She longs for a life of beauty and meaning. She is one of those characters who a reader can get behind even though she is far from perfect.

Kingsolver lays down a dilemma for Dellarobia:  Should she stay in her life and make it work, or should she take flight? Her journey is  symbolized by that of the butterflies – insects who migrate thousands of miles even though they have never been shown the way. What choices do we have when faced with potential catastrophe and the unknown? How do we determine truth? What factors influence our decisions and beliefs?

I am a huge Kingsolver fan. I love her beautiful prose, her complex characters, her sense of humor, and the relevancy of her themes. I expected to love this book, and it did not disappoint me. Critics of the global warming argument may be put off by the underlying message regarding the dire nature of environmental change, but no one can fault Kingsolver’s imagination and ability to bring to life a set of characters facing one of the most controversial topics facing this generation. It is her skill at character development against the backdrop of nature where Kingsolver shines, and in Dellarobia, she has given her readers a character who is truly memorable.

Highly Recommended.



FTC Disclosure: I was sent this book by the publisher for review on my blog. Thank you to TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to share this novel with my readers. Please visit the tour page for links to more reviews.

The Light Between Oceans - Wendy's Review



He struggles to make sense of it – all this love so bent out of shape, refracted, like light through the lens. - from The Light Between Oceans, page 225 -
A lighthouse warns of danger – tells people to keep their distance. She had mistaken it for a place of safety. - from the Light Between Oceans, page 227 -
Tom Sherbourne carries the scars of war after spending four years on the Western Front during WWI. He returns to Australia and accepts the job as light keeper on Janus Rock – a distant and isolated outpost a half day’s journey from the mainland and the small town of Partageuse. It is in Partageuse he meets Isabel, a young woman whose indefatigable spirit captures his heart. The two marry and begin their life on Janus Rock where the waves and wind, and the gorgeous landscape fill their days. Isabel quickly becomes pregnant, only to lose the child to miscarriage. Two more pregnancies end in disaster…and it is in the sad days following her last pregnancy when Isabel hears a baby’s cry. A boat has washed up on Janus Rock carrying a dead man and a very much alive baby girl. For Isabel, it is the miracle she has been waiting for; but for Tom the arrival of the boat will challenge his sense of right and wrong and test his marriage to Isabel. Tom’s decision to allow Isabel to keep the infant girl (who they name Lucy) and allow the death of the baby’s father to go unreported will have consequences which will profoundly impact not only he and Isabel, but a third person – Lucy’s biological mother who has never given up hope that her baby will be found.

M. L. Stedman’s debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, is a compelling story about love, loss, loneliness, and the consequences of our moral choices. Stedman’s prose is haunting and filled with symbolism grounded in the natural world. Janus Rock isolates Tom and Isabel, which makes their choice to keep Lucy easier – it is just them, on a rock, in between the oceans. It is only when the return to the mainland for an infrequent vacation when they are reminded they are not alone in the world.

Tom’s journey is one of recovery from a less than ideal childhood and the horrors of war. He carries guilt and a desire to put things right again. His conflict lies between protecting Isabel and Lucy, and the idea of justice and resolution for Lucy’s biological mother. Whatever he decides will cause pain to someone. Tom clings to what is real and solid – the lighthouse and its duties, the predictable rise and fall of the ocean – to travel his path…so when faced with the intangible and unpredictable, he finds himself floundering.
He must turn to something solid, because if he didn’t, who knew where his mind or his soul could blow away to, like a balloon without ballast. That was the only thing that had got him through four years of blood and madness: know exactly where your gun is when you doze for ten minutes in your dugout; always check your gas mask; see that your men have understood their orders to the letter. You don’t think ahead in years or months: you think about this hour, and maybe the next. Anything else is just speculation. – from The Light Between Oceans, page 33 -
The Light Between Oceans is beautifully wrought, but not without its flaws. Some plot points felt a bit implausible or contrived, and the novel begins slowly. I read this book for an online book club, and some participants stopped reading because they found the story to slow to engage them. Although I agree that Stedman takes her time to develop the characters and their conflicts, I loved the alluring imagery and lyrical cadence of Stedman’s prose. Sticking with the book proved to have its rewards. Stedman ultimately creates memorable characters and a story which reminds readers that life is complicated and the decisions we make can have devastating consequences not only for ourselves, but for others.

Readers who enjoy literary fiction and like books with complex characters who are driven by internal conflict, will find themselves drawn to The Light Between Oceans. M.L. Stedman’s first novel is a meditation on love and loss, and is a moving introduction to a new voice in literature.

Recommended.

Gone Girl - Wendy's Review



What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do? -from Gone Girl, page 3-
But I may be wrong, I may be very wrong. Because sometimes, the way he looks at me? That sweet boy from the beach, man of my dreams, father of my child? I catch him looking at me with those watchful eyes, the eyes of an insect, pure calculation, and I think: This man might kill me. -from Gone Girl, page 205-
Nick and Amy Dunne have been married exactly five years when Amy suddenly disappears from their home leaving behind a suspiciously staged scene, blood evidence and clues for a “treasure hunt.” Nick has no real alibi and his lies to police are beginning to make him look like a killer. Meanwhile, Amy’s diary reveals a woman who longs to be the best possible wife, but who fears her husband. As the evidence piles up against Nick and television shows spin the case, it looks like an arrest will soon happen. But is everything all that it seems? Could Nick be innocent? And if so, what has happened to Amy?

Gillian Flynn has written a smart psychological thriller about a marriage which has gone terribly awry. Gone Girl is a black comedy of sorts. Neither Nick nor Amy are reliable narrators and Flynn moves back and forth from each of their points of view to build a story with lots of sharp twists and turns. The drama unfolds, not only through Amy and Nick’s limited narration, but also on the television news shows which supply their own spin. The novel provides a satirical look at social media, the US justice system, and modern marriage.

I wasn’t quite sure if I would like this novel, but I was pleasantly surprised at its clever wit and well-developed characters. Readers will find little to like about Amy and Nick – two very dysfunctional people who cultivate their toxic relationship despite its psychopathy. Flynn writes skillfully, and manages to keep the reader turning the pages in spite of her characters’ poisonous personalities. I was reminded of Louise Erdrich’s brilliant novel Shadow Tag which keeps the reader off balance while its characters manipulate and damage each other. 

Gone Girl is not perfect – there are some plot points which require readers to suspend reality in order to believe the story line (especially during the novel’s final pages). I was easily able to do just that which I think speaks to the exceptional character development early on. 

Gone Girl is suspenseful, original and surprisingly funny. Readers who enjoy psychological thrillers and twisty plots will find much to love about this book.

Recommended.

4Stars

This novel has been nominated for the 2013 Edgar Award – Best Novel and long listed for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam

2013 Long-list: Lamb

Written by Bonnie Nadzam and Narrated by Tavia Gilbert

Review
Lamb hits a mid-life crisis when his wife divorces him for infidelity and his father passes away. Just after his father's funeral, he meets Tommie - an 11-year-old girl who desperately needs guidance. Lamb is strangely attracted to the girl - he wants to help her seize life, he wants to buy her presents and make her happy. Then, with Tommie's consent, he abducts her. 

I had a really hard time deciding how to rate Lamb. The narrative was intriguing - almost addictive - but the subject matter was very disturbing. I hard a hard time putting it down because I wanted to know how it would end. I felt compelled to keep reading despite a deepening sense of unease. From the subject, I should have known it would make me feel that way, but I thought it would be a book with more hope in it. I respect the way Nadzam kept the details subtle. There were no highly disturbing scenes (well, there was ONE scene that was a bit disturbing, but it could have been much, much worse). My recommendation - read this book if you would enjoy looking at pedophilia from another perspective, but avoid it if this is a sensitive topic for you.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

2013 Long List Announced

The books nominated for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction are:


 A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge (Jonathan Cape Ltd, July 2012)


 Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (Grove Press, June 2012)


Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt and Co., May, 2012)


Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper. November 2012)


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown, June 2012)


Honour by Elif Shafak (Viking, April 2012)


How Should A Person Be by Sheila Heti (Henry Holt and Co., June 2012)


Ignorance by Michele Roberts (Bloomsbury USA., January 2013)


Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (Other Press, September 2011)


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books, April  2013)


Mateship With Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador, June 2012)



May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes (Viking Adult, September 2012)


NW by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press HC, September 2012)


The Forrests by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury USA, August 2012)


The Innocents by Francesca Segal (Voice, June 2012)


The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Scribner, July 2012)


 The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber (St. Martin's Press, January 2013)


The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu (Hogarth, September 2012)


The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Voice, April 2012)


Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple (Little, Brown and Company, December 2012)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Introduction of New Member - Brona

Hello

I'm Brona from Brona's Books.

I've been meaning to join in your Orange Challenge for quite some time. So thank you Wendy for the kind invitation and warm welcome.

My blog started when I was still in teacher mode. I focused on children's books and writing reviews that would help teachers and parents find suitable books for their children.

I've always been an avid reader, but chose not to blog about the grown-up titles I was reading.

The last few years has seen a change of career for me and I now work in an Independent bookshop managing the children's section. My job requires me to be knowledgable about all sections of the shop, not just the children's areas. With so many titles and genres to choose from it could be easy to be overwhelmed by choice!

I made the decision a long time ago to only read books I was enjoying. If by page 50 I'm not sucked in or hooked, I put it down and find something more my style. Life's to short to read a bad book!

I mainly read new release fiction, historical fiction, gentle crime, biographies and the occasional non-fiction title (history, science and philosophy are my favourites).

But lots of our customers like to know our opinions about the award winning books. So I'm attempting to play catch-up...which is where this blog comes in!

Thank you all once again and I look forward to getting to know you all better.

Click here to read my first Orange post on my blog.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

New Look

Hello everyone!

I've decided to try a more dynamic look for the blog and I'd love your feedback. You can choose how you view the blog by selecting any one of a number of different looks at the top of the blog. Links and other information continues to be available by using the slide-out feature in the right hand side of the page.

Please let me know if you like this new look - I can always change it back to the way it was before!

Judge Rachel Johnson Shares Her Thoughts...

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Women's Prize Site and Nominations for 2013

Good morning! 

I just wanted everyone to know that the Women's Prize official site is now back up and running and I've put the link in the right side bar if you want to check it out.

The 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist will be announced on Thursday 14th March 2013. Do you have any favorites which you hope will make the nomination list?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Monsters of Templeton - Wendy's Review

Up surfaced the monster, and after the monster there came the crowd. – from The Monsters of Templeton, page 34 -
 Willie Upton arrives back in her hometown of Templeton after a lurid affair with her archeology professor. She leaves behind her potential PhD in the Alaskan wilderness to return to her roots in upstate New York. Hoping to find comfort in a place that has always felt unchanged, Willie instead finds her former hippie mother, Vi, immersed in born-again Christianity and a town in an uproar over the dead body of a monster which as surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.
I come home to Templeton because it’s the only place in the world that never changes, and I mean never, never changes, and here’s this half-dead lake. I always thought, hey, if the ice caps melt and all the cities of the world are swallowed up, Templeton will be fine. We’d be able to make do. Plant vegetables. Bunker up, sit it out, whatever. But it doesn’t seem right anymore. Does it? – from The Monsters of Templeton, page 131 -
Within days, Vi reveals that Willie’s father is not an unknown  hippie from the psychedelic days of San Francisco, but instead someone Willie knows well and who shares her family history. On a quest to discover her father’s identity, Willie digs deeply into the backgrounds of the people from the town’s by gone days, and reconnects with friends from her past.

Lauren Groff’s complex and riveting first novel explores identity, the irresistible pull of our pasts, and the history of a small town in upstate New York. Groff based her story on her real hometown of Cooperstown, New York and borrowed liberally from James Fenimore Cooper’s massive cast of quirky characters in constructing a novel rich in folklore and historical references.

Willie is a young woman struggling to find her identity in order to understand her future. As she researches her family history, the characters from her past take turns narrating their often convoluted stories and revealing their dark, well kept secrets. Groff uses actual photographs and constructs ever evolving family trees as Willie gets closer to the truth about her family. 

The Monsters of Templeton is really a bit of a mystery novel, an unraveling of the past to solve the question of who fathered Willie. Groff also introduces a bit of magical realism with the monster of Lake Glimmerglass and several ghosts who help guide Willie to clues about her ancestry. But what works the best in the story is the crowd of characters who all vie for their chance to reveal their secrets.

Lauren Groff’s debut novel was nominated for the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers in 2008.

This book is recommended for readers who enjoy character driven novels, historical fiction and a bit of a mystery.

4Stars

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Orange Prize now to be called Women's Prize

After a four-month hiatus, and a media blackout during the long, wet summer, the literary award formerly known, from 1996 to 2012, as the Orange prize announced the restoration of its original title, the Women's Prize for Fiction (WPF). It would be funded by a group of private benefactors led by Cherie Blair and bestselling writers Joanna Trollope and Elizabeth Buchan. (read the full article here)

The good news is that regardless of what people are going to call this prize, it is not going away any time soon. For now, I'm keeping the challenge name as is...maybe it will change in the future, and if so, I'll get your feedback before doing anything!

By the way, I've deleted the link to the Orange Prize site because it appears that it has been hacked by Malware and can infect your computer...so don't go there. I'll let you know if the site is fixed or a new site opens up.