February Book Report

Well, after not finishing the book on my list for last month, this month I did much better with a collection of short stories, Women in Their Beds : New and Selected Stories, by Gina Berriault. I was not familiar with this writer before, and I found her to write stories that really appealed to me. I wrote about it in more detail on my blog, if you care to read my thoughts.

#16, #17, #18 Read By Lizzy

I just looked in the archive and I don't seem to have published my reviews of books 16-18. Just for the record:

#16 The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell
#17 What Was Lost - Catherine O'Flynn
#18 The Bower Bird - Ann Kelley

Cracking reads all three!

I don't know how many more award winners I'll read before the challenge ends but #19 is one of the best so far. A 5-star gothic mystery par excellence. See my full review here.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak


Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Country: Australia
Year: 2005
Pages: 552
Rating: 5 out of 5

First sentence:
 First the colors.

You can find the complete review here.

What I thought: I can not come up with the words to describe this book that would do it justice. It is that good. It is written from the unique perspective of Death, a wry, frank, and compassionate character who sees moments in shades of color: The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness. (p.12). We learn how Death comes to know the book thief and her story. It is an emotionally draining read. 

Towards the end, I was reading parts out loud to my daughter when she was fussy, so that I could calm her down and try to finish the book at the same time. I had to stop, I literally could not read the story out loud without crying. 

There is plenty of foreshadow. I know what is going to happen. I know how it is going to end. And I still sobbed through the last few chapters. Yet, a narrative filled with death and despair, one of the overarching themes is that of hope and love. There is so much love in this story, and overflows from the pages to the reader. 

And, always a favorite for bibliophiles, it is very much a story about words: 

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half. 
Then a chapter.
Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn't be any of this. Without words, the F├╝hrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better. 
What good were the words?
She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. "What good are the words?"(p.521)

I was particularly captured by the story within a story - the writings and illustrations of Max, the Jew hidden in the basement. His short story, The Word Shaker, could easily be a stand alone children's book. The book is marketed as young adult fiction, but is just as enjoyable and meaningful for adults.


The Giver by Lois Lowry

I also had the opportunity to read “The Giver” by Lois Lowry over the weekend. This is a YA novel that I picked up specifically for the Book Awards Challenge, as it won the 1993 Newbery Award. While I found the book entertaining enough for what it is – a fine introduction to utopian literature – I am far removed from its ideal ‘target market’, and found it a bit too simplistic for my personal enjoyment. Having said that, it was certainly a well-plotted tale with some interesting characters and an entertaining and adventurous theme. And, at a mere 179 pages, it’s certainly worth the reading time…just not one that will make my favorites list.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanne Clarke


Mr Norrell is on a quest to be the only magician in England and to being back English magic. He is sick of all the theoretical magicians with no other practical magicians besides him, that is until magical prodigee Jonathan Strange enters the scene. At first Strange becomes the pupil to Norrell's master, but things change after he does a stint with the Duke of Wellington in Portugal and Spain in the war. Both men seem subject to a prophecy told by a street sorcerer from London called Vinculus and they have an unseen enemy, a man with thistle-down hair and no name.

A world of fairies and magic set mostly in England in the 1800's against a backdrop of the war with Napoleon, the mad King George and famous poet Bryon. The differences between the two magicians is pronounced, but separate they are not as strong and have no one else to share their interests with.

The supporting characters (especially Stephen Black and Childermass) are what really made this book for me. The other was Clarke's incredible attention to detail. The book is set in a real period of history, yet she works in many foot notes citing events that did and didn't occur as well as books that do and don't exist. Don't be put off by the length, once you start reading it, it becomes impossible to put down again.
Bill Bryson is mostly known for his travel writing, but in this book he takes a turn at popular science. It covers everything from research into the Big Bang, how the measurements for the earth were derived, plate tectonics, the evolution of humans from apes, Darwin's theories of natural selection, the discovery of DNA to extinction. It crams in a lot of information about the main scientific discoveries into a managable book.

It's interesting that a lot of scientists who put forward theories that are now celebrated as genius and essential, were ridiculed and disbelieved at the time. A lot of the time they were ignored due to petty jealousies between the scientists themselves... It seemed a mostly unbiased look at the ideas and the people making the discoveries themselves which was interesting (usually you only hear about Watson and Crick in the discovery of the structure of DNA but this included Wilkins and Franklin).

I enjoyed half of this book. The chapters between 14-26 andthe final chapter were the most interesting to me. I am not so into physics or geology and it didn't really hold my interest. The notes at the end of the novel were interesting citing where the references came from in the main text. My problem with it though was that they were not referenced in the main text. A lot of books will put a superscript number where citations are so you can check the notes at the back.
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

1932 Pulitzer Prize

"The Good Earth" opens on Wang Lung's wedding day. He has taken a slave girl from the village's weathiest family. The story follows the family through good years on their farm and drought that forces them into the city. It's a story about one man's hope for his children and the future. I read it last year and liked it. I highly recommend it.

Atonement - J's Review

I'm writing this review a bit differently than I have in the past, in that I'm not quite half-way through the book, and I've got a lot of thoughts swimming around in my head that I want to get out and on 'paper', so I can just get back to the book without them clouding my brain. They're not big, important, deep thoughts. Just thoughts.

First, this book makes me want to smoke. It just seems like the kind of book that a person should read in a big chair or something, smoking a cigarette ala' Out of Africa, sort of to show how serious I am while reading it. Not in a way that is connected in any way whatsoever to smoking in real life.

Next, and most importantly at this point, I'm having a heck of a time getting into this novel. Thus far, the tale is told mainly in the voice of a young girl, 11-year old Briony, who witnesses several incidents one scorching hot day in 1935. She witnesses a scene between her 21-year old sister (Cecilia) and their neighbor (Robbie), who is about the same age, which she completely misunderstands. He sends a note through Briony, apologizing to Cecilia for the scene, which Briony reads and finds repugnant and somewhat threatening. Lastly, she happens upon a violent crime, her 13-year old cousin being raped by a man, in the dark, whom Briony identifies as Robbie. OK, this is bugging me, because it so clearly wasn't Robbie committing the crime, and there are clues leading in that give that fact away. It bugs me that Briony ignores these clues, as does everyone around her. Her insistence that she knows beyond any doubt that Robbie committed the crime is frustrating.

That's all for now, I'll write more when I finish the book.
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OK, I finished the book, and I'm happy to say that I enjoyed the second half much more than the first. Of course, the repercussions of Briony's insistence of Robbie's guilt are immediate and dire. That he is so quickly shut out of the family, and that obvious clues are ignored speaks to the fact that he is lower class, the son of a servant, whereas the girl, and the actual rapist, are both upper class, and therefore the blame easily goes to the poor man, rather than the rich one.
As early as the week that followed, the glazed surface of conviction was not without its blemishes and hairline cracks. Whenever she was conscious of them, which was not often, she was driven back, with a little swooping sensation in her stomach, to the understanding that what she knew was not literally, or not only, based on the visible. It was not simply her eyes that told her the truth. It was too dark for that. Even Lola's face at eighteen inches was an empty oval, and this figure was many feet away, and turned from her as it moved back around the clearing. But nor was this figure invisible, and its size and manner of moving were familiar to her. Her eyes confirmed the sum of all she knew adn had recently experienced. The truth was in the symmetry, which was to say, it was founded in common sense. The truth instructed her eyes. So when she said, over and over again, I saw him, she meant it, and was perfectly honest, as well as passionate. What she meant was rather more complex than what everyone else so eagerly understood, and her moments of unease came when she felt that she could not explain these nuances. She did not even seriously try. There were no opportunities, no time, no permission. Within a couple of days, no, within a matter of hours, a process was moving fast and well beyond her control.

The second segment in the book is told from Robbie's point of view. A few years have gone by, and he is in France, retreating from the German army, from Dunkirk to the ocean, where they await a squadron to remove them from France. This segment was the most compelling to me. Robbie's internal world is much less convoluted than Briony's, his motives much more straightforward. His shame at leaving is palpable, as is his desire to get home in one piece to Cecilia. The nuance of his desire to get home, his confusion over his feelings, and his understanding that war removes the labls of guilty and innocent, are very moving.
Through the material of his coat he felt for the bundle of her letters. I'll wait for you. Come back. The words were not meaningless, but they didn't touch him now. It was clear enough - one person waiting for another like an arithmetical sum, and just as empty of emotion. Waiting. Simply one person doing nothing, over time, while another approached. Waiting was a heavy word. He felt it pressing down, heavy as a greatcoat. Everyone in the cellar was waiting, everyone on the beach. She was waiting, yes, but then what? He tried to make her voice say the words, but it was his own he heard, just below the tread of his heart. He could not even form her face.

..what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. No one would be redeemed by a change of evidence, for there weren't enough people, enough paper and pens, enough patience and peace, to take down the statements of all the witnesses and gather in the facts. The witnesses were guilty too. All day we've witnessed each other's crimes. You killed no one today? But how many did you leave to die? Down here in the cellar we'll keep quiet about it.

The third segment of the book is mainly Briony's point of view again. It is 1940, and she is working as a nurse in a military hospital in London. She has been changed in ways she could not have imagined, both by the war, and by the outfall of her accusation of Robbie in the rape of her cousin. She has grown up a lot, and is faced with the task of seeking Robbie and Cecilia's forgiveness. She is looking for atonement for her insistance at that earlier time, when she now knows the truth of what happened that day, even more than Cecilia and Robbie do.

I very much liked the book, at least the second half. The writing was beautiful, and painted a picture that was at the same time bleak and lush. Not an easy feat.

The Sea, the Sea
Iris Murdoch
495 pages


Charles Arrowby is a London theatre director who has recently retired to a seaside cottage in the south of England. He plans to write his memoirs, with particular focus on his lover-mentor, a woman named Clement. The book is written in the first person; Charles chronicles both day-to-day living in his cottage, and describes his life and loves. Vanity and jealousy are central themes. Charles spent his life immersed in theatre, entangled in complex relationships. His cousin James grew up in a more privileged environment and was a perennial cause of envy. Hartley was Charles' childhood sweetheart and, having been rejected by her as a young adult, Charles has been unable to deeply love anyone else. He toys with the affections of two actresses, Lizzie and Rosina, and fancies himself as having power over them when in fact, it is exactly the reverse.

The plot thickens when Charles meets up with Hartley, who surprisingly lives in the village near his cottage. She is married, with an adult son. But this does not stop Charles from pursuing her, and trying to re-create the happiness he felt as a teenager. Meanwhile James, Rosina, Lizzie, and others make frequent visits and try to talk sense into Charles. As Mary Kinzie writes in her introduction to the Penguin classic edition, Charles "violently and bullheadedly persists in all the wrong directions." None of his plans work out as he hopes. And as these plans unravel, he keeps trying to find another way to achieve his dreams. A climax of sorts occurs about 100 pages before the end, in which Peregrine, a theatre friend, calls him on his negative and manipulative behaviors: "You're an exploded myth. And you still think you're Genghis Khan! Laissez-moi rire. I can't think why I let you haunt me all these years. ... You never did anything for mankind, you never did anything for anybody except yourself." (p. 395)

Despite these character traits, Charles is not completely despicable. Iris Murdoch had a tremendous talent for portraying the middle-aged to older man and all his foibles, in a way that made the man mostly likeable. The Sea, the Sea also includes some interesting plot threads: Charles' pursuit of Hartley; Hartley's marriage; Hartley's son Titus; Charles' relationship with James, and so on. All in all, a satisfying read. ( )

My original review can be found here.
Cross-posted from my blog.

Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
ISBN: 0-380-97365-0
Publisher: William Marrow-An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Pages: 461/Hardcover
Rating: 4/5


I had won this book from Dewey in October 2007. For some reason or other, I could only get around it now. Usually I finish a book within three days maximum. This took me a while, around three weeks.

American Gods is not an easy book to review. To read too, one needs to concentrate a lot. You miss something, you have to go back.

Shadow is in the jail for the past three years and waits for his release so that he can get back to his wife Laura and a new job with one of his closest friends. When he is unexpectedly released one day before his due date, he is taken by surprise by the turn of events. He is a free man yet in one stroke of luck he loses everything he had held dear. He meets a strange man named Wednesday, who offers to give him work. He accepts it. There is start of an adventure which takes us in a picaresque journey across America where we meet strange people who are either God or really evil. In every page there is that touch of the unexpectedness which keeps us totally riveted.

The story flows via magic, fantasy and hallucinations and in dream like sequences. It takes us to forgotten Gods of olden times and emerging new ones, juxtaposing the two somewhere in between. Although mystical, each page makes us believe in it. There are contradictions too which somehow make this tale of imagination somehow inevitable. Here dream and nightmare merge at some points.

We meet such intersting characters like Easter, Mr Nancy, Czernobog, so-called Gods and people or non-people who think that they are in the side of the good. Taken as a whole, it can be read as a classic tale of good versus the evil. Shadow manages to emerge out of the shadow of lies, deceit and falsehood.

As an Indian, I particularly liked references to Indian Gods like Kali and Elephat-headed God, Ganesha. Our Gods are like humans and can interact with us at all levels. Thats way of the American Gods too in this novel.

I have read Neverwhere by Gaiman before this. Whatever said and done, I think I prefer Neverwhere more than American Gods.

The Magnificent Ambersons from Kimmie

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
1918 Prlitzer Prize

The Amberson's are a rich family on the glitzy side of town. But times are changing and the family is unable to keep up with the times. Spoiled young Georgie grows up believing he will live the life of a gentleman-no career necessary. But the modern age is upon him. The auto industry is getting into full swing. Industrialization is covering the town with a layer of soot. And Grandfather Amberson is putting out more money on his family than he has coming in.

I loved this book. It shows us that the times are always a-changin.
I just wrote a post about my January book for the challenge, The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. I had been wanting to read it since it came out, and I read several reviews of it. Unfortunately, I didn't even finish the book. Feel free to check my blog post, if you want to know more.

(P.S. I'm having much better luck with this month's choice ...)

Life and Times of Michael K - Wendy's Review

The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 1-

Michael K's hare lip is the first thing everyone notices about him - a disfigurement that sets him apart and causes his mother to institutionalize him at a young age. This physical defect seems to set the tone for Micahel's life of isolation and a turning inward of himself. As an adult, Michael finds work as a gardener in the city of Cape Town; later as his mother's health deteriorates he decides to return to the country and the home of her birth. But a civil war makes this journey a challenge in more ways than one. Michael and his mother do not have papers to leave the city, they don't have reliable transportation, and they must avoid armed guards and roadblocks. When Michael's mother dies along the way, Michael is left with her ashes and the determination to reach his destiny.

This is a disturbing and revealing novel about the strength of the human spirit to not only endure, but to overcome physical obstacles in the discovery of self. Michael's connection to the earth, his desire to grow his own food, becomes his sole purpose of living.

His deepest pleasure came at sunset when he turned open the cock at the dam wall and watched the stream of water run down its channels to soak the earth, turning it from fawn to deep brown. It is because I am a gardener, he tough, because that is my nature. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 59-

Coetzee's writing is vivid in its descriptions. The sense of place is strong, which makes this novel a somber look at South Africa. The human suffering, the pointlessness of the re-education camps, the cruelty of the military - all resound heavily on the pages of this book. Michael stands out, not only because he is physically marred, but because he possesses a peace within that those around him lack. A doctor who treats Michael in hospital seems to be the only character who identifies what makes Michael special.

I am the only one who sees you for the original soul you are. I am the only one who cares for you. I alone see you as neither a soft case for a soft camp nor a hard case for a hard camp but a human soul above and beneath classification, a soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring its wings within that stiff sarcophagus, murmuring behind that clownish mask. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 151-

As with all of Coetzee's novels, Life and Times of Michael K is not light reading. In many ways it is depressing; but ultimately it captures the beauty of the human soul.

Recommended; rated 4/5.
Set in South Africa, this 1983 Booker Prize Winner by Nobel Laureate (2003) J. M. Coetzee is about a man surviving amidst war, civil unrest, and poverty. There are no chapters, but three sections divide book. The first covers more than 2/3 of the novel. The plot is one of the most depressing I have read in a long time. The prose is stark and observant. Michael K. is a mysterious yet simple character at the same time. The novel makes you ask a lot of questions about the setting, the characters, and the overall meaning and moral of this novel. It was a quick read at 249pages. The writing was bare, but there were some wonderful lines:
I come from a line of children of no end.

Another excerpt:
He is like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand. A hard little stone, barely aware of its surroundings, enveloped in itself and it interior life...An unbearing, unborn creature.

There is doubtlessly a lot of criticism and interpretation of this work. There seems to be debates about Michael's race/ethnicity. Is he black or white? There were indications in the book that he goes either way, but Michael himself does not seem to see race. Michael's intelligence or intellectual capabilities are questioned. He does not seem to have much of a sex drive, and his upbringing lacked intimacy or any fun. Finally, the setting is almost dystopian and some critics debate about the actual time of the book. It's hard to say if I liked it or how soon I will pick up another of Coetzee's work again, but it was fascinating read. (Cross posted from my blog Aquatique)

Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes
Louis Sachar

This is an unlikely story about an unlikely hero being sent to an unlikely camp; but no matter how unlikely everything is you just keep on reading and reading and reading until you get to the end, page 234 and ask yourself "Gee, this is an unlikely triumph of a book!" then thank the fates or gods you believe in for the opportunity to peruse it. Of course that last part is a bit dramatic, how unlikely of me. Then again, not so. Hahaha!

I first heard of this book from my friend Anj, who raved about it last year while I was practically close to my panic mode - I took the bar exams September so around that time I haven't been reading fiction - and filed the thought (well, the book title) in mind. I was searching the bargain books at Book Sale last month when I found a good copy for only Php 40.00 (which is equivalent to one US dollar) and forgot all about it until I picked it up Friday night and finished it early Saturday morning.

How exactly should I ramble about this unlikely story? I don't think I can. Hahaha! Basically it's about a young boy named Stanley Yelnats being sent to Camp Green Lake after being convicted of a crime he didn't commit. The Yelnats have a long history of bad luck for failure of the great-great-grandfather to fulfill a promise made a hundred or so years back; not one of them is ever really successful at anything. So the young Stanley is used to the bad luck and the family is used to blaming their "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather" if only jokingly as the Yelnats have good hearts.

In Camp Green Lake the boys are required to dig holes five feet wide and five feet deep to build character, so the Warden says. I did mention the story as unlikely, right? Like hundreds of times, right? Yeah, I know I exaggerate a lot. But like I said you just read on because there's something about Stanley, something about the holes, something about luck changing its course for the better, something about old family stories and everything coming in full circle when the story ends. If I say a word more then it would be unfair for those who have yet to read and enjoy the book.

I was about to title this post as Karma Chameleon, something which I thought that those who have read this book might understand, then I remembered how weird my mind works and maybe the song just kept playing in my head from the time I reached the halfway mark of the book. Maybe I'm just pushing it too far because I'm merely aiming for that title and not the entire song altogether. Is it obvious I'm rambling? But the title now is apt; for those who have read the book and for those merely wanting to know the very basic of the unlikely plot. Well, as apt as my weird thoughts can conceive every so often.

A story that I cannot quite label and yet I find satisfying nonetheless. A story about hope, friendships, acceptance, diversity, things that makes us all too human, and things that bring out the beast in us. I know I'm jotting down universal themes of serious books, right? Right.

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This is my seventh read for the Book Award Reading Challenge and again, I'm not following the list I made. Hahaha! Holes won the Newbery in 1999.

Atonement Island: two more form raidergirl3

Atonement by Ian McEwan

NBCC 2002
I finally read this before learning too much about it from all the Oscar buzz. I really enjoyed the story, especially how a person's view of an event is based on their own experiences, sometimes with disasterous results. McEwan builds lots of suspence and the setting of pre- and wartime London gave me a wonderful weekend.
My full review is at my blog

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

Newbery winner 1961

I loved this quiet story of survival. Karena is stranded on her island and forced to survive on her own. She sets a good example of levelheadedness and logical thinking. I'm sure I should have read this when I was younger, but then again, I may not have appreciated it as much.
My full review is here at my blog.

Arundhati Roy's debut (and only) novel is a spectacular work. Told in a lyrical, evocative fashion, it often touches the realms of poetry.

A story of love, loss and the boundaries between them, it is both well plotted and intriguing. It is set in Kerala, in the late 60s, where the principal characters return after a long absence.



Read More About The God Of Small Things in my personal blog.

Winner of the 1997 Booker Award.
Originally, I intended to read only "The Town" because it was the Pulitzer Fiction winner for 1951, but I discovered it was the third installment of a trilogy, so I decided to read the "set," and I am glad I did. Another reviewer compared The Awakening Land to Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series, and in a very simple way, it is similar primarily for the "cabin in the woods" setting, particularly in Volume I "The Trees." However, Richter's works go beyond the pioneer spirit which is the central theme of Sayward "Saird" Luckett Wheeler the main character of the three novels.

The plot is an engaging weave of history, the "simple life of yesteryear" and the generational changes in family and societal attitudes. In this piece of fiction, as I have found in other Pulitzer fiction winners, although the subject matter and writing style may be quaint (or antiquated) basic human (American) attitudes and challenges haven't changed and the lessons to be learned remain the same.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver won the 2005 Orange Prize. I found out about this book by reading reviews for Jodi Picoult's book Nineteen Minutes. I've read both Picoult's book and Shriver's. If you want to read just one book about the horrifying event of a student going to his high school and murdering his classmates in cold blood, I recommend reading We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Kevin is born to Eva and Franklin, a couple very much in love with each other. Eva is not quite so in love with the idea of having a child, but when she becomes pregnant, Kevin enters their family.

From the start Eva does not bond with Kevin, nor does she have the deluge of maternal feelings she feels she is supposed to have. In fact, her relationship with Kevin becomes more adversarial than it does connective. Franklin does not see Kevin from the same point of view as Eva, and slowly but surely, over the years, this takes a toll on their marriage.

The story continues through Kevin's life with Eva being the only one to see Kevin's lack of connection to his family, his inability to form any friendships, and his distance from schoolmates. Franklin continues to make excuses for his son preferring to believe they are pals and that he understands Kevin while Eva simply does not. Franklin persists in believing this in spite of evidence that bad things happen when Kevin is around with the likely possibility that Kevin caused them.

This is a long book, and may, at times, become tedious for some readers. Having had some experience with a child who does not fit into any group including his/her own family, I was riveted to the pages. Shriver has an uncanny understanding of what it's like for a parent to have to admit that he or she simply does not like the child who, no matter what, prefers to stay outside the family unit. The strain this puts upon the family seems impossible to bear.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the family dynamic that produces a child who could murder innocent people. This is not to imply that the fault lies with the family, however. Sometimes things just happen, and there is no discernible reason why. For that reason I found the end of this story to be somewhat shocking. It goes to show that we never really know a person no matter what evidence we have to the contrary.

The Poet

Michael Connelly
Audiobook

Jack McEvoy is a crime reporter for a Denver newspaper. He is good writer and a skilled investigator. However, the story hits too close to home when his twin brother, Sean apparently commits suicide. Jack refuses to believe it and begins to find evidence that supports his theory. What follows is a page-turning maze of twists and turns that kept me interested right through the ending.

I really enjoyed listening to this book. Toward the middle of the book I started to suspect that it was going in a certain direction. I was really disappointed when it appeared that I was right. Later on though, the story takes a sharp turn that I didn't even suspect. I love when that happens! It makes me glad that I have more Connelly novels to look forward to. (4.5/5)
I'm halfway through my original list, but I'm starting to read books that were not on the original. This book won the 2007 Printz award.

American Born Chinese has three separate stories that connects at the end. All the stories have a strong message of self-acceptance. It also deals with racism, friendship, and growing up. The stories are well told; my favourite of the stories is the one on the Monkey King from the famous Chinese legends. Like the author Gene Luen Yang, I also grew up with these tales. The author has a very whimsical and funny take in his art and panels. The illustrations are on the lighter side, but still poignant. The dialogue understated but to the point. This is a graphic novel which both adults and young adults can read and appreciate.

Cross posted from aquatique.net.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac
Anita Brookner

This tells the tale of Edith Hope, a guest at a Swiss hotel of the book title. The first time we encounter her she's writing a letter to a man named David, describing the hotel and the apparently abrupt departure from England that she went through. We also learn that Edith is a romantic fiction writer who publishes under an assumed name. Either that or Edith's her assumed name. Gee, this really sounds like I'm rambling about it.

Nearing winter there are only a handful of guests at the hotel. There's the rich and elegant Mrs. Pusey and her daughter Jennifer who both love to shop. There's Monica with her dog named Kiki who both love to eat. And then there's the mysterious and handsome Mr. Neville who apparently has his eyes set on Edith.

As she gets to know the guests and muses about their apparently screwed up lives Edith has no choice but to face up her own mess, why she was forced into exile and what she would do afterwards.

Since I am not at liberty to say what her mess was, I can only add that this is a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful read. Partly about desires and the choices that we make. Partly about settling down or wanting to settle down. Partly about myths on love, marriage and being who we want to be. A lot of complicated issues deftly brought out with this story that is well-written and to the point.

Consider the following train of thoughts:
"And anyway, if she's all that liberated, why doesn't she go down to the bar and pick someone up? I'm sure it's entirely possible. It's jsut that most women don't do it. And why don't they do it?" she asked, with a sudden return of assurance. "It's because they prefer the old myths, when it comes to the crunch. They want to believe that they are going to be discovered,looking their best behind closed doors,just when they thought that all was lost, by a man who has battled across continents, abandoning whatever he may have had in his in-tray, to reclaim them. Ah! If only it were true," she said, breathing hard, and spearing a slice of kiwi fruit which remained suspended on her fork as she bent her head and thought this one out.

No, I don't love you. But you have got under my guard. You have moved and touched me, in a way in which I no longer care to be moved and touched. You are like a nerve that I had managed to deaden, and I am annoyed to find it coming to life. I shall do my utmost to kill it off again as soon as possible. After all, I am not in the business of losing my centrality.

Lovely, lovely words. More like a real-life unfairy tale. Whatever that means. Heartbreaking and true. And I could read the book over and over again and still be mesmerized by it. Although of course I needed the two weeks or so to finally recover from it and post something. Now I think I'd like to read more of Ms. Brookner.

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This is the sixth book I read for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. I think I'm forgetting the list I made already but hopefully I still have time to finish them off. Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize in 1984.

Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt

Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt
460 pages
3/5

Full Post Here

I picked this book up probably almost 10 years ago (when the movie was being released) and have tried to read it two or three times in that span. According to my dog-eared page, my last attempt took me to page 60. I don’t remember exactly why I gave up on the book, but probably because I thought it was incredibly boring. :) I was determined to get this book off my TBR shelf once and for all—and I did!!

Angela’s Ashes is Frank McCourt’s memoir of his coming of age. His memoir begins when he is a small child growing up in New York; his family keeps growing in number despite their extreme poverty, and eventually his aunt’s pay for their way back to Ireland to live. The McCourt’s situation continues on a desperate path in Ireland as his father, Malachy, finds it difficult to keep a job and when he does have a job, he drinks his paycheck before his family can see a dime (or shilling?? I am a little fuzzy on my foreign currency in the early 1930s-40s). Frank must endure daily ridicule from his classmates, members of the Catholic church, and others in general as he tries to make sense of his life and make the most of the little he has been given.

The book outlines Frank’s desire to become a man and be able to do the things that adults do—such as drink the pint, earn a living and his way to America, and do other things that I don’t need to mention. Angela’s Ashes is written from Frank’s point of view at the various stages of his life—so the narrative becomes much more detailed the older Frank is. While this type of narration was difficult at the beginning of the book when Frank is a small child (and also a great part of why I dislike James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist…), Frank’s perspective became one of the things that I enjoyed most about the book. Sometimes it was funny to see Frank trying to make sense out of his life and some of the “rules” that he had to endure, but at other times it is heartbreaking as Frank doesn’t really quite understand what is happening to his family as they continue to struggle to survive.

Two families, the Belseys and the Kippses, are at war. The fathers are professional rivals and the children partially follow suit. Somehow fate seems destined to keep bringing them together. Whether it be an ill-judged engagement, an unexpected friendship or an illicit affair for one who should have learnt by now how destructive it could be.

It looks at Love and Beauty and our ideals of the two. Why do we love who we love, why do we keep repeating the same mistakes time and time again and what exactly is beauty, is it a physical thing, something poetical or lyrical or something more spiritual. What really makes this book is the characters. Both families (although we learn far more about the Belseys and their motivations) have a great set of members with their own interests and characteristics. On the side of the Belseys is Howard (father) and Kiki (mother), 20 year old son Jerome who has found Christianity and is a virgin, studious daughter Zora who is very self righteous and youngest son Levi who has affected a Brooklyn accent and listens to hip hop. Opposite are the Kippses, Monty and Carlene (parents) along with mostly absent son Michael and daughter Victoria (Vee) who is just discovering her sexuality and the power she holds.

Her prose really draws you in, I was hooked after the first page and knew I was going to love it already! I couldn't wait to see how it would all play out. I enjoyed this book immensley and can see why it has recieved such high praise and awards/nominations. I am looking forward to reading The Autograph Man in the future.
Holley's Review #10 of 12
Plaguemaker by Tim Downs
2007 Christy Award, Suspense

The Black Plague, riding the backs of rats, swept over Europe in the 1300’s and became infamous as one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. Worldwide deaths were estimated at 75 million people….it is believed that 30-60% of the population of Europe perished during that time and the massive death toll changed the course of the development of Western civilization. Outbreaks of the plague have occurred over the years since the 14th century, but never with such deadly results. Fast forward to the present day. FBI agent Nathan Donovan is investigating what seems to be a fairly average murder case until the scene techs discover the fleas. Now the clues are mounting up and Nathan is in a race against time to stop the destruction of the U.S. and the world as they are threatened with the pestilence once again, only this time it is a genetically engineered, even more lethal killing machine.

This was the first faith-based thriller I’ve attempted to read since Tim LaHaye began his Left Behind series nearly thirteen years ago and I must say that the difference is refreshing. Downs knows how to write a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat and the Christianity is no where near as aggressively proselytized as it is in the Left Behind books. Donovan’s interactions with his ex-wife and his attempts to get information from the elderly Mr. Li are by turns funny and poignant without approaching cloying. This novel made me consider themes of forgiveness, selfless love and personal sacrifice while at the same time I wondered if I had enough duct tape at home to seal off the windows and doors in case of a pandemic. I think that’s a pretty tall order for one book. :)

I’ve obviously been reading the wrong Christian/Inspirational fiction if I’ve been missing this!

Happy Reading!
htw

Madman by Tracy Groot

Holley's Review #9 of 12
Madman by Tracy Groot
2007 Christy Award, Historical Fiction

Tallis arrived in the little Palestinian town on the shores of Galilee looking for the Decaphiloi, League of Ten Friends, an Academy of Socrates begun by his master Callimachus several years ago. The progress reports from the school stopped arriving several weeks ago and Cal sent Tallis to find out what went wrong. Upon arriving in Hippos, Tallis discovered the school had been disbanded three years before. No one in town would talk to him; no one would profess to know anything about the once thriving Academy. Who sent the progress reports? Who collected the money Cal sent for supplies? Why did the school disband with no word to Callimachus? Of the ten teachers, he found news of only four: a murder, a suicide, a priestess in the cult of Dionysus, and one madman. The hills of Kursi and the tombs found there are home to the madman and the town is becoming increasingly frightened of the whole area. As Tallis investigates the disappearance of the school and the background of the madman, other forces are just as purposefully determined that he will not find out the truth about either one.

I found this novel hard to put down from the very beginning. The historical detail Groot includes about biblical Palestine truly evoked a real sense of time and place without seeming hokey. There were many elements of this story that I found comparable to Robert Harris’ gripping novel, Pompeii, with Madman giving you the same barren landscape, menacing hills and breathless tension. The people in the story know that something bad is going to happen and Groot made me just as nervous about it as they were. The Christianity in this book was subtle and powerful without being overwhelming. There were many scenes in the book which dealt with personal sacrifice, love of all kinds but most especially the topic dealt with in Madman seemed to be “choice”, choosing between good and evil, selfish and selfless, the high road and the low. I don’t know how these authors can walk such a thin line between powerful and paltry, but Tracy Groot has done it. She has taken the biblical story of the Gerasene demoniac and rendered it into a story that makes you think instead of one that preaches at you.
Happy Reading!
htw

Lonesome Dove from Kimmie


Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1986 Pulitzer Prize

"Lonesome Dove" is about a cattle drive from South Texas to Montana. Former Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae have pretty much tamed Texas. They settled down to raise cattle. But a visit from Jake Spoon has put a burr under Captain Call's saddle. He wants to be the first to build a cattle ranch in what is still the wild west, Montana. So they head out through storms, Indian attacks, snake infested rivers and a multitude of other hazards.

This was a reread for me. This is my favorite book. Every few years I want to read it again.

Kimmie

The oldest English poem composed between the middle of the seventh century and the end of the tenth century in the first millenium. It was written in Anglo-Saxon or Old English and describes events in Scandinavia. The version I have is the bilingual edition showing the Anglo-Saxon version alongside this translation by Seamus Heaney.

Warrior Beowulf sails to Denmark to help Prince Hrothgar whose people are being beset by the monsterous Grendel. He is descended from Cain from the Old Testament making him part demon with much strength. Beowulf defeats Grendel by ripping his arm off at the shoulder causing him a mortal wound. After they celebrate their victory, Grendel's mother bursts onto the scene to seek vengence for her son. Beowulf again fights her and again defeats her in an under water battle.

After Beowulf and his men are rewarded by Hrothgar they sail home again. Beowulf's uncle Hygelac is King and Beowulf gives him a gift of many of the rewards he recieved. There is no petty squabbling between the two warriors and no double dealing and treachery. In time Beowulf becomes King after Hygelac is killed in battle and his son Headred is killed for double dealing. A dragon is mistakenly awoken by a thief stealing a cup from his treasure Horde. Beowulf goes to fight it, knowing it will be his last battle. All of his men run away from the dragon apart from Wiglaf (son of Weohstan) who stays and aids his master in this last battle.

Although Beowulf is boastful and arrogant, he lives his life with valour. His death will see many of the old battles rekindled without someone in his place to keep the peace. I definitely recommend this poem. It was really interesting to see it alongside the Anglo-Saxon and see if I could pick out any of the words (sadly not many!). This is an excellent translation which keeps the spirit of the original poem, but somehow brings it up to date.

The Inhertance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Winner of the prestigious Booker Award in 2006, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss fails to live up to the expectations of an award winner. While not insubstantial in scope and possibility, the novel barely manages to invoke in the reader the emotional response and involvement required to fulfill its promise.


Read more in my personal blog on The Inheritance of Loss

The Chatham School Affair

This book is the 1997 recipient of the Edgar Award.

Henry Griswald is a moody, solitary boy whose father is the Headmaster of Chatham School. He dreams of life beyond his existence in the village of Chatham but has no idea that his life and the lives of those around him will be irrevocably changed by the events that take place in Chatham and at Black Pond in 1927.

I had some difficulty getting into this book. I am not exactly sure why. I enjoyed the author's writing style and I loved how the details of the story are handed out slowly making you want to learn just a little more. I can only attribute it to the fact that I am in a mid-winter funk. I am very glad I persevered though because I did enjoy it in the end.

There is a tragic air to this story that lets you know that a train wreck is inevitable. The reader can see that a chain of events is unfolding and wishes for the ability to alter circumstances for the characters and though things didn't unfold the way I thought they would, the ending is tragic just the same. This book turned out to be much better than I felt it would be at the beginning. (3.5/5)
Published in 2006. 233 pages.
2007 Printz Award Winner.


With its themes of race, identity, and self-acceptance, this graphic novel (only the second I've ever read) was a great follow-up to my read of Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies). Three separate stories that come together in the end, this is a quick read. I started it on Tuesday while sitting in the high school parking lot waiting for my daughter and finished it last night while eating an egg roll and a fortune cookie. The more I think about the book, the more I like it. Author Gene Luen Yang's discussion of the origins of the book (here) brought me nearly to tears. I think this is a book that everyone ought to read!

Cross-posted from my book blog.

The Road - Cormac McCarthy


Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Country: USA
Year: 2006
Rating: 4 out of 5
Pages: 287

First sentence: When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

I meant to read this book for the NYT Notable Challenge last year. I was even fortunate enough to win a copy in the October giveaway at Estella's Revenge. Yet I never got around to it, partially because of the bleak subject matter, and in part because of its selection as an Oprah book. I picked it up on a whim last week, and plunged right in.

The Road is a bleak, dismal novel. A father and son are travelling south on a road in a world utterly destroyed by a cataclysmic event that occurred years prior to the novel's setting, possibly caused by nuclear warfare. The plot consists of a few basic activities: walk, forage, starve, rain, sleep, starve, and walk some more. The whole world has been reduced to ash and gray snow; the only sustenance that remains are canned goods hidden away in long-abandoned homes. The narrative is simple; it is as if the father and son do not have enough energy to utter more words than the practical and essential.

They looked at each other.
One more.
I dont want you to get sick.
I wont get sick.
You havent eaten in a long time.
I know.
Okay. (p.141)

In this world, negative contractions are laid bare without their apostrophe's, and quotation marks are extinct. I wonder if the apocalypse burned all of the punctuation, or if this style is consistent in McCarthy's novels? 

One theme that particularly stood out was the reference to the father and son "carrying the fire".

We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We're starving now.
You said we werent.
I said we werent dying. I didnt say we werent starving.
But we wouldnt.
No. We wouldnt.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we're the good guys.
Yes.
And we're carrying the fire.
And we're carrying the fire, yes.
Okay.
(p.128)

-and-

You cant. You have to carry the fire.
I dont know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I dont know where it is.
Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it.
(p.278)

What is McCarthy's meaning? At first, I thought it meant that the young boy was a symbol of the continuation of the human race. After finishing the whole novel, I'm more inclined to think that "carrying the fire" refers to never losing hope. If you always carry hope, you will survive. I like this interpretation, it creates a positive note in one very depressing book.
 
The Road also introduced some vocabulary unfamiliar to me. McCarthy must be a walking dictionary. Here are a few examples:
Gryke (p.11) - a deep cleft in a bare limestone rock surface.
Gambreled (p.17) - A grambrel is a two-sided roof, usually symmetric, with two slopes on each side.
Laved (p.38) - to wash or flow against.
Soffits (p.106) - the exposed undersides of any overhead component of a building.
Gelid (p.136) - Very cold; icy.
Bivouack[ed] (p. 168) - temporary encampment under little or no shelter

Sarah, Plain and Tall - Patricia MacLachlan

Title: Sarah, Plain and Tall
Author: Patricia MacLachlan
Country: USA
Year: 1985
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Pages: 64

First sentence: "Did Mama sing every day?" asked Caleb.

In the late 19th century, a farmer and his two children on the great Plains puts in an advertisement for a wife. When Sarah replies, and arrives from Maine, Anna and Caleb do everything they can to convince her to stay, despite her homesickness for her family and the sea.

This is the premise of Sarah, Plain and Tall, a story about acceptance, loss and love. The story did not capture my emotions in the same way that other Newbery winners have in the past. I found the characters to be a bit one-dimensional and flat. It was hard to get past the "mail-order bride" vibe that ranckled my inner feminist. However, the story is not that simple, and is sweetly seen from the eyes of Anna and Caleb. To them, their whole world is resting on Sarah's decision whether to leave or stay. It is a nice story for young kids.

Two Newbery Medal Winners

I listened to the 1941 Newbery Medal winner, Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry, on tape this week. My review is here.

Prior to that, I listened to The Giver by Lois Lowry, the 1994 Newbery Medal winner. My review is here.

Oops...Sorry!!!

That previous post was meant for my personal blog, I posted it here by mistake. Sorry about that! And, if I can figure out how to delete it, I will!
Holley’s Review #8 of 12
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
2006 Alex Award

Wow! What a story! I started this book at 10am on a Saturday morning and by 5pm that evening I had turned the last page. I flew through this woman’s life like a speeding jet. This is narrative nonfiction at its very best, though I will admit to a bit of skepticism on how exactly she remembers so much. The book begins with a 3-year-old Walls setting herself on fire while cooking hotdogs. Meticulous details take us from the ballerina tutu she was wearing catching on fire through skin grafts and the gentle investigations of the nurses and administrators as to why exactly a 3-year-old little girl would be cooking her own food.

You would think the story would expand from there to include foster homes and accusations of negligence but you’d be wrong. Instead, her father decides it is time to “check out Rex-Walls style” so he grabs her up and flees the hospital for the car, which is still running and packed with a few belongings and Walls’ mother and siblings. They drive away into the night and so begins Jeannette Walls’ incomparable life with parents more nomadic than loving.

The extreme poverty this family goes through is unimaginable, especially in light of the fact that this story took place not too long ago. Jeannette Walls’ photo shows a beautiful woman’s face to the world but her life’s story reveals that she felt gangly, awkward and unlovely. She had buckteeth and her home’s lack of indoor plumbing made hygiene a problem as well. I could go on and on about the struggles these poor kids had to go through for the most basic of conveniences but it would begin to sound repetitious coming from me so go out and read Walls’ version instead. She chronicles better than anyone else could the heartbreaking lows and manic highs of her dysfunctional family.

Happy Reading!
htw

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer


Mehring, a successful industrialist turns a part time farmer. He finds solace in the isolation that the farm provides from his mundane life. A penetrating inquiry into the personal, the book also unveils the larger social and political portrait of racially divided South Africa.



This was among Nobel Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer's earlier works, a winner of the 1974 Booker Award. Visit What Am I Reading for a more detailed review.

As he is such a prolific favorite of so many science & science fiction fans, including the mister, I was looking forward to reading “The Gods Themselves” by Isaac Asimov, which won the 1972 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1973 (and, subsequently, qualifies as my 6th selection in the “Book Awards” Challenge, as well)

You can read my thoughts, here.