Iron Council - China Mieville

The third book set in and around New Crobuzon, Mieville's created world of humans and various new species living together. It centres around two groups of people. Cutter has left New Crobuzon in search of golem-maker and lover Judah Low with a couple of others. They are searching for him to help lead them to Iron Council. Iron Council has become a mythical figure for those who rebel against the government as they are the only rebels to have continued to elude the government and militia. Judah can help find Iron Council as he claims he was once a part of it.

Back in the city we find Ori. He is a young man dissatisfied with how things are being run and is sick of the Runagate Rampart spending all it's time talking about what is wrong and not taking any action. He meets and befriends the homeless Spiral Jacobs who puts him in touch with a gang led by bull-headed Toro who plan to assassinate the Mayor. In the background New Crobuzon is warring with Tesh, a country filled with magics they can use as deadly weapons.

Both groups are linked in ways that slowly emerge as the book progresses and explains the Iron Council, Judah Low's background and Toro. Is either capable of liberating and saving New Crobuzon from itself as well as Tesh?

I enjoyed this the least of the series, it was somehow different. I know Mieville was worried about having a gay relationship at the centre of the story, but that didn't bother me at all. There was something else I just can't put my finger on. I think mostly it jumped around too much and wasn't quite his usual style although the characters were fairly typical of his work that I have read so far. It took me a very long time to get into it as well which never helps. I will read more of him in the future, but he is not one of my favourite authors by any means.

Laura's Review - The Bone People

The Bone People
Keri Hulme
445 pages

"A family can be the bane of one's existence. A family can also be most of the meaning of one's existence. I don't know whether my family is bane or meaning, but they have surely gone away and left a large hole in my heart." (p. 242)

Keri Hulme's Booker prize-winning novel is about the healing power of relationships and family bonds. Kerewin is an artist and recluse, unmarried and estranged from her family. Joe is a widowed laborer with a violent temper. Simon, Joe's foster son, lost his parents in a boating accident. Simon's specific identity is unknown, he cannot speak, and he has suffered severe emotional trauma. These three very lonely people come together when Simon breaks into Kerewin's house. Slowly, tentatively, Joe and Simon reach out to Kerewin. Slowly, tentatively, she accepts their attentions. After a long holiday at a seaside camp they are as close to a family as any of them have ever experienced. However, the dark side of each character looms large, and when the inevitable happens each character is shaken to their very core and must choose when and how to begin the healing process.

Hulme's writing style is unorthodox, yet I found this book difficult to put down. I was completely committed to the characters, despite their often significant flaws. The insights into Maori culture were interesting. Although I was a bit uncertain how the ending came together the way it did, I very much enjoyed the journey. ( )

My original review can be found here.
This book is a must-have for the short-story aficionado's' library. The majority of stories are well-written with great humor, imagery, irony, tragedy - you name it. Some knowledge of Cheever's background and life gives perspective to his flavor of Americana depicted in these vignettes.

I recommend reading this book at leisurely pace or considering reading a novel simultaneously. It contains over 60 stories in 700 pages, and to read them in rapid succession can be tedious.
The Life & Times of Michael K won the Booker Prize in 1983. Written by Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, it is set in South Africa during a civil war. Michael is a gardener in his earlier thirties who has a harelip. He was institutionalized by his mother when he was a child, but at the beginning of the book when she is old and very ill, she calls for him. She would like him to take her to the village where she grew up. Getting the proper paperwork for the train is practically impossible because of the war, so finally they give up on it and try to go there on their own.

Many things happen to Michael on the trip. He is captured and made to work for awhile, and then released. He finds what he thinks is the farm where his mother was raised and makes himself a home (if you can call it that) there. Struggling to survive and evade the government, in the midst of it all he still wants to be a gardener and plants a small pumpkin patch, which he guards and tends with fervor.

The book is told in three parts. Parts I and III describe the storyline from Michael’s perspective. Part II is told in first person by a doctor who tries to understand Michael when he is brought under his care. This was a thought-provoking book and I enjoyed it, though I could have done without some scenes at the end. I’ll definitely read more by Coetzee.

A quote:

I could live here forever, he thought, or till I die. Nothing would happen, every day would be the same as the day before, there would be nothing to say.

1983, 184 pp.
Rating: 4
The 2008 Newbery award winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, is by Laura Amy Schlitz. The book is subtitled Voices from a Medieval Village, and contains points of view from the blacksmith’s daughter, the tanner’s son, the falconer’s son, the glassblower’s daughters, among many others. I didn’t like it at all at first, but by the time I got to the story about a shepherdess singing to a grieving ewe, I was enjoying it. The illustrations by Robert Byrd were excellent.

2007, 81 pp.
Rating: 4
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison is a quick read, but by no means is it easy or light. With subjects of poverty, inc*st, and racial self-loathing (Morrison’s own description), it is difficult at times to read.

It starts off with a sappy reading of Dick and Jane, and continues on with why not all homes are the same as Dick and Jane’s. Morrison draws each character so well, and 11 year-old Pecola, especially, is a girl I won’t soon forget. My edition had an afterward by the author which gave even more insight into what she was trying to accomplish with this book.

Although The Bluest Eye was very depressing, I can see why Morrison has many fans. I hope to get to Beloved later this year.

1970, 206 pp.
Rating: 4
Bjartur of Summerhouses has one goal: total independence. After being a servant for 18 years, he finally obtains his own land, and while ever seeking the land’s improvements, Bjartur and his extreme self-reliance costs his family dearly. He mistreats his own wife and children, not overtly, but through his unwillingness to accept help of any kind from neighbors. His independence, his dog, and his sheep are of primary and utmost importance. But is it possible to be too independent? What happens to Bjartur when his own children demand independence from him?

Reading a book set in Iceland in January really set the mood for this story. The cold, the coffee, the sheep, and the stubbornness of one man against the world are what I will remember about this book. With themes of materialism, socialism, war, and politics, Independent People by Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness is more than relevant for today.

1934-35 , 482 pp.
Nobel prize-winning author
Rating: 4

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is a very fun, unique book to read- especially if you are interested in mathematics and logic. Christopher is 15, has a form of autism, loves math, and hates the colors yellow and brown. He sees the world through logic and those around him can only reach him through logic. One night he discovers his neighbor’s dog has been murdered and sets out to find the killer. This leads him not only to the perpetrator but also to a personal adventure as well.

I really admire this book. Haddon made Christopher a completely convincing character, and I would love there to be a sequel.

2003, 226 pp.
Rating: 4.5

3M's 3rd Quarter Report

I've finished 24 books so far. My goal was 24, but I'll still probably have a few more before June 30. Feel free to post your progress again as it's the end of the quarter. We're 3/4 in to the challenge, have you read at least 9 books? Here are my titles:

1. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Booker 2000)
2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Booker 1997)
3. The Sea by John Banville (Booker 2005)
4. A Death in the Family by James Agee (Pulitzer 1958)
5. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Newbery 2007)
6. The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli (Newbery 1950)
7. The Known World by Edward P. Jones (Pulitzer, IMPAC, NBCC)
8. The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer)
9. The White Stag by Kate Seredy (Newbery 1938)
10. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer)
11. Lisey’s Story by Stephen King (Bram Stoker 2007)
12. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Orange 2007)
13. Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (Newbery)
14. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (Newbery)
15. Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather by Gao Xingjian (Nobel Laureate)
16. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (Pulitzer)
17. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (Pulitzer)
18. Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset (Nobel laureate)
19. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (Prix Renaudot)
20. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (Costa/Whitbread)
21. Independent People by Halldor Laxness (Nobel)
22 The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Nobel)
23. Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee (Booker Prize, Nobel laureate)
24. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz (Newbery)

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse-----Gautami's 15th book

Cross posted from my blog...

Title: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse
ISBN: 8187981830
Publisher: Indialog/2005
Pages: 167
rating: 4/5

Hermann Hesse wrote it in 1923, and it still is continues to be good read for those who are searching themselves. It is an allegorical story filled with both Eastern and Western philosophy. Siddhartha, a brahmin boy leaves home along with his friend Govinda to fill the thirst in his mind. He goes to leave with the samanas, wandering ascetics, begging for food and spending his days in meditation. Even that does not help him attaining what he truly seeks. Liberation from everything. Nirvana. Then he meets Gotama. This meeting with the Buddha has an unexpected effect on him. He realizes that teachers cannot teach him what he is seeking and that is upto him find his own way to salvation.

Siddhartha's life is shown to be a parallel of Gotama, the Buddha's life. Awakening of the mind and ultimate knowledge is what they both seek. Gotama had done it much before him and Siddhartha has to embark on it all by himself. Siddhartha’s life is interesting as he does not take the easy route. Moving through myriads of experiences he finally attains enlightenment.

Govinda is a shadow of Siddhartha in the beginning but comes out on his own. This too teaches us that it is on us to seek, find and know. In the quest of peace and truth, each of us is alone. We all have to make that journey all by ourselves. No amount of teaching will do it for us.

This is a fairly easy book to read and understand. The philosophy is explained in a simplistic manner. This book has survived eigth decades...And no, this is not a story about Gautama Buddha.

Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez-----Gautami's 14th read

Cross posted from my blog:

Title: Collected Stories
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
ISBN: 0-14-015756-5
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd/1996
Pages: 292
rating: 2.5/5

Marquez is one author, I love to read. However, I need a lot of time in between his books. I picked this after a very long time. It is a collection of twenty six short stories (originally published in three volumes, Leaf Storm and Other Stories, No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, and Innocent Erendira and Other Stories). A few I had read before in another of his book, Innocent Erendira. These are given in chronological order of their publication.

Marquez won the Nobel Prize in 1982. I do not think, he needs any introduction. However, what most of us get, is to read his translated works as he wrote in Spanish. That is a disadvantage, I think.

This book has three parts and shows us the growth of Marquez as a writer. I found the initial stories not too good. I just could not relate to those. At some instances, I had to re-read and that did not help me a bit. I found it confusing, confounded and disappointed. The Third Resignation is about a seven year old boy who falls into a coma and grows to adulthood in a coffin mother’s house. The Other Side Of Death has shades of a Allan Poe nightmare.

There Are No Thieves In This Town
is about man who steals three billiard balls from a pool hall and finally is foolish about the whole thing. One Of These Days is about a corrupt mayor. Dialogue With The Mirror is incomprehensible. Eyes Of A Blue Dog is a story in a dream which speaks of a doomed relationship between two people who know each other only in dream, and not in the real world.

In The Sea of Lost Time, the island is pervaded with the fragrance of roses in the sea. The smell triggers changes on the island and thats about it, as colonial misdeeds still continue. The Monologue Of Isabel Watching It Rain In Macondo is about a town wholly destroyed by incessant rain. In The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World children playing by the sea see a corpse approaching them. The women go ga-ga over him and men are jealous of him. He is named Esteban and a whole myth is built around him, Then, after a proper funeral, he is thrown back into the sea.

Eva Is Inside Her Cat, Eva is a spirit who can take over any living thing. She is an unbalanced being and the story can be interpreted as consequences of oppression to the mind, or soul. Only part that redeems the book is the novella Innocent Erendira, which I had read before. The novella is a very poignant rendering about Erendira, who is only fourteen when we first meet her and is punished by her grand mother in a very diabolical manner when she accidentally burns her grand mother’s house. The way Erendira has to repay is heart rending. She runs away numerous times only to be brought back..

I know I will continue reading Marquez. However, this book left me wanting more. I can't even mention how a few stories were not worth reading. I just left those halfway through. Here I found, Marquez has got repetitive in his symbolism and in a few instances, the stories do not make any kind of sense. For light readers, it is strictly a no-no!
cross posted from my blog:

Title: Half of a Yellow Sun

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
ISBN: 978-0-676-97812-4
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, a divison of Randon House
Pages: 433/Hardcover
Rating: 5/5

I have had this book since September 2007. I just never got around reading it. And after finishing it today, I ask myself why didn't I read it sooner?

Half of a Yellow Sun is a very well written book. It captures the reader's mind as soon as he/she starts reading it.

The story starts with 13 years old boy Ugwu, from the nearby village, being employed as a houseboy for University professor Odenigbo, who is filled with revolutionary zeal. Ugwu calls him master and is fascinated by the numerous books in master's house. He is not treated as a servant at all. Rather his master sends him to the primary school for the children of the University dons. Ollana comes to live with Odenigbo as his mistress, giving up a life of luxury with her parents, in Lagos. Meanwhile Richard, an Englishman, falls hard for Kainene, Ollana's twin sister who refuses to belong to anyone. Their lives cross, merge and intertwine. Fragility of their relationship is tested by the all-consuming violence.

Ollana and Odenigbo share a beautiful relationship. Richard loves Kainene but she remains aloof. Ugwu, meanwhile is very faithful to his master, Ollana and Baby, their daughter. The smaller charaters too leave a mark on the reader.

This novel is haunting in the sense that it is set in 1960s when Biafra struggled for independence from Nigeria. The violence that follows because of it is very chilling and shattering. There are ethnic wars between class and race. The descriptions are stark and the reactions are horrific. The ultimate question is who should take moral responsibility for all this bloodshed. Why allegiances has to be asked again and again?

When Ugwu is conscripted and said to be dead, Ollana breaks down. It is so poignant to see her shouting at Odenigbo in her angst. For Master, Ollana and Baby, Ugwu is much more than a houseboy. He is family.

In the midst of ongoing war, we see Kainene and Ollana working for the betterment of the refugees in their own way. There are disappointments but there are promises kept too. We may see death, rape, pillage but we see belief and hope in humanity too.

For someone so young, Adichie has good insight. She sure knows what she is writing. Very beautiful prose, it keeps us totally involved. She brings Modern Africa alive for us. That is reason enough to read her. She is a worthy successor of Chinua Achebe. I truly recommend it for all.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's short novel of a day in a Stalinist camp is a story of human dignity, survival and faith. The Stalinist prisons were not for criminals, and they attempted to break the wills of those in the camps. Ivan, or Shukhov as he is referred mostly in novel, is essentially a dignified and proud character. The characterization is subtle. He is from a peasant background and not particularly intellectual, religious, or rebellious, but there is a quiet dignity and pride about him. He is simple, and very much the beautiful every man:
And although he had strictly forbidden his wife to send anything even at Easter, and never went to look at the list on the post--except for some rich workmate--he sometimes found himself expecting somebody to come running and say: 'Why don't you go and get it, Shukhov? There's a parcel for you.' Nobody came running. As time went by, he had less and less to remind him of the village of Temgenyovo and his cottage home. Life in the camp kept him on the go from getting-up time to lights out. No time for brooding in the past.
I liked this novel. I think it's hard to pinpoint what's particularly unique or special, but it is a straightforward and well told story. There seems to be such wonderful simplicity in the prose that gets across the character and the experience of camp life so well:
Shukhov's idea of a happy evening was when they got back to the hut and didn't find the mattresses turned upside down after a daytime search.
The book ends with a discussion of faith, religion and spirituality which is part of the survival of the camp. In his own way, Shukhov is spiritual in his actions and the way he carries himself. He has hope after all:
For a little while Shukhov forgot all his grievances, forgot that his sentence was long, that the day was long, that once again there would be no Sunday. For the moment he had only one thought: We shall survive. We shall survive it all. God willing, we'll see the end of it.

From my blog Aquatique.
Saleem Sinai, our narrator, was born on August 15th, 1947, just as the clocks stroke midnight. This is the exact moment of India’s arrival to independence, and he, along with all the other children born between midnight and one in the morning that day, has extraordinary powers. Some of the Midnight Children can fly, others can change their sex at will, others have the power of true sorcery, and yet know the secrets of alchemy. Some dazzle others with their superhuman beauty; others can travel in time or multiply fishes. Saleem’s gift is the most powerful of them all: he can see into the hearts and minds of men.

Saleem tells the story of his life – which is also the story of his true-twin, India – to his lover Padma. The story begins thirty years before he is born, when his grandfather returns to India after studying medicine in Germany and meets his grandmother in a very original way. The first section of the book is devoted to the lives of Saleem’s family before his birth. In the second and third sections, Saleem’s childhood and early adulthood are intertwined with the life of the newborn country: the formation of India and Pakistan and his birth, the war between India and China and the marital problems of his parents, the tumultuous relationship between Pakistan and India, which eventually led to war, and his exile, the emergence of Bangladesh and Saleem’s experience with death and loss, Indira Gandhi and the state of Emergency and his downfall.

I really liked the Arabian Nights-esque device of having the story being told by the narrator to his lover. The writing style is very much reminiscent of oral tales, and Padma’s interruptions are interesting and colourful. There aren’t all that many authors that can pull off that sort of rambly storytelling style successfully, but Salman Rushdie is no doubt one of them.

I have to say that I have somewhat mixed feelings about the term "magic realism". It seems to me that sometimes it is used as an attempt to, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, give Fantasy a bath, dress it up in a suit and tie, and take it to a cocktail party to be introduced to Respectable People. Take a look at this wikipedia definition, for example: magic realism (or magical realism) is an artistic genre in which magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even "normal" setting. This is not very helpful as far as definitions go, because the exact same thing could be said of urban fantasy. This definition would only successfully distinguish magic realism and fantasy if we exclusively considered alternative world fantasy, but that would be a very narrow, and thus misleading, definition of fantasy.

But on the other hand, there is a very specific storytelling mode that I find in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Daniel Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer to an extent, and Salman Rushdie, and magic realism is as good a term as any to describe it. As I was reading Midnight’s Children, I asked myself: what is it exactly that makes this storytelling mode so distinctive? The answer that I came up with may not be entirely adequate, but here it goes anyway: for me, in a book like Midnight’s Children, suspension of disbelief works differently. It is a book in which, like in a fantasy, we are told things that go beyond the boundaries of the real. But, unlike in a fantasy, we do not necessarily take them at face value. We do not necessarily trust the teller of the tale (of course that there can also be fantasies in which this is also the case, but bear with me). We go along with the story, yes, but there is a subtle understanding that, in the world of the story itself, the extraordinary events are perhaps metaphorical, are maybe a way to convey a mood or a feeling that could not otherwise be conveyed. Saleem is a narrator that constantly challenges the reader’s faith in his accuracy. For example:
“…But now Padma says, mildly, ‘What date was it?’ And, without thinking, I answer: ‘Some time in the Spring.’ And then it occurs to me that I have made another error – that the election of 1957 took place before, and not after, my tenth birthday; but although I have racked my brains, my memory refuses, stubbornly, to alter the sequence of events. This is worrying. I don’t know what’s gone wrong.
She says, trying uselessly to console me: ‘What are you so long for in your face? Everybody forgets some small things, all the time!’
But if small things go, will large things be close behind?”
There are many other instances in which he tells Padma (and the reader) that even though what he is about to tell is unbelievable, they must believe him, and interestingly enough this plea tends to have the opposite effect. It’s not that it boycotts the story, it’s not that it makes it any less engaging, it’s just that it changes the way in which it works. We become more aware that we are witnessing a process that is akin to mythmaking.

Other things I liked about this book: the many references to Hindu mythology even though Saleem’s background is Muslim, the points that were made about freedom and oppression, poverty and inequality, and the dangers of religious extremism, the colourful portray of Bombay and of Indian culture (or cultures) in general. I also loved the way the second part of the book in particular recreated the world of a child so successfully. Saleem grows up in a villa in Bombay, and his description of his own experiences and of the way he, as a child, understands the lives of the adults who surrounded him, plus his discovery of his telepathic powers and his description of his first crush on a girl named Evie Burns, were my favourite parts of the book.

In the third section of the book, the story becomes very overly political, and I saw that Rushie’s harsh portrait of Indira Gandhi and her policies caused some controversy. Some of the things described in the book are pretty horrific, but I have to say that I simply don’t know enough history to judge whether or not Rushie was being too harsh. This book made me want to learn more, though, and that can only be a good thing.

There is much, much more to the book, and I fear that I am not making it justice. It’s just one of those books that encompass innumerable different things. If you got ten people who all agreed that it was a great book in a room and asked them to tell you why, I’m sure they would come up with ten different reasons why they loved it. To sum it up: I found Midnight’s Children an original, engaging and stimulating book, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history, different cultures, myths or simply good stories.

Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray

Gray, Elizabeth Janet. 1942. Adam of the Road.

After a May as gray and cold as December, June came in, that year of 1294, sunny and warm and full of birds and blossoms and all the other happy things the songs praise May for.

Adam of the Road is one of those titles that I most likely never would have read without some encouragement and pressure. I avoided it as a child. Why? Mainly the cover I think. It didn't look like my kind of book. It still doesn't look like my kind of book. A boy in a skirt with a dog? However, appearances can be deceiving.

I am very glad that I read this one. Set in the thirteenth century, it is the story of a young boy, Adam. Adam is the son of a somewhat mostly successful and popular minstrel named Roger. (It's not like Roger is the most famous minstrel of all time with legions and legions of fans clamoring for him. But he's good at what he does and he always finds work.) When the book opens, Adam is at a monastery--an abbey. He's staying with the monks and attending their school until his father returns. His best friend is a dog named Nick, a red spaniel. But his other best friend is a boy named Perkin.

When his father returns, all seems well. In fact, they've never been better. They're reunited. Father. Son. Dog. The father has been hired by a well-to-do man on a semi-permanent basis. He's found a benefactor or sponsor you might say. I'm not really too familiar with the terms and the arrangements of medieval minstrels. And his father has been rewarded with a horse. They are to live for a while with this man on his estate. Adam will be around kids--both girls and boys--his own age. And there are some truly happy times spent there.

However, the good times don't last forever. After the big family wedding, father and son are once again on their own until the next big celebration or holiday or whatever. What's worse? After the wedding, Roger gambled and lost not only his money but his new horse. What's even worse than that? The man who won him doesn't know how to treat a horse? What's even more wore than that? The man has been wanting Nick. He's been watching Nick closely. He's made several offers. He won't be satisfied until the dog is his. And being a true villain, the deed is soon done.

Adam is angry and determined. Determined to follow this man--a fellow minstrel--as long as it takes in order to find his dog and get him back, this father and son team head off on his trail. But tracking this dog down isn't easy. The road is full of danger in more ways than one. It's not long after that Nick isn't the only one that is "lost." Adam and Roger become separated during the chase and have a monstrously difficult time getting reunited.

I was hesitant to say that much. However, the jacket flap clearly states that Adam is on the road alone searching for his father and for his dog.

What the description fails to hint at is that the book is actually interesting. The cover and description don't really do the book much justice. I think sometimes it's easy to assume that kids won't be interested in reading historical fiction. And to a certain degree, I agree. I think it is sometimes harder to sell historical fiction than fantasy for example. But I think for certain readers, Adam of the Road can still entertain even after all these years.

Adam of the Road won the Newbery in 1943.

“Cruel & Unusual” by Patricia Cornwell won the 1993 Gold Dagger Award, and qualifies as my 8th selection in the Book Awards Reading Challenge (I’m 2/3 of the way there, with 3 months left for completion; a bit behind schedule, but easily attainable yet, I should think).

(you can read my review, here)

Hesse, Karen. 1997. Out of the Dust.

Out of the Dust is a Newbery winner. And honestly I can't believe I missed this one. I'm just now getting to it. (Though I don't think I would have been as ready for it then as I am now.) Set in the 1930s, the novel focuses on a family living in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl during the Depression. To say things are a bit bleak would be an understatement. Our heroine, Billie Jo, has many hopes and dreams, but the lack of rain, the lack of crops, the lack of money do have a way of weighing the family down--Billie Jo included. Her mother is pregnant. And her father is always busy working on the farm. Billie Jo's biggest dreams revolve around the piano. She loves to play the piano. She loves to make music. It's a part of who she is; it's a part of her soul. But when tragedy strikes, Billie Jo's dreams get buried in despair. Will things ever get better? Will she ever find the courage and strength and will to play again?

Life. Love. Hope. Disappointment. Anger. Grief. Despair. Loneliness. Guilt. Families. Forgiveness. Grace. Peace. It's all here. The story is definitely one that resonates. But I would be lying if I said it was an easy read. The tragedy is a tragedy. And it changes everything in her life forever.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha - Roddy Doyle

Tells the story of Paddy Clarke (Patrick) growing up in Ireland in the 1960s. Set in the fictional estate Barrytown when Paddy is 10, Doyle looks at childhood and the brutality of it. Paddy is pretty much second in bully Kevin's gang and they get into all kinds of trouble. Probably the worst is pouring lighter fluid down Paddy's younger brother Sinbad's (Francis) mouth and then lighting a match horribly burning his lips. Another time they post a dead guinea pig through the letterbox of a woman in their estate that they don't like.

About halfway through the book it turns from the misadventures of youth to a more serious tone as Paddy's parents marriage begins to reall break down. Paddy begins to take more responsibility in trying ti stop their fighting without their knowledge as well as looking out more for Sinbad who is starting to grow up. He starts to recognise Kevin for the true bully he is and hang out with loner and hard knock Charles Leavy.

The children are written very convincingly, both their language and their often bizarre logic. For instance in fights there are rules and if one hits another you get a free hit in return. It made me miss my childhood a little with all the random games with local kids. It also made me sad as this culture seems to be shrinking as kids these days seem more interested in indoor persuits like watching the television and playing computer games rather than running about and playing outdoors.

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

The tale of Saleem Sinai who is born at midnight on August 15th, 1947 at the precise moment of India's Independence linking his fate forever with his country's. The story begins with Saleem's grandfather and how he met his grandmother and continues until the beginnings of the generation after Saleem. As Saleem was born at midnight, he has been given special powers which he shares with his nemesis born at the same time in the same hospital. The other children born throughout India born in the midnight hour also have powers and they come together to form the Midnight Children's Conference which Saleem hopes will better the world.

The story is epic covering so much history and it becomes even more soas events unfold and small incidences come back to haunt Saleem and lead to much bigger events. It is very hard to review this book without giving much of the plot away so I appologise that this is a little vague. It did take me a little while to get into Rushdie's writing style as it is very disjointed with the narrator (Saleem) skipping forwards and backwards in time often within the same sentence. Once I got into it, I really enjoyed it and loved the language and style. I warmed to many of the characters despite their many flaws which are discussed at length in the story.

Just to give you a little taste of his writing style here are a couple of extracts:

"I was born in the sity of Bombay... once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: it was at night. No, it's important to be more... On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out; at the precise moment of India's arrival at Independence, I tumbled forth into the world."

"No colours except green and black the walls are green the sky is black (there is no roof) the stars are green the Widow is green but her hair is black as black. The Widow sits on a high high chair the chair is green the seat is black the Widow's hair has a centre-parting it is green on the left and on the right black. High as the sky the chair is green the seat is black the Widow's arm is long as death its skin is green the fingernails are long and sharp and black."

I do recommend it if you can get past the first 50-100 pages and I will definitely be reading more by Rushdie in the future. I can see where Zadie Smith gets some of her inspiration after reading this novel.

American Born Chinese - J's Review

In addition to this wonderful challenge, I also joined the Graphic Novels Reading Challenge. I didn't officially read this book for that challenge, or for this one, but I've been sucked in enough by the genre that I decided I would try a few more. From other reviews I've read on the Graphic Novel Challenge's blog, I decided to try American Born Chinese. It is a tale of learning to accept oneself, ignoring the disparaging attitudes of those around us. Although American Born Chinese deals with the slings and arrows of racism, I would argue that the themes of acceptance and self-awareness translate well to all of us, and that anyone who has ever felt self-hatred in the face of society and its harsh criticisms can find something to identify with in this story.

The book is told in three tales. First, the ancient story of The Monkey King, who bears a strong resemblance to my personal favorite monkey, Mojo Jojo (minus the huge brain, of course). The monkey king works very hard to gain all of the attributes necessary to become a god, and attend the parties of the other gods. But he is turned away and humiliated, because underneath it all, he is fundamentally a monkey.

The second story is that of Jin Wang, an American Born Chinese boy growing up in the suburbs, attempting to distance himself from his Asian roots. He falls in love with a white girl, and wishes to be part of the popular Caucasian clique in school.

The third story is about Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee. Danny is blonde haired, blue eyed, and for some unknown reason has a Chinese cousin who comes to visit him once a year, humiliating him and making his life miserable by his hyper-stereotypical behavior, until Danny has to change schools, over and over again.

The three stories come together in an unsuspected way, and the lessons learned are lessons that are pretty much universal to the human condition.

American Born Chinese won the 2007 Michael L. Printz award.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty opens with Jerome Belsey’s e-mails to his father. Jerome is the only religious member of his family, and he has greatly irritated his deeply secular father not only by converting to Christianity, but by accepting a summer internship in London working for his father’s intellectual nemesis, a highly conservative right-wing Trinidadian academic by the name of Monty Kipps. Jerome has a short lived romance with Victoria Kipps, and although the drama that ensues is over quickly, the paths of these two very different families are soon to cross again.

Howard Belsey is an English academic who is working on a book that will supposedly deconstruct Rembrandt. His wife, Kiki, is a strong and assertive African-American woman. Their three children are Levi, Zora and the aforementioned Jerome. Levi is the youngest, a teenager who is searching for his identity. The ambitious Zora plans to follow her father’s footsteps into the academic world, and Jerome is having trouble getting over his heartbreak.

When Monty Kipps is invited to join Wellington, the same New England university where Howard Belsey teaches, the conflict between the two takes over the entire faculty. Meanwhile, Victoria Kipps is taking Howard Belsey’s classes, and Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps become friends.

This plot summary doesn’t even begin to make On Beauty sound as good as it actually is. Oh, how I loved this book. It reminded me of Middlesex in some ways, and that’s pretty much the highest compliment I can pay a book. While I was reading it, I found myself thinking that I should read books like this more often. But then again, how many books like this are there? Books this powerful, this intricate, this graceful?

But why did I love it so much, you ask? First of all, I loved it for the superb writing. Zadie Smith's command of language is impressive. She has a wonderful, subtle and intelligent sense of humour. She can make a seemingly simple sentence sneak at you and make you want to cry. And then there's her attention to detail; there's the things she leaves unsaid; there’s the sheer elegance of her prose.

I was going to pick a passage to share here, but if I pick one I’ll have to pick two, and then I’ll find myself picking pick three and four and five, and this post is going to be long enough as it is. Believe me, there are many, many memorable passages in this book.

The second reason why I loved On Beauty so much were the characters. It was the characters that had me hooked from page one. They are complex, fascinating, and quirky, but also human, fallible and very real. They are in some ways typifications, while at the same time defying the very concept of types. Even the ones that aren't exactly likeable are wonderful to read about. One of the reasons why I couldn't put this book down was because I wanted to spend more time in the company of these people. I wanted to see their relationships develop; I wanted to discover their innermost secrets; I wanted to know their fears, ambitions and dreams.

But what, after all, is this book about? It’s about the struggle of conservative and liberal ideas in the academic world (and Zadie Smith doesn’t reduce it to anything as simplistic as “liberals are good and conservatives are bad” or the opposite. If what she says could be reduced to anything at all, it would be to something along the lines of “people are complex in many ways”). It’s about academic life in general in a fictional town near Boston. It’s also about beauty and lust and desire and loss, and self-discovery and marriage and friendship and love. Plus it’s about family, racial tensions and identity, the situation in Haiti, subcultures, music, and painting. To sum it up: it’s about life.

There were certain things in the novel that I particularly loved. The friendship between Kiki Beasley and Carlene Kipps, for starters. These two women become friends despite their differences, despite their husbands’ enmity, despite the drama involving both their families. Carlene believes things that would make any feminist (any sensible person, really) cringe: that while men live for ideas and projects, women live for their families; that it is not fit for a woman to criticize her husband under any circumstances. Kiki’s whole life is based on the opposite principles. And yet these two women simply enjoy each other’s company. When they first meet, Carlene recites to Kiki a line from a poem that she likes: There is such shelter in each other. The scenes in the novel in each the two women are together are very touching scenes.

I also loved the exquisite way the novel describes a thirty year long marriage, the things that hold it together and the things that break it apart. There’s loss, of course, but there’s also tenderness, familiarity and companionship. And, along with these, there’s cruelty and loneliness and pain. The contradictory emotions are so intertwined that they cannot be separated, and all together they form a picture – a picture of a lifetime together (an almost inconceivable amount of time for someone like me, whose life has not yet been thirty years long), brilliantly portrayed in all its beauty and its frailty in the pages of a book.

On Beauty made me laugh as often as it made me think, and almost as often as it made me cry. This was my first experience with Zadie Smith, but, as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s taking all my self-restraint to keep me from ordering White Teeth and The Autograph Man right now. I really look forward to reading more of her work.
I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. -From The Gathering, page 1-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.

Small Island - Andrea Levy

A look at the two small islands of Jamaica and England. Set during the Second World War, four very different characters are thrown together. From Jamaica Gilbert Joseph joins the RAF wanting to be a pilot but he ends up being a driver. His expectations are further tempered on moving to England after the war ends and facing the racism there against black people. He marries Hortense and brings her over to England as well. She is very stuck up and thinks herself above other Jamaican's with her proper English ways. In England she also has a rude awakening when she finds out her teaching qualifications are not recognised and the English do not seem to be able to understand her perfect diction.

From England are Bernard Bligh and his wife Queenie Bligh. They have a very stale marriage and seem unable to have children. Bernard joins the war effort in the RAF and gets shipped off to India. When the war is over he doesn't return for 5 years and Queenie goes on with her life. She rents out rooms in their house to black people looking for a place to live as well as having an affair with a Jamaican. Bernard turns up at home one day and everyone is forced to change.

I found this book easy to read, but not very inspiring. I didn't feel the story was a new one, I felt I had read it before and it was a struggle to finish it. It wasn't that it was bad or not well written (it won the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction), it just didn't really capture my imagination or hold my interest sadly.

White Teeth - Zadie Smith

Title: White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Published: 2000
Genre: General Fiction
Challenges: 101 Books in 1001 Days, 100+, Awards
Rating: A

From the back cover -- “Drawing you in with the immediacy of her tantalizing wit, Zadie Smith sets herself apart as a defining voice of contemporary literature. Her internationally acclaimed novel boldly and humorously bridges three London families across a cultural and generational divide.

Archie’s life has disintegrated. Fresh from a dead marriage, middle-aged Archie stretches out a vacuum hose, seals up his car and prepares to die. But unbeknownst to him, his darkest hour is also his luckiest day. With the opening of a butcher shop, his life is saved and soon he is on his way to beginning a new life with a young Jamaican woman looking for the last man on earth.

White Teeth has been selected as a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and Editor’s Choice by the New York Times Book Review, in addition to winning both the Guardian and Whitbread Awards, Smith’s brilliant prose flows effortlessly with narrator Jenny Sterlin’s engaging voice.”

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this story though at times it’s political and environmental messages became long and tedious yet for the most part it’s an engaging tale. I highly recommend it.

Jan (in Edmonds)