Tamar, by Mal Peet
"He was not what you'd call a lovable man, my grandad. It wasn't that he was cold, exactly. It was more as though he had a huge distance inside himself. There's a game I used to play with my friends. One of us had to think of someone we all knew, and the others had to work out who it was by asking questions like "If this person was a musical instrument, what would it be?" I used to think that if Grandad were a place, it would be one of those great empty landscapes you sometimes see in American movies: flat, an endless road, tumbleweed blown by a moaning wind, a vast blank sky. And after Dad disappeared, he withdrew even further into this remote space."

Tamar is the name of a winding river in England, between Devon and Cornwall. It is also the code name of a resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Holland during the Second World War. It is also the name given to this resistance fighter's granddaughter. When her grandfather commits suicide, several years after the disappearance of her father, he leaves behind a box of clues for Tamar, a box that takes her on an adventure of discovery, where she learns the answers to questions she hadn't even known to ask.

British Author Mal Peet takes you back and forth in time in this novel, between Tamar's search for clues to her grandfather's suicide, and his adventures 50 years earlier as a resistance fighter in the Netherlands. Tamar the resistance fighter is a Dutch man, trained in England, sent to Holland to unite the many factions of rebels fighting the Nazis. Dart is the code name of his colleague, the wireless operator posing as a doctor in a local insane asylum, popping amphetamines to stay awake for transmissions back and forth to England. Marijke is the woman whose farm is the base for Tamar's missions, and both men are deeply in love with her. She is also the modern day Tamar's grandmother.

Tamar, A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal, is a Carnegie Medal winning novel that will appeal to adults and young adults who enjoy stories of espionage, war, and historical fiction. It was a very well written book, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I'm not generally much of an espionage fan (I always fear I'll forget some vital clue), nor am I a fan of war stories. But this story was told in such a way as to keep me interested, as Tamar discovered hidden realities about her grandfather and his past, and about herself as well.

I read Tamar for the Book Awards Reading Challenge, though I'm pretty sure it was suggested by my late bloggy friend Dewey, so I could have read it for her reading challenge as well.

Laura's Review - A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance
Rohinton Mistry
603 pages

This beautiful novel, set in India in 1975, expores the notion of "fine balance" in several different dimensions: the fine balance of keeping people in their caste; the fine balance of prosperity vs. poverty; the fine balance between love and loss. There are four principal characters: Dina Dalal, a widow with unconventional views; Maneck, a college student; and Ishvar and Om, two tailors from a remote village. To achieve financial independence from her brother, Dina takes in Maneck as a boarder, and hires the tailors to run a clothing business. The tailors were the most fascinating characters in this novel. Their chosen profession did not come without some cost to their family: What the ages had put together, Dukhi had dared to break asunder; he had turned cobblers into tailors, distorting society's timeless balance. Crossing the line of caste had to be punished with the utmost severity...(p. 147) To make their way in the world, Ishvar and Om lived in severe poverty, and repeatedly overcame obstacles necessary for basic survival.

The caste differences were, at first, a barrier between Dina, Maneck, and the tailors. But as the four spent more and more time together in Dina's small flat, they came to appreciate one another. They provided both tangible and emotional support. Dina, in particular, found a way out of the loneliness that had plagued her since becoming a widow. The deep relationships between the characters were uplifting, and formed their own "fine balance" against the many sad and depressing scenes in this book.

I loved the structure of this novel. It begins with a prologue, that shows how the characters come to know one another. Then Mistry takes the reader deep into the lives of each character, beginning with Dina, exploring her childhood and marriage. Mistry vividly describes Maneck's parents and the rural setting of his childhood. A full understanding of the tailors comes by going back a full generation to reveal their parents' life and values. Mistry relates each character's story up to the point where their lives intersect, sometimes presenting the same events from different points of view.

A Fine Balance is a must-read! ( )

My original review can be found here.

Laika by Nick Abadzis

Laika by Nick Abadzis

Pages: 203
First Published: 2007
Genre: graphic novel, history
Awards: Eisner Award
Rating: 2.5/5

First sentence:

I am a man of destiny...I will not die...

Comments: This is the true story of the Russian space program in it's infancy. They stunned the world when they sent up the first satellite, Sputnik. The Premier wanted to send another one up within a month on the celebration of the October Revolution. So this time they decide to send a dog into space but because of the short time frame they cannot work out a plan to bring the dog back, she will die in space.

The book concentrates on the scientists and dog handlers working on the program within a 'know what you need to know' atmosphere. No one knows the reality of the situation until the end. The book particularly centers on a woman who is newly hired to work as the dog handler; she is a great animal lover and becomes attached to the dogs, especially the one who will eventually die in space.

Honestly, this book did nothing for me. The story did not tell me anything I did not already know. I found the fact that the dogs talked to the woman to be rather disconcerting. I realize it was supposed to show that she felt she was communicating with them, but still....talking dogs in a true story put me off. I also found the pages very cramped. There were way too many frames per page for the size of the pages and everything felt squished on the page, leaving the print rather small to read. You need a good light when reading this book. In all it did what it was supposed to do, retelling the story from a human point of view but it left me bored. Obviously it is a sad story and perhaps if I was a dog lover I may have enjoyed it more. If you like books like Old Yeller perhaps this might be more your style than mine.

The Road Home - Wendy's Review

He tugged out the photograph, tugged with trembling hands, and set it down on the bar top. And he looked at it and saw that it had faded. All the once-bright colors were vanishing, leaving only a trace of themselves, tinged with green, with the bluish green of the sky…when evening was coming…the sky behind Auror… - from The Road Home, page 237 -

Lev is 43 years old and forced to leave his rural East European town to seek work in London. He has been widowed (his young wife Marina having died from Leukemia) and must support his daughter Maya and his elderly mother who remain behind in Russia. Lev barely speaks English and is at first bewildered by London. But Lydia, a woman he meets on the train, helps him find a job working in a posh restaurant where he meets the sexy Sophie. Lev eventually finds lodging with an Irishman named Christy Slane who is also experiencing loss.

Then he looked at Christy, standing in the doorway, as though not wanting to come into the room, his hands held at his sides in a helpless way, and Lev was transfixed for a moment, recognizing something of himself in the other man, some willingness to surrender and not fight, some dangerous longing for everything to be over. - from The Road Home, page 77 -

He was gradually coming to understand that the Irishman’s loneliness was nearly as acute as his own. They were the same kind of age. They both longed to return to a time before the people they loved most were lost. - from The Road Home, page 80 -

Lev’s story is painful at times. He misses Marina - cannot seem to get past the loss of her - and struggles to save money to send home to his daughter and mother. His future seems hopeless and he misses his country and his best friend, Rudi - a gregarious man whose love affair with an American Chevy and his fondness for life make him immediately endearing.

Rudi was everything this story made him out to be - and more. He was a force of nature. He was a lightning bolt. He was a fire that never went out. - from The Road Home, page 277 -

It is largely Lev’s friendship with men like Christy and Rudi which elevates him past his grief and imbues him with hope. When Lev recalls a hiking trip with Rudi to an isolated cave shortly after Marina’s death, the reader begins to see there will be a future for him after all.

It was at this moment - with Rudi halfway up the ladder - that he heard himself whispering to his friend, “Don’t look down…don’t look back…” and he felt that he suddenly understood why Rudi had brought him here and that the thing he had to embrace was the idea of perseverance. - from The Road Home, page 127 -

The Road Home is a character driven novel about loss and identity. It is a novel which reminds the reader that the past must sometimes be left behind in order to move forward. Dreams are the fuel for overcoming obstacles in this story of a man who must leave his home in order to find it again. Lev is a dreamer and a romantic. He is a character who readers want to see succeed, a man whose flaws are surpassed by his kind and vulnerable heart.

Rose Tremain has yet to disappoint me - I’ve read Music and Silence (reviewed here) and The Colour (reviewed here) and found them both outstanding. Tremain’s novels are written with sensitivity and insight into the human condition - and The Road Home is perhaps her finest work. This novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008.

Highly recommended.


The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Powers, Tim. 1983. The Anubis Gates.

The Anubis Gates is a pleasantly weird novel. Stealing directly from the back cover, "The Anubis Gates is the classic, Philip K. Dick Award-winning time travel novel that took the fantasy world by storm a decade ago. Only the dazzling imagination of Tim Powers could have assembled such an insane cast of characters: an ancient Egyptian sorcerer, a modern millionaire, a body-switching werewolf, a hideously deformed clown, a young woman disguised as a boy, a brainwashed Lord Byron, and finally, our hero, Professor Brendan Doyle."

When two men--under the direction of a seemingly evil Master--invoke a spell from an ancient Egyptian book, it creates holes in time--among other things. Amenophis Fikee and Doctor Romany are the two men responsible. Fikee suffers worse--in my opinion--in that the spell transforms him into a werewolf. Fortunately for him, unfortunately for nineteenth century England, he's now got the power to switch bodies with others. Which wreaks havoc, of course, because Fikee is a murderous monster with ever-changing identities.

Enter Professor Brendan Doyle. He's a twentieth-century professor (1980s) down on his luck. When the DIRE company offers him a unique job, he's quick to take it. They want him merely to give a lecture on Coleridge. Now Coleridge isn't his poet of choice. No, he's spent most of his adult life studying the more obscure poet--a contemporary of Lord Byron--William Ashbless. There are so many puzzles in this life that are unsolved. He seems to show up out of the blue in England in 1810. No details are known about where he was born, who his parents were, where he went to school, etc. Doyle would love to solve the mystery of this little-known poet. And the good money that DIRE is offering may just be what he needs to fund his project.

Doyle has been employed by Mr. Darrow to give a lecture about Coleridge to a very select group of people--all wealthy and willing to pay huge sums of money. What he discovers is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime, out-of-this-world experience. For the group will begin in 1983, travel back in time to 1810 to actually hear Coleridge give a lecture in a tavern, and then return to 1983--all in a period of four hours. Doyle is ready to dress the part and have some intellectually stimulating fun.

Sounds like fun, right? Well, for Doyle, things don't go quite according to plan. He's kidnapped by Dr. Romany and separated from the others. Though he manages to escape his initial capture, now, Doyle is trapped in 1810--without money and street smarts--and danger abounds everywhere. That's all I have to say about that.

This novel had many individual elements that intrigued me: ties to Ancient Egyptian culture, ties to the British Romantic poets, time travel, werewolves, etc. I liked it. I did find it a bit confusing at times with all the body-switching going on. I'm sure a second reading would probably clear up a few of my lingering questions. But overall, I liked it.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro, Kazuo. 2005. Never Let Me Go. 288.

My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That'll make it almost exactly twelve years.

Sounds like a confession, doesn't it? Like she's apologizing for being alive. And in a way, that's true, I suppose. Because although it's set in England in the late 1990s, the novel is anything but realistic fiction. No, the world created by Kazuo Ishiguro is frighteningly surreal. Kathy--and others like her--exist for one reason, and one reason only. But I suppose some won't want to go there. To know the ending before they've got acquainted with the beginning.

Kathy, our narrator, is reflecting back on her life--her childhood, her teen years, her young adult years before, during, and after "becoming" a carer. For most of that time, she had a secluded life, a privileged life considering the truth of the matter, in a boarding school called Hailsham. The book is about her life and her relationships. Primarily the book is about her relationships with two people: Ruth and Tommy.

Never Let Me Go is a good example of the distinction between adult and young adult fiction. Though the book is about teenagers--Kathy and friends--the book is for adults. It's tone is reflective, contemplative, distant. It never felt like a child was telling the story. Or a teen. The perspective was all grown up, all the time. (Then again, I think you'd grow up pretty fast if this was your reality.)

And this distance serves a purpose, mostly. Kathy is a strange narrator, an odd woman, a woman eerily comfortable with the truth: what has happened to her friends, her acquaintances, everyone 'like' her... and what will happen to her in the days, weeks, and months ahead. It's hard to know just what is the most disturbing in this book--the truth itself or the fact that there is no reaction, no horror at the truth. The matter-of-factness of it all. The cold acceptance.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
The Doll People by Ann M. Martin & Laura Godwin
Illustrated by Brian Selznick
First in The Doll People series

Pages: 256
First Published: 2000
Genre: children's fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5
Awards: Maud Hart Lovelace Award

First sentence:

It had been forty-five years since Annabelle Doll had last seen Auntie Sarah.

Comments: The Doll Family has lived at 26 Wetherby Lane for 100 years being passed down from mother to daughter all these years. Forty-five years ago Auntie Sarah simply disappeared and no one speaks of her anymore but Annabelle Doll finds Auntie Sarah's secret journal and decides she will leave the house and start to search for her. Along her searches she finds another doll family that has come to live with the youngest daughter of the family. The Dolls now have some fun neighbours and Annabelle finds a friend with the Funcraft Family.

This book was pure delight! It was very reminiscent to me of The Borrowers, though the little people here are dollhouse dolls. The characters are simply charming and this is really a wonderful, fun, adventurous story to read. Brian Selznick's illustration bring the characters and setting to life as they decorate every third or forth page and sometimes the text stops for a whole two page spread illustration. Highly recommended for Grades 4 to 6, or as a read aloud for youngers. I wish I had daughters to read this too, but I, who am well past Grade 6 age, loved the story and will read the next two books in the series.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

I knew only the basic premise of this book when I chose it for several challenges. I knew that it fit into the WWII category, that it is categorized as YA, and that it was Jewish Literature about the Holocaust.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is the story of Bruno, a nine-year-old boy, who comes home one day to find that his family is moving due to his father’s job. Bruno is the son of a German officer who will be the Commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. From his bedroom window he has seen people in “striped pajamas” behind a fence. Curious about why they are there as well as lonely, Bruno sets out exploring. He goes to the fence and he happens to meet a boy named Shmuel who is very similar to Bruno in many ways. They even share the same birthday. However, their lives are obviously very different.

As I was listening to this book, I kept thinking that I was really enjoying the fact that I was hearing this from the perspective of a German child. I have read about concentration camps from the perspective of a Jewish child. The horrors are unimaginable. But to gain some insight as to how it is possible that people stood by and allowed this to happen is definitely different.

Bruno is pretty naive. He is just a little boy who counts on his parents to take care of him. He figures they know best and doesn’t worry too much about the rest. In fact, I thought that Bruno’s cluelessness was a bit unrealistic until I listened to the author’s interview at the end of the book. He spoke about the fact that The Holocaust is hindsight for us. We look back with the perspective that we know this happened. It is part of the landscape of our past. However, during the time that this was going on and when the concentration camps were liberated, even adults believed that the stories of the atrocities were just rumors and that something this monstrous could not be happening. He also talks about complacency and the fact that victims of the concentration camps were marched through neighboring villages and people did nothing. That is something that I hadn’t considered and changed my opinion. I do think that Bruno was immature for a nine-year-old by today’s standards. I did have a hard time believing that he couldn’t catch on to the names of Auschwitz(Out With) and the Fuhrer(The Fury). However, I concede that it’s possible that without some of the outside influences we have today in the picture, nine-year-olds were much more innocent sixty or so years ago.

At any rate, those things were minor for me as was the fact that I figured out what was going to happen pretty early on it the book. There were no shocks and though the convergence of the events seems improbable, stranger things happen every day and ultimately, I was willing to suspend disbelief for the message that was conveyed.

I am not sure if the author interview is available in the regular book. However, listening to John Boyne explain why he did what he did with his characters made a huge difference to me. The book and the writing are excellent. The thought process behind them make this book superior.

This is a must-read for anyone who is breathing so that we don’t become complacent again. (5/5)

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown

Pages: 241 + Notes & Index
First Published: 2003 (was previously published as comic books between 1999/2003)
Genre: graphic novel, biography
Rating: 3/5
Awards: Harvey Award

First sentence:

Do you mind if we go over it again? I just want to make sure that my notes are in order.

Comments: Louis Riel is an infamous Canadian personage. His story is very controversial and the story of what happened back then and what is politically correct to say happened can cause heated debate. In brief, Louis Riel tried to form a provisional government and negotiate with the Canadian government even though Canada had bought the land in which he and the Metis (half white/half Indian) lived. He captured English prisoners and executed one causing a furor in English Canada. Riel was eventually hung as a traitor.

This book is very biased to the Louis Riel, hero, side of the story. There are many things that I'm sure the author took license with and made up conversations between the Prime Minister and others to promote the big, bad, conservative, English government view point. However, even though the book is unabashedly pro-Riel, the author did manage to show the opposite viewpoint of him by showing Riel to be the man who thought God had talked to him and told him he would be resurrected three days after his execution. Whether he was a hero of the Metis people or a madman fanatic my person view is that either way he was a traitor to the country of Canada. This is what *I* was taught in school but a more revisionist point of view is taken nowadays to be politically correct.

While I laughed at many parts of the book that I think were supposed to be serious, I did enjoy reading the book. It was fun to read and the Canadian history aspect was great to see in a graphic novel. I'd love to see more in the same vein! If you are already familiar with the story of Louis Riel, I think you'd enjoy reading this. But don't start here if you know nothing of the history. Here's a website with a brief intro and a little video that was part of series shown here on Canadian television.

Nicola @ Back to Books

Laura's Review - Property

Valerie Martin
193 pages
Set in the 1830s, Property is the story of Manon, the wife of a Louisiana sugar cane plantation owner. Manon despises her boorish husband and is justifiably resentful of his affair with her housemaid Sarah, which has produced two children. She is disturbed by his cruel brutality towards his slaves. And yet, she cannot escape values shaped during her own childhood in a slaveowning family. She holds her own father in high regard for having been a more compassionate owner, but fails to see the injustice of humans as property.

Manon's days of idle leisure are interrupted both by her mother's illness and a slave revolt, Sarah's escape, and the subsequent effort to track her down and return her to Manon. These events provide some movement and force to the plot. The novel provides an unusual perspective -- that of a woman slaveowner -- and it definitely held my interest. However, in presenting Manon's story, the author appeared to maintain a rather neutral position on slavery. It seemed I was supposed to side with Manon in wishing for Sarah's return, when I wanted nothing more than for Sarah to find freedom. I believe this was an accurate portrayal of a certain type of individual during that time period, but I was unable to identify with her, which dampened my enthusiasm for this novel. ( )
My original review can be found here.

The Sign of the Beaver

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare

Award: Scott O'Dell Award

Pages: 135
First Published: 1983
Genre: children, historical fiction
Rating: 5/5

First sentence:

Matt stood at the edge of the clearing for some time after his father had gone out of sight among the trees.

Comments: It's the mid-1700s and Matt and his father have built a cabin in the Maine wilderness. His father must go back and bring the rest of the family back to their new home, leaving Matt on his own to look after their property and crop. Matt soon learns it's not easy to take care of yourself and an Indian comes to his rescue. A deal is made with the man and Matt agrees to teach the Indian's grandson to read the white man's scratching in exchange for food. As the story progresses Matt learns more from the Indians than the boy learns from him. Matt's father also does not come back as the months go by.

A wonderfully, beautiful story of friendship between two people of different cultures. Matt's misconceptions of the Indians are challenged as he learns a new way of living. The Indian boy is disdainful of the white boy who does squaw work and doesn't know how to do anything. A bond slowly grows between the boys as they learn from each other and prejudices are set aside.

This is not a plot driven story but more of a slow moving story of two people and their cultures. I've read this about three times now and both my older son and the 8yo really were riveted with the storytelling. Speare is a writer who writes beautiful language and weaves a tale that really makes the reader (or listener :-) care deeply for the characters. I think this book will especially be appreciated by boys and I recommend it wholeheartedly to everyone. A favourite!

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Laura's Review - The Road Home

The Road Home
Rose Tremain
365 pages

Out of work and mourning the loss of his wife, Lev leaves his Eastern European homeland on a bus bound for London. Lev begins life in London homeless and nearly penniless. Lydia, a woman he met on the bus, uses her personal connections to help Lev secure inexpensive accommodation and employment in a restaurant. This is then a springboard for relationships both friendly and romantic, and he begins to develop expertise in food and the restaurant business. His journey is filled with hardship, ranging from typical "fish out of water" scenarios to more serious ethnic prejudice. Whenever trouble strikes, he turns to Lydia for support, but abuses this relationship by failing to realize how their paths have diverged during their time in England.

Lev is also plagued by worry about those he left behind. He is in frequent phone contact with his friend Rudi, a carefree contrast to the conservative and somber Lev. Lev's relationship with his mother is primarily about money, which he sends home regularly to provide for her and his young daughter Maya. One day, Lev learns that his home village is threatened and he must develop a scheme to save his family and friends. The Road Home recounts Lev's struggles as an immigrant, and the inner journey of coming to terms with his past, dispensing with demons, and establishing a new direction for his life.

I was instantly drawn into Lev's story. His loneliness and isolation were palpable. The important figures in his life, both at home and in England, were rich and believable. In some cases, it was a bit too obvious the purpose Tremain had in mind for each character; however, this did not diminish my enjoyment of this prizewinning novel. ( )
My original review can be found here.

The Tale of Despereaux - Kate DiCamillo

This charming tale is split into four distinct parts. The first tells Despereaux's perspective from his birth as the only surviving little mate of his mouse parents. He is born with over large ears, a tiny body and very unusually his eyes open. He isn't like the other mice. He isn't interested in crumbs or eating books, more in reading them and listening to music. He breaks many mouse taboos and the final straw is when he is seen at the feet of the human King and his daughter Princess Pea. He is exiled to the dungeon to be eaten by the evil rats, but things are not so simple.

The second book introduces the rat Chiaroscuro (Roscuro to his friends) who lives in the castle dungeon. Like the other rats he has never seen light and world above, but unlike the others he becomes mesmerised by it and is so enchanted by the light that he explores the upper world. He hangs from a chandelier and watches the Princess Pea in her twinkling clothes and crown below, when suddenly he falls into the Queen's soup with terrible consequences. The King outlaws both rats and soup in the aftermath and Roscuro returns to the dungeon plotting revenge on the Princess Pea.

Enter the final main character, Miggery (Mig) Sow. The poor girl was sold by her father after her mother died aged 6 for a red tablecloth, a hen and a packet of cigarettes. Her new owner "Uncle" regularly beats her around the ears causing her to become partially deaf. On her seventh birthday she sees Princess Pea and her family riding and dreams of one day becoming a Princess herself. When she later moves to the castler, Roscuro is keen to manipulate her dreams to exact his revenge. Can Despereaux the tiny mouse resuce the Princess and save the day?

I loved this children's book. Dark and bitter sweet in places, the ending was just right without being too over the top. The illustrations were beautiful and I loved the way the whole book was presented with torn page edges. Despereaux is a great character enchanted with fairy tales and this blends in elements of many in it's telling. Definitely one I will read again and if we get around to having our own chidlren it will be high on my list of books to read to them.