Friday, December 26, 2008

The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker - Wendy's Review

Hallet was lying on his back, hands clasped behind his head, nothing much visible from Prior’s angle except his chin. How appallingly random it all was. If Hallet’s father had got a gleam in his eye two years later than he did, Hallet wouldn’t be here. he might even have missed the war altogether, perhaps spent the rest of his life goaded by the irrational shame of having escaped. ‘Cowed subjection to the ghosts of friends who died.’ That was it exactly, couldn’t be better put. Ghosts everywhere. Even the living were only ghosts in the making. - From The Ghost Road, page 46 -

The Ghost Road is the third and final book in Pat Barker’s WWI trilogy - and it is by far the best of the series. The novel takes place in the waning months of the war and continues the story of Billy Prior who has returned to the front lines in France along with Wilfrid Owen (who previously spent time with Prior at Craiglockhart recovering from a breakdown). Neither man believes in the war, but are there out of duty to fight side by side with their comrades in arms. Psychiatrist Dr. Rivers continues to play a prominent role in this novel, seemingly safe from the war at his post in a London hospital. Dr. River’s memories of a time spent studying headhunters in the South Pacific run parallel to Billy’s story.

Barker weaves these two story lines together, deftly showing a culture of death and war amongst the South Pacific tribe linked to the mentality of modern society which supports the war in France.

Head-hunting had to be banned, and yet the effects of banning it were everywhere apparent in the listlessness and lethargy of the people’s lives. Head-hunting was what they had lived for. Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war. - from The Ghost Road, page 207 -

Barker’s prose is harsh yet poetic - a ying and yang style which draws the reader into the lives of the characters.

The roar of the approaching train startled the birds. They rose as one, streaming out from under the glass roof in a great flapping and beating of wings, wheeling, banking, swooping, turning, a black wave against the smoke-filled sky. Prior and Sarah watched, open-mouthd, drunk on the sight of so much freedom, their linked hands slackening, able, finally, to think of nothing, as the train steamed in. -from The Ghost Road, page 85 -

Billy Prior is a largely unlikeable character with his gritty, sardonic view of life - and yet he becomes a sympathetic symbol of all that is wrong with war. And as the reader turns the final pages, it is with the conviction that war is not worth it.

The Ghost Road is a simply wrought, yet beautifully constructed anti-war novel which is graphic and disturbing. Barker spares her reader nothing and shows the violent nature of human beings in the depiction of loveless sex and ruthless battles. This novel - which won the 1995 Booker Prize - should be read as part of the larger trilogy to gain its full impact.

Highly recommended with a caution that some readers may be offended by violence, graphic sexual scenes and realistic language.


The Eye in the Door, by Pat Barker - Wendy's Review

It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thoroug and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both…

- from The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by R.L. Stevenson -

The second novel in Pat Barker’s WWI trilogy - The Eye in the Door - is all about duality. Set in the spring of 1918 with Britain fearing defeat at the hands of Germany, the book centers around the British government’s effort to find scapegoats to blame in the guise of pacifists and homosexuals. Barker uses the historic trial of Maud Allan vs. Pemberton Billing as the central event around which the plot weaves. The trial was a sham of sorts - with the lead Justice losing control over the court and the star defense witness for Billing being Harold Spencer - a lunatic who was obsessed with ‘women who had hypertrophied and diseased clitorises, and therefore could be satisfied only by bull elephants.

Do you know we actually sat in dug-outs in France and talked about that trial? The papers were full of it, I think it was the one thing that could have made me glad I was out there, I mean, for God’s sake, the Germans on the Marne, five thousand prisoners taken and all you read in the papers is who’s going to bed with whom and are they being blackmailed? God. - from The Eye in the Door, page 221-

In this second novel, Barker brings back Billy Prior who is working for the Ministry of Munitions (having been unable to return to the fighting in France due to uncontrolled asthma). Billy’s role of government “spy” to uncover pacifists and homosexuals conflicts with his own confused identity - he has a girlfriend, but engages in homosexual relationships. In addition to Billy, Siegfried Sassoon (a poet and war hero) and Dr. Rivers (noted psychiatrist) also make a return to the pages of this sequel.

Thematically, Barker focuses on the paranoia rampant in British society during this time in history. The notion of duality is played out for each character - with Billy having unexplained blackouts where his alter ego carries on without his input; as well as the disassociation of Sassoon’s personality (pacifist vs. military officer).

Siegfried had always coped with the war by being two people: the anti-war poet and pacifist; the bloodthirsty, efficient company commander. - from The Eye in the Door, page 233 -

Even Dr. Rivers suffers from a conflict with the two sides of his personality and begins to question whether the integration of self is advisable.

Perhaps, contrary to what was usually supposed, duality was the stable state; the attempt at integration, dangerous. - from The Eye in the Door, page 235 -

The Eye in the Door is a complex, psychological novel about the impact of war on the minds of soldiers. But it also goes deeper to explore the idea of the dual nature of an individual. This is a dark novel which can be dry and difficult to read at times. Barker’s writing is good, her characters are complicated…and yet I felt myself drifting at times.

For those readers who enjoy historical fiction which is also deeply philosophical, this is a novel worth reading. I should also add a cautionary note that there is some graphic sex described in the novel which may be offensive to some readers.


Regeneration, Pat Barker - Wendy's Review

I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. - from A Soldier’s Declaration by S. Sassoon, July 1917 -

Regeneration is the first book in Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy. Siegfried Sasson was an historical figure, a noted poet and decorated war hero who penned the Soldier’s Declaration - a refusal to continue serving as a British officer based on the moral grounds that the war was a misguided effort contributing to the senseless slaughter of men. Spared a court martial, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland where the famous psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers was assigned the task of “curing” him from insanity in order to send him back to France and the front line.

The novel, however, is less about Sassoon and more about the psychological effects of war. Barker shows us the shell-shocked and mentally damaged patients through the eyes (mostly) of Dr. Rivers. Billy Prior arrives at the hospital unable to speak. A young soldier by the name of Burns is so traumatized by his experiences he is unable to eat without vomiting. The reader meets yet another soldier who is “paralyzed” even though his spinal cord is physically undamaged. In sensitively revealing the psychic injuries of the characters, Barker asks the essential question: Is war worth the toll it takes on those who sacrifice for it? Even Rivers, who is tasked with restoring men to duty, begins to question the morality of war.

His body felt like a stone. Rivers got hold of him and held him, coaxing, rocking. He looked up at the tower that loomed squat and menacing above them, and thought, Nothing justifies this. Nothing nothing nothing. - from Regeneration, page 180 -

Pat Barker’s strength is in revealing the emotions of her characters without being maudlin. Often she employs dialogue between doctor and patient to reveal the the horror of war and its impact.

‘You wait, you try to calm down anybody who’s obviously shitting himself or on the verge of throwing up. you hope you won’t do either of those things yourself. Then you start the count down: ten, nine, eight…so on. You blow the whistle. You climb the ladder. Then you double through a gap in the wire, lie flat, wait for everybody else to get out - those that are left, there’s already quite a heavy toll - and then you stand up. And you start walking. Not at the double. Normal walking speed. ‘ Prior started to smile. ‘In a straight line. Across open country. In broad daylight. Towards a line of machine guns.’ - from Regeneration, page 78 -

Regeneration is a war novel which is set not on the battlefield, but inside the minds of its characters - many of whom are historical figures. I found it to be a slow start - it is a drama that slowly reels the reader into the story. Regeneration is written with compassion and a subtle tension which reveals a sometimes barbaric and disturbing period in the history of psychiatry. Barker writes with honesty and has created a novel which pricks at the conscience.

Regeneration was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 1991.

Recommended for those readers interested in historical fiction, particularly during World War I. Those interested in psychology will also find this novel a fascinating character study.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Book #4!

C. J. Westwick. Emerald Enigma
Date read: 10/19/2008
Rating: 3*/5 = good
Genre: Thriller

My thoughts:

This book was an engaging thriller with lots of twists and turns. I liked the sense of being in the thick of adventure with Bret and his friends, especially the scenes on the boat in Colombia.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rebecca - Wendy's Review

The house was a sepulchre, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection. When I thought of Manderly in my waking hours I would not be bitter. I should think of it as it might have been, could I have lived there without fear. I should remember the rose-garden in summer, and the birds that sang at dawn. Tea under the chestnut tree, and the murmur of the sea coming up to us from the lawns below. -From Rebecca, page 4-

She was in the house still as Mrs. Danvers had said, she was in that room in the west wing, she was in the library, in the morning-room, in the gallery above the hall. Even in the little flower-room, where her mackintosh still hung. And in the garden, and in the woods, and down in the stone cottage on the beach. Her footsteps sounded in the corridors, her scent lingered on the stairs. The servants obeyed her orders still, the food we ate was the food she liked. Her favourite flowers filled the rooms. Her clothes were in the wardrobes in her room, her brushes were on the table, her shoes beneath the chair, her nightdress on her bed. Rebecca was still the mistress of Manderley. -From Rebecca, page 237-

Dapne du Maurier published her gothic novel Rebecca in 1938 to wide popularity. Set on the English coast of Cornwell sometime in the 1920s, the novel centers around the isolated estate of Manderley. A young woman meets and quickly marries Maxim de Winter, a recent widower who is apparently struggling to get over the unexpected drowning death of his first wife, Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter (who is never identified by her Christian name) narrates the story. When she arrives at Manderley she is confronted by the mystery surrounding Rebecca’s death. She meets Mrs. Danvers - the weird and frightening housekeeper of Manderley:

Something, in the expression of her face, gave me a feeling of unrest, and even when she had stepped back, and taken her place amongst the rest, I could see that black figure standing out alone, individual and apart, and for all her silence I knew her eye to be upon me. -From Rebecca, page 68-

As the novel progresses, the secrets of the house and its former mistress are uncovered. Moody, beautifully atmospheric and filled with tension, du Maurier’s magnificent writing immerses the reader in a dark tale of love and hatred. Rebecca’s ghost hides in the shadows and hovers in the minds of all the characters, entwined in the corridors of Manderley.

Rebecca is the definitive gothic novel where the house becomes just as much a character as Max de Winter, Mrs. Danvers, the shifty Favell, and the servants who populate its many rooms. Spooky and convincingly rendered, it is a book which enchants from beginning to end.

Harper Collins has re-published this classic novel in a 2006 volume which includes a note from the Author, an essay by du Maurier whereby she describes the real Manderley, and the original Rebecca Epilogue…all of which add insight and interest into the writing of the book.

Rebecca is one of those novels which everyone should read at some point in his or her life. Highly recommended, especially for readers who love Gothic Fiction and classic literature.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville - Wendy's Review

They call this Broken Bay, Blackwood said. River comes in yonder. He pointed ahead, where Thornhill could see only confusing stretches of water and thickly forested headlands. Best hidden river in the world, Blackwood said with satisfaction. Never find your way in nor you’d been shown like I’m showing you.

Looking inland, where gusts of wind scraped at the water, Thornhill strained to find that secret river. -From The Secret River, page 100-

Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River was short listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and won the 2006 Commonwealth Prize. Once you’ve read this harrowing and gorgeously constructed story, you will understand why.

Set in the early part of the nineteenth century, the novel tells the story of William Thornhill - a boy born into poverty along London’s Thames River who learns to steal early on to ensure his survival. Illiterate and quick to anger, William must learn to sustain himself in the face of hunger and cold. He finds his strength as a waterman, paddling hard against the unforgiving waters of the Thames, and turns away from towering spaces of Christ Church.

It was a place with no charity in its grey stones for a boy with the seat out of his britches.

He could not understand any of it, knew only that God was as foreign as a fish. -From The Secret River, page 10-

Then one day, Will gets caught stealing lumber. After a short trial, he is found guilty and sent to a penal colony (along with his young wife Sal and their infant son) in New South Wales. This new land is as beautiful as it is foreign.

For every one of the years of his life, this bay had been here, filling its shape in the land. He had laboured like a mole, head down, in the darkness and dirt of London, and all the time this tree shifting its leathery leaves above him had been quietly breathing, quietly growing. -From The Secret River, page 80-

For William, the vast and unsettled landscape of New South Wales becomes a place where he believes his dreams may grow.

A chaos opened up inside of him, a confusion of wanting. No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground. No one had ever spoken of how there could be this teasing sparkle and dance of light among the trees, this calm clean space that invited feet to enter it. -From The Secret River, page 106-

As Will and his ever increasing family begin to scrape out a space of their own along the secret river, there seems to be only one thing standing between Will and his dreams: the native people.

Grenville shows the wide gap between English and Aboriginal cultures…and the tremendous misunderstanding fueled by an inability to adequately communicate. Her prose is magnificent as she describes the land of Australia and gradually builds the tension between the characters, before bringing the novel to its inevitable and devastating conclusion. I was completely absorbed by this historical piece of work which is evocative, poetic and pulsing with the life of a time far in the past. It is a novel which explores the moral wilderness of a man in parallel with the physical wilderness of a new country. It is a story about choices, dreams and sacrifice. A pioneer tale which translates well in today’s environment of cultural divides and racial differences, The Secret River is a must read.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Book #3!

Jennifer Traig. Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood
Date read: 8/30/2008
Rating: 3*/5 = good
Genre: Memoir

My thoughts:

Funny and poignant, this honest book about obsession, family and overdoing religious ritual made me both laugh and think.

Friday, October 3, 2008

2nd book!

A. A. Attanasio. Wyvern
Date read: 8/29/2008
Rating: 4*/5 = great
Genre: Adventure

My thoughts:

This was a beautifully written epic story about life, death, love and self-discovery as Jaki Gefjon struggles to unite the teachings of both the jungle and the sea. I especially liked Jaki's interactions with his mentors Jabalwan and later Captain Pym.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The View From Castle Rock, by Alice Munro - Wendy's Review

These are stories. You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book. -From The View From Castle Rock, Introduction-

We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life. -From The View From Castle Rock, Epilogue-

The View From Castle Rock is an interesting combination of fiction and truth - Alice Munro delves into her family background, digging up her ancestors and her childhood to create a series of linked stories which explore family connections, poverty, adversity and understanding of ordinary lives as part of a bigger history.

The collection begins deep in the Ettrick Valley, just south of Edinburgh Scotland. Munro visits a cemetery on a cold, rainy day and locates the headstones of her relatives.

Also, among various Laidlaws, a stone bearing the name of Robert Laidlaw, who died at Hopehouse January 29th 1800 aged seventy-two years. Son of Will, brother of Margaret, uncle of James, who probably never knew that he would be remembered by his link to these others, any more than he would know the date of his own death. My great-great-great-great-grandfather. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 6-

In this first story, the reader is introduced posthumously to the characters who will make up future stories in the collection. Each new story moves the reader further into the present. In the title story: ‘The View From Castle Rock‘…Munro gives the reader a glimpse into what prompted the emmigration of her family from Scotland to Canada. A young boy follows his intoxicated father up the steep, uneven stone steps of an ancient castle and onto a roofless tower.

The sun was out now, shining on the stone heap of houses and streets below them, and the churches whose spires did not reach to this height, and some little trees and fields, then a wide silvery stretch of water. And beyond that a pale green and grayish-blue land, part in the sunlight and part in the shadow, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky.

“So did I not tell you?” Andrew’s father said. “America. It is only a little bit of it, though, only the shore. There is where every man is sitting in the midst of his own properties, and even the beggars is riding around in carriages.” -From The View From Castle Rock, page 30-

Munro’s strength in these early stories is her ability to set place and time for the reader. She writes lush descriptions and peoples her prose with complex characters. When Walter, a young boy aboard a ship bound for America, writes in his journal ‘And this night in the year 1818 we lost sight of Scotland‘ the reader feels the anticipation as well as the sadness of saying good-bye to one’s homeland in search of a better life. Munro uses real documents (such as Walter’s journal) to help piece together the history of her family and there are times when it is difficult to ascertain what is fact and what is fiction.

And I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written about the voyage. Except for Walter’s journal, and the letters, the story is full of my invention.

The sighting of Fife from Castle Rock is related by Hogg, so it must be true. -From The View from Castle Rock, page 84-

Munro completes part I of her collection with the story ‘Working For A Living‘ which recollects of her father’s boyhood in the town of Blyth. Part II introduces Munro herself to the collection in the story ‘Fathers‘ - a painful look at the fine line between discipline and abuse and a girl’s relationship with her father.

Lying Under the Apple Tree‘ is about the coming of age of a young girl…the innocence of youth vanquished. The ideas of God, church values (morality) and sin weave themselves through this story. Munro also skillfully introduces nature into her theme of growing up and the recognition of one’s sexuality. Her use of dirt as a symbol is effective in introducing the concept of sex vs. a girl’s fantasies vs. the realities of love.

“Dirt,” my sister whispered to me when I got home. “Dirt on the back of your blouse.”

She watched me take it off in the bathroom, and scrub at it with a hard bar of soap. We didn’t have running hot water except in the winter, so she offered to get me some from the kettle. She didn’t ask me how the dirt had got there, she was only hoping to get rid of the evidence, keep me out of trouble. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 203-

In ‘Hired Girl‘ Munro continues to explore the idea of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. In addition she builds on the idea of place - physical place vs. one’s place in society. This concept of there being barriers between classes, is one of the main themes of Munro’s collection and in ‘Hired Girl‘ she emphasizes this idea.

I did not yet understand that maids didn’t have to find their way anywhere. They stayed put, where the work was. It was the people who made the work who could come and go. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 231-

The final stories of Munro’s collection are dedicated to her early marriage (’The Ticket‘), and her maturation into a woman who is capable of looking at her history and life in the harsh light of reality (’Home‘ and ‘What Do You Want to Know For?‘). Munro’s recollections of her father in his later years and the home where she grew up being modernized, are touching exposes on what it means to finally be an adult and no longer be protected by the innocence of childhood. Munro writes:

The past needs to be approached from a distance. -From The View From Castle Rock, page 332-

The View From Castle Rock does that - in exploring her roots, Munro has succeeded in creating a unique blend of stories which look at one family’s history in the context of a bigger picture of what it means to live on the edge of poverty, connect to family, and create a life with meaning and understanding.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

First book finished!

Eleanor Mathews. Ambassador to the Penguins: A Naturalist's Year Aboard a Yankee Whaleship
Date read: 8/24/2008
Rating: 3*/5 = good
Genre: Nonfiction

My thoughts:

This book combined many of my interests - ships, Antarctica, the naturalist's wonder and interest in the animal world. I liked following Murphy's voyages both literal as he learned about the ways of whaling on the brig Daisy and emotional as he wished to get home to his new wife, Grace.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Colour, by Rose Tremain - Wendy's Review

For a few moments, the sun disappeared behind a cloud, and in the shadow, nothing of it was visible, only the shingly mud and the herringbone imprints of the ducks’ feet. But Joseph knew that he’d seen something. He stood without moving, waiting for the sun to come out again. It returned and sparkled on the water, dazzling him. He had to close his eyes for a second, and when he opened them again, he’d forgotten the precise spot where the colour had revealed itself. Then he saw it once more, a minute patch of shining yellow dust. -From The Colour, page 57-

In 1864, a newly married couple - Joseph and Harriet Blackstone - travel with Joseph’s mother Lilian from England to New Zealand to begin their lives together. For Harriet, it is the beginning of a future, a dream about her own home in the beautiful wilderness of New Zealand, a chance to have a garden and animals and to create something out of her life. For Lilian, the move represents failure and loneliness where she must give up her comfortable existence in England, be forced to piece back together the shattered remains of her china, and live on dirt floors in a cob house which leaks. For Joseph, the move to New Zealand is an escape from his past - a past he has buried and hidden from everyone - and a chance to heal his guilt and make his mother (finally) be proud of him.

Joseph Blackstone longed to do something that would please his mother. Something definitive. Something which would undo all that he’d done wrongly or inadequately in the past. He thought that if he could achieve this, then he would rest. -From The Colour, page 55-

The inhospitable and breathtaking land of New Zealand seems pitted against these people almost from the very first when Joseph mistakenly builds his home on an exposed hill instead of the protected flats. Then one day Joseph discovers gold dust in the creek near his home and keeps it a secret from both Harriet and Lilian. It becomes an obsession which promises his redemption and one which will finally drive him to the other side of the Southern Alps where a Gold Rush is underway.

Rose Tremain writes extraordinary prose which thrusts her reader into the midst of a stark and unforgiving environment. She develops her characters flawlessly - uncovering Joseph’s motivations, desires and finally his devastating secret as he struggles to find gold among desperate men. Joseph’s loss of love and morality is heartbreaking.

He felt that contentment was present in every other creature and every other thing - in the waterbirds which drank from the river, in the rats which scurried around his claim, looking for food, and in the songs the Glaswegian miners sang in the evenings. He alone lacked it. -From The Colour, page 223-

Harriet Blackstone is a raw character who grows before the reader’s eyes from an uncertain individual to a woman of courage and fortitude. In Tremain’s hands, Harriet is fully realized.

Better that we never know (she wrote to her father) what lies beyond the next hill. For the answer might come back “nothing.” And I confess that, having travelled across the world, I do not feel I would be content with that “nothing.” My habit of looking at the mountains has not gone away. They are so fine. I wish that I could paint a picture of them for you. And they Contain a mystery: that is what I feel. And I ask myself: Is the mystery they contain the mystery of my life? -From The Colour, page 168-

Lilian, too, grows from a difficult woman into one the reader comes to respect. Faced with the loss of everything she knows, she eventually puts aside the broken pieces of her life and strives to make something of what she has been given.

Thematically The Colour revolves around the power of nature, love and desire, materialism vs. inner contentment, and the connection between cultures. Tremain introduces a Chinese man who has left his family in China to join the Rush - not as a seeker of gold, but as a gardener providing sustenance for the miners. There is also Pare - a Maori woman who develops a mystical relationship with a small boy whom she once cared for. Despite the wide scope of theme and character in this novel, it never feels scattered. Tremain connects all the threads for her readers, giving them a book which is illuminating and satisfying. Tremain is a gifted storyteller, and in The Colour she combines all her talents and creates a novel which resonates with the reader.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sycorax Pine's Second Challenge List

Last year I failed spectacularly in my goals (amidst, in my own defense, the madness the surrounded the completion of my dissertation), so I will address my list this year with new found zeal. Many parts of my lists make look familiar from last year, although I was spurred on (during at after the period of the challenge) to read a number of authors from my list.

I list six authors on the primary list below with (in parentheses) ideas about which book I might start with). After that I have listed a number of "extra credit" or alternate authors/works.

  • Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy)
  • Friedrich Durrenmatt (The Physicians or The Visit)
  • Orhan Pamuk (My Name is Red)
  • Richard Powers (The Gold Bug Variations)
  • China Mieville (Perdido Street Station)
  • Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook)

Alternates/Extra Credit:

  • John Fowles (The Magus)
  • Joyce Carol Oates (Bellefleur)
  • Stendhal (The Red and the Black)
  • Iris Murdoch (The Black Prince)
  • Nadine Gordimer (Burger's Children)
  • Tim Winton (Cloudstreet or Dirt Music)
  • Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda or True History of the Kelly Gang)
  • Marilynne Robinson (Gilead)
  • Caryl Phillips (Crossing the River)
  • J.M. Coetzee (Disgrace)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Jan (in Edmonds) Unread Authors from 9/1/07 - 2/29/08

Thanks so much Ariel for the invitation to officially join this group. I'm so excited because, for one thing, the acceptance of your invitation puts Unread Authors on my dash board which answers the question I had about how do I get a group listed on my blog site. Here's what I've read for Unread Authors during the time of the challenge:

Unread Authors (6) 9/1/07 - 2/29/08)

1. Gulliver’s Travels - Jonathan Swift (9/07)
2. Vanity Fair - W. M. Thackeray (10/07)
3. The Audacity of Hope - Barack Obama (9/07)
4. A Long Way Gone - Ishmael Beah (10/07)
5. The Secret - Rhonda Byrne (9/07)
6. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini (9/07)
7. Margaret Ayer Barnes - Lloyd C. Taylor (9/07)
8. Last Orders - Graham Swift (12/07)
9. True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter Carey (12/07)
10. The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje (12/07)
11. Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai (12/07)
12. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - Lisa See (1/08)
13. The Sea - John Banville (1/08)
14. Atonement - Ian McEwan (1/08)
15. The Master - Colm Toibin (1/08)
16. Black + Blue - Kamau Brathwaite (2/08)
17. Thresholds/Umbrales - Claibel Alegria (2/08)
18. The Inflammation Syndrome - Jack Challem (2/08)
19. The Wisdom of Yo Meow Ma - Joanna Sandsmark (2/08)

Jan (in Edmonds)
check out my blogspot for reviews of these books

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Unread Authors Blog

Welcome to the Unread Authors Blog, a group blog designed for participants in the Unread Authors Challenge to post their reviews and thoughts, and for anyone to read and comment on them!

The challenge asks its participants to read at least six books in six months (September 2007 to February 2008) by authors whose work they have never previously read. New members are welcome at any time.

For the full rules and guidelines, go here; to join the challenge, follow the directions in the "rules" post.

For an updated list of participants in the challenge, with links to their blogs, click here.

A few guidelines for using the blog:
  • Participation in the blog is NOT REQUIRED from challenge participants. If you have a review or thoughts about the books you are reading for the challenge, feel free to post them here, or cross-post them from your other blog. Polling indicated that the majority of participants would like a challenge blog, but if you would just like to lurk, read, and leave comments, that is MORE than fine.
  • To become a co-author of this blog (and gain the ability to post), leave a comment below this post that contains your name, blog, and email address (to avoid acquiring spammer friends, I suggest writing out the punctuation marks. Example: myemailaddress AT gmail DOT com.). You should receive an email soon inviting you to join the blog.
  • Please label all your posts with your name and any other relevant labels (for instance, your challenge "To do" lists should be labeled "lists"). Reviews should always be labeled by the name of the unread author, as well as your own.

I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts on their authors, many of whom are as new to me as they are to you!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Alentejo Blue - Wendy's Review

She wore her black slingbacks and a white cotton dress with blue flowers that matched the paint that framed the door. Alentejo blue. here she was, in a picture, in a moment, setting out for the rest of her life. -From Alentejo Blue, page 131-

Monica Ali's novella - Alentejo Blue - is a collection of moments lived by its vast array of characters. The Alentejo region of Portugal -located in south-central Portugal and known for its tiny, medieval villages - is the perfect setting for Ali's book, which seems to be a collection of interconnected, short stories. Ali is adept at exploring her characters' inner lives. The reader is gradually introduced to the inhabitants of the fictional town of Mamarrosa: Joao, an old timer who has seen the days of Communism and remembers the revolution of the peasants; Vasco, the baker whose obesity and compulsion with eating hides his painful losses; Teresa, a young woman who longs to break away from the village of her birth; Sophie and Huw, an engaged couple whose holiday to Portugal uncovers the deeper issues of their relationship; Elaine, a middle-aged English woman seeking meaning in her tired marriage; Stanton, the alcoholic writer living a shallow existence; and the Potts family, living a dysfunctional existence far from their home in England. As the novella unwinds, the reader glimpses the connections between characters and the main themes evolve.

There is a theme of "old" world vs. "new" - highlighted by the elderly, traditional members of the village vs. the youth and tourists. Change is in the air, but it is unclear whether it will be for the best, or will simply disrupt the flow of village life.

So we stay as we are and watch the shadows lengthen and smell the evening loaves being baked and fell the sun slipping low, blushing over our necks like the first taste of wine. -From Alentejo Blue, page 94-

Ali's lyrical prose transports the reader into the countryside of Portugal.

The plains spread out on either side. Here and there a cork oak stood grieving. The land rose and fell in modest dimensions. Now and again a gleam of machinery, glittering drops of water on an acacia, a giant eucalyptus shedding its splintery scrolls. Field upon field upon field, wheat and grass and fallow, on and on and on, and in this flat composition there was a depth, both sadness and tremulous joy. -From Alentejo Blue, page 163-

This novel was listed as a 2006 New York Times Most Notable book - and I think it is deserving of that honor. Ali is a gifted writer with great understanding and sensitivity to her characters - picking up Alentejo Blue was like relaxing into small town life, chatting with the neighbors and observing the ebb and flow of the days beneath a Portugal sun. I will be reading more of Ali's novels in the future.

Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5

Wendy's Challenge List and Wrap Up Post

I completed this challenge today! I read five (5) books from my original list and one (1) book from my alternates list.

I enjoyed all the new authors I read, rating 4 of the 6 a high 4.5/5 (highly recommended), and 2 of the 6 a 4/5 rating (recommended).

My favorite part of the challenge was adding to my "new to me" author list. For a long time I was stuck in a rut of only reading those authors I was familiar 2007, I decided to branch out and try to read more new authors. This has really expanded my reading, and added to my favorite authors to choose from.

I would definitely participate in this challenge were it to be offered again. Thank you Ariel for hosting a fabulous reading challenge!!


I'm very excited to participate in this challenge. All six books I chose are already on my TBR pile...this is the perfect excuse to knock a few book off the mountainous heap of literature spread out across my bedroom!

My six challenge books are:

1. Alentejo Blue, by Monica Ali (finished February 22, 2008; read my review)
2. The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Toibin (finished November 9, 2007; read my review)
3. Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (finished November 24, 2007; read my review)
4. What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman
5. The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck (finished November 28, 2007; read my review)
6. The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters (finished February 12, 2008; read my review)

Alternates and Extras:

Stones From the River, by Ursela Hegi
A Woman in Jeruselum, by AB Yehoshua
The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly
All Aunt Hager's Children, by Edward P. Jones
The Emperor's Child, by Claire Messud (finished December 12, 2007; read my review)
A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipal

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

STRIPPED - Brian Freeman

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

After nearly three weeks of reading, I have finished the 876 page epic tale that is “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. While it was not one of my original selections, it does qualify as my 6th and final selection in Sycoraxpine’s “Unread Author” challenge.

(you can read my entire review, here)

Thanks so much for hosting this challenge; I'm very much looking forward to the next round, later in the year.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008



I finished A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray the other day, and, being far too lazy to post here, am just going to link you.

That, of course, means I have completed the challenge! ^^ Yay! I had soooo much fun, we really should do it again.


My Final Author was Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory wasn't on my original unread authors list for this challenge, but she is a new-to-me author, and I just finished reading her historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl. I've reviewed it here, and I expect I'll be reading more of Gregory's books.

This is my sixth - and final - book for this challenge. I'll link to a wrap-up post on my book blog shortly. I look forward to participating in another round later this year. Thanks, Pour of Tor!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


[Original Post on WORD for Teens]

By P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

Thanks to She Who Loves Books for lending me another vampire novel!

Zoey Redbird lives the normal teenage life - her two biggest worries are the huge geometry test tomorrow and her crazy ex-boyfriend who's intent on winning her back. Oh, of course there's the minor factor of the fact that vampyres run the city and a person could be Marked as a vampyre-to-be any second now, but that's not for Zoey to worry about. She couldn't possibly get Marked, right? Right?

Um, wrong. Very wrong.

Not only is Zoey Marked to be a vampyre, but she has been chosen by the goddess Nyx to be her eyes-and-ears in the world. Once she arrives at the House of Night - the school that teaches you how to be a vampyre, properly - she finds out that things aren't just 'Turn into a vampyre and drink blood'. Some people survive the Change into a vampyre, and some don't. Oh, don't forget that the beautiful Aphrodite, leader of the Dark Daughters, has it out for her because her Aphrodite's ex-boyfriend has a crush on Zoey...

I liked this book from page one. It was different - even the way the spelled vampyres was different. Around chapter two, I was going What does this have to do with anything? but everything was pulled together later on in the book. The characters had their flaws, but some, like Aphrodite, seemed to be entirely made of flaws and was missing a benefit to their character, which is really annoying. Characters with only flaws are just as annoying as perfect characters.

Grade: A-

The Night Watch - Wendy's Review

'I go to the cinema,' said Kay; 'there's nothing funny about that. Sometimes I sit through the films twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way - people's pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures.' -From The Night Watch, page 110-

In The Night Watch, Sarah Waters has created tension and mystery by peering backwards into the past - beginning in 1947 and regressing back in time so that the end of the novel is actually the beginning of the story. This structure is at once unsettling and fascinating.

The novel spins around four Londoners and their significant others and explores the impact of war on relationships. The reader is introduced to each character - Kay, Helen, Viv and Viv's brother, Duncan - immediately following WWII in the year 1947. Each character carries secrets and is struggling with events in their history which are undisclosed to the reader. As the novel progresses, Waters carefully unwraps the past, drawing the threads of the characters' lives together to create a stunning expose about sexuality and the tenuous nature of love amid the historical significance of war.

One of the aspects of the novel which touched me was the exploration of the repercussions of war on youth.

How long did they have to go on, letting the war spoil everything? They had been patient, all this time. They'd lived in darkness. They'd lived without salt, without scent. They'd fed themselves little scraps of pleasure, like parings of cheese. Now she became aware of the minutes as they passed: she felt them, suddenly, for what they were, as fragments of her life, her youth, that were rushing away like so many drops of water, never to return. -From The Night Watch, page 357-

Waters' prose - nuanced and full of empathy for her characters - is a bit like reading a narrative poem. Her descriptions set the reader into the novel, revealing the beauty of the human spirit amid the horror of night-time air raids and causalities. The story is a beautifully rendered, character driven look at World War II from 1941 to 1947.

The Night Watch was shortlisted for the Booker and Orange Prizes - and it is easy to see why. This was my first Sarah Waters novel, but it will not be my last.

Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.

The Bookseller of Kabul Offers Unflinching Look At Afghanistan (A Review & A Giveaway!)

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

There are some countries I am content to "see" only through books and movies. Afghanistan is one of them. Often books about a country make me want to visit, but The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad had the exact opposite effect. Although the culture she describes is fascinating, I prefer to learn about it from the comfort and safety of my living room couch.

Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist who entered Kabul in 2001. She had been in Aghanistan for six grueling weeks, following Northern Alliance commandos through mountians, desert and steppes as they moved against the Taliban. After the grimy adventure, she happened upon an oasis in the country's capital city - a bookshop where she found it "refreshing to leaf through books and talk about literature and history" (ix). Although the books were interesting, she found their owner, Sultan Khan, to be an engaging storyteller, a veritable "history book on two feet" (x). Seierstad made him a proposal: If he allowed her to live with his family temporarily, she would write a book about him. He agreed. Thus, began her 3-month visit with a family she describes as typical in some ways, not in others.

As Seierstad began her stay, she observed the pecking order in the Khan Family: Sultan ruled his multi-generational family (his household included his mother, his sister, 2 wives, and his own children) with an iron fist. His sons did not attend school, but worked in their father's bookshops, despite their own dreams. Women had even less choice - they remained home, cooking, cleaning and waiting on the men. Sultan's word was law. No one dared oppose him. The man, himself, was an enigma. He had risked his life to save books from destruction by Kabul's religious fanatics, and considered himself open-minded on the subjects of education and women's rights. Yet, he denied his own children opportunities to learn and made sure all of his women were kept in their proper places.

The book shifts its focus constantly, highlighting different members of the family, who in turn represent various sections of Afghanistan society. Trying to sort out the names and relationships of all the individuals will make your head spin, which must echo the reality of living with a dozen or more people in a cramped city apartment. There is Rasul, Sultan's eldest son, who resents having to work for his demanding father. He takes his anger out on his aunt, Leila, who is only 3 years older than him, but the lowest creature on the Khan Family food chain. Then there is Mansur, also crushed under the thumb of his father. He desires only to get an education and see the world, but his future has already been carved for him. Leila's is the most tragic situation - as Sultan's younger sister, she is the family's slave, working tirelessly for the men who torment her. When a young suitor sends her love notes, she becomes excited, but terrified. If Sultan finds the notes, she will be beaten as contact between unrelated men and women is strictly forbidden. Her marriage will be treated as a business deal between the men of her family and her fiance's - she has no say in the matter. As these decisions are made, she feels "how life, her youth, hope leave her - she is unable to save herself. She feels her heart, heavy and lonely like a stone, condemned to be crushed forever" (282).

Through the various members of the family, we are given an intimate and troubling portrait of Afghanistan. The country emerges as a weary land, sagging under the plague of endless war and greedy leaders. With the possible exception of Sultan, all members of the Khan Family appear deeply unhappy with their lots in life. Afghan men, especially, are portrayed as cruel hypocrites - men like Sultan welcome progress on one hand while holding their wives' and daughters' heads under the water with the other. To me, and I think to Seierstad, this dichotomy is one of the most intriguing and odious things about Afghan culture.

I found this book to be many things - fascinating, compelling, disturbing, heart-wrenching, depressing - but it offers an unparalleled look inside a society that is notoriously closed to outsiders. Like all glimpses into other cultures, the book helped broaden my world view, and like any trip abroad, it made me realize once again how blessed I am to live in The United States of America. For this, if for nothing else, it is worth the read.

Grade: B

**Don't forget - I'm giving away my copy of this book. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post and I will enter you into the drawing. I will draw a name on February 25, so entries need to be in by midnight on the 24th. Good luck! Only comments on Bloggin' 'Bout Books (not Unread Authors challenge blog) will be considered.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Glass Houses

[Originally Posted on WORD for Teens]
Glass Houses (The Morganville Vampires - Book 1)

By Rachel Caine

She Who Loves Books lent me this novel as well. I believe she has a vampire fetish... it's just my guess, though, seeing as she also lent me Marked and Vampire Academy. But hey, it's just a guess!

Glass Houses is - you guessed it - a tale about the Morganville vampires. Morganville, Texas - a place in the middle of nowhere where the worst thing you have to worry about is Monica, the school pretty-girl and bully. Or so super smart, advance placement sixteen-year-old Claire Danvers believes.

After an attempt on her life by Monica, Claire flees the college dorms and searches out a new home. The Gone with the Wind meets 'Munsters' home isn't exactly what you would call the friendliest looking place, and the people that live their are even weirder.

Eve, the Goth girl, is the first one to invite Claire into the house - and the first one to warn her about the vampires. Shane is the lazy, handsome boy of the house, and Micheal has a tendency to vanish into mist when the sun comes up. (Literally.)

So when the vampires begin hunting out Claire, it's this assortment of odd friends that have her back. But will they remain long enough to keep her alive?

I did enjoy this book immensely. Some of the characters were a bit two-dimensional, without much emphasis or thought, but she hit it right on the dot with Monica and her gang. Claire reminded me a bit of Bella from Twilight without the 'I love a vampire' bit. All in all, it was a good book, full of action and just a tad of romance, but the characters could have been a bit more fleshed out. And, besides, she left the book in a cliffhanger - and that's just not nice!

Rating: B+

Glass Houses

[Originally Posted on WORD for Teens]
Glass Houses (The Morganville Vampires - Book 1)

By Rachel Caine

She Who Loves Books lent me this novel as well. I believe she has a vampire fetish... it's just my guess, though, seeing as she also lent me Marked and Vampire Academy. But hey, it's just a guess!

Glass Houses is - you guessed it - a tale about the Morganville vampires. Morganville, Texas - a place in the middle of nowhere where the worst thing you have to worry about is Monica, the school pretty-girl and bully. Or so super smart, advance placement sixteen-year-old Claire Danvers believes.

After an attempt on her life by Monica, Claire flees the college dorms and searches out a new home. The Gone with the Wind meets 'Munsters' home isn't exactly what you would call the friendliest looking place, and the people that live their are even weirder.

Eve, the Goth girl, is the first one to invite Claire into the house - and the first one to warn her about the vampires. Shane is the lazy, handsome boy of the house, and Micheal has a tendency to vanish into mist when the sun comes up. (Literally.)

So when the vampires begin hunting out Claire, it's this assortment of odd friends that have her back. But will they remain long enough to keep her alive?

I did enjoy this book immensely. Some of the characters were a bit two-dimensional, without much emphasis or thought, but she hit it right on the dot with Monica and her gang. Claire reminded me a bit of Bella from Twilight without the 'I love a vampire' bit. All in all, it was a good book, full of action and just a tad of romance, but the characters could have been a bit more fleshed out. And, besides, she left the book in a cliffhanger - and that's just not nice!

Rating: B+

Glass Houses

[Originally Posted on WORD for Teens]
Glass Houses (The Morganville Vampires - Book 1)

By Rachel Caine

She Who Loves Books lent me this novel as well. I believe she has a vampire fetish... it's just my guess, though, seeing as she also lent me Marked and Vampire Academy. But hey, it's just a guess!

Glass Houses is - you guessed it - a tale about the Morganville vampires. Morganville, Texas - a place in the middle of nowhere where the worst thing you have to worry about is Monica, the school pretty-girl and bully. Or so super smart, advance placement sixteen-year-old Claire Danvers believes.

After an attempt on her life by Monica, Claire flees the college dorms and searches out a new home. The Gone with the Wind meets 'Munsters' home isn't exactly what you would call the friendliest looking place, and the people that live their are even weirder.

Eve, the Goth girl, is the first one to invite Claire into the house - and the first one to warn her about the vampires. Shane is the lazy, handsome boy of the house, and Micheal has a tendency to vanish into mist when the sun comes up. (Literally.)

So when the vampires begin hunting out Claire, it's this assortment of odd friends that have her back. But will they remain long enough to keep her alive?

I did enjoy this book immensely. Some of the characters were a bit two-dimensional, without much emphasis or thought, but she hit it right on the dot with Monica and her gang. Claire reminded me a bit of Bella from Twilight without the 'I love a vampire' bit. All in all, it was a good book, full of action and just a tad of romance, but the characters could have been a bit more fleshed out. And, besides, she left the book in a cliffhanger - and that's just not nice!

Rating: B+

Saturday, February 9, 2008

To Catch a Pirate

[Original Post on WORD for Teens]
To Catch a Pirate

By Jade Parker

She Who Loves Books lent me To Catch a Pirate a few days ago and, I must say, she has great taste in the topics of books. Vampires and pirates. Nice combination, if I do say so myself.

To Catch a Pirate follows the tale of Annalisa Townsend. The young girl is traveling with her father with treasure given to her father by the king himself for the use of building a palace or something on an island when the pirates attack. Sent to the ship's hold to hide, Anna is discovered by the pirate's right hand man, James Sterling. Anna is told to be silent and, when James reaches for her necklace - the only thing she has left of her mother- she speaks, telling him to take anything but the necklace.

He steals a kiss instead.

Years pass, and Anna is hunting down James Sterling and the captain of his ship, for she needs the treasure that he and his mates stole to prove that her father is not a traitor. She does catch him, and almost everything goes as planned.

Except for the little itty bitty 'I've fallen in love with the pirate' bit. Of course, it's only after this that her plans disintegrate into little pieces.

You can't not love this book - it's about pirates, for pete's sake! Everybody loves pirates. It had a pretty good plot line, but the characters were a bit weak, and I couldn't picture everything as well as I normally can.

Rating: B++

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging

[Original Post on WORD for Teens]
Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson

By Louise Rennison

Do you know how hard it is to read a book and try not to laugh in the dead silence of a classroom?

Well, it's hard. Very hard.

Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson is one of the funniest stories I've ever read. Georgia's 'diary', so to speak, starts off with the telling of how what was supposed to be a fun costume party turned into a nightmare. Honestly, it might have been her idea to go dressed as an olive, but her best friend didn't do anything to discourage her.

The further the story progresses, the harder it is not to laugh. Georgia has a mad cat named Angus who has the tendency to attack the neighbor's poodle, a little sister who's favorite bathroom is the corner of Georgia's room, and the guy of her dreams works in a grocery - and he is, as Georgia so aptly puts it, is a 'Sex God.'

Georgia's escapades with levitation and finding out that her school janitor poses for dirty magazines has to be some of the best material I've ever read. It's well written, the characters are loveable, and it was soooo hard not to laugh out loud.

Grade: A+

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Neotopia: The Enlightened Age

[Original Post on WORD for Teens]

Neotopia: The Enlightened Age

By Rod Espinosa

Normally I don't read manga books, or anime stories, or graphic novels, or whatever you want to call them. They just aren't my thing.

But, since the YA Literary Challenge says we have to have a graphic novel, well, I just had to read a graphic novel!

Neotopia: The Enlightened Age follows the story of Nalyn, who is pretending to be the Grand Dutchess of Mathenia. Ki-Ek, Nalyn's dolphin friend, and Nimn, a faerie, are the only two beings who know who she truly is. The story starts off with Nalyn running into Philios, who is flying around in a jet-pack. After having the jet pack destroyed, something happens - it is alerted to them that another country is attacking.

I mean, the book was alright. The plot line was okay, but not very original, and the characters were likable. I found it a bit boring and had to struggle to get through it.

Grade: C


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Welcome... to me!

Warning: Insanity has arrived.

'ello! I DOTH HATH ARRIVED! Or... something like that...

'tis Nicole from WORD for Teens. Just wanted to alert everybody that I am, indeed, alive, kicking, insane, and ready to participate!



Apologies and a question

Hi, everyone! I hope that you have been enjoying the challenge. It certainly looks like everyone has been reading some amazing books; I am filled with admiration.

I wanted to write and apologize for my unwilling absence from the challenge; I can only say by way of excuse that I have been caught up in the horrors of dissertation-finishing and job-getting (in addition to my normal work of teaching) since September and have been desperately missing my blog life. Hopefully the mad frenzy of activity will be over soon.

So here is what I need to ask: I still have a lot of unread authors to read, and I am overwhelmed by sadness at being kept (boo to work!) from participating in this challenge as I would have like to, so I was thinking of making this a regular (or at least periodic) challenge. Would anyone be interested in joining me if I held another round of unread-author-reading from, say, July to December of this year? Let me know what you think.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Laura's Challenge Wrap-up

Thanks to Ariel at for sponsoring the Unread Authors Challenge! For this challenge -- the first one I've completed in 2008 -- I read 7 books by new-to-me authors:
  1. The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al-Aswany (completed 9/19/2007 - review)
  2. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Ann Fadiman (completed 9/19/2007 - review)
  3. When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka (completed 10/12/2007 - review)
  4. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys (completed 11/16/2007 - review)
  5. The Art of Mending, by Elizabeth Berg (completed 12/14/2007 - review)
  6. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (completed 1/17/2008 - review)
  7. The Secret River, by Kate Grenville (completed 2/3/2008 - review)

Favorite book: Oh, this is a close one. I loved Ex Libris, but as a collection of essays it's really quite different from my other selections. So I will cheat and choose The Secret River as another favorite.

Least favorite book: The Art of Mending. I found this book to be a bit trite and cliche.

What I learned: I read more "unread authors" than familiar ones. When I started the challenge, I thought I might list other new authors in my challenge post. However, it quickly became apparent that I'd be listing almost every book I read. While I do read multiple works by certain authors -- Jane Austen & John Steinbeck, for example -- I usually don't read series, and I don't tend to get on a "kick" reading a certain author's entire oevre.

This was a fun challenge that helped clear out my TBR stack a bit. Thanks Ariel!

Laura's Review - The Secret River

The Secret River
Kate Grenville
334 pages

Set in Australia in the early 1800s, The Secret River is the story of William Thornhill, a London riverboat driver sent to Australia after being convicted of a crime. He is accompanied by his wife Sal, who acts as his "master" as required by law. During his twelve month sentence he finds work on a riverboat and, after serving time, buys his own boat and becomes an independent businessman running goods on the river Hawkesbury. Like many "emancipists" of that time, he also stakes his claim to a large parcel of land. The only problem is, the native people claimed it years before. The white settlers demonstrate remarkable hubris, assuming they have a right to the land and shoo-ing the startled natives away.

William embraces life as a free man, but Sal longs for home. When he buys a 100-acre parcel, he extracts a promise from Sal to stay for five years. She believes they will then return to London, but William never takes his part of the bargain seriously. Sal notes each passing day by marking a tree with a knife. "The unspoken between them was that she was a prisoner here, marking off the days in her little round of beaten earth, and it was unspoken because she did not want him to feel a jailer. She was, in a manner of speaking, protecting him from herself." (p. 150) The book's title comes from this and other unspoken secrets between the couple. As time passes, more and more goes unspoken: the size of the native camp on their land, the details of atrocities between whites and native people, the prejudiced and often violent behaviors exhibited by their neighbors. But Sal is no fool, and is well aware of the escalating tensions and the danger to her family.

Grenville keeps a low- to medium-grade tension running throughout the novel. Some of the tension comes from the very act of survival in the Australian wilderness, and the stress between William and Sal. But the primary conflict is direclty with the native people. While William demonstrates a growing awareness of the natives as human beings, as it says on the book jacket, "to keep his family safe, he must permit terrifying cruelty to come to innocent people." The book's denouement portrays the Thornhills' lives years after this "terrifying cruelty." It is somewhat disappointing, as it's unclear how he and Sal resolved their differences. But the outcome is probably quite true to that period in history. This is a memorable book, well deserving of its Commonwealth Prize and Booker Shortlist recognition. ( )

My original review can be found here.

THE DOLLMAKER -Amanda Stevens

Friday, February 1, 2008

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

I've finished my fifth book for this challenge, finally reading one of Shannon Hale's young adult fantasy novels. Princess Academy was delightful! You can read my full review here. I will definitely be reading more of Hale's books.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies)
by Justina Chen Headley

Justina Chen Headley wasn't on my original list of possible authors for this challenge, but I stumbled upon her not too long ago and read her debut novel Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies) this week. You can read my review here. I am definitely going to be reading more of Headley's work!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Ode To A Man, Credit to His Legacy

(image courtesy of

I finally finished Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism's Founder by Richard Lyman Bushman, which I read for both the Unread Authors Challenge and the Triple 8 Challenge (and because I was really interested in the subject, of course). It took me about a month to get through it, not because it was boring, but because it is (very densely) packed with information. It required more of me than most things I read, so I wanted to give it the attention it deserved.
Basically, the book is a biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormons), but it's not a traditional recap. Bushman labeled it a "cultural biography," which seems to mean it's an examination of a people/culture instead of just one member. While the book begins with Joseph's birth and ends with his death, it's really not as much about him as it is about the church he created. In a nutshell, Joseph was a boy who felt troubled about religion. He really didn't believe in any of the churches prominent in his day. Confused, he turned to the Holy Bible for answers, where he found a scripture in James which exhorted him to ask God for answers. When he prayed, Joseph said he saw a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ in which he was told to join no church. He was told he would be given more instruction concerning God's wishes for him, and he was. Through visions and revelations, he was commanded to start a church, which he did. Because he claimed he had spoken with God, Joseph was ridiculed. Yet, people were attracted to Mormon theology and soon Joseph had a large following. He was a man of the people, loved and revered by the Saints (as the Mormons called themselves) as a prophet of God. Outsiders, however, considered him a charlatan, and continually sought the destruction of him and his people. Still, he soldiered on, receiving revelations, publishing scripture (predominantly The Book of Mormon), building cities and temples, leading his people, even running for President of The United States. A controversial figure always, he was martyred in 1844, after which the presidency of the church went to Brigham Young. Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a thriving church known worldwide.
In retracing Joseph's steps, Bushman uses a plethora of sources from interviews to journals to newspaper accounts to original church documents. The amount of information he presents is staggering (the book is 561 pages long, with 177 pages of appendices and indexes). He analyzes Joseph's actions, revelations and policies in great depth. I've been a member of the Church for 32 years, and I've never read a history as complete as this one. Plenty of the information was new to me.
Richard Lyman Bushman is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He acknowledges that, as such, "pure objectivity is impossible" (xviii). However, I think he did an admirable job of presenting every side of Joseph Smith. He didn't shy away from situations which showed the prophet in an unflattering light, or ignore criticisms from Joseph's contemporaries. He presented the facts and, in effect, said, "Choose for yourself."
I expected Rough Stone Rolling to be a straight biography of Joseph Smith, and it wasn't. I would have liked more information about his personal life, family history and private thoughts. Obviously, there are other biographies out there (including one by Joseph's mother) that contain this information, but I wanted a little more from Bushman himself.
All in all, it was a thoroughly insteresting study that I, personally, found fascinating. Will it appeal to a non-LDS reader? I don't know. Some people's highest praise of a biography/memoir is that it "reads like a novel." This one doesn't. It's not a book that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but it is a fascinating, thoroughly researched biography of a man who lived and died in the service of his God. The man who was so reviled in his time left an incredible legacy - one to which Richard Lyman Bushman does great honor in Rough Stone Rolling.
Grade: A
(This post is also on Bloggin' 'Bout Books)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Reading Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season is like watching a low-budget film. Without special effects or a dramatic score, the film relies solely on the strength of the story. The screenwriter's
words alone must capture and captivate the audience. Doig's novel is like one of those films. His words engage, entertain and satisfy; no cheap stunts are needed to carry the story along.

The novel opens with 61-year-old Paul Milliron pondering an unpleasant task: as superintendent of schools, he must inform residents of rural Montana that their country schools are closing. A product of just the sort of school he's been ordered to dismantle, Paul is dismayed by the job he must do. To ward off his despair, he lets his mind wander back to his own school days in Marias Coulee, Montana.

His memory takes him back to one banner year: 1909. That was the year his widower father answered an ad for a housekeeper which boldly proclaimed, "Doesn't cook but doesn't bite." Neither Paul nor his two younger brothers know what to expect, but they are shocked when stylish Rose Llewellyn steps off the train accompanied by her equally elegant brother, Morrie. Before the Millirons know it, the pair have firmly ensconsed themselves in prairie life. Rose puts the bachelor farmhouse in order, while Morrie brings his fancy Chicago education to the local one-room schoolhouse. Under Morrie's tutelage, Paul's passion for learning ignites, but not all of his experiences will be in the classroom. As the school year unfolds, Paul experiences death and terror and heartache and wonder. Most of all, he discovers that things are rarely what they seem, not even a kindly housekeeper and her dandy of a brother.

Although it does have a little mystery, The Whistling Season is no edge-of-your-seat thriller. It's a meandering, lyrical tale that won't be rushed. The pleasure is really in the journey, as Doig's every word is poetic and masterful. His characters are real and endearing, as charming as they are sympathetic. Their stories are told with a warmth and humor that enchants and affirms. Simply put, the novel is a masterpiece of old-fashioned storytelling.

There were a few things that bugged me about the book. Although I loved Doig's gentle style, I found it lacked focus at certain points. When Rose and Oliver met, I had the story pegged as a romance, but it really wasn't. The spotlight oscillates from the pair to Morrie to the plight of rural schools and back again. I would have liked smoother transitions between the various plots and themes. Sometimes the juxtapositions just felt too abrupt and jarring.
Overall, The Whistling Season is a triumph of storytelling, a beautiful tale as charming as, say, a one-room schoolhouse in rural Montana.

Grade: B+
(This review is also posted here)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Kite Runner

"I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975..."

I knew after I read this opening line, I would expect something great from this story. And I wasn't disappointed.

In this debut written by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner is a story about two motherless boys who shared the love of kite running. Growing up in Kabul, they treated each other like brothers. Amir is the son of a wealthy businessman while Hassan is the son of the household servant. Amir often takes life for granted while Hassan is a simple and humble boy who always look up to Amir. But Amir isn't really happy, and he wants to win his father's approval badly by proving himself that he has the makings of a man. He figured that by winning the kite-fighting tournament he would be able to gain his father's approval, although deep in his heart he had wondered why his father treated Hassan better than himself.

Amir finally won the tournament, and Hassan ran after the opponent's runaway kite because both of them knew he was good at it (tracking down the kite that is). Unfortunately, the neighbourhood bullies Assef and gang managed to catch up on him, due to an incident that happened some time ago when Hassan had stood up to them. Amir was too terrified to do anything then, and it seemed that history is repeating itself when he witnessed his childhood buddy being bullied and raped by Assef. Thereafter, Hassan and his father decided to leave town and Amir continued to haunt by his cowardice and guilt through his adulthood, where by then he and his father had fled to America and started a new life.

Then Amir received word from Rahim, his father's old business partner from Pakistan that he wanted to meet him, and that there was a way for Amir to make things right. Soon, Amir would learn the truth about what had happened to Hassan throughout the years, and what he would do to redeem himself...

The Kite Runner is beautifully written, filled with memorable characters and an unforgettable story that will have you mesmerized. It is also thought provoking and emotional that will cause a lump in your throat even after you have closed the book. I am looking forward to the movie version which will open end of this month and can't wait to read the next release A Thousand Splendid Suns.

(You can also read this review here).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Truth Machine by James L. Halperin

I chose to read “The Truth Machine”, James Halperin's debut science fiction novel, as my 5th selection for Sycoraxpine’s “Unread Author’s Challenge”. I had high hopes for this speculative novel, and had very much been looking forward to the chilling “history of the future” that has been billed as our generations “1984”.

(you can read my review here)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Laura's List

I recently vowed not to sign up for another challenge unless it supported my efforts to work off my TBR pile. This one fits the bill, since I have several TBRs written by new-to-me authors. And, none of these books overlaps another challenge. Here's my list:

  1. The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al-Aswany (completed 9/19/2007 - review)
  2. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Ann Fadiman (completed 9/19/2007 - review)
  3. When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka (completed 10/12/2007 - review)
  4. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys (completed 11/16/2007 - review)
  5. The Art of Mending, by Elizabeth Berg (completed 12/14/2007 - review)
  6. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (completed 1/17/2008 - review)
  7. The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

As "extra credit," I will also list any other new authors I read during the challenge period.

Laura's Review - Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe
209 pages

Okonkwo is a Nigerian tribesman, well-known and respected in his community, Umuofia. He has risen above his father Unoka's reputation as a lazy do-nothing. He has three wives and several children. And yet Okonkwo is insecure and easily angered. His anger gets the better of him, and he is exiled from the community for seven years. When he returns, white missionaries have settled in the area, threatening the peace and livelihood of the native people.

The first part of this book is a slow reveal of Nigerian village life. Daily chores, rites of passage. and descriptions of spiritual life are strung together in an almost disjointed fashion. By developing such a vivid picture in the reader's mind, Achebe is then able to quickly show the contrast and impact of the missionaries. This classic work has been on my TBR pile ever since I read Half of a Yellow Sun last year. I had very high expectations, especially since this is one of the "1001 books to read before you die", but it failed to live up to my expectations. In the end, I found it to be "just OK." ( )

My original review can be found here.