Book Reviews: Literature & Fiction
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Read by Tracy December 2011
Tracy loves this book focusing on different cultures melding together in a new environment.
White Teeth is Zadie Smithís first novel and was written while she was revising for finals at Cambridge. She has since released On Beauty. Initially Smith was touted as the new ďSalman RushdieĒ or ďPeter CareyĒ, but this book is totally different in styles to either of them. Although there are some problems with too many storylines attempting to be united, there are far more positives than negatives. Smith is a storyteller and she weaves this ability throughout the book. White Teeth is the story of two families from Bangladesh and Jamaica who are now living in Willesden (London) and we follow their lives and the interactions they have on the society around them. The Jamaica family is headed by Archie Jones and the Bangladesh family is headed by Samad Iqbal who are both best friends after serving together in World War II. What works well is the histories of the families and also their history together and they attempt to hold onto their racial roots but also take the second chance on life moving to England has given them.
Taming the Beast by Emily McGuire
Read by Natalie December 2011
Natalie isnít sure what she recommends about this book, but sheís fairly certain she didnít like it
Sarah Clark is 14 years old when she is seduced by her 38 year old English teacher. Shocked at her intense feelings for him, which donít disgust her, but leave her wanting, she embarks on a violent and passionate affair with the manipulative Mr Carr. Sharing their love of literature with their increasing desire for each other, Sarah does anything to spend time with him, unafraid of what their relationship really is or what he is really doing to her. However one day his wife finds out and he is forced to make a decision. Knowing how wrong his actions towards Sarah have been, he elects to leave the school and her behind, staying with his wife and daughters. Sarah is distraught at the idea of him leaving her. Believing they are both in love and it is only a matter of time before she is legal and not his student and they can be open about their feelings, she refuses to accept he is leaving, continuing to allow him to treat her with increased violence and disregard, including on their final day together when he locks her in a hotel room for 8 hours, repeatedly having sex with and beating her. Walking out of the room close to death, Sarah then spends the next 7 years throwing herself at any man who will take her, desperately trying to find the connection she believes she once had with Mr Carr. As a result, Sarah essentially sleeps with any man she comes across, stranger, friend, boyfriend of a friend, anyone, all seemingly without regard for how her actions will affect the person she is with, her friends, and especially herself. Then one day, as she is attempting to juggle sleeping with her best friend Jamie (without his pregnant wifeís knowledge) and Mike, the boyfriend of her oldest friend Jess, as well as her strange and new feelings towards Jamie, Daniel Carr walks back into her life. Immediately pulled back into his web, Sarah is repeatedly taunted by him as she desperately tries to start sleeping with him again and rekindle what they once had. But Danielís games are more dangerous now, knowing the hold he has over her and while his demands try Sarahís patience, she is desperate to get him back, convinced of her love for him and his for her. Forcing her feelings for Jamie aside and saying farewell to Jamie, Mike and her former life, Sarah goes on dangerous and depraved week of sex before giving up everything to be with Daniel. After he nearly kills her again in a violent, drug fuelled reunion, she is more convinced than ever that they are supposed to be together despite knowing that everything he is doing to her is wrong. Both Jamie and Mike are cast aside and despite being worried for her, they do little to try to save her. Jamie has tried saving her for as a long as he can remember and while he is always there for her, desperately in love with her, she is convinced he is not what she wants, preferring instead the violent and abusive alternative of Daniel Carr. Abandoning everyone for over a year, Jamie falls apart wondering what has happened to her and when she finally re-enters his life, she looks like death and he immediately fears the worst. Claiming to be in love, Sarah tries to make Jamie understand, but he is too destroyed himself, by losing Sarah, by seeing what she has become and by never having the one thing he always wanted. As Sarah tries to reconnect with him, Jamie sees no alternative and commits suicide. Sarah, faced with her choices, goes back to Daniel and the life she has created with him.
This book was many things. It was graphic and explicit, both with the sex and violence. It was sad and disturbing, particularly the abuse of Sarah and the subsequent life she felt compelled to lead. It was frustrating and annoying watching Sarahís destructive behaviour, her friendís inability to help her and Jamieís love for her going continuously ignored despite the feelings she buried for him. And it was unsettling, reading about a woman that could willingly be treated like that and then repeatedly go back for more. Her complete submission to Daniel at the end was shocking, the things she allowed him to do to her and the changes she made to herself including the subconscious altering of her body such that she appeared like her 14 year old self again. It was both maddening and disturbing to read and a part of me struggles to believe this behaviour could be true, and that she would allow herself to be used the way she was. Despite believing she was embarking on a life of sexual freedom, Sarah was used by everyone around her, including Jamie and it was sad and disturbing to read this. This is not a book I would probably recommend, and it has nothing to do with the explicit nature of it, but all to do with the behaviour of this seemingly smart character. Something about it just did not sit right with me.
Love You Hate You Miss You by Elizabeth Scott
Read by Natalie December 2011
Natalie recommends as a sad look at a girl lost
Itís been 75 days since Amy went into rehab, 75 days since she lost her best friend Julia. Now sheís going home and Amy has no idea how she is supposed to go on without her best friend in her life, without Julia there to look after her, protect her, be friends with her. Used to hiding her insecurities behind alcohol, she can no longer do that either and when her therapist suggests she keep a journal to try to help her get through the days, Amy decides to write instead to Julia. As she writes letter after letter, we as the reader start to learn about their destructive friendship, about Amyís binge drinking, Juliaís drug taking and their respective home lives. In the present, Amy is forced to continue her life without Julia, forced to live in the house where her parents are more wrapped up in each other to notice their daughter, forced to go back to school where nobody wants to talk to her but everybody wants to watch her but where Julia isnít anymore. Desperate for a drink, she continues writing to Julia as well as seeing her therapist and while her constant blaming of herself for Juliaís death is slightly grating, particularly when we learn the truth of that night, it is clear that Amy is very lost and sinking deeper into herself as she struggles to deal with what has happened as well as find a reason to keep waking up each morning and going through the charade of her life. Forced to work with a former friend, an enemy and a mysterious boy from Amyís past, she is also forced to confront the choices she has made as well as accept the ones that Julia chose to make. Faced with the reality of her parents, she is also forced to confront them, question their changed behaviour towards her and accept that they are trying to help her, even if in the past they have virtually ignored her. This is not your typical lost then found girl story. Amy is truly suffering and while the exact reasons for her reaching this point are not fully fleshed out, there is no doubt she is struggling every day and her method of dealing with this is to drink. Trying desperately not to drink since she believes it caused the death of her best friend, this doesnít stop her with wanting too and when finally presented with the opportunity to do so, she does. But then an unexpected decision is presented to her and Amy finally starts to realise and believe that everyone makes choices. That yes while some of her choices may have contributed to what happened to Julia, she isnít to blame, that Julia made her own choices too and now Amy needs to make her own. While it at first appears that Amy might make the wrong choice, a final letter to Julia shows that she didnít and that although she doesnít know what the future holds, that she isnít sure how to go on without her, she did make the right decision for herself, creating a little bit of hope that maybe Amy will be alright. This book is at times quite sad, watching Amy struggle to get through each day, watching her desperate desire to drink and watching those around her try to help yet remaining unable to get through to her. Her connection to Patrick, the mysterious boy from her past could have done with some further development, and it is not entirely clear why he is the way he is, but his unexpected behaviour is what finally reaches Amy, is what finally makes her see the truth of her friendship with Julia and her own behaviour and it is this that helps Amy start to move on. Not shying away from the realities of drinking, this is an interesting book that leaves you hoping Amy can pull through.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Read by Tracy December 2011
Tracy recommends as a interesting look at Asberger's Syndrome
This book is from the same author who brought us A Spot of Bother which we both loved. This was Mark Haddon's first book and won the Whitbread Book of the Year. This is totally different. The book is narrated by 15 year old Christopher who has Asperger's syndrome (although this is never confirmed). A dog is murdered and Christopher makes it his job to investigate and find the murderer. As Christopher works through the culprits we are introduced to his more specific behavioural traits that allow him to remember everything yet he is unable to prioritise or understand human emotions. As Christopher interviews residents he soon uncovers the skeletons in the closet surrounding his parents marriage and the death of his mother. A Spot of Bother was a laugh out loud book but I didn't find this book in the same league, probably more targetted to a younger audience it would be a great addition to a teenagers reading collection and provide a realistic overview of behavioural syndromes.
This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.
Dash and Lilyís Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
Read by Natalie December 2011
Natalie recommends as a sweet look at first love
This book is from the same authors who brought us Naomi and Elyís No Kiss List which I preferred a lot more. Similar in style, Dash and Lilyís Book of Dares features two characters (Dash and Lily) who alternate POV as they swap a notebook full of stories, dreams and dares across New York City. Originally set up by Lily (with the help of her brother and his boyfriend), the book was devised to help Lily cope with surviving Christmas in New York without her parents or Grandpa (away in Fiji and Florida respectively) or her brother (holed up in bed with aforementioned boyfriend). Dash on the other hand, is happy to be alone over Christmas, the holiday season he hates the most. Free from his divorced and not speaking to each other parents, he is content with his own company. That is until he come across the red notebook hidden amongst one of his favourite authors in the Strand bookstore. Intrigued by the lack of cover or title, Dash opens the book and finds a series of clues to unravel a dare, a dare to continue finding out about the mystery notebook owner and perhaps reveal a little of himself as well. Dash eagerly joins in, throwing Lily a few dares of her own and over the days of Christmas these two slowly reveal their true feelings about love and life to each other through words and the sights of NYC. With the help of Dashís friends and Lilyís relatives these two start to discover that each may be exactly what the other one has been looking for, but are they willing to risk it all with a real life meeting? Can their real life selves possibly live up to their written ones? They unintentionally meet earlier than planned and when things donít go well it looks as though their relationship might have fizzled before it even got started. Can these two reconnect again and can they bring their words to each other to life? Another attempt, again employing the help of their friends and family on New Yearís Eve will reveal all! I will say, although I preferred the story of Naomi and Ely, this book is still very sweet and at times very funny. My main gripe with it is the age of the protagonists Ė 16. Itís just a little implausible that these two would find themselves alone in NYC on Christmas. Yes ok, Dash played the Iím at the other parentís house trick all products of divorce could play and yes Lily had her older brother around, but really? Not to mention the nightclub dare (although watch out for very cool nod to Ely here) and of course the way these kids think and talk. Yes I know, they are super cool and hip New Yorkers, but really, would they really talk like this, feel things like this at the ripe old age of 16? Sometimes I wish someone would write these stories where our main characters are actually at an age where they can realistically do these things. In any case, it is a light easy read about the joys of finding true love and yes it will probably make some of you want to run right out and hide a notebook of dares in a bookstore yourself! Plus, who doesnít love NYC at Christmas time?!
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Read by Natalie December 2011
Natalie recommends as a unique look at the consequences of bullying, rumour and gossip.
Two weeks ago Hannah Baker committed suicide. Today, Clay Jensen, her classmate, work colleague and long-time admirer received a package in the mail. Inside are 7 audio tapes containing 13 stories, 13 reasons why Hannah committed suicide. Each story features one individual who changed Hannahís life, who shaped her decision to end that life and each person needs to listen to find out what they did and then pass the tapes on to the next person. Failure to do so will implement Hannahís back-up plan Ė a second set of tapes that will be released to the public. So itís your choice, listen, learn and pass them on, knowing your secret is shared with only 12 other people, or call Hannahís bluff and risk everyone finding out. Clay, like the unknown number before him, chooses to listen.
As the tapes play, Clay begins to learn the truth about the girl he secretly liked but was always too afraid to do anything with. Interspersed with Clayís journey to the locations Hannah has identified relevant to each story with a map, we watch as Clay struggles with this new knowledge and begins to fall apart. Shocked at both hearing her voice again and at the thought he may have contributed to her suicide he is forced to listen, never knowing what number in the story he will be. As he follows the path he comes across other listeners, fellow students who have shaped and ultimately influenced Hannahís life and what he quickly learns is that Hannah was nothing like any of them thought she was. That rumour and gossip and judgement defined her, rather than Hannah herself.
Itís hard to see how Clay fits in to it all. He is a kind person who didnít party, studied and got good grades, was good to his family and friends and didnít judge Hannah by her so-called reputation even though a part of him was afraid it was true. What is it he could possibly have done to have contributed to her suicide? As Hannahís story is revealed we learn that what starts out as seemingly harmless gossip and pranks actually snowballs in something that is far more dangerous. And as Hannahís trust in people slowly starts to disintegrate the warning signs for what she is ultimately going to do begin to show and sadly are consistently ignored.
Reading this Iíll admit, it was hard to believe that some of the stories could affect Hannah so badly. But as time goes on you begin to realise two things. Firstly everything you do influences someone else in some way, no matter how minor that action of yours appears to be. Secondly, no person can ever know the true story of your life, can never really know exactly whatís going on inside of you and because of that they can never really know the power one of these seemly minor actions can have. While Hannah is clearly committed to the decision to end her life, she is also adamant she is going to tell these 13 people the reasons why. At times bitter and at times surprisingly funny, her initial stories are of blame and anger towards their recipients. But, as they move forward Hannah also starts to blame herself; for the way she reacts, for the feelings she has and indeed for some of her own actions. There is also a story of apology, a final goodbye from Hannah to the one person on the list who didnít directly shape her decision, but still played a role. And as Clay wraps up the tapes to pass on to the new listener, he understands now how all of them ignored Hannahís desperate cries for help, even if some of them were not obvious and a part of him hates Hannah for not trying harder. Realising now what he has to do, you get the sense that Clay is perhaps the only one to have learnt something from her story.
This is an incredibly intense and moving story, especially towards the end where it is clear Hannah is spiralling out of control. I did feel a lot of sympathy for Clay (and his friend Tony) particularly when we learn of their role in Hannahís suicide and while some of the characters and background could have done with some more development, the style of the book really pulls you into the story. And yes, while some of the reasons do seem a little contrived and there are influences that seem so minor that itís hard to believe they could affect Hannah so much, I think the book manages to highlight the incredible power of bullying, gossip and rumour as well show us that things are not always what they seem and that even the smallest of actions can have huge and unknowing consequences.
The Angelís Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Read by Natalie October 2011 and by Tracy in December 2011
Natalie recommends as enjoyable although not as compelling as its sequel and Tracy agrees
Natalie's review: I happened to discover The Angelís Game not long after I finished Zafonís most famous novel The Shadow of the Wind. Flicking through the pages I was excited to see some familiar names and thought this was a sequel to the book I had just finished and loved. Reading it however the timeline seemed a little wrong and it was soon after that I discovered that although it was written years after The Shadow of the Wind, The Angelís Game is actually a prequel. This time, the father and son who run Sempere and Son bookstore are actually Danielís grandfather and father and itís at the very end of The Angelís Game that we learn of Danielís birth and the death of his mother when he was four, which is what paves the way for the trip to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in The Shadow of the Wind. This book is narrated to us by David Martin, a young boy who was abandoned by his mother and neglected by his father until his murder when David was a young boy. Growing up alone, he found solace in his job at a newspaper where he dreamed of becoming a writer just like his mentor Pedro Vidal. When he is finally given the opportunity to write, his stories are such a success that he is soon ostracised by those he works with and is forced from his job at the newspaper. Not long after this, he is offered an opportunity to write under an alias for two suspect publishers who promise he will soon be given the chance to write his own story. As the aliasí popularity grows, David becomes more and more disgruntled, by both his lack of success as a writer under his own name, and his lack of success with Christina, the beautiful daughter of Pedroís chauffeur. Itís around this time that a mysterious French publisher gets in contact with David with an offer too good to refuse. He wants David to write him a book about a new religion and he will pay him nothing short of a small fortune for it. Aided in his work by his young assistant Isabella (who later turns out to be Danielís mother), once David has accepted the money and the bossí mysterious offer, strange things start to occur. Now living in a new house courtesy of his new found wealth, he discovers that the former owner of the house, along with the book David picked from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books earlier are more connected then he thought. When strange photographs reveal his boss as a man who hasnít aged in decades and the mystery of the former owner of Davidís house starts to intensify, David is drawn into a darkness that he cannot seem to explain or escape from. Finally aided by Pedro, David escapes from Barcelona with nothing but the memories of everything he lost. I did enjoy this story, although somehow it wasnít quite as enticing or intriguing as The Shadow of the Wind. David is a little less likeable as a character compared to Daniel and the mystery a little more convoluted and harder to understand. Even having finished it, I can only put fragments together to work out the full story, but I believe that David in fact made a deal with the devil when he accepted the French publisherís offer and itís because of this that his life was tortured and destroyed and he lost the very things he loved the most. Towards the end, when it seems David has finally escaped Barcelona, although perhaps not the curse that has now plagued him for 15 years, the boss appears again to grant David something close to an apology. Despite the fact David has now not aged a day since leaving Barcelona, the boss gives him back Christina, different to how she once was, but with the possibility of a future for them. Strange and a little hard to follow, this was enjoyable but didnít quite reach the enchantment of The Shadow of the Wind.
Tracy's review: As Natalie has detailed the plot summary in her review I won't duplicate it. I read this book straight after The Shadow of the Wind which I wasn't too enamoured with, but persevered hoping for the penny to drop and I could see what the fuss is all about, after all The Shadow of the Wind is promoted as "the fastest selling book in Spanish publishing history". The Angel's Game tries to cover so many ideas from mysterious benefactors, religion, lifelong love and desire. The book started out well with the story of David Marshall and his ambitions to be a writer, but in the second half of the book I felt it lost the plot and tried to delve into the mythical which soon turned into the absurd. Then there was the ending which I found slightly perturbing.
This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Read by Tracy in November 2011 (OurBookClub book pick of the month for December 2011)
Tracy recommends as a fascinating look at women's psyche
Initially published in 1962, The Golden Notebook has always caught my attention for its dramatic cover, comments and the fact that Doris Lesson won the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature. Now finally having time to sit down and read it, I was blown away with its attitudes to mental and societal issues (from communism to Womenís liberation) which are just as prevalent today. The book is about writer Anna Wulf and the four notebooks she uses to document her life. The black notebook details Anna's experience in Central Africa, before and during WWII, which inspired her own bestselling novel the proceeds of which she lives off; the red notebook details her experience as a member of the Communist Party; the yellow notebook details Annaís ongoing novel that is being written based on the painful ending of her love affair and the blue notebook details Anna's personal journal where she records her memories, dreams and emotional life. The Golden Notebook is the fifth and last notebook where she combines her thoughts and was found when she was in her deepest despair.
The book opens with a narrative are entitled Free Women which focuses on Molly and Anna and their children, Thomas and Alice, respectively. They have both been married and also divorced, in itself something of a rarity in the 1950s and have continued to experience a string of lovers as well as raise their children and maintain a semblance of respectability. Interspersed with the Free Women narratives are Annaís comments in her notebooks. The notebooks provide a fascinating psychoanalysis of women trying to step from one generation to another and constantly finding themselves on the edge of society. Anna dreams of a different future and in some cases past and this reveals her deepest fears. This ability to realise and subsequently attempt to deal with her issues is through several meetings with a psychoanalyst (Mother Sugar) and in turn Anna uses her knowledge to try and help others in her life. I have to say not always successfully. When Anna tells Saul that ďitís no good locking things upĒ you know she is out of her depth as he has a million demons and needs far greater expertise in helping him address his multiple personalities. At the root of Anna's problems seems to be sex and the interest and disinterest it arouses in her and her deep down desire to find a mate, when all she seems to settle for are married men with a whole truck load of baggage. In Anna's yellow notebook she writes that Julia and Ella want to be free women and this entails being free to pursue sexual satisfaction, not just putting up with what is offered. Ella tells Julia that "Of the ten men I've been in bed with during the last five years eight have been impotent or come too quickly." The sad reality for all of Anna's notebooks is the portrayal of married men and their desire to seek infidelity and then talk about how wonderful their wives are, or that their wives don't fully understand their needs.
Other than sex, the main story throughout the novel is Marxism which Lessing describes as the first attempt for our time outside the formal religions at a world-level. It went wrong, could not prevent itself from dividing and sub-dividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds, but it was an attempt. All Anna's stories and comments battle with her inability to fully succumb to Communism and all its edicts, she wants to believe, but cannot comprehend the dedication it takes and as such, and seems to be one of her underlying issues, she leaves the party and moves onto other things. I feel that she left the party because she has a need to make other people see things as she does and she does not want to feel alone in what she feels.
Each of the notebooks makes for interesting reading and I think you either enjoy them or find them antagonistic. In the black notebook, we find that George is sleeping with the wife of the Bushby's cook and has already had one child with her and it is starting to eat up his life in that he can't acknowledge or assist the child in anyway because he is white and she is black. He also has his own family that rely on him and acknowledging an illegitimate offspring who is coloured would mean the whole family becomes ostracised and subsequently destitute. Of course that doesn't stop him from sleeping with her and the possibility of another child - how frustrating was he, and yet nobody stood up to him to try and make him see sense. In the blue notebook Anna is obsessed with Paul and the shadow of him in her life and starts to be driven by comparing everything and everyone to him, this also starts to make an impression on her other notebooks. I don't think she really sat down and acknowledged he was married with children and she was in fact committing adultery. As such Anna gradually takes on the persona of the men in her life. With Saul, who has a mental condition, starts to make Anna feel detached and agoraphobic. She starts to live a life of anxiety which causes physical pain and sickness. All because she would rather be with someone, anyone and is too weak to stand-up and finish a relationship she seems going nowhere or even more stupid to start one with someone who she knew was ill. Out of Anna's life her daughter Janet who has been offered a progressive childhood that allows her to feel or explore anything as she feels fit, has rebelled and wants to go to a conventional boarding school where she could be ordinary and the opposite to her Mother. How fitting is that and also made me remember Absolutely Fabulous where Saffron was the opposite of her mother.
Lessing has some superb insight in her Prologue which I found utterly fascinating and matched my thoughts, no matter how controversial. Lessing believes that children are taught submission to authority and instead of being individual they are encouraged to search for other people's opinions and decisions and how to quote and comply. In fact the education process is a form of indoctrination and todayís education system is in fact an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices laid down by a particular culture and thus becomes a self-perpetuating system. Like me, Lessing left school at 14 and believed she had missed out on something valuable, but in hindsight realised it was a lucky escape and she has been able to think outside the square. I found myself buckling under the system and attended university as a mature student and it wasn't until I wrote my Masterís thesis I was actually able to put in some of my own thoughts and comments without strictly referencing every sentence I had previous written. Like Lessing, I also believe there is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you and dropping them when they bore you, in fact never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement - wow how fantastic is it to see those comments in print.
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Read by Natalie November 2011
Natalie recommends as a uniquely frightening look at the power of religion
A futuristic retelling of Nathaniel Hawthornís The Scarlett Letter, When She Woke highlights the frightening consequences of an America ruled by religion over politics. In this world 26 year old Hannah wakes to find herself a Red. The punishment for her crime is melochroming or complete dying of the skin so that the only parts of her that remain natural are her teeth and the whites of her eyes. As she spends her first 30 days in solitary confinement knowing that her every move is being broadcast around the country as part of the latest reality TV show craze, she is safe for the time being. But at the end of her 30 days she will be released into the world and forced to spend the next 16 years as a Red. Not quite as bad as a Blue (paedophile) but worse than a Yellow (misdemeanour) or Orange (drug user), the Red signifies Hannahís conviction for murder. The victim according to the law is her unborn child. Despite having spent her life devoted to her family, her church and her God, Hannah has also embarked on a passionate affair with a married man. A man who was not only her pastor and a powerful leader in the church and country (Secretary of Faith to the President!), but who also became the father of her unborn child. Knowing from the start that Aiden would never leave his wife and not willing to subject him to the humiliation of an extra-marital affair or a child born out of wedlock, Hannah does the only other thing she can think of. She has an abortion. Despite her belief that this is wrong in the eyes of her God, she feels she has no other choice and forces herself to go throw with it yet at the same time, is amazed and strangely humbled by the doctorís acceptance of her decision. However Hannah is caught and convicted of murder (Wade v Roe having been repealed years ago and the Sanctity of Life laws introduced in its place) and sentenced to 10 years of melochroming. Refusing to name either the abortionist or the father of her child, she is given an extra 6 years to her sentence, confined to the state of Texas and forced to come in for Chrome viral top-ups every four months. Threatened with the idea of brain fragmentation if she refuses the top-ups (a built in back-up in the Chrome virus), Hannah knows she has no choice but to comply and in doing so finds herself more trapped than ever. Forced out into the world after her 30 day confinement, Hannah is alone and abandoned. Her mother has disowned her, her sister is being sequestered by her domineering husband and her father is late to pick her up, leaving Hannah unsure of whether she has anyone left. And all the while she is devastated at the loss of Aiden, the love of her life. As she comes face to face with the frightening reality of everyday life for Chromes Ė persecuted by everyone, ignored by the police and authorities and ostracised by businesses, she is granted a small reprieve when her father (secretly aided by Aiden) finds her a spot in a halfway house that functions as a religious rehabilitation centre. Here, Hannah believes she can find her way back to God and forgiveness, but instead she is subjected to repeated humiliations and attacks by the very people who are supposed to be messengers of God. As her life becomes increasingly unbearable, Hannah starts to question exactly what her religion is about and whether God really does listen or even exist at all. Hannah has always been told that those who ask are granted forgiveness. So if thatís the case, then why is she forced to remain Red, why is she being subjected to these humiliations and more importantly, why isnít she free to love who she wants and make her own decisions in life? Abandoning the rehab centre and taking a chance on her own, she is aided by Kayla, a fellow Red, convicting for protecting her sister from the step-father who would rape her nightly. As these two try to survive in the world, they are attacked by the Fist, an extreme right wing group that secretly hunt and execute Chromes before being rescued by Novembrists, a left wing group that believe in the right to free will. Faced with both extremes, Hannah continues to question everything and in doing so has her eyes opened to both how sheltered her life once was and to the endless possibilities that now face her outside of the church. Offered the chance to escape to Canada and have her Chroming reversed, Hannah accepts that she has changed and is no longer the devoted, church-going daughter, nor the woman that Aiden fell in love with. Shocked at the feelings and emotions she finds herself having with her rescuer Simone, Hannah finds closure with a guilt-ridden and finally honest Aiden and sets out to start her new life. Now she is stronger from what she has been through, stronger from no longer accepting everything that she is simply told and most importantly stronger from finally allowing herself the right to make her own decisions.
I found this book to be really interesting and an extremely unique concept that I think would actually make a visually fantastic movie (the book cover is fabulous). Despite the heavy religious aspects, I loved that Hannah began to question all the things she had previously accepted on faith and I really loved that she embraced these changes so openly Ė willingly questioning how and why God would see these things as wrong. While her acceptance may have been a little on the quick side, I think the fact she embarked on an adulterous relationship in the first place, not to mention all the things she was then subjected to, her refusal to name either the father or the doctor, were hints at her hidden strength, that the church canít destroy everything inside of you. My only minor gripe was with the ending, which seemed a little rushed and perhaps incomplete. After her torturous journey which was full of discoveries, decisions and closure, we are left with Hannah crossing into Canada and collapsing into her rescuers arms. I would have loved an epilogue set maybe a year into her future, just to see how far sheíd come. That aside, this was a very original and cool concept in addition to being an extremely scary look at the power of religious brainwashing, eradication of the line between church and state and peopleís acceptance of things based merely on faith. Give me free will any day.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Read by Natalie November 2011
Natalie recommends as a well written and moving look at the plight of illegal refugees
Little Bee has some pretty bold recommendations on its back cover. As the blurb claims, we cannot tell you what this book is about, all we can say is that you simply must read it, pass it on without saying anymore and let the reader discover the magic of how the story unfolds for themselves. It will change your life. While I will say, that was perhaps a fraction over the top, it is still a very interesting read that certainly had a few surprises inside. Told by two very different women, the story begins when they meet on a beach in Nigeria and one of them is forced to make a decision that no one should ever have to make. Two years later they meet again and that is when their story continues. The women in question are Sarah, a British magazine editor who is holidaying on the Nigerian beach with Andrew, her journalist husband. The trip, a freebie courtesy of her magazine, was also an attempt at patching up their marriage which had been marred by Sarahís affair. Little Bee is a young Nigerian girl that Sarah and Andrew meet whilst walking on the beach outside their hotel compound. Oblivious to the dangerous conflict going on in Nigeria, Sarah and Andrew are initially blasť about wondering unaccompanied outside of their hotel, until they stumble across 14 year old Bee. Little Bee is on the run with her sister and when fate allows her to cross paths with Sarah, the story and the lives of all four people takes a turn that no one could have anticipated and which will have far reaching ramifications. Two years later and Little Bee is now languishing in a British Detention Centre. Suddenly facing the prospect of an unexplained release, she realises the only place she has to go is to the address on Andrewís driverís licence which she picked up two years ago on the beach in Nigeria. Following an angry phone call with Andrew, Bee begins her journey to their house outside of London, not realising what awaits her. Meanwhile Sarah is still in the midst of her affair with Lawrence and becoming increasingly worried at her husbandís depression and withdrawal from not only her and their son Charlie (aka Batman as he refuses to take his Bat Costume off), but also his life in general. When Bee shows up on their doorstep, Sarah is not only grieving at all that she has now lost but she is also genuinely surprised that Bee is still alive and confusingly standing right in front of her. As the two women are forced to go back to that fateful day on the Nigerian beach, both of them recount their stories of a time they have both tried so desperately to forget. As full disclosure of that day is finally given, it becomes obvious that there is much more going on between these two and that each of them needs the other in order to heal from the events of that day. Itís probably at this point, that I should stop the review so as not to give anything away. There was definitely one little twist that I didnít see coming and it had the effect of completely changing my opinion of both women in a matter of paragraphs. The story takes an interesting journey where we learn more of the struggle in store for Little Bee as well as some life changing decisions by Sarah, although some of these plot points did feel a little contrived and were left simply dangling unsolved at the end. The actual ending sees both Sarah and Little Bee once again on that beach in Nigeria. Over two years on, they are both a lot closer to the healing and closure each of them needs and there is a feeling of hope and optimism for the future. A hope that not only have they helped and saved each other, but also a hope that they may be able to save hundreds more. However, some final twists towards that ending suggest that the salvation may not be as easy as it looks and may not in fact, come at all.
While this is a work of fiction, Chris, a journalist himself, has said it is loosely based on real life stories of life in immigration detention centres, the issue of illegal refugees, particularly in Britain as well as the oil-conflicts in Nigeria. What this book does show you is that stories are not always what they seem and that even the smallest action or choice can have far reaching ramifications. Slightly overhyped by the blurbs all over its cover and not helped by the smugly satisfied author profile picture (sorry, but look at it!), this is still a story that is both heart lifting and heart breaking. It's just not life-changing.
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
Read by Natalie in 2008 and Tracy in November 2011
Natalie and Tracy recommends this as very funny reading
Natalie's review: I haven't read Mark Haddon's first and most famous book "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night" which won the Whitbread book of the year, so had no idea what his writing would be like. A friend recommended this to me and I really loved it. It tells the story of a slightly, well ok very dysfunctional family consisting of a married couple who are falling apart - she is having an affair with her husband's ex-colleague and he is convinced he has a cancerous growth on his leg but won't see a doctor, and their two grown children, a daughter about to be a married to a complete idiot and a gay son who isn't quite ready to have his lover become part of the family. All of the characters are fabulous and the writing is fantastic, I was squirming when reading the father's attempts to extricate the "cancerous" growth from his leg with a pair of scissors and laughing my head off at the description of him finding his wife in bed with another man. The wedding scene at the end of the book, particularly concerning the son is absolutely hilarious. I will definitely be looking to read more of his books.
Tracy's review: Whilst buying my luggage allowance of books in London, Natalie recommended this one to me and as it wasn't the usual fodder of vampires I thought I would give it a go. Natalie was spot on as this is funny and written in such a realistic way you just laugh at what happens next. George is recently retired and when he finds a lesion on his hip, his inability to speak about his feelings puts a whole raft of melodrama into play as he believes he is dying of cancer. Jean, the mother is currently having an affair, tries to make everyone happy. Jaime who is gay but seems unable to commit to a relationship until it seems too late and finally Katie who has extreme anger issues who was dumped and left a single mother by the love of her live, meets Ray, a down to earth guy who provides stability and companionship, but is this enough to get married for? The wedding becomes the focus of the family and soon blows out of all proportion until Katie realises what is important. George was hilarious in his comments and descriptions of things, his thoughts on an espresso maker sounded just like mine when Scott and I finally succumbed to the desire for a decent coffee and bought one in Spain. Each morning the ritual is now about filling the reservoir with water, pouring coffee into the funnel and screwing the aluminium sections together and shortly afterwards you are greeted by spluttering etc and well a decent coffee ensues. Jean is facing old age and as such seems to be having a later than usual midlife crisis but I thought she may be the insane one with her love of hairy men, the thought of her fondness of the silky feel under her fingers when she stroked David's back made me shiver and not in a good way. I was salivating with the thought of George's description of going to a foreign country to lounge by a pool in the heat, especially as I sit here in Germany, in winter, but I can see his point when it comes to package holidays where you go overseas and stay in a resort and never leave it. I didn't always agree with George, especially his thoughts regarding finishing a book then taking a break to let the atmosphere of the novel seep away before launching into the next one is anethema to me, I usually have at least a couple on the go at once. This was a great read and I am disappointed with myself for not picking up his other book.
This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.
number9dream by David Mitchell
Read by Tracy in November 2011
Tracy recommends this as a fantasy escape
Eiji Miyake has moved to Tokyo under the auspices of finding his father, but when he faces the fact that his father may not want to meet him, he regresses to fantasies about an idealised childhood and also dreams of how he would finally get to his father through a plethora of flunkies and hidden stories. In the meantime he makes ends meet by living in a tiny space above a video shop, working any borderline job that he can find and somehow manages to get mixed up with the Yakuza. Although some of the chapters were slightly longwinded, especially the section about Goatwriter, I felt connected to Eiji and you want him to find some happiness in his life. Eiji certainly has an imagination and you wonder if he instead focused on what he can impact, the search for his father may have been more direct. In the end his finds out he has made some great friends who he can rely on and that the desire to meet his father no longer drives his life. Not as good as Mitchell's later books, but still an enjoyable read.
Brother/Sister by Sean Olin
Read by Natalie November 2011
Natalie recommends as a scary and disturbing look at two kids abused and abandoned and left to their own device. Oh and yeah it has a great twist
Brother/Sister is a very intriguing story about Will and Asheley, siblings who are essentially left on their own for a summer with disastrous results. Eighteen and fifteen respectively, their father abandoned them years ago and their mother is an alcoholic who spends most of her time in and out of rehab battling to stay sober. Her boyfriend Keith occasionally drops by to check on them, but he is a recovering alcoholic himself, who is quite often stoned instead. Itís a little strange how they manage to survive and this part of the story is possibly a bit implausible, but basically the father who has been gone since Will was 6 and Asheley was 3, sends a cheque each month so they can make the mortgage repayments and the mom conveniently goes to a free, religious rehab place that isnít monitored by the authorities. Will has been bullied his entire life. Burdened with the responsibility of looking after the house and family by his mother, he has internalised everything that has happened to him and you can see he is a volcano just waiting to explode. Asheley, a lot younger when their father left is a little more sociable and normal, she even has a boyfriend. She doesnít remember their childhood quite like Will does, but she is the only one who gets Will and the only one who can help him when his walls start to crack.
As the summer holidays approach and both Will and Asheley have one of the best days of their lives (Will wins the local golf tournament, Asheley is a major contributor to her softball teamís win) which combined with their motherís 4 months of sobriety, gets them thinking maybe life is about to change. However Will returns home to find the mother bombed out on vodka and Asheley, finally a part of the team is accosted by her drunk boyfriend and made a fool of in front of them. This then sets the scene for the disaster that is about to unfold. Following the mumís horrifying attack on Will, Keith carts her off to rehab again, leaving the two kids alone in the house. As they make the most of the time together playing grown-ups, they start to think that perhaps this is normal for them, that as long as they have each other, everything will be ok. Then Asheley decides they should have a dinner party. Naturally this spirals out of control and suddenly the whole school has shown up and it is a full-blown party going on. Having avoided her boyfriend since the groping incident, Asheley is startled when he suddenly shows up at her party. But as he begs for her forgiveness, a drunken Asheley decides she will give him a chance to explain. When the apology gets out of hand however, Will steps in and suddenly things take a huge turn for the worse. As Asheley and Will try to cover up what has happened, both of them start to fall apart as each of them try to cope with what they've done and their role in it. Battling their own demons, Will internalises once again and thinks life can go on as though nothing happened, yet Asheley is consumed by grief and guilt, becoming increasingly scared of her brother, so that even their once strong bond starts to crack.
The shocking incident with Craig, the boyfriend, then leads to more with new friend Naomi from the softball team who has a crush on Will and then with Keith himself as Will misinterprets his actions towards Asheley. As the days go by it becomes apparent that not only is Will a complete psychopath, but he is also infatuated with his sister. Desperately in love with her and paranoid about protecting her from what he perceives as constant threats on her virtue, he takes the outrageous step of kidnapping her and driving down to Mexico under the guise of seeing their long absent father. Asheleyís memories of her father are very different to Wills. She sees only the good in him, being only 3 when he left and longs to see him again and have him protect and look after them both. Will on the other hand remembers only the bad in him and only wants to shelter Asheley from what he thinks is an evil man. When they finally reach Mexico and is becomes apparent they are not going to see their father, Willís behaviour gets even stranger and more disturbing. Escaping him, Asheley runs to their fatherís house only to find Will has beat her there. A final confrontation between the siblings and their father is actually very sad, as you learn that he did in fact abandon them years ago and now no longer has any interest in being their father or a part of their lives. With nothing left to do, both Will and Asheley give up, sitting down to wait for the police to arrive.
The story alternates between Will and Asheley and although there is a lot of annoying teenage speak (like, you knowÖ) their voices are quite distinct. Although Asheley is the younger of the two, she is a little more together, her guilt and grief over whatís happened all consuming. Will on the other hand is destructive and violent and it is a scary journey watching him unravel as the book progresses. Both kids tell their story like a re-enactment to the police in Mexico, leaving you to wonder the whole time what has happened and how they have found themselves being interrogated like this. Reading like an interview, you never hear the policeís questions or see Will and Asheley in the same room together, which makes their wildly different accounts of the same situation very interesting. As the story comes to its conclusion you start to see what has happened over the summer and perhaps understand why, given the shocking childhood theyíve both endured. ButÖ..and this is where itís really good, the final line (I wonít say from who), wow, it will change everything you thought had happened and make you question everything you have just read! A very interesting yet disturbing book that I now need to re-read with completely different eyes.
Look at Me by Jennifer Egan
Read by Tracy in November 2011
Tracy recommends this as a dark look at life's interactions
This book had me captured from page one. First published in the US in 2001 and more recently eclipsed by Egan's new novel A Visit from the Goon Squad which won the Pulitzer Prize and the national Book Critics Circle award in 2011, Look at Me has been re-released.
Charlotte Swenson is in a car accident that sees her undergo considerable reconstructive and plastic surgery (80 titanium screws) and as she is unable to care for herself returns to her childhood hometown of Rockford, Illinois, USA, a town she escaped from as soon as she was able and one that she never admits to being from. Her career as a model sees her travel the world, but as she gets older the work had been drying up and she was slipping down the road towards catalogue model. On her return to New York, her current booker (Oscar) asks her to re-evaluate her ideals and her future career but she is unwilling to accept any help and after her surgery she seems to have become unrecognizable. In the meantime she meets Anthony Hallliday a private detective looking for Z who was known to Charlotte, but as her memory of just prior to the accident has been unwilling to return she can't do much except to try to coax him into giving her a job which ends with disastrous consequences. Eventually Charlotte becomes involved in a plan to write her life story on the internet, a sort of voyeristic look at what is going through her mind and with the assistance of her ghost writer she becomes a hit. In the other story we are taken through the world of Charlotte. Charlotte is at a crossroads in her teenage life and soon becomes involved with Michael West a schoolteacher. Her rebellion sees her face up to westernised ideals on relationships and her desire to want Michael in her life not just a shadow on the sidelines, but Michael is all about shadows and you kind of know what is going on, but there is never any real proof at what he is really attempting to change. Unlike Charlotte's Uncle Moose who in his early teaching life had almost blown his students up with a bomb to make them understand how having power can change people underlying ideals. Moose is an interesting character who you know is passionate about Rockford and it's history and is desparate to find the moment that Rockford went from a successful city to a now run-down town, but alas he starts to become unhinged. The novel draws parallels between the two stories until they both collide.
Jennifer Egan won the Galaxy National Book Awards 2011 International author of the year. Read more about Jennifer Egan at her website.
Before I Die by Jenny Downham
Read by Natalie October 2011(OurBookClub book pick of the month for November 2011)
Natalie recommends as heartbreakingly beautiful
Before I Die is Tessaís story of the last few months of her life. By the time we meet her, she is 16, has been battling leukaemia for 4 years and has now been told it is terminal. All of her options have been exhausted, her hair is cropped from treatment, she has a portacath in her arm for blood draws and drug delivery and now she knows she is going to die. The only thing that can be done is to make her last few months as pain free and easy as possible. So Tessa makes a list, ten things she wants to do before she dies. Number one is sex, and sheís starting tonight. Recruiting the help of best friend Zoey, Tessa starts to tick off her list, believing if she does, then it will somehow be ok for her to die because she will have lived, even if itís only for a little while. Freed from the restraints of being a ďnormalĒ girl, she wants to cram in as much as possible in the short time she has left, all while her failing body struggles to keep up. Yet she soon discovers that getting what she wants isnít exactly what she thought it would be. That having sex or taking drugs or committing a crime or saying yes to everything for a whole day doesnít make her feel alive in fact it makes her feel worse. Trying to understand her quest is her poor father, the man who has given up 4 years of his own life, and is desperate for a way to save Tess. Struggling with whether to discipline or indulge Tess he is also trying to face the prospect of saying goodbye to her. Tessaís estranged mother walked out on them 4 years ago just before her diagnosis. Although she pops back in from time to time, she has never had to deal with any of Tessaís medical issues, instead that has all been left for her Dad to deal with. Best friend Zoey tries to be there for her but she is selfish and easily frustrated by Tess, not really understanding or being able to face what Tess is going through. Then Tessa meets Adam, the boy next door and things start to change.
From then on, the rest of the journey through her list actually becomes more like an evolution through the things that keep us alive and living in the moment Ė fear, honesty, experience, the unexpected little things and above all love. While her antics may frustrate her family, they also help bring them back together, a sweet trade she makes for number 7 on her list. And despite knowing how much it is going to hurt, she allows number 8 on the list to become falling in love and number 9 to be Adam moving in to protect her from the nights, the time when she feels the most alone. Adam, a boy of only 18 who has spent his life looking after his depressed mother, is the best thing that happens to Tess. He loves her unconditionally and completely and is real to her when she so desperately needs it. But at the same time you can see that Tess is also the best thing that has happened to Adam. Lonely and trapped, she gives him a reason to want to live even though he finds it hard and unfair as she is facing the end of her own life. Their interactions and relationship are gorgeous and there are some truly sweet moments between them including from Adam when he climbs into the hospital bed to hug her just as sheís had to face the reality of how soon her death will come. Trying to let him off the hook in their relationship, instead Adam tells her I love you. It hurts more than anything ever has, but I do. So donít you dare tell me I donít. Donít you ever say it again. Or Tessí heartbreaking last few days when she wakes up with Adam and thinks I donít want to be dead. I havenít been loved this way for long enough.
Tessa faces all of the stages of grief, in all of their agony and despair. Told first point of view, as the reader you get to experience all of these feelings with her. The author nails it with Tessaís inner monologue, particularly the insecurities, the anger and the fear that she is forced to confront. Her initial stubbornness and selfish behaviour feel so true to what she is going through and reading it you can sympathise with her, knowing youíd probably act exactly the same way. But the growth and subsequent acceptance she learns to have as she realises that getting what she thought she wanted isnít always what she needs, that often itís the little things, the ones we take for granted that are the most important, is inspiring. Forced to face the fact that the people she loves are going to go on without her, that Adam will move away and go to university (although as he explains to her, he doesnít want to stay when she wonít be there anymore) or the fact that she may not live long enough to meet Zoeyís unborn child, Tessa yearns to live every day to its full capacity. In doing so, she learns that ten things are not enough, that they will never be enough and she desperately wants more, even if itís the simple things like a train journey, spring or a future with Adam. And it is sweet to hear Adam tell Tess that she shouldnít worry about ever being forgotten and watch him try to give her as many of the things on her growing list as possible.
The secondary characters the author creates for Tess are also fantastic Ė I mean can we love her Dad or Adam any more? They are quite literally perfect and deservedly so. They are the two people who love and care for her no matter what and they are also the two that suffer and hurt the most. Her mother, an absent figure from much of her life is confusing and frustrating, and both her and best friend Zoeyís inability to discuss or see Tessaís illness is very sad. Cal is realistically portrayed as a frightened and confused younger brother who is unable to comprehend the harsh fact that his older sister is dying.
As the book moves towards its inevitable conclusion, Tess comes face to face with the harsh reality of dying. With heartfelt instructions to those she loves, she slowly starts to slip away from them. Her last days when she is hearing only fragments from those around her and relying on memories to keep her alive are some of the most moving words I have ever read. In particular, Adam remaining by her bedside and her fatherís gratitude to him, telling him Iím grateful you knowÖfor not backing off, most lads would have run a mile and Adamís simple but poignant response of I love her. I defy you not to cry reading these last pages.
I have previously read and loved Jennyís second novel You Against Me, but always resisted reading Before I Die even as it sat in my reading pile for months and months. I knew it would hurt, and yes it did and it actually still does. Having said that though, it is a very beautiful, brave, heartbreaking and confronting story about death. But more than that, itís about what it means to be alive and to really live, which is ultimately what Tessa learns. However, a word of warningÖdonít read it in public. Donít set yourself up, because you will cry and unless you want to look like a blubbering idiot, I suggest you stay at home, lock yourself in a room, read it alone and allow yourself the chance to bawl your eyes out. I spent 5 hours on a flight reading it and the last hour trying not to cry like a baby. It will make you hug the person you love. It will make you glad to be alive and it will make you determined to go out and enjoy life. It is rare for me to read a book that affects me this much, that brings tears to my eyes just typing the review and still thinking about it days after Iíve put it down. Read it.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Read by Natalie October 2011 and Tracy November 2011
Natalie recommend as a gorgeous mystery steeped in history and romance but Tracy isn't so sure
Natalie's Review:Daniel is ten when he wakes up one morning unable to remember his dead motherís face. Consumed by grief and fear his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he is shown a vast library of books that have been abandoned or forgotten. Told that every book passes on some of their ownerís life and that one book in particular will be meant for him, Daniel trolls the shelves until he comes across The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. Sitting up to read it, Daniel doesnít put the book down until well into the early hours, absorbed in the story of a man in search of his real father, whose existence was only revealed to him by his mother on her deathbed. As Daniel treasures the novel that he is sure he was meant to read, he goes in search of other titles by this unknown author. His father, owner of a local bookstore is unsure of him and so introduces Daniel to a well-known businessman with many connections. The business man is immediately intrigued and offers to buy the book from Daniel. Daniel refuses, but allows him to read it while he spends many an afternoon with the businessmanís beautiful blind niece. Desperately in love with Clara, who is nearly twice Danielís age, he happily spends all his time reading to her and taking her around Barcelona, always hoping she will feel the same way about him as he feels for her. However a misguided run-in at Claraís house one night sees Daniel heartbroken and vowing never to see her again. In the meantime, his hunt for more of Julianís novels leads him to a mysterious and disfigured stranger who goes by the name Lain Coubert, the central character from The Shadow of the Wind who is later revealed in the book to be the Devil. Offering to buy Danielís copy of the book he is met with denial and so begins to threaten Daniel, offering up knowledge of his whereabouts and friends in the city. Petrified Daniel returns the book to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, hoping to protect it and all those who come into contact with it.
As the years pass by, Daniel slowly forgets about Clara and also the book, although the story of its author, Carax continues to haunt him. Despite never selling many copies either in Paris or his native Spain, most of Caraxís books have been destroyed, systematically hunted down and burnt. As Daniel attempts to unravel this mystery, his life and that of those closest to him becomes increasingly threatened. When a chance meeting with a beautiful young woman who turns out to be Bea, the now grown up sister of Danielís childhood best friend, gives Daniel a new lead in the hunt for clues on Caraxís life, it also provides the opportunity for Daniel to fall in love. As Daniel seeks out all those who knew Carax, with the help of Fermin, the mysterious bum whom he rescued and put to work in his fatherís shop, the story of Julian Carax and his sad life is slowly revealed. Bringing in characters from Julianís childhood, many of whom are still alive and more connected to Daniel than he could have imagined, he slowly starts to piece together the puzzle. Culminating in a heart stopping encounter in the very house that ended all of Julianís dreams so many years ago, Daniel finds himself face to face with the real monster, a man intent on destroying both Julian and Danielís lives.
The story moves beautifully back and forth through time, giving us a rich historical tour of Spain, in particular Barcelona. As Daniel and Julianís lives become increasingly aligned, their stories almost merge into the same tale. Bound by so much more than they think, they are both on a quest to reveal the truth and make those who destroyed so many peopleís lives pay. As Daniel is able to awaken something in Julian, something he thought he had lost, Julian is then able to set Daniel on the right path towards his future with Bea. A future that comes almost full circle back to the morning when Daniel awoke and was first introduced to Julian Carax. This is a truly beautiful book that you would never know was a translation. Filled with engaging and well developed characters, parallel love stories, an engrossing and rich mystery and two enigmatic heroes in Julian and Daniel, it will have you turning the pages well into the night. About to step on a plane to Barcelona, I was eager to read this and set out on the walking tour of all the sites the author has included at the end of the novel, having now finished it, I canít wait. This is a beautiful book that perfectly captures the art of storytelling, the power a great book can have over you and why I love to read in the first place. Highly recommended.
Natalie has captured the plot of the novel succinctly enough above and I therefore wonít duplicate what she has said, with the following exceptions. Although Zafon has no lack of imagination and he obviously loves reading and possibly collecting books I felt that he did not capture the time and place enough for me. Yes the characters were there, but there was a lack of depth and I didnít find them believable. I wanted desperately to fall in love with the Cemetery of Forgotten Books but it didnít grab me. However, I fervently hope that there is something in existence after all television and computers seem to be sending books into the electronic age at an increasing and alarming rate. So how can I put my finger on what annoyed me, I canít really accept it was melodramatic rather than dramatic and the different genres didnít seem to gel. Coupled with an annoying and weak main character (Daniel) I was however heartened with the descriptions of Barcelona of which parts are still there today.
Custody by Manju Kapur
Listened to by Tracy in October 2011
Tracy recommends as an sad look at divorce
Raman and Shagun Kaushik have an arranged marriage which has produced a son (Arjun) and a daughter (Roohi). After eight years of marriage, Raman has a successful job that allows Shagun leads an affluent lifestyle. Raman is the account manager and works for The Brand, a western drinks conglomerate that is being re-introduced to the Indian market after a distrastrous attempt in 1977. It is the late 1990's and Ashok Khanna has been brought in to orchestrate the relaunch under the new Indian governments economic liberalisation. Ashok and Shagun meet at a function in India and this is the start of a disastrous affair that sees the family torn apart. At the centre of the struggle are Arjun and Roohi who soon become pawns in the hatred their parents share for each other. The book also put the Indian legal system into the spotlight and the length it takes for any court decisions to be made. Shagun eventually marries Ashok and Raman meets and marries Ishita, who had an extremely unhappy first marriage after she discovers she is unable to conceive or carry a child and is divorced by her husband who is desparate to carry on his family name. Ishita has an unhealthy obsession with Roohi and wants her to forget her mother and as Arjun increasingly becomes caught up in his mother and Ashok's life you would think that the ending would provide some happiness. Alas it would seem that the children are the ones to carry the long term scares of being caught up in the turmoil and disgrace that divorce brings in India. This is a sad indictment of how easily people can forget about everything that happened in the past and just set out to hurt the ones they once loved bringing increasing amounts of hurt and pain. So not a happy book, but it certainly makes you want to work on your relationship.
Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy
Read by Natalie September 2011(OurBookClub book pick of the month for September 2011)
Natalie recommends as an unusual yet extremely beautiful story.
This has got to be one of the most unusually beautiful books I have ever read. Unusual for the way it is so simply written, beautiful for the execution. Although this is his first novel, at the ripe age of 36 Simon Van Booy is also editor of 3 philosophical books and writer of 2 short story collections, one of which won the Frank OíConner International Short Story Award.
Everything Beautiful Begins After focuses on three characters, Rebecca, Henry and George. Rebecca is a young French woman, who after working as a stewardess for Air France, gave it up to be an artist. Desperately sad and longing to find real love that she can lose herself in, Rebecca is still tormented by her past when she and her sister were abandoned by their mother and sent to live with their distant grandfather. George is an American language expert. Having spent his youth in Ivy League boarding schools and neglected by his parents, he has been an alcoholic and recluse since the age of fourteen. Henry, a British archaeologist is tormented by the death of his younger brother and the role he played in it. Unable to discuss it with his parents, he instead unearths the past with a professor who has become like a father to him. All of them find themselves in Athens, all of them on a quest to heal and overcome their past, and possibly find friendship and real love.
Part one begins in Athens, where through a series of chance encounters and coincidences, the three of them meet. Both men are attracted to Rebecca and despite an initial fling with George it is Henry who steals her heart. However, the friendship the three of them forge is genuine and real as they slowly start to reveal more of themselves to each other. Through the stifling Greek summer, they discover that despite their loneliness and desperation, they are not alone in the world. Culminating in a single perfect day together, as the reader you hope this is the path to recovery that each of them needs, until a tragic event that was so close to being avoided and was already loaded with emotion and possibility, changes everything.
Parts two and three change perspectives and give the story to the reader where we become Henry and experience all of his heart wrenching grief as he attempts to make sense of the world and all that he has lost. We watch as he loses himself in the sky, an unconscious attempt to get closer again to Rebecca, spending two years aimlessly circling the globe, sometimes staying only hours in one place. In the meantime, George finally stops drinking and begins to move on. It is only when Henry accidently finds himself back in Athens again does he finally start to get the closure he has been looking for. As he journeys back to where he lost everything, he finally starts to heal, to believe that he can go on, despite everything he has lost, until a journal finds its way into his hands and makes him question everything about that Greek summer. Now determined to find Rebeccaís family and uncover the truth about her past, Henry travels to her village in France where he is shocked to come face to face with Rebecca again and the little girl who might be her child. Finally realising that this woman is Natalie, Rebeccaís twin, Henry finds himself in a position to save Delphine, the little girl and realises he needs to move on and perhaps save himself.
Part four sees the bookís perspective change again when Henry and George are reunited in Sicily. As we learn how much George has healed, through his sobriety, his new wife and his work, Henry also takes steps to finally heal himself, including venturing into the ocean again, for the first time since that perfect day with Rebecca. Finally deciding that he has the strength to love again, despite all that he has lost, Henry begins to live. The final part is set in Paris, nine years later and we see just how far Henry has come. Although I found this part a little rushed, the story does come full circle back to the Prologue where we learn that while maybe not Everything Beautiful Begins After, some things certainly do.
Simon is an absolute master at gorgeously beautiful sentence construction. This is a man who can use minimal words to maximum effect and I found myself marking multiple passages in this book just so I could go back and re-read them later. I challenge anyone to read some of these and not be moved in some small way. He manages to create beauty, love and heartache without ever trivialising or cheapening the process. Halfway through, I admit, I googled him and came across many interviews, the most interesting being 20 questions presented to Simon. If you read his answer to question 1 and donít feel anything, then this is not the book for you, but if you do, if you find yourself moved even if itís just a little, then pick this up. You will smile, you will cry and you will be amazed at the simplicity and beauty of language and the amazing emotions it can generate. While maybe not for everyone, this is truly a beautiful book written by a great writer.
Annabel by Kathleen Winter
Read by Tracy in September 2011
Tracy recommends as a heartbreaking look at sexuality
Wayne is born into a loving family in rural Labrador in 1968. Nothing unusual in that, however, his birth is shrouded in secrecy by his mother (Jacinta), his father (Treadway) and their neighbour (Thomasina). Labrador is a remote coastal town in far north-east Canada where the women stay home whilst the men follow the traditional male orientated lifestyles of hunting and trapping that sees them leave home for long periods of time. Treadway was desparate for a boy and it was this decision that saw Wayne undergo surgery as a child to send him down this path. However, with the onset of puberty things do not go smoothly and Wayne envisages himself as a girl. Only after Thomasina and his parents are forced to reveal the hidden truth from him does he start to allow his dreams of becoming a woman grow. In a total role reversal, his mother, however, starts to become increasing insular and disconnected from Wayne and his life, whereas his father steps to the fore and makes a stand to protect his son and whatever life he chooses. Thomasina had hoped to not be involved with the choices Treadway and Jacinta made although she secretly called Wayne Annabel whilst he was a child. Thomasina moves away from Labrador to pursue a teaching career and travels throughout Europe only moving on when she grows weary of each place, however, she eventually returns to Labrador and starts to teach at the same school that Wayne attends and she is once again drawn into the web of secrecy and hidden conversations that surrounds him. This was an interesting book and nothing like Middlesex that has been the only other book I have read on Hermaphrodites and the impacts that parents decisions make on their children.
Last Summer by Kylie Ladd
Read by Natalie September 2011
Natalie recommends as a look at the different ways people can deal with grief and loss
This is Kylie's second work of fiction and follows the lives of 9 people over a Melbourne summer as they deal with the loss of Rory. While the reader never meets Rory, we learn through each of these people the kind of person he was. A born leader, a determined and outgoing man used to getting what he wanted and a very keen sportsman, particularly when it came to cricket. The life of Rory is presented to us by his wife Colleen as she struggles with losing her husband, raising their two sons and an unexpected pregnancy. His oldest friend Nick who finds it hard to face his life now Rory has suddenly disappeared from it. Nick's wife Laine who after a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend and her first love at Rory's funeral, starts to contemplate an affair now that Nick is so withdrawn from her. Joe, Rory's brother in-law and business partner who is married to Kelly, Rory's beloved younger sister. While Joe is desperate to get close to Kelly after the funeral and dealing with a possible problem of his own, Kelly is consumed by grief and can't do anything but fight with Joe and think about her brother. James, another childhood friend of Roryís who is the quietest of the bunch and married to Anita, the one woman who doesnít fit in with all the others. James is thrown for a loop when Anita, always the meticulous planner suddenly walks out on him. Finding solace in the newly widowed Colleen, James is still hoping to get his wife and son back. Pete, the newest member of the group, not a natural cricketer, he nonetheless loves the game and was therefore befriended by Rory. While some of the others are resentful of Peteís new role as captain when Rory dies, he manages to do a good job. And lastly there is Trinity, wife of Pete who is inspired to find her birth mother as she remembers Rory telling her to take a chance and do it, yet is unable to deal with the repercussions of her discovery. Thrown into this mix are the 12 children these couples have between them, all of whom are individually affected by the loss of their uncle/father/cricket coach.
Iíll admit, there are a lot of characters in this book and at times it was hard to remember who was married to whom or whose child belonged with who. Each of them do have quite distinctive voices though and each of them deals with the loss of Rory, the glue in their circle of friends in very different ways. Friendships between them become strained, family units suffer, marriages are tested and loyalties questioned as they all try to come to terms with their loss and how this changes them. It is also through each of them, that we learn of the type of man Rory was, while not all good, he clearly was loved by all of them and managed to influence all their lives in some way. Spanning a summer from Roryís death to the memorial cricket match they stage for him, the bookís chapters alternate between each of the characters and show their journey through grief, using the love they have for Rory and each other. Although not completely and neatly tied up at the end, as the reader you are left feeling that each of them grew and learnt something from their loss.This is a thought provoking read that shows you how we perceive others and how we deal with loss. Kylie has a gift for describing character differences and behaviour that manage to convey the alternate ways people can respond to grief.
Last Summer was generously given to me by Allen and Unwin publishers, although this did not influence my review
The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi
Read by Tracy September 2011
Tracy recommends as a look at the paths two lives can take
Okay I admit it, I am a sucker for books about India and particularly ones that talk about difficulties in mixed marriages. The Pleasure Seekers starts with the departure of Babo Patel from his family home in Madras to take up studies and a position in London. He soon meets Sian Jones and is besotted by her to the detriment of everything else. Unfortunately his family soon learn of this budding romance and recall him back to Madras under the guise of his mother being sick. Eventually an agreement is bartered and Sian is brought to India where they are married and agree to live with the family for two years. At the end of the two years they make the decision to remain in India as Sian is worried about the treatment of their two mixed-race children in England. Their life together is full of passion and as they age you are drawn into the lives of the remainder of the family through marriages and death. The book also shows the difficulty in juggling two diverse families and bringing up children to fit into two worlds. The daughters Mayuri and Beena find their own lives in completely different ways. Mayuri through marriage to her childhood sweetheart and Beena by venturing to London and into a whirlwind of jobs and romance. In the end though the call of India is too strong to deny and the family is reunited in what starts as tragedy but ends in a difficult decision. The book never forgets that Sian and Babo are always drawn to each other and even when they realise they are drifting apart they soon are brought back together.
Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile
Read by Tracy September 2011
Tracy recommends as a challenging look at the father/daughter relationship
Susanna was brought up to believe her father (Jack) was dead. Susanna is ignored by her mother and her sister who seem to be leading a similar lifestyle of focusing on the wrong type of men, whereas Susanna is different. She is intelligent and luckily is helped by her teachers to gain grades that will allow her to escape her family and attend Oxford. In her final school years, Susanna finds out that Jack is alive and tracks him down. Her mother suggests that Susanna gets a job, which she soon does in Chelsea, the area Jack lives in and instead of attending school is soon obsessed with his life and her need to enter it without him knowing who she is. This becomes a fatalistic love story with tragic circumstances. What is interesting is the introduction of Olive (Jack's wife) and Susanna and how they both start to heal the wounds they face. Everyone but Olive seems to know the events that surrounded Susanna and Jack, but she either ignores it, or does not believe it can be true. I felt that there some gaps in the storyline i.e. how on earth could Susanna's mother treat her daughters so differently, why did the school not follow up on Susanna's truancy sooner and what happened to Julien? Anne Peile writes an interesting book with lots of intrigue and you could almost understand the world that Susanna built for herself, but not quite.
The Seas by Samantha Hunt
Read by Tracy September 2011
Tracy doesn't recommend
Okay I know I don't recommend this book, but it is mainly because I didn't understand it nor did I become engaged with the characters even though it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2011. The narrator is besotted by a boy (more a man) called Jude who has served in Iraq and is now unable to deal with what he witnessed there and he seems just as besotted with the narrator, although it is difficult to say on what level as he treats her so badly and lets her witness his treatment of other women, especially when you consider that she is substantially younger than him. The narrator also believes she is a mermaid as her father told her she came from the water before he disappeared. Her mother is caught up in herself and spends her time looking and waiting for her husband to reappear. Her grandfather used to be a typesetter and seems to be absorbed in his desire to research words and lots of things are mentioned about what font they are in. This leaves the narrator to continue to fantasise about Jude and not have to deal with reality. All was not lost and I did like the grandfathers way of sorting out his books based on the way he feels about the author i.e. Animosity, Betrayed, Curious, Delighted etc which would drive me mad, but you can see how it would make you look at the book in a different light. I was unable to work out if anything the narrator said was real or her psychosis speaking on its behalf. Therefore the ending of the book left you hanging with no clear certainty what was happening and what had happened.
The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes
Read by Natalie September 2011
Natalie recommends as an old fashioned moving love story
The Last Letter From Your Lover begins with Ellie, a journalist at The Nation in London finding a love letter from 1960 tucked into the archives at work. Moved by the intensely romantic letter begging someone to come to Platform 4 at 7.15pm and signed simply from B, Ellie is desperate to find out what happened to the couple, as well as create a great story for the paper. Ellie is stuck in a relationship with a married man and while her friends tell her to leave him, she longs to have the kind of love she reads in this letter. Desperate for a real relationship, her affair is affecting both her work and her friendships.
Flash back to the 1960s and we meet Jenny, a woman waking from a coma in hospital after being in a car accident and struggling to remember her life. She feels trapped by the man who is her husband and unsure about why she doesnít fit in with her life anymore. The book is initially a little confusing here as the story moves rapidly between pre and post her accident. Post accident we see Jenny trying to settle back into a life she doesnít remember and increasingly feels is not quite right. Searching through her house to try and learn who she was, she finds several love letters to her from B. Unable to recall who he is she tries to learn his identity angering her increasingly estranged husband. Pre accident we see Jenny first meeting Anthony, the journalist she affectionately calls Boot and with whom she falls madly in love with. Anthony feels the same way, for the first time in his life, and as the two of them embark on a passionate affair, he begs her to leave her husband and come with him to New York. Jenny, torn between her love for Boot and the pressure she faces in being a proper wife and maintaining her familyís image (yes the 1960s housewife is alive and well in this book), she finally realises that love wins out, that she doesnít feel anything for her husband and Boot is everything to her. Rushing to Platform 4 to meet him and leave for New York, Jenny is involved in a car accident, spending weeks in hospital and remembering nothing of the mysterious B in the letters she finds hidden around her house when she wakes.
The book then moves four years forward. Jenny has finally learnt that she was having an affair, yet her husband told her he died in the car accident she was also in. Faced with no other option, she remains with her husband bound by duty yet increasingly depressed at his constant punishment of her for the affair. Then one night at a diplomatic function, Jenny looks up and finds Boot. Stunned at suddenly remembering and seeing him, she is very angry at her husband for lying to her. As she rushes to Bootís hotel to reclaim what she had lost, he is overjoyed at having her returned, the four years he believed she didnít want him explained away by the car accident and thoughts of his death. However, Jenny leaves again, trapped now with a daughter in her unhappy marriage which she knows she would never be allowed to take and would never be allowed to leave. Boot is inconsolable and over the space of 2 days, he almost destroys himself while Jenny finds out exactly the kind of man her husband is. Faced with new evidence and the means to leave him, she rushes to find Boot only to discover she is too late.
Back in the present, Ellie is uncovering more about the story with the help of Rory, a librarian at the paper who she previously would have ignored. As Rory begins to show more than just a work-related interest, Ellie finally starts seeing him as more than just a colleague. However, just when things are looking like they could go somewhere, John, the man she is having the unhappy affair with steps in. Amongst all this Ellie is busy tracking down Jenny and Boot. Finally finding Jenny again and desperate to make a story out of all this so she can save her job, she believes the only other thing she can do is find out what happened to Boot. As Jenny tells her everything she knows, including her decision to race to Africa to find him after she is finally free of her husband, Ellie attempts to track him down. The book then flashes back to 1964 and we learn what happened to Boot after he lost Jenny for a second time and also what happened to Jenny as she desperately waited for Boot again Ė this part is extremely sad, they were so closeÖ..and one person had the power to help them both. When Ellie finally finds Boot for Jenny, she canít believe he has been right in front of her the whole time. As she reunites Jenny and Boot for the first time in 40 years and she sees how strong their love truly is, she finally takes steps to improve her own love life.
It may seem confusing the book, as it does move through 40 years, sometimes changing times and perspectives from one chapter to the next, but itís only at the very beginning that I had to stop and think about which time point we were at. Jenny and Bootís story is incredibly sad and a series of missed chances and obligations, bound by the era they lived in. It made my heart break to see how close they came and how many times they missed each other. Although they finally found each other again 40 years later, to think they had been right in front of each other all this time both as heartbroken as the other, was just so sad. Ellieís own love story was also very sad, particularly as all she wanted was someone to love her, but couldnít get it from the man she was so in love with. Her ending, while not quite like Jennyís leaves you thinking she will find it.
The story is quite beautiful and moving, although for a book featuring writers and journalists it is rife with spelling errors, often at pertinent moments in the story. Whoever proof read it should be sacked! Each chapter begins with real-life ďlast lettersĒ from one lover to another and these are actually quite funny. It is also quite eye opening with the 1960s housewife stories, including the wife rising 30 minutes prior to her husband so she can make herself presentable for him at breakfast! This is yet another story of affairs and forbidden love and a lesson again in always following your heart not your head.
The London Train by Tessa Hadley
Read by Tracy September 2011
Tracy recommends as a look at the paths two lives can take
The London Train was longlisted for the 2011 Orange Award and I have to say I didn't want the book to end. The book is about grief and how we all deal with the death of a loved one in different ways. We first start with the story of Paul who has lost his mother. Paul lives in the countryside in Wales with his second wife and their two children. His life seems idyllic until he receives a phone call from his first wife that their daughter Pia has left home and for all intents and purposes has gone missing. He eventually tracks Pia down and arranges to meet her. Pia has moved in with her boyfriend and his sister and eventually Paul also moves in, initially to escape the confines of his new family life in the country but as he is drawn into the London lifestyle he realises how much he misses the excitement and unknown that living in a big city brings. The second story follows Cora who after her mother dies decides to do up her flat in Wales and sell it, but as she starts the renovations she finds herself escaping from her London life and also her marriage. Eventually we find out that Cora and Paul had previously had an affair which fundamentally unsettled them both leading them to ask questions about their lives and their futures. The affair was brief but passionate and you know that Cora thinks more of it than Paul, for whom you are left with the impression it was just a fleeting fling and Cora is soon forgotten in his dramatic life. Paul was an annoying character, his lifestyle sounded so idyllic, but he could not commit nor could he walk away, whereas Cora at least made a decision and in the end definately felt like the stronger character. Paul is constantly looking for an escape and instead of offering some inheritance money to his pregnant daughter, he instead gives it to her boyfriend's sister who he fantasises about. The ending of the book still left a couple of surprises. The London Train was selected to be the Waterstones Book of the Week in March 2012. Tessa Hadley has also written Accidents in the Home (which was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award), Everything will be alright and The Master Bedroom.
After The Fall by Kylie Ladd
Read by Natalie August 2011(OurBookClub book pick of the month for August 2011)
Natalie recommends as an intimate and revealing look at an affair.
Stories of adultery or infidelity are not new, but this one is definitely interesting and unique. After The Fall tells the story of two couples; Luke and Cressida and Cary and Kate. Both couples are happily married, although noticeably opposite. Advertising man Luke is a keen flirt and attention seeker and has had his fair share of women. Even when married he continues to openly flirt although never taking it any further. His wife, Cress however was a twenty seven year old virgin, finally giving it up 48 hours shy of her wedding night to Luke. She is an ambitious doctor who happily slaves away her whole life, emulating that of her father, even sacrificing time spent in her marriage for her patients on the wards (she makes an odd trip there to see her patients between her wedding ceremony and reception). Cary, Cressí one time research supervisor was initially keen on Cress, but a chance encounter with Kate at the Melbourne Cup saw him falling in love with her instead. A quiet man who takes his time with everything, he is a complete contrast to the outgoing and gregarious Kate. Like Luke, Kate is an open flirt, happy to down champagne and work a room, she raises questions when she finally marries Cary. Shortly after both couples are married, a friendship is forged and a weekend away over Easter unintentionally sets the scene for things to come.
At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking Kate and Luke should be married, as should Cress and Cary, rather than the other way around. So it comes as no surprise when Luke and Kate start flirting with each other. Initially benign, the flirting quickly turns to more when at a wedding they find themselves passionately kissing on the dance floor in full view of everyone. Discovered by both Cary and Cress, the couples fall out, not within but instead with each other. Both Kate and Luke apologise to their respective spouses and all appears to be forgiven, but neither couple remains on speaking terms, both Cary and Cress forbidding it. However a quiz night three weeks later sees Kate alone at her table and Luke alone at his, both bored and abandoned by their do-gooder spouses. When Luke makes the first move and seeks Kate out, they are drawn into a passionate tryst on the hospital roof, the very place where Cress and Cary work.
Neither Kate nor Luke regrets their actions. Neither of them question it, play games about it or feel guilt because of it. Instead what they do feel is an ever increasing attraction, bordering on obsession with each other that sees them falling madly in love. Embarking on a seven month affair, both acknowledge their growing love for each other, whilst still remaining in love with their spouses. These loves however are growing in opposite directions and while Luke finds himself torn, especially in light of Cressí possible move to the US for two years, Kate wants him to choose, unable to keep juggling the baby demands Cary is putting on her with the growing love she feels for Luke.
After Kate delivers her ultimatum, Luke is undecided. He is madly in love with Kate but too scared to walk away from his picture perfect marriage. He wants things to continue as they are, or worse still have Kate give him a year and then he will leave Cress for her. Kate is rightly pissed off, telling him itís her or Cress and when Luke choses Cress, Kate walks away unable to comprehend how he could love her yet give her up. Just when it appears that it is all over and Cary and Cress are none the wiser, everything between Luke and Kate is exposed. As Luke is left with the ramifications of his decision and Kate is left heartbroken and unsure of hers, the reader is left wondering how their love could be so blind as to prevent them from seeing what they truly want. Would you stay just because itís easier or would you risk everything for your heart? I never expected to put this book down and feel the way I did. Sad, angry Ė maybe, but sorrow and a sense of loss, definitely not. Despite reconciliations, decisions and compromises, nobody actually ends up with what they want. Sure two of them appear to, but itís superficial and dependent on them choosing not to examine the pain and uncertainty they have buried within themselves. If nothing else this book will show you that actually the greatest risks give the greatest rewards and it is always better to listen to your heart rather than your head.
This is Kylieís first work of fiction, although she has published two non-fiction books. The first was on Alzheimerís disease and Dementia, Kylie holds a PhD in neuropsychology. The second was a collection of short stories on adultery and infidelity. Providing some possible inspiration for After The Fall, Kylie put together Naked after placing an advertisement asking for stories of adultery, from all angles. After The fall, which is told from Luke, Kate, Cress and Caryís perspectives, as well as an occasional POV from Kateís friend Sarah or Lukeís friend Tim, almost reads like an interview with each participant attempting to explain or justify their actions. This makes the book seem oddly real and very personal, as though you are privy to the real life actions of these two couples. It is intimate and revealing and well worth reading.
Allen and Unwin very generously provided me with a copy of After The Fall, although it in no way influenced my review.
The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna
Read by Tracy August 2011
Tracy doesn't recommend
Okay I may be a bit harsh with my recommendation, but although Joanna Kavenna has been a previous winner of the Orange Award for herprevious novel Inglorious and The Birth of Lovemade the 2011 Orange LongList, I felt it was disjointed and lacked flow between the different storylines. The book starts in 1865 where Robert von Lucius is talking to Dr Semmelweis who has recently been taken into a lunatic asylum in Vienna. He believes he is a mass murderer along with his fellow doctors in their part not to clean their hands when treating maternity patients. Next we are brought into the current age and Brigid who wants to give birth at home with no assistance from drugs or the medical profession as she believes the birth of her first child several years early was tainted by her experience within the hospital system, in the meantime she is so worried about what everyone thinks she keeps her labour a secret. Thirdly is the case of Prisoner 73004 in year 2153 who has escaped with several other friends, including Brigitta who is pregnant against society rules. Lastly is the case of Michael who has written a book about Dr Semmelweis which has taken him out of his hermitude into contact with people which finds him totally overcome. I would have liked to see the book focus on two of the storylines i.e. Brigid and Brigitta to explore the changes in childbirth from a loving experience to one dictated by science in the bid to save the human race.
The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
Read by Natalie August 2011
Natalie recommends as a beautifully written, but drawn out story that pulls itself together a little too nicely at the end
Her second novel, after the best-selling The Historian, The Swan Thieves revolves around a gifted painter Robert Oliver and his motivation for attacking the painting Leda in a Washington gallery. As his psychiatrist, Dr Andrew Marlow struggles to get Robert to talk about this sudden outburst, he finds himself embarking on a journey through Robertís life, which may or may not be outside the realms of professionalism. His first stop is Greenville, North Carolina to visit with Robertís ex-wife Kate who is very bitter about Robert although sympathetic of his struggles. Kate tells her story of meeting Robert in New York City when she was suddenly violently ill in a department store, to the bohemian lifestyle they led as painters in NYC, their move to Greenville when they were expecting their first child, Robertís teaching and his increasing erratic behaviour and more importantly, the beautiful woman he keeps painting over and over again. Andrew has also seen this woman, as it is the only thing Robert paints as he resides in the treatment facility. Talking to no one, he simply paints her over and over again, yet neither Kate nor Andrew know who she is.
When Kate tells Andrew of the woman Robert left her for, Andrew then seeks out the mysterious Mary, both of them assuming she is the painted woman. When he finally finds her, Andrew recognises her at once from the Washington gallery where she was admiring the painting Robert attempted to attack at the same time as Andrew. She is however, not the subject of Robertís obsession. Mary is more accommodating of Andrewís request for information about Robert, although she is much angrier with Robert himself and has no wish to see him ever again. She does however tell Andrew of her first meeting with Robert as a student of his where she became fascinated and attracted to him. To their first real interaction some years later at a painting workshop, to their correspondence via letters and paintings when Robert was back home with his wife, to their eventual relationship when Robert shows up on Maryís doorstep having been thrown out by Kate (who assumes Mary is the painted woman). Mary also knows the erratic side of Robert and his increasing obsession with the woman he paints over and over again. When his behaviour finally becames too much for her, Mary threws him out and it is shortly after that that he attacks the painting and winds up under Andrewís care.
As Andrew becomes increasingly attracted to Mary, he ventures with her to Mexico and then alone to Paris in an attempt to unravel the mystery of Robertís obsession and his strange behaviour. Finally learning the identity of the woman Robert paints as well as the secret Robert was trying to reveal, Andrew returns to Robert (and Mary) and finally gets him to talk. The book is very long and drawn out with beautifully written, but possibly overdone descriptions which arenít always necessary for advancing the story. There is also a huge element of frustration with Kate and Mary for both being unwilling to simply ask Robert about the woman he seems to be obsessed with, which if they had, probably would have saved everyone a lot of angst! The ending and Robert's apparent quick fix, is a little too pulled together and rushed which coming after such drawn out development, leaves the reader feeling a little cheated. Still, it is a beautifully written novel that has some great character development and interaction.
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
Read by Tracy August 2011
Tracy recommends as a continuation of a fascinating look at the opium trade
This is the sequel to Sea of Poppies which was reviewed in February 2010 and was a Booker shortlisted novel.
The book starts with a huge storm and three different boats. The Ibis carrying slaves, convicts and labourers to Mauritius, the Anahita carrying a treasure of opium to Canton and the Redruth carrying rare plants. Although Ghosh focuses most of the story on Canton and surrounding islands, we are first re-introduced to Deeti and hew new life in Mauritius. She has continued to document her history with her paintings at a temple which is now a huge focus for her extended family. When Neel comes to visit and she makes him also draw his story and the remainder of the book is how the escapees from the Ibis found their way to Canton and their interactions with both the Anihita and the Redruth and the impacts that colonialism and the desperation of the British to keep it's grip on trade routes eventually brought China to the edge of war. The Anihita, owned by Bahram Modi from Bombay is one of the largest of these vessels and carries a huge cargo of opium. Modi, however, loves Canton. He has a mistress and son here and feels that the city allows him to feel, breathe and live in complete difference to his home in Bombay which is run by an omnipresent family. His son allows Neel to gain a position with Modi and this enabled Ghosh to weave a history of love and tragedy into different lives he crosses. There is also a great historical link with Sir Joseph Banks (naturalist for Captain Cook) and how Paulette ended up being cared for my Fitcher Penrose and assisting him with collecting plant specimens from China and the surrounding islands of Hong Kong etc which were then sparcely inhabited. This part of the story is documented in letters between herself and Robin Chinnery. Ghosh uses language as a great way of changing characters and the different storylines. Many Chinese could speak English with ease and fluency but they would not negotiate in it as they believed they would be at a disadvantage and an abridged version of chinese/english grew called 'pidgin' and it is this language that Ghosh intersperses into the dialogue.
What Ghosh also captures in this book is the total disregard that the main powers of the day (England and America) had for any other countries laws. The British and American governments of the time earnt huge revenues from the sale of opium which was illegal for approximately 40 years as dictated by the Emperor of China. However, these colonial countries continued to ignore these laws and rulings. China allows traders to use Canton for legitimate purposes, but it has become increasingly the entrance point for opium brought in by the English and American traders. In China the colonial powers expected to be allowed to trade freely disregarding local laws and customs, yet in their own countries, everybody must abide by the laws laid down. It is this desire to continue to profit from illegal trading in drugs that saw China come onto a war footing with England during the opium wars on 1938 after the Emporeror declared that he would rid his country of opium. Eventually after Canton was destroyed by English and American warships, an area called Shamian was rebuilt with the new enclave being styled as a typcial white town of the kind the British made everywhere they went - you can see this in a lot of the countries they inhabited where instead of taking on the local style of living, they dictated the staid and dull life they have in the "homeland" be replicated.
I think River of Smoke was a much more complex and gripping novel than Sea of Poppies. Ghosh really got into the sense of the times with just enough history and imagination to make it come alive. The descriptions by Ghosh of the food and Chai were particularly delicious and had my mouth watering and plans starting to be made for yet another trip back to India. We have also reviewed other books by Amitav Ghosh: The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide.
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Read by Tracy August 2011
Tracy recommends as an intriguing look into how our memory changes
I have to say this book made me think of Atonement by Ian McEwan, not sure why, but I think it was the setting in the the grand houses and rich landed gentry of the 1900's. The main character is Cecil Valance, a poet, who is linked with George Sawle at Cambridge. Sawle invites Valance to the family home "Two Acres" after a reciprocal visit to the Valance family home (much grander as would befit a baronet). The Sawle's live in a Victorian villa located in the outer suburbs of London. Hollinghurst introduces the main family characters and you are drawn into the underlying tones of sexuality - he never says and you can only gather snippets of meaning. Valance managed to ravish George and also kiss his sister Daphne. After this sequence, the book is then split up into chapters of the Sawle family in the future. Daphne does indeed marry into the Valance family, but it was not Cecil, but his younger brother Dudley. Cecil dies at a young age and the futures are constantly clouded in his memory of what might have been. I loved the way that memories change over time, some lost and even more embellished. There are constantly books being written about Cecil, but never do they tell the full story of the family and his relationships and often it is this unsaid history that leaves you desperately wanting to know for sure. In the last biography of Cecil, Paul uncovers what he thinks are the true parentage of the Valance children, but nobody either confirms or denies the truth. Finally in the end it is the relationship of Hubert (George and Daphne's older brother that also dies in the war) and his neigher Harry that sheds light on Cecil but also on the period where class and money gave you the ability to access previously closed doors.
I found the book a great read, except that it disintegrated in the middle - don't you hate that.
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Read by Tracy August 2011
Tracy recommends for a look at politics in the 1980's
The Line of Beauty won Alan Hollinghurst the 2004 Man Booker Prize.
Set in the egotistical 1980's, The Line of Beauty where the attitude is "we don't care" we are introduced to Gerald Fedden who on entering parliament is tipped to be the next "big thing", although he, himself wants to achieve something a tad different with a puppet on Spitting Image and to have Mrs Thatcher for dinner. Alas things don't turn out quite as expected, however, he does achieve one of these aims. Nick Guest is a friend of Gerald Fedden's son (Toby) from Oxford who rents a room at the family's home in Notting Hill. Nick is due to start work on a PhD on Henry James. Nick finds out that although the Fedden's home is full of art and they host private recitals, they don't care about them, they use the events solely for the purpose of social advancement. Nick in the meantime is lost, unsure of his future place in society and takes on a position as a art advisor for production/publishing company. This turns out to be a sham company that typically highlights the excessives of the 80's and the cocaine boom and love of ecstasy it all inspired. In the meantime, Nick becomes a sort of hero, highlighted by his actions. Nick is also gay and whilst the Fedden's and their circle tolerate his actions, he is constantly aware that he is an outsider along the conservative elite. The book is in three sections, 1983, 1986 and 1987 where we see Nick grow as a character and become more confident in his place in society.
Rocks in the Belly by Jon Bauer
Read by Natalie August 2011
Natalie recommends as well written, but disturbing and not entirely likeable
Rocks in the Belly is the story of a damaged 8 year old boy and the dangerous 28 year man he grows up to be. An only child, his childhood is far from perfect as his parents continue to foster young boys, despite the jealously and bad behaviour this creates in their own son. Years later, when the father is dead and the boy has grown into a man and moved overseas, the mother is dying of cancer, forcing the man to return to the family home he escaped from. Now he is in a position of power and abuses that willingly. Remaining nameless throughout the book, his story is told in alternate POV chapters from the child and the man.
Although the family has already fostered 9 boys, it is the final one, Robert who sends our narrator over the edge. Jealous of Robertís obvious bond with his mother, the young boy acts out, getting Robert into trouble, viciously tormenting the family cat (some of the hardest scenes for me to read), acting out against his parents and even his own self-destructive behaviour. Although the parents are aware of this jealously, they seem almost unable or unwilling to do anything about it. The one attempt they do make ends in an embarrassing tantrum from the boy and the parents electing not to try to help him anymore.
As a grown man, our narrator is just as destructive towards himself and those around him, only now he has the advantage of strength and good looks to lure people in. Forced back home to care for his dying mother, he is torn by the love he still feels for her and the betrayal at her apparent favouritism for Robert. As the days pass, we gradually learn more about Robert, including the incident that resulted in his brain damage and the subsequent destruction of the family. It is hard to feel any sympathy for this person, either as the child or the man, because he is just so self-destructive and jealous and even after his admittance of his role in Robertís accident, there is virtually no remorse. However, there is a tiny shred of something that you are forced to feel for him, because there is certainly an element of neglect from his own parents, who seem more focused on the foster children. However the narrator never really sees his jealously as part of the problem and even up until the very end, when he briefly starts to consider it, he still doesnít manage to redeem himself or his past actions, so itís hard to feel anything but anger towards him. The circumstances surrounding the eventual death of his mother cement this opinion of him even further.
While the title comes from a small scene in the book that perhaps starts the whole fostering process by the parents, we are given very little background into the exact reasons for their continual acceptance of foster boys despite the obvious effect this is having on their own son. The nameless narrator had 2 very distinct voices and it was easy to distinguish whether each chapter was from the child or the manís perspective very early on. However, there was something about the childís voice that just didnít ring true. While the misunderstandings, the made-up names and the random tangents and trains of thought were exactly like those of an 8 year child, the language and inner monologue just didnít quite fit. However as a 28 year old, the voice was fantastic and it was interesting to watch him change as he inflicted more and more suffering on himself whilst taking care of his mother. He was a volatile boy who grew into a dangerous man and itís hard to say who was to blame. Part neglect by the parents and part jealousy from the child, it is a disturbing look at the destructive nature of family and love.
The Sea by John Banville
Read by Tracy July 2011
Tracy recommends if you want to read the Man Booker winners
The Sea won John Banville the 2005 Man Booker Prize.
Max Morden is the narrator in this story. He is now in his sixties and has returned to an Irish seaside village which he visited as a child. It would appear that he isn't here to relive any young fantasies but to escape reality, grief, bereavement and mortality following the death of his wife from cancer. The novel felt like a coming of age book, for all ages. It is only at the end of the book do you find out what happened when Morden stayed at Miss Vavasour's guest-house. During his stay at the guest house he is taken under the wing of the Grace family. He was awestruck by their lifestyle - they had a car and a large house, whilst his own family rented a chalet. Although he uses some very mythical examples of the family members themselves i.e. Mrs Grace is a daemon, an avatar, a maenad. Banville also uses a lot of literary analogies from previous great writers (i.e. Tennyson and Shakespeare to name but a few). This may have been because Morden is now a retired art historian which gives his artistic allusions. I found his style of narrativion to be melodramatic and self absorbed. However, I think this was the point in relation to human frailty I felt the book was a bit slow in some places, taking ages to get to the point and there are some fantastic words that I had to look up (good job the eReader has an inbuilt dictionary) i.e. "velutinous" and "cinereal".
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks
Read by Tracy July 2011(OurBookClub book pick of the month for July 2011)
Tracy recommends as a look at how your actions impact others
This was an extremely interesting read which I could not put down. The book is set for a period of one week in December and is a satirical account of London life including politics, racism, religion and the expectation that the good times will go on forever. This nicely leads into a detailed account of how greed plays a significant role in the build up to the global financial crisis and how this devastating chain of events affects those at the top of the chain. The characters of the novel are all from different walks of life, but are linked by unseen connections.
The main reason for The Week In December is the build up to a dinner party that is being organised by Sophie Topping for her husband Lance to show that he can be a mover and shaker in the Tory Party and to increase his status in the party after winning the local by-election. Sophie draws on her vast reserves of friends and acquaintances to put together a table plan of wealthy men and their wives. The book reminded me of six degrees of separation, you know that somehow all the people invited will impact on each otherís lives, but at this stage are unsure of how and what the impacts will be.
First of all there is Sophie and her close friends, all of which seem to starve themselves in an effort to stay slim and match the mould that is expected of their positions, except that they also drink huge quantities to numb them from the boredom of their lives.
The next most important character is John Veals, a very secretive hedge fund owner who is using all the tricks he knows to manipulate and stay within the boundaries of accepted market and share trading. I found this character interesting, he had no empathy for anyone and anything, except for money and more money, even his wife described him as "functionally autisticĒ, with no interest in any aspect of life beyond hypothetical profit, she even laments to her girlfriends she can't remember the last time he smiled. At the end of his plan to bring down a bank, he would also bankrupt thousands of farmers in Africa, but he never once contemplated what this would do to their already marginalised lives. For me, the plan by Veals was a fascinating explanation of insider trading and how to manipulate the market but I would sincerely hope that the GFC took more than couple of suggested words to influential people! In addition to Veals, we also follow his son, Finbar, who locks himself in his room and continually experiments with differing strengths of drugs, sadly neither of his parents even acknowledge or understand him, instead dealing with any problems by providing larger amounts of money. The only time you see any glimmer of hope for Finbar is when he tracks down the recently signed soccer player Tadeusz Borowski (also attending the dinner party), to ask him some questions so he can decide whether to buy him for his fantasy football team. His continual use of drugs sees Finbar have a psychotic episode that makes his mother finally realise her lack of parental skills and she is devastated by the prospect of Finbar never fully recovering, although I suspect it may because it would impact on her ladies that lunch lifestyle.
For some ethnicity Sophie also invites Farooq al-Rashid, who made his money in pickles and chutneys and has moved up in the world from humble beginnings and is now a major financial contributor to the party. Farooq has a son, Hassan, has turned to extreme Islam as he battles to understand the cultural demands placed on him and becomes embroiled in a plan with his fellow extremists to blow up a hospital. For this party of the story, I would have preferred to spend more time on Farooq and his wife Nasim and not on Hassan, who I felt was just pathetic and instead of believing he is hard done by, should accept the extremely lucky life he has due to his parents hard work.
My favourite character was Gabriel Northwood, an unsuccessful lawyer (whoever heard of one of those). Gabriel is unable to accept the end of his relationship and lives in an alternate world where things turn out differently instead of where he is now with struggling to make ends meet and was picking up the small dregs of cases that were handed to him by his chambers when he is given the case that re-introduces him to Jenni Fortune a London Underground Train Driver who is under the spotlight due to a suicide that happened on her shift. Jenni herself is also living an alternate world and delves constantly into the on-line game of Parallax to escape her past relationship. Their growing attachment is hampered by uncertainty and mistrust from previous relationship breakdowns, but underneath they have a love of literature and you can see the basis of a solid relationship once they learn to trust.
For a laugh (for a book reviewer anyway), Faulks gave us the character of R Tranter. Tranter seems to endlessly review books he hates. He believes that after the Victorian period the novel went downhill. He is consumed with need to be the best and when he writes a novel that is a finalist for a large book award he believes he will win, but to his dismay he is beaten by a childrenís book. Tranter though is very lucky, he manages to find some small work in the field of English grammar, even at one point assisting al-Rashid in preparing for a meeting with the Queen when he is awarded an OBE. Tranter is so in love with his own writing it is funny.
At the end, the dinner party finally takes place and turns out to be totally uneventful, other than a drunken rant by Roger Malpasse, which was expected. The funny thing is that Roger (in his previous life he was a corporate lawyer) he attempts to draw attention to the financial misrepresentation by Veals et al, who all say he is wrong they are only working within the boundaries put there by the politicians, regulators and ratings agencies. Realistic in hindsight.
A Week in December is Sebastian Faulksís tenth novel. Visit the Sebastian Faulks website for more information on A Week in December and also the interesting BBC2 television series Faulks on Fiction which I thought was interesting and different as it divided literature into the groups of the Hero, the Lover, the Snob and the Villain which each programme looking at seven characters, ranging from the early 18th century up to the present day. Also read the full review for Birdsong. A Week in December is currently being developed for television in London.
Wasted by Nicola Morgan
Read by Natalie July 2011
Natalie recommends this as one of the most unusual and intriguing books I have read in a while.
Wasted is a book about chance and/or luck, depending on how you view it. It is also one of the more interesting and intriguing books I have read in a long time with the author presenting us two sides to several parts of the story and even letting the reader decide the direction for themselves at the end.
Focusing on Jack and Jess, two musicians, we see guitarist Jack meeting the singer Jess purely through chance (a sequence of events impossibly aligning) right as he needs a new singer for his band. Drawn to each other, both through their music and a mutual attraction, they start to spend a lot of time together as Jess learns all the songs for Jackís band in preparation for their upcoming show. Both Jess and Jack are only children and live in single-parent households. Jess lives with her mum who an alcoholic artist who usually acts like the child in the relationship. Her father, a genetic scientist lives in the US with his new wife and rarely sees Jess, so she is forced to care for her mother and take on the parenting role. Jack on the other hand, lives with his dad, having lost his first mother when she died giving birth to him. His second mother who died through an accident that Jack believes was his fault (honestly, youíll never leave the dishwasher open again!) and as a result, Jack believes he has been plagued by bad luck. Trying to appease whoever it is who dishes out luck, Jack carries with him a coin, which he uses to make major decisions for him. Explaining all of this to Jess, he tries to tell her that by removing the decision making from the process, you are forced into accepting the answer, whether you like it or not. If the answer isnít what you want, you must still go with it, but you have also made a sacrifice in receiving this ďbad luckĒ and will therefore get some good luck in the future. It is clearly Jackís way of coping with what happened in his past as he desperately tries to protect those around him.
However as Jack and Jess grow closer and their relationship grows, Kelly a girl from Jackís past who also goes to Jessí school starts to interfere, desperate to ruin their relationship and the band. As a series of scenarios play out, the authors provides us with both sides of the decision, for example what would happen if the coin landed on heads or tails. Getting both outcomes of a simple decision, the reader can see how differently the story would play out. The author then flips, the decision is made and the narrator takes the rest of the book on that particular path. However when the story reaches its conclusion and a terrible dose of bad luck arrives, it is the readerís turn to choose which way the story will go and ultimately end. I have to admit, I read both endings here, just to see how they would play out and while there is an obvious difference that will affect both Jess and Jack, there are also a lot of similarities between both paths.
The book is really interesting and shows you the full implications of what people often call ďthe butterfly effectĒ. Narrated to us by an outsider, possibly luck or chance themselves, we are given a birdís eye view of Jack and Jessí lives and all the different directions they could take, allowing us to see some things even they donít realise are going on. While there were a couple of slightly implausible situations used to advance the story and the relationship could have benefited from being longer, the book is really interesting and intriguing. Forcing you to consider what one tiny action can result in, the reader is ultimately given the option to decide how the book will end. I wanted to read both scenarios and itís only once you do that you discover the ending you want. Of course, if you had played Jackís game and flipped for it, you might not have even gotten it! Very cool and very different to anything else I had read.
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
Read by Natalie July 2011
Natalie recommends as a long drawn out story about 3 women getting duped by another, when really they should have learnt the first time.
The Robber Bride is an interesting look at the way three completely different women can be so easily manipulated by a fourth women. The three in question, Tony, Charis and Roz all met at university, although they were never really friends, and while the fourth woman, the manipulator Zenia was also at university, she ďbefriendedĒ them each at different stages of their lives.
The first Tony, was thwarted shortly after university. Studying history, Tony is drawn to a man she names West, who seems to both understand and accept her (she is a woman studying history in a manís world, obsessed by war and battles and she is also tiny and childlike). Finally inviting Tony to one of his parties, she meets Zenia who happens to be living with West. Zenia is like nothing she has ever seen before Ė beautiful, confident, charming and despite all that, Zenia befriends Tony and wants to spend time with her. Although Tony is disappointed that West belongs to Zenia, she agrees and even finds herself becoming friends with Zenia. Yet Zenia soon begins to ask for money and help with her university studies, culminating in Tony writing one of her essays. Shortly after this, Zenia disappears with Westís money and some of his possessions, leaving his depressed and withdrawn. As Tony sets out to ďfixĒ West, their relationship gradually moves from friendship to love, culminating with them getting married and buying an apartment. Although Tony knows West still loves Zenia, she accepts that Zenia has gone and West is now hers. Unfortunately itís around this time Zenia swoops back in claiming to be depressed and bordering on suicidal. West, still smitten as he was earlier, abandons Tony and goes to help Zenia, even moving in with her and resuming their relationship. But a year later, Zenia is once again gone and West comes crawling back to Tony who lets him back into her life.
Next up is Charis, a complete hippy/nut-job, she believes she can see auras and read messages in various symbols and events. Living on a remote island in Toronto with an American draft dodger, Charis is sucked in when Zenia shows up in her yoga class with a black eye. Although Charis knows what Zenia did to Tony, she still believes Zenia when she says West gave her the black eye. But on top of that, she believes Zenia when she claims to have cancer and be on the verge of dying. Taking her under her wing, she agrees to let Zenia stay, believing she can treat her with crystals and healthy food, curing her of her cancer. Zenia however, outstays her welcome, which culminates in her tipping the authorities off to Billy the American draft dodger (and Charisí boyfriend). As Billy is taken away, so too does Zenia disappear, leaving a pregnant Charis all alone.
Roz, the third woman gets duped much later in life, after her friends Tony and Charis. Now a successful business woman with 3 kids and a gorgeous, although philandering husband. She is sucked in when Zenia appears, ostensibly as a journalist with a huge story on Rozís father during the war. Sucked in by what Zenia appears to know, Roz offers her a job running one of her magazines and when business takes off, starts to believe that Zenia has changed. However Zenia soon makes the moves on Rozís husband and after he leaves her to move in with Zenia (something he has never done with his previous flings), Roz canít believe she has fallen for Zeniaís charms. Hiring a private investigator, Roz learns that Zenia isnít just sleeping with her husband, and shortly afterwards Zenia disappears with a pile of money from forged cheques through their company. When the husband comes crawling back after desperately searching for Zenia, Roz grows a backbone and decides to not take him back. This culminates with him disappearing on his boat and dying in a drowning accident which Roz knows was really suicide.
After all of these double crosses by one woman, Tony, Charis and Roz form an unlikely friendship, with Zenia their common link. After Zenia is said to have died in a bombing in Beirut, the women believe they are finally rid of her, yet at lunch one day, 5 years after Zeniaís supposed death, she appears and it looks like she is out for them all once again, with a bunch of lies and insults to go with it. The book moves between the present and the past, giving us a detailed history on Tony, Charis and Rozís depressing childhoods. While the reader doesnít learn anything much about Zeniaís motivations, we get glimpses of her incredible ability to lie through the stories she tells them all. Personally, I just couldnít believe that each of them got so easily duped by her, particularly after Tony, when really they should have known better. The book is very detailed and long and while I wouldnít say I looked forward to picking it up, I did finish it because I wanted to know how it would all end. Personally, though it was disappointing to read about such pathetic women.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Read by Tracy June 2011
Tracy recommends as an interesting look at the teenage psyche
This is Murrayís first book since his debut novel An Evening of Long Goodbyes which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2003 and Skippy Dies has been on my shortlist for a long time.
There are no surprises Ė you know what is going to happen by the title of the book and the first chapter; Skippy dies in a donut eating contest against Ruprecht. The remainder of the book is about the chain of events that lead to Skippyís (Daniel Juster) sudden demise. The story is set in the boarding rooms of Seabrook College in Dublin and other then Skippy there are several main characters Ė from Ruprecht, a genius who is severely impacted by Skippyís death and wants to invent a machine to bring him back. Lori (the mysterious name that Skippy scrawls in his death throes) and her on again/off again relationship with Carl who is not only a drug-dealer but also a psychopath. Howard the history teacher who mistakenly believes he is in love with someone other than his long-term and long-suffering live in girlfriend Halley. In addition, there is the core of Skippyís schoolmates as swell the remainder of the teaching fraternity. They are all caught up with their own dramas and dreams that they are unaware, of prefer to be ignorant of what is actually happening in real life and this adds a real poignancy to the story and even though some parts are far-fetched, could they be based on some realistic events? Murray has a knack with black comedy and you can feel the teenage yearnings and peer pressure. It is a long book, but I whizzed through it laughing and crying.
Come Back To Me by Sara Foster
Read by Natalie June 2011(Our Book Club book pick of the month for July 2011)
Natalie recommends this is an absorbing and emotional read that I couldnít put it down, reading it in one day and then spending a sleepless night thinking about it. It is an extremely gripping and emotional book that pulled me and just didnít let me go. Even the following day I couldnít get it out of my head.
Set in London and Perth, this the story of 4 lives and the interactions and choices they face, caught up in the past and the present and a terrible tragedy that changes so much. Beginning in November 2009, we met Alex and Chloe, a married couple who are enjoying their life. Out for dinner one night with Mark, Chloeís law colleague and former boyfriend, he introduces them to his potential new girlfriend Julia. Although Julia and Alex pretend to have only just met, the looks on their faces tells a completely different story. The shock and fear is obvious and when Julia immediately excuses herself to go to the toilet, it is not surprising that she doesnít return. As Chloe starts to wonder what is going on, Alex struggles with his shock at seeing Julia again and why she is now going by a different name. In the meantime, Mark is dealing with this new woman running out on him, who despite having only just met her, he feels a strong attraction too. As family commitments and an inability to just talk to each other continue to get in the way of Chloe and Alex discussing what happened, Julia makes an attempt to find Alex, while Alex contacts Mark in a bid to find Julia. When they finally re-connect, Alex is beside himself at seeing her again, pulling her to him and saying her real name, Amy, over and over again. As Mark sets the scene for Chloe to find them like this, all hell breaks loose as Alex tries to explain, Chloe fights her anger at what she believes is an affair and Mark tries to step in and repair what he has done.
The book then moves back in time to December 1999, the eve of the Millennium where Alex and Amy are in love and travelling across Australia and Mark and Chloe are also a couple and at the beginning of their promising law careers. As Alex and Amy enjoy the time of their lives, they both canít believe how lucky they are, to have each other and share this experience together. However in the final days of their trip a horrendous tragedy strikes them, which threatens to destroy everything they have. Meanwhile, back in London, as Mark struggles to deal with his love for Chloe, a disastrous incident at their law ball sees him shutting her out and ending their relationship. As Chloe tries to move on and Mark wonders if perhaps he has made a huge mistake, Alex and Amy both try to deal with what has happened to them. Struggling to communicate with each other, they both make disastrous decisions that have far reaching ramifications. Making a heartfelt promise to each other, they attempt to repair themselves, but life takes them in different directions and suddenly it is 10 years later before they see each other again at dinner, and now Alex is married to someone else.
Back to December 2009 and new developments in the tragedy that happened in Australia have come to light. As Alex struggles with what he should do, he feels he owes it to Amy, owes it to her after everything he did and wants to take her back to Australia so they can both get some closure on this event from their past. Meanwhile Chloe is hurt and angry, feeling abandoned by her husband for this woman who was a huge part of his life, when all the while she has been keeping her own secret from Alex. However neither Chloe nor Alex seem able to talk to each other about it. Alex resorting to phone messages that Chloe simply deletes without listening too, only further fueling the animosity between them. As Chloe and Mark continue to grow closer, through their work and shared family problems, so to do Alex and Amy as they journey back to where their lives were destroyed and attempt to repair the damage.
This book is heartbreakingly sad. The tragedy that happened to Amy and Alex is beyond comprehension and what poor Amy went through in the following 10 years is devastating. Although you could understand how this one event could destroy them, I personally was very sad at what it actually did to both of their lives and their relationship. I felt they were soul mates, stronger than this and that they could have gotten through it if only they had been honest and able to talk to each other. But Amy was damaged and couldnít believe that Alex could still love her and Alex was hurt and angry at everything that had happened, scared of doing the wrong thing, scared of being at fault. He kept his promise for as long as possible, but eventually when it appeared that Amy couldnít keep hers, he let go and met Chloe. By the end both Chloe and Alex have to make decisions regarding their past and future relationships and to be honest, this is where my heart gets ripped apart. I just didn't get the decision I wanted. I personally, just didnít believe in Chloe and Alex like I did in Alex and Amy. I wanted these two to find each other, to come back to each other, but despite that hope, Alex let Amy go and Chloe made her decision too. By the end of the book I was in tears with these decisions that had been made and also the directions their lives went in. This is a fabulous book, but it is heartbreaking and a part of me almost wishes I hadnít ever gotten to the end, so I could still hope for a different path.
I had the good fortune to chat to Sara about the ending she chose and while she admits it was hard for her to write as well, she explained that a common theme with her books is the impossible decisions and choices faced by her characters and the knowledge that they cannot go back and relive their lives no matter how much they may want to. From that point of view, I can understand why the book ended the way it did, although it doesn't mean it was the ending I wanted! This book will certainly have you thinking about choices, decisions and the paths life can take.
For more check out my review on her second book Beneath the Shadows, click here.
The Tigerís Wife by Tea Obreht
Read by Tracy June 2011
Tracy recommends as a look at recent Yugoslavian history
The Tigerís Wife won the Orange Prize 2011 against some formidable odds. The book is narrated by Natalie who describes the past and her memories of her recently departed grandfather. The book tells two stories Ė the Tigerís Wife and the Deathless Man and how their stories impacted her grandfather. Natalie followed her grandfather into medicine and started to investigate the mystery surrounding her grandfathers death. She was extremely close to her grandfather from her earliest memories of their weekly visit to the city zoo to more recent memories of the conflict where he continued to treat his patients even after being expelled from his university due to his ethnicity.
The book was interesting with lots of intertwining stories about the deathless man, bear-man, the tigerís wife and a variety of other characters that introduced you to some of the myths and folklore of the region. However, therein lies the problem, too many characters who were never fully explored and caused some gaping holes in the storyline. There was a myriad of opportunity to provide some real storytelling about the times when Yugoslavia imploded and the impact on the different cultures. I would have liked to read more about Natalieís work at the orphanage and how their lives were impacted dependent on which side of the conflict they were on which is the real tragedy of the story. There was also the story of when her family returned to her childhood holiday home and how their once good relationships in the local community had now changed and the local village was full of fear and not much hope for rebuilding.
Did this book deserve the Orange prize win against such books by Emma Donoghueís Room, personally I donít think so, but then book awards usually surprise me.
Forgotten by Cat Patrick
Read by Natalie June 2011
Natalie recommends as cool, quirky and romantic
Forgotten is a very cool and quirky little story. Part mystery, part romance it follows the life of London, a girl who can only ďrememberĒ her future but forgets her past. Her brain works so that she can see events and people in her future however once something has happened she forgets it, no longer able to remember the day she has just lived. Somehow her brain resets itself at 4.13am every day and everything she has seen and done is wiped from her memory. If something or someone is not seen in her future, then they are not a major part of her life, so she would forget them once she went to sleep at night.
Although she accepts her condition, every day is a struggle for London. She manages to get by with help from her mum, her best friend and her notes Ė the messages she writes down each night to remind her of what happened that day, so when she wakes up she knows what has happened in her past. One day though, Luke walks into her life. Drawn to him as he is to her, London isnít sure what he means, he isnít in her future memories, so how can he play a part in her life? Around the same time, London also has a terrifying future memory of herself at a funeral with her devastated mother, absent father and long forgotten grandmother. London also discovers that her mother may be lying and hiding things from her, while at the same time is trying to rescue her best friend Jamie from a relationship that will destroy her life and their friendship. Despite deciding not to include Luke in her notes and therefore wiping him from her memory, he persists with London and gradually she finds herself falling in love with him, no longer caring that he isnít in her future memories.
Trying to desperately to find out about her past and the possible answers to why she remembers life the way she does, London seeks Lukeís help, hiding things from her mother. Yet when Luke reveals a secret of his own, a key to Londonís past, she canít help but feel her whole world is deceiving her. Luke tries desperately to win her back, to explain and in doing so, opens the door for London to confront her mother about her secrets, her new future memories as well as what happened in her past. Unlocking the real reasons for why London sees her future memories and why Luke isnít a part of them sets her on a path to change her future and that of her family and boyfriend. While Londonís condition is not fully explained and is clearly pretty implausible, the author does a fantastic job with it. Luke her boyfriend is fabulously understanding and sweet, the reasons for which become clearer once you learn his secrets. Whatever the case, he is very romantic and very protective of London, accepting her for who she is, despite the memory loss. In a truly sweet part of the book, Luke laments that London can see everything that will happen to them together in the future, while London counters this with Luke being able to remember their first date and first kiss, all the past memories of their relationship that have since been wiped from Londonís memory and only exist in her book. Which would you prefer?
As London finally works out what happened to her, she also manages to alter life for herself, her family, best friend and boyfriend. Gaining new future memories that suggest things may have been altered, as well as remembering new things in her present, London not only embraces her life but grows throughout, finally realising her hidden strength. Very sweet and very romantic, this book will have you smiling and unlike its title, not forgetting it anytime soon.
Jamrachís Menagerie by Carol Birch
Read by Tracy June 2011
Tracy recommends as a great escape
Jaffy Brown lived on the edge of society with his mother until he was taken into the tigers mouth and his life really began. In 1857 Jaffy become involved with Mr Jamrach who was an explorer, entrepreneur and trader/collector of creatures from around the world. This new world introduces him to the truly bizarre in relation to animals and people and he is soon caught up in an expedition to capture a mythical dragon in the far East Indies. The story felt similar to Life of Pi in some instances, but it was certainly captivating and was filled with mateship and drama on the high seas. I felt that Carol took me back into 19th century Wapping and you can imagine (thankfully only imagine and not be there) the hardship that faced the marginal and less fortunate. The ending was well thought out and it is a great read.
Beneath the Shadows by Sara Foster
Read by Natalie June 2011
Natalie recommends this as a page turning mystery that will have you feeling the fear and cold right alongside the characters
Beneath the Shadows is the story of Graceís search for answers about her missing husband Adam. A year ago her and Adam left busy London with their baby girl Millie to move to the north Yorkshire moors and a little cottage Adamís grandparents left them. Although a little reluctant to leave everything they know for a tiny country town, they are determined to give it a go. However, a week after their arrival, Grace comes home one evening to find Millie in her pram on the front door step and Adam nowhere to be found. Inside is a cryptic note asking Grace to wait for him, but when he doesnít return, a huge man-hunt is sent out to find him. When neither Adam nor his body is located, the police rule the case closed, claiming he must have run off, overwhelmed by fatherhood or some other issue. Grace doesnít believe this, but there is nothing she can do, so she returns to her parents, leaving the cottage behind.
One year later she returns, determined to find answers about Adamís disappearance as well as make some decisions regarding the future of their cottage. Faced with a rapidly approaching winter and possible lockdown with snow, Grace is also blocked by members of the local town as she searches for answers. Only one man, Ben, a long absent local who has returned for mysterious reasons is willing to help. But as old ghost stories and town folklore start to swirl around, Grace begins to wonder if someone is trying to get rid of her or whether she is just going crazy. Determined to find the answers to Adamís disappearance and refusing to believe he simply abandoned them, Grace races against the impending snow and the townsfolk. When the mystery is finally unravelled, Grace realises that there were things about Adam she didnít realise, but also that the secrets extend far beyond him.
The sense of place in this book is wonderful. The descriptions of the weather and the coldness are almost like another character in the novel and often run in parallel with Graceís behaviour and fear. As the reader, you almost feel like you are there, feeling it all alongside her. The book moves at a great pace too, keeping you hooked right until the very ending when the mystery is revealed. A great read!
The Swimmer by Roma Tearne
Read by Tracy June 2011
Tracy recommends if you want to read a sad love story.
Another Orange Longlist Finalist for 2011. The book is separated into sections Ė Ria, Anula and Lydia. Ria retreats to the family home in the Suffolk village of Orford, wanting to throw herself into poetry after her relationship breaks down, here she had an extremely happy childhood which changed dramatically with the death of her father which saw her mother and brother distance themselves and the family dissolve. She uncovers ďthe SwimmerĒ who she watches and waits for each night. This mysterious man turns out to be Ben who has illegally entered Britain to escape the war in Sri Lanka (Tearneís homeplace). Ben is illegally working at a nearby farm, but escapes this trudgery and swims at the bottom of Riaís garden. They finally meet and become involved. Ria helps him restart his asylum paperwork. In the meantime there is much going on in the village of Orford Ė there are terrorists, someone slaughter animals, burglaries etc, almost like living in Midsommer. Eventually the unthinkable happens and Anulaís story begins when she comes to England to identify and then attend the funeral of her son, Ben. She is filled with hatred and despair, seeking solace in Eric, a lifelong friend and neighbour of Riaís family, who had himself, befriended Ben. Eventually Anula returns back to Sri Lanka but unable to come to terms with the death of her son, his relationship with Ria or her own relationship with Eric. The final story is taken up with Lydia, who is the unexpected daughter of Ria and Ben and who has never met Anula or knows anything of her Sri Lankan heritage until after her mother is tragically killed. Tearne tries to put a lot into the story, but I felt it never escaped romantic idylls and did not draw me into the discussion related to illegal immigrants and the immigration policies in place then and now.
The Moment by Douglas Kennedy
Read by Natalie June 2011
Natalie recommends as a beautiful and moving love story
Set amongst an ugly period in history, The Moment focuses on the life of the middle-aged American writer Thomas Nesbitt. Currently holed up in a cabin in rural Maine, he is in the midst of a divorce from a woman he never truly loved yet stayed married too for 25 years. Looking back over his childhood and his own parentsí short-lived and unhappy marriage, Thomas knows he has always run from love in the past. Taking on a job of travel writer allowed him to escape, particularly when relationships looked to be getting serious and this allowed him to avoid all forms of commitment and love. However, not long after his divorce papers arrive, he also receives a parcel postmarked Berlin with a return address for Dussmann and Thomas is forced to look back over his life and the one woman he did fall in love with. Unable to open the box however, he journeys to Canada where he suffers a skiing accident, that may have been a half-attempted suicide. Returning to the cabin to recover, Thomas opens a manuscript he wrote many years ago shortly after he returned from Berlin, but which he hasnít looked at since.
The story then moves back in time to Berlin 1984. The wall is up and the Cold War very much in place. Arriving there to escape a relationship as well as experience Berlin for a travel book he is writing, Thomas also takes on a job with a propaganda radio station in the West. Finding himself an apartment with a crazy flatmate in a poor part of Berlin, Thomas is all set to embrace the culture the city has to offer. However he is thrown for a loop on his first day at the radio station when he meets a translator, Petra and finds himself falling hopelessly in love for the first time in his life. Petra is a former East German who was expelled to the West for unknown reasons. Withdrawn and quiet, she barely acknowledges her colleagues at the station, yet quickly finds herself falling in love with Thomas. Despite Petraís fear and her obvious secrets and hidden pain, the two of them embark on a rapid and all-consuming affair. As they both begin to realise the joy of love, especially love that is reciprocated, Thomas vows to help her, even journeying into the East to reclaim some of Petraís long-lost items, including photos of her beloved son who was taken from her. As Petra finally reveals her dark secrets to Thomas, he accepts and loves her regardless, making plans to marry her and escape back to America when Thomasí book is finished.
However Petraís past catches up with her and when a darker secret is revealed to Thomas, he betrays her in the worst possible way. Despite her pleading, he refuses to listen and walks away angry, leaving her to suffer her fate. As Thomas in the present day reaches the end of his manuscript detailing his time in Berlin, he reflects back on his relationship and love for Petra. Realising she was everything to him and so much more than his 25 year marriage he finally opens the box and confronts the past again. Inside is Petraís story, the story Thomas refused to hear so many years ago. What she says shocks him and brings to light the full implications of his betrayal and actions. As he journeys to Berlin hoping to discover more, including a long-lost possible child, he instead finds the missing son that was taken from Petra all those years ago. Angry with Thomas for what he did to his mother, the son hands a final note from Petra, explaining the last pieces of the puzzle. At first it is hard to feel sorry for Thomas, he betrayed Petra dismissing their love instantly and in doing so suffered for the next 25 years. Learning Petraís side of the story, you realise that she suffered far more than Thomas ever did, yet she forgave him and continued to love him, believing that everything, every moment with him was worth it. As he comes to realise the full extent of his betrayal, his guilt increases, knowing now that he should have listened to Petra all those years ago. The story is very moving and very interesting, with a host of unusual and quirky side characters that each have a role to play. The final pages where the reader learns of Petraís fate along with Thomas are very sad and although he still feels guilty and at fault, he finally attempts to make things right through helping her son. A beautifully written and very moving story.
Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela
Read by Tracy June 2011
Tracy recommends for a small glimpse as Sudanese society.
Another Orange Longlist Finalist for 2011. This book is focused on the Abuzeid family which is headed up by Mahmoud. Mahmoudís first wife Waheeba is a traditional Sudanese wife and lives her life surrounded in the traditional family home, his second wife Nabilah is Egyptian and set on a modern life for her family which precludes female circumcision. Amongst these two households s the underlying love story of Nur and Soraya who are destined to be together until tragedy strikes and they must find other outlets for their love. The Sudan is being courted by the British and the Egyptians who wish to annex Sudan to Egypt, however, the traditional Sudanese have other ideas and to the backdrop of changing climates Mahmoud must steer his family and the large family fortunes which so many of the relations rely on. I was unable to be drawn into the story completely, feeling that some of the ideas were glossed over and were dismissed for more poignant storylines. However, that said, I devoured the book in a day as it was a great escape as you tried to visualize the life in Saraya and the difficulties the women had in negotiating any form of modernity.
Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson
Read by Natalie June 2011
Natalie recommends as an amazing debut novel
Before I Go To Sleep is the stuff dreams are made of. The author, SJ Watson always wanted to write, so after 15 years in the British NHS, he signed up for the first ever Faber Writerís Course entitled ďHow to write a novelĒ. Before I Go To Sleep is the end result and it has since been sold in 30 languages and had the movie rights acquired by Ridley Scott. To top it off itís also a very, very good book.
The novel opens with Christine waking up naked in a strange bed, beside a strange man with no recollection of how she go there. Things get even stranger when she goes to the bathroom and sees her reflection and discovers she actually looks about 20 years older than she thought she was. Panicking at what is happening to her, the strange man introduces himself as Ben, her husband of 25 years. He explains that Christine was in an accident 20 years ago and is unable to retain memories. Every night when she goes to sleep, her memories are lost and every morning Ben reminds her of who she is. Although Christine struggles with having no knowledge of this, Ben shows her photos of their life together, reassuring her of what has happened. However when he leaves for work, Christine receives a mysterious phone call from a Dr Nash who wants to meet with her again. He and Christine have been meeting in secret for nearly 2 months as he tries different techniques to get Christine to regain her memories. He also has her journal, which she had allowed him to read, detailing the last few weeks of her treatment. Each day Christine has been writing down what has happened so that she may try and remember things and piece together her life again. Although reluctant to meet Dr Nash, Christine agrees, feeling more confident when he knows where she lives and does indeed have a journal filled with her handwriting.
As Christine sits down to read over her journal and learn about the last few weeks of her life, she is shocked by the opening entry which says Donít Trust Ben. Looking through her notes she discovers that perhaps Ben has only been telling her half the story. What Christine does learn is that it wasnít a car accident that caused her to lose her memories, but a mysterious incident in a hotel room in Brighton without her husband. She also learns that she did in fact write a novel, despite Ben having told her that she didnít. More importantly however, she learns that her best friend Claire didnít marry and move away as Christine has been told and that Christine and Ben had a son Adam who apparently died a year or so ago. As Christine learns these facts, she writes them in her diary, becoming increasingly unsure about Ben and what he is trying to hide from her. Each day however she has to re-read and re-learn these new facts, with Dr Nash ringing to tell her where she has hidden her journal. As Christine tests Ben to discover what else he is hiding, she also goes in search of answers herself, sometimes with the help of Dr Nash. However when she finally meets up with her best friend Christine, who has been in London all along, she learns that Ben loves her, is devoted to her and despite leaving her in a facility for several years, never stopped having these feelings for her. As Claire gives Christine a letter from Ben from several years ago, she returns home determined to trust Ben and make their marriage work.
Back in the present day and having finished her journal with nothing but empty pages at the end, Christine and Ben set out on a weekend away. However as their destination draws near, Christine becomes increasingly worried with the hotel room they arrive at triggering disturbing memories and visions. As Ben leaves to find some champagne, Christine is struck with an overwhelming urge to leave, but instead she searches Benís bag and finds pages and pages of notes. Notes from her journal that Ben has deliberately cut out. Notes that explain the last missing week of her life where she discovered more and more startling facts, including a frantic phone call to Claire, more information on her son Adam and little things about Ben which just donít fit. As she races to get answers, Ben returns and suddenly Christine finds herself trapped in the hotel room nightmare all over again. Reading this, I had a couple of theories as to what was going on, some of which I could dismiss fairly early on. The final reveal I did sort of guess at a couple of pages before it happened, although it didnít stop the impact it had. The book is very cleverly written with the reader only learning things as Christine does. Although there is no physical cause for her memory loss, by the end there is some suggestion that she may be able to retain more and more. However, she has yet to go to sleepÖ.! This book is chilling and disturbing, but unbelievably good. If this is what a writers course can do for an aspiring writer, then sign me up! Before I Go to Sleep won the Galaxy National Book Awards 2011 Crime and Thriller award. The book has been adapted for the big screen and will star Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth and will be released in September 2014.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segiís Wives by Lola Shoneyin
Read by Tracy June 2011
Tracy recommends for a fast paced funny novel
Another Orange Longlist Finalist for 2011 and what a funny read. Baba Segi had three wives as his desire is to have as many children as possible. However, when he took on his fourth wife, who was so different to the others, little did he know that his desire for her to fall pregnant straight away would unleash a whole litany of events that would consume all their lives. Iya Segi, Iya Tope and Iya Femi were all content in their existence and their ability to conceive children, here in lies the secret and Lola Shoneyin takes you back through their lives that led them to Baba Segi. In taking on Bolanle who was a university graduate it unsettled the household and she was also the one wife who had picked him not vice-versa and her ability to read let her interact with his other children on a level that the other wives could not understand. The tragic death of his first born child, Segi, saw the secrets unfold and them all having to re-evaluate their lives and position. I enjoyed and was pleasantly surprised by this book. Yes, Lola Shoneyin lightly looked at some of the mysteries surrounding polygamistic marriages, but she did not voice her opinions, this was purely a book for reading.
If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman
Read by Natalie June 2011(Our Book Club book pick of the month for June 2011)
Natalie recommends these as very beautiful and very moving
If I Stay is the story of Mia and her struggle with the decision of whether to live or whether to die. Her day and the beginning of the novel start off perfectly, a day spent with her family all together. There is nothing Mia would prefer more (maybe just her boyfriend Adam along for the ride too) as her family is incredibly close. However the morning soon ends in tragedy, a car accident where Mia finds herself outside her own body and looking at the carnage and destruction left on the road. As she finds her dead parents and witnesses her own body being worked on and lifted into an ambulance, she is both heartbroken at her loss and confused as to what it means for her. If she was dead, then surely her parents would be with her, but if she is alive, what is she doing outside her own body? And even more distressing, where is her baby brother? As the day progresses, Mia follows her body to the local hospital and then into a medivac chopper and onto a trauma hospital in Portland. As she witnesses family, friends and her gorgeous boyfriend Adam desperately try and convince her to stay, she also remembers events in her life that have been influenced and changed by these people. We learn why she is so close with her family and the amazing people they were. We learn about her best friend Kim and how she doesnít click with Miaís boyfriend or play a musical instrument, but is still in sync with Mia. We learn about Adam, the rock star who was mesmerised by Mia and persisted until she was convinced he really loved and wanted to be with her. In between these flashbacks, Mia in the present time struggles with what to do, particularly after learning that her beloved baby brother Teddy has now also died. Given a green light by her unexpectedly emotional grandfather, yet pleaded with to stay by Adam, Mia struggles with her decision. She canít bear the thought of losing her family and living life without them, yet she also canít bear the thought of life without Adam or ever playing her cello again. A classical musical prodigy, she was a contradiction to her punk rocker parents and hard rocker boyfriend. Despite this, they all clicked over music and she was a shoe in to be accepted at Julliard in NYC. While Mia and Adam were struggling with the implication this would have on their relationship, they both knew she wouldnít turn it down. As Adam desperately tries to lure her out of the coma, using the power of Yo-Yo Ma and an unexpected promise, Mia makes her decision, driven partly by what she knows her family would want her to do, partly by Adam and partly by the music of her cello idol and the memories and images this stirs in her. Reading this and knowing there is a second book, it was obvious she would make the decision to stay, to live, but the journey towards that was still both heart aching and beautiful. The book has been adapted for the big screen and will be opening in cinemas in August 2014.
The second book, Where She Went actually came out 2 years after the first, although being a little behind the eight ball with this, I didnít have to endure the wait. A good thing too because the second book is surely a lesson in patience. The back of the book explains ďitís been three years since Miaís accident, three years since she walked out of Adamís life, and heís spent three years wondering why?Ē What has happened in this time? Why would Mia make the decision to stay, to live for him and then walk out on it all? Like I said a lesson in patience that I managed to spectacularly fail. In what is probably one of the first times in my life, I simply couldnít stop myself from flicking through this book, hovering near the final pages to work out what would happen to these two beautiful characters. Desperately wanting them to find each other again. Luckily in the end I didnít learn a lot and the journey to that point was still to be revealed to me as I stayed up late into the night reading.
Where She Went is this time told from Adamís point of view and is more a case of what happened to him when Mia left. Hurt and stunned at her disappearance, he has become a withdrawn, angry version of himself. A now famous rock star thanks to a hugely successful album drawn from the pain he suffered at loosing Mia, he is angry at the world and angry at himself, unable to be grateful for what he has and where he is. Still unable to get over Mia, the last three years have been sad and darkly consuming for Adam. As he finds himself in New York for 24hrs, a rare afternoon off after a disastrous interview with a journalist, he stumbles across a concert Mia is giving at Carnegie Hall. Before he can stop himself, he has bought a ticket, promising only to listen. But when Mia learns he is in the audience she invites him backstage afterwards and suddenly they are face to face for the first time in three years. The book alternates back to the days after the accident, Miaís recovery, her departure to Julliard, her lack of return, the impact this had on Adam and present day New York where Adam finds himself spending those 24hrs with Mia. Peppered with Adamís song lyrics, Mia leads him through the city she has come to love and gradually the distance between them starts to close as those three years are slowly revealed. When the end of their journey is reached on the Brooklyn Bridge and Adam finally asks the question Why? Mia answers, desperately trying to explain it all to him. Much of this journey is maddening and although eventually understandable, I was still frustrated at Adamís inability to ask Mia, frustrated at Miaís lack of explanation and then frustrated at the final release from Adam and its subsequent misunderstanding by Mia that almost puts them back to the beginning again. As I kept turning pages, I donít think I breathed, literally begging for it to all work out. The final pages, the resolution, the closure to everything thatís happened Ė well I donít want to tell you what happens or how it all ends except to say that after everything, itís actually pretty perfect.
Both of these books are gorgeous, hauntingly beautiful. The characters and storyline and relationships are wonderfully written and flow lyrically like the music that dominates them. Covering both rock and classical, Forman manages to weave these two distinctly different styles together, complementing both the music and the characters they represent. The themes of loss, grief, love and anger are so believably real and will resonate with anyone who has a heart. It is so refreshing to read a story that doesnít have everyone or everything perfect, that is written so much more like real life. At the end of the first book, Forman reveals the story of how Mia and If I Stay came to be, a moving ode to her friends and her own grief and love. Her final words of this story sum up so much about these books and life in general, how thanks to love, life will always be immortal. Anyone out there who is a closet romantic (yes, ask anyone who really knows me, I do join you in there) you will devour and love these books. They will make you laugh, cry, swoon and smile, and I suspect they might just leave you thinking about them long after you have put them down.
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga
Read by Tracy June 2011
Tracy recommends as a fantastic look at the disintegrating cohesion of modern society
Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker for his previous novel The White Tiger which I wasn't a huge fan of, however I enjoyed Between the Assassinations, so maybe Adiga is one of those authors who gets better with each novel - let's hope so.
In Last Man in Tower Adiga has taken a huge step forward and captures the fast paced changing society in India. Last Man in Tower is the story of Yogesh Murthy and his stand against all those wanting to grab at riches through Mumbais spiralling real estate market. Murthy or "Masterji" as he is known lives in Vishram Housing Society Tower A which is crumbling and the facilities no longer fuction as expected but it is a middle class enclave in the slums of Mumbai. Originally built to cater towards a Catholic resident, the tower block now houses many different backgrounds in relative harmony. To shatter the residents peaceful existence, Dharmen Shah makes an entrance into the story and offers to make a huge payment to each resident if they sell their apartments to him so that the tower blocks can be demolished and a new edifice built to embody modern India's global aspirations. Masterji stands alone surrounded by the memories of his dead wife and daughter plus his lack of material desire which makes it hard to buy him. I was annoyed with his attitude at times and felt that his inability to communicate his worries about the future may have stopped the drama, inuendoes and infighting. Masterji was well liked until he turned down the offer and is soon castigated by all the residents as the rules state that they all must sign. Adiga documents each families greed or desire to better themselves. Each story has its own appeal from Mrs Puri who has a child with down syndrome and sees the money as a way of making their lives easier to Mary the cleaner who will lose her livelihood when the towers are demolished. Shah makes a wonderful character, he is desperate the outdo the other construction companies in each luxury redevelopment and relies on his "left-hand-man" to sweeten the deal in any way possible to make it happen. As such each resident falls under the spell of the money and in the end you are saddened by this indictment on society which is all too true today - greed and desire for anything new and shiny far outweighs kindness to neighbours.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Read by Tracy June 2011(Our Book Club book pick of the month for June 2011)
Tracy recommends as an old fashioned love story that transcends all barriers.
Julie Orringer was nominated for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction longlist and what a read it was. Although The Guardian Book Review was relatively scathing for its leaning towards melodrama etc, I disagreed completely. The fact that the book is partially based on a true story makes it fascinating and takes you into the characters. It is the link with Orringerís grandparents that draw you into the lives of the Lťvi brothers (Tibor, Andras and Matyas).
The Lťvi brothers come from Konyar in Hungary and in 1937 are subject to quotas for Jewish students so Andras goes to Paris to study architecture. Tibor goes to Modena to study medicine and Matyas aspires to the stage. The first part of the story follows Andras who at 19 is about to embark on his journey to Paris. The day before he leaves, he assists the Hasz family who ask him to deliver a letter to a K. Morgenstern and a trunk to their nephew Jozseph. As Andras travels through Europe towards Paris he is, for the first time, confronted by the discrimination that is growing towards the Jews, eventually helped out with food by someone who also gives him his card. On arriving in Paris, Jozseph Hasz is not there to meet him, so he must carry the trunk to Jozsephís apartment where he finds an ongoing party in progress. Exhausted Andras collapses, awaking the next day to get his bearings and find accommodation. Andras joins his architectural class at the …cole Spťciale d'Architecture and meets other students and some inspiring lecturers. Unfortunately just after his joining, he is advised that his grant has been frozen and he must now fund his own education. Close to starving, he eventually swallows his pride and asks for help and gains a job as a gopher at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre. Another coincidence also sees him be introduced to Klara Morgenstern and her daughter Elisabet. Andras and Klara soon fall in love, even though there is a scandalous 10 year age difference and many secrets behind Klaraís move from Budapest to Paris.
The second part of the book is fantastic Ė telling the story of the Hungarian Holocaust. As war develops Matyas and Tibor have their student visas rejected and along with their families must return to Budapest, ostensibly to renew their visas and return to their adopted countries, although you know this is impossible for Jews as Germany takes control in Europe. Back in Hungary, Andras is conscripted to the Munkaszolgalat, a horrific labour camp and ultimately more deadly than the Nazi death camps. The conscripts face gradual and agonising deaths through starvation and overwork. Orringer describes in detail the gradual decline physically and mentally and the final suffering that the body can endure. There are rays of light within the horror described. Several non-Jews help provide food and medical assistance by extolling the benefits of keeping the labour service crews fit and healthy so they can continue supporting the soldiers. It is this second part of the book that Orringer comes into her own by describing the fate of Hungarian Jews, who had been relatively protected until March 1944, but in the dying months of the war, Hitler had more than half of the remaining Jews deported to the death camps.
Yes the book is long, but there is a lot of tell. It could have done with some tight editing, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, staying up during the night to finish it, be warned though I did go through my fair share of tissues.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Read by Tracy May 2011(Our Book Club book pick of the month for May 2011)
A Visit from the Goon Squad has won Jennifer Egan the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and seen her longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, awarded the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for 2011. In addition, it has garnered lots of rave reviews on the internet. The book is interesting - it looks at the cause and effect of relationships via a medly of voices which are either first, second or third person. It is a difficult book to describe, similar to a collection of short-stories told through individual chapters that focus on the interconnection of characters and how they change over time. Egan captures the lives on her characters through different periods in time from the 1970's punk era through to 2020's where babies can make consumer choices with handsets. The storylines show how friends can collide, scatter and recombine at different junctures in life. Egan's stories sometimes have no clear ending because they can be unexpectedly resumed and reshaped constantly and are not a straight line between points A and B, more a winding narrative.
Egan uses the book as a sort of relay race, with the baton handed over by various characters in a wild relay race through their past, present and future lives but each chapter is not part of the puzzle, they stand alone. The opening chapter is about Sasha, who is a kleptomaniac and receiving treatment from a therapist to confront her compulsion to steal, but who can't resist the allure of another woman's wallet in the restroom of a toilet while her date is waiting in the bar, who works for Bennie, a record executive addicted to gold flakes in his coffee in an misunderstanding that it will make him more virulent, who is a friend of Rhea who was also in the punk band "The Flaming Dildoes". Bennie then attends a party where he meets his future mentor Lou who seduced Jocelyn who was loved by Scotty who played guitar for the Flaming Dildos, a San Francisco punk band for which Bennie once played bass guitar, before marrying Stephanie who is charged with trying to resurrect the career of the bloated rock legend Bosco who grants the sole rights for covering his farewell tour to Stephanie's brother, Jules, a celebrity journalist who attempted to rape the starlet Kitty. Surreal isn't it! The start of it all is Bennie Salazar, who plays bass guitar in the Flaming Dildoes and although they don't appear to be particularly talented and end up playing for drinks in some very seedy underground bars where they spend their gig having rubbish thrown at them, they all think they have the talen to make it to the top, it is the side stories that provide the grittiness of adolescence and the desire to fit in. The stories do have a similar undertone - what happened and where di time go (although I am sure we all ask that question at least once in our lives). Of course we first meet Bennie when he has passed his glittering record producer days and is now managing a small mediocre collection of artists who pines for the past to the detriment to his future.
The storylines are not linear - you move through different periods (over 40 years), even different continents all the while learning what has happened to people in their futures providing closure to individual stories. This could be offputting for some people - the beginning of each chapter was so totally different to where you had ended in the last chapter you needed to gather your thoughts and work out your position in the overall story. However, this is for me, what made it different, you were led purposefully through a series of interlinking stories that started to come together leading you deeper into the lives of the characters and you wanted to know more about them as this is more realistic and is what happens in real life when you first meet someone and gradually their life story unfolds.
For me each chapter was different and allowed you to be drawn into the characters. Egan even writes one chapter in powerpoint slides which I found very profound - few words but beautifully captured the discourse between families. I read the book over a few days as it was difficult to put down - you were so drawn into the stories you wanted to know what happened. The book was darkly written but funny, I laughed in sections and also felt the pain, regret, empathy and wit.
The book title is from a conversation when Bennie tells Scotty Hausmann "Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?" (page 332). Another sentence that resonated was "it's hard to know anymore who was realy at that first Scotty Hausmann concert - more peple claim it than could possibly have fit into the space, capacious and mobbed though it was" - reminds you of Woodstock and other large musical festivals that changed the face of music.
Jennifer Egan was voted as the Galaxy National Book Awards 2011 International author of the year. Read more debat on this book at First Tuesday Book club.
The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus
Read by Natalie May 2011 (Our Book Club book pick of the month for May 2011)
Natalie recommends that The Afterparty is one of those fabulously funny and intelligent novels that you could read several times and still get more out of.
A book within a book, The Afterparty also features email correspondence between the ďauthorĒ of the book (the inner one) and his ďagentĒ. The ďauthorĒ has been writing a book for several years now, and taking a chance, sends the first chapter to an ďagentĒ. She is excited by the opening chapter and asks for more, yet as he continues to send her each chapter of the book, the ďagentĒ starts to see some similarities to a real life event. When the ďauthorĒ admits to writing under a pseudonym, not wanting to reveal his true identity, the ďagentĒ suggests bringing in an alternate author to take the ďreal authorísĒ place at negotiations and meetings with publishers. Enter Leo Benedictus (!) as the stand-in author. So clever, but honestly, thereís more. So what is the book within the book about? Well it features four characters who alternatively tell the story of an April night that never happened. These are differentiated by text changes (a clever suggestion of the ďagentĒ to the ďauthorĒ) and often slightly overlap making it easy to follow what is going on. In between each chapter is correspondence between the ďauthorĒ and his ďagentĒ as they attempt to market the book, negotiate contracts and payments and set up Leo as the stand-in. Even Leo puts in an appearance leaving you to wonder exactly what the real author is saying to the reader.
Anyway, back to the book (the inner one!). The first character we meet is Michael a subeditor at the Standard newspaper, he is a boring, unsocial fellow who has scored an invite to a celebrity birthday from his boss who canít go (rumour has it she doesnít want too on account of writing too many critical comments on said celebrity). Michael doesnít particularly want to go to the party given he isnít going to know anyone there, but reluctantly he agrees to for the sole purpose of gathering gossip and hopefully writing something about it. Next up we meet Calvin Vance, a 20 year old singer who didnít make the cut at last yearís X-factor final, but is still somehow a bit of a star. Calvin doesnít know the birthday boy well, they were briefly on a reality TV show together, but he has been invited anyway. He is there to network, pick-up and possibly score drugs if he can ever get his babysitter from the record label to leave. The last two characters are Hugo and Melody. Hugo is Hugo Marks, reclusive movie star who is hosting the party to celebrate his 31st birthday and re-introduce himself back into the movie world. Mellody is his supermodel wife, a recovering drug addict who is having a fling with a musician and about to jump back off the wagon in spectacular fashion.
Over the span of one night, these four people will be forever linked after a crisis takes place at The Afterparty Ė back at Hugo and Mellís place. In the lead up to this, there is alcohol to be drunk, drugs to be taken, new friendships to make and of course plenty of celebrities to spot. Guests at the party include Mark Wahlberg (dropping a couple of Entourage tid-bits), Elton John (who rips out a spontaneous Happy Birthday on the piano for Hugo), Gordon Ramsey (who has two kitchens at home, one of which is locked to keep his wife out) and many, many more. As Michael finds himself a sudden friend and confident of Hugo, who is tired of the hangers-on that celebrity attracts, he winds up at The Afterparty. Meanwhile Mellody abandons her husbandís party in order to score drugs and possibly do something naughty with Calvin, who is equally keen on having a crack at Mellody. Eventually they also wind up at The Afterparty, high as kites and with a hell of a lot more coke to go around. In between all of this are jokes, stories (including a classic about the drummer f**king a sheep dog, only it was a female sheep dog, so that was ok!) and tripped out musings.
The book is seriously clever and seriously funny. The use of these four characters, who often tell their version of the same scene, makes for a great read and you actually feel like you might be there at the party too. The same goes for the celebs Ė it almost feels exactly how you would expect them to act and talk. At times you are wondering if what you are reading is actually fact or fiction! To describe the crisis and the second half of the book would be to give too much away. But suffice to say when the meaning of the emails and the need for the stand-in author is explained Ė it is very well done! Equally clever are some of the ďpublicity ideasĒ for the book, which are actually in the ďreal bookĒ along with the dedication, book cover and so much more. Again, it leaves you wondering what is fact and what is fiction Ė yes I found myself googling a lot after I put the book down. I mean even the real Leo Benedictus is also a freelance author at a London newspaperÖ..Honestly I canít say much more without saying too much, so I would strongly suggest you pick up the book and find out for yourself, you wonít be disappointed. This is the authorís first novel and yes, it has prize winner/movie/internet speculation written all over it. Check out his website for more and click on some of the links in his About Me section.
Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty
Read by Tracy May 2011
Tracy isnít sure if she recommends it or not.
Another Orange Longlist Finalist for 2011, this book was also shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Book Awards. The book is separated into sections Ė before and after the death of nine-year-old Betty. Her mother, Laura, finds her life upside down and unable to cope with the loss. Doughty explains in minute detail everything Laura is feeling and all the memories that are being painfully revisited, including the difficulty of her bonding to her second child Rees, her divorce from the childrenís father, David and his subsequent relationship and child with another woman. Eventually Laura is sectioned into mental care for a night, which is the catalyst for her to face up to what happened to Betty and acknowledge that she must move on with her life. The second part of the book takes some very bizarre twists which were totally implausible. I can understand her grief after the charges against the driver of the car are downgraded due to inconsistent and lack of evidence, but her desire to sleep with the driver!!!?
The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt
Read by Natalie May 2011
Natalie recommends as long-winded and pretentious
I have previously read Siriís book What I Loved, which I have to say I really enjoyed. Her latest novel, not so much. The Summer Without Men is the story of Mia, who upon learning her husband of 30+ years is leaving her for a much younger French woman in his lab, has a mental breakdown, spends several weeks in a psychiatric clinic before escaping to a small town to spend time with her mother. As she teaches poetry to a small group of young girls, she also becomes part of her motherís group comprised of 5 older ladies in an independent living facility as well as friends with her neighbour Lola, who is busy raising two young children while her absent (and angry) husband is on the road. In between all this, she makes regular phone calls to her therapist Dr S, emails and letters to her sister Bea and daughter Daisy (who is busy snooping on the cheating father/husband in New York) as well as some strange email correspondence with a mystery person called Nobody. As she spends her summer without men, she experiences women in all their age ranges and lives as she laments her possible life without Boris (the cheating husband). Although an interesting story I just found the execution of it so unbearably long-winded and prone to random tangents, that it was too hard to enjoy. I even put the book down for a couple of weeks while I read 3 other novels in an attempt to breathe new life into it. But unfortunately no, when I recommenced, I found it to be the same pretentious story, full of superfluous words and quotes, that in the end, I had to power read it just to get it finished. Even Mia's decision regarding her future with Boris was painful, I just wanted to slap some sense in to her. Sorry Siri, as much as I loved your earlier novel, this one just didnít do it for me.
Naomi and Elyís No Kiss List by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
Read by Natalie May 2011
Natalie recommends as a very honest and realistic look at friendship and love
Naomi and Ely are best friends, soul mates even who have grown up in neighbouring Manhattan apartments. Naomi loves Ely and Ely loves Naomi but Naomi is also in love with Ely, while Ely is in love with other boys. For years their friendship has stood the test of time, including the huge destruction of Naomiís father having an affair with one of Elyís mums. As they set out on their studies at NYU, Naomi desperately wants more from Ely. She wants the fantasies about their future wedding to be true, she wants their teen make-out sessions to be real and now and she wants Ely to look at her the way he looks at other boys. However Naomi lies and hides these feelings from Ely and in an effort to combat this they both create a No Kiss List of people that neither of them are allowed to touch in an effort to stop jealousy and competition between them. Then one day Ely kisses Naomiís boyfriend (Bruce, the second) a boy who was never put on the list, and suddenly the friendship that has survived everything is about to be severely tested. While the fall-out was never really about the kiss itself, but more about what is represented, Naomi struggles with the realisation that Ely will never be for her what she wants him to be. Shutting him out she goes on the rampage, taking it out on herself, on other residents (Bruce the first a young teen in love with her, Gabriel the second member of the No Kiss List who actually understands everything she is going through) and most of all on Ely. In the meantime Ely is trying to navigate the first serious relationship he has ever had. Bored and unfriendly to Bruce when he was with Naomi, he suddenly finds himself drawn to Bruce in ways he never expected, ways that make him change his usual callous behaviour. Bruce on the other hand struggles with both his attraction to Ely and what he has done to Naomi, all the while questioning how he could possibly have someone who is as amazing as Ely. The bookís chapters are told from various points of view. We get both Naomi and Elyís take on events, as well as views from Bruce the first and Bruce the second, Gabriel and the two Robins. Each of these people have a role to play in Naomi and Elyís lives and the path to getting their friendship back on track. Will it survive or is the damage too great? I really enjoyed this book and devoured it quite quickly. All of the characters are told in honest and believable ways which may partly be the product of having a male and female author writing the book. The fall-out of an all-consuming friendship (over more than just a boy) is written so honestly and realistically as is the path back to regaining that relationship. Funny, sad and heartfelt, this little book packs quite a moving and powerful punch.
Starter For Ten by David Nicholls
Tracy read in April 2011 (Our Book Club book pick of the month for April 2011)
Tracy recommends for an authentic and insightful romp through university life in the 1980's
This is my second David Nicholls book and I was a huge fan of One Day. This is David Nicholls debut novel and focuses on first year English Literature student, Brian Jackson, and his transition from high school to university in 1985. Brian Jackson is from a working-class background and attains a full scholarship to university. His two best friends from Southend are Spencer and Tone, who themselves have settled for their lot in life by skiving off leaving Brian the odd one out. Brian isn't exactly your male hero, he is weighed down by thoughts, regrets, his past in addition to his sheer inability to say what he really thinks, instead trying to please everyone which only highlights his insecurities. Brian holds the belief that university will help him find his niche. After moving into his very humble university abode, Brian attends a party where he sees a notice encouraging people to attend the trials for University Challenge. Brian's father died when he was 12, but prior to that, they used to watch University Challenge together and Brian has held secret aspirations that attending university would give him the chance to make it on the show. University Challenge is an ultra nerdy quiz show where UK college students answer questions on some very specific and supposed "General Trivia" questions. Brian makes the team as a reserve and only just. His endeavours to help the beautiful Alice Harbison cheat on the trials, sees him relegated to being a reserve, but considering only five people turned up for the audition, he then spends his time hoping that someone will get sick and he can take their place. When his dreams come true and one of the team must withdraw, he doesn't exactly buckle down and endear himself to the Team captain. Unfortunately, his university lifestyle does not help, he is constantly befuddled by alcohol and what seems like a diet of chocolate bars as he scrimps on his meagre grant, but tries to put on a front that fools no-one but himself. We are then taken through Brians' first year of university and his courting of the beautiful but fickle Alice, who he focuses on so much, he sadly does not realise there are far better prizes around him. In addition to Alice, there are some fantastic female characters. Rebecca, opinionated and political, who is studying law. Then there is lovely Lucy, a medical student and fellow University Challenge team member, who I would say secretly harbours a crush on Brian, but he doesn't seem to understand - but isn't it the way that men tend to focus on looks and sometimes not the things that really matter.
This book made me laugh - Nicholls perfectly captures my thoughts on long guitar solos, when Brian's best friend Spencer exclaims "does it ever end, or does it just go on and on and on and on..." Yes I was probably the only person at the recent AC/DC concert in Perth who felt that way for Angus's guitar playing. I love it when you read something that rings true.
This book may not win literary prizes, but it was funny and I devoured it in a day. I laughed and could see through Brian who deep down was sympathetic and pathetic at the same time, but we all have our moments. That is one of the reasons I like Nicholls, you can see yourself or someone you know in his characters and it makes for interesting and light hearted reading. Although it is described as a coming of age novel, it is witty and doesn't get bogged down in over-sentimentility.
There is a film adaptation which I haven't seen, or even heard of, that may be fun to hunt down on the web or your local video shop.
The Man Who Ate The 747 by Ben Sherwood
Read by Natalie April 2011 (Our Book Club book pick of the month for April 2011)
Natalie recommends as romantic and quirky.
JJ Smith is an official record keeper for The Book (aka Guinness Book of Records). For the last 14 years he has travelled the globe observing and verifying official record attempts. He has witnessed the extraordinary, everything from the longest fingernail or continuous apple peel to the most pogo jumps or furthest flight of an untreated champagne cork. His view of life is reduced to numbers and statistics and this tends to make him a little ordinary and cynical. Despite all that he has witnessed, he has never truly experienced or seen true love. Although he was once engaged, JJ was dumped because she thought he could never enjoy or see anything for what it was. To him, love was only a chemical process that could be explained and verified. After his most recent record verification failed when the longest continuous kiss couple crashed with 4 seconds to go, JJ scours through the letters sent in by young kids in search of something great. Most of them have attempted their own records, but in amongst them is a story from a young boy about a man in his town who is eating an entire 747 jumbo jet. Although the book no longer recognises gluttony records, JJ sets out to see what this is all about.
Superior, Nebraska is home to Wally Chubb, the quiet farmer who is eating the plane that crash landed in his field during a lightning storm 10 years ago. His motive for eating the plane is to prove his love for a woman. Wally has been in love with Willa since they were 10 years old and she was the only kid to show up to his birthday party. Since then he has tried and tried to prove his love to her, without actually ever coming out and just saying it. From a banner in the sky to an arrow through his own shoulder, Wally would do anything to get Willa to see him and love him. Now, with the help of his best friend Nate, the local science teacher, they have created a grinding machine that is breaking down the parts of the 747 for Wally to incorporate into his meals. Piece by piece he is eating the plane, trying to prove his love for her.
Willa is the editor of the local newspaper. For years she has heard Wallyís grinding machine break down the plane. For years she has stood by and done nothing and for years she has written not a single article about what Wally is trying to achieve. Although Willa likes Wally, she doesnít love him and her theory is if she ignores his attempts, then he will eventually give up. Willa herself is also a bit of a cynic, feeling trapped in this town and burnt by love in the past, she now puts up a tough exterior to the outside world. Until a letter from her baby brother brings JJ to town.
When JJ arrives in Superior he is met with the natural resistance a small town offers an outsider. The town wonít tell him why Wally is eating the plane and Wally doesnít want anything to do with him or the record. When he heads over to the local paper, he meets Willa and is instantly smitten, despite her obvious dismissal of him and what he represents. Despite appearances, Willa is also attracted to JJ, but she struggles with trusting him. As JJ gradually wins the town over, the reporters and news vans roll in and Wally is the centre of everyoneís attention. Believing JJ doesnít want to hurt the town, Willa gives him a chance and finds underneath all the numbers and statistics is a wonderful man with a heart of gold. But when JJ is double-crossed by his boss and the record attempt it denied, JJ struggles with what this will do to the town, to Willa and to himself. When the denial and JJís feelings for Willa are revealed to Wally, JJ is run out of town and escapes to Greece to verify a man attempting the longest period of motionless. Watching this man block out all the noise and distractions around him, JJ finally realises that he too has been blocking out the things that have been right in front of him all along. Finally seeing that not everything needs an explanation or a record, he races back to Superior to try and win Willa back. However, back in Superior, Wally has fallen into a coma, his reason for living (trying to win Willaís love) no longer there. As Rose, the woman who has always loved Wally keeps a watch over him, JJ and the rest of the town finish off the plane for him. When the grinding machine draws him out of his coma, he sees Rose finally as the woman who has always loved and cared for him and Willa too, sees JJ for the man who gave up everything to come back for her.
All the records in this book are true, while the story surrounding them is a work of fiction. The book is a quirky, funny, interesting and above all romantic story about the things people will do for a piece of history and the things a man will do for love.
Eleven by Mark Watson
Read by Natalie April 2011
Natalie recommends as entertaining and surprisingly poignant
Eleven follows the repercussions of a single incident and how this affects 11 individuals, each in a very different way. Xavier, the main protagonist of the story is the initial start of this chain when he witnesses a boy being beaten by a group of teenagers and does nothing about it. The fall-out then begins when the boyís mother, so enraged by what happened to her son writes a scathing review of a restaurant she dines at that night. The owner of said restaurant is horrified by the review after working so hard to get his business off the ground, that he fires his overweight dishwasher in a drunken rant. The dishwasher, Julius is tormented at school because of his weight and after losing his job and having no money to renew his gym membership takes the drastic step of robbing someone of their money and mobile phone. Ollie is the victim of this crime and because he is unfamiliar with his replacement phone he accidently sends a rude text about his boss to the man in question, rather than his flirty co-worker as intended. The boss, a man with horribly bad breath and already low self-esteem takes this latest revelation to his psychiatrist. Dr Reiss is already in a foul mood, sick of putting up with her complaining clients and the man with the bad breath is the final straw. As she quits her practice she decides to spill the beans to her friend, a journalist, on the tales of some of her more juicy clients, including a politician who is having an affair with a married TV star. As the story goes to press, the TV star is caught out and in doing so has to also end her affair with the young Italian barman who is deeply in love with her. Consoling his misery in alcohol, the barman goes on an all-night bender before driving home the next morning when a young boy, Jamie wanders on to the road. As his neighbour Xavier sees the accident about to take place, he runs onto the road and pushes Jamie out of the way, getting hit instead by the car.
As further connections between these minor characters is continuously revealed to us, running in parallel with this series of events is the story of Xavier, late-night radio DJ and formally Chris Cotswald from Australia. Xavier has his own reasons for not stepping in and helping the boy, just like he doesnít step in and help his neighbour who is petitioning for the speed bumps to be put in on their road, or helping the late-night caller who seems on the verge of suicide, or getting close to the girl he meets on a speed-dating night, or confessing his past to his co-host Murray. As the chain reaction from the incident moves forward, so too does the explanation for Xavierís past, the reason why he left Australia and the reason why he holds so much back now. I found this part of the book to be quite heartfelt, the sad story from his past, the loss of his friends, girlfriend and family and the unexpected direction his life took when he finally allowed himself to remember the past. The main catalyst behind it all is Pippa, a woman he meets at the speed-dating night and employs as his cleaner. As the relationship moves from business to friendship to romance, Xavier finally starts to wake up and forgive himself and as the final piece in the chain of events comes full circle it is quite moving, although does leave the reader wondering exactly what will happen. Still, it is a funny, sweet, sad and clever book that shows just how much we really can affect the lives of those around us.
The Loverís Dictionary by David Levithan
Read by Natalie April 2011
Natalie recommends as interesting, complicated and different.
The Loverís Dictionary is exactly that Ė the story of a relationship told in dictionary format. Portrayed in an alphabetic rather than chronological fashion, this kind of makes sense when you think about it. A lot of the time when we look back at relationships and stories in general, we remember them as snippets of things said or done, out of sequence to the relationship or story as a whole. In the Loverís Dictionary, the nameless narrator tells us the highs and lows of what appears to be a heterosexual relationship (based on one or two entries, although they could be joking references). From the good times including; meeting via an online dating website, the nervous first dates, meeting each otherís families and moving in together. And the bad times; your problems with alcohol, your cheating, the fights. Spanning two years, it is hard to work out exactly when everything happened and even whether the relationship survived, but at the same time it is sweet, funny, sad and eye opening. Reading it, I was also amazed at the way men (assuming the narrator is male, like the author) view relationships and love. He almost seems quite bitter and blaming of women for every failed relationship Ė which may be saying something, as the author is gay. Some of the entries included arduous: sometimes during sex I wish there was a button on the small of your back that I could push to cause you to be done with it already! Seriously!!? Although a short little read (some entries are only one line), it is nonetheless a very clever and honest way to look back at a relationship. An easy read, pick it up for something different.
Sunset Park by Paul Auster
Read by Natalie April 2011
Natalie recommends as not one of his best, but still a very good read
Paul Auster is one of my most favourite authors (have reviewed his prior book Invisible) and this is his newest novel. Set during the recent economic collapse, Sunset Park revolves around a small group of people illegally squatting in a run-down house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. They are remotely connected by Miles Heller, a troubled young man with seemingly no ambition or drive in life. Miles is deeply troubled by the accident that killed his stepbrother 7 years ago. Unable to decide if he was at fault, he has run away from his father, stepmother, mother and the promising life he once had. Now living in Florida, he spends his days working for a debt collection agency, clearing out houses that have suffered foreclosures. During this time he takes endless photos of the things people leave behind, amazed at the items that can be discarded in their anger or haste to leave their former home. The only light in his life is Pilar, the young Cuban girl he has fallen deeply in love with. Pilar has light and love in her and an unrelenting drive to live life, having lost both her parents at a young age. Although Miles keeps his past a secret from her, he gives everything he has to Pilar, including his knowledge and ambition. Although Pilarís sisters are accepting of Miles, her oldest sister Angela uses Pilarís young age to bribe Miles for gifts, the discarded things from the homes he cleans out. After the threats escalate, Miles flees to Sunset Park, promising Pilar he will return to her when she turns 18 and Angela can no longer threaten them.
Bing Nathan is the only person from Mileís past he has kept in touch with. School friends who are almost complete opposites, Bing has nonetheless great admiration and respect for Miles. As he keeps Miles informed about his parentís health, he also unbeknownst to Miles, keeps the parents informed as to Mileís whereabouts. Bing is the original founder of Sunset Park and when he learnt of Mileís need to escape Florida, he offered him a room, hoping he was finally coming home to end his 7 year isolation. The other inhabitants of Sunset Park are Alice, the PhD student who is low on money and desperately trying to write her dissertation whilst working part time at an organisation that fights for writerís human rights; and Ellen, the troubled young real estate agent who is torn by her past love for a young boy and her current obsession with Miles. Each of these people is linked together in some small way. Miles and Bing were schoolmates, as were Ellen and Bing. Bing fixes old typewriters for an author that is published by and a good friend of Mileís fatherís company. Alice works at the organisation which the same author is a board member of. The Best Years of Their Lives, the post World War 2 film that is an ironic connection and metaphor for all of the characters and also forms the basis of Aliceís studies.
As each of the inhabitants of Sunset Park are drawn to Miles in different ways, Miles sets out to make amends with the family he abandoned 7 years ago. Gradually he introduces Pilar to the world he hid from her and as the situation at Sunset Parks comes to a head when the squatters are discovered, each personís life takes a different turn. My only comments on the story would be that at times each of the characterís struggles felt like an individual story that was somehow pushed together as a novel. The ending was also a little forced in some ways and doesnít leave the reader with a satisfying or complete conclusion. That aside, book is so typically written in Austerís style and includes his obvious love of baseball alongside a beautiful and moving story of America as it struggles through the financial collapse of 2008.
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
Read by Tracy April 2011
Tracy recommends as a witty look at a world with one colour
Shades of Grey is about colour - or more likely a post-catastrophic world, now known as being after "The Something that Happened" where natural colour has declined in such a way, that everything is artificially coloured and people are tied to a particular colour group i.e. grey, red, yellow, green, lilac etc. The world is now full of rules that cannot be questioned or argued, doing so will see you sent for reboot and ensures that the society does not veer towards subversiveness. This dedication to the rules gives the world a sense of 1950's or the M. Night Shyamalan movie "The Village".
The hero of the book is Edward Russett. Edward and his father (a swatchman who is a modern day doctor) are on their way to their new home in the Outer Fringes village of East Carmine when they are called on to assist a man who has collapsed in a National Colour outlet. This event brings Edward into the path of Jane (a lowly grey worker and their maid) and he is soon confronted with questions that cannot be answered within the current hierarchical society. It seems that everything in East Carmine can be bought and sold, at a price, different to the world where Edward and his father came from and Edward struggles with his desire for knowledge and his desire to return to Constance who he plans to marry. The edict to follow the rules is so ingrained that even everyday items such as spoons are treasured luxuries due to their omission from the manufacturing rules process (this was to the extreme detriment of Courtland and Thommo). Edward stands up for what he believes in and his friends - he ventured into the night to look for Travis (a higher yellow) who mysteriously disappears into the terrifying night. Eventually succumbing to the subterfuge of Courtland, Edward ends up becoming the leader on an expedition to retrieve old-world colour which has some disastrous but surprising outcomes.
The rigid social hierarchies see everything planned and plotted, all with the end game of ensuring that your family moves up the colour ladder through chromatic politics. The concept of the story was interesting, it was quirky and the characters were interesting, I would love to see this adapted for the screen - I can just imagine the killer swans and carnivorous plants. The ending of the book was also interesting - you certainly don't get the true love wins out ending in addition, it was fascinating to see Jane change from her self-destructiveness into a maverick heroine. Of course any book that has a rule: the cucumber and the tomato are both fruit; the avocado is a nut. To assist with the dietary requirements of vegetarians, on the first Tuesday of the month a chicken is officially a vegetable has to have an underlying humour. Apparently there are two sequels to come and it will be fascinating what characters will be further uncovered.
Jasper Fforde has a website which is full of information, including details on his other series (Nursery Crime, Thursday Next and Last Dragonslayer).
The Fall by Simon Mawer
Read by Natalie March 2011
Natalie recommends as a beautifully written story of friendship and love
The Fall is a sweeping novel that examines friendship and love across two generations, all set against the back drop of mountain climbing. Donít be put off by the climbing though, because it is beautifully written and a great metaphor for so much that goes on in these relationships.
The novel begins with a man climbing solo up a sheer rock face. In front of a group of walkers, the man falls and plunges to his death. The man it turns out is Jamie Mathewson, a well-known climber and son of the famous Guy Mathewson. Exactly how he died is unclear as he was a gifted climber who had scaled some of the biggest peaks in the World. As his former best friend and climbing partner Rob hears the news, he sets off to Wales to see Jamieís wife Ruth and uncover the truth about what really happened.
Told as a series of flashbacks we witness the development of Rob and Jamieís friendship, from their first climb as young boys to their many climbs around Wales and Europe. We see their relationships with other women, including Robís weekend tryst with Jamieís mum Caroline. We meet Eve the woman who initially loved Jamie but ended up marrying Rob. And we meet Ruth, the exotic and sexually liberated woman who came between them. Mirroring these relationships is the story of their mothers Ė Caroline and Diana and their friendship during World War 2, their love of Guy Mathewson and their subsequent falling out.
The story culminates with Rob and Jamieís last climb together in Switzerland as they attempt the mountain that claimed the life of Jamieís father Guy. Almost to the top, Rob falls and badly breaks his leg. Despite begging Jamie to stay with him, Jamie sets out to get help and when help comes 24 hours later, Rob is relieved to know that Jamie survived. However it was Ruth who sent the rescue in, having seen Robís SOS flash during the night. Jamie on the other hand kept climbing, finally reaching the summit that had eluded his father. As Robís anger grows at Jamieís apparent abandonment of him, the friendship and love between him and Jamie, and even Ruth begins to disappear. While Jamie maintains he really was going for help, Rob questions everything, including the fall in the first place. Loosing contact for several decades they only reconnect after Ruth comes in to Robís gallery and Rob meets Jamie at a book signing. Jamieís last words to Rob are a cryptic omen of what might be to come and not long after this he is dead. As the story concludes, the truth behind Jamieís life and death and the role of their mothers and Guy Mathewson is finally revealed to both the reader and Rob. And what a great ending it is too, it left me truly astonished at how well it was all brought together. This is a beautifully written story that manages to weave a tangled web of relationships into an engrossing and well characterised story.
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
Read by Tracy March 2011
Tracy recommends as a fantastic read that will have you cheering for the Quangels as they provide resistance to German Nazism and the paranoid society that prevailed
I was recommended this book by a friend and took it away on a work trip. Wow was I disappointed I had to work. Although the book started out a bit slowly, I soon struggled to put it down. Even harder to believe is that it is based on a true story set in Berlin in 1940 - discussing the case of Otto and Elise Hampel who after being caught were tried and executed. At this time, Hitler was at his peak and the local inhabitants were scared of everything and everyone. When Hans Fallada wrote Alone in Berlin (Aufbau-Verlag Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein) in 1942 he was one of the first authors after the war to put in writing anything relating to domestic resistance, and I can't believe it has taken so long for the book to be translated and published in English. Berlin is described fantastically during this period, it is cold, gloomy, things are in short supply and people come under constant suspicion and fear.
The book is based around Anna and Otto Quangel, a hard working couple who keep to themselves and just want peace and quiet. They live in an apartment on Jablonski Strasse which seems to be a microcosm of the city - Frau Rosenthal on the fourth floor, is no longer safe. The Persickes, who live on the second floor, they themselves are a horrible family who see others as just a means of making money and moving up the Nazi party stepladder. On the first floor is the wonderful Judge Fromm, quiet and reclusive, but able to provide sanctuary and assistance to those in need. Anna and Otto's only son, Ottochen, is off fighting for the Germans and when news of his death comes it is the catalyst for change. Eventually the furniture company where Otto is a supervisor changes from making furniture to making countless coffins and combined with his sons death, he decides to stand up against the Fuhrer and the Nationalist Socialists. He doesn't want to draw attention to himself and suspicion to those around him, so he dismisses damaging machinery, instead deciding to write postcards that he leaves within stairwells of the city buildings that draw attention to the death and destruction being wreaked by the Nazi regime.
Fallada brings into the story a fascinating collection of horrible characters who feed off the fear of others as well as some quiet characters who in their own way stood up to the fear that was being instilled. Gestapo Inspector Escherich who made it his main mission to capture the "Hobgoblin" and stop him dropping postcards denouncing Hitler around the city. We then see the facts of the case brought to life, where people just want to be seen as important and following the words of the Fuhrer to the detriment of everything and everyone. This is seen by the savage treatment of Escherich who is unable to capture the "Hobgoblin" quickly enough to appease his supervisors. However, due to a spate of events, eventually Escherich is reinstated and captures his man and the Quangels are imprisoned. By this time Escherich understands what the Quangels set out to do but the wheels had been set in motion. Although they enjoy a small triumph before the People's Court, they are not given their freedom instead were given the death sentence. Once interned, Otto changes completely, he realises that he had become a creature of habit and had missed out on the beauty of life, whereas Anna, who had been the rock of the marriage, falls apart. The kindness of Judge Fromm intervenes and they both soon realise that they still have options which provides peace to them.
There were many sub-plots which provided a further depth to the story - Eva Kluge, the postwoman who delivered Anna and Otto the letter informing them of their sons death, who initially I thought was an eavesdropping gossip, turned out to be kindhearted and strong when she left the Party and moved to the country, finally finding some form of happiness in digging up potatoes in a field. Chaplain Friedrich Lorenz is also a fantastically indepth character who disregards his own safety to stand up to other and even though it works against him, he has small triumphs that brings some peace to those interned. These positive outcomes are unfortunately marred by the horrific treatment of Karli and Trudell Hergesell who had done nothing but be pawns in the game of interrogation.
In the foreword, Fallada (or his editor) defends the brutality of the book on the grounds that it takes place "among opponents of the regime and their persecutors, where quite a few came to grief". It is Fallada's handling of persecutor/persecuted that is profound. Of the 276 postcards and eight letters deposited by the Quangels over two years, all but 18 are handed straight in to the Gestapo where they destroy one life and two careers and sow chaos in an arbitrary and unmanageable organisation. For me the highlight of the book was the ability to portray the characters without attempting to make them more palatable and give us that perfect happy ending.
One of my small criticisms was in the translation, sometimes the characters sounded so British in their words it was against what I expected, however, I doubt it was an easy translation to do and hats off to Michael Hofmann for staying as true as possible to Fallada's original works.
Entangled by Cat Clarke
Read by Natalie March 2011(Our Book Club book pick of the month for March 2011)
Natalie recommends as a fantastically unique story that manages to explore secrets and lies, friendship and attraction, and reactions and consequences.
Entangled begins on Day 3 when Grace wakes up in a room with only vague memories of how she got there. Surrounding her is nothing but white Ė white walls, white ceiling, white floor, white bathroom, white bed, white clothes, white chair and a white table. The only other thing in the room is a pile of blank paper and 47 pens. As she reflects back on what she does remember, we learn that she was on her way to the park to kill herself when she was distracted by a man, Ethan, who was sitting on the swing. Trying to get him to leave, she strikes up a conversation which coupled with his good looks and her gin intake results in her passing out and ending up in the room. Ethan is still there, bringing her 3 meals a day along with fresh clothes and linen. As Grace tries to talk and reason with him all she gets are cryptic responses which are peppered with mentions of her name Ė Grace. At a loss as to what to do or why she is there, plus a continual fear of being killed by Ethan, she sits down and tries to write. Page after page, she writes about her life, from the moment she was planning to die, to her relationship with her mother, her absent father, her friendship with Sal and its unravelling and her first real relationship when she fell in love with Nat(hanial). The story moves between the present as Grace struggles with her predicament and the past as she remembers her life up until this point. Along the way Ethan gets stranger and stranger and Grace starts having weird dreams. Even more unexpectedly, Grace turns down an opportunity at escape. For reasons that are unknown even to her, she simply feels that she canít leave, that there is nothing out there for herÖ.yet.
As we learn about her life through her stories, we soon discover that Grace is a bit of a loner and to be honest, not a very nice person. Sal is her first real best friend and in forming that friendship, Grace eliminates pretty much everyone else from her life. Although they are opposite in many ways Ė Grace drinks excessively, sleeps around, has a poor family life and generally acts without regard for anyone elseís feelings Ė they do form a close bond. Then one day, when Grace visits her grandmother, she returns to find Sal is a different person. As it turns out Sal has tried to be more like Grace and in doing so, has fallen pregnant. As the weeks pass and Sal refuses to tell Grace who the father is, their friendship explodes as Sal blames Grace for her predicament and Grace responds with her own anger at Salís refusal to spill the secret. After all, Grace has a secret of her own which Sal knows all about Ė her cutting. The tactic Grace uses when she canít cope with life around her.
After the friendship effectively ends, Grace meets Nat and falls instantly and hard. He is unlike any other man she has met and for the first time in her life, she wants to try a real relationship. Although Nat says he has unrequited feelings for another girl, he admits he wants to try a relationship with Grace. As they do, it is both sweet and good for Grace. Her cutting stops, she doesnít sleep around and even her drinking is curbed. Nat is loving and attentive with Grace, taking care of her and not judging her. Then one day Sal reaches out to mend their friendship, and Grace canít believe she may actually be able to have it all Ė the best friend and the adoring boyfriend. When Nat and Sal eventually do meet, it is awkward and strange which Grace simply puts down to Salís past experience and Nat not wanting to share Grace. When Nat finally declares his love for Grace she is beyond happy, although this quickly disintegrates into a nightmare when Nat wonít let up about his curiosity over Grace and Salís falling out. Eventually she confesses what Sal went through and Natís reaction is both strange and heartbreaking for Grace. Descending once again into her cutting habit, she tries desperately to get him back. Nat eventually does come back and their relationship seems to be stronger than ever as he promises that they will always talk about everything and that her cutting is not something that repulses him. But as quickly as it all seems to be good, it once again turns sour and when Nat is caught out in a lie, Grace eventually feels as though she has no other option.
Reading this book, I had a couple of theories as to what was going on here Ė why Grace was in this mysterious white room, what Ethanís plan for her was and what the trigger was for why she wanted to commit suicide in the first place. At first glance, Grace is a whining, selfish 17 year old with little respect for herself or any of the people around her. However as the story continues we learn the reasons behind this, including the circumstances of her fatherís death, the reasons for her motherís neglect, the story behind Salís pregnancy and the explanation for Natís ďromantic one minute-cold the next minuteĒ behaviour towards her. By the end of the book, when the story comes to light I was trying to decide who I hated the most. One thing was for sure, it was no longer Grace, who was definitely the lost soul and victim in all of this. Although the ending left me feeling sad and empty and angry at certain people for not only keeping truths, but going to excessive lengths to hide them, the writing and storyline were fantastic. And yes, I was right with one of my theories as to what was going on, although it didnít play out exactly as I expected and as I was watching it unfold before my eyes, I didnít want to keep reading, knowing how it was going to end. In any case, Iím not going to spoil the book by sharing the ending with you, do yourself a favour and pick it up for yourself. This is Cat Clarkeís first novel and I would describe it as a fantastically unique story that manages to explore secrets and lies, friendship and attraction, and reactions and consequences. A great book, I will certainly be reading more of her.
Cat Clarke has her own website.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Read by Tracy March 2011(Our Book Club book pick of the month for March 2011)
Tracy recommends as an inspiring read
Last month I also reviewed a book about slavery (The Long Song by Andrea Levy), so it must be my theme of the moment. The Help by Kathryn Stockett, is in my view also about slavery and probably worse as the coloured women are supposedly free, but in reality at the mercy of their employers. The story is based in Jackson, Mississippi and narrated by three women: Aibileen and Minny who are domestic maids and Miss Skeeter who is white and lives on a plantation.
Skeeter (whose real name is Eugenia) has been away to College and graduated, wanting to be a journalist/writer, but this is 1962 and her mother sees it as a fate worse than death for Skeeter not to marry. Skeeter is troubled by the sudden disappearance of the family maid (Constantine) who helped her through life providing the encouragement and love that her mother seemed unable to provide, although it was more a sign of the times where people had to fit into society or become disengaged as Sketter started to become. Skeeter starts to see how the segregation of white and coloured is wrong, but worse than that is the secrecy and bad treatment of the maids. After getting a job in a local newspaper, Skeeter approaches Aibileen to help her write to some home handy solutions and Skeeter also uses it as an opportunity to try and uncover what has happened to Constantine. Aibileen however won't discuss the issue, so they start to talk about their own lives.
Aibileen is the maid of one of Skeeter's best friends - Elizabeth and has been a maid all her life and in the process raising 17 white children. I found that through her eyes, I was just lost at the heartless nature of her employers who do not care for their own children, in fact preferring to entertain, play bridge and attend functions with their other white friends. After the death of her son, who was dumped at a coloured hospital and abandoned by his white supervisors, Aibileen starts to see and question things more clearly. After the instalation of her own toilet in the garage as it is seen as unsanitary for the help to use a bathroom that the white employers and their guests may use, she becomes more interested in Miss Skeeters idea for a novel.
Minny is the backbone of the story. She is forthright and unable to stop herself saying what she thinks, so she has been through countless employers finally finding a home with Connie who is new to the town. I loved Connie who herself is really just trailor trash, but managed to snare a rich husband away from one of the usual sorority types. Her husband describes his life like living in ice, but since meeting Connie he feels like he has moved to Hawaii. Minny herself is trapped in a drunken abusive marriage which you know will end in horrific circumstances.
Skeeter applies for a position in New York, but on the advise of an editor who is impressed that Skeeter with no experience has applied for a top editorial position, gives her some advice to get experience and find a subject that she is passionate about. After talking with Aibileen she is convinced that all the domestic maids must have fascinating stories which have never been documented. So the groundwork for gathering the stories begins. But the times are changing and during the 1960's Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King had started to make people question race - everywhere except Mississippi who were enthralled with the Jim Crow Segregation Laws making it illegal to mix.
It is through the sheer willpower of Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny that they put aside their own safety by meeting clandestinely in collating the maids stories, getting them written and sent to a publisher within the timeline. During this time, their own lives take on many twists and turns and you are continually drawn into the lives they lead. In some cases you realise the fronts that are put on are so different to what really happens away from prying eyes.
The book does not end with everyone living happily ever after and I cried at the end, in fact cried just thinking about it. Sadly one of those issues is that there really are people out there, even today, who think that acting cruelly towards someone will escalate them up the social ladder. For me Stockett created many characters, each with their own stories, secrets and desires. I could even see a bit of my own friends in some of the characters and it did provide some hope that change will continue to happen and regardless of your colour and race, you will one day be seen.
If you are looking for something similar, why not try Ellen Feldman's Next to Love: A Novel or The Space Between Us: A Novel (P.S.) by Thrifty Umrigar.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Read by Natalie March 2011 & Tracy 2006
Tracy & Natalie recommend this to get you thinking of the intricacies of gender.
Tracy - Middlesex is Jeffrey Eugenides second novel (The Virgin Suicides published in 1993) and won him the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, not bad for a book that took 10 years to write. Middlesex is based on and narrated by Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite. Cal, or Callie, was born into a Greek family and raised as a girl. After developing strong male characteristics, Callie became Cal in his adolescence. The story is based on Cal as he delves into his family history to find out how he became. Cal's family migrate from Greece, so the book gives you glimpses into their old country and their migration to the United States and the changes to their newly adopted homeland during the 50's to the 70's. This book was fascinating, showing a feminine side and masculine side to growing up. Callie/Cal trying to fit in whenever possible, but underneath knowing something was wrong. Cal's parents had tried to do the right thing in relation to gender reassignment based on the advice of specialists and you feel torn about what would be the right thing to do if you were in their position. I would suggest no matter what, you would be misunderstood in your decision. Surrounding Cal is his family who all try to adjust to their differing relationships, whilst battling their own demons. Some of these subsidiary characters I found to be slightly over described (the grandmother who takes to her bed for years after her husband's death) which tended to detract from the specifics of Cal's new life. Middlesex's description of the 70's is fantastic, and I felt that his research was excellent.
Natalie - Narrated to us by Callie/Cal, Middlesex is an interesting and dense novel that is chock full of information and history. It begins on a tiny island in the Mediterranean with the grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty who happened to be third cousins as well as brother and sister, before they became husband and wife. The story moves from Greece to America, through prohibition in Detroit, to the birth of Milton and Zoe their children. We also meet Semolina their first cousin who gives birth to Tessie. When Milton marries Tessie, his first cousin, then comes Chapter Eleven, their son and finally the much hoped for daughter, Calliope. Each birth brings fear and anxiety to Desdemona as she awaits the punishment for the sin of marrying her brother, however each baby appears to be normal. But appearances can be deceiving and while Callie seems to be the daughter Tessie has hoped for, the spoon that Desdemona swung over her pregnant belly was telling the truth. Years of inbreeding in the tiny Greek village and later in America had produced a recessive gene mutation in the 5-alpha reductase enzyme. Unable to convert testosterone to dihydrotestosterone Callie appears as a girl at birth and throughout her early years. When puberty strikes however, so does the family curse and an influx of testosterone in her body. As Callie anxiously waits for the appearance of her breasts and her period, she also becomes aware of the changes she is seeing in her voice and her body and the feelings she has for her best friend. Feelings that are more like what she should have for her best friendís brother. After a brief period of sexual freedom and experimentation with both the brother and the best friend, Callieís secret is revealed. While her parents struggle with the implications, the medical profession sees her as a gift, yet their decisions and lies force Callie to take action. So she runs away to San Francisco and begins to embrace her differences, while her family back home struggle with why she left. They had been reassured she was a girl and her problems could be fixed, yet her letter tells them that she isnít a girl like they all thought, but a boy. Four months after she left, Callie returns home as the 15 year old boy, Cal. His father is dead, his brother is surprisingly accepting of the change and Tessie his mother is just happy to have him home. When Desdemona finally reveals the family secrets that have created this mutation, Cal is complete. His family have accepted his decision and who he really is and he has accepted himself. Although the book is heavy on information and too much of it focused on the grandparents and parents, the author is a gifted story-teller and I really did enjoy it. Moving through 60 years and three generations, he drops facts and anecdotes which add more and more to a story that is almost like a history lesson. The ending, which finishes when Cal is 15 years old is a bit rushed, and although we get glimpses at the beginning of each section of the 41 year old Cal as he navigates another new relationship with Julie, I really wanted more of his life. He was the real story here and not enough is given to the reader about his struggle and journey, particularly in the later years.
Middlesex is one of Oprah's Book Club Top 10 picks and click here to read Jeffrey Eugenides' Q&A on Middlesex.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
Read by Tracy March 2011
Tracy recommends if you are interested in the origins of all sorts of things around the home
Sitting at his kitchen table one day, Bill Bryson wondered why, from a choice of hundreds of spices, we have settled on salt and pepper as our condiments of preference Ė why not salt and cardamom, he thought? This went on through the other kitchen implements and then on the rooms in his restored English Victorian country rectory. So Bryson went out and found the commonly perceived answers. The book is grouped in the different rooms of the house i.e. Hall, Laundry, Drawing Room etc, however, some of his writing seemed to go off track and didn't really bear much relation to the rooms themselves. However, what was interesting was the facts his gathered at how our daily life has evolved up to the current time.
Bryson delves into the development of language and how rooms, steps, upstairs and downstairs, amongst others, came about and has certainly done a lot of research, although looking at his huge reference list at the back of the book, done a huge amount of reading. Although I felt the book lacked some of Bryson's earlier cynicism and wit, there were still some great sections. His description of rats and their preference for a well-heeled home to a poor one, made me shudder and apparently it is true that rats can come into homes through the toilet - definately a reason to keep the lid down, if you didn't already. I almost laughed out loud when he wrote about the trials and tribulations of women and the perception that being a woman was a pathological condition - obviously a lot of this stemmed from the lack of medical knowledge surrounding women, but don't you think that men still harbour those thoughts (deep down). Likewise the theory during the Victorian times that by educating the poor would fill them with aspirations which they are not entitled is laughable now - Bryson also brings into play Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus who is still quoted in University today. Malthus believed that the poor brought about their own hardships and any relief that could be given would only increase their tendency to idleness - you may say that has been the case with some, but on the whole the education of the poor has brought a more varied life. Imagine if everything was decided by only the rich! One of the most interesting parts of the book was the detail about Charles Darwin, not just his voyage (which I have travelled part of), but his family life, through his close connection with the Wedgewood family, and his stance and belief in evolution. The book ended with Bryson's own musings about our current energy consumption levels to ensure that we have everything we desire. His final comments: "The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither." very true and poignant, but alas nobody will change or care and that for me is the great irony of today.
Bill Bryson has an official website where you can stay up to date with Bill's travels, writings. You can also view excerpts from his books, sign up for a newsletter and join him on Facebook.
The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais
Read by Tracy March 2011
Tracy recommends for a promising start to a book, but it all too soon unravels into nonsense
The book starts with some delicious mouth-watering descriptions of life in Mumbai, India for a young Hassan Haji, who is born into a family restaurant business. I could conjour up the smells of the food he was describing, it was some of the greatest memories of my trips to India where a culinary feast awaits you everywhere. His description of Crawford Market in Mumbai is also extremely well defined as I have been there and it certainly takes a hardy stomach to go through the meat and fish areas, however, the fruit and vegetable sections just blow your taste buds into overdrive. The Haji family stayed in India after Independence and Partition avoiding violence through the goodwill of friends. What started as a dobhi wallah business became a mobile street stall and eventually into a large restaurant becoming very successful. However, the family were eventually overcome by an rampant Hindi mob who burn down the restaurant and in the process kill Hassan's mother, driving his father to move to England where the family could start again. The Haji family were extremely lucky in being able to sell their restaurant land at a market high earning them a fortune which luckily allowed them the opportunity to travel.
After several years in the grey gloom of England (I can attest to that as I have been here for 6 weeks and we have not had a completely sunny day), the Haji family fall out with their relatives and they take to driving around Europe in a convoy of Mercedes, before fate sees them break down in Lumiere, France where they quickly purchase a large vacant property which is across the road from the beautiful sounding two Michelin starred French restaurant of Madame Mallory. The opening of the Haji Indian restaurant, soon pits the two owners in a battle of wits with constant bickering and arguing amongst the families before Madame Mallory eventually sits down and tastes Hassan's cooking and takes him under her wing, introducing him into the elite world of French gastronomique. After an apprenticeship, Hassan soon moves onto greater and greater positions before opening his own restaurant with the help of his family. This is where I found the book started to lose its passion and interest - once Hassan moves away from his father and Madame Mallory, he seems to become some sort of messiah to everyone that he meets, all very pretentious. However, I am sure that one of the characters, Paul, is based on Bernard Loiseau, who committed suicide at the threat of losing his third Michelin star - very sad that the losing or gaining of a Michelin star can make or break a restaurant business. That aside, I don't like main characters that can do absolutely no wrong. The book is not a biography etc it is a book written by Morais in homage to Ismail Merchant (the Merchant Ivory Productions Producer) who Morais had to pay homage to and write a book that could describe their shared love of eating and cooking, for me it was as if Morais ran out of puff and just wanted to finish it, such a shame after an interesting beginning.
Se between the equally beautiful and colourful setting of Mumbai and the French countryside and mouthwatering descriptions of dishes, this book was basically begging to be made into a movie. And this movie's got star power, too: Oprah and Steven Spielberg are listed as producers, and the inimitable Helen Mirren plays the snobby French chef. Following the Haji family as they cope with tragedy and find success, all with the help of culinary traditions both old and new, the film adaptation will be in theaters August 8.
The Long Song by Andrea Levy
Read by Tracy February 2011(Our Book Club book pick of the month for February 2011)
Tracy recommends as a fantastic book
Okay anyone reading my recent reviews will understand my growing depression at reading books that have been nominated for prizes - including the Man Booker which in my opinion have failed to live up to the hype. The Long Song by Andrea Levy (her fifth book) was shortlisted for The Man Booker, which should, based on recent reviews, have made it an awful book, however, it was fantastic. At this point I must state that I am an Andrea Levy fan, her books, for me have been captivating. She seems to capture the relationships between black and white really well but she doesn't dwell on the negative, in fact the opposite, highlighting the benefits and how things can work out. Levy didn't set out to write the usual bleak and depressing book on slavery in the Caribbean during the 19th century - she wanted to write a story that showed the good and bad in both races, but also highlight the pride that survived the plantations, one that saw through European racism. The Long Song is written in a series of notes from the "real" July, whose son (Thomas Kinsman) encourages her to write down her history. So you are also drawn into the arguments and communication between them as they argue over what is the perfect ending to the story and what was the real story underneath it all and this is the part of the story that I loved - you are torn between the book that Thomas wanted his mother to write and the one with the happy ending she wanted to write, protesting that the reader wanted to read a sweet melody, not one that forces you to cry. For Thomas Kinsman, however, a child whose life was also marked indelibly by the circumstances of his birth, the imperative to make an accurate record cannot be resisted. Yet whose is the better story, and to whom do we most want to listen? I for one wanted to listen to the underlying story which was gripping. I haven't read many books from this perspective, most of them are based on the plantation owners and how hard it was for them to live their English livestyle in a tropical country.
The Long Song is the story of July, her birth onto a cane field on the Amity plantation estate, her introduction to the "house" in the plantation and her subseqent loves and life. There were some times through the story I was torn to how I would react in some of the situations, but you can never imagine what it would have been like in the time of slavery. The slaves didn't even come from that region, they were imported as free labour to work the lands for the rich white Europeans to make the lands productive. July's mother, Kitty, was a slave who fell pregnant (although it wasn't exactly her choice, but his want) to the overseer Tam Dewar (who was Scottish) which resulted in July being born into a life working on a cane plantation. However, the arrival of Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantations' owner (John Howarth) didn't exactly help, as Miss Mortimer basically kidnapped July from her mother and took her to live in the main house of the plantation to work as an unpaid slave and renamed to Marguerite, and became her lady's maid. Caroline's brother believed this was the best thing for July, who surely would have been sold in the short-term as it was his belief that negroes made bad parents. However, you always get the impression that July did what she did with an end game in sight, she never completely buckled under and kept her independent spirit even though she was forced, along with the rest of the slaves to enact a grotesque parody of English aristocratic country-house life, which in itself is absurd as most of the landowners in the Caribbean were not artistocratic.
Then came the major change, the abolition of slavery and the reality of freedom to the negroes. During this time, I almost felt sorry for some of the white plantation owners, as they knew nothing else or understood their actions. The Christmas Feast that was thrown on Amity Plantation was perfect, the sheer waste and grandeur was so bountiful that it was awe-inspiring and so misunderstood by the local population. When the dinner was interrupted by the rebellion, I almost wanted to cheer. On his return from quelling the uprising, John Howarth cannot accept the acts of violence carried out against the negroes or those white people that helped them, and his actions change Amity Plantation forever. Including the brief love affair between July and her intended Nimrod. The outcomes seems the baby that is born left on the steps of the Baptist Church, and it was this son (Thomas Kinsman) that eventually came to the aid of July many decades latter.
The characters in the book were fascinating - particularly Robert Goodwin, the father of July's second child, who initially loved her more than anything in the world, but could never marry or acknowledge her because of her colour, instead marrying Caroline Mortimer as a cover for their affair. Goodwin came to Amity Plantation with some post-slavery progressive ideals which soon disintegrated and after a mental breakdown he turned on July and all the other plantation workers, leaving to return to England. This part was so sad as when he left with his wife and maid (not July), they also took July's daughter. The preceeding years see July obviously ekeing out an existence on the edge of the Amity Plantation that was closed and merged with a neighbouring estate where she is suffering from starvation but in her memoirs, she passes over this period to quickly reach the better days that see her finally living with her Son in affluence and harmony. The book has a good pace and you soon get into the flow of the Caribbean language that Levy uses for her negro characters and you are gripped by the suffering and resultant perseverance of those characters.
The Radleys by Matt Haig
Read by Natalie February 2011.(Our Book Club book pick of the month for Febrary 2011)
Natalie recommends this as a hilarious look at a dysfunctional British family with a little secret!
This is one of the coolest books I have ever read, the kind of book I wish I could write. The Radleys are your average middle-class dysfunctional British family. The parents Ė Helen and Peter and their children Ė Rowan and Clara live in a typical suburban English town, in a normal house with a normal car and normal lives. Peter works as the local GP and wonders if his wife truly loves him anymore, Helen minds the house, paints, is in the local bookclub yet stares at a hidden photograph each night. Rowan is 17 with a terrible skin rash caused by photodermatosis. He is bullied at school and canít understand his insomnia or why he keeps having strange and violent thoughts and dreams. Clara is 15 and while she fits in better at school, she longs to have a pet that survives. Turning vegetarian and even vegan in a bid to make animals like her, she suddenly starts becoming very sick and doesnít know why. As her parents try to encourage her to eat meat, she refuses and the nausea starts to get worse.
You see, The Radleys have a secret, a secret that even Rowan and Clara donít know about, a reason for all of their problems Ė yep they are vampires! Their name, Radley, means Red Meadow and comes from a well-known family of hereditary vampire. Helen is a converted vampire, but it was by choice when she fell in love with Peter 20 years ago. Only they are abstainers, vampires who shun human or vampire blood in favour of lots of meat and pretending to be humans. Itís a hard life, but with the help of The Abstainerís Handbook, they have tried to live this way for the last 17 years.
However one night, an attack on Clara by a boy from her school turns deadly, in more ways than one. Suddenly Clara is feeling a whole lot better Ė except now there is a lot of blood and a dead body that needs to disappear. Enter Will, Peterís older brother who is himself a practicing vampire and able to ďblood-mindĒ any human into doing anything. Brought in initially to help clean up Claraís mess, he unexpectedly reignites a lot of hidden feelings from Helen and strange behaviour in Peter. As Will begins to teach the children all about vampire life and what their parents have kept hidden, Rowan and Clara struggle with what they really are as they are forced to continue the charade of a normal life. Except now, with blood in their diet the rashes have gone, the nausea is finished, Rowan doesnít stutter and Clara has no need for her glasses. Suddenly they are popular at school, and with that comes the power to get the things they want.
Ok yes, this is a vampire book, but it really isnít about that. In fact it is so much better than all the other vampire stuff out there because it manages to tell its story without all the angst and crap that often goes with those books. This instead, is a funny and moving story about a family living a lie and what it does to them. Itís about learning the truth about your identity and the things you lose and gain from that. It is about marriage, teen love, bullies, jealous siblings, secrets and so much more. And it is also very hilarious, from the dialogue to the fantasies, the real life situations, to the random sections of The Abstainerís Handbook peppered throughout to teach us how to avoid certain situations. The Radleys are an unconventional family, but they do the best they can and by the end of the book, they have tried to achieve that. The secrets have been revealed and they are no longer denying what they are. This is a great read that you donít have to be a fan of vampires to enjoy! Released as an adult novel, there is a Young Adult novel available in the UK. Of course capitalising on the current love of all fang bearing creatures, The Radleys is being made into a movie.
The Legacy by Kirsten Tranter
Read by Natalie February 2011.
Natalie recommends as an interesting, but drawn out mystery.
Set in two cities, this book revolves around 3 university friends in Sydney and the Twin Towers attack in New York. Told in 3 parts, the first introduces us to Julia, Ralph and Ingrid. Julia meets Ralph first, when she is working at a video store and he comes in with an obscure reference to the Ben Hur movie that is playing, which coincidently Julia understands. She is love with Ralph instantly, but it is unrequited, partly due to Ralph being mostly gay (occasionally sleeps with women, but it never means anything) and partly because he just doesnít feel that way about Julia. Sometime later, along comes Ingrid, who is Ralphís half-cousin, brought over from Perth by Ralphís mother Eve, after Ingridís parents die. Ralph is in love with Ingrid, which makes Julia insanely jealous. However Ingrid is friendly to Julia, which eases her alittle. George and Eve, Ralphís parents love Ingrid and when George dies, he bequeaths a large sum of money to Ingrid, a bid to get her to do something with her life. This she does, travelling to Venice with Maeve (Eveís art gallery owning friend). While in Venice, Ingrid meets Gil Grey through Keith (an art dealer who is also friends with Juliaís aunt Jenny, who is an artist). Gil is partners in a New York gallery with Maeve. Despite showing no real interest in men before and oblivious to Ralphís pining, Ingrid falls in love with the much older Gil. When she returns to Sydney, she is already making plans to visit him in New York. Eventually she does, and Julia and Ralph go along for the ride, both of them forming an instant dislike of Gil. Neither of them trust him, although possibly for different reasons and when they are married, both avoid the New York wedding, opting instead to go to the Sydney celebration later on. This proves to be a disaster as Ralph assaults Gil in a drunken stupor and storms out. From this moment on, contact between Julia, Ralph and Ingrid becomes stilted. All of them angry for various reasons and all of them avoiding contact with each other.
Part two starts with the events of 9/11. By this stage Ingrid is living in New York, married to Gil and step-mother to his daughter Fleur Ė something of a child art prodigy. After the towers collapse, Julia and Ralph try desperately to reach Ingrid and when Eve confirms the worst with news from Gil, they both struggle with their loss. One year after the event, Ralph asks Julia to travel to New York to find out more about Ingridís life there. He is too sick to travel having inherited the mystery heart condition his father died of, which Julia seems to be slightly in the dark about. Arriving in New York, Julia finds herself unable to visit the sight of the collapse, instead surrounding herself with the psychic neighbour downstairs, Matt her new roommate, Trinh who was one of Ingridís friends at Columbia, and Jones, Ingridís thesis supervisor, who Julia had briefly run into on her last trip to New York. As she begins an affair with Jones and faces resistance from all those who knew Ingrid about her life in New York, her aunt Jenny suffers a stroke and she finds herself rushing back to Sydney. As the flight is about to depart JFK she looks at a photo and discovers Ingrid standing in front of Manhattan with the towers already missing.
Part three is then all about Juliaís return to New York and her hunt to find out the truth about Ingrid. As it becomes increasingly obvious she was unhappy in her marriage to Gil and possibly the victim of domestic violence, Julia doesnít know who to believe. Ingridís fellow student Richard, who was reluctant to talk and had a restraining order against him from Gil. Fleur, Ingridís step-daughter who took the mysterious photo of Ingrid. Trinh, the friend who was guarding some documents Ingrid asked her to keep safe or Jones, who doesnít really say anything about Ingrid, instead preferring to spend time with Julia when his wife is away. Julia keeps her discoveries to herself, refusing even to tell Ralph back home in Australia. As she sees the evidence of Ingridís bruises, she joins Richard in his theory that Gil murdered Ingrid and used the events of 9/11 to cover his tracks. However one last trip down to the location the photo was taken from reveals the truth, which I actually thought was pretty obvious from the very start! The book is narrated by Julia who is at times impossibly annoying, particularly as she likes to shut things away for weeks at a time instead of just dealing with them. Her unrelenting love of Ralph made little sense to me although I was glad by the end she seemed to finally be over it. While I did enjoy the book and felt it was quite intriguing by the end, there were a couple of things that I felt let down by. Firstly, the prologue. Told from Ingridís point of view I felt this gave away far too much before the novel had even begun and basically pointed the reader in the direction of the conclusion straight away. It would have been smarter to leave it out and have the reader work things out as Julia did (or quicker even). Secondly, the marriage between Ingrid and Gil was strange and lacked enough description. I didnít understand the complexities of it nor Ingridís solution for getting out of it Ė was she really that ashamed of having a failed marriage? The book is also quite drawn out (a bit like this review actually!) with a lot of descriptions and characters that donít necessarily contribute to the overall story. It is beautifully written though, so that I could almost over look. On a final note, it was set in two of my favourite cities and having visited New York both pre and post 9/11, I could certainly relate to Juliaís emotions at doing the same thing.
The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams
Read by Natalie February 2011.
Natalie recommends that this little book packs a powerful (and disturbing) punch.
Kyra lives in a remote gated compound in the middle of the desert. She has 1 father, 3 mothers and 20 siblings. They all live in run down trailers while Prophet Childs, their leader, lives in a palatial mansion surrounded by his Apostles. The only book she is allowed to read is the bible. She is not allowed to leave the compound and she has to do a minimum of 4 hours of scripture work a day. She also has to work in the garden, help look after the house and care for her siblings. She has been taught that she is subservient to both men and God, doing everything they ask. She has just found out that she is to be married to Brother Hyrum. He is her uncle and he is 60 years old. She is 13. Kyra wonders if this is punishment for her sins Ė her sneaking out of the compound, her reading books that are not the bible and for her kisses with Joshua, the 16 year old boy who she teaches piano too. As Kyra starts to question everything, including why she canít chose who she marries, why her father wonít protect her (he tries, but is repeatedly blocked by the Prophet), why her baby sister is so savagely punished simply for crying and why all the girls are married off to older men who already have 6 wives, she continues to commit her sins. When Joshua tries to ask permission to marry her, he is punished and she is beaten savagely by her uncle and soon to be husband. All the while, Kyra struggles with wanting to escape, to run, but also the guilt at leaving behind her family and sisters to suffer the same fate. After Joshua is forced from the compound and doesnít wait for Kyra to come with him, she feels even more trapped than ever. When Kyra ventures out to say goodbye to Patrick from the mobile library who brings her books, he suddenly offers her a new escape route. So close to success, they are caught and the consequences are severe. Just when it looks like all hope is lost a clue from Patrick provides her one last chance. Taking it she rushes to safety and freedom and the reader is caught up in her tension filled escape. This book, although told from the perspective of Kyra is extremely disturbing and sad. That any human being could honestly believe that a fellow human can be treated in this way, all by the order of God, is beyond belief. If even only part of this book is true, which I suspect it is, then it is a sad world we live in.
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
Read by Natalie February 2011.
Natalie recommends this as beautifully sweet and romantic, I loved it and no, I don't want to be cured.
Delirium is set in a world where love or amor deliria nervosa is considered a disease. Sixty years ago scientists created a cure and after a series of trial and error to perfect it, the cure is now mandatory when people turn 18. As a result, society is much ďhappierĒ Ė wars donít exist, there is little crime and people donít go mad from the effects of love. The cure though, only exists in the US, which has shut off its borders to the rest of the World. Shortly after the cure was developed, a blitz took place throughout America, wiping out the areas where people refused to submit to it. These Wilds still exist, home to the Invalids who are not members of society and shun the rules and regulations that society imposes on them. Back in Portland Maine, a city that is protected and cured, Lena is 17 and counting down the days until she receives her cure. Living with her aunt and cousins, she knows full well the ramifications of catching the disease. Her mother caught it and after the cure failed 3 times, she eventually committed suicide. Her cousin also died of a broken heart after her husband was suspected of being a sympathiser to those against the cure and disappeared in the middle of the night. As a result, Lena canít wait to have her cure, canít wait to be free of the risk of catching the disease, canít wait to be normal and exist in the society which protects them all from the dangers of love. Although there are risks Ė people no longer enjoy the activities they did before they were cured, friends are lost, family is often ignored and in some cases worse, the cure ends pain, ends suffering. Lena is assured she will be happier once she has it done, then she will go to university and be matched with her future husband. Then, 7 weeks before she is scheduled to undergo the cure, the unthinkable happens Ė Lena meets Alex and she falls in love. At first glance Alex isnít all that he appears. Although he has the mark of the cured, he doesnít act like them, he laughs, he smiles and he has life in his eyes. Although Lena believes she is safe with a cured, when she finally learns the truth, she is terrified, scared at the position she now finds herself in and scared of the feelings and thoughts she starts to have. When she eventually succumbs to these, she begins to realise that the pain of love is worth it, because the joy it brings is so much more. As the date of her procedure rapidly approaches, Lena starts to question and risk everything, driven by her feelings for Alex and his feelings for her, his ability to show her the truth, her realisation of what the cure really does and the facts she learns about her mother. The book is hopelessly romantic and sweet and the scene where Alex sneaks her away to his real home and introduces her to poetry for the first time is truly swoon-worthy! As they embark on their plan to escape however, Lena is found out (heartbreaking what her family does here), the tension mounts, the ultimate sacrifice is made and the reader is left on the most impossible of cliff hangers at the end. The first in a trilogy, Delirium ends in a way that makes me wish I had waited until the whole series was written. Although you know it ultimately has to end happily, the wait for the next book is just agonising. And Alex, sweet, sweet Alex - you are the best male lead I have read in a long time, I would definitely run away to the Wilds with you.
Lauren Oliver is author to the best-selling Before I Fall (reviewed below). Delirium is the first in a planned trilogy with Pandemonium and Requiem, books 2 and 3 out in 2012 and 2013. Like her first book, Fox has also optioned the movie rights for Delirium.
April & Oliver by Tess Callahan
Read by Natalie February 2011.
Natalie recommends this as a confusing and disturbing love story that is very frustrating.
April and Oliver have known each other their whole lives Ė their fathers are step-brothers Ė and they spent their childhood inseparable. However in recent years they have drifted apart, living on opposite sides of the country and rarely communicating or seeing each other. Oliver left to go to college, while April stayed to look after her younger brother Bubby and tend bar for her father. They are brought back together by the sudden death of Buddy and when Oliver, the newly engaged law student returns, he finds Alice a train wreck. Consumed by grief at her loss, she is in a dangerous relationship with an older man who isnít afraid to use violence on her. Oliver desperately wants to save Alice and feels strangely drawn to her again. However he is again pathetically useless in his current endeavours, falling into the same routine as when they were teenagers and he never saved her from the sexual abuse she received at the hands of her fatherís business partner or the physical abuse she suffered from her father. The blurb on the back of the book claims these two are soul mates with an electrifying sexual tension that is palpable. Yet all their lives, Oliver seems to have turned a blind eye, despite Aliceís reluctant cries for help. Alice on the other hand refuses to talk about what is happening to her on the odd occasion that Oliver or his family try to reach out to her. On top of that, there is a clear attraction between the pair of them that only grows as they get older (perhaps facilitated by Alice learning Oliver is not a blood cousin after all). Reading this book I was continuously frustrated at the stilted conversion between them, at the missed and ignored opportunities from their past and their present, at Oliverís blindness to the false relationship he was generating with his fiancťe and at Aliceís constant acceptance of all the shitty things that kept happening to her. By the end of the book when Oliver gets dumped at the altar, I was relieved that his sham of a marriage wouldnít go ahead, but when he blames Alice for the fall-out, I was once again furious. After they make a pact to not speak for 6 months, Oliver escapes to Europe and Alice packs up and finally takes a shot at going to college and doing something with her life. The ending, moving between Alice on an isolated stretch of coast in Massachusetts and Oliver on a similar landscape in Ireland is both beautiful and beyond frustrating. The message he finally sends to her as usual contains no words of communication, but at the same time a whole lot more. Of course it is here that the book ends and the reader is left in the frustrating limbo of whether these two might be able to work their lives out or whether they will continue avoiding what is right in their faces.
Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby
Read by Natalie January 2011
Natalie recommends this as another great Hornby novel.
The three main characters in Juliet Naked are Annie, Duncan and Tucker. Annie is a 39 year old, childless museum curator in the small English town of Gooleness. She has been in a bland, virtually platonic relationship with Duncan which was really brought about through lack of other options. Duncan is a 40ish podgy university teacher who also happens to be obsessed with a reclusive American singer/song-writer that no one has heard of in 20 odd years. Channelling his obsession through a website he created for the singer, Duncan proclaims to be the world expert on all things related to him, including his greatest album ďJulietĒ, its song lyrics and muse Julie Beatty, his current location and former girlfriends. Tucker is the said reclusive rock star. Suddenly abandoning his career midway through a tour some 20 years ago, he is in fact now living in rural Pennsylvania with his latest wife and one of his 5 children. Despite internet speculation that he fathered a child with his former muse Julie, he didnít, and instead has 5 other children with 4 different women. Now living a life of little league and reading, he is still stuck in the same rut that caused him to abandon his career all those years ago - that everything he said and did was bullshit. Then comes ďJuliet NakedĒ, an acoustic, raw new album that features different versions of the songs from his last album Juliet. When Duncan gets his hands on this album first, he is beyond excited and after 3 successive hearings he posts a gushing, effusive review on his website. When Annie reads this, she is appalled and cannot believe that Duncan thinks so highly of it when its predecessor is clearly so much better. Increasingly irritated at Duncanís criticisms of her opinion and now beginning to wonder if she hasnít wasted the last 15 years in a relationship with him, Annie writes and posts her own review. When she receives an email from the impossible, Tucker himself, Annie finally starts to wake up and take her life back. Dumping Duncan after he has a one night stand, she continues in secret her correspondence with Tucker as they both lament the state of their lives, until fate transpires to bring him to England. After a health scare sees Tucker and Jackson move to Gooleness to live with Annie, she wonders whether she could have a life with them, whether he would ever consider staying in England. I really enjoyed this book, especially Tucker and his young son Jackson. The usual British humour is throughout and I love that Annie finally told Duncan where to go and Duncanís realisation that he may in fact no absolutely nothing about Tucker at all. The part in the story when Duncan and Tucker finally meet is just fantastic. The only thing that disappointed me was the ending where I felt I was just left a little bit hanging with what was going to happen to everyone and that maybe Tucker didnít have the epiphany he should have had. Still, all in all it was a great read.
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Read by Tracy January 2011.
Tracy found this to be disappointing and full of cowardly characters.
The Finkler Question won the Man Booker 2010 Award and I have been dying to read it for ages, due to all the hype and the delay I had in getting it electronically (come on publishers). The reviews I had read online state that The Finkler Question is full of wit, warmth, intelligence and human feeling. Hmm here I tend to disagree. Yes there is some of that, but not from the main characters who are all so caught up in their own lives and ideals, they forget that there are some wonderful people around them.
The book is essentially the story of Julian Treslove, who is a 49 year old bachelor, unable to commit and after going through many career changes is now a professional lookalike. He also cannot accept who he is and becomes a ghost - never really being anybody, instead he puts all his thoughts and dreams in becoming Jewish and is totally besotted in the thought of anything and everything being Jewish means, to the detriment of everything else around him. He spends his time envying the suffering of his two main friends. His best friend (and also his worst enemy) - Sam Finkler. Finkler has everything including being Jewish. Throughout the story, Julian uses the word "Finkler" to mean "Jew" - hence the title of the book which means "The Jewish Question". Finkler is the opposite to Treslove and hates being a Jew and anything therefore related to that and becomes part of a group called Ashamed. Finkler is also a celebrity and has become popular and successful. The final part of the puzzle is Libor Sevcik, also a Jew, but he is pro-Israel and spends his time mourning for his recently dead wife. Sevcik was a former teacher of both Treslove and Finkler who have all kept in random touch throughout their lives. The book is split into the different characters and how they address their Jewishness and their interactions with each other and personal relationships. Treslove has had many women, but other than two children, which he has no interest in, he falls in love with Hephzibah, but I think that was only because she was Jewish. Treslove also had an affair with Finkler's dead wife, Tyler, but he was disappointed when he found out she was Jewish. I am glad I read this book on my eReader which has a built in dictionery, as Jacobson certainly attempted to expand my word knowledge, but it certainly wasn't an easy read and I became so annoyed with the characters and the lack of any desire for something that resembled reality and happiness. The only characters that were interesting were the women and two of them were dead.
Was this my pick for the Man Booker - definately not. I found it quite boring and eventually annoying. Read more information on the Man Booker Prize and who we thought should have won. As a side issue, in future I also suggest that Jacobson find a publisher that employs a proofreader.
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Read by Natalie January 2011.
Natalie recommends this as a thought provoking look at what you would do with the last day of your life.
Sam Kingston has it all. At 17, sheís pretty, has 3 best friends, is popular and has the best looking boyfriend. As she wakes up on 12 February, Cupidís Day, she is excited to go to school. What she doesnít realise is that itís also the day she is going to die. As she lives her last day, Friday, she behaves the same way she always does. Making fun of the less popular girls, flirting with her mathís teacher, cheating on her chemistry test, ditching school, drinking, partying and leaving the party in a car driven by her drunk best friend. Life for her is the same as always. However, itís this final step that results in her death and at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking she deserved it. She wasnít an especially nice person, to her family, her former best friend or a lot of people at her school. She acted recklessly and immaturely. However when Sam wakes up the following day after a horrible dream, she finds herself back once again on the 12 February. Sound a bit like Groundhog Day? In some ways yes, she even thinks that herself, but it is also different. As Sam struggles to work out what is going on, was yesterday a dream, is she going crazy, is she stuck in purgatory/hell, is she back to make amends, she also starts to change. In fact she relives the same Friday, the day of her death 7 times in total before she works out the true meaning behind it. Along the way she discovers that trying to fix a wrong to create a right, can result in a lot more wrongs. Just as ignoring a wrong and letting it play out can result in another right. The book is fantastically written, with the author capturing the essence of high school bitches and the popular group perfectly. As day 7 rolls around, you start to wonder exactly why she is allowed to come back. The final reasoning is both heartbreaking and inspiring, particularly Samís reaction to it. By the end of the book, I truly liked her character and while I was left feeling very sad by the final scenes, particularly for everyone else, it was obvious she had grown and changed for the better. Whether a day was long enough to fix her past behaviour or that the 7th Friday was truly her last day as remembered by everyone else, well thatís up to the reader to decide. There is an ambiguity to the ending that lets you believe that the last one, perhaps when she finally got it right, was truly the real one. Either way, make sure you have a tissue handy, the book will leave you thinking about it days later.
In what is sure to be an interesting movie, the rights have now been optioned by Fox. Although similar in theme to Groundhog Day, Before I Fall offers a different view at living one day of your life over and over again and provides an ending that perhaps isn't happily ever after to everyone.
You Against Me by Jenny Downham
Read by Natalie January 2011.
Natalie recommends this as wow, what can I say - I loved this book, I devoured this book and when I finished this book, I started flicking back through it, wanting to read it all over again.
Karyn is 15 and has accused Tom, who is 18, of raping her. Her older brother Mikey can only think of revenge and protecting his little sister. Tom denies it, says Karyn threw herself at him and although she was drunk, she wanted it. Ellie, Tomís sister chooses to believe him. Heís her older brother, heís always protected her and she should defend him. Everyone assumes Tom is innocent, that Karyn has made it all up after waking up with regret. After all, Karynís family is poor and lives in a run-down council housing estate, while Tomís family is rich and living in a gated community in the exclusive part of town. On top of this Karyn made no secret of the fact she liked Tom, she willingly went home with him that night and the next day she took over 24hrs to report it to the police. Is she setting Tom up? Only Ellie was home that night, but she says she slept through the whole thing and the next day Karyn seemed fine.
But as Mikey sets out to gather information in a bid to ruin Tomís case, Ellie also sets out to learn more about Karyn. When Mikey and Ellie meet, everything they thought they knew seems to change. They are opposite and different and are desperate to protect their sibling, but behind both familiesí doors there are other secrets and problems - alcoholism, denial, anger, sadness and even neglect. What Mikey and Ellie find in each other is an escape, an understanding and an attraction that neither of them expected. As the trial looms, stories and feelings about that night begin to change and pressure mounts for the truth to come out, even if it means one family is going to be saved and one family is going to be destroyed.
As the reader you are constantly wondering about the night in question. What really happened, who is telling the truth and what will be the final outcome? Reading it, I found myself changing sides and opinions often. Although the rape and subsequent trial are a part of it, the bigger story here is about the siblings Ė Mikey and Ellie. It is about how they cope with whatís happening around them, how they desperately try to protect their brother and sister, whilst fighting to stay afloat themselves. Itís about family and loyalty and the choices this forces you to make. Is hiding the truth the right thing to do if it protects your family? Itís about actions, decisions and the consequences. But, more than anything itís a story about love, the love you have for your family, but also the love you can find for another, a love that can come from the strangest of places. This Jenny Downhamís second book, and despite depicting younger characters, it is probably not geared for the younger, teen reader. And while some may feel the ending is incomplete, I didnít think so. The ending was perfect because it was Mikey and Ellieís story. This was about their relationship which began, changed, grew, was realistic and was beautifully written. Fantastic book, fantastic title Ė I loved it. Jenny Downham has won the Tenn book category in the Waterstones Children's Book Prize for You Against me.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Read by Natalie and Tracy January 2011
Natalie and Tracy recommend this as really quite amazing (and yes we both agree)
Room is about Jack, a little boy who is excited about his 5th birthday. Told entirely from Jackís perspective, the book is broken up into 5 parts Ė Presents, Unlying, Dying, After and Living. In the first part ďPresentsĒ Jack is telling us all about his world, which consists entirely of Room, an 11x11 foot room he shares with Ma. Also in Room are Bed, Wardrobe, Bath, Table, Chair and TV. The TV is magical because it has all of Jackís friends and although he can never meet them in real life, he enjoys spending time with them. Jack also tells us what he and Ma do all day from Track to baths, stories to sleeping and eating meals according to Watch. ďUnlyingĒ is Jack learning the truth about the Room Ė that he and his Ma are kept there by Old Nick, a man that only comes at night when Jack has to sleep in Wardrobe. Ma wants to get out, but Room is all Jack has ever known and he is happy to stay. ďDyingĒ is Maís plan to get them out and involves Jack getting out into the Outside, away from Old Nick and sending help to rescue Ma. ďAfterĒ is the harsh reality they now face in the Outside ĖMa is happy she is back, Jack is scared, surrounded by things he has never experienced before, things like getting a cold or going to the mall. "Living" is the final chapter where the tables are turned and Jack now enjoys the outside world, while Ma finds it difficult to cope. However in both of them returning to the Room, each with different agendas, they are able to find closure and move on. This novel is clearly based on recent news reports of women being held against their will. While the subject matter is disturbing, the narration by a child gives the book an interesting perspective. Definately one that will leave you thinking.
Room won the Galaxy National Book Awards 2011 Paperback of the year award. To find out more about Emma Donoghue visit her website.
Mapping The Edge by Sarah Dunant
Read by Natalie January 2011 (Our Book Club book pick of the month for January 2011)
Natalie recommends as wow, what an amazing book. From the author who brought us The Birth of Venus this book is completely different, yet gripping all the same. A mystery, a thriller and a tale about the power of imagination, as the reader you are immersed in the stories and left at the end to wonder just what exactly did happen.
Anna is a successful journalist and single mother to Lily, age 7. One day, she takes an impromptu trip to Italy, the recreation of a trip she made 20 years ago. Leaving Lily in the care of Patricia, her nanny, she is expected back on Thursday. When she fails to return, her friends Paul, the surrogate father to Lily and Estella, the best friend in Amsterdam are left to pick up the pieces. Neither of them knew she was even taking the trip, but they both band together to care for Lily, trying to reassure her that her mother is fine and has simply missed her flight home. The story is then told in 3 parts. There are those at home in Annaís house Ė Lily, Paul and Stella Ė and there is Italy where two possible stories about Anna begin to unfold.
In the first she has simply taken time out to find herself, discover if she can live without her daughter and her friends, a possible preparation for the separation of their lives when Lily grows up and her friends form their own relationships. She spends 4 days wandering and enjoying her own solitude and then on the last day is approached by a man who appears to want to help her. After seeing her eyeing gifts in an expensive gift store, he convinces her that the markets offer the same item at much cheaper prices. He also offers her tips on getting to the airport in time to make her flight, with information on the correct train and connections to make. When she arrives at the station to find it is in chaos, he is again there to help her.
In the second Italy, Anna is there to meet her secret lover. A married man who sells art, she originally met him when researching finding love through the personal ads for an article she was writing. Drawn by his honesty, Anna embarks on an illicit affair that culminates with the trip to Italy where she is to meet him. But he fails to arrive when he says, instead showing on the final day of her trip. Charmingly convincing her to stay, she misses her flight home, instead travelling with him to a romantic hotel in the hills where they seek out churches and restaurants and gradually start to reveal more of themselves to each other.
However, as time draws on and Anna canít get in contact with home, she starts to see that neither of these men are what they seem. As Anna gradually begins to realise each of their secrets and agendas, so too do the people back home begin to wonder if she is ever coming back. As the weekend stretches on, the Thursday arrival time long since past, both Paul and Stella battle with their ideas about what has happened to Anna. Each story is brilliantly told and while there are links between them all, they also offer different views of relationships, life and what people expect of you. As Anna fights to escape both versions of Italy she has found herself in, those back home start to think of a life without her and what this will mean for Lily. During all this, the reader is left to wonder what is real and what is not. A brilliant look at the power of imagination, there are many possible outcomes to the story and the ending, while not conclusive is somehow strangely satisfying. A great book that I devoured over a day or two, this will certainly leave you thinking.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
Read by Tracy January 2011
Tracy recommends if you are interested in World War I stories
Birdsong spans three generations and the gulf between World War I and the present has become unimaginable. Stephen Wraysford has a tempestous love affair with Isabelle Azaire in France and then subsequently is thrust in the surreal world of World War I and the trenches. The novel brought the characters to life and you experienced the affects of the war. The underlying love story seemed to take a backseat and felt hasty and not fully believable. However the two storylines work together.
Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga
Read by Tracy January 2011
Tracy recommends as a look at the class struggle in India
Between the Assassinations is based in Kittur, India which is located on India's southwestern coast and inhabited by nearly 200,000 residents. A twelve-year-old boy named Ziauddin, a gofer at a tea shop near the railway station, is enticed into wrongdoing because a fair-skinned stranger treats him with dignity and warmth. George D'Souza, a mosquito-repellent sprayer, elevates himself to gardener and then chauffeur to the lovely, young Mrs. Gomes, and then loses it all when he attempts to be something more. A little girl's first act of love for her father is to beg on the street for money to support his drug habit. A factory owner is forced to choose between buying into underworld economics and blinding his staff or closing up shop. A privileged schoolboy, using his own ties to the Kittur underworld, sets off an explosive in a Jesuit-school classroom in protest against casteism. A childless couple takes refuge in a rapidly diminishing forest on the outskirts of town, feeding a group of "intimates" who visit only to mock them. And the loneliest member of the Marxist-Maoist Party of India falls in love with the one young woman, in the poorest part of town, whom he cannot afford to wed.
Last Man in Tower is Aravind Adiga's latest book which is a fantastic read.