Tag Archives: Orange Prize

The Road Home – Rose Tremain

So I lied to you all. I lied to you all and then to make it worse I let you all down. I promised that I would have the review of this up, as one of the Trespassing with Tremain titles, last Sunday (after having delayed it once before, what kind of monster am I?) however it has taken until now. Do I feel bad? Not really, you see I was enjoying The Road Home so much and finding the writing so brilliant I didn’t want to rush it. So I let it, and its characters, just engulf me for a little bit longer. Though I have to admit, I did almost fall out with Tremain at one point, I may even have been a little bit cross.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2008, fiction, 365 pages, borrowed from the library

Lev is a man who, after the recent death of his wife, is travelling from Eastern Europe to the UK in search of work so that he can provide a better life for his mother, daughter and even some of his friends if they need help. A little like Dick Whittington he sees London as a place of streets filled with gold, or at least gold coins as part of the wealthy West. His dream soon becomes a grim reality as we follow his journey upon arrival in London where upon he finds a cold and confusing place, somewhere he realises he is ill prepared and poorly funded for. We follow him as he tries to make it in this new world, often wondering if such a thing can be possible, whilst his friends and family struggle in the land he left behind.

Within a very few chapters you can see why this novel won the Orange Prize back in 2008. Not only is it stunningly written, it is just brimming with themes and questions. It is also one of those books that really looks at the state of the UK and the experience not only of immigrants, which of course it highlights, but of anyone who is living on the breadline, or in the bits of society we don’t like to linger on, and trying to find their way in the life, or to be more precise in Lev’s case Europe.

‘Aren’t you afraid, like, Immigration could come here and whack you down the nick?’
‘Whack me down the nick? What is that?’
‘He knows nothin’, bless ‘im. You don’t know nothing’, luv. That Immigration, they’ve got officers everywhere, in disguise. I could be from them, for all you know. Then you’re done for. You’re back on the first plane.’
‘Yes? Back to what place?’
‘To wherever you came from: Bela-whatsit, Kazak-wherever.’

Of course it is the immigrant experience that is the focus of the novel as we follow Lev. It is this which makes the narrative so gripping as Tremain unflinchingly looks at how someone in a completely new and unnerving situation and surroundings. As we follow Lev from a bedsit, to posting leaflets, to the sink of one of London’s finest restaurants and beyond (no spoilers) we feel his vulnerability, see how he gets used and wonder how on earth anyone can go through all of that? Here I should mention that not once was I aware, once I was in, that Lev’s story was being written by a British woman, it all felt so real and chimed with what I have heard from friends, and indeed my ex, who were immigrants in this new United Kingdom. That is masterful in itself.

Yet there is also so much more going on. I love books that feature old people and old people’s homes. This is not some weird fetish I promise. This country is brimming, I nearly said overflowing but that sounds awful, with elderly people and people are living longer. For some reason as a society we don’t talk about them (rather like European immigrants I guess) and often shut them away in homes physically and literally. These people have done so much for us, yet these people are often left lonely and forgotten. They are also brimming with stories. Throw the ‘homes’ they are put into, and all the things that brings; fighting for independence and against authority, simply giving up, becoming angry and resentful, not wanting to live with people they don’t know, being bored out of their minds, etc and you have endless opportunities for a writer and lots of stories to tell and points to make as Tremain does.

Lev had asked her what she’d do there and she told him that she’d help prepare a Christmas meal and then they’d play games and have a sing-song. She said: ‘They’ll all get squiffy on Asti Spumante and float backwards in time, but I don’t care. When you’re old, nobody touches you, nobody listens to you – not in this bloody country. So that’s what I do: I touch and listen. I comb their hair. I play clapping games with them. That’s a laugh and a half. I hear about life in the post-war prefab or in some crumbling stately pile. I play my guitar and sometimes that makes them cry. My favourite person there is a woman called Ruby. She was brought up by nuns in India. She can still remember the convent school and her favourite nun, Sister Bendicta – every detail, every feeling.’

That is not all, there is more. No, seriously. Tremain also looks at a host of other things. She looks at grief and how we deal with it. She looks at love and infatuation in all its forms. She discusses the cult of celebrity and ‘the rich’. She looks at class. She looks at marriage and divorce. She looks at friendship and fatherhood. I could go on. The one other main theme I think I should mention though is that she looks at home and what that word really means and how we make our own.

So why did I almost fall out with Tremain? Well there was one thing that bothered me and was the only time where I suddenly said to myself ‘oh yeah, this is a story it’s not real’, because I had become so engrossed, and that is when she makes Lev do something violent that seems totally out of character. I initially thought I had missed something in his back story because for me he had just been this good guy who was working his arse of and the system was still messing him up, two steps forward one step back. Next thing I was thinking he was a nasty bugger and it jarred. I can see why Tremain did it, Lev becomes rather passionate about someone or something, yet this seemed very extreme. It caused a wobble, thankfully one that was soon stabilised by the prose and the turn in the plot which I wasn’t expecting. I know some people found this too jarred, as the book takes a possible hopeful twist, yet I went along with it and believed in it. Crisis averted.

As you have probably guessed I thought that The Road Home was rather wonderful. It is one of those wonderful books that makes you despair at society and how everything about it works. It is also a book about how we deal with struggles, being forgotten and/or looking for a place to belong. Tremain creates characters that you care about and love; Lev, Rudi, Christy, Ruby and ones that you think are utter bastards, who I won’t give away. It is a fully formed world which we all inhabit and, I think, makes us question it and want better for ourselves and others within it. All of this whilst also being a bloody marvellous story that is brilliantly written.

I am officially becoming a complete Tremain fan and can totally see why Gran raved about her as much as she did, so thanks Gran for making me read her even if it is too late to talk about her with you. However, as is always a delight, I can talk about it with all of you. Who else had read The Road Home and what did you make of it? For more opinions check Kim and Lizzy’s thoughts. Don’t forget next in Trespassing with Tremain is The Darkness of Wallace Simpson and Other Stories which we will be discussing on Sunday October the 5th, I promise. So do join in if you fancy it.

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Filed under Review, Rose Tremain, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books

The Amber Fury – Natalie Haynes

I have always liked Natalie Haynes, when I have seen her on the telly being very funny or talking on the BBC’s Review Show (which should be on more regularly and back on the mainstream Beeb) I have always found her thoughts really insightful. Ok, maybe we fell out a bit over The Luminaries when she was judging the Man Booker last year, but I couldn’t have agreed more with what an amazing book The Song of Achilles was when it won the Orange Prize and she was a judge. I then got slightly jealous about how many book prizes she was judging but we moved on, it was fine. Note – she knew none of this until we met for an interview on You Wrote the Book just to clarify, this isn’t a review of a friend’s book; though she would be a great friend to have a cocktail or two and meal with and discussing putting the cultural world to rights. Anyway, I have really digressed, Natalie has her debut novel out and it might not be what you are expecting…

9781782392750

Corvus Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 307 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Alex Morris is trying to escape her life. The only way she feels she can do this, without turning to suicide which isn’t in her nature, she feels is to get as far away from her old life in London and escape to Edinburgh where hardly anyone knows her and there won’t be the constant reminders of the loss of her fiancé under dreadful, and initially mysterious, circumstances. Through her friend Robert Alex has landed a job teaching at The Unit, an initiative set up for ‘difficult kids’ expelled by any other school. Here she will teach Classics, yet what Alex doesn’t realise is that as she teaches these Greek tragedies a tragedy may be playing out right in front of her eyes.

It is very, very difficult to say too much more about the plot without giving anything away. With this being a psychological thriller (who else would, as I did, have assumed initially that this was going to be a comedy?) there are lots of plots and twists that get revealed along the way I wouldn’t want to give away. Yet what I found so brilliant about The Amber Fury is that Haynes manages to give very little away both in the past and in the present narratives until she really wants two, doubly clever when the book is also in two narratives.

The first thing they will ask me is how I met her. They already know how we met, of course. But that won’t be why they’re asking. It never is.

From the very first line of the novel Haynes has you in her web, yet you are also rather confused (without ever being so baffled you throw the book across the room in despair) as you realise that something awful has happened very recently in Alex’s past, after the awful way in which she lost her fiancé before fleeing to Edinburgh in the hope of escape, fat chance there Ms Morris. Slowly Alex tells us both her tales, meaning sometimes you are trying to work out which awful thing she is discussing, whilst also we have a diary of one of her pupils. I won’t say which one it is obviously, safe to say though that they become rather obsessed with Alex and the new knowledge she is bringing into their lives. On top of this Haynes also throws several twists, turns and a few red herrings which are frustratingly brilliant and never make you quite cross enough to throw the book across the room either.

Brilliant stuff, and all that would be quite enough to make a great thriller yet Haynes has also weaved in themes which give the book weight and added depths, some as dark as the mysteries at the heart of the book. She brings up the subject of obsession and what it could take to make someone become obsessed, or not take actually thinking about it, and where obsession can lead. It also looks at education, and how ‘difficult kids’ are perceived as well as why the classics are important and not a dead subject as many believe. It is also about grief.

In fact I would say grief and hurt are probably the two themes that underline The Amber Fury. The grief and pain of losing someone you love so much and build your world around in the case of Alex, but also the grief and hurt that can be caused by people telling you that you’re no good, that you are a waste in society and have no future. How do we react to those things as humans be it good or bad? Haynes looks at these two themes unflinchingly and with a raw realism which I found incredibly moving and disturbing to read. These rather raw and moving moments propel The Amber Fury and give it additional layers which create a real impact. As with The Night Guest which I mentioned earlier this week, we have a dark, atmospheric and twisty tale that thrills but also has real depths to it, these are the sort of marvellously written and thrilling novels I want many more of in the months and years to come.

photo (1)

If you would like to hear more about the book (which I am sure you would) you can hear Natalie in conversation with me on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. Have any of you read any thrillers that had multiple layers (I have another review of another one coming soon actually) behind it and made it all the more brilliant for it? Do you think this is why thrillers and crime novels are becoming more and more popular, showing people from all walks of life and their hidden depths whilst also being a compelling book to read? Let me know, and of course let me know your thoughts once you have read the book too!

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Filed under Corvus Books, Natalie Haynes, Review

Has The World Gone Mad; First Waterstones and Kindles, Now The Orange Prize…?

I don’t tend to do ‘topical’ too often on Savidge Reads but today I feel the need after the random double whammy of odd bookish news around Waterstones and the Kindle and what has happened with the Orange, or should that be the no longer Orange, Prize for Fiction.

I have to admit I was one of the people who did fear that the world might be ending when I heard the news yesterday that Waterstones, the UK’s biggest chain of bookshops, will be selling Amazon’s Kindle (or as I like to call it ‘the machine of the devils making’) in their stores. To me, as an avid book lover and fan of the chain, this seems ludicrous – but then again I am rather old school in terms of all things devils device e-reader based.  I understand that Waterstones have been having issues with people coming into bookshops, browsing the shelves, then seeing how much it is on Amazon via their smart phone apps instead. This must be incredibly disheartening, as well as business busting, for any company, but surely there must have been other options? I spent yesterday mulling this over silently for hours (whist nursing the sick, so I wasn’t just sat contemplating ha, ha) before decided to comment.

When James Daunt took over I was one of the many people who thought ‘phew, at last’ and having spent time hosting events and working alongside the lovely team at Waterstones Deansgate I have seen the wondrous changes that Daunt has implemented alongside his allowance of independence in stores, trusting that each branch know their customers and can appeal to them in the right way. Now teaming up with a company which is as damaging to books and the authors of course, as supermarkets can be seems a little odd to me? Or am I overreacting? I have even pondered if I should boycott the chain as I am so cross. That could be an overreaction. Though it would push me into supporting even more local independent bookstores and that is no bad thing is it?

Anyway here is James Daunt talking about it all, see what you make of it…

The other news that made me think the world has gone crazy, which was announced mere minutes ago, was that after seventeen years Orange have withdrawn their sponsorship of the Orange Prize, or they will have after the winner is announced next week. My initial thoughts are ‘well they could have waited and not over shadowed the winner before she is even announced’ my second was ‘oh dear, could this be another literary prize that vanishes like the John Rhys Llewellyn Prize did last year?’ my third was ‘well what will they call it now?’

Now in no way does this quite compare but I am currently working like a mad thing behind the scenes to make sure that The Green Carnation Prize runs for its third year in 2012. With the other two co-founders having left it is literally just me approaching all the people that I can think of who will judge and chair for free. For a prize that received over 80 submissions last year, and could do again this year, it’s a big ask. You get to hear the phrase ‘I am terribly sorry but no’, however I think I have pulled it off and an announcement will be made later today/tomorrow finally.

What has all that to do with the Orange? Well people will be cry that it is another award dead in the water; however I am not so sure. If the worst case scenario of no sponsor (unlikely if I am honest, I think Kate Mosse is very tenacious and passionate so will secure something) comes I am betting she will easily find volunteers, and I have found people who do it for free have a real passion for the book that makes them all the better book prize judges, they want to talk about the books and have a debate, they want to spread the word about great books. I am not sure I feel that way about what’s going on with Waterstones at the moment, maybe that’s just the cynic in me though? Thank goodness for the Fiction Uncovered list being announced tomorrow, that might be some less doom filled news.

What are your thoughts on this bumper amount of bonkers bookish news?

Note: I totally understand that for some people, like my Gran who likes to change the font of a book for her eyes, or have less to carry on her globe trotting adventures the Kindle is a good thing. For me however, not so.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘Purple Hibiscus’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel, is one I have been meaning to read ever since I was completely blown away by her Orange Prize Winning ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. That book really took me by surprise, I knew nothing of Biafra and the war there, I knew nothing of the author and the book (which has since become a favourite and was the title I gave away for World Book Night) before it became a choice for a book group I was in. I couldn’t put it down; it was an amazing reading experience. So funny then that it was a book group that made me finally pick up ‘Purple Hibiscus’.

With her debut novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes us into the heart of a family in Nigeria not long after its colonisation, though this not the focus that the book takes, though it’s always bubbling away in the background. Instead Adichie tells us a story of religion as we follow Kambili a fifteen year old girl whose father is an extremist catholic. As the book opens Kambili witnesses her brother Jaja’s defiance of her father as he refuses to take communion in church, something utterly unthinkable, enraging her father and changing the dynamics of the house hold forever.

I did think after the first initial sixteen pages that make part one of the book ‘where is the story here, we’ve got the climax of it all at the beginning haven’t we?’ Well Adichie then proceeded to remind me that to every momentous moment there is a something that triggers it off. In the case of ‘Purple Hibiscus’ Adichie hints in the opening pages that things are pretty fragile for Kambili, Jaja, and their mother, what she does in part two is take us to how things have gotten to that point. For we all know that there is a lead up to every momentous moment. In this case it is their father’s sister Aunty Ifeoma.

The household that Kambili grows up in is, for the reader, an oppressive and claustrophobic one, dominated by a father so obsessed with god and the workings of the devil that he becomes abusive at any turn. Even small things like Kambili coming second in her class leads to some form of abuse based punishment, not sexual but often painful and humiliating. For Kambili this is simply life, its as normal as the schedule, which allows for a few toilet breaks, that her daily life must follow that is until she and Jaja go and stay in her Aunties house. Only this house, whilst with a catholic belief, is one of encouragement, progression and freedom. While they may be poor compared to Kambili’s fathers mass of wealth, they are richer in many other ways. Once Kambili and Jaja have their minds opened and allowed to roam free they begin to question things and so starts unravellings of powers and beliefs.

“I lay in bed after Mama left and let my mind rake through the past, through the years when Jaja and Mama and I spoke more with our spirits than with our lips. Until Nsukka. Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence. Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do.
But my memories did not start at Nsukka. They started before, when all the hibiscuses in our front yard were a startling red.”

What I found startling, and probably the most effective part of Adichie’s writing and aspect of the book which hit me the hardest, was Kambili’s acceptance of the situation at home. Yet the more I thought about it the more I realised of course she would be, she had been groomed that her fathers form of godliness and the punishment that comes if you don’t come up to those standards are the norm.

“We did that often, asking each other questions whose answers we already knew. Perhaps it was so that we would not ask the other questions, the ones whose answers we did not want to know.”

It also proves an effective device by Adichie, the initial distance she places between the reactions of Kambili and the reaction of a reader gives a reader the room to put there own emotions, shock and horror in there, while this young girl just goes on accepting it. This rather reminded me of the way Margaret Atwood writes Cat’s Eye’ actually, getting the reader to put their emotion into a void purposefully left. Will Kambili go on accepting her fathers ways for good, well of course you will have to find out, you will also have to read on to see that the climatic event you think the book will end with doesn’t at all.

‘Purple Hibiscus’ isn’t a perfect book, it could have either done with being a little shorter and some of the small tangent tales cutting out, or having those tales developed further and been much longer and more epic, the latter I think I would have loved as Adichie is immensely readable. In fact how she fitted all of this and its themes into just over 300 pages is impressive. It is a book that makes you think and one that will leave its narrator with you for some time after. 8.5/10

This is a book I have had in Mount TBR for ages.

It was hard for me not to compare this book to ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ though I did try my hardest. I was worried I had been harder on it slightly because of my subconscious comparisons. This is where reading it for a book group was great because there were other readers who had read them in the same order as me and felt the same, and people for who ‘Purple Hibiscus’ was their first Adichie novel. The latter also felt the same, everyone seemed to like it a lot, yet they sort of wanted either less or more which I found really interesting. It proved a great book for discussion. What are your thoughts have you read ‘Purple Hibiscus’ or ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’? Who has read her short stories?

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Filed under Book Group, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Harper Collins, Review

Guessing The Orange Prize Longlist 2011…

It seems that the day when the Orange Longlist is announced for 2011, which is today and will be in a couple of hours of this post going live I am sure, has taken a really long time to come around and then has suddenly swooped down on us fast. In fact I commented pretty much that very thing on Dovegreyreader the other day. You see I always think it gets announced in February and then there is a big lead up to June. I do wonder how my head works sometimes. Anyway… soon we will know what the twenty books that make the Orange Prize Longlist for 2011 will be, and so it’s my annual Orange Prize guess also known as ‘Simon shows how wrong he can be about women’s writing in the last year’ (see my 2010 guesses for more)…

Initially I started off getting competitive with myself over trying to come up with a list which contained the winning lot. Then I sat back and thought that seriously who else apart from the judges would know what these might be as the options are endless as are the books that could have been put forward. This year I went through all the books eligible, books written in English in print in the UK between April 1st 2010 and March 31st 2011, and came up with my twenty based on what I had read (in blue as you can read my thoughts), what was on my TBR/on loan from the library (in italics) and books I have been wanting to get my mitts on and haven’t yet (in bold – as a birthday, which is 8 days away, hint). So without further waffle here is the Savidge Orange 20 in alphabetical surname order to make it fairer…

   
Started Early, Took My Dog – Kate Atkinson
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender
True Things About Me – Deborah Kay Davies

Scissors, Paper, Stone – Elizabeth Day

   
Room – Emma Donoghue
Theodora – Stella Duffy
The Cry of the Go-Away Bird – Andrea Eames
A Visit From The Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan (which I would have but it went missing in the move)

   
The Cookbook Collector – Allegra Goodman
We Had It So Good – Linda Grant
T
he History of History – Ida Hattemer-Higgins 
Mr Chartwell – Rebecca Hunt

   
The Report – Jessica Francis Kane

The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell
The News Where You Are – Catherine O’Flynn
The Tigers Wife – Tea ObrehtDark Matter – Michelle Paver (which I would have but it went missing in the move)
The Fates Will Find Their Way – Hannah Pittard
Mr Rosenblum’s List – Natasha Solomons
When God Was A Rabbit – Sarah Winman

   

I did umm and ahhh about putting ‘Grace Williams Says It Loud’ by Emma Henderson on the list but I have seen that in the Orange Book Group displays in Waterstones (where I got the new Books Quarterly) so assumed that it would be off the list. I have it and will be reading it any way. I know that maybe Kate Atkinson is a random pick as its essentially a crime novel as I mentioned yesterday if Val McDermids latest is as good as ‘The Mermaids Singing’ that would be a welcome entry, I wondered also if Susan Hill’s ‘A Kind Man’ might be too short?

I wonder how I will do with this lot, can I bet my 8 out of 20 best from last year? In a weird way I hope I do the same as the last or a little worse, as one of the joys of a longlist is learning about the books you werent aware of. Which books would you bet on being in the list? Will anyone, sadly I don’t think I could, be trying to read them all?

I have of course updated the blog with the actual longlist now.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Orange Prize

Who Do I Think Should Win The Orange Prize?

So tonight is the ceremony which sees the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction announced. I have to say I have it to thank for finding some wonderful books that I would have shamefully possibly missed out on and one particular author whose backlog of books I am getting very ‘Amazon Happy’ about. Sadly due to bloggers recent behaviour I haven’t been able to put the reviews for two of them up but I will and I can promise you that I have read them all and here, before it is announced (if blogger doesn’t go crazy) is who I think should win, I will admit it was almost a draw but my Orange Prize would go to…


…Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie! I know I have already waffled on about how wonderful I thought this book was but days on I am still talking to everyone about it and frankly I can’t be stopped. As soon as it comes out in paperback I have a list as long as my arm of people that I will have to send copies too. I think the one thing I wished that I had added in my review (which you can find here) is that it’s also very much a book for our times. We like so much to think that the human race has come such a long way forward and in reality I am not sure how true that is and in some ways (not all but some) Kamila Shamsie’s book captivates this and along with sadness and despair she brings hope in a wonderful, wonderful character such as Hiroko.

I did say that this could have easily been a drawer and the book that I would also be more than happy to see win has to be The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (the review should be up on here on Friday) as the tale of a man and his developing Alzheimer’s and how he tries to remember his life story is another absolutely wonderful book. I would love it if one of them won the Orange and one of them won the Booker that would be quite fabulous wouldn’t it. If Ellen Feldmen or Samantha Hunt won I would be happy too (reviews are here and here), they were both very good books. I remain undecided on Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden possibly because I haven’t quite finished it (review will be up Monday when am back and have more time) but it’s left me luke warm for now. I won’t comment on Home, you can all read my struggle with that here.

Will I be right? I won’t actually know until Monday… how vexing! What are your thoughts?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Ellen Feldman, Kamila Shamsie, Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize, Samantha Harvey, Samantha Hunt

Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie

This was actually the book that the person who was once named The Non Reader, and has now become The Converted One (thanks to Books Psmith – Brighton Rock in the post) bought me quite a while back. In such an effort to find a book that I liked and didn’t own, The Converted One checked in all my TBR boxes and piles, on my shelves, even asked a few friends and then made sure the reviews in the press and some of my favourite authors quotes we all good before buying.. I have to say The Converted One’s research would have culminated into one of my favourite books of the year… only for the book to then turn up three days later in the post from the people at Bloomsbury! It’s the thought though that counts!

Burnt Shadows for me has been a complete and utter joy to read. In fact I could go as far as to say its one of the rare books that you pick up, devour, put down and then get itching to start at again. It’s going to be a hard book to review because there is so much to encompass and so much to praise but I will do my best.

The story follows possibly my favourite character of the year so far (and there have been a few contenders) Hiroko Tanaka on August the 9th 1945 in Nagasaki just before they dropped the bomb and ‘the world turns white’. Though Hiroko survives her German lover Konrad is killed. Two years later as India declares its independence she turns up on his half-sisters door step in Delhi with nowhere to stay and becomes attracted to their servant Sajjad and all this is in the first 60 pages. The book then follows Hiroko’s story and the story of people around her (that’s all I am saying trying not to plot spoil) through more pivotal times in history such as the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and America post 9/11.

Burnt Shadows as you can probably tell is an epic novel. However despite the subject matter, which is dealt with in a thought provoking, shocking, touching and yet tactful the book never feels heavy even though at times it is wrought with emotion. If I had one small complaint it would be that I could have read another 200 pages easily. In keeping the book just over 340 pages long Shamsie does hurry slightly towards the quite amazing climax.

Hiroko herself is an additional reason that you should read the book. A quirky sparky victim of her times at no one point does she ever complain she just keeps trying and hoping (this isn’t a woe is me tale because Shamsie doesn’t ever let it be) and most importantly observing. Some would say that to cover all the different era’s, cultures, and issues of this time span would be far too ambitious for any writer and yet I thought that Shamsie did this effortlessly, there must have been hours and hours of research that went into this book and without question it has paid off. I can unashamedly say that I think this is one of my favourite books of the year so far no question.

I don’t feel that I have written enough to justify what an amazing book it is, but then I don’t really think I could if I wrote for about ten pages of praise for the novel. I will simply say please read it. Do I think it could win the Orange Prize? Yes I do and part of me thinks that it definitely should however it has one contender which I haven’t reviewed yet which I think is the other most deserving winner and in fact I am hoping that both of these books make it onto the Man Booker list later in the year, but more of that another time…

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2009, Kamila Shamsie, Orange Prize, Review

Not Getting Home

I don’t feel that in all honesty I can review Marilynne Robinson’s Home as I didn’t finish it, in fact sadly I didn’t even get close. Now as I have said I don’t slag anyone’s books off on this blog as I think discouraging people to choose what they wish to read is wrong, encouraging on the other hand is quite a different story. I might hate a book (a very rare thing) and you might love it. If I don’t like a book, as I have said before, there is Rule 80 and sadly Home was one of the books that didn’t make it past Rule 80.

With prose as wonderful as the whole of the first 80 pages were, how could I not continue? This wasn’t a badly written book, quite the opposite, but for some reason it simply didn’t hold my attention. I think in my head there was also what I am naming ‘The Gilead Effect’. I read Gilead a few weeks ago and whilst by no means was I driven by the plot I couldn’t stop reading the absolutely stunning prose it kept me flowing through page after page. I liked the book, I didn’t love it but knowing Home was set in the same village over the same period of time as I picked up the book I found myself thinking ‘I should have given myself a bigger gap between these two’ but as I am reading the Orange list by Wednesday before the winners announced I needed to try and read it.

I don’t know if it was the fact that I read Home so soon after Gilead but I found myself forgetting how wonderful the prose was and thinking ‘this is a cop out, this is an author dishing us up almost the same story in the same village only with a female voice in the mix (which I was actually finding easier to read). I felt a bit like, and I am sure this isn’t true, that having taken 25 years to follow up Housekeeping with Gilead, Robinson had decided to take two yeas to edit re-tell and slightly twist in terms of situation her last book. Sadly this really influenced my reading experience.

I haven’t given up on Home. It has gone into one of my TBR boxes so that one day when Gilead seems to be more of a memory and less fresh in my mind I can read Home and take it as a stand alone book. I am sure the prose will then move me like Gilead’s did I just think sometimes authors and certain books need a big breathing space between them. Do any of you feel like that? What are your thoughts on Home if you have read it?

Note: If Marilynne Robinson’s next book is set in Gilead at the next neighbour’s house then I fear I may not be able to read anything else by her as that would prove a point in my head one that I am trying so hard to dispel.

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize

The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt

The second of my Orange shortlist reads has quite taken me by surprise. I think I am going to have to stop myself reading other peoples reviews of what I am very shortly going to read and hold off until I have finished reading the book. I love reading other peoples thoughts on books and indeed find some great new books to read through others but sometimes it can overhype a book and other times it can make you dread a book. Samantha Hunt’s novel ‘The Invention of Everything Else’ was falling into the latter category and frankly I shouldn’t have let it.

The Invention of Everything Else starts quite surreally with the inventor and scientist Nikola Tesla waiting for a pigeon at his hotel window, one who when doesn’t appear he goes to find and ends up in deep conversation with. If scientists talking to pigeons would put you off reading a book like it might do me please do try and continue, normally I would have put the book down and not picked it up again, it just seemed a little bit too whacky. However something in Samantha Hunt’s writing kept me reading and held a promise of more to come and she didn’t fail in that.

Nikola Tesla has become something of a recluse in his later life, slightly embittered after having his colleague Marconi steal his invention of ‘the radio’, he has lost touch with reality and the world and lives alone in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel creating new inventions and avoiding people. However one person he cant seem to avoid is Louisa, a young chambermaid who has an inquisitive streak and keeps ‘cleaning’ his room/laboratory which she finds as mesmerising as his inventions and mysterious air. However it isn’t only the fact that they have the hotel (which is wonderfully described as in the 1940’s it was one of the tallest largest hotels in existence) in common, as the book continues their separate lives become more and more linked. A friend of Louisa’s father suddenly reappears after two years ‘missing’ claiming he has designed a time machine which happens to be based on Tesla’s theories. It is chance that at the same time mysterious man called Arthur bumps into Louisa and knows everything about her and then who is told, by her fathers friend, to be her future husband? I wont say any more for fear of giving away more of the plot which I became totally lost in.

Like I said I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book at all from how it started and also from the fact I hate science (seriously it goes over my head or bores me) but I completely fell under its spell. I can see why people found it The premise is a little whacky though Nikola Tesla is indeed a very real scientist and inventor but I loved the magical almost science fiction to it that in some ways reminded me of one of my favourite books The Time Travellers Wife and in other ways some of Margaret Atwood’s surreal magical moments both of which are great things. An unusual book that I wasn’t expecting and which completely won me over where many couldn’t have.

… So at the moment two books in it’s a roaring success, and I have nearly finished Burnt Shadows which is… no, I shall hold my tongue until the last page is turned as it could all change for the better or worse.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Orange Prize, Review, Samantha Hunt, Vintage Books

Scottsboro – Ellen Feldman

…And so here comes (finally I hear you all cry – I did actually finish this book quite some time a go) the first of my reviews, get ready for a mad rush of them over the weekend, of the short listed books that are up for the Orange Prize revealed next Wednesday. I couldn’t decide quite which one to start with (I will admit it wasn’t going to be Home as I had read Gilead too recently) so shamelessly I went for the one with the cover that most appealed and after a toss up between Burnt Shadows and Scottsboro I chose the latter.

Scottsboro is a novel based on the true story of a trail in the town of the same name in Alabama in 1931. A trial which “the principles that, in the United States, criminal defendants are entitled to effective assistance of counsel and that people may not be de facto excluded from juries because of their race.” Two white girls had accused nine young black men of raping them on a freight train back in times when if you were black sometimes you didn’t even need a trial you could just be hung by the locals and it was overlooked by the law and judicial system. However these cases made it to the courts even though “the juries were entirely white, their attorneys had little experience in criminal law, and the judge gave them no time at all to prepare their cases”. I am quite ashamed to admit that I had never heard of what is such an incredibly important case in history.

The fictional story is told through two voices. The first of which is Ruby Bates, one of the girls who accused the boys of rape and then proceeded to change her mind several times. Her story tells of the desperate poverty and life that she led as a penniless prostitute and how the infamy of the case changed her fortunes and her life and yet she knew what she was doing was wrong. Through her eyes we get the tale of a good girl gone bad due to circumstance and how when things get much to big for her she tries to do right but can she change a media whirlwind completely beyond her control. The second voice is that of one of the media, journalist Alice Whittier. However unlike the other journalists who are interested in sensationalizing the whole case, Alice is looking at it from the perspective of ‘what if these young men are innocent’ this doesn’t by any means make her a ‘heroine of the piece’ though. In fact though Alice is a wonderful factual voice for the whole plot and all the key facts and twists in the case, I never felt like I really got to know her which would be my one main criticism of the book overall.

Some people have said the book reads as non fiction, which I would partially agree with, bar the incredibly well created, depicted and carried off character of Ruby Bates who I didn’t like but wanted to follow and read more of. I thought that the other girl Victoria, who also accused the boys of rape, was also incredibly well crafted and incredibly dislikable. I can see how a book couldn’t be carried by just these two though as you do need the facts and the twists. It’s an amazing case (I have included a picture of the boys below as I found it made it even more real) which undoubtedly people should know much, much more about and I think in a market where a book like Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ has done so well a great book like this with find a huge amount of people who will really enjoy the book like I did.

So first Orange Short Lister in and this is my favourite so far! I have read one and a half more since I put Scottsboro down I just needed to give myself a break from the emotional rollercoaster of frustration, anger and sadness that you get with a novel like this (you can’t ask much more from a book than that can you) before I could actually write about it. Would it stay my favourite… you will have to wait and see!

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Filed under Books of 2009, Ellen Feldman, Orange Prize, Picador Books, Review

Oranges Or Lemons?

So it starts, yes I am all finished with the utterly superb thriller/crime novel (which I will review later today – I know two blogs in one day I really am spoiling you) and now am all focused on the Orange Short List. I did actually really toy with the idea of reading the freshly arrived latest Sarah Waters novel ‘The Little Stranger’ but then thought “hang on I have already now got a backlog of six books that I need to read in just over two weeks… have I really got time? Actually I am still waiting on Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden and also The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (which is all about Alzheimer’s a subject very close to my heart as I often go to an Alzheimer’s home to see my Great Uncle) but they are on their way and it give me a chance to get through the others. Maybe I can treat myself to Sarah Waters along the way, maybe at the midway point? I am interested with the selection as until the shortlist was announced I had only heard of two and had only wanted to read one of the books on the list which is Kamila Shamshie’s Burnt Shadows, purely down to a few rave reviews and a wonderful cover. I should really put down the entire list just in case any of you don’t know it (highly unlikely) so the contenders are…

Scottsboro – Ellen Feldman
The Wilderness – Samantha Harvey
The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt
Molly Fox’s Birthday – Deirdre Madden
Home – Marilynne Robinson
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
I am wondering if there will be some complete lemons in the mix of oranges, time will tell. I already have an inkling which one will win, but I am holding fire on saying in case it turns out to be a complete lemon. I also have two favourites in my head (neither which I think are the winner pre-reading them) just from the storyline’s alone. Isn’t it funny what judgements you can make on books without having read a single word!?! Will I be right? I am not sure to be honest as I have only read two of the winners the first was On Beauty by Zadie Smith which I think is possibly one of the most boring books I have ever read and on the complete opposite spectrum Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half A Yellow Sun which sits in my Top Ten Books of All Time. If I can I will try and fit in a few other winners along the journey but I do only have 15 days I must try and stay realistic. I shall announce who is my winner before 9am on Wednesday 3rd of June as it’s announced that evening. I can’t cheat as I will be on a plane to Switzerland at 7am that morning which also means you will all know the winner before I do! I don’t think it will make world news?

What are your predictions? Have you read any so far (no plot spoilers please)? What has been your favourite of the Orange Winners so far? Oh and most controversially, do we still need the Orange Prize and is it sexist to have an award just for women?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ellen Feldman, Kamila Shamsie, Marilynne Robinson, Orange Prize, Sarah Waters

The Night Watch – Sarah Waters

It has been my turn to choose ‘The BookRabbit Book Groups’ read this month, and I chose Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’ because it has been on my TBR for well over a year. IN case any of you are wondering what BookRabbit is then go to http://www.bookrabbit.com/ and join, it’s a wonderful and very sociable book lover’s site and forum, it seriously is brilliant, join, join.

So I had chosen ‘The Night Watch’ and have not long put it down and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t love it, but I definitely enjoyed it. By the looks of it sadly not that many of the other BookRabbit readers feel quite the same way. My only other dabble with Sarah Waters has not been ‘Tipping the Velvet’ or ‘Fingersmith’ those joys are still to come. No, my first Sarah Waters was ‘Affinity’ her lesser known novel which is a dark creepy gothic novel which I really loved and I think is more deserving of Man Booker and Orange nominations. So that and the fact that ‘The Night Watch’ has been so hyped might lead to why I would give it 4 out of 5 and not full marks.

Sarah has deviated from her usual Victorian romps to the wartime of the 1940’s. This diversion is an effortless one as I was totally in the moment of the novel and never once felt that what I was reading wasn’t real. Things like the rarity of coffee, the explosions of bombs, to the cost of silk pyjamas, Sarah had clearly researched the background to the novel down to the smallest details. Now to add to the change of time of her novel, she also decided to write it backwards.

The funny thing is when someone tells you that a book has been written backwards it instantly makes you think that a book is going to be really hard to read and this isn’t, it’s delightful to read. It also makes you think that the author has done something incredibly clever, which they have, but then again books told in flashbacks are quite common and also the fact that the start of the book was actually the end meant that obviously you knew the ending from the off and somehow that didn’t work for me. There is something delicious about digging through characters pasts and she still managed a few twists and surprises which is no mean feat it just left me feeling like I didn’t need to get involved so much.

All that aside, I did enjoy the adventures of Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan although I never really liked any of them. Each one had a very interesting history and you didn’t always know what was coming which was great. The characters were believable and the story of sexuality in that time was really interesting to read about. There was one issue I had which was with Duncan (Waters first gay male character) and his back story which was utterly harrowing but was almost written in an overly calm way when I can’t imagine that you would feel calm about such things. Hard to explain when you are trying desperately hard not to give the ending away.

Despite the fact I have just criticized the book a bit I did enjoy it, in a market that’s so full of books about the war this is something different and Waters should be highly commended for this work, I’ll be really interested to see what she does next, and will be happily reading the two Victorian romps in the meantime.

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Filed under Book Group, Man Booker, Orange Prize, Review, Sarah Waters, Virago Books

When We Were Bad – Charlotte Mendelson

People ask how sometimes you can hear of a book and I heard about this one in two ways. Charlotte Mendelson was up for the Orange Prize for this novel and also because she was going to be giving a reading at Polari, the monthly event I go to. So instead of doing what I normally do, which is buy the book on the night, get the author to sign it and read it afterwards. This time I thought I would do my homework first.

‘When We Were Bad’ is primarily a tale of a near perfect family as it falls apart all around a wedding. I loved this book from the start ‘the Rubin family, everyone agrees, seems doomed to happiness’. I think it was the characters which actually if you look at them separately are a bunch of individuals with very few redeeming features, or so I thought at first, that make the novel such a joy to read. To start with I wanted to dislike them all in the end only two of them I couldn’t bare.

The head of the family is Claudia Rubin who not only is wife, mother and writer, she is also the first female Rabbi and has a sort of fame that though doesn’t get her invited to all the best parties and events puts a certain amount of pressure on r and makes her the woman everyone wants to be with. Her pride and joy is her family and as it falls apart so does she. I have to say I found her domineering character a little hard to take to at first but when you realise its because her family means so much to her you warm to her somewhat. Her husband Norman is a frustrated writer who lives in her shadow, however he is close to a major breakthrough that could make her the second most famous person in the family. There relationship is an odd one.

The children consist of Leo the golden boy who within chapter one has become an outcast of the family and the black sheep. Frances who appears happily married to an exceptionally boring husband soon follows suit to become the next black sheep of the family. The younger two Simeon and Em I couldn’t warm to at all throughout the book he was a lazy layabout bum and she just cried and whined a lot. That was there role throughout the novel and slightly enraged me. I actually sulked with the book and Mendelson for sometime over these two questioning if such bad characters can turn a novel sour, they don’t in this case.

I love a good family drama; my family have theirs continuously so it’s nice to read others. Mendelson seems to have an eye for a great set of storylines and an ear to listen and then create people who are ordinary yet flawed and colourful like normal human beings, this book never went into melodrama which I was grateful for. Though the ending actually made me cry, I liked the fact its all left to the reader decide what could happen to each character, some authors are scared of doing that or just feel their ending is the way it should be, end of. My first Mendelson read won’t be my last.

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Filed under Charlotte Mendelson, Orange Prize, Picador Books, Review

What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn

Despite the frankly hideous cover, and these can serioulsy put a reader off, I loved this book. Seriously 100% loved this book. Catherine O’Flynn’s debut ‘What Was Lost’ is frankly a wonderful book. The Guardian awarded it debut of the year and it was long listed for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize. This and the praise from several authors such as Susan Hill and bloggers like Dovegreyreader means that when you start it you either know you are on to a good thing or you are going to be heavily disappointed. I must join the queue of people who will be raving about this book for a long time to come.

The book is set in Green Oaks Shopping Centre in two separate times, the first in 1984 when ‘young detective’ Kate Meaney and her sidekick Mickey a craft kit cuddly toy hide around the centre looking for people who might be criminals on every corner. She then goes missing. In 2003 we join Lisa, an unhappy music store manager and Kurt an unhappy security guard in Green Oaks. How do the two intertwine? Who is the mystery girl seen wandering on the security footage at night? Will anyone ever know what happened to Kate?

I loved the character of Kate so much; I thought O’Flynn got into the mind of a ten year old perfectly. At first I didn’t realise that she was a young girl until on the way to a stake out she buys a copy of ‘the Beano’. O’Flynn writes with humour and in such a way I couldn’t stop reading Kate’s part of the story for lines such as “Kate ate the burger and perused the first Beano of the new year, while Mickey kept a steady eye on some suspicious teenagers below”. She’s one of my favourite characters to read in a long time, and I was saddened when I knew that her part of the book had ended.

Another thing that I loved about this book was both its humour and its serious sides. You could read lines like ‘anyone who asked for chocolate limes was a killer’ and yet this book also deals with a missing girl, depression and even suicide. While you are not taken into the mind of a killer which stops this book short of being a crime novel, it is still a mystery novel.

Some people have said the ends tie up too nicely, and in some ways they do but with a point and a purpose. I won’t spoil it; you need to read this book first hand to experience it yourselves. Catherine O’Flynn has created a world that is believable, she was a market researcher and worked in retail so there is a slight consumerism side to the novel, and crafted some wonderful characters. I cannot wait for her next novel she is a voice to be watched.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Man Booker, Orange Prize, Review, Tindal Street Press