Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant-Joanna Wiebe

Unseemly Education of Anne Merchant- Joanna Wiebe

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 272
gender: female
nationality: Canada
year: 2014
novel, YA

Anne Merchant ends up going to a very strange boarding school for the wealthy. Fees are not discussed because they are too high and there is a guardian that makes sure you are always living your mission in every way possible so that you may become valedictorian.

I ended up enjoying this despite its flagrant flaws. Predictable? Somewhat, yes, you could give good guesses at what was going on before Anne got even half way through. Stilted prose? Somewhat-could have done with some more editing for flow. A preponderance for cliffhangers? Undoubtedly. A bit too focused on being secretive? Yes but it’s a hard thing to balance.

But I ended up genuinely enjoying reading this. It was the atmosphere-very creepy, subtly painted. It was everywhere, the fog, the architecture, everything suitably creepy at times and carefree and beautiful at others. The romance thread was actually quite interesting-a rare thing for me to say-primarily because it was steeped in distance and secrets. I guess it was because I genuinely liked Anne Merchant-the narrator and main character. She is flawed but innately curious in a way that is quite approachable and relatable. 

Cuckoo Song-Frances Hardinge

Cuckoo Song-Frances Hardinge

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 409
gender: female
nationality: UK
year: 2014
novel, YA

Triss awakes but might not be herself...or human.

Amazing really. This is an excellent interpretation of the legends of changelings and what a world in which there are changelings would also have. Set between the world wars, there is still that typical British preoccupation with the cost of WWI (the death of sons and fiancés feature heavily in British post-WWI literature) but with this fantasy world interposed. I didn’t even realize it was a long book, I was so enjoying the changeling narrator, her sister’s misadventures, the gray-area characters (is the changeling-hunter a villain or just misguided), and the villain which wasn’t quite an adult. Engrossing doesn’t do it justice, you’re swept along with all the new revelations and dangers which often are genuinely creepy.


I don’t know what else to say without running into any potential spoilers-well paced, good prose, excellent plot-I recommend this to anyone.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A God in Every Stone-Kamila Shamsie

A God in Every Stone-Kamila Shamsie


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 320
gender: F
nationality: Pakistan
year: 2014
novel


An Englishwoman falls in love with a Turkish archaeologist but the onset of war/his disappearance interrupts their relationship. When she follows his quest to find an artefact to Peshawar, she learns about connections that govern the world.


This is a book lush in imagery-evoking every sense. Scents are tied strongly to images and history and carry the reader through streets in a visceral way. There are two threads of this novel, both set in two time periods. There is the story of the English archaeologist, Vivian Spencer, who is seeking Scylax’s silver amulet and she does so as a young woman in thrall of a family friend and again later in Peshwar as a seasoned teacher. Then there is the story of Qayyum, a veteran who lost his eye (and idealism) fighting with British forces at Ypres and later, his brother becomes tutored by Spencer in Peshwar. There is a serious tension inherent in the collision of these worlds-the overreaction of the British to any uprisings but their indifference to the Paktuns is examined in a merciless light. Spencer is operating as a single person and so she manages to bridge the divide in the case of one family which highlights the underlying foundation of this novel-that love is the most important tie that bonds us.
I think what I enjoyed most though was the realistic representation of the archaeology which in turn made me believe strongly in the broader historical events. The search for the artefact is not the stuff of treasure hunting or Indiana Jones. It is not even half as important as the people doing the searching and so its value does not trump that of the people. There is definitely action but it is the more realistic action that governs life within wars rather than ancient curses/mythologies/etc. And so Shamsie has crafted instead, a novel about connections in unlikely places and the power of interrelation against a backdrop of the intriguing but not sensensalized aspects of archaeology. Amazingly rare.


Shamsie’s attention to complexity of events and the subtly of life in the early periods (such as the intersection of suffragism and everyday feminism of breaking into men’s fields or Spencer’s uneasy relationship with the progressiveness of her choices and the conservatism of her interactions abroad) as well as the imagery she employs really is what makes this novel shine.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Opposite of Loneliness-Marina Keegan

Opposite of Loneliness-Marina Keegan

the facts
satisfaction: down/side
pages: 240
gender: female
nationality: USA
year: 2014
essays and short stories

A disparate collection of prose and essays from a young writer who died at 23.


I was left feeling like this meant much more to people who knew Marina Keegan than it did to me. There were moments of good reading but I feel this way about the internet in general. Otherwise, much of the collection read like I was back in my undergraduate, copyediting for the creative writing workshops-i.e. unpolished beginning experiments in a writer’s life. And so, it felt more like a memorial for a young woman lucky enough to have tremendous contacts through the Yale network rather than something I felt like it was necessary to have read. And so I unfortunately felt like the true tragedy was not that she died so young (though, that is a tragedy but unfortunately one that fells millions of promising people every day) but rather that she will be remembered primarily because she died young, not because of her talent/promise.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Frog Music-Emma Donoghue

Frog Music-Emma Donoghue

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 416
gender: F
nationality: Ireland
year: 2014
novel

Blanche tells the story of the life and death of Jenny, shot dead in the same room as her, as Blanche tries to find the killer.

This was brilliantly researched. The setting, the characters’ attitudes, and the news stories of the times are on point. Donoghue writes with a vibrancy that brings alive this whole time period and the tumultuous lives lived. She doesn’t skimp on the details but also manages not to wholly overwhelm you with them-a delicate balance.

However, I ended up dissatisfied with the book overall. The plot and the characterization were not balanced with as much skill as the research and prose were. I never really felt like I knew the characters all too well and so it wasn’t until the third part of the book (the atmosphere is what kept me turning the pages-that and my stubbornness), that I really didn’t care too much about Jenny’s death. It felt a little like Donoghue was writing a feminist book but failed to do so. The characters are struggling to find themselves, define themselves as women outside of the influence of men, but Donoghue kills off the non-gender conforming one, from the start, and the other finds herself only by realizing she was meant to be a mother. So the message I ended up receiving was not one of the strength of women when they rise above the men who keep them back but rather that it’s best for women to be proper mothers because otherwise, as prostitutes, as non-feminine women, their lives will be dissatisfactory and short.

Ouch.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dove Flyer-Eli Amir

Dove Flyer-Eli Amir

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 532
gender: male
nationality: Iraq/Israel
year: 1992
novel in translation

An exploration of the Jewish community of Baghdad before their expulsion and resettlement in Israel in the 1950s.

Embarrassingly, I’ve recently realized that my nuanced understanding of the Middle East actually ends at about 2100BCE (Lagash/Gudea) and so I was almost completely unaware that there was a Jewish community in Baghdad. So this was a fascinating portrait of a community in transition that I had not actually expected. Amir explores the various tensions between the individual, the Jewish community, and the wider Arab majority-the ways they manifest and the various reactions/negotiations undertaken. My ignorance can perhaps be understood since the novel details the complete dismantle of the heritage-the complete erasure of the community. It’s tragic and too closely echoes what ISIS is doing in modern day Iraq. 
\
The book itself was a slow to get into since there are just so many characters and unfamiliar geographies but midway through you have met everyone you will meet and you can relax into the atmospheric evocation of Baghdad. It helps that Kabi, the narrator, is genuinely likeable and so you end up caring about how he manages to work through this issue what home means.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Gifts of the State-ed. Adam Klein

Gifts of the State-Adam Klein


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 175
gender: M&F
nationality: Afghanistan
year: 2013
short stories


A number of stories about every day life, supernatural myths, and things in between set in Afghanistan and written by Afghanis.

As with any book of short stories, there are those that stand out and those that fade into the background. Some of the writing is stilted but then again, these are written by non-writers in their third or fourth language in the midst of war. That alone lends weight to the narratives contained in the book but really, it was the surprising flow of the book from the excellent imagery of one author, to the strange but familiar plot of another. The prose is often spare, almost Hemingway spare, but the imagery is as vibrant as the mountains of Afghanistan. The stories are often heartbreaking, not always about war, but informed by the daily experience of the writers. The stories intelligently address gender, class, tradition, the city, and the countryside. This anthology is an invaluable antidote to the prevailing distancing media since most of the stories are character studies embedded in the lived experiences of these young Aghanis. You are learning about distinct personalities, the ones stuck in limbo, and striving forwards towards an unknowable tomorrow (followed by the ghosts of their history).