Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008)

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Review #52

In 1996, the city of Sarajevo is trying to recover after a brutal and devastating siege. Many of the city’s priceless artifacts have been destroyed by the bombings. One special book, however; was smuggled out. The Sarajevo haggadah, an illuminated book used by those of the Jewish faith at Passover, has made its way safely out of harms way. Rare book expert Hanna Heath is summoned from her home in Sydney to analyze and conserve this priceless and beautiful relic. Tucked inside its pages she finds several odd artifacts – an insect wing, a white hair, salt crystals, a wine stain. Author Geraldine Brooks creates a fictionalized history of the book tracing it back to its creation.

I was immensely pleased while I was reading this novel to discover that the Sarajevo haggadah is a genuine artifact that was smuggled out of a museum by its curator during the bombings of the mid-90’s. The book, believed to have been crafted around 1350, is one of the few examples of a Jewish manuscript that contains illuminated pages, since Jewish people at this time had strict laws against the making of “sacred images”. Furthermore, it contains an image of what appears to be an African woman dressed in traditional Jewish clothing, which has baffled historians for centuries.

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An image from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The “African Moor” is in the foreground on the left.

Rare book expert Hanna Heath is thrilled when she is offered the chance to study and restore the Sarajevo Haggadah is preparation for its display in the National Museum. Feeling a stronger connection to books than people, Hanna is immediately intrigued by the rich and unique history of the manuscript. As she finds interesting items tucked into the book’s binding, the reader is then transported to the time and place in history when each particular curiosity was added to the book’s overall mystery. We meet a girl fleeing for her life from the Nazis who ends up finding refuge in a Muslim home. A Catholic priest who saves the book from the fires of the Inquisition. A Jewish family in Barcelona who struggle after being exiled from their home. And a young slave in Seville who is responsible for the book’s stunning illuminations. Each piece of history fits into the overall puzzle of the Sarajevo haggadah to form the picture of a society that is constantly torn apart and brought together by the differences of religion.

This is a fantastic premise for a novel, and I went in to The People of the Book with very high hopes. However, I found myself struggling to truly engage with the characters in Geraldine Brook’s novel. Hanna, as the anti-social and biting protagonist, isn’t given much to do besides marvel over wine-stained pages and lament the destruction of its original bindings. She meets with a variety of people who know more than she does, each of whom are able to further explain the various curiosities found between the pages.

As each mystery is explained, a chapter follows introducing the characters who interacted with the haggadah during that time in history. The difficulty is that each of these chapters are one-offs. We are introduced to these individuals, begin to understand and empathize with their lives, and then are abruptly pulled back to 1996 to hear more of Hanna’s defensive whining. Due to this back-and-forth, The People of the Book is strangely uneven and at times was downright tedious.

There is a pattern apparent in this novel of religion being a driving force for dividing or unifying people throughout the centuries. Too many people believe that the Jews and the Muslims have always been enemies, and forget that they were in fact allies and partners in many advanced civilizations. The Catholic Church persecuted the Jewish community for hundreds of years, and yet there were groups of devout Catholics that risked their lives to shelter and protect those not of their faith. From this perspective, The People of the Book shows that a seven-hundred year old manuscript can still have something to teach us about working together.

This is a book for book lovers. It’s interesting to note that I received my copy from the Toronto Public Library, and it was definitely in a well-loved condition. The spine was pulling away from the bindings, and the pages were dog-eared and stained. While reading this novel I couldn’t help myself from thinking of the history of this copy, where it had been and who had read it before me. Every book has more than one story to tell, after all.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The People of the Book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Going Postal by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #33) 2005.

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Review #51

Moist Von Lipwig is dead. Sort of. At least, his alias is dead, hanged for committing crimes against the city of Ankh-Morpork. Yet somehow he finds himself alive and working in the government as Postmaster General. He finds the post office covered with pigeon droppings and undelivered mail. To make matter worse, he must compete against the Grand Trunks, which have a monopoly on communication in the city. And he thinks there may be someone trying to kill him. And there’s a possibility that he is hearing whispers coming from the abandoned letters piled up in the post office.

This month’s pick in my book club, Going Postal was my first foray into Terry Pratchett’s insanely popular Discworld series. Normally jumping into a series in the thirty-third installment would make me insufferably cringy, but I consoled myself that this novel is the first one centered around Moist Von Lipwig. Thankfully, this book takes place in a self-contained world, and I had no trouble adjusting to the world of Pratchett’s creation.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the city of Ankh-Morpork a a kind of Wild West outpost on the brink of becoming a civilized city. One rather amusing scene involves the protagonist in a rough and tumble bar, allotting points to the various patrons as they escalate their violent acts throughout the night. Central to the plot is the Grand Trunk company, which control a communication system known as the “clacks”. It took me quite awhile to visualize how these clacks work, but eventually I began to see it as a kind of telegraph system that uses light instead of cables to transmit messages across long distances. Pratchett uses the clacks and the greedy people who own it to illustrate the dangers of unchecked technological advancement. Published in 2005, this novel could easily be seen as a parallel to the rampant growth of the internet and the burgeoning “dot-com” bubble that would inevitably crash and leave many in dire straits.

It is obvious that Pratchett is a great lover of the written word. The idea that words have a certain power of their own, and that they can only fulfill their destiny by being read, is a running current that underlines Going Postal. As a great lover of the written word myself, I loved the scene when von Lipwig delivers a letter after fifty years to a surprising and heartwarming conclusion.

Many readers have compared Terry Pratchett’s works to those of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. I must say that I definitely agree with this opinion. Pratchett writes with a wild irreverence and wit that reminded me of Hitchhiker’s Guide. He also has a similar tendency to using absolutely ridiculous names for his characters. The protagonist, Moist Von Lipwig, is just the tip of that particular iceberg. Also present are Adora Bella Dearheart, Devious Collabone, Greenyham, and countless others.

Pratchett’s particular breed of satire isn’t for everyone. I truly enjoyed parts of this novel, but overall I found myself struggling to care about the fates of these characters. It was all just a bit too silly for my taste.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Going Postal here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Halfway There! A Look Back at the First Fifty Books of 2018

Earlier this week I posted the fiftieth book review to this blog. I am proud to say that I am officially halfway towards my goal of reading one hundred new books this year! I celebrated by taking a break and re-reading Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, but now I’m back on schedule and will be posting more book reviews later this week! Before I do that, I wanted to take a moment and reflect back on the past five months and share some of the things I’ve learned and noticed while writing reviews for this website.

For the first time since university, I find myself in a position where I’m actually expected to say something relevant about what I am reading. This has had the unexpected consequence of taking something that I generally use as a relaxation tool and turning it into a more mindful exercise. I had to start keeping notes on the books that I read, so that I had something to use as an outline when writing reviews. I’ve had to set myself daily page minimums to ensure that I reach certain goals on time. Since I am currently only working part time (Hey Canada, where’s my working visa!) this has not been especially difficult, and I’ve been able to hit the halfway point of fifty books well ahead of schedule. I am interested to learn how my current reading pace will be effected when (if?) I am ever able to go back to work full time. One positive that I’ve noticed is that I feel as if I’ve accomplished something at the end of the day when I’ve hit my page minimum, or finished a book, or completed and published a review. This website has helped to give me a small amount of motivation during the endless immigration process. Plus, the added bonus is that now my endless reading feels less like a waste of time.

I’ve also begun to note and keep track of my own reading patterns. I’ve always been drawn to the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres, but I recently did a quick tally and realized that nearly half of all the books reviewed for this site fall into one of those three genres. The next largest category was historical fiction, with nine reviews written. Since part of my goal this year has been to expand my reading boundaries, I’m going to try to branch out a little more into contemporary fiction and nonfiction. However, I expect that fantasy and horror will continue to dominate. A reader’s choice of book can tell a lot about their state of mind. I’ve been increasingly isolated and lonely this past year, so it comes as no surprise that I would gravitate towards novels that function largely as escapism.

Because of the fact that most of the books I read are in the same genre, I’m finding it difficult to write reviews without coming across as repetitive. I’m trying to improve my writing skills by use of this website, and this is where I am running into difficulties. I also noticed I’ve given the vast majority of books a ranking of 3/5 or higher. There are two reasons for this. First, I typically only read books if they have a Goodreads rating of 3.5 or higher. So in a way I guess I’m skewing the odds a bit there. Also, it takes a lot for me to truly dislike a book, and the only reason I will rate it very low is if it is either horribly racist, utterly nonsensical, or just plain boring. In the coming days, I am hoping to learn how to review and rank the novels that I review with a more discerning eye. As it is, I read for pure enjoyment and I derive enjoyment from nearly everything I read.

In order to achieve that goal, I’m thinking of taking requests for book reviews. I would open a new link on the homepage by which people could then leave a comment leaving the title and author of a book they would like to see reviewed by oneyearonehundredbooks. It’s just a thought, and I would have to figure out how to set that up, as one more thing that I have learned is that I am stunningly bad at website design.

I’m really looking forward to the next fifty books, and seeing what new adventures the rest of the year will bring. To those reading this, thank you for your continued support.

Happy reading everyone!

Ashley

 

Book Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert (2018)

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Review #50

Alice and her mother Ella have spent most of their lives on the run, moving from town to town in hopes of outrunning the streak of bad luck that seems to plague them. When they receive word that Alice’s grandmother, a celebrated writer of fairy tales, has passed away, they think that perhaps their troubles are behind them. But when Alice and Ella finally begin setting down roots in New York City, Alice begins seeing visions from her past walking around the city streets. When her mother goes missing, leaving behind only a message to “Stay away from the Hazel Wood”, Alice must journey into the dark and twisted world of her grandmother’s fairy tales in order to get her mother back.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, this debut novel by author Melissa Albert combines lyrical prose with modern slang in a way that comes across as charming rather than jarring. I enjoyed the descriptions of twisted forests and monstrous creatures that were occasionally interrupted by references to modern technology. It was a bit like reading Alice in Wonderland if Alice had been equipped with the latest iPhone.

The basic premise of The Hazel Wood is that Alice’s grandmother stumbled upon a magical fairy tale realm known as the Hinterland. She explored the area, gathering the tales of its various creatures, and later published their stories as a book. By doing so, she unknowingly opened a gateway by which the fairy-tale characters gained the ability to cross over into our land. It is the idea of words building worlds, of something that is inherently fictional becoming increasingly solid as it feeds off the collective interest of its fans. The Hazel Wood is at its strongest when focused on this premise.

Unfortunately, it takes a frustrating amount of exposition before the reader is introduced to the fairy tale world at all. There are large sections where the novel reads more as a the mystery novel than fantasy. And it also functions as a “buddy road-trip” story, as Alice and her friend Ellery head off in search of the hidden Hazel Wood. These different elements work well in their separate spheres, but fail to come together as a cohesive unit.

I won’t comment too much on the ending of the novel, except to say that it felt very rushed and unfinished. When you read three hundred pages of a girl attempting to get to an enchanted fairy tale realm, and then spent barely fifty pages in said realm, you come away feeling a little bit cheated.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Hazel Wood here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman (2018)

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Review #49

 

When she discovers that she is pregnant, fifteen year old Maggie Hughes finds herself trapped by the expectations of her parents and the rigid Catholicism of her small Quebec town. She is forced to give up her baby to an orphanage, thereby surrendering all legal rights to her infant daughter, Elodie. When the the French-Canadian government seeks to funnel more money into the Catholic church by turning all Quebec orphanages into mental asylums, Elodie is labeled as mentally deficient and is effectively committed to a life of brutality and neglect.

I had no idea going into this novel that it was historical fiction, and I became increasingly horrified as I learned that the events described in The Home for Unwanted Girls are based in reality. In the 1950’s the provincial government, led by staunch Catholic governor Maurice Duplessis, was highly reliant on the Church for most of its social welfare programs. Upon discovering that more federal funds were being allocated towards the care of mental patients than towards orphans, his reaction was to reassign all orphanages in Quebec as insane asylums. The children, who were already considered an unwanted burden on society due to the fact that the majority of them were born out of wedlock, were falsely labeled as suffering from mental illnesses. They were no longer allowed to go to school, and there were widespread reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by the doctors and nuns running the mental asylums. These practices were discovered in the 1960’s, but the Catholic Church has never admitted or apologized for its actions. (Wiki)

Author Joanna Goodman, a native of Montreal, does not shy away from the dark history surrounding this time period. The situation of Maggie and her daughter is one of incarceration. Maggie is trapped by the social structures of the time period, she is never asked if she wants to keep her child and she is denied all legal rights to her daughter after she is born. The child, Elodie, is a victim of a terrible crime. As she grows older and begins to question the system that does not seem to care for her or any of the other motherless children, she is met with violence, lies, and derision. The nuns see Elodie as a product of sin, and treat her as such. Modern supporters of the Catholic Church will have a difficult time reading this novel.

As heart-wrenching as the passages from Elodie’s perspective were, I wish there had been more of them. Of the approximately four hundred pages, I would estimate that only one hundred or so were devoted to telling Elodie’s story. The rest are given over to her mother, Maggie, as she attempts to reconcile her past with her future. This is not to say that Maggie’s story is not compelling, it just feels that a book entitled The Home for Unwanted Girls would spend more time with the girl who is told she is unwanted.

Good historical fiction can be just as useful as a nonfiction history book in teaching us about a specific time and place. Joanna Goodman’s novel did just that, it sparked my curiosity and encouraged me to learn more about the the “asylum orphanages” of Quebec. I later spoke with a friend of mine, a Canadian Catholic whose ancestors came from French Canada, if he had ever heard of the events described in this novel. He had absolutely no idea. Perhaps this time period is being left out of the history books, in which case, The Home for Unwanted Girls is certainly an eye opener.

Sometimes it feels as though nearly all historical fiction novels are centered around either the second World War or the British monarchy. It was a refreshing change of pace to encounter a story set in a time period that I was unfamiliar with. I definitely came away from Joanna Goodman’s novel feeling as thought I’d learned about something important.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2018)

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Review #48

A group of five women venture into the bushland outside of Melbourne for a corporate retreat. Three days later, only four of them return. One woman, Alice Russell, has disappeared. But did she leave of her own volition, or did she encounter some danger in the Australian forest? Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk is deeply invested in finding Alice, as she has important information regarding an ongoing investigation. However, he finds that each of the other four woman on the retreat have a different story to tell about their time in the wilderness.

I have a strange love/hate relationship with detective novels. Too often they are predictable and filled with cliched characters that operate as cardboard cutouts. Readers can expect a surly detective with a grim past. If his partner happens to be a woman, there’s an unspoken quasi- romantic connection between two of them. All the supporting characters speak from a script that seems designed to throw up red herrings. And yet, there are times when these basic tropes can either be turned on their heads, or given new life through deft writing that can make this somewhat tired and overused genre feel fresh again. Jane Harper’s second novel, Force of Nature, is definitely in the latter category.

I’ll keep this review short and sweet as to avoid any spoilers. Part of the narrative is devoted to Detective Falk and his partner as they join in the search for the missing Alice Russell. Interspersed are chapters from the perspectives of each of the four other women in the wilderness retreat as they go through the events leading up to Alice’s disappearance. I found the chapters from the women’s perspective to be more entertaining; they are all so comically unsuited to the outdoors and so utterly incompatible with one other it almost feels like a reality prank television show. After they venture off course and become increasingly lost and frightened, we can see how their conflicting personalities combined with a survival situation could have resulted in violence.

Novels like these are a guilty pleasure of mine. They do not necessarily enrich the mind in any particular way. I didn’t really learn anything from Force of Nature that caused me ponder its plot or themes in the days after reading it. However, it was a highly enjoyable diversion that kept me guessing from start to finish. Which is exactly what I was looking for at the time.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Force of Nature here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)

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Review #47

‘Odysseus then you are, o great contender,
of whom the glittering god with the golden wand
spoke to me ever, and foretold
the black swift ship would carry you from Troy.
Put up your weapon in the sheath. We two
shall mingle and make love upon our bed.
So mutual trust may come of play and love.

Homer’s Odyssey Book 10, lines 371-77

Circe is one of the lesser known goddesses of the Greek pantheon. The daughter of the Titan Helios and a water nymph, she is best known for her part in aiding Odysseus on his journey back to Ithaca following the Trojan War. Author Madeline Miller envisions the life of an immortal who has been condemned to a life of banishment and loneliness after daring to defy her father and choosing to live her life free from the demands of divinity.

Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, made my list of the favorite books that I read in 2017. There, she took a few small passages from Homer’s Iliad and turned it into a beautifully written novel about love versus honor. With Circe, Madeline returns to the world of ancient Greece and delves into the history and life of a goddess who, in the words of one character “hates her own divinity”.

Circe is born in the hallowed hall of her father, the Titan Helios who draws his golden chariot across the sky to bring the day. She strives to be an obedient daughter in order to win the affection of her self-absorbed father and her vain mother, the sea nymph Perse. Belittled as the least of his many children, Circe eventually discovers a mystical plant which can change the form of others, and uses it with disastrous results. As punishment, she is banished by Zeus to the lonely island of Aiaia (sometimes spelled Aeaea), condemned to live out the rest of her days in isolation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Madeline Miller’s is the way she takes a relatively throwaway character from antiquity and fleshes them out into a three dimensional person with hopes and goals. In the legend of Odysseus, the story of Circe is minimal, with far larger sections devoted to the slaying of the Cyclops and the seductive song of the sirens. Since the reader is already prepared for his arrival, we eagerly await the moment when Odysseus lands on the shores of Circe’s island. The fact that he is depicted here in quite a different manner as in Homer’s great epic is a delight. I for one always felt Odysseus to be a bit too perfect, he lacked the weaknesses of some of his fellow Greek heroes. Here he is shown as a man who has lost his moral center and is now desperate to return to Ithaca no matter what the cost to his crew.

But this is not the story of Odysseus, this is the story of a sorceress. Circe is an empowering heroine because her humanity shines through despite her immortal status. She yearns for love ,and acceptance, and occasionally bestows her affection on those unworthy of her. She finds a purpose in a world that has ostracized her, and seeks out happiness in whatever circumstances she is given.

For thousands of years the Greek pantheon has held a special place in our collective imaginations, in part because it’s denizens are so wonderfully and terribly human. They lie, cheat, steal, and meddle in the affairs of mortals and non-mortals alike. Madeline Miller weaves Circe’s tale together with the stories of the great Greek heroes. Making an appearance are such celebrated characters as the Minotaur, Daedalus, Scylla, and Ariadne. Even Jason (of the Argonauts) makes a cameo. Miller uses all these interesting and ultimately fallible characters to create a solid world behind the familiar myths.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Circe here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

P.S. If you are not terribly familiar with the convoluted chaos that is the Greek pantheon, it might help to have a flow chart available while you are reading Circe. Most people are reasonably well acquainted with the Olympians, but how many have ever heard of Glaucus?

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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Review #46

 

For nearly three decades, the mysterious region known as Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world. Abandoned by civilization, it has been reclaimed by isolated forms of nature that many scientists are eager to study. Several expeditions have been led into this region, with some reporting back a lush and verdant paradise and others being driven to suicide and murder for unknown reasons. The twelfth expedition, a team comprised of four women from different specialized fields, has just arrived.

This first installment in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy starts off with an ominous tone and creeping suspense. The four women in the twelfth expedition are identified only by their job descriptions. The surveyor is ex-military and edgy about what they may find in Area X. The anthropologist is fearful and wary of making big decisions. The psychologist is manipulative and well trained in hypnotic suggestions. And the biologist, who narrates the story, is eager to find out what happened to her husband, a member of the eleventh expedition who returned home a completely different man before shortly succumbing to cancer along with every other member of his team.

The four women are working towards conflicting ends, and these different agendas begin to clash when they discover a deep pit descending into the Earth. The other women refer to the pit as a “tunnel”, but the biologist feels compelled to call it a “tower”. While the Tower is nearby the designated campsite used by previous expeditions, it does not appear in any of the maps or field journals recorded by the other scientists. As the members of the twelfth expedition descend into this pit, they uncover a dangerous secret which threatens their sanity and their lives.

The first half of this relatively short novel does a great job of building and maintaining a discomforting sense of dread. Since none of the women are given personal names, the reader feels a kind of detached fascination as they venture into unknown and possibly threatening territory. The biologists interjects the primary narrative with details from her past which show her struggling relationship with her husband and her passion for observing living things. As they descend into the black depths of the Tower, the tension continues to mount as they begin to encounter things that defy the laws of nature.

Unfortunately, this level of suspense proves impossible to maintain. The second half of Annihilation veers into confusion and chaos as the team members begin to distrust and doubt one another. The unease of the initial Tower exploration falls apart and is replaced by twists and turns that serve no purpose and to little to further the plot.

There’s nothing wrong with science fiction novels that take a wild detour into weird. However, a book that is weird solely for the sake of being weird comes off as both pretentious and annoying. It’s as if VanderMeer deliberately made his conclusion as difficult to decipher as possible in order to find out who would “get it”. I, at least, didn’t get it, and trying to puzzle out the last thirty or so pages just left me with a headache.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Annihilation here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

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Review #45

London: 1946. The war is finally over, and Britain is trying to put herself back together after the horrors of the blitz. Journalist Juliet Ashton begins exchanging letters with the residents of Guernsey, who are enjoying communication with the wider world after five years of German occupation. As she learns more about them, she begins to be drawn into their lives. Beginning as a mutual love of books, she soon learns all about their island, their relationships, and the impact that the war has left on each of them.

There are so many historical fiction novels that center on World War II and its aftermath. Most of them focus on the horrors of the time period, and the grimBook Review: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017) determination of the people who struggled to survive its ravages. Given the scarring that World War II left on the collective consciousness of humanity, this does not come as any surprise. What does surprise is when I stumble across a novel like Guernsey Literary Society, which has the potential to be just another look at the bleak circumstances faced by the residents of the occupied Channel Islands but instead manages to be funny, uplifting, and utterly charming.

Mary Ann Shaffer’s epistolary novel does not shy away from describing in detail the hardships undergone by the people of Guernsey. The constant fear and hunger of German occupation are given full attention, and the reader is never in doubt as to the difficulties that these people have had to overcome during the course of the war. However, Shaffer writes her characters with an irrepressible sense of humor that shines through the pages of the book. Small things, such as discovering how the group chose the highly unusual name for their book club cannot help but bring a chuckle even though the characters are in very real danger at the time.  Shaffer details the small victories, triumphs, and friendships that allowed the residents of Guernsey to survive the presence of the soldiers on their island. In a lesser novel these characters may have been described as “plucky” or “quirky”. But Shaffer fleshes them out and gives them distinct personalities which blend together seamlessly to create the picture of a group of people who banded together during a dark time and are sticking together as they rebuild.

If I had to point out one small flaw in this novel, it would be that Shaffer treats the writing of letters rather like the sending of text messages. I cannot envision that someone would send letters back and forth to friends and colleagues multiple times a day, or that these messages would consist of only one or two sentences. How are these messages winging through London or across the English Channel with such speed?

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

This is a book for book lovers, and as a lifelong book lover I found myself completely delighted and enthralled by The Guernsey Literary Society. The main plot of the story begins as two strangers discuss the works of English poet Charles Lamb. Although I haven’t read any of Lamb’s work, I immediately felt comfortable with the two characters who find themselves drawn to one another in order to discuss their favorite section and passages of a book. I have made lifelong friends in much the same way.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy Reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (2018)

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Review #44

Poornima and Savitha have a few things in common. They are both daughters born into families who see them as a burden. They live in a poverty stricken region of India where the ambitions of a daughter can go no further than the marriage altar. And they both resist the life that has been planned for them in hopes of achieving something greater with their lives.

There seems to be a growing number of novels centered around cultures that do not value female children. For this website alone I can think of three examples, set in China and Africa, where daughters are treated as worthless and shameful in the eyes of the parents and/or the larger community. Girls Burn Brighter, similar to The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, surprises because it is not set hundreds of years ago in a less “enlightened” age, but as recently as twenty years in the past. This makes the treatment of these women feel somehow more shocking as it forces the reader to acknowledge that perhaps humanity is not quite as enlightened as it pretends to be.

By daring to have ambitions outside of being a wife and mother, Poornima and Savitha are forced to confront the fact that they are essentially trapped by their lack of education and their families’ disregard. No one asks these women what they want, it is taken as a matter of course that they will obey the various men in their lives without thought or question. The consequences that these girls reap for rebelling against the rigid patriarchy are both tragic and horrifying. Describing the difficulties of holding onto hope through brutal circumstances supports the first hundred or so pages of Girls Burn Brighter. However, as the narrative progressed and the situation only ever seemed to get worse, I began to wonder what point the author was trying to make. Towards the end, I started feeling that this novel was the literary equivalent of a “torture porn” horror film such as Saw or Hostel. We are exposed to the deepest pits of human suffering, but what are we really meant to take away from the experience? At what point does continuing to detail their misfortunes become masochistic instead of cathartic?

A friend of mine once said something along the lines of, “Never read a book set in India unless you are prepared to be completely and utterly devastated”. In addition to the works of Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy, I would submit this debut novel by author Shobha Rao as yet another installment in that category. Girls Burn Brighter was beautifully written, but left me feeling rather pessimistic towards the human race.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Girls Burn Brighter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!