Friday, January 31, 2014

The Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth

This young adult trilogy has been compared to The Hunger Games.  It does deal with the United States in some specified future time when there has been major war and everyone is living in an alternate, tyrannical society.  It also centres on a strong young female heroine and her love interest.  But it is not nearly as well written as The Hunger Games.

I did enjoy all the descriptions of futuristic Chicago - the lake now a swamp, the Hancock Tower a shell which the teenagers use to bungee jump from...I also admired the main characters, Tris and Tobias.  But eventually the repeated struggles, killings, uprisings, chases, fights and reconciliations became too repetitive.  Though I will say the end of the third book was not what I predicted - nor did I really feel satisfied by it.

I'd read The Hunger Games first, but if you're looking for another scifi YA trilogy, this was entertaining.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Others told me that this book was disappointing when compared to The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.  It's been a while since I read those so it is hard for me to compare, but I really enjoyed this book.

It starts with exploring the special bond between 10 year old Abdullah and his 3 year old sister Pari.  They are inseparable - it is as if Abdullah has raised her.  But, they are suddenly separated and the rest of the book explores this loss.  For Abdullah it is direct - he is never quite whole.  For Pari, more indirect as she eventually forgets about Abdullah though she lives most of her life knowing something is missing but unsure what.

We also learn more about the life of the children's uncle Nabi who at first seems cruel but as he ages we see the kinder, more devoted side of him.  And it is he, who following his death, reveals the information necessary to try to reunite the young siblings.  His illicit relationship with his employers is also of interest.

There are several other side stories - some more interesting and tied to the main story than others.  Nabi's sisters (one of whom is the step mother of Abdullah and Pari) are very interesting - and we really follow them from childhood to death.  The stories of the Greek doctor who comes to live with Nabi and his family and friend in Greece are really more tangential and the parts in Greece seem particularly unnecessary as does the story of two cousins who live down the street from Nabi.  It also seemed a little unnecessary to relate the story of Abdullah's younger half brother though I suppose it was illustrative of the problems that arose in Afghanistan following the various invasions when former Afghans returned to their homes from refugee camps in Pakistan.

As with Hosseini's other books, we also follow the changes to Afghanistan - from a relatively free society in the 50s, through the Russian invasion, the Taliban era and the US invasion.  And of course al of these changes create painful and dangerous circumstances for the characters.

So, at times the book was disjointed due to all the story lines but in all I did enjoy reading it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

We Are Water

Wally Lamb did not shy away from tackling a host of disturbing issues:  pedophilia, incest, racism, murder, violent death or disfigurement...

The story focuses on Annie and Orion Oh who divorce after 27 years of marriage because Annie falls for a woman, Viveca.  But the book is written from a multitude of perspectives - Annie and Orion, each of their three adult children, Ariane, Andrew and Marissa, and people from their pasts - notably Annie's cousin Kent and a woman who knew the details of the murder of a black man in the 60s but carried them to her grave.

The book is intriguing though it does jump around a little bit - in time as well as perspective - so it took a while to get into it.  It really explored the way many lives can be ruined by suppressed secrets from childhood, parental abandonment or abuse, and the failure to be sensitive to the needs of those closest to you.  It ends with both Annie and Orion facing their difficult pasts - and you sense both they and their children will be healthier for it.  And their son Andrew is also toying with coming clean on a big secret which may finally give him some peace.

Overall I enjoyed the book but because of the topics it was at times very heavy and frankly kept me up at night thinking...

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

This book was really weird.  It intrigued me so I kept reading it, but in the end I don't think I liked it.  The book centres on Ursula Todd, a baby born, or in some versions born dead, on a snowy night in 1910.  The story keeps going back and forth and changing the details.  So, in the first instance Ursula is born without a doctor and strangled by her umbilical cord, so dead.  In subsequent versions the doctor makes it through the snow on time and Ursula is saved from the cord.

This type of thing happens repeatedly, she dies or does not die from drowning at age 4, she dies or does not die from the influenza outbreak in 1918, she dies or does not die in various bombing scenarios during the London Blitz.  It is not only her life or death which varies - she is in one version raped at age 18 which tarnishes her for life.  In another she is not and goes on to live a normal life.  In one version she goes to Germany after University and ends up marrying and having a daughter and living through World War II there.  There she befriends Eva Braun and in some versions manages to assassinate Hitler before the War begins.  In most versions she lives out the war in London, never marries or has children though engages in a series of affairs.  In one version she does marry an abusive husband in England and dies at his hand.  The lives of Ursula's parents, aunt, siblings and friends are also taken to different conclusions in the different stories.

The whole book is somewhat confusing though I guess explores how one moment can change the course of your life and the lives of others.  As I said at the start the story is intriguing though strange. I certainly only recommend reading it if you can read it over a short time span because otherwise it would become extremely hard to keep track of the varying characters and story lines.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Winter Vacation Reading List

I read a wide range of books this holiday - some were better than others…

The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich
This is a loose sequel to Rich's first novel, The Midwife of Venice.  Though the characters are the same, you do not have to have read the first book to understand this one.  The book pick up where the last one left off - Hannah and Isaac Levy who have been exiled from Venice are making a life for themselves with their adopted son Matteo in Constantinople.  Hannah is a well respect midwife to the Sultan's harem while Isaac scratches out a living in the silk trade.  Life is generally good for the Jews of the Ottoman Empire - certainly better than it was in the Venice Ghetto.

Hannah runs into trouble when she is asked to verify the virginity of a Jewish slave girl who has been captured as an offering for the Sultan.  She takes pity on the young girl and lies for her which leads to fear for her life if found out and tension with her husband.  At the same time the family is visited by Francesca who poses as the widow of Isaac's deceased brother.  She is in fact trying to get her hands on his money and Matteo who was originally a Christian baby.

I won't give away the end - suffice it to say intrigue and close calls abound until the book comes to a neat but too predictable end.

The Great House by Nicole Krauss
I read this book for the second time as it is on my book club reading list.  And I did not like it any better than the first time around though I loved her other novel, The History of Love.  This book centres around a desk that makes its way from Nazi Europe, to London, to a Chilean writer, to New York and eventually is headed for Jerusalem.  Along the way we meet the various characters who use the desk - a writer in New York, a Chilean poet who is executed by Pinochet, an Holocaust survivor in London who harbours great secrets which her husband only uncovers when she reverts to the past with Alzheimers and an antique dealer who spends his life trying to find the desk and rebuild his father's study in pre-war Europe.

The language was just a bit too complicated and the writing too meandering for my taste.  I kept reading because I wanted to know how the various stories fit together but I was not really satisfied with how they did in the end.  I do look forward to discussing this with my book club as maybe I'll gain insights into the book which went over my head.

The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe
Now this was just mindless beach reading but it did the trick.  We delve into the lives of five middle aged women who discuss books and life in a book club.  Each chapter starts with a quote from the book they are reading and ties into the happenings in their lives at the time.  I wouldn't run out to find this book but if you happen to come across it by chance, as I did, it's worth a read on a sunny afternoon.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby
This is also mindless reading about twenty something rich and unemployed Will who is living on the royalties earned for a Christmas carol his father wrote in the thirties.  He invents a two year old son so he can join a single parent's support group and meet single mothers who, in their vulnerability, are more attracted to him than they should be.  However, eventually he meets Marcus, a twelve year old self described weird kid who needs the kind of guidance Will can provide - how to dress, what music to follow and how to talk to girls.  He's less able to help Marcus with his severely depressed mother and detached father, but his help does enable Marcus to fit in at his new school in London where previously he was only bullied.  However, in the end it is probably Will who gains more of a sense of purpose from Marcus.  Again, I wouldn't run out to find this, but it's not bad.

Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth by Edeet Ravel
I really enjoyed this book though it was a bit heavy for vacation.  Maya and Rosie are both the daughters of Holocaust survivors who meet as teenagers and quickly become best friends.  They each cope with their parents' eccentricities in different ways - Maya by trying to distance herself and Rosie by being drawn into her parents' haunted life.  Maya attends a Socialist summer camp and there she meets Anthony, a counsellor who, together with his brother Patrick, become key players in Maya and Rosie's life.  Together the four teenagers visit the boys' mother's cottage in the Laurentian and must forever keep a terrible secret about what occurs there.
This is really an exploration of families and how they survive terrible atrocities that affect even subsequent generations.  And it is a story of unrequited love and how damaging that can be.  But most of all I admired Maya's strength at dealing with all of this and coming out fairly together in the end.