Thursday, April 27, 2006

Things We Knew Were True by Nicci Gerrard

Author: Nicci Gerrard
ISBN # 0141012471
Publisher: Penguin
First Published: 2003
310 pages

At 16, Edie's world was turned upside-down when her father failed to come home from work one evening. After 20 years, she eventually makes a passionate and dangerous attempt to return to the past - in search of the truth about her father and lost teenage love.

The first half of this book focuses on Edie’s teenage years and seems to creep by at a geriatric pace. It’s rare to come across something so lethargic, yet the pace picks up in the second half (focusing on events 20 years later) and it seems a little too rushed. If there was a message embedded in the story, I’ll freely admit that it eluded me and I failed to pick up anything remotely positive. Edie’s character was a little too-good-to-be-true in the first half and continued to be rather bland, seeming to wander across the pages in a somnambulant haze which suited the slow pace of the novel, but did little to stimulate any enthusiasm in me.

There’s little I can say to recommend this book as I felt that not only was nothing fully resolved, but there seemed little point in anything happening at all. It was singularly lack-lustre and uninteresting, despite the number of life-changing events that occurred throughout. From what little I’ve read in reviews, it’s supposed to be a study in female sexuality, but to tell the truth, I really didn’t see that at all, as the protagonist seemed to focus on just one relationship from the past and then agonise over it years after the event.

I’m afraid it’s not one I’d recommend, but if you were stuck with nothing else to read on a long train journey, you could do worse than to try and entertain yourself with this, but not much.

Rating: 4

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Author: Arthur Golden
ISBN # 0099771519
Publisher: Vintage
First Published: 1997
428 pages

“A true Geisha can stop a man with a single look.”

Summoning up more than twenty years of Japan's most dramatic history, it uncovers a hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation. From a small fishing village in 1929, the tale moves to the glamorous and decadent heart of Kyoto in the 1930s, where a young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. She tells her story many years later from the Waldorf Astoria in New York; it exquisitely evokes another culture, a different time and the details of an extraordinary way of life. It conjures up the perfection and the ugliness of life behind rice-paper screens, where young girls learn the arts of geisha - dancing and singing, how to wind the kimono, how to walk and pour tea, and how to beguile the most powerful men.

Due to the publicity surrounding the film (which I’ve not yet seen), I was drawn to the book and am so pleased it lived up to my expectations. Although it moves at a sedate pace, every chapter manages to feel momentous, even if only in a small way at times, and the richly drawn world of a Gion Geisha is vividly brought to life. Descriptions of the many kimono and tea ceremonies manage to instill a feeling of grandeur to the tale, despite the humble beginnings of the heroine.

The plot isn’t action-packed and is, at times, predictable, but this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of reading the story and I found myself completely immersed in the evocative and provocative life of these women who live purely to entertain men in accordance to ancient tradition, without thought of their own happiness or ever feeling free to experience love for themselves.

At times it is quite harrowing – the depiction of a culture that will sell it’s daughters into a life of servitude, whether as a potential Geisha or to a life of domestic servitude, seems worlds away from the Western ideal, and yet there is something appealing in the former (though definitely not the latter), with all the mystery surrounding them – yet at other times, there is pure hope shining out from between the pages and it is ultimately an uplifting story with a positive slant.

For me, it has spawned a previously unrealized interest in the Japanese culture and I will most certainly be reading more books of a similar ilk, however, I think this one will shine like a pearl and stand out as something precious and special no matter how many I read.

Rating: 8

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Author: Sophie Kinsella
ISBN # 0552772747
Publisher: 0552772747
First Published: 2005
416 pages

Workaholic attorney Samantha Sweeting has just done the unthinkable: She's made a mistake so huge it'll wreck any chance of a partnership. Going into utter meltdown, she walks out of her London office, gets on a train, and ends up in the middle of nowhere. Asking for directions at a big, beautiful house, she's mistaken for an interviewee and finds herself being offered a job as housekeeper. Her employers have no idea they've hired a lawyer—and Samantha has no idea how to work the oven. She can't sew on a button, bake a potato, or get the #@%*ing ironing board to open. How she takes a deep breath and begins to cope—and finds love—is a story as delicious as the bread she learns to bake. But will her old life ever catch up with her? And if it does...will she want it back?

This is a sweet, escapist bundle of joy to read; smooth-flowing and comfortable like an old friend with plenty of fun to boot. It’s the ideal pick-me-up when you’re feeling down and out-of-sorts with life and fancy a change.

Perfect for those moments when you want to relax for a while with a nice cup of tea, Kinsella has a light touch and an amusing style. A fantastic gift for the Undomestic Goddess in your life – even if it’s a gift to yourself! It will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever done battle with their washing machine and fretted over where half the socks have gone after the tumble drier.

Rating: 7

Q&A by Vikas Swarup

Author: Vikas Swarup
ISBN # 055277250X
Publisher: Black Swan
First Published: 2005
381 pages

Eighteen-year-old Ram Mohammad Thomas is in prison after answering twelve questions correctly on a TV quiz show to win one billion rupees. The producers have arrested him, convinced that he has cheated his way to victory. Twelve extraordinary events in street-kid Ram’s life – how he was found in a dustbin by a priest; came to have three names; fooled a professional hit-man; even fell in love – give him the crucial answers…

I wasn’t convinced that this would be “my kind of book”, but I have never been happier to admit I was wrong. Q&A is both heart-warming and gripping story that takes the reader on a tag-along tour of Ram’s life whilst commenting on religious bigotry, child abuse, poverty, exploitation, espionage and Bollywood culture.

This is one of the most interesting and unusual novels I’ve read in a long time - well worth picking up if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary that explores deeper issues from a different angle.

There is talk of Q&A being adapted for the big screen and I, for one, would definitely go to see it.

Rating: 8

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Author: Yann Martel
ISBN # 184195392X
Publisher: Canongate
First Published: 2002
319 pages

“Japanese-owned cargo ship Tsimtsum, flying Panamanian flag. Sank July 2nd 1977 in Pacific Ocean, four days out of Manila. Am in life boat. Pi Patel my name. Have some food, some water, but Bengal tiger a serious problem. Please advise family in Winnipeg, Canada. Any help very much appreciated. Thank you.”

This extraordinary tale of the 16-year-old son of an Indian zookeeper, drifting in a 21-foot lifeboat with an adult male Royal Bengal tiger aboard, is nothing short of amazing. It’s fantastically whimsical, yet harshly real, showing the hardship of survival at sea under the most unusual circumstances ever witnessed: A seven-month epic journey into the unknown with an uncertain outcome.

It’s a wonderful story, cleverly written to draw the reader into what should be completely unbelievable, yet manages to convince one that this could actually happen. No wonder Life of Pi won The Man Booker Prize in 2002.

Don’t let the “critical literary acclaim” put you off – this is pure escapism at its finest and a highly recommended page-turner.

Rating: 8

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Wolf Girl by Theresa Tomlinson

Author: Theresa Tomlinson
ISBN # 0552552712
Publisher: Corgi Books
1st Published: 2006
372 pages

Cwen, a poor weaver struggling to make a living at Whitby Abbey, is accused of possessing a valuable necklace that cannot possibly be hers. If she is found guilty she could be hanged, burned or stoned. Cwen’s daughter, Wulfrun, desperate to prove her mother’s innocence, encounters lies and treachery wherever she turns for help. Set in a turbulent period of Anglo-Saxon England, this is a story of a resourceful, dauntless heroine, determined and clever as a wolf. Through defying rank and convention, braving wind, weather and marauding armies, Wulfrun shows that courage has its own just reward.

This is one of the best books I have read this year. Exciting, adventurous and a richly woven story that brings Anglo-Saxon Northumbria vividly to life. The characters are warm and engaging, the plot is intriguing and the journey of self-discovery will appeal to all young readers as they join Wulfrun in trying to unravel the mystery of the necklace. The underlying message is to trust in yourself and not to judge a book by its cover, as help can come from the most unlikely places!

Theresa Tomlinson is a highly talented storyteller and this story will appeal to older readers and young adults.

Rating: 9

Who Was Boudicca - Warrior Queen by Sian Busby

Author: Sian Busby
ISBN # 190497760X
Publisher: Short Books
1st Published: 2660
150 pages

Boudicca lives a contented life as Queen of Icenia – though the Romans are never far away. When the new Emperor Nero decides to seize Icenia and finally bring it under Roman rule, Boudicca is forced to stand up and defend her people. Fearless and resolute, Boudicca gathers forces and prepares to fight. For her, slavery to Rome is not an option, even if this means bloodshed and almost inevitable death…

This lyrical book describes the life of Boudicca in true bardic style, spinning her story so well that you can almost hear the battle cries of the Iceni as they fight against Roman rule. Despite being one of the strongest ruling women in British history, she is still a mysterious figure, but Sian Busby manages to bring her sharply to life.

Aimed at more confident young readers, this book is sure to inspire further forays into history with its vivid and exciting tale with a twist.

Rating: 6

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory

Author: Philippa Gregory
ISBN # 0007147317
Publisher: Harper Collins
1st Published: 2004
482 pages

Elizabeth I has acceded to the throne of England, a position she has waited and schemed for all her life. She is surrounded by advisers, all convinced that a young woman cannot form political judgements. Elizabeth feels that she can rely on just one man: her oldest friend, Robert Dudley. It is soon plain that he is more than merely a friend. In a house in the countryside waits a very different woman, Amy Robsart - Robert's wife. She has no taste for life at court and longs for the day when her husband will return home. She has loved him since she was a girl, but now they are adults she hardly sees him. Meanwhile, the pressure grows for Elizabeth to marry, for it is unthinkable that a queen should rule on her own. Elizabeth's preference is clear, but he is unavailable. But what if the unthinkable were to happen!

Unlike the previous historical novels by Gregory that I’ve read, The Virgin’s Lover isn’t written in the first person, making this story feel slightly less personal than either The Other Boleyn Girl or The Queen’s Fool, however, it enables the reader to look into the minds of more than one character at any given time and know exactly what plots are being hatched.

It paints a more vulnerable picture of Elizabeth I and she is shown as a woman with loves, hopes and fears like any other, but a woman in a position that will not allow her to be like any other – she can’t just be a Queen, she must rule like a King, with a decisive manner and firm hand. However, the portrayal is not always sympathetic; her selfish, demanding side is given free reign and she often manipulative and impulsive, as well as malleable; in shirt, she’s a flawed human being.

The ambition often associated with Elizabeth, one of the most powerful women in history, is matched by that of her lover, Robert Dudley, and his ruthlessness in working to raise his position so that he can make a play for the throne.

The Virgin’s Lover shows the cutthroat world of Tudor politics alongside one of the most famous royal romances England has ever known and throws the reader into a dizzying whirlwind of love and treachery in Gregory’s own imitable style.

Rating: 7

Plague Sorcerer by Christopher Russell

Author: Christopher Russell
ISBN # 0141318554
Publisher: Puffin
1st Published: 2006
198 pages

The year is 1348 and the Black Death is sweeping across England. At Dowe Manor, Lady Beatrice is a victim and a witch-hunter priest, Brother Rohan, persuades a distraught Sir Edmund that Brind, the dog boy, and Aurelie, the French girl, are to blame. The children escape, together with the dogs Glaive and Gabion, and go on the run through a plague-stricken countryside, at one point facing death by drowning from a crazed mob whipped up by Brother Rohan. Even when they think they have found sanctuary in a monastery, it has been taken over by a lawless band of armed robbers, led by the beautiful but evil Chanterell. She has plans to use the dog boy to terrorise the local manors. By now Brind is convinced that he is a plague bringer. Aurelie knows this isn't true, but then she succumbs to the plague herself...

The fear and superstition of 14th century England makes for a scary and exciting adventure as Brind and Aurelie make their way across a country filled with terrified people who believe that witches are responsible for the deadly plague. It’s a dangerous journey with many twists and turns along the way as the friends face fear head on, learning to depend on each other along the way.

A very well-written story with unusual plot twists that will delight and challenge a confident reader interested in historical fiction.

Rating: 7

A Ghost Among Us by Debora Hill

Author: Debora Hill
ISBN # 1929374143
Fire Mountain Press
1st Published: 2003
242 pages

When three young women rent a house in Hampstead, they discover they already have an uninvited border: Television talk-show host, Dierdre Hall, Photographer, Charlotte Lewis and Fantasy Painter, Natalie Ladd are thrilled to discover the large townhouse with the reasonable rent. What they don't know is that Sir Jerome Kennington, former Earl of Arden is a long-time inhabitant of the house, even though he has been dead for nearly two-hundred years. The three young women embark on a quest to help Jerome solve his own murder ...and release his soul. In the process they find adventure and romance in modern-day London, while researching the story of Jerome and his beloved Alicia, during the Regency period.

A Ghost Among Us is a light mystery/romance with a great deal of charm. There’s an eclectic feel here, with a coming together of different nationalities – everyone seems to be from somewhere other than London, which is fairly telling in itself, as Britain is shown as a melting-pot of cultures pulling together to reach their goals. During the course of the story, the women learn much about themselves and each other as they work to uncover the mystery surrounding Jerome’s death, meanwhile, he might just be able to teach these modern women and the men in their lives something about good old-fashioned romance!

The Regency chapters are particularly vivid and all the gaiety of high society is colourfully brought to life.

Rating: 6