Monthly Archives: September 2011

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

DATE FINISHED: September 25th, 2011             

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Four teenagers from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys are singled out by small-time crook Frank Minna, and together perform whatever dubious tasks are set them with a sense of pride: they are the Minna Men.  When Minna is murdered, Lionel Essrog (Tourette’s sufferer, social outcast and general figure of fun), is determined to find out who is responsible, and why.  Figuring out who he can trust is another matter altogether…

THOUGHTS:  Told from Lionel’s point of view, this story is as much about the workings of a tourettic mind as it is a murder mystery; not to mention a great excuse for Lethem to play with the sounds and structures of language through Lionel’s tics.   Read more of this post

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The Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

DATE FINISHED: September 15th, 2011             

RATED: ***(3.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Tete is sold to plantation owner Valmorain when she is a child, as a gift for his new bride.  However as his wife succumbs to illness in the suffocating tropical atmosphere of Saint-Domingue (later Haiti), Valmorain finds additional uses for Tete.  The children she bears & raises for him change the course of both of their lives irrevocably, but Tete waits only for her freedom.  When Valmorain moves to New Orleans to escape the slaves rebellion and danger of Saint-Domingue, Tete’s situation changes again as Valmorain takes a new wife.  But in a new country & a new city, where interactions between the free and slaves, between whites and those of colour are even more complex, Tete and her children have all new challenges and relationships to face.

THOUGHTS:  I was initially taken aback by Allende’s sprawling prose, descriptive and decadent as the tropical climes represented, Read more of this post

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

DATE FINISHED: September 11th, 2011

RATED: ***

SYNOPSIS:  Kimberley Chang and her mother have high hopes for their new life in America, despite barely speaking a word of English between them.  However, it soon becomes clear that the aunt who paid for their passage has no qualms about leaving them to live in a slum rental property without heating, and having them work long factory hours for pitiful remuneration.  Will they still find a way to live the American Dream?

THOUGHTS:  The narrative is quiet and understated; an easy read.  But Kimberley and her mother face their challenges so stoically, it is hard to see them as challenges.   Read more of this post

Kehua! by Fay Weldon

DATE FINISHED: September 11th, 2011

RATED: ***

SYNOPSIS:  Kehua are Maori spirits, whose role is to shepherd unsettled souls back into the family fold, so that they can rest in peace.  But how did they get to Highgate in London?  And does it matter if the kehua occasionally get their instructions to ‘run’ mixed up with a command to ‘kill’…?  Beverley has lived in London for the whole of her adult life but the demons of her past seem destined to be visited upon her daughter, granddaughters, great-granddaughter until the kehua are able to set things straight…

THOUGHTS:  Weldon is up-front in her use of the kehua as a metaphor for inherited family behaviours – but then, there are very few authorial devices we are not privy to in this novel, Read more of this post

Savage Lands by Clare Clark

DATE FINISHED: September 7th, 2011

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Sold by her father in Paris to become a wife in the ‘prosperous’ new colony of Louisiana, Elisabeth Savaret finds her expectations confounded at every turn – especially when she falls violently in love with the man she marries, the charming but untrustworthy Babelon.  Having been left as an observer of the local Ouma ‘savages’ throughout his teenage years, Auguste Guichard is befriended by Babelon, a move which shapes the lives of the three protagonists from that moment forth.

THOUGHTS:  Although there are one or two moments when Clark’s narrative makes brief and unaccountable leaps, for the most part this is a well-written novel, with strong, considered language accompanying strong, considered characters.   Read more of this post

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

DATE FINISHED: September 4th, 2011

RATED: *** 

SYNOPSIS:  Golden – as a member of a small Mormon sect – has 4 wives, 28 children, and a growing feeling that his life is out of his own control.  While working away, he embarks upon an affair with the wife of his boss, which becomes the catalyst for the world as he has known it falling apart.  Can he glue it back together again, and does he really want to?

THOUGHTS:  Golden as a character is good-natured, world weary and physically tired.  He allows his wives to schedule his life, yet with being forced to work 200 miles away barely sees any of his enormous family, even in the brief times he is physically present.  It is easy to feel sympathy for him.  Yet as the 600-page story progresses and the wives and (some of) the children are fleshed out, sympathy for Golden wavers Read more of this post

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

DATE FINISHED: September 2nd, 2011

RATED: *** (3.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Twins Miranda and Eliot live in a house that is haunted by generations, a house with its own way of getting its own way.  Eliot seems immune to the ghosts they live with, but following the death of their mother, Miranda sees and hears more and more of them and her own existence becomes proportionally less and less.  Which family will claim her – the living or the dead?

THOUGHTS:  Oyeyemi’s prose style will not be to everyone’s taste, Read more of this post

Ceremony of Innocence by James D. Forman

DATE FINISHED: August 31st, 2011

RATED: **

SYNOPSIS:  Hans and Sophie are arrested by the Gestapo after disseminating leaflets they have written denouncing Hitler and Nazi Germany.  Will Hans recant and confess to wrongdoing, or are he and his sister destined to become martyrs for their cause?  Based on a true story.

THOUGHTS:  Perhaps because it is based on the lives of existing historical figures, the characters in this short (young adult?) novel never actually feel very fleshed out or easy to relate to.   Read more of this post

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

DATE FINISHED: August 24th, 2011

RATED: **

SYNOPSIS:  After suffering a childhood trauma (not elucidated until the novel’s end), the title character stops speaking and develops an affinity with opening locks.  As a teenager, the ability to open locks finds Michael making acquaintance with various criminals; while his artistic ability leads to him falling in love…

THOUGHTS:  Michael is first met during a prison sentence that is the direct result of his lock-breaking abilities, telling his life story as a way of passing the time and perhaps redeeming himself in the eyes of his one true love.  The synopsis on the book cover was sadly far more engaging than Michael’s own retelling of events Read more of this post