Archive | May, 2011

Book Review: Jerusalem Maiden by Talia Carner

30 May

Genre: Historical fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins (Harper Paperbacks)

Pub date: 31 May 2011

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis

Esther Kaminsky is a young girl in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. Set at the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Jerusalem Maiden tells the story of Esther’s lifelong struggle between her God and her passion.

Review

This is a great story, very well-written with so many details of the daily lives of the people. Carner has made the story more than about a religion or even religion – it has a universality. When we are brought up being told something is right and the only way, it takes a lot of courage and introspection to go a different way. It’s hard to decide what is right and good and what can lead to destruction. And religious faith has a hold like nothing else – the fear and guilt that comes from breaking the rules have very dire consequences.

For those who don’t know much about this time and the Orthodox Jews, (like me) this story is an eye-opener.

Esther knows that according to her religion, her duty is to get married and produce many sons to hasten the Messiah’s arrival. But when her French teacher discovers that Esther has brilliant artistic talent, she comes to a fork in the road. Her love for art is so strong that Esther only wants to paint and draw. But she is torn: between her faith which says it is a sin to create graven images and her drive to paint and draw.

She is a rebel in her own way – she quietly questions the tenets by which her family and the community lives. Women do all the hard labour while the men pursue religious studies. She is an intelligent girl, capable of having academic discussions, but as a girl about to become a woman, she is required to focus on learning to run a home. As Esther grows up, this rebellious streak gets her into trouble. In any Orthodox society it is very hard for a young girl to maintain her reputation. Esther goes from being beloved daughter that her father is so proud of to a troublesome unmarried girl and a burden. But through it all, Esther’s faith in God stays strong.

When tragedy strikes the family, Esther sees it as a warning from God. She locks up her desire to paint and devotes herself to becoming an obedient Jerusalem maiden. But long-suppressed desires rise to the surface and she once again has to make a decision: is it her destiny to follow her passion? Why would God give her his talent and if He did not mean for her to pursue it? Esther tries to interpret her religion for herself. Her belief and courage takes her a long way from home and a long way from her beliefs.

Jerusalem Maiden is clearly Esther’s story, but it is peopled with some very memorable characters. I loved going with Esther on this journey. If there is one drawback to the book, it is that this struggle does feel a little repetitive. But I grew to care so much about Esther that throughout I was rooting for her to find peace.

Verdict

Highly recommended. Even those who have no strong feelings about god/faith or religion will be pulled into Esther’s story.

Rating: 4.75*

*See my Rating policy

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Mini Reviews: Monkeys and Althea

27 May

While I do love or really like most books I read, there are those that don’t affect me one way or the other. This doesn’t mean these are bad in any way, just that they were probably not for me. We can’t love everything we read. Althea by Madeleine Robins and Monkeys by Susan Minot are two such books I read recently that fit the bill. 

Genre: Historical fiction/Regency romance

Author: Madeleine Robins

Publisher: Fawcett

Pub date: 1977

Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewer

Althea is a spirited young woman who keeps house for her difficult father and spoilt-brat brother. When her father disowns her yet again, she runs away to her sister Marie in London. In London, she is presented to the Ton. Althea ha snot only to learn about the minutia of etiquette in society, but has also to learn to keep her sarcastic tongue under control.

In this society, she soon racks up many eligible men who are interested in her. The story then starts to take some twists – romantic entanglements, unsuitable beaus, misunderstandings and new friends.

This story is set in a time so alien to everything I’ve known that it was interesting reading about it. Althea is an easy character to like – she is witty, well-read, interested in learning and dismissive of many of the rigid expectations of her time.

But all told, this is not really my kind of novel. The plot was rather predictable and the characters stereotypical. If you’re looking for a simple Regency romance however, this fits the bill. According to other reviews it is quite a bit simpler than other books in the genre. It is a quick read and well written. Worth a shot if this genre is of interest to you.

Rating: 3*

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Genre: Literary fiction / Short stories

Author: Susan Minot

Publisher: Open Road

Pub date: 26 Oct 2010

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Monkeys tells the story of the Vincents, an Irish Catholic family over 10 years. They seem like a normal happy family, but are dealing with their father’s alcoholism and struggling to keep up their lifestyle.

Told in the form of short stories, this collection sees the family grow and go through some difficult times. I saw some similarity to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse – just in the broad strokes about the large family dynamics. There are some brilliant moments in this – one that stands out is when the family decides to hide to surprise their father. But for me it just didn’t work as a novel. I didn’t get to know or like any of the characters and while there is some reading between the lines that is left to the reader, I didn’t come away feeling anything.

I’ll leave you with the blurb from NetGalley to decide for yourselves if this sounds like your cup of tea.

“Written by the bestselling author of Evening, Monkeys is a powerful story of one family’s struggle to overcome life-changing tribulations and Minot’s wrenching ode to the ties that bind even the most wounded of families. “

Rating: 3*

*See my Rating policy

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Book Review: Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson

25 May

Genre: Literary fiction

Publisher: Other Press

Pub date: 10 May 2011

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

I’m not a big fan of a child narrators in stories but I am a fan of stories set in Africa. So even though I started reading Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away with some reservations, the voice of the narrator rang so true and the story was so beautiful that I’m really glad I chose to read this book.

Synopsis

Blessing and her brother Ezikiel are living are comfortable life in Lagos with their glamorous mother and larger-than-life father. But when their mother catches their father with another woman, they have to move to their grandparents’ village in the Niger Delta. The move is a big change for them – moving from luxury to a place where there is no running water or electricity. But more important than creature comforts, a band of young rebels is terrorizing the villages.

Review

This is a story with a lot of depth and heartache and I got to love almost every one of the characters.

Blessing and her family have all the creature comforts and everything they want in Lagos. Moving to her grandparents’ house in Warri in the Niger Delta comes as a shock. The toilet is a hole in the ground and they can’t afford the palm oil for Ezekiel (who is racked by asthma and allergies). Blessing is wide-eyed and terrified even of her grandparents while Ezikiel is only concerned with being able to go to school and becoming a doctor. In time, these dreams and fears change more than they could ever have imagined.

Niger delta is home to petroleum companies, but the people of the area don’t get to see any of the advantages of it. They have to live with the polluted river, no running water, days without electricity and very few options to earn a living.

Blessing is a wonderful young girl and seeing things through her innocent eyes and watching her grow up into a mature woman was a great journey to take. Her voice drew me in from the first sentence and kept me involved throughout. She is very attached to her parents and her family and there is such intelligence and strength about her. She is completely loyal to her mother and her love for her brother is so complete and overwhelming.

My favourite character, naturally, is Blessing’s grandmother. I say naturally, because I’m sure once you read the book, you’ll agree. She provides so much support and grounding for her grandchildren. She also teaches Blessing her trade and shares her wisdom, helping Blessing accept who she is and where she belongs.

The story also celebrates the Warri tradition of story-telling. Knowledge and wisdom is passed on from generation to generation through the stories that the women tell their children.

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away is a beautifully nuanced story peopled with wonderful characters. The author Christie Watson also deals with many of the humanitarian issues that the Niger Delta deals with and does it with grace and depth. We see Blessing and other characters rise above the struggle and hang onto their dignity while doing so.

I haven’t done justice to the many ways in this story resonated with me. What I can say however is, “Read it!” I will definitely going back to relive my journey with Blessing and the sunbirds.

Verdict

Highly recommended for anyone who likes powerful stories about wonderful people. Don’t miss Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away.

Rating: 5*

*See my Rating policy

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Book Review: The White Devil by Justin Evans

24 May

Genre: Thriller

Publisher: HarperCollins (Harper)

Pub date: 10 May 2011

Source: Publisher

This is a literary Gothic mystery which combines literature, academic research and scary ghosts. Oh, and Lord Byron, Romantic poet. What’s not to like, right?

Synopsis

Andrew Taylor has been sent to Harrow for a gap year. His father has had to pay and cajole the school authorities to admit his son. Andrew needs to make this year in school work, so that he can wipe the slate clean of the many troubles he’s gotten into at his previous schools. His father has given him one last chance to clean up his act. All Andrew wants to do is keep his head down and get through the year. But ghosts from hundreds of years ago are fixated on him, causing mayhem in this isolated school.

Review

This was not the most scary book I’ve read, but the link to Byron and secrets that are hundreds of years old kept me hooked throughout. While I have studied Byron in college, we never got into the more racy parts of his life. Byron seems to have left behind brilliant poetry and some unsavory gossip.

Evans has used documented parts of Byron’s life and woven it into a chilling murder mystery stretching back to the 1800s. Byron actually did study in Harrow, was known to have had many lovers, both male and female.

Starting at a new school comes with its own set of challenges, but Andrew has to deal with being far away from home among students who’ve known each for many years. And once they find out the reason for him going to school so far away from home, he has an even harder time.

Andrew is cast to play Byron in a school play and this is when the strangeness increases. Helped by his house master, Fawkes (a poet struggling with his own demons) Andrew has to solve an old mystery to overpower the ghost who is fixated on him, looking for revenge. He has to dig deep into the past and his own nightmares to stop the ghost from causing more harm.

I loved going through all the academic research with Andrew and liked even more that that was the way they decided to solve the mystery and understand what was happening.

Verdict

Highly recommended for fans of Gothic mysteries literature and history. A great read!

Rating: 4*

*See my Rating policy

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