Eclectic Reader Challenge – Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

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Genre: Historical Fiction, War

Narrative Style: First person moving between present and 2nd world war11076123

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2011

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – genre – nominated for the Booker Prize (2011)

Synopsis: In 1940, rising jazz star Hiero Falk is picked up by nazi soldiers in Paris. No one is sure what happened to him after that but he is presumed dead. In 1992, a documentary is made about him that brings Hiero’s friends and bandmates Chip and Sid back to Berlin. Sid was the only witness on the day Hiero disappeared and he finds memories coming back to him that he had thought long buried. 

Edugyan’s novel is written from Sid’s point of view and in his voice which gives the prose an almost jazz like rhythm. It was very easy to read and also gave a clear picture of what Sid was like.

At the beginning of the novel, he and Chip are preparing for a trip to Berlin for an airing of a documentary about Falk and the record they made called Half Blood Blues. Sid is clearly reluctant. Even more so when Chip announces that he has been contacted by Falk who is not dead but living in Poland and he intends to go to see him. It is clear what Sid has secrets and memories that he does not want to face. Nevertheless, he goes with Chip to Berlin.

The story shifts easily between the present day (1992) and 1939-40 in first Berlin and then Paris. Sid is a bit of a nervous character and his fear and worries give the reader a good impression of what it must have been like to be black at that point in history. It was an angle I hadn’t really considered and it certainly made me want to find out more it.

Sid and Chip are both scarred by their experiences, as is Hiero when they finally meet up with him. The revelation of what Sid has done is shocking and his final confession to Hiero is touching. I felt that the novel ended a little awkwardly and it could have been taken a little further. As it was, it just stopped suddenly, leaving a lot of questions unanswered.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable story which gave an unusual (to me anyway) perspective on the second world war.

 

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Books Read in 2015 43. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

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Genre: War, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person from the point of view of two women

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2007

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Mariam is fifteen years old when she is married off by her father to the much older, Rasheed. Laila is born to a different generation but also finds herself  married to Rasheed, The women form a bond that helps them to survive not only the horrors of their marriage but the war and oppression all around them. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: About five years. I suspected that this might be a bit of a bleak read and so put off reading it. 

This is a compelling book. The story of Afghanistan from the seventies until the present day told through the eyes of two women trapped by war and marriage. The history was something I was sort of familiar with – it became more familiar as it came closer to the present day – but nothing prepared me for reading about the horror of life for actual citizens.

Hosseini creates a vivid picture of the various stages of war and the various enemies. He shows how men like Rasheed used the rise of the Taliban and the oppression of women to commit their own personal atrocities. Rasheed was already determined to control the women he was married to – it must have seemed like a gift from heaven that women were not even allowed out without a male escort. He was a brutal man and the regime legitimised his brutality and meant that Mariam and Laila had no escape.

Both women as portrayed convincingly as they battle against the many hardships the war throws at them. I’m not sure I was 100% convinced by Mariam’s eventual self sacrifice but maybe it was only because I wanted it to be otherwise. I wanted her to be able to share in the future with Laila and Tariq.

This is a bleak story and it was such a relief at the end that things did start to pick up for Laila and her family.  I’m not sure I could have coped with much more heartache. As with the best of fiction, this gave me insight into a situation that I didn’t know much about and has encouraged me to read more about this subject.

 

 

 

Books Read in 2015 32. Babette’s Feast – Karen Blixen

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Genre: Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person

Rating: 3/541+8Z8uVWwL._SL500_AA300_

Published: 1952

Format: Kindle

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2015 – genre fiction for foodies

Synopsis: Martine and Phillipa live a quietly pious life in a remote part of Norway. Their lives are ordered and there are no surprises. That is until the arrival of Babette, a  refugee from the French revolution. Babette is a cook and although she wishes to cook more extravagant meals, she agrees to cook the simple dishes that the sisters require. That is until she wins money in the French lottery and insists on catering for the whole town. 

I really had no idea what to expect from this book. I was looking specifically for the challenge as I must admit fiction for foodies is not really a genre I know much about and a lot of the books I was finding seemed like chick lit and I tend to find that a bit annoying. So when I saw this, I jumped at it.

The main characters are two elderly sisters – named after radical religious reformers – who have eschewed love and adventure to remain pious and devote their lives to the church and God. Growing up, they are much in the thrall of their father, the pastor who stops any chances of marriage that the sisters may have had.

Years later, Babette appears on their doorstep, a French refugee who cooks for the sisters. Every week, she faithfully plays the French lottery. One day, many years later she wins 10000 francs and instead of moving home, as the sisters assume she will, she offers to create the feast to celebrate the anniversary of the pastor’s 100th birthday.

The feast represents everything that the sisters have removed from their lives. It is sumptuous, rich and over the top. The sisters and the townsfolk have misgivings about the feast but resolve not to mention the food, no matter what they think of it. So they sit and eat the most incredible meal they have ever had without ever commenting on it.

This was an odd story which was rich in symbolism and an interesting look at the meaning of self-sacrifice. The sisters may have devoted their lives to the church but Babette sacrifices her entire winnings to pay for the feast, to have the townsfolk not even mention her efforts. Her sacrifice is surely greater. While it was interesting, I wasn’t really grabbed by the characters and didn’t really feel any emotion at the end of the story.

Books Read in 2015 – 27. Fever – Mary Beth Keane

Genre: historical fiction

Narrative Style: third person, chronologicalUnknown

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2013

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Mary Mallon – also known as Typhoid Mary – has cooked in many big houses in New York. She doesn’t think anything of the fact that often the families contract Typhoid fever. It is prevalent in New York as a whole and many people die from it. However, when a new theory of germs and carriers gains popularity, Mary finds herself held in quarantine while they do tests on her. 

Before reading this, I had no idea that Typhoid Mary was a real person. Of course, I’d heard the phrase used. Now, having read Mary’s story, it seems a shame that this should be her legacy. Imagine that was your contribution to the world, what you were famous for. Very depressing.

The story itself is interesting. At first, Mary could have had no idea that she was spreading the disease. The theories about germs and about healthy carriers were in their infancy and the authorities clearly had no idea what to do about it. Mary is arrested and taken into quarantine but she does not go without a fight. It is this fighting spirit that constantly works against her.

While, undoubtedly, there were real public health issues at stake, there are also issues of class, race and gender. Mary is unlucky enough to be Irish, working class and female – three ways in which she is powerless. Newspaper stories suggest that she had ideas above her station and was infecting the upper class houses on purpose – a disease based class revenge.

Eventually, Mary is allowed back into society on the promise that she will never cook for anyone again. But cooking is the one thing that makes Mary feel alive, the one thing that she is good at. And she still doesn’t really believe that she passed on the fever to others so she starts a job at a bakery. While the modern part of my brain, the part that knew she would start to make people ill again, was appalled at her seeming recklessness, it was also possible to feel sorry for Mary. After the way she was treated, it was unsurprising that she would not want to do what the authorities asked of her.

Keane manages to successfully evoke New York in the early 1900s and the atmosphere is heavy with diseases and potential unrest. I think she also captures Mary well. Of course, as she herself acknowledges in the afterword, there is no way of knowing if that was what Mary was like but she seemed real and of her time and I don’t think that you could do much more than that.

Books Read in 2015 – 14. The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton (contains spoilers)

Genre: Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: third person, chronologicalUnknown

Rating: 2.5/5

Published: 2014

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin her new life as wife to wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt. Immediately, she notices that things are not what they should be. Johannes is distant and does not come to her bed. His sister is difficult and she and Nella are locked in battle almost immediately. But it is when Johannes buys his wife a cabinet version of their house, to be filled with miniature furniture and figures that things start to fall apart. 

The story at the heart of The Miniaturist is an interesting one and the atmosphere of Amsterdam in the late 1600s is convincingly suffocating, however, I found that I had little interest in reading on and it was a real struggle at times to get it finished.

The story focuses on Nella and her attempts to understand the secrets of those around her. She is young and a country girl and she often misinterprets events. As such, the reader has to try and work out the actual truth, separating it from Nella and her servant, Cornelia’s imaginings. This was quite an easy task and was one of the reasons I felt the novel lacked tension. There were no real surprises.

When the miniaturist starts to send unasked for models that seem to predict events, Nella becomes unsettled. This was interesting and suitably creepy. It was hard to tell whether it was all just in Nella’s head or if the miniaturist really was some sort of witch. This wasn’t resolved which I found a little disappointing.

Finally, the characters were stereotypical and unconvincing. I was intrigued by the story of Johannes and Jack but as the details unfolded it seemed just a bit too familiar. Johannes, the rich merchant with his unholy (at the time) passion for other men and Jack, the whore who would sell out anybody for money were two-dimensional and I felt little for either of them. When Nella first sees Johannes and Jack together, she faints and then wants to report him. But in no time at all, she is supportive of him and so very understanding. There is little sense of why she might have had such a profound change of heart and again it felt a little unconvincing. Similarly, the relationship between Marin, Johannes sister and the negro servant seems too much like a cliche to really involve the reader.

So, for me, the whole thing fell a little flat. Maybe it would have been more interesting if there was more of the other character’s perspectives. Perhaps then they would have been fleshed out a bit more. It left me feeling more than a little empty.

Books Read in 2014 – 55. The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

Genre: Detective Fiction, Historical Fictiondownload (15)

Narrative Structure: First Person Narrative, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2012

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: New York is overrun with Irish immigrants and bad feelings towards Catholics are running high. Timothy Wilde has lost everything in the Great New York Fire so he reluctantly agrees when his older brother, Valentine, gets him a position as one of New York’s newly appointed police officers. When it appears that someone is murdering Irish children and leaving them with their chest opened like a cross, Timothy is determined to solve the mystery even if it puts his life in danger. 

I’m not sure what is was about Timothy Wilde’s first person narrative but from the very first I found it difficult to get on with. It wasn’t difficult to read and the use of Flash – the criminal slang of the era – gave it authenticity. Maybe I just prefer my detectives a little more hard-boiled and edgy. Timothy just wasn’t a very interesting character while all others around him shone a bit more brightly – particularly his brother.

The story is exciting and that carried me through. In the beginning, Timothy finds Bird Daly, covered in blood and clearly frightened. He begins slowly to unravel her lies and is led to the madam, Silkie Marsh and her child prostitutes. When his investigations lead him to a mass grave of nineteen children, it seems that a serial killer is on the loose. With anti-catholic feeling running high, New York becomes volatile and rioters take to the streets.

Timothy proves himself to be an excellent policeman, sharp eyed and persistent, putting clues together and following leads that no one else has spotted. This contrasts with his stupidity in other areas, particularly his personal life. He completely misunderstands both his brother, Valentine, and his love-interest, Mercy Underhill so much so that he is in danger of ruining Mercy’s life. I’m not entirely sure that I was convinced by the character of Mercy either but she did at least have more than one side to her personality.

The story twists and turns and in the end, nothing is as you might have expected. I liked the ending and the way that it was worked out, using the then new techniques of forensic detective work. The historical detail was believable and helped create a New York that was dark and disturbing. However, I was pleased to be rid of Timothy Wilde, particularly when he is so drippy over Mercy even though it is likely his love will never be returned. It is a shame. I’m sure there is interest to be had in the books that follow but I wouldn’t want to spend another minute in his company.

Books Read in 2014 54. The Werewolf in Paris – Guy Endore

Genre: Horror, Historical FictionWerewolf of Paris

Narrative Style: First and third person

Rating 3/5

Published: 1933

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: An American student in Paris finds an old manuscript which details the story of Bertrand Caillet who is cursed with violent passions that make him change into a wolf. The story is set at the time of the Prussian-Franco war and the Paris Commune and Bertrand’s violence is intermingled with the violence of the time.

Although I love horror – both novels and films – the werewolf is a neglected area for me. I have never read any werewolf fiction and have seen few of the many films out there. As there were claims that this novel was of a similar standing to Dracula, this seemed a good place to start.

The story begins with an American student out late at night in Paris. He buys a mysterious manuscript from some trash-pickers and becomes fascinated with the story within. While he has issue with some of the supernatural elements, he decides to share the story along with some of the history of the times.

The story begins with the story of the rape of Bertrand’s mother by a monk who is a member of the cursed Pitamont clan. He is further cursed by the fact that he is born on Christmas Eve (a particularly unlucky event apparently). The signs of his strangeness quickly fall into place especially if you have any knowledge of werewolf lore. Bertrand has violent dreams where he is a wolf but which he believes are just dreams. His uncle – the author of the manuscript – quickly ascertains that this is not the case. To begin with, he locks Bertrand up and feeds him raw meat. And for a while it seems that he may be cured. However, it is not long before this is not enough.

Endore allows the reader to feel sympathy for Bertrand’s plight and he is never merely a monster. He wishes wholeheartedly not to be a werewolf. As the novel is set at a particularly violent moment in French history, this also allows Endore to compare Bertrand’s violence with that of supposedly normal humans. What is their excuse for the excesses of their behaviour?

However, I did feel that all the historical detail slowed the pace of the book, particularly towards the end of the novel. To be fair, I had very little knowledge of this era of history but I’m not sure it was necessary to have so much written that did not directly relate to the werewolf story. Ultimately, the point that much worse violence is committed during war could have been made with a lot less words being written.

In the end, I did enjoy this and it is a sub-genre I will probably investigate a bit more closely. Like Dracula, it was deeper than mere scares and used the theme of violence to make a greater point about society which, in my mind, is exactly what good horror should do.