All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Broken Jewel – David L. Robbins

Broken Jewel
David L. Robbins
Simon & Schuster US
2009, 396p
Read from my local library

December 1944, Los Baños prison camp, Manila, The Philippines. Over 2000 prisoners of war are currently being held by Japanese forces, among them Remy Tuck, a gambling man and his young son Talbot. Talbot is known around the camp as a thief, a bit of a trouble maker and he struggles to keep his head down, keep the Japanese who run the camp from noticing his antics.

Most of the camp is starving, their rations pitifully low and being cut all the time by those in charge for anything they view as an infringement upon their rules. When US fighter planes are spotted low over the camp and a drop is made and acknowledge, Remy, Talbot and their fellow prisoners can’t help but find hope that the Americans are coming for them, that they might soon be freed from this horrible place.

On the other side of the camp is Carmen, a Filipina woman taken as a captor by the Japanese as a “comfort woman” for the Japanese soldiers and officials at the camp. She services anywhere between 20 and 40 men per day, some of whom beat her, refuse to wear the Japanese condom known as saku and treat her with disrespect, little more than a whore even though they are the ones who have made her one. Only Kenji, the Japanese-English translator whose job it is to interpret between the prisoners and the officials treats her with any real kindness.

As the balance of power shifts in the war in the Pacific, the Japanese start ruthlessly executing prisoners of war rather than allow them to be rescued or taken from camps by American soldiers. Los Baños faces the same fate unless the prisoners themselves, the Filipino guerillas and the Americans landing in Manila can work together to pull off one of the ultimate air and ground operations in military history.

September was the Philippines for Shannon over at Giraffe Days‘ Around The World In 12 Books Challenge. I was originally a bit panicked as I had a huge amount of books to get through for September (still working on that!) and I had nothing on my shelves or in my TBR pile that would’ve counted. I scanned the catalogue at my local library with a keyword of Philippines and one of the results (out of very few) it returned was this book, Broken Jewel. It’s loosely based on real life events and there’s a handy notes section at the back of the book which breaks down chapter by chapter, what occurrences in the story are true and what others are inspired by. I found this very helpful, because as I’ve mentioned before, my history knowledge is appalling. I only took compulsory Australian history in high school and when I read books that are mired in realism, I always realise just how lacking my knowledge really is.

Conditions inside Los Baños are terribly distressing but all too easy to imagine, even though I’ve never been starving, limited to a few handfuls of rice and some boiled weeds a day. I’ve never had to live without proper showers, running water, electricity and a functioning bathroom. The disease and malnutrition that these people must’ve faced is simply horrific. At one stage it is mentioned that the babies ration of milk is reduced to a pint a week, which is just under half a litre (about 470mL) in metric terms. My baby is 1, so he’s well on solid foods, eating 3 proper meals a day and he still drinks 360mL of full cream milk a day which is almost the entire weekly ration for a baby at Los Baños towards the end of the imprisonment.

I think I’m picking the wrong books for this challenge because one of the things Shannon mentioned that she’d like us to consider in our reading was did the book make us want to visit the country, etc. I think out of the 9 books I’ve read for this challenge, probably 6 or 7 have taken place during a revolution, military coup or war and most of them detail heinous things which means I don’t get to experience the country in its best light and usually doesn’t lead to me wanting to visit if I could!

I had no idea prior to reading this book that Japan were not signatories to the Third Protocol of the Geneva Convention (which relates to the treatment of prisoners of war) until 1953. In fact they didn’t sign anything relating to the Geneva Convention until well after the end of the second World War and their treatment of prisoners during the second world war was utterly vicious. They were raised to live for and die for, the Emperor with seemingly little concern from the powers that be for what happened to them or to those around them or those they had to go through.

I have to admit, I went into this book no really expecting much, it was just the only option I really had from my local library but I ended up really enjoying it. It was meticulously researched, the notes in the back are evidence of that but it was also just a really well written story. Even in my totally different world I could imagine myself as Los Baños with these people, I loved Remy and his protection of Talbot, his skill and his sacrifice. I didn’t always understand the connection between Talbot and Carmen but I admired the fact that he could look past her history, the fact that she had been so appallingly treated.

Really glad I read this book – I’ll keep an eye out for the author’s other titles.

8/10

Book #193 of 2012

Broken Jewel was read as part of my participation in the Around The World In 12 Books, hosted by Shannon at Giraffe Days. It’s the 9th book completed for the challenge and the country for September was the Philippines.

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The Power And The Glory – Graham Greene

The Power And The Glory
Graham Greene
Vintage Classics
2003 (originally 1940), 240p
Read from my husband’s shelves

In Mexico, a group known as the Red Shirts have taken over and now have control over the population. God has been outlawed, the Priests forced to conform to the Red Shirts new rules for them (such as marrying) or they are systematically hunted down and murdered.

There is one priest left that hasn’t been caught yet. Known as the ‘whiskey priest’ he moves from tiny village to tiny village, seeking refuge briefly, hiding out to grab a few hours sleep, snatch a few bottles of wine, get a little bit of food before he moves on. They are coming for him, hunting him down and their frustration at not being able to catch him means that they are taking random people from villages they suspect to have concealed him and threatening to shoot them in order to draw him out.

That’s a very short summary but this is a pretty short book. At 240p it’s a quick read but in typical Graham Greene fashion he’s managed to pack quite a lot into the story. It’s not just a battle between the whiskey priest and those assigned to hunt him down but it’s a personal mental battle against his demons for the whiskey priest as well. He has to fight his lack of faith and courage and overcome his instinct to just keep fleeing. Having read four Graham Greene books now, the theme of struggling with religious faith is becoming very familiar to me and it was no surprise to see it featured predominantly here.

I read this for Shannon’s Around The World In 12 Books Challenge, August being Mexico. It’s set in the 1930s, a time when the Catholic Church was being heavily repressed. There’s poverty, hardship and disease the tiny villages struggling to provide for themselves. They are fearful but still devout – most agree to harbour the priest for a short amount of time in return for some tasks such as saying a Mass or baptizing children who have been unable to have this performed. There is a recurrent theme of bleakness and a real loss of hope in these characters and in the villages themselves that the priest passes through. He knows that he could have married, could have towed the line like Padre Jose, another priest, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that. He instead chose a life of danger, of being hunted, of questioning himself and his convictions, his religion, his past actions. He fathered a child some years ago, a child he sees for the first time in many years (possibly ever?) when he passes through that particular village.

I have struggled with this review. I read this book close to two weeks ago actually and have been putting off the review ever since, just going onto the next book. I ran out of MWF posts and knew I had to churn this review out so that I could get stuck into the other 7 backlogged behind it and the words aren’t coming any easier now. I find it really hard to discuss this book and it’s not because I didn’t like it, it’s just that….the words aren’t there. It’s a typical Greene book, I’ve had this dilemma about a couple of his other books in that there are so many layers to peel back that it’s almost impossible to articulate for me, how I feel about it because I always have really intense feelings of ‘why am I reading this?’ combined with ‘I am so glad I read this’ which makes relatively little sense, even to myself. I always find that Graham Greene novels are not books I enjoy whilst I am reading them. The enjoyment tends to come after when I mull them over in my head and reflect on the fact that this slim little book contained so much more than I expected. Almost nothing happens in this book except one guy travelling a portion of Mexico, hiding out from another guy. But these two men are capable of deep thoughts, even respect for one another, despite the fact that one is trying to execute the other. It’s an interesting relationship, and I found the ‘whiskey priest’ difficult to like whilst I was reading the book because why did he not just leave Mexico already? but it wasn’t until after I finished the book that I had an appreciation for his search for redemption. He was a different person in the ‘before’. I also particularly liked this book’s ending – one thing seemed destined to happen from the start of the novel but then I felt that Greene added a nice twist that really capped off the book nicely.

This book also caps off my participation in Carrie over at Books And Movies’ Graham Greene challenge! I signed up to read 3 books in 2012 and I’ve completed The End Of The Affair, The Heart Of The Matter and now The Power And The Glory. 

I admire Graham Greene and what he does….I just struggle with articulating how I feel about his books, themes and characters. It appears he’s my voodoo author.

7/10

Book #169 of 2012

 

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Rooftops Of Tehran – Mahbod Seraji

Rooftops Of Tehran
Mahbod Seraji
New American Library (Penguin)
2009, 345p
Read from my local library

Pasha is 17, living in Tehran in 1973, spending summer on the rooftops with his best friend Ahmed. Ahmed is in love with Faheemeh but is devastated when he learns from her brothers that the parents of a university student are approaching hers about an arranged marriage. Pasha himself is in a similar situation- he has been in love with Zari, the girl next door even though she is betrothed (and has been since her birth) to a man known as ‘Doctor’, who Pasha both admires and looks up to. Because of this he struggles with his feelings of love for Zari, warring with his feelings for guilt about betraying Doctor and having feelings for his girl.

It is an uncertain time in Iran, discontent with the Shah is building among the young, educated university students such as Doctor and Pasha’s guilt inreases a hundredfold when he is taken by the Shah’s secret police, found because of Pasha’s inadvertent actions. The grief that leads from his execution awaken the young group of friends, Pasha, Ahmed, Faheemah and Zari to just what sort of rule their country is living under and they all cope in different ways with Zari’s desperate bid for recognition of her grief the most shocking of all.

July was Iran for Shannon at Giraffe Days‘ Around The World In 12 Books Challenge and I borrowed 2 titles from my local library because I couldn’t really decide which one I wanted to read. In the end I went with this one because I liked the cover and because it was about the simplicity of first love as well as life in Iran pre-revolution. The book is mostly set through the summer and fall of 1973 with chapters interspersed set in winter of 1974 where Pasha is in a mental institution, injured and repressing memories. The journey of 1973 is all about getting to the point in time that the Pasha of 1974 is repressing.

Pasha is intelligent, well-read and thoughtful. He enjoys his talks with Doctor, also well-read and well educated and politically informed but his thoughts are never too far from Zari, his beautiful neighbour. His love for her is pure and all-consuming but he’s far too shy to even speak to her until Ahmed intervenes and works out a way for him to spend time with his love Faheemah that also allows Pasha to spend time with Zari. It is quite obvious she returns his affection but the two of them would never do anything about it given she has been betrothed to Doctor by their parents since her birth as a way of always ensuring their friendship stayed strong. Pasha and Zari are both honourable and had Doctor not have been taken, would probably have never spoken a word of their feelings toward each other. But his loss draws them even closer together, they both become something for the other to lean upon, although Pasha has no idea exactly what terrible thing Zari plans as her act of vengeful grief.

This book is steeped in Persian culture, giving so much information but in a way that melds cohesively with the story and never feels like an info-dump. Persian culture is one of the oldest in the world, mired in grief and violence but also strong bonds of family and friendship. It really piqued my interest, because Iran is rarely portrayed in a positive manner and it’s often described as mostly a desert wasteland. This book gave some description of the scenery that was deeply contradictory to most of what I’ve heard about it and I went and looked up some photos and it does have some truly beautiful areas. Although it’s ‘not advised’ to visit there these days given its proximity to both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is certainly a place that would interest me if I were doing travelling. Pasha and Ahmed’s friendship is beautifully written, they are two boys that although they joke around and rib each other good naturedly, care deeply about each other and aren’t afraid to show this in a way that Western cultures would never consider. Likewise Pasha’s relationship with his father was a delight to experience – his father was an incredible character. He himself had a friend such as Ahmed was to Pasha and the story of their friendship and what happened to it was powerful and moving. I loved the family dynamics in this book, the humouring of Ahmed’s sweet but delusional grandmother, the protectiveness of brothers towards their sisters from other boys in the street – staring is strictly not allowed!

At its core, Rooftops Of Tehran is a sweet story of that first time you fall in love. Everyone remembers it, what it felt like to be too shy to talk to someone and just watch them from afar. That is Pasha’s life and it’s all he would ever have done if Ahmed had not have manipulated things slightly. Instead he got to experience the thrill and growth of love, even if it was tinged with grief and heartbreak. I read that the author plans a sequel to this work one day and I hope that it gets written and published because I think so much of Pasha and Zari’s story is left untold at the conclusion of this book. I’d love to read more about what happens to them, especially as Iran fast approaches the year of the revolution.

8/10

Book #138 of 2012

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Homecoming – Bernhard Schlink

Homecoming
Bernhard Schlink (translated from the German by Michael Henry Heim)
Orion Books Ltd
2008 (German original 2006), 331p
From my husband’s shelves

Peter lives in post WW2 Germany and every summer he travels to Switzerland by train to spend it with his grandparents. His father died before he was born and his mother has no contact with his grandparents other than to send him there every summer. His grandparents are publishers, editing and publishing novels for entertainment and pleasure. Peter is always warned never to read them when they give him bound galleys for his schoolwork (paper being a luxury) but when he is 13 he breaks his promise not to and becomes utterly entranced by the story of Karl, a POW returning to his wife after escaping. He finds that his wife believed him dead and has married again. It’s only a partial manuscript so Peter becomes interested in the ending which he searches for during future visits to his grandparents. He never finds the book that the galley would’ve become and eventually he forgets the story.

That is until he is an adult, graduated from college and taking a house for himself. Some of his belongings he has wrapped in pages from the same manuscript and the obsession rears its head again. From parts of the manuscript, Peter is able to work out that some of it took place in a building near to where he lives and he immediately goes to the building to see if he can find out more, perhaps about the author who may have lived in the building at some stage, knowing it so well. There he meets Barbara who lives in the building now.

Peter’s obsession with the story of Karl and his comrades escaping the POW camp becomes all consuming, taking him across Europe to visit and meet with people he thinks may have some answers for him. It will lead him to take jobs and even travel all the way to New York City in America and may give him closure on something that he has had questions about his entire life.

So June was coming to a close and I was fast realising that I hadn’t read anything set in Germany/by a German author/even had a vague passing reference to Germany for Shannon’s Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. I flicked through the library catalogue but nothing there really grabbed me (and the one that did was checked out) so I asked my husband if he had any books set in Germany. “What about The Reader?” he said. Awesome, but I’ve read that. So he handed me a couple of other Bernhard Schlink books to choose from and based on the synopsis (which I loved) I chose this one.

I loved the beginning of the book, which sets up Peter’s journeys to his grandparents house, the long lazy summers he spends there hearing his grandfather’s stories and just generally enjoying his post-wartime summers. The manuscript that Peter breaks  his promise and reads on a train ride home after one summer visit drew me in as well. The idea of a man having escaped from a POW camp and trekked home to return to his wife only to find that she has a whole other life? Fascinating! Like Peter, I wanted to know the ending. I wanted to read the manuscript. And actually, as this book went on, I wanted to stop reading this book and read the book within the book.

Homecoming isn’t a long novel at 331p but oh did it feel like it at times – the last 150 pages in particular when Peter is in New York. There were parts of that which just didn’t make sense as a reader, particularly the segment spent at a remote hotel with several others from a class he is taking as part of his quest to discover the truth about the manuscript and a key figure in his life. It goes on for pages but relates little to the plot and accomplishes nothing. I found adult Peter a bit frustrating at times, the way in which he structured his whole life around his quest for more knowledge. In the end it turned out that he discovered some very important things but there was no actual pay off for these discoveries! He didn’t confront the relevant person and get answers and I found the ending particularly unsatisfactory in terms of answers received for the amount of wasted energy and time. He put his whole life on hold, including leaving behind a woman he loved (and one he’d already lost once) and was too weak to even demand the story.

What I really did enjoy about this book was the beginning – Peter’s different journeys to his grandparents house each summer, the descriptions of the house and surrounding village, the things they did, the people that lived nearby. That first part of the novel definitely shone for me. His grandparents lived over the border in Switzerland and Schlink nicely showcases how Germany is a country that is trying to heal after the war and also the problems that are coming from that whereas Switzerland doesn’t seem to have such problems. Peter remembers the summers in Switzerland as a time of freedom, of being carefree. I really enjoyed the relationship he had with his grandparents despite this limited contact and the genuine affection between them.

Our copy of this book has a little sticker on the front that says ‘Recommended for reading groups’ and I have to say that I agree. I feel as though the reading experience of this one would have been enhanced by having others to discuss it with – there are a lot of things that are up for debate here, such as war romance, illegitimacy, lying to children, family relationships, post-war rebuilding and structure,  ethics, love, obsession etc. Reading it alone I found that I had things I wanted to talk about but I quickly lost interest in them by having no one to actually talk them over with – husband bought this some years ago but hasn’t read it yet. He confessed to me that he found the first 50 pages very slow and difficult to get into – this was my favourite part of the book! I found the rest of it extremely so, so if he found the beginning difficult, it seems unlikely he’ll ever finish it!

Homecoming isn’t a bad novel, it’s well written and the translation seems smooth and well done. But it felt very circular, like Peter was just endlessly going around in circles without ever changing or getting the answers he seemed to need and that myself as the reader was trapped into those circles with him.

6/10

Book #120 of 2012

Homecoming was read as part of my participation in the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. June was Germany.

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Broken Paradise – Cecilia Samartin

Broken Paradise
Cecilia Samartin
Washington Square Press
2004, 340p
Read from my local library

Nora and Alicia are cousins, living in Cuba in 1956. They are among the privileged class, enjoying holidays with their grandparents, lavish family dinners, days at the beach, dance classes and a good education with the nuns. However it is a dangerous time to be in Cuba as Fidel Castro is rising to power and life as they know it is changing dramatically. Religion becomes forbidden, food begins to become scarce and the wealth that they have previously enjoyed is being redistributed. There are relatives who are accused of treachery…life is dangerous now, when you believe what Nora and Alicia’s parents believe.

Their similar lives take very different paths when Nora and her family emigrate to the United States, settling in California where Nora’s father gets a job at a bank and Nora and her sister go to school. Uprooted from their sheltered existence, thrust into life in California where the girls are very different to what Nora was used to in Cuba, Nora struggles whilst her sister thrives. Nora misses her home, her grandparents, her very heart, all back in her beautiful Cuba. She corresponds with Alica, who has remained behind in Cuba, their letters taking months to reach each other but the girls persist, keeping up their strong friendship and family ties, learning about each others lives as they grow and mature into women. Nora completes high school and going on to finish a college degree and Alicia marries a “black” whom she loves deeply, someone involved with the ‘party’. She has a child to him, but he is often gone and the situation in Cuba leads Alicia to have to do many things in order to just survive.

Alicia’s life becomes so difficult that Nora feels compelled to return to her, to help her. There she finds a Cuba far different to the one she remembers and Alicia far changed. Nora will have to face realities and assume responsibilities before she can return to the place she now calls home.

Broken Paradise was my May read for Shannon’s Around the World in 12 Books Challenge, where the month was Cuba. I had a couple of choices from my local library and ended up picking this one simply because I liked the sound of the story. Even though it is set around the time Castro rises to power there, very little of the story is actually focused on that, other than how it affects Nora and Alicia’s family. They both have an idyllic childhood, long summers spent with their well-off grandparents, learning to swim at the beach, eating beautiful food. They’re as close as sisters and their large, extended Cuban family get together often. They have never known difficulty, until Castro stamps Cuba with his particular brand of communism.

Whilst not heavy on the political, I certainly found this book deep on the personal. I thought the portrayal of what it must’ve been like for Nora, Alicia and their families to go from being quite well off, quite privileged and used to being able to live their life the way in which they wanted, to people who struggled to get the food they needed to even feed a small family of four, was very well done. Even though they passionately loved Cuba, there came a time when Nora’s parents realised that they had to go, to get out, even though it meant leaving behind the rest of their family, some of whom they never saw again. There was a desperation in the citizens to escape – at the time the US was still granting Visas quite readily but there were people who were not even bothering to wait for theirs, getting to the US by boat, by raft, any way that they could. When Nora returns to Cuba when she’s in her twenties, after years of living in the US, the country has deteriorated so much and the desperation by the remaining citizens is even higher. Not only is there still famine, but now there’s rampant disease as well.

Despite the fact that Cuba is a country suffering oppression and trouble, the love, the passion that Nora has for it shines through in every element of the story. She feels so connected to it that it almost hurts her physically to leave it and she struggles to fit in when her family arrives in America. She carries with her the values and traditions of Cuba, appalled when her sister starts seeing boys unchaperoned and not relating to the local girls with their clothes and their make up. She longs to be back in Cuba, even with the opportunities that being in the United States has presented to her. It isn’t until she returns to Cuba as an adult, to assist her cousin Alicia that she realises that while she will always love the country, and can see herself visiting, she has responsibilities now and knows she needs to return to the US and live there in order to best help the person in her care that needs it.

I found the ending a little dramatic – perhaps because I read it too close to reading The Lifeboat and there were definitely some similarities. But overall I enjoyed the story, the characters and the portrayal of Cuba.

8/10

Book #96 of 2012

This was my fifth novel for the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. The chosen country for May was Cuba.

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Lioness – Katherine Scholes

Lioness
Katherine Scholes
Penguin AU
2011, 352p
Read from my local library

Angel has lived all of her young life in Africa, she has known nothing else. She’s making her way across Tanzania with her mother and their two camels to fulfil a promise, something that they consider to be very important. When tragedy strikes, Angel is left all alone in the desert, facing predators. Her rescuer is an unlikely source.

Emma is a medical researcher from Melbourne Australia, who has made a trip to Tanzania to visit a research station and hopefully lay some ghosts to rest. She lost her mother, also a medical researcher to a deadly viral hemorrhagic fever that her mother was researching at the time. Emma was only seven at the time of her death and it affected her profusely. Now that she is turning the same age her mother was when she died, she has a desire to go and see the research station and hopefully find some peace. When she arrives me meets Daniel, a quietly spoken and very well educated Masai who is working at the station. When Emma’s guide vehicle has some engine trouble, she ends up staying at the research station overnight and is surprised by the arrival of camels that look well cared for but also like there has been some struggle. Daniel tracks the camels path and they find the body of a woman and evidence of a small child…and a lioness and her cubs.

Emma knows she can’t leave now – not until she has found the child. The authorities believe that she is dead, dinner for the lioness and her cubs but it seems that this particular lioness was raised by a human, a white African who keeps a sanctuary of sort, raising cubs who have had their parents killed by poachers or who may have been injured. They go to him for help, certain that if anyone can find this lion and the girl, it is him.

The longer Emma spends in Tanaznia, the harder it is becoming for her to think about leaving. She is interested in the work being done here and thinks that she might have an idea for how the researchers can take their approach to the next level. And then there’s Daniel, who impresses her with his quiet intelligence and manner. Suddenly she can see, when she has been unable to before, just what might have drawn her mother back here time and time again.

Lioness was my April read for the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge where the chosen country was Tanzania. Whilst I’ve been on quite an African fiction run lately I don’t think I’ve read anything set in Tanzania. I can’t say the inclusion of the viral fever in this book particularly made me want to go there, but I did find the research interesting. The actual virus the author uses in the book doesn’t exist but it is very close to both the Ebola virus and the Lassa fever, both of which sound like the stuff of nightmares. Should I ever go to Africa (highly unlikely) I imagine I would be the sort of overly paranoid Western traveler that Emma is in the beginning. She’s overly cautious about everything – eating the food, drinking the beverages, smothering herself in mosquito netting when she sleeps and making sure she has her green bag strapped to her at all times which is basically a massive first aid kit containing everything the wary first world person might need in a third world country. Given her mother did die – a scientist who accidentally pricked her finger with a bloody needle containing a contaminated sample, then perhaps her fear is understandable. Yet despite this, Emma has chosen to become a medical researcher too, albeit in relatively safe obscurity in a Melbourne laboratory.

Emma comes to embrace the remoteness of Africa, the danger and the beauty. She relaxes as she spends more time there, letting go of some of her strict monitoring of food, drink and sleeping routines. She experiences something truly remarkable at the lion sanctuary and the epiphany she has regarding research into the virus spurs her passions and makes her realise that there’s some things at home that she’s not very passionate about.

Although this book was an easy and enjoyable read, I did find it fairly flimsy in terms of really good plot. What would’ve made a fantastic read all would occur after the end of the book, such as the research being undertaken to help develop a vaccine to the terrible virus, a Westerner adjusting to living in Africa, not just visiting there for a few days, dealing with the bureaucratic issues, the lack of quality equipment and conditions. I would’ve much preferred to read about that as well as the journey to get there.

The author works to establish some sort of ‘connection’ between Emma and Daniel but it wasn’t something that particularly worked for me. He’s polite and intelligent yes, and she’s awkward and foreign but their so called bond that develops as they search for Angel didn’t ever strike me as something that seemed natural, something that would make her want to stay in Africa. It’s one thing to move interstate for a man you don’t know well (who does that? *cough*) but it’s quite another to move not only to another country but to a country that is different in every single way to the one you left behind. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work, but Emma’s decision process seemed very faulty, especially for the way in which her character had been established throughout the whole rest of the book.

6/10

Book #69 of 2012

Katherine Scholes was born in Tanzania and lived there for 10 years before moving to England and then later Tasmania. She has lived in Melbourne and since moved back to Tasmania with her family. This book counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 and is the 22nd novel completed.

This is my April read for Shannon over at Giraffe Days’ Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. April was Tanzania.

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Wanderlove – Kirsten Hubbard

Wanderlove
Kirsten Hubbard
Delacorte Books for Young Readers
2012, eBook
Read on my Kindle

Bria Sandoval has just graduated high school. Suffering from a heartbreak, she wants her two best friends to go on a trip with her, to Guatemala. Bria wants to do something that she’s never done before, something a little outside the square and more than anything, she wants to prove someone wrong. When her two friends pull out, not keen to go roughing it in Central America, Bria is expected to capitulate with them. Put on her bikini and go somewhere safe and sunny.

Instead she decides to go alone. After all, she’s going to be with a tour group and this is something she needs to do. Although she’s not quite sure why she lies to the bohemian, well-traveled looking girl who sits down next to her on the plane, saying she’s going traveling around Guatemala by herself. She’s found out at the airport though when the blonde girl and the two men she’s met up with there see her Bria’s tour group picking her up. Bria is humiliated and then disillusioned by her tour group which sticks to well traveled routes and discourages from actually experiencing any local colour or culture.

Having had enough, Bria goes off on her own and runs into one of the men picking up her blonde seatmate from the airport. He invites her to dinner with them at their backpackers and Bria gathers up her courage and goes, only to discover that she’s trapped there for the night, the last boat across the river back to where she’s staying. All is not lost though as she runs into the blonde girl, whose name is Starling. The darkhaired man who invited her is Rowan, Starling’s brother and they’re both expert backpackers. Bria finds herself convinced to run away from her tour group and join Rowan and Starling and experience the real Guatemala. Starling repacks her belongings until it fits into a mere backpack and then she’s off on a real adventure, what she wanted to be doing in the first place.

Rowan is a diving instructor and he has to be at his next job soon in Belize. When Starling is unexpectedly called back to her job early, it leaves Rowan and Bria to travel alone. There’s an attraction simmering between them but due to being hurt, Bria has vowed to make her next hook-up meaningless. Rowan doesn’t mess around with anyone he travels with because he’s a free spirit and doesn’t enjoy drama whilst traveling. So they reassure each other that they’re ‘travel brother and sister’ and set off for Belize, island hopping and enjoying themselves. In each other’s company 24/7, they become close, getting to know each other well – and also how to get under each other’s skin. They’re both hiding things, both have topics that they refuse to talk about.

Despite their pact as ‘travel bother and sister’ the simmering attraction cannot be ignored forever. But when Bria thinks that Rowan is getting himself into trouble and slipping back into the dangerous ways of his past, she cannot ignore a promise she made to someone and makes a phone call for help. When Rowan finds out she didn’t trust him to do the right thing, he disappears, leaving Bria alone and needing to decide just what it is she wants to do.

Wanderlove was my March read for Shannon’s Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. The idea is to try and find a book set in the country of the month (in this case, Guatemala) that is also by an author from that country but it seems that not much in the way of Guatemalan fiction has been translated into English. I couldn’t find anything from my local library that fit the bill, only a couple of titles that were written by Americans, set in Guatemala. They didn’t really interest me but I had one checked out to read anyway where reviews of this book started cropping up. A little bit of *cough* browsing Amazon and I had it on my Kindle. It was the 31st March, my last day to read a book set in Guatemala, so I got cracking and read through it in the day.

Wanderlove is a fun little read – Hubbard seems to definitely know her  Central America and I enjoyed her main character Bria, who is very much a ‘comfort traveler’ at first, with an overpacked bag. Her tour group isn’t what she expected at all and Bria is desperate to break out a little bit and do something no one, well, to be more accurate someone doesn’t think she’s capable of. You know from the start that Bria is suffering after the break up of her relationship with her high school boyfriend but the backstory is slow to come, leaking out in dribs and drabs, the reader connecting the dots long before Bria confirms things.

Although I read this book on my Kindle, it comes complete with illustrations (Bria is an artist) that she draws depicting her time in Guatemala and traveling with Rowan after her camera was stolen.  They add a lovely, charming and whimsical touch to the story and to Bria’s character as art was something that was very important to her that she’d almost given up on. Slowly the beauty of her surroundings and her desire to find herself (and also to have a record of this trip!) bring her back to her sketchbooks. Bria’s journey back to art was a big part of the book, a huge part of the trip giving her confidence to believe in her own abilities after her faith had been smashed.

Even though this book too place over a short period of time (around 14 days I think), Rowan and Bria get to know each other from sheer proximity. They’re together almost 24 hours a day and they have ample time to talk, learn about each other, their mannerisms, what makes them tick, what ticks them off. I could buy their chemistry and their attraction because I could see them knowing each other, which was rather lovely to read in a YA novel with romantic undertones. It also didn’t take over the entire story, it just added to it.

Wanderlove was a really lovely and enjoyable read! I’m so glad that I noticed it – if not for this challenge, I probably wouldn’t have as it was only the word Guatemala that caught my eye!

8/10

Book #55 of 2012

Wanderlove is the 3rd book read and reviewed for the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge hosted by Shannon over at Giraffe Days. It is mostly (but not, I’ll admit) 100% in the country of choice for March, which was Guatemala. Parts of the book do take place in Belize. It actually did make me want to visit this part of the world, although not quite as roughly as Bria and Rowan do! The descriptions of the surroundings are beautiful and you could get a real picture of and feel for the small villages they see and the incredible lake. I really got a feel for the sort of life Rowan leads, living out of a pack, earning just enough money to get by or see another country before he needs to be at his next diving gig, sampling all the local colour and festivals they can. This book has a real vibrancy and life in the writing.

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A Golden Age – Tahmima Anam

A Golden Age
Tahmima Anam
John Murray Publishers
2009, 276p
Read from my local library

Rehana is a young widow when this book opens, who has lost her children. Her wealthier brother-in-law has petitioned a court for custody, citing that he is in a far better position to take care of her son and daughter. Rehana has no job and very little income and the judge rules that her children must go live with her brother-in-law until such time that Rehana can support them. Rehana is desolate (an understatement) and vows to stop at nothing to get them back into her care.

Fast forward some years and her children are now grown and Rehana is celebrating, as she does every year, the day on which they were returned to her care. She throws a party for their close neighbours and friends, a feast of good food and appreciation that they are all together again. Her son Sohail and daughter Maya are both teenagers, attending the local university. Both are quite involved in politics – especially Sohail. Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan and this novel takes place during their nine month long war for Independence.

Rehana finds herself a reluctant part in the rebellion, at the request of her son, who joins the resistance movement early on. She stores guns, ammunition, food, medical supplies etc in the house she built as a rental home, which was occupied by an Indian family. When they leave to return to their native country, Rehana sees it turned into a bunker of sorts for the young men in training to commit acts against the invading Pakistani army and also a hospital, as they rehabilitate a severely injured Major, Sohail’s commanding officer. At first extremely resentful of the Major recuperating in the house, fearful for what might happen (not only to her, but to her children) if it is found out, Rehana becomes used to his presence. They get to know each other as he recovers and then one day, he is gone. Like her son, like her daughter, like her tennants, like most people she knows.

Rehana decides to go and visit her daughter Maya in Calcutta, where she writes press releases on the war effort and helps in camps for the displaced and injured. Maya is passionate about what she does, so passionate that it’s like she has little room in her life for anything else. Rehana’s son Sohail is involved in the military rebellion, planning and carrying out ops designed to best hurt the invading Pakistani Army. But Rehana is only as passionate about one thing – keeping her children alive and safe. And when she returns home, she will make a devastating decision that allows her to do that.

I read A Golden Age as part of Shannon’s Around the World in 12 Books Challenge – it’s not something I’d have normally picked up and read but I’m glad I did because it’s always nice to learn new things, even through the world of fiction. Most of this book is set around 1970-1971-ish when Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan, a provincial state of Pakistan. They provided a lot of the goods for that country, but received precious little in funding for schooling, hospitals, etc and the growing discontent among the population came to a head after the 1970 national elections in the then-East Pakistan. The landslide victory of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman caused uproar in Pakistan where it was demanded he form a coalition government. He refused and declared independence on 26th March 1971, naming the Peoples Republic of Bangladesh. Pakistan retaliated by invading to subdue the guerrilla forces, but after the nine-month struggle, Rahman was named prime minister of the new Bangladesh.  Many people fled to the sympathetic India during the war, who also provided some military support.

Rehana’s character is established very early on in the book. She loves her children above all else and after the death of her husband, faces some dark days when they are taken from her and given to her BIL to raise until such time as the judge deems her income significant enough to provide for them. It takes her a little while to be able to do this and it isn’t until well into the book that it is told to the reader just how she accomplished it. It proves something the reader has already been able to figure out – there is nothing that she wouldn’t do to secure the safety and togetherness of her family. And by the end of this novel, that will be re-enforced with horrifying consequences. But at the same time, those horrifying consequences are sort of easy to understand. As a mother, there’s little I wouldn’t sacrifice to stop the death of one of my children. It doesn’t make the outcome any less terrible though, and it was something that left a sour taste in my mouth, even though I can understand why she did what she did.

What I knew about Bangladesh before you could probably have fit into a thimble – limited to loosely where it is and the fact that it floods. A lot. There’s a lot of disease and malnutrition. I knew little about how the country came to be so in that case I’m now remarkably more informed. Although no doubt embellished for fictional purposes, the fundamentals in this book are still the same – the elections, the unhappiness of the people when the government wasn’t formed, the declaration and resulting war. Given that it’s set during a war, it didn’t particularly stir an urge to visit and my subsequent research into it hasn’t changed that. There may be some lovely places there, but a lot of the country suffers, from lack of sanitation, water-borne diseases, malnutrition, high infant mortality rates and poverty. It did however highlight a bit of an interest in the area that I previously didn’t have and I would read more stories set in Bangladesh. I’d like to find something set in present day, if I could.

A Golden Age is quite a good story once you realise that it’s the story of a mother’s powerful love, not really the story of a rebellion and freedom. She’s not always a sympathetic character (most of them aren’t, actually. At times they’re fairly unlikable) but she has some severe convictions and her love for her children is all-encompassing.

7/10

Book #29 of 2012

A Golden Age is book number 2 of the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge, hosted by Shannon over at Giraffe Days. February was Bangladesh.

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Devil’s Peak – Deon Meyer

Devil’s Peak
Deon Meyer
Hodder & Stoughton
2007, 406p
Translated from the Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers
Read from my local library

Benny Griessel is an alcoholic. Not just a too-many-drinks-after-work every night sort of alcoholic. Not a bottle-of-red-with-dinner-every-night alcoholic either. But a drinking-during-the-day-at-work and every night until he passes out sort of alcoholic. A shoving around the wife and having to be helped drunkenly to the couch by his teenage son sort of alcoholic. And then the shoving around of the wife turns into whacking her one.

Benny’s wife Anna decides she’s had enough and for her sake and the sake of their two teenage children, Benny has to go. If he can stay sober -fully sober- for six months, then they’ll talk. Benny is on the knife edge of losing everything so when a new case comes in, he’s the best they’ve got, even if he is an alcoholic. Because Benny is a cop. And he needs to stay sober and catch a killer.

Thobela Mpayipheli lost someone close to him, someone that meant the world to him. He watched the justice system screw him over and when he sees a report of a child rapist going free on a technicality, something inside of him snaps. Who is standing up for the children? Who is fighting for their rights and for justice? The system isn’t working. Thobela thinks that he might be able to do a bit of a better job than the system. He turns vigilante, tired of reading things that sicken him in the media. Tired of feeling helpless over his own loss and the lack of justice within it. He’s already fought in wars. This is just another one.

Christine is a prostitute in Cape Town, a single mother who finds that sex work pays a heck of a lot more than waitressing . When she stumbles into something dangerous, she sees opportunity. Her world, Thobela’s world and Benny’s world will collide as Benny fights to solve not only the case of the vigilante killer but also a crime involving a Colombian drug lord. His professional life and his personal life will also collide in the worst way and everything will threaten the sobriety he clings to so precariously and his family relationships and the respect from his colleagues.

Devil’s Peak is my third Deon Meyer book in the last month or two and because I’ve read Trackers (although it was published later) it certainly helped with the experience of reading this one. What you get here are threads of stories that at first seem entirely unconnected. The narrative jumps back and forth -often without announcing that it’s going to do so, or that we’re switching the perspective- and the information is dribbled out in bits and pieces, often while other stuff is going on. This probably shouldn’t work as well as it does, but there’s something so seamless about the writing that all three strands of this plot weave together effortlessly.

Benny is an interesting protagonist (this is the first of two Benny Griessel novels that I know of). He’s a drunk – there’s really no other word for him. He’s ruled by alcohol, sinking into it to escape the demons he faces in his work in the Serious and Violent Crimes unit. His wife has had an absolute gutful of him and his drinking and the fact that he gave her a bit of a whack during his most recent binge has tipped her over the edge. Benny is now faced with a choice – get off the drink and try and win back the family he began to lose when the alcohol became more important, and try and regain some respect as a good cop who knows what he’s doing…or not. Succumb to the lure of the drink, to just drift through life in a wasted way, like so many other washed up cops. Benny’s thoughts revolve around alcohol, the compulsion to drink is enormous and he goes through hospitalisation, the DT’s and treatment via naltrexone in this novel. I won’t spoil if he slips up or not in this book but I already have the next novel out from the library and I’m interested to see how he’s going there!

The story line is clever in that the vigilante killer is a hard one to dislike. Criminals guilty of atrocities the world over get off on technicalities and when the atrocities committed are violent and sexual crimes against children, or even tiny babies, it’s easy to get inflamed over the lack of justice and the often pathetic punishment. It’s hard not to sort of like Thobela for the choices he makes, although this novel also highlights an extremely important point about undertaking such a role – you want to be very, very careful about being absolutely certain the person you’re seeking is the right one. And that they’re utterly 100% guilty of the crime.

As I’m reading this for Shannon’s Around The World in 12 Books Challenge, where the January month is South Africa, I’m going to talk just briefly about the points she wanted us to consider when reading a book for this challenge. My knowledge of South Africa isn’t extensive, limited to videos watched on apartheid during high school. Although this novel doesn’t touch on that and is set after it, it certainly addresses the divide that still exists between blacks and whites socially. Thobela is black, but it is assumed he is white by the police and profiler because he visits white neighbourhoods without arousing suspicion or even being detected, something that seems very difficult given how surprised and impressed people were about it.  There are remarks made by white cops about having to work with black cops, people are distinguished by their colour immediately whereas in other novels set in other countries, that wouldn’t be the first thing mentioned. Does this novel want to make me visit South Africa? Not really, but that’s not because I didn’t like what I read! It’s a plot driven crime novel, so it deals with the seedier side of things – importation of drugs, child abuse crimes etc. Not things that happen exclusively in that country (they happen everywhere) but that’s what the novel focused on. It was set mostly in Cape Town, so there wasn’t too much descriptively about the landscape or the geographic features. Blood Safari, another novel of Meyer’s made me want to visit the country but the setting wasn’t strictly important here – it was all about the story, with not a lot about the cities/towns/villages and lifestyles therein. I am finding the area (and southern Africa in general) fascinating though and have read 5 or 6 novels set in this part of the world in the last couple of months and have a couple more on my shelves. So with each novel I read, it does make me want to read more books set here and learn about this part of the world.

8/10

Book #9 of 2012

This is my January novel for the Around The World In 12 Books Challenge, set in the first nominated country, South Africa.

I’m also counting this novel towards the What’s In A Name?5 Challenge. It fits into the first category: Read a book with a topographical feature in the title. Devil’s Peak is actually part of the mountain range near Cape Town in South Africa, where this novel takes place. So it doesn’t just feature a land formation, it is one!

Both challenges allow books to cross-qualify.

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Third Challenge of 2012 – Around The World In 12 Books Challenge

My 3rd challenge that I’m signing up for next year is the Around the World in 12 Books Challenge hosted by the awesome Shannon over at Giraffe Days. Here’s a little bit about it:

Do you want to travel but don’t have the time, money or opportunity?
Do you want to experience new places from a new perspective?
Do you want to learn about another place, learn new things, broaden your understanding?
I know I do, I hunger for it. And even if I could travel lots, I’d still want to read books set in other lands, from strange and foreign perspectives, because even when you go in person, you might not really understand a place as a local does, right?

I’ve picked 12 countries from across the globe (mostly random) that I thought would be fun to “travel” to, that we can visit by book each month:

JANUARY: South Africa
FEBRUARY: Bangladesh
MARCH: Guatemala
APRIL: Tanzania
MAY: Cuba
JUNE: Germany
JULY: Iran
AUGUST: Mexico
SEPTEMBER: Philippines
OCTOBER: Denmark
NOVEMBER: Peru
DECEMBER: Iceland

Here are some simple rules for this challenge:

1. Books must be set in the country. (For help, try this website.)
2. Books should be by an author of that country, if you can find/get hold of one.
3. Books must be fiction or memoir. Children’s books count too.
4. Books can count towards other challenges.

When you review your book, I hope you’ll consider addressing some of these questions (they might help in deciding what book to read too):

 

What did you learn about the country’s culture, history etc. from reading this book? Any new insights, any shifts in your perception, or did it align with what you knew/understood already? 

How did land, geography, flora and fauna feature in the book? Did it have a distinct feel that helped you visualise and made you feel like you were there, or was the story more focused on plot?

Did the story make you want to visit/revisit the country, or explore it in a new way if you live there already; did it make you want to read more stories set in the country?

 

If you live in one of these countries, I hope you will be able to share your own perspective to your reading.

*****

I’m excited for this one. I love reading books from countries that are new to me and quite a lot of the countries on that list are definitely new to me!  I think I’ll definitely be utilizing that site Shannon suggested in order to track down books from some of these countries. Just looking at the options from what I already own or can utilise from my local library, a rough early outline of my participation in this challenge looks a little bit like this:

JANUARY: South Africa (Devil’s Peak by Deon Meyer)
FEBRUARY: Bangladesh (A Golden Age by Tahmima Anan)
MARCH: Guatemala  (got nothing for this one yet!)
APRIL: Tanzania (Lioness by Katherine Scholes)
MAY: Cuba (Broken Paradise by Cecilia Samartin)
JUNE: Germany (to be decided)
JULY: Iran (The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi)
AUGUST: Mexico (Something by Luis Alberto Urrea)
SEPTEMBER: Philippines (got nothing here either)
OCTOBER: Denmark (to be decided)
NOVEMBER: Peru (to be decided)
DECEMBER: Iceland (Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir)

This is a very tentative list for this challenge…titles will probably change depending on what I can get my hands on for that specific month or I might spot something else interesting that I buy specifically for this challenge.

Sound like fun? Head over to this post and sign up!

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