Sulaman, Jakie, Mae and Lana grew up in Pakistan under the shadow of their controlling and somewhat abusive mother. The two brothers are sent abroad t...moreSulaman, Jakie, Mae and Lana grew up in Pakistan under the shadow of their controlling and somewhat abusive mother. The two brothers are sent abroad to become doctors, one to England and one to America, but the two sisters are left behind and expected to make good marriages, to bring honour to the family. But being a 'good child' is harder than it seems and in one way or another, all four children fail to meet their mother's exacting standards. Sulaman becomes a renounced academic and expert on torture, but marries an unsuitable Hindu girl he meets in America. Jakie does become a respected doctor, but starts a relationship with a white man in London. Mae and Lana both marry suitable men, but their marriages suffer as they refuse to compromise their lives for the men they are married to. When all four grown up children are called back to Lahore for a family emergency, they have to come to terms with their past, and the role their mother has played in their lives.
The Good Children is the first book I've read by Farooki, and I will definitely be reading more as soon as possible. Prior to starting this, I was in a bit of a reading funk as I just wasn't reading anything amazing, but The Good Children restored my reading mojo almost instantly as it's simply a very good book. It may be 600+ pages, but I raced through it in under three days. The stories of all four children were distinct and engaging, and splitting up the narrative with their different points of view maintained the pace of the novel. Farooki touches on a lot of important themes, such as mixed race relationships, domestic abuse, homosexuality and adoption, but The Good Children never feels like an 'issues' book, it always feels like a good story that happens to involve all of those things.
Although I enjoyed reading about all four children, I was most drawn to the stories of Jakie and Mae. Jakie starts a relationship with Frank during a time in London when homosexuality was still a crime, and Farooki explores the prejudice he faced, and the reactions of those around him. Mae was interesting as she was the child most like her mother, and her struggle to succeed for herself without crushing others was well done. Mae also leaves her husband when he takes a mistress, something that is frowned upon at the time, and I liked reading about her determination to ignore what others thought and forge her own path.(less)
Evie Nicholson loves antiques and is working for a dealer when she gets the opportunity to value family heirlooms at Kettlesheer Castle in Scotland. A...moreEvie Nicholson loves antiques and is working for a dealer when she gets the opportunity to value family heirlooms at Kettlesheer Castle in Scotland. A daydreamer and a romantic, Evie's imagination goes into hyper-drive when she learns that she will be at the castle at the same time as traditional ball hosted by the family (including the handsome heir). Caught up with visions of sweeping down staircases Gone With the Wind style and dressing for dinner, Evie pays little attention to the reality of life for the Nicholson family. Can she learn to take a step back from her fantasy life?
The Vintage Girl was a lot of fun to read. Hester Browne is a good writer and the story just flows from chapter to chapter, never feeling too short or too long. The pacing is perfect and the romance, whilst being rather predictable, builds up slowly and avoids the pitfall of insta-love. Evie herself is easy to relate to as a main character, particularly for someone like me, who also likes to live with her head in the clouds sometimes! Equally her love interest, Robert, isn't too perfect, and is shown to have a few flaws of his own.
The main tension in the narrative comes from the fact that Robert is expected to marry someone else, someone rich who can use their money to save Kettlesheer Castle from bankruptcy, and is already in a relationship with this person. But their relationship never felt believable enough to cause any real problems, and Browne made it too easy on Evie and Robert by making Catriona rather unlikeable, to the extent that it was hard to see why Robert was with her in the first place. Similarly, this problem was solved too easily later in the novel. I'm not expecting deep depression or anything like that in a novel like The Vintage Girl, but I would have liked the emotions of the situation explained a bit more.
I would recommend The Vintage Girl if you are after a fun, easy read with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. It's not the best chick-lit novel I have ever read, but I certainly enjoyed it.(less)
Although Batsheva has been bought up as a Hasidic Jew, she has always been indulged by her wealthy father and allowed to taste more freedom than her s...moreAlthough Batsheva has been bought up as a Hasidic Jew, she has always been indulged by her wealthy father and allowed to taste more freedom than her school friends. She reads Western literature, pursues photography and dreams of living her own life before becoming married. But when Batsheva turns eighteen, her father arranges for her to marry a scholar in Jerusalem, and she is sent half way across the world, away from everything she knows. Isaac Harshen follows his religion strictly and wastes no time in destroying her books and 'training' her in the ways of being a Hasidic wife. Gradually Batsheva's freedoms are curtailed, her actions are punished, and her marriage becomes an abusive cage. When she tries to reach out to her family and others in Hasidic society, they remind her that marriage is forever and that husbands are to be obeyed. Batsheva has retained some of her spirit, but is it enough to enable her to challenge the society she has always known?
Jephte's Daughter was published in 1989, and was apparently quite controversial in it's portrayal of women and domestic abuse in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. I have to admit that it was the religious aspect of the book that drew me to it; I am non-religious myself so am always fascinated by stories set in societies that are so different from my own. I can't imagine what it would be like to have religion at the centre of your life, to have so many rules to follow, and to be so withdrawn from other beliefs and lifestyles. Batsheva's religion in Jephte's Daughter forms part of her cage; divorce is seriously frowned upon, and being married to a respected scholar like Isaac is seen as the pinnacle of a woman's life anyway. It's hard for her to complain about the loss of intellectual freedom when she isn't expected to think. But although Ragen shows us this downside of such isolated, strict religious communities, she also shows the love Batsheva has for her religion, and the way she wrote about Jewish beliefs and communities was fascinating.
Jephte's Daughter is really a book of two halves. The first half deals with Batsheva's marriage and the domestic abuse, and the second is about what comes after, and the issues she has to face as a consequence. I much preferred the first half of the novel; I felt it was a powerful portrayal of an abusive marriage, and strongly written. I was rooting for Batsheva and had an enormous amount of sympathy for her. Unfortunately the second half was a bit of a let down. Batsheva's journey to regain her confidence was delicately handled, but some plot events felt unrealistic, especially something convenient that happened at the end of the novel (mentioning no plot spoilers). Things fell into place a little too easily, and I felt like this distracted from the power of the first sections.
Still, I've never read anything quite like Jephte's Daughter before. It reminded me in some ways of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston; it had similar themes of a woman finding herself and not letting others define her. I would recommend it, and will look out for more books by Ragen in the future.(less)
When NASA's original seven astronauts were announced in 1959, it wasn't just their lives that changed - their wives were catapulted into the spotlight...moreWhen NASA's original seven astronauts were announced in 1959, it wasn't just their lives that changed - their wives were catapulted into the spotlight and became minor celebrities, trailed by paparazzi. As the competition over who would be selected to go into space intensified, the wives had an important part to play; much like politicians, only astronauts that had a perfect family life could hope to be chosen. As more and more astronauts joined NASA and missions started leaving Earth, the wives leaned on each other to cope with the stresses of launches and the problems that being married to an astronaut could bring. Covering the announcement of the first astronauts through to the final Apollo mission, The Astronaut Wives Club aims to show what it was really like to be married to an astronaut.
I was looking forward to The Astronaut Wives Club, it's always interesting to see how the lives of people around those with important jobs are impacted. I can't imagine what it must be like to know that your husband is going to be blasted into space on a mission that has a high likelihood of something going wrong - how do you cope with that kind of uncertainty? Unfortunately, whilst The Astronaut Wives Club was thoroughly researched and gave lots of information about the wives, it never really gave me that sense of what it was like to be them, what it was like to watch the launch of a rocket carrying your husband, or what it was like to not know if he would live or die. There was a lot of distance from the wives in the book, so I never really got to be in their shoes. And that's what I wanted out of this book most of all.
Similarly, a lot of the topics introduced were never fully explored. Koppel writes on several occasions about the rise of feminism in America at this time, and how this contrasted with the need of the wives to have a cookie cutter perfect family and always look their best. Some of the wives were talented in their own right, but Koppel never really examined these tensions, and whether this caused resentment in their marriages. Lots was made of the infidelity of the astronauts and the resulting divorces, but again this was just reported - I didn't get a sense of what it was actually like. The book would have been better if both of these themes were investigated more thoroughly.
Because of these issues, The Astronaut Wives Club missed the mark for me. It was still an interesting read, and I admire the research Koppel has undertaken, but it wasn't engaging or as thorough as it could have been.(less)
I never realised how easily people could be trained to accept slavery."
Dana is moving into a new apartment with her husband when she starts to feel di...moreI never realised how easily people could be trained to accept slavery."
Dana is moving into a new apartment with her husband when she starts to feel dizzy and nauseous. The next thing she knows, she is in nineteenth-century Maryland, rescuing a white boy who turns out to be her ancestor, as well as the son of a slave-owner. Although her visit to the past is brief, Dana finds herself called back more often and for longer, and with each trip the danger intensifies. For nineteenth century Maryland isn't a safe place for a black woman, especially one used to modern life. But as Dana spends more time in the past, she feels herself changing as the reality of slavery wears her down, threatening the life she has built in the present.
I was expecting Kindred to be very good, as I've seen many positive reviews of it and know it to be highly regarded, but it went well beyond my expectations. Kindred isn't just a good book, it's a truly excellent and thought provoking one. Butler takes the simple premise of a black woman going back to the slavery era and fleshes her out by adding all of these extra dimensions and complications. Dana has a white husband, and her ancestor is white. Her relationship with Rufus, her ancestor, is complex, as she deplores the way slaves are treated on his property, but can't help but have a bond with him. She finds her views changing with the reality of life for slaves, at one point advising others to keep their heads down, to not fight, despite this going against everything she believes in. The fact that Kevin, her husband, also goes back in time at one point was also an interesting plot device, and one allowed their relationship to be explored fully.
What I loved most of all about Kindred is that Butler doesn't shy away from any of these complications. Of course slavery was wrong, but Butler really explores what it might have been like at the time, how reality and the choices of life were never simple for slaves. We see why slaves might choose to be raped rather than run away, we witness their horrific punishments, and to a certain extent we get to see a modern woman conditioned to accept slavery through her experience in the society. Rufus remains morally ambiguous, treating different slaves in different ways and being a realistic product of his time. It would have been easy for Butler to demonise him, but she didn't. Reading Kindred really made me think and reminded me that no issue is simple. Slavery is rightly shown to be horrific, but gritty and complicated too.
As well as being thought provoking, Kindred is also a gripping read, with a fast paced plot that escalates quickly and builds up tension throughout. I read it in just two days, which is unheard of at the moment! It's a book I'd recommend to anyone, whether you are interested in sci-fi/time travel or not. And I can't wait to pick up more of Butler's books in the future. (less)
Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, for her role in the murder of two men in March 1828. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent te...moreAgnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, for her role in the murder of two men in March 1828. In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent tells the story of Agnes from her conviction to her death. As Iceland had no prisons at the time, Agnes is sent to live and work with a rural family in the North of Iceland, to await her sentence. A very much unwanted guest, particularly in the eyes of youngest daughter Lauga, Agnes examines her past and tries to come to terms with what has happened to her. The priest she chooses to absolve her, Assistant Reverand Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), is keen to be on her side, but Agnes is reluctant to share her story with anyone. As the time of her execution draws closer, will anyone apart from Agnes learn the truth?
Burial Rites is a book that has generated a lot of buzz, something that is sure to increase now that it has secured a place on the short-list for the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction. I was keen to read it from the moment I heard about it, but also a bit hesitant as I'm not a big crime reader and I wondered whether it would have enough cross-over appeal to work for me. Thankfully, Burial Rites lives up to the hype and I certainly enjoyed the reading experience. Kent's novel is an engaging story of a woman who was largely the result of her circumstances. Agnes is a fascinating and complex character, who reveals only part of herself to the other characters, and who tells her story in snippets as the chapters progress. I found myself drawn in by Agnes, and keen to find out what really happened the night of the two murders.
However, the biggest draw of the book for me was the way Kent wrote about Iceland. The rural North of Iceland is a main character in the novel, and Kent completely immerses the reader in the Icelandic culture of the time, from the role of the sagas in everyday life, to the badstofas the families would huddle in during the colder months. Life in the North was hard and unforgiving in those times, and the bleakness of the environment adds a lot of atmosphere to the novel - the harshness of the setting mirroring the harshness of Agnes' life. I loved reading these parts, and was impressed at how Kent, an Australian woman, was able to transport me completely to Iceland.
Having read Burial Rites, I can see why it was short-listed for the Baileys Prize. It's not a perfect novel, and I found the pace in the middle a little slow, but there's something engaging and haunting about it that will stay with you after you have turned the last page. I'm still rooting for Americanah to take the prize, but this would be a worthy winner. (less)
Bolanle is the fourth wife of Baba Segi, and she is childless. Already an outsider in the family home as the only wife to hold a university degree, he...moreBolanle is the fourth wife of Baba Segi, and she is childless. Already an outsider in the family home as the only wife to hold a university degree, her inability to conceive gives the other wives ammunition against her. First wife Iya Segi sees Bolanle as a threat to her dominance, third wife Iya Femi doesn't like being upstaged by a newcomer, and second wife Iya Tope is beaten down and unable to speak up on Bolanle's behalf. Seen as snobbish and different, Bolanle is isolated and unwelcome. Finally, Baba Segi decides to take Bolanle to the hospital, where the medical investigations into Bolanle's fertility have some unexpected results, exposing the secrets of all the wives.
I've seen The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives described elsewhere as a tragicomedy, and that label is just perfect for it. Shoneyin deals with some pretty weighty issues like the role of women in Nigerian society, the views of different classes on polygamy and domestic abuse, but it's always done with a light touch and a bit of black humour. Baba Segi wants to keep his wives hidden away, announces that Bolanle's infertility shames him and doesn't hesitate to assault her, but he's also a comically pathetic figure, bought down by the women in his life. Shoneyin's talent for finding the humour and pathos in tragic situations means that the book never feels too depressing or preachy.
As I read The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, I was most interested in the examination of the role of women in Nigeria. There's references to domestic violence being seen as a waste of police time, a woman discussing her rape is assumed to be a liar and women are frowned upon for wearing trousers. Through the wives' stories and the power they had seized for themselves over the course of their marriage, Shoneyin's novel is quietly feminist, and we get to see glimpses of a newer Nigeria, in which women are more valued. Of course, whilst I was reading this novel, the news was full of the story about the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian schoolgirls and the intent to sell them into slavery, so it's clear that women still have a long way to go.
I really would recommend The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives. It examines some interesting issues through a story that is quick, engaging and a lot of fun to read. If I had the time, I could have read it all in one sitting. It shines a light on a polygamous marriage in Africa in a non-judgemental way and it's a book that hasn't really left my thoughts since I finished reading it.(less)
Told from the point of view of ten year old Darling, We Need New Names is the story of life in a shanty town called Paradise, in an unnamed African co...moreTold from the point of view of ten year old Darling, We Need New Names is the story of life in a shanty town called Paradise, in an unnamed African country. Darling and her friends have a tough life and they dream of escaping to a Western country, away from the poverty and hardship. But when Darling does get the chance to move to America, she realises that the reality of life as an immigrant can never live up to her expectations.
We Need New Names is one of the best books I've read this year. It's written in an uncompromising, no-nonsense style that suits the narrator and her experiences. I'm normally a bit sceptical about adult books written from the perspective of children, but in this case Bulawayo has really pulled it off - Darling is blunt and matter of fact when detailing the realities of her life, and this stops the book becoming too sentimental.
Even though We Need New Names contains lots of hardship, it's not a simple story by any means, and I appreciated the subtleties Bulawayo gets into the novel. Darling may be forced to steal food that makes her ill to survive in Paradise, and she may have a female friend who is pregnant following a rape, but we get to see the happier side of her life in the shanty too. Darling has real friends and gets to be a child with them, playing all sorts of games, and this is something that vanishes when she moves to America, causing all of her memories of home to be bitter-sweet.
Being an immigrant in America is shown to be complicated matter as well. Darling feels the pressure of not fitting in, of being out of step with everyone she knows. Her relatives are forced to work all hours in physically demanding and sometimes illegal jobs, struggling to make ends meet whilst fielding off demands for money from those back home, who can't believe that America is anything but a land of milk and honey. Again, I loved that Bulawayo showed the complexity of all of these issues and that life has no simple answers.
We Need New Names is worth reading for the character of Darling alone. She's vibrant and simply leaps off the page, no matter what situation she is in. Despite being quite a depressing (yet realistic) read at times, Darling always gives the story life and hope. I simply loved every page of this book and highly recommend it.(less)
The Ghost Bride is a historical fantasy novel set in a Malaya ruled by the British Empire. Li Lan is a member of the Chinese community there, the daug...moreThe Ghost Bride is a historical fantasy novel set in a Malaya ruled by the British Empire. Li Lan is a member of the Chinese community there, the daughter of a once prosperous and respected man, who has become bankrupt following the death of his wife. Life seems to hold few opportunities for Li Lan until she learns of an offer to become a ghost bride, the wife of the dead son of the wealthy Lim family. At first she is horrified, but the more she learns about the family and the circumstances surrounding the death of Lim Tian Ching, the more she is drawn into the mystery of the household. Soon she finds herself exploring the spirit world of Malaya, guided by the enigmatic Er Lang, in a quest to find out what really happened and why she has been selected as a ghost bride, before she is trapped forever in the shadowy after-life.
I started The Ghost Bride expecting it to be mainly historical fiction, so the amount of fantasy in the novel surprised me. But in a good way. Choo has taken Chinese beliefs about the afterlife and used them to create a fascinating, fully formed fantasy world that is the unreserved star of the show. I just loved the blending of fantasy with traditional beliefs, it lent an authenticity to the whole book. I'm always on the look out for fantasy that isn't set in medieval Europe, and with this book I stumbled across a great example of it accidentally.
Another thing I enjoyed about The Ghost Bride was the character of Li Lan herself. She starts off as quite shy and easily led by both her family and the Lim family, but as the book progresses we get to see some strong character development, culminating in an episode towards the end where she's in quite a sticky situation. Rather than hope for someone to come and save her, she's determined to sort things out herself, which I really liked. It would have been easy for Choo to write a passive female, especially considering that Er Lang is technically supernatural, so I liked that she made Li Lan stick up for herself as the book went on.
This book does contain a love triangle, but thankfully the romance elements are very light and take a back-seat to the adventure and the exploration of the afterlife itself. I found The Ghost Bride easy to read but yet unlike anything else I've read, a book that I'm sure will stick with me for some time. Recommended for anyone who likes fantasy but is after something a bit different.(less)