Colour is part travel, part history. Finlay has divided the book according to the rainbow and investigates how each colour was made in the time before...moreColour is part travel, part history. Finlay has divided the book according to the rainbow and investigates how each colour was made in the time before synthetic colours. Where possible, she visits countries of traditional production and learns how to make these colours herself and also about how colour production changed societies and cultures. Finlay writes about why certain colours are given a high status (e.g. purple as the colour of royalty), compares how the same colours were made in different countries and why some became prized over others.
I really enjoyed Colour. Finlay is an engaging writer who is fascinated by her subject matter and this comes across on the page. Finding out how colours were made was truly compelling as I had no idea that humans were so inventive. From sea snails to animal bones to bug blood to precious stones, there seems to be nothing colourful in nature that was not exploited for paint or dye at some time in history. I was fascinated with the complicated process of making colour, of how you go from a rock of lapis lazuli to a blue oil paint and how artists used to make their own colours and tones according to what they wanted to paint. Colour had power in history and there are plenty of accounts of countries and places become rich by making a fade-resistant paint that could be exported. Finlay does a good job of explaining how these colours then became exulted and held up by society, part of the fabric of life.
Although I enjoyed the travel sections, where Finlay meets people living where colours were made in the past and discusses the legacy of colour with them, these sections took a backseat for me to the sections about actually making the paint or dye itself. I would also have liked to learn more about modern paint making, about how many of the traditional colour sources are still used, and how the transition was made from natural to artificial colours. Finlay clearly feels like something has been lost as we're forgetting the secrets of natural colours and I couldn't help but agree with her. I'd be interested to see a modern paint-making factory to investigate how different things really are (I know you can still buy some traditional colours).
All in all, an absorbing and well written non-fiction book that I'm happy I picked up. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys travel or history, or anyone who has ever mixed their own colours using a watercolour set. (less)
Caren is the manager at Belle Vie, a sprawling plantation house deep in Louisiana One morning whilst making her inspection of the grounds, she comes a...moreCaren is the manager at Belle Vie, a sprawling plantation house deep in Louisiana One morning whilst making her inspection of the grounds, she comes across a young Mexican woman, brutally murdered and discarded. With the police investigation inadequate, Caren investigates and the more she finds out, the more she starts to suspect a cover up. The white owner of the property is desperate to sell, the woman's employer has a history of violence and she might have uncovered something she shouldn't have just before her death. The investigation even leads back to Caren's ancestor Joseph, a slave on the plantation that disappeared soon after gaining freedom. An ambitious book, The Cutting Season covers race relations, history and politics as well as a criminal investigation.
Crime is not a genre I read very often but I had heard good things about Attica Locke. In fact, I own her previous novel, Black Water Rising, although typically I haven't got around to reading it yet. I'd seen some positive reviews of Cutting Season on other blogs and the setting of the book really appealed. On our American honeymoon last summer, my husband and I spent a few weeks in Louisiana and we visited lots of those old plantation homes and there is something about the history and atmosphere of such places that I thought would make for a great crime story. And that atmosphere was conveyed excellently in the book by Locke, it had an almost gothic, sinister feel which helped build suspense throughout.
On the whole, I enjoyed Cutting Season. It's expertly written and ambitious in coverage. The topics of race and slavery are handled sensitively and the book is thought provoking - who should really own the plantation houses? Should they be preserved for history or should we wipe the slate clean and start again? Does history belong to all of us or just a select few? Should history affect modern day decisions? Although I'm not a big fan of crime fiction, I could see that the mystery of who had killed Ines was well structured with enough red herrings to keep me guessing. I didn't work out who it was before the big reveal.
Despite everything I enjoyed about the book, it just seemed to be missing that special something. I don't know if it was purely because I don't love crime, but the middle section lagged and I never felt fully engaged with the story. In some ways, I think Locke was too ambitious and couldn't do everything she wanted to do within the confines of a crime/mystery novel; the genre was too restrictive for all the themes she wanted to cover. Locke was experimental by adding so much more to the genre but too confined by the conventions of the genre. I would have liked to see more of a gothic literary style novel rather than a traditional whodunit.
I'm sure crime fans will love this book as it's a good mystery and the writing is excellent. I wasn't the biggest fan of this one but I don't think I was the right reader for it.(less)
Hotel On The Corner of Bitter and Sweet starts with the discovery of property belonging to Japanese American citizens in the basement of a Seattle hot...moreHotel On The Corner of Bitter and Sweet starts with the discovery of property belonging to Japanese American citizens in the basement of a Seattle hotel. Watching this discovery is Henry Lee, a Chinese American who was only a child when World War Two began. The items take him back to his school days, in which he struck up an unlikely friendship with Japanese Keiko Okabe, the only other Asian student at his expensive school. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet traces their friendship through family disapproval, internment camps for the Japanese and the end of the war. Does Henry have to live with only regret?
I had such a mixed reaction to this book. To start with the positives, it was definitely an engrossing reading experience. Whilst the initial section was perhaps a bit slow, things soon picked up and I found myself reluctant to put the book down and go to sleep each night. I knew very little about the treatment of Japanese citizens during World War Two in America, so I found these parts fascinating to read. There are parallels with other kinds of camps, but Ford does it all with a light touch. The two main characters of Henry and Keiko are easy to relate to and their relationship is written just right for their age and situation. I was hoping for a happy ending.
But I did have one big issue with the book and that was it's lack of depth. Yes Ford is writing about something that not too many people know about, but he does so only shallowly. At times Hotel on the Corner of Bitter Sweet was more about the tragic romance of the two characters than anything else. Now, I don't mind that if it's done well, but I wanted to know more about the camps and about Keiko's family. How did her father really feel? I don't mean this as harshly as it sounds, but it was a bit like a Nicholas Sparks novel with an unusual backdrop.
And whilst Henry and Keiko were well drawn, substantial characters, the same couldn't be said for the rest of the cast. Henry's future daughter in law Samantha was just too perfect to be believable, as was the whole Okabe family. They really had no opinion on their daughter being so close to a Chinese boy, accepting him almost as a member of the family from the moment they met him?
I don't want to be too negative about the book as I did have a positive experience reading it. It's just that the experience was sort of shallow, it won't stay with me for long. (less)
The History of Love is about loneliness. An old man called Leo Gursky lives alone and spends his days deliberately creating chaos in shops and cafes s...moreThe History of Love is about loneliness. An old man called Leo Gursky lives alone and spends his days deliberately creating chaos in shops and cafes so someone, anyone will remember him if he dies. Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer is desperately trying to cure the loneliness of her mother, who has lived in a fantasy world ever since her father died. Alongside these two main characters resides a cast of secondary characters; Alma's brother Bird, who thinks he is the Jewish Messiah, Leo's childhood sweetheart, Alma's friend Misha. All are tied together in very clever ways by a manuscript Leo wrote before the Holocaust called The History Of Love.
I so wanted to love this book. When I mentioned that I had owned it for ages but not yet read it, lots of bloggers told me to read it as they had loved it themselves. And I did like it, I just didn't love it.
There was lots to like. Krauss experiments a lot with writing structure and different narrative devices (especially the use of short sentences to convey emotion) and in general, it works. Her writing feels fresh and exciting and she manages to make each of her characters distinct, despite writing from multiple perspectives. The characters themselves are original and a bit quirky, different from anything I have read before. Some of the writing is just beautiful;
"Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. When they were ten he asked her to marry him. Their love was a secret they told no one. He promised he would never love another girl as long as he lived. What if I die? she asked. Even then, he said."
But despite all of this, I just didn't love The History of Love. I thought it was interesting and clever and well written but I didn't connect to any of the characters apart from Leo. Leo was the only one I felt for and rooted for and because of this, some of the other sections dragged. I know that I was supposed to be guessing and working out the connections between the characters as I progressed through the book, but I didn't want to as I didn't connect enough with the book. Some of the characters and styles were so quirky that it felt as though Krauss were being deliberately 'different' and 'literary' and that's always a turn off for me.
But don't take just my opinion on this. Plenty of other people have read and loved this book a lot more than I did.(less)
Everyone knows that, after the Holocaust, the world swore 'never again'. Countries came together to form the United Nations, an institution with one o...moreEveryone knows that, after the Holocaust, the world swore 'never again'. Countries came together to form the United Nations, an institution with one of it's founding principles the prevention of another genocide. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed and ratified by member states. But things didn't exactly work out to plan - three genocides later (Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur), Adam Lebor asks in his book what exactly went wrong. Why did the UN fail to act, despite knowing exactly what was going on?
This is a well researched yet still easy to follow book. Lebor has interviewed all of the major players in the UN at the time of all three genocides and followed the exhaustive paper trails.
The central argument is whether people can be guilty of all the deaths through inaction. If someone knows a genocide is occuring, has the power to stop it and does not, are those deaths on their conscience? Lebor gives the following reasons as to why the genocides were not prevented:
*The UN is overly obsessed with neutrality, and this prevents it from acting when it needs to. For example, when Bosnian Muslims were being slaughtered in Srebrenica, some in the UN argued against striking against the Bosnian Serbs (the perpetrators of the genocide) as the Muslims had once been involved in a civil war. During the Rwandan genocide, Rwanda actually had a seat on the security council and could therefore derail any interventions! In a genocide, the UN should not be neutral.
*Bureaucracy - It takes so many people to make and authorise a decision that often it was too late. Bureaucracy was taken to ridiculous measures too; a request to bomb approaching Serbs in Srebrenica, saving the lives of thousands of Muslims, was rejected because it was filled in on the wrong form! It wasn't even passed up to the relevant superiors.
*The permanent members of the security council do not make things easy. Russia and China often threaten to veto any intervention and the US, UK and France are hard to win round.
*UN peacekeepers should automatically be authorised to intervene if they witness genocidal acts or human rights violations, rather than submitting a report and waiting for agreement (which often comes too late).
Lebor also makes a good case against isolationism. I know lots of people thought and think 'It's going on in another country, what has it got to do with me? Let them sort their own problems out.' But that's just not possible in the world today. Some of the Bosnian Muslims who experienced the western world looking away as they were raped and slaughtered, turned to Al Qaeda. Three of the September 11th hijackers were Bosnian Muslims radicalised after the genocide.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in power politics, or the UN in particular. Samantha Power's A Problem From Hell is a better general introduction to the three genocides.(less)
Wherever You Go is a beautifully complex novel about three Americans in Israel. Yona wants to reconnect with her sister, a settler involved in extremi...moreWherever You Go is a beautifully complex novel about three Americans in Israel. Yona wants to reconnect with her sister, a settler involved in extremist politics. Greenglass is an orthodox teacher but having problems with his faith. Aaron is a college drop-out with family problems who is looking for a way to prove himself or something he can belong to.
Leegant weaves these three very separate lives together throughout the course of the novel and builds up to a dramatic finale. I found the most interesting character to be Dena, Yona's sister, who had completely devoted her life to one interpretation of her faith and for most of the book was unable to see anything else, including the person she had once been. I am non-religious so it was fascinating to be given a glimpse of life so led by religion and the different reasons people turn to religion.
For me, the best thing about this novel was how Leegant managed to portray such a broad spectrum of opinion about religion and politics in Israel, and by doing so demonstrated how complex the country is. I'm not Jewish or Israeli or even American and perhaps have been guilty of oversimplifying Israel and the Middle East in general, thinking things such as "Israelis think that...." or "Israelis are..." and Leegant's book reminded how just how complicated the situation is.
Leegant's book would be a great pick for a book group because it gave me so much to think about and so many questions to ask myself - At what point does religion become fundamentalist? Why do people turn to religion in bad times rather than good? Can people with opposing ideologies ever live together in peace? Can you ever redeem yourself from certain acts? What issues or causes would you devote your life to?
But I don't want you all to think this was just a stuffy, 'issues' book as it was also a story that was enjoyable to read with characters I came to care about. I would recommend it.(less)
A Mountain of Crumbs is a memoir about growing up in the Soviet Union in the period after Stalin but before its collapse. Born to a physician mother a...moreA Mountain of Crumbs is a memoir about growing up in the Soviet Union in the period after Stalin but before its collapse. Born to a physician mother and much older father, Elena grows up in a strictly controlled country where even wanting to learn the English language can be a dangerous act. Perceptive early on to the concept of vranyo, the idea of pretending everything is wonderful even when it is not, she soon grows tired of the restrictions and contradictions - when she earns real money, there is nothing in the shops to spend it on - she manages to leave by marrying an American man she isn't sure she loves and starts a new life in the USA.
A Mountain of Crumbs was a very well written memoir. Gorokhova's intelligence and perceptiveness come across in every single page and she manages to transport the reader both back in time and to a system that no longer exists. The small details were the ones I really savoured - the school friend who was the only girl with a proper hair cut, the people lining up for toilet roll, the girl humiliated in assembly for writing a love letter. Gorokhova's voice in this memoir reminded me a lot of Sylvia Plath's in The Bell Jar; obviously the two books are not similar in content but there was the same perceptiveness, self awareness and a sense of not fitting with the surroundings.
One thing I did like about this memoir was that it was neither a whitewashed, sentimental account of her childhood or a harsh condemnation of the Soviet Union. Gorokhova managed to create a balance; some passages were recounted with nostalgia but in other parts you can tall that Gorokhova was very glad to have made it out to the US. This balance existed with her personal life too - the mother-daughter relationship is written very realistically (especially when Elena is a teenager) and she is honest about the fact that she largely got married as a passport out of the country.
But despite all of this and the fact that I knew I was reading a good book, I just couldn't connect with it or get swept away by it. Although I admired Gorokhova's writing, it had a detached quality that made it hard for me to connect with her personally, something that I think is crucial for a very good memoir. I enjoyed A Mountain of Crumbs whilst I was reading it, but I was never really in a hurry to pick it back up. (less)
Most of us tend to think of slavery as something that happened in the past. We imagine Africans at slave markets, on overcrowded ships or working on p...moreMost of us tend to think of slavery as something that happened in the past. We imagine Africans at slave markets, on overcrowded ships or working on plantations. In Enslaved, Jesse Sage and Liora Kasten, the directors of the American Anti-Slavery Group, hope to enlighten people to the fact that slavery still exists in the modern world in a number of forms, from the traditional to sex slavery to labour camps. Inspired by the slave narratives of the nineteenth century, each chapter is the narrative of a person who has been a modern day slave, in a variety of different contexts.
Enslaved was certainly eye-opening. Whilst I was aware that modern day slavery existed, I had no idea of the extent and scope of it. To pick just a few narratives, in this book we meet: Micheline, a Haitian woman trafficked to the USA; Abuk, captured in a raid in Sudan; Jill, kept as a sex slave in suburban America; Beatrice, who thought she had got a job as a maid only to be enslaved and Harry, a victim of Chinese labour camps. There's also a narrative of a slave owner in Mauritiana, that still operates what we would think of as a traditional slavery system. Taken together, the chapters definitely raise awareness and they opened my mind to the suffering of millions of people around the world.
The more I read, the more the connection between slavery and poverty became clear. People who are living in extreme poverty are the ones that will apply for au-pair or maid positions abroad, without knowing enough about the situation to know if they are safe. They are the women driven to work as prostitutes, vulnerable to sex trafficking. The final chapter in the collection is about what we can do as readers and abolitionists, but it didn't really address this connection. Whilst I agree that there's much Western citizens can do about slavery (raising awareness being the least of them), until poverty as a whole is tackled it will continue. Corrupt governments and failing states have much to do with modern day poverty.
I think Enslaved is an important book, one to pass one and discuss with the people you see regularly. Modern slavery is an invisible thing, suffered by people that generally aren't educated or literate enough to raise awareness or push for change. It's not an easy read but it will make you think.(less)
It's 1945 in Germany and teenager Elsie Schmidt is keeping out of trouble by helping out at her family's bakery and dating SS officer Josef Hub. But h...moreIt's 1945 in Germany and teenager Elsie Schmidt is keeping out of trouble by helping out at her family's bakery and dating SS officer Josef Hub. But her first experience of a Nazi party is not all that she thought it would be and it's only the presence of a captive Jewish boy that saves her from a horrific experience. When that same boy turns up on her doorstep later, she feels she has no choice but to help him in any way that she can. Sixty years later, Elsie is running a German bakery in El Paso, Texas, and journalist Reba Adams arrives looking for an easy festive story. But Elsie's life is anything but and Reba is soon drawn in by her tale enough to start questioning her own life and values.
The Baker's Daughter took me by surprise. Quite simply, I was not expecting it to be as hard-hitting as it was. I was anticipating a somewhat cosy read but instead The Baker's Daughter confronts some harrowing issues head on. The story of Elsie's life is captivating and McCoy writes her with such depth that as the reader, you are soon rooting for her. There's also an interesting side plot about the Lebensborn Program, where unmarried 'racially pure' German girls were basically prostituted out to SS officers to repopulate the Reich. Elsie's sister Hazel is selected for the program and some of the letters she writes home about her life there and the disabled son she gives birth to are very powerful.
As with any dual-narrative story, one of the narratives was stronger and in this case it was Elsie's story that dominated. Just under half of the story is devoted to the present day and Reba's struggle to come to terms with her own family history and relationships. I felt that this part of the story was weaker and could have been made a bit more concise. Reba just wasn't a fascinating character in the way that Elsie was. I found Reba's boyfriend Riki and his role in deporting illegal Mexican immigrants (and the parallels to Elsie's life) more compelling than Reba herself.
The Baker's Daughter spans a lot of time and in this case I was glad of that as I appreciated the closure on certain issues raised in the book and I wanted to find out what happened to some of the characters. Even so, the ending section was quite winding and the book did lose a bit of steam towards the end. Despite this, The Baker's Daughter was a book that made me think long after I closed it each night and it drew me completely in. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction. (less)
Paris My Sweet is a memoir of a year in the life of thirty-six year old sweet-addict Amy, who gets the chance to work for Louis Vuitton in the city sh...moreParis My Sweet is a memoir of a year in the life of thirty-six year old sweet-addict Amy, who gets the chance to work for Louis Vuitton in the city she has always dreamed about. Part guide book to the best bakeries in town, part love letter to Paris, part almost mid-life crisis, Amy must learn to live as an American ex-pat in an utterly foreign city. For readers with a sweet-tooth, there are many mouth-watering descriptions of the various pastries and cakes she tries, along with recommendations and information about famous chefs and pastry trends.
Paris My Sweet is a light, cosy read. Although it is a well-written memoir, it's written with a light tone that makes it easy to breeze through and escape into. I must admit to not being a massive dessert fan myself (I'm more into savoury snacks), but I did enjoy the descriptions of all the food and imagine that someone who enjoys cakes would love them even more. My favourite part was the passion and joy with which Amy wrote about Paris, I've visited Paris only once and her descriptions made me want to visit again. After reading this book, you too will want to cycle along the Champs D'Elysses, stopping at cute patissiers whenever the mood strikes you.
The parts that I felt didn't work as well were the parts when things became tough for Amy and she starts to feel very isolated living alone in a foreign city. Her feelings are definitely understandable, but the tone of the book is so light (it's like a chick-lit memoir) that it's hard to connect with Amy and really understand what she is going through. The writing jumps from loneliness to cupcakes too quickly to have any real impact. There's also a lot about the ticking of biological clocks that again feels a bit shallow. Paris My Sweet was more about the cakes and the wonderful setting than it was about any real identification with the author.
Still, this is a fun read that's perfect for any armchair traveller or pastry enthusiast. It's quick, breezy and will make you want to travel to Paris and gorge on cake immediately(less)
The Oracle of Stamboul is a charming fairytale about nine year old Eleonora Cohen, who is precociously intelligent. She can memorise anything she is g...moreThe Oracle of Stamboul is a charming fairytale about nine year old Eleonora Cohen, who is precociously intelligent. She can memorise anything she is given to read and converse in seven different languages. When her carpet-seller father leaves for Stamboul (Istanbul) on business, Eleonora secretly follows him. But her intelligence and gifts can not stay secret for long, and she soon finds herself wrapped up in the Sultan's court.
I have to admit that I chose this book purely because it is set in Istanbul during Ottoman times. The Ottoman Empire is one of my favourite parts of history and I'm always looking out for new books about this period. Where I think Lukas definitely succeeded with this novel was in the way he described the city and the Sultan; he really captured the exotic, other-worldliness that we as Westerners often think of when we imagine Istanbul at that time. I wouldn't have been surprised if at some point a flying carpet or a genie appeared. There were spice markets and mosques and tiled mosiacs and the call to prayer and at some points I wanted to climb right in through the pages.
The setting was so wonderfully described that at times the story was secondary to it. The basic story line of a gifted child and a worried Sultan was a good one, but it is Stamboul itself I will remember from this book. The story was told in the way you would a fairytale, which I am not usually a fan of, but it did work well in this case. Because of this method of storytelling, the magical elements did not seem out of place and they didn't bother me at all. In much the same way the secondary characters were slightly underdeveloped, but again it didn't matter as the whole novel was like a fairytale.
The Oracle of Stamboul is a quick, charming read which I liked but didn't love. It's perfect for a cosy Sunday afternoon in front of the fire but it's not one I will reread or remember for years to come.(less)
In nineteenth century Japan, the Southern clans have risen against the Northern and claimed victory. In the new capital of Toyko, reform is on the wa...more In nineteenth century Japan, the Southern clans have risen against the Northern and claimed victory. In the new capital of Toyko, reform is on the way as Western ideas such as eating meat, changing style of dress and the destruction of the Samurai class take precedent over tradition. Taka is the daughter of General Kitaoka from the Southern Satsuma clan and is able to escape her fate as the daughter of a geisha by enrolling in a new Western school. One of the servants in their household is Nobu, a boy from the Northern Aizu clan who would have been a Samurai but instead must eke out a living any way he can. The two become close but must keep their friendship a secret.
When General Kitaoka returns to the South in anger at the corruption in the new government, things become dangerous for Taka and Nobu. The Satsuma clan are planning another rebellion and Nobu joins the Japanese government army to fight them. Taka is being pressurised into an arranged marriage by her mother and soon war breaks out with dangerous consequences. Nobu is in the impossible position of fighting the Satsuma whilst trying to protect Taka and look to the future all at the same time.
Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by Across a Bridge of Dreams. To start with the positives, it was clear that Downer had completed a considerable amount of research into Japan at this time and that shone through the writing. I knew nothing about the Satsuma rebellion and appreciated learning about it through the story. The different settings in Japan were clearly evoked with the more tropical South being distinct from Tokyo and the geisha districts. There were fantastic little bits of information that added historical accuracy, for example the fact that married women used to blacken their teeth or explanations about the honor of being a samurai wife or daughter.
I also liked the characterisations. I often find that the female characters in historical fiction have modern ideas and this can be jarring. Taka did have modern ideas, wanting to marry for love and resisting an arranged marriage, but in this case it made perfect sense as she had been sent to a Western school and experienced freedom. The female characters as a whole were well developed and interesting.
Where I think Across a Bridge of Dreams fell down was that it was completely missing grit. I didn't mind the romance but it needed to be more balanced with sections about the harsh reality of war. Downer did write about war and touched on some horrific scenes, but everything felt too light and fluffy, especially when you compare her writing with someone like Lisa See's. As a result, I never felt scared for Taka or Nobu or fully engaged in the story. There was a sense throughout that everything would work out well in the end, which ruins any suspense.
Downer also relied on some pretty fortuitous circumstances to keep reuniting Taka and Nobu throughout the story. I know they needed to meet to move the plot along but the situations felt very unlikely to occur in war time. Nobu also keep running into Taka's brother out of all the soldiers in the Satsuma rebellion, something that also felt contrived and thus took some enjoyment away from reading the story. Without spoiling the ending, it felt too neat and too 'easy', given that Downer had spent so long previously in the story explaining the enmity between Satsuma and Aizu clans.
So Across a Bridge of Dreams was a mixed bag of positives and negatives. Unfortunately it didn't live up to my expectations.(less)
In Definitely Dead Sookie has to travel to New Orleans to put her vampire cousin Hadley's estate in order. There are of course life-or-death moments...more In Definitely Dead Sookie has to travel to New Orleans to put her vampire cousin Hadley's estate in order. There are of course life-or-death moments and sinister plots and most of the book revolves around the werewolf rather than vampire community. For me personally, this isn't as interesting but the book was still lively and pacey and simply fun. Can't wait to read the next one!(less)