Pro: - I believe the descriptor most commonly attached to a novel like this is "sprawling", and this certainly is. Yet the author managed to gather thePro: - I believe the descriptor most commonly attached to a novel like this is "sprawling", and this certainly is. Yet the author managed to gather the many different characters' backstory and developments into a coherent and compelling thread
- Title completely apt, on more than one level. I love when that happens.
- Pick a form of exploitation/mistreatment, and it is quite likely it will be contained in this story. Racism, sexism, classism, tribalism, religious bias, abuse due to developmental delay/gender orientation/type of education, contempt for an addict, etc. etc. - it is all here, sometimes in as brief and subtle a form as superior facial expression, sometimes in as blatant and jawdroppingly self-serving a form as the American slave trader trying to convince a biracial character that his actions are positive as they serve to "free" people from the "tyranny of a darkie king", or the British merchant who informs coincidentally (or perhaps it wasn't?) that same character of the backwardness of the Chinese emperor who is trying to prevent import of opium to China (experiencing severe problems with high numbers of opium addicts) and therefore standing in the way of the the "divine" right of British traders to engage in business. The salt in the wound of that particular bit of ethnic self-aggrandizement is how the character not only expects that should it come to war, that it will be a very short one due to general incompetence of Chinese government, but that it is the Indian army members (whom he likewise looks down on) who are going to do the work of going to war for the British
Yet despite all these varied and depressing examples of mistreatment, the story is essentially about how a number of characters come to question the social order that has been imposed upon them, and eventually break out of those roles in some way. I loved those parts.
- My favourite characters were the American sailor and the young widow. Over and over, they were forced to adapt to changing circumstances, and over and over, they demonstrated growth, resilience, and a kind of essential humanity. The character of the rajah was also notable, being one who goes from one extreme to the other. Though the transition was unwilling and at times appalling, the rajah responds to circumstances in unexpected ways, that gave me, as a person partially of Indian descent, hope that the caste system can ultimately be overcome IRL.
- The novel ended, to use BBC Sherlock terms, in a cliffhanger of "Reichenbach Fall" proportions, with high drama all over the place and involving pretty much all of the characters. Not having understood from the audiobook cover that this is the first of a trilogy, I ended up dementedly shouting "Are you KIDDING ME?????" as the last disc played ending music. Thankfully I don't need to wait for a Sherlock length interval and can move on to Book 2 without delay.
Con: - in novels that take place with multicultural characters, or characters travelling to a new place, it is expected that the author will throw in some phrases in another language to liven up the narrative or enhance the setting/mood or some such. This can be done more and less skillfully. I've winced more than a few times when translations were just plain wrong, or when an author apparently decided to use every ounce of foreign language at their disposal, and made such WTH decisions as translating the word "the" only in a sentence. In this novel, what could have been a strength and marvellous flavour enhancer rapidly turned into the single biggest "con': massive dumps of language the average reader would have no way of understanding. This was true of subcontinent-born characters as well as Westerners, with the worst offenders being British characters whose speech was so laden with slang/historical terms/technical vernacular of the time that this reader could at best guess general tone during what sometimes turned into several paragraphs. Made me contemplate invention of warnings on the book jackets along the lines of "This novel is directed at individuals of ____ cultural background" or "for readers bilingual in ____ and _____"
- one of my pet peeves is fake sounding accents in audio books. If the reader can't pull a particular accent off, then better not to even try. In this case, there was a female character whose heritage was French, and the way the reader read her dialogue was not only excruciating (to my ears), but made no sense whatsoever as she was born in India and spent little time with her father. Therefore, her English should have sounded either fully British or like "Indian" English, learning the language as she would have from exposure to those two possible groups, and in the Indian tongues she spoke (I can't remember exactly which ones) she would have had no accent at all, those being her very first known languages.
Overall: Engrossing, looking forward to next part....more
The other side of Pride & Prejudice, as seen through the eyes of the eyes of servants. Their story makes that of the Bennet family seem almost insThe other side of Pride & Prejudice, as seen through the eyes of the eyes of servants. Their story makes that of the Bennet family seem almost insipid by comparison.
I was completely engrossed in the story, partly because it is excellently well-written, partly because of the audiobook reader's marvellous voice.
The unpleasant, gritty reality of day to day life, whether in terms of household chores or horrific drudgery of the Napoleonic wars, is almost too vivid to bear. The raw emotion of people forced to endure glaring injustices from individuals who, by accident of birth or appointed station in hierarchy, have far too much power over others
The drama and raw emotion of people who live according to the whim of those who, through accident of birth or role in various hierarchies, have far too much power over them, is gripping.
Only misses out on 5th star because I don't know if I could go back to the battlefields of war with one of the characters again.
Pro: Some lovely writing, Australian setting, vividly shows the different mental coping mechanisms that soldier survivors of WWI adapted and what longPro: Some lovely writing, Australian setting, vividly shows the different mental coping mechanisms that soldier survivors of WWI adapted and what long-lasting impact this had on those around them beyond the armistice, really liked the protagonist (Tom) and how symbolism was handled (the light, the island, the name Janus, etc.)
Con: After eagerly looking forward to next chunk for first two-thirds, I found myself dreading each new bit for the final third with dread building steadily. Had a very hard time grasping how readily .....
.....everyone seemed to focus purely on the perceived wrong that was done, and not the tiniest little bit on the good (saving the baby's life). Similarly, for the wife, I could follow along and empathize with much in the first parts, but somehow, her extreme tunnelvision later not only turned me off of her as a character, it felt so strong (similar to extreme of the disapproval of the townsfolk) that it came to feel like a writing strategy for the sake of developing the plot a certain way, rather than a natural, organic, believable development.
An unexpected con was the reader voice. At first I was delighted to learn that the reader is himself Australian, and I didn't have trouble with the accent. The problem was the reader's habit of dropping off volume/enunciation for the last words of each sentence. It was like he was talking under his breath, such that I feel like I missed 20% of the full text.
Overall, a worthwhile story and writer to watch. May be better to read rather than listen....more
The phrase "genocide you knew nothing about" occurs multiple times in this novel, and I confess that I am one of those people who was vaguely aware thThe phrase "genocide you knew nothing about" occurs multiple times in this novel, and I confess that I am one of those people who was vaguely aware that Armenians had a history of oppression but had no clue how apt the term genocide is. "Sandcastle Girls" fills the gap in a highly compelling manner.
Pro: - vivid, fluid writing - showed how when push comes to shove, every individual makes their own decision, regardless of the official party line; in other words, it is always a stupid idea to try and generalize traits purely on ethnic (or, for that matter, gender) basis - didn't just "drop" the reader into the middle of the horror in 1915, but explored effects on successive generations. This was a plus for several reasons: it widened the scope, it showed how so-called "ancient history" is still relevant today, it looked at how tricky it can be for grandchildren to grapple with the question of whether to keep old hurts alive out of respect for what their ancestors suffered (e.g. should one shun/welcome contact with members of the group were the persecutors?) and whether to investigate family history or let sleeping dogs lie - I had not heard of this author nor this book, and was drawn to it solely based on the evocative title. Then I came to the two places in the novel where girls do build sandcastles. The skillful way the author uses the sandcastle motif to emphasize how war tears away childish innocence, and also childish capacity for healing, will stay with me a long time.
Con: - When treating such harrowing subject matter, it must be hard for authors to gauge how much truth and detail to include without going so far that readers can't bear to stay with it. For me, it went a little too far, especially with respect to the surviving wife and the child survivors. While I respect the author's decision to educate the public on an issue that absolutely should be much more widely known, it does make me think carefully about which other titles from this author to pick up in future despite 5 star status here. Or maybe, I'll just err on the side of fast forwarding to next track. - Pet peeve: I loathe it when authors write words in such a way as to convey someone's accent. I listened to the audiobook, so I have no way of knowing whether the author wrote accents or whether that was the narrator's choice; regardless a logical pothole made me nuts: when two people speak with one another in their own native tongue, they DON"T have an accent like they would when speaking a second language! // rant over
OVERALL: highly recommend, especially for book clubs...more
Pro: - Have read very little fiction set in Russia so this was a welcome new envi3.5 stars, bumped up to 4 on GR system.
Won from Goodreads Firstreads.
Pro: - Have read very little fiction set in Russia so this was a welcome new environment
- Story opens with a kidnapping, written in present tense which gives the scene a lot of urgency and empathy for the characters. Present tense then alternated with past tense for flashback scenes of various POV characters, through whom the reader gains a vivid picture of what it was like to live in the strictly class-divided world with tiny group of aristocracy/landowners (at the top), much smaller group of skilled artisans in the middle (technically freedmen but always dependent on the precarious whim of the upper classes), and the vast ocean of serfs at the bottom (bought, inherited, and sold just as slaves were historically in other parts of the world).
- Arguably the most interesting and thought-provoking aspect of the novel is the protrayal of different characters' reactions to the break-up of the old system following the Tsar's declaration of emancipation of the serfs.
- Liked that in the epilogue, things didn't get tied up with a neat little bow for all characters.
Con: - As is to be expected in a novel dealing with themes of peasant exploitation, gender inequality, harsh climate, alcoholism, and kidnapping, there is a lot of dark and depressing stuff going on. This made sense for the time period and inciting incident of the story. Here's my "but": this is not a short novel. 500+ pages of what feels like unrelenting grimness is a bit much. IMHO the novel would have benefitted from a more up and down in the dramatic tension. There are not nearly enough moments of brief relief from despair of one sort or another. It was exhausting.
- Though there are a number of POV characters, the characters through whose eyes most of the story is told is the noblewoman whose 10-year-old son is abducted. Despite being born a princess with attendant material privileges, her life is not easy. She is burdened with absent and/or non-understanding parents and stifled by the strictures of her class and gender. Nowhere is her frustration more clear than in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping, when it becomes clear that her husband's casual, sexist dismissal of her views has not only contributed to the crisis, but blocked possible correction as well.
And yet, even though there is much in her life that elicits sympathy in the reader, the more frequent reaction to her choices and actions (or, sometimes more significantly, lack thereof) was impatience with her Poor-Little-Rich-Girl demeanour. She had difficulties, yes, but they could not compare to the out-and-out misery of the life of a serf, as exemplified in this story who the character who ultimately becomes her ladies maid. Because of this, and her continuation right up to the end to command all around her and insist on her superiority to them as mere 'servants' (i.e. very little character arc until the very, very end), my main interest as a reader shifted from her to the ladies maid and the steward of the estate. If that was the intention of the author, then this particular "con" should actually be listed above with the "pro" points. If , however the intention of the author was to keep the focus on the noblewoman, it did not succeed for me.
The Big Question: did this novel make me want to read other titles by this new-to-me author?
Yes. Despite some of the points mentioned above, ultimately the book was well-written and made me keep turning pages to see what would happen next. I will look out for more from Ms. Holeman...more
I was so intrigued by the blurb of this novel from a nobel prize winner author:
an elephant and his handler travel from sixteenth century portugal acrI was so intrigued by the blurb of this novel from a nobel prize winner author:
an elephant and his handler travel from sixteenth century portugal across Europe as intended wedding gift for an emperor
However I was so confounded by the writing style I backed down. Though there are chapters, there are no paragraphs, nor upper case use for names. The result is page after page of full text blocks with no white space. It felt like weight-lifting.
Maybe one day when I'm feeling more muscular I'll pick this up again....more
Pro: - unpredictable - became immersed in the story and perspective of all 4 POV characters - set in a fascinating place and time - was intriguing to seePro: - unpredictable - became immersed in the story and perspective of all 4 POV characters - set in a fascinating place and time - was intriguing to see how such vastly differing cultures dealt with common issues of response to corruption, social order, approach to medical matters, ethnic bias, de facto slavery - how many issues were ultimately resolved - liked the realization of why the title was chosen
Con: - there is no question that the author writes in a highly skillful and creative manner. Yet every author has their own unique style, and it expressed itself here in a repeated technique of which I became over-aware over the course of the novel, such that my reading attention became split between story and wondering when it would show up again. It went something like this:
description description descrption description SENTENCE ABOUT A BUG CRAWLING UP A WALL description description description description
dialogue dialogue dialogue dialogue SENTENCE ABOUT A BIRD DOING SOMETHING dialogue dialogue dialogue dialogue
weather weather weather weather weather SENTENE ABOUT A BUG CRAWLING DOWN A WALL weather weather weather weather weather
dialogue dialogue dialogue dialogue SENTENCE ABOUT A BIRD DOING SOMETHING ELSE dialogue dialogue dialogue dialogue
It became kind of humorous in a way I don't' think was intended.
Overall: I suspect this story will remain with me for a long time, and I will certainly read this author again....more
Pro: - very cool cover - engaging protagonist, i wanted him to "win" from the first pages (I.e. get himself out from under the thumb of his brother andPro: - very cool cover - engaging protagonist, i wanted him to "win" from the first pages (I.e. get himself out from under the thumb of his brother and their employer) -really conveys a sense of the hardscrabble life and physical/emotional/mental costs of extreme gold fever -interesting and original narrative style, thought provoking character development of both brothers
Con: - couldn't quite follow actions/motivations of characters at times - couldn't understand the relevance of some of the things that happened - am perplexed about the significance of the last name of "sisters" for the two brothers
Overall: would recommend this as a worthwhile read, but wouldn't insist on shooting it straight to the top of TBR ...more
We all read books through our unique personal mental baggage filters. This book had a great effect on me; it's impossible for me to say whether it wouWe all read books through our unique personal mental baggage filters. This book had a great effect on me; it's impossible for me to say whether it would have been as powerful even if it hadn't touched on similar issues as affect my extended family.
This is my first novel with a protagonist who has Aspergers. I don't know if a person who lives with this condition would think the thoughts, emotions, and behavior of the protagonist were realistic, but as the parent of a child who has at times been described as 'outside of normal' (a recurring theme in the book) in certain areas, I was completely convinced by the way the heroine tells her first-person story. I applauded her dogged determination to think of herself and encourage others to think of her as a person with a personality, rather than as someone abnormal and in need of a label ("putting a word on me", as she describes it.) I was so much 'in' the protagonist's head that regularly when reading, I was enraged at the apparently controlling, judgemental way the protagonist's sister behaves towards her. It was only when I stopped reading and thought about what had actually happened that I would recall the big picture of the situation and the utterly legitimate concerns the sister was trying to deal with, and that she regularly tried to discuss things rather than making all decisions over the protagonist's head.
What the story did well: demonstrating that "normal/healthy" and "abnormal/pathological" are not black and white concepts in terms of human coping, but stretch along a continuum so that individuals who have specific types of challenges can nevertheless locate the ares of life where they can develop skills and contribute, and that it is essential for their families (any anyone else who meets them, for that matter) to strive to support them in the process of identifying what those skills might be.
Why the story didn't rate 5 stars for me, despite achieving the "will I reread this?" requirement: What is the most fundamental concern parents of challenged children have? That when they, the parents, have passed on, that their children may become vulnerable to exploitation or neglect such that their basic living needs are not met.
This novel didn't answer those questions. At the beginning of the story, the heroine lives in her parents' home, and has all monetary and day-to-day transactions taken care of for her. She knows to hand pre-counted cash in pre-stuffed envelopes to delivery people, and can use a credit card, but appears to have zero awareness or curiosity of how money got into accounts or what will happen about all the myriad expenses that make up daily life now that her parents have died. By the time the story ends, she has made remarkable progress on social, emotional, and activity fronts, but there is no indication at all about how financial realities are being taken care of. It was a glaring absence for me....more
I had not been aware of this particular chapter of French history; the author did a skillful job of judgi4 Stars, reflective of moving subject matter.
I had not been aware of this particular chapter of French history; the author did a skillful job of judging reader tolerance in how graphic/brief to keep the difficult chapters describing Sarah's wartime experience, and also in showing how longlasting the traumatic aftereffects can hold power over survivors....more
- Some very beautifully and evocatively written bits
- Interesting setting and time (1960's Kerala in India), when it feels like pePro: - gorgeous cover
- Some very beautifully and evocatively written bits
- Interesting setting and time (1960's Kerala in India), when it feels like people are starting to shake off some constricting mindsets and venture into new social territory. There is a couple for whom the nightly routine is for the husband to beat the wife with a brass vase for no reason, but there is also a woman who dares to divorce her husband when he presses her to sleep with his manager as the means of retaining his job when it is threatened by his alcoholism. There are characters who take comfort in their inborn and unshakable superiority over "lesser" castes and servants even if their grand lifestyle declines, but there is also a so-called Untouchable who quietly ignores the efforts of those around him to put him in his place, and gets the education he needs to develop his talents and create his own employment.
Con: - There have been times when I was reading a novel that I wished the author had credited his/her readers with at least a smattering of more intelligence and not made the story so utterly predictable and the characters so transparent.
Beware what you wish for. This novel went to the opposite extreme. Focus leaps from character to character to character - sometimes resting in one place for a mere 2 or 3 paragraphs with a minor individual who then never appears again (or at least, did not appear again for the half of the book which I covered before DNFing for good). I had to rely on the flyleaf to know who the protagonists were, because during the first quarter or so of the book one never sees through their eyes. All description about them is done through the POV of others - which can be a very rich and description, depending on the author's use, but in this case one is left utterly and equally mystified about the feelings, hopes, motivations, and personality of both twins. There was a point where the female twin, Rahel, has childhood, studenthood, and marriage (including divorce) go by in about 3 pages (I kid you not) with the reader never having a clue what was going on in her head. Very disconcerting.
- By roughly the halfway mark I realized that there had not been a single scene or mention of any character having a happy moment. I am not talking about a lack of a generally happy character; I am talking about complete lack of joy, or affection, or appreciation, or any remotely positive emotion. The characters up to that point were uniformly bitter, or angry, or smug, or vindictive, or abusive, or emotionally flat/numb (this was the child characters).
One might say that the serious subject matter and life issues being described justify a sombre tone. But I have read many other novels with plenty serious subject matter (A Fine Balance, Fall on Your Knees, and Book of Negroes all leap to mind) that did not drag me so relentlessly down like this.
I realized that no matter how beautifully written, I really did not want to remain with these characters anymore.
This story deserves every single accolade heaped upon it. Great observations about how people tick, how unspoken power dynamics work between women, anThis story deserves every single accolade heaped upon it. Great observations about how people tick, how unspoken power dynamics work between women, and what impact quiet acts of heroism like standing up to a bully can have. I'm so invested in these characters I really hope the author's next book will give glimpses of what happened to them after 'The End'.
But - can anyone explain the significance of purple birds on the cover? Apart from the obvious number corresponding with number of POV characters?...more
Loved it. Can't tell how much of that feeling is due to the excellent readers in the audiobook version,but they were all note-perfect and highly distiLoved it. Can't tell how much of that feeling is due to the excellent readers in the audiobook version,but they were all note-perfect and highly distinctive. Loved Miss Isola Pribby, the resolute spinster with detective aspirations, loved the writer Juliette round whom all the epistolatory action revolves,loved how the islanders used favorite books and literary quotes to mentally survive the occupation and aftermath.
The authors struck a fine balance between charming, hopeful, resilient moments and moments of simple yet stark recollection of wartime hardships and atrocities large and small. They also succeeded very well in showing how being swept up in overwhelming political/historical tides doesn't prevent individuals from choosing to exercise free choice in treating others like humans or sub-humans.
Among all the small anecdotes, dramatic tension was kept high by the unfolding of two ongoing questions: will the deported islander Elizabeth, founder of the titular literary and potato peel pie society, return to Guernsey? And will Juliette find love or remain primarily bound to her writing career? The way both of these questions were answered made sense and left me satisfied. I'll certainly read this novel again. Highly recommend....more