Monthly Archives: May 2011

Orange Prize for Fiction 2011

Well, I completed a personal challenge, one that was on my bucket list. I managed to read all of the books on a prize shortlist before the prize was chosen. I’m glad I did it because I don’t think I’ll do it again.  Next time I might just read the winner. This insanity was partly motivated by a great event that is coming up!

Windsor Public  Library is having an Orange Prize Event on June 8, the same day that the Orange Prize winner will be revealed.  The evening will see each of the six books promoted and as a group we will choose which one we think will win. Then we’ll see if we are right! It proves to be a great evening, mostly because it will be a huge group of people gathering who enjoy books and reading! It’ll be like a massive book club meeting and I’m really looking forward to it!

The Orange Prize is awarded to women of any nationality. Traditionally, Orange Prize winners have been more “readable” than some other prize winners. In the interest of brevity, I will comment only briefly about each of the books. You will find a synopsis of each book and a biography of each author on the website. (Orange Prize for Fiction 2011)

All of the books are well written. The order of the books here is my ranking from highest to lowest. If you have read any of them, please comment if you think it should be ranked higher or lower and why. I’d love to hear what you think!

An amazing story of survival. A boy and his mother are locked in a small shed for years without hope of escape. There is however, hope in the love they share and the ways in which they cope. Although the circumstances are horrific, the tale is rendered readable because it is narrated by the innocent voice of the 5 year old boy.Check out a full blog post in the December Archive or by putting ‘Room’ into the Search box.

This book is about finding identity beyond gender. A beautiful story set in the harsh and remote landscape of Labrador.  A child is born intersex, with both male and female genitalia. His journey to adulthood and finding his place in society is remarkable. Check out a full blog post in the May Archive or by putting ‘Annabel’ in the Search box.

This is the story of a severely mentally and physically challenged girl sent to an institution in the 1950’s. Her treatment there is appalling but she finds love and humanity in her friends, especially Daniel. Though  Grace cannot speak, the story is narrated in her voice, both childish and poetic. There are some graphic scenes which make it at times difficult to read.

Evocative and delightfully haunting, this story has an old world quality but felt fresh and new. Set in the Balkans after the war,  it is a folk tale with magic realism. It didn’t matter to me not to be able to distinguish tale from reality, they were artfully interwoven. Unfortunately the story got too complex towards the middle, losing the thread and the crisp, muscular writing which was so enjoyable at the start.

This is a book about the war in Sierra Leone, but more about the before and after. It shows how ordinary lives can be affected by atrocities in the past. Forna’s own father was killed for his political beliefs and her personal story informs the writing. Researching her background enhanced the reading and helped me to understand the themes in the book. Also the fact that I lived in this country for many years.

A large ominous desk looms large in this novel, connecting several individuals who are affected by its mystery and power. This framework could have worked well for her novel but it became unsatisfying because of many loose ends. What I liked about Krause’s writing was the way she captured the complexity of relationships, especially how people can wield such power over one another.

Author Feature: Janet and Allan Ahlberg

The other day I was in a bookstore in Windsor and went to see what was new in picture books. What I found was an old favourite by Janet and Allan Ahlberg and it brought back so many great memories.

Janet & Allen Ahlberg (a husband and wife team) wrote and illustrated many books which were among our family favourites when our kids were small and I’m happy to see that they are still available. I love the warmth and charm of the illustrations and the books have an easy going style that make them fun and comforting. The books have humour and are interactive, engaging both child and adult in the reading. The story lines are simple but the design is intelligent. My favourite children’s books are always the ones that appeal to  adults as well as children.

If you want to know more about the Ahlbergs, here are two delightful articles. They wrote and illustrated for 20 years but sadly Janet died of breast cancer when she was only 50. Allan speaks candidly in this article about their childhoods, their married years, and how he had to go on without her. Janet speaks about how they wrote together and how her illustrations were shaped. Their stories are interesting and engaging.
Interview with Allan Ahlberg
Interview with Janet Ahlberg

‘Peepo!’ follows a baby and family through an ordinary day. It is written in a “peek-a-boo” style with a series of holes cut into the pages giving a view to each next stage of the day. It’s such a nice normal family, not perfect, a little messy, but loving.

  The poetry in this book is so much fun and there are nursery characters like Tom Thumb, Baby Bunting, and the Three Bears hiding on the pages to be found in the colourful pictures. This is a delightful non-traditional “I Spy” nursery rhyme book.

‘The Jolly Postman’ is the most interactive and tactile. This book includes real letters that can be removed, opened, and read. The letters are as fun as receiving real mail and are such an amusing addition to the story.

‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’ by Helen Simonson

Here is a book which I could recommend to almost anyone.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny but deals with meaningful issues as well. It’s a love story, but a satisfyingly quirky one.

A retired British army Major with impeccable manners and a widowed Indian shop keeper full of beauty and grace, find each other in a small English village where gossip and prejudice unfortunately thrive. Ironically he was born in Lahore, India, and she was born in Cambridge, UK!  The delight they have in each other is threatened by other’s perceptions that an English gentleman and an Indian shopkeeper should never be considered a match, especially not at their age!

Cleverly written, entertaining and wise, this is a gem of a book most readers will enjoy. I predict it will be on many book club lists in the years to come.

PS. I have to say one of my favourite bits is when we meet Dame Eunice at the golf course. I nearly spilled my tea.

‘Annabel’ by Kathleen Winter

This is an extraordinary book about gender that I would highly recommend. It is fiction, but it reads like a personal story, full of dignity and compassion. The characters are on a journey of love that begins with secrets and fear but ends in acceptance and truth.

Annabel is the story of Wayne, an intersex baby, born with both male and female genitalia. He is born in Labrador where his parents have little support or previous experience to deal with the situation. There is a an attempt to “fix” the child by deciding early on which gender he should be, but as the child grows and develops and as Wayne struggles to develop his own identity, he finds himself identifying more with his female side, which to him is Annabel. It is heartbreaking to see Wayne displaying attitudes that are expected of him, when they are so contrary to his authentic self.

Kathleen Winter eloquently captures the wild and stark loneliness of the Labrador landscape and that loneliness is mirrored in Wayne/Annabel who must navigate the territory of his/her situation with little  help. It is lonely to be different and even though there are some around who are supportive, they don’t really understand.

Finding identity can be tricky for anyone, but it is especially challenging for those with a gender or orientation that doesn’t fit neatly into societal norms.  In this novel, Winter promotes the freedom to find our identity as human beings beyond gender, and she has achieved this beautifully.

Note: The picture of the caribou on the cover carries more meaning than representing Labrador and the north. Caribou are unique among deer in that both male and female have antlers.

‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ by Garth Stein

You don’t have to be a dog lover to enjoy this book, but the dog lovers will enjoy it more. It’s an engaging story, sad at times, but also funny and you’ll learn something about auto racing.

On the night before he is put down, Enzo, no ordinary dog, shares his thoughts on his life. Self-educated because his master leaves the TV on when Enzo is home alone, Enzo is not concerned about his life ending because he aspires to being human in the next one. He is a philosophical dog and has some wonderful insights into the human condition.

Denny, the race car driver,  works hard at the skills necessary to be the best in car racing and the techniques he uses are also instructive for navigating life’s ordeals, of which he has many. This is not just another dog story. It is uplifting and intelligent and explores not only the mysterious relationship between dog and man, but also meditates on how humour, loyalty, hope, and a “dogged” determination  can carry us through.

‘Anne Lindsay’s Lighthearted Everyday Cooking: Fabulous Recipes for a Healthy Heart’

There are two people who give me recipes that end up being my favourites. One is a sister-in-law and the other is a friend. One day the sister-in-law recommended a cookbook to me. I ordered it immediately! It was fabulous, so on impulse I bought it for the friend and guess what? She had it already!!  Duh, I should have known. Well, that told me something about this cookbook and that is why I want to share it with you. Here is why I like it so much.

The recipes:
– are tasty (why else would I make them?)
– are easy (I don’t bother with complex ones, too busy for that)
– call for available ingredients (no obscure or brand name stuff)
– are heart healthy and wholesome (I’m over 50 and so is my husband)
– are EASY (did I mention that?)
– have pictures which are “eat off the page” gorgeous
(aesthetics, but I also steal presentation ideas!)
– do not require complex tools I don’t have (small kitchen)
– don’t have words or foods I don’t know or can’t pronounce
(my beef with Jamie Oliver)
– are EASY (did I say that already?)
– have both ‘cups’ and ‘ml’ listed (handy if you live in UK)
– come with a nutrition chart (if this excites you that’s good, you should read labels!)
– have simple directions (read: EASY)

Now, I know what you are thinking. “I already have 50 cookbooks, do I really need another one?” The answer is yes. But, you must be ruthless and weed out every cookbook you have not glanced in for 5 years. I know you have some, we all do. They are probably the ones you picked up at a rummage sale. Bring them back to another rummage sale and you won’t feel guilty for ditching them. It’s the circle of life. Then, voila!,  you have room for a nice new shiny one. This one you will use or I will eat my words. Bon appetit!

‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet’ by David Mitchell

In the late 1700’s Japan’s only connection with Europe was around trade that took place on Dejima, an artificial island on Japan’s doorstep which was essentially a collection of warehouses built by the Dutch mercantile empire in Nagasaki Bay.

No matter how intriguing this historical time period was, despite an adventure in the middle and a few other interesting twists and turns, I found parts of this book a real slog. It was necessary for me to do some research on Dejima (Wikipedia) to even make a start and be able to understand what was going on.

Jacob De Zoet is a Dutchman who finds himself far from his Dutch fiance on the island of Dejima and falls in love with a Japanese woman. The naive accountant  is surprisingly clever at dealing with tricky cultural issues and crooked sailors. His honest approach somehow results in career achievements which are brilliant in a place where survival was not easy. Some of the descriptions of early surgical practices are visceral and the ‘nunnery’ where Orito ends up is horrific. Jacob De Zoet is not a character you will soon forget even though his Dutch cronies and Japanese translators were actually so non-descript after awhile, that I lost track of who was who (but it didn’t really matter).

If you are a great lover of historical fiction, this would be an excellent book for you. If you want an engaging captivating read, you might want to take a pass. I would put this book in the “lost opportunity” category. He had a great thing going with the story, the characters, the setting, and the adventure, but it’s too bad it got so boggy because it could have been a blockbuster. If you are good at skimming over bogs and finding the solid nuggets, by all means give it a go. There are plenty of really great parts too. Mitchell is a famous author and there is genius in the writing. I am actually glad I read it for when the movie comes out – it would make a great Pirates of the Caribbean type film!