Monthly Archives: June 2012

‘The Dovekeepers’ by Alice Hoffman

An epic, tragic, lyrical, true story in the capable hands of master storyteller Alice Hoffman, cannot go wrong. In many of her books, Hoffman’s characters are strong women who are involved with religion, medicine and magic. ‘The Dovekeepers’ is no exception. I knew the story of the ancient fortress of Masada, but was not aware that two women and five children survived the massacre on the night when the Jews committed mass suicide rather than submit to the Roman Legion. In this work of historical fiction, Hoffman describes the lives of four women who each came to Masada from different paths, so always in the back of my mind was, which one? who survives? how could that happen? Like in ‘The Red Tent’ by Anita Diamant, Hoffman fleshes out the stories of women and domestic and spiritual life in ancient times, in ways that are largely left out of the Bible. Hoffman has researched this haunting story well, and the reader definitely benefits from that.

Hoffman spent five years writing this novel and there is no doubt that it is a major contribution to literature and historical fiction. The author’s website does have a helpful glossary to which I will give you a link, however I felt that the glossary was not even necessary since the author always made clear what the Hebrew words meant by the immediate context. It is helpful if you wish to know more. What definitely is worthwhile on her website, is the gallery of pictures of the actual Masada. Here is the link to both and a video of the author speaking about the book.
Alice Hoffman’s Website

‘Baking Cakes in Kigali’ by Gaile Parkin

This book made me homesick for East Africa, having lived there myself for many years! Very much in the style of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective” series, Parkin creates a story full of African wisdom and nuance. The story is set in modern Rwanda, so in the course of the story, many truly African issues and problems arise. Wounds from the genocide are still fresh, but people are trying to overcome and focus on hope and healing,  They will find a way to celebrate once again, despite many obstacles.

Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian living in Rwanda,  bakes cakes for all occasions. She decorates them very creatively and her business is beginning to thrive, even in a place where there are still haunting memories of tragedies and other problems like HIV AIDS, child soldiers, and poverty. Angel says, “My cake business is doing well because there are almost no shops here that sell cakes. A cake business doesn’t do well in a place where people have nothing to celebrate.” But her business does begin to thrive and her business allows her to become involved in the lives of others, sometimes with surprising results. Her customers receive much more from Angel than a beautiful cake! She also portrays well the sometimes tricky relationship between Foreign Aid workers (wazungu) and locals in such a place as Tanzania or Rwanda. Angel says, “All wazungu are rich. They get an extra $100 a day to compensate for living in a dangerous country, while most Rwandans do not earn that in a month!” The author was born in Africa and knows it well. She herself has lived in Rwanda and has worked with survivors there. Many of the stories she tells were inspired by stories she was told by women she counselled. She does a marvellous job of capturing the African spirit.

This is her first novel and I do hope she writes more. ‘Baking Cakes in Kigali’ deals with heavy issues in an uplifting manner, creating  a deliciously funny, moving, and charming  (but not sugar-coated) story, showing the strength and tenacity of the human spirit.

‘Faceless Killers’ by Henning Mankell

A friend of mine recently mentioned that she had lately become rather addicted to Henning Mankell books. Now that I have finished ‘Faceless Killers’, I can understand why, and I think I may fly through the series as well.

An elderly farmer and his wife are brutally murdered in their home. There is no clear motive and no leads in the tragedy, except for one word the woman utters just before her death. She says the word ‘foreign’.

Henning Mankell is a thoughtful and reflective author who writes what I would call intelligent literary crime fiction. The author also seamlessly incorporates social issues, in this case he has woven in the difficult question of how refugee immigrants are received and regarded in a country like Sweden. In other books, he deals with things like the collapse of the Soviet Union, teenage suicide, Internet crimes, and how citizens sometimes take justice into their own hands, instead of leaving it to the police and the justice system. Mankell understands cross-cultural issues. He has a home in Mozambique where he stays part of the time.

Kurt Wallander is a character who develops and changes which keep the series full of interest. Contrastingly, the character of his father is someone who never changes at all except that he is beginning to suffer from dementia. And Wallander’s daughter and ex-wife Mona figure into the stories as well. In fact, Wallander’s occasional issues with women are probably due to the fact that he is a compassionate soul,  still dealing with the loss of his marriage and not ready to move on well until he has accepted this.  Mankell says that he has always been the same age as his Wallander character, which has informed his writing. And he makes Wallander quite vulnerable and realistic. In the 4th novel he gets diabetes and has to deal with that as well, mostly because he neglects his own health while busy with investigations.  That would never happen to James Bond!

One interesting tidbit I learned by listening to an interview with Mankell, is that he has placed a mistake in each one of his crime novels. Now there is an additional challenge for a detective novel fan!

‘The Thief Lord’ by Cornelia Funke

This young adult “tween” novel (9-12), will delight anyone at any age. Set in Venice, it is the story of a group of ragtag homeless and runaway children who fend for themselves by hiding out and surviving on the streets and canals. Translated from German, the story has beautiful illustrations done by the author which adorn each new chapter. There is mystery, suspense, and a magical outcome which is not at all predictable. Everytime I thought I knew what was going to happen, there would be a fresh and unexpected little twist.

Read this story yourself, buy it for a tween, or better yet, read it out loud to a tween you know and love. You will both be captured by the story and the setting. And then visit Venice. 🙂 Note: the Italian names won’t roll off your tongue if you don’t know how to pronounce them. Courtesy of wikipedia, here are the trickiest ones: Scipio (Sip-ee-oh) and Riccio (Ree-chee-oh).

Cornelia Funke’s website is an adventure in itself. Be sure to visit there and have fun clicking on the various parts of the opening screen. Make the chair move, the globe turn, and the mouse squeak. Watch letters fly into the mailbox, and is there really something hiding in the garbage can?
Cornelia Funke’s Website

‘People of the Book’ by Geraldine Brooks

Pulitzer Prize author Geraldine Brooks is an excellent writer. ‘People of the Book’ sweeps the reader through an adventure that both intrigues and educates. Based on a true story of the Sarajevo haggadah, this historical fiction story is about a beautifully illuminated Jewish book which was actually protected from the Nazis by a Muslim librarian.

The flyleaf says it best: “In 1996, a rare book expert is offered the job of a lifetime:  analysis and conservation of a mysterious, beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain and recently saved from destruction during the shelling of Sarajevo’s libraries.  When Hanna Heath, a caustic Aussie loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in the book’s ancient binding —  an insect-wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair — she begins to unlock the mysteries of the book’s eventful past and to uncover the dramatic stories of those who created it and those who risked everything to protect it.”

Brooks does a good job of showing the history of the Jews and how they have often had to battle against those who would seek to destroy them and their culture. However, it also shows how people of various religions can see the humanity and value in one another and the things that are precious to them, rather than just the differences.  This is a powerful message and makes this an important, as well as a compelling, read.

Here is a page from the Sarajevo haggadah.