Friday, January 25, 2013

Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine

This delightful novel for young adults was a pleasure to read. Based on a highly original plot, the book revolves around a teenage boy named Lucas Swain, whose father has been missing for several years. Late one night while in a taxi shop waiting for a cab to take him home, he notices an urn inside the shop. Curious about this peculiar object, he soon discovers that it contains the ashes of an elderly woman called Violet Park.

The ensuing story focuses on Lucas' search to find out more about Ms. Park. As he begins to unravel the mystery of this accomplished woman, he discovers hidden truths about his parents, as well as his paternal grandparents. In the process, he interacts with his older sister Mercy and younger brother Jed, which allows him to see how his family is filling the devastating hole that was created by his father's disappearance.

This book combines a captivating plot with fairly profound insights by the teenage Lucas. I was so engrossed by this story that I read it nonstop, cover-to-cover, in a roughly four-hour period. I was therefore not surprised to find out that this work won the 2007 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, as well as being considered for the Carnegie Medal in Literature, the Branford Boase Award and the Manchester Book Award.

I recently decided that I am going to build a library of children's and young adult books for my baby daughter, which she can read when she is older. As a a result, I have recently read several books aimed at a younger audience, with the aim of finding the best books to buy. This novel will certainly be on my list of novels to purchase for this collection.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Being by Kevin Brooks

Robert Smith, 16, was scheduled for a routine endoscopy at a local hospital. When doctors inserted the tube into his mouth, however, and lowered it into his gastrointestinal tract, they couldn't believe what they saw. This shock discovery sparks a mind-boggling series of events in which Robert escapes from the hospital, is falsely accused of murder, befriends a counterfeit artist, and in the process constantly asks himself if he is human at all.

This book has an intriguing premise and started with a lot of potential. While clearly meant for young adults, (large parts of the book are written in a style that is specifically geared towards teenagers), I was caught up in the story and was very intrigued during the first two-thirds.

Unfortunately, in the final-third of the novel, the story loses focus and the ending was a complete cop out. It's possible to imagine Kevin Brooks defending the end of the book by saying it's an unconventional finish to an unconventional novel. I would disagree. My take is that this book started with a great idea, but then lost its ability to work it out. Which is too bad, because I was quite excited about the book until the last 80-pages or so. My impression is that Brooks is a solid author who simply crashed into a creative wall while looking to finish this novel.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Trash by Andy Mulligan

Doomed to a life of crushing poverty, the "Trash" children climb through mountains of garbage in a city dump. Members of a lowly underclass, they scrounge through sickening waste as their friends, relatives and neighbours live in shacks that are scattered among the discarded refuse. Resigned to a miserable existence, the scavengers are convinced that they will never find anything important.

But when 14-year-old Raphael Fernandez makes a remarkable discovery, he unleashes a series of events that forever changes the lives of him and his two friends, Gardo and Rat. From the lowest caste in society, this heartbreaking trio embark on an adventure that will reveal political corruption at the highest level, and reveal to them heroic men who are trying to improve their country.

I discovered this book by chance while at the library. It was displayed in a prominent location near the entrance and on a whim I took it. I am very glad that I did. This teenage novel describes the tragic reality of countless thousands (or it is millions?) of people around the world who are so poor that they have to scrounge their lives lives through trash dumps. While revealing this injustice, however, the novel also provides a first-rate mystery tale that is very well written. It is therefore not a surprise that there are plans to turn this book into a movie.

English writer Andy Mulligan worked as a theatre director for many years before teaching English and drama in Britain, India, Brazil and the Philippines. His idea of writing a novel about a shanty town in the middle of a garbage dump was based on experiences he had in the Philippines. This experience has produced a very realistic portrayal of poverty, while his impressive storytelling skills make this book a page turner. A wonderful novel that contains tears, smiles and adventure, but most important hope.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Is it obligatory for a reader to praise literary brilliance? This peculiar question arose in my mind after reading Saturday by renowned English novelist Ian McEwan. The book is set in London and takes place on a single day, Saturday, February 15, 2003, on the date of a massive anti-war demonstration against the planned 2003 invasion of Iraq. The novel follows Henry Perowne, a 48-year-old neurosurgeon, as he goes through his day. We see Henry watch a fiery plane in the sky through a home window as it makes an emergency landing at the airport; observe the massive anti-war protest after leaving his house; get into an argument with a troubled man following a car accident; play squash with a colleague; perform surgery; and prepare dinner for a family gathering with his two adult children, wife and father-in-law.

As his day progresses, Henry thinks about the impending war (he believes Saddam Hussein is a monster and is not convinced that the war would be a bad thing); reflects on the relationship with his children and wife; wonders how human consciousness arises out of the brain; questions the validity of literature; and asks difficult questions about forgiveness. The writing is ridiculously good (one could even use the word "genius"), the themes fascinating, and the narrative structure highly original.

So why did I shrug my shoulders when I finished the book? Probably for the same reason that I shrug when I hear opera. If you go to the opera, you can't help be appreciate the incredible skill required for each performance, the theatrical presentations, and the wide range of themes that can be presented. At times, I must confess that I have been swept away by certain operatic pieces, and moved by some storylines. However, when I look at opera in general, I can't help but conclude that this is a pompous artform that takes itself way to seriously. Is this a gauche opinion? Perhaps, but it's what I think.

I had a similar feeling with this book. During several passages, I was left with the sense that I was an audience member hearing a speech by a highly intelligent man, who had done meticulous research. As the speech progressed, however, I had the sense that the "orator" was more interested in making clear how smart they were, rather than  engaging with the crowd. My favourite books are those in which the author and reader form a partnership in the telling of a story. This novel, in contrast, seemed more like a lecture than a common journey through a fictional world.

I am sure that a lot of people would disagree with this point of view. For instance, a review in the English daily The Times stated that McEwan was potentially the best novelist in Britain. It is also true that an army of English PhD students could find countless things to analyze and discuss about this book. That is why it is unsurprising that this novel, in both hardcover and paperback format, sold hundred of thousands of copies. That being said, this book did not captivate me. So to answer the question at the beginning of this review, no, it's not mandatory to fall in love with literary brilliance. Just as there is nothing wrong with disliking opera, one can shrug their shoulders when reading high-class literature. As well, for what it's worth, I would recommend a novel like Everyman by Philip Roth, rather than Saturday, if you wanted to read a meditation on the human condition.

3 out of 5 stars (if you don't like "opera")
4 1/2 of 5 stars (if you are an "opera" lover)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

When Jacob Portman was a little boy, his grandfather would tell him incredible stories about a magical orphanage on an island in Wales. Among the peculiar residents was a girl who could levitate, an invisible boy, and a child who was so powerful he could lift a boulder. When Jacob cast doubt on the truth of these tales, his grandfather produced a series of old photographs to prove that he lived there as an orphan.

However, after getting teased at school after retelling these stories, Jacob told his grandfather that he no longer believed him. In response, his granddad stopped recounting the tales of when he lived in the Welsh orphanage. Years later, when Jacob was 16, he received a panicky call from his grandfather, in which he yelled that the monsters had found him. After rushing to his granddad's house, he realized to this horror that his grandfather had been savagely attacked. As he lay dying in Jacob's arms, he told his grandson to "go to the island" where he could be safe.

The death of Grandpa Abe leads to a series of events that take Jacob to a mysterious island off the coast of Wales. On the island, he discovers the remains of the old orphanage that his grandfather told him about, where he discovers that the stories he heard as a child were true. During this fantastic journey he learns a truth that he could never have imagined.

This wonderful novel spent 63 weeks on The New York Times  best sellers list for children's chapter books. Between April 29 and May 20, 2012, it was #1 on the list (see source here). While listed in the children's category, this work is aimed at adolescents, although its great writing also makes it enjoyable for adults. A highly original book, this work combines writing with a collection of fascinating pictures. In fact, this mix of words and photos result in a wonderful work of art, with the first-half of the novel being absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, the second-half of the story descends into a regular action packed thriller, which takes away from the originality of the book. If it weren't for the ending, I would call this novel outstanding. That being said, this is still an excellent work and I would recommend reading it.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove

The parents of Jeremy and Amanda Solters work for Crosstime Traffic, the groundbreaking company in the late-21st century that has discovered how to travel to different earths with alternate histories. From places where the Nazis won World War Two, to an alternate North America in which the United States was never created, to worlds where the planet was destroyed by nuclear war or in which humans never existed, Crosstime Traffic employees visit many numerous "earths".

For the Solters family, they have been assigned to travel to a world in which the Roman Empire never fell and which has survived for more than 2,000 years. In this earth, technological progress has been incredibly slow, although a primitive form of gunpowder and guns do exist. When their mother gets ill, their parents travel back to the home timeline for medical treatment, leaving the two teenage children behind in Polisso, a Roman city that is located in what we would call Romania.

After the parents leave, something goes wrong with the computer system hidden in the basement of their house that they use to communicate with the home timeline. To their horror, the Solters' children realize that the communication link has been cut-off, and that they have no way of getting in touch with their parents or anyone back home. The situation becomes grave when war breaks out and a neighbouring empire attacks Polisso. Will they be stuck in this alternate history forever? Will they ever see their parents again? And will the city fall to the invading army?

These questions form the basis of a fairly interesting plot. Unfortunately, this potential is squandered by robotic writing and one-dimensional characters. While I appreciated the alternate history, the story did not engage me very much.

This book is the first novel in the six-volume Crosstime Traffic series for young adults. Each part of the series, however, is a standalone story, so it is not necessary to read them in order. In fact, I previously read three other volumes (see reviews here, here and here). From what I have read up to this point, it is clear that this series is based on a formula: Crosstime Traffic employees travel to an earth with an alternate history; a female and male protagonist drive the story; the Crosstime employees return to their home timeline after making an impact in the alternate world.

Sometimes this formula works, as is the case when the characters tackle such themes as slavery, sexism, war, inhumane treatment of animals and resource extraction. However, the positives are often undermined by characters that are pure plot robots, i.e. wooden personalities without any interesting identities of their own, whose only purpose is to move a story along. In addition, the writing is often clunky. The latter makes sense given that Harry Turtledove is a prolific writer. This impressive output, however, means that the writing often seems rushed, as if output was more important that quality.

Of the four Crosstime Traffic books that I have read this is my least favourite. Part of my opinion comes from the fact that I am now familiar with the series formula, and that this technique is repetitive. Even though the setting is different from other novels, and the characters are not connected to the other books, this story feels like a clone of the others. Hopefully the other two books in the series that I have not read are better.

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, January 7, 2013

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood

In the late-1990s, John Wood was an executive in Microsoft when he decided to take a well-deserved vacation in the Himalayas. While travelling in Nepal, he visited a remote school, where he discovered that the students had almost no books in their school library. An avid reader who was blessed with a solid education, he decided to do something to help these children. This experience led to a life altering decision, in which he decided to quit his lucrative position in Microsoft and start Room to Read, a charity dedicated to building schools and libraries in third-word countries.

Today, Room to Read operates in 10 countries in Asia and Africa. In addition to helping build libraries and construct classrooms, the organization promotes gender equality in education by giving scholarships to young girls, promotes reading in youth by publishing local-language children's books, and trains educators. One of the key principles of the group is to co-invest with local populations whenever engaging in a project. This leads to a strong relationship in which locals help to build schools, deliver books and teach the young students, so they can acquire a sense of ownership.

This autobiography is an inspiring tale. At several points in the book I had to wipe away tears as I read about the immense impact that this charity has had. To illustrate how successful Room to Read has been, below is a chart that I took from their web site that indicates what they have done to date:

Books Published723
Books Distributed12.1 million
Girls' Education Participants19,622
Children Benefited7.8 million

John Wood is a great role model who has inspired me to become more involved in charitable work. This wonderful story provides a practical example for how to make a difference in the world. An excellent, excellent book that is not only worth reading, but also acts as a catalyst for change.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Under The Skin by Michel Faber

For years, Isserley has driven in the Scottish Highlands in her red Toyota Corolla on the lookout for men. Searching for strong, muscular hitchhikers, she cruises the highways for males. (Females hitchers do not interest her). The men that get into her car include a wide range of personalities, such as: unemployed drifters; a frantic father desperate to get to the hospital to witness the birth of their child; the mentally disturbed; travellers; rapists; drunks; those running away from their lives; and adventurers. What brings all of the men together is the common threat of a horrific fate that they are completely unaware of.

Who Isserley is and what she is doing in the north of Scotland is something that the reader needs to discover for themselves. What can be revealed, however, is that this book is a brilliant – if not downright creepy  story that reveals a first-rate talent.

This highly original novel, which was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Award, is difficult to pigeonhole. Combing elements of horror, science fiction and classic literature (the Guardian has compared Michel Faber to Joseph Conrad), this work is a wonderful debut of a fanstaic author. I must confess that in certain parts of the book I shivered with the creeps, as the captivating story overtook over my imagination. As I pushed myself to read further, however, I soon discovered a plot that was utterly fascinating and also tragic. This is a great read that will spook you, make you think and, perhaps most importantly, allow you to discover a fantastic writer with a incredible imagination and skill.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 4, 2013

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel is a beautifully written story that contains a heartbreaking meditation on human mortality. Written in a straightforward yet utterly engaging style, this is a brilliant science fiction book that masquerades as a traditional fiction novel. For those who are not familiar with the plot, (and if you are not, I highly encourage that you not find out before reading this story in order to let the book fully work its magic), the tale begins like a classic literary novel. If you didn't know better, you could be mistaken for thinking this was a classic book of English literature set in contemporary times. As the story evolves, however, the brilliant plot and themes begin to reveal themselves,  leaving the reader mesmerized.

The book's narrator is a woman named Kathy H., who recalls her time as a student in a peculiar boarding school in the English countryside called Hailsham. Remembering her experience growing up with her friends Ruth and Tommy, Kathy begins to reveal the mystery of the school, and more importantly the tragic destinies of the school's students. When the reader finally discovers what the students are, and then near the end of the book what the teachers were trying to accomplish with the school, the reader can't help but be overwhelmed with emotion and thoughts on justice, ethics and ultimately mortality.

Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize but lost out to John Banville's The Sea. In my opinion, the jury awarded the prize to the wrong author, as Kazuo Ishiguro's novel is, in my view, vastly superior to Banville's book. While The Sea is a well-written book, it did not capture my imagination, nor was the plot that captivating. (See my review here). By contrast, I found Never Let Me Go to be a fantastic novel with a highly original plot and wonderful writing.

5 out of 5 stars