Book Review · Books · Fiction · Historical Fiction · James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier · Uncategorized · YA Fiction

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

 

Image result for my brother sam is deadThe American Revolutionary War is in its early stages, which is seemingly marked by people having to choose between two sides. Staying neutral is hardly an option when the choice is between remaining a British colony or to break free to a new America. Tim Meeker’s brother, Sam, has enlisted to be a part of the American Revolutionary Army. Sam and his friends at Yale believe in an America that is free of British rule. Tim, on the other hand, doesn’t know what to think. He admires his older brother, and when brave intelligent Sam talks about the necessity of defeating the British, it seems like the right thing to do. But to side with his brother would mean to go against his father. In fact, there are a lot of people who disagree with the revolutionaries. Which side is right?

Being faced with this question in the 21st century is not exactly overwhelming because we know how history has played out. But being drawn into the 17th century with Tim and his family makes this question seem so much harder. It makes the reader question whether the means ever justify the end. It’s especially stirring because the story is told through the voice of an 11-year-old boy. Though this book was written for young adults it can be appreciated by any thinking person, regardless of age.

I was a little surprised to find that this junior novel has been listed several times for violence and abusive language. It’s also been accused of being unpatriotic. I don’t remember coming across any shockingly vulgar language, but on further inspection this book does contain mild profanity. A search on why this book is banned will give you a better understanding of the instances considered violent, profane, and unpatriotic.

While I don’t understand how a story about war can be described accurately without violence of any sort, the descriptions here are not overly gruesome (in my opinion). I can’t say whether this book is patriotic or not. However, I will say that this book talks less about the importance of choosing the right side and more about how painful war is in general. My Brother Sam Is Dead paints an alarmingly clear picture of how in war there really is no good and bad side. Both sides are forced to act cruelly, regardless of what these actions are meant to achieve. As Tim’s father says, “In war the dead pay the debts of the living.” (Spoiler Alert: Skip on to the next paragraph if you’d rather not know Tim’s response to this) Continuing…Years later Tim writes in response to his father’s words, “…they have paid us well. But somehow even fifty years later, I keep thinking that there might have been another way, beside war, to achieve the same end.”

I thought that this book was an excellent piece of historical fiction. I especially liked the end where the writers include which parts of the story were based on true events. This book can be easily read in one sitting and it’s amazing how such a tiny book can be packed with so much. While 11-year-old Tim’s account can be amusing at times, you may also need a box of tissues at hand. This book leaves its readers with a very sobering view of both American history and of war, in general.

Book Review · Fiction

Two Book Reviews: Tara Road and Quentins by Maeve Binchy

Displaying IMG_20160926_173725.jpgDiscovering Maeve Binchy’s writing this last week was similar to when I discovered Amy Tan’s writing a few years ago: their books were read from cover to cover nearly non-stop, after which I went out and bought as many more books of theirs that I could find.

My aunt in Delhi sent Tara Road for me to read a few weeks ago, but I only picked it up to read last Thursday after having just completed the melancholic Brideshead Revisited (It was depressingly realistic while being beautifully sad at the same time, that I needed my next book to be very unlike it). One of the reviews on the jacket of Tara Road described Maeve Binchy’s writing as good natured gossip, which I felt I needed after Evelyn Waugh, who’s writing is equally impressive though definitely not gossipy in any way (More on that in another upcoming post).

I found that I quite enjoyed Maeve Binchy’s easy writing style. Her stories seem to be about regular people with regular stories that have been told very, very well.

Tara Road begins with the story of Ria and Danny Lynch, and how they buy their dream home, a sprawling dilapidated Victorian house, on Tara Road, Dublin. It doesn’t take very long for them to renovate the house and transform it into the warm, cozy home they’d envisioned it to be. Their kitchen is constantly abuzz with family and friends. They seem to have the perfect family life. So it comes as quite a shock to Ria when Danny informs her that he hasn’t been happy for a long time and is now leaving her for someone else. Up until now Ria, who hadn’t the slightest idea that their marriage was in trouble, had her life revolving around her family. Without her husband, she feels quite lost and unsure of how to even begin getting on with her life. It’s hardly surprising that when Ria receives a phone call from an American, Marilyn, who’d like to know the possibilities of a house exchange in the summer, she agrees without hesitation. The story goes on to describe the two women’s lives, the new friends they make, the experiences that add to their character, and their learning to cope with the heartache that life sometimes brings.

I actually picked up Quentins because I recognized it as the fancy restaurant frequently mentioned in Tara Road. And I did, in fact, recognize some of the characters. It made it all the more absorbing. Here’s a bit about the book, Quentins.

Ella Brady’s life gets hit by dire circumstances and she is forced to work at 5 jobs, 16 hours a day. One of the jobs she’s working at is with a friend who makes films. When he asks for ideas that might win a prize at a film festival, Ella suggests they make a documentary on the restaurant, Quentins. After all, this restaurant was founded nearly forty years ago. It might be interesting to use it to trace back the changing economy in Ireland along with its people and their changing hopes and aspirations. So while this book begins and ends with Ella, it’s infused with stories about the people connected with Quentins – its staff and customers alike.

I think Maeve Binchy is a very skilled story teller. She writes about the ordinary as if it were extraordinary. There’s so much to feel when reading her books – sad, angry, glad, amused, and, if ‘fuzzy’ is an appropriate word to use here, that also. Her books were a delight to read. I even did a bit of evangelizing at the used book store when I saw two copies of the same book. It was a little shocking when the lady I was talking to said she’d already read Maeve Binchy but preferred Barbara Taylor Bradford and Mary Higgins Clark. It threw me a little off guard. I’m still unsure about exactly which sort of reader might appreciate being recommended a Maeve Binchy book. Nevertheless, I shall try. If you are able to find joy in a story with ordinary complications, but one described charmingly well, with deep insight into human nature (and all that that involves), you may enjoy Maeve Binchy’s works. Her writing really is similar to good-natured gossip and goes well with a bag of chips, cups of tea, biscuits, and the occasional bar of chocolate.

Book Review · Fiction · Muriel Spark · Uncategorized

The Snobs by Muriel Spark

The SnobsThe Snobs, besides being the title of the book, is also one of the stories included in this brief collection of short stories by Muriel Spark. The other four are The First Year of My Life, The Fortune-Teller, Christmas Fugue, and the Executor. At ten rupees, I considered this book a steal. Muriel Spark is well known and has won many literary awards for her stories with their twists and plots that have readers intrigued till the end.

This book was my first sample of Muriel Spark’s writing. I have to be honest and say that while the twists in her stories were certainly intriguing, I was not as enchanted as I have been by many other books. Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Glassblowers by Daphne du Maurier, and The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald come to mind as examples of books that have held me completely captive. I realize that this is probably a reflection of certain preferences that I have while reading.

I’m not sure if I should offer short descriptions of the stories since they’re tiny tales with plenty happening. It’s difficult to say where I might be spoiling the reading experience for someone else. But if I may try: The first story in this collection, The Snobs, is about an amusing couple who are such frightful snobs.  The First Year of My Life is, again, fairly self-explanatory. It’s the story about the thoughts of a baby, a few months old, who baffles everyone by refusing to smile. The Fortune Teller is a bewitching tale about a girl whose destiny is altered unexpectedly without her being aware of it.

Christmas Fugue is the most difficult to explain: Cynthia believes her life has become ‘empty’ in Australia after her cousin, Moira, leaves. It is interesting to read about the occurrences that reverse it. The fifth story, The Executor is a gripping account of Susan Kyle’s experience as her uncle’s literary executor.

The stories have been told very well. They’re imaginative, descriptive, and unlikely. Muriel Spark’s writing is intelligent and sharp, with a good dose of black humour and elements that add shock. It made me think of a friend I had in college who was disturbingly observant, appeared clairvoyant, and said the most outrageous things. We used to tiptoe around her because we never knew what to expect. And that’s how I imagine I might feel if Muriel Spark were alive and I happened to meet her. I have developed a mild distaste for a style with a caustic edge. I would much prefer to meet Penelope Fitzgerald, whose writing style is gentler and somehow friendlier.

One other thing that I am unable to appreciate anymore is extravagant absurdity.  I felt that the short stories by Muriel Spark reminded me of the short stories for adults written by Roald Dahl. Now I like Roald Dahl’s writing for children. In fact, I adore it along with Quentin Blake’s engaging illustrations. But I do not care for Henry Sugar or any of the other characters invented by Roald Dahl for his adult readers, or the stories that they’re in. I don’t think I enjoy the absurd as much as I used to.

Apart from personal preferences that draw me towards other books and other authors, I liked Muriel Spark’s lucid writing and dead pan way of saying things. There were parts that made me laugh. Her writing, without a doubt, is stylish.

The pilot walked up the aisle towards Cynthia. He sat down beside her.

‘A complete nut. They do cause anxiety on planes. But maybe he’s harmless. He’d better be. Are you feeling lonely?’

Cynthia looked at the officer. He was good-looking, fairly young, young enough. ‘Just a bit,’ she said.

‘First class is empty,’ said the officer. ‘Like to come there?’

‘I don’t want to – ‘

‘Come with me,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Cynthia. What’s yours?’

‘Tom. I’m one of the pilots. There are three of us today so far. Another’s coming on at Bangkok.’

‘That makes me feel safe.’  (pg.38)

Book Review · Books · Fiction · Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

the bookshopI bought this book, The Bookshop, at the Daryaganj Book Market in Delhi because it looked like it might be an interesting read. It’s a shame I waited three years before I finally did read it. If I had read it sooner I’d probably have managed to secure copies of Fitzgerald’s other books and savoured each one by 2016.

In The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald tells the story of a middle aged woman, Florence Green, who decides to open a bookshop in the fictitious East Anglian town of Hardborough in the year 1959. The narrative meanders through the challenges Florence Green faces in starting the only bookshop in a town where the general majority does not see the sense in having a bookshop. There is, in particular, a Mrs. Gamart, who attempts to dissuade our protagonist from starting the bookshop. When Florence Green, a very insignificant person in comparison to Mrs. Gamart, politely refuses to be persuaded and stands firm in her decision, she only invites a barrage of more difficulties. It doesn’t help that the Old House, her new home and location of the bookshop, is haunted by poltergeists.

This story is not fast paced or thrilling in any way. It’s quiet with few embellishments. Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing voice is gentle and very matter of fact here. You do not see Florence Green wallowing in self-pity or lashing out in anger at the injustices hurled her way. She is pictured as a kind, unpretentious woman with an outlook on life that is balanced between reality and hope.

The writing style is clear and descriptive with characters that come alive and make your eyes widen at their behavior, or shake your head and laugh quietly. The author manages to convey courage and strength even while focusing on the ordinariness of her main character. I could picture Florence Green sighing at the unpleasantness that life dealt her, then shrugging and trying to figure out her next step.

The qualities that made this book a delight to read were its quiet discernment of human life and Penelope Fitzgerald’s exquisite brilliance in telling a story that has no seeming plot. In a way, it is reminiscent of actual human life that does not have a prominent plot either. The narrative is clear-eyed in relating instances that make one gasp in shock for the poor lady. As the jacket on the book reads, “This story is for anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.” To me, The Bookshop seemed to suggest that even the most ordinary person is an interesting story of themselves and can find ways to connect with other people. It goes without saying that this is highly dependent on how well the story is told.

I found out this afternoon that this novel was one of the author’s earlier works and is based on personal experiences. While Penelope Fitzgerald had worked part time in a bookshop, the similarity that strikes us is the unexpected difficulties she faced in her middle years. It was interesting to learn that she published her books only after the age of sixty.

I thought The Bookshop was a lovely book! I liked its quiet lack of emphasis, the charming narrative, and unpretentious humanness throughout. I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s books.

Books · Fiction · Imagination · Non Fiction · Personal

A New Year and New Stories

Like most Januaries, January 2016, up until now, has been very productive and brimming with hope and excitement of new opportunities. I began writing my goals for the new year a couple days after New Year’s Day. And so far I’m able to go to bed content and hopeful about the next day.

My reading list for 2016 is rather ambitious. For the past few months I’ve been reading more nonfiction than fiction, and I’ve been enjoying it very much. I’ve decided to make the most of this current interest and my reading list is largely comprised of nonfictional books. I’m probably not going to review each book that I read since many are very textbook-ish (I tend to read on subjects like Psychology, History, and Christianity most often). But there are a couple books that I am looking forward to sharing. One of these is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

I understand that nonfiction requires more discipline than fiction, and I’m really glad for this unexpected surge of curiosity for fact. But I don’t ever want to stop reading books that are fiction, especially those written specifically for entertainment. In fact, I’m making sure that I read fictional books on a regular basis by beginning a book club (since I couldn’t find one near where I live).

I think reading both nonfiction and fiction are equally rewarding. Books based on fact prime the mind to absorb knowledge, think logically, while learning to appreciate the beauty and complexities of the world we live in. Nonfictional books can stand on their own, regardless of whether they are well written or not, if they are comprehensive, accurate, and informational.

Fiction, on the other hand, requires both the writer and the reader to develop the capacity to think tangentially enough to get absorbed in a story that is, sometimes clearly, not real. Of course, good fiction is largely dependent on the author’s ability to tell the made up story well. And if the story is told well, it’s the perfect place to retreat to after an exhausting or dull day. It flexes the imagination in extraordinary ways that can’t be matched by any special effects watched on TV. I also feel that it helps cultivate an appreciation for aesthetic beauty.

A blurry picture of the mountains in Kashmir.
A blurry picture of the mountains in Kashmir.

I have to say that all stories, whether true or made up, are very interesting when told well. And sometimes our environment helps enhance the story, or the other way round. I remember when we visited Kashmir I was reading The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. As you probably know, Kashmir is located in a valley and is surrounded by mountains. The first evening we were there we visited one of the Mughal gardens at dusk and the mountains took on a menacing DSC06025glow in shades of dark blue. It helped fuel my imagination as I recalled the dwarves on their long journey.

Mt. Sinai
Mt. Sinai

Last year my parents and grandmother visited Palestine and Egypt. When they got back from their trip my mother told me that she’d carried her Bible along with her and read it while they visited the places that recorded the stories in the Bible. Mount Sinai is supposed to be very tall and difficult to climb. It makes sense that Moses would stay up there for 40 days before he decided to come down again. And the naturally formed caves are like proper shelters! It’s easy to imagine that people would find place to rest for the night easily, and that shepherds would camp out in the evenings. There are so many different kinds of dates, and each so delicious; one in particular tastes like halva. The phrase ‘cake of dates’ is suddenly reasonable.

The large boulders that were used to build the pyramids
The large boulders that were used to build the pyramids

DSC06481

I hope 2016 is the year I learn to relish equally books that are nonfiction and books that are fiction.

Happy new year everyone! I’m sure everyone has been as busy as I have been, filling up planners, organizers, journals, and making mental notes to live every day fully and do the best possible to have a remarkable 2016.  Here’s to hoping that the year ahead brings with it opportunities to make our personal stories thrilling and easy to embellish for a satisfying read in retrospect.

 

 

Book List 2012 · Book Review · Fiction · J.R.R.Tolkien

Review: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

After having put off blogging for a week, I’m determined to tackle the daunting stack of books that are waiting to be reviewed. Also, it doesn’t seem likely I’ll be finishing the books on my list for 2012. It doesn’t help that I lose focus and often read books that aren’t on the list. In fact, the only book that I did read the past week was The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Although it isn’t on my list I don’t regret a bit for having read it. It was certainly very entertaining. But returning to those books that are waiting to be reviewed, I’ve decided to begin with The Hobbit by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. 

I’d actually taken this book with me on our visit to Kashmir last month. I honestly didn’t expect to find the time to read it. But as it usually is – there’s always time for anything that a person really likes and wants. So even though we returned to our room exhausted every evening of our stay, I still found the strength to bathe, write an account of my expenses, and read the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the 13 Dwarves  until my vision began to blur.

The Hobbit is the prelude to The Lord of the Rings, as you’ve probably heard. The story begins by introducing us to Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit in question. We understand that although Mr. Baggins is like most other hobbits and doesn’t particularly like adventures or the unfamiliar, and would rather be cozy at home smoking his pipe, there is a streak of something contradictory in his nature passed down from his mother’s side. But regardless of this tiny streak of courage for adventure, Mr. Baggins is flabbergasted when he finds out that the wizard Gandalf has recommended him as a burglar to 13 dwarves who are on a journey to retrieve their stolen wealth and home.

A blurry picture of the mountains in Kashmir.

The old home of the dwarves is the mighty mountain now occupied by Smaug, a terrifying and very wicked dragon. But apart from the hazardous act of retrieving what is rightfully theirs, the journey itself to the Mountain is dangerous. What with nasty goblins, trolls, one sneaky Gollum, and a few other interesting obstacles.

I thought this book was simply un-put-down-able! Reading in Kashmir made it come even more alive (is that possible?) with the misty mountains that were menacing at dusk and the intense scenic beauty by day. I could visualize it all so clearly. Of course, the book is written very well. It’s intense, and the characters are so lifelike  that I was a little frightened at times. It’s silly, but I would freak out if anything that I knew to be fictional happened to show up in reality. Fantasy has a world of its own and when it begins to edge into my everyday life, it makes me a little nervous.

Another thing that I thought would be interesting is the debate over whether J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are christian based or not. I had read online sometime ago that while C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are an allegory to salvation, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books are supposedly Satanic. I found that a little difficult to believe because in C.S. Lewis’ book, Surprised by Joy, he mentions that J.R.R. Tolkien had helped guide him to Christianity while they were both at Oxford.

But regardless of its theological depth, The Hobbit is a classic for its gripping description of a unique and enchanting world that seemingly overlaps with our own. It’s story is tightly woven and it’s characters engaging. The book leaves you with the feeling of having seen a brilliant life size painting but only having had the time to focus on one corner. But that minuscule portion is so beautiful and fulfilling that it fills you with awe to think that this is only a tiny part of it.

I loved this book! If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you thought of it. If you haven’t, do try and read at least the first chapter. See if you’ll be able to stop there!

Book List 2012 · Book Review · Eoin Colfer · Fiction

Review: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl is another of those famous children’s books that is enjoyed by both adults and children alike. I especially loved the book for taking me back to my school days. It reminded me of why I’d always preferred books over sports, talking, and of course, studies. This was the kind of book I’d smuggle into class and read instead of being busy with my school work. This was the kind of book I usually stayed in to read instead of running out to play when the school bell rang. And this was the sort of book that eventually hiked my popularity with the school librarian.

Artemis Fowl is a twelve year old child prodigy. He’s also a millionaire and, as the blurb says, a criminal mastermind. His father has been missing for sometime now and his mother is ill. Left on his own, Artemis finds evidence for the existence of fairies and is on a mission to restore his family’s fortune.

Set in the 21st century, this novel is fast paced and realistic, as far as it is possible where fairies are concerned. If you enjoyed the Harry Potter series I doubt this book will disappoint. Artemis Fowl has the essence of a Harry Potter mind gripper – magic, adventure, and a story well told. I’ve only read the first book in the Artemis Fowl series but I would like to read the next two books in this trilogy as well.

This book was definitely a joy to read. The only confusing thing for me was figuring out who the good guys were and who the bad guys really were. At times I felt like the fairies were the good guys and sided with them. And at other times I couldn’t help wondering if I was rooting for the wrong team. One thing’s for sure, this book has a lot of unexpected twists and there’s never a dull minute when you’re reading the adventures of Artemis Fowl.

Like Holes by Louis Sachar, this is also one of those medium sized reading snacks that satisfy for a short while. And like Holes, this book is worth reading even if it is only to turn back the wheels of time and remind us of the reason we ever liked reading in the first place.