Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Year the Gypsies Came - Linzi Glass

I chose to read this because I was attracted by the cover since the first time I saw it. The title as well was very alluring. I took it home one day, and it sat there waiting, till now, or precisely till two weeks ago, when I finally picked it up. I’m very happy I did.

“The Year the Gypsies Came” is the first novel by Linzi Glass, who was born and brought up in South-Africa during the Apartheid. The book owes much to what she experienced during that time, but the book is not a memoir. It’s the very delicate and yet tragic story of a family during the 60’s in Johannesburg, told through the eyes of 12 year-old tomboy Emily.
They live in a great old house surrounded by two acres of wild garden, on the edge of a bluegum wood, so that at night the sounds of the forest and the nearby zoo make them feel like they’re in a savanna.
But Emily’s family, like so many others, is not a perfect one. Her self-absorbed, beauty-queen mother, and her shabby and frustrated father are always on the verge of a crisis. Emily is constantly but silently seeking affection from them, but they never seem to notice it. What she doesn’t receive from her parents, Emily gets it from her beautiful and kind-hearted older sister Sarah.
Sarah, who sees the world brighter than it is.
It’s so refreshing, for once, to read about a relationship between sisters that is not an endless fight, but instead is based on admiration without jealousy from Emily’s part and on care and love from Sarah’s.
Since their parents can’t stand to be together alone and face their problems they discover a way of avoiding tension that seems to work like magic: inviting a guest to stay with them for a while, and make their problems disappear.
That is why, that year, their father brings home not just one guest, but a whole caravan of Australian travellers. They weren’t exactly gypsies. They were nomads. But as Emily says for me they were, and always will be, gypsies. For they came to us that spring in a caravan and cast a spell over us, and changed our lives forever.

What I loved most about this book is the way it’s written. The only word that I can find that describes it it’s gentle. It feels like a petal that softly touches the story and never intrudes too much. You can almost smell the flowers and the trees with exotic names (jacaranda, poplar, bluegum…) while you listen to a story told by Buza, the Zulu watchman who sits on a wooden stool all night at the edge of the garden, holding his stick who has been passed through generations and holds the power of sixty dead Zulu warriors.
These stories and the relationship between the old Buza and Emily, is what makes this book special. I learned a bit about the traditions and myths of the Zulu culture which I knew nothing about, and I also learned to love Buza’s wise way of looking at the world. It’s him that Emily goes to when she has troubles understanding the people around her or when she needs advices. His stories have always something to do with her life as well, and sometimes they help her to cope with it, or to see things in a different way.
I particularly loved the tale of the Great Morara, the wolf warrior of the Blue Mountains of Lesotho, and Bohato, the young she-cub who was sent in the valley to learn an important lesson. That sometimes the people who make the most noise are the ones who hear the least. (…) It is the sounds in here that we must listen to. The inside voices that we cannot hear with our ears but instead feel with our hearts.

Somehow the actual story of the book seems less important to me than what happens around it. Buza with his stories, Emily and her cattery club, Sarah with her marmalade-scented hair and her kindness towards everybody, the bond that Emily establishes with Streak, the older brother of the family, which is sweet and special. And it’s as close to love as it can get at that age.

I don’t think that the tragedy is what the book is about. To me it feels like it was an excuse to tell us about these characters and their relationship between each other, and to make us care more about them when the tragedy strikes. And it worked.
I really enjoyed it and I'm going to recommend it in the store. Also I think I will look for her second book, Ruby Red, one day.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Set in Stone - Linda Newbery

After the lack of plot in Paddy Clarke I really wanted to read something straightforward, a compelling, absorbing story that would keep interested, with a good storyline, fascinating characters and possibly some romance. I ended up picking Set in stone by Linda Newbery, from the pile.
It won last year’s Costa children’s award, the former Whitbread prize. It had raving reviews by readers on Amazon, and a good enough cover, so I was curious about it.
It definitely served my needs of plot and twists, but it left me somewhat puzzled, and, mostly, unsatisfied.

It’s set at the end of the 19th century in England, and it tells the story of the Farrows, a rich and apparently quiet family, who hide some terrible and unspeakable secrets. Their story is told by young painter, Samuel Godwin, who is hired by Mr Farrow to be the art tutor of his two young daughters, Juliana and Marianne. And by their governess and companion Charlotte Agnew.
The stunningly beautiful mansion in the countryside where the Farrows live is named Fourwinds, after the sculptures of the four winds that Mr Farrow commissioned for the house. Only three, though, were actually put in place, leaving the fate of the West Wind to be one of the mysteries of this story.

At first Samuel Godwin thinks his life is sorted. He is living in a wonderful place, surrounded by nature, peace and harmony. His duties as a tutor only take him few hours of his evenings, leaving him the rest of day free to paint and to contemplate his lucky fate. He was hired to tutor mostly the older and quieter Juliana, but his attentions are drawn to the young and wild Marianne. Although he is aware of the age difference (he’s 21 and she only 16), he can’t help being completely fascinated and almost obsessed by her beauty and her untamed nature.
But as the time passes and he becomes more and more part of the family, he starts to realise that maybe things are not as uncomplicated as they look.
Together with Charlotte, the governess, he starts to unveil some truths about Farrow’s past that will change their lives completely.

This book left me kind of baffled because it’s hard to define. It’s supposed to be juvenile fiction, but the perspectives of the people who tell the stories are definitely adult. There’s two teenagers involved, but although they are two main characters, we don’t get to read their point of view. Which is kind of the main point of young adult books. I’m not sure that having two teenage girls in a book makes it automatically a young adult novel.
The writing was beautiful and completely suited for the times of the story. It almost felt like it was written in the 19th century. An example, to give you a sense of the general tone:

When I awoke in the morning it was from a dream of extraordinary vividness, so that I had to shake my head free of it, and gaze around my room several times to convince myself of where I was, and that the dream was not real but imagined. In it, I had been drawn by the liquid notes of a bird to the water’s edge, pushing my way through branches. I wondered now if the nightingale – for surely it could only be a nightingale? – had been pouring forth its song outside my window while I slept, for I could not have imagined such tunefulness. Of an intensity and sweetness that shivered over my skin, its song struck in me some chord of desperate yearning – for what, I did not know. In my dream I tried to draw closer, not expecting to see the bird itself, for I knew that it was brown and insignificant, and would not show itself in the summer night, but only to drink in more and more of that throbbing, silvery song, ever varying: now a mellifluous fluting, now low, drawn out and melancholy.

Despite the skillful writing, the intriguing premises (the cover speaks about love, art, immortality and desire)and the beautiful setting, this story didn’t do it for me. It evokes Gothic themes, but they always feel only evoked, never really an integral part of the story (Its main inspiration is Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White, which I haven’t read. But I also detected more than one reference to Jane Eyre).
It promises passion but it’s the lack of it that really
strikes me. The ending seems too easy, and the epilogue is slightly depressing, and if you’ll read it you know what I mean. It never has the “young adult” feel that I’m used to. It’s suitable for teenagers because it’s never too graphic or violent, but it doesn’t speak to them. It’s not an adult novel either because it doesn’t explore the implications of the issues it brings up deeply enough. It stands in between, and yet I wouldn’t classify it as a crossover, like for example The Book Thief, which I’m reading and loving. It was disappointing and this is because I always want to be completely in love with the book and its characters.
But it kept me interested till the end, so there was at least one good thing about it.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Paddy Clarke ha ha ha - Roddy Doyle

Paddy Clarke is ten years old. He lives in Dublin, in the fictional north side Barrytown, with his little brother Sinbad, who wears a patch on one eye to help the other lazy one, a mother always busy with his two baby sisters, and a father always busy reading his newspaper. It's the 60's and a child's life takes place mostly outside, in the streets or in the fields which still surround the area, playing football, stealing from the shops just for the dare, exploring the near building site, always looking for danger.

It's a tough world. Teachers can still beat kids up. Bullies are respected and even emulated. But for Paddy the scariest threat is at home, where the fights between his parents are whispered, night after night, while he's in bed, trying to shut them out, or to magically make them stop with his thoughts.

This book is a trip in Paddy's mind. A sort of childish stream of consciousness. Facts, memories, events, questions and dialogues, all follow one another with no apparent logic. It's a truthful way of capturing a child's world, his way of thinking, his heroes (Geronimo, the leper priest, George Best...), his fears.
Specifically, what Roddy Royle does really well is showing how incomprehensible the grown up world seems to a child. How senseless and illogical.

Why didn't he like Ma? She liked him, it was him that didn't like her. What was wrong with her? Nothing. She was lovely looking, though it was hard to tell for sure. She made lovely dinners (...) There must have been a reason why he hated Ma. There must have been something wrong with her, at least one thing. I couldn't see it. I wanted to. I wanted to understand. I wanted to be on both sides. he was my Da.

The child's perspective feels so real, Doyle sticks to it so firmly you almost think that a child wrote it.
Maybe this was also the reason why I couldn't enjoy it completely. I struggled to finish it even though I enjoy some parts very much. What it lacked was fluidity. It felt fragmented, there was no common thread that usually keeps me interested and wanting to read more.
Sometimes I wished the flashes of stories that were told would go on longer, that became part of a whole. But to me they never did.
Some dialogues were really funny and reminded me why I love his other Barrytown books so much. But with this, I never felt completely absorbed and I was glad when I read the last page.
That said I didn't give up on him. I still have to read two of his books. "The woman who walked into doors" and "Paula Spencer". One day, when I'll read them, I'll let you know if they lived up to the expectations.

Other Blog Reviews
Nymeth at Things mean a lot
Kristi at Passion for the page

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Confessions of a fallen angel - Ronan O'Brien

This is a book I couldn't put down, right from page one. I was told it read a bit like Roddy Doyle. But with Roddy Doyle he shares only the use of the Irish accent and the fact that the story is set in the north side of Dublin, typically the poorer, working class, bronx-like part of the town. This is not an account of a daily normal life as in many of Roddy Doyle's novels. It's the very tragic story of a man with a curse, which make him see the imminent deaths of the people close to him, through recurring nightmares.

The story begins when the character is 10 years old. He likes to play football and to swim in the canal with his best friends, but a close encounter with death during a football game changes his life forever. He doesn't die that time, but his foretelling "gift" that is given to him during that experience, is going to haunt him for the rest of his days.
Though sad and heart-breaking, this book is also incredibly funny, thanks to the Irish humour sprinkled throughout its pages. One of my favourite lines is when the guy has his second nearly deadly experience, and his dead friend tells him that "Time doesn't mean nothin up here. It's like a Dublin Bus timetable". So true.

And although you know that the tragedy is only waiting to happen, you still want to keep reading, hoping and praying that something will change, that the man won't meet his fate, not this time.
You'll have to fight your tears back if you don't like crying. And you will keep reading just because it's a damn good story.
I usually don't go for sappy, melodramatic books, and actually this one isn't. But I do love good romantic stories. And this is one has the most moving and sweetest romance I've read in a long time. It's about one soul that reunites in two bodies, the perfect couple, the true love, the one that would really last forever. If only fate didn't play with it.

other blog reviews:
Ulat Buku in the city