Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Library books

I did really well with library books this week. Seven went back and only five came home with me! So thats the library pile reduced slightly. Not much but it's a start! But I was only intending picking up Howards End is on the landing that I've been waiting for since November, so perhaps not so good after all.

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill 

How I live Now by Meg Rosoff

To bed with Grand Music by Margherita Laski

The Bird Room by Chris Killen

The Ante-Room by Kate OBrien

Oh, and I should just say sory about the picture quality, but out of three cameras in this house Christina's Barbie camera is the only one that appears to be working properly!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Girl with Glass Feet

The Girl with Glass Feet defies definition really. It's part love story, part fairy tale, part magical mystery. But it doesn't really matter what it is, it was lovely. That really is the best way I can describe it. As is obvious from the blurb, Ida MacLaird is turning to glass from the feet upwards, and as we start the story she has returned to the strange St Hauda's Land to try and find out why this is happening, and if it can be cured. But the search for a cure was almost a subsidiary part of the story. Much more focus was given to the blossoming love between Ida and Midas, one of the residents of the island, who is one of the first people Ida meets. When Ida meets Midas, she is actually looking for Henry Fuwa, the man she met the first time she visited the island, and who first suggested to her that these islands were not all they seemed.

Midas is a very reserved, shy, emotionally closed off man, not at all the sort of person the usually vivacious Ida would be attracted to. His only real friends on the Island are Gustav and his daughter Denver, but he is captivated by her and her feet, and makes it his mission to rescue her, slowly falling in love with her. Whilst the story of Ida and Midas is gently progressing, Ida is not so gently turning to glass, and we meet other strange characters. We also learn about Midas's family history, his turbulent relationship with his parents, his father's suicide and his mother's affair. As well as Ida's history, her dead mother and her distant father. It is a sad book, and everyone's relationships seem to end with either infidelity or death. There is desperation on so many levels on this island.The sadness and loneliness of most of the characters is ever-present throughout the story, and adds a real melancholy feel. But then all of the characters suffer from some kind of impediment to their happiness, whether it's physical or emotional. All seemingly caused by influences of the island itself.

The thing that struck me most about this was the island. Apart from the fact that it is Northern, we don't know where it's set, but although it seems at first like our world, slight things make it seem very different. Moth winged miniature cows, for example. And a creature that turns everything it looks at white. And the obvious one, people turning to glass, as Ida is not the only person to suffer from this affliction. It sounds like such a fantastical story, and I suppose it is, but it never seemed that way whilst I was reading it. I think that the way the characters respond to the unusual happenings on the Island has a lot to do with that. They never really question, or express any kind of incredulity that these things could happen, so whilst although these things are shocking, I was so absorbed in the world of the book, that I didn't really question it either. I love this very slight difference between our reality and the book's reality.

As to why I liked this book,it's difficult to say. I got absorbed totally into the world, and I think that this is why I am struggling to write about this book. This is just a mesh of incoherent thoughts, but it doesn't distract from the quality of the book. I loved it, and got totally lost in the world. I think I probably missed a great deal, but sometimes I think I'm okay with that. For now, I'm just happy to have been totally wrapped up in something I wasn't sure I would like. I might re-read it at some point, to clarify my thoughts a bit. I'm sure I would enjoy reading it again.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

My Life in Orange by Tim Guest

I was in two minds about reading this book. It was recommended by someone I trust, but I don't read a lot of memoir and I definitely don't read 'oh wasn't my childhood awful' type books. ( I wish I could think of a more succinct way of describing them than that, but that just seems to cover it.) Basically this book is a memoir of the author's childhood growing up in a religious commune, who all wear clothes only in the colours of the sun. That's where the orange bit comes from. Fortunately, there was very little moping about his life in this book, and a lot of interesting information, and just a very interesting insight into how this sort of commune life appears to a child. That isn't to say that is not easy to spot how detrimental to a child living life in this commune can be, it just doesn't take the 'woe is me attitude' towards it. In fact, the author frequently returns to the commune when he could have stayed with his father, and is quite sad about it when he does eventually make the decision to leave.

The commune itself is based loosely on Buddhism, founded by a man called Bhagwan, and it started out in India, which is where Tim Guest's mother first discovers the philosophy. After visiting, then moving out there with her son for a while, she returns to England to found a commune in the UK, which is where the majority of this book takes place. There are lots of details about how the commune worked, how they raised money, how they lived, all viewed from Tim's perspective, although a lot of the information he imparts he has either researched later, or gained from his mother in conversation once they left the commune. One of the central aspects of the commune is that nuclear families are detrimental to children, so family ties are not considered important, and children live and sleep separately from their parents. This is part of the book that is obviously written from personal experience, as the author spends a lot of time talking alternately about looking for his mother, or about the bonds of friendship and support developed with the other children in the commune.

However, although this was interesting, what I enjoyed most was the story of the steady decline of the commune. Told mainly through the author's research after his life there has ended, but with frequent interspersed memories about what he remembers and how this affected him, what obviously started out as a simple philosophical experiment almost, soon degenerated into a controlling manipulative cultish type movement. That's a really bad word to use as it has so many negative connotations, but when it degenerates into poisoning, false positive AIDS tests, and even attempted murder there really isn't much else to describe it as. Control and manipulation was used on any member that was seen to be getting to powerful, or possibly too independent, and the author's mother was the victim of this, and although never asked to leave (the ultimate disgrace), she was stripped of all her responsibility and separated from her son.

I liked virtually everything about this book. I enjoyed that it was focused mainly on how the life felt for a child, lost and virtually abandoned. But it escaped the moping aspect by pulling in information that the author wouldn't have understood, or even realised was happening as a child, so the balance is perfect. And it's written with almost a sense of nostalgia, as it is obvious that the author enjoyed some aspects of communal living, as they were kept away from the most dubious aspects of the movement, at least at first. I think that the balance of childhood memory, combined with adult perspective and the addition of wry humour made for an entertaining and informative read. And I think my favourite comment is

"To remind themselves why they were there, many sannyasins sought out the 'enlightened' page of the Buddhafield newsletter. this was a growing list of the 'enlightened' sannyasins-those who had made it. Some took these lists seriously; others observed that the sannyasins on the 'enlightened' list tended to be the richest ones"

I'm glad I read this. I would like to find out more about the movement itself, so I think searching out some books on this might be next on my list, and there is helpfully a list in the back of the book.

Friday, 19 February 2010

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

La's Orchestra Saves the World is the first Book I've read by Alexander McCall Smith. He's not an author I've ever considered reading before, but the description of this one and this review convinced me to give this one a go. And it was only a short book, but definitely worth reading.

La (short for Lavender) is an intelligent, educated woman in the 1930's who meets Richard whilst at University in Cambridge. They marry shortly after graduation, and all is well for a few years. then he deserts her, runs off to France with a French woman, and La moves to Suffolk to live in a house given to her by her parents in law.

That is all covered in the first chapter though, so that is not really the point of the story. She moves to Suffolk on the verge of the outbreak of WWII, and the story really takes off from there, as we see La adjust to country life, and realise the differences between life in a city and life in a village. She misses music and literature, and more importantly, people that she can talk about these things to. The shadow of Richard is always there though, with La trying to keep herself busy in a place where there is not really much to do, to stop herself thinking about him, and how much she misses him. This becomes inconsequential though as war breaks out and she throws herself into war work on a local farm, and later on a project to start up an amateur orchestra as a morale booster.

Through her contact with the local army barracks, who are instrumental in the setting up of the orchestra, La meets and becomes attached to a Feliks, a Polish man, and her attachment to him is central to the story. In the end, she betrays him, although she believes she is doing it for the right reasons, and he is cleared, her relationship with him is severed at this point, until much later in her life.

Partly, this is a simple wartime story about people pulling together, and the psyche of a nation when war strikes. There are no bombs or fighting though. That is all mentioned, but is distant, and it is a portrayal of how life goes on, especially in a small, isolated village. War is there, and is looked on with disdain, especially by La, but her little world continues, albeit with some small adjustments. La is at a distance from the war, and until she speaks to her friend in London she doesn't even realise this herself. But her disgust for war is evident throughout the book. It's a book about ordinary people, and how they feel and react to events decided by politicians and armies is vitally important in times of crisis

"They knew that a rash decision,a moment of reckless anger in the mind of a powerful man, could bring the world to an end. It was almost impossible to absorb that knowledge, yet people had done so. But that was not really why La had called the concert. She had called it because she believed in the power of music. Absurdly, irrationally, she believed music could make a difference to the temper of the world."

But ultimately, this story is about one woman's struggle to find a place in a changing world. La was happy and had gradually fallen in love with her husband, and when he left, she didn't know where she fitted in. She built herself a small world to live in, but her university education left her believing it was ever quite enough, or it shouldn't be. La was the best thing about this book. I found myself constantly wondering what decisions I would have made in her situation, and even if I think I would have made different ones, I could sympathise with her, and all the other characters in the story. They were all so well drawn, and seemed so realistic. I was rooting for La all the way, and really wanted it to all work out.  I won't ruin it and say whether it did or not!
As to whether I would read any more by this author, I don't know. The Ladies Detective Agency series doesn't appeal at all, but I will look into the others and possibly try one of those. I did really enjoy this though.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Wild by Esther Freud

The Wild was a random charity shop purchase, picked up mainly because I was attracted to the vivid blue colour of the cover. Not the best reason for reading a book, but on this occasion it was worth it. It was a lovely little book. The Wild of the title is actually a converted bakery where where two families are trying to live together in a subsistence fashion as much as possible. They make and grow as much as their own food as possible, entertain themselves and try to adapt their property to fit their needs, all themselves. William owns the property and lives in it with his three children, and Francine rents two rooms from him, one for herself, and one for her two children Tess and Jake.

It has to be said though, it is about fifty pages in before all the pieces of this background are put together, and it becomes clear who is who, and who is related to who, and how the two adults are linked. Just in time for it all to change. Eventually William and Francine end up in a relationship, which puts even more pressure on the children to find their places in this new family. And then just to complicate matters further, they take in a lodger, a seventeen year old student who has been rescued from a religious commune. This is the point at which the delicately balanced harmony falls apart. We do however know that all does not end well, as there is quite a violent scene at the end of the book, which we then return to at the end of the story and are able to put this in context. In effect, the story is an explanation of the events that lead up to this scene, that we know all the way through is going to happen. It makes for a very foreboding read, as we can see the tense relationships sliding downhill.

Seen mainly through the eyes of Tess, the story is about the trials and pitfalls of trying to live in a blended family, although it has to be said that neither of the adults try very hard to understand what their children are thinking and feeling, or how they will react to situations. Tess and Jake have very different reactions towards William. Tess tries her hardest to please him and make him like her, which he fails to notice, whilst Jake is at best indifferent to him and becomes more and more obnoxious as the novel progresses, and although to say why would ruin the story, it is quite understandable, especially as he is the older child and can read between the lines a lot more than Tess. That these children are miserable, and struggling with how to adapt to this life is obvious, though they show it in different ways.

William I actually found to be quite an obnoxious character, who definitively seems to be focused on his own children and his own needs, putting them before anything else, even having favourites amongst his own children. I think he did have good intentions, but they were so obviously misplaced it was difficult to see how he couldn't understand how his actions were affecting all of the children. Francine seemed to try a it harder to understand her children and help out with what they were going through, but even she came across as a bit of a walkover at times, and submitted to William's wishes when perhaps she shouldn't. The end is quiet, but seems to be positive for at least one half of the family.

There was so much I liked about this book. I thought the insight into a blended family was well done, and perhaps how an obsession with living a life as much away from consumerism as possible can take over and actually have a detrimental effect. And seen through the eyes of a child, it was easy to see that however good intentions are, children can be miserable and it will show itself in the end, sometimes in a devastating fashion.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a version of the Cinderella story. Sort of. But it's firmly grounded in the real world, thus has no magical fairy godmothers, spells or transformation of animals or garden vegetables. There is however a ball, a prince and almost a happy ending. It also tells the story from the point of view of the stepsisters focusing mainly on how they come to be in the situation in the first place. Set in seventeenth century Holland, a large portion of the story bears no real resemblance to the Cinderella story as we know it, as it is concerned with materialistic, uncaring Margerethe, mute, plodding Ruth and bright but plain Iris.

Margerethe, Ruth and Iris end up in Holland after fleeing England for their lives. Attempting to secure a position for themselves, they end up being taken in by a lesser dutch painter, who agrees bed and board for their housekeeping skills, and to be allowed to paint Iris. This he duly does, although Iris is less than pleased with the finished result, as what he actually does is use her plainness to accentuate the beauty of the tulips he paints her with. However, his painting does bring him to the attention of the Van De Meer family, who commission him to paint their supremely beautiful, but sheltered daughter Clara. Margerethe, jumping on the slightest opportunity, wangles her way into this household, and Van De Meer's bed when his wife dies in childbirth.

This is the point when parallels can start to be seen with the story this takes its inspiration from. But it really is only inspiration. Lots of events are seen from a different perspective. The stepsister's relationship to each other is developed in a much more complex way, particularly Iris and Clara. Ruth seems to play an insignificant part in the story as she can't speak. Margerethe all through is portrayed as the evil stepmother, plotting and scheming for her own ends, and constantly trying to improve her own position in life. Clara, seen as insignificant by Margerethe, chooses her own sheltered life in the ashes of the kitchen hearth, and more importantly, her own name. After the death of her mother she retreats there herself, determined to hide her beauty. The painting of her is used by her father to further his business concerns, and her beauty is known far and wide. She however feels that she will never be known for who she is, rather than just her incredible beauty and chooses her own life in the ashes. There is a strong undercurrent of ideas of what beauty actually is, shown mainly by the juxtaposition in both looks and character of Iris and Clara.

I think what I liked about this book most was the characterisation of the main characters. Margarethe has to be one of the most unpleasant women I've ever read about, and becomes even more so at the end of the novel. In fact she is probably the only character here that stays fairly true to the fairytale characterisation. Iris, Ruth and Clara beak away from their simplistic roles and we start to see the personalities, actions and motivations that lead to the events of the night of the ball. And as well as the twist on the traditional fairytale happy ending, there is another twist at the end of this, which makes you go back and think really hard about some of the events of the story. I do like that total change of perspective right at the end.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Booking Through Thursday-Encouragement

How can you encourage a non-reading child to read? What about a teen-ager? Would you require books to be read in the hopes that they would enjoy them once they got into them, or offer incentives, or just suggest interesting books? If you do offer incentives and suggestions and that doesn’t work, would you then require a certain amount of reading? At what point do you just accept that your child is a non-reader?

In the book Gifted Hands by brilliant surgeon Ben Carson, one of the things that turned his life around was his mother’s requirement that he and his brother read books and write book reports for her. That approach worked with him, but I have been afraid to try it. My children don’t need to “turn their lives around,” but they would gain so much from reading and I think they would enjoy it so much if they would just stop telling themselves, “I just don’t like to read.”

From my experience (all be it only with my own children), making any activity something they have to do is only going to make them resent it, and I could imagine that forcing them to write book reports (essentially more schoolwork) would only make it worse! But then, encouraging my children to read is not something I've ever had to think seriously about as they both read for pleasure anyway. I think I'm lucky however, because I don't know how I would feel if they didn't enjoy reading. I do think it is an important part of life, and it would upset me if either of them didn't want to read. I would find accepting them as non-readers difficult. In a way though, I suppose I do still expect a certain amount of reading, because we always had a rule that anything electrical would go off an hour before bedtime and if they didn't want to go to sleep, they would have to do something else, quietly. I never actually enforce reading, but that is usually what they choose. This isn't deliberately to make them read though, it's more about calming down.

However, I've always thought that they love reading simply because I do, and because I've encouraged them to read, and they see me reading. We graduated from bedtime stories in bed, to them looking at books themselves, then eventually reading them for themselves. It was a a fairly easy transition. But this is how I remember my childhood being, and presumably my sister's was the same. Yet she very rarely reads a book. So maybe it is just that some people like to read, and other just don't. And that we shouldn't worry about it. I don't know.

This question started me thinking and led me off on all sorts of tangents, one of them being that I think I am more involved with my daughter's reading habit's than my son's. Partly because she's younger (Chrissie's 7, whereas Dylan is 12), so needs more guidance when choosing books. But I don't think it's all about that. I think it is easier for me to get involved with her reading because I can suggest things I read as a child, or at least things that are similar. I've already passed on to her some of my childhood favourites, such as The Magic Faraway Tree and The Worst Witch, and there are plenty more to come as she grows up a bit. She tends to read these things with more enthusiasm than anything else, so that must be my enthusiasm rubbing off on her.

Dylan has always been a voracious reader. I did have an issue when he was about 9 though, when he developed an aversion to reading anything new. Constant re-reads of books was all he ever did. This was the only point so far when I thought that he may going off books, and his teacher said his comprehension was dropping for the things he had to read at school. Basically he was getting lazy, and reading for the sake of it, without having to think. I was at a bit of a loss, but with the assistance of some wonderful library staff who suggested some brilliant books, some of which we both read and discussed, his love of reading returned, and he's never looked back since. Joint reads is something we still do, mainly because I'm trying (very gently) to encourage him to read something slightly out of his comfort zone, which is fantasy involving dragons, monsters, swords, demons and the like. I think this will always be his favourite genre, but in a way I think he's getting lazy again, and reading what is easy. This stretches me a bit too, because I read things I'd never normally pick up. I don't want to push him too much though because I don't want to put him off. I'm really just happy that he does enjoy reading. If it drops off when he becomes a teenager, I don't know what I'll do. The same encouragement tactics again I suppose, but if that fails there probably isn't much to do, because past a certain age it becomes difficult to say he can't have electrical equipment on just because I say so!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Books........borrowed and bought!

This week has been a bit of a book binge, with both the inevitable regular library trips, (well I do have to walk past it every day), and a trip to the local second hand book shop. But the library is free, and I did only spend £3.20 in the shop! I just have to find time to read them now!

Library Books

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz-This I'd heard about, but probably wouldn't have requested or bought, but it was just there on the shelf, so it came home. It's size intimidates me a bit though, so not sure it will actually get read!

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin- I'd wanted to read this for ages and again it was just sat there on the returns shelf.

Brodeck's Report- Read a few good reviews of this, so thought I'd try it.

The Girl with Glass Feet- Same as above,

My Life in Orange- I love anything about religion, so a memoir from a child who grew up in a cult (wearing orange) is right up my street.

The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder- I enjoyed The Solitaire Mystery and Sophie's World and this looks just as interesting.

The prime of Miss Jean Brodie- I have been wanting to read Muriel  Spark, and this is the one that was there.

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander Mcall Smith- read about this on someone's blog (can't remember whose now), and it is the first of his that has appealed. Still not sure if this will get read though.

Books Bought

One day by David Nicholls- It sounds very different and it was only 20p!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery- Read both good and bad reviews of this so thought I might aswell try it for myself.

The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver-Couldn't resist this, it sounds like it has a bit of a sliding doors type plot with both outcomes from a situation explored. It just intrigued me.

The White Tiger- I don't even know why I haven't read this yet! I've wanted to for ages!

The Winter Book by Tove Jaansen-Nothing but good reviews, and it was there!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Esther's Inheritance by Sandor Marai

I'm not sure what made me pick this up from the library. I've got a vague recollection of hearing/reading about it somewhere, but I really can't remember where. I do know why I picked it up to read though. Simply because it was short, and after the 567 pages that was Alone in Berlin, something short was what I wanted.

Esther's Inheritance is a strange little novel, where the action takes place over a 24 hour period in Esther's life. We start with Esther receiving a communication that Lajos, her old flame is returning for a visit, after a fifteen year silence. It soon becomes clear that Esther has never stopped loving this man, although the circumstances of their relationship and separation are drip fed throughout the book. It is also clear that Lajos is a rogue and a scoundrel, and has done Esther nothing but harm over the years. Esther lives with Nunu, who's immediate response on hearing Lajos is returning is

"'Good,' she said 'I will lock up the silver'"

The first half of this book is concerned with Esther's reminiscences on the past, and what happened and how her life has panned out, all tied to the common thread that her love for Lajos was all encompassing, and although she was content, she was never really happy. In the second half, when Lajos is actually present Esther eventually challenges him about everything he is and does, but she immediately capitulates to his will, with ease and resignation.

Throughout this little book, it becomes apparent how much Esther has been cheated and let down by the people in her life. Events and actions are constantly mentioned that add more layers to the way she has been treated, but also the way she has let herself be treated. Esther is no fool, she is very aware that Lajos is only returning because he wants something, however, she is totally passive and appears to have been throughout her whole life. She never seems to have fought back, just accepted what had happened to her, even when she was left with her ex-lover's children (children borne by her sister). This passivity continues as Lajos eventually walks away with everything he came for, with a capitulation from Esther with both ease and resignation.

There is a sense of inevitability from the beginning, and lots of discussion to be had about the character of people and how character traits can impact on relationships. But mainly, it's about inevitability and acceptance, as Esther says herself

"I knew Lajos had come because he had no choice, and that we were welcoming him because we had no choice, and the whole thing was as terrifying, as unpleasant, and as unavoidable for him as it was for us.”

It's difficult to say what I liked about this book, it was more about the way it made me feel whilst reading it, than the actual plot. I like the way the information was leaked out in snippets through the story, and the way the layers build to provide a complete story by the conclusion. The story gave me lots to think about, including is love forever, does it matter what you do if your intentions are honourable (Lajos' argument), and could Esther have fought back against Lajos in any way? As well as many other things. So it was thought provoking. But the writing itself was like curling up in bed when you're really tired. Just so comforting and like there is no other place I would rather be. I'd recommend it just for that.

"But the wind, the end of September wind that had until then been snapping at the walls of the house, suddenly tore open the window, billowed through the curtains, and, as if it were bringing news, touched and shifted everything in the room. Then it blew out the candle flame. I still remember that. And remember also, though only vaguely, that at some stage Nunu closed the window, and I fell asleep."

Monday, 8 February 2010

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

I've started this review and deleted it too many times because I don't quite know what to say about Alone in Berlin. It managed to be both easy to read and incredibly difficult at the same time. The writing itself was easy, however the subject matter made for some rather uncomfortable reading at times. Based in Germany under the Nazi regime, and during the war, it took a completely different angle from any other novel I've read about this period. It was mainly about the German people and how individuals responded to the strict rules of the regime, and although Nazi atrocities played an important part of the story, they were never the main focus.

Otto and Anna Quangel live a quiet life in Berlin, saving their money, keeping their heads down and living a fairly uneventful life. They do the bare minimum to keep the authorities happy, joining and contributing to the relevant organisations, but nothing above what is required of them. Also in their building live the Persickes, a fiercely Nazi family who see it their duty to fulfil Hitler's mission, a old Jewish lady (things don't go well for her), Borkhausen, who is a workshy gadabout and Judge Fromm, who is another person who keeps his head down, but does try to help people, in very small ways.

It is the small things in this novel that are the most important. When the Quangels receive the dreaded letter informing them their son has fallen in battle, an angry comment from Anna sets in motion a series of events that end in disaster in an entirely predictable, but still shocking way. Almost immediately after the news is received, Anna says to Otto

"And now he's supposed to be an exemplary soldier, and dies a hero's death? Lies, all a pack of lies! but that's what you get from your wretched war, you and that Fuhrer of yours!"

After mulling this over, seemingly for weeks, Otto decides upon a plan to deliver postcards with anti-Nazi slogans printed on them, in which he involves his wife, although not against her will. For the first half of the book, this is what the story focuses on, as well as various interlinked stories involving the other members of the building and how they decide to either support or (surreptitiously) defy the ruling party, and at various occasions, the characters stories intersect.

We also get a detailed look at the attitude of the Gestapo officers and the methods and measures they use to trap their victims. And trap is a good word, because in one specific case, not related to the Quangels, the person meets a very sticky end and has absolutely nothing to do with what he is being accused of.

I could go on for pages about the plot of this book because there is so much involved, and it is quite a long book. But I think the most important thing about this is the insight into the attitude of the German people towards the situation they find themselves in. This book does give the impression that resistance to the Nazi's was futile, but not only because they would always get you in the end, as well as most of your family, and possibly anyone who might be associated with you. Otto Quangel's expectations of what his postcards will achieve are grossly over-estimated in his head, and we see his pride at what he thinks he is achieving juxtaposed with the relatively easy way in which the Gestapo manage to trace him, through the cards that the general public are too scared to read. The fear of retribution from the general population, the apathy in which they accept the restrictions placed on them, and the individual pride and dignity of those that do try to do something, even when it becomes clear it is futile are what make this novel so moving and thought provoking.

I just wanted to finish with a couple of quotes that I thought summed up the points this book was trying to make about Nazi Germany, although in reality, I could have quoted the whole book for this.

"While the Hergesells were being tormented for a crime they hadn't committed, party member Persicke was forgiven for one he had."

"But there were many days ahead of them, and this particular SS man was never on duty in their corridor again. He had probably been dismissed as too unsuitable-he was too human to do duty here."

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Way Things Look to Me by Roopa Farooki

This was recommended and actually bought for me by a close friend, and special needs teacher who knows that the whole autistic spectrum is very much on my mind at the moment. My niece has obvious developmental problems, and although she doesn't have a diagnosis yet, all the medical and professional reports are pointing towards autism to some degree. I was unsure about reading it, but I'm glad I did, I really enjoyed it, and I think I would have enjoyed it anyway.

Yasmin Murphy has high performing Aspergers syndrome. She is highly intelligent, attends a school for high achievers, sees music in colour (known as synaesthesia), and remembers virtually everything that has ever happened to her, even down to what she was wearing on a random day. She has two older siblings, Lila and Asif, who both struggle with her condition but display their insecurities in very different ways. The three siblings have to rely solely on each other for family support as both their parents are dead. When we start the novel, Yas has decided she is going to be part of a documentary following her life to explore the way she views the world. Through the course of the few months of the decision being made to film, to the screening of the documentary we learn a lot about the three siblings, their childhoods and early adult lives and how Yasmin's condition has impacted on them all.

Asif and Lila dealt with Yasmin's condition, and the restrictions this placed on their family life in very different ways. Lila tries any which way to get attention, usually resulting in tantrums which got her in trouble, but ended up in the comfort she so craved, and Asif was the good boy, who always did as he was told and felt ignored because of it. In the present, it is Asif who is the 'good boy' and puts his life on hold for Yasmin, and Lilia who ran away and visits as little as possible. Through the making of the film though, all three of them come to understand how to live, and to understand and accept each other a bit more.

Yas's difficulties in communicating normally, and understanding what people mean and what is expected of her run throughout the book. At one point, Asif asks her if she has had a good day, and after running through in her mind all sorts of interesting things she has done, she finally decides on the following information as relevant.

"Yes, I had orange juice at lunchtime. They normally run out by the time I get to the canteen, but there was still some today. She feels satisfies with herself for this small achievement; he has asked, and she has replied, the perfectly ordinary tennis of conversation, a matter of returning the ball with appropriate speed, and not letting it bounce out of play"

Lila and Asif respond to Yas in very different ways. Lila is resentful, and is constantly implying there is nothing wrong with her, whereas Asif is over protective and constantly worrying about her. With good reason,as it turns out, but they do all come to an understanding at the end. The story of family interaction and development was interesting enough, but the main interest for me in this story was the blurring of the boundaries between what is classed as 'normal' and 'not normal'. Asif tries very hard to ignore the fact that even when he is away from Yas, he only chooses yellow items for breakfast(that is all she will eat), and Lila eventually creates her best artwork by taking inspiration from Yas's favourite music. They all suffered when their mother died, and they all developed their own coping strategies. This realisation that Yas is what she is, and everybody has their idiosyncrasies was what drew me to this book most.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Gates by John Connolly

I read the gates really quickly, but it was a couple of weeks ago, and unfortunately,although I really enjoyed it, I seem to have forgotten all the good things I wanted to say about it! So although I enjoyed it, and would recommend it, I don't know how memorable I can say it was. The Gates was  a really entertaining, light read. The gates of the title refer to the gates of hell, which are about to be opened on Crowley Road. Eleven year old Samuel Johnson is showing initiative by Trick or Treating a few days early,in an attempt to beat the crowds. When he stumbles on the people at 666, they are very rude to him, and send him away. Not taking this as an answer, Samuel stumbles upon his neighbours performing a strange ritual in the basement, and incredulously watches them conjure up a strange blue light, and demons take over their bodies. Unfortunately, they also see him, which causes problems for Samuel throughout the novel.

Simultaneously, two bored technicians in Switzerland are watching their computer monitors whilst playing battleships. They are supposed to be ensuring nothing untoward happens with the processes of The large Hadron Collider, but they become agitated when they notice some energy supposedly disappearing and then the computer record appearing to rewrite itself. Obviously the two events are connected and what follows is a fast paced trip through Samuel's attempts to get someone to believe what he saw, and that a demon disguised as his neighbour is trying to kill him.

This is a short book, but it seems to squeeze a lot in. There's some science, some stuff about the creation of the universe, lots of demons (including one who finds himself here by accident, and steals a car, falls in love with wine gums, and really doesn't understand the concept of speed limits) plus the rising from the dead of a long dead bishop! It was an interesting story, but by far the best bit about this book was that it made me laugh. Peppered with humorous comments on society, usually about how silly and boring adults lives are, made me smile. And the book includes footnotes, again which are usually funny, the one that stands out to me being one about the galaxy, claiming that scientists have discovered that a substance recently discovered at the centre of our galaxy smells of rasberries and rum!