Tuesday, February 28, 2012

All That I Am

All That I Am, Anna Funder

Afterwards, I take the bus to hydrotherapy. It is a kneeling bus, one which tilts its forecorner to the ground for the lame, just like me. I ride it from the pink medical towers of Bondi Junction along the ridge above the water into town. Out the window a rosella feasts from a flame tree, sneakers hang-dance on an electric wire. Behind them the earth folds into hills that slope down to kiss that harbour, lazy and alive.

In danger of losing their sight. I had very good eyes once. Though it's another thing to say what I saw. In my experience, it is entirely possible to watch something happen and not to see it at all.

All That I Am is a complicated novel that delves into wartime in Nazi Germany, before its characters are forced to flee to England. The two characters, Ruth Becker and Ernst Toller, who I found out later is actually a real person, are essentially telling the same story, but from different time periods; Ruth is in 2001 and living in Australia, and Ernst is in 1939 and living in New York City. Because the story is so complicated, rather than try to explain it myself, here is the excerpt from the publisher:

"All That I Am" opens in 2001, as nonagenarian Ruth Becker, defiant and cantakerous, lives out her days in Sydney, Australia. She has made an uneasy peace with the ghosts of her past - and her role in it. But, as she says to herself, 'one can controld reams less than anything in life, which is to say, not at all.' And Ruth's dreams are often of Dora, her brave and beloved cousin.

Another lifetime away, it's 1939 and the world is going to war. In NYC, the famous German poet and self-doubting revolutionary, Ernst Toller, is exiled. He sits each day in the Mayflower Hotel, rewriting and re-living the story of his life - the revolution in Germany he led after the war and his subsequent political imprisonment. Toller finds what sustains him is the thought of the love of his life, Dora. But she's nowhere in his memoir.

When Toller's memoir, with its amendments, arrives on Ruth's Sydney doorstep many years later, their shared past slips under her defenses and she's right back with them all - her husband Hans, and with Dora and Toller - those friends who predicted the brutality of the Nazis and gave everything they had to stop them. Those who were tested - and in some cases found wanting - in the face of hatred, of art, of love, and of history."

I liked that this novel was told by two different narrators. Ruth is now 90+ years old, and she has had a hard life; but she has never forgotten Ernst, Dora, or her life during the Nazi regime. I didn't find out until the end that some of these characters were real people, and I think I might have liked the novel better if I had known that at first. The book is very, very detailed, which is great, but which caused me to take a while to get through it; it's about 365 pages as well. The author, Funder, is from Australia originally, and we can see that in some of the spellings (example: "defence," instead of "defense").

The story in All That I Am is a good one, though, and if you take the time to get through it, it's an interesting read.

3 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received a copy of this novel to review. The opinions listed, however, are my own.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Interview and GIVEAWAY: Richard Mason, author of History of a Pleasure Seeker

Richard Mason is the author of History of a Pleasure Seeker, which I reviewed last month. I got the chance to interview Richard via email about the book, and I also have two copies of the novel to give away to my lucky readers.

Richard Mason
credit: Michael Lionstar
Is it true that there will be a sequel to this book, and maybe even two? That's what I've been hearing on the internet.

Absolutely true. In fact, I’m making a constellation of six interrelated novels. They’re not a series – they can be read in any order. But they fit together to tell a huge story. It’s my way of saying something about the complex interconnectedness of human life: the way a decision taken a century ago affects people in the present.

The book I’m currently writing finds Piet Barol in Johannesburg in 1913. What will happen to him during the First World War?

Did you draw inspiration from turn of the century book like Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth for this novel? Pleasure Seeker reminded me a little bit of House of Mirth.

I love The House of Mirth. I remember where I was when I read it; what music I was listening to. It wasn’t a direct inspiration for History of a Pleasure Seeker, but I am honored by the comparison.

Did you have Piet choose to go to South Africa instead of New York because you yourself are from South Africa? How did your experiences / memories from there influence this book?

I knew when I began History of a Pleasure Seeker that Piet Barol would end up in South Africa. I am fascinated by the band of enterprising Europeans who came to Africa from the seventeenth century onwards, stole so much (land, diamonds, gold) and felt so little remorse over what they had done. The psychology of colonialism – how people who thought of themselves as good people were able to perpetrate such monstrous acts – is a key interest of mine. In order to understand what happens to Piet later in South Africa, I wanted the reader to learn who he was in the land of his birth – hence the setting in Amsterdam.

Are the Vermeulen-Sickerts based on anyone you know in real life?

No. I had the great pleasure of creating an entire family from scratch. Of course all the characters have elements of people I have observed, but no one has a real life model.

If Pleasure Seeker was to be made into a movie, who would you want to play the Vermuelen-Sickers, their staff, and Piet? What about the people he meets on the boat going to South Africa, too?

History of a Pleasure Seeker is currently in development as an eight-part TV series. I think it would work brilliantly on television. I can’t comment on cast until it’s finalized, but the lineup is excellent. I’ll let you know as soon as I can!

What are some of your favorite authors, or authors from which you draw inspiration for your novels?

The book that most inspired  History of a Pleasure Seeker  is a book on quite a different subject: Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise. That is a superb novel that charts the experiences of twelve characters fleeing Paris just before the Germans arrived in 1942. I had an experience while reading it that I hoped to give the readers of History. I was swept up in the story. I loved the author’s confidence, her style, her rich humanity – and her sympathy for her characters, whatever their flaws. I also admired her briskness and quickness. When I finished it, I knew I wanted to write a book that gave this same kind of pleasure to others – and that’s how History of a Pleasure Seeker began. It’s also why I wrote it by hand. Nemirovsky wrote by hand, her writing small and dense as she filled every inch of the paper. It was she who liberated me from Microsoft Word!

Be sure to check out barol.com for more information about the music, locations, and other places used in the book.

Two readers will win a copy of History of a Pleasure Seeker - fill out the form below to enter to win. Giveaway ends next Saturday, February 25 at 12:01 AM EST. U.S. addresses only, please.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Name of the Star

The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson.

"We just wanted to give you some experience with your new ability," Stephen said. "But we have to get back to work. Boo will take you back."

"Wait," I said as Stephen and Callum turned to go, "one more question. If there are ghosts, does that mean there are ... vampiers? And werewolves?

Whatever misery I had caused by my previous question, it was wiped out with this one. They all laughed. Even Stephen, who I didn't know could laugh.

"Don't be stupid," Callum said.

This book was great, and I believe that there will be at least one follow-up to it, since the title includes "Shades of London: Book One" in it. I've been a big fan of Maureen Johnson's books for quite some time now, so I was excited to find that she had a new one out; and one about ghosts and the supernatural, to boot.

Rory Deveaux is from Louisiana, but her parents are taking a sabbatical year in Bristol, U.K., and they let her choose any boarding school she wants to go to in England. She chooses Wexford, in the heart of London, and on the day she arrives, a "Jack the Ripper"-type murder occurs. More and more "Ripper" murders keep happening, and after a close choking call one day she discovers something interesting: she can see people on the streets that others might not be able to see - aka, ghosts. At the same time, she gets a new roommate, Boo, who also has this ability, and in fact is not a student, but a member of a secret police force that seeks to eradicate ghosts, especially those who cause harm to others, like the Ripper wannabe is doing.

I can't wait until the next book in this series, though all I know of it as of yet is that it will be called The Madness Underneath, according to the author's Tumblr page. Johnson always writes with a quick wit, and the characters in this book are very relatable, too. I recommend this book for both YA (Young Adult) readers - its intended audience - and adults as well.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

First You Try Everything

First You Try Everything, by Jane McCafferty.

He looked surprisingly good and sometimes didn't recognize his reflection when he passed by glass storefronts. A man in his prime with dark wavy hair, his long stride more confident than he felt. He passed others on the street dressed like him, headed to offices, and felt affiliated in a way he'd never imagined possible when he and Evvie had set themselves apart from all this, working the pushcart four hours a day, proud to be out of the mainstream. They'd been like travelers, even though they'd never gone anywhere.

This was the first novel of Jane McCafferty's that I have read, and although the writing and the characters themselves are very vivid, I wasn't a huge fan of the book. We have Evvie, short for Evangeline, who doesn't seem to realize that her husband, Ben, is becoming emotionally attached to another woman. He leaves her and she started to unravel, both physically and mentally. The chapters in the book are labeled "Evvie" and "Ben," and they switch back and forth, for the most part, and whenever Evvie's chapters came up, they read almost like stream of consciousness writing; near the end of the book, Ben wants to commit Evvie to a mental hospital, and I wholeheartedly agree with this decision.

Evvie almost reminds me of Jess (Zooey Deschanel's character) from the TV show New Girl, because of her quirkiness, but unfortunately she has a host of other bad personality traits that I didn't like either. Ben's chapters are a little more sane and provide more consistency, and are definitely easier to read.

The ending - or, more accurately, the part right before the end - of the novel is crazy, and a little strange too: Evvie hires two men she meets on a bus to "fake-kidnap" her and Ben, as they claim that this helps reunite couples 90-95% of the time. They pull an (unloaded) gun on them when Evvie is visiting Ben at his workplace, and although it was Evvie's choice to put herself and Ben in that situation, and her reasonings and mental state are explained, it doesn't make the situation any less bizarre. She later confesses to Ben that it was she who put them in this position, after they are out of the situation and "safe," and it certainly doesn't help her case for winning him back.

2 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I was provided a copy of this novel to review. All opinions listed, however, are my own.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Weight of Heaven

The Weight of Heaven, by Thrity Umrigar.

He stroked her hair. "El, listen to me. I know I'm not much of a bargain, right now. Heck, I don't even know how long it will take me to get a job after I graduate. But I promise you this - I will always try to make you happy. And you will always be able to depend on me. I will never abandon you."

And he had been true to his word. They were married a year later, and Ellie could always rely on him. Always, until that fateful night of Benny's death, when she needed him more than ever before, and he abandoned her to tend to his own ruined heart.

This is the second book I've read by Thrity Umrigar, and it was just as good as the first. Most, if not all, of her books are about India, but in this case, The Weight of Heaven is about an American couple who relocates there after their 7-year-old son's untimely death. They stand out like a sore thumb, but the wife, Ellie, soon makes friends there, and the husband, Frank, becomes a mentor to Ramesh, a local boy. Ramesh is the son of Edna and Prakash, who live in the shack behind their house and cook and clean for them, and Frank sees potential in him, maybe even enough that he could go and study in the U.S. one day.

Frank works for a company called HerbalSolutions, and the villagers are angry that the company has "bought" a grove of trees that the villagers always depended on; the trees have a special extract that can help lower diabetes, and HerbalSolutions is making the most of them to help sell health pills in the U.S. Near the beginning of the book, one of the Indian employees of the company dies in jail, and Frank must deal with the aftermath of this.

The reason Ellie and Frank escaped to India when Frank was offered the relocation, too, was because their son, Benny, died of a rash, and they couldn't stand to stay in Ann Arbor anymore. They rented their house and took off, and haven't been back to the U.S. since, though originally they planned to visit for 10 days during Christmas.

Like her previous (new) book, The World We Found, Umrigar writes with clear intent, and really brings her characters to life. I was in shock at the twist ending of the book (heads up: it's very sad), and I'm not sure if I really agreed with it, but it definitely made the novel interesting. It was also very eye-opening about the conditions and poverty in India, versus all that we have here in the U.S., and how lavish Frank and Ellie, as middle-class Americans, were able to live there.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

CONTEST: Win a copy of the novel Restoration!

I recently reviewed the novel Restoration, by Olaf Olafsson, and now I have two copies to give away to my lucky readers!

Fill out the Rafflecopter form below for a chance to win. Contest will end next Wednesday, February 8, at 12:01 AM EST, and winners will have 24 hours to contact me or alternate winner(s) will be chosen.

Emailing me is mandatory, and you can earn extra entries for liking my film blog, Yes/No Films, on Facebook and following on Twitter.

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