Friday, October 26, 2012

For Review: In The Shadow of the Banyan ~ Vaddey Ratner

Since reading My Gun Was As Tall As Me, I've been interested in reading and learning about Southeast Asia. In The Shadow of the Banyan is set in Cambodia during the revolution in the 1970s. The history of Asian countries isn't something I'm at all familiar with, so everything that I read about was new to me.

And it was new for seven year old Raami too, as her parents are forced from their family home and sent on the move. But Raami's family are royalty, and as such are especially hated by the Khmer Rouge communists. Raami, her mother and father, her younger sister, her grandmother, uncle, aunt, and cousins, are all forced to live in circumstances they aren't used to - cramped housing and bad food. But as the novel progresses, the family are divided by war and death. It's an awful journey for Raami, one that gets worse, and it breaks her childhood with its harrowing events.

In The Shadow of the Banyan is told from Raami's point of view, but while she might at times refer to things with childlike images, such as magician's tricks and stories, the wording used is oddly mature, and it's quite jarring. In one paragraph the voice can shift from being full of a young girl's wonder, to being full of grandiose words.

Much of the narrative is over-descriptive, flowery, and too much at once. That's not something I would usually complain about in a book - I love me some adjectives - buut I could almost feel the author's effort and attempts at profundity.

This novel grew from Ratner's own childhood memories, and with that in mind it makes sense that there would be an effort to make the land as vivid as possible, and to be true to characters that are based on real people. But, for this reader at least, it was far too dense, and at times frustrating, though usually only when characters began to speak to one another in such a way.

In The Shadow of the Banyan
was a history lesson for me, and I'm amazed that such events can take place in history and that some people might never know. The setting and the journey of the characters is itneresting, but this isn't a style of writing that I could particularly enjoy.

Simon and Schuster; September 2012
Hardback

315 pages

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Valve Journal: II

Last Friday night I took myself on the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow for the launch of the second volume of Valve Literary Journal. For me, the event also marked my first time ever in a printed magazine.

The event took place at The Berkeley Suite, and I was so impressed with myself that I managed to follow a Google map to get there from the station. Yes, my navigational skills are really that awful. The free punch was really tasty, and the room was hot, filled with bodies, and decorated red, which was also rather fitting. There was a film of some short pieces from the volume, followed by some readings. Like I said, it was really hot, and it was busy enough that there wasn't a seat, so this writer who is prone to fainting sadly had to miss some of the event. Still, everyone looked like they were having a great time, and rightly so.

The journal itself is really pretty, which is to be expected from Freight Books. More than that, it's full of some fantastic writing (if I do say so myself!) I really enjoyed Graham Fulton's poems, and a lovely piece from Anneliese Mackintosh that I could identify with probably more than I should admit. And I enjoyed reading words from Libby McInnes, Roddy Shippin, and Alan Gillespie - so much literary greatness!

My own story is called Maps, and follows a twenty something Scottish guy as he travels to Thailand in an attempt to 'find himself'. It's so exciting to see my name and my words in print, holdable and feelable, in my hand. And I feel honoured too to be between the same covers as Ewan Morrison and Elizabeth Reeder.

You can find out more about Valve Literary Journal on their website, and they'll soon have details as to how to get a copy online. When they do, it's definitely worth getting one and reading it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

For Review: Fremont ~ Elizabeth Reeder

Hal Fremont and Rachel Roanoke meet in a diner. For their first date, they get married. Their love, and their lust, is fast, hard, and intense. Their marriage is perfect, and they both dream of fixing up the Fremont family home and filling it with their children. But Hal wants sons, and their first child is a girl, Florida. Each of the thirteen children Rachel has are named after American States, a contrast to the small minded small town in which they live. The second of the brood is their only son, the lone star Texas. After him come eleven more girls, each growing into a unique individual. Fremont follows the lives of the family, and explores how familial relationships make or break the people we are, and the people we can potentially become.

By page 40 (out of 350), I was heart broken. To the point that it was hard to read, but in that lovely way that happens when reading a properly good book. Throughout the novel, my heart was broken probably a thousand times. What each character goes through, what the family goes through, and how one affects the other, made for some tough love reading. In particular, though, I loved the relationship between Texas and Florida - they each want what they other has, and the turmoil this puts them through can be terrible in places. Florida, the eldest Fremont child, just wants her freedom. She wants to leave her home, and study, and do what she wants to do, not tied down to playing nanny to her younger siblings. She sees Texas as having that freedom, that ability to do what he wants. But Texas struggles with the masculine ideals his father forces upon him, and he wants Florida's ability to be who she is, an individual, and even envys her femininity, because it's allowed. Neither of them consider, at least very rarely, that the other might be tormented, that they might not love the hand that has been given to them.

Given that there is a husband, a wife, and thirteen children, there are many complicated relationships in this novel. But, where Hal might struggle to remember the names and differences between his girls, each one shone through in her own particular way, and lended something important to the telling of the story. It's a story that I almost don't want to delve too far into here, for fear of unearthing things that are better left discovered. Suffice to say that there was little room left for romantic ideals (love, motherhood, family, place), and plenty space for nostalgia and longing (love, motherhood, family, place).

And it's some telling too. Reeder's prose is stunning. She lays down the land in front of the reader, makes them feel safe, then snatches it all away in cruel twists of reality. No matter what Reeder is describing, it is coloured with lyrical attention. Fremont is such a bittersweet book in this way - the story might hurt in places, but the reading is soothed by the beauty of the language. Reeder has really shown the literary world what she is made of this year.

Kohl Publishing; October 2012
350 pages

Saturday, October 13, 2012

I'm a Reviewer, Give Me Your Books To Review

The books I review here are probably mostly books that I have chosen myself to read, that I've bought and paid for, or that I've been given as gifts. But there's still a considerable number of reviews that are books I'd never heard of, or ever known about, it wasn't for the offers from the publishers and authors to review.

I appreciate that. A bit of good PR does wonders for a book, but I appreciate the books that I'm sent. More than this, I can appreciate when I get requests to review books, and the author/publisher has actually taken the time to look at what I blog about. 'Oh, I noticed you reviewed this book, so you  might like this one.' 'Hello, I love that author too. Here's another author that I think you'd like.' Etc, etc. That can go a long way, and I'll always be more tempted to review a book if there's a reason that I might like it. So far so good.

But then there's the spam kind of review requests. I assume they must just pluck my email address from my blog and send me a Please Review This email with absolutely no idea about who I am, or what I do. I even got an email addressed: Hello Trisha. Who is Trisha? Not me, that's for sure. And I don't think I've mentioned a Trisha anywhere on my blog. Lately, I got given an offer to review a book about 'R-Patz'. For a start, I don't know how said book can exist without being a cause for some legal action but - why? I don't think the word 'Twilight' has been anywhere on my blog either, so... I just don't know. What I do know, is that it's lazy, and it's bad PR.

When my book is out there in the world, I know I'll appreciate reviews. But I'd hate to think I'd be grovelling and spamming and generally just being annoying with my approach.

Don't get me wrong, I love book review requests, and I've come across some great fiction this way. But I prefer a genuine request, and not to be called Trisha, because that's not my name.

Monday, October 08, 2012

For Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair ~ Nina Sankovitch

When her sister passes away, Nina struggles with her grief. For years she is beside herself, and one day she decides that to cope with her feelings and her memories she will set aside everything else and read one book every day for one year.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a memoir. Sankovitch writes about her family with a strong theme of books running through. This book itself is almost like a patchwork between memoir, diary, and book reviews. On one level is Nina's past, including a recent history of her family, and on another are her fond memories of her sister. Connecting both pasts with her present are the books that she reads every day.

Sankovitch is, clearly, a voracious reader. She reads everything from young adult fiction to the literary classics, from crime to comedy. In every book that she reads, however, Nina learns more about the world that she lives in, and about the nature of human beings. No matter how far removed the plot, character, and setting of a novel, Sankovitch is able to draw out something that aids her understanding of her memories and her present. Sometimes the books she chooses are more relevant and revelationary than others, but always reading allows her the time and the space to think and feel, and to organise the muddle of emotions caused by the death of her older sister, who she was very close to.

Naturally, considering such a history is moving at times, and though occasionally sentimental, Sankovitch manages a good balance of grieving thoughts with comical anecdote. There were, however, places where I wanted to know far less about the plot of the book being discussed (sometimes there were even spoilters), and more and more about how Nina was reflecting on this with her own experiences and ideas.

But there's a pass-it-on quality to Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, in that I learned so much about my own reading patterns, and it opened my eyes more to what I really gain when I read a good book:

We are what we love to read, and when we admit to loving a book, we admit that the book represents some aspect of ourselves turly, whether it is that we are suckers for romance or pining for adventure or secretly fascinated by crime. (101)

As a book reviewer, that above quote makes me feel a little naked - my blog exposes so much about me.

Needless to say, I'm very jealous that Sankovitch got to spend so much time devoted to reading - I would absolutely love that freedom. As it is, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair has inspired me to do my twenty four hour readathon again. Last time, I raised £120 for the Scottish Association for Mental Health, and I'd love to do that again. At the moment, I'm especially jealous of Nina's reading time as I'm teacher training Monday - Friday, and working at a supermarket Sat - Sun. When I finally get round to having a day off, I plan on setting up my readathon. Just as Sankovitch advocates throughout her book, reading has the power to do things and go places that sometimes might never be imagined.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

For Review: The Pianist ~ Władysław Szpilman

I could probably count on one hand the number of memoirs that I've read. It's not that I'm not interested in people, it's just not my genre of choice. This time, I came to The Pianist through the film. Roman Polanski's Adrien Brody-populated version is a favourite of mine - really, a great film - and since watching it years ago I've been meaning to read the original autobiography. Finally, after bumping the book up my list, I did.

Władysław Szpilman was a talented Jewish pianist living in Warsaw at the time of World War II. His memoir spans 1939-1945 and takes account of his experience as a Jew in German occupied Poland. The Pianist follows the rapid decline of Warsaw and all the struggles that he witnessed and experienced, including the loss of his family, surviving in the ghetto, and hiding from the Nazis.

Szpilman survived to give his story retrospectively, and the current version of The Pianist is an edition revised from the original by his son. While the narrative has all the elements of a good story, it doesn't read like fiction. The matter of fact retelling of events leaves no doubt that this is non-fiction, but the description of life as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Warsaw is no less horrific or terrifying. As a memoir, the emotion of the author comes through without becoming sentimental. More to the point, Szpilman's narrative is more impartial than might be expected from a personal autobiography, and it lends a fresh honesty to the memoir.

Despite knowing the story from having watched the film (very close to the memoir; Polanski has picked and lifted scenes directly at points), The Pianist was a very interesting read. Any authentic account of such a time in history is worth reading and thinking about, and this is one that I would recommend. Worth complementing with the film too, which is actually brilliant.