Book review: These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

These Things Hidden is an interesting and well-told story. Starting with Allison’s early release from prison for good behaviour, the narrative gathers pace slowly, revealing how her fateful actions on a night five years ago are still affecting the lives of the four main protagonists.

Allison was the blue-eyed girl of the small Linden Falls community. The darling of her parents and teachers, she could do no wrong, until that fateful night… Now, she is out of prison and in a halfway house, where the rest of the women are unable to reconcile with her heinous crime. Low on confidence and abandoned by her family, Allison gets a new lease of life when Caroline offers her a part time job at Bookends.

But when Allison sees Joshua, Caroline’s adopted son, the past comes rushing back. A past that Bryn is working hard to forget. Unable to take Allison’s place in her parent’s heart, heckled and stared at as “the killer’s sister,” Bryn leaves Linden Falls to stay with her grandmother, where she looks after broken and maimed animals. By fixing those broken creatures, she hopes she can mend herself, torn as she is by guilt over the events of that fateful night, when she helped Allison give birth to her child while their parents were out for the night.

No one knows of the child except for Charm, sister of Allison’s boyfriend Christopher, and Gus, her step-father. Allison left her son at Charm’s house, saying her parents knew nothing about her pregnancy and that she couldn’t care for the child. Torn between the love she felt for the baby boy and tired as she was looking after Gus, who was battling with lung cancer, Charm was forced to make a difficult choice. She left the baby at the fire station, hoping that he would find a loving family.

Joshua gets that family with Caroline and her husband Jonathan. But with Allison working at Bookends and determined to re-establish contact with Bryn, things are about to come to a dramatic head. Only the two sisters know exactly what happened on the night Joshua and his twin sister were born, and the secrets are about to explode.

As the story unfolds, so does Allison’s character – she isn’t the two-dimensional cardboard cut-out she is initially made out to be. There are hints of a dysfunctional family and a younger sister who is deeply disturbed. Heather also does a wonderful job of exploring motherhood from the point of view of the four protagonists. Allison’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother leads her to be detached from her own children, as she refuses to even acknowledge that she is pregnant. Brynn, who lives in her sister’s shadow, is given a few opportunities to rise to a mothering role, but her failure leads to her mental complexities and to her outpouring of love for crippled animals. Charm is already playing the role of caregiver to her step father, and is unable to take on the added responsibility of looking after a baby herself, but even after giving him up, she checks in on him to see that he is well and happy. And then there is Caroline, who wants nothing more than to be a mother, and fulfills that role well. Her only shortcoming, if you can call it that, would be her over-possessiveness and the extra care she takes of Joshua.

On the whole, this is an interesting read. While you might be able to guess some of the plot twists, you won’t be able to guess them all! The writing is wonderful and the plot development and characters are well-rounded. You won’t regret picking this one up!

On My Bookshelf: March

stack of books, Ballard, Seattle, Washington

Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

March has been an excellent reading month! I was fortunate to have read a variety of books, all of which I enjoyed. How often does that happen? 😉

What seemed to be a Young Adult novel was actually quite interesting and complex. Heather Gudenkauf’s These Things Hidden was a beautifully crafted story with well-rounded characters (look out for the review, coming soon!)

A diet rich in soy and whey protein, found in ...

Image via Wikipedia

I read Gary Taube’s excellent book titled Why We Get Fat and What to do About It. Debunking the calories in calories out approach to weight loss, he takes a look at nutrition research and the obesity epidemic, making a strong case for a high protein, low carb diet.

Amish Tripathi’s The Immortals of Meluha, part 1 of his Shiva trilogy, was a rip-roaring read! He’s combined legend and stories from Indian mythology and pained Shiva not as a God, but as an ordinary nomad from Tibet. Absolutely brilliant! I’m waiting for the next part with bated breath!

I’m currently reading Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife – a collection of short stories. Interesting, so far!

What have you been reading this month?

Book review: Mornings in Jenin – Susan Abulhawa

Mornings in Jenin tells the story of the Abulheja family. The patriarchs of the family, Haj Yehya and Basima, live in the small village of Ein Hod. The novel opens in 1941, during the olive harvest season as Yehya and his family and neighbours gather to pick the fruit. The first few pages (and years) set the stage for the family, introducing us to Yehya’s sons Hassan and Darweesh, Hassan’s Jewish friend Ari Perlstein, and Dalia, the Bedouin girl who steals their heart.

“In a distant time, before history marched over the hills and shattered present and future, before wind grabbed the land at one corner and shook it of its name and character, before Amal was born, a small village east of Haifa lived quietly on figs and olives, open frontiers and sunshine.”

Their idyllic life is shattered by the “nakba” (cataclysm) in 1948, when the Israelis forced the villagers of Ein Hod off their land and sent them to the refugee camp in Jenin. Narrated by Amal, Hassan and Dalia’s daughter who is born in the refugee camp, Mornings in Jenin traces the story of her brothers – Yousef, whose love for his wife Fatima and for Palestine will set him on a collision course with his brother David (Ishmael), who was lost during the nakba and brought up as a Jew. It also interweaves Amal’s tale of love and loss, of her enduring friendship with Huda and mornings spent with her father, of living through the loss of her parents – her father as a casualty of the Six Day War, her mother as she lost her mind after that war – of moving to a Jerusalem orphanage to study, settling in the US, falling in love, and returning to Jenin with her daughter.

Kids at the Jenin camp (Image via Flickr)

This is by no means an easy book to read – it’s filled with pathos and loss, sorrow and separation, death and loss – but the prose is lyrical and the writing fluid. I came to love some of the characters and found myself wishing and hoping they’d pull through, but unfortunately, not all of them will.

This is the first book I have come across that presents the Palestinian point of view. It isn’t unbiased – there is the matter of Hassan’s Jewish friend Ari Perlstein who disappears after the first few pages and only puts in an appearance at the end of the narrative and of Israeli attacks on Jenin apparently without any provocation from Palestinians – but it is an important book.

“The story of one family in an obscure village, visited one day by a history that was not its own, and forever trapped by longing between roots and soil. It was a tale of war, its chilling, burning, and chilling-again fire. Of furious love and a suicide bomber. Of a girl who escaped her destiny to become a word, drained of its meaning. Of grown children sifting through the madness to find their relevance. Of a truth that pushed its way through lies, emerging fro a crack, a scar, in a man’s face.”

The Jewish suffering is well-known thanks to the many excellent books available on the holocaust and the creation of Israel – Leon Uris’ Exodus, Schindler’s List, Anne Frank’s Diary and Man’s Search for Meaning are just a few examples.  With Mornings in Jenin, readers will finally get to hear the Palestinian voice, to know of the many atrocities committed in refugee camps in that area, and maybe, to gain a better understanding of the “Palestinian situation”.

In closing, I’d say that this book is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Israel-Palestine issue, and even for those who are not.

The Book of Tomorrow – Cecelia Ahern

The Book of Tomorrow tells the story of 16-year old Tamara. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she’s like almost any other girl her age and of her class – interested in boys and flashy stuff, lashing out at her parents, rebelling against things around here. Until tragedy strikes and her family is bankrupt, at which time they move out to the country to stay with her mother’s brother at a ruined castle.

While there, Tamara finds a book at a traveling library – an empty book that miraculously has an entry for the next day’s events. Using those entries and clues, Tamara is about to uncover a secret that has been hidden 17 years.

I think the novel is aimed at tweens, and with this category, it should be a hit.

Cecelia Ahern has done a great job of writing from a 16-year old’s point of view, and she builds up her characters and the plot well. You pretty much find things out along with Tamara, and can feel her excitement and frustrations. The novel is pretty well-crafted, but then you’d expect that from Cecelia Ahern, and should keep tweens (and maybe some adults too) engrossed as they wait to find out what comes next.

If you were hoping for something along the lines of P.S. I Love You, though, you just might be disappointed.

Overall, I’d say you could pick it up for a quick, light read on a rainy day.

Book review: Angel Words – Doreen Virtue

I’ve read a few of Doreen Virtue’s books and worked with her Angel cards, which I love, so when I saw Angel Words, I was curious to see what the book was about. Co-authored by Doreen and her son Grant, the book takes a look at the vibration, as represented by sound graphs, of different words.

The mother-son duo noticed that whenever Doreen said the word angel during her podcast, the recording graphics were shaped like angel wings. This led them to study other words, and they realized that those with a spiritual or loving basis had large graphs, while those with negative words had tight and small graphs.

Doreen calls positive words Angel words, and through stories and illustrations of sound graphs, she shows how just changing the way we talk (even self talk) can dramatically change our circumstances. One of the stories she shares is of Carolyn Purchase, who owns a metaphysical store in Nova Scotia. She noticed that whenever asked about her business, she said “I’ll never be rich but it pays the bills,” and that was exactly what she experienced. When she noticed what she was saying, she had an epiphany and said instead, with total conviction, “Fantastic! This place is a gold mine!” In a year, her sales have increased by 40%.

The chapters on “Words that can heal your life,” “Positive, high-energy words” and “Negative, low-energy words” are very interesting. The only chapter that I didn’t quite agree with was “Life-affirming clichés and expressions,” where she offers a more positive spin on some common, negative clichés. Some of her positive takes on clichés are a bit absurd. For e.g., “I’m between a rock and a hard place” versus “I move through life with grace and ease” or “It’s like stealing candy from a baby” versus “The sweetness in life is plentiful for all of our inner child’s needs” The positive replacements do seem a bit lame!

Overall, though, I think it is an interesting book that illustrates the vibrational frequency of different words and makes a compelling case to try to talk positive.

Book review: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife

Image via Wikipedia

The Time Traveler’s Wife is an idyllic romance. On one level, it tells of a love so strong that nothing can come in its way, on another, it brings in a touch of science fiction.

Clare Abshire has known Henry DeTamble since she was 6, and she knows that she’s going to marry him when she grows older. But when she meets Henry when she is 20, he doesn’t know who she is.

I met Clare for the first time in October, 1991. She met me for the first time in September, 1977; she was six, I will be thirty-eight. She’s known me all her life. In 1991 I’m just getting to know her.

That’s because Henry is a time traveler who gets yanked around in time – past and present – without any warning. And the reason he doesn’t know Clare is because he tries not to tell anyone (including himself, unless it’s a life and death situation) about their future.

Sometimes it feels as though your attention has wandered for just an instant. Then, with a start, you realize that the book you were holding, the red plain cotton shirt with white buttons, the favorite black jeans and the maroon socks with an almost-hole in the heel, the living room, the about-to-whistle tea kettle in the kitchen: all of these have vanished. You are standing, naked as a jaybird, up to your ankles in ice water in a ditch along an unidentified rural route…You’ve mislocated yourself again.

Confused? Don’t be. Niffenegger maintains taunt control over her narrative, which alternates between Clare and Henry’s point of view, never letting things get confusing or bewildering. The transitions between past and present and future are maintained smoothly, and Niffenegger does an excellent job of weaving together some complex ideas – time travel, marriage, love, children, death, drugs, loss, and the human condition – poetically and with amazing clarity.

It’s also a beautiful character sketch of Henry, who never knows when and where in time he will appear, naked, hungry, and having to quickly defend himself; and of Clare, who lives a “chronologically” normal life, marked with her strong love for Henry and her worry about his safety when he time travels.

I read the book over two days when I was home sick, and the soothing pace of the novel and the gentle, matter-of-fact love story was like a soothing balm to my tortured self. Highly recommended.

Book review: Late for Tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace is a hauntingly beautiful ode to Iraq. Told from the perspective of the Chalabi family, one of the most influential families in Iraq for most part of the 20th century, the novel recreates the country’s majestic past. It is also one of the few books that really brings this country alive for the rest of the world, much in the way that Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner brought pre-war-ravaged Afghanistan to life.

Starting in 1913, the book traces the history of the nation and the rise and fall of the Chalabi family, from the decline of the Ottomon empire to its destruction at the hands of Saddam Hussein and to Tamara Chalabi’s first look at her homeland.

As she traces her own roots, Chalabi take the reader along on a journey into the culture and psyche of Iraqi nationals and gives us a look at what the nation could have been if it wasn’t for Islamic clerics and Saddam Hussein, who brought its progress to a grinding halt. Chalabi’s vivid descriptions and the many pictures she uses in her narrative breathe life into the characters and bring Iraq alive.

He wore the typical attire of a sophisticated urbanite: a traditonal robe tailored in Baghdad from sayah, a delicate striped cotton material bought in Damascus, over white drawstring trousers. On his head he wore a fez, decreed by the Sultan in Istanbul to be the appropriate headgear of the modern Ottoman Empire.
– Late for Tea at the Deer Palace, p 33

Reading this book was even more poignant for me because my mother often spoke longingly about Basra, where she spent her first few years  of married life with my father. She would often tell me about the cobbled streets, the outdoor cafes and her life there. When Basra was bombed during the Iran-Iraq war she was grief stricken, because she had always wanted to return for another visit. Reading this book, I was better able to imagine what Basra, and Iraq, were like in their hey day.

As I read about Ahmad Chalabi’s struggle to get a hearing with world leaders on the story of Iraq,  his fight to free Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein and how he and the rest of the Iraqis who wanted to fight alongside US troops were ill-treated, I begin to understand their frustration with world politics. And as I read about Chalabi’s return to her homeland for the first time in 2003, I’m struck by recent news on how Iraq’s struggles are driving many refugees out of the country (read the article on NY Times). It makes me wonder when and how this nation’s suffering will end.

I’d willingly recommended this book to anybody — not only is beautifully written, it also gives readers a rare glimpse into the history, culture and psyche of Iraq — giving us a clue about why Iraqis are not satisfied with the help received from the US, why they might have not got closure to Saddam Hussein’s reign, and why the nation continues to be in strife.

The book will be available in stores from 18 January 2011. You can pre-order the book through HarperCollins’ website.

Book review: The Raising by Laura Kasischke

The Raising by Laura Kasischke

Click on the image to pre-order the book

In The Raising, Laura Kasischke exposes the ugly face behind sororities and the duplicity and cunningness of the human heart, and of people caught up in events that lead to often unforeseen tragedies. With her very first sentence:

The scene of the accident was bloodless, and beautiful.

She manages to draw the reader into the world of young Nicole Werner and her boyfriend Craig Clement-Rabbits; of Craig’s roommate Perry’s attraction to Mira Polson, the professor of sociology, who takes a class on Death, Dying, and the Undead; and of Shelly, who finds her life ruined because she happened to be the first and only witness at the scene of the accident.

Moving back and forth between the past (the year of the Nicole-Craig love affair) and the present (post Nicole’s death), Kasischke brings to life Nicole as a young, virginal, all-American girl. But as you continue reading, you realize that not everything is pretty and pink — there’s a dark side to that innocence, that, in fact, that innocence is just a façade for something more sinister.

Kasischke’s plot development is superb. Initially, you find yourself thinking that this might be another vampire/ghost love story, and you do manage to guess the end once you’re about mid-way through. Nevertheless, Kasischke’s writing style keeps you moving relentlessly forward, and she has thrown in some interesting plot twists along the way.

Overall, an interesting and engaging read.

Click here to pre-order the book from HarperCollins.

(Want to read more reviews? Take a look at the other featured Book of the month and more book reviews.)

Book review: The Courtesan by Susan Carroll

I recently participated in SITS’ Find Your Tribe event, where we teamed up with fellow bloggers in our niche to support one another and help our blogs grow. So today, allow me to introduce you to Jacki from The Raven’s Spell.  Her blog “chronicles the ever changing adventures of a stubborn, book-obsessed woman as she redefines her life, family, and self. While raising a spirited young man, blending two families, returning to school after a 10 year hiatus, and pushing her own boundaries, this life will just never be the same.”

I hope you enjoy this review of The Courtesan — I know that I want to read this book ever since I read her review! Also, be sure to head over the The Raven’s Spell tomorrow to check out what I wrote!

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Title:  The Courtesan (The Dark Queen Saga #2)
Author:  Susan Carroll
Format: Paperback, 534 pages
Published:   July 26th 2005 by Ballantine Books
ISBN:  0345437977 (ISBN13: 9780345437976)

 Wow, Susan Carroll does it again. I started the Dark Queen Saga with the last book of the series (didn’t realize that it was a series at the time). My next book, The Courtesan, is book 2 in the series. I am hoping at some point I will get this all figured out, but it is not likely.

 Set in Paris in 1575, much sought after courtesan, Gabrielle Cheney, seeks to win the heart of the future king of France, her ambition driving her to become the power behind the French throne. Thought forsaken by her sister, the Lady of Fair Isle, Gabrielle seeks her own path and revolts against the ways of the Daughters of the Earth.  However, she must outwit Catherine de’ Medici, a witch hunter from her past, dark magic, and her own heart in order to succeed.  Is power and ambition what she seeks, or love and a life with Captain Nicolas Rémy, the loyal Scourge set on destroying her plans?

 While there are some back stories that I wish I knew more about, I was able to get through The Courtesan without any trouble (although, knowing how it all ends kind of sucks). Gabrielle is a wonderful character who you love, but at the same time wish you could smack every once in a while. Actually, all the characters are that way, which makes them very much human, and all that more likeable.

 Like any good historical fiction, The Courtesan left me wishing I had paid more attention in history class, although I doubt I ever would have gotten these kinds of stories.  But it did leave me intrigued and searching for more information about this period of France and the history surrounding Catherina de’ Medici.  Always a success in my book when a work of fiction can help the reader fall into a time period and come out wishing to know more.

 The story is intriguing and enjoyable and I found it very difficult to put the book down. If you enjoy historical fiction, I highly recommend.

Book review: Empires of the Indus – Alice Albinia

In Empires of the Indus, Alice Albinia traces the route of the River Indus from Pakistan and Afghanistan, upstream through west India and to its source in Tibet. Part travelogue, part history lesson, Albinia goes where angels fear to tread in her quest to trace the route of the River Indus. During the journey, she shares details about the myths and legends associated with the river, which through millennia, has been worshipped as a God and used as a means of imperial expansion.

A major portion of the book is set in Pakistan, and as an Indian reader, it gave me a rare glimpse into that country’s culture and history. While it is a known fact that Pakistan is a Muslim dominated country, what is not so widely known is just how badly it treats its minorities.

Sheedis of Pakistan

For instance, Sheedis — an African-Muslim tribe — have worked very hard to erase their rich musical past, having all but given up playing the mugarman, an African drum, and singing and dancing in order to better assimilate themselves into Pakistani culture. Still, the community largely remains mired in poverty and illiteracy. Another tribe that is tenuously holding on to its culture is the Kalash, who live in the remote Bumboret village, 150 km north of Pirsar.

“Neither Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, the Kalash religion is syncretic, involving a pantheon of gods, sacred goats, and a reverence for river sources and mountain tops. [But] Such is the pressure from Islam in Bumboret, few young Kalash seem proud of their pantheon, or even to know of its existence.” — p. 225

Albinia travels through remote areas of Pakistan, through the now Taliban-infested Swat region (which at the time of her travel itself was seeing a resurgence of that fundamentalist faction) and into Afghanistan on foot, as she traces Alexander the Great’s route along the River Indus as he set out on his campaign to conquer India. What is most surprising is the danger she knowingly put herself into in this quest, but it is heartening that she met a number of helpful people along the way.

River Indus, Skardu, Pakistan

Vast swathes of regions that Albania travelled across are now disconnected from the rest of Pakistan due to the heavy floods there, which have set back the country’s infrastructure by at least 30 years. So in a way, her book serves as the most recent glimpse into the culture, geography and people of that area.

From Pakistan — the bulk of her 305-page book is about her travels through Pakistan and her two cross-overs into Afghanistan — Albinia travels into India and then Tibet as she traces the Indus to its origin — the Senge Khabab. Her trip to India is covered in one 22-page chapter, while the last chapter, 24 pages, details her travel through Tibet, up to the source of the river.

Though her travels through these two countries are glossed over, this is an interesting novel given the breadth and depth of history and geography that she covers. If you want to know more about Pakistan, or are an avid historian, you’ll definitely like the book.

If you’ve read this book, do let me know what you thought about it!