2011 Orange Prize

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

Island of Wings Longlisted for 2012 Orange Prize

Five words from the blurb: islands, family, love, minister, hardship

Island of Wings is set on the remote Scottish island of St Kilda and focuses on Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie, a young couple who arrived on the island in 1830. Neil MacKenzie is a minister who aimed to improve the lives of the islanders by building better houses and by trying to quash their pagan practices. The book describes the difficulties faced by the couple as they adjusted to life on an island plagued by famine and high infant mortality.  

The main appeal of the book is the way it describes what life on St Kilda was like 180 years ago. Much of the plot is based on actual events and the historical facts were well researched. There were a few dramatic scenes, but the realism meant that plot was often quiet and insular. 

The population relied on sea birds for almost everything and their uses were described in graphic detail:

George was appalled to see a girl of about four or five years old trying to pull the neck of a gannet over her foot as a stocking. The minister followed his gaze and explained. ‘They often make shoes out of the necks of gannets – they cut the head off at the eyes, and the part where the skull was serves as the heel of the shoe and the feathers on the throat offer warmth and waterproofing. They generally only last a couple of days, but at times there are so many birds that they can wear these disposable socks almost daily.’

I found these little details really interesting, but I suspect that others may tire of these facts and long for a more compelling plot.

The book was very easy to read, flowing smoothly from beginning to end. The subject matter was occasionally dark, but the atmosphere remained light so the reader was distanced from any pain and suffering that occurred. I would have preferred a greater emotional attachment to the characters, but the writing style did create an atmosphere fitting with the remoteness of the island, so I probably shouldn’t complain too much.

Island of Wings gripped me throughout. It was an entertaining read that gave a fascinating insight into this small community.



The thoughts of other bloggers:

A beautiful story, it portrays a difficult, rugged life with delicacy. Trees and Ink

Island of Wings is very much an interior portrait – within the island, within the marriage – and at times the closeness of the story becomes almost claustrophobic….  Books Under the Skin

This is the Orange title that I have been most gripped by in the last fortnight…. Cardigangirlverity


The 2012 TV Book Club

The TV Book Club is now in its third year and continuing to chose a fantastic selection of books. I normally find my favourite book of the year on the list and this time I was doubly pleased to see that two of my favourite reads from 2011 made the cut:

You Deserve Nothing

You Deserve Nothing – Alexander Maksik

A book that deals with many moral issues within a school. It controversially may be based on real events, but I think this only adds to the intrigue. Compelling and thought-provoking – I highly recommend it.

The Report

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

Do we need to blame someone whenever a tragic accident occurs? This book is a moving account of the Bethnal Green Tube disaster and the public’s need to hold someone accountable.

The Sisters BrothersBefore I Go To Sleep

I also enjoyed reading The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson. (I rated both )

The Other 2012 TV Book Club Choices:

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox
Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Behind the scenes

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to see the show being filmed at the Cactus studios in London. Several book bloggers and the founders of the TV Book Clubblers Facebook page watched the recording of the final show, which featured my favourite book, You Deserve Nothing.

I was amazed at how quickly the show was filmed – an entire 30 minute programme completed in around 45 minutes. An autocue was used for the introduction and the linking pieces and then the discussions took place using a few notes on the presenter’s cards. Some minor errors were corrected at the end, but basically the entire show was filmed as though it were live and very little needs be edited out for the finished programme.

After the filming we got to chat in the green room and then take a closer look at the studio.

From left to right: Dioni, Sakura and Me

A Few Facts About the Show

  • 10,410,000 people have watched the TV Book Club
  • Before I Go to Sleep, by SJ Watson has been the biggest seller of this series and has topped the overall bestseller list for the last 5 weeks. Nielsen Bookscan figures show that nearly 200,000 copies have now been sold.
  • Into the Darkest Corner, & The Sisters Brothers have also already hit the top 50 paperback fiction charts. All have seen massive % uplifts after appearance on the show.

For those in the UK, the episode that we saw being recorded will be shown on More 4 on 1st April and previous episodes can be viewed on 4OD.

Which is your favourite book from the series?


Orange Prize Other

Five Discarded Oranges

Photo Credit: Christine, Flickr

The Orange longlist was recently announced and I’m making an effort to try every book in the hope I’ll discover a few gems. I’m aware that many of the books won’t be to my taste and so am abandoning any that fail to excite me.

These are the books that I’ve abandoned so far:

The Flying Man

The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki

Five words from the blurb: man, charm, Pakistan, escapes, game

I haven’t had much success with books written by Roopa Farooki in the past and so I didn’t hold out much hope for this one. I tried the first 20 pages and discovered that her writing style is as light as usual. I’m sure this will be a reasonably entertaining read (as confirmed by cardigangirlverity), but I’m afraid I’m looking for books that really sparkle.


The Translation of the Bones

The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

Five words from the blurb: motherhood, faith, love, emotional, London

I can’t fault this one – the writing was excellent and the characters sprung to life. But after 40 pages I realised that I wasn’t excited about picking it up and carrying on, so I didn’t. Tiny Library describes this as a: Quiet, understated read about faith and family.

Her review confirms that I made the right choice in abandoning this book – quiet and understated rarely work for me.

There but for the

There but for the by Ali Smith

Five words from the blurb: dinner party, stranger, satirical, perspective, memory

I’ve been avoiding this book for a while. Lots of people love it, but I know that I don’t normally enjoy Ali Smith’s experimental style. In an effort to give her the benefit of the doubt I got a copy of the audio book from the library and took it with me on a long car journey. Unfortunately I discovered that I dislike her style on audio as much as I do in print. It felt pretentious and I just didn’t get it. I forced myself to listen to all of disc one, but Ali Smith will never be for me – I prefer more conventional narration. This book divides opinion. If you want to know why others love it I suggest you read Simon’s review.


Lord of Misrule

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Five words from the blurb: horses, racing, steal, fast, winners

I’m not a big fan of horse racing and so was nervous about starting this one. Luckily I was quickly bowled over by the impressive writing. Unfortunately my enthusiasm was short lived. Beautiful, profound statements were scattered throughout the text, but I failed to connect to any of the characters. Reading became a real chore and so I abandoned it after 60 pages. This is another book that divides opinion. The Mookse and the Gripes describes this as: a remarkably unique novel.


Foreign Bodies

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Five words from the blurb: teacher, New York, divorce, family, love

This book has a very strange beginning involving a series of letters in which one character abuses and rants at another. The story progresses to include an annoying woman travelling to Europe to look for her nephew. It’s safe to say that this story will never be for me, but as it is a satire of The Ambassadors by Henry James (a book I haven’t read) I suspect that fans (or enemies!) of that book would find a lot to enjoy. Unabridged Chick enjoyed the book, despite disliking the characters. Perhaps you will too?

Remaining Oranges

I’ve nearly finished my trial of this year’s Orange longlist. I’m currently half way through Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg, and hope to post a review in the next week. I then just have On the Floor by Aifric Campbell, The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard, and The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen left. I hope to finish in time to predict the shortlist, but I admit that I’m distracted by books (like Salvage the Bones and Running the Rift) that commenters on my Orange longlist prediction post were especially passionate about.

Did you love any of these books?

Was I wrong to abandon any of them?

2011 Uncategorized

The Submission by Amy Waldman

The Submission Longlisted for 2012 Orange Prize

Five words from the blurb: 9/11, memorial, Muslim, conflict, tragedy

The Submission is a topical book, detailing the outcome of a “what if” scenario in which a Muslim wins the competition to design the 9/11 memorial. The plot switches between multiple narrators, giving the reader the opportunity to see the situation from every side.

I had very mixed feelings about this book – swinging between loving it and hating it at frequent intervals. It was packed with interesting discussion points and some of the scenes were beautifully described, but the characters were flat and I failed to connect to any of them.

The writing quality was also variable. Some passages were beautifully written, but I frequently found too much detail and longed for the sentences to be a bit shorter:

“I know the concerns,” he said gruffly: that it was too soon for a memorial, the ground barely cleared; that the country hadn’t yet won or lost the war, couldn’t even agree, exactly, on who or what it was fighting. But everything happened faster these days – the building up and tearing down of idols; the spread of disease and rumor and trends; the cycling of news; the development of new monetary instruments, which in turn had speeded Paul’s own retirement from the chairmanship of the investment bank. So why not the memorial too?

Flashbacks to 9/11 were tastefully done, with virtually no details given. I loved the way these scenes ended with the phone ringing, the terrible news implied without ever being described.

I expected this to be a thought-provoking book, but unfortunately I didn’t find that to be the case. The sad thing is that most of the events described in this book have happened already, either with the plans for a mosque near the World Trade Centre site, or with other events in London/around the world. This meant that the “what if” scenarios weren’t especially ground-breaking and I felt as though I’d heard all the arguments many times before.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is unaware of the shocking way in which Muslims in our society are treated, but for a book about such an emotive subject I found it surprisingly flat.


The thoughts of other bloggers: 

…this is a book that literally moved me to tears and I honestly can’t remember the last time a book did that. Steph & Tony Investigate

Despite a strong premise and beginning, Waldman’s overwrites this novel to a frustrating point. Nomadreader

Waldman gives her novel it’s own unique voice and memorable cast of characters that makes it stand out from any other non-fictionalized story it may resemble. Literary Musings


Discussions Other

Is reading about an event as good as being there?

A few days ago I read a fascinating article about how reading affects the brain. Recent neurological research suggests that:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.

At first I dismissed this as nonsense. I have read lots of books about the Holocaust, but I can’t imagine this comes close to the true horror of being there. I know that many people avoid books with a darker subject matter and I wonder if this is because the effect is stronger in them. I think I’d avoid dark books if my brain ended up thinking I’d been caught up in such horrific events. Surely I’d have a massive case of post-traumatic stress disorder if this research was true?

Just like the body, the brain needs to be kept agile. Just like a muscle, it needs to be used in order to develop and remain healthy. Specifically target your brain health by frequently presenting it with new cognitive challenges. Work a crossword or Sudoku puzzle. Memorize a new poem, speech, or passage from a book. Play games that challenge your memory or require problem-solving skills. Research has shown that regular mental challenges produce a healthier brain, and this leads to a slower cognitive decline – even when dementia’s impact on the brain is factored out. Think of things that you do every day without really having to think about what you’re doing – and do them differently. Instead of moving automatically through your routine, work your brain in order to keep it really healthy and to help improve its ability to change to the constantly altering world. The brain we have depends to a large part on what we ask it to do. You can check out here for more detail about the brain health treatment.

We remain in the process of understanding exactly how the brain and nervous system function, and which aspects we can shape and control. It’s an exciting field of research that is giving us new ways to impact on everything from memory loss to mental health to IQ. As our understanding continues to progress, it is certain to offer us many new ways to improve the health of our brain – and our quality of life.


The research also claims that reading helps people to understand the thoughts of others and can change the way we act. This I can believe.

Reading about the same event from multiple perspectives has definitely increased my tolerance for different behaviours. I am far more likely to have empathy with those on both sides of any given argument than my non-reading friends.

Photo credit: Sam Mugraby,


I have always favoured books containing vivid descriptions. The research suggests that is because they affect multiple areas of the brain.

Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

This makes a lot of sense, but also makes me wonder why some people enjoy simpler books that don’t contain these trigger words. I like to be transported into the lives of other people and this is far harder if I can’t picture their surroundings.

Is it worth skim reading a section of any book your thinking of reading to check for words that affect multiple areas of the brain?


The interesting thing happens when I try to remember books that I’ve read and compare them to real life experiences. With recent events the difference is massive, but if I think back five or ten years I realise the research might be true. Over time the details from both books and real life fade to leave very similar impressions. I can imagine exactly what life is like in India, despite never having been there, and I think I know what it would be like to live in Victorian London. Sometimes I’m sure I confuse some of the more realistic scenes from books with those from my own life.

So the big questions are:

Do you think reading about an event as good as being there?

Does the author have to be especially talented to manage this or will most writing achieve it?

2011 Other Prizes Recommended books

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones Winner of 2011 National Book Award

Five words from the blurb: hurricane, threatening, family, pregnant, pit bull

When the Orange longlist was announced last week several people voiced their surprise that Salvage the Bones was missing. Intrigued by their passion I decided to give it a try and having read it, I agree. This book stands head and shoulders above everything else published this year. It deserved to win the Orange prize and I’m disappointed that it didn’t even make the longlist.

Salvage the Bones is set in Mississippi and follows one family as they prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The unconventional and potentially unlovable family are the owners of a prize pit bull, renowned for her fighting skills. At the start of the book she gives birth to a litter of valuable puppies that they attempt to protect as the hurricane approaches.

I worried that I might be subjected to endless descriptions of wind and destruction, but this book is very cleverly structured. The hurricane hits in the final few pages and the power is in what is left unsaid. The details of the destruction are brief, but their lightness still manages to convey the devastation.

The hurricane laughed. A tree, plucked from its branches, hopped across the yard and landed against Daddy’s truck with a crunch, stopped short like it had won a game of hopscotch without stepping out of the lines. The sky was so close I felt like I could reach up and bury my arm in it.

One of the most impressive things about this book was that it made me care about a family who take part in dog fighting. It takes great skill for an author to enable me to connect with people I’d normally abhor, but somehow Jesmyn Ward  made me to see past their cruelty and I connected with them on an emotional level.

The atmosphere in the book was perfect. The dialogue gave a fantastic sense of place and the descriptions were vivid throughout:

“We ain’t going nowhere.” Skeetah unlashes his arms and they come whipping out from his sides, and his voice is loud, and he’s like those little firecrackers we get on the Fourth of July that throw out sparks from all sides and jump in bright acid leaps across the hard dirt yard.

This isn’t a happy book. It is a powerful insight into the lives of a family who had numerous problems before the arrival of a hurricane. The ending left me wondering how they’d cope once the waters receded and, given the news articles I’ve seen, I can only imagine the horrors a sequel would contain. I’m sure I’ll remember the characters in this book for a long time to come.

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys emotionally powerful insights into the lives of other people.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…stunning, beautiful, tragic, heartbreaking, and wholly absorbing. Caribousmom

There is abusive sex and there is violence.  At times I wanted to stop reading but found I could not.  Page247

This novel absolutely broke my heart, but at the same time I can’t help but recommend that you read it too. Book Addiction

I also recommend listening to this NPR interview with Jesmyn Ward 

(Thanks to Caribousmom for drawing it to my attention)