2009 Orange Prize

The Way Things Look to Me – Roopa Farooki

 Long Listed for 2010 Orange Prize

The Way Things Look To Me is a simple story about how a brother and sister cope when the death of their mother forces them to care for their little sister, Yasmin, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

The book switches between the viewpoints of the three siblings, showing us their thoughts and frustrations as they try to adapt to their new lives. I was impressed by the distinct differences in their voices and found Yasmin’s narration to be a realistic example of how a person with Asperger’s speaks.

My name is Yasmin Murphy, and sometimes I am so full of things to say that I’ll feel that I’ll burst if I can’t get them out, and will talk, and talk, and talk until I can see people fidget and move uncomfortably

Yasmin is also supposed to have synesthesia, a condition which means that you see words and numbers as distinct colours. I didn’t understand why this was introduced to the book as it was never investigated properly and seemed an unnecessary addition to the plot.

The book was easy to read and contained a few emotional sections, but I felt it lacked something. I think that reading this book so soon after reading Born on a Blue Day was a big disadvantage for it. The two books both mention Asperger’s and synesthesia, but Born on a Blue Day made me feel as though I understood what it was like to have the conditions. The Way Things Look to Me was mildly entertaining, but didn’t have that same deep insight.

Recommended if you are looking for a quick, entertaining read with a bit of emotion, but if you are after any real insight into Asperger’s then I’d look elsewhere.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

Each of the three characters is multi-dimensional and written with great sensitivity and insight. Curious Book Fans

It is very difficult to dislike Roopa Farooki’s novels.  They are as eager to please as puppies, and who doesn’t like puppies, at least hypothetically? Eve’s Alexandria

…this neurotypical enjoyed it immensely. Roopa Farooki knows how to write. Action for Autism

Note: Im aware I’ve broken my New Year’s Resolution in finishing a 3.5 star book, but I’m making exceptions for books about Asperger’s.

2009 Chick Lit

One Day – David Nicholls

I loved Starter for Ten and almost rushed out to read One Day when it was first published. I was stopped by a series of negative reviews and having read the book I now understand why. The two are very different and I think fans of one will be unlikely to love the other.

One Day is essentially a romance story following a couple who have a one night stand at university. We glimpse one day of their lives each year for the next twenty years – seeing their ambitions and accomplishemts develop and change.

I loved the beginning of the book. The characters were very well developed, seemingly coming alive on the page. I found their conversations realistic and, at times, moving. Unfortunately I found that the plot lost a lot of momentum in the middle section. 100 pages of this 400+ page book could easily have been removed without loosing anything. The book regained its magic towards the end and I thought the last few chapters were especially powerful.

One Day had far less humor than Starter for Ten and I also felt the extended time period meant that it lacked the magical remisicing power and sense of place. One Day is basically a very well written piece of chick lit and so will have a much narrower group of fans than Starter for Ten. I did enjoy reading the book, but there were times when I felt the plot was contrived in order to fit everything into that one day each year.

Overall it was an entertaining read that I’d recommend to anyone looking for a well written romance, but I’d encourage you to try Starter for Ten first.

Opinion is divided on this one:

I laughed and cried whilst reading this book in one sitting. Savidge Reads

I was less than impressed. Lucybird’s Book Blog

One Day, is at times moving, funny and sad, and then you’ll turn the page and laugh your face off! Highly, Highly recommended. Bart’s Bookshelf

I failed to be moved by the couple’s blindness to one another — and grew tired of reading about more unhappy choices and bitter affairs. Write Meg!

2009 2010 Books in Translation Chunkster Historical Fiction Other Prizes Recommended books

The Dark Side of Love – Rafik Schami

 Shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2010

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

The Dark Side of Love is epic in every sense of the word.

  • The 850 pages are imposing.
  • The writing quality surpasses the ordinary.
  • The narrative encompasses an impressive period of time, following three generations as political change forces their lives in different directions.
  • There is a hero who battles against adversity, capturing your heart.

The Dark Side of Love is set in Syria and follows two feuding families from 1907 through to 1970. The central characters are Rana and Farid, a couple who fall in love, but are unable to be together due to the generations of hatred between their rival clans.

The gulf between the Mushtak and Shanin families was deep. Later, no one could say just how their hostility had begun, but even the children of both families were convinced that they would sooner make friends with the devil than one of the enemy clan.

The first 300 pages of this book were slow going. New characters seemed to be introduced on each page and I found it almost impossible to keep track of who everyone was. In the end I gave up trying to work it out and approached each chapter as if it were a short story. This worked really well and I found myself treated to numerous Syrian myths and legends. I found the details of their lives fascinating and so although I couldn’t tell you who half the people were I never lost interest in the book. It took me over two months to read the first 400 pages, but I’m pleased that I took the time to absorb their world as I think it made the second half of the book even better.

At the centre of the book the narrative became more conventional and the focus shifted to Farid. This increased the pace of the book and I managed to complete the second half in just two weeks. Farid finds himself in many terrible situations, both political and personal, but the lengths that he goes to to try to be with Rana are heartbreaking. Their love was so strong and realistic that this has become one of my favourite romances.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a happy book though – there is a lot of violence and suffering. I’d describe it as a cross between A Fine Balance and Palace Walk. The complex political and religious situations in Syria are woven with more personal stories of families trying to arrange favourable marriages for their children or find appropriate jobs. I learnt so much from reading this book, but I’m going to re-read it as I’m sure that would reveal many more layers.

This isn’t an easy read, but it is well worth the effort. I think it is a literary masterpiece and that everyone interested in Middle Eastern literature should ensure they read it.

Highly recommended. 

2009 Science Fiction

Paprika – Yasutaka Tsutsui

 Translated from the Japanese by Andrew Driver

I bought this book because I saw the following phrase on the cover:

A Japanese master to be ranked alongside Haruki Murakami

I hadn’t heard of the author, but I’m afraid I have no self control when I see the word Murakami – I just have to see if it is anywhere near as good as books like Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I’m really pleased with my impulse buy – Paprika is as weird as anything Murakami has written!

Paprika is a science fiction novel, originally published in Japan in 1993. The book focuses on a group of scientists who have invented a machine which allows them to enter the dreams of others. The team use their invention to treat mentally ill patients, particularly those with schizophrenia. Everything goes wrong when one of the devices goes missing and is used as a weapon to turn people insane.

This book is very strange! Much of it is set within peoples’ dreams where anything can happen:

Atsuko was trying hard to vanquish the demons of sleep. “It’s just like a dream. A dream. No. This is a dream.”
Yes, I’m sure it is. ” The reporter suddenly sprouted a cow’s head, which flopped down low in front of her. The weight brought her to her senses with a sharp intake of breath, but the cow’s slobber still hung from her mouth. “Do excuse me. I’ve only eaten one helping of rice porridge this morning.” And she slurped the slobber back into her mouth.

Unfortunately most of the people have violent or sexual dreams and so scenes like the one above are quite rare. The tone is kept light so I didn’t find the book disturbing, but I know this sort of thing isn’t for everyone!

The plot was gripping throughout, but it wasn’t as thought provoking as I’d have liked. The book seemed to focus on the battles between good and evil instead of how much our dreams tell us about ourselves and to what extent we can be manipulated through unconscious thought.

I loved the way Japanese mythology was prevalent throughout this book and the fact that  you could never predict what was going to happen next.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys reading bizarre Japanese fiction.

Have you read any of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s other books?

2009 Commonwealth Writer's Prize

Solo by Rana Dasgupta

  Winner of 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is my favourite book award and so I’m very pleased that it lived up to my expectations and provided me with another wonderful book that I wouldn’t have discovered without it.

Solo is set in Bulgaria and as I love science I was very excited to see that the central character is a chemist. Now a blind, old man, he reflects upon how much has changed over the course of his life and explains the difficult situations he faced over the years.

I knew very little about the history of Bulgaria before reading this book and it was nice to find out so much about this country’s difficult past. The combination of both European and Asian ancestry, and the struggle against communism makes me wonder why I haven’t read more fiction set in this fascinating country before.

The book was very well written and successfully managed to combine science with literature – a feat few authors can manage without patronising readers with a scientific background or going over the heads of those that don’t.

I loved the first half of this book which followed the chemist’s life in a fairly linear fashion. He was such an endearing, slightly grumpy character, but packed with the wisdom of a long and complicated life.

He switches on his television for a bit of sound to eat his beans by. He is irritated by the weather programmes that come on the international channels. Ignorant people judging the world’s weather. In that place it will be a nice day because there is pure sunshine. They estimate a nice day as when you can sit outside in sunglasses and drink coffee that no normal person can afford. Their minds cannot consider that a place is full of people cursing because there is no rain.

I found the second half much less enjoyable. It consisted of “daydreams” which could otherwise be described as a collection of short stories. The writing quality remained high, but I lost that emotional attachment to the chemist, so it felt a bit disconnected.

Overall this is a wonderful book. I recommend it to all lovers of literary fiction, if only so you learn a bit about Bulgarian history.

2009 Audio Book

The School of Essential Ingredients – Erica Bauermeister (Audio Book)

Note: This book is called The Monday Night Cooking School in the UK, but is only available as an audio book under the title The School of Essential Ingredients.

I bought a copy of this book after Sandy raved about it and then included it in her top ten of the year. Good audio books are very hard to find, but Sandy listens to a lot of them and so if she raves about one then I know I’m in safe hands.

The School of Essential Ingredients is a weekly cookery class run by Lillian, a restaurant owner who taught herself to cook as a child in order to connect with her mother, a woman who had become depressed after her husband left her.

Each week the book focuses on a different one of the eight cookery students; we learn a bit about their lives and Lillian uses food to help them through their various problems.

Warning: This book will make you hungry!

The book is packed with amazing descriptions of food preparation – I could almost taste each dish as it was described and in many cases I wanted to rush out and make it. I think this is mainly down to the wonderful narration provided by Cassandra Campbell – she made the book come alive! I can’t imagine enjoying the print version of this book – I think I’d have found the recipes tedious and the lack of momentum would have led me to give up.

I’m not a fan of short stories and I’m afraid this book suffered from being more like a selection of short stories than a novel. The stories of each cookery student were very different and I had hoped everything would be brought together in the end, but I’m afraid they failed to link up and the book seemed to end quite abruptly.

I also found the book to be a bit overly sentimental and there were a few too many metaphors for my liking:

What did she do that made her happy? The question implied action, a conscious purpose. She did many things in a day, and many things made her happy, but that, Claire could tell, wasn’t the issue. Nor the only one, Claire realized. Because in order to consciously do something that made you happy, you’d have to know who you were. Trying to figure that out these days was like fishing on a lake on a moonless night–you had no idea what you would get.

Note: Trying to get a quote from an audio book is very hard, so I copied this quote from this wonderful quotes and passages blog.

A slightly amusing problem was caused by the fact this is an American book. Many foods have different names and although I knew most of them, there was a point when I wondered why she was decorating a cake with okra. It took me a few minutes to realise that Lady’s Fingers are something very different in America!!

Despite these criticisms it did inspire me to cook and on the whole I enjoyed listening to it.

Recommended to those interested in cookery.

I couldn’t find a negative review for this book:

I absolutely adored this book, and I’m going to be recommending it to everyone. Booking Mama

…if you’ve never read a food-related novel, this is where to start. A Reader’s Respite

Don’t read this book when you are hungry; it will probably be unbearable. S. Krishna’s Books