2011 Memoirs

The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker

 Source: Personal copy

Five words from the blurb: chickens, memoir, Deep South, fruit, experience

The Color Purple is an outstanding book and I currently have an obsession with chickens, so there was no way I could resist buying The Chicken Chronicles when I spotted it in a bookshop. I hadn’t heard of it before, but sadly there is good reason this book is never mentioned. I doubt it would have been published if it hadn’t been written by a literary legend. I would suggest you to visit makersfestival to check latest books.

The Chicken Chronicles is a slim book in which Alice Walker writes about what happens to her chickens each day. Unfortunately chickens lead a dull life and I was quickly bored by the repetitive descriptions of them walking round her yard looking for food.

I also found the overly sentimental tone annoying. The continual “Mommy loves you” aspect of the text felt weird and managed to turn even the most beautifully written sentence into a cloying sentiment:

Mommy has always thought chickens have a look of erudition; but by now you have a look that is practically professorial. Fleeting, I admit, because usually you are on your way to devouring something: greens, grains, or bugs. But it is there, that look of high intelligence, and Mommy appreciates it.

The additional problem was that Alice Walker’s life during this period of time seemed fascinating, but she left out everything that was interesting. There would be one sentence about returning from visiting the Dalai Lama and then it would go straight back into a description of how shiny corn is. I wanted to know all about her journeys, not how many eggs she ate each day. It’s a shame because she is such an amazing writer and chickens can be entertaining subjects.

I recommend avoiding this one and reading The Color Purple instead.


I notice that Alice Walker has written a lot of books. Are any of her others worth reading?


2011 Memoirs Recommended books

Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius

Ghost Boy

Five words from the blurb: trapped, body, mute, control, extraordinary

Ghost Boy is probably the most inspiring book I’ve ever read. It is an autobiography explaining how the author regained the ability to communicate after being trapped inside his own body for a decade.

At the age of twelve, Martin Pistorius succumbed to a mysterious illness that left him in a coma. The doctors expected him to die, but after 4 years Martin began to regain consciousness. Unfortunately he was unable to control his movements and so couldn’t alert the people around him:

However much I tried to beg and plead, shout and scream, I couldn’t make them notice me. My mind was trapped inside a useless body, my arms and legs weren’t mine to control, and my voice was mute. I couldn’t make a sign or a sound to let anyone know I’d become aware again. I was invisible. The ghost boy.

Ghost Boy beautifully explains the frustration of being an invisible member of society. He longs to converse with people but, as everyone believes him to be unresponsive, Martin learns many secrets and has plenty of time to analyse the behaviour of those around him. This deep, extended period of thought means that he has incredible pyscological insight and I found many sections of the book profound.

The book also highlights the best and worst aspects of human nature. With passion and emotional insight, Martin describes the kindness displayed by certain members of staff; but also the terrible abuse he suffered at the hands of those who thought they could get away with it. Throughout everything, positivity oozes from the page. There is no sign of self pity, only an unflinching determination to succeed.

The small steps leading to Martin’s escape from his internal world were incredible to read and I loved seeing how his life developed once he regained the ability to communicate. Ghost Boy shows the importance of perseverance and maintaining hope. Reading about what Martin overcame and achieved makes you realise that nothing is impossible.

Highly recommended.


Note: I borrowed a copy of this book from my local library after seeing several articles in the media recently. You can read a brief version of Martin’s story here.


2011 Thriller YA

Mice by Gordon Reece


Five words from the blurb: bullying, women, timid, shattered, control

Ignore the weird romance-like cover, this book is a dark, fast-paced thriller. Many bloggers raved about Mice on its release four years ago, but I never got around to reading it. Then last week I was looking for a light, but gripping read and stumbled across my copy. It was a perfect match for my mood and is great for a slightly creepy Halloween read.

Mice begins with fifteen-year-old Shelley being bullied at school. Shelley and her mother are both quiet people, unwilling to make a fuss. They silently endure the jibes of others and many people abuse their good nature. Then one day they are woken in the night by a burglar and they face the difficult decision of whether or not to fight back for the first time in their lives.

Mice is a clever book. On the surface it is a gripping read, packed with twists and turns, but underneath it raises many interesting questions about whether we should always stand up for ourselves. It also has some good observations about how we interact with others:

All I could think was that no matter how close we are to someone else, there are limits, frontiers between us that we just can’t cross, things that touch us so deeply they can’t be shared with anyone else. Maybe, I thought, it’s what we can’t share with others that really defines who we are. 

The subject matter was dark, but not oppressively so – it’s a great introduction to scary books! Some elements of the story required the reader to suspend their disbelief, but I didn’t mind as these were necessary to build a more interesting plot. I also found some of the symbolism a bit heavy-handed, but overall the writing quality was quite good.

The characters were well drawn and I especially loved the interaction between the mother and her daughter. There was a real emotional connection between the two and the reader quickly becomes involved in their dilemmas.

This wasn’t great literature, but it was an entertaining plot driven novel. Recommended if you’re looking for a quick, engaging read.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

I found this a gripping, unputdownable read, one which I devoured in one sitting. Lovely Treez Reads

Some nice dramatic scenes are unfortunately let down by obvious concepts and ideas. A little more showing and a little less telling. Sam, Goodreads

Thought provoking and reading like something that could easily have been torn from the front page of a newspaper – this is great fiction and I shall certainly look out for Graham Reece’s next one. Books and Writers


2011 Books in Translation

Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Heaven and Hell Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Five words from the blurb: Iceland, boat, fishing, tragedy, solitude

I’m going to Iceland soon and so have been trying to track down as much fiction from the country as possible. Heaven and Hell has been on my wishlist ever since I read Kim’s 5 star review and so I bought a copy during my recent Icelandic fiction spending spree. In a strange twist of fate I received a review copy just 3 weeks later, accompanied by its sequel, The Sorrow of Angels, which is due to be released on 15th August. Having read Heaven and Hell I’m keen to read the next book in the trilogy and hope to let you know my thoughts very soon.

Heaven and Hell is a beautifully written book about a nineteen-year-old boy who witnesses a tragic event at sea. The atmospheric descriptions of the hardship that Icelanders had to endure in the 19th century were heartbreaking and the fine line between life and death was cleverly investigated.

The poetic writing was packed with snippets of wisdom. This is the sort of book that you can open at random and be sure to come across something beautiful within a few paragraphs:

Some words can conceivably change the world, they can comfort us and dry our tears. Some words are bullets, others are notes of a violin. Some can melt the ice around one’s heart, and it is even possible to send words out like rescue teams when the days are difficult and we are perhaps neither living nor dead. However, words are not enough and we become lost and die out on the heaths of life if we have nothing to hold but a dip pen.

This was the main joy of the book, but also a slight negative for me. The writing was incredibly dense and slow going. It was well worth the effort, but there were times when the plot became lost in a sea of reflections (pun half intended!)

I also found the characters cold and difficult to connect with. I know this is an accurate portrayal of their personalities, but it meant I didn’t care whether or not they lived or died.

Overall this book showed the power of nature and how fragile human life can be. It is worth reading for the vivid descriptions of the sea and snow alone, and I recommended to anyone who enjoys slow atmospheric books.





2011 Books in Translation Other Prizes

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld

Blooms of Darkness Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green

Winner of the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Five words from the blurb: Holocaust, Jewish, boy, hides, brothel

Blooms of Darkness is set during WWII and follows an eleven-year-old Jewish boy as he is forced to leave his family and hide from the Nazis in a brothel.

Blooms of Darkness is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It isn’t a roller coaster of emotions, it is an endlessly bleak book without a glimmer of hope anywhere. I think the fact it is narrated by an innocent child, separated from his friends and family, makes it have even more impact. The loneliness and grief were heartbreaking and the thought of any child growing up in such terrible circumstances is hard to take.

Very little happened, but the observations and emotions were powerful and realistic – the author’s own experiences as a Jewish boy in hiding gave this book a painful authenticity. The writing style was simple and quiet and it was surprising to see how distressing a book could be without actually containing any graphic scenes.  The fear of discovery and imagining what might have happened to loved ones was enough to give this book a terrible sense of impending doom:

Hugo refused to think about what had happened to Erwin in the ghetto. One night they sealed off the orphanage on all sides, took the orphans out of their beds, and loaded them onto trucks while they were still in their pyjamas. The orphans wept and cried out for help, but no one did anything. Anyone who opened a window or went out would be shot.

It seems wrong to criticise a book for revealing the painful truth, but the continual darkness was too much for me. I longed for a few lighter moments to penetrate the bleakness, but I guess I’ll just have to take comfort in the fact that I’m lucky enough to never have experienced anything like this.

Recommended to anyone who’d like to know what it is like to be a child living in constant fear, but I’m sure it will be too distressing for many.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Aharon has shown why he considered one of the foremost Hebrew writers. Winstondad’s Blog

…there’s nothing in the novel which makes it stand out amongst its peers and competitors. Tony’s Reading List

It’s a sombre work, because it deals with the Holocaust, but it’s beautiful all the same… ANZ Litlovers Litblog



2011 Non Fiction Recommended books

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers


Five words from the blurb: Hurricane Katrina, flooded, neighbours, nightmare

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. Zeitoun is the true account of what happened to one man, a hard working resident who stayed in the city to protect his property and ended up in prison suspected of terrorism. This is the kind of unbelievable story that you’d never find in fiction. The twists and turns are staggering and it is shocking to discover that the events of this book happened in a modern American city.

Zeitoun begins by introducing the reader to Abdulrahman and his family. Abdulrahman was born in Syria, but emigrated to New Orleans where he set up a successful decorating business, employing a number of people around the city. The book covers the few days preceding the storm; goes on to show the effects of the strong winds and flooding on Abdulrahman’s neighbourhood; and culminates in the shocking way that Abdulrahman was treated by American authorities.

The writing was engaging throughout, the pace slowly building towards the shocking climax. I was worried that I’d find much of this book disturbing, but that wasn’t the case. Several distressing events were mentioned, but they were written so skillfully that they never traumatised me.

The book is well researched, with each account fact checked against many others. It is all intelligently written, but never becomes overburdened with statistics as the emotions of the people involved remains the priority throughout.

 This book is narrative non-fiction at its best. It highlights the way that American authorities managed to make a natural disaster even worse than it already was, but also shows the strength of the human spirit. I found many sections extremely poignant and found this quote from near the end especially moving:

It could have been avoided, she thinks. So many little things could have been done. So many people let it happen. So many looked away. And it only takes one person, one small act of stepping from the dark to the light.

Zeitoun does a fantastic job of showing the Muslim religion in a positive light whilst highlighting the racism that is present in some sections of American society. It is compelling, shocking and insightful.

Highly recommended.