2009 Orange Prize

The Invention of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt

Short listed for the Orange Prize 2009

The Invention of Everything Else aims to familiarise us with the forgotten scientist, Nikola Tesla. Tesla is an intriguing character, who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, but has moments of genius in which he invents revolutionary advances in electrical engineering. The book also focuses on Louisa, a curious chambermaid, who discovers Tesla’s notes in the hotel where she works. They form a curious relationship through their interest in pigeons!

I’m afraid I didn’t connect with this book at all. As a chemistry graduate I was interested to read about this unusual scientist’s life, but I think the fact I am quite knowledgeable in this field was one of the main factors in my dislike for it. I felt I was being patronised a lot of the time by the  frequent  over-simplified explanations of Tesla’s discoveries. To highlight this I thought I’d pick out a quote on an object we are all familiar with:

The bicycle. Yes. I saw it once before. A magnificent invention. So simple and so sensible to harness wheels onto our feet while we are walking. Allowing the laws of physics to magnify our efforts and energy…..That rider is exerting no more effort than we are, and indeed he might be exerting even less, as he has also enslaved momentum to his machine, creating energy from nothing but cleverness.

If that quote didn’t irritate you, then you are probably OK to read this book, but be aware that the workings of  many things are explained in the book, something I found very tedious.

The book gets more complex as it continues, and is difficult to follow at times. It flips back and forth between various points in Tesla’s life, as he meets many eminent scientists. There were also a few very strange pieces of writing in here, the most bizarre being a list of 72 things beginning with the letter S. I know that passages like this are supposed to highlight Tesla’s OCD behaviour, but I found them a bit odd. There were a few great pieces of writing in this book, but I sometimes felt that Samantha Hunt was trying too hard to add certain literary elements to the book at the expense of plot. Perhaps I’m wrong though – it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, so some people obviously love it.

Overall, I’m afraid that the book did more to annoy me than entertain, and though it was clearly very well researched, I think that the more scientific your knowledge, the more you will dislike this book.

Recommended to people who love literary fiction, but know nothing about electrical engineering!



Have you read this book? What did you think?

Does this have your vote for the Orange Prize this year?

Can you recommend any good fiction with scientific content?

Orange Prize Richard and Judy Book Club

Half of a Yellow Sun – Thoughts at the half way point

Winner of the Orange Prize 2007




On reflection the half way point is a terrible place to stop and write notes on this book. I should have chosen a place about a third of the way in, when the characters had just been introduced, before the horrific events start to take place. Having not read the book I wasn’t to know this, and so I’ll have to make the most of it, and try to form some opinions, despite being in the middle of the fast paced devastation taking place in the book at the moment.

The book did not progress as I expected it too. The writing style was different to Purple Hibiscus, in that it seemed more complex, and instead of focusing on one central character we are introduced to lots of different ones, who don’t seem to have anything in common. The build up was very slow, and I was beginning to wonder why people rave about this book so much, as it didn’t have much appeal initially.

The female characters don’t appear to be as strong as the male ones at this half way point. Perhaps this is just a reflection of the African nation, where men take a more dominant role in society, but the female characters are coming across as quite vague and hard to relate to at this stage.

My favourite character is Ugwu. He is a boy from a poor village, who goes to work as a houseboy for a university lecturer. I especially loved the scene at the start of the book where he goes to his Master’s house for the first time, and is excited by the food and running water he finds there:

Ugwu turned off the tap, turned it on again, then off. On and off and on and off until he was laughing at the magic of the  running water and the chicken and bread that lay balmy in his stomach.

Scenes like this remind us of how lucky we are in the west to have basic luxuries like running water in our homes.

The pace of the book has picked up a lot in the last few chapters. The scenes of violence are disturbing, and my heart is often in my mouth as I read the words. I can only imagine that it is going to get much worse in the final half of the book. My only wish is that Ugwu survives to the end, and has a promising future predicted.

What are your thoughts on the first half of the book?

Is it how you expected it to be? Are you enjoying it?

Who is your favourite character?

2009 Orange Prize

Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie

  Shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2009

I can’t describe the plot of  Burnt Shadows better than the blurb on the back cover of the book, so I have copied it here:

August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanakasteps out onto her veranda, taking in the view of the terraced slopes leading up to the sky. Wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, she is twenty-one, in love withthe man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. In a split second, the world turns white. In the next, it explodes withthe sound of fire and the horror of realisation. In the numbing aftermath of a bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, she travels to Delhi to find Konrad’s relatives, and falls in love with their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from who she starts to learn Urdu. 

 As the years unravel, new homes replace those left behind and old wars are seamlessly usurped by new conflicts. But the shadows of history – personal, political – are cast over the entwined worlds of two families as they are transported from Pakistan to New York, and in the novel’s astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11.

Burnt Shadows is an epic book, spanning both generations and continents. There were many amazing sections in this book; the first chapter in particular was incredible, the subtle building of tension was brilliantly achieved, and the horror of the atomic blast, was sensitively written.

I loved the central character, Hiroko; she overcame so many tragedies, but remained a believable stalwart throughout. Some of her quotes were particularly thought provoking:

‘Sometimes I look at my son and think perhaps the less we have to “overcome” the more we feel aggrieved.’

The female characters in the book were far superior to the male ones. They seemed to have a depth, and realness lacking in all the male ones.

My main grievance with this book was that the ambitiousness was too great; trying to capture so many different cultures in one book, led to too much explanation, at the expensive of the flow of the story. In many places the book came across as contrived. The plot seemed to have been forced around major historic events: Nagasaki, Indian Partition and 9/11. These events were so far apart, both in time, and distance that it didn’t work for me. The credibility of the book just kept sliding away, the more I read. Would a 91-year-old lady really have travelled all the way from Asia to New York on her own, and then ‘run around’ New York like a person a quarter of her age?

Despite my criticisms there were many important issues raised by this book. The ambitiousness of this writing project deserves some recognition, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this won the Orange Prize. I’ll let you know once I’ve read all the other shortlisted books if I still think this is a contender.

Recommended for the first chapter, and a few other moments of genius, but be prepared to wade through some of the slower sections.



I noticed that some of Kamila Shamsie’s books have been shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Has anyone read any of her earlier books?

What did you think of this one? Do you think it might be a contender for the Orange prize this year?

Orange Prize

Scottsboro – Ellen Feldman

  Shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2009
Scottsboro is a novel about the shocking injustice recieved by nine black youths, falsely accused of raping two white girls, on a train in Alabama, in 1931. All the details of the alleged crime, and the trial are included. This book reads like a non-fictional account, but many of the characters are fictional. This meant that the book failed to live in either camp. I’m not a big fan of non-fiction books, as I like to feel the emotion of the characters, but this book can’t really work as a reference aid, as it is unclear exactly which bits are factually accurate, and which are added to improve the flow of the book.

Unfortunately the book is too factual to appeal to fans of historical fiction. We never see beneath the surface of any of the people; events rush along without dwelling on how the characters involved are feeling. I think that this story would work really well on film; the court room drama would work much better on screen than it does on paper.

As an aside, I thought that the cover for this book was terrible. My copy has a picture of a blurred train on the front, and it looks really cheap, and poorly displayed. I would never have picked this up in a bookshop, as it just looks as though no thought has gone into it, therefore implying that the book’s contents are not worth the effort. It needs some embossing, foiling or some other embellishment, and the font on the back is too large and clunky – am I just being a bit fussy?!

I had never heard of this case before, so I am really glad that I now know all the details, but I’d only recommend this book to people who are directly interested in this trial. Everyone else should wait until the film is made and released!





What did you think of this book?
Are you surprised to see it on the Orange shortlist?
Do you think it has a chance of winning?

Orange Prize Other

The Orange Prize Shortlist Challenge

The Orange Shortlist was announced a few days ago, and I have decided to try to read all the books on the list, before the winner is announced on 3rd June.

These six books are:
All summaries taken from the Orange Prize Website

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

In Alabama, 1931, a posse stops a freight train and arrests nine black youths. Their crime: fighting with white boys. Then two white girls emerge from another freight car, and as fast as anyone can say Jim Crow, the cry of rape goes up. One of the girls sticks to her story. The other changes her tune, again and again. A young journalist, whose only connection to the incident is her overheated social conscience, fights to save the nine youths from the electric chair, redeem the girl who repents her lie, and make amends for her own past. Intertwining historical actors and fictional characters, stirring racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism into an explosive brew.

The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey

It’s Jake’s birthday. He is sitting in a small plane, being flown over the landscape that has been the backdrop to his life – his childhood, his marriage, his work, his passions. Now he is in his early sixties, and he isn’t quite the man he used to be. He has lost his wife, his son is in prison, and he is about to lose his past. Jake has Alzheimer’s. As the disease takes hold of him, Jake struggles to hold on to his personal story, to his memories and identity, but they become increasingly elusive and unreliable. What happened to his daughter? Is she alive, or long dead? And why exactly is his son in prison? What went so wrong in his life? There was a cherry tree once, and a yellow dress, but what exactly do they mean?As Jake, assisted by ‘poor Eleanor’, a childhood friend with whom for some unfathomable reason he seems to be sleeping, fights the inevitable dying of the light, the key events of his life keep changing as he tries to grasp them, and what until recently seemed solid fact is melting into surreal dreams or nightmarish imaginings. Is there anything he’ll be able to salvage from the wreckage? Beauty, perhaps, the memory of love, or nothing at all?

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt

Louisa is an imaginative and curious chambermaid who, while cleaning rooms at the New Yorker Hotel, stumbles across a man living permanently in room 3327, which he has transformed into a scientific laboratory. Brought together by a shared interest in the pigeons that nest in the hotel, Louisa discovers that the mysterious guest is Nikola Tesla, one of the most brilliant – and most neglected – inventors of the twentieth century.

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

Dublin, Midsummer: While absent in New York, the celebrated actor Molly Fox has loaned her house to a playwright friend, who is struggling to write a new work. Over the course of this, the longest day of the year, the playwright reflects upon her own life, Molly’s, and that of their mutual friend Andrew, whom she has known since university. Why does Molly never celebrate her own birthday, which falls upon this day? What does it mean to be a playwright or an actor? How have their relationships evolved over the course of many years? Molly Fox’s Birthday calls into question the ideas that we hold about who we are; and shows how the past informs the present in ways we might never have imagined.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Hundreds of thousands of readers were enthralled and delighted by the luminous, tender voice of John Ames in Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Now comes HOME, a deeply affecting novel that takes place in the same period and same Iowa town of Gilead. This is Jack’s story. Jack ? prodigal son of the Boughton family, godson and namesake of John Ames, gone twenty years ? has come home looking for refuge and to try to make peace with a past littered with trouble and pain. A bad boy from childhood, an alcoholic who cannot hold down a job, Jack is perpetually at odds with his surroundings and with his traditionalist father, though he remains Boughton’s most beloved child. His sister Glory has also returned to Gilead, fleeing her own mistakes, to care for their dying father. Brilliant, loveable, wayward, Jack forges an intense new bond with Glory and engages painfully with his father and his father’s old friend John Ames.

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

In a prison cell in the US, a man stands trembling, naked, fearfully waiting to be shipped to Guantanamo Bay. How did it come to this? he wonders August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanaka steps out onto her veranda, taking in the view of the terraced slopes leading up to the sky. Wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, she is twenty-one, in love with the man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. In a split second, the world turns white. In the next, it explodes with the sound of fire and the horror of realisation. In the numbing aftermath of a bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, she travels to Delhi two years later. There she walks into the lives of Konrad’s half-sister, Elizabeth, her husband James Burton, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from whom she starts to learn Urdu. As the years unravel, new homes replace those left behind and old wars are seamlessly usurped by new conflicts. But the shadows of history – personal, political – are cast over the entwined worlds of the Burtons, Ashrafs and the Tanakas as they are transported from Pakistan to New York, and in the novel’s astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11. The ties that have bound them together over decades and generations are tested to the extreme, with unforeseeable consequences.

So for the next few weeks I will mainly be reading Orange books! 

Have you read any of the shortlist?

Do you plan to try reading them all?

I look forward to hearing your opinions!

Orange Prize Recommended books

The Road Home – Rose Tremain

Winner of the Orange Prize 2008





The Road Home tells the story of Lev, a migrant worker from Eastern Europe, travelling to England in the hope of finding enough money to support his mother and daughter, back in his home country. Still grieving from the death of his wife, he tries to build a new life for himself in a country where he doesn’t know anyone, and struggles to understand many of the English customs.

The detailed observations of London made me see my own country in a new light. Some of the things that I see every day were described so vividly that I saw them through new eyes, those of a migrant worker coming to the UK for the first time, and what I saw was both unsettling and true.

The writing style was reminiscent of A Fine Balance, which is very high praise from me, as Rohinton Mistry’s book is currently my favourite of all time. I loved the detail, and the emotion behind the words.

I’m not sure how realistic many of Lev’s experiences were; opportunities continually seemed to land in front of him, and I’m sure life for a real migrant worker would actually have been much tougher, especially in the first few weeks.

I was a little disappointed with the ending. It was so neat that it was as if the final chapter had been written first, and then everything else fanned out backwards from this point, rather than a natural progression from beginning to end. It was also a bit predictable from about the halfway point, but I’m willing to forgive these few niggles, as this really is a great book. It is packed with emotion, and enforces the message that family and friendships are more important that anything else in the world.

This book isn’t for everyone, as it is slow in places, contains a lot of observational passages, and the number of stereotypes will make some people cringe. I loved it, despite it’s flaws. It is a worthy winner of the Orange prize, and I recommend it to all lovers of well written fiction.

This is the first book by Rose Tremain that I have read. I’m really looking forward to reading all her others.

Have you read any books by Rose Tremain? If so, which was your favourite?

Do you think it deserved to win the Orange prize last year? Or was one of the other short listed books better?

I’d love to hear your opinions!