Audiobook Review: Island Apart

Many thanks to Audiobook Jukebox and AudioGo for sharing this title with the Literary Hoarders.  I’m afraid, however, that Island Apart was not the book for me.

From Goodreads: Claire Doheney, recovering from a serious illness, agrees to house-sit in an oceanfront mansion on Chappaquiddick island in Martha’s Vineyard.  The New York book editor hopes to find solace, strength, and sufficient calm to finish her biography of the iconoclastic psychotherapist, Wilhelm Reich. The last thing she expects to find is love. 

Then she meets a mysterious man the locals call the Hermit.  No one knows his real name or where he lives.  To their mutual surprise, Claire and the stranger discover that they share a passion for cooking that soon sparks something more.

But Claire’s new friend has a terrible secret that threatens to drive them apart forever.  The clock is ticking.  Can Claire let love into her life once more before it’s too late?

Why did I think I would like this?

If you tossed a Harlequin Romance into a blender with a Martha’s Vineyard cookbook, you’d wind up with Island Apart.  This is a book that tries to propel a serious plot, but instead comes across as a trite story that describes its food with more passion than its people.  I hate writing negative reviews, but I would be remiss if I did not admit that I was extremely anxious for this to end.  There’s only so much eye-rolling a person can stand.

A book about a woman who fights cancer and falls in love with a local eccentric should be anything but shallow, but the book was peppered with so many unnecessary details of affluence that they distracted from any effort to be profound.  The purr of “twin Bosch dishwashers;” slipping a CD into a “Bang & Olufsen;” turning on the “Bose” sound system; choosing “Polo” jeans; donning a pair of impossibly expensive boots (sorry, the brand name is escaping me); wine labels with rare names and years; cooking classes taken abroad; endless referrals to Jaguars, BMWs…. for heaven’s sake, enough.  We understand.

The cast of characters was commonplace.  Betrayed protagonist, philandering soon to be ex-husband, chirpy best friend, unfair boss, rebellious teenage daughter, comic-relief client, and mysterious love interest.  Will the Hermit’s secret be overcome in time for Claire to permit herself to truly fall in love?  I won’t give it away, but I will say that predictability is the least of this novel’s worries.  In a book that addresses everything from breast cancer to trust issues, it was a surprise to find so many one-dimensional characters.  That’s not to say that there was no effort behind them, but they just didn’t click.  Their dialogue was also hopelessly simplistic, with far too many “ouch!” and “shit!” responses.  It often bordered on juvenile.

The descriptions of the cooking, however, were the book’s high points.  Each time Claire or the Hermit created some edible piece of art, the detail had the power to made the reader downright hungry.  The very first time someone whipped up a dish in Island Apart, it quickly became evident that the true love story was with the food.  If as much texture and temptation were offered by the characters of this novel, then it truly would have been something to behold.

This audiobook was read by Susan Boyce, and she offered a very good narration.  Her range was effective, and her enthusiasm was evident.  She also embodied the voice of Claire extremely well, and could easily switch between each of the characters.

Alas, Island Apart could not decide what it wanted to be: a romance, or an ode to haute cuisine.  Because it tried to be both, it wound up being neither.  I wish very much that I had liked it more.

2 stars.

Audiobook Review: Honeymoon in Tehran

I found Honeymoon in Tehran by browsing the library shelves one day. This one was available in audiobook so I nabbed that version. It actually seemed to become quite timely to read, what with all the Obama action against Iran now, and all of these (and many more) articles about Iranian President Ahmadinejad in the National Post. There were additonal stories here in the National Post, and concern the very thing Moaveni often spoke of in Honeymoon in Tehran (the collapse of Iran’s economy).  Every day while listening to this story I found articles about Iran. Is it because I was so attuned to it from listening to this memoir?

Honeymoon in Tehran is about Moaveni’s time spent in Iran leading up to the 2005 Iranian election. As an American/Iranian journalist, she was dispatched to Tehran to report on the mood of the young people just before the election. While gathering information to report back to her editors, she meets and falls in love and decides she to remain, marry and start a family.  Moaveni writes with a great, great amount of information and detail about life (and history) in Tehran. Each aspect of Iranian life is examined and explained to the reader. It was indeed very fascinating and I did enjoy her story, although at times this inordinate  and numerous amount of detail bogged the story down considerably. Yet, given that this was her memoir, this audiobook was not read by Moaveni, but by an American narrator (Carrington MacDuffie). Oh! How I longed so very much for Ms. Moaveni to have read her own memoir! I longed for the lyrical lilt and pronunciation of Iranian names and words by a native voice and not by this incessantly flat and droning American. I suffered listening to this story. I endured only because it was so very interesting but I (obviously) do not recommend the audio version of this book! (Oh Azadeh! Why didn’t you read this yourself?)

A few things that really stuck out for me:

1.) Tehran is a horrendously polluted city. In the very first CD, Azadeh mentions leaving her hotel and going out to the street front to hail a cab. In that short period of time she notes how her contact lenses become coated with a sticky film. Later, when discussing her pregnancy she notes that she is unable to go outside, again, due to the heavily polluted air, which in her words, leaves everyone to wake each morning with “black gunk in their noses”, headaches and a restless sleep. Holy moses that is a LOT of pollution! I’ve included a photo below showing how many walk the streets in Tehran.

2.) Iran is a country of contrasts. Azadeh was determined remain, marry and raise her family in her country of birth, and wrote of many of the very successful women she befriended and of their treatment and quality of life. Many of her female friends and aquaintences were lawyers, doctors, judges, journalists, even a race-car driver. The veiling of women was something that was often treated with casualness and the vibrancy and style of Islamic dress worn by the women in Tehran does not in any way associate itself with the oppression that Western thought has deemed it to be. Yet, there are still many times when the “decency police” are out writing infractions for their coverings for being too short or the veil being pushed back too far. These incidents would fluctuate with whomever was in power at the time. Government, law and religion are not separate, so while there were times when women’s attendance at sporting events would be ruled to become more relaxed and allowed, there were still also times when women were not allowed to mix and mingle with men in public.

When Azadeh decides to marry in Iran she found she still required her father’s permission. While her father had left Iran in the 70s and had no desire to return, she was still required, by law, to have his permission, or find a male family member to grant it. Although her mother was actually in Iran visiting at the time, and was Azadeh’s primary parent throughout her upbringing, she had no authority to grant this permission. Azadeh mentions that her mother’s signature has no more meaning or authority than a doodle on a page. (She goes on to explain in very fascinating detail the marriage, divorce and child custody laws in Iran remain very patriarchial.) Wedding receptions are to remain sex-separated! Unless you pay a large sum of money to keep the police at bay, men and women are not allowed to be in the same room as each other during the reception! There were many more interesting details, but what did come across was that Western thought has really attached itself to the radical faction of how women are treated in Iranian society. Once Moaveni leaves Iran to reside in London does she see how it is those that have left the country that have become militant in their Islamic beliefs. She addresses this as a way in which they feel they must not let go of their culture when in a Western society.

Moaveni also provides a great deal of information about Ahmadinejad (the current Iranian president that has so many quaking in their boots) from the time when he was a relatively unknown candidate at the time of the 2005 election to his current regime.  Ahmadinejad went from relative obscurity in 2005, to claiming the presidency, to now becoming a man “touched by God” in the eyes of many Iranians. However, they also often ridicule him for his “Western style” – he is a man that wears a close cropped beard, a suit and a tie – a very non-Iranian political leader look. (a picture showing this contrast is included below). Yet, while he seemingly slid in to his role by promising economic prosperity and the relaxation of rules governing women, he has demonstrated the complete opposite. He seems to be a man of giving with one hand and slapping you in the face with the other.

So, overall, an educational and enjoyable read, but definitely not one I suggest to enjoy in audio book format. 3 stars for me due to what I felt was caused by the horrible narration.

Moaveni has also written other books, one of which was written before this memoir, entitled “Lipstick Jihad“. I’m quite interested in checking it out. Lipstick Jihad is of Azadeh’s life in America and what it meant to grow up Iranian in America.


Book Review: Orphan Train

 Many, many thanks to Edelweiss and William Morrow publishers for allowing me to read an advanced copy of Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train. (Publication of Orphan Train is set for April 2013. It seems like such a long ways away! Hopefully it can be released sooner so you won’t have to wait so long to grab this one!)

I cannot say enough about how much I enjoyed this book! I’m sitting here wondering if I should write in the Prologue in its entirety? Because as soon as I read the Prologue I knew that I would not be putting this book down until it was finished. It was then I also realized it was going to be a book very much like On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry, of which I truly and absolutely enjoyed. Which then led me to reflect on my love for this genre and style of book in particular, and why the Orphan Train was such a wonderful read for me. It was the realization of my love for history, in particular personal and family history. I have always been drawn to history, excelled at it in school, and in particular I’ve always been very drawn to these very personal histories of families and children and their coming of age during times of immigration, hardship etc. I’m always amazed at what young children have been able to overcome and how they adapt, survive and grow in to adulthood. I’m also thinking I missed out on not taking any Anthropology courses in University. (hmmmm, should enrol in one now?)

At any rate, Orphan Train covers so much of these favoured subjects and is written so finely I finished it in a very short time period.  Background taken from Edelweiss about Orphan Train: Between 1854 and 1929, so-called “orphan trains” transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children between the ages of 2 and 14 from the East Coast to the Midwest for foster care and adoption. But their treatment often amounted to indentured servitude. Chosen first were infants, for more traditional adoptions, and older boys, for their manual labor; adolescent girls were typically selected last. While some children quickly found love and acceptance, many walked a harder road.

Orphan Train is set in modern-day Maine and early twentieth-century Minnesota.  Kline spends every summer on the coast of Maine and has built a large fan base in the area.  She has also spent 25 years traveling to Minnesota where her husband’s family lives, and has strong ties to the orphan-train riders’ community in the state.

Christina Baker Kline also features on her website, her “work in progress”, which is this novel, and has more story with a few pictures of “The Train Rider“. Please take a moment to read through, it really is fascinating and covers this subject that isn’t well known in American history. I’ve often read about the WWII stories of putting Jewish children, or simply their children on trains to take them away from their war-torn cities to a place of safety. In particular, Alison Pick’s novel, Far to Go comes to mind. However, the Orphan Train is about the orphaned or homeless children living on America’s east coast in the late 1880s – 1930s whom were brought by train to America’s Midwest to be auctioned off (in a way) to people living in small towns or in the country.

After reading Christina’s story on her website and discovering that her previous novels also cover family history and cultural identity, I am for certain going to be adding more of her books to my To Be Read pile.

Orphan Train opens with Vivian (Niamh/Dorothy) Daly, now aged 91, sitting in her home in Maine 2011, recalling her early childhood plight and how she found herself riding the oprhan train from New York to Minneapolis. Throughout the novel, the story will switch back from present day to Vivian’s past and through the time she is placed in a myriad of homes. What begins to trigger Vivian’s memories is a result of the community service hours that Molly Ayers must provide in order to stay out of juvenile detention. Molly Ayers is a product of many failed foster homes and was caught stealing a library book. What occurs over these 50 hours of service is one very striking, yet unlikely friendship and a remarkable story filled with loss, longing, perseverance and determination.

Molly Ayers is a 17 year old girl that has been tossed around the foster care system for much of her life. Her father was killed in her young age and her mother mentally unstable and in and out of jail too much to properly care for her. Molly is living with a couple in which the wife, Dina, has absolutely no desire to have a teenage girl living under her roof, and the husband, Ralph, who wishes to have a better relationship with both his wife and Molly for he sees the potential in her. Molly has endured many years in the foster care system and thus, has created a harsh, unbreakable, goth exterior that includes a skunk-style dye job, multiple piercings and one tattoo and of course, one closed off nasty attitude. However, in order to remain with Dina and Ralph, no matter how troublesome this family is, and to not change cities or schools, Molly must agree to 50 hours of community service time cleaning out the attic of Vivian Daly, the very old lady living on her own in a mansion in Spruce Harbor.

Vivian’s childhood is really not all that much different than Molly’s, and during their journey through the many, many boxes of things from Vivian’s past, Molly begins to slowly shed her armored exterior and creates a close and strong bond with Vivian. With each item pulled from a box, Vivian takes us back to the time where it first came in to her life and we hear her very personal story of all she endured after arriving in Minneapolis those many years before. Vivian endured much and yet matured in to adulthood with a very strong reserve. Your heart will break for Vivian and you will also smile for Molly as she becomes closer to this formidable woman. Another solid 4-star read for me! I miss Vivian terribly and wish I could be the one sitting in her attic listening to her fascinating story.

You can read more about Christina Baker Kline on her website here.

You can read more about the orphan train riders on Orphan Train Depot. There are further personal stories of orphan train riders to read as well, one is Andrea Warren’s An Orphan Train Rider – One Boy’s True Story.

Book Review: 2012 Shortlisted: Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse

Rating: 3

The Lighthouse

A Novel by Alison Moore

2012 / 192 Pages

Well, that was tragic.

I’m trying to recall a novel that oozed loneliness as much as The Lighthouse.  The characters were lonely.  The plot was lonely.  The symbolism was lonely.  The book’s prognosis was lonely.

I needed a hug when it was done.

In the midst of his wife leaving him, “Futh” decides to go on a walking holiday in Germany.  The trip is supposed to be restorative.  It’s supposed to offer healing.  Futh brings little, expects little, and is prepared for little.  The trip will unquestionably unearth his past, and cause him to reflect on his present.  Will he like what he uncovers?   Will he permit the shards of his memory permanent residence in his mind?  Ultimately, will this well-intentioned holiday feed his soul?

Heaven knows if there was ever a soul that needed nourishment, it was this awkward and bumbling character.  The poor creature didn’t know how to act.  He was always at a loss for words.  He could barely muster enough conviction to muddle through the most benign of circumstances.  Most of his actions or inactions were wholly cringe-worthy.

After reading for a short while, it becomes painfully obvious why Futh is an emotional disaster.  He faced mother abandonment issues.  His father was colossally one-sided, and that side most often bristled with anger.  His childhood “friend” Kenny was no more available to him than the man in the moon.  His neighbor wished to seduce him.  Eventually, his wife would betray him.

Sounds like a good walk is just the ticket.

Sadly, there was no nourishment to be had for Futh.  Readers who pick up this novel wishing for their protagonist to eventually become fulfilled will be disappointed.  However, if you pick up this Man Booker nominee knowing from the outset that the story is an examination of loss, then you’re in for an incredibly well written tale.  The emotions are palpable.  The symbolism is sharp.  The characters who surround him are fascinating.

Did I actually like, or connect with any of the characters in The Lighthouse?  The answer to that is no.  No one in this story ever offered a kind word.  No one met in the middle.  No one seemed to care.  That in itself was distressing.  It does not, however detract from the story’s emotional reach.  It’s very effective in its portrayal of someone who simply does not know how to fit in.

Overall, The Lighthouse is a well written but sad, circular journey.  3 stars for the character development, detail and prose, but with a simultaneous longing for a more positive ending.