2013 Longlisted: Unexploded by Alison MacLeod

UnexplodedRating: 3.5
 Unexploded
A Novel by Alison MacLeod
2013 / 352 Pages

Unexploded is a story of a marriage exploding at the seams at the same moment when the German’s impending invasion of Brighton Beach is set to occur. “In those weeks, bombs dropped like leaves of autumn.”

It is also an exquisitely drawn tale featuring four distinct and individual characters coping with loss, love and an ever-increasing threat of invasion. Evelyn, Geoffrey, Philip and Otto are wonderfully placed in this WWII historical fiction piece.

For Evelyn, she knows her marriage fell apart at its seams when her husband announces a new position he has accepted without first considering or discussing with her. For her, his announcement shows his all too readily willing ability to abandon her and their son. Geoffrey has accepted the post of Superintendent of a labour camp created on the grounds of a former race-track. Geoffrey believes this is what is required of him and consultation with Evelyn wasn’t an option.

Following this announcement and the subsequent cooling of their relationship, Evelyn also becomes increasingly startled at the quick unraveling of their safely guarded lives and at her husband’s actions/attitudes. After 12 years of marriage she is beginning to realize he’s not quite the man she thought he was. His anti-Semitism which has simmered below is bubbling more to the surface.

“In their life together, had Geoffrey disguised his true opinions less for himself than for her? Was it the unspoken condition of their marriage? Did her own rot run deeper than his? Would it -had it- spread to Philip?”

“Otto Gottlieb wasn’t a conman. Her husband was.”

Evelyn also experiences an awakening following a lecture given by her beloved author, Virginia Wolf. Wolf and her novels feature prominently in Evelyn’s life and in this novel. Following Woolf’s lecture, Evelyn sees it as a call to arms and begins to visit the infirmary at her husband’s labour camp so that she may read Wolf’s work to the prisoners.  Here is where she first encounters Otto.

Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground. It is not cut up into nations; there are no wars there. Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way ourselves.  Let us discover how to read and write, how to preserve and how to create. (Virginia Woolf)

Unexploded then weaves Otto’s tale in to the story. He is a Jewish artist, cast out when the transformation to “The German National/Culture Chamber” came about and when his art became “An Insult to German Womanhood” and demonstrated his attraction to “Cretins and Whores”. Now labelled a “Degenerate”, it’s a designation making it impossible for his escape to Switzerland. He is arrested, he escapes this camp and now finds himself interned at the camp that Geoffrey oversees. Evelyn becomes intrigued by this man and in a often written tale, becomes consumed by him and falls in love, as does Otto with her.

But she looked – she was – achingly lovely. Of course, as chance would have it, she was also the Superintendent’s wife, and he was too many things: a Jew, a refugee, an enemy alien, a degenerate and an undesirable. One didn’t want to be too many things. One was meant to be singular and pure.

Throughout we also hear Geoffrey’s perspective and how he is coping with the unraveling of his marriage, his discovery of a Jewess prostitute for whom he believes he has fallen in love with and the fight in the end to salvage his marriage.

 At the usual time, he would join the shadow of his former self at the station’s exit, remember who he was, and turn left on to Trafalgar Street, just as he did every Wednesday afternoon.

MacLeod also treats us to the youth perspective through Philip’s voice. Philip has a gang of friends, one that may or may not be a Jew, one with a brother that is off fighting in the war and together they live through war stories and fantasies of Hitler.

She writes with exquisite and tightly controlled beauty. Many of her sentences could be written in here to demonstrate the often eloquent way in which she writes, as her words really do grace the page, but there were so many examples it would just be wiser to read the book yourself. It is undeniable she has a true gift with words, she writes with arresting beauty, and exposes the simmering underlying sadness that war offers – not only for the returning and broken soldiers, the prisoners of internment camps, but the everyday person, those families –  the husbands and wives and children. However, I cannot deny that many times my enthusiasm waned during points of this book as here I was reading another WWII-based story. After all, Unexploded does not provide a terribly original premise. While it does provide a slightly different apologue with Otto’s artistry and hints of mystery, it still remained a well-oft told WWII tale with Hitler, anti-Semitism and British sacrifice, complete with the forbidden love for a Jew. However, it was exquisitely drawn with many moments of poignant thoughtfulness and toward the end had me perched further on the edge of my seat with anticipation and foreboding of forthcoming events. Therefore, I do see this one reaching the Shortlist and I would be most pleased to see it there. 3.5 stars.

Unexploded was chosen by me, (prior to opening the pages) to champion for the win for the Man Booker Prize 2013. Therefore, that post will have to be wildly different from this more formal book review as posted here on the Literary Hoarders’ site. We were told we could create that post in any manner we chose. To see that post championing Unexploded for the win, you’ll have to watch for it to appear on the BookerMarks site. I’m currently mulling over ideas. And possibly taking suggestions.

This review will be posted simultaneously on BookerMarks, and separately my “Why This Should Win” post as well.

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Audiobook Review: The Winter Witch

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What first brought my eye to The Winter Witch was this arresting cover. When I went to add it to my list, I discovered that I had already put Paula Brackston’s earlier book “The Witch’s Daughter” on there as well.  Sometimes I just like to read a well-written witch story and this one looked like it would fit the bill.  Then I saw it was available on audio! And what a spectacular treat for the ears that was! More on that later, but honestly, if you want the full pleasure package for The Winter Witch, you must listen to it! Here’s a clip for a brief taste of Marisa Calin’s brilliant work.

Synopsis taken from Paula Brackston’s site: In her small early nineteenth century Welsh town, there is no one quite like Morgana.   She is small and quick and pretty enough to attract a suitor, but there are things that set her apart from other girls. Though her mind is sharp she has not spoken since she was a young girl. Her silence is a mystery, as well as her magic—the household objects that seem to move at her command, the bad luck that visits those who do her ill.  Concerned for her safety, her mother is anxious to see Morgana married, and Cai Jenkins, the widowed drover from the far hills who knows nothing of the rumors that swirl around her, seems the best choice.

After her wedding, Morgana is heartbroken at leaving her mother, and wary of this man, whom she does not know, and who will take her away to begin a new life.  But she soon falls in love with Cai’s farm and the wild mountains that surround it. Here, where frail humans are at the mercy of the elements, she thrives, her wild nature and her magic blossoming. Cai works to understand the beautiful, half-tamed creature he has chosen for a bride, and slowly, he begins to win Morgana’s affections.  It’s not long, however, before her strangeness begins to be remarked upon in her new village.  A dark force is at work there—a person who will stop at nothing to turn the townspeople against Morgana, even at the expense of those closest to her.  Forced to defend her home, her man, and herself from all comers, Morgana must learn to harness her power, or she will lose everything in this beautifully written, enchanting novel.

The Winter Witch was a great little tale about a young woman coming in to her own first in love, and then in her development of her magical gifts. It was made all that much greater by the brilliant and fantastic narration of Marisa Calin. She has taken Brackston’s beautiful language and made it and her characters come to vivid life. Morgana is just a young girl when she is whisked off to marry Cai Jenkins and her narration was perfectly done to give Morgana that younger voice. Not too much mind you, but just right. And her voice for old Mrs. Jones, their housekeeper and the kindly woman that helps Morgana along with her craft is also perfectly rendered. And again, the voice she gives to the evil Isolde was pure delight as well. Isolde was the bad witch intent on casting spells on Morgana and Cai to gain control of the magical well on Cai Jenkins’ land. She actually made her voice lower and take on this evil, sophisticated, low sounding snake-like voice just like the serpent’s body she transforms into in front of Morgana. You really just have to listen to it. It was seriously a 5-star narration. All those Celtic endearments and places and words would have been completely and utterly lost without Calin’s brilliant narration.  Marisa Calin has also narrated The Witch’s Daughter, so I’m off to track that down now thank you!

Overall, The Winter Witch was a very enjoyable read. Sit back and let this bewitching tale cast you into the time of Morgana and Cai as they find themselves fighting the evils of another witch to save their home, their land, and discover the great love they have for each other. Good always triumphs over evil! It is a long story mind you, I think it took me close to a month to finish! But again, I can’t say enough about how wonderful the narration was. It truly made this great little story even greater.

This review gives another rightful look in to all you will find and enjoy in The Winter Witch:

“There’s a whiff of Harry Potter in the witchy conflict—a battle between undeveloped young magical talent and old malevolence—at the heart of this sprightly tale of spells and romance, the second novel from British writer Brackston (The Witch’s Daughter, 2011)…. Love of landscape and lyrical writing lend charm, but it’s Brackston’s full-blooded storytelling that will hook the reader.” —Kirkus

2013 Longlisted: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

16071831Rating: 3.0
Five Star Billionaire

A Novel by Tash Aw 
2013 / 400 Pages

I read the synopsis for this one about two weeks before I started reading thinking that a humorous look at rich Asians in Singapore would be just the thing to ease me into this year’s BookerMarks project. As I got to about the 3rd or 4th chapter (still waiting for the hilarity to kick in) I realized this wasn’t the book I thought it was (Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan). Five Star Billionaire is actually a kind of boring book about depressing Malaysian immigrants pretending to be people they are not living in Shanghai. Oops! My bad!!

The story begins with Phoebe a young girl who wants to change her fortune by moving to China. She has been promised a job by an old friend who is a no-show when she gets there. She decides to stay anyway and (somehow) finds a place to stay (with Yanyan– the jobless, Hello Kitty pyjama wearing room-mate who reads her diary and eats ice cream with Justin Lim). She works odd jobs off the grid and becomes fixated with finding a boyfriend to take care of her. She eventually steals another girl’s ID card and becomes sophisticated enough to get a job in a hoity-toity spa. She is very successful until she meets a man.

Yinghui is an ex-hippy coffee shop owner who left Malaysia following the death of her political failure of a father and the break up with her fiance (the notorious Lim family’s cherished youngest son C.S– brother of Justin). She has somehow become a famous and successful business woman in Shanghai (she owns a chain of high-class spas and has hired Phoebe to be one of her managers). She has bad hair but decent fashion sense and realizes that she has been faking her way in the business world. She tries to prove herself by throwing herself wholeheartedly into a business project with a man who she hopes will become more than just a business partner.

Justin is the first son of a “business family” (read– mafia) and has been pegged to be the new closer of the family business now that Sixth Uncle is getting up there in years. He has a sense for picking the best areas of town for development and is in Shanghai to make a deal. Rumours circle that the family business is now bankrupt so he decides to lay low at a cheap building where he meets Yanyan and buys her ice cream. He happens to run into his brother’s ex-fiance (Yinghui) at a business function and remembers that he has always had a crush on her. He must reinvent himself and tell her that he loves her.

Gary is a washed up pop star who hasn’t left his hotel room for about 6 months. He is obsessed with chatting on-line with girls and watching porn. He meets Phoebe in a chat room and thinks that she has changed his life. She chats him up, boosting his confidence and belief in his own music. He is determined to tell her who he is but then she disappears for a few weeks. In the meantime he is discovered again (by Justin) and is set to play at a grand opening. Phoebe finally returns to the chat room and Gary reveals who he is (the FAMOUS Gary!). She doesn’t believe him and tells him “Goodbye, you FREAK” and they actually never meet (the whole Gary part could have been left out of the story and it wouldn’t have been missed).

And in the background, touching all of these lives is Walter Chao– the Five Star Billionaire whose story from humble beginnings to billionaire status is peppered in between chapters. Turns out he is a fake, a crook and was only interested in revenge and humiliation.

Lessons Learned: money is everything; better to be a fake than unsuccessful; Shanghai is a cut throat place to live. That is it.

I waffled between giving it a 2.5 (Meh, take it or leave it) and 3 (Good, recommend with reservations) and decided on the  higher rating because I did enjoy the descriptions of the city of Shanghai and it didn’t take me as long to read as I thought it would.

You can’t stay in a city like Shanghai forever. You will leave too, and so will I.

Shanghai-is-worth-a-trip

This review was simultaneously posted on BookerMarks.

Book Review: The Blind Man’s Garden

15798312The Blind Man’s Garden was our Wink 3 August Book Club choice. Prior to this, it was graciously provided by Random House Canada for our review. So, I offer my thanks to you RHC for sending this our way. I myself have not read any of Aslam’s earlier works so this was going to be my first foray in to his writing. I say this as The Blind Man’s Garden has received a very mixed bag of reviews, many comparing this novel to his previous novels either for or against them. These reviews were read were before opening the pages to determine for myself.  It has been given enthusiastic ratings for its beautiful, poetic and descriptive writing to railing against it for its overuse of this descriptive prose making so much pointless in the story. For me however, I confess I fall in to the branch that exclaims of its beauty and more so for its importance. Here’s why:

We read not just only for entertainment but as a way to expand our horizons and gain knowledge of other experiences, cultures, viewpoints, etc. There are many sayings and quotes discussing how reading takes you to far off places, allows you to travel to countries and cultures all within the pages of a book, etc. Also, recently, there was an article in Forbes magazine featuring LaVar Burton also discussing why reading/literacy is so important. He spoke on his 30-year involvement with The Reading Rainbow, what the movie Roots meant to him, and why literacy is so important to him. This one part of his interview so aptly explains why The Blind Man’s Garden had such an impact on me:

This summer has marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Reading Rainbow brand. Our  first episode aired June 30, 1983. So I’ve been doing this for thirty years – Reading Rainbow in one form or another. And I continue to be committed to it, and I’ve been committed to it for as long as I have because I get the power of the medium. The Roots experience was one that really showed me the power of the medium of television. I mean, in eight nights of television, I watched this nation become transformed around the issue of racism, which is the legacy of slavery. And in experiencing that power when the idea was presented to me to use the medium of television to steer children back in the direction of the written word  it just made so much sense. It was a no-brainer. I believe that this very powerful communications medium is an incredibly effective tool for spreading awareness, education, inspiration. (Full Forbes article can be found here.)

The Blind Man’s Garden is really just that type of book. It is definitely not for the close-minded set, no, not at all, as some may find controversy or upset in what he has written.  It does depict another perspective of the terror attacks of 9/11, that of the people living in Pakistan and Afghanistan following these attacks. Where Mr. Burton talks of the nation transformed around the issue of racism garnered from Roots, I feel that Aslam has accomplished the same here in The Blind Man’s Garden, concerning the issue of terrorism, Islam and how so many are victims outside of the US of the terror attacks that occurred on American soil on 9/11. The people in Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered greatly, if not more so, as a result of those spearheading these terrorist actions. Here is where some may take affront, but Aslam provides a story so filled with compassion and understanding about how the Pakistani people are fighting to live through Taliban rule.  The Blind Man’s Garden also offers many things: a love story, a story of faith and a story of great pain, fear and terror, and a story of survival and hope.

While I was reading, I felt that Aslam beautifully demonstrated the dichotomy and struggle they must fight between embracing the beauty of their faith against the horror of how the extremists have twisted it into something ugly and war-based. For the characters in this tale, the expectations of this twisted and altered faith has led to events so ugly they cannot stand to be a part of it. For many, it has turned Muslim against Muslim. If you are not fighting with the Taliban and training to be a warrior against the West, you are then labelled a “bad” Muslim. However, the West has arrived to “help” and have painted every Muslim a terrorist and Taliban supporter.

What strange times are these, says Tara as they wend their way through the dead to safety, when Muslims must fear other Muslims.

You will say that the hostages here in this school are Muslims. But we know what kind of Muslims they are. We know that they and their kind approved of the destruction of the Taliban regime. Anyone over the age of thirteen who takes up arms against Islam can be erased. Any Muslim who approves of the West’s actions in Afghanistan, and follows it into this Crusader war by providing material or verbal support, should be aware that he is an apostate who is outside the co9mmunity of Islam. It is therefore permitted to take his money and his blood, as worthy of death as any American general with his braided glory… (terrorists that took over the school where Jeo’s sister and brother-in-law work) 

Aslam has shown the confusion and sacrifice being made by the Pakistani people as they attempt to survive through terror and a war-based life. On the one hand they must fight against the despised Taliban rule and on the other, battle the double-edged sword the US offers.

The US President used the word ‘crusade’ in the first speech he gave after the terrorist attacks, he says. And they said if Pakistan did not help them in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban, they would bomb us back to the Stone Age. These were their exact words.

Afghanistan is liberated and American troops are being handed sweets and plastic flowers by the free citizens of Kabul, music shops are being reopened, but while men are shaving off their beards, the women are choosing to remain hidden in their burkas for the time being. And Tara knows they are wise. During her adult life there has not been a single day when she has not heard of a woman killed with bullet or razor or rope, drowned or strangled with her own veil, buried alive, poisoned or suffocated, having her nose cut off or entire face disfigured with acid or the whole body cut to pieces, run over by a car or battered with firewood. Every day there is news that woman has had these things done to her in the name of honour-and-shame or Allah-and-Muhammad, by her father, her brother, her uncle, her nephew, her cousin, her husband, her husband’s nephew, her husband’s cousin, her son, her son-in-law, her lover, her enemy, her lover’s enemy, her son’s enemy, her son-in-law’s enemy. So now Tara commends the women of Kabul for being wise enough to stay in their burkas, because more often than not there are no second chances or forgiveness if you are a woman and have made a mistake or have been misunderstood.

Toward the end, Aslam introduces the American perspective:

There are American military bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary, Bosnia, Tajikistan, Croatia, Afghanistan, Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia – a base in each vicinity, ready to mobilise and put down possible threats. And it is no longer a case of American happiness, American freedom, American interests, the American way of life. Now it is about the survival of America itself.

To me, these two perspectives were very well drawn and demonstrated how propaganda is spread to all parties, all derived to spread hate and intolerance. The Blind Man’s Garden opens us to understanding, realization, compassion, and empathy for this particular family, and their role as so many play as victims to these hate-and-fear spreading warlords. Yes, The Blind Man’s Garden may seem to be too lengthy and there were times it was mired by unnecessary and overly descriptive prose, but I cannot deny I wasn’t completely drawn in and did find this to be a deeply affecting novel. 4 stars.

It is sure to provoke varied discussion at our book club meeting next week, as some have finished reading and have a very different rating and reaction than mine. As well, here is another review of the book, by Tanya at 52 Books or Bust. She falls in to the camp outside of mine and did not “feel” the book like myself. 52 Books or Bust’s review is here. 

And no, while this is not a news story about Pakistan or Afghanistan, I’ve included it here to show the serious unrest in the Middle East. This is not something we here in the West experience on a continued basis and again following the reading this novel I reflected on and gave thanks for the country I live in. This is an article about the continued unrest in Egypt, where today it has been reported that thousands have been injured and hundreds have been killed due to political unrest.