Archive > July 2012

Esmond in India

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Esmond in India - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, book reviewShakuntala is young, idealistic and educated. With her Batchelor of Arts degree completed she’s not too sure what to do next when the world seems so full of opportunities. Hanging around the house with her pretty-but-simple sister-in-law, her ever so correct and dainty mother and a houseful of servants is giving her itchy feet. She adores her father, Har Dayal, because he’s an educated and highly cultured man but what’s a girl to do when there’s no clear route forward for someone like her? These are the 1950s, India has shaken off the shackles of Empire rule and a smart young woman must surely have more to look forward to than a loveless arranged marriage.


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The Song of Achilles

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The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller, book reviewAlmost all readers have some vague knowledge of the Greek myths. At one time they would have been a core component of a rounded education, but that era for most people has now gone, and for many their awareness may come mainly from films or video games. The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller is a novel which retells part of the Iliad, from the perspective of Patroclus, companion of Achilles. The Iliad, of course, is a complex story, and many readers are put off by the multitude of characters. Miller succeeds here by focusing on a narrow (but central) part of the story, and developing a limited number of characters who take central stage in a way that makes the events very approachable.

The Greek Myths exist in many variants, and one of the challenges facing any author is what perspective to take and what variant to follow.


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A Shrinking World

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Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History (Paperback) By (author) Canyon Sam, Foreword by Dalai Lama XIV, book reviewThe strange thing is that very few people were aware that women were marginalized in Tibet and then brought to the forefront after the Chinese occupation. You realize it reading through Sky Train. Most tellingly in the story of a Rinpoche who refuses to travel in the company of women, despite being accompanied by the woman’s husband and son as well. He calls the husband aside to tell him this and the result is that the family ends up being separated as the husband tries to escort the Rinpoche safely to the Indian border and the Chinese move in and arrest the two women, sisters, who share the same husband.

Canyon Sam is a third generation Chinese American who visited China in an attempt to discover her roots.


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Tuk-Tuk to the Road

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Tuk-Tuk to the Road,  Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent,  Jo Huxster, book reviewOne of the best things about being British is that eccentricity is not just acceptable, it’s almost compulsory. It’s perfectly possible to run the London marathon dressed as a tampon or to sail across the Atlantic on a sofa and still be considered entirely sane and almost normal. I say “hoorah to that” and the more such activities the better though I’d really rather someone else does them so that I don’t have to. When I read that two young women had driven a bright pink tuk tuk (auto-rickshaw) overland from Bangkok to Brighton to raise money for charity, I knew that I would have to get a copy of their book and find out more. That book is Tuk Tuk to the Road: Two Girls, Three Wheels, 12,500 Miles by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent and Jo Huxter.

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George VI

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George VI (Viking), Sarah Bradford, book reviewSarah Bradford’s biography of George VI deals with a king who faced a great deal of adversity in his short reign. The second son of George V, he ascended to the throne on the abdication of his older brother, Edward VIII, who chose marriage to Wallis Simpson over remaining as king. George VI not only had to deal with the upheaval and upset of the abdication and its aftermath, but he saw his country through the Second World War, the strain of which affected his health, leading to his death at only 56.

Known as Prince Albert prior to acceding to the throne, he was Duke of York and married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, better known to most of us as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as she became on his death.


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Two by Two and a half

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Two by Two and a half by David Melling, book reviewMiss Moo Hoo asks all the animals in her nursery class to find a partner and follow her to the woods for a walk. There is a problem, however, because there is an odd number of animals, which means Little Bat Jack doesn’t have a partner. Although he is the smallest animal, he is extremely brave and says he doesn’t mind. They sing as they head towards the woods.

Every so often, one of the animals thinks they can smell, hear, or see something. Miss Moo Hoo is afraid it might be a scary dragon or a tree-climbing lion, but each time it just turns out to be Little Bat Jack.


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Chef

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Chef, Jaspreet Singh, book reviewChef is the story of Kirpal (Kip) Singh, a young fatherless Sikh looking for his late father both literally and metaphorically, as well as for himself and a lot more by joining the Indian army serving in Kashmir. Shortly after his father’s death he goes to the Himalaya to work in the kitchens of General Kumar, chief of the Northern Command and resident of the second biggest house in Srinagar.

Chef is also the story of Kirpal (Kip) Singh, a man in his 30s whose life is to be cut short by a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour. He has been invited to return to Kashmir by the General who fourteen years after Singh left him is now the Governor of Kashmir and resident of the biggest house in Srinagar.


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Panamerican Peaks

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Panamerican Peaks by Thomas Laussermair, book reviewPanamerican Peaks by Thomas Laussermair is the story of the journey of a lifetime. In 2009-2010, Laussermair cycled from Alaska down through Canada and the US, and then through Central and South America. On the way he climbed 16 mountains, one per country (although technically two in the US as he did Denali in Alaska and then Mount Whitney). He categorises his journey by the elements of nature he is passing through, i.e. Heat, Pampa, Volcano.

Laussermair is not a native English speaker, although he is highly proficient in the language, and unfortunately this was the first thing I noticed about his writing.


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Singing the Life

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Singing the Life, Elizabeth Bryan, book reviewElizabeth Bryan is a doctor, an expert in multiple births who worked with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and published books on twins and triplets. As you’d expect with a background like that she knows a lot about genetics but in the case of her and her direct family, a single gene was the root of a devastating health time bomb. Elizabeth Bryan’s family is cursed with the notorious BRCA1 gene which makes carriers susceptible to cancer – especially breast and ovarian cancers. Singing the Life is Bryan’s account of her family and how they lived and sometimes lost their lives with the threat of cancer hanging over them.

It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to know that your fate in life could well be an early and painful death.


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Every Contact Leaves a Trace

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Every Contact Leaves a Trace, Elanor Dymott, book reviewEvery Contact Leaves a Trace is Elanor Dymott’s first novel, and is best described as a literary whodunit. The setting is the University of Oxford. The main characters are students or academic staff, or closely associated with the University and the story is narrated by Richard, now a lawyer in early middle age. At the start of the novel he meets, apparently by chance, Rachel, with whom he has been at University. We know very quickly that the two have a shared past, but the details of their previous relationship are only revealed slowly during the course of the book.

Very rapidly, Richard and Rachel marry and settle down into what appears to be idyllic married life.


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Meerkat Mail

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Meerkat Mail, Emily Gravett, book reviewSunny the meerkat lives in the Kalahari Desert, and he does not appreciate the hot, dry weather there. His family’s motto is “Stay safe, stay together,” but Sunny sometimes feels his siblings are too close to him. He thinks there must be better places to live, so he leaves an explanatory note for his family and sets off to visit his mongoose cousins.

Sunny’s first stop is at Uncle Bob’s, where the African red hornbill warns the mongoose family if a jackal is lurking. Sunny feels that he doesn’t quite fit in there, so he drops in on his cousins Scratch and Mitch. Their family, however, is moving house, so Sunny visits some chickens on a farm.


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Intricate Plotting

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The Taj Conspiracy, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, book reviewMove over Da Vinci, the Taj Mahal’s here. Half Persian half Indian scholar Mehrunnisa stumbles on a murder during an early morning meeting at the Taj. The supervisor is dead and someone’s been at work altering the calligraphy on Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb to make it seem as if the tomb is a fake. Most people in India have at some point or the other encountered Professor Oak’s vehement defence of the theory that the Taj Mahal is a Shiva temple which was known in ancient times as Tej-o-Mahalaya – the email frequently does the rounds and manages to shake the convictions of quite a few. Shah Jehan’s love for Mumtaz Mahal also frequently gets questioned, with whispered accusations of incest immediately after Mumtaz’s death thrown in for good measure.


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