Monday, September 30, 2013

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

It seems hard to believe but it is more than 3 years since I read Jamie Ford's excellent debut novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Ever since that time I have been waiting with a high degree of expectation for his follow up effort.

Once again, Ford has chosen to set his story in Seattle and to feature Asian characters in difficult situations. Whereas in Hotel it was World War II Seattle, this time he has cast his eye further back to the 1920s and 30s. This was a time of tremendous change and upheaval: the fledgling movie industry is changing entertainment in a way that continues to develop even now, the stock market crash is on the horizon, there is prohibition and the Charleston is the dance of choice.

For anyone who is of a minority race though and particularly for a woman without societal support, this is a hard time to get by and it is this element that provides a lot of the background for the story. The story starts in 1934 when we are introduced to a young boy named William Eng. He lives in a Catholic orphanage, and he is destined to live there until he comes of age. He believe that his mother is dead, has never known his father so he cannot be released from the orphanage into their care and he knows that no one is going to want to adopt a Chinese boy. He has only a couple of friends in the home - Charlotte, a blind girl with a traumatic past, and Sunny, a native American boy.

As a birthday treat, he goes to the movies with some of his classmates and whilst there he sees a woman on the big screen who he believes could be his mother. When he finds out that she is travelling to Seattle, he is determined that he is going to get to meet her and so he sneaks out to the theatre.

When he does meet Liu Song Eng, who is now known as Willow Frost, we hear her story of how she came to be a single woman with a child, considered to be a fallen woman by everyone in her community, and how it was that she gave William up. If there was one word that I would use to describe Willow's life it would be depressing. When Willow's mother dies, her lecherous husband Uncle Leo not only brings in his first wife who treats Willow appallingly but he also makes advances on her. It is a time where a woman has no rights, so Uncle Leo can take all of the money that she earns and she has no recourse at all, and if she loses her job singing for tourists it is highly unlikely that she will be able to easily gain another.

Once Willow gives birth to William, she is determined to keep her baby, and she has high hopes of being able to achieve her dreams of a life with a debonair man who pays court to her named Colin. With the effects of the Great Depression being felt at every level of society, and when dream after dream is destroyed Willow gets to the point where she feels like there is no other way out but to give up her child.

One of the details that I found fascinating in the narrative was the idea that a young Chinese woman could lose her American citizenship if she married a Chinese national. This was something I hadn't heard of before.

I know when I read a book set in Melbourne I love the idea of seeing the familiar places and names. There is no doubt that Ford has done an incredible amount of research into historical Seattle so if you are familiar with that city I imagine that there would be an additional degree of impact for you. Similarly, there is a lot of fascinating details about the young film making industry and the films that were being filmed in Seattle during the 1920s. Something I did know but had reiterated through the story was the way it was difficult for any minority actor to get a break in the movies when so many of their roles were played by caucasian actors.

There were elements though that didn't work as well as I would have liked. I felt that there wasn't a lot of nuance in relation to some of the secondary characters. Uncle Leo was an out and out villain without a single redeeming feature. His wife felt like a caricature rather than a real character as did some of the nuns and the social worker sent to judge Willow on how well she can provide for her son both financially and morally.

I didn't feel as though I engaged as much with the characters as I could have which is a bit of shame because there was a lot to like in the book. I just wish that I had of been able to get lost in the world that Ford has created.

Rating 3.5/5

Tour Details

Link to Tour Schedule:
Jamie Ford's website.
Jamie Ford on Facebook
Jamie Ford on Twitter.

About the book

From Jamie Ford, the New York Times bestselling author of the beloved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, comes a much-anticipated second novel. Set against the backdrop of Depression-era Seattle, Songs of Willow Frost is a powerful tale of two souls—a boy with dreams for his future and a woman escaping her haunted past—both seeking love, hope, and forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.

Determined to find Willow and prove that his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigate the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.

Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping novel will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.
I am linking my review to the Bloggers Recommend challenge being hosted at My Books, My Life.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Salon: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

This week it was the American Library Association's Banned Book week. I don't think I ever fully understand when people decide that they want to ban a book completely unless there are very good, and very serious, reasons. Of course, seriousness may be in the eye of the beholder but often I look at books that are on the banned book list and shake my head in bewilderment. I respect the right of a parent to say I don't want my child to read a specific book but I don't actually see why they should be able to say that no child should be allowed to read this book. Of course, I am happy if I ever see my son reading any book! It doesn't happen often.

There are several on the banned book list that I have read, both when I was young (back in the day) and as an adult and I struggle to see what reasons there are for them being banned.  I find myself wondering about the people who raise the challenges on books. For example, I see that one of the books that has been challenged that I read earlier this year was Looking for Alaska by John Green which has been challenged because of the language and sexual nature of a couple of scenes.

As a parent of a 15 year old boy, I get how those scenes could be shocking, mainly because I am in denial of the fact that my child could be old enough to be doing that kind of thing. Having said that, I also remember that I was once 15, 16, 17 years old and I know what I was doing. Is it fair for me to say to him, you can't do X and you certainly can't read about Y? Probably not. What I can do is hope that I have taught him to to be safe, to be respectful and to wait until the time is right. Of course, I would prefer him not to be sexually active yet, and I don't think he is, and I am certainly not going to facilitate those kinds of activities, but I am also not so naive as to not remember what teenagers and people in their early twenties get up to. 

Even in terms of language, he is still young enough to pretend to be shocked when I swear in front of him, but I hear him when he is talking to his buddies on Xbox so I hear what is being said and not said, and have been known to pull him up if I hear something being said that I don't like. That is usually more along the lines of insults to his friends rather than bad language though. In front of me, and more importantly, in front of others adults he doesn't curse and mostly talks respectfully when he talks at all.

Part of the reason I find this whole challenging and banning of books a little confronting is that it doesn't seem to be a part of our culture in the same way as it seems to be in America. That doesn't mean that there aren't any books that are banned (click here for a list of books banned in Australia) but when they are they tend to be about big issues like euthanasia and illicit drugs. It also doesn't mean that there aren't times when there isn't an outcry about books being included or excluded on school lists. It just doesn't seem to be quite so prevalent or vicious when it happens.

What prompted me to write this post though was the news that Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell was recently challenged and a visit by the author cancelled as a result. I read this book not too long ago and absolutely loved it but never had gotten around to reviewing it, so I thought that today I would try and express what it is that I loved about this book and why I think it is important that it be accessible to its target audience.  For more posts about this issue click on the following links at ToastMonkey See and Bookriot

Put very simplistically Eleanor and Park is the story of two teenagers who find themselves forming a relationship over a period of time based on a shared love of comics, mix tapes and more. It is set in 1986 and so the setting was a huge part of the charm of this book for me as the music, fashion and pop culture references were extremely familiar to me and many of them had some meaning to me as I was in the later years of high school myself at that time. 

While that sense of 80's nostalgia would have been enough to make this a totally enjoyable read, it was the depth and characterisation which meant that this book was a 5/5 read for me.

Park is a mixed race Korean/American boy in the predominantly white Omaha community that he has grown up in. Whilst he has not been overtly bullied, he is very much conscious of the fact that he is different, an outsider. This is true not only at school, but also at home. Whilst he knows that both of his parents love him, he feels that he is something of a disappointment to his all American dad because, unlike his brother, he is not sporty at all and he is quite nerdy. The portrayal of mixed race characters is something that I often like to read simply because I am the mother of a half African kid, and it is something that I am a little sensitive to I guess. As far as I know he has had very few issues when it comes to racism and the like, but I am conscious that it is possible that it could start at anytime. The fact that he has an African name and is clearly mixed when you look at him belies the fact that he pretty much has had a very Aussie upbringing.

When Eleanor first catches the school bus, it is impossible for Park not to notice her. Not only is she new but she is large, wearing strange clothes and has vibrant red hair. Everyone has their set place on the school bus and as she walks down the aisle she is shunned by the other kids, until Park moves over to allow her to sit next to him. 

Park is aware of his own perceived place as an outsider so he is not going to emphasise that by being friends with someone who is even more outside than he is, and so they travel in awkward silence until he realises that she is reading his comics over his shoulder.

For Eleanor riding the bus with Park and reading the comics gives her access to a world that is far away from her own existence. She is the product of a broken home. Her father has married again and has a new life which doesn't really include his children from previous relationships and Eleanor's mother has also remarried. Her stepfather is a horrible man who kicked Eleanor out after she answered him back. She has only just returned home after a year of living with friends and she is determined to not be separated from her siblings again so she tries to be as invisible as she can be to him. There is never any money, mainly because the stepfather drinks it all away. Eleanor's once beautiful mother is a shadow of herself and Eleanor has to make do with thrift shop clothes which she decorates however she can to cover the holes and stains.

From the tentative start of the relationship which begins with talking about comics, Eleanor and Park go on to talk about music and eventually become friends which slowly builds into an unlikely attraction. As most teenage relationships are, the attraction is all consuming, to the point that just holding hands has the two of them almost in flames, and the intensity is almost palpable to the reader.

Park knows that Eleanor is unhappy at home, and has his own demons to deal with, but his sensitivity to her is a beautiful thing to read. In fact, by the end of this book I was wishing that I could find a Park of my own, who could look beyond the larger body that I currently have and see that underneath there is a fundamentally decent person who just wants to be loved as much as the next person. I always feel a bit awkward crushing on 17 year old boys even if it is just in a book (hello Etienne St Clair!) so I was very excited when I realised that it was perfectly reasonable in this case, because hey, we would totally be the same age right now!

The reasons why this book have been challenged include language and for being too sexually explicit. In relation to the first reason, most of the derogatory language in the book is actually directed at the two main characters, specifically in the form of the bullying that Eleanor receives at school and also from her stepfather. I could relate to the home aspects more than the school. At school I don't think I would classify myself as having been bullied, because to be honest, people would have to have noticed me in order to do that, but I certainly never fit in anywhere, whether it be because my clothes were never right or my hair was wrong or whatever. My stepfather was not abusive in the same way as Eleanor's was but he was in a different way, and it leaves scars even now.

One of the reasons why I do think that this is an important book is that over the years I have spoken to many people, including those I would consider to have been popular and yet the vast majority of them talk about feeling like outsiders at some point or the other. There are very few people I know who talk about having a happy childhood, and then teenage years and then onto adulthood. How then, if so many people feel ostracised at some point or another, does reading about perfect kids in perfect environments help people know that they are not alone in their own issues? Do the people who challenge on these grounds really live perfect lives? I must confess that when I think about who these people might be I see them as being beautiful, thin people who live very comfortable middle to upper class lives and have perfect families - at least superficially. Of course, that is me putting my own judgements on them.

In terms of the sexuality, I loved the way that Rowell portrayed the gradual build up of the attraction between these two very different characters. As I mentioned before, the tension between the two of them was intense even when they were just holding hands. Without spoiling, there is sexual exploration but it is not 'okay, let's jump into bed straight away and go for it and then do it again, and again" but rather the gradual exploration of their growing sexual awareness and for a book that is being challenged for the sexual nature it might be a bit of a surprise that there is no actual intercourse. It is not rampant promiscuousness and it is not distasteful and it is totally right for the two characters and the development of their relationship in this book.

Obviously I am a little biased when it comes to this book because I did love it a lot, but it explores important issues in a sensitive and balanced way. It had me reminiscing about my own awkward teenage years and lamenting my own loneliness, both then and now. I laughed, I cried and I would be more than happy to revisit these characters and their stories.

Oh, if anyone has a spare Park lying around somewhere, let me know!

Rating 5/5


Eleanor is the new girl in town, and with her chaotic family life, her mismatched clothes and unruly red hair, she couldn't stick out more if she tried.

Park is the boy at the back of the bus. Black T-shirts, headphones, head in a book - he thinks he's made himself invisible. But not to Eleanor... never to Eleanor.

Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall for each other. They fall in love the way you do the first time, when you're young, and you feel as if you have nothing and everything to lose
Current Read

Songs of Willow and Frost by Jamie Ford, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and listening to A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin

Up Next

No Place Like Home by Caroline Overington

Saturday, September 28, 2013

French Milk by Lucy Knisley

Recently I have been feeling nostalgic for the time that I was young and carefree and travelling around the world. A couple of days ago I posted again about my travels to Budapest, and today I find myself contemplating the time I spent in France and travellign around other European countries as I try to get my thoughts together about this book.

Lucy Knisley is a young graphic artist who gets the opportunity to spend 5 weeks in Paris, staying in an apartment with her mother who is celebrating her 50th birthday. Lucy is 22 years of age and is looking forward to hopefully going to graduate school. She has left behind her boyfriend and is waiting to hear whether she has been accepted into the school she wants so whilst she is in France, she is still also very involved in her life back home.

She is a graphic artist and so it is an obvious choice for her travel memoir to take this form. There are also some black and white photos scattered throughout the narrative but they are not the primary focus (which is lucky because some of them are pretty average). It is really the drawings about Paris which bring the most satisfaction to the reader, or to this reader at least.

Somewhere in my many moves since I returned from the travelling I have lost my diary of my travels and in some ways I am glad. It does mean that I can't necessarily remember what we saw and did and ate every day and I have probably forgotten a lot, but I think I would be quite surprised at how different my thoughts and opinions would be about many of the things we experienced. I am also pretty sure that my travel plans would include a lot of different places than it did back then too, reflecting more of the things that I have become interested in or learned since that time. I wonder if Lucy Knisley finds that to be true of this memoir? There were times where she comes across as being a bit bratty and selfish and it might well be a bit shocking to look back and see it recorded for all time in the form of this book, or maybe she wouldn't be! For example, I found it quite amazing that someone who is planning to spend five weeks in France would have made no effort whatsoever to learn even the basics of the French language.

In the blurb, it talks about dealing with the shifting relationship between mother and daughter and with Lucy grappling with the onslaught of adulthood. Whilst both of these were elements of the narrative I didn't necessarily think that Lucy displayed any particular degree of growth in either of these aspects or even examine them in any great degree of depth. I was more engaged with the story being told when the focus was less on Lucy and her relationships (particularly her griping about the fact that she couldn't see her boyfriend) and more on the daily details. I can see that some people might find the "and then we had baguette and sausage for dinner" type of narrative a bit boring. However, as someone who finds the idea of being able to spend a few weeks just wandering the streets of Paris exploring the art galleries, museums, cafes, markets and more completely mesmerising, it was very interesting to me and her love of culture and food shone through. Click on the image on the right for an example of Knisley's art.

I would add the disclaimer that there is no way known I could do four weeks anywhere with my mother. It's hard enough when she comes here for that length of time.

As you can hopefully tell, I had quite mixed emotions about this book as I read it. There were elements that I thoroughly enjoyed and others that I really didn't! I was sufficiently engaged by Knisley's style to want to see more of her work. I have recently requested her book Relish via interlibrary loan, which focuses more directly on her love of food and cooking.

Rating 3.5/5


A place where young Americans can seek poetic magic in the winding streets of a beautiful city. The museums, the cafes, the parks. An artist like Lucy can really enjoy Paris in January. If only she can stop griping at her mother. This comic journal details a mother and daughters month-long stay in a small apartment in the fifth arrondissement. Lucy is grappling with the onslaught of adulthood. Her mother faces fifty. They are both dealing with their shifting relationship. All the while, they navigate Paris with halting French and dog-eared guidebooks.

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Historian Readalong - Midway point

The Historian is one of THOSE* books for me. You know, the ones that you buy as soon as they come out because you want it so badly and then.... you don't actually get around to reading. I bought this book in July 2005 and until this read along, which is being hosted by the good ladies at The Estella Society in conjunction with RIP VIII (hosted at Stainless Steel Droppings) I hadn't even read the first page.

These are the discussion questions that have been posted at the halfway point of the read along:

1. What do you think of the structure of the novel? It’s a story within a story (sort of within a story). We have Professor Rossi’s storyline, Paul’s reflections, and the daughter’s adventures. And letters. There’s a lot going on!
I love a story within a story structure when it is done well. In this book, I would go so far as to say that there are more levels of story within story in this book than just two because each time you meet a new character you get to know their story and the additional bits of information that they bring to the situation. There is a lot going on, in a lot of different places around Europe, at different times in history. You do have to work a little to keep it all straight!

I would say though, that there are times when the narrative doesn't match the structure. For example, after her father disappears the girl is supposed to be reading letters than tell the story of how he met Helen and the time they spent together but in the narrative it isn't told in letter form and doesn't read as if it is a letter that is being read but rather as if you are there.

2. What are your thoughts on Helen’s characterization? Have you warmed to her?

Helen is a bit of a cold fish really, and I think that at this point (which is 40 chapters in) she is just beginning to thaw a bit which part of what makes her characterisation is interesting to me.  For most of the people who our main characters coincidentally cross paths with you know straight away that they have been inserted into the narrative to help with the quest to find out more. Sometimes this is very blatant and could have been done with a bit more finesse. Whilst it was obvious from very early on what Helen's role in the book is going to be (as in I will be very shocked if we don't find out that Helen is Paul's daughter's mother and now I am beginning to think that we will eventually find out that she has been turned) I do find her whole story intriguing and so I am very much looking forward to hearing more about Helen and Paul's story and where she has been during her daughter's formative years.

3. What do you think of the peripheral characters? Are their motivations pure? I’m thinking of Turget, Helen’s family members, etc.
As I mentioned before I do find the way that many of the peripheral characters have been introduced to the story to be a bit heavy handed and relying way too much on coincidence and instant trust between the characters. We get to know all of the 'good' characters pretty well, but not much about the 'bad'. Some nuance wouldn't have gone astray. There are other examples of some heavy handedness. For example, when we see the portrait of Vlad Dracula and it is compared to one of the main characters it would seem to be a big dose of foreshadowing!

I did love the Bora's, and would love to be looked after by Mrs Bora - this couple knows how to entertain and cater big time! I am definitely intrigued by Helen's Auntie Eva, and I hope that we begin to learn more about her. I can't see how that will fit in on the voyage of discovery that our characters are on, especially seeing as Paul has already told us that he lost eventually lost track of her.

I have high hopes for Barley and that in due course he will be revealed to be much more integral to the plot than just being the daughter's company as she dashes all over Europe. By the way, have we learned the daughter's name yet?

I am finding that my reaction to the book is varied depending on what is going on and even then from minute to minute. For example, I love some of the description - of the libraries, of the food, of the places - and hope to share some of them over the next couple of weeks, but I do think there is too much description. This is a big book in terms of scope, story and the number of pages and even if we only got descriptions of half the places that the characters visited it would have been enough.

Having said that, I would have been extremely disappointed if one of the descriptions that had been cut was that of Budapest. Many years ago now, I spent a couple of days in Budapest. It was one of the destinations of my European tour and wasn't one of my must see cities, but I definitely enjoyed my visit. At the end of it though, I felt as though I had seen what I needed to see so probably wouldn't need to go back again. Now having read the section about Paul and Helen in Budapest, and bearing in mind that I haven't been there for 18 years, I was definitely tempted to want to return and to experience Budapest again. I have posted about a memorable meal that I had in Budapest before (goulash and chocolate cake for breakfast anyone?), as well as the drama we had on the tour bus trying to get back into Austria. I could do without the bus drama, but I would love to cruise along the Danube under the Chain Bridge, to walk on Castle Hill and near Matthias Church and see the Parliament Building again. I can ignore the fact that my passport expired more than 10 years ago and I don't have any money. Thank goodness for cyber tourism! As an aside, I would say that the Hungarian visa is probably the most interesting one that I have in my expired passport!

If I had time to spare I would make an effort to have a Turkish bath this time, and I would also try to see some of the Roman ruins as well. Sounds as though I would need at least a week in Budapest now to do all of these things and more! And I haven't even thought about the possibility of hunting down Dracula yet!

*Other examples of THOSE books - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson and numerous others.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fables Vol 11: War and Pieces by Bill Willingham

Finally! 11 books into the Fables series and we get to the battle to end all battles between the people of Fabletown and those of the homelands. And by finally I don't mean thank goodness we finally got there and now we can move on or after an 11 book lead in we finally made it! I do mean both of those things in some ways but in other ways it is more a celebratory finally, especially seeing as I suspect that this might be just the first battle and perhaps there is more to come.

I should take a step back though. As I mentioned this is the 11th book in the Fables series so it is difficult at this point to completely avoid spoilers so the now customary warning applies

************SPOILERS AHOY *************

Structurally, this book has two story arcs which dovetail nicely into each other, and in turn help resolve the story arc that has been developed since the first book in the main Fables series.

The first story arc concerns Cinderella. A few books ago, we learnt that whilst Cindy appears to be a businesswoman who owns a high end shoe shop, she is also one of the top secret agents that Fabletown has. Before the coming showdown with the Adversary, Cindy has to pick up a package from the very south of South America. The success of the whole war hinges on her success and she must use her feminine wiles, every trick in the book that she knows and a whole heap of ingenuity in order to get the job done! I loved the way that all of the Cinderella pages were bordered by a frieze of shoes. it added a degree of fun and whimsy to a book that could have taken itself a bit too seriously in the build up to the big confrontation.

And what a confrontation it is. All the various factions in the Fables lands come together in order to try and defeat the Adversary once and for all. The leaders, including all of our favourites like Bigby and Snow White, have been training their troops hard in the use of not only magical weapons but also in mundy (human) technology - technology that the isolationist Adversary may not have yet seen. Boy Blue is our narrator and thanks to the magical cloak that he has he manages to take the reader to each of the different battle fronts to observe the action.

It was interesting to see some of the character development that is still happening even after all these books. For example, over the last several books, Prince Charming has been the mayor of Fabletown but he always seemed somewhat narcissistic and still a terrible flirt and womaniser. Whilst I have no doubt that that man is still just below the surface, we also get glimpses of the heroic prince who we known through many of the fairy tales we have grown up with. It would be easy for these characters to become almost caracitures of themselves the longer the series goes on, but the writers and artists seem to be able to identify characters with capacity for growth and added dimensions relatively easily.

They are also adept at planting just enough new teasers in the storyline to make continuing the series worthwhile even as the major story arcs are resolved. I've already requested the next book via interlibrary loan. I was interested in seeing the final twist in the tail when it occurs late in the book and the final line offers up some foreshadowing that suggests that there is still plenty more conflict to be had in future tales.

Rating 4/5



The final battle between the free Fables of the mundane world and the Empire occupying their former Homelands is about to begin, and the scrappy storybook heroes have already managed to even the odds considerably. With his previously unstoppable wooden soldiers neutralized, the Adversary is about to get his first taste of high technology in the form of steel-jacketed bullets and laser-guided bombs. But the ruler who conquered a hundred different worlds didn’t do it by fighting clean—and he’s still got a surprise or two left to spring on the residents of Fabletown.

Other artits who contributed to this collection include Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Niko Henrichon and Andrew Pepoy

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday Salon: Musings on audiobooks, TV adaptations and Game of Thrones

I am currently listening to the audio version of the second book of George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings. This is the latest in a long line of audiobooks that I have listened to in the last year, some of them more than once.

Today, I thought I might muse on a couple of things about listening to audiobooks and then specifically focus on Game of Thrones, with particular emphasis on the adaptation that has taken the world by storm over the last couple of years. At least, that is the plan for this post as I sit down to write it. It could end up taking another direction all together!

In some ways I am a bit old fashioned when it comes to how I prefer to listen to audiobooks. I don't tend to download them from places like Audible or even through the library website but rather I like to get the CD and listen to that. There is no real reason for that preference. I don't actually download movies either, but that is possibly a thought for another day and another post.

In the case of a big book getting the CDs might mean a huge number of discs that need to be listened to. A Clash of Kings is 30 CDs long, but the next book is bigger again and that is still dwarfed by the audio book of A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon that I listened to last year which came in at a whopping 49 CDs long!  At the time when I was listening to that book I wasn't driving to work each day so I was only listening for about 15 minutes a day so it literally took me months to get through that audiobook.

Sometimes when you borrow from the library you may get the MP3 version which has both advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantage for the listener is the much lower number of discs to be managed. Recently I listened to both On the Jellicoe Road and Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta which were both one MP3 long. Now that I am driving to work most days, I appreciate not having to continually swap discs around while I am driving in order to hear what happens next in the story. I guess I should experiment a little with the whole download thing and see if it works a better in relation to this particular swapping disk aspect.

There is definitely at least one disadvantage to MP3 files though. Whereas a track on a CD might be anywhere between 1 and 10 minutes long, the MP3 tends to have much longer tracks, usually matching chapters. This makes it really quite difficult to know go back to a particular spot in the narrative if you want to listen to something again, either because it was a good bit or you got temporarily distracted and need to go back. The fact that there is often only one CD can also make it a bit difficult to determine how far through a book you are as well.

Regardless of which format you are listening to, one disadvantage to listening rather than having a book in your hand is that it is difficult to take a sneak peek at the end of the book to see how it ends!

I know that some people like to listen to audiobooks to reread books that they have already read but I am tending to use them to get to books that I want to read but I don't have as much time as I would like to actually get to read. For example, I think I know what my next three audiobooks are going to be. They are The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta (because I have recently become a MM fangirl and now I need to read everything I can by her!), then the third Game of Thrones book and then I might try the audiobook of Wolf Hall. I have owned Wolf Hall since it first came out but never actually read it, so by listening to it on audio I will finally be crossing it off the list. Also, someone mentioned that the audio version was very good so we will see.

The narrator of an audiobook can make or break the listening experience. Most of the time they enhance the listening experience but sometimes either the voice just doesn't work or the accents are wrong or whatever. Which brings me to the listening experience for Game of Thrones. The narrator for the first three books is actor Roy Dotrice, and I have to say that he is pretty good,  and he would have to be given the sheer number of characters he has to voice throughout the story. According to the box, he is now holds the world record for the most number of different characters (thank you George R R Martin!).

It has been interesting listening to the book after having seen the TV adaptation. Normally I make a my practise to read a book before seeing the movie or TV series but so far I have watched two and a bit seasons of the Game of Thrones TV series. I was watching the third series but I stopped when I started listening to the books as it was a bit distracting listening to a character do one thing in the book as I was driving and then see them do another thing when I sat down to watch TV.

Given that I have already watched the series, it is definitely the actors that I see in my imagination as I listen to the story, even when I know that there are differences between the book and the TV adaptation. I was pleasantly surprised at how true to the book the first series was and that where there were changes that they made sense. For example, one of the few changes I did notice was that some of the young characters were a few years older than the 12 and 13 year olds in the book. For example, Jon Snow was 14 in the book but older in the TV series and Daenerys was much older too - better for modern sensibilities I think.

Having already watched the series also helps with motivation to keep going because, as is more often than not the case with books that are so long, there were some slow parts in the action but knowing what was coming meant that you could clearly see the machinations at work. This is something that I am noticing more in the second book as well, mainly because it is not as clear. It feels as though there were more changes made to the second series compared to the book than there were in the first. All the major things are the same but there are times when I am listening when I think that events happened in a different place in the storyline in the TV adaptation.

I think how much you notice these changes depends on two factors. How well you know the book or how recently you either read it or, in my case, watched the adaptation and then read the book. How much those changes bother you might depend on one additional factor - how much you treasure the book. It is getting very exciting watching all the news coming out of casting and filming for the series adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, but that is one story that I will definitely see and notice the changes that they make.

Getting back to Game of Thrones, I am not going to attempt to cover the plot of Game of Thrones for this post, given it is more a discussion than a review post, but here is the synopsis for those who are interested. I would say that I did very much enjoy the listening experience, and hence went back for more. In my mind, I started using seven hells as a curse, but not yet out loud, and that particular phrase hasn't come up much in the second book. It's always fun when a book you are reading informs your thinking and language, ye ken! I ended up giving Game of Thrones a grade of 4.5/5.

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyong the kingdom's protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assasins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror , the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts; the game of thrones.
Currently reading

Fables: War and Pieces by Bill Buckingham, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, The Briny Cafe by Susan Duncan and listening to A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin.

Up Next

A Song of Willow and Frost by Jamie Ford and The Jade Widow by Deborah O'Briend

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lilla's Feast: One Woman's True Story of Love and War in the Orient by Frances Osborne

In the Imperial War Museum in London there is an item that is described as "The house wife's dictionary and suggestions". It is a recipe book that was typed up on any scrap of paper that the author could get hold of and works through a variety of different chapters from soups to curries to roasts, tips for entertaining, desserts and cakes and so much more. Really what makes this item fascinating though is where it was written and who it was written by.

The where it was written is from within a Japanese internment camp during World War II. As a consequence, the sheets of paper may be a carefully preserved piece of rice paper that has a recipe for ice cream on it or it could be paper provided by the Red Cross. Regardless of the type of paper, the contents of the book do not reflect the daily privations being experienced by the author: the loss of property and freedom; the lack of privacy; the lack of food; the lack of information about the fate of friends and family as a war raged in both Europe and the Pacific and in so many other ways.

The who it was written by is a little more complicated to tell. The cookbook was written by Frances Osborne's great grandmother and in telling Lilla's story, Osborne bring to life not only a life filled with what might seem to us now great adventure and more than a little heartache but also a picture of a very different type of life that is now very much of the past - that of British colonial life in countries like China and India.

Lilla was born into a merchant family in the Chinese city of Chefoo in the late 19th century. After a family tragedy, her mother marries a wealthy man who raises the children with every advantage. Along with her identical twin, Ada, she was raised to be a lady and as such learnt many of the skills that would help her run her own home including how to look after her husband, how to run a busy kitchen and the staff that she would undoubtedly have and, as part of that training, how to cook. Given that she was growing up in a corner of China that was dominated by not only colonial British but also people from many other countries like Russia and Germany, the food she was exposed to was very culturally diverse.

Along with Ada, Lilla was a much sought after young lady and between them they could have had their pick of any young man. Always competing with her sister, Lilla appears to have made a hasty match and suddenly finds herself moving away from the place that she considers her home to India, where her reality does not match in any way the life that she has been raised to live.

Lilla finds herself shuffling between India and England along with her husband and eventually their children, but she constantly finds herself struggling to fit into the establishment. In Britain, she is considered an outsider but when she lives in China or India she is part of the British empirical establishment. Through Lilla's life we see the world as it changes throughout the 20th century. She does not remain untouched by World War I and in due course she finds herself living back in China married to a very wealthy industrialist. 

While in Europe the first signs of the looming second world war are coming to light, there are also signs in the East, with the rise of Chinese nationalism and then invasion of China by Japanese forces. When Japan declares war, Lilla and her ageing husband are among the many allied nationals who are rounded up and put into prison camps, spending several years incarcerated in increasingly harsh and desperate conditions, losing everything that they owned in the process.

After the war, the Caseys needed to try to rebuild their lives but this was Britain of rations and attempting to rebuild and so it seems logical for them to return to China but it isn't long before war breaks out, this time the Chinese Civil War, and the rise of Chinese Communism brings to an end the colonial life that Lilla was raised to live.

It is kind of astonishing to think of someone who is incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp with barely enough clothes to keep warm, eating watered down soup and the occasional piece of meat of dubious origins, sitting there and neatly typing up page after page of recipes. Delicious sounding soups and stews as well as undoubted luxuries like cakes and desserts fill the pages of the book. One can only imagine how hard intellectually and emotionally the contrast between the Lilla's writing and her existence must have been, or perhaps it was more of an escape from the realities of every day life.

The enjoyment that Frances Osborne found in telling the fascinating story of her great grandmother's life is obvious. Part of that enjoyment seems to have come from having spent time with Lilla, who lived to be more than 100 years old, but also in discovering the past story of Lilla's life through the letters that were exchanged regularly no matter where in the world the family were scattered, the stories from other friends and relatives and her own research. I found myself contemplating the fact that we are not necessarily going to leave a letter trail for our descendants to follow all that easily in future times.

There were times though that I felt that there was too much conjecture. Lilla must have thought this or that was used to fill in gaps for the convenience of the story a lot. Sometimes the conjecture was logical, but there were a few times where I found myself wondering how that leap was made. I would also have loved to have seen more recipes from the book. There were four included, but I would love to have seen more as well as some images of the actual book as well.

Frances Osborne has also written about her other great grandmother, Idina Sackville, in her book The Bolter which is set in colonial Africa. I am looking forward to reading that book too, and getting to know another fascinating woman's story.

Rating 3.5/5


At the end of her life, Frances Osborne’s one-hundred-year-old great-grandmother Lilla was as elegant as ever–all fitted black lace and sparkling-white diamonds. To her great-grandchildren, Lilla was both an ally and a mysterious wonder. Her bedroom was filled with treasures from every exotic corner of the world. But she rarely mentioned the Japanese prison camps in which she spent much of World War II, or the elaborate cookbook she wrote to help her survive behind the barbed wire.

Beneath its polished surface, Lilla’s life had been anything but effortless. Born in 1882 to English parents in the beautiful North China port city of Chefoo, Lilla was an identical twin. Growing up, she knew both great privilege and deprivation, love and its absence. But the one constant was a deep appreciation for the power of food and place. From the noodles of Shanghai to the chutney of British India and the roasts of England, good food and sensuous surroundings, Lilla was raised to believe, could carry one a long way toward happiness. Her story is brimming with the stuff of good fiction: distant locales, an improvident marriage, an evil mother-in-law, a dramatic suicide, and two world wars.

Lilla’s remarkable cookbook, which she composed while on the brink of starvation, makes no mention of wartime rations, of rotten vegetables and donkey meat. In the world this magical food journal, now housed in the Imperial War Museum in London, everyone is warm and safe in their homes, and the pages are filled with cream puffs, butterscotch, and comforting soup. In its writing, Lilla was able to transform the darkest moments into scrumptious escape.

Lilla’s Feast is a rich evocation of a bygone world, the inspiring story of an ordinary woman who tackled the challenges life threw in her path with an extraordinary determination.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. For more information, see the welcome post.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Library Loot: September 18 to 24

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!
It feels as though I haven't been to the library for ages but in reality it has been just a few days. Here's what I got when I did go:

What Katie Ate by Katie Quinn Davies - I have seen this mentioned in Weekend Cooking a few times and thought it was time I checked it out for myself.

A Clash of Kings - The second Game of Thrones audiobook. It is a mere 30CDs long so shouldn't take long to get through!

I Kissed an Earl - The next book in the Pennyroyal Green series.

Lady Luck's Map of Vegas - Having read all of the books by Barbara O'Neal, it is time to start reading her alter ego Barbara Samuels!

What loot did you get this week? Share you link on Mr Linky below:

Also, I forgot to mention that I borrowed an album by Scottish band Travis last week. I was reminded on Songpop how much I liked them and then went onto discover other songs by them that I liked too. The album is called The Invisible Band and here is one of the songs off it:


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beautiful Objects (Melbourne Writers Festival)

Whilst the final day of the Melbourne Writers Festival for this year was a couple of weeks ago, I still have one session to write up. I could just let it go, but it was a session that I enjoyed so here we are. I feel as though the fact that I did enjoy it so much is something of a bonus as it was the last session I booked because I needed one more to fill up my pass. I had searched the program numerous times before in the end I kind of just went...well, that one looks interesting! And it was!

After having attended the Cooking the Books session early on Sunday morning (which I wrote about for last week's Weekend Cooking post) I had a short time to get to the local markets, buy a new handbag and eat lunch in time to be back for the Beautiful Objects session. The brief summary of the session from the festival program said

Antique books, first editions, and art books each harbour aesthetic qualities that transcend mere function. Author and book designer Kevin Kwan joins publisher Pauline De Leavaux and Stephanie Hicks to explore the beauty of books, their transposition from the everyday to luxury items, and whether the future of eBooks will be quite as beautiful.

The session started with each of the guests being asked to give examples of beautiful books. Pauline De Leavaux works for publisher Thames and Hudson. She talked about in her first jobs, and for a lot of bigger publishers, there is always a struggle between aesthetics and budget constraints. Thames and Hudson is different in that there are fewer limits placed on the pursuit of publishing beautiful books.

In her examples of beautiful books, Pauline started with a book called I Wonder by Marian Bantjes (pictured at the top of the post). This is a book that is at the absolute pinnacle of production extremes. The front cover is embossed and gilded, the paper edges are gold, there are many more colours used inside the book and there's a ribbon. It is a book that may well be seen as a cultural artifact in the future. To get some ideas of the production values of the book click here to head to the author's website.

The next book that Pauline offered up was The Architectural Photography of John Gollings, which has a cloth bound, foiled cover underneath the slipcover and is printed on special paperstock.

The third book though proves that a book doesn't have to be expensive to make in order to be beautiful. Owl Know How by Cat Rabbit and Isabel Knowles is a children's picture book. There is no special treatments in terms of paper or the casing or gilding. What makes this book beautiful is that all of the images in it have been painstakingly made out of felt by the authors and then photographed.

Next Kevin Kwan, author and designer, shared his beautiful books. He talked about being enamoured by gorgeous old books as a child visiting his grandparents library and finding objects of wonder there.

His first object was The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. At first this book appears as though it just has the iconic blue stripes that were used in so many of his designs but as you slowly pull down the white plastic slip cover you can see two other images as they are revealed. The first is of JPG himself and the next image is of one of his muse. I have included the slip cover on image and the whole cover above. Hopefully it will give some idea of how it works.

His next book was And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman - a year long journey that is told by way of incredible illustrations and a funny narrative.

The next two books both had the crowd reacting audibly for different reasons. The first was called A Flight of Butterflies which was a reproduction of a book from the early 1900s which features a number of woodcuts of butterflies. It is bound in an oriental style with no spine, so that each pages unfolds, in effect revealing more and more of the images. Hopefully this photo gives some idea of the effect of the book.

The final book was A Hundred Times Nguyen. This book features a series of images of a young girl repeated over and over again. I must confess to being a bit puzzled as Kwan was showing us this book, and then he read the only paragraph of text in the book which explains the images. I am sure I was not the only person who wanted to get hold of that book straight away.

The conversation went on to talk about the cover that Kevin Kwan ended up with for his new book Crazy Rich Asians, a journey that went through four very different incarnations before everyone involved in the decision making process was happy with it.

Other topics that were touched included how cover trends, and how ebooks are impacting on book productions. Whilst ebooks tend to be a growing market there is still a market for beautiful books as objects, especially in sections of the market like cookbooks and childrens books - books that will pull the reader into bookstores. What ebooks haven't been able to do is create that feeling of beauty. Even just getting images formatted correctly doesn't seem to have happened yet (one of the reasons I don't really do cookbooks on my ereader) but ebook design is really in it's infancy so those kinds of things will develop. For the time being though, ebooks are pretty much still functional items as opposed to items of beauty. A lot of readers will still go and buy a physical copy of the book if they love it as an ebook just for the physical sensation of being able to hold a book in their hands.

All of this discussion of books as beautiful objects has me wondering about the books I buy. Do I buy them as functionary items or are there some that I buy because of their aesthetic values, beyond a pretty cover, as well? I must confess that I get a little excited if I borrow a hardcover book from the library and it has a ribbon in it or if it has deckled edge paper - small things, but to me it makes a book so much more attractive. And if a book has end papers I am curiously pleased. The most recent example of that I can think of was Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore but there could be more. Of course, I like to look at the books where the edges of the pages are coloured but that in itself does not necessarily make a book beautiful. I saw some the other day where the cover of a book was black as were the edges of the pages, so it was kind of monotone in appearance.

I do really want to buy some of the cloth covered classics. They just look so pretty, but I haven't yet actually bought one yet. One day!

What is the most beautiful book I own then? The first book that came to mind was probably the collectors edition of The Arrival by Shaun Tan that I bought a couple of years ago now. It comes in a case that is designed to look like an old leather bound book, which opens up to reveal both The Arrival and Sketches from a Nameless Land, an accompanying book that explains some of the art and story told in The Arrival. The Arrival itself is a gorgeous book because of the amazing art that tells the story. There are no words so everything in the story must be conveyed through the amazing imagery. There is a ribbon (bonus!) and it is a lovely hardcover finish. Below are some images (taken hastily at night so hopefully they will at least convey some of the gorgeousness).

What makes a beautiful book for you? What is the most beautiful book you own?

Currently Reading

Lilla's Feast by Frances Osborne, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, The Briny Cafe by Susan Duncan and listening to A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin.

Up Next

I should check. At this point on a Sunday night I have no idea!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Babette's Feast

About a month ago I mentioned that I was planning to start an irregular series of posts about foreign movies, and today I bring you the second one, this time about the Danish film Babette's Feast. This is an older film but it was very successful in it's time, winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1987. It does feel a bit odd calling a movie from 1987 older but it is more than 25 years ago now so it isn't recent!

I did like the film but it wasn't exactly what I thought I was going to see. I have no idea why but I always thought that Babette's Feast featured a bigger woman with blonde hair cooking lots and lots and lots of food maybe having moved to London. I can see a vision in my mind of the poster of the movie I was thinking of, but it most certainly was not this one. I have been racking my brains trying to think of the name of the movie I was thinking of so if those vague clues gave you an inkling of the film I thought I was going to see let me know in the comments. I did think maybe it had something to do with a laundrette but when I looked up My Beautiful Laundrette that was something completely different. Anyway, enough about the movie that I didn't watch. Let's focus on the one I did see!

Babette's Feast is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen set in an isolated fishing village in Denmark in the late 19th century. When the story opens we meet two beautiful young women who live with their Lutheran preacher father. He is a very austere man, living a puritanical life where service to god and community are the most important things and there is no need for beautiful objects or anything but the most basic types of food and drink.

Into the small village come two men, one a soldier and the other a famous opera singer. They each fall in love with one of the sisters but they leave the village alone and the sisters remain where they are, eventually taking over their father's role as the spiritual leaders of the village. Neither of the men forget the sisters despite the years passing, and in due course one of them sends a woman to them asking for their help. Babette has lost all of her family in the French Revolution and now she just wants to have a home away from France so she becomes the cook/housekeeper. Babette lives with the sisters, living very frugally. Gradually she becomes indispensable, helping all the villagers whenever she can and bringing a small amount of joy to those around her.  Babette's only link with France in the years that follow is the lottery ticket that her friends buy for her each year.

The villagers are a dour lot. On the surface, it is a very pious community, but running not very far under the surface of are jealousies, both petty and not so petty, grudges held for many years and more serious disagreements. The climate is harsh and, to be honest, so are some of the personalities.

When Babette wins the lottery it is close to the 100th anniversary of the birth of the sister's father. They were planning to have a simple celebration of the day but then Babette offers to cook for them - a proper French dinner. It is only as they begin to see the ingredients begin to arrive do they think that they might have made a mistake in accepting her offer. Determined to stick to their religious principles, the dinner guests agree that they will not make any comment about the food that is served up to them. The only guest who initially seems to be appreciating the meal is the soldier who loved one of the sisters who is now is a general. He once had the good fortune to eat a meal at the famous Cafe Anglais in Paris and the meal that he is being served in the film reminds him of that night. Eventually though, the rest of the diners begin to loosen up and enjoy themselves. I am sure there is a message there about the power of food to make you feel better which could be seen as a little hokey but there are plenty of movies and books which talk about food in this way. The other message is about the power of art, in this cooking, to transcend circumstance and, in a way, practicality!

It is really in the second half of the film when Babette starts preparing the feast and then is serving it up that this movie really came to life for me. Prior to that the plot was a little slow and I wasn't quite sure where it was going to go. Once the cooking starts, you see Babette's passion for food shining through and that enjoyment eventually spreads through the guests as well, enabling the viewer to see that it isn't all doom and gloom between the villagers. They do have strong bonds that just have gotten a little lost through all the years of being together. As the plot progresses even the colour scheme of the film seems to gradually change from a very monotone palette to bursting with colour in the final scenes.

This movie apparently made quite an impact when it came out with restaurants recreating the entire menu for special Babette's feast nights. I am not sure that I would necessarily have wanted to participate in such an event. What I found myself pondering as I watched course after course of the feast on the screen is how much fine dining has changed during the last couple of hundred years. I can't imagine walking into a restaurant, no matter how fine, and requesting turtle soup, made from real turtle. Similarly, the idea of the quail is not particularly appealing to me, especially with their little heads tucked into the pastry shell as part of the presentation. Maybe other people could, but I am not sure that I would. Or maybe it is that I am not ready for really fine dining yet!

Here is the menu that Babette served up for the dinner party.

Potage a’la Tortue (Turtle Soup)
Blini Demidoff au Caviar (Buckwheat cakes with caviar)
Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (Quail in Puff Pastry Shell with Foie Gras & Truffle Sauce)
La Salade (Salad Course)
Les Fromages (Cheese and Fresh Fruit)
Baba au Rhum avec les Figues (Rum Cake with Dried Figs)

Someone needs to make a really good trailer for this film. The version with an English narrator speaking is terrible. This Danish version (with subtitles) is a bit long and all over the place but you do at least get a feeling for the film! The film took a while to get going, but once it did, it was a delight!

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. For more information, see the welcome post.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

A few weeks ago now I read How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. I really enjoyed it, partially because it was a quick read, but also because Hamid does interesting things with the structure and language of the book. Whereas the tone in my favourite Hamid book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is very much structured as a conversation through which the reader learns the story, this book is, as the title might suggest, structured like a self help book. There are the chapter titles which reflect the learning principle to be covered, the story is told to "you" as the reader and then the reader skips through to the next principle meaning that there can be big jumps in the narrative time line.

One of the other interesting about this book is what the reader is not told. We never learn any of the characters names or where the book is specifically set (we know that it is a South East Asian country so my guess is possibly Pakistan but that is just a guess), and even the time frame is somewhat fluid. Some of the action takes place now but given that two of the characters bond over a love of movies by watching videos and then we see them when they are older I am thinking that some of it may well be in the future.

We first meet our main characters when he is a sickly young boy living in a village. His father works in the city as a servant but then comes home to see his family. After moving with his family to the city, we see the boy as he matures into adulthood and his initial attempts at entrepreneurship and then as a successful businessman selling bottled water through to his older years. We see him as he is married and becomes a father, as he occasionally interacts with the "pretty girl" who he first met as a young man and more.

It is important not to go into this book thinking that you are going to really like the characters. It is not that the main character is unlikable but he is not necessarily admirable. He is not above a little shonky business dealing, bribery, violence and more in order to make the transition from poor to filthy rich. This is also not a funny book, but there is a sense of humour that shows through in parts, or perhaps a better description would be satirical cleverness. I don't normally get satire, but this book is clearly satirising the whole idea of self help books. The fact that Hamid does that whilst still telling an interesting story about a particular set of characters is part of what makes this so interesting.

Initially when I sat down tonight I was intending to write a short introduction to the quote I am about to share as part of my irregular Bookish Quotes series. However, the intro has turned into a review! I still want to share the quote, which comes from pages 97-98, because I liked it, particularly the second paragraph.

Like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project. When you watch a TV show or a movie, what you see looks like what it physically represents. A man looks like a man, a man with a large bicep looks like a man with a large bicep, and a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo "Mama" looks like a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo "Mama."

But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It's in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it's approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm.

Readers don't work for writers. They work for themselves. Therein, if you'll excuse the admittedly biased tone, lies the richness of reading.
Rating 4/5


From the internationally bestselling author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the boldly imagined tale of a poor boy’s quest for wealth and love.

His first two novels established Mohsin Hamid as a radically inventive storyteller with his finger on the world’s pulse. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia meets that reputation—and exceeds it. the astonishing and riveting tale of a man’s journey from impoverished rural boy to corporate tycoon, it steals its shape from the business self-help books devoured by ambitious youths all over “rising Asia.” It follows its nameless hero to the sprawling metropolis where he begins to amass an empire built on that most fluid, and increasingly scarce, of goods: water. Yet his heart remains set on something else, on the pretty girl whose star rises along with his, their paths crossing and recrossing, a lifelong affair sparked and snuffed and sparked again by the forces that careen their fates along.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a striking slice of contemporary life at a time of crushing upheaval. Romantic without being sentimental, political without being didactic, and spiritual without being religious, it brings an unflinching gaze to the violence and hope it depicts. And it creates two unforgettable characters who find moments of transcendent intimacy in the midst of shattering change


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