Current Affairs


Some mini reviews because I want to get caught up before the new year.


Hector and the Search for Happiness – Francois Lelord – 4/10

Read this on the plane to and from Germany on a rare weekend away from the Bedfordshire portacabin. I kept waiting for it to be transcendent… and it never was. I get that we are suppose to learn the simple lessons of happiness that Hector encounters, but it felt childishly written – and not in a good way like The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden. Next.

kitchen god's wife

The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan – 6/10

This was the very first book I read in 2014, and it has taken me until December 2014 to review it. In the meantime I have read a different book by Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and now cannot tell them apart in my mind. I do remember that The Kitchen God’s Wife felt smoother, a better constructed story (though, like TBD, the framing was a little awkward), and that I did read it all the way to the end fairly quickly. Reading some other plot summaries, more of it is coming back to me, but the fact that so little of it, except for the fractious daughter-mother-aunt relationship, seems familiar to me is not a positive sign.


Current Affairs

The Bonesetter’s Daughter – Amy Tan – 6/10

“Those were the small rituals we had, what comforted us, what we loved, what we could look forward to, what we could be thankful for. And remember afterward.”

Ruth Young doesn’t know what to do about her ailing mother LuLing – she’s forgetful and argumentative, clearly on the cusp of Alzheimer’s. In an effort to break through her mother’s increasing paranoia, she finally makes time to sit down and read the memoirs her mother has been asking her to read for years. She learns about her mother’s difficult childhood, the time in a Christian orphanage, the struggle to get to America, and suddenly so much is clear.

The book is divided into three sections – Ruth’s initial struggles with her mother, the written account of her mother’s life in China before and during the Second World War, including the Japanese occupation, and the ending.

I actually particularly enjoyed the first section; Ruth’s struggles as the put-upon daughter, her relationship issues and distrust of her partner’s ex-wife. It’s standard commercial fiction stuff, but tempered by the cultural conflict, and more sensibly introspective than most.

The middle section is the longest. It feels like this is section that the book is really supposed to be about and the other bits are bookends (literally?) but I couldn’t have made it through the whole book if it was all in the tragic, disaster-ridden tone of the middle section. So many of these books seem to tell the same story – The Kitchen God’s Wife, Chinese Cinderella etc. i.e. the story of a daughter of the family who is somehow apart from the others, and her shameful treatment at the hands of the family. This novel is a little happier than average, and LuLing gets her happy ending without too many disasters. I found this section at once the least interestingly written and the most interesting subject matter.

The ending is a little saccharine – the domestic battle that has been bubbling for months is forgotten through a lavish financial contribution; the step-daughters who are surly and difficult at the start of the book suddenly want to spend time with Ruth and her mother. There is a late discussion with someone who would actually have been able to help with Ruth’s troubles had she only thought to ask earlier (as was the case in The Kitchen God’s wife). I wonder whether the concluding section was actually carved too savagely by an editor? In any case, all the issues are neatly wrapped up.

As I always do with this type of book, I found the female characters strong and easily identifiable, while the men were one-dimensional and muddled. Why is this always the case? Something to do with the fact that the whole narrative is from a female perspective? Ruth is a sympathetic protagonist; struggling with her duties as a good daughter, partner and step-mother. LuLing is a more difficult character to understand, but she holds her own well enough.

A perfectly good holiday book, but there’s better works in this genre (by this author, too).

Additional info

Copy from Bookmooch, I think. It has moved house with me twice, judging by the 15/10/10 post-it on the inside cover. 
Publisher: Flamingo, 339 pages (paperback)
Order The Bonesetter’s Daughterfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Modern Masters, Prizes

Remembering Babylon – David Malouf – 2/10 (DNF)

“Strange how unimportant eyebrows can be, as long as there are two of them”

In David Malouf’s IMPAC-winning novel (novelette? 182 pages), a group of children in 1840s Queensland happen across a young man, unkempt and racially white, but exhibiting behaviour they and their community expect of the local Aborigines. The community is changed forever by Gemmy’s arrival.

I don’t understand how this won the IMPAC and was shortlisted for the Booker. It’s So Incredibly Uninteresting. I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters, the setting, the writing, just any of it. Maybe that’s a criterion for book prizes.

Each chapter is from a different character’s point of view – we get Gemmy, Lachlan (the boy who found him), Janet (Lachlan’s jealous cousin), Jock (Janet’s father), the teacher… and none of them is an interesting person by themselves. There are some vague hints of interesting colonial life (dialogue is written in a strange Scotch hybrid sometimes) but it’s not explored. The writing is… meh. It’s not even exhilerating writing.

Urgh. Take it away from me.

Additional info:
This  copy was bought from a charity shop.
Publisher: Vintage Books, 182 pages
Order Remembering Babylon from Amazon if you can bear the tedium*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.
Kindle, Non-fiction

The Immigrant Advantage – Claudia Kolker – 8/10

“As a lot of us do, I’d grown up acutely aware how much I owed to being American. My insouciance about the future. My unhindered education. The chutzpah to go, as a single woman, anywhere that I pleased.”

In this very interesting non-fiction exploration/memoir, Kolker examines 8 behaviours and cultural concepts brought to the USA by immigrant groups, and how these behaviours lead to far higher quality of life than would be expected for these groups, taking into account income levels, dislocation from family and community support networks etc. She also relates her attempts to implement them in her own life.

Kolker must be a really interesting person and this comes across straight away in her writing. Part Jewish, part Mexican, and having done stints as a journalist in Haiti and other exotic American locations (and I use American in the North, Central and South sense), she spends time in Houston and Chicago with a young family and her photo-journalist husband.

She has also managed to pick 8 very varied cultural ideas, including money clubs, the cuarantena (quarantine) applied to new mothers, com thang (a sort of communal meals-on-wheels business), the benefits of front-stoop-perching – really something from every aspect of life.

Kolker moulds her research into her own life, and I found it fascinating to see how she makes the principles work for herself – her founding of a money club, her digging out and patronage of a com thang business (I tried to do the same but it appears there are not enough Vietnamese people in London).

I would absolutely advocate this fairly quick, simple read for anyone interested in examining how other people live and picking up a few life tips along the way. I’ll certainly be trying to give the cuarantena a shot when there comes to be a RFBT family!

Additional info:
This was a review copy from GalleyGrab.
Publisher: Free Press (Kindle edition)
Order The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness and Hope from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this, which goes towards giveaways.
Fluff, Kindle, Review copies

Rules of Civility – Amor Towles – 9/10

“One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.”

This is one novel I wish I’d listened to in audiobook – and I may try to get it in audio just so that I can. Towles has chosen to set his social study in carefree late 1930s Manhattan, choosing as his heroine a witty, smart, ahead of her time daughter of a Russian immigrant, Katya (now Katey) Kontent. Katey lives in Mrs Martingale’s boarding house with Evey Ross, and the two of them go out for New Year’s Eve on 1937 and befriend Tinker Grey, a young socialite banker. An awkward double romance develops but when Evey is disabled in a winter accident, Tinker throws his lot in with her. Katey moves on through New York society but every road seems to lead her back to Tinker eventually.

Towles has chosen to frame his story through the perspective of Katey as an older woman, reminded of the escapades of her youth by a photographic exhibition she attends with her husband. The first person narrative is slightly limiting, but by having Katey as the sensible one and Evey as the one whom trouble follows, we do of course get an interesting story. And this is an era with which I am entirely unacquainted! Most of my reading is set in pre-1900 or 1960+. The glamour and optimism of the late 30s in the USA, Manhattan before cell phones and yellow taxis and fear of terrorism, even the immigrant experience of the USA (it’s only really in Daughter of Fortune and Snow Falling on Cedars that I have run across it before) – all are new to me in literature and they were wonderful.

One of the things I love about reading on the Kindle is how easy it is to highlight passages and then come back to them when I am writing the review. Towles has a beautiful writing style, using words and phrases like “fabdabulous”, “the wine was older than me” and “a burgeoning taste for flawlessness”. Some of the ones I marked as I went through Rules of Civility:

On starting on page 104 of a Hemingway novel:

“Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way”

Other quotes:

“He felt elaborately around the bag until he brought out a cinnamon donut perched upright on his fingertips. Which, as it turns out, is all it takes to secure a place in my affections.”

“It’s terrific, I admitted. But I can’t help thinking how much better it would look on you, given the color of your hair. If I may be so bold, Miss Kontent, the color of my hair is available to you on the second floor.”

“At peace with the notion that he would join them soon enough in that circle of Elysium reserved for plot and substance and the judicious use of the semicolon” possibly my favourite book quote ever.

Well worth the read. Get your hands on a copy if you can, and even better if it’s in audio!

Other reviews: NPR, Just William’s Luck, Jennifer at Literate Housewife, Nicole at Linus’ Blanket; USA Today

Additional info:
This was supplied by the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Penguin Group USA, read on Kindle. The hardback has 352 pages.
Order this from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.
Fluff, Orange Prize for Fiction, Prizes

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka – 5/10

“You she-cat-dog-vixen-flesh-eating witch”

Nadezhka discovers that her 84-year-old father, recently bereaved, has become enamoured of a younger local Ukrainian woman and decided to marry her to save her from deportation. Nadezhka and her sister Vera attempt to set their father right, and when they are unable to do so, must watch the ensuing domestic mismatch. They rail against their stepmother with ever more inventive plots.

For a book that has won comedy prizes (Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize), this was bleakly un-humorous. I suspect that the comedy award was given on the strength of farcical descriptions – the image of Valentina tottering around the garden in her plastic high heels and heaving her enormous bosom about is quite funny, but the human tragedy of Nikolai’s situation, bereaved of a valued if not beloved wife, overwhelms the comedy.

The story of how the family came to England is actually a beautiful one and I wish it had been the centre piece of a very different novel. Similarly, the sisters’ petty heirloom battles and the attempts of the youngest generation to piece it together made for some interesting family drama.

Character development is cast aside in the pursuit of laughter – both sisters come across as embittered middle-aged women, Nikolai as a doddering old fool, a eminent (post-eminent?) engineer with incongruous fluctuations in his ability to make reasonable decisions, and Valentina as a witch with unclear motives. Perhaps my understanding of the Ukrainian emigrant psyche is insufficient to impose a pattern on Valentina’s behaviour – to me it appears cruel, haphazard and simply bizarre.

However, it can only be a condemnation of the relentless black comedy that I was willing the old man to die rather than endure any further nonsense from his daughters and partner.

Reviews by other bloggers: Jane of Reading, Writing, Working, Playing

Additional info:


This was one of two personal copies I had. I think I bought them both in Notting Hill.


Publisher: Penguin, paperback, 336 pages.


Order this from Amazon*


* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.




Modern Masters, PEN/Faulkner Prize, Prizes

Snow Falling On Cedars – David Guterson – 9/10

I write this review confined to the sofa by
one of the worst toe-stubbings I have suffered… fortunately Mr. RFBT rescued
the bolognese that was bubbling away on the stove.

This PEN/Faulkner
winner from 1995
impressed me enormously. I wasn’t surprised to discover
that the author lives on an island in the location in which the book is set
(the island on which the book is set is not necessarily real, I don’t know, but
it is very clearly based on a real place) because he captures the essence of
island living, of isolated communities with their epic feuds and total lack of
anonymity. I was fascinated by the place itself – a hybrid of Nordic and
Japanese communities, shrouded in fog and snow. Given the author’s surname I
would guess that this social mix is also real.

Snow Falling on Cedars reminded me very
much of Atonement – a forbidden love, disturbed by disaster, a third party
wishing things had been different, some time spent graphically at war. The main
plot line is the court case (in 1954) in which Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of
killing Carl Heine over seven acres of land in a deal gone bad over a number of
generations. The undercurrent is the relationship (or rather, lack thereof)
between the local reporter and the accused’ s wife Hatsue, from childhood
through to the court case – and the bad feeling left in every relationship by
the outbreak of war and the ensuing internment of Japanese Americans.

I would have given this 10/10 but for two
factors: I thought the war section was badly written – unnecessarily graphic,
in fact just unnecessary; and that Ishmael (the reporter) is a surprisingly
apathetic narrator.

I’m going to make a quick plug for Bookmooch at this point – I mooched
this book from Japan and it arrived in excellent condition. I love being a
member of Bookmooch – I save money on buying books, I know that my outgoing
books are going to loving homes, and every now and again I receive a book with
a postcard, photograph or something else personal in it. I never used to buy or
read second hand books but I love the idea that others have sat enthralled by
the very same pages. Bookmooch is not-for-profit and run (entirely?) on
goodwill, so even though I’m pretty sure I’m typing into a void of nothingness
in terms of readership, I hope that people will join up!