June 25, 2010

Island Beneath the Sea - Isabel Allende

I love finishing a book, and feeling disappointed to be leaving the world that the author has created. This was one such book.

This book was a birthday present from my sister - we went into a bookstore together, and she told me that I could choose any book that I wanted as a present - now there's a great idea!

The first 2/3 of the book is set in Haiti in colonial times - a time and era that I did not have much knowledge of. Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, had the worst reputation in the Americas for their treatment of slaves, as it was considered to be more economical to replace slaves that died from being overworked, than to treat them as humans. And Haiti is the only country in the world that obtained independence as a result of a slave revolt. I found that as I was reading this book, I was checking up every evening on the facts - what had actually happened in the view of history, and which characters were based on real people.

It is the story of Zarité (called Tété), a slave born with intelligence and a thirst for freedom (sounds like a cliché!), who is sold at age 9 to be trained as a lady's maid for the new wife of Toulouse Valmorain. The story follows Tété as she moves to the sugar plantation of Valmorain; as she is raped by Valmorain; as her first-born child is sold away from her; as she raises both the legitimate and illegitimate children of Valmorain; as her mistress dies; and as revolution breaks out in Haiti and the family has to flee the plantation.

The story then moves from Haiti to Cuba and on to New Orleans where Valmorain works his way into the Creole society there. I won't be spoiling the ending by saying that Tété is emancipated (this is revealed in the opening chapter) and settles down to live as a free "woman of colour" in New Orleans in the early 19th century.

I found the character of Tété to be very compelling, and I kept reading in order to find out what would happen next, and what decisions she would make. I also enjoyed the historical aspect of this book - I learned a lot about the history of Haiti and Louisiana in the late 18th and early 19th century; and it was interesting to see how it fit together with the history of France and the French Revolution. It was a book that kept me awake far too late at night for several nights in a row!

My one complaint with this book was that the ending felt a bit rushed. A lot of action and activity was crammed into the last few chapters. It was almost as though the author had conceived a family epic, but her publisher forced her to keep it under 500 pages.

One interesting point is that I was reading this book in translation (it was originally published in Spanish as La Isla Bajo el Mar). I often don't enjoy reading translations, but in this case I wasn't even aware that it was a translation - it was only when I checked the cover page at the end and noticed the name of the translator, Margaret Sayers Peden. Kudos to her, as the language of the book is very beautiful.

As is the design. It is a beautiful book to read in terms of typeset, layout of the pages, and feel of the pages. My copy has the cover pictured above, but I had trouble finding an image of this cover to use - there seems to be another cover out there that is much more common, but I like this cover better!

June 18, 2010

Girl Crazy - Russell Smith

I grabbed this book off of my TBR stack last weekend as I was heading down to Toronto for the weekend and wanted something not too heavy that wouldn't tax my brain too much - airport, airplane, and hotel room reading in other words.

Well, this book lived up to my expectations in that respect, and for the first half of the book, the plot was engaging enough that it kept my attention. But then I got bogged down in the second half.

I finished the book on Sunday evening, so have had a few days to digest it, and I have come to the conclusion that I really didn't like it. Or I guess I should say, I didn't get it.

It is a strange book. I described it to my sister as being almost "Chick Lit" for guys. But, not being a guy myself, I don't know how it would stand up to a reader of the opposite gender. It starts off with the Chick Lit formula, but with a male author and a male protagonist. Guy just broke up with his "normal" girlfriend, stuck in a dead-end job, falls in lust with a girl much younger and in a different social class as defined in our Canadian society. They are happy together for all of about 5 days, and then things fall apart. Our happy protagonist is drawn into a world of drugs, violence, and gambling (actually, I didn't really get how the gambling chapter fit with the rest of the book), is still lusting after the girl, and then just when he seems to have turned the corner and managed to get his life back on track, there is an ambiguous ending.

So what were my (numerous) problems with this book? First of all, I didn't like either of the main characters. At first, I could relate to the protagonist, but then as he got dragged into the above-mentioned world, I lost my sympathy for him. And his girl was someone that I definitely wouldn't like in real life. Then there were the heavy issues that were touched on (human trafficking, gun control) but it wasn't even implied that there was something wrong with a society that would allow these things. And then there was the fact that I, as a female reader, resented the fact that all of the female characters were presented as being their bodies and nothing more. And finally, the writing. Though it kept me engaged, I did after a while notice that the author tended to re-use certain words quite frequently (this was also one of my many beefs with Twilight, if you recall). If I had to read about one more "taut" body, I was going to throw the book across the room!

OK - I'm glad to get that out of my system; and fortunately I am reading a much better book this week!