Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Witi Ihimaera’s Whale Rider is a beautiful gem of a story, highlighting and celebrating Maori culture and society.

Eight-year-old Kahu is a girl growing up in a male-dominated world. Her tribe claims to go all the way back to the whale rider Kahutia Te Rangi and the current chief is her ageing grandfather Koro. It’s a sore point with him that his first grandchild is not only a girl, but also named after the legendary ancestor.

In a society, in which the tribal ways still dictate social and cultural behaviour, the little girl has to prove her worth as her grandfather desperately seeks a successor.

Whale Rider is written from the perspective of Kahu’s uncle Rawiri, who – like the author – knows the Maori culture. Trying to gain her grandfather’s love, Kahu throws herself into her studies of the Maori language and local legends. And with a little curiosity and the secret help of her relatives, Kahu learns the skills usually reserved for boys. When whales start to wash up on the beach of the small Maori community, it is time for the real heir of Kahutia to take their rightful place in the tribe.

It is a beautiful story, weaving together the past and present, highlighting the generational shift in dynamics while trying to hang on to the old ways and legends. The relationship between Kahu and her grandfather is both beautiful and incredibly sad. All Kahu wants is for her grandfather to love her. She’s a good, well-behaved girl, who does not understand why she is being punished with neglect; while he is an old man who only knew one way of running the tribe, and what positions girls in his family are supposed to take and struggles with breaking from tradition.

The book does a wonderful job of introducing Maori culture and includes many Maori names and words. There’s no westernized view of tribal life or belittling of the traditional ways. It showcases the importance of the ancestral legends and the how their culture defines their everyday life. But at the heart, it is a touching story about a little girl and her granddad who live in Aotearoa – the Land of the Long White Cloud – and who have to work at  finding mutual respect in a world in which cultural limitations are changing.

Whale Rider was the first novel by a Maori author to be published, and to me, this is a defining piece of Kiwi Literature. If you are interested in New Zealand at all, read this book first and foremost!

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Whale Rider
Author: Witi Ihimaera
Publisher: HMH Books
Release Date: May 1, 2003 (originally published in 1987)
Pages: 150
ISBN:  978-0152050160

Voss by Patrick White #AtoZ #60Books

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge. Also part of my 60 Books Challenge: Based on a true story.

Based on a true story of exploration in the Australian Outback, Voss, by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Patrick White,  epitomises nineteenth-century Australian society and explorer mentality.

Johann Ulrich Voss is a German explorer who is set on being the first to cross Australia, based on Ludwig Leichhardt, who famously got lost in the Australian Outback.

It’s as much a story about passion as it is about exploration. Voss meets a young woman called Laura, who is new to New South Wales and who is the – slightly naive – niece of Voss’ expedition sponsor. Laura and Voss connect on a deep level and share an almost spiritual bond as he leaves on his ill-fated expedition into Australia’s red centre.

Why a character like Voss, who although being enigmatic is also quite arrogant and introverted, would choose to lead an expedition is a bit of a mystery. His sponsors insist on him taking a whole entourage of characters with him, even though it is obvious that Voss would prefer to travel solo. Keeping in contact with Laura as far as possible as many letters do get lost, they come to see each other as husband and wife, even though most of their relationship exists and progresses only in their dreams and imaginations.

Though it is not the main character who is the most interesting figure in this story. Voss’ team consists of a handful of men, all distinct and all misfits, even in their own small group of misfits. Their interactions are what moves the plot along, and they are fascinating to observe. Once the group of explorers encounters aboriginal folk in the Outback, the story becomes infused with their spiritualism as well. Aboriginal people come across as completely “other” and strange, compared to the colonial explorers, and their interactions with Voss’ band of people are rife with communication problems and cultural misunderstandings which are nevertheless crucial to the story.

Patrick White’s writing is simultaneously strange and beautiful. He creates characters and paints landscapes the descriptions of which will stay with readers.White’s story is littered with observations and psychology, and sentences are sometimes designed to be tripping people up while reading.

A story of love, loss, and the dangers of the Outback. Voss truly is the quintessential, modernist Australian novel.

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Voss
Author: Patrick White
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Release Date: 1994 (originally published in 1957)
Pages: 464
ISBN:  978-0099324713

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

There is something magical about books that transport you back to your childhood, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is one of those special books,

After a family bereavement, a man returns to his rural childhood home and heads down the lane to the old ramshackle farmhouse next door that he used to visit as a child.

And he starts to remember fragments, of how he used to play with a little, remarkable girl called Lettie Hempstock, who lived on the farm with her mother and gran. Who took him to the pond behind the homestead and called it her ocean.

Neil Gaiman beautifully weaves a tale of magic and half-remembered childhood days. The man had not thought about Lettie and her family in decades, and yet, fragments of his past come back to him that seem too strange and frightening to have happened, let alone to a seven-year-old boy. Something incomprehensible happened in the man’s childhood, which unleashed a darkness on the small community on the lane, and set in motion a devastating chain of events.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a beautiful study of what makes us human, and also on how we perceived the world when we were little. Lettie and her family could not really be witches, could they? But which part of the remembered past are true, and which are childish imagination? Maybe there is no distinction between them at all.

Neil Gaiman seems to have found the perfect mixture of truth and imagination, magic, reality, joy and sadness, wit and dry humour, happiness and fear, which gives the story a sweetly melancholic atmosphere. The book captures the reader’s attention from the first page to the very last, spinning a tale of mystery, old wisdom, love, and resentment. Parts of the story hit close to home, in every sense of those words, while others are endearingly whimsical.

Even the physical book itself insists on being whimsical and that little bit different and special, with its intentionally rough, untrimmed edges of the paper.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane stretches imaginations and definitions of what is possible and what is not; and whether one thing could not simultaneously be another as well. And maybe, just maybe, the fantastical stories we thought we made up as children turn out to be real after all. Not remembering properly may simply have been less painful.

This is one of those rare books whose message you have to digest for a while after you finish reading it. It will make you question your childhood memories and the limitations of your imagination, and Gaiman’s exquisite style will immerse you so deeply in the story that you think you are really walking alongside Lettie Hempstock and the boy searching for the ocean behind the old homestead at the end of the dusty lane.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Pages: 181
ISBN:  978-0062272348

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is a classic example of a Bildungsroman.

The development and progression to maturity of the main character, a young Indian man called Siddhartha, is at the centre of this German classic. Finding enlightenment is the most important aspect of the journey the character undertakes in his life, as the novel follows him from a vagabond childhood through what can only be termed a mid-life crisis to his spiritual awakening.

Hesse’s prose is beautiful and poetic, whether you read it in the original German, or in the English translation. For being written by a German, Siddhartha does a wonderful job of bringing the old Indian way of life and the philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism to life.

However, you can have too much of a good thing. Siddhartha’s story follows that of the buddha – who, incidently, was also called Siddhartha. The names are taken from deities and holy people. And those unfamiliar with Eastern lifestyles and disciplines might have trouble keeping the terms apart as Siddhartha encounters brahmins and ascetics, and discusses the Atman, hindu deities, moksha, and samsara.

The German word “Bildung” means education, and this is what Hesse attempts with this novel. To educate about the path of enlightenment. But it comes across as trying too hard. While the story itself is enjoyable enough, the constant life advice does grind on. Some books you read and come away from them, and your whole view of the world has changed. And I am sure this is what Hesse was going for with Siddhartha. But some books, like this one, don’t get the message across between the lines, and become too obvious about it.

Someone in a more spiritual state of mind would probably enjoy Siddhartha, but to me it read like a nice story around an Introduction to Buddhism textbook which was meant to give a basic overview and introduce terms and names to be discussed in further lessons.

 

My Rating: ♥♥

Title: Siddhartha
Author: Hermann Hesse
Publisher: Bantam Books
Release Date: December 1, 1981 (originally published in 1922)
Pages: 160
ISBN:  978-0553208849

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London was a huge surprise. Expecting a crime novel and police procedural, this book is so much more than that.

It all starts with Constable Peter Grant, an officer in the Metropolitan Police. He’s only supposed to take witness statements in a murder inquiry – and ends up interviewing a ghost.

Turns out there’s a Chief Inspector at the Met who is also the last wizard in England. And Peter Grant has just become his first trainee in decades, investigating cases that could have supernatural elements to them.

Rivers of London is refreshingly British. Sort of Scotland Yard meets Harry Potter (minus the wizarding school), and you can’t get much more British than that. Aaronovitch really knows how to write convincing dialogue incorporating British slang with just the right amount of sarcasm, and DC Peter Grant is a very well-written character and a narrator with a great voice. It’s smart and witty, without being patronising. It is also just as refreshing to see a non-white protagonist, especially as a detective of the Met, who is unselfconscious about his mixed-heritage ethnicity.

The author obviously knows London like the back of his hand. It is also pretty obvious that Aaronovitch is a proper geek as there are several references to the works of authors and scientists, as well as British pop culture. The amount of detail that goes into the police procedure descriptions is incredible.

The magic in this book is unique. The river Thames and her tributaries are in fact deities who are alive, and the Old Man of the River and Mama Thames are both fighting over the control of the rivers. There’s no silly wand-pointing. Peter and the Chief Inspector can pick up the essence that magic leaves behind, and they really use their full magical and non-magical arsenal to solve their cases.

Rivers of London is a great urban fantasy with the perfect mixture of detective story, magic, and British humour.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Rivers of London
Author: Ben Aaronovitch
Publisher: Gollancz
Release Date: January 10, 2011
Pages: 392
ISBN:  978-0575097568

Note: In the US, this book is known as Midnight Riot

Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Quite Ugly One Morning is the first novel by Christopher Brookmyer, and the first to feature Scottish journalist Jack Parlabane.

Jack, just back from L.A. after a hitman tried to dispose of him, can’t seem to catch a break. And he can’t keep his nose out of things that intrigue him. Like the doctor in the flat below being murdered.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. The descriptions are very graphic and detailed, and there’s an almost juvenile potty-mouth humour throughout the book. But if this is your sort of thing, and you enjoy a good detective story with the protagonist being a Scottish (in all senses of the word) journalist, than Quite Ugly One Morning is the book for you!

The cast of characters in this novel is really well developed, no matter how small their role. And it’s refreshing to see such an expansive yet diverse cast. The story itself is beautifully crafted as well. Although the crime gets solved pretty early on, there’s never a dull moment, as the rest of the story skillfully spells out the solution by connecting the dots one by one.  It’s almost as if two stories run parallel to each other – one is of the good guys on the heels of the baddies, the other is the bad guy’s incompetent try to cover their tracks.

Even though the book was first published in 1997, it touches on some social issues that are still prevalent in British society today. And it’s a shame that even nearly 20 years on, nothing much has changed.

A working knowlede of Scottish colloquialisms may help understand some of the dialogue. But even if not, imagine listening to incomprehensible Scottish banter in the pub.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Quite Ugly One Morning
Author: Christopher Brookmyre
Publisher: Abacus
Release Date: July 3, 1997
Pages: 312
ISBN:  978-0349108858

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith #AtoZ #60Books

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith may be called blasphemy by Austen purists. I call it a brilliant and exciting update of a classic.

Because let’s face it: what’s been missing from Pride and Prejudice were zombies!

The undead are mostly viewed as a troublesome nuisance. Letters get lost when the mail couriers are caught and eaten. That sort of thing.

Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters are trained in martial arts and really know their weapons. As does Mr Darcy, who is a monster hunter in this reincarnation. And to be honest, I find him much improved with a sword and a musket.

The author, who credits Jane Austen as co-author, kept mainly to Austen’s writing style. But the dialogue got more hilarious, and the scenes a lot gorier. There are blood and innards and talk of brains being eaten everywhere. Elizabeth is a proper heroine, there are fights to the death, exhumations, and beloved characters who get infected with the “mysterious plague”.

It does help to have read Pride & Prejudice before, to compare the two stories. You’ll find that you’ll want to go back to the original again and again to see the two versions side by side. It’s laugh out loud funny when you picture all these well-loved and well-established characters with their noble attitudes facing a zombie apocalypse head-on. Yes, it’s silly and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. After all, it is a parody and having a bit of fun with classic literature.

But how could you pass up something like this?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Oh, and by the way: there are ninjas, too!

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Publisher: Quirk Books
Release Date: May 1, 2009
Pages: 319
ISBN:  978-1594743344

On the Road by Jack Kerouac #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road became the defining novel of the Beat Generation.

It describes roadtrips across America, carefree attitudes, Americana, jazz, free spirits, drugs, sex, booze and adventure, and is mainly autobiographical. Protagonist Sal Paradise is based on the author himself, and many of his friends and relatives, including other (now famous) beatniks like Allen Ginsberg feature in the book as well – sometimes with only minimal name changes on the part of the author.

On the Road is one of those books people seem to either love or hate. Written entirely using stream of consciousness, Kerouac’s rambling style, run-on sentences and seemingly disjointed thoughts can make it hard to follow the story sometimes. At other times, however, Kerouac comes up with beautifully written descriptions and explanations. Split into five parts, the story follows recently divorced Sal across the United States between 1947 and 1950, from New York to San Francisco and back with stops in New Orleans, Detroit and Denver and an eventual, ill-fated trip south of the border into Mexico.

Some characters, like Dean Moriarty who was based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, are thoroughly unpleasant. He’s an adulterer and a drifter, who keeps leaving pregnant girlfriends by the wayside to get back to his wife and family. Dean is someone, who abandons friends when they need him, and when the adventure is no longer fun for him.

Sal Paradise, on the other hand, is positively naive and innocent compared to Dean. He’s idealistic, and searching for life and a spiritual connection with life. He is basking in the energetic glow of Dean while it lasts and thinks that he has found what he was looking for and finally learned what life is about.

It’s easy to see how this novel can be appealing to teenagers and all those with Fernweh and Wanderlust in their hearts. On the Road romanticises a bohemian lifestyle, drifting from place to place, hitchhiking and seeking adventure.  It does encompass that sense that there is more to life and the world than the town you grew up in. On the Road may be the ultimate roadtrip novel.

Disclaimer: I bought this book (a paperback 50th anniversary edition that seems to be ou of print by now) at the iconic beatnik bookstore City Lights in San Francisco when I was 20 and on a cross-country roadtrip from L.A. to New York in the summer of 2007. I’d heard of On the Road before, and thought what better place to get my copy than City Lights, especially as Jack Kerouac Alley runs along the side of the bookstore building. For me it was the right book at the right time, but stream of consciousness writing is not for everyone.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: On The Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Publisher: Penguin Books
Release Date: April 7, 2011 (originally published in 1955)
Pages: 281
ISBN:  978-0241951538

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman #AtoZ #Audiobook

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Did you know that London is split in two parts? And I don’t mean the cities of London and Westminster. No, it’s London Above and London Below.

London Above is the city most people know. The one with corporate jobs and ultra-modern buildings. But the London Below of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is a whole different world, full of Rat-Speakers and shadow dwellers, with their own rules to abide and secrets to keep.

The version I am reviewing is the BBC Full-Cast Dramatization, although the print copy is just as marvellous. James McAvoy voices Richard, who by chance finds a way into London Below, where he discovers that what he only knows as landmarks, suburbs and tube stations are real people in the city underneath. There is an Earl at Earl’s Court – an old man with a tendency to go berserk – voiced by Sir Christopher Lee; Knightsbridge is guarded by actual knights, the Old Bailey is an old, kind man feeding pigeons played by Bernard Cribbins and Benedict Cumberbatch lends his voice to the all-too-real Angel Islington.

The cast also includes the likes of Anthony Stewart Head, Johnny Vegas, David Harewood, Sophie Okonedo and Neil Gaiman himself. And what a cast it is! This particular version is dialogue-only, as the voice actors do an amazing job of bringing the world below to life. Even without a narrator the story is easy to follow and all the characters are so well defined and different that not a single one of them seems flat or unimportant.

Neverwhere is urban fantasy at its finest. It takes a familiar place and turns it into something incredibly more complex than you could ever have imagined. The way Gaiman brings all the landmarks and places to life borders on genius and begs the question: why has nobody else wondered where such places as Ravenscourt or Knightsbridge got their names from? And if they were people, what would they be like?

Only very few people Above ever catch a glimpse of London Below or the people who inhabit it. They choose not to see. For them, some of the folk from Below look like homeless people, and the people Above are used to ignoring their problems.

Neverwhere is the perfect gateway story for those wanting to get more into urban fantasy. And whether you read it or listen to it – you’ll never see London in quite the same way ever again.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Neverwhere
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: July 7, 2015 (originally published in 1996)
Pages: 336
ISBN:  978-0062371058

BBC Full-Cast Dramatization
Release Date: September 5, 2013
ISBN: 978-1471316470

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

 Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a book that just understands book lovers everywhere.

The bookshop itself is located in San Francisco, stacked from floor to ceiling with old and obscure tomes, it’s open all night and serves a very peculiar and eclectic clientele.

When web designer Clay gets laid off, he finds a job working the night shift at this curious, dusty bookshop run by Mr Penumbra, after Clay confesses that his favourite book is a strange tale barely anyone has ever heard of. He soon learns that there are two parts to the tiny but three story tall shop. The front of house is a crammed, traditional bookstore. The high shelves in the back hold the Waybacklist, an assortment of old and dusty tomes with obscure titles. And while Clay has never heard of any one of them, his regular night shift customers send him up the ladders among the Waybacklist every time they enter the shop.

The rules are few. When a customer asks for a book on the list, Clay has to note the book they want, the book they bring back, how the customer looked, what they wore and the precise time they came by. As Clay tries to digitise the inventory to keep himself entertained during the long nights, he starts to see a pattern emerging among the shelves. The depths of the quaint little store seem to hold great mysteries.

Robin Sloan’s debut novel is like a love letter for bibliophiles. It shows that publishing, typesetting, printing, the internet and eReaders are not at odds. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore wonderfully combines old and new technologies for the greater good of saving and passing on knowledge. Curiosity, and a love for books and knowledge soon turn into an adventure that has an ancient font at its centre, hidden messages between the lines and a secret literary society in the shadows.

It really makes you question ordinary objects and technology we use every day, and whether the cults and quests of old could still exist. Clay and his friends are an eclectic bunch, smart, full of life and the embodiment of their generation; trapped between old and new technologies and always looking for their next big chance. And yet the whenever it seems new technology saves the day, there’s a book coming to the rescue and vice versa.

A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”

This is a book for everyone who knows that the printed word and the internet are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they work together quite nicely indeed.

 

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Release Date: August 1, 2013
Pages: 291
ISBN:  978-1782391197