Monday, January 30, 2012

*Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012
365 pp

I decided to read this novel because of my interest in the origins of genocide in general and because for years I followed the ongoing situation in Rwanda, and then the war crimes trials that followed. There is still a great deal of fallout from this time period that continues to interest me as well.  So when I heard about this book last year, I snapped it up via pre-order,  curious to see how a woman from America was going to pull off a story about a boy who grows up in Rwanda during the time of the massacres.  By and large she did a good job of it while simultaneously weaving the basics of this catastrophic time period  into her story.  The premise of the novel is also intriguing.  But unlike the rest of the reading public, it seems, I just didn't go uber-gaga over this book, largely because it reads like a young adult novel.  However, I think that once the word gets out about this book, it has the makings of a bestseller exactly because of its potential appeal to the young adult audience.

Divided into five parts and spanning a period of fourteen years, Running the Rift follows the life of Jean Patrick Nkuba,  a Tutsi boy who grows up pretty sheltered, with a father who taught him that  there is no difference between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes.   With the death of Jean Patrick's father in a car accident, the family's situation changes, and Jean Patrick  begins to discover that not everyone thinks the way his father did.  While the family is coming to terms with their loss, wondering about the future, an incident occurs in which a group of Hutu boys hurl rocks through the windows of the family home.  Jean Patrick chases after the gang, but fails to catch up to them, leaving  him feeling guilty about not being a faster runner.   The family moves to the home of Jean Patrick's uncle , where he and his older brother Roger did not initially want to go, where, as Roger thought, they would be "nothing but poor fishermen, running around dirty and eating with our fingers like the rest of Uncle’s children. ”  Uncle and the rest of the family are definitely poor and life is harder there, but the brothers discover that there is more to wealth than money -- that a loving family is at the root of everything good in life.  Things begin to change for Jean Patrick when an Olympic runner comes to his school and to celebrate, the school holds a race which he wins.  The prize is a poster which the runner dedicates to Jean Patrick, calling him "our next Olympic hero." At this point, Jean Patrick's life dreams and ambitions are born, and as he moves on to secondary school, he begins training in earnest under Coach, a strange figure who seems to have more going on than just helping young men get to the Olympics, and who offers Jean Patrick a Hutu identity card to stay  safe.   It's running, not the political situation, that keeps Jean Patric focused while things begin to explode all around him; he becomes very well known after running the 800-meter with an Olympic qualifying time, and it looks like he may actually realize his dream.  He's got good backing, too -- his picture appears in the paper with the Rwandan president; McDonald's hamburgers are flown in for a reception with an ambassador, and all eyes are on Jean Patrick.  But over time, politics, propaganda and ultimately the murder of the president  turn Rwanda into a full-blown, bloody killing ground and events occur that thrust Jean Patrick right into the heart of the nightmare.  This is his story, set against a time when "no safe or sane place exists within the country,"  when Tutsis are hunted down just because they are not Hutus.

While the Hutu/Tutsi story is a bit more complicated than the way the author depicts it in this novel, she still does a good job of describing the atmosphere of horror during this time of madness.  As events unfold, she examines the effects of this conflict on people at every level, from the family to the community to the nation, even to the world at large, where the Western countries more or less turn their backs to the slaughter.  In terms of pacing, the story plods along for much of the first half of the novel, as the characters are introduced and established, as Jean Patrick's early life is set forth, and as change is beginning to rear its ugly head for the worse.  My favorite section of Ms. Benaron's book, in terms of writing and prose, is in Book Three, when all hell breaks loose for Rwanda and for Jean Patrick as well -- it is there that the author amps up the pace, where the situation becomes very tense, enough to hold my attention for the longest time.  This section, personally speaking, is where I believe the author's true writing potential  comes shining through.  If the rest of the book had conveyed this much intensity, it would have been a much better reading experience for me.

 I'm sort of torn here -- on one hand, I appreciate the author's choice of subject matter and her willingness to tackle it and the fact that she  brings this terrible situation to the attention of  members of the reading public who may be familiar with events in Rwanda from movies or from TV news of years ago.   The basic story is good, and she does manage to get across many of the terrors faced by a young person coming of age in Rwanda during this time.  At the same time,  with the exception of Book Three, I just didn't think it delivered that punch I was looking for,  considering the topic at hand.  After having finished it, I  thought that Running the Rift  was a book my daughter would enjoy much more than I did. It has that young-adult lit feel, and would not be out of place on high-school library shelves, or as a required text for a high-school history course.  It really reminded me of books I read when I was younger, where there was enough to tug at my heart strings and to capture my intellectual interest, leading me to want to find out more about the topic.  If the book is  geared for readers of young adult fiction, then it's a perfect fit; if it was supposed to be more of a literary read, well, it just didn't do it for me.

Still, despite my personal feelings about the young-adult style, readers are loving this novel, and there are many good things about it to recommend.  The book is extremely approachable in terms of reading, and despite the 365 pages, it moves quickly. If you're squeamish about violence, beware.  Running the Rift works (imho) largely on an emotional level, so if that's what you're looking for, you'll probably love it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Shehan Karunatilaka wins the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature with Chinaman

Congratulations to Shehan Karunatilaka for winning the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.  I've been sitting on this book now for months, but it's definitely going to be popping up in my reading list within the next couple of weeks.

Karunatilaka's competition was as follows:

  •    U.R. Ananthamurthy: Bharathipura
  •   Chandrakanta: A Street in Srinagar
  •   Usha K.R: Monkey-man
  •   Tabish Khair: The Thing About Thugs
  •   Kavery Nambisan: The Story that Must Not Be Told 
and, as it just so happens, I've read Khair's novel and loved it, and the other 4 are sitting here on my floor just begging to be read. 

Now I'm more eager than ever to get started on Chinaman!

Adding two more challenges to the list -- what the hell

My tbr pile is absolutely out of control, something I noticed when I started having to slide books around on my office floor to get to my computer.  I'm 100% determined to cut down the number of books that have been laying around here forever.  So I'm adding two more challenges to the list to help pare down the number of unread books.

First is the Aussie Author Challenge, which is hosted by Jo at Booklover Book Reviews and has been an ongoing part of my reading life for the last two years.  I think I contributed a whopping grand total of 6 books read for that challenge last year, but at least I cleared out that many books from my shelves.  Six doesn't sound like a whole lot, but it's shelf space. I absolutely adore Jo and all of the other book people from Australia I've met through the internet, and I'm hoping I can make it to the 12-book "Dinky-di" level this year.  I've got a ton of Aussie books that will work for that challenge, and they'll work for the Mt. TBR challenge as well.

Moving on to number two, this is a first for me: the 2012 South Asian Challenge hosted by S. Krishna at her website, S. Krishna's Books.  I've become a lot more serious about literature from this area of the world lately, and have a number of books from this region that need to stop being neglected. I'll start of with 12 books for the year and see if I can do more.

Since I can't keep track of every single book for every single challenge on a list on the sidebar, I'll be posting a monthly challenge tracker to see how far I've come.

More books read means more books to new homes -- so stay tuned.

The Goodreads book rescue -- have you heard about it?

Sometimes I take myself off line just because.  There's no specific reason -- it's just because.  But today I started thinking that this isn't such a good idea because I miss way too much stuff when I do this. For example, I've recently finished two books by Boris Akunin trying to get to the latest one published,  and I go to Goodreads to post the reviews.  Next to each book is a little note saying that this book needs saving.  I'm like "what?" (sorry about the like, I really do talk like that and I can't help it because I was born and raised in California -- it's not affected on purpose).  So I do a bit of research and find this link at the site, which basically says that Goodreads will no longer be using Amazon's database for book listings at the Goodreads site, because evidently, according to the powers that be,

"Amazon's data has been great for us for many years, but the terms that come with it have gotten more and more restrictive, and we were finally forced to come to the conclusion that moving to other datasources will be better for Goodreads and our members in so many ways that we had to do it. It may be a little painful, but our aim is to make it as seamless as possible for all our members.

Amazon data that we will stop using includes data such as titles, author names, page counts, and publication dates. For the vast majority of book editions, we are currently importing this data from other sources. Once the imports are done, those few remaining editions for which we haven't found an alternative source of information will be removed from Goodreads."

So I "rescued" the two Akunin books I just read, plus the one I'm getting ready to start, and then discovered that 197 titles in my own Goodreads library are in need of rescuing.  Hmmm. I'm willing to hunker down and get to work on saving them, but at the same time, the powers that be say not to be in a hurry to do so since they're working on other book databases to try to remedy the problem.   So I'll check back soon to see where we're at in the process.

So what's going on? Is Amazon getting all bitchy or wanting more money or what? I've been really really really upset since the whole Amazon/Book Depository thing which has totally screwed me on buying books at the Book Depository.  I still get them from there (BD), but I end up having to do an end run through Alibris or places like that to get new releases that aren't going to be released here in the US for some time.  That means that the free postage from Book Depository no longer exists for me, since Alibris isn't so generous with their mailing fees.  Plus I have to wait longer to get my books now, etc. etc. etc. Plus, here's the kicker: Book Depository says "book not in stock" but yet I can buy it from Book Depository via Alibris.  Go figure. 

You might want to go look at your Goodreads library and see if you have any books needing rescuing -- I probably wouldn't have noticed at all except that I'm a stickler about keeping track of my reading.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The winner of the Orphan Master's Son is....

Christina! Christina was commenter #6, the number generated by for this giveaway. I'll be mailing your book next week, and congratulations!

As usual, I wish I could give you all a copy, but well, you know. Thanks for commenting, and I'll be back with another giveaway soon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

*The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

Random House, 2012
443 pp

While 2012 is not yet even three weeks old, it's just possible that I've found the novel that come next December I'll be listing as my favorite book of the year.  Go ahead -- scoff or do the eyeroll if you so choose, but as I said in an earlier post, The Orphan Master's Son has just set the bar for my reading year.  Rarely do I find something that affects me the way this book did, and when I have, it's generally been by an author from another country.  But with this novel, the prose, the characters, the story and the author's imagining of life under totalitarian rule in  North Korea all combine to produce the literary equivalent of the perfect storm in my reading universe. 

While getting my thoughts together and perusing the internet, I discovered an interview where the author notes that
"... in North Korea there is a national script, conveyed through propaganda. There is one notion about who the people are and what the national goals are, and you as a citizen are conscripted to be a part of this national narrative. . .  You have to relinquish your own personal desires.” 
And the main character in this story, Pak Jun Do, has spent a great deal of his young  life following the script.  His early life and career are laid out in the first part of this novel, "The Biography of Jun Do,"  which even by itself would have made an incredible story.  His father is in charge of the orphan camp called Long Tomorrows near Chongjin, where Jun Do grows up without a mother.  Orphans are very low in the social order, and are  hired out to various companies or other work details; when they get older they are sent directly to the military, where they are usually assigned the most dangerous jobs.  Jun Do, although not technically an orphan, ends up as a tunnel soldier, then ends up on assignment kidnapping people from Japan. From there, he is assigned to language school, then to a listening post on the fishing boat Junma, where he monitors radio transmissions.  After an encounter with an American interceptor at sea and later a defection, he is proclaimed a hero and recruited for a secret mission to Texas.  It is there, looking through of all things a telephone directory, that he comes to realize that there's a bigger and better world out there, and that he hates his "small, backward homeland, a land of mysteries and ghosts and mistaken identities." His return to North Korea leads directly to part two of the novel, "The Confessions of Commander Ga," where in a rather abrupt change, we find Jun Do in a prison mine where one of the outputs is the blood of the dead that is shipped to the capital, Pyongyang.  From there Jun Do's life takes on a new twist, one I won't reveal here, but it is a story guaranteed to keep you awake and turning pages because you do not want to miss even a second of Jun Do's story.

There is not one useless character in this novel, down to Brando, the dog, and they all serve to illuminate life in North Korea under the "Dear Leader" as imagined by the author. While some of the scenes in the book are downright funny and will make you laugh out loud, the author is quick to keep the reader in mind of some of the harsher realities that exist, some of which go beyond the prison camps and torture of inmates.  For example, there's an unforgettable scene in the second part of the novel where an interrogator flashes back to when he was eight years old, listening to  "a talk that every father must have with his son,"  a talk is meant to teach him how he must act to survive in this society:
"He told me that there was a path set out for us. On it we had to do everything the signs commanded and heed all the announcements along the way.  Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands."
To illustrate his point, his father goes on:
"Now take my hand," he told me. I put my small hand in his, and then his mouth became sharp with hate. He shouted, "I denounce this citizen as an imperialist puppet who should be remanded to stand trial for crimes against the state." His face was red, venomous. "I have witnessed him spew capitalist diatribes in an effort to poison our minds with his traitorous filth."...I was terrified, on the verge of crying. My father said, "See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If your mother ever must say something like that to me, in order to protect the two of you, know that inside, she and I are holding hands. And if someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it's not really you. That's inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands." 
The author's range from funny to downright heartwrenching is amazing; his prose, his characters' dialogue, his sense of place and time are all nearly pitch perfect. 

The strongest  parts of the novel are found in how different people retain their dignity and integrity after enduring incredible hardships, and in what really constitutes a hero, a word that is bandied about at the upper echelons in keeping with the national myth. North Korea is a place where above all the myths behind the cult of personality endure, no matter what methods are used to ensure its survival -- "re-education," fear,  torture, etc.  While the author shows that not everyone buys into it, there is also propaganda everywhere, made very clear by the loudspeakers in everyone's living room, factory floors, offices, etc.  Announcements beginning with "Citizens"  are a device the author uses often throughout the novel, often related in a  tongue-in-cheek manner,  used to broadcast not only the latest good deed done by the Dear Leader  -- "Kim Jong Il was seen offering on-the-spot guidance to the engineers deeping the Taedong River channel," but also the myth: "While the Dear Leader lectured to the dredge operators, many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide our Reverend General some much needed shade on a hot day."

The Orphan Master's Son is a wonderful novel for several reasons, and I've just skimmed the surface of the story here.  I had only a small problem in terms of reading, and that was with the juxtaposition from part one to part two, where I read a few pages, scratched my head and had to go back again to make sure what I'd read was correct.  Once I figured out what was happening and continued reading, all was explained and back into smooth reading zone I went. 

 It's very obvious that the author has done his research, even traveling to North Korea.  At one point I looked up kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Koreans and was amazed to discover that this practice has been going on for some time.  Furthermore, the propaganda and mythmaking around Kim Jong-il so beautifully incorporated into The Orphan Master's Son is now being ramped up in real life for the new leader Kim Jong-un, as shown in this article

Very highly recommended, although his book may not be for everyone -- many readers might find the story too dark or bleak to get through, so if you're looking for a lighthearted read,  forget it.  It is gritty and often difficult to get through, with scenes of torture and prison life, starvation, famine and other hardships endured by regular people in a situation in which they have little or no control.  And although this book is very approachable from a reader standpoint, some  may be bothered by the change in narrative form from part one to part two, which admittedly is a bit confusing at first.   On the other hand, it is a book in which the author's imagination regarding this closed society comes to life and translates into a credible look at a place most people know only through news reports.  

I can't say exactly why I loved this book, but it is one that made its way under my skin and one  I will not soon forget.  Bravo, Adam Johnson!

Friday, January 13, 2012

first international giveaway of the year -- The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

I'll be back to post what I think about this book shortly, but in the meantime, I LOVED this book so much I just bought a signed copy. That means I have my current copy available to give away.  There are no gimmicks, no this-many-points-for-doing-whatever, all you have to do for a chance for it to be yours is to leave a comment with an email address or your blog link.  International is no problem.  One week from today, January 20th, I'll be using to select someone to take this book home & it will be off to the lucky person the following week.  Only one comment per person, please, to keep it fair.

Let me just say this about the book: for me, The Orphan Master's Son just set the bar for the rest of this year's reading -- I've never read anything quite like it and never expect to again.  I rarely ever give a book five stars -- this one is 5 plus.

Good luck!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Ballantine Books, 2011
320 pp

In early December, I selected Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast for my book group to read. While most of the group didn't share my enthusiasm toward that book, I loved it enough to read both versions.  During our discussion, one member of the group whose opinions I value started telling us about The Paris Wife, and she was so taken by it that I figured this book was something I really had to read.  You know those blogging memes that ask the question "Have you ever recommended a book to someone and they really disliked it?" or something along those lines -- well that's the situation here, but in reverse. With apologies to my friend Maxine, and feeling like a lone fish swimming against the current, I just wasn't all that impressed with this novel. 

McLain's book focuses on the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley, from their meeting to their decision to divorce, and then adds an epilogue with a phone call from EH to Hadley and then her learning of Hemingway's death thirty-plus years later.  The first part of the novel details their time together before their arrival in Paris, but the meat of the novel, of course, as in the couple's real lives, is found in what happens once they arrive there, told largely from Hadley's perspective, with a few entries from Hemingway's writing thrown in here and there so the reader can hear his voice once in a while. The Paris setting is something McLain writes well: the cold Paris winters, the shabby, cramped apartment the Hemingways called home, the Bastille-day celebrations where music playing outside kept them awake all night, the bohemian lifestyle of the artists in residence there, etc.  She also shows a changing Hemingway who once scoffed at the rich, but who later "saw a different kind of life and liked what he saw," as he moved from living the life of a poor, suffering writer to noticing that the "rich had better days and freer nights."  It is also very obvious that she's done a great deal of research in preparing to write this book.

My real issue with this book is this: if someone is going to write a novel in which the title character, "The Paris Wife," is the central focus, then that character should have some kind of personality. Instead, Hadley comes across as flat, a stick figure who even after finding out her husband is having an affair just sits and tries to wait it out. There's a scene where Hemingway and Hadley are napping one afternoon and Pauline, the future ex-Mrs. Hemingway #2, slides into bed next to Ernest and here's Hadley, describing her reaction:

"I was feeling so languid and so drugged,  I didn't even know Pauline was in the room until after she'd slipped under the sheets on Ernest's side of the bed. The afternoons were hot and we slept naked. I knew what was happening, and I also didn't want to come awake enough to feel it. I never opened my eyes...No one spoke or made any noise that would shake me out of my trance. The bed was sand, I told myself. The sheets were sand. I was still in the dream."
I don't know about you, but if a woman I knew was after my husband slipped into our bed while we were sleeping naked, I'd be a little pissed, and I definitely wouldn't be just laying there trying to ignore things.

Or try this one:
"He might ultimately fall out of love with Pauline and come fully back to me -- that was still possible -- but nothing was in my control. If I gave him an ultimatum and said she couldn't stay, I would lose him. If I got hysterical and made public scenes, it would just give him an excuse to leave me. All that was left for me was a terrible kind of paralysis, this waiting game, this heartbreak game."
Really? Does she really want him back after all of this?

All through this book Hadley  is depicted as a flat, paralyzed kind of doormat person who shows very little emotion.  I get it that she started out as Hemingway's number one supporter, staying out of his way, making it possible for him to write because she felt that was what he needed, but another woman is an entirely different ballgame. As I was reading this novel, I kept saying to myself "why doesn't she do anything?" Okay, she gets sad, but so what? Hadley's monotonal and one-dimensional portrayal is unforgiveable since the book is about her.  And the rest of the characters also pale against what is known about them in real life.  Zelda Fitzgerald's character is a bit steamrolled here; Scott Fitzgerald barely gets a mention.  It's almost as if the author sacrificed character to get to the story, which is already well known. Too bad, really, because in terms of story, she does well -- given the events, it's difficult not to feel some pity for Hadley, and it's also interesting in terms of learning about Hemingway's early career years, so fleshing out the characters would have made this a top-notch read. 

I'd say that if you have a keen interest in the Paris years, I'd recommend Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, where that time comes alive in terms of time, place and his relationship with Hadley. There's also Gioia Diliberto's biography Hadley, reissued last year as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife.  I may have to dig that one out and reread it here very shortly. However, there are many ardent fans of this novel out there, so maybe it's just me. With hefty 4 and 5-star ratings behind this book, readers are finding something to love about it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A reading challenge most my husband will LOVE

Aieeeeeeee! This is perfect! My tbr pile is so freakin' huge right now that this challenge is perfect. My husband will be ecstatic. Guess which level I'm going for!  Here is the link to the challenge website as well as the rules:

Challenge Levels

Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 25 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 40 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 50 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100+ books from your TBR pile/s

And the rules:
*Once you choose your challenge level, you are locked in for at least that many books. If you find that you're on a mountain-climbing roll and want to tackle a taller mountain, then you are certainly welcome to upgrade.

*Challenge runs from January 1 to December 31, 2012.

*You may sign up anytime from now until November 30th, 2012.

*Books must be owned by you prior to January 1, 2012. No ARCs (none), no library books. No rereads. [To clarify--based on a question raised--the intention is to reduce the stack of books that you have bought for yourself or received as presents {birthday, Christmas, "just because," etc.}. Audiobooks may count if they are yours and they are one of your primary sources of backlogged books.]

*Books may be used to count for other challenges as well.

*Feel free to submit your list in advance (as incentive to really get those books taken care of) or to tally them as you climb.

*A blog and reviews are not necessary to participate.

*A progress site for reviews will go up in January and I will post the link in my sidebar for easy access.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hand Me Down World, by Lloyd Jones

Bloomsbury, 2011 (US edition)
313 pp.

Two things: first,  a hefty thanks to the publisher for sending this to me via LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.  It was supposed to have come some time ago, but oh well. It was well worth the wait. Second, I loved this book. It's one of those stories that sticks with you long after you've finished it.

There are a number of novels where the story is told in a number of different voices, but I do believe this one may win the prize for the largest number of narrators.  It is a bit reminiscent of modern television documentaries in which multiple people relate their experiences relating to a given topic; unlike television however, the story is not passive; it is one in which the reader has a job to do in  interpreting what's really going on  -- if he or she can find any reliability in the narration.   Each narrator has his or her own slant on the truth -- and what they say speaks not only to the situation at hand but also  to how they perceive and wish others to perceive them in the world each occupies.

 Hand Me Down World is the story of a young woman in Tunisia whose quest for her young son begins in the middle of the Mediterranean, where she is dumped by human traffickers and told to hang on to a buoy until someone comes to pick her up.  After a while it becomes obvious she's been duped, so she makes her way dog paddling onto the Italian coastline.   There she takes on the name Ines, and with only a plastic bag in which she keeps only a few meager possessions, she begins to make her way to Berlin where her son's father lives.  Her story is related by those with whom she comes into contact, and by Ines herself.   This cast of characters include a truck driver, an elderly snail collector, an ex-pat Parisian who calls himself Millennium Three,  a researcher from the UK sent to study the Roma culture in Berlin, and others that bump into Ines along the way.  After the book introduces all of these people (and a few more),  the most involved narrations begin with Ralf, an elderly blind man who hires Ines to view the world for him; Defoe, another lodger taken on by Ralf, and then there's Ines herself, whose account of things doesn't always coincide with what has already been said about her.  The novel is structured sort of like a detective story, where there are conflicts among all of the narratives for the reader to sort and then try to piece together in some coherent fashion. And then there's the Inspector, whose purpose I won't reveal here, but who serves as sort of a compiler of all of the stories.

 While the author explores Ines' search for her son and her experiences along the way, he is also able to veer off into other areas, especially the issues faced by immigrants trying to find a better life than the one they left behind, who often become "the real ghosts... those whom we choose not to see."  But even as he's tackling this issue in a big way, running through the novel is theme of identity, most obviously examined in Ines but also among all of the other characters.  There's also a great deal of thought offered about  living with  dignity instead of fear, a choice Ines and other characters have to consider in the hopes of having any kind of future.

While the prose may be a bit sparse in comparison to Jones' Mr. Pip, the pacing is good and appropriate for a novel like this one.  In the first part of the book,the reader is not stuck on any one character or situation too long as Ines makes her way through Europe. As Ines continues her journey, the story also moves along and doesn't dwell too long in one spot . The second half moves a bit slower as it boils down to the stories of only a few characters in Berlin, and then of course, Ines herself.   This part is not as quick to read through, but what makes it very interesting is how certain events are repeated and retold, offering a new slant on information received earlier in the novel.

I was very intrigued by this novel both in terms of structure and story; the multiple-voice approach is quite interesting and actually works well here as things are slowly revealed, little by little. Yet at the same time, just when I started thinking I had Ines figured out, the author throws in little curve balls that made me wonder if I knew her at all.  This line of thought carries throughout the book, and actually, I'm walking away from the book wondering how well I really know anybody.  If you're looking for a regular narrative story in linear format, keep looking -- this isn't the book for you. But if you want something intriguing that resonates long after the last page is turned, you might just want to give it a try. 

fiction from New Zealand

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

*A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison

SilverOak/Sterling, January 2012
384 pp

 "You do the thing that's in front of you."

First, a very hearty thanks to the publishers, who sent me an ARC of this novel.  They asked me to hold off with my review until the book's release date, and wanting to comply with their wishes, I've been waiting a while to share.  My only prior familiarity with the illicit sex trade in India is the movie Born Into Brothels (2004) , and I have to admit that that movie was part of the reason I wanted to read this book.  But while much of the action takes place in India,  A Walk Across the Sun also goes beyond that country, as Corban Addison moves the action across several nations, involving young girls from different parts of the world. One of Addison's goals with this novel is to get the message across that the illicit sex trade is a worldwide phenomenon, limited not only to countries like India, but happening right under our very noses. As he notes in an interview, the UN estimates that the illicit sex trade brings in a profit of thirty-two billion dollars a year, just behind the profits of the illegal drug and gun trades.  He also notes that his objectives  in writing this book are to inspire his readers to : 1) learn more about the topic, 2) to  discover and support organizations that do "heroic work in this field," and 3) to "put pressure on people in positions of power" who have the ability to do actively do something about helping these girls.  Granted, illicit sex trafficking in young children is not a pretty topic, and this book may not be for everyone,  but it is a real and expanding international concern, one that needs to be addressed openly.  And Addison has made a good start with A Walk Across the Sun, his first novel.

The basic story begins with two girls, Ahalya Ghai (17) and her sister Sita (15), whose lives are overturned in the veritable blink of an eye.  The girls come from a very well-off family on the coast of India, and the story opens as they are making plans to attend a violin concert and go backstage to meet the artist.  But an earthquake triggers a tsunami off the coast of India and  catches the girls and their family off guard, killing all but the two sisters.  As they try to seek the haven of their school, an offer of a ride turns into a one-way ticket to Mumbai, where the girls are sold into a brothel.  As if things aren't bad enough, Sita is eventually sold off and taken away from India and from her sister.  In the meantime, Thomas Clarke, an up-and-coming attorney in Washington DC,   has suffered a number of setbacks in his personal life and career.  While traveling to visit his parents, he witnesses a child abduction and it turns his entire life around, ultimately sending him to Mumbai to work with a local NGO that helps with prosecutions of those who deal in sex trafficking there.  Ultimately Tom will be caught up in the search for Sita, and in the process he will be forced to enter the ugliness of the "shadow world" of the illicit sex trade.

Addison's intentions with writing this novel are good ones and he is very passionate about his subject.  As the story progresses, it gets harder to put the book down as the reader waits to see what is going to happen next.  In writing the character of Tom, he portrays a man who is in personal crisis mode; one whose work with the NGO offers meaning and purpose and allows him to finally find himself.  The underlying horrors of illicit sex trafficking are laid bare, but the author never gets into any gross detail that would undercut the seriousness of what he's trying to do here. 

It's very clear that Addison has done a great deal of research in preparation for the novel, but there are a few issues I found problematic.  First, although Tom's ongoing issues with his estranged wife Priya are offered as a counterpoint to the sisters' experiences, these scenes detracted  from my interest in the main storyline. I realize that this is a personal issue (I'm not a love story kind of girl), and that others may find these scenes as relief from the horrors of the sex trafficking, but I thought that if Addison's goal is to get people interested in this terrible reality, Tom and Priya's relationship was a bit of extraneous fluff that didn't really need to be there. Second -- is it me or did things happen a little too quickly -- and how is it that a young girl can be traced around the world but a local kidnapping victim couldn't be found? I think you might want to be prepared to suspend your disbelief in some cases. 

A Walk Across the Sun is lighter in terms of writing than my normal fare, but considering this is the author's first novel, it's  a good read, very approachable and Addison's passion for his subject shines through. While the subject matter may be difficult, and may not appeal to everyone, there is a reality out there that needs to be brought out into the open and made visible.  Bringing the human trafficking issue to the forefront in a less than in-your-face kind of way is where Addison is at his best.  I'll recommend this one to anyone who is interested in the topic.

January: starting with the new

Happy New Year to all from my home state of California, where I'm currently vacationing.  January is bringing with it several new books that I'm eager to read, and they are my priority this month.  My choice of titles begins with Corban Addison's A Walk Across the Sun, then the others that will follow include

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt
How It All Began, by Penelope Lively
Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron
The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

I'll also be working on other books, so you never know what's going to pop up.  My goal this year is to work harder on translated fiction from different areas of the world, so there should be a bit more than last year.

I'm hoping for a great year in books and am looking forward to seeing what everyone else is reading as well!