Book Review: ‘A Different Sky’ by Meira Chand

Book Title: A Different Sky

Author: Meira Chand

Genre: Historical Fiction

Summary: Drawing together the lives of different people from different backgrounds, all with hopes for their futures in Singapore, A Different Sky starts in 1927 and stretches to the mid-1950s. The novel follows the lives of Mei Lan, Howard and Raj – and many others – as they are influenced by the events in Singapore’s history during this time, from communist protests, Japanese occupation, and pro-independence rallies. A more detailed synopsis can be found here.

Favourite Scene: “Wilfred Patterson was getting used to everything but the heat. The humidity drained him of energy; he was never free of its insidious presence.” (page 111) – I hear ya, buddy.

Favourite Character: Howard. I think I have a new literary crush.

Review: Evidently I’m branching out from my “usual” reading material and I am, once again, pleasantly surprised. Chand’s evocative descriptions of colonial Singapore are intriguing to me and I especially love the fact that as I was reading the novel I was often on the bus on my way to one of the streets or locations mentioned within its pages. More than anything, I found A Different Sky to be the perfect introduction to Singapore’s rich history – especially as I now live here. I feel a much closer bond to Singapore now than what I did before I read the novel!

The novel itself is a gorgeous tapestry of characters, events, and politics. I feel terribly ignorant when it comes to history, so where other readers might read the novel with an awareness of what’s about to happen to everyone, I was shocked and surprised as lives and paths were changed because of the events that took place not only in the novel but also in history. I think I’m Historical Fiction’s new fan!

Chand creates beautiful characters with flaws and imperfections; I was delighted to discover that I could relate to some of their experiences, beliefs and ideals. I especially love the way the characters are pulled into plots greater than themselves; the politics and social issues of the time period influence them just as much as people can influence social change. It is very well done in representing such a tumultuous political time period, without it being a manifesto or lecture on Singaporean politics or culture. More than anything, A Different Sky is an ode to perseverance and the human spirit, and a beautiful love story.

Book Review: ‘I am the Cheese’ by Robert Cormier

Book Title: I am the Cheese

Author: Robert Cormier

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Summary: As he cycles to Rutterburg with a present for his father, Adam Farmer tells of the people he meets along the way and reflects on his life and the events leading up to this bicycle journey through flashbacks. Interspersed with transcripts of recorded interviews, there is a mystery to be solved as to who Adam really is, and what is waiting for him at the end of his journey.

Favourite Scene: When Adam arrives at Rutterberg. I gasped aloud; it left my mind reeling!

Favourite Character: Amy.

Review: This has been on my “to read” list for a long time – and I’m ashamed to admit how long I took to actually get around to reading it. I loved The Chocolate War, so I don’t know how I am the Cheese escaped me for so long! It is now on my “must read” list for many reasons. One of the things I love about Cormier’s writing is the sense of hopelessness and despair that is maintained throughout his novels; there is no happy ending, the characters simply live and – somehow – get by (if they’re lucky – and usually they’re not). In I am the Cheese, Cormier crafts an intricate tale of a young teenager seeking answers to his identity as he cycles to deliver a parcel to his father. With flashbacks of his life before commencing the journey, we read of his uncertainty around who he is, where his family is from, and the truth behind the strange interview transcripts that are interspersed in the novel. When I finished the book my mind span, my heart pounded, and I may have shed a tear or two.

Book Review: ‘The Winner Stands Alone’ by Paulo Coelho

Book Title: The Winner Stands Alone

Author: Paulo Coelho

Genre: Realism (Thriller)

Summary: Set during the Cannes Film Festival, the novel – in typical Coelho style – philosophically explores notions of fame and power. With a thriller-esque story (which may surprise avid fans of The Alchemist) , the narrative follows the main character, Igor, whose determination to win back his wife has great affects on the other characters in the novel and their pursuit of success. Igor sends messages to his wife – in the form of murder. While this occurs, the “underworld” of Cannes is explored – the manipulation of dreams, the faux celebrity, the trap of fame, money and power. Challenging the cult of celebrity, Coelho’s raw representation of success in the film and fashion industries is prefaced with the statement: “This is not a thriller, but a stark portrait of where we are now”.

Favourite Scene: Javits keeps a list of “what being normal means” and the forty-six statements listed made me laugh, cry, shiver, and wonder why we do this to ourselves. Highlights include:

Working from nine to five every day at something that gives you no pleasure at all just so that, after thirty years, you can retire.

Waking up each morning to an hysterical alarm clock on the bedside table.

Always saying ‘I tried’ when you didn’t really try at all.

(Coelho, Paulo. The Winner Stands Alone, Sydney: Harper Collins, 2009. pp 56-58)

Favourite Character: Jasmine – for her sensible attitude and integrity.

Review:  I have always been a great fan of Coelho’s writing and reading this novel was quite a different experience when I reflect on how I felt reading The Alchemist and even Eleven Minutes. It felt strange to have philosophical dialogue juxtaposed with murder scenes and I found the experience quite … frustrating. I actually cannot decide if I love or hate this book. The depiction of the Cannes Film Festival is almost brutal – there’s nothing to love about the ‘Superclass’ and the representation of fame and glamour (and money and power) is alarming. I cannot criticise the writing because Coelho is a compelling author who knows his craft; the plot, however, was terribly depressing. Murdering people to send a message to his wife … Igor is completely psychotic – and you want to seize some of the women with whom he interacts and shake them! What I hate most about the book, though, is that Coelho warned me before I started reading it … It is a stark portrait indeed. And terrifyingly accurate.

Book Review: ‘No and Me’ by Delphine de Vigan

Book Title: No and Me

Author: Delphine de Vigan

Genre: Realism

Summary: Set in Paris, a quirky and gifted thirteen year old girl, Lou, meets a homeless girl, No, and their relationship has intriguing consequences. Lou’s parents still mourn the death of her baby sister, and Lou is struggling to cope with her mother’s reclusive tendencies and her father’s secret crying. Initially Lou interviews No for a school project on homelessness however the friendship they develop leads to Lou inviting No to live with her still-grieving family. Typically described as a story about finding “home” and notions of “homelessness”, I feel it is also a story about relationships, family, belonging, and love – and the innocence of someone who needs to believe in these things.

Favourite Scene: I loved early descriptions of Lou’s obsessive tendencies and odd projects, particularly her collection of food labels. Her obsessive compulsive behaviours are so elegantly described! I found them to be an endearing quality to her character.

Favourite Character: I found the ways in which Lou’s parents continue to mourn for their dead daughter intriguing and emotive, and I could sympathise with Lou’s reclusive mother. I especially appreciated her development as the novel unravelled and No’s influence on all members of the family became apparent.

Review:  Originally published as a novel for adults, it is cross-promoted to young adult audiences and it is easy to see why. There is a neat simplicity in the narration, told from Lou’s perspective, and the youth of the protagonist allows for a somewhat naive perception of the world to be easily accepted by the reader. As the not-so-innocent reality is made apparent, the development of plot and character flows well. Fortunately, the ending was not Hollywood-cliche and I appreciated the realism of the characters without de Vigan having to depend on gritty negativity or naive optimism to create a believable and poignant ending. The slow pace is complemented with intricate characters and a beautiful innocence on Lou’s part, and I found it to be an enjoyable novel overall.

Book Review: ‘Life on the Refrigerator Door’ by Alice Kuipers

Book Title: Life on the Refrigerator Door

Author: Alice Kuipers

Genre: Realism

Summary: A novel told in the form of notes left on the refrigerator door between mother and daughter as they deal with “every day” life and the life that happens to you when you least expect it.

Favourite Scene: The novel doesn’t really have “scenes” as it’s told in notes. You can’t really mark the passage of time, though there is some attempt at demonstrating the mother and daughter have met between notes with references to conversations they’ve had.

Favourite Character: Between Claire and her mother, there aren’t many characters to get to know. There are references to friends and other family members, but I especially love Peter – the pet rabbit!

Review:  The concept of “a novel in notes” is fantastic and the novel has won the Redbridge Teenage Book Award and been longlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Having been one of those daughters who communicated (and still does!) with her mother through notes on the kitchen bench or refrigerator door, I immediately found the concept appealing and knew it would be a novel to share with Mum. I felt a bit disappointed when I opened the novel, however, and found the text printed neatly across the page, glaringly formal and out of place compared to the hand-drawn images that accompanied it. I thought the design really let the novel down as I imagined seeing actual notes on the pages, scribbled on post-its and torn out notebook pages and blank paper pulled from the printer in a rush … that’s how our notes look, anyway. The actual story that takes place through the notes is touching and tragic, yet I found the notes a little too specific, too much like a narrative and not enough like a note. I enjoyed it, but when I handed it to my mother I didn’t really have anything positive to say other than “this made me think of us”. Sentimental, but it’s not something I feel I can rave about.