General Fiction


While rummaging through a sale bin, this particular book caught my eye.  Not many books talk about household help so I picked it out as something different.  The story revolves around an au pair which, in Philippine society, is equivalent to an all-around nanny that helps in chores.  Maidservants are  an integral part and most often a necessity for middle to upper crust lifestyles.  We have nursemaids for our children, the requisite cook, washerwoman, and house cleaners.  Depending on the size and finances of a household, the quantity of househelp ranges from one, who has to do almost everything, to a battalion with specific work assignments in a huge house.

The book  is very British, however, and has nothing to do with the Philippine way of life.  But knowing that a lot of us can’t live without our helpers, I was intrigued by this book’s premise on how dependent we can get on our maids  or nannies and to what lengths some of us as employers would go to keep them.

Author :  Fay Weldon

Date of Publication :  April 10, 2007

Publisher :  Grove Press

ISBN-10: 0802143016

ISBN-13: 978-0802143013

No. of pages :  288

The Story :

As a young modern couple, Hattie and Martin have outre views about a bevy of things, including deciding that the state of singleness but togetherness is the way to go.  But both are unprepared when baby Kitty is born.  Hattie, the career woman, suddenly finds herself bored with the drudgery of domestic chores and child rearing that she longs for her old job back.  Martin, equally disappointed with tasteless home dinners, reluctantly agrees to Hattie’s decision to hire an au pair.

Agnieszka arrives to seamlessly take over the domestic chores and child-rearing burdens,  leaving Hattie suddenly free to pursue her career and Martin, happy about dinner time and his laundry.  Everything is wonderful and Martin and Hattie intend to keep it that way by making sure that the au pair is happy so she can live with them forever.  Never mind the little stories that don’t seem to connect nor the blatant belly demo, the couple are prepared to go to the extremes just to keep their au pair with them.

The Review :

Hattie’s  grandmother, Frances, relates the couple’s help hiring adventure in her cynical, offhand style with undercurrents of dark , dry humor.

Although the telling is most amusing, it may not appeal to readers who like straightforward plots.  True to the narrator’s granny character, the story goes off tangent several times when she starts reminiscing about her own life.  While this is where most of the author’s wit glimmers,  it does take a bit of concentration to be unfazed by the interrupting deviations in the narration.

In truth, a straightforward telling will perhaps make for a a much thinner book;  the whimsical meanderings of the narrator just plump it up.  It depends on one’s taste now to deem the book humorously satisfying or simply convoluted.  Personally, I found it rather engaging and didn’t mind the flip-flops here and there.

Speaking from a more conservative Asian point of view,  I know I would never warm to the characters, Hattie or Martin,  had they been real. I am rather put off  by their cavalier attitude toward baby Kitty and most everything else. Their grandmother’s nonchalance bothers me as well.  For instance, the revelation  about her husband being an imprisoned dope dealer struck me as more akin to a yawn than the serious predicament that it realistically is.  However, as fictional characters, they do have loads of entertainment value so that the finish, although absurd,  is a jaw dropping surprise twist that left me flabbergasted.

My Mark :   Good!

Author :  Linda Newbery

Date of Publication :  Feb. 28, 2007

Publisher :  Transworld Publ. Ltd UK; New Ed edition

ISBN-10: 0099451336

ISBN-13: 978-0099451334

No. of pages :  368


The Story:

Sam Godwin gets the job of his dreams.  As an artist-tutor to two beautiful teenage girls, he is paid comfortably and housed in Four  Winds, a beautiful  and  most artistically  inspired residence  he has ever had the privilege to stay in.  In this idyllic setting, he becomes fond of  the  governess,  Charlotte Agnew, and of his two students,  the quiet, gentle Juliana and the vibrant, mesmerizing Marianne.  He also idealizes Ernest Farrow, his employer not just for his kind treatment but also for his impeccable taste.

Enamored of the house and especially of its sculptures of the North, South and East Winds, Samuel becomes obsessed with meeting the dismissed sculptor,  Gideon Waring, and finding out about the missing West Wind.

But there is more to the house and the family of Four Winds than meets the eye.  There is a darkness to their lives as Marianne is bothered by seeming madness and Juliana, a profound sadness.

When Sam tracks down Gideon the sculptor, he discovers  horrifying and devastating secrets about the family that surprisingly, bear on the circumstances of his employment.

The Review :

I picked up this book as an inclusion to my YA reading this year because the cover boasts its win of The Costa Children’s Book Award in 2006.    I do not know whether The Costa Awards is a reputable awarding body, because as far as awards go, I am simply not familiar with which hold prestige and which don’t.

Prestigious or not, I strongly disagree with the awarding body in its classification of this book.  Three fourths of the way in, I was shocked to discover why this novel should not have been listed in the children’s category.   This is not to say that the book isn’t good enough to be a winner.  It is, but I just don’t agree with its classification.

A children’s book, this is not.  Perhaps, the category “children” should be further defined by age groups so that books meant for those in their late teens wouldn’t be lumped  in with those for early teens, preteens, or even younger.   Set In Stone deals with issues which are quite disturbing,  very adult in nature and require a more experienced mind to deal with these adequately.   I cannot divulge the issues here as these would spoil your reading experience.

I believe this novel’s youngest readers should be at least in their mid teens because for the younger market,  this book is far from wholesome.

Come to think of it though,  I can’t say it is an adult novel either.  The issues in question aren’t explored so much as it would have been in an adult novel.  Nothing is graphic or that detailed.  There is a lot of understatement so probably the reason for its classification as YA.  But then again, it doesn’t read like most YA novels in that the writing is more mature in tone.  So as it is neither this nor that, it stands in a twilight of its own making.

To Read Or Not To Read:

Despite its ambiguity, Set In Stone reads beautifully.  Style-wise, Linda Newbery writes tautly and elegantly.   Although refined, understated, and never graphic, her writing can  evoke vivid imaginations and draw strong reactions from her readers.

The story is told from two perspectives, that of Samuel Godwin, the artist/tutor and Charlotte Agnew, the governess.  As events progress, each of these characters take their turns telling things as they experience it so that the story, always  in the first person perspective, gives the reader a view into each character’s minds as they encounter events.  This way,  readers get to be more intimate with the characters.

This author can also throw a sneaky punch.  Here you are,  three-fourths of the way,  teased through a mildly interesting story,  when suddenly, the jolt comes from nowhere.   She throws out her first big secret and you are up and riveted.  Shocked from your steady ho-hum pace,  you are more than hooked, as you turn the pages fast and well into the night.

Newbery does know her techniques well.   No wonder the award.

In A Nutshell:

Set In Stone is an exceptionally well crafted novel, a very absorbing  but dark-toned read.  Despite the YA classification, parents are best advised to read the story first before handing it over to their preteen or early teener.    With a lot of potentially disturbing surprises, this one packs a wallop!

My Mark :  Outstanding

Squeezing in another novel before the year ends…

Author :  Arlene J. Chai

Date of  First Publication :   1995 (Hardcover)

Publisher of First Edition :  Random House Australia Pty Ltd.

This Edition’s Publication Date :  2008

ISBN : 978-0-345-50958-1

No. of pages : 350

The Story :

Caridad gets a cryptic letter from her mother in the Philippines, asking her to come home.  Since her mother never writes,  a worried Caridad rushes home to Manila.  As soon as she arrives, her mother bluntly reveals a lifelong secret that forces Caridad to come to know herself and her family.  And as she listens to the stories reliving the painful period of the Second World War in the Philippines, she is taken into a tale of family love, strength, human frailty, hope and forgiveness.

The Review :

Arlene J. Chai is a Filipino, born and raised in Manila; thus this novel is refreshingly very Filipino.  It is set in Manila and told from the perspective of a Filipino-Chinese family.  It isn’t often that  I get to read an internationally distributed book by a Filipino author so I was pleasantly surprised to be immersed in a well written fiction in the league of many good bestsellers.

Chai writes very simply, fluidly but with enough sensuousness to create a clearly palpable Philippines in the throes of World War II.  The vivid historical details provide a great backdrop and interest to the otherwise simple plot.  But, the best feature of this book is the author’s choice of telling the story with the voices of four principal women characters.  As each narrate their own side of the story, each character infuses her own perspectives, feelings, and humanity in slow layers that deliciously build the novel’s depth and richness.

Aside from events in Manila during the war, the story also takes the readers through a bit of contemporary Philippine history with mention of tidbits from the People’s Power Revolution, the Marcos’ regime, and the Aquino assassination.

The author also treats us to a lot of insights into the Filipino’s complex family life, psyche, and culture, along with a better understanding of  the  multi-faceted Filipino society which owes its character to social class factions subdivided further along racial lines.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Filipino readers will be happy to relate to a story along familiar contexts, nuances, and events.  However, this book’s appeal  sets no racial boundaries. This is first and foremost a story about familial love and relationships which do not differ among race, social status, or creed; hence, this book’s international success.  Anyone can relate to the story; one just gets the added bonus of learning much more about Filipino life.

My Mark :  Outstanding

Sometimes, I just can’t decide what to read next.  How to make that choice?  With a time-honored answer to indecision:  Eeny, meeny, miny, moe!

The Book of Joe is what moe came up with:

Author :  Jonathan Tropper

First Edition’s Publication Date :  2004

First Edition’s Publisher :  Bantam Dell

This Edition’s Publication Date : January 25, 2005

This Edition’s Publisher :  Delta

ISBN-10: 0385338104

ISBN-13: 978-0385338103

No. of pages :  368

The Story :

How else to purge one’s self of the painful past but to write about it?  This is exactly what Joe Goffman did when he left Bush Falls seventeen years ago with the thought of never going back.  He wrote a highly successful semi-biography which trashed everyone he knew.  Although names were changed and the book was  released as fiction,  Bush Falls residents  recognized themselves and didn’t take too well to this immortalized insult. Enmity toward Joe soared along with the success of his book and peaked when it was adapted to a movie with Leonardo di Caprio as its lead.

Now a best-selling author whose success rides on his former community’s humiliation,  Joe has no choice but to return to Bush Falls  when he was told of  his  comatose and dying father.   The town gives him a “welcome home” with a public milkshake pouring incident by an angry resident, a yard littered with his books thrown out by the local book club,  and a bar brawl with an irate psychotic former athlete who didn’t take too kindly to Joe’s inferences about his dubious sexuality.  Just to name a few “welcoming” incidents  for Joe.

Amid all that, Joe discovers his family and former friends again, and realizes that he does need home and home is Bush Falls.  So after years of  denying a past of  perceived betrayal, bitterness, and emotional battering, Joe must face all these and resolve issues with others and within himself if he is to survive his homecoming.

The Review :

My eeny meeny choice proved to be a nice surprise.  I enjoyed every minute of this wonderful novel.  I laughed,  I cried  and laughed again.  With such humor and well placed cynical wit,  it’s easy to smile even while shedding a tear or two on some sentiment.

It’s funny, sad, cynical, very “now”, and quite optimistic.  It’s about family and relationships, love in tethers, and just plain life.   The Book of Joe is about looking beyond people’s faults and seeing why they are so and at the same time, looking into one’s self and discovering how your own flaws affect reactions in others.

The book, with its boyish colloquial writing, has a contemporary feel to it that renders the characters real and easy to relate to.  Although there is nothing profound nor anything really original about the novel, there is a heart-warming glow about this book  that somehow touches you at some point and and makes you glad you’ve come across this story.

As my first book by Jonathan Tropper,  The Book of Joe makes me eager to try the author’s other novels.  He  has an easy going style loaded with great one-liners and witticisms that keeps you entertained until the end.

This is the type of book, though, that just cries out for a cinematic adaptation.  My hunch proved right when my surfing came up with one in the works with Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, and Brad Grey as producers.  As to when this movie will be released, I have no clue.  But I hope I will fall in love with it as I have with the book.

Mark  :  Outstanding


Geisha Of Gion” just whetted my appetite for more books on the geiko world. Luckily, I had this book to momentarily satisfy my craving.

Author:  Arthur Golden

First Published:  1997  (Hardcover)

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf Inc.


This Edition Published:  1999 ( Mass Paperback)

Publisher:  Vintage Books

No. Pages:  502

The Story :

In the poor village of Yoroida, a little girl with startling blue-gray eyes, is plucked from her parents and sold to an okiya, a geisha house, in Gion.  Chiyo’s eyes are a rarity in Japan, so her potential as a stunning geisha earns the greedy regard of Mother, the okiya’s proprietress and the spiteful jealousy of the house’s star geisha, Hatsumomo.  Together, they bear down on Chiyo’s confusion and homesickness which drive her to escape the okiya’s oppressive life.  Her attempt, however, fails with a fall from a roof  and a broken arm.  For this she becomes a disappointment and a bad investment and so doomed by the okiya to be an abused, overworked maid instead.

Chiyo pours out her misery one day, as life seems to stretch out bleakly before her.  A kind, well-dressed stranger, in the company of a geisha, spies her and gives her comfort with his handkerchief and a coin for a snowcone.  This innocent encounter marks a turning point in Chiyo’s life.  His kindness sparks a childish crush so that Chiyo begins to perceive a clear goal for life —  becoming a geisha, this being the only possible way she sees for someone of her station to meet him again.

As luck would have it,  another of Gion’s star geishas, Mameha,  seems enthralled by Chiyo’s eyes so that she negotiates with Mother to bring Chiyo under her tutelage.  With Mameha’s lessons,  Chiyo transforms into Sayuri and becomes the most sought- after maiko (apprentice geisha) and inevitably comes into contact with the kind stranger known as the Chairman.  Sayuri, by now has fallen in love with him.  However, the Chairman’s business partner, Nobu, becomes attracted to her instead.

What follows is a beautiful story of suppressed passion and love that spans time and circumstance.

The Review :

Few books have thoroughly captivated me as much as “Memoirs of A Geisha“.  The first few chapters hint at serving one with a sumptuous literary feast of exquisite prose, mesmerizing details of the exotic and secretive “flower and willow” world, and an uncommon emotional depth, all of which seem to flow so effortlessly from Golden’s pen.

Golden’s writing has a very lyrical quality to it and the book is rife with creatively crafted descriptions and charming little asides from the main character’s point of view.  It is quite astonishing how Arthur Golden,  being a man, could write so intimately and convincingly about a young  girl’s psyche.

The novel is full of analogies, metaphors, and descriptive phraseologies; yet, strangely, it isn’t burdened by them.  On the contrary, words flow so naturally and combine so beautifully to paint a lovely, poignant story that has touched the hearts of readers everywhere; hence, its international bestseller status.

Aside from a romantic, sensitively written story, one experiences the obsequious, community-dependent, perfection-driven, and heavily nuanced geisha culture whose exotically mysterious nature provides the book with a wonderfully different romantic flavor.


As An Aside :

Indeed, geisha depiction here is quite different from what Mineko Iwasaki (Japan’s foremost geisha in the 70’s) wanted to  project in her memoirs, Geisha of Gion“.   After she was thanked by Golden as his major source, Mineko was believed to be the real-life basis of Golden’s character, Sayuri; hence, the reported falling out between these two authors.

Golden renders the geisha more  as a courtesan, whose sole purpose is to entertain men — entertainment, here,  meaning one catering to all:  from the highest  artistic forms  down to more baser  pleasures.  Mineko Iwasaki, on the other hand, insists that real geishas are artists, trained in artistic customary perfection from a very young age, to carry on the tradition in Japanese entertainment.

Perhaps, both are right.  I’m surmising that there must be social hierarchies in the geisha community, with the existence of high-class and low-class geishas.  Mineko Iwasaki was perhaps telling her story from her viewpoint atop the community’s pinnacle while Golden was trying to tell his from the viewpoint of those at the base.

However it is,  Japanese culture has never been more interesting after these two books, and I hope to lay my hands on more on the same subject.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Memoirs of A Geisha” is certainly a must-read not just for lovers of romance, but also for those who want a well written story that informs as well as pleasures the reader with its intelligence, sensitivity, and femininely graceful style.

Conclusion :

This is a book worth keeping on your shelf to be re-read as a treat,  years after you’ve done with it.  Its tale is as timeless as enduring love.

My Mark :  Excellent

 

 


Author : Mitch Albom
Release Date : September 23, 2003
Publisher : Hyperion; 1 edition
ISBN-10: 0786868716
ISBN-13: 978-0786868711
Pages : 198

“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.” – p. 1

For “Eddie Maintenance”, life simply crept up on him. His plans to better himself often got pushed to the backburner when life’s demands frequently took first place. One day, he wakes up to realize that he is too old and too late to start pursuing dreams. Regret over wasted years becomes his guilt as years pass until his accidental death while saving a little girl from a carnival ride gone wrong.

He wakes up in heaven where he meets five people, who have, directly or indirectly, been connected to him in life, at one point or another. Each has one lesson for him that makes him gradually perceive that his seemingly purposeless life had great meaning after all.

What an insightful book for one so short and so easily read. And a comfort as well, for its message is : “No life is a waste. The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone.” With these two lines, Mitch Albom succinctly expresses what this book is really all about. In essence, every life has a purpose. It is when you have understood why you have lived and know that you have actually lived with purpose, that you get to come to your own paradise.

So, now we understand. No matter what life throws our way, in the end we truly know that everything’s going to be alright after all.

The book reads like a parable and is rife with little thoughts and reflective one-liners. It’s a touching little story that can make you shed a tear or two; but, definitely worth picking up for its optimism and hope.

For this is Albom’s heaven: “Everyone has an idea of heaven as do most religions, and they should all be respected. The version represented here is only a guess, a wish, in some ways, that my uncle [Edward Beitchman]), and others like him — people who felt unimportant here on earth—realize, finally, how much they mattered and how they are loved.” I guess we can make this our own, too.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this book becomes a modern classic.

My Mark : Outstanding

A little aside: I wish authors would really take the time to check on things they write especially if they need to use words foreign to their language. In this instance, a little Filipina girl refers to a soldier as “sundalong”. The correct term should be “sundalo”. I hope the next reprints will take care of this little bit of carelessness.

Some memorable thoughts from the author :

“Strangers are just family you have yet to come to know.” – p. 49

“When your time came, it came, and that was that. You might say something smart on your way out, but you might just as easily say something stupid.” – p. 13

“Love, like rain, can nourish from above, drenching couples with a soaking joy. But sometimes, under the angry heat of life, love dries on the surface and must nourish from below, tending to its roots, keeping itself alive.” – p.164

“…the secret of heaven: that each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.” – p. 196

Author : Ann Patchett
First Released : May 22, 2001 (Hardcover 1st Edition)
Released as Paperback : August 2, 2005
Publisher : Harper Perennial
ISBN-10: 0060838728
ISBN-13: 978-0060838720
Pages : 352

I have always wanted to share this book with all my blog readers.  Ann Patchett writes a moving story with a very lyrical hand.  This is a beautiful piece of literature that I feel you shouldn’t miss.

However, I can’t write a review on a book I’ve read a long time ago, unless I delve into it again.  With my growing library, I don’t think I can for the moment.  So, I’ve found a great review from The World Of Books which more or less mirrors what I think about this novel.  Do check it out!

My Mark : Excellent

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