Memoirs of a Geisha – By Arthur Golden

Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Romance

You may have watched the film, as I had, but forget your judgements – the book is so much more powerful: sad, beautiful, persisting. As I sometimes feel after I’ve finished a treasured book, my life seems altered in a small way forever. This is the story of a young girl’s struggle through life, the goals that she strives for, and her unfaltering – yet unglorified – kindness to the people around her.

Memoirs of a Geisha holds the life-story of Chiyo (who later becomes Sayuri), from her birthplace in the fishing village of Yoroido to her new existence in the Geisha district of Gion. The girl, with her pale blue-grey eyes, is said to have a water-based personality, impotent as she flows towards her destiny. It is true that she holds a strong, unwavering destiny, but she is nonetheless stubborn and utterly determined, staying true to her vows and desires until she eventually achieves them. The protagonist is likeable, thoughtful, kindhearted, but some feel jealousy and resentment towards her, and impede her. When a man, the Chairman, shows her unexpected and unprescribed kindness, she vows to give her life to him in the hopes of one day winning his favour as a renowned geisha. Despite eventually becoming a distinguished geisha, however, her mission proves far more difficult than she imagined. For women, and especially geisha, do not chase after their own destinies or desires; they are expected to accept and appreciate the favour of whomever. It would be forbidden, unheard of, for Chiyo, now Sayuri, to seek out the Chairman’s favour. She continues with her life as a geisha, experiencing great hardships many turns of fate, but never forgetting her love for the Chairman.

I couldn’t stop talking about this book while I was reading it, enthralled as I was by the fascinating Japanese culture, vibrant characters and, most of all, the heart-wrenching love story. Golden writes beautifully and yet not overly elaborately. I can’t recommend this book enough, especially to people who are interested in learning about Japanese culture and modern history, or simply enjoy life-stories of interesting people.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Slow

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Unfiltered Coming of Age: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – by Betty Smith

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Romance

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows Francie Rommely as she grows up, living in an immigrant community in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Her family are poor, eating a limited diet and keeping to a frugal lifestyle. Like so many in their neighbourhood, Francie’s father takes his Sunday suit to the pawnbroker’s every week, and Francie dreams of someday buying a book for herself rather than borrowing one from the library. A Tree, however, does not urge you to pity the poor or feel guilty about your affluence, nor does it romanticise poverty. Francie’s mother, Katie, exemplifies that dignity and hard work are far more precious to many than free hand-outs or sympathy; the strong woman is driven by the desire to better herself and her family, and would never accept charity. This book is about growing up, facing challenges and hardships, and coming to your own conclusions about life and the world. Francie, in all of her flawed, human self, is intelligent, honest and thoughtful; I dream to be half the person she is and becomes.

When I started A Tree, I was distracted, and was not hooked; I forced myself to read it when I had nothing else to do. The book became more engaging once Francie began to experience difficulties – her mother’s evident favouritism for Francie’s brother, Neeley; the death of her beloved father; the teacher who told her to write about beauty rather than her complex life in poverty. (These mentions do not spoil the book, either, as it’s no thriller – A Tree moves at the natural pace of life and memories, and there are few plot surprises.) I found myself moved by Francie’s realisations about how life is passed on and enriched through inheritance of traits and looks, and was inspired by her experience with her teacher and consequent discarding of all things deemed ‘beautiful’ and quaint. These, coupled with her profound and honest insights about life, make Francie wise, insightful and rounded.

For the most part, she lives an ordinary life. But her experiences are richly depicted so they seem real yet fascinating, reminding me of Francie’s comments on story-writing and ’embellishing’ the truth (although I don’t believe that this is what the author did, especially as the story is semi-autobiographical). Some ideas are naive and idealistic, but they’re also heart-warming, hearkening to the nostalgia and familiarity of the American Dream; I don’t believe there is any real harm in believing in the unlikely, especially as Francie herself (and the author) grows up to be successful.

In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.

If you’re looking for a captivating book, do not read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the power of this book is in its authentic characters and the universal experiences they share. This book is equally suitable for a child as for an adult – enjoy!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Story of Survival: I am David – By Anne Holm

Historical Fiction

Set in the Second World War, I am David follows the escape of a young boy, David, from a concentration camp. He has lived there for as long as he can remember; suddenly, a suspicious guard makes plans for his escape, directing him towards the free country of Denmark. Although confused, David figures that it’s his only chance to escape; even if he fails, he’s has nothing to lose. To his disbelief, he makes it over the fence and he’s finally free. Resilient and determined, survival is his only occupation – until, gradually, he grows curious about ‘normal’ people. In a small, picturesque town, he learns more about the world, even aptly teaching himself the local language. A local baker generously gives him bread and David starts to believe in the kindness of others. On his journey, he experiences both goodwill and yet more misfortune, all along keeping his faith in a ‘God of green pastures’.

I am David was written as a children’s book, but it certainly isn’t too simple or naive. In fact, David shares thoughts so profound and serious that, if he hadn’t grown up in a concentration camp, would seem fantastical, unrealistic. But it’s that philosophical, insightful perspective that makes the book so unique – not just another haunting account of events or a naive child’s story, but in fact somewhere in between. The book also offers a nuanced view of the people living under Nazi occupation – the kindness that existed alongside unspeakable horrors.

Overall, although a little farfetched at times, I am David offers a different take on a topic which has been depicted and discussed so many times before. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a tale of survival set against a historic backdrop.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium

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Trouble in Paradise: Journey to Death – by Leigh Russel

Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance

Recovering from the betrayal of her boyfriend Darren, Lucy Hall is dragged to the Seychelles by her parents for a needed break. Lucy’s father, George, chose the exotic location because of his memories living there. Although initially reluctant, Lucy gradually enjoys herself, making a new friend at the hotel. Apart from some strange occurrences which she dismisses as ‘nothing’, the holiday is perfect. Things turn sinister, however, when a lunatic makes trouble for her and the Halls.

Despite her tedious rants lamenting her cheating ex-boyfriend, Lucy is personable and somewhat credible; I enjoyed reading about her as an intriguing person, rather than simply a piece in the plot. However, her naivety – despite being attacked repeatedly, she convinces herself that everything is fine – frustrated me. Rambling sentences with overblown descriptions sapped my interest. My perseverance was eventually rewarded with unexpected plot twists.

Read Journey to Death if you enjoy not-too-thrilling mystery thrillers, but keep in mind that there’s no likeable detective to guide you.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium

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Thanks to Juliette Pashalian from Wunderkind for providing me with a digital copy of this entertaining mystery thriller.

All the Light We Cannot See – By Anthony Doerr

Historical Fiction

‘What to read?’ I ponder, searching my ‘unread’ bookshelf. Perhaps that book I’ve  been meaning to read for a while (it’s been on this shelf longer than I’d like to admit). Or maybe that one that everyone’s talking about – I feel like the only person who hasn’t read it. What a dilemma! In these instances, I seek advice from a fellow book-lover. I listed to him the books I had on my ‘to-read’ shelf, before casually mentioning my forthcoming trip (to Brittany, in France). At that, he definitively exclaimed that I should dive into All the Light We Cannot See, much of which is set in Saint-Malo, Brittany – one of the places I was going to visit. Well, to give him credit, it was perhaps the best recommendation he had ever given me. I started reading the book a little before the trip, so by the time I visited the town, I felt like I had already lived there, walking the streets with Marie-Laure (one of the two protagonists). It was an almost magical book experience.

So, what’s it about? you wonder. That is, if you haven’t already heard about it – it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015. The novel wasn’t expected to be such a hit; the writer himself has said he thought only a small audience would enjoy it because of its sometimes lengthy descriptions of radio technology and trigonometric calculations. But nonetheless, people loved it. Perhaps this is due to its innocent, endearing protagonists: Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father, a museum locksmith. The other is Werner, a German orphan who lives in a coal mining village. Although set in the Second World War, this story isn’t really about concentration camps or inhumane Nazi prisons (although these are featured); it mainly focuses on the average French experience in occupied France, and the malevolent influence and power of the Hitler Youth. By giving a voice to both sides, Doerr doesn’t present a narrow, overly biased view of the war, but merely lets you come to your own conclusion about the war – and the ordinary people stuck in the middle.

Despite their contrasting upbringings and environments, Marie-Laure and Werner are surprisingly alike: they’re both ‘innocent’, although Werner sees (excuse the pun) more of the war than his counterpart. They’re also passionate about their interests. From a young  age, Werner has been infatuated with inventing and science, especially radios; Marie-Laure has had a great love for molluscs ever since she went to live in Saint-Malo with her great-uncle, hearing about them in stories and feeling them on the beach for the first time.

All the Light is simply enjoyable to read; never once did I feel like I had to work at it to keep interested, or push myself to read further. It’s got a compelling, credible storyline with sweet, lovable characters who contrast with a few vile ones; it’s beautifully written (I say that a lot but it’s true), with a vivid description – more like immersion – of the bombing in Saint-Malo. Not only is it a physical experience, but an emotional one, especially for Marie-Laure, blind and alone, and Werner, who is trapped in the basement of a building. Not once does Doerr give way to monotonous, predictable thriller/action description. The structure, although at times disorienting, helps move the plot along and keep ‘grip’: weirdly similar to the last book I read, its chapters alternate between different time settings, gradually coming closer and closer, closing the gap until ‘one setting’ at the conclusion. This switching juxtaposes life at different points in the war and how the characters have changed. Additional narrators add layers/perspectives to the plot and the reader’s overall outlook on the war, increasing the tension caused by dramatic irony (because the reader can ‘see all’, they can understand and appreciate the links among the characters and the ways their lives will intertwine).

Something struck me when Werner and the other boys (at the boarding school) chase the weakest boy in the group. I was reminded of Orwell’s 1984, specifically the Two Minutes’ Hate, when Winston is surrounded by people inexplicably, furiously shouting at a picture on a screen, and he can’t help but join in. Werner is the same – he doesn’t really want to hurt the boy, but because everyone else is chasing him, he feels he must, and longs to fit in and be part of something far bigger than himself. On a larger scale, this is what happened with a lot of people, both in Nazi Germany and occupied France; they simply didn’t want to (or couldn’t) fight back. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing their passivity, ignorance or indolence, but it’s important to try to understand what life was like under such an oppressive, omnipotent regime. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that people had ordinary lives and just wanted to get on with them. I guess it’s just something to think about, and it’s great that this book brings it up in a non-oppressive or explicitly judgmental way. Conversely, Marie-Laure is never ‘tainted’ by influence of war, staying true to her beliefs; this is why she’s such a lovable character, because she’s everything that people (or at least I) aspire to be like: honest, caring, passionate and intelligent. But perhaps this is only because being blind has meant she’s never had much of a ‘social life’; in a way she’s unrealistic, or at least not ‘normal’.

Overall, I loved this book – so much so that this is one of the longest reviews I’ve ever written! I can’t really find much to criticise, but I will say that it’s a pretty long book (although not slow-paced), and as I mentioned before, it contains some lengthy scientific descriptions – although at least for me, they were quite interesting. If you usually like historical fiction, then you’ll love this – although even if you don’t, you’ll probably still enjoy it.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Medium/Fast

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Harper Lee’s New Book: Go Set A Watchman

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Legal Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird is an outstanding book. Exquisitely written, it is a book that saddens and yet heartens concurrently, leaving a warm, contented feeling, despite its less-than-happy ending for underdog Tom Robinson. However, the book’s uplifting effect on the reader comes at the expense of its realism: it touches on, yet mostly leaves unresolved, the issue of racism.

Go Set a Watchman, conversely, attempts to tackle racism; to explain it. Set 20 years after To Kill a MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman is again narrated by Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, at the age of twenty-six. She’s returning home from New York to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set amidst the civil rights movement and the political unrest transpiring in the South, Jean Louise’s routine visit becomes regrettable when she learns jarring realities about her family, the town and the people she loves. Scout continues her narrative – written before, yet set after Mockingbird – resolute in her sense of right and wrong. She discovers to her horror that her father – until then revered as her beacon of morality – holds the same bigoted views that he had seemed to castigate. As Jean Louise loses grasp of her values, and assumed truths, she looks to her past for signs of what she had been blind to all along: that her father was not the ‘perfect’ person she thought he was.

Despite its mixed reviews and reactions, I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman. It’s a well-needed ‘wake-up call’ from the dream-like, simplistic world of To Kill a Mockingbird; Scout matures, and Watchman is the grown-up, ‘real’ story. It is said that much of To Kill a Mockingbird is a product of Lee’s editor, who knew that a more fantastical book based on the same story would sell better than a more ‘realistic’ one: perhaps he realised that people like reading something that makes them feel better about themselves. Who can say if this rumour is true, but I do think that the books seem completely different: Watchman is less a sequel, and more an elaboration on Mockingbird.

As the book progresses, Jean Louise’s disturbed and confused reaction to the news that her family is, in some ways, just like every other in Maycomb (their town), is an empathetic coming-of-age disillusionment with the world; disenchantment with childhood role models that many readers – myself included – could remember themselves feeling, despite different circumstances. Go Set a Watchman tries to make sense, to portray the experience of living in a small town in the South; it explains how hard it was to speak up, and stand up for what they think is right. Without excusing their guilt or sense of wrongdoing, it explores the intent behind their actions: it is natural to oppose political change. The book offers a comprehensible perspective of the South.

Watchman failed to explain conclusively the South’s opposition to the Civil Rights Movement – but perhaps this was intended: there is no simple, ‘correct’ answer; rather, one can only presume their mind-sets. This is a great book that offers context, depth and nuance to a beloved classic.

I commend this book to all, but particularly if you have read To Kill a Mockingbird. You would enjoy both of these books if you are interested in the Civil Rights Movement in America, from the viewpoint of a liberal, white Southern young woman. It’s a little slow-paced, because of all the flashbacks, but hardly hard to read. In fact, it’s incredibly readable, especially for the sequel to a classic.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow

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The Museum of Innocence – By Orhan Pamuk

Historical Fiction, Romance

Set in 1970s and 80s Istanbul, The Museum of Innocence recounts the life of Kemal, a wealthy heir who is infatuated with Fusun, an 18-year-old shopgirl and distant relative. He is about to become engaged to the aristocratic Sibel when he stumbles across his long-lost cousin. He soon falls in love with her, embarking on a passionate affair – involving an obsession with hoarding objects that remind him of her – that threatens to ruin his established life in Istanbul’s high society.

The beautiful intertwining of historical and social details in this book kept me fascinated until the very last page: before reading The Museum of Innocence, I knew nothing about Turkey’s contemporary history; now, I feel as if I lived through it. The intriguing, yet a little disturbing romance that blossoms between Kemal and Fusun somehow manages to last the entire 83 chapters without seeming drawn-out or tiresome to read. My visit to the actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul – crammed with an exhaustive array of curated objects from the story  –  reinforced the realism conveyed by the novel.

I would recommend this book for people who are interested in Turkey’s contemporary history, but would also like to enjoy a beautiful yet devastating love story. Some might find the pace slow, but there’s no doubt that it’s engaging.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow

The Other Typist – By Suzanne Rindell

Historical Fiction

The Other Typist is recounted by Rose Baker, a typist at a rundown police precinct. Plain and rule-abiding, Rose efficiently types up criminals’ confessions before returning home to her dreary boarding house. All at once, Rose’s regimented practicality is seduced by the glamour and frivolity of the new typist at the precinct, Odalie. A disturbing obsession is born; Rose keeps a journal of the tiniest details she notices about her. One of her entries reads: “O prefers tea to coffee. Earl Grey, with a little milk. Drinks it with her finger curled” Some are darker and teem with envy: “O took Iris to lunch today! Over me. Old, expressionless Iris, with her mannish little neckties… Clearly I have overestimated O. She and Iris can have each other.” Midway through The Other Typist, it is revealed that Rose is narrating from an asylum in retrospect, suggesting that perhaps Rose’s word is not reliable. This extra layer to the plot provides much suspicion and tension, as Rose is essentially lying to herself, as well as to the reader.

The Other Typist forces the reader to reflect on human nature and relationships. Odalie manipulates Rose relentlessly, leaving Rose entirely unaware until the end. Because the writer lies to herself and therefore the reader throughout the book, the reader is only given a distorted view of the story, adding interest to the already intriguing plot. Rose deludedly thinks herself perceptive and all-seeing, yet she is blind to the reality that Odalie was manipulating her right in front of her eyes. Being written in retrospect means that often, Odalie hints at her doomed future, e.g. “It was moments like this, I would later learn, that would ultimately undo me.” Although this might have added charm, I found that this spoiled the suspense of the book.

You would enjoy The Other Typist if you like The Great Gatsby, and like mysterious and stylistic 1920s novels. This book is not good for people who like fast-paced novels. I would recommend this book for teens and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow

The Help – By Kathryn Stockett

Historical Fiction

The Help, set in the early 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi, recounts the lives of three women: Skeeter Phelan, an aspiring writer, Aibileen, a caring, loving maid who is raising her 17th white child, and Minny, an angry, outspoken maid who is fired for giving her employer a piece of her mind. Skeeter decides to write a highly controversial book that accounts the lives of maids in Jackson, describing their female bosses, for better or for worse. Aibileen is the first of the maids to agree to tell her story to Skeeter. She helps her in the making of the book, and is the driving force in encouraging the other maids to write about their lives. Minny is stubborn at first, but later also agrees to tell Skeeter her story for the book, ‘Help’.

This book is about segregation in the South, which is a subject of much discussion. I found Stockett’s interpretation of this topic interesting, relatable and easy to read, however I also realize that she has naively softened the facts, making the story a dramatized fairy tale, almost, which doesn’t really respect what actually happened. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that to a certain extent this must be done to make it a readable, appealing book. Although I relate to Skeeter as an aspiring writer and book fanatic, Minny and Aibileen were portrayed in more depth and were stronger characters than Skeeter. I loved how The Help is written in dated, Southern slang.

This book is good for people who are interested in segregation in the South, but want to learn about it in an easy and accessible way. It’s good for people who like a fairly slow-paced book that is written in different points of views. This book is not good for people who want to learn about this subject in a strictly factual, historical way. I would recommend The Help for teens and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Slow

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – By Lisa See

Historical Fiction

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in a remote area in Hunan province in nineteenth-century China. At seven years of age, a “so-so” girl named Lily is paired with a well-educated girl as a laotong, or “old same”, to be emotionally matched and friends for life. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a token of her hopes for their relationship in the future in the form of a silk fan. On the fan she writes a poetic greeting in nu shu, an exclusive, ancient language that Chinese women created to communicate in secret, away from the domination of men. Most girls at her age are part of sworn sisterhoods until marriage, but Lily and Snow Flower maintain a relationship for many years, sharing their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments through sending messages on the fan and composing stories on handkerchiefs. They both suffer the torture of foot-binding and together contemplate their arranged marriages, isolation, and the satisfactions and hardships of motherhood. This novel tells the story of their companionship over many years, and how one misunderstanding threatened to tear their laotong-sisterhood to shreds.

This book is both heart-warming and educational. Before reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I knew nothing about Chinese culture, so it was especially fascinating for me to learn about Chinese rituals, systems and traditions. Chinese people, and women especially, lived narrow lives, knowing little about the provence next door let alone the rest of the world, which fascinates me. I felt like I became Lily while embarking on her journey with her, enduring everything she endured. I realised that so many of the women Lily came across  in her life, that at first seemed so passive and thoughtless, were actually amazing people in their own rights. When one woman needs love and care, other women abandon their families to help their friend. They displayed ordinary acts of kindness that the men that surrounded them were not even aware of, which is all the more impressive.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a good book for people who like Asian historical fictions and books about the feminist struggle. It is not good for people who like fast-paced books, or a book that discusses in detail the politics or way of life of men in China, as it is thoroughly based on women. I would recommend this book for people in their mid to late teens and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAA

Pace: Slow/Medium