jeudi 31 juillet 2008

Another wonderful pile of books for all faithful readers of RWB:

New in Fiction
1. Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
2. Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith
3. Assassin's Song by M.G. Vassanji
4. Life Class by Pat Barker
5. The Deportees by Roddy Doyle
6. The Boat by Nam Le
7. The Case of the Imaginary Detective by Karen Joy Fowler
8. The Birthday Present by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine
9.All the Colors of Darkness by Peter Robinson
10. Molly Fox's Birthday by Deidre Madden

New in Non-Fiction
1. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
2. Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brooks
3. The Necesary Revolution by Peter Senge
4. Ghost Train to the Eastern Sea by Paul Theroux
5. The Sharper your Knife, the Less you Cry by Kathleen Flynn
6. The Return of History and the End of Dreams by Robert Kagan
7. What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan
8. Children of the Revolution by Robert Gildea

RWB likewise has in stock the following titles which have been Longlisted for the Booker Prize of 2008:

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
The Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
Child 44 by Tom Robb Smith
The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser
Others in the longlist will be available Mid-August.

The Great Perhaps

What happens when you go looking for something beyond the mundane and you find more than what you bargained for? This is by no means an easy topic to tackle but John Green does a magnificent job of doing just that in his book “Looking for Alaska”. It’s the story of Miles “Pudge” Halter, avid biography reader and fan of famous last words (his abiding motto is to go and find the great perhaps—as Rabelais) and his transfer to the Culver Creek Boarding School. It is at Culver Creek that he meets and befriends Chip “Colonel” Martin, Takumi and Alaska Young with whom he falls hopelessly in love with. Never mind that she is out of his league and as she puts it “totally in love with her boyfriend”. And since this is a book about teenagers, it is full of class room life and pranks (industrial blue colored dye in hair gel being involved in one) but it veers from such a simple direction once tragedy strikes.
This is an immensely likeable novel. It is one of those novels whose language just flows, is poetic and often beautiful. Add the fact that it captures perfectly the rhythm and cadence of teenage life without once resorting to cliché or is in any way condescending for their concerns. There are deeper things afoot in the novel and it is framed by Alaska herself when she poses that most existentialist of questions “how do we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” As questions go, this has been the focus of countless minds and the subject of books far too numerous to recount. And author John Green is able to handle such a topic in a graceful and humorous way. If I had a quibble with this book, it would be to say that perhaps the characters are a little aware and philosophical for teenagers but at the same time, it cannot be denied that teenagers now are much more worldly and knowing than grown ups give them credit for. But that is just the tiniest quibble in this otherwise excellent novel that ends in the most satisfyingly positive way. “That part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.”

mardi 29 juillet 2008

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

Sometimes its all in the title. This book has been sitting in my shelf for awhile now and every so often my eyes would light upon it and the title would resound in my head, progressively tugging at my mind till finally, I picked it up. The title is certainly arresting enough and the much of the story takes place in the exotic landscape of Lapland.
It begins with the death of Clarissa’s father and a discovery that changes her life. I realize that a statement like that doesn’t reveal much, and those who are wary of spoilers, should skip ahead to the review of the book. She learns that the father she’s just buried is in fact not her father. This discovery poisons her life and pushes her to find answers and her mother who had disappeared from their family 14 years earlier. And her search takes her to the little known lands of the Sami people, from whom she is descended.
Much of the novel’s strength lies in the control author Vendela Vida wields over her heavy subject matter. There are secrets built upon other secrets and she reveals them slowly while ensuring that we stay engrossed in Clarissa’s story. In a way the exoticness of the story’s locale underscores the psychological terrain that Clarissa’s character explores. There is an overlapping theme of searching for identity, making a new one at the same time creating multiple lives to fit these different identities. And it is extremely interesting to read a character that is able to do so completely without regard to the emotional cost to those who love her. I think one of the most brutal lines I’ve ever read comes about almost at the end of the book, where Olivia, Clarissa’s mother tells her “you poor thing…you always tried so hard to get a reaction from me. Can you put another log on the fire?” A cold character to say the least, but the story is so well told, that while I was horrified, there was a basis from which I could see how it could come about and even felt a sort of sympathy or empathy for her. Ultimately its ending is consistent with its theme of finding, renewing and creating identities that finally, allow one to live. Re-reading it now, as I write, I find that it is a gratifyingly hopeful one.
Aside from Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, RWB also carries Vida's well received debut novel And Now You Can Go.

samedi 26 juillet 2008

I don’t know about you but I’ve always had a hard time with mathematics. It was something I could never wrap my mind around and it was a struggle to make sense of formulas and all that it entailed. It was thus always a source of marvel for me to hear about individuals for whom numbers held no secrets.
Gifted by Nikita Lalwani is exactly about one of those special individuals except in her case, the prodigy discovers her talent when she is seven. Rumi and her family are immigrants from India hoping to carve out a better life for themselves in the United Kingdom. When they learn that Rumi has an exceptional talent for math, it transforms their life. Their lives increasingly begin to revolve around her gift and the goal of making it to Oxford by the time she is 15.
The biggest enjoyment in reading this story is the language employed by Lalwani. Whether she is describing the immigrant experience or the teenage Rumi’s growing sense of isolation and confusion, she is able to capture the situation in a language both elegant and which rings true. There was real pleasure just from the way the language flowed, funny and pithy at times, at other times, belligerent and bleak. I loved the way she transposed the language of math into Rumi’s daily life. One scene I particularly liked was one where Rumi is walking home after a particularly bitter rejection by a friend, and while walking counts of to the beat of her shoes “powering up to exponents of two with the left and subtracting one with the right each time, creating Mersenne numbers (2 to the power n minus 1). Each time she created a new total she checked to see if it was a composite or prime number, working out the possible mutations in her head. Whenever the number was prime, indivisible, it felt like a little stab, a minute betrayal, the tiny catheter of pain, insinuating its way into her heart. 2 to the power of 7 minus 1= 127, which number was particularly painful. Maybe because it had such promise-carrying all the world in it: the certain 1, the right now unbearable 2 and then 7, which would always be lucky and sexy, cheeky and cool. Everything she wasn’t .” Enjoying the language with which Gifted is written in a way, allows the reader to get past the sometimes unlikeability of the characters and the somewhat negative slant it takes towards family and the perpetual concern of fitting in and making something of oneself, which is especially poignant when far from the familiar comforts of home.

lundi 21 juillet 2008

Loads of new books (paperback and hardcover) that are perfect for the summer holidays! Here are just a few of them...

1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
2. City of Thieves by David Benioff
3. Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb
4. The Impostor by Damon Galgut
5.Tree of Smoke by Dennis Johnson (now in paperback!)
6. Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber
7. Austenland-Shannon Hale
8. First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde (now in paperback!)
9. Collector of Words by Iliya Troyanov
10. Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberg

We've also got in stock this year's Orange Prize Winner Road Home by Rose Tremain and the other shortlisted books for the award:

1. When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson
2. Fault Lines by Nancy Huston
3. Greater Love by Lucy Wadham

I’d long been curious about the Fred Vargas books. The story lines of her books always seemed interesting and I had seen on more than one occasion people absorbed in her stories when I was in the metro. One of them had even been turned in to a movie. So when we got her books back in stock, it seemed the fitting occasion to pick up one of them and plunge into her universe.
And what a universe it turned out to be. Fortunately I decided to start with one of the earlier novels starring, if I may use that term, Police Commisaire Jean Baptiste Adamsberg, who at the start of “Have Mercy on Us All” has just been appointed head of a newly formed murder unit. Adamsberg possesses an almost uncanny knack for finding the bad guys, hence the appointment. But we meet Adamsberg just after we meet Joss Le Guern, a modern day town crier who has set up a rather thriving business barking out the news three times a day in a square just of Edgar Quinet. As towncrier he receives a number of odd messages but none as odd as some messages which start hinting at the return of the dreaded Plague. Yes, the plague which as we all know has been eradicated. And the plot thickens when victims start turning up showing the deadly signs. It was at this point that I realized I’ve entered into a completely different murder mystery story altogether.
It is an intriguing and well written story that surprises you till almost the last page. Through out all the inventive twists and turns, Vargas manages to keep a tight hold of the story so that there is a seamless narrative and anything loopy or out of the ordinary becomes possible in the world she creates. There is a impressive amount of historical data in the story which can only come about from much research. It turns out the Fred Vargas, whose real name is Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau is a historian and archaeologist, hence the wealth of details in her story. Another enjoyable aspect in her book is the engaging humor with which it is written. While it is true that this crime fiction, it is written with a lighter hand than most and it is peppered with genuinely humorous situations. Have Mercy on Us All is certainly a great introduction to Fred Vargas’ universe and now I know why people are so taken in by it. Definitely a worthy addition to my shelves.

Other Fred Vargas books in stock at RWB include Seeking Whom He May Devour (2004), The Three Evangelists (2005), Wash This Blood Clean from My Hands (2007), This Night’s Foul Work (2008) and something to look forward to in 2009 is The Chalk Circle Man.

mercredi 16 juillet 2008

When luxury loses its luster

Deluxe: How Luxury has Lost its Lustre by Dana Thomas has just come out in paperback! That's great news as I think its one of the most interesting books to come out on the fashion industry.
Deluxe gets off to a running start with the evolution of the luxury industry. It traces its beginnings from the nobility period when craftsmen were proud to make and present the best of their wares to royalty. At that time luxury had noble aspirations. However, the inevitable rise of the middle class gave birth to a new phenomenon whereby the newly rich could now afford the very things that used only to be within the reach of the very rich. And this fact was very cleverly seized by businessmen and launched the new era of luxury where it was made available and indeed, accessible to everyone.
From there, the book goes on to detail the activities of several high fashion groups and the way they run their empires. It is especially interesting to learn about the designer, who we normally know only by their name, or by their bag, shoes or clothes, as an actual person. For instance, Miuccia Prada is described as “a woman who had been raised in haute bourgeois society, with servants and grandeur and politesse. Unlike her competitor, Donatella Versace, who came from nothing, Prada’s airs are not airs at all: her snobbery is in her bones.” Flattering or unflattering, such descriptions gives a sense of the person behind the label and how such personality reflects on the house designs.
The author likewise takes pains to detail how luxury shopping has encircled and continues to encircle the globe. And it’s very funny to read detailed chapters on the spending habits of several different countries. One realizes just why people are limited to a specific number of items when shopping and why when walking down Champs Elysee, you could get asked to buy a bag for someone. It seems that shopping habits have been studied with as much intensity as global warming, if not more so.
Reading this book, one is lead to ask whether there is anything wrong with making luxury as accessible to everyone, as much as possible. What is wrong with the democratization of luxury and the derivation of profit? As Thomas points out, Bernard Arnault and other luxury group stockholders certainly can’t and indeed don’t complain. And the ever expanding prosperous middle class and newly minted millionaires of developing countries are among the first to welcome such development. Certainly there is nothing wrong if we don’t consider that we are losing a more genteel, rarefied way of life. And even more certainly, there is nothing wrong with thinking that we are all entitled to luxury. And does it really matter that the proliferation of so-called luxury products in our every day life has all but erased the distinction between what real luxury is and the mere appearance of it. What is wrong with buying into the dream? Nothing except if you consider the fact that it is now a business and a multi-billion dollar one at that. The very antithesis of what it used to be. Luxury is no longer the experience of having something produced out of genuine passion and waiting to be able to acquire such a thing; where the waiting enhances the experience and becomes as delicious a moment as having the actual object in one’s hands. It is about having something of beauty that lasts more than its allotted shelf life and getting a glimpse of eternity. That is what we are all entitled to but paradoxically in today’s world is now as rare as real luxury. It is in losing such experience that luxury has lost its luster.

Question: What's your take on the fashion industry and the way it impacts our society now?

mercredi 9 juillet 2008

Siren of the Waters

Last night, RWB hosted the first official book launch of Michael Genelin's Siren of the Waters. Despite the sudden downpour, we had a lovely turnout and there was an anticipatory mood amongst everyone. We started with an introduction by RWB's own Penelope Le Masson and then the floor was turned over to Michael who talked about how his story came about. It was interesting to hear how his essentially legal background gave rise to his book. But what was even more interesting to learn was the fact of the real existence of Jana albeit in a different form. made me quite curious to learn about this formidable woman who inspired a soon to be series of books. The reading itself went very well with everyone listening with rapt attention. From what I heard last night, it seems that Michael has written a real page turner!

Get your copy now at RWB and be one of the first to read this excellent addition to crime fiction.

lundi 7 juillet 2008

I had always seen Stefan Zweig's book on Marie Antoinette on our shelves and thought to myself that I was one day going to read this Austrian author. Unfortunately Marie Antoinette always seemed a bit too hefty (I'm ashamed to admit!) and there was always this or that other book that caught my fancy. Recently, I picked up Chess, Zweig's last novel before he and his wife committed suicide and was utterly captivated by his writing.
The tale is simple. Passengers on board a cruise ship bound for Brazil are pleased to discover that the world’s greatest Chess master is their co-passenger. Some of them naturally take it upon themselves to challenge him to a game which they promptly lose. Undaunted they challenge him again and once again they seem to be losing till someone intervenes in their favor. The identity of the stranger is the crux upon which the whole story revolves and ultimately ends.
It is a tribute to Zweig’s outstanding writing prowess that his story grips you from the first page and stays with you long after. Days after I’ve finished it, I’m still haunted by the main protagonist of the story which you will see is not after all the great Chess master. And closer introspection reveals complex layers under the seemingly simple story. What makes it outstanding is the deftly told psychological aspect of the tale. As it turns out, the story takes place within the environs of World War II and as such the story is suffused by the horror felt by the author at the psychological brutalities suffered by and imposed on the casualties of this particular war. And out of fear of giving too much of the story away, I will only say that Zweig’s prose will send chills up your spine even if you’re reading it in the clear light of day.

It seemed to me that the cover showed the drawn outline of children running, a dog and what seemed like two rabbits! I looked at the title closely and it was called The Penderwicks (A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy). So I wasn’t seeing things, there was a rabbit in the book cover. In fact this is Jeanne Birdsall’s first one and has won a host of awards including the National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature in 2005. It is the story of four sisters—Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty, who together with their widowed father and faithful dog Hound, set off for vacation, one fine summer day. Their destination is Arundel cottage. It is there that the sisters meet and befriend Jeffrey, the lonely son of the snobbish owner of Arundel. And because it is an adventure filled summer, they become involved in a number of high spirited games and various scrapes, including one with a bull and loose rabbits wreaking havoc everywhere.
This is a sweet summer read for children that is equally appealing to more adult readers. If you’re a fan of such classics as Noel Streatfeild books, L.M. Montgomery and Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, you will surely enjoy the Penderwick sisters and their adventures. I really liked the fact that the sisters Birdsall has carefully delineated each with distinction. There is Rosalind, who is responsible and kind, Skye, tomboyish and fierce in her emotions and loyalty, Jane dreamy and determined at the same time and Batty who bravely proclaims that “we’re allowed to choose the people we talk to”. While previous children’s books reflected the mores of the times, oftentimes with the girl characters being limited in the depiction of choices before them, the Penderwicks has a much more modern sensibility. Skye for example loves math and excels in it. Both she and Jane are excellent soccer players. In previous literature, it would’ve been the boy characters that would’ve loved math and played soccer. More tellingly, it is Jeffrey who is under “lock and key” so to speak and it is the girls who rescue him and encourage him to speak his heart out to his mother. Much as I loved the children’s classics I read while growing up, it always seemed to me that boys got much of the adventures and games while girls where much more sheltered and its refreshing to read spirited girls with their own dreams and aspirations that don’t involved finding the prince and living happily ever after.
Jeanne Birdsall has just published the sequel to the Penderwicks and both books are now available at RWB!