Sunday, July 22, 2012

59. "Girl in Translation" by Jean Kwok

Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

307 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

“I was born with a talent. Not for dance or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school. Everything that was taught there, I could learn: quickly and without too much effort” (Kwok, 1). These are the opening lines from Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, a coming of age story about a Chinese immigrant.

Kimberly Chang moved to New York City with her mother after her father died and her mother survived a bout of tuberculosis. Indebted to her aunt, Kimberly and her mom must work for pennies in a clothing factory and live in a cockroach-infested apartment. Kwok’s description of this family’s experience with poverty is visceral and edgy. Life is very difficult for Kimberly and her mother and Kimberly looks to school as her ticket out of poverty. She excels in school and promises to take care of her mother by going to college and taking her along, escaping the Brooklyn slums.

Several complications lie in Kimberly’s way. Her aunt is jealous and spiteful and tries to block Kimberly’s success by making her and her mother work long hours at the factory for very little pay under the table. Kimberly is also distracted by Matt, a boy her age working in the factory with her. Kimberly must balance long hours at school doing homework in a language she is unfamiliar with, coping with social norms she is unaccustomed to and then after school illegally putting in long hours at the factory. Her strength and determination are admirable.

Kwok is highly creative in how she plays with language throughout the novel. She uses a particular trick (I won’t give it away) to throw us into the world of someone new to the English language. Readers sometimes feel just as lost as Kimberly does as she tries to navigate life in a new country. Beautifully written with a surprising twist at the end, Girl in Translation is one of the best books I’ve read this summer.

4 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: NONE (borrowed from a friend). 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

58. "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness

Harkness, Deborah. A Discovery of Witches. New York: Viking, 2011.

592 pages

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

A Discovery of Witches is the first book in a trilogy about Diana Bishop, a witch who has spent most of her life denying her supernatural powers. Raised by her two aunts, Diana becomes a successful historian and professor specializing in the study of the history of alchemy. It is this very research that starts her on an adventure she is unwilling to experience.

Diana unlocks a spellbound book that tells the secrets of the origin of the three main species covered in the tale: witches, daemons, and vampires. This discovery does not go unnoticed by the other witches, daemons and vampires of the world and Diana is thrown into the start of a battle to own the book. Along the way she meets Matthew Clairmont, a chillingly handsome vampire. Despite the taboo of associating with vampires, Diana forms a bond with Matthew and he helps her unleash her inner witch.

This is a fun, fun, fun read. Harkness writes in a way similar to Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code and Elizabeth Kostova in The Historian. The plot is thick with several interwoven layers, time periods and rich characterizations. What I like most about Harkness’ writing is her use of description. She has a perfect balance of detail and you can feel, taste and hear pretty much everything just as she describes it. I can’t wait for the next book!

3.5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf project status: None (borrowed from a friend) 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

57. "The Absolutist" by John Boyne

Boyne, John. The Absolutist. New York: Doubleday, 2012.

320 pages

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

John Boyne is an Irish writer most known for his novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has sold over 5 million copies and was recently made into a major motion picture. His work has been published in over forty different languages and The Absolutist is his most recent novel.

Set during the first World War, The Absolutist follows seventeen-year-old Tristan Sadler as he lies about his age, enlists in a British regiment, and is sent to the trenches. During basic training at Aldershot, Tristan meets Will, a curious and moral soldier who swiftly entrances Tristan with his depth and physical beauty. Their relationship is not a simple story. It is fraught with confusion, anger, pain, passion, and questioning.

In the trenches they must wrestle with big questions. What is a human life worth? Tristan often thinks about the humanity of the enemy soldiers pondering, “I crawl forward on my belly, holding my rifle before, my left eye firmly closed as I look down the viewfinder for anyone advancing in my direction. I picture myself locking eyes with a boy of my own age, both of us terrified, in the instant before we shoot each other dead” (Boyne). For Tristan, the Germans he is fighting and killing are people, young men just like him.

Will is the son of a vicar and has high moral standards, standards that are too high for the rest of his regiment. He follows in the footsteps of the conscientious objectors that came before him which causes the greatest divide between Will and Tristan. Is an idea or principle worth dying for? What is courage and how does one display it? These are all questions this novel explores in heartbreaking and sobering ways. Boyne does not beat around the bush when it comes to the harsh realities of love and war in 20th century England. By the end of the novel I was in tears.

The Absolutist is captivating. The nonlinear plot kept me riveted and wanting more. The characters possess depth and flaws and are extraordinarily human. Reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front, The Absolutist will take you into a world where simple pleasures are “the result of inhuman deprivations” and unconditional love is the greatest form of courage (Boyne).

 4.5 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP