Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 reads

47. Anybody Out There - Marian Keyes

46. Not Guilty: My Guide To Working Hard, Raising Kids And Laughing Through The Chaos - Debbie Travis

45. Away - Amy Bloom

44. Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

43. The Careful Use of Compliments - Alexander McCall Smith

42. Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome - Steven Saylor

41. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee - Rebecca Miller

40. Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan

39. Beside A Burning Sea - John Shors

38. The Right Attitude to Rain - Alexander McCall Smith

37. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

36. Friends, Lovers, Chocolate - Alexander McCall Smith

35. The Sunday Philosophy Club - Alexander McCall Smith

34. Remembering the Bones - Frances Itani

33. Boomsday - Christopher Buckley

32. The Virgin's Lover - Philippa Gregory

31. Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris

30. The Blood of Flowers - Anita Amirrezvani

29. Three Bags Full - Leonie Swann

28. Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones

27. Divisadero - Michael Ondaatje

26. The Gum Thief - Douglas Coupland

25. Petite Anglaise - Catherine Sanderson

24. Wiped - Rebecca Eckler

23. Knocked Up - Rebecca Eckler

22. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict - Laurie Rigler

21. Life on the Refrigerator Door - Alice Kuipers

20. Under Pressure - Carl Honore

19. Effigy - Alissa York

18. Remember Me? - Sophie Kinsella

17. Crash - Nan McCarthy

16. Connect - Nan McCarthy

15. Chat - Nan McCarthy

14. The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway

13. The Complete Perseoplis - Marjane Satrapi

12. On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

11. Gods Behaving Badly - Marie Phillips

10. The Outcast - Sadie Jones

9. The End of East - Jen Sookfong Lee

8. The Girls - Lori Lansens

7. Shopaholic & Baby - Sophie Kinsella

6. Shopaholic & Sister - Sophie Kinsella

5. The End of the Alphabet - C.S. Richardson

4. Shopaholic Ties the Knot - Sophie Kinsella

3. Shopaholic Takes Manhattan - Sophie Kinsella

2. Confessions of a Shopaholic - Sophie Kinsella

1. Nineteen Minutes - Jodi Picoult

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

O(h)!

Congratulations, neighbours. Well done!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A random question of semantics?

Here's a question:

How can you be proud that your child has made the decision to have their baby, when you believe, fundamentally, that that choice should not exist in the first place - not in the case of rape or incest, and certainly not in the case of 17-year-old girls who have been raised on a (failed) diet of abstinence-only education?

This woman has said many things I find troubling, amusing or maddening, but for some reason this is the one that proves the greatest irritation to me.



Thursday, September 4, 2008

First day...


Of pre-school.

Precisely 24 hours later she began sneezing. I do believe that toddlers spend the majority of their time together licking one another's boogers. Let the fun begin!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

One potato, two potato

MISSING, 5 PM PLAYTIME

One potato, separated from its plastic vegetable family. Authorities immediately initiated a full search and recovery mission, with the suspects questioned and all the usual stashes searched and hiding places explored. As of bedtime, the potato in question was still missing and authorities temporarily halted the search. 



FOUND, 9 PM CLEAN UP

Authorities stated that the search was resumed upon the commencement of the evening clean up, reasoning that in the clearing away of debris some evidence of foul play might be discovered. Authorities stated that they were shocked to hear a rattle from one Mr PotatoHead, ordinarily a dapper gentlemen who is rarely seen without his full regalia, found cowering in a half-empty toy box where he appeared to have been returned earlier by his rightful owner.


When a full cavity search was completed by the seach team, the potato in question was found and recovered.


The gentlemen was returned to his home where he is said to be recovering from the day's traumatic events. Authorities stated they are baffled by the seeming brilliance behind today's potato disappearance, and will be ramping up their counter-efforts with increased communications and intelligence training.

* * *
 
Let it never be said that my child isn't crafty logical. God help me when she starts talking.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

The limits of graciousness

Last night we had rather extended family come and stay the night with us. By extended family, we're talking the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of a step-grandparent. A family of four that we've seen twice before. They are back in Canada, visiting for the summer after two years of missionary work in the Philippines, where they "spread the word" and run an orphanage. They are strict evangelical Christian, and their religious practices and beliefs deviate wildly from my own. 

I won't go into a great deal into my own beliefs and spirituality except to say this - I was raised within the framework of an organized religion, and while I do not believe all of the doctrine or strictures of that particular religion I still take comfort in the rituals and routines of the church when I choose to attend. From a belief perspective, I (and Mr Babbler, both) fall on the exceedingly liberal side. I believe that the Bible (or any religious document for that matter) should not be taken absolutely literally, and instead is a mixture of reality, representation and parable, and is reflective of many writers, revisions, place and time and translation. I believe in difference of religion, and that ultimately we are all getting to the same place no matter how or to whom you pray to, if you so chose. I believe in questioning the leaders or organized religion, and that religion is free to expand and change with new realities. These are just a few of my beliefs. I do not impose them on others, and I rarely discuss it, as I believe it is a deeply personal matter and choice.

We approached the visit with trepidation, but figured that at the most at least it would give us fodder - a few amusing stories or anecdotes. To say that the visit was awkward would be a colossal understatement, and that while we have some stories they came at an enormous personal cost.

I did my very best to be a gracious host - I did not swear nor take the Lord's name in vain (wasn't that fucking polite of me for God's sake - heh, get it? A wee bit of gallows humour there. Moving right along.) I was careful to remove literature from the living room that they would most likely find offensive and would not want their children exposed to (an issue of Glamour magazine, and the God Delusion) despite being sorely tempted. We stuck to water and juice while in the living room talking, abstaining from the glass of wine that would have, at the very least, taken the edge of the awkwardness and made everything a little hazy and, perhaps, bearable. At breakfast I refrained from eating or serving Peanut immediately, instead bowing my head while they said their grace before the meal. I was, in a word, accommodating. 

The parents told us of their time in the Philippines, with all the religious and cultural intolerance that seems to only come from those most fundamentalist of believers of any religion, Christian or otherwise. We bounced from one uncomfortable topic or anecdote to another, while terms such as "those Muslims", for example, were bandied about, together with loose quotations of scripture from the Koran to support their assertion that "those Muslims" are more aggressive. All of this couched in language so innocuous and non-aggressive as to be discussed as fact and not worthy of argument or discussion. We are right, and we have God and Jesus on our side. Ergo, you are wrong.

The children, now 14 and 16, are mimics of their parents with no real opinion of their own and a social awkwardness that comes of being homeschooled their entire lives and kept, rigidly, from any exposure to outside or "deviant ideas". Like, say, feminism. Or equality. Or cultural differences. Or freedom of belief and religion, apparently. They do not question, they are not curious. (In one of the only humorous moments, when trying to remember the children's names prior to their arrival Mr Babbler referred to them Rod and Todd - names that stuck for us privately despite the fact that one of the children is a girl.) I would have preferred, infinitely, the sulking sixteen-year-old boy, nose in a video game, and snotty, arrogant fourteen-year-old girl - siblings who either squabble or ignore one another mercilessly, to the wide-eyed religious fervor we were faced with.

The most wrenching conversation for me came this morning, when they took it upon themselves to tell me that the little boy whom they are raising (as "English", or course, with none of the "dirty habits of his country", despite the fact that he will have to live in that country, belonging to neither one culture or another) was not allowed to play with dolls. Because, of course, "they did not want him to be gay, like half the boys there, with all their dirty cross-dressing and freakishness". This, of course, was supported by the assertion that "God does not make mistakes, and that God has a plan for us, and we should be what He intended for us to be". 

This screed went on for several minutes - minutes in which my stomach turned nauseously, the breakfast we had just eaten roiling uncomfortably. Mr Babbler was at work, and the family was due to leave any minute. Did I say something? Stand up for what I firmly believe in. Argue that God's plan may have very well been for that person to embrace their homosexuality, despite their gender? That the two (sexual identity and gender) are mutually exclusive? Did I fight back, finally, about their ideas and intolerance regarding "those Muslims" whose land they were invading, with their proselytizing and preaching? Did I finally speak up and refute every one of the far-fetched, ridiculous, intolerant, racist ideas? 

I did not. I twitched, I avoided eye contact, I did not agree nor give any sign that I was similar in my belief. I attempted, several times to change the topic and to offer up distraction (look at Peanut? Peanut, want to play with your dollies?), but I did not say outright that what they said, that what they believed, sickened and disgusted me. That I did not share their intolerance and was offended, deeply, by their opinions and their need to verbalize them in my own house. 

In the end, I felt like a stranger in my own home, as they filled the air with intolerance. I felt alone and dirty, and I wished desperately that Mr Babbler was there with me, so I could speak up secure in the knowledge that I had someone their who believed as I do, and who could back me up. I thought of my obligation, as someone who should have defended what I believe in, should have defended those (gays, lesbians, Muslims, Filipino and every other group denigrated by their words) as they were unable to speak for themselves, despite the fact that my words would, in all likelihood, not made a lick of difference - their security in the rightness of their actions and beliefs so strong that nothing I could say would dissuade them). I questioned the limits of being a polite host - of where responsibility and obligation and good manners ends. I thought of my in-laws (whom, I should note, do not believe as this family does) who have been so good to me, and never hesitate to host my friends, and how this was done as a favour to them. How a wrong word could make family relations very uncomfortable for them in the future. All this ran through my head, together with the knowledge that they were leaving imminently, and how (cowardly as it was) I did not wish to delay their departure by opening their Pandora's box of theological arguments.

I am ashamed and sickened and disgusted with myself. All I could think was that I was so grateful that Peanut was not old enough to understand their words. How, if she had been older, I would have had to intervene, to say something, for we are not an intolerant family and I don't want her, for one minute, to think that that gross display of intolerance we were subjected to is either acceptable or moral or right.

Mr Babbler and I have made a decision. This family is no longer welcome to visit us. We will be having a frank conversation with our family about what occurred and how we felt about it, and we will leave it to our family to explain (if they so choose) why this family is no longer welcome in our home. It's not a perfect solution, and it doesn't solve the shame I'm currently feeling, but it is a first step. 

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Obsession. Voraciousness. Gluttony. Part II

Since you asked, here is what is on my bookshelf/side tables/bedside. I should preface this by saying that yes, I am a complete and utter trollop - a slut, really - when it comes to books. I have many books that I've started and I have absolutely no shame when it comes to cheating on a current book with any shiny new thing that comes along. That said, most of the time I do go back and finish the poor cuckolded book. Somehow they never seem to mind my absence, extended or otherwise.

Also, it is not necessarily the book itself that draws me in, but instead the mere act of reading - of cradling a book in my hand, of turning the pages, of running my eyes up and down the page.

So here you have it, a sampling of what is keeping me busy these days.

NOTCHES ON THE BOOKCASE
* Petite Anglaise - Catherine Sanderson
Written by the (infamous) blogger, the book explores Sanderson's life after moving to Paris and starting her blog, and the chain of events that followed. Intriguing, but not without its issues. A full review will follow.

* ! Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones
During a civil war on a small island set in the South Pacific, one white man remains. He takes it upon himself to educate the children of the small village by reading to them from Great Expectations, which starts a series of events with consequences no one could have imagined. Absolutely fascinating and highly recommended.

* Divisadero - Michael Ondaatje
This is really two intertwined stores in one book. The first is the story of two sisters and the adopted boy/ranch hand who lives with them, and how the events of one day divide them and set them on their individual paths. The second story follows writer Lucien Segura as his life unfolds and his various relationships during turn-of-the-century France. I found the second story to be the stronger part of the novel. This book isn't an easy read - while the language is sparse it seems to be jammed full of meaning. A second read would probably elicit more meaning.

* ! On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan
Edward and Florence have just married and are on their honeymoon. Set in the early 60s, just prior to the sexual revolution, the story explores their first night together and their expectations and disappointments. It's an absolutely fascinating character study, and a study in the morals and mindset of a time long gone.

* Remember Me? - Sophie Kinsella
Lexi Smart wakes up one day in the hospital to discover that she doesn't remember the last three years of her life - three years during which she has transformed herself into a gorgeous woman complete with high powered career with a wealthy and sexy husband yet has lost all her friends. Pure fluff and entirely unbelievable, and not necessarily as good as Kinsella's previous novels, but still a delightful bit of summer beach reading.

* ! Under Pressure - Carl Honore
Honore's most recent book examines the increasing pressure that parents are facing in raising their children. From tutoring to homework, university admissions to after school programs, daycare to team sports, he reveals how much pressure our children are under and how people are fighting back. 

CURRENT LOVER
Set in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble, Then We Came to the End is the study of the employees of an advertising agency weathering massive layoffs. Written in the first-person "we", this is book that is an often funny (in the manner of The Office) occasionally heartbreaking and always real glimpse at the work environment and the people we live and work beside each day. For anyone who has ever worked in an office environment, complete with cubicles, water cooler gossip and company events, this book will strike a chord.

CUCKOLDED
! Blood of Flowers - Anita Amirrezvani
Set in seventeenth-century Persia, the unnamed narrator is a young girl who's hopes for a good marriage are dashed by the untimely death of her father. She and her mother move in with her uncle, a wealthy rug maker. Without a dowry, the girl is left with a few options. Literature light, but a good story and interesting setting and topic make this a great beach read.
 
A terrific examination of the physiology of women, drawing from medical, historical, mythological, artistic and literary sources. Easily accessible, Angier has raised many interesting ideas and theories. A terrific, must-read for all women.

Love In The Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez's modern classic tale of love denied. A dense and intricate read, it is, nonetheless, a terrific tale of almost every type of love story. 

High Noon - Nora Roberts
A typical Roberts romantic thriller, the story finds Lt Phoebe McNamara, the police department's chief hostage negotiator, finding love while fighting off a stalker who means her harm. Incredibly fluffy beach reading, this is still a fun story for summer with a strong heroine and an interesting love interest.

The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch
Based on, and an extension of, the YouTube video sensation, Pausch (who is dying of pancreatic cancer) writes about achieving your childhood dreams and being a good person. Best digested in small bits, as it can be sentimental at times.

FLIRTING FROM THE SIDELINES
Brick Lane - Monica Ali
Nazneed, a young Bangladeshi woman, moves to London to live with her husband, a much older man, in an arranged marriage but starts an affair with a young radical. 


* The Tenth Gift - Jane Johnson
Johnson's (a U.K. publishing exec) first novel is both a contemporary and historical tale, set in Morocco.


Obama's personal thoughts on faith and values, democracy and the political process. 

Tthe subtitle says it all.

What the Body Remembers - Shauna Singh Baldwin
The story of family and relationships and power struggles between Satya, Sardarji's current and barren wife, and Roop, his new, younger second wife, during the time of partition of India.

The Book of Negroes - Lawrence Hill
This award-winning novel is the epic story of Aminata Diaoll, who is kidnapped from her home in West Africa and sold into slavery to her eventual freedom. 

Gore's follow up to an Inconvenient Truth is both an examination of the current state of American politics and a scathing critique of Bush's White House.

Gladwell's study of the power of snap judgments.

Roma - Steven Saylor
A hefty traditional historical epic covering five centuries of Rome through the eyes of several founding families.

* The Toss of a Lemon - Padma Viswanathan
The story of one woman's life. Married at ten and widowed at eighteen, Sivakami is extremely devout, and her actions have consequences for her children and her grandchildren's lives.

* Full review coming
! Highly recommended

Friday, July 4, 2008

Obsession. Voraciousness. Gluttony.


It is an all-consuming obsession, and I am voracious. A veritable glutton. An addict.

I am insatiable, unable to consume the words fast enough. My eyes race along the pages, eagerly devouring the story. If it were possible to become obese on literature, you would find me, confined to a bed, the weight of stories trapped in my head making it impossible to leave the room, able only to lift the book (another book) to my face. Fueling my obsession.

Right now, I am surrounded by books. Good books, mediocre books, terrible books waiting for their spines to be cracked, their pages turned, their secrets to be discovered. They are lined up on shelves, stacked on end tables, piled next to the bed. I cannot pass a display in a store without leaving with some new treasure, to be tucked away. (Budgets are weighed briefly in my head, along with the possibility of slipping it onto the shelf, unnoticed.) 

They tempt me at every waking moment, and at every opportunity I am an addict getting her fix. I grab the closest book, if only to snatch a paragraph or two before returning to a job at hand. The story echoes in my head as I move through the routine that is our days - play time, diaper changes, mealtimes, trips to the park. House cleaning has fallen by the wayside - nap times are better spent satisfying the endless craving. Evenings find me burrowed on the couch, tearing through the pages once again. 

I finish a book. I ponder writing down my thoughts but cannot bring myself to put pen to paper (hands to keyboard) and instead pause only briefly before grabbing another, already tempted by what is hidden within. Vacations and trips away are carefully plotted. Books are lined up and their relative merits (good story, weight and heft, sequence in a series, genre) compared before whittling it down to the three, or four, or five that make the final cut (before the just in case book is hastily stuffed in the bag on the way out the door). 

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing?

I'll let you know. I just have to finish this book first.

* * *

Written for Anne, who has kicked my butt and urged me to write something, anything. And as a bit of an explanation and apology, for being so lax in both my writing and my visiting lately. So what are your current obsessions?


Monday, June 16, 2008

Away...

On vacation.

With these fine folks:


Explanation and photos when we return!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Babies

Two teenage girls, perhaps 14 or 15 years old, sit together in the McDonalds in the local Wal-mart. One faces Peanut, and proceeds to coo and giggle over her. The other sits, silent.

Later, high school girl voices carry over the aisles in the baby department, "oh, you have to find out if it's a boy or a girl, cause I, like, wanna know. I just have to know. If it's, like, a girl it'll be sooo cute and, like, it'll be so fun to dress her up. Oh oh oh, and you'll have to buy that for her."

And on it goes.

I round the corner, and spot the girls from the McDonalds. The one with the eager voice, all heavy eyeliner and too-tight tank top, her whole being suffused with the excitement of being a part of this drama while simultaneously grateful that it isn't her, ohmygawd. The other, feet jammed in unlaced sneakers, ratty hoodie pushed back with hands stuff in the pockets, her lank hair hiding her face. Her stomach is still flat, her body childish. She responds, the cocky and careless answers she tosses off betrayed by her shuffle, the way she curls over into herself as she walks. 

The weight of the world on her shoulders.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Gripes

Two gripes, both from today (yes, it's been one of those Mondays). No, this is not the normal tone I take on this blog. Both will involve a substantial amount of cursing, for which I (sort of, kind of... ok, hardly at all) apologize. The bitch has come out to play today. Consider yourself warned.

Gripe the first.

To the asshole who has stolen and attempted to use my bank card number TWICE, would you mind just fucking off? Seriously, find yourself a really nice bathtub, fill it with some nice warm water, perhaps a touch of bubble bath for ambiance, and then grab the closest plugged in electric appliance and ride that lightening bolt right on out of my life. Once was annoying and a bit of a life lesson in changing my PIN number and using my bank card only at reputable stores. But twice though? Really? Really? Don't you have something better to do? Like hide in your parents' basement and thumb through some old dirty magazines, filthy sweatpants barely covering your paunch, grease-stained freebie D&D t-shirt sticking to your clammy underarms? Surely that is more gratifying.

I don't appreciate your attempt to steal several thousands of my hard earned dollars. Trust me, I can find lots of places to waste that money, and handing it over to you to buy the latest Playstation 3 game or stereo for your car or weed for you to smoke up is not really in the plans (although perhaps I'd consider parting with a bit of it, if you asked really nicely, for you to update your sweatpants and freebie t-shirt). Quite frankly, I'd rather use those $100 bills to wipe my daughter's ass. 

Also not appreciated? The looks I get when I'm in a store where I inevitably find out that my bank card is no longer working, the colour welling up in my cheeks as I stammer that yes, I do I have money in that account, really I'm not some useless deadbeat mother who has to use her credit card to buy her daughter some $3 wipes. Seeing the mixed look of pity and exasperation from the cashier, a story that I'm sure they've heard many times before. 

Perhaps I should see the silver lining in this dark cloud? Perhaps I should thank you for the bonding time I got to spend with my daughter as we made a massive detour to the bank to discover the problem and have my bank card replaced. We had a terrific time as she whined and screamed, trapped in her stroller, while the teller kept wandering off while supposedly dealing with my transaction. I'm sure Peanut appreciated those special moments together as much as I did. All it cost me was some of our precious time in day packed with errands, a portion of my sanity and the $10 for McDonalds that my daughter roundly deserved after being hauled all over town to sort out the problem you created. 

So yeah, thanks. By the way, if ever we should meet? I drive a black RAV-4. I'd advise you to run.


Gripe the second.

To the aggregate blog owner who just grabbed my latest post (a book review) and jammed it up on your website - the website on which you sell advertising - screw you. I know that you only got the first few lines, since I don't allow feeds to pick up my entire post. And yes, you both link back to me and reference who posted it, but bugger off. Stealing is still stealing. That part up above, that references the bank card thief and where I'd rather spend my hard earned dollars? That applies to you too, jerk. If my writing is going to earn money, I'd like to both earn and spend it myself. Now be a good little thief and go remove me from your RSS feed. 

(And no, I'm not going to link to it here. That only gives him or her - they don't even have the balls to identify themself - more page views.)


Anyone have gripes of their own they want to vent, anonymously or otherwise? 

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Book reviews: The End of East and The Outcast

(Not so) recently I had the opportunity to attend an author reception for Sadie Jones, a first time author, with a fellow blogger. While I was there, I mentioned to another attendee that I had planned on reviewing the guest of honour's book, The Outcast, together with the book The End of East, written by first-time novelist Jen Sookfong Lee, which I had also recently read. I commented that I found the two novels similar in many ways, apart from the fact that they were both first books from new female authors, but that I felt that The Outcast, to be the far superior first effort. She seemed surprised that I found them similar novels and commented that that they were quite different, but in typical fashion for me I immediately found myself flustered, lost my train of thought and floundered as I tried desperately to gather my thoughts and not sound like a complete idiot. Of course, mere minutes later I could coherently organize my arguments for my position, but the moment had passed, and I never did find the opportunity to defend my position.

Lee's novel is, loosely, the story of an Chinese immigrant family living in Vancouver's Chinatown. At a mere 243 pages, this is not a dense family epic, but rather several snapshots of the three generations of the Wong family as seen through the eyes of the not-so-dutiful daughter, Sammy Chan, who has returned home from her life in Montreal to take care of her aging mother. The story begins with the immigration of Sammy's grandfather, Seid Quan, to Vancouver's Chinatown, and his immense loneliness. It then follows the family as Seid Quan's son, Pon Man, eventually joins his father in Canada and marries, and the lives of his wife and children.

I had mixed feelings about this book. As I read the book I couldn't help but feel that Lee had taken a primer course on "powerful first novels" and "bright new voices" and had sought to put all of the elements of that type of novel into her book. Which is my verbose way of saying that the writing felt very forced at times, as though in Lee's attempt, perhaps, to write "beautiful and compelling descriptions" she loses sign of what she was describing in the first place. 
The way the drizzle stayed with her, soaked into her hair, her clothes, her sheets. It pushed itself onto her skin, huddled with her when she cried, remained cool even as she cooked at a blazing stove. Unshakeable. Like family.
 (The End of East, p. viii)

There were some parts of this book that were compelling, and the sense of loneliness and isolation shines through. I felt Lee really hit her stride when she describes Sammy's mother's (undiagnosed) postpartum depression. This passage was the portion of the book that struck me as the rawest, truest writing in the entire book:
It's like a splinter, this feeling that she hates the baby so much that she would rather reach into its face and pull out its brains than take care of it for one more day. This hatred started days ago, and she thought she could hide it, control it by ignoring it and letting it fade on its own. But then it grew, attracting all the other evil feelings she has ever had about this house, this family, this country, even her own husband.
(The End of East, p. 141)

That said, the tone of this novel is uneven at best, and the individual stories, snapshots if you will, are not connected well at all. Apart from some of the rather self-indulgent descriptions, I really felt that the single biggest failure of this novel though lies in the motivations (or lack thereof) of the daughter, Sammy. Her portions of the story are the weakest, with very little connection or explanation for her actions - actions I found inexplicable. As she is the primary narrator through which the story is told, this is a rather glaring weakness.

At first glance, Jones' novel could not appear to be more different. It is the story of Lewis Aldridge, a young boy living in post-World War II England, and the devastating consequences for his entire family after a summer accident. It is a story of secrets and cruelty and hypocrisy and, ultimately love. 

The story begins as a nineteen-year-old Lewis has just been released from jail, after spending a few years for an as-yet undisclosed crime. From there, the novel moves back in time to Lewis' childhood, his father's return from the war, and ultimately the accident that would take his mother's life. We see Lewis' life unravel as his father marries the young, flighty, and incredibly selfish Alicia.  and start the cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax. 

Entwined with Lewis' story is the story of the Aldridge's neighbours (and Lewis' father's boss), the Carmichaels. Both families have secrets, and emphasis is placed on image and appearances and social niceties at all costs. None of the characters are likable, with the possible exception of the Carmichael's daughter, Kit, on whom the novel ultimately hinges, but all are compulsively readable, as the novel rips through a cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax. (And that is not in any way reviewer-speak. It truly is a climax that lives up to the hype.)

I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but the book truly moves at a breakneck pace. Prior to writing this novel, Jones was a screenwriter, and her background is evident as the novel reads very much like a movie. In fact, there was a video trailer that was made for this book (it can be viewed here: http://www.rhgdigital2.co.uk/minisites/bookvideoawards/outcast.asp). While I generally don't like trailers for books, I watched this trailer after reading the book and found it bang on to the descriptions in the novel. It was as though the novel was written at the outset with an eye to the possibility of a movie adaptation. 

While I loved the flow of this book, I also found the writing to be well-executed and far more evocative than that of Lee's novel. For example, this passage, following a Christmas time chat between Lewis' father Gilbert, and Dicky Carmichael, his boss and neighbour, is a perfect example of the depth of understanding that Jones shows for the discrepency between exterior appearances and actions and private thoughts of her characters.
He teased out the conversation some more and wouldn't go into detail about money, and Gilbert didn't like him or the way he spoke or the way he stood there, but he took it, and he told himself how pleased he was, and gradually became pleased as the meeting drew to a close. It was a good deal and he was happy about it. He didn't want to have to look at Dicky's face any more and he wanted to take Lizzie home where she belonged and love her there. She was too good for any of them. She had her own way of looking at things. She was his and she was clever and lovely and he didn't know what she saw in him, but he was grateful.
(The Outcast, p. 36)

As I said, I found that there were similarities between the two books. Both are first novels from younger female novelists. Both books are stories of lonely, damaged people trying to find their way in the world. Both feature characters that are not inherently likable, and their sometimes unexplicable actions. However, where Jones excels at moving the story along, in drawing together multiple characters' points-of-view and forming connections between jumps in time and narrator, Lee's novel is substantially weaker in this respect leading to a disconnected, vignette feel to the nvoel. Where you get to the end of Jones' novel and feel that you have read a story, Lee's novel just, well, ends. All told, Jones' novel is the better debut, and I have high hopes for her sophomore effort. Perhaps Lee will fare better in later novels, when her tone evens out, and there is less pressure to put forth a "daring and audacious first effort."

Final grade?
The End of East by Jen Sookfong Lee - 3 out of 5 stars.
The Outcast by Sadie Jones - 4.5 out of 5 stars.

* * *

Sadly, (embarassingly) I started this review back in March. March. Where did the time go? Honestly, I was rather nervous putting this out there, as excited as I was to start reviewing books, and kept going back to perfect it. Yes, I'm a bit compulsive that way. Then moving and life intervened, and then the cat got my tongue, and then suddenly it was June. However, now the genie is out of the bottle, and I have another five books that I've completed and am ready to review. The question is, are you ready to read them? 
 

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