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A charming, if rather paint-by-numbers, lesbian romance story between a Palestinian Christian and a British Muslim. The plot was terribly predictable, so there was very little suspense to it, and the characters were rather puppet-like - one felt they'd been pushed into the appropriate positions and instructed, 'now, advance the plot'. The author is a screenwriter by trade, and it shows: in the formulaic plot, the cardboard characters, the frequent point-of-view changes - and the absolutely luscious scene-setting. Seriously, I would like to see the film of this, because it sounds gorgeous: Jordan, London, Oxford, all evoked with a masterly touch; and I shouldn't be surprised if the film works a lot better than the book in putting the three dimensions across. Frustrating in parts - I would have loved it to have gone a little deeper into the clash of culture - but a nice enough read on the whole.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10402240
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This is very obviously a school textbook, and I found it interesting to see how my response adapted to fit this, how I read it in a different way. It took me back to the days when reading - any sort of reading, but fiction in particular - was by far the most interesting thing that I was ever 'supposed' to be doing. What I mean, I suppose, is that I set out to enjoy this.

And I did. My main gripe is that all the stories are so short - almost without exception, I wanted to know more. I can at least seek out Ice Candy Man, an excerpt of which is included here, but the rest - so tantalising! There's a real mix - from the cynical and satirical to the endearingly frivolous to the harrowingly realistic - a breakneck-speed, vivid, colourful tour of the literature of Pakistan.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10073713
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I never really got into this, unfortunately. It was partly the purple prose; partly the fact that 'The Girl' was never named so I never felt I could relate to her (this was possibly meant to be the point, but it made for a dull read). 'I don't care what happens to these people', indeed. Possibly I'm just not in the right mood at the moment.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10364638
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A detective story set in Stalin's Russia, centred on the fate of the Romanovs. I have to admit that this didn't do much for me - it was OK, but I found the actual history in the back far more interesting than the story. The general air of Tsariolatry, while in character for the main character, felt rather dismissive of the valid concerns of the Russian people, and put me off. I also found the extensive flashback sections in italic type difficult to read - physically, I mean, not emotionally.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10482021/
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I nearly gave up on this half way through the prologue, fearing that I might die of a surfeit of adjectives. Happily, it improved massively once the actual plot started, and ended up very readable. A depressing examination of the tensions between class and gender within and between two Indian households, though ending with its own sort of hope.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10380304
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I picked this book up from the OBCZ at the Camel and Artichoke with the express intention of reading it and putting it into the Asia bookbox. So I did just that. It is set largely in Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was at the time this book begins), from the seventies through to 2005, and follows the fortunes of one family, focusing largely on Alice, the granddaughter. While the Fonsekas, Alice's maternal family, are Singhalese, her father is Tamil, and the mixed marriage causes tensions, to say the least. The narrative follows Alice as she moves to London with her parents and grows up to become an artist.

Most memorable about this book is the gorgeously vivid description, particularly of the landscapes of Sri Lanka. Roma Tearne is an artist as well as an author, and it shows not only in the sympathy with which she portrays Alice's experience, but also in the colourful imagery.

I was a little troubled by the way the book is framed (at the beginning and end) in white male experience, and do not feel that it would have lost much without the most part of the prologue and the epilogue. I was much more interested in Alice's career as an artist than I was in what men thought of her, and would have liked to see more of this.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/9772189
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The autobiography of a missionary nun in Thailand. I was expecting this to be terrible in all sorts of ways, based on the cover art and the choice of 'Siam' over 'Thailand' in the title - not to mention the tagline 'She faced the cruelty and squalor of a backward land with courage and devotion torn between obedience to her vows and the convictions of her heart' - but actually found myself drawn in by an honest and sympathetic account of vocation and charity. This makes sense, I suppose: the author had actually been there, and the copywriter hadn't.

In actual fact, Lightwood describes the challenges she faced with humanity and humour, be they poisonous frogs in the bathroom or learning the language. She rarely generalises about the people she works with, and I certainly came away with the impression that the overarching problem is not culture but poverty. She treats other religions with respect.

Teresa Lightwood gives a whistle-stop tour of her life, touching lightly on the parts that are less relevant to the story of her work in the Far East, but giving just enough background context. Particularly in the early chapters, where the realities of convent life were explored, I could not help remembering Karen Armstrong's 'Through The Narrow Gate' - though Lightwood seems to have found the experience less oppressive than Armstrong.

All in all, I'm glad I didn't pass this one on without reading it. It's good to be surprised sometimes.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10065535
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These days I learn most of my history from novels, but perhaps that's not such a bad thing. At least novelists will admit that they made bits up, or left things out because they didn't fit. More to the point, one learns that there is something to learn about a time or place one hadn't really thought about. Such is the case with Lisa See, as much with Shanghai Girls as with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I read last year.

See deals here with what seems to be a favourite theme: the changes of a relationship between two women. In fact, if one leaves time and place out of it, the plot is basically that of Snow Flower: love, hate, deception, loyalty, and one's inability to know oneself without the help of those one knows. However, time and place are vital, because the Shanghai girls are physically resident in the city of the title for only a few chapters; the rest of the novel is a story of escape, travel, immigration and integration in America, and it's this that makes it fascinating. I knew a little bit about the Chinese American experience in the mid twentieth century from reading the Wikipedia article on Anna May Wong; the rest was all new, and more than compensates for the duplicate plot.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/8129030
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A much easier read than I was expecting, though at the same time much harder to categorise than I'd first thought. Autobiography, certainly, but along with the personal narrative comes a courteous exposition of the historical background and religious and cultural traditions, for context, and a fair bit of politics, the whole being suffused with the awareness of faith. But the whole makes for a balanced, respectful and deeply personal story. It conveys a lot of baggage gracefully and efficiently. A tale well-told - the story of the Dalai Lama's escape with his family and entourage was like something out of John Buchan. The whole book is a moving appeal for Tibet; it is as much a portrait of the background as it is a self-portrait.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10065724
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This has been on my conscience for years - I got it as a review copy from Penguin when they were doing a giveaway to bloggers, and failed to review it. Here I make some attempt, however belatedly, to do so.

This is part of the Penguin Epics series, a modern prose version by R. K. Narayan, and only a fraction of the whole story of Rama and Sita. Prose or no prose, the epic mood is very strong, the sense that here is a story that has been told for generations and generations, and, indeed, as the afterword points out, is still being told. The characters are engaging and larger than life; the settings vividly described. Here is a single episode of a long, long story, embellished with digressions and decoration, picked out and presented in 200 odd pages.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/8042359
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A book about being a geisha written by a geisha - the reality is, it seems a lot more interesting and a lot less titillating than one would imagine from having read the blurbs on books about being a geisha written by people who aren't geishas. For a start, the word 'geisha' (artist) itself isn't used much; Iwasaki prfers 'geiko' (woman of art) or 'maiko' (woman of dance), according to age.

And actually, this is as much about dance as it is about anything, dance and the dancer's passion for her work, her frustration with a rigid system, and a detailed (but not heavy-handed) description of the industry in general. (Because it is an industry, supporting probably thousands of people.) I found it absolutely fascinating. I couldn't help comparing it to Shanghai Tango, which I read a while back; both deal honestly with the tension between innovation and tradition, not to mention the sheer hard work.

Iwasaki addresses with commendable restraint the (erroneous) assumption that geisha are sex workers, highlighting the areas where confusion may arise, but firmly rebuffing the notion that a necessarily equals b. I would likely have been much more vehement about it.

Oh yes, and I was much amused by which member of the British Royal Family evoked the most authorial approval. You wouldn't have thought it, would you?

One minor niggle: I really could have done with a glossary. Iwasaki is very good at defining her terms when they first come up, but I tend to find that once isn't enough for me, and I kept having to flip back to where I thought the term had been introduced, only to find that I'd misremembered.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/10065542
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This was very good. I think I need to read it again, because it felt a bit sidetracked towards the end, and I'm not sure whether it was me or the book. Probably me, leaving a week between the first three quarters and the last quarter. Interesting examination of caste, family life, culture clash, decline and fall. And I very much wanted to know what happened next. And after that.

It struck me very forcibly how good an artist one has to be in order to break the rules, as Arundhati Roy does. How well she evokes the children's perspective.

Very good book.
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Still choosing books by cover, I'm afraid - this is to go in the Colours of the Rainbow exchange. No prizes for guessing which colour. Anyway, I picked it up in a bargain bookshop on the Euston Road and found it well worth the read. It's the story of three people who meet in India - Tibetan, Australian and Scottish, and the threads that bind them. I thought it dealt respectfully with the Bhopal gas disaster (a major theme) and with the intersections of cultures and faiths. Also women's work, and motherhood. A satisfyingly bittersweet ending - no easy answers. Characters consistent throughout.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/journal/9968432

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