Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata

The Rainbow Troops is not only a fantastically written book, it also showed me that I can handle non-traditional narrative styles as long as they’re well written (for a time, I thought I could only read the ‘traditional’ style).

The Rainbow Troops follows the students at Muhammadiyah elementary school on Belitung, Indonesia. The school is at risk of closing down and the students and their two teachers must do their best to keep the school open.

That’s the main goal of the book, but the book is actually broken into three main arcs: the two trophies the students win (one for creativity and one for academics) and the fight to save the school. That said, the front few chapters are spent introducing the characters and the island they live in, as well as a few of their escapades, before they start on their quest for the first trophy.

The book is an autobiographical novel, which I’m pretty sure means “based on true events”. It’s also written a lot like a memoir, from the perspective of someone looking back on the past and telling you what happened. Ordinarily, that would be quite hard for me to read, since it’s full of opinions of the older narrator, but I found myself so entranced by the world created and the people in it that I didn’t even mind the narrative style. Just goes to show that good writing is what counts.

I do want to talk about the ending so BEWARE SPOILERS AHEAD. The book could have ended on an easy high, with them saving the school. Instead, it took a different route and showed how most of them didn’t succeed. Only Ikal, the narrator, and Kucai, their self-serving class president ever ‘made it good’.

The two geniuses in their group ended up living in poverty, their minds wasted. Another one of their friends, the decent but otherwise unimpressive Trapani, ended up in a mental hospital. Seeing how their country failed them despite the best efforts of them and their teachers was heartbreaking. While the book does go on from that crushing reveal to end on a slightly more hopeful note, I was still crushed by the ending.

END OF SPOILERS

Overall, this was a really good read. It’s not your typical feel-good story, but it’s not total pessimism either. Rather, it’s a story about how far determination and effort can go (and how far it cannot). Would totally recommend.

Monday, September 17, 2018

My Real Name is Hanna by Tara Lynn Mash

This was such an emotionally intense read, although thankfully, I knew what I was getting into when I started the book.

My Real Name is Hanna is the story of Hanna Slivka, a fourteen-year old Jewish girl living in Ukraine. Her childhood is happy, until Hitler comes. And with the Gestapo comes persecution, as their food runs low and once-friendly neighbours turn their backs. And then one day, Hanna and her family hear that Hitler plans to make their town Judenfrei - “free of Jews” - and know that they must leave their home in order to survive.

This book isn’t an adventure story. It is the story of one girl and her family trying to survive with dignity. As Hanna’s father says, “This is what those Nazis make us do, huh? Live like barbarians. But the best revenge, my Eva, is just that - to live...”

And live they do. It is not an easy experience, especially for a girl on the cusp of womanhood, but Hanna and her family do their best to hold on to their faith and culture even in the worst of times. While they are sometimes forced to break certain rules, such as eating non-kosher meat, they try their best to live in a way that gives them dignity, and that means honouring their religion and culture.

I really appreciated how this book brought out the strength of the human spirit and of friendships. Next to Hanna lives Alla, a non-Jewish person who sells pysanka, eggs decorated with traditional folk designs. These eggs hold deep meaning and even though they are not Hanna’s culture, they represent the friendship she has with Alla and the strength that Hanna gets from it.

If you want to read about a World War II story set in a less traditional location, you’ll want to pick this up. It’s got heart and it’s got character, and though it is dark, it is also uplifting.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Mrs McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie

Some time ago, I was browsing a thread on Unresolved Mysteries when this book was mentioned. Someone said that Christie was inspired by Hawley Harvey Crippen’s case for this book and I decided to check it out. Turns out I can’t find any corroborating evidence for the Christie-inspiration claim, but there is definitely a resemblance.

In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Inspector Spence comes to Poirot to ask for his help. An apparently guilty man (whose case Inspector Spence helped build) is about to hang but the good Inspector has his doubts. Since Poirot has nothing better to do, he decides to investigate the death of Mrs. McGinty.

If you’re wondering, the Crippen’s case (or a case remarkably like it) is one of the several sensational crimes that serve as a possible motive for the murder. There are differences, but the whole “husband murders wife, leaves behind corpse and flees with governess-mistress” part is the same (although Christie probably didn’t know that the ‘corpse’ found in Crippen’s house has been identified as male).

Despite the grim inspiration, I found this to be a classic Poirot mystery and lots of fun. The writer Ariadne Oliver appears here and between her muses on authorship and Poirot’s suffering stomach, there is a fair amount of wry humour. The plot also moves along at a good pace and I found that I reached the end of the story in no time at all.

Fans of Christie (like me!) or Golden Age mysteries will definitely enjoy this book! While it isn’t set in Poirot’s usual setting, seeing him try to navigate a small village that doesn’t know him added a new layer of humour to this book.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Village School by Miss Read

It's been a bit stressful at work lately, since we're working towards our launch. And when I'm stressed, I tend to want comfort reads. And while I'm not sure how I heard of Village School, but this is definitely a comfort read!

Village School follows the only school of the village of Fairacre as it goes about the school year. While this is supposed to be a novel, it reads very much like a biography of the school and its headmistress. New students enter, a teacher leaves, they go through various village events, and so on. Life is placid (although there is some small drama) and on the whole, very cozy.

While there isn't any actual plot, I love this book. The entire village came to life, not just Miss Read and her students. While not everyone is pleasant (I would not like to meet the Mrs Pringle) and some are have disconcertingly dark problems (Joseph's alcoholic father for example), the book does manage to remain rather light. Although Miss Read talks about the challenges of teaching in a rural village, with its lack of resources and primitive plumbing, she also talks about the children growing up among nature, of games played in a field with a cow, and how trips to the beach is an adventure for everyone.

I don't think a village like this exists anymore. For better or for worse, there is the internet, television, and modern plumbing (the last thing is definitely for the best). But I really enjoyed this book and I am so glad that this is a series because I will definitely be reading more.