Author Archives: Marion

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister – Gregory Maguire

Blurb from Amazon: We have all heard the story of Cinderella, the beautiful child cast out to slave amongst the ashes. But what of her stepsisters, the homely pair exiled into ignominy by the fame of their lovely sibling? What fate befell those untouched by beauty … and what curses accompanied Cinderella’s looks?

Set against the backdrop of seventeenth-century Holland, CONFESSIONS OF AN UGLY STEPSISTER tells the story of Iris, an unlikely heroine who is swept from the lowly streets of Haarlem to a strange world of wealth, artifice, and ambition. Iris’s path becomes intertwined with that of Clara, the mysterious and unnaturally beautiful girl destined to become her sister. While Clara retreats to the cinders of the family hearth, Iris seeks out the shadowy secrets of her new household – and the treacherous truth of her former life.

Review: I was puzzled by the parallel between this novel and the tale of Cinderella at first. Not that it’s not apparent –there are lots of pointers right from the start – but because it didn’t really seem necessary… What I was expecting was a kind of ‘pastiche’ of the centuries’ old tale, a novel holding up mainly because of that parallel. But that’s not what I got. I got much better.

With it’s historical setting, intriguing story-line and subtle characters Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a fascinating read. We kind of know how it’s going to end of course, but that’s not what’s most important… what’s important isn’t who’s going to end with whom, but how they will get there. And who everyone really is. Because the fairly stereotyped characters we are introduced to at first might very quickly change faces.

Nothing is at it seems, not least because none of them really want to face the truths. And that’s where Cinderella comes in really: one more way to dress up the stark truth a little, make it glimmer, transform it in an exciting adventure. Cinderella isn’t the foundation of the novel, it’s the narrator’s way of relating to her own story, a much darker, real one.

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Lipstick and Loopholes in Tehran by Nahal Tajadod


Blurb from Amazon: A wry and humorous account of the author’s quest to get her Iranian passport renewed. She embarks on a bizarre and circuitous journey, meeting a colourful cast of characters along the way: two photographers who specialise in Islamic portraits, a forensic surgeon who trades in human organs, a madam who wants to send prostitutes to Dubai and a grandmother who offers a live chicken to an implacable official. LIPSTICK AND LOOPHOLES IN TEHRAN is a fascinating look at the constraints and contradictions of contemporary life in Tehran from the author’s unique standpoint of being both a native of Iran and a foreigner.

The view this book gives us of Iran certainly isn’t the one we typically get in the news, but it does remind me of some of the more ludicrous parts of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series. It introduces us to the behind the scenes’ face of Iran so to speak; the story behind the islamically correct photo on the narrator’s passport for example: how the perfectly covering headscarf was adjusted by the male photographer she had met 5 minutes before, how that same photographer graciously offers makeup remover to his clients prior to the photo, and emergency mascara and lipstick afterwards… and how the final product goes through photoshop before being delivered. As we tag along on the author’s quest for a new passport we witness the absurdity of daily life under Iran’s Islamic regime. We also get a sense of the narrator’s difficult position, hiding her French passport and nationality from the authorities, leveraging her French connections to impress her interlocutors, and attempting to explain the Iranian system to her French husband, and ultimately feeling like a complete stranger in her native country, where her best friend acts as her guide.

So there is a lot to be learnt from this novel, but despite the above I found it very disappointing. For one thing, the passport quest is long winded and gets rather repetitive, as do the numerous descriptions of the tarof, the tradition by which Iranians will always refuse payment/ gifts/ invitations at first. But mostly I just couldn’t sympathise with the main character. She seemed to always be whining, fainting, acting against her better judgement and neglecting her daughter. Not that I expect or want book characters to be all nice and moral, but in this case she just got on my nerves.

I never thought that not ‘clicking’ with the main characters of a book could spoil it, but unfortunately it seems it does.

EDIT: This novel isn’t available in english yet (I read the original, french version) but according to Amazon it will be soon.

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Jesse’s Girl by Gary Morgenstein

Jesse's Girl

Blurb from Amazon:

The story opens as a jarring phone wakes lifelong Brooklynite and widowed father Teddy Mentor well after midnight. It’s the Montana wilderness program saying that his 16-year-old adopted son has run away – and they haven’t a clue where he’s gone. Only two weeks ago, Jesse had been taken to the program by escorts to deal with substance abuse problems. Jeopardizing his flagging PR job in New York, Mentor rushes across the country to find Jesse, who is off on his own quest: to find Theresa, the sister he’s never known. When Teddy finally discovers Jesse at a bus stop in Illinois, he is torn between sending him back or joining his son on a journey to find this girl in Kentucky. But he decides to go and they become embroiled in a grisly crime when Theresa’s abusive husband Beau attacks her – Jesse stabs the big beast of a man, leaving him for dead.

My review:

Jesse’s Girl is a very dark, fast paced thriller which despite some weaknesses kept me hooked from start to finish. It portrays middle aged Teddy who is struggling to keep his son, and himself, afloat after the death of his wife: teenage Jesse has gone wild as he sinks deeper and deeper into drugs and searches for his biological family, and his father is overwhelmed by his position as a single parent.

I was slightly worried as I started this that it would be too much of a sentimental drama on the issues of addiction and adoption… Both difficult themes to write about. But it is in fact a captivating novel which shows us the characters’ struggles rather than over analysing them. Teddy and Jesse’s conflictual relationship in particular, is shown rather than discussed. The reasons behind Jesse’s family search, Teddy’s complicated feelings over his dead wife, Theresa’s motivations… are all implied rather than forced upon the reader.

This means that all is not resolved by the end of the book, some developments remain partly unexplained, some characters are still somewhat a mystery… But it is up to each reader, as in real life, to interpret the facts in his own way.

All the characters are nicely shaded and often intriguing. Theresa in particular, at first sight a bit of a Mary-Sue, evolves in a wonderful character. Even Beau, a truly despicable villain, is portrayed with just the right sliver of feelings which, whilst far from enough to redeem him, make him more human in the reader’s eyes.

Unfortunately the style is sometimes inconsistent, lapsing in cheesy comments which don’t really fit in with the general atmosphere of the book. And the reading is slightly impaired by some typos and a lot of swearing. I’m sure that this last point would depend on each reader’s sensibility and a limited amount of it does serve the atmosphere and fit the characters, but at some points I just felt it was too much.

Overall though, Jesse’s Girl remains a gripping novel which kept me on the edge of my seat over the few days it took me to finish it… More so than any other book I read recently!

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Angelina’s Children by Alice Ferney


Blurb from Amazon:

‘Few gypsies want to be seen as poor, although many are. Such was the case with old Angelina’s sons, who possessed nothing other than their caravan and their gypsy blood. But it was young blood that coursed through their veins, a dark and vital flow that attracted women and fathered numberless children. And, like their mother, who had known the era of horses and caravans, they spat upon the very thought that they might be pitied.’ So begins the story of a tribe exiled to the outskirts of the city, outlawed and ostracized by society. Esther, a young librarian from the town, wants to teach Angelina’s grandchildren to read. She runs into a wall of suspicion but eventually manages to tame the children and gain Angelina’s confidence. Dealing with the widow’s five sons is another matter.

My review:

“Grace and Destitution” could be the translation of the original title of this short novel. Set in France it portrays a group of Gypsies who have set up camp on an abandoned piece of wasteland, on the outskirts of a city. “Grace and Destitution”: Angelina and her children in a nutshell.

From stereotypes to the harsh reality Alice Ferney delves into the lives, culture and identities of this Gypsy clan who despite “not having left the French soil since more than 400 years” still lives there as complete strangers to the country. The author shows them to truly be a clan, a culture of its own, both ostracized by the ‘real’ French and refusing to become Gadgés or be approached by them. Proud, enduring, free spirited, beautiful, they maintain their grace in the face of utter destitution: living in half broken caravans wherever they manage to settle without being immediately expelled. With a deep respect for family ties, the elders and ‘destiny’ they love fiercely, unconditionally, sometimes violently.

They do not let themselves be approached easily and refuse the standard way of living and administrative rules which mean nothing to them: when the registration official declares that ‘Djumbo’ isn’t an appropriate name for their last born they turn around and return home without a birth certificate. In fact their contacts with the exterior world seem to be virtually inexistent.

Those they do have are harsh, filled with intolerance and rejection. From the hospital to the school and the town hall Angelina’s family is rejected everywhere, its very existence denied. Without jobs, proper lodging, education or minimum wages they only represent for the authorities and neighbours undesirable squatters.

Their life is hard, down to earth, close to the fire, ground, blood and the seasons… Even in the middle of a wasteland plot, amidst dirt, shards of glass and improbable fuel for the fire such as smashed car seats. Their daily life seems to follow closely the seasons: the harsh winter from which all don’t always come out, followed by spring, a renewed sense of hope, unexpected pregnancies and the promises of better days to come.

In this environment the mothers are the life keepers, those who scrape up meals and fetch water from the far away tap, the feeders, protectors and minders of the children. They keep going day after day in the face of adversity, sustained by their duties. Without jobs the fathers seem lost, wander aimlessly throughout the day, occasionally tinkering with more or less legal odd jobs, trying to keep up appearances.

Arriving in the middle of this Esther, a ‘Gadgé’ by all means, slowly gets closer to the clan, penetrates it, is accepted by Angelina, the children and the parents… Through the books she brings with her and the stories she tells she slowly builds up trust and friendship. Indeed stories prove to be a real bridge: those she reads to the gipsy children are the same she tells her boys and my mother told me when I was a kid.

All in all this is a beautiful little book, both realist and with a poetic quality in the way it is written, which shows an unacceptable, hard to hear but unfortunately true reality. It is an appeal to open our eyes and reach out in whatever small way, to those around us. Indeed many volunteers from the ATD Quart Monde organisation reach out every week to underprivileged children with a box of books, in the very same way Esther does in Angelina’s Children.

It is also a testimony to the universality of stories. From Babar’s adventures to Andersen’s tales they prove once more to be universal, a fact which has always amazed me. Think of it: What is it that unites children (and adults) around the world and across cultures to enjoy tales of Babar or Harry Potter ? What common dreams do they feed?

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