Monday, 31 July 2017

Review: 'The Zombie Stories of H.P. Lovecraft' by H.P. Lovecraft

Despite my love for the occult and the horrifying, I have managed to spend twenty-three years on this planet without reading a single Lovecraftian word. I know, it's not an accomplishment to be very proud of but alas, such is my life. However, thanks to Dover Publications I have rectified this grievous error and am now officially on the path of becoming slightly obsessed with Lovecraft and his world. Thanks to Dove Publications and Netgalley for providing me with an edition of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 16/09/2015
Publisher: Dover Publications
Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and other experts on horror fiction deem H. P. Lovecraft the master teller of weird tales. These six chilling stories ― all published between 1921 and 1933 ― offer compelling journeys into the land of the undead. 
The collection begins with "The Outsider," the tale of a recluse whose overwhelming loneliness emboldens him to seek out human contact. Subsequent stories include "Herbert West―Reanimator," written as a satire of Frankenstein and used as the source for a popular horror film; "In the Vault," in which an undertaker experiences supernatural revenge; "Cool Air," an account of a doctor's fanatical obsession with defying death; and "Pickman's Model," focusing on an artist's gallery of nightmares. "The Thing on the Doorstep" concludes the compilation with the compelling tale of a man whose body is preyed upon by a spirit that refuses to die.
Aah, what is better than being frightened out of your mind while actually sitting cosily on your own sofa? That is exactly the experience that The Zombie Stories of H.P. Lovecraft will give you! As I said above, I never read any H.P. Lovecraft until now. I had, of course, heard of him and of something called Cthulhu but I wasn't entirely sure what it was all about. Reading The Zombie Stories of H.P. Lovecraft became another one of those 'smacking myself in the face' moments as I realised I could have been reading and enjoying Lovecraft all along. For me, his stories completely live up to his hype. He crafts a world so dark and terrifying, and yet so human and real, that it's almost impossible that he all made it up himself. Like the best fiction, Lovecraft takes you out of your own world so soundly that you bring some of it back with you when you return to reality.

The Zombie Stories of H.P. Lovecraft features six stories: 'The Outsider;, 'Herbert West - Reanimator', 'In the Vault', 'Cool Air', 'Pickman's Model' and 'The Thing on the Doorstep'. The latter, 'The Thing on the Doorstep' is probably my favourite since it actually features a female character, but is also the one that most deeply delves into the mystical and occult aspects of Lovecraft's world. I kept looking up places and names only to realise that they were all his creation. All these stories share the common theme of being "zombie stories", more on that below, so their twist doesn't necessarily come with a lot of surprise. As such, extra credit is due to Lovecraft that even when knowing the nature of his tale, it can still terrify and surprise you. Nowadays a lot of horror and thriller films are very "realistic", they try to scare you with things that are a part of your every day life and that you can grasp, even if they veer into the supernatural. For Lovecraft, horror is cosmic, in the sense that the human mind cannot grasp life and that the true meaning of the universe is alien to us. As such, his protagonists either venture into dark places and return utterly changed or hold so hard to their idea of reality that they lose their own sanity. And this, in my eyes, is was scarier than what the cinema offers us nowadays because it is also way more enticing.

Lovecraft's writing really doesn't need to be praised by me but I'm going to do it anyway. He really knows how to suck you into a story straightaway, his first person narration often addressing the reader head on as if you were having a conversation with his protagonist. Lovecraft's stories are that stunning modern Gothic style which takes Poe's morbidity and combines it with the dramatics of Ann Radcliffe's The Monk and the spirituality of mystical medieval texts. His language is effervescent in a way that feels smooth and rich, and you're always aware that there is so much more he could tell you than just this story. I do have to say I'm not entirely pleased with the title of this collection. Perhaps it is because I have grown up with a popular culture in which zombies abound, whether it's in a gruesome TV show or a romcom, but Lovecraft's creations feel very different to me. The creatures in 'Herbert West - Reanimator' are the only ones who truly meet the 'created by a medical experiment gone horribly wrong'-bar, and, as the blurb above says, it's more of a response to Frankenstein than anything else. Although I won't deny modern day representations of zombies have found their inspiration in Lovecraft, I feel like the term doesn't apply to his creatures. Call me particular, but I also get upset when people call Frankenstein's Creature a monster. This will have to be another pet peeve of mine.Title aside, however, this is a delightfully horrific collection of tales that will thrill any horror fan!

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

Whether you read a story at a time or, like me, become so fascinated you can't put the book down, The Zombie Stories of H.P.Lovecraft are a must read for any horror fan. I'd especially recommend it if you're also new to Lovecraft since it gives you a great taste of his style without plunging you too deeply into his world.

Review: 'Piglettes' by Clémentine Beauvais

PiglettesIt's not often that a book really lives up to its hype for me, but Piglettes is an exception to that rule. As far as YA novels go, I usually reach for the ones set in far off mystical lands or that adapt fairy tales and legends. Occasionally a contemporary romance slips in, but, while they do entertain me, they tend to bore me as well. So I was slightly apprehensive about starting Piglettes. Would I enjoy it as much as I was promised? Turns out that yes, I would be. Beauvais utterly charmed me.Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 06/07/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
A wickedly funny and life-affirming coming-of-age roadtrip story - winner of France's biggest prize for teen and YA fiction 
Mireille, Astrid and Hakima have just been voted the three ugliest girls in school by their classmates on Facebook. But does that mean they're going to sit around crying about it?... 
Well, maybe a little, but not for long! Climbing onto their bikes, the friends set off on a summer roadtrip to Paris. The girls will find fame, friendship and happiness on their journey, and still have time to eat a mountain of food (and drink the odd glass of wine) along the way. But will they really be able to leave all their troubles behind? 
Piglettes is a hilarious, beautiful and uplifting story of three girls who are determined not to let online bullying get them down.
Many books try to discuss the crushing weight of expectations on young girls, but not many do it with as much wit and heart as Beauvais does in Piglettes. Three girls find themselves crowned the top three "pigs" in their school for being ugly/fat/fill in any pejorative you can think off. Yet, unexpectedly, this ends up bringing these three girls together in a way that is unlike what I've read before. Piglettes strikes me as truly different from other YA novels in that it doesn't set out to get revenge on bullies or change these girls until they are accepted. Throughout the novel Beauvais makes it clear that although the girls are getting praise for their actions, there are also those who try and find any and every reason to bring them down, to criticise them or use their story for their own gain. So although their world doesn't change, Mireille, Astrid and Hakima do, and that is where the true brilliance of this novel lies. Yes, the way our world treats teenage girls and women needs to change, but just because it's doing so slowly doesn't mean we can't still grow and rise. Piglettes will fill you with a happiness and cheer that makes facing any challenge possible.

In Mireille Beauvais creates a stunning protagonist. Although the novel is about all three girls, it is really Mireille's perspective we get throughout. Her thoughts about herself, her friends, her family and the world are exactly those of a teenager, but Beauvais manages to avoid making her into a cliche. Perhaps no 15-year old is quite that witty or loquacious, but it is fitting. All three girls grow and mature throughout their journey but Beauvais manages to avoid the traps of the genre by not romanticising them. Mireille and Beauvais see those traps and then circumvent them masterfully. I was very intrigued by the characters of Hakima and Kader, the former who finds herself inclueded in the Pig Pageant in part due to her skin colour. Their stories are both drastically different and, in some ways, similar to those of Astrid and Mireille and one of my favourite parts of the story is the growing understanding these characters have of each other.

Clémentine Beauvais's writing throughout the novel is pithy, witty and emotive. The book is both light and heavy at the same time, a balance that is very difficult to achieve. Also, there is a meta-quality to the novel, with Mireille frequently addressing the reader and their potential expectations from her story. This allows Mireille to claim the story as hers in a way I enjoyed very much. Beauvais divides her book into three parts which function very neatly as the three acts in any play. There's the set-up, the juicy middle and the climax, each with its own resonance. Beauvais doesn't allow any too lofty morals or "lessons" to overshadow the fun of her book, but they are there and reveal themselves at the right time. Piglettes is definitely a modern novel. Beauvais intersperses her narrative with Tweets and newspaper articles as the girls travel to Paris, adding another dimension to her story. In the end, it is not the world that has changed but the girls who have grown. They realise that the goals they set for themselves at the beginning are perhaps not what they truly want, that people change, or don't, and that not everything is always as it seems. I was both surprised and impressed by the ending of this novel, which is what set it truly apart for me from other YA coming-of-age novels!

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored Piglettes and its quick wit and heartfelt emotions. It's both funny and touching, both true and outlandish enough to change how you look at things. I will definitely be looking for more of Beauvais' work in the future. I'd recommend this to fans of YA and coming-of-age novels.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Review: 'A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45' by Astrid Lindgren, trans. by Sarah Death

For a period during my childhood Pipp Longstockings, or, as I knew her, Pippi Langstrumpf, was who I wanted to be. Fearless and free, with an imagination to match her will, she was a wonder to behold. Astrid Lindgren also gifted me Michel aus LönnebergaMio, mein MioWir Kinder aus Bullerbü and Ronja Räubertochter. It actually wasn't until writing this review that I realised just how much Astrid Lindgren influenced my childhood through her magical works. Especially Mio, mein Mio became a quick favourite, while the TV adaptation of Michel aus Lönneberga were a Christmas staple. So when I saw that this author of my childhood had kept a diary during the Second World War I knew I wanted to read it. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 27/10/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Press

God help our poor planet in the grip of this madness'
As one of the world's most famous children's writers, Astrid Lindgren championed the qualities of courage, hope, love and resistance; and her preoccupation with these qualities was already in evidence in the diaries she kept during the Second World War, long before she achieved her fame. Her diary, published now for the first time in English, provides a fascinating insight into a Europe poisoned by fascism, racism and violence, from the point of view of not only an employee of the Swedish Mail Censorship Office, but also a wife, mother and budding writer living in a formally neutral country.
In them, she asks questions which are as keenly and distressingly important today as they were in 1939-45: What is Good, what is Evil? What do we do, when jingoism and racism determine the thoughts and actions of humans? How can we, as individuals, take a stand against such malevolent forces?
Alongside the day's political events, Lindgren's intelligent and perspective diaries include charming and moving descriptions of her domestic life, as well as of her first writing attempts: it was during this terrible period that she composed Pippi Longstocking, one of the most famous, enduring and widely translated children's books of the twentieth century.
I went into A World Gone Mad with the romantic images of Lindgren's books in my head, but these quickly evaporated as the reality of what she was writing about sank in. Lindgren wrote these diaries in the relative safety of neutral Sweden, where the threat of war was constantly present but where it never became an actuality. As such, there is a very strange quality to A World Gone Mad, especially if, like me, you're not very knowledgeable of Scandinavian WWII history. I constantly expected "the war" to break out, for something terrible to happen, and perhaps this is the perfect response because that is exactly what Lindgren must have felt for the 6 years that these diaries span. Consistently throughout the years she shares her disbelief that they're still living peacefully, her guilt over the feasts they have at Christmas and Easter while countless of people are starving across Europe. In a way it is very affecting because, living as I currently do, I feel a constant awareness of the ease of my life in comparison to many people in Africa, the Middle East and even Asia. As such, A World Gone Mad is a very relevant read.

A World Gone Mad is not an outsider's perspective, but Lindgren is conscious that she is able to write about her mad world from a certain remove and she takes her job of chronicling the events around her very seriously. From the beginning her entries are enriched by paper clippings, sadly not transcribed into the book itself (at least in my edition), and she does her best to capture each and every event. Her focus is predominantly on Scandinavia, but Lindgren uses her diary to ponder crucial questions. She writes with a sensibility about the suffering of Norway, the horror of carpet bombing in both England and Germany, and the seeming futility of hoping for an end to war. Her work at the Swedish Mail Censorship Office gave her an extra insight into the suffering of many and she frequently risked her job by describing and transcribing what she read in these letters. It adds an extra resonance to A World Gone Mad that I appreciated. Aside from writing about the war we also get an insight into Lindgren's personal life, her worries about her children ranging from the usual, grades and illnesses, to the worrying, her daughter fearing for her mother's safety.The downside of reading diaries is that one can become too fascinated by someone else's life, wanting to know more and despairing when the writer leaves something out. For example, a personal tragedy occurs in 1944 which Lindgren doesn't go into and had me furiously Googling for answers. I'm still in the dark about what she described as a 'landslide [that] has engulfed my existence and left me alone and shivering'.

Something I always enjoy about reading diaries, however, is that moment when you suddenly feel a very strong connection with someone you never thought you'd have something in common with. I had one of those moments during A World Gone Mad when Lindgren wrote the following:
'Recently I've been reading in Grimsberg's history of the world about ancient Rome and all the bloodbaths and atrocities, proscriptions and wars of conquest. Reading the papers and coming across the same geographical names, one simply despairs at how little humanity has learnt in the intervening centuries.'
I had this exact same thought while reading Where the Iron Crosses Grow last week. Somehow we keep returning to the same places, the same events, slightly different each time and yet symptomatic of the same human weaknesses. But in the same vein, we also keep wondering, thinking and resisting in our own way and thereby connect to people of the past, as Lindgren and I did.

There is a reason Lindgren has been so central to so many childhoods and that was her brilliant writing. In A World Gone Mad we get to see another side of her, fastidious and detailed, but also full of emotions. She set out purposefully to write 'war diaries', clearly intent on capturing the events she knows will shape humanity, and she does so with fervour. While she recounts the events of weeks of war she both gives the reader a history lesson but also gives them a unique insight into WWII. Whether it is her hoping that Christmas in 1939 will be the last Christmas at war, or her precise noting down of everything they eat and gift each other throughout the years, the reader gets a real sense of what life in Sweden was like during the war. There is the tiredness of noting down another battle in a far off place, the desire to help neighbouring countries that are suffering and moments of joy in the midst of despair. In a way this diary makes the war feel more real than an in-depth history book ever could.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

A World Gone Mad gives an amazing insight into not just Lindgren's mind, but also into the Second World War. Lindgren approached these diaries with a serious dedication that becomes infectious. You'll become just as desirous for the war to end as Lindgren, but also as engrossed with the events as she is. I'd recommend this to those interested in WWII and war diaries in general.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Friday Friyay: Book Beginnings and Friday 56

The Golden HouseIt's Friday everybody! Another week gone by, I'm still on sick leave at home but at least I've got an eye patch so I can catch up on all of the reading that work has made me miss out on. So, there is a silver lining. Today it's time for another typical Friday post with two of my favourite memes: Book Beginnings and Friday 56, hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader and Freda at Freda's Voice respectively. Please do travel over to their blogs and join in on the blog hopping fun. For this week's BB and F56 I'm using a book I just finished a few days ago, The Golden House by Salman Rushdie.

When powerful real-estate tycoon Nero Golden immigrates to the States under mysterious circumstances, he and his three adult children assume new identities, taking 'Roman' names, and move into a grand mansion in downtown Manhattan. Arriving shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, he and his sons, each extraordinary in his own right, quickly establish themselves at the apex of New York society.
The story of the powerful Golden family is told from the point of view of their Manhattanite neighbour and confidant, René, an aspiring filmmaker who finds in the Goldens the perfect subject. René chronicles the undoing of the house of Golden: the high life of money, of art and fashion, a sibling quarrel, an unexpected metamorphosis, the arrival of a beautiful woman, betrayal and murder, and far away, in their abandoned homeland, some decent intelligence work.
Invoking literature, pop culture, and the cinema, Rushdie spins the story of the American zeitgeist over the last eight years, hitting every beat: the rise of the birther movement, the Tea Party, Gamergate and identity politics; the backlash against political correctness; the ascendency of the superhero movie, and, of course, the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair.
In a new world order of alternative truths, Salman Rushdie has written the ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies. A brilliant, heartbreaking realist novel that is not only uncannily prescient but shows one of the world’s greatest storytellers working at the height of his powers.
Whereas I've struggled with his work before, this novel really worked for me. I read it in a day and am still thinking about it! S, without any further ado, here we go!
Whereas I've struggled with some of Rushdie's books before, this novel really worked for me. Something clicked and I read it in a day. It's really the kind of novel that lingers in your mind for a long time. But, without any further ado, let's get to the business of the day!

BB:
'On the day of the new president's inauguration, when we worried that eh might be murdered as he walked hand in hand with his exceptional wife among the cheering crowd, and when so many of us were close to economic ruin in the aftermath of the bursting of the mortgage bubble, and when Isis was still an Egyptian mother-goddess, an uncrowned seventy-something king from a faraway country arrived in New York City with his three motherless sons to take possession of the palace of his exile, behaving as if nothing was wrong with the country or the world or his own story.' 1%
One hell of an opening line, no? Once I read this sentence I realised what kind of novel I was about to read, one steeped in today, one tightly embroiled with the current events of the last decade or so, and one with an intricately woven story. I wasn't wrong.



F56:
'I felt like  a fool - worse than a fool, like an errant child, guilty of a great naughtiness and fearing adult retribution - and there was nobody to talk to. For the first time in my life I felt some appreciation for the Catholic device of the confessional and the forgiveness of Hod that followed it.' 56%
It was so difficult to find a right teaser for this one because everything looked like a spoiler to me in this passage. But this one gives you a good idea of Rushdie's writing in The Golden House, directly to the reader and almost confessional at times.

So, what do you think of The Golden House? Does it seem like your cup of tea? And have you read any of Salman Rushdie's other works?

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Review: 'The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil, trans. by David Burnett

I have related the reason for this blog's name before, but somehow Pushkin Press continues to give me reasons to do so over and over again. So, I named this blog A Universe in Words because for me reading has always been about learning, discovering and exploring. I grew up reading books in three different languages and this set me on a path of continuously looking for books in other languages, realising there are whole worlds, universes even, out there waiting for me. And thankfully to publishers like Pushkin Press, who work hard to bring previously untranslated works into English, this blog and I can keep going. Which brings me to my latest translated read, The Last Bell, which is a delightful collection of short stories. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/03/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
The first ever English collection of stories by Johannes Urzidil - a friend of Kafka and an unjustly overlooked writer.
A maid who is unexpectedly bequeathed her wealthy employers' worldly possessions when they flee the country after the Nazi occupation; a loyal bank clerk, who steals a Renaissance portrait of a Spanish noblewoman, and falls into troublesome love with her; a middle-aged travel agent, who is perhaps the least well-travelled man in the city and advises his clients from what he has read in books, anxiously awaiting his looming honeymoon; a widowed villager, whose 'magnetic' twelve-year-old daughter witnesses a disturbing event; and a tiny village thrown into civil war by the disappearance of a freshly baked cheesecake. These stories about the tremendous upheaval which results when the ordinary encounters the unexpected are vividly told, with both humour and humanity.
This is the first ever English publication of these both literally and metaphorically Bohemian tales, by one of the great overlooked writers of the twentieth century.
I am continuously astounded by how Anglocentric my literary worldview occasionally still is. I guess studying English Language and Literature didn't do much to help, but I figured growing up bilingually (neither English) would have done something to change that. But I am still surprised to find there are masters of literature waiting for me in other languages, or waiting in translation, rather. Johannes Urzidil is an author I had never heard of, despite writing in one of my native languages, German. Until the release of The Last Bell, his work had never been translated into English. Bilingual himself, Urzidil was a celebrated Czech writer for whom German was his language, never making the transition to English despite spending his last two decades as an immigrant in the United States. His stories, however, are of Prague, that centre of Bohemia in the early 20th century.  His characters are oddities, are "other" in some way and know it, but they are also irrevocably human. Despite being so clearly rooted in his homeland, Urzidil's stories are globally human and will resonate with their modern readers.

The Last Bell contains five stories, selected by David Burnett from a variety of collections written by Urzidil over time. Burnett himself, in his informative introduction, gets to the very point of what makes these stories so touching and what links them together:
'...these stories illustrate this very point: that no one can act or be in this world, without becoming guilty - a very unmodern, biblical notion in our ideal world of transparency and accountability.'
It might not sound very enticing, but I was fascinated by this concept of, perhaps, "guilt by association" which cropped up in each and every story. The collection's first, and eponymous, story 'The Last Bell' is perhaps the finest example. A Czech maid in Nazi-occupied Prague feels burdened by the things she is given or told by others. Whereas she herself hardly acts, except for once, her very presence in the story's situations makes her complicit, makes her guilty, and she does not know how to deal with the weight of this guilt. In 'The Duchess of Albanera' we see a man who cannot face the unintended consequences of a single, mindless thought, whereas the third story, 'Siegelmann's Journeys' gives us a man very aware of and dreading the consequences he will have to face. The final two stories, 'Borderland', probably my favourite in The Last Bell, and 'Where the Valley Ends', Urzidil himself appears in the stories as an unnamed outsider, an objective observer, who sees the unintended victims of other people's actions and beliefs. Although it is perhaps not the most optimistic of messages, it is a very true one. Perhaps in our world we should all be a little bit more aware that none of us are blameless, that we are all in some way guilty. Perhaps it will make us kinder if we learn this lesson.

Urzidil's writing is surprisingly fluid. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but once Burnett's introduction made me aware of Urzidil's links to Kafka I was slightly concerned. Although Kafka is doubtlessly masterful, he is also highly complex. Urzidil's stories are compact and crafted in a way that gives hints but unravels at its own, perfect, pace. His writing, however, flows easily and evocatively. There are moments of absolute beauty in his stories, phrases that are just so true. Let me give you a little gem:
'History books know nothing about real life, least o all about the life of a woman.'
How true. Urzidil doesn't shy away from the darkness in life, but also lingers in those moments of beauty that life bestows upon us. Especially in 'Borderland' he describes Czech woodlands in such a beautiful way I want to book tickets to Prague right now. Burnett does a wonderful job at translating his work into English, capturing both the preciseness and tentativeness of Urzidil's language. I am incredibly grateful to Pushkin Press for casting light upon another author who deserves to be known. I will definitely be looking for his work in German as well, however.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

Whereas usually I need a break between stories, Urzidil's The Last Bell flowed so easily from one story to the next that I couldn't help but be spellbound until I had finished the collection. His stories are odes to the Prague he left behind, but are also truly human stories. I'd recommend this to fans of short stories and European literature.

Review: 'Rawblood' by Catriona Ward

Sometimes I just want to smack myself across the face for not reading a certain book earlier. Last week was another one of those occasions as I found myself falling in love with Catriona Ward's Rawblood. This particular novel had been waiting for me on my Kindle SINCE 2015!! I know, this is not okay and I sincerely apologize to the literary gods. But now that I finally got around to it I can also finally tell you just how amazing I thought it was. Thanks to Orion Publishing Group and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Pub. Date: 24/09/2015
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
 She comes in the night.She looks into your eyes.One by one, she has taken us all. 
In 1910, eleven-year-old Iris Villarca lives with her father at Rawblood, a lonely house on Dartmoor. Iris and her father are the last of their name. The Villarcas always die young, bloodily. Iris believes it's because of a congenital disease which means she must isolate herself from the world. But one sunlit autumn day, beside her mother's grave, she forces the truth from her father: the disease is biologically impossible. A lie, to cover a darker secret. 
The Villarcas are haunted, through the generations, by her. She is white, skeletal, covered with scars. When a Villarca marries, when they love, when they have a child - she comes and death follows. When Iris is fifteen, she breaks her promise to remain alone all her life, and the consequences are immediate and horrific.
Where to begin? Some novels are easy to review. They stick to a single genre, have a relatively straightforward plot and don't veer too far from the expected. This doesn't mean they aren't great books, they are frequently brilliant, but they make my job a lot easier. And then there are novels like Rawblood which make it both difficult and challenging. Once I finished it I tried to tell my housemate about it but I didn't even know what to lead with. Rawblood is many things. It's a historical fiction novel and it's Gothic horror story. It's about a girl but it's also about a family. It's full of evil and guilt, but filled with love. Ward set herself up for a major challenge with this story but somehow manages to bring all these different themes together into one stunning narrative. It is not often that a novel can make you feel such a variety of different emotions, but with each different theme Ward interweaves into her tale, I found myself affected in a different way. I found myself yearning for love, burning with a desire for knowledge, horrified by the cruelty of people, filled with fear at ancient evil, and more.

At the heart of Rawblood is Iris and her relationship with her family mansion, the eponymous Rawblood. Living in the early 20th century, she lives a reclusive and sheltered existence with her father, believing she suffers from a congenital disease. However, something much more sinister is at work in Rawblood. Ward tells the story of Iris' family in a non-chronological order, hopping back and forth to different family members and different times. There is a 19th century doctor fascinated with the qualities of blood, a quiet heiress who knows she is always on the verge of death, a soldier witnessing the horrors of World War I, a young woman with powers close to the supernatural... there are so many characters whose lives come together to form the story of Rawblood, both the mansion and the novel. Each character is fascinating and allows Ward to explore different moments in time. She can address war, gender, medicine, love, class, all the topics that make for great stories. A lesser author would have eventually lost the thread of their own novel, but Ward masterfully binds all these characters together and makes their stories crucial to that of Iris. You will have to pay attention to follow all the different things Ward throws at you, but she rewards that attention and dedication at every turn.

At the end of Rawblood I sat in silence for a good hour, thinking. The curse of Rawblood is she, a strange malevolent woman who has haunted the bloodlines coming together in Iris for generations. The moment the Villarcas love, death finds them. Rawblood could have been a straightforward horror story that terrifies but doesn't chill you down to the bone. It does, however, chill you. I found myself thinking a lot about humanity and love after finishing this novel. What is it about love that also brings out the worst in us? We do terrible things in the name of love and especially when we are disappointed in love. Family is the perfect vehicle through which to explore this and Ward consistently manages to make (almost) everyone's actions seem understandable. At the end, Rawblood had me in tears with the emotions Ward was bringing to the table. This mix of love and hate, life and death, is incredibly potent and allows Rawblood to pack an incredible punch.

It's not very difficult to blow me away with amazing writing, but I always find myself extra stunned when I realise a novel is a debut novel. Rawblood is Catriona Ward's first novel, but her writing is incredibly confident and commands attention. She captures the voices of each of her characters, whether it's 11-year old Iris or a WWI soldier. Ward also manages to capture the way an inner voice speaks. Now, stay with me here for a second. There is a way in which your thoughts work, how your mind jumps around, how it speaks to you in phrases rather than complete sentences. Ward captures that, the fractured nature of the mind, not just in the fractured way she tells her story but also in how she relates her characters' stories to us. I can't entirely explain it, but once I got used to it I found it utterly breathtaking. As said above, I kept fearing she would lose the plot, that the novel would derail somehow, and yet it never did. There are so many twists and turns, moments that make you go 'No way!', and yet it all clicks into place perfectly.  I can't wait to read Rawblood again because I know I'll get something different and new from how it all comes together.

I give this novel...
 
5 Universes!

Yup, I love Rawblood! From the first chapter, Ward completely captivated me and even when I wasn't reading I was thinking about her novel. Rawblood was an emotional roller coaster, giving you everything and then making you sit there while it all gets taken away again. Rawblood is much more than a horror story and I can't recommend it enough! 

Monday, 24 July 2017

Review: 'Ghachar Ghochar' by Vivek Shanbhag, trans. by Srinath Perur

Ever had that moment where you read a book you love, translated from a language you didn't even realise existed until you picked up the book? Yeah, neither had I, until Ghachar Ghochar, that is. I will never stop being intensely grateful to publishers who put their money into bringing popular works from other languages into English. There has been a steady flow of English books into the rest of the world for decades, yet the other way around the flow is only increasing slowly. Still, I'm grateful for every translated book that finds its way to me. Thanks to Faber & Faber and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Pub. Date: 27/04/2017
Publisher: Faber & Faber
A novel of Chekhovian precision and lingering resonance which has all the signs of a contemporary cult classic. 
In this masterful novel by the acclaimed Indian writer Vivek Shanbhag, a close-knit family is delivered from near-destitution to sudden wealth after the narrator's uncle founds a successful spice company. 
As the narrator - a sensitive young man who is never named - along with his sister, his parents, and his uncle move from a cramped, ant-infested shack to a larger house and encounter newfound wealth, the family dynamics begin to shift. Allegiances and desires realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background. Their world becomes 'ghachar ghochar' - a nonsense phrase that, to the narrator, comes to mean something entangled beyond repair. 
Told in clean, urgent prose, and punctuated by moments of unexpected warmth and humour, Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings - and consequences - of financial gain in contemporary India.
Family... you can't live with them, you can't live without them. Thousands upon thousands of pages have been dedicated to describing families all over the world. The misery, especially, of family has found itself a very popular topic. As Tolstoy wrote:
'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.'
Each unhappy family has a tale, especially those families who don't know or deny that they are unhappy. Told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, Shanbhag's Ghachar Ghochar unravels a tight-knit family before its reader's eyes. Perhaps unravel is the wrong word, since they seem more tightly and more frighteningly knit together by the end, yet there is also the sense that something has broken, something has changed that will change everything. It's that strange feeling at the end of a big family gathering where there's been a fight yet everyone is pretending they didn't choose sides and didn't cut ties. In that sense Shanbhag's title, a made up phrase, is central to the novel and, to the reader, both new and recognizable. It only rarely happens I find a word or a phrase in a novel that immediately rings true in the way 'ghachar ghochar' did. Similarly, it happens infrequently that a novel itself hits the nail on the head quite as succinctly and successfully as Ghachar Ghochar does.

Clocking in at just over a 100 pages, Ghachar Ghochar is a very short novel, but it packs quite a punch. And for its limited amount of pages, it is surprising just how much Vivek Shanbhag manages to incorporate into his novel. First and foremost there is family, the thing you owe everything to and that haunts you throughout your life. It comes with endless possibilities but also endless responsibilities. Then there is the concept of wealth, as the narrator's family moves from 'not quite poor' to 'rather rich' during his early teenage years. The closeness that helped them survive near poverty becomes something almost menacing once money is no longer a problem. Money becomes another string that inevitably ties them closer, while also standing between them and forcing them into roles that don't suit them. Ghachar Ghochar also gives us love, morality, values, gender roles, all addressed the way someone would while thinking over their life while sitting over a cup of coffee. And this is exactly how our novel starts, with the narrator thinking, pondering and wondering. It is an age old question; how did we get here? Shanbhag addresses the question in a fascinating way and I raced through the novel, taken in by his descriptions of family life, of fear and love, pretending not to know when deep down you know.

I love reading books from other countries, other cultures. It's the whole reason I started this blog, to broaden my horizons and learn. And I have found countless of foreign literature  gems that have added immensely both to my literary and emotional vocabulary. Ghachar Gohchar is one of those gems, originally written in Kannada, a language spoken predominantly in southwestern India. Not only does its title give me a phrase for that uncomfortably tied up, knotted up, lost feeling, it also sharply and viscerally dissects family life in a way I hadn't seen before. Shanbhag doesn't make it easy for his reader to see through his characters, he doesn't splay them wide open for us to gawp and gaze. Rather, he opens a door here or there into a character's mind, lets a light linger just long enough to cast an uncomfortable shadow across a character's features. The prose is crisp and to the point, there is no need for long or flourishing descriptions when you can deliver them as precisely and clearly as Shanbhag can. By the end of Ghachar Ghochar you feel you know his characters, deep down, perhaps even better than they know themselves. Srinath Perur, himself an author, does a brilliant job at translating Sjhanbhag's meaningful but restrained prose into English. There is not a single superfluous word in Ghachar Ghochar.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Ghachar Ghochar is a quick and insightful read into family, love and so much more. It is only an afternoon in someone's life, and yet it is their entire life. This novel is a vivisection of everything that family can mean. I will definitely be looking to read hopefully upcoming translations of Shanbhag's work. I'd recommend this to fans of contemporary fiction and Indian literature.

Review: 'Where the Iron Crosses Grow: The Crimea 1941-44' by Robert Forczyk

Where the Iron Crosses Grow: The Crimea 1941–44Occasionally the time comes when a good non-fiction book is needed. Although I love reading fiction, I often find myself craving something "real", something tangible, and that is when I reach for history books. I am fascinated by our world and everything that has occurred in it so far and love learning more, both about my own history and that of other countries and cultures. Being half-German, I have always considered it my duty to learn about the World Wars and to let them not be forgotten or cast aside. However, in such gigantic historic events, often stories are left behind, and the fierce battles over the Crimea is one of those stories. I am incredibly grateful to have had a chance to read this book and fill a gap in my knowledge. Thanks to Osprey Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/09/2014
Pulisher: Osprey Publishing

Nazi and Soviet armies fought over the Crimean Peninsula for three long years using sieges, dozens of amphibious landings, and large scale maneuvers. This definitive English-language work on the savage battle for the Crimea, Where the Iron Crosses Grow sheds new light on this vital aspect of the Eastern Front. 
The Crimea was one of the crucibles of the war on the Eastern Front, where first a Soviet and then a German army were surrounded, fought desperate battles and were eventually destroyed. The fighting in the region was unusual for the Eastern Front in many ways, in that naval supply, amphibious landings and naval evacuation played major roles, while both sides were also conducting ethnic cleansing as part of their strategy - the Germans eliminating the Jews and the Soviets to purging the region of Tartars.
From 1941, when the first Soviets first created the Sevastopol fortified region, the Crimea was a focal point of the war in the East. German forces under the noted commander Manstein conquered the area in 1941-42, which was followed by two years of brutal colonization and occupation before the Soviet counteroffensive in 1944 destroyed the German 17th Army. 
I originally requested this book back in 2014 when the Crimea had been brought to the front of the stage due to Russia's landgrab. Up until then, the Crime had been something of a blank for me. I had heard of it but probably wouldn't have been able to very accurately pinpoint it on a map. I felt very deeply, however, Russia's desire to own Crimea, the outrage about this in Ukraine and the major cultural and ethnic divisions that showed themselves in the Crimea. Where the Iron Crosses Grow was the perfect read to dig further into this small peninsula that, for a while, was thought to be the birth place for a second Cold War. Forczyk's book is meticulously researched, whether it's intimate contemporary anecdotes or the precise movements of different battalions. As with many way history books, the numbers and dates are so plentiful they make you dizzy, but Forczyk does his best to bring order to the chaos. Russian military groups are named in English, whereas German ranks are referred to in German, making the small difference between "the infantry" and "the infanterie" something of a lifesaver. For those more used to reading these sorts of history books, the plentiful references to different sorts of canons, air crafts and battleships will be more familiar, but as a relative novice I frequently became a bit overwhelmed by it. Forczyk attempts, though difficult it might be considering his subject matter, to let the reader breathe by interspersing the recounting of battles with aside descriptions of relevant history or persons.

Where the Iron Crosses Grow focuses mainly on the years 1941 to 1944, the very height of the Second World War, but Forczyk is also conscious of the need for background information. Starting in the 18th century, he details the history of the Crimea, its Tatar origins and its initial position as a power base. He also goes into its role during the war between the Whites and the Reds after the October Revolution in 1917 and slowly leads up to the beginning of the Second World War. By doing so, he is able to set up a number of links which only become relevant later on. The clearest example of this is his mention of the OZET, the Society for Settling Toiling Jews on the Land, set up between 1925-38, which created tensions between the resettled Jews and the local Crimean population which felt its land was being taken away. This tension survived until the German occupation in 1943 when it had disastrous consequences for the Jewish Crimeans. This linking back and forth between different time periods really adds to a reader's awareness of how tightly linked these different historical periods truly are. The main chunk of the book is dedicated to the three years of intense fighting that occurred in the Crimea, chronicling the waves of invasions that washed over the Crimea, first the German invasion in 1941-42, which finds many comparisons to the invasion of the Red Army, and then the Russian "liberation" in 1943-44. The hundreds of thousands of lives lost on both sides, the countless rounds of ammunition spent, the indescribable wreckage that was left behind, Forczyk finds a way to describe these in a way that allows both the horror of it to seep in, while also not wallowing in it for the sake of sensationalism. In between the two invasions, he also describes the terror of the ethnic cleansing by the Nazis, as well as the Soviet's very own cleansing after WWII. In a way, Where the Iron Crosses Grow is a horrible book to read, but ignoring this suffering would just be another injustice done to the Crimea.

The final chapter of the book, and its shortest, is a musing on the events of 2014, fresh when the book was written. I can't help but quote one of the final paragraphs of the book here:
"Despite the fact that competing efforts to gain control over the Crimea have yielded negligible strategic benefit to anyone for the past century, the idea that owning the Crimea is worth shedding copious amounts of blood and oppressing others for is going to retain ideological saliency for some time."
Perhaps the key thing that Where the Iron Crosses Grow taught me is that the Crimea has become a symbol. Holding it suggests power, the power over the Black Sea, the power over the Ukraine, the power to cross the border between East and West. While owning it now really does hold almost no strategical benefits, it means something bigger. It's why Hitler wanted to drive through the streets of defeated Paris, why Napoleon insisted on trying to conquer Russia, why the British Empire but the Koh-I-Noor diamond in the crown of its royals. It's an act that suggest primacy over others, and that is what despots send soldiers to their deaths for. As said, reading Where the Iron Crosses Grow, or any book on the world's long history of wars, makes you despair at humanity and at what it is willing to do to itself. But I firmly believe that learning your history is the first step in preventing it from repeating itself.

Forczyk, throughout Where the Iron Crosses Grow, consistently manages to keep the reader engaged. This sounds like it should be a given, but whereas a fiction author can use all their imaginative faculties to keep the reader happy, a history writer has facts he has to stick to. And a war historian usually has pretty grim facts as well as occasionally boring statistics he needs to convey. For someone like me, who is mainly interested in cultural history, the recounting of a battle, the shifting of fronts, the number of cannon balls fired, etc. is not always thrilling, and there were times in Where the Iron Crosses Grow that Forczyk lost me  a little. However, as said above, he himself seems very aware of this likelihood and attempts to intersperse history with as many asides as possible. I found it fascinating to learn about a German general who could only serve in the Crimea because he had been personally "pardoned" by Hitler for being of Jewish descent, or of a young Crimean girl joining the partisans. He doesn't lose himself in the numbers, doesn't lose track of the overall picture and tries his hardest to make it understandable to a novice like myself.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

For those interested in the Crimea and its WWII history, Where the Iron Crosses Grow is the perfect read. Incredibly well-researched and written, this book will give its readers a brilliant oversight, as well as an empathic insight, into the battles fought and the lives lost on this peninsula. I'd recommend this to those interested in the history of WWII and non-fiction.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Review: 'White Fur' by Jardine Libaire

White FurThere are novels that are predictable, in the sense that you know exactly what you'll get out of them. I think of these novels as 'Hallmark-books'. You can't help but love them because they give you exactly what you need, but you'll also never be truly surprised by them. Then there are also novels that you go into with certain expectations, but that shatter those expectations within a few chapters. White Fur, for me, is the latter type of novel. I thought I knew what I was going to get and I was incredibly wrong. Thanks to Crown Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 30/05/2017
Publisher: Crown Publishing; Hogarth

A stunning star-crossed love story set against the glitz and grit of 1980s New York City  
When Elise Perez meets Jamey Hyde on a desolate winter afternoon, fate implodes, and neither of their lives will ever be the same. Although they are next-door neighbors in New Haven, they come from different worlds. Elise grew up in a housing project without a father and didn’t graduate from high school; Jamey is a junior at Yale, heir to a private investment bank fortune and beholden to high family expectations. Nevertheless, the attraction is instant, and what starts out as sexual obsession turns into something greater, stranger, and impossible to ignore. 
The unlikely couple moves to Manhattan in hopes of forging an adult life together, but Jamey’s family intervenes in desperation, and the consequences of staying together are suddenly severe. And when a night out with old friends takes a shocking turn, Jamey and Elise find themselves fighting not just for their love, but also for their lives.  White Fur follows these indelible characters on their wild race through Newport mansions and downtown NYC nightspots, SoHo bars and WASP-establishment yacht clubs, through bedrooms and hospital rooms, as they explore, love, play, and suffer. Jardine Libaire combines the electricity of Less Than Zero with the timeless intensity of Romeo and Juliet in this searing, gorgeously written novel that perfectly captures the ferocity of young love.
White Fur grabbed me by the throat a lot quicker than I expected it to. Initially, upon reading the blurb, I was expecting a relatively straightforward, Romeo and Juliet-esque love story about the rich boy and the girl from the block whose love would defeat the class system with one fell swoop. I thought White Fur might be a breezy read. That is not at all what Jardine Libaire delivers. On the one hand it does deliver that "star-crossed love story", as the blurb so dramatically puts it. It does so explicitly, keeping no secrets from its readers as to the delight and the hardship of love. Writing humorously about humour is notoriously difficult, but I find that writing about love in a way that makes you want to love is equally as challenging. White Fur makes love something almost illicit, the thing we all secretly crave deep down but feel too ashamed to actually ask for. So we grab at it when we can, take in lungfuls and then scurry away again. Reading White Fur brings up a lot of emotions. You'll feel anger at the world, disappointment in people, understanding for their faults, a lust for love and life. White Fur, if you go into it with an open mind, will give you all of this and more.

Class is something I overlooked for a very long time, the ability to do so a privilege that comes from being a middle-class white girl. I thought the main struggles of our time were race and feminism, not realising that this triad of social constructs, race, gender and class, are intrinsically bound together, especially for those who draw the short straw in all three categories. I was aware that I was born lucky, yet the actual knowledge of it only occasionally truly sinks in. Reading White Fur was one of the moments in which it was once again brought to the forefront of my mind. On the one hand the story is relatively simple. Elise is a bi-racial young woman in the 1980s, trying to leave behind her the suffering and drug-abuse that is passed down the generations in the housing projects where she grew up. Jamey is a son of money, heir to an empire he has come to despise. Libaire adeptly shows both of their disillusionment with the world in its own way, drawing both stark contrasts between them as well as showing the connections they share. They attempt to reshape the world as a place in which they can exist and although the obstacles are occasionally overblown, they are also realistic. Libaire manages to describe both Elise and Jamey's, although especially Elise's, struggles in a visceral way that will stick with you.

Sometimes a novel's language can be too flowery. An author will lose themselves in their metaphors and the story sinks away, covered by too much language.  Not every author can write in prose that flows so forcefully. In White Fur, however, it works. Jardine Libaire tells her story chronologically, except for a small teaser of the end at the beginning, but not in a straight-forward manner. Her prose moves in a way rapid rivers do, hurtling on, but also calming down, swirling violently and flowing quietly. Feelings cannot be described literally, I find, and so authors find their way around it. Libaire does it by describing small acts, sights, smells, snapshots of life, the noticing and appreciating of which says much more about her characters than page-long internal monologues. Occasionally the plot takes off in a slightly cliche direction, but Libaire manages these detours relatively well. In a way, White Fur does feel like something of a fairy tale, a dramatic play we hope ends well despite our secret fears. But it's a fairy tale of our life time, with real life horrors and real life dreams.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored White Fur, it sucked me in almost straightaway and didn't let me go until the last page. Especially Elise's story affected me a lot and after finishing the novel I miss her, in a way. I'll definitely be rereading this one. I'd recommend White Fur to fans of contemporary fiction.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Review: 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier

RebeccaSo I am currently struck down with a corneal ulceration, i.e. my eye is messed up and for a good two weeks I wasn't really allowed anywhere near screens or anything else that might stress my eye, like books. It was a terrible time, but I'm recovering slowly but surely and I've decided it is absolutely fine for me to go back to blogging now. Since I wasn't allowed to read, I resorted to audio books, something I loved as a child but cast aside the moment I was able to read myself. Blindly browsing on Youtube (yes, Youtuce), I found an audio book of Rebecca and decided to give it a try. My eyes were tired but my brain was ready to be amazed. And so I closed my eyes and went to Manderley.

Original Pub. Date: 1938
Original Publisher: Victor Gollancz
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady's maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives--presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

I adored the works by du Maurier that I read previously, like My Cousin Rachel and The Birds and other Stories. However, something about Rebecca always put me slightly off. For some reason it felt like a stuffy novel to me, one that would be long and dry and antiquated. Perhaps I got this feeling because of the Hitchcock film, one I appreciated for its artistry but didn't necessarily feel very taken in by. I couldn't even really remember most of the plot, but I knew a house featured very heavily. So I went into this novel with some low-key prejudices, which evaporated during the first chapter. Rebecca is a stunning novel, fresh, easy and perceptive. The novel unfolds in a way I have come to recognise as distinctive for du Maurier. She builds up a straight-forward narrative which seems as normal as could be, but chapter upon chapter she introduces the uncanny, the mysterious and the supernatural until the reader doesn't trust a single word. It is no surprise she is still one of the most successful female authors of all time.

du Maurier's unnamed protagonist is an amazing character. Sometimes it doesn't work, not naming your protagonist, it alienates your character from the reader, making them feel more distant than you wish. For du Maurier, however, it works brilliantly. She allows her protagonist to be vulnerable and soft, afraid and brave, and her relative blankness makes her the perfect canvas for the reader's own dreams and fears. Her openness is incredibly affecting, it makes you want to befriend her and protect her, but it is also like looking into a mirror as a modern woman. Her fear that she is not good enough, that there is a perfect standard she should strive for and that everyone is secretly disappointed in her, is incredibly recognizable. Much of du Maurier's protagonist's sense of pressure is imagined, no one wants her to be like Rebecca, and that is where du Maurier shows just how perceptive she is. In the form of 'the first Mirs. de Winter', Rebecca personifies that hill so many women face even today. There are so many things we feel we need to be, standards we need to live up to and our constant fear of failing some secret test means we never speak out against the pressure we feel. It is a constant struggle that is not even truly resolved in the novel, and is also far from being resolved in real life. But reading a novel like this helps figuring out where you stand in the world.

Although I did listen to Rebecca as an audio book, I still got a great sense of du Maurier's writing style. If I could copy any author's writing style it would probably be du Maurier's. She makes writing seem easy, belying just how much work her words do. Her descriptions of Manderley and its surrounding nature are incredibly evocative, making the landscape come to life in a way that's tangible. du Maurier's characters, except for her protagonist, are explored in a way that feels realistic. Rather than giving us occasional insights into their minds, she lets their actions speak for them. It is no surprise her protagonist finds it hard to read their feelings, and for much of the novel the reader is completely on her side when it comes to interpreting them. In reality we can't read other's minds either, and this approach makes Rebecca feel very true to life. And then there is the suspense and the mystery, which is palpable. Since the novel is so calm and the pace so sedate, everything slightly uncanny has a chilling effect. Also, a quick shout out to the audio book reader, Margaret Darling, who was absolutely brilliant! She hit the perfect tone, creating different voices for the characters and utterly transporting me. God, I can't wait for my eye to heal so I can actually read Rebecca and

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I adored Rebecca. It is a stunning book, a great insight into a young woman's mind and the struggles she faces in growing up, but it also never forgets to be terrifying. The plot twists and turns, continuously throwing new surprises at the reader and never quite going where you expect it. I'd recommend this to fans of Suspense and Women's Fiction.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Review: 'History of Wolves' by Emily Fridlund

I love wolves, and that was the first thing that drew me to History of Wolves. Although Emily Fridlund's novel doesn't actually centre around wolves, what attracts me to them is what also ended up tying me to the novel. This is also one of those novels who is done a slight disservice by a book's need for a blurb. I wrestled over whether to include one or not and decided yes, in the end, but truly there is much more to this book than could be encapsulated in a paragraph or two. Despite this, I will attempt to write down my own thoughts in the few paragraphs below. Thanks to Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/01/2017
Publisher: Grove Atlantic

Fourteen-year-old Madeline lives with her parents in the beautiful, austere woods of northern Minnesota, where their nearly abandoned commune stands as a last vestige of a lost counter-culture world. Isolated at home and an outlander at school, Madeline is drawn to the enigmatic, attractive Lily and new history teacher Mr. Grierson. When Mr. Grierson is charged with possessing child pornography, the implications of his arrest deeply affect Madeline as she wrestles with her own fledgling desires and craving to belong. 
And then the young Gardner family moves in across the lake and Madeline finds herself welcomed into their home as a babysitter for their little boy, Paul. It seems that her life finally has purpose but with this new sense of belonging she is also drawn into secrets she doesn’t understand. Over the course of a few days, Madeline makes a set of choices that reverberate throughout her life. As she struggles to find a way out of the sequestered world into which she was born, Madeline confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do—for the people they love.
As I said above, it is difficult, and sometimes close to impossible, to describe certain books. On the one hand History of Wolves is a novel about a young girl growing up, on the other hand it is a novel about the crimes we commit against one another. But you'll need more than two hands to describe this novel, because it's also about emotional isolation, trauma, Christian Science, and so much more. Set in the isolated regions of northern Minnesota, History of Wolves is Madeline's attempt at sorting out her past, present and future. The little decisions we all make daily can have a major impact and that terrifying fact is what History of Wolves dissects. It doesn't always make for a comfortable read, just like Madeline isn't always a likeable main character. But then, no one is perfect and that is the crux of the matter. The discovery of self and the changing of the self is a theme many novels have dedicated themselves to, but not many manage to capture all its facets. History of Wolves is at times beautiful, haunting, terrifying and intense, just like life.

Running through the novel is the theme of wolves, of hunters and prey, strength and weakness. Each of these expresses itself differently. Madline is a predator in her own way, involving herself in the lives of others, stalking them and looking for signs of emotion and warmth. Similarly, Mr. Grierson and many other characters in the book are both incredibly in the wrong and yet sympathetic in how they themselves are victims in one way or another. It makes for a difficult read because we'd all like to rather see the world in black and white, with clear cut heroes and villains, and a morality without questions. History of Wolves is also a novel about love and warmth, about how desperately we humans crave closeness and affection, and will look for it from whichever source, even if we know it's the wrong source. There is also a sense in which the anger we show to others comes back to ourselves. We try to paint them as the aggressors, yet have to face we ourselves are also both victim and aggressor. I like books that come too close for comfort, it makes me face myself, but it's not for everyone. And some days it isn't even for me.

The timeline of History of Wolves jumps around a lot. Seemingly written in hindsight, Fridlund repeatedly takes you back to Madeline's teenage years, before yanking you on to her early childhood, and then onward to her mid-twenties. On the one hand this can get confusing, yet on the other hand it also captures very accurately how memories work. They are disjointed, bring together stories that seem utterly random yet are strangely connected, and throw a fog over the parts of our lives we'd rather forget. It creates a strange atmosphere in the novel which makes it seem slightly detached, and this spreads also to the characters. Although everyone is living, hardly any seem really alive, only going through the motions of every day. This even finds its reflection in the names of the characters. Madeline is referred to as Linda, Madeline and Mattie, occasionally making you question if we truly still are reading about the same girl. And I guess the question is, are we? Do things happen to us that change us irrevocably as people, that disconnect us from who we were before? And what do we do when we find ourselves isolated from our past? History of Wolves throws up a lot of questions and leaves them hanging for you to answer for yourself.

Fridlund's writing is stunning. I adored her descriptions of Minnesota's landscape, how she captures the changing seasons, the vitality of nature and the sheer power of it all. Nature becomes almost like a character in History of Wolves, affecting the characters as much as they do each other. Fridlund also manages to make much explicit without spelling it out. Especially when it comes to her characters' emotions and thoughts, Fridlund gives the smallest motion meaning. Without delving too deeply into Madeline's time at the commune, we can guess at the impact this has had on her. Although Fridlund doesn't spend a lot of time at Madeline's high school, we can tell it's not the best of places for her. I was continuously amazed at how much Fridlund managed to pack into History of Wolves. Although occasionally the narrative perhaps strays a bit, Fridlund always manages to reign it back in. By staying true to Madeline's voice, she doesn't follow every story to its full completion as it loses its relevance to her, yet the novel is filled with stories and moments and observations. The fact History of Wolves is Fridlund's debut novel makes it all the more impressive and personally I cannot wait to read her next book.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

History of Wolves is a stunning novel which I will definitely be rereading numerous times. Although not perfect, there is so much to admire in Fridlund's novel that the occasional confusion is all but forgotten. History of Wolves is a novel to get lost in and a novel in which you have to try to find yourself nonetheless. I'd recommend this to fans of literary fiction and coming-of-age novels.

Short Review: 'God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire' by Terry Lindvall

I've always enjoyed satire, and especially nowadays I find myself watching a lot of political satire, trying to somehow make sense of this world. And in the middle of watching The Daily Show I realised that God Mocks was still patiently waiting on my Kindle bookshelf for me. So naturally I rushed to my Kindle and started reading Lindvall's fascinating history of religious satire, which spans from the Old Testament to Stephen Colbert, another favourite of mine. Thanks to NYU Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 13/11/2015
Publisher: NYU Press

In God Mocks, Terry Lindvall ventures into the muddy and dangerous realm of religious satire, chronicling its evolution from the biblical wit and humor of the Hebrew prophets through the Roman Era and the Middle Ages all the way up to the present. He takes the reader on a journey through the work of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain, and ending with the mediated entertainment of modern wags like Stephen Colbert.  
Lindvall finds that there is a method to the madness of these mockers: true satire, he argues, is at its heart moral outrage expressed in laughter. But there are remarkable differences in how these religious satirists express their outrage.The changing costumes of religious satirists fit their times. The earthy coarse language of Martin Luther and Sir Thomas More during the carnival spirit of the late medieval period was refined with the enlightened wit of Alexander Pope. The sacrilege of Monty Python does not translate well to the ironic voices of Soren Kierkegaard. The religious satirist does not even need to be part of the community of faith. All he needs is an eye and ear for the folly and chicanery of religious poseurs.  
To follow the paths of the satirist, writes Lindvall, is to encounter the odd and peculiar treasures who are God’s mouthpieces. In God Mocks, he offers an engaging look at their religious use of humor toward moral ends.
I have always considered myself Christian, partially because I grew up within Christianity but also because much of it rings true with me. But for me religion and faith are nothing without continuous questioning and self-examination, and I think satire is one of the key ways to do so. As such, it is not surprising that the Bible itself also engages in satire, something that I only truly became aware of while reading God Mocks. The Old Testament is full of prophets who low-key satirise their kings, ridiculing them to make them see their faults and flaws. God, according to Lindvall, is king at this kind of satire, hence the title of his book. And after reading God Mocks I could see exactly what he meant.

What I truly enjoyed was how Lindvall emphasises that the key aspect of satire is that the satirist cares. It is why I believe political satire has been thriving lately, on TV, in printing and on social media. People are starting to care more and more about politics again, recognising their role in it, satirising the political system to effect a change. Whether it's the British bemoaning Brexit, aware that their future is irrevocably tied to it, or Americans trumping Trump on Twitter, knowing his political ignorance affects their lives deeply, all of those who satirise care. Occasionally Lindvall himself seems to lose track of this, however, discussing the satire of non-believers. I see both the benefits and negatives of this, but Lindvall does try to find a balance between the two.

Lindvall is clearly interested in his own topic, which sounds like a given but is actually quite rare. I have read a lot of text books that not only bored me to death but also seemed to have bored the authors to distraction. So reading God Mocks was interesting and often entertaining. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to write about humour and not become aware of just how unfunny writing about humour really is. That is why explaining a joke makes everyone feel sad, it ruins the magic and leaves everyone a little bit disillusioned. However, Limdvall does his best and his wit often saves God Mocks from potentially becoming too dry. I especially enjoyed his last chapter on "modern day" religious satire, starting with Monty Python's Life of Brian, touching on The Onion and praising Colbert. Lindvall clearly researched his book well and writes with an ease that makes his subject seem far from drear. Nonetheless, this is probably not a book for everyone. Coming up to almost 400 pages, a prior interest in both religion and satire is pretty much a must.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

Well-researched and cleverly written, God Mocks is a great look at religious satire, both old and new. Lindvall manages to make the topic consistently interesting, moving easily through history from one key period to another, tracing satire and religion side by side.