I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Devil’s Playground is an action-packed novel centred around Mia Sawan, American-Lebanese spy for mysterious company The Firm. A Christian banker is crucified in Beirut, then the 10-year old daughter of a powerful mayor in Azerbaijan is kidnapped. Both crime scenes have tags linked to a known criminal, but Mia isn’t so sure it is an open-shut case – or of what the link between the two actually is.
The idea for this novel is incredibly strong. This has been well thought out, researched and it is clear that the author knows his stuff. The start of the novel, for example, is shocking and incredibly powerful. Mia’s character is a strong willed, intelligent, sex positive woman of colour and I wish we could see more of these, especially coming from white male writers like Kidson.
I love the concept, and was looking forward to reading the book. Unfortunately for me the writing didn’t quite match the strength of the ideas. The text tells an awful lot, and is very open – considering this is a book about covert investigation, this isn’t the best match. It is difficult to find a good balance between getting your intentions across and over-explaining, and in Devil’s Playground this hasn’t been perfected. I also found that while some things were over-explained, such as what Mia wore, others weren’t discussed enough. I would have liked to have seen more of “The Firm”, and some more scenic description – it may not be as exciting as the action packed scenes we saw so much of, but I believe it would’ve added more depth and realism to the book. It is set somewhere that for many Western readers is a mystery, so it would’ve been nice to have had a better picture painted of the settings. It may be that I don’t read action often, but I find that scene after scene of action gets tiring rather than having the desired effect. When every page is written to shock or excite I find that I desensitise and lose interest. Of course there are rest breaks, but the text is very fast paced.
Overall, the novel had a controversial but gripping plotline, however I felt that this was let down by poor editing and a mismatched writing style. This is very easy to do and I admire the clear amount of knowledge and thought put into the concept, but the writing distracted from the story too much for me to fully enjoy it.
Mama had greeted him in the traditional way that women were supposed to, bending low and offering him her back so that he would pat it with his fan made of the soft, straw-coloured tail of an animal. Back home that night, Papa told Mama that it was sinful. You did not bow to another human being. It was an ungodly tradition, bowing to an Igwe. So, a few days later, when we went to see the bishop at Awka, I did not kneel to kiss his ring. I wanted to make Papa proud. But Papa yanked my ear in the car and said I did not have the spirit of discernment. The bishop was a man of God; the Igwe was merely a traditional ruler.
I don’t normally talk about what brought me to read a book on here, mostly because a lot of them were simply there or looked good/pretty. With Purple Hibiscus, however, I think there needs to be an exception. Many of you may have seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Newsnight back in November, discussing the US election with Robert Emmett Tyrell, founder and editor-in-chief of conservative magazine ‘The American Spectator’. Tyrell was unable to see racism or even real fault with Trump’s campaign rhetoric. When Adichie responded he accused her of being emotional – and therefore apparently incapable of intelligent or logical thought. Adichie explained, quite calmly for a woman effectively being told to sit down and shut up, that as a white male he is in a privileged position and cannot define racism. Even if he could, all evidence points to Trump promoting hateful and dangerous attitudes towards people at disadvantage; people of colour, immigrants, disabled people and women. The way Adichie held herself with grace and elegance, despite being visibly upset and angered by these remarks was admirable. She dealt with this situation beautifully, especially considering that she was unaware she was to be on the show with another guest until she arrived. She is a strong, smart woman and her writing in Purple Hibiscus reflects this.
Purple Hibiscus was Adichie’s debut novel, first published in 2003. The novel is told through the eyes of fifteen year old Kambili’s, a Nigerian Igbo girl. She, along with her brother Jaja and mother, lives in the shadow of her overbearing and strictly Catholic father. She has an almost outside view of him – she is enamoured by the charitable, God-loving exterior that her wider community sees, but struggles to consolidate this with the abusive, cruel-hearted man only seen within the walls of their compound. Her world is flipped upside down as she begins to see through his shiny exterior.
What strikes me about this novel is its incredibly strong voices. Kambili, while submissive and oppressed by her father speaks eloquently – a reflection of both the character’s strict education and the writer’s own tone. She rarely actually says more than a few words, but her internal narrative is intelligent and mature. Of course this is in part Adichie’s personal writing style shining through, but fits Kambili well. Her Aunt Ifeoma is fiercely passionate and confident, laughing loudly and standing fearless in the face of both her brother and the prospect of losing her job. Her grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu is peaceful and respectful of his son’s faith, but strong in his own traditional indigenous beliefs while JaJa’s fiery temper increases as he becomes more disillusioned by his father’s behaviour.
Her Papa is by far the loudest voice, unsurprisingly. Of course this doesn’t, however, make him the strongest character. He is overpowering, speaking over those he considers lesser and ensuring he gets his own way – no matter the cost. We are shown shocking acts of violence and cruel outbursts, particularly against his wife. She is deeply afraid that as such a popular figure in the community he will be seduced by a younger woman and leave her, but believes that giving him another child would prove her worth. He is more concerned by his image, though I’m not sure whether he is concerned with his image in the eyes of God or the eyes of the clergy. He often appears to use religion and charity as leverage to work his way up the social ladder, rather than a way to please God, and yet insists on saying long, sermon–like grace prayers. Perhaps he just likes the sound of his own voice.
Throughout the novel I was prone to comparing it to The Poisonwood Bible, and in many ways they are very similar. Religion and colonialism are strong themes, and it was interesting to see such a similar story told by a native African voice. I intend to compare them in detail in a future post, but I will say this – the sensible, intelligent Kambili is a much stronger 15 year-old than American Dream obsessed Rachel Price.
I’ve rewritten this several times and still feel like I could revise it all day and not do the book justice, but I truly loved Purple Hibiscus – it is a harrowing, well thought out and engaging novel with a lot of heart. Read it and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.
A Monster Calls is a novel by Patrick Ness, based on the late Siobhan Dowd’s last book idea. I first heard of this book on a radio show in which they completely butchered the name ‘Siobhan’ (it’s pronounced Shove-orn or Shove-on!). Other than that they described the book beautifully and I must admit that they did do it justice. I’d read Dowd’s A Swift, Pure Cry before, but never any of Patrick Ness’ work. I was worried that Ness would try and imitate Dowd’s voice, however this was quickly put to bed once I actually began reading the novel. The tone of the novel is sharply defined; this is not an imitation, but a unique novel with a clear voice. Indeed, on researching (okay, googling) the novel in order to find an appropriate quote (I really need to start marking quotes in the books I review!) I stumbled upon this quote from Ness himself;
“She [Siobhan] would have set it free, let it grow and change, and so I wasn’t trying to guess what she might have written, I was merely following the same process she would have followed, which is a different thing.”
When I read this book, I was not aware that it was aimed at children (I also found this out upon googling it) – although this makes perfect sense. The novel teaches important life lessons, both for children and more mature audiences, in a way that doesn’t sugar coat or patronise. Conor, our protagonist, is dealing with his mother’s illness. As her condition gets worse, he accidentally calls upon ‘The Monster’ – a humanoid yew tree – for help. ‘The Monster’ and indeed the messages he brings, add an element of magic to the story, as well as providing a moral guide for Conor.
‘The Monster’ is modelled after the Green Man, and indeed names this as one of his many identities. Green Man is a distinctly folkloric and magical motif, with unknown and ancient origins. This is fitting for ‘The Monster’ as the guide. He appears to Conor a total of five times I believe – the original apparition has obvious Dickensian roots, proposing that ‘The Monster’ will tell three stories; however Conor must then tell him a fourth. It is in this last apparition that the lessons Conor has learnt from ‘The Monster’ allow him to tell his own story, and fully accept his situation and emotions. The storytelling involved is highly moral, again reflecting the ancient tropes ‘The Monster’ embodies, but this doesn’t read as some kind of strict rulebook. ‘The Monster’s parables teach Conor -and of course by extension the readers -about the duality of humans, life and the mind; as the quote I’ve used to start this post shows. ‘The Monster’ shows Conor that everything isn’t what it seems, nothing is black and white and that that’s okay. He teaches Conor that his thoughts and feelings are valid and natural, allowing him to tell the final story.
I felt that the book was immensely moving and provides a wonderful yet real take on what it means to handle such heavy circumstances, particularly at such a young age. When I was 13, the age Conor was in the book, my granny underwent a triple bypass heart surgery that went wrong. She was severely ill for an awful long time and a lot of the feelings Ness encapsulates in the book are ones that I had a personal experience with at that age, and have often felt since. I wish I’d had this book then, and it is certainly one I would recommend anyone, but especially older children, read; particularly if they are handling the illness or passing of a loved one. Intensely powerful yet heartwarming, Dowd’s last idea has been executed brilliantly.
You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.
The Night Circus is, as you might have guessed, about a circus that opens at night. Le Cirque du Rêves (the circus of dreams) travels around the world, appearing in unknown places at unknown times. The main story, however, starts long before the circus’ inception. Prospero the Enchanter, a magician, and a man known only as A. H-, pit their students against each other regularly in competitions that can last over 30 years. As the story opens they are beginning a new contest with much higher stakes for Prospero than ever before – his contestant is his only daughter, Celia. The story starts years before the competition, with the circus proving to be a worthy arena for such a contest.
The book is written beautifully, with the incredible attention to detail needed to bring such an extraordinary setting to life. I did however find the timeline confusing at times – the story jumps around a lot. As well as Celia and her opponent Marco, the main story also follows twins Poppet and Widget, who are born on the circus’ opening night, and their friend Bailey. Because of this the narrative also jumps perspectives, and does follow other characters for shorter periods, but it manages to flow wonderfully and still make sense even if you’re not sure when you are in the timeline of the circus or the competition.
From the description of the novel, it sounds almost like a children’s book, but this is not the case – it is a novel that, much like the circus itself, I believe would be mesmerising to anyone who picked it up. The world is sophisticated and multifaceted, and Morgenstern clearly put a huge amount of thought and work into creating such a world; this definitely paid off.
**~SPOILERS START HERE~**
For me personally, the only thing I really disliked about the book were the inevitable romantic subplots. I mean, how oblivious did Celia and Marco have to be? Of course the competition was a fight to the death, of course they’d be star-cross’d lovers and of course they would have to go through the Hunger Games style “we both eat the berries so no one wins” trope. I think I’m just tired of star-crossed lovers and romantic subplots that just don’t feel entirely necessary. I didn’t mind the ending, but the romantic aspect did feel slightly rushed and tacked on. I felt the same with the implication of romance between Bailey and Poppet, in fairness. Maybe it’s just me. Also, can we talk about Tara please?! A woman dies suspiciously and this is just forgotten about after a while?? I want to know more about why this happened, as while at the time it felt like a nice twist, now that I’ve finished the book and it hasn’t been resolved it feels like it was only intended to be something to shake the plot up, not a story in itself – which it was set up to be.
**~ SPOILERS END HERE~**
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The end wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, but it did tie most things up. I was completely sucked into the world of the circus and its occupants. The book has been hyped up a lot, but I can see why. This is a wonderful example of magical realism/fantasy, and you can certainly consider me a newly converted “rêveur”.
See you soon,
(PS Get me getting two posts out on time in a row!!)
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
There is no magic in Vladvir…
Tucked away in a quiet valley, the community of Tolarenz offers a refuge and safe haven for its people, keeping persecution at bay. One young citizen—Askon son of Teral—is destined to lead them, but first he must leave them behind: one final mission, in service of the king.
In the north, leering nightmare creatures known as the Norill gather. Their armor is bone and skin; their weapons are black and crude and cold. They strike in the night, allies to the darkness. It is to them Askon marches, his men a bulwark against the threat.
For there is no magic in Vladvir.
What Askon finds when he arrives seems impossible: smoke and fire, death and defeat, and all around a suffocating sense of dread. The Norill seek something they call ‘the Stone of Mountain,’ but in the half-remembered stories from Askon’s childhood, it was always ‘Alora’s Tear’: a gem with powers great and terrible. A gem that cannot exist.
Unless there is magic in Vladvir…
‘Fragments’ is the first book in the Alora’s Tear trilogy. I must admit that I was wary of this book at first – fantasy is a vast and densely populated genre, with a lot of tropes and clichés that just get boring. High fantasy in particular is one that I often struggle to get into – there’s only so many times you can read the same story over and over, just with different names; and none compare to The Hobbit. I was relieved, then, that ‘Fragments’ proved me wrong – I was drawn into the story very quickly; although this may be in part because it is established early on that Askon, our hero, is left handed!
The story flows very well, and although it is clear that it was always intended to be part of a series, it doesn’t feel like a sort of “build up book” – it is a book in its own right, not mostly filler as many first parts appear to be. I don’t want to spoil, as I feel that it may put some people off, but the book does twist at the end; you know the book is building up to something that you may have to wait until the next book for, but what that thing is changes entirely towards the end of the story. I found this very effective and as a writer I can appreciate the tactic; Barham drew me in and left me wanting so much more.
The characterisation is largely very good, and any minor aspects of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ were easy to overlook – as an English graduate and now a reviewer I find that I’m in the very annoying habit of nitpicking and this can get in the way of the story, but this wasn’t an issue here. The characters spoke realistically and Barham’s writing really did them justice. He brought them to life and his attention to detail is great. There were a lot of opportunities for cliché and I half expected medieval, confusing language but the novel manages to avoid this, which I personally am very glad of!
I think my main complaint is actually not with the text itself but the blurb (in italics above). It sets out a premise that doesn’t seem entirely accurate to the text – the magic (or lack thereof) in Vladvir isn’t really mentioned at all. The magical aspects are met by Askon sceptically, but I didn’t feel that it was really laid out in the text that there was no magic in this world; in fact as someone in a non-magical world elves and Norill seem like magical beings to me! I would assume there is magic in the world if not for the blurb, and I don’t feel like making the “magical state” of the world clear would really make a difference to my reading of the text – the events that occur are clearly unnatural for the world by the characters’ reactions to them, whether magic is present in the world or not. This was a great book and if you ask me this blurb doesn’t do it justice.
Overall, I really enjoyed this. It was a great way to get back into a genre I rarely seem to read any more (and to while away my new long commute to work!). I don’t tend to do star ratings on here, but that is the way of this blog tour so for the purposes of that I’ll rate it 4/5 stars. I definitely intend to read the sequels, The Elf and the Arrow and The Voice Like Water, so perhaps it’ll be bumped up to 5/5 once it’s in context – watch this space!
This month I have read a LOT. As of yesterday I’ve read 10 books, not including re-reading The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (we all need ‘chick-lit’ sometimes. God I hate that term.) – while this may not be out of the ordinary for some, especially not in the book blogosphere, during my degree I think I struggled to read even 1 book a month for pleasure! Some of the books I’ve read this month I’ve already reviewed (Reasons to Stay Alive, The Red Tent and The Hidden People), but most are just stored in my brain, getting slowly forgotten. I have books that I read two weeks ago waiting to be reviewed, but at the rate I’m reading I can feel myself forgetting details about the earlier ones! A more organised blogger would get in the habit of writing down some initial thoughts as soon as they finished reading; I didn’t have that much foresight. I have decided, therefore, to give you a round-up of almost all of the books I’ve read this month, excluding those I’ve already reviewed.
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce Evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find out that all of it – from garden seeds to Scripture- is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.
White people going to a foreign land to ‘save the natives’ usually means trouble, and The Poisonwood Bible is no exception. The Prices are wildly unprepared and privileged, shocked by a society that they consider primitive. The book is incredibly well researched and sensitively written, however I would have liked to hear more of the Congolese voice as well as the white family’s perspectives. I feel like the narrative has become somewhat overdone now – white people learning about community spirit and love from a foreign, ‘simpler’ community is a trope that I have personally seen a lot of. I liked the book, and the setting was certainly interesting, but it was predictable.
The Past – Tessa Hadley
Three adult sisters and their brother meet up at their grandparents’ country home for their annual family holiday–three long, hot summer weeks. The beloved but crumbling house is full of memories of their childhood–of when their mother took them to stay with her parents when she left their father–but this could be their last summer in the house, now they may have to sell it. And under the idyllic pastoral surface, there are tensions.
I saw this novel in the window of Waterstones, with a lot of positive reviews. While it was a good book, with well developed characters, I was slightly disappointed. I feel like it didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. Hadley introduces flashbacks quite far into the book, and while they do provide some extra insights into the siblings’ characters much of the content doesn’t really do much for the present day plot, causing a disconnect between the two periods.
Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education – Raphaelle Frier (ARC)
Malala Yousafzai stood up to the Taliban and fought for the right for all girls to receive an education. When she was just fifteen-years-old, the Taliban attempted to kill Malala, but even this did not stop her activism. At age eighteen Malala became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to ensure the education of all children around the world.
I was given a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This is a childrens’ biography of Malala Yousafzai. The book explains Malala’s run-ins with the Taliban and the situation in Pakistan honestly and plainly, managing to find a good balance between being truthful and child-friendly. Malala is an incredibly important figure and role model for children all over the world, and I imagine that this book would be an excellent way to introduce her story to young children. The one issue I have is that reading this book on Kindle meant that the pictures were in black and white and often in the wrong place.
These next three are books I got free in the Kindle Store. Finding books for free on Kindle can be quite hit and miss, and this was certainly the case with these!
Silence – Natasha Preston
For eleven years, Oakley Farrell has been silent. At the age of five, she stopped talking, and no one seems to know why. Refusing to communicate beyond a few physical actions, Oakley remains in her own little world. Bullied at school, she has just one friend, Cole Benson. Cole stands by her, refusing to believe that she is not perfect the way she is. Over the years, they have developed their own version of a normal friendship. However, will it still work as they start to grow even closer? When Oakley is forced to face someone from her past, can she hold her secret in any longer?
This book sounded interesting to me, however was largely disappointing. I feel like this was one of those books with a really strong idea that was destroyed by a poorly developed love story. It actually started off quite strong before the romance aspect came into play, however quickly became predictable and dull.
Honeymoon For One – Lily Zante
When her fiancé dumps her, Ava cancels her wedding — but decides to go on her Italian honeymoon solo. Alone in Verona, the City of Love, Ava hopes to find inner peace and a clarity of mind but she is surprised to find herself drawn into yet another romantic encounter with the mysterious Nico.
Is she ready to handle even more heartbreak so soon?
I must admit, I wasn’t expecting much from this book. I downloaded it as a kind of filler between other books – I wasn’t able to buy more and was waiting on some ARC requests. While it wasn’t badly written, it was a typical cheap romance novel. I feel like it could have easily been improved by better scenic descriptions and a more realistic timeframe.
The Tinkerer’s Daughter – Jamie Sedgwick
Breeze is an outcast, a half-breed orphan born into a world torn apart by a thousand years of war. Breeze never knew her elven mother, and when her human father is recalled to the war, he leaves her in the safest place he knows: in the care of a reclusive tinker. The tinkerman’s inventions are frightening at first – noisy, smelly, dangerous machines with no practical use – but when the war comes home, Breeze sees an opportunity. If she can pull it off, she’ll change the world forever. If she fails, she’ll be considered a traitor by both lands and will be hunted to her death.
Again, I wasn’t expecting much from this. I was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised. The plot was actually largely very good, with mostly good writing. There were some continuity errors and aspects of the plot that were jarring, but it was a fairly well-written steampunk fantasy novel and I was impressed considering that it was free.
That pretty much sums up most of what I’ve been reading this month and what I’ve thought. Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Do you like the round-up format or prefer full reviews?
I was given this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is a narrative non-fiction depicting the struggles of a group of women known as ‘Radium Girls’. These women painted luminous watch dials during World War One and the 20s – using paint with radium in it. They were taught that in order to produce the best quality and quickest work they should use the ‘lip, dip, paint’ method – put the brushes in their mouths to get the sharpest point.
The result of consuming so much radium, and in many cases for several years, was shocking. These women began to quite literally fall apart – radium hit hard and fast, attacking women around my age; women who should have been starting their lives, not facing the idea that they could be at the end.
This book was incredibly difficult to read, but completely worth it. I don’t think I’ve read anyone this hard to get through in a long time; these girls’ stories are so important but emotional. I ended up taking breaks between chapters in order to ground myself and process everything properly. The actions of the USRC were deplorable and seemingly never-ending; even with Catherine Donohue on the brink of death the radium company continued to appeal her court case. What started as simple denial, and even ignorance as to the actual effects of radium, turned into vicious and dangerous practices, knowingly putting more and more girls’ lives at risk for the sake of the business.
In terms of the writing, the book starts with a disclaimer from Moore, discussing her need to accurately depict the girls and do them justice. I believe that this was done very well, however it doesn’t always read smoothly – Moore has clearly done her research, and that can be difficult to weave into a narrative; particularly a non-fiction one. For the most part though, the ‘cast’ as it were –I’m reluctant to call them characters, as they were very real people and this should be remembered in reading the book – are written very sympathetically and certainly had me hooked. The facts can get heavy, but this is necessary. I can’t push enough the fact that this isn’t a story; this really happened, and the facts and figures make the emotional aspects all the more shocking – think of this as a documentary on paper.
I am in mourning for these girls. The work they did aided so many soldiers, but their pain and suffering was horrific and largely unnoticed or even ignored at the time. It can be said that they did not struggle in vain, however – they paved the way for so much progress. As Moore discusses at the end of the book, the dial painters changed workers’ rights, provided a starting point for research on other occupational hazards and dangerous substances and even potentially influencing legislation on nuclear warfare. This book brings their story to the world again and gives them a voice almost 100 years after the events began. I certainly won’t forget it any time soon.
They talk some more, Will prompting Peter into remembering their early childhood on the barge. How their parents always went that extra mile to make their infancy special, like the time they brought a freshly killed department store Santa Clause home for their midnight Christmas feast.
The Radleys are a pretty average family. Peter, Helen and their two teenagers Clara and Rowan live a fairly normal life – until the local bully tries to assault vegan Clara at a party. Let’s just say she finds her taste for meat.
The plot of The Radleys isn’t particularly original. A family of non-humans trying to fit in to normal society? It’s been done a million times. What Matt Haig brings to the table, however, is a twisted sense of humour and gruesome detail. This book is very funny and immensely enjoyable. The characters, while vampires, are very realistic. The plot appears quite silly, but the book doesn’t read that way – if you don’t have much of a sick sense of humour, I wouldn’t recommend! The Radleys is gruesome and dark, and doesn’t sugar coat the addictive qualities that blood supposedly possesses for the vampires. It’s more than just not drinking it, it’s an addiction that plagues Peter and his brother Will especially.
I think one of my favourite parts of the book are the extracts from ‘The Abstainers’ Handbook’ between chapters. ‘The Abstainers’ Handbook’ is a book owned by Peter and Helen. It is a guide for vampires living without drinking human (or vampire) blood, and provides a lot of the information the reader gets on the vampires’ subculture. It adds a layer to the book that ties everything up wonderfully, and expands the world.
This is the second Matt Haig book I’ve reviewed, the first being Reasons to Stay Alive. This makes Haig the first author I’ve reviewed more than once (although I have written about JK Rowling on several occasions). In Reasons to Stay Alive Haig has a very distinctive voice, and this is still very clear in the Radleys, despite it being fiction and non-biographical. There’s something very real and relatable in his writing style that pulls me in.
Overall, The Radleys is a brilliant magical realist novel, with comedy and heart by the bucketful. I’d definitely recommend this book!
Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1938. Orphaned at the age of nine by a zeppelin crash, DeFoe Russet grew up in a hotel under the care of his magnetic uncle Edward. Now thirty, DeFoe works with Edward as a guard in Halifax’s three-room Glace Museum. By day, he and his uncle break the silence of the museum with heated conversations that show them to be ‘opposites at life’. By night, DeFoe spends his time trying to keep the affection of Imogen Linny.
When the Dutch painting ‘Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam’ arrives at the museum, Imogen becomes obsessed and abandons her life in favour of the ennobled one she imagines for its subject – even though being a Jew in Amsterdam is becoming more and more perilous as the clouds of World War 2 begin to gather.
I’ll say it now – this is not a happy book. While there are certainly many warm, happy and even funny moments, the book is overall actually quite unsettling. Much of it is relatable and familiar, and yet as the novel (and time) progresses the threat of war and the larger events of the novel itself loom over the residents of Halifax. Listening to the radio late at night, for example, turns into religious following of Ovid Lamartine, a Canadian reporter in Europe, as he discusses the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe.
The smaller details make this novel what it is. There is a huge amount of drama, heartbreak, betrayal and moral uncertainty in the book – all of which is countered by Norman’s incredible ability to bring the banal to the forefront. DeFoe’s coping mechanism is ironing – scenes of great drama are softened by piles of crumpled laundry. The Museum Guard paints the picture of a world dangerously close to destruction, and yet this isn’t the focus; in fact the novel ends before the war starts. There’s something poetic in this – we are left with the same sense of impending doom that the characters experience throughout the novel.
The way the novel ends and the setting leaves the reader in a very strange position – we cannot feel much hope for the characters, and the novel doesn’t give us any reason to have any; we know what is about to happen to the world in general, and any predictions we can make about the characters are not positive ones.
This is a very short review, I know, but this book really does speak for itself. The plot is incredibly odd, and yet remains real and raw. Norman has honestly left me speechless, and that’s definitely a good thing.
When his parents split up, and his dad leaves home, a ten year old boy begs the sky to help him. The next day an ice storm covers his city. Then the power goes out, the temperature drops and people must turn to each other to survive.
Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather is a novel by Pierre Szalowski, translated into English by Alison Anderson. It is set in the infamous Montreal ice storm in 1998, and centres around several people in one small area. The format is quite Love Actually esque; the characters’ stories slowly and improbably intertwine as the narrative unfolds.
This isn’t exactly a revolutionary book. It’s been done and it’ll be done again. The ending was quite predictable, and not just because we know the facts about the ice storm. Despite this, however, it was a very enjoyable book. The story played out well and although the characters weren’t massively developed, this almost added to the feel within the book that this fleeting event not only has the characters thrust into each others’ private lives, but it has thrown the reader in there too. We know bits about the characters’ back stories, but for the most part we are only shown what happens during the ice storm; this often leads to a sort of awkward intimacy that is reflected in the characters’ interactions with each other. We don’t know them, they don’t know each other, and yet we’re all forced into each others’ lives for a short period.
There are 9 main characters in the book (and 4 fish). This seems like a lot, but like most narratives of this nature they can be split into groups;
The Narrator and his parents – The narrator is a 10 year old boy, coming to terms with (or rather, denying entirely) his parents splitting up. He asks the sky for help the day before the ice storm hits, and spends much of the novel believing that he is controlling the storm.
Alex and Alexis – Alex is the narrator’s best friend and kind of a jerk. He pushes the narrator around and misbehaves at school, however we are encouraged to sympathise with him due to his living conditions; his father is an alcoholic and sleeps much of the day away, while his mother is nowhere to be seen.
Simon and Michel – An older gay couple, Simon and Michel were both previously married to women before finding each other. They are often mistaken for brothers in the street and are scared to ‘out’ themselves; they tend not to leave the house together if they can help it, much less show affection in public.
Julie – A stripper with 3 cats, Julie leads a relatively unknown life before the storm. We see very little of her and unfortunately I wasn’t satisfied with her character; it felt as though she was left behind because ‘stripper’ was enough explanation for her.
Boris – the character behind the title of the book, Boris is a Russian mathematician. He has been working on a dissertation for years about the affects of temperature on the trajectory of his four fish’s paths.
I don’t want to say much more about the characters for fear of spoiling the whole book, but they are all generally easy to read and even the less savoury do have likeability. Overall, I enjoyed this book and although it might not be the most original or surprising, it’s a heart-warming and lovely little read. The message of the book is basically that everything falls to shit sometimes, but there’s always hope and good – I personally think that it never hurts to be reminded of that.