Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Review: 'The Voynich Manuscript' by Dr. Stephen Skinner, Dr. Rafal T. Prinke, Dr. René Zandbergen

I spent the last four years of my life studying medieval English literature so naturally I have a rather unhealthy appetite for and obsession with medieval manuscripts. Usually I tend to keep my eye out for books on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts specifically, but a few years ago I first read about The Voynich Manuscript and the utter mystery it still is, and how was I supposed to resist that? So when I saw Watkins Publishing had a new edition coming out I was thrilled. Thanks to Watkins Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/08/2017
Publisher: Watkins Publishing
The Voynich Manuscriptis an extensively illustrated codex featuring cosmological and astrological diagrams interwoven with detailed herbal illustration, relating both to the magical and alchemic view of the universe. It is written in a strangely beautiful cryptographic script.
During my Masters in St. Andrews I did a module called 'Reading the Mediaeval Text' which was all about how to care for manuscripts and how to examine their provenance and contents. I loved being able to dig into the past of the manuscripts shown to us, to trace the history of ownership or attempt to decipher the writing. Let me tell you, that last thing was part of our exams and all of us in the course groaned under the task. So if Middle English proved so much of a challenge to us, how does one attempt to decipher a manuscript written in code? The Voynich MS was named after the antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich, who first brought the book to the attention of the wider world in 1912. The anonymous author of the MS used cryptography, making their writing a continuous riddle which many academics have wanted to solve. There have been suggestions as to the author, including Leonardo da Vinci, but none have proved likely so far, although the author was most likely a physician.


The Voynich Manuscript is split into, roughly, three sections. The first is a foreword by Dr. Stephen Skinner, where he briefly introduces the make up of the MS and how The Voynich Manuscript came about. The manuscript itself has 5 identified sections: a herbal section, a cosmological section (my favourite), a section showing women bathing (it's not quite as weird as it sounds actually), a pharmaceutical section, and a textual section.

This is followed by an introduction by Dr. Rafal T. Prinke and Dr. René Zandbergen, who dig more deeply into the Manuscript and its history itself, such as its unique alphabet, its different sections and its provenance. Since this is in my field of interest, I was fascinated to read about the history they attempt to establish for the manuscript, as well as the different studies and claims that have been made about the MS. Often with MSS like these, it is almost more important what definitely isn't true than what is. So that Leonardo da Vinci is not the author is a key finding, in a way. So in the case of The Voynich Manuscript, reading the Foreword and Introduction are a must. Not only are they interesting, they are also important to understanding and appreciating what you're about to see.

The Foreword and Introduction are followed by the reproduction of the MS itself. I absolutely loved poring over these pages. Although the illustrations are, by medieval standards, relatively simply and even amateurish, they are still stunning and fascinating. I especially loved the cosmological section (see the image to the right below) with its star rosettas and much more. The section on women bathing was also really interesting and I would love to tell you what conclusion Skinner, Prinke and Zandbergen drew from this, but for that you should truly read The Voynich Manuscript yourself. Of course I also tried my hand at figuring out any of the writing but failed miserably at even the smallest "word". Not that I will give up, I will be pouring over The Voynich Manuscript for a very long time.



The Voynich Manuscript is an 'in between'-kind of book. On the one hand it is clearly academic in nature, a reproduction of an obscure medieval manuscript. On the other hand, Skinner, Prinke and Zandbergen seem to have done their best to make it accessible to every kind of audience. I have read student textbooks more obstinately confusing than The Voynich Book, whose Foreword and Introduction do its best to set up a novice reader with some of the knowledge and background they will need to truly enjoy the MS that follows. Their writing is clear and precise, to the point and not filled with academic jargon. This means that it is not just a special interest book, but is open to the wider public that may have an interest in history or manuscripts. Since Watkins Publishing was kind enough to send me a physical copy of the book I simply have to talk about the layout of the book for a second. The reproduction of the folios are very clear and you can really see detail on the page. Also, at the bottom of each page they show the reader where in the manuscript they are. A folio is one page of parchment, which is then marked either as r for recto (the front) or v for verso (the reverse). As the book reproduces the MS page by page, the different leaves are referred to as f1rf1vf2rf2r, etc. They also show which quire you're on. A quire is four sheets, or bifolios, folded together which makes for 8 pages. The Voynich Manuscript treats its source material with care and clearly put a lot of effort into letting the reader get as close to the manuscript as possible.

If you want to know more about the manuscript, visit a comprehensive website set up by Dr. Zandbergen.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I absolutely adore The Voynich Manuscript. It is a beautifully rendered reproduction of one of the most continuously puzzling manuscripts to have come out of Eastern Europe. Skinner, Prinke and Zandbergen treat the manuscript with respect and guide the novice reader into the MS's secrets as well as they can. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in manuscripts and medieval history.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review: 'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson

HauntingOfHillHouse.JPGWhen you think of books in which literary fiction meets horror, it's hard not to think of Shirley Jackson. With her 1959 classic, The Haunting of Hill House she pretty much set the ground rules for what a supernatural thriller should look like. And yet, despite being a fan of hers, I never quite dared to give The Haunting of Hill House a try. Perhaps it was the fear that I wouldn't like it as much as her other work, that I'd be disappointed in one of my favourite authors. Thankfully those fears were all for naught as I absolutely adored this novel!

Original Pub. Date: 1959
Original Publisher: Viking

The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre
First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. 
God I adore Shirley Jackson! Whether it is her short stories, like 'The Lottery', or her essays and letters, like the collection Let Me Tell You, I can't put her writing down. I first experimented with her novels when I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, giving myself a first taste of the terror Shirley could create when given more than a few pages. What has always struck me about her writing is that she seems able to penetrate into what humans fear. As Shirley's Dr. Montague says:
“Fear," the doctor said, "is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.” 
Shirley brings her characters, and her readers, to that point where they give up on logic, where reason won't cut it and the brain has to accept something seemingly impossible is happening. And this doesn't have to just be ghosts. As 'The Lottery' shows, human behaviour itself can also require us to relinquish logic and patterns. I don't think I've ever seen another author capture it quite so well for me.

The Haunting of Hill House has everything one would consider necessary for a good horror read: a house 'without kindness', a Doctor who wants solid evidence of the supernatural, and three young people who follow him into the house. It's a set up that now feels almost cliche since this is how most supernatural thrillers start, books or movies, but it all came from Jackson. She crafts a tale in which both much is revealed and much left concealed. There is the hilarious banter between the house occupants as they attempt to cope with the mounting pressure of being in Hill House, but there is also the horrible banging on the doors at night. Reading The Haunting of Hill House you'll find yourself both furiously believing something is haunting the house, as well wondering which one, if not all of them, is loosing their mind.

Shirley Jackson is a great writer. She crafts an atmosphere like no other, and she brings the horrors of Hill House to life. Jackson manages to put a lot into a few words, never missing an opportunity to sow doubt and mistrust. Just look at the beginning of the novel:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” 
These few sentences tell us a lot about the house at the centre of the novel. Hill House has seen perhaps too much reality, too much tragedy, and has become 'not sane' as a consequence. There are stark warnings about darkness and something walking the corridors, but also the reminder that it's a sturdy house, strong walls, solid floors. Jackson, from the beginning, sets up all the different ways you can interpret the hauntings going on, and despite giving the reader this freedom she has an intangible grip on the narrative and where it will go.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I read The Haunting of Hill House in one sitting because it's simply impossible to put this book down. Jackson created a genre with this book and she set the bar so high with this book I'm not quite sure anyone could top her haunted house. I'd recommend this to fans of Gothic Thrillers and the Supernatural.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Review: 'New Boy' by Tracy Chevalier

From the first moment I discovered Shakespeare for myself I adored his mix of high drama with "low" humour, how he managed to combine laughter with tears. His history plays were always my favourite and I found myself struggling with some of his most famous plays, especially Romeo & Juliet and Othello. Strangely enough, both were made more appealing to me by Bollywood adaptations, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela and Omkara respectively. They gave me a new insight into the stories that made me reconsider my previous judgement of the plays. Chevalier has now done the same with her adaptation of Othello. Thanks to Hogarth and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Pub. Date: 11/05/02917
Publisher: Hogarth; Vintage Publishing
'O felt her presence behind him like a fire at his back.' 
Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day – so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again. 
The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Watching over the shoulders of four 11-year-olds – Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant ‘girlfriend’ Mimi – Tracy Chevalier's powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
As I said above, I initially didn't like Othello, at all. I thought it was overly dramatic and Othello himself also rubbed me wrong. When I watched Omkara, however, I gained a whole new understanding of the play. By transposing the play from its Western setting and the cultural baggage its collected over the years, the film presented its themes in a new and interesting way. The effect of racism and colourism, the differences in class, Iago's feeling of betrayal and Desdemona's powerlessness in the face of Iago's scheming and Othello's paranoia felt a lot more real. The story deals intensely with how we see ourselves. Othello is worried his race will always colour how people see him, no matter how successful he is. Desdemona is aware that her position and skin colour should stop her from following her heart, but believes that her love should help her overcome those obstacles. Iago is intensely jealous and I've always thought of him as a man who feels much more is owed to him without putting in the work. These people have so much to loose, especiallt in their own eyes, that talking about their fears becomes almost impossible, allowing Iago's intrigue to work.  Omkara shows us these developments very well and  I was hoping for the same from New Boy. Although Chevalier definitely refigures some of the play's themes in an interesting way, something about the novel felt strangely shallow.

From the blurb I was expecting New Boy to be set in high school, not an elementary school. Setting it at such an early stage in life, all the characters are "reduced" to 10 to 12-year old children, which brings up some really interesting topics. At this age, children are still very much copying what they see in adults and Chevalier shows very clearly how racism, for example, is learned and copied. She also shows portrays the desire for popularity that starts showing itself at this age very well. However, I couldn't help but feeling that the story of Othello lost some of its spark in this setting. Some of the story elements that feel so dramatic and poignant in the Shakespeare play are undermined by the melodrama of an elementary school setting, especially since New Boy takes place during a single day. O and Dee 'go with each other' within what seems like an hour and are somehow deeply attached to each other despite their young age, and similarly the feelings of jealousy and betrayal also arise during this one day. These children are very much acting out what they have seen adults do, and although that is interesting, this means that at the heart of it we don't get the same exploration of the self, but rather a commentary on society.

Osei, or O, is the son of a Ghanaian diplomat who has moved around for much of his young life and now finds himself the new boy once again towards the end of a school year in the 1970s. Chevalier dedicates a lot of time to showing us how O has experience being new, how he has developed certain strategies of coping both with the suspicion of anyone new and with the different forms of racism and prejudice he frequently encounters. Chevalier makes him an incredibly sympathetic character and I felt almost saddened by how quickly this characterisation dissolved when the plot really took off. Within a single day O seems to forget everything he's learnt and this didn't feel entirely realistic to me. Similarly, Dee seemed like a very level-headed and smart girl, yet once she starts 'going' with O she lost some of her sparkle. Perhaps it's also simply that I can't wrap my head around 11-year olds becoming this fascinated with each other so quickly or that a schoolyard bully could come up with such a convoluted ploy to hurt the other students, but the novel didn't feel as immersive and deep as I would have liked for it to be.

Tracy Chevalier is a great writer and I loved her writing in Girl with the Pearl Earring. She knows how to set a scene and how to describe those tormenting emotions. There are great moments in New Boy where this does show, especially when we see the teachers betraying their own racism, but perhaps it is the relative brevity of the novel, less than 200 pages, that prevents her from going deeper more frequently. Because of the reasons described above I feel this novel swims somewhere between Middle Grade and YA fiction. The lessons to be learnt from reading New Boy are very obvious and in many ways it is a good novel to set up a conversation with a child about racism and bullying. Switching between the narration of the different children, Chevalier is able to show multiple points of view, which works occasionally. But except for some moments with O, New Boy doesn't delve very deeply into the insidiousness of inherited racism and the obsession with popularity. I think Hogarth's range of Shakespeare adaptations is a brilliant idea because the reason his plays are so popular is because they touch on a range of intensely human emotions. I will definitely be reading more of the series, even if I didn't connect with New Boy quite the way I hoped I would.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed New Boy but it didn't entirely work for me. For a young reader, however, this is a great introduction to the themes that make Othello a fascinating play. However, for an adult reader I don't think this novel holds quite enough to make it a worthwhile read. I'd recommend this to fans of Middle Grade and YA fiction.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Friday Friyay: Book Beginnings and Friday 56

It's Friday and it's pouring rain here in Shanghai like you wouldn't believe! I'm quite grateful for it since it's been incredibly hot here and this will hopefully cool it down a little bit. Also, this is my last week on sick leave! My eye is pretty much healed and the cornea only a little bit scarred so this time next week I'll be teaching English once again. I'm quite glad to get to do something productive again although I've also enjoyed the last few weeks of intense reading. But let's get on to the Friday fun! Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda from Freda's Voice. Hop over their to join in on the blogging fun!


For this week's Friday Friyay I've chosen a book I just started, The Swan Book by Alexis Wright!
Oblivia Ethelyne was given her name by an old woman who found her deep in the bowels of a gum tree, tattered and fragile, the victim of a brutal assault by wayward local youths. These are the years leading up to Australia’s third centenary, and the woman who finds her, Bella Donna of the Champions, is a refugee from climate change wars that devastated her country in the northern hemisphere. Bella Donna takes Oblivia to live with her on an old warship in a polluted dry swamp and there she fills Oblivia’s head with story upon story of swans. Fenced off from the rest of Australia by the Army, its traditional custodians left destitute, the swamp has become “the world’s most unknown detention camp” for Indigenous Australians. When Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia invades the swamp with his charismatic persona and the promise of salvation, Oblivia agrees to marry him, becoming First Lady, a role that has her confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city.
Let's get to the quotes!


BB:
'Upstairs i my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll's house. Little stars shining over the moonscape garden twinkle endlessly in a crisp sky. The crazy virus just sits there on the couch and keeps a good old qui vivre out the window for intruders. it ignores all of the eviction notices stacked on the door. The virus thinks it is the only pure full-blood virus left in the land. Everything else is just half-caste. Worth nothing! Not even a property owner. Hell yes! it thinks, worse than the swarms of rednecks hanging around the neighborhood. Hard to believe a brain could get sucked into vomiting bad history over the beautiful sunburned plains.' 1%
I really liked this beginning although it also confused me. I'm not sure I'm entirely following the metaphor yet, although I get the idea of a virus in your head poisoning how you see the world. However, I already love Wright's writing. It's very lyrical and descriptive.


F56:
His artfulness in disappearing and reappearing was so strange, that as the swamp people had believed he was somewhere else, he could still make you feel that you had never seen him - that he was never there at all. This is why they were out on the genies' country.' 56%
I haven't gotten this far in the book yet, so it was quite difficult to find a quote without spoiling myself or you. This one is very good at intriguing me though. Who are we talking about, how does he keep 'disappearing and reappearing' and what is 'the genies' country'?


Also, I want to share some adorableness with you! I'm using the last week of my sick leave to foster two absolutely tiny kittens and they are simply too cute so here is an Instagram I took a few days ago!


Image may contain: cat

I've named them Luke and Leia because I'm an unmitigated nerd.

So, what do you think of The Swan Book? And aren't the kittens adorable?

Review: 'The Second Sister' by Claire Kendal

It has been a good while since I read a psychological thriller and I couldn't wait to jump back into the genre. There is something about this genre which I can't help but love. Maybe it is that the standout books from the genre always leave you with some deeper insight into yourself, especially your own dark side, or maybe it's that I just like scaring myself. But for whatever it's worth, I keep returning to psychological thrillers as a kind of palate cleanser after a row of non-fiction and literary fiction books.. For my return, I chose The Second Sister by Claire Kendal because nothing says 'this book is going to mess you up' like family and disappearances. Thanks to Harper Collins and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/03/2017
Publisher: Harper Collins
The chilling new psychological thriller by Claire Kendal, author of the bestselling novel, THE BOOK OF YOU, which was selected for Richard and Judy in 2015. Perfect for fans of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and DISCLAIMER. 
Ten years ago, Ella’s sister Miranda vanished without trace. Now thirty, the same age as Miranda when she disappeared, Ella has grown to look dangerously like the missing woman. Ella becomes convinced that the man who took Miranda is watching her family. To Ella, this is an opportunity as much as a prospect of fear. It makes her more determined than ever to find out what happened to the beautiful and mysterious Miranda. Because who better than a sister to see what the police overlooked and to understand the missing woman? Especially as the perpetrator leaves new evidence that only Ella takes seriously. Is Ella paranoid, or intensely intuitive? She idolised her older sister, but now she will need to face some difficult truths. How was Miranda, a nurse, able to pay cash for her flat and her luxury car? What made her write a will when she was still pregnant, asking that custody of her child be shared between Ella and her parents? The price of learning Miranda’s fate will be far higher than Ella imagines…
As I said, family and psychological thrillers are the perfect mix. Nothing sets up both drama and redemption better than the tight-knit circle of family. Usually the families shown in psychological thrillers are intensely fractured and toxic, which is why I loved that The Second Sister went the other way. Although Ella's family is not perfect and there are fights, tears and betrayals, there is also that deep love and concern that many other novels miss. Because of the relatively warm atmosphere this creates, the darker aspects of the novel feel extra dark. Psychological thrillers are often overly dramatic when it comes to plots. Psychopaths hide behind every corner and protagonists have iron strong wills that nothing can stop. Although Kendal fully joins in with the drama of her chosen genre, the slow burn approach of her novel allows it all to feel a little bit less over-the-top.

The Second Sister only really spans a period of three weeks, in which years of secrets, lies and fears unravel, but Kendal takes her time, setting up the core relationships and the family dynamic before really letting her mystery run wild. As such, the reader can't help but become quite invested in Ella, and in her nephew Luca who is utterly adorable. By giving herself this space at the beginning of the book Kendal also makes it seem more plausible that Ella would have an insight into her sister's disappearance that the police could never have, while also making us realise the changes in Ella as she gets sucked deeper and deeper into her own investigation. Ella's voice in The Second Sister is very strong and I found her very likeable. She is caring and passionate, and has trained herself to be alert and watchful since her Miranda vanished. You want her to succeed in finding answers, as much for her sake as your own. The characters around her vary from clearly untrustworthy to slightly untrustworthy, everyone seemingly having hidden motives that stop Ella along her mission for justice.

Claire Kendal really knows how to drop you in a scary situation and make it seem as real as possible.  By putting you directly into Ella's head Kendal is able to mine each situation for all it's got. Some of the scenes in the book are incredibly visceral, described down to the minutest detail until you almost want to stop reading. There are a lot of twists and turns in this book and I found myself suspecting everyone towards the end of the book. Once you think Ella is safe, Kendal puts another spanner in the works and throws the reader for a loop. She is also very good at setting up story lines early on and then letting them come to fruition later on. This should be expected from a thriller novel, but I find it's surprisingly rare to see it done well. Kendal does a good job at tying up loose ends towards the end of the book, but there is one story line in particular I still find unbelievable. Although I can't go into it without spoiling the book, it seemed like a far fetched idea that didn't sit well in a book that otherwise tries to be as realistic as psychological thrillers allow. As said, their plots are always slightly ridiculous and over-dramatic, but this one aspect involving a rather mysterious yet important man just felt overwrought. Overall, however, The Second Sister is incredibly thrilling and I couldn't put it down.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed The Second Sister and it completely had me in its thrall. Elle is a great protagonist, one of my favourites of the genre so far. Kendal will have you constantly wondering who you can trust and what is going to happen next. You might anticipate some of the surprises, but how she presents them will still delight. I'd recommend this to fans of psychological thrillers.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Review: 'Johannesburg' by Fiona Melrose

I never thought that moving to China to teach English would mean that my circle of new friends would be almost entirely made up off South Africans. Thankfully thye're utterly lovely people, and getting to know them has also made me more curious about South Africa and its history. We all know Nelson Mandela and now, thanks to the Daily Show, we also know Trevor Noah, but its history and culture were still unknown to me. So when I saw Johannesburg I jumped at the chance to get a sense of this amazing city. Thanks to Corsair and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/08/2017
Publisher: Corsair; Little, Brown Book Group

6 December 2013. Johannesburg. 
Gin has returned home from New York to throw a party for her mother's eightieth birthday; a few blocks away, at the Residence, Nelson Mandela's family prepare to announce Tata's death... 
So begins Johannesburg, Fiona Melrose's searing second novel.
An irascible mother, an anxious daughter trying to negotiate her birthplace and her past, her former lover, their domestic workers, a homeless hunchback fighting for justice, a mining magnate, a troubled novelist called Virginia - these are the characters who give voice to the city on a day hot with nerves and tension and history. 
Set across the course of a single day - that of Nelson Mandela's death - Melrose's second novel is a hymn to an extraordinary city and its people, an ambitious homage to Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, and a devastating personal and political manifesto on love.
Whether it's James Joyce's Ulysses or Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of Vanities, many authors have used fiction to immortalise their cities, to show us the streets they so love or that particular way the light has of hitting the roofs. It's difficult to truly encompass everything a city has to offer in a novel without the author coming across as a tour guide, but Melrose finds a way. Rather than wax lyrical about different buildings or streets, she aims to show the lives lived in Johannesburg. In a way Melrose makes the reader a bird flying over the city, landing here and there before flying off to visit someone else. It gives Johannesburg a distinctly poetic and lyrical quality, both achingly immediate and oddly removed. You have to mine some of the passages for their meaning, consider what it is Melrose is actively trying to tell you, but this effort is worth it in the end.

Johannesburg covers only a single day, but splits its narrative between a set of different characters. Melrose aims to include as many different perspectives into her novel in order to truly bring Johannesburg alive on all its different levels. The day is the 6th of December, 2013, the day Nelson Mandela died. It is also the day of Gin's birthday party for her mother, another day of hard work for domestic workers Mercy and Dudu, another day of protest for the homeless September, and a day on which a dog is lost. Initially it is difficult to see how all these stories work together and occasionally you do get confused as to who is speaking, whose life we are currently observing. The characters I feel got the most time were Gin and September, drastically different but both with their own kind of burden to bear. I would have loved to hear more of Mercy and Dudu, who I thought were amazing characters and had a lot of interesting insights into their city and country. Whether I know more about South Africa now I can't really say, but Melrose does infuse her novel with the kind of spirit I have seen in my friends as well, with the difficult but passionate love they have for their country.

Melrose has a talent for describing a larger scene and then zooming in on a surprising detail. A clear example of this is the style of the novel. Most of Johannesburg is written in third person, allowing the reader to both get close to the characters while maintaining something of a distance. Occasionally, however, Melrose dips into a first-person narrative to share her characters' most intimate fears and thoughts. It was towards the end I truly started to understand Johannesburg as an 'homage to Virginia Woold's Mrs. Dalloway'. Melrose lets her characters' thoughts ramble in a way that initially seems odd. I mean, why dedicate so much time to things that are seemingly pointless? It isn't until later, when the reader has spent more time with the characters, that this writing pays off because we can see what it is these characters obsess about, can't help but think about and even prefer not to think about. Many things are hinted at but not really developed and at the end of the novel you don;t necessarily know much more about any of the characters. The ending is not typical and may leave some readers a bit unsatisfied, but I enjoyed the elegiac nature of it.


I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Reading Johannesburg was a very interesting experience. Melrose shows you the day in the lives of many different people and rather than pass judgement or explain, she leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Her love for Johannesburg shines through, however, and that is the real heart and soul of the novel.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review: 'Concentr8' by William Sutcliffe

I remember when I was in primary school that something of a ADHD-craze hit the Netherlands. Across the country more and more boys, especially, were diagnosed with ADHD and medicated to control their behaviour. I also remember my parents thinking this increased diagnosing of children younger than ten wasn't a good idea. So when I saw a novel addressing this very topic, I knew I wanted to read it. And I was immensely and positively surprised by Sutcliffe's novel.

Pub. Date: 27/08/2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children
In a future London, Concentr8 is a prescription drug intended to help kids with ADD. Soon every troubled teen is on it. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Keep the undesirable elements in line. Keep people like us safe from people like them. What’s good for society is good for everyone.
Troy, Femi, Lee, Karen and Blaze have been taking Concentr8 as long as they can remember. They’re not exactly a gang, but Blaze is their leader, and Troy has always been his quiet, watchful sidekick – the only one Blaze really trusts. They’re not looking for trouble, but one hot summer day, when riots break out across the city, they find it.
What makes five kids pick a man seemingly at random – a nobody, he works in the housing department, doesn’t even have a good phone – hold a knife to his side, take him to a warehouse and chain him to a radiator? They’ve got a hostage, but don’t really know what they want, or why they’ve done it. And across the course of five tense days, with a journalist, a floppy-haired mayor, a police negotiator, and the sinister face of the pharmaceutical industry, they – and we – begin to understand why.
This is a book about how we label children. It’s about how kids get lost and failed by the system. It’s about how politicians manipulate them. Gripping and controversial reading for fans of Malorie Blackman and Patrick Ness.
One of the things I liked about Concentr8 is that it's a novel that is not just a story, but also aims to be a lesson. Not in an overly pedantic way, but in an attempt to raise awareness for a topic that is clearly close to the author's heart. The way we treat the children in our societies is crucial and yet often neglected. Whether it's the continuously growing pressure on children to succeed in standardised tests or neglecting to take their concerns seriously, it is not necessarily an easy world for children, let alone for those living in war zones. I am always happy to see fiction novels pick up such controversial yet important topics and Sutcliffe's approaches his with the seriousness it deserves. Between chapters he quotes research on ADHD and his narrative also makes it clear he did a lot of research for this book. Of course he has his own opinion on the matter, but he doesn't force it down the reader's throat.

The novel is split up into different parts, one for each day of the hostage crisis. These parts are then set up into different chapters, each narrated by a different character, either a member of Blaze's gang or another one of the relevant characters. Initially this takes some getting used to and it can be occasionally confusing, but Sutcliffe does his best to give each character a different voice and make the transitions feel relevant. Each character has their own tale to tell, their own version of events, and it is by bringing these all together that Sutcliffe is truly able to make his point. Halfway through the novel I realised I really couldn't relate to any of the characters in the book, except perhaps for the journalist, but this one realisation was followed by another. Although Literature with a capital L likes to write about "the underdog", the poor orphan in the workhouse or the immigrants searching for work during the Great Depression, they are seemingly always imbued with an innate goodness and purity that ennobles them but belies the true consequences of growing up without options, without possibilities. Sutcliffe's teenagers are perhaps not very likeable, but they are human and real. It is a credit to this book that actually none of the characters are very likeable and yet you still want to hear their stories.

Concentr8 is a mix between different genres. On the one hand it's a dystopian novel about how we treat our children in a distant future, on the other hand it is a YA novel about children growing up in a world that doesn't care for them. It's also social commentary and, to a certain extent, science fiction. This mix is quite heady and probably not for everyone. I struggled through the first few chapters as Sutcliffe attempted to capture the voice of London teenagers, occasionally writing without punctuation and using slang. But once I got into it, I found that Concentr8 really worked for me. There was an insolence in how the novel addressed readers like me: relatively well-settled in life and having never had to deal with poverty or class. It doesn't make reading Concentr8 fun, but it does make it relevant. Sutcliffe doesn't give you a clear cut answer and doesn't even attempt to end with a classic happy ending, but it will leave you with a great set of questions to consider.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Despite struggling at the beginning, I ended up being really touched by Sutcliffe's Concentr8. He gives a voice here to teenagers who aren't often heard, highlighting a problem we prefer to forget about. Although it may be a struggle, I'd recommend this to those interested in YA fiction and social commentary.

Review: 'The Wolf in the Attic' by Paul Kearney

Fantasy was the first genre that truly captured my attention and fuelled a desire to explore the different mythologies around the world. Is it thus that I ended up annoying my family during a holiday to Greece as I relayed to them some of the more gruesome Greek myths over dinner. Or while walking. Or as they tried to sleep. Basically, I really loved myths and legends and I still do. As such, it is no surprise that The Lord of the Rings became one of my favourite books. It should also come as no surprise that Kearney's The Wolf in the Attic, with its suggestion of Tolkien, Lewis and mythology, captured my attention straightaway. Thanks to Rebellion and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/05/2016
Publisher: Rebellion; Solaris
1920s Oxford: home to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien... and Anna Francis, a young Greek refugee looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work around them.
Anna Francis lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer's wine-dark sea.
But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half-forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is.
That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know.
The world is deeply imbued with myth and magic. Each corner of the Earth has a tale, has a history and has a meaning and this is one of the things I love. I voraciously read books that collected these myths, legends and even fairy tales from all across, in a desire to understand humanity because these tales are of us and our desires. These myths and legends have also inspired countless authors who  who have gone on to add their own stories to the mix. Kearney aims to capture this magic in The Wolf in the Attic, to draw back the veil of modernity and reveal the Old World beneath the concrete. In a way, The Wolf in the Attic is also an ode to Oxfordshire, and the English countryside as a whole. Kearney really brings to life the magic that lingers in the landscape, as well as the history that has shaped it to be so powerful to the imagination.

Anna Francis is a Greek refugee who grows up in the Oxford of the 1920s, slowly forgetting her home country and yet always feeling other in England. Anna is a great character, spunky and passionate but also aware and mature beyond her age. Both her experiences fleeing her home country and the racism she encounters in her new home make her quite insightful, but Kearney never forgets to also let her be an eleven-year old. The first half or so of the novel focuses on Anna in Oxford and has a distinct 'historical fiction' feel to it. This is also where Tolkien and Lewis feature. Their appearances are entertaining, but only half-relevant to the plot. Were it not for the importance of myth and fantasy to the story, their presence would be a major disturbance. Now, it feels like a nod from an apprentice to a master, a way of saying thank you for what they have created. The second half of the novel enters the territory of myth and fantasy and here, unfortunately, Kearney occasionally loses the thread. Although the retains a fluidity of style and a talent for beautiful imagery, his lore is not as worked out as it should have been. What occasionally makes Tolkien seem so dry is his academic approach to world-building and his hammering on about history. It might not be to everyone's taste, but it's what builds his world so thoroughly. Kearney incorporates a lot of different mythology into his work but they don't come together seamlessly. Also, central to the story are people akin to the Romani and I'm still not entirely sure whether I'm happy about their portrayal or not. I will have to think some more on that.

Kearney's writing is beautiful. He has a knack for describing detail and through Anna's eyes we get to see Oxfordshire in all its glory. Whether it's snow gently falling or Anna's memories of Greece, Kearney makes them evocative and beautiful. He also captures Anna's voice really well and makes her a character you truly come to care for. But, as said above, there is a distinct two act-feel about this novel, with the first part being set in the modern world and the second in the Old. The transition isn't quite as fluid as I'd hoped and there are a lot of things that are left unexplained. In a way The Wolf int the Attic feels like the first novel in a trilogy that leaves the large part of the world building to the second book, which I've seen other reviewers comment on as well. If Kearney had given himself a few more pages of exposition here or there, this would have filled up those gaps nicely and prevented some of the confusion and, I'm sad to say, slight disappointment. In the end, The Wolf in the Attic is a beautiful novel that leaves something to be wished for.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Although I adored Kearney's writing, The Wolf in the Attic could have done with some more background, a deep dive into its subject material. However, it is a beautiful novel about the Old World that occasionally soars very high. I'd recommend this to fans of Fantasy and Historical Fiction.

Review: 'The Willow King' by Meelis Friedenthal, trans. by Matthew Hyde

I am consistently looking for more foreign fiction to read but, since I can only read in three (modern) languages, naturally I have to rely on translations. Thankfully, publishers such as Pushkin Press keep coming to my aid by publishing brilliant fiction in translation. I was first intrigued by The Willow King because of its title and cover, it gave me that fairy tale-tingle down the spine. Also, I miss my university days so I loved going back to that exciting time through Friedenthal's book. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/08/2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
A deeply engrossing, philosophical novel by a rising Estonian literary star.

Wrapped into his long coat against the incessant rain and accompanied by a strange parrot, the young Dutch student Laurentius arrives in Estonia on an icy day at the end of the seventeenth century. On the run from a dark past and suspected of heresy, he has fled to Tartu, 'The City of the Muses', to study at the famous university. Laurentius has been searching obsessively for a cure for the mysterious melancholy which torments him, and is desperate to understand where the soul comes from, and how it relates to the body. But the more he searches, the more he is attracted to the world of instinct, superstition and magic of the peasants in the surrounding countryside. A world which he knew as a child, but which now persecutes him in dreams and visions which increasingly blur with reality.
In this astonishingly atmospheric novel, Friedenthal enters the bowels of Shakespeare's century to tell the story of anguished modernity, and of the advent of the Age of Enlightenment - while medicine is still progressing on the lines of humours, fears and alchemy, and the dark North dreams of radient antiquity, of symposia in Mediterranean gardens among the sweet hum of the bees - the birds of the muses, the souls of poets.
The Willow King is a philosophical novel at heart, which is something I haven't read in a while. As such, it actually took me some time to get used to the writing. Although Friedenthal creates a rather straightforward and chronological narrative, he gives himself, and his protagonist Laurentius, a lot of time to ponder. A walk isn't just a walk, it is a time to think and to question, but also not necessarily a time for answers. This means that throughout the novel the reader will be challenged to put aside their interest in the narrative and consider the larger themes Friedenthal wants to address. Once I got into this rhythm or narrative-pondering-narrative-pondering I really enjoyed it, but it took me almost half the book to truly get into. However, with this structure Friedenthal does capture, I believe, the essence of a young mind. Everything has a meaning, things don't happen by accident and it all relates back to your own life. Your studies become essential to your mind and affect everything around you.

At the heart of The Willow King is the body-soul relationship, something I studied myself at school. For a long time, scientists and philosophers were obsessed with "finding" the soul in the body. If we had a soul, as the Bible clearly tells us, it must be somewhere inside of us. Some of the greatest minds wrote about this, from Aristotle to Decartes, and Friedenthal engages with all of their arguments in The Willow King. His protagonist being a student gives him the perfect setup to discuss these without boring the reader and his quest to find an answer also becomes the reader's. The novel is set in the 17th century, a time we consider modern, yet Friedenthal shows us how this was a period of history in which science and superstition walked hand in hand. Witches and demons are still real, as is the evil eye, and scientists tread a fine line between the factual and the supernatural. Just think of the alchemists and their obsession with making gold. This time in history is fascinating and Friedenthal brings it to life in a very realistic way.  For more on this please do check out Joanna Demers' review, she knows a lot more about it than I do.

Meelis Friedenthal's writing is incredibly descriptive, in an atmospheric way. The constant rain, the threat of hunger that lingers at the edges of Dorpat, Laurentius' melancholy, it all feels credible and real. Friedenthal really manages to put the reader into Laurentius' mind, switching to first person to show us his dreams and relaying to us all his thoughts and worries. As such, it's not necessarily a very uplifting novel, but it is stunning. It borrows from a lot of different genres, horror, suspense, fantasy, but never truly commits to any. This could have gone spectacularly wrong, but it works for The Willow King. As I said above, it took me a while to get into this book but it enormously picked up for me towards the end. Strangely, things started coming together for me when they did for Laurentius as well, a sign that Friedenthal knows exactly what he is doing. Despite the relative heaviness of its topic, The Willow King is a quick read. As Friedenthal constantly keeps his readers questioning whether the supernatural events are truly happening or not, he spurs them on and makes them as desperate to find an answer as Laurentius. Matthew Hyde does an excellent job at translating Friedenthal's prose and capturing the atmosphere he tries to create.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Although The Willow King left me at times confused, by the end Friedenthal truly had me in her grasp. The novel will leave you with a great many questions to ask of our world, which is not a bad thing. I'd recommend this to those interested in philosophy and history.

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.