Sunday, 23 July 2017

Review: 'White Fur' by Jardine Libaire

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

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

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

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

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

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

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

Friday, 21 July 2017

Review: 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier

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

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

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

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

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

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

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

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Review: 'History of Wolves' by Emily Fridlund

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give this book...

3 Universes!

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