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Iris on Books

Iris is a PhD student and book blogger who's favourite pastime is curling up under a blanket with a cup of tea and a good book.

Currently reading

Eight Days of Luke
Diana Wynne Jones
Delusions of Gender: The Real Science behind Sex Differences
Cordelia Fine
Yellowcake
Margo Lanagan
An Abundance of Katherines
John Green

City of Bones (Mortal Instruments, Book 1)

City of Bones - Cassandra Clare Well.. I did enjoy the first 50 pages or so. The rest was a bit of a struggle and not very entertaining. I guess that's it for this series.

Ten White Geese: A Novel

Ten White Geese - Gerbrand Bakker Is this ever a confusing book. But beautifully written as well. I can't quite figure out what I feel and think about this one right upon finishing it. Except that that Dutch poem at the end brought tears to my eyes. And, perhaps, that I think the UK title, "The Detour", is more fitting than this US one.

Full review to follow.

Cleopatra's Moon

Cleopatra's Moon (Audio) - Vicky  Alvear Shecter, Kirsten Potter Loved this! Full review to follow soon.
I don't really know what to think.

Coraline

Coraline - Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean First RIP read of the season. This was a lot scarier than I might've imaged for a children's book. BUt wonderful too, even if that sounds a little strange. Review to follow.

Ihmisen osa

Ihmisen osa - Kari Hotakainen In The Human Part an elderly woman called Salme Sinikka Malmikunnas agrees to sell her life story to an author she meets at a book festival, on the condition that “everything that I say will be printed word for word”. Salme insists on the truth. It is why she appreciates non-fiction and despises fiction:

“First of all, and in partial defence of myself, I should say that I do not like made-up books or the people who write them. It has always irritated me that they are taken seriously, that people get so immersed in them and listen so carefully to the people who write them. I am now referring to the novels and other things on the shelves labelled “fiction” or “translated fiction”. It irritated me even more when Paavo and I found out that people go all the way to other countries to find these made-up stories and that people who have studied these languages transfer these obvious lies over into our language.”


But as the reader progresses in The Human Part you come to doubt Salme’s truthfulness. Or is the tragedy that is the cause for Salme’s husband’s (Paavo) silence, and the less than the claimed-to-be perfect lives of Salme’s children, only the imagination of the author?

The Human Part is a book about the absurdities of modern life, without telling the reader that life was better for Salme’s generation, or that there is a truly right way to live or to view life. I think that showing us several views and sides of modernity, without skimming over the hurt and sadness that comes with all lives, is the real strength of this novel.

Hotakainen manages to find the perfect blend of satire and seriousness that enables the reader to laugh at the way we live, but to simultaneously feel understood in the difficulties we face. The whole book just oozes humanity, both in showing us the faulty and sometimes ugly side of human life and opinion, and in showing us love and understanding. And in doing so he doesn’t shy away from the big and pertinent questions of our time – for one of the dominant themes is the economic crisis that Finland, and so many other countries, face.

I laughed at the irony of a novel starting out with having a character insult the very notion of fiction. I smiled at the fact that Salme so poignantly points out how absurd the notion of selling ideas instead of actual items is to her worldview, but then turning the whole thing on the head by having Salme sell her own story. Again, I admire Hotakainen for being able to strike such a great balance between allowing us to laugh at ourselves, at our society, without becoming tiring in the novel’s satire, and without making the reader feel that he isn’t taking his characters or the reader seriously.

However, there were things I had my doubts about in the novel at first. For one, there is Salme’s use of the word “negro” for the partner of one of the children. There is the portrayal of said character, Biko, through the eyes of Salme that is tinged with the sort of hidden racism that you could almost come to expect in some European societies. There were moments when those comments make you stop and wonder how you should feel about this being such an integral part of the story. However, upon reflection and knowing what follows in the book, I feel that these moments of almost cringe-worthy comments make the painful and the hidden stereotypes more visible. I feel Hotakainen is holding up a mirror by having Salme and her husband express these views. And he gives us reason to think, from the very start, that Salme’s views are not equal to the right or the truthful. In allowing Biko to tell his own story, to have his own voice, and by having him counter stereotypes, the discomfort I felt at first was gradually taken away.

In a similar vein there is another character, Kimmo, who voices very classist opinions. Being rich himself, having sold his company in the years when the economy was booming, Kimmo one day decides he should become familiar with the lives of “the rabble”, and continues to express opinions that dehumanize the people poorer than me in insisting on using words like “the rabble” and “the being”, which allows for some fun and subversive interactions between Kimmo and the people he meets in the poorer neighbourhood he travels to.

It took a while to see the novel in this way, instead of starting and stopping because I wasn’t sure what to make of all these characters othering each other. In the end, I feel Hotakaianen did a good job of enabling us to see the many ways in which we are often quick to judge, and to dehumanize others that we do not know, before leading us into a situation that shows us how different characters can draw together in times of need.

In its satire of society, in holding up a mirror to the absurdities and things taken for granted in contemporary life, I felt The Human Part was one of the more succesful books I have read. And yet.. I never really felt a personal interest in the story beyond this mirror-quality. And I couldn’t quite figure out how the storyline of the human tragedy, that is alluded to throughout the book and revealed towards the end, fitted with the rest of the themes in The Human Part. I liked and appreciated how Hotakainen allows us to come to know several situations of several characters, how he allows them all to express their views, but during my reading of the book there was often a disconnect that wasn’t resolved until the very end. Unfortunately, this is why I couldn’t quite like the book as much as I wished.

By the way, don’t you just love the cover? It was retained from the Finnish edition. I really like the pen-drawing feel of it. And how, if you look at it closely upon finishing the book, it includes so many of the characters and scenes in the novel.

[I received a copy of this novel for review from the publisher. The review was originally posted at Iris on Books.]

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading - Nina Sankovitch Tolstoy and the Purple Chair took the book blogging world by storm last year. I remember being particularly taken with Allie’s review, which instantly put it on my wish list. A little over a year later, this memoir about reading a book a day, about finding meaning in literature and making meaning through reading, about learning to live with the loss of a sister, has been released in paperback. And I jumped at the chance to read it.

It was satisfactory, but I am afraid I have to admit that it wasn’t perfect either. I think the idea of the book spoke to me more than did its execution.

True, there is something fascinating about watching another person read, about seeing another life unfold through the images supplied by books, about reading the contemplations on why certain books speak to you – and why others do not. I am a book blogger for a reason and I read the blogs of others for that very same reason.

Also true, Sankovitch writing style is beautiful. At times perhaps a little too poetic for the tastes of some, but it mostly felt like she lifted me up and made me smile a lot.

And I enjoyed contemplating reading, and loss, along with Sankovitch. But I have to admit that it were often my own associations and thoughts that had me intrigued, and not so much Sankovitch’s own ideas. She offers some interesting perspectives, and some nice memories of her own family, but for me she offered a framework to contemplate how reading relates to my life more than she provided any new insights. I hope that makes sense? I think the book is meaningful in that way, and I appreciated how it made me think about my own reading life, and yet.. I can’t help but feel that that was perhaps not exactly it’s goal (as it’s a memoir about loss and reading), or that something was missing to make it work on a higher level.

More than anything, I felt that the combination of loss and reading could be beautiful. In my head, it offered such opportunity for beauty and meaning. But then, on the page, it didn’t always translate to that. There were quite a few repetitions in the book and they got on my nerves a little, the feeling that “I had read this before”, that this had been said repeatedly in different chapters in different ways. And often, Sankovitch reflections ended in what I can only call “life truths”, that felt a little too all-encompassingly-profound to me. I’m not saying reading cannot be about that, I love it when it is, but I also know that not every book is like that – nor should it, or does it have to, be. Reading is more than a self-help and “finding yourself” activity. In mentioning those words I feel I am selling Sankovitch short, because she does seem to want to offer something different than a finding-yourself-memoir. But on the other hand, these “life truths” tended to be a little too dominant not to read it in this manner, at times.

All in all, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair was an interesting and enjoyable read, but it wasn’t perfect. Or maybe it just wasn’t for me. Who knows?

[I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher. This review was originally posted at Iris on Books.]

Evel Knievel Days: A Novel

Evel Knievel Days: A Novel - Pauls Toutonghi [I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. This review was originally posted at Iris on Books].

Khosi Saqr has lived in Butte, Montana all his life. He is a tour guide at the museum, and he helps his mother with her catering business by tasting her food. As a little bit of an obsessive compulsive, he likes order in his life. Every night before he leaves the museum, he makes sure all the documents and pencils are sorted. When he was a child, he sorted the colouring pencils making sure he did not overuse one colour in favour of another. His life in Butte is comfortable, though you can locate cracks in his comfort. When his long-time friend (and love) tells him on the evening of the annual Evel Knievel Days festival that she is engaged to marry someone else, the safety of his world comes tumbling down..

Earlier that day, someone visited him in the museum, a mysterious stranger that seemed excessively interested in Khosi. Khosi was raised by his mother, his father fleeing the country and his family debts - leaving behind his three-year-old son and his wife. Khosi has always been happy with his mother, but now he feels he needs to know more about his father. Receiving the final push when he realises his long-time love may not wait for him, he decides that it is time to be a little adventurous. And so, Khosi travels to Egypt to find his father.

If I am completely honest, I was not sure if I should agree to read and review this book when I received the query in my mailbox. I felt the execution of the premise could go both ways - it could be horribly clichéd and painful to read, or it might turn out wonderfully layered and lovely. A boy growing up in a local town, with a festival, with a local museum, missing intimate knowledge of his father's side of the family, travelling to Egypt, which has all too often been portrayed in an orientalist fashion in fiction. I was hesitant. I wish I could say I was not, but I was. How do you decide if a book is for you or not? In this case, I waited a few days, contemplated the book a little. And then I saw a tweet by Bellezza, about how she was loving it. That convinced me that the best thing to see whether I would like it or not was to try reading it. And boy am I glad I did.

"See: I think that Tolstoy was wrong. Unhappy families are all alike. They're all alike in this moment - in this pause before something happens, in the pause before someone reacts. And that pause: It can last seconds or minutes or days or months or years."

Khosi Saqr is one of the main reasons that I enjoyed Evel Knievel Days so much. He is incredibly smart, but has also lived in a safety bubble created by himself his whole life. He never left home for college, he never travelled on his own, he is afraid of losing his friends who are all moving to other places for their jobs. He never mentions the fact that he might be limiting himself in his experiences, he never comes out to say he might be a little unhappy - and I'm not sure if he is, really. He doesn't wallow, he is satisfied, he is humorous, but he is also observant, and he will not hide from the painful. He never outright tells you that he is an obsessive compulsive, but you read about it, in his descriptions, his observations, and his behaviour; Khosi is caught up in a struggle to keep some form of control over his life.. It is the way in which the reader is told these things that made me unable to look away. Instead, I just had to keep on seeing Khosi, and allow him into my heart a little.

"What's it like to be the child of an immigrant? I know and I don't know, both. I have a family tree somewhere, but I don't know where, and it's probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatsoever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it's fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance."

Then there is the way in which Toutonghi handles the question of being a child of parents from different countries - of growing up "between two cultures". There is very little cliché about it. Instead, the pain and the beauty of it are acknowledged, and especially the prejudices of growing up with a father who may be Christian, but by being Egyptian is often easily equated with Islam and radicalism. I loved how Khosi remarks on the Western perception of Islam, of Egypt. Of how we're so selective in what is represented and remembered. As Khosi says, no one seems to know that innovation was praised by Mohammed, because we believe it to be a Western concept. In travelling between Butte and Cairo, Khosi shows us the best and the worst of both places as he perceives it - and he constantly shows us how intelligent he is. Not that he is a boasting sort of character, not at all, but his remarks are just incredibly smart and beautiful.

Was the humour always to my taste? Not always. But I feel as if I am nitpicking, trying to come up with something critical to say about this book. You see, the thing is, it might not be this year's masterpiece, and it might not turn out to be my all-year-favourite, but thinking of this book, all I can think of are the positive, all I can do is smile for fondness.

It was meeting Khosi, and seeing him grow into himself a little, that made me enjoy this book. But it was also Toutonghi's way with words, the numerous quote worthy passages, the many beautiful descriptions. And it was the warmth of the story. I do not think I can find a better word for it, warmth really is the right word to use. Warm and charming and wonderful. I am sure I will be thinking back to Khosi from time to time in the upcoming months. Especially when Egypt pops up in the news again.

In the Shadow of the Banyan

In the Shadow of the Banyan - Vaddey Ratner
“War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his. (…) Each day before dawn Papa would go out for a solitary stroll, and returning an hour or so later he would bring back with him the sights and sounds of the city, from which would emerge the poems he read aloud to me. This morning, though, it seemed he came back as soon as he’d stepped out, for dawn had just arrived and the feel of night had yet to dissipate. Silence trailed his every step like the remnant of a dream long after waking.”


In the Shadow of the Banyan tells the story of seven-year-old Raami, who is witness to the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Up to the start of the story, Raami has grown up in a world of royal privilege: her family is rich, her Grandmother is addressed as Queen by the members of her family, and her father is a poet. All of which, of course, is frowned upon by the revolutionaries. Raami’s family is swept away from their home and placed at several detainment and labour camps. In the Shadow of the Banyan traces Raami’s experiences during these four years, as she struggles to understand what is happening to her life and her country, and as she faces loss, hunger, brutality, and fights for her survival.

This is by no means an easy book to read. On the contrary, it was quite difficult. Not that it is badly written, because it is not. But you just know you are in for heartbreak and confrontation with the ugliness of humanity when you pick up a novel about the Khmer Rouge regime. There were quite a few heartbreaking scenes, a few that had me wanting to look away because of the horror of knowing that this were human beings treating other human beings cruelly, and a few that had me crying while reading this in bed at night. The strange thing is, and perhaps this makes the novel so readable and beautiful, that in choosing to narrate the country’s history from the perspective of a child, the story also manages to evoke an appreciation for human perseverance in the middle of all these horrors, without making light of the horrors she witnesses.

Raami is the true gem of In the Shadow of the Banyan. She’s an amazing character that you can’t help but feel deeply for. At times she retains a certain distance to the cruelties that she describes, and sometimes she can be quite naive. There are moments when she hardly realises what is happening. But is not that exactly how a child would react? And sometimes, the very fact that this is a story of a child who is used to living closely with her parents and extended family, and subsequently witnesses how her family is torn apart by a regime, makes the cruelties all the more immediate. It is the very achievement of making such an inhuman episode in history so very human through Raami’s eyes that I enjoyed about this novel.

Another aspect I appreciated was that Raami, having been raised on her father’s poems and stories, tries to understand the world around her through the images she retained from these stories. In a way, In the Shadow of the Banyan is an homage to the support that can be found in stories in any kind of situation.

There was one drawback to the prominence of poetry and stories in this novel, which, in a way, related to two separate aspects. On the one hand, while I liked and appreciated the beauty of Ratner’s style (and it was beautiful!), I felt the language could get a little too poetic at times. I would have liked to witness some scenes in which poetry was left behind to make it more direct. More so than this first aspect, I felt that the words used by Raami, and the observations as she links them to her father’s story, at times seemed a little artificial for a child of seven. Would a child of that age really have talked and thought like she did? After reading an interview with Ratner where she states that a child in such circumstances (because in essence, this is Ratner’s personal story) would have to grow up quicker than you could imagine, I wonder if I can really be the judge of how a child would shape his or her thoughts. Nevertheless, I feel it is only fair to mention that I had doubts on this count for at least part of the novel.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a beautiful book about a horrible situation. I am pretty sure that it won’t be part of my “top 10 reads of 2012″, but I do know that it made me think. The novel might not provide an overview of the history of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and if that is what you are looking for you will need to look for another book. However, it does lend a human face to an episode in the history of the world. And in doing so it made that episode all the more immediate for me. It made me want to learn more in a way that a historical overview might not have done. Sure, it was confronting and hard to read at times. But by the end I felt I had truly taken something away by reading this book, and I truly appreciate it for doing that. And it helped me to confront again, as Three Strong Women did last month, how I need to be open to reading about such situations more, even if I sometimes prefer to hide in a more comfortable fictional world.

Seraphina

Seraphina - Rachel Hartman I stayed up until 3 am in order to finish this one. I think that about says it all. [Review to follow]

Shadow of Night: A Novel (All Souls Trilogy)

Shadow of Night - Deborah Harkness [review copy from Netgalley. Review originally posted here]

This must be one of the most highly anticipated titles released in 2012. As a sequel to the very successful A Discovery of Witches, this novel, situated in Elizabethan England, looked very promising.

Shadow of Night picks up where A Discovery of Witches ends. Diana and Matthew have travelled to Elizabethan London. Here, Diana seeks a witch to tutor her in magic, while together they try to locate the mysterious manuscript Ashmole 782. What they had not anticipated was how complicated Matthew’s life was back in 1590: he worked as a spy for Elizabeth I, dealt with family duties, and was a member of the mysterious School of Night that included Kit Marlowe and Walter Raleigh. Nor had they anticipated that it would be so difficult to find a witch willing to help Diana. With society’s fear of witches on the rise it soon proves difficult to find someone willing to cooperate. Will they accomplish what they set out to do and still return home with their feelings for each other intact?

Before I turn to my opinion on its sequel, I should probably note that I did not unequivocally love A Discovery of Witches. I fell in love with the first 200 pages of the book, Diana’s strong character and the academic library love was enough to guarantee that. I felt the book went downhill from there on out, some of Diana’s strength was lost in Matthew controlling behaviour as her partner, and the latter third of the story felt a little bit rushed. Nevertheless, there was something exciting and addictive to the book, and the idea of them travelling to Elizabethan England and meeting Kit Marlowe made me very curious to read Shadow of Night.

I am sorry to say that I could not muster the same excitement about Shadow of Night upon reading and finishing it. I have been contemplating why this was the case. Perhaps the fact that stories about the beginning of a relationship are often more exciting than ones that explore established love affairs plays a role? All in all, I don’t feel I can pinpoint one particular thing, but I will try to explain some of my reasons below.

But first let me note what I did appreciate in Shadow of Night: Deborah Harkness’ attention for historical detail. During the first 150 pages I was quite excited to contemplate all the possibilities of choosing a historical setting and then mixing it up with elements from a fantasy world. And Harkness, as a historian of magic and science between 1500 and 1700, seems to know what she’s talking about. She takes her time establishing the feel of London in the 1590′s (and other places such as France and the Holy Roman Empire). And she establishes some of the intriguing members of the School of Night as characters in her novel. I also appreciated how she pays attention to the different experiences people from different background can have of a certain setting. For example, Diana, as a woman and a witch, experiences other difficulties and opportunities than Matthew, as an established and wealthy male and vampire, does.

Nevertheless, I also felt that her eye for historical detail got in the way of the storytelling sometimes. Shadow of Souls features a lot of inordinately long detailed descriptions of clothes, settings, and characters that do not seem to have any relevance to the story. I am unsure if this was the same in A Discovery of Witches. If it was, it did not bother me so much because the story was more fast-paced. We can establish that Harkness has not succumbed to the rushed pace of the last third of A Discovery of Witches (which is a good thing!), but instead she got a little too lost in the details which made this second installment quite boring and slow at times. To be quite honest, Shadow of Souls could have done without a lot of the historical characters, and Matthew’s acquaintance with half the famous people of around that time felt a little bit too convenient at a certain point.

The pace is really one of the biggest problems I had with the second installment in the All Souls Trilogy. I felt like I was trudging through most of this 592 page novel. 592 pages is a lot when you feel you have to drag yourself through most parts. Not enough occurred to make me feel I needed to read on, or perhaps the things that did occur never impacted me enough to experience the necessary pull. Admittedly, there were some intriguing episodes. And from page 500 onwards, with the emotional scene around page 520 as a particular highlight (those who have read the book will know what I’m talking about), things were decidedly looking up, before they sizzled out again. Seriously, for a book that I had such difficulty in finishing, while I read the first book within two days, the scenes around page 520 had me crying unexpectedly. But it simply was not enough to remedy the faults I found with the book in general.

One of those things I found fault with was the execution of the story around Kit Marlowe. In Shadow of Night, Kit Marlowe is a daemon who enjoys the patronage of Matthew, and is also deeply in love with him. When modern-time Matthew arrives in 1590 with a wife by his side, Marlowe is jealous. His jealousy goes so far as to bring Diana in danger several times. Now, given Matthew’s overprotective nature for the extent of two novels, it is rather hard to believe that he would forgive Marlowe as easily as he does, and repeatedly. This made it seem as if Kit was brought in not as an interesting historical character in his own right, but as someone to endanger Diana at specific turns. I admit I had expected more from a character who was announced as someone to look forward to in A Discovery of Witches.

But there was one thing I found decidedly more problematic, and that was the relationship dynamic of Diana and Matthew. As I noted in one of my GoodReads status updates:

There’s an, um, interesting, dynamic going on where Diana predicts things won’t work that way for a woman in 1590′s (knowledge from history books), and Matthew says they will claiming his superior knowledge having lived at the time (but as a man, Diana implies). Of course, things go wrong. Diana loses patience because she’s like “I told you so”. And then when things go wrong, Diana apologizes to Matthew…

I cannot tell you more about this particular event without (perhaps) spoiling the book for others, but this kind of dynamic occurs repeatedly.

You can see Deborah Harkness working to address the unequal relationship dynamics that are perhaps ingrained in a vampire relationship. And I do want to give credit to her for doing so. Giving Diana equal powers as a witch is perhaps part of this. As are Diana and Matthew’s repeated arguments, where Diana fights for Matthew’s acceptance of her “as she is”. But the solutions offered often left me dissatisfied. And I couldn’t help but feel the balance still skewed in Matthew’s favour. Perhaps because I had wanted this to be resolved in this installment, I felt the dynamics were more problematic in Shadow of Souls.

In sum, Shadow of Souls lacked a sense of urgency and addictiveness that could be found in A Discovery of Witches. This lack of pace made it a slow and boring read at times, and made it easier to find fault with some of the plot points. Despite the beautifully executed emotional scene near the end, I am afraid to say I did not enjoy reading this second installment in the All Souls Trilogy much. I will in all probability be reading the last part of the trilogy, as I’d like to finish what I started. And I suspect Harkness will do better in painting a portrait of Matthew and Diana in the middle of their extended families. But right after finishing Shadow of Souls, I am happy to wait a while before reading the third book.

Dust Girl: The American Fairy Trilogy Book 1

Dust Girl - Sarah Zettel [I received a review copy of this novel through Netgalley. This review was originally posted on my book blog: Iris on Books].

Dust Girl left me a little conflicted. The story is good and compelling. However, the thing I couldn’t overlook is the somewhat problematic cover.

But first let me tell you what the story is about..

Dust Girl is set in Kansas during the 1930′s Dust Bowl era. Callie LeRoux grows up in a town called Slow Run together with her mother. Her father left them a long time ago, and Callie never knew him. Callie spends her days trying to scrape together enough food to live on, while also battling her health which is constantly infringed by the drought and the dust. When her mother goes missing in a dust storm, Callie is left to fend for herself. From that moment onwards she meets a number of mysterious figures, and soon finds out that she is half-fae. Caught between warring fae factions, Callie tries to reach the place where she hopes to find her mother again, helped by a boy called Jack whom she meets along the way.

The good? Dust Girl is a compelling read. The world building is well executed, and the dust bowl comes to life, even to one who had not even heard of the particular period or setting before. Moreover, the plot has enough twists and engaging characters in it to make you want to keep reading. It has a certain addictive quality that has you turning the pages.

What surprised me most – in a good way – was how Zettel takes the idea of warring fae factions, and a girl caught in between those factions, to comment on the idea of a divide between races, which I assume was still highly influential in 1930′s Kansas. You see, Callie isn’t just half-fae, she is also the child of a white mother and a black father. The story features her commenting on the need for her to keep a low profile, and how she has limited access to buildings as a consequence of her parentage. For example:

'My papa was a black man. That made me a black girl. That meant there was a whole world of things I couldn’t do, and places I couldn’t go.'

Callie spends her childhood trying to pass as white, but this means keeping out of the sun at all times, in fear of her skin turning dark. She has to leave this relative safety behind when she leaves home after her mother gets lost. And she and Jake have to resort to different, sometimes magical, tactics in order to secure safe passage.

Part of the novel directly ties in the warring fae factions with questions of race, for one of the factions is represented by black characters. I have to be honest here and say that I am not exactly sure how well this works out, I think I’d have to wait and see how the story progresses in the second installment of this series. The introduction of this theme is not always completely seamless. Nevertheless, I will say that there is an interesting subversion of some stereotypes. And by introducing the reader to different strata of fae society, Dust Girl also comments on assumptions of privilege based on the intersection of race and class.

But the centrality of race is exactly where the one big problem I had with this novel comes in, which has little to do with the story provided but more so with the design of the book itself. You see, for a story that makes race such an integral part of the narrative, there is something lacking in the book cover provided. I have always only followed the debate surrounding whitewashing from the sidelines, and I have to admit that I didn’t even know what it was until I found out through reading other book blogs. And so I am loath to call out white washing of this cover, how do I know if I define it correctly? But I am questioning why this cover was chosen.

For the first half of the book I might have been a little surprised, but able to let the girl on the cover pass as Callie, because Zettel establishes that Callie was able to pass as white, even though her ‘black hair was my mother’s worst enemy. “So coarse,” she’d mutter while she combed the tangles out.’ (and thus not as portrayed on the cover). But, apart from the description of Callie’s hair, she is clearly identified as from mixed race, and recognisable as such to the other characters, later on in the story. So yes, I lean towards calling white washing. And particularly because race takes such a central place in this story, I admit I was left disappointed and uncomfortable. Which is a shame, really, because the novel provides interesting entry-points to a more layered discussion of race, which might have been more central to reviews had not the cover been so distracting.

Mesmerized

1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West - Roger Crowley [Review copy from the publisher. Review originally published here.]

A few years ago, I took a course called “Psychology of Religion”. During that course we discussed several psychological theories on religion or religious phenomena. We discussed early developers of psychology, including Freud, and one of his predecessors: Franz Anton Mesmer. Even though I am not a particular fan of Freud, I found the introductory information about Mesmer fascinating. Here a few of my interests came together: the mysterious power of “animal magnetism” (often understood in terms of charisma and hysteria later on, though Mesmer would call it decidedly scientific), the history of science, and gender.

Can you imagine my joy when I received a review copy of this historical fiction novel on this very topic? Mesmerized tells the story of Mesmer’s quest to be recognised by his medical colleagues. It does so by tracing his treatment of the blind musical prodigy Maria Parradis, the daughter of the Imperial Court Official. A successful treatment may give Mesmer the chance to enter the higher circles, while it might enable Maria to become an internationally famed pianist. Shifting between the perspectives of Mesmer and Maria, Mesmerized allows us to learn about the struggles of both to be recognised as people in their own right, about the appeal and rejection of animal magnetism as a valuable treatment for disorders, and the scandal that soon starts to circulate about Maria and Mesmer’s presumed relationship.

The interesting thing about Mesmerized is that it manages to pack so much into a relatively short novel (250 pages). In a subtle manner Walser interweaves Mesmer’s animal magnetism theory as one of the first steps to a recognition of an understanding of something like mental illness. She also references the fine line between what we would now call hardcore science and the mystical that was less distinct during the emergence of science, by focusing on Mesmer’s belief in a natural force, animal magnetism, that could be transferred between animate and inanimate objects, and his quest to get it recognised as science instead of suggestion. At the same time, she manages to hint towards the later understanding of Mesmer’s treatments as resulting from his own influence over the patients, and the resulting state of hypnosis as well as hysterical episodes. Reading between the lines you can see how Mesmer’s patients calm down in his presence, might have fits when they want more attention from him, or lose their faith in the progressive treatment when they lose sight of him.

However, this is just the context for the specific story being told: that of Mesmer’s treatment of Maria. I was not entirely sure if I remembered correctly while reading the book, but wikipedia told me I was right in assuming Mesmerized is the retelling of a famous episode in Mesmer’s life:

The scandal that followed Mesmer’s attempt to treat the blindness of an 18-year-old musician, Maria Theresia Paradis, led him to leave Vienna in 1777. Miss Paradis had been blind from the age of four. Under Mesmer’s care her sight was partially restored. Her parents were at first overhelmingly grateful; but later, they insisted that Mesmer cease treating her. Bitter disputes followed, and the patient’s vision again deteriorated.

In effect, this is the story that Walser tells. But she does so in a way that gives us both the story from the imagined point of view of Mesmer, and Maria. Moreover, and something that I particularly appreciated, Mesmerized does not choose to favour one explanation of the events. Walser does not interpreted Maria’s treatment as a love affair, though there are hints that the novel could be read this way. Nor does she favour an overtly favourable portrait of Mesmer, because his ambition might make him forget about Maria’s needs from time to time. Neither is Maria reduced to a helpless or obstinate girl; by giving her her own voice, she tells us about her insecurities, the entrappedness she feels in the company of her parents, and her quest for safety and a life of her own, which is in part dependent on Mesmer and her parents. Maria’s contemplations of her maid Kaline’s fate adds an extra layer to the understanding of opportunities and marginalisations in the society of late eighteenth century Vienna.

It was Maria’s story I appreciated most, and identified with, while Mesmer’s at times failed to capture my interest. Overall, I particularly enjoyed Walser’s subtle but convincing interpretation of Maria’s life in Mesmer’s environment. The prose was often effective and at times beautiful and moving. Unfortunately, it did not always affect me as much as I had hoped, leaving me to feel a little detached at all times. Nevertheless, I am very happy to have read Mesmerized. A fictional interpretation of a historical episode that is fascinating in itself often makes me want to find out more. And that is exactly what this novel did. I rather wonder if rereading the book after a more thorough introduction to Mesmer’s world might not reveal even more layers.

I Am (Not) the Walrus

I Am (Not) the Walrus - Ed Briant I really enjoy books about music, and this was no exception. What I particularly like about YA books that deal with teenagers who play in bands is that they often portray how music and the friendship with fellow band mates helps them grow as persons and accept who they are. This was exactly one of the reasons that I enjoyed I Am (Not) The Walrus.

The Beatles-inspired title of the book is no accident, as I Am (Not) The Walrus is the story of Toby who plays bass and is the vocalist in a two-piece Beatles cover band together with his friend Zach. One day, Toby finds a note inside the bass he has on loan from his brother who is in Afghanistan as a soldier. This note sets off a series of events that include Zach’s attempt to have Toby finally kiss a girl, encounters with a scary bloke who seems bend on getting his hands on Toby’s bass guitar, and a storyline surrounding his family’s poverty and his brother’s borderline criminal past.

Toby’s awkwardness and humour are really what make this book quite an endearing read, even if not every plot line is executed as fully as I might have liked. I can’t help going “Awww” a little when I think of him, his insecurities, the way he acts around the girl he likes, his general confusion, and his efforts to get things right.

I did really enjoy reading about this episode in a bass player’s life, but I did find one thing a little hard to believe: there were moments when the book simply seemed to be trying a little too hard to make for an exciting story, which resulted in some absurd situations. I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around why Toby and his friends would almost seek out danger and then remark on being scared so often. Why would someone continue to trust people who he knows have hurt that trust time and time again? I know that this in part may be a realistic reflection of the naivety human beings often act on, but seeing it repeated a number of times in print, I found it a little more difficult to accept as natural.

Het sinaasappelmeisje

The Ragged Edge - Harold MacGrath “My father died eleven years ago. I was only four then. I never thought I’d hear from him again, but now we’re writing a book together.”

One day, Georg’s grandparents find a letter written by their long dead son, Jan Olav, in the family home. The letter is addressed to Jan Olav’s son Georg. When Georg reads this letter written for him during the last months of his father’s life, he decides to record his reactions while reading it, resulting in the book we as readers read. The Orange Girl is the cooperative result of Jan Olav’s letter recounting the story of his meeting and relationship with “the orange girl”, a girl of whom the reader and Georg only discover the identity halfway through the book, and Georg’s response to that letter.

In true Jostein Gaarder fashion, the story tackles meta questions in the middle of this micro-history about the relationship of Jan Olav and the orange girl: both Georg and his father are interested in the Hubble Telescope and the magnitude of the universe. Moreover, Jan Olav’s purpose in writing the letter is not just to tell his son a story about a girl he once met, but also to ask him a question about life, a question he has been pondering now that he is on the brink of death:

Imagine that you were on the threshold of this fairytale, sometime billions of years ago when everything was created. And you were able to choose whether you wanted to be born to a life on this planet at some point. You wouldn’t know when you were going to be born, nor how long you’d live for, but at any event it wouldn’t be more than a few years. All you’d know was that, if you chose to come into the world at some point, you’d also have to leave it again one day and go away from everything. What would you have chosen if you’d had the chance? Would you have elected to live a short span on earth only to be wrenched away from it all, never ever to return? Or would you have said no, thank you?

Rather like my experience with Through a Glass, Darkly I felt that my teenage self would have loved The Orange Girl more than I did as an adult. As a teen, I loved books that tackled big questions with lots of references to philosophy and physics. I feel I should note that The Orange Girl is definitely the weakest of the books I have read by Gaarder (the others being Sophie’s World and Through a Glass, Darkly). Some of the elements and themes of the stories felt disconnected, like the Hubble Telescope and the “grand question” at the end of the book in relation to the story of the orange girl, which made them lean towards the pretentious instead of the thoughtful. I missed a little of the interconnectedness between story and philosophical reflection that Gaarder usually does so well.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy The Orange Girl, perhaps more so for its micro history of Jan Olav’s relationship with “the orange girl” than for the themes reflected on. The story is a little sappy at times, but it evokes a wonderful sense of place and setting. Plus, the orange girl herself is just cute, and quirky, and independent enough to make me like her a lot.

[Review originally posted here.]

The Storm: A novel

The Storm - Margriet de Moor,  Carol Brown Janeway (Translator) In The Storm, Margriet de Moor interweaves the stories of two sisters. One sister is called Lidy. She visits the birthday party of a little girl in a small village on Schouwen Duivenland. While Lidy visits this party, the entire region is flooded during the North Sea Flood of 1953. The other story is that of Lidy’s sister Armanda, who we follow over the course of the years following the flood. Armanda tries to cope with the grief over her sister going missing. She also tries to rebuild her life, marrying Lidy’s husband and taking care of Lidy’s daughter.

I had planned to read a novel by Margriet de Moor for Dutch Lit Month in my effort to read a more balanced ratio of female to male authors. Initially, I was going to read First grey, then white, then blue which is her debut novel, but it appears to be out of print in English. By then, I had started coming across this stunning cover of The Storm over at Regular Rumination and Olduvai Reads. We all know how persuasive covers can be.. Another reason to decide on reading this one instead of De Moor’s debut was that, as a recently released translation, it was bound to be more readily available in English. Oh, and of course, the subject matter of The Storm did sound interesting as well.

I am definitely glad I read The Storm, as it has that emotional quality which means you will find yourself thinking about it for days after you have read it. Wondering about Lidy’s and Armanda’s lives.. Wondering about the “what ifs” and if there might have been any better (but probably also worse) alternatives.

I did find myself caring more about Lidy’s story than Armanda’s. Perhaps that is inevitable when a story that follows a person in an almost hour to hour ordeal is contrasted with one that follows a character over a number of years. The former allows a portrayal of each surge of hope and each devastating blow, while the latter can do the same, but only by providing glimpses of certain moments, which are then interspersed by long periods of time about which you learn nothing directly.

Nevertheless the shifting perspective does not lead to a division of the novel into two separate parts. Perhaps because in Lidy’s story there is a lot of reflection on her family, including Armanda. And Armanda’s story is caught up in the search for Lidy, and the grief over Lidy, as a missing person. This meant that while I found Lidy the more appealing character, I never found myself wishing for the parts in which Armanda’s story took precedence to be over. The novel remains a clearly defined whole, which is laudable as the shifts in perspective also mean shifts in setting and time.

The one difficulty I did have with The Storm was that it took quite some time to get used to De Moor’s prose. At first, I had to puzzle over some of the sentences, which can be quite long [look who's talking]. And it was only after 40 pages or so that I felt myself comfortably slide into the story. However, once I did, I did not want to stop reading.

[Review originally posted over at Iris on Books]