Book Review: The Trilogy of Two

The Trilogy of Two, by Juman Malouf, is a YA fantasy adventure story. The protagonists are identical twins, Sonja and Charlotte, who are twelve years old (I would guess the target audience to be a similar reading age). The girls are musical prodigies who live and perform with a travelling circus. The world created within these pages is dystopian with magic and imagined creatures. The baddies have the upper hand and the twins will be key in fighting against their wicked plans for wider domination.

When the story opens the girls’ place in the circus is threatened by disruptions that occur when they perform. Their mother, a tattooed lady named Tatty, comforts them but will not explain this strange development. The girls are left unhappy and frustrated. The precocious pair are used to getting away with misdemeanours, such as illegal scavenging in the growing rubbish dumps outside the expanding and filthy cities. They wonder if they would be better leaving the circus and going to a School for the Gifted where they could find friends their own age and perhaps become revered musicians.

Another resident of the circus, Tell the Fortune Teller, suggests to the twins that the mysterious occurrences may be a result of magic inside them which they could one day learn to control. Before the girls can consider this further: a cat steals their talents; the circus is raided by Enforcers from the city; Tatty is kidnapped. Tell takes the girls to stay with old friends for their own safety. They discover that few of the people they have grown up around are as they were led to believe.

A great many people are introduced and the action jumps rapidly from place to place: through the Outskirts; to the city; and on to lands where creatures conjured from the author’s imagination reside. These are all evoked in rich and colourful prose although I struggled with the lack of fluidity. A great deal happens as eclectic peoples must be brought together to fight a new evil. To keep the various reveals secret, little is explained at the time – my reading pleasure frequently stalled.

The developing emotions of the twins are well portrayed with their desire to be together but also recognised as individuals. There are fledgling romances and the jealousies these arouse. The key story idea of why the children’s artistic talents are stolen is depressingly believable and rendered effectively.

I was about three quarters of the way through before my reading became effortless (this did not happen with the Mortal Engines series or the Fleabag Trilogy, young people’s fantasy fiction I have previously reviewed). This tale had some innovative underlying tropes and threads but too often failed to hold my attention.

There are illustrations throughout that guide the reader in understanding how the author perceives her characters. My overall impression of these is that they are otherworldly.

For children who enjoy fantasy adventures this is an original slant on the power of self belief and the perceived value of the arts. Impressed as I was with the individual ideas, their joined up realisation did not engage.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Book Review: Only Killers and Thieves

“Listen to me now. I’m going to tell you what will happen if we were to let that man live. He will hate us. Not only you and I personally, but all white men.”

“Remember, he will breed also. He will produce a dozen heirs, all with this hatred in their blood.”

“It is laughable, the ignorance of the educated classes, sitting in their parlours and their clubs. The blacks don’t want to integrate. They want us to leave. So either we domesticate them or we kill them”

Only Killers and Thieves, by Paul Howarth, is set on the frontier lands of Central Queensland, Australia, near the end of the nineteenth century. Much of the local area has been claimed by a white man, John Sullivan, whose grandfather first cleared it for the raising of cattle. Sullivan has expanded, taking over settlement after settlement, intent on driving out the indigenous population. To this end he calls on the Native Police Force, employed by the Queensland government, to disperse those who remain. The local force is led by Inspector Noone whose methods are pitiless. He is widely feared.

The McBride family live on a neighbouring settlement. When the story opens the region is suffering a lengthy drought and the teenage McBride boys, Billy and Tommy, are out hunting for food. Against their father’s orders they stray onto Sullivan territory where they observe Noone and his men with captive natives. They are discovered and warned away.

Unlike the cattle kept by Sullivan, which have somehow remained healthy, the McBride livestock are dying. When those that remain are rounded up for selling they do not raise what is needed to provide for the coming year. Tommy watches as his father clashes with Sullivan, who he once worked for. Although the boys are required to help – their father can no longer afford to employ other men – they are given no explanation for the animosity with their neighbour.

All this is set aside when Tommy and Billy arrive home late one afternoon to discover that their parents have been killed. With their little sister grievously injured they turn to Sullivan for help. A native is suspected so Noone is called in. Sullivan coaches the boys in how they should testify thereby making them complicit in the ensuing retribution. Leaving their sister in the care of Sullivan’s young wife they ride out beyond the land claimed by settlers.

This is a vivid evocation of a bloody period in Australian history. It is also a story of family and the challenges faced by pioneers. With their parents dead the teenage boys are left in a precarious situation. Sullivan and Noone offer them a type of protection but it costs the boys dear. Billy looks up to the wealthy Sullivan as a success his father could never hope to emulate. Tommy sees things differently.

Rarely have I read such a powerful account of the racial oppression and abuse perpetrated by those at the forefront of white man’s empire building. It is vivid and disturbing yet never overplayed for effect. The reader is not spared the graphic detail yet the account remains nuanced and balanced. The inhumanity is sickening, and based on fact.

Although a work of historical fiction the story is written as an adventure and a thriller. The tension throughout makes it a compelling read. Each character is rounded and believable, earning their place in the narrative and adding to the readers depth of understanding. Even the most horrifying of actions are portrayed with explanations, the skewed personal justifications for brutal acts of terrorism.

An impressive debut and a timely exploration of the potential impact of dehumanising an entire people. This is an engaging and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One.

Book Review: The Peace Machine

The Peace Machine, by Özgür Mumcu (translated by Mark David Wyers), tells the story of an invention designed to bring world peace. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, when citizens around the world were scheming to overthrow their autocratic rulers, a man living in the country now known as Turkey drew up plans to harness electromagnetic technology and create a mind control machine. He believed that a terrible war was looming and that averting such a crisis was more important than free will.

The protagonist of the story is Celal who uses his unusual strength to save the life of a wealthy stranger. The man then takes him in, raising Celal as his son. The boy makes the most of the opportunities this grants him, although chooses to be a writer rather than study law as his adoptive father wished. Celal writes erotic fiction, circumventing the ban on such output by working with an old schoolfriend, Jean, who lives in France. Jean finds a talented illustrator for Celal’s texts. The books prove popular netting them a sizable income.

As a result of a badly judged decision, Celal must leave his home country. He travels to France where he is told that Jean has been murdered and their money stolen. Whilst investigating this tragedy he finds out about the peace machine and becomes involved in a plan to overthrow a king and queen. To play his part he must join a circus along with the young illustrator.

The story zips around between cast and countries. There is a great deal of fighting and many deaths. Much like the circus in which part of the tale is set, each character plays numerous roles utilising disguise, bluff, costume and trickery. Celal and his associates believe in the worth of the peace machine but cannot shake off the strings of their elusive puppet master whose aims shift as the tides of power change.

“we hold the key to world peace. But if it were to be used in the wrong way, the already warped order that humanity has brought into being would be destroyed. Celal, that’s why the people should rule their countries. […] if people were left to decide for themselves whether or not to go to war, the chance of war breaking out would be slight.”

Persuasive words, smoke and mirrors take Celal on dangerous adventures. Despite the intrigue he remains convinced of the potential of the machine.

The plot is fast moving, original and well structured but I found too many of the characters, particularly the women, two dimensional. Females were introduced only to be lusted after. Even Celal’s love interest, despite her supposedly dominating personality, lacked depth.

The story is allegoric in tone with a darkly magical feel, incorporating trickery and sleight with a touch of the surreal. I enjoyed the weaving of history with the variations in achieving mind control by the wealthy and powerful. There is plenty to consider, especially in today’s world. The denouement remains open to interpretation.

There are positives but for me this was not a satisfying read despite its intriguing premise. Those female characters and the weaknesses they highlighted in the men proved too much of an irritation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: My Cat Yugoslavia

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), is a somewhat fragmented story involving metaphors that often slip into the surreal. It tells of a family of Albanians living in Kosovo who move to Finland when the increasing conflict threatens their safety. As refugees they are caught between their old culture and that of the country that has taken them in. What is regarded as respect by the older generation is clearly abuse by the Western European standards in which the children are now raised.

The story opens with an on line hookup between two men, both described as superficially handsome. One wishes to see the other again but is rejected. Thus we discover the problem Bekim has with trust, his fear of settling into a loving relationship and then being hurt. Instead of men he decides to share his life with a snake, the boa constrictor he purchases allowed to roam free in his apartment rather than being confined to its terrarium. His next relationship, which starts in a gay bar, is with a talking cat that wears clothes and has hateful views on homosexuals and immigrants. The snake and cat metaphors are used in subsequent encounters with Bekim’s wider family.

Born in Kosovo, Bekim moved to Finland with his parents and siblings when just a few years old. He was viciously bullied at school for being poor and a refugee. He learned to dread the question, “Where do you come from?” and the judgement that followed. As soon as he was old enough he cut off contact with his parents, ostensibly to further his education. He hated how they treated him, their desire that he behave as would have been expected in their homeland.

Although Bekim’s personal demons are represented by creatures, the second plot line unfolds more clearly. This takes the reader back to 1980 when Bekim’s mother, Emine, first meets the young man she is to marry. Although still at school she has been raised to be a good, Kosovan wife and is happy with the prospect of living with the handsome Bajram. Unlike her parents, he is from a wealthy family. He promises to treat her well.

Preparations for the wedding are described in detail, involving days of prescribed, public ritual where true feelings must be hidden. When Bajram and Emine are finally allowed to be alone together she discovers that he is brutal and demanding. Kosovan men are raised to believe that within their homes they are as gods. The women must acquiesce and serve them quietly, never complaining however disdainfully they are treated.

When the family flee to Finland they live first in a refugee centre and then in a cramped apartment. Although Bajram eventually finds work this does not last as he refuses to accept the concepts of equality and multiculturalism. He mixes with other immigrants and refugees, expecting his family to continue to treat him as the most important member of their household.

“He blindly believed in his own world.”

“People’s attitudes and values seemed to have remained unchanged from the time when they left the country, and they were preserved in tight-knit communities in overcrowded European apartment buildings in disreputable parts of town”

When Kosovo enters a fragile peace, the family become immigrants rather than refugees. The Finnish people’s resentments at their continued presence perpetuates divisions. Bajram feels no gratitude for the home he has been given. He feels justified in taking what he can by whatever means.

Emine does her best to put up with Bajram’s behaviour but understands better than he how their children are torn between the culture of Kosovo and that of Finland.

“How could he possibly have thought that his children would work, pay taxes, then return to him and help make his dreams come true instead of their own?”

Emine, Bajram and Bekim each struggle to find ways to exist having been displaced from everything they were raised to be. They are not the people they once were, but neither do they fit easily into the expectations of their adopted country.

It is always interesting to learn of different cultures, however shocking their accepted behaviours appear to a Western European reader. I was surprised by the attitudes of the refugees and immigrants portrayed as, like the Finnish people, I expected more gratitude. Perhaps I would understand better had I experienced the openly hostile reception they suffered. From that point of view this was a thought-provoking read. As a story though I found the more surreal scenes unclear.

This tale evokes less rapport than I am comfortable with for the characters portrayed due to their reluctant assimilation and demands made of their children. An unusual but not entirely satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press. 

Author Interview: Nicolai Houm


Photo credit: Paal Audestad

Today I am delighted to welcome Nicolai Houm, author of The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, to my blog. Nicolai has published two novels, both critically acclaimed in Norway where he currently lives. Pushkin Press have just published the first English translation of his work – you may read my review here. In this interview Nicolai tells of how he coped during a life threatening situation, and what he has in common with David Foster Wallace.

Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born in Norway, but spent part of my childhood in the States. By the time I was twelve I had decided to try to become either an author or a marine biologist. The second alternative had a lot to do with the French explorer Jacques Cousteau, who seemed to be on TV in America just about every day. Who wouldn’t want to travel the seven seas on a yacht, swim with dolphins, revolutionize underwater exploration AND get to wear a funny red knit hat all the time? Anyway, in the end I chose writing. I guess I can still wear a funny red knit hat if I want to.

Can you tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it?

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a story of immense grief. Not the most alluring topic, some might say, but I think the way Jane the protagonist deals with her loss makes for a plot driven story with several layers. She’s lost in a foreign country, strung out on alcohol and pills, and at times it’s up to the reader to puzzle the story together.

It’s hard to answer the second part of the question without including a big spoiler. Let’s just say that every parent fears what Jane has experienced, myself included. And the novel came about as my way of dealing with that fear.

The story is set in both America and Norway with the characters in each place depicted with very different personalities. Do you believe place shapes personality, and willingness to adhere to differing societal expectations? How does this affect those who live in multiple countries during their formative years?

Growing up in two different countries certainly shaped my personality. The language difference alone affects a child, since you realize at an early age that the connection between form and meaning is arbitrary. It’s a basic linguistic fact, but for a child it’s an eye opener. You learn to see how diverse humans are, and you understand that what you consider to be the truth is not necessarily universal. In the process of adhering to differing societal expectations, a child becomes a keen observer. It’s impossible to adapt without observing closely and to a certain degree mimicking what you observe. Some of that has stuck with me, and I think it helps me in my writing.

The depiction of grief in the story is raw and movingly authentic. Did you find this challenging to write?

In one way it’s like other subjects you deal with as a novelist. You have to rely on empathy, and there has to be some kind of truth to what you write, even though it’s not your personal experience. And meticulous research goes a long way. On the other hand, I felt there was more at stake than usual. Knowing that many people have experienced a loss similar to Jane’s was sobering, humbling and often made it hard to write freely. If a reader lets me know that the book’s depiction of for example rhythmic gymnastics or mountaineering is off, it would make me cringe and I would promise myself to do better research next time. If I was told that Jane’s sorrow doesn’t ring true at all, it would make me doubt the whole project.

Jane is lost and alone in a tent in a storm, physically and metaphorically. Have you ever felt endangered by weather or threatened by wildlife in remote locations?

Ha ha. Great question. No, luckily I have not felt threatened by wildlife. I did go live in a tent in the mountain region where the musk oxen roam. Unlike Jane I respected the advised safety distance. They’re magnificent beasts, but you do not want to irritate them.

I have felt endangered by weather on several occasions. We Norwegians spend a lot of time in the outdoors. The depiction of Jane getting lost in a storm is inspired by personal experiences. One time a surf buddy and I tried to hike over a mountain on the west coast of Norway, to reach a secluded beach on the other side. It was the 1st of May and the sun was beaming through scattered clouds. When we reached the summit, we made the ill decision to leave the backpacks behind for a moment (they were stupidly heavy with the surfboards and wetsuits attached) and have a quick peak over the ridge to see if we could spot the beach. The vantage point was of course a lot further along than we thought. By the time we got there, fog had drifted in from the sea and the visibility was close to zero. While we were trying to find the backpacks, the weather changed dramatically. The temperature plummeted and the wind picked up. Soon we were in the middle of a late season snowstorm … wearing t-shirts and board shorts! There was no cell phone reception, and the map and compass were stashed away in the backpacks we could not find.

We ran around in the blizzard for close to an hour trying to beat hypothermia and find our gear. When we finally stumbled upon the backpacks pitching a tent was out of the question, but we managed to weigh down the canvas with some boulders. The rest of the day and the following night we laid on our surfboard bags under the frantically fluttering canvas. I have to admit that the surfboards and wetsuits where not the only thing that had been weighing us down. I had also brought a 3.5 liter box wine. We were so happy to have made it, that we downed it.

Can you share with us any significant changes between first draft and last? Was the story published as initially conceived?

I actually rewrote large segments of the manuscript. I had two editors at the time, and though they didn’t agree on everything, it was clear that I had to make changes. The zoologist Ulf, who ended up being an important character, was initially just a random guy Jane bumped in to at the beginning of the story and never met again. I knew that introducing a character early on, close to the initiating event, and then just dropping this character without notice, is a no-no. Readers would of course wonder what happened to Ulf, and why he showed up in the first case. I guess I wanted a loose form, so things would just happen to Jane, like they do in real life. The lack of constraint would contribute to a feeling of realism. But it rarely works that way. A novel needs certain formal traits. There were a number of other revisions. To mention a few: Jane was unfaithful to her husband in the first draft and the cut up technique was less prominent. The important thing to me starting out was Jane’s inner life, the raw grief. The plot and structure seemed secondary, but I knew I would have to deal with it at some point.

What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I chew tobacco. To be precise, I use snus, which according to Wikipedia is “a moist powder tobacco product originating from a variant of dry snuff in early 18th-century Sweden.” It’s a thing in Scandinavia, a bit gross and not healthy, but I seek comfort in the fact that the late David Foster Wallace also was an avid tobacco chewer. At least I have one thing in common with the most innovative writer of our time.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

At the moment I’m half way through Donna Tartt’s highly enjoyable The Goldfinch, and I’m submersed in the harrowing but beautiful depiction of reckless, deprived teenagers trying to survive on the outskirts of Las Vegas. At the same time I’m ploughing through old nonfiction books on Norwegian immigrants to the US. The latter is research, but I don’t know if it will lead to anything.

Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

Honestly … my Dad. It’s his birthday on Monday and I haven’t seen him for a while.

And finally, what question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

Well, the “Have you ever been threatened by wildlife” question definitely felt fresh in an interview with an author. Kind of hard to beat that one.

 

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is published in English by Pushkin Press and is available to buy now.

 

Book Review: The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, by Nicolai Houm (translated by Anna Paterson), opens with a woman waking up in a tent believing she is going to die. Just a short time before she had flown to Norway to meet up with distant relatives. She has now been abandoned in a cold, lonely landscape; left without food, water or a map. The woman’s name is Jane Ashland and she struggles to relate to anyone, or to care much about their reactions to her behaviour.

The story moves around in time between Jane’s years studying literature at university, her relationships, the time spent with relatives in Norway, and the events leading to her abandonment. It becomes clear that Jane is damaged. She drinks heavily and relies on prescription drugs. Each chapter is a jigsaw piece in the puzzle that reveals the story of her life. It takes a little while for the picture to take shape, for the pieces to slot together.

Jane’s behaviour early on may be harshly judged, initial impressions being as they are reliant on a code of social conformity. The snapshots given of her background, shown as they are out of order, encourage the reader to guess at reasons. This is cleverly done – prejudices may be revealed.

From Jane’s earlier life in America through to her attempts to connect with family in Norway there is an underlying feeling of impending crisis. The complexities inherent in any relationship are adroitly presented. The evocation of grief is vivid and piercing.

The non linear structure requires the reader to follow multiple threads. Knowing that Jane ends up in a life threatening situation adds tension. The writing though is more literary than thriller in style. It is haunting and deeply moving.

This is a love story depicted with realism and regret, an exploration of empathy, or its lack, in what comes after. Jane’s behaviour will take the reader through a roller-coaster of emotions. A powerful, enthralling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The End Of The Moment We Had

The End Of The Moment We Had, by Toshiki Okada (translated by Sam Malissa), is the latest in a series of Japanese novellas published by Pushkin Press. It contains two short stories that offer snapshots of ordinary lives, streams of consciousness from a variety of voices. They are visceral in their honesty, disturbing in their depiction of life’s quotidian pain.

The first story opens with a group of loud, drunk men travelling on a train. Their boisterous chatter disturbs other passengers yet no complaints are made. The men make their way to a club where a performance is to be held. One of the group had been told of the venue by a girl he met on an outing to the cinema, their conversation awkward in a way it is hard for the girl to get beyond as she watches the man zone out and then walk away.

After the performance at the club one of the group makes his way to a love hotel with another attendee. They spend four nights at this place, talking and having sex, before going their separate ways. They do not tell each other their names.

The narrative includes thoughts and conversations which demonstrate how little individuals understand or even care about many of those they interact with. The time in which the story is set coincides with the American offensive against Iraq and protests are being held in the streets. The characters observe what is happening – to themselves, close to home, and abroad. They remain self-absorbed, savouring their ability to briefly escape what they regard as mundane.

The second story is told from the point of view of a young woman lying in her bed. She has decided to take the day off work for no justifiable reason. As she stretches out her body and observes the grime and mould in her home she considers her husband who is working two jobs but still leaves her frustrated and dissatisfied with the circumstances in which they live. She reads a blog that details interactions at a call centre. She thinks back on times she has lashed out at her husband, wondering why he reacted as he did.

Although the actions of the characters are described, it is their meandering thoughts that are being explored. The stories offer little in the way of resolution – life goes on.

An interesting if somewhat sparse read that depicts recognisable human experiences. There may be a dearth of anything uplifting in the narrative, but the reader can empathise with the everyday tribulations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.