My Grandmother Asked My to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

After reading and loving A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, I really didn’t want to leave his voice or the world he creates with his haunting words. So, I picked up My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (or that she Sends Her Regards and Apologies, depending which edition you get), unable to resist the quirky title, and was delighted I did.

24469230In this novel, Backman introduces the reader to the almost preternaturally bright, precocious and quite lovable seven year-old Elsa. Bullied at school, aware of her differences and trying to pretend her clever and busy mother’s pregnancy to her new and perfect boyfriend aren’t bothering her, Elsa is a child that arouses passionate responses in those who meet her – and, if she doesn’t right away, she ensures they soon will. The reason for her quirkiness, intelligence and strong awareness of what constitutes social justice becomes apparent almost immediately. Not only is Elsa equipped with a great mind and wonderful imagination, both are fiercely and lovingly cultivated by her outrageous and smart grandmother.

Every night, Elsa’s beloved and feisty grandmother, takes her to the Land of Almost-Awake, a land that she and Elsa have nurtured and developed, populating it with a history, other places and peoples for as many years as Elsa can remember.

When Elsa’s grandmother dies (this is not a spoiler, it is in the blurb), she entrusts to Elsa an important quest. In order to fulfil this quest, Elsa must not only face the monsters that have terrified her for years, but even vanquish them. Like the heroes in the Land of Almost-Awake, she must make friends of strangers, allies of enemies and reach out to those who need her more than the other way around. Most importantly, she must find the courage she sometimes lacks and be braver than she’s ever been before – lives depend upon it. In doing so, she learns about herself, her mother and her grandmother; history and the present melding in unexpected, dangerous and delightful ways.

Drawing on reality as much as imagination, Elsa’s quest and the people she encounters and dreams, also explore the eternal questions of life and death, conformity versus uniqueness and why we wear masks – to both hide and protect our true selves. The novel also explores the complexity of families and why and how sometimes the family we choose is made of stronger bonds than those we are born into.

This a beautiful novel that draws on invented and well-known tales (Harry Potter features strongly) and has a cast of original and compelling characters. Inhaled this book – I think anyone who loved Backman’s others will as well.

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Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

Why is it that when a songwriter or singer changes genres we applaud their daring, write, and speak about how multi-talented they are; how fortunate we are to gain so much pleasure from their creativity? But, when a famous author dares to switch genres, there are rumblings and grumblings and unfair expectations placed upon them – before the work is even published? Warning the marketplace that The Casual Vacancy would be nothing like the Harry Potter books, that it was for adults and quite depressing, Rowling was nonetheless encumbered with criticisms and snubs for having the literary presumption to leave Potterworld. Yet, she was blunt: if you were looking for Hogwarts and wizards, she warned, they would not be found in the pages of her new book. Yet, so many reviewers have come to the novel with the expectation that, for some reason, they should be there, even if just a glimmer, whisper or peek. They practically accuse her of letting readers down, of abusing her position as a world-famous writer instead of giving her the benefit of the doubt and congratulating her for demonstrating such imagination and lexical dexterity.

Frustrated by attitudes, stories and some reviews (which were not reviews because it was clear the book hadn’t been read, rather they were more rebukes) the publication of this book produced, it was hard not to let them tarnish the reading experience. I tried to approach this book as I would any other by a beloved author who decided to try their hand at something different and read and rate it on its own merits – and I was not disappointed. But, as Rowling warned, it’s no Harry Potter: the only magical thing is the writing, which is superb.

The Casual Vacancy is, frankly, brilliantly awful. Set across two English towns, Pagford and The Fields, one with a very acute awareness of its history, the other a by-product of late modernity, they are inhabited by a cast of mostly toxic characters who illustrate, through their small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness, the pettiness that can exist in supposed idyllic English village-like communities. As I read, I kept thinking of a quote about academia that’s been attributed to Henry Kissinger (among others), that “the politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low” – I think this sums Rowling’s book up nicely.

After the death of a member of the local council, Barry Fairclough, various members of the Pagford community vie for his vacant seat. As they do, the reader is drawn into the complexity and ugliness of what should be simple lives, albeit, affected by mourning and loss. Populated by ego-centric, gossiping, classist, racist, homophobic, alcoholic, drug-taking self-interested people, Pagford and The Fields appear to be governed by folk who can barely function in their own lives, let alone make decisions that will affect others. And, as the council move towards another election, it becomes clear that one person’s loss is potentially another’s gain.

Not even the children in this miserable tale are spared the less attractive qualities the adults so readily exhibit, and is it any wonder when the grown-ups are their role-models? The kids have learned their lessons well. Dishonest, thieving, sneaky and risk-takers, they are both effect and cause of the outcomes.

As the story progresses, Rowling demonstrates her uncanny ability to mine a character’s emotions and psychology, to peel back layers to explain even the most unlikely or heinous of behaviours, to provide a context for understanding (but rarely approving). Piecing together the jigsaw of individuality, family and community, she mercilessly flays the characters, forensically dismantles their psyches and leaves them in the equivalent of a mortuary for us to gaze upon in horror.

For example, there’s Simon, violent, bad-tempered and his ineffectual wife, Ruth; their two boys, Andrew (called “pizza-face” by his aggressive, abusive father) and “Pauline”; Parminder, the local doctor, surprised by her reaction to a fellow-councilman’s death and who appears to understand the bodies and minds of all the townspeople in her care but not her own children. Her dashing heart-surgeon husband, Sukhvinder, regarded as a hero by those he loathes, especially the Mollisons – a work of gruesome art  – for whom Rowling shows very little sympathy. Empathy is reserved for some of the residents of The Fields as well as the children in the novel who can do little more than suffer their parents and their foibles, until they discover the means to revenge – not served cold, but molten hot.

The race is on to secure the vacant council seat and, as the story progresses, skeletons are exposed, secrets uncovered. Everyone in this novel is damaged – severely and, when terrible tragedy unfolds, it’s only the myopic townsfolk who didn’t see it coming.

The writing is what makes this bleak book. While Rowling does head-hop (a cardinal sin in most author’s hands), she does it with aplomb and there’s a sense in which this becomes a stylistic of the narrative. We drift from one character’s thoughts to another’s, caught in the current of activity, the plots and plans of little men and women. In terms of the tone, I was reminded of Elizabeth George’s marvellous and heart-rending What Came Before He Shot Her, only this book is firmly rooted in the middle classes (though there are those who feature who can no longer claim a place there) and the life decisions that can affect generations. Also, George’s book redeems some characters – see if you think the same happens here. I have also heard, again before publication, that the book was likened to Midsomer Murders. The Casual Vacancy make Midsomer Murders seem like Narnia – before the White Witch.

Drugs, suicide, rape, incest, adultery, criminal activity, violent abuse, shocking neglect, fear, anxiety, OCD, dark fantasies, cruelty, it’s all there – relentless, but darkly fascinating at the same time. Rowling really raised (or lowered) the writing stakes with this book.

No, this wasn’t what anyone expected… but how marvellous is that?

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Book review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone: Liani Taylor

There was a great deal of excited whispering and hyperbole attending this book as well as comparisons to Harry Potter and Twilight. The latter weren’t due to content, which is only similar in that DoSaB is fantasy, but because it’s anticipated that this new series by Laini Taylor will attract the same level of devotion that the others have. Now that I have finished this first book, and had time to draw breath and slow my pounding heart,  I think the pundits are right.

Daughter is a simply stunning read. From its opening pages in a snow-sprinkled Prague to its final, dramatic revelation with the heart-sinking ‘to be continued…’ (I want to know now! *stamps foot*), the story of beautiful, lithe, intelligent blue-haired Karou, the child of a monstrous (literally) wish-monger, Brimstone, who has peculiar friends and an arrogant ex-lover and basically leads a double-life as an art student on the one hand and a procurer of grisly totems on the other, is at once poetic, mysterious, page-turning and heart-wringing. Each and every scene is beautifully set and the mystique surrounding Karou, the girl with the palm-tattoos (and others), who is able to make wishes, speaks dozens of languages, travels the world in the blink of an eye and consorts with other-wordly figures, is gradually revealed. The first half of the book is a tour de force in that regard: like a curtain slowly being raised on a Shakespearean play, the reader is gradually drawn into this world at once recognizable but also just out of reach. Identifying strongly with Karou (the scenes with her and her irrepressible girlfriend are lovely), who knows she is different, but not specifically how or why, we too want the answers she seeks but, up until she is almost killed by a gorgeous but dangerous angel, who’s eyes blaze fire at the same time as they do longing, she’s been content to wait to be told. But when her life is plunged into despair and those she love are engulfed by darkness and horror, she can no longer afford patience.

When Karou (and the reader) gets the answers she’s been searching for her entire life, no-one, least of all Karou, can guess where they’ll take her – physically, psychologically and, above all, emotionally.

I don’t want to give too much away or set up expectations that may be dashed. Needless to say, I couldn’t tear myself away from this read. Well, to be blunt, I couldn’t tear myself away from the first half of the book. Once the love story kicks in earnestly, I was not as captivated. It was here I did feel echoes of Bella and Edward, only (thank goodness) Taylor’s rendering of this relationship was far more mature and the writing and metaphors used to express the first pangs of love and lust were exquisite. Even so, I found the energy that made the first half of the book sing, dampened and I didn’t turn the pages quite as quickly or pick up the book with the eagerness that attended the first half. As Karou’s and Akiva’s backstory unfolds, I also found the to and frying a little clumsy for my taste. But this is being very picky and others won’t agree and may even, if they enjoy long, lingering looks, heaving chests and electric touches, find the love story delightful. Fortunately, as the book reaches its final stages, it redeems itself completely. So, despite my reservations,  this book is indeed magical. Original, fabulously written, wonderfully brought together at the end (which, and I love this, you see coming and can’t do anything to prevent), it is mostly utterly engaging, enthralling and counts as one of the best books of 2011 for me.

Bring on book 2, please!

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