Jamrach’s Menagerie

I was born twice.

Jamrach’s Menagerie tells the story of Jaffy Brown, a street urchin living at the end of the nineteenth century. His life turns into an adventure when he is eaten by a tiger, meets the people and animals of Jamrach’s Menagerie but most importantly: when he goes to sea to catch a dragon in the far south.

I didn’t get this from the Children/Young Adult division, but it could easily fit there along other ‘boy adventures’. The reader follows Jaffy from nine years old to adulthood, but his view on the world, adventures and misadventures, never changes. He’s good with animals, so he can hang out with every one of them in the Menagerie. He’s allowed to come along with the quest for a dragon (because that would make the Menagerie even better) and only doubts the danger of it for a moment.

It takes Jamrach’s Menagerie a while to get up to speed. I really felt like I needed to push myself through the first eighty pages, but after that it’s situation after accident after adventure and there isn’t even time left to breathe or doze off.  It’s a colourful story with extensive descriptions on the countries they visit, animals they see and people they meet. It shows how dangerous travel by ship can be and how resilient humankind. From time to time it reminded me of Pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s up there in unpretentious fun (but with more blood and gore).

 Jamrach’s Menagerie, Carol Birch, Canongate 2011

Out

She got to the parking lot earlier than usual.

Out is a lot. It shows daily life in contemporary Japan (the majority of the time through the eyes of women, but men also feature), it’s a study on how far a human can be pushed and adjust to a situation, it’s a thriller and a game of cat and mouse between two people who start out as very different, but have more in common than expected.

With so much going on, it isn’t so easy to say where this book is about, but the first thing that starts everything off is a woman strangling her husband, her admitting it to a colleague and her colleague helping her with covering this up. This and the disposal of the body seem to be successful, until more and more players get in on the secret and they all want something else from it, from the always broke colleague to the falsely-accused night club owner.
All this shows there is no such thing as a clean cut, no-loose-threads ending when it comes to anything that involves humans (yes, also outside of murder). Every characters copes (or doesn’t) in her/his own way, making the knot that ties them together bigger and tougher to escape from.

I took Out out from the library because it plays in Japan with (native) inhabitants, far away from the usual ‘white-view’ books I read. And though some information made me sad (women over 30 won’t ever be promoted in office life, men are more important in every situation), it was also very interesting and made me wonder how different the story would have been if it would have been set in The States or anywhere in Europe.

The thriller part of this book is the least exciting of everything Out has. Pick it up for the people, the plot lines and the society.

Out, Natsuo Kirino, Kodansha International 2003

The Ask and The Answer

“Your Noise reveals you, Todd Hewitt.”

Back again in the world of the Chaos Walking Trilogy. After searching for hope at the end of the brutal trip in The Knife of Never Letting Go The Ask and The Answer has no place for hope, continuing with the story of what happens after Todd and Viola are caught by the people they were trying to outrun.

Todd gives in pretty fast, stops his struggle and tries to separate himself from the world. On the other side, Viola fights more bitterly and desperately, which also doesn’t make for a happy story. It makes the book a tad more sluggish and repetitive up till the point the reader might exclaim ‘Not again!’
Does this make this a bad story? Of course not. There is still the world and the people and ideas in it that carry the story, while next to that it’s hurting but understandable to see how Todd retreats into himself. There’s no place for laughs any more, and -like most second books in a trilogy- it’s pretty clear that it’s all a build up for the final part.

So burn through this one as you did with the first -with your teeth on edge and hope against hope (and realizing how scary a battle between sexes can be). Realizing that the two most important characters are just teenagers make their horrors more believable and might stop you to think about what you’d do.
While in the mean time I curse myself for finishing this book on Easter Sunday and therefore being unable to get the final book from the library.

The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness, Walker Books 2009

A Complicated Kindness

I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve.

A Complicated Kindness tells about a small village with only Mennonites as its inhabitants. Mennonites think that the only reason you live is to die and join God in heaven, so it’s a pretty bleak place without hopes, passion or anything that could be considered fun.

Maybe it’s a compliment to Toews to say that that message comes across very well.  Main character Nomi doesn’t do anything, does care but in a very passive way and can only wait for an end, any end.  This weighs down on the reader in such a way that you will probably feel relief after you have finished this story. Next to this they are two gaps in the story, the disappearance of both Nomi’s sister and mother. There is no story about where, why or how, the fact is that they’re gone and Nomi and her father will have to deal with this.

I usually don’t flat out tell people to not read a book, but with this one ..don’t. I’m sure that if you want to read about Mennonites, there are other stories. If you do like to sink down in a pool of passiveness ..this is the book for you.

A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews, Faber and Faber 2004

You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

Neve could feel her knickers and tights make a bid for freedom as soon as she sat down.

Sarra Manning’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me is proof that there is not only such thing as nice, genuine, hilarious chick lit, but  she manages to write about a (formerly) obese woman without every mistake in the This Is Why I’m Fat book.
Yes, I pretty much loved this book.

Of course it is still chick lit and therefore there are scenes which will make the reader wonder (out loud) why Neve just doesn’t do or say something and it’s is very very clear from the start who she’ll end up with. But more importantly, Neve is a believable character who takes the easy way out with waiting for her extra large dreams to happen instead of working for her very nice (but too close for comfort) reality. She grows throughout the story and it is easy for the reader to vouch for her. The other characters aren’t one-dimensional puppets but have their own lives. And! the sex is written like normal people experience it, instead of male-gazey with weird synonyms for body parts.

So even though I told people less than two weeks ago that I wouldn’t touch chick lit with a ten feet pole again, I’m so glad I doubled back on it. This was a book you want to keep reading but yet never want to have it end. I’m waxing lyrically about chick lit, this is new. Please read this of Manning’s Unsticky and come join me in this unfamiliar place.

You Don’t Have To Say You Love me, Sarra Manning, Corgi Books 2011

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.

In The Knife of Never Letting Go the reader follows Todd, an almost thirteen-year-old living in a pretty much post-apocalyptic world. He can cope with that. He can’t cope with being the last boy in a town full of men and having to live listening to other men’s Noise. Noise is someone’s every thought, being broadcast because of something that happened when the first people arrived in this world. And one day, as stories are wont to do, everything goes wrong and Todd has to run. With his talking dog.

Patrick Ness lets the reader in the dark for a (almost too) long time, skirting away from explanations or only letting Todd in on the information, not the reader. It’s one of the very few problems I have with this YA fantasy novel that sketches a sad and hard world with even harder people in it, showing once again that a human being doesn’t need all that much too lose its humanity. Another thing that irked me that Todd (and the other characters) seem to be remarkably resilient, walking away from several fights that would have put an ordinary person down, but that can be appointed to this being another world with slightly different humans.
Besides those points, The Knife is a whirlwind adventure with adversaries and dangerous (but gorgeous) scenery bursting at the seams. Yes, Todd can be the most obnoxious pre-teen, but there is a learning curve that will make the reader excuse him things.

This book is also part of a trilogy, something I usually shirk away from because there has to be a very good reason for an idea to become a trilogy besides ‘Three books could make more money than one’. In case of The Knife, I want to know more of this world, and not for the sole fact that Patrick Ness left it with a huge, horrible cliff hanger. This book grades well in the fantasy and in the YA category.

The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness, Candlewick Press 2008

 

 

Boxer Beetle

In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party.

This book confused me. Luckily it had a lot to say about itself:

This is a novel for people with breeding.
Only people with the right genes and the wrong impulses will find its marriage of bold ideas and deplorable characters irresistible.
It’s a novel that engages the mind while satisfying those that crave the thrill of a chase. There are riots and sex. There is love and murder. There is Darwinism and Fascism, nightclubs, invented languages and the dangerous bravado of youth. And there are lots of beetles.
It is clever. It is distinctive. It is entertaining. We hope you are too.

Ned Beauman didn’t worry himself with using a clear layout that makes it easier for the reader to understand who’s point of view she’s following this time. And from time to time it is very weird and the reader might has to get used to the fact that she’s following fascists and that (if he/she isn’t one) opinions will clash. But on the other hand -yes it was entertaining and weird and bold and interesting. Read it if you want to read about a whole different world view, a way of life that existed not that long ago and/or Hitler beetles. Seriously.

Boxer Beetle, Ned Beauman, Sceptre 2010

The Alternative Hero

You know how it is sometimes.

The Alternative Hero is a coming of age story of the thirty-three year old Clive Beresford. Clive has been an (almost) life long fan of the band The Thieving Magpies and effectively stopped developing (mentally) when they broke up after a disastrous show. He drinks too much, has a shitty job, few friends and no girlfriend. And he thinks he can change all that (or at least his way of looking at life) when he spots the lead singer of The Thieving Magpies. That man should be able to give him closure and with that, somehow, a goal in life.

This book is stuffed with (pop) musical references, real and imaginary bands and persons passing by. Every chapter has a recommended listening, lyrics and texts from (fake) fanzines pop in and Clive simply can’t separate his life from his music.
Like in any coming of age story,  loads of stupid, sad and frustrating things happen, some wise lessons are pushed into the margins and The One Big Lesson isn’t so big and pretty easy to grab. The Alternative Hero reads like a scrap book of a music lover and in some chapters it looks like that as well. Sometimes the reader will probably have the urge to grab Clive’s shoulders and shake some sense into him, but the majority of the time he isn’t a bad guy, he just lost his direction.
And a has-been popstar helps him rediscover it.

Lovers of England, (English) music and coming of age stories, grab The Alternative Hero and enjoy the ride.

The Alternative Hero, Tim Thornton, Cape 2009

The Illuminator

John Wycliff put down his pen and rubbed his tired eyes.

The Illuminator tells the story of several characters living in the fourteenth century in (South) England. It is the time of two popes, the Church keeping their knowledge close to their hearts (because no way that a simple farmer can understand God’s Word) while others protest more and more loudly that everyone could and should be their own priest.
The main character is Kathryn, who as a widow and noble is pushed from every side to show her alliance and -if it isn’t too much of a bother- get married again soon because a woman being the owner of a manor and lands? Na-ah.

Sometimes the characters are placed a bit aside to tell the story about 14th century England and the huge gap between ordinary people and the Church and the country’s government. But never in an annoying way, instead reminding me of my elementary school History books that always started with a fictional story in a historical background.
Which is exactly what this is.

It is an easy to read story that half way in turns into more and more drama. I thought I was pretty good in predicting where plot lines would go, but The Illuminator threw me off for ninety percent of the time. For fans of Philippa Gregory: not in a happy ending way.
For everyone else who can handle death, illnesses, inequality and The Church taking everything without returning anything, I’d recommend this book. You might even learn from it.

The Illuminator, Brenda Rickman Vantrease, St. Martin’s Press 2005

The Lonely Polygamist

To put it as simply as possible: this is the story of a polygamist who has an affair.

Oh, but this is anything but a simple story.  I finished it a little less than two days ago and I still feel something ache when I think about it. This book didn’t leave me behind happy at all. I don’t agree with its happy ending. I pitied but couldn’t sympathize with (barely) any of the characters .. it took a bit of a toll on me, I suppose.

As the first sentence hints: this is a story about a polygamist, a man with four wives and twenty-eight children. But it’s not only about Golden Richards, it’s about his whole sorry family and sorry they are. One of his sons, one of his wives and -in a way- the house itself bleed their feelings of loss, frustration and loneliness into the main story. They can’t belong because there are simply too many others and too little of the father to give everyone equal opportunity. And Golden himself feels like an outsider in his own family. His back story shows that he has never made a decision about anything, there were and are always others to do that for him. Until he falls in love with an other woman and: lets himself. Even cherishes the thought of acting on it.

‘Wry’ would be my word for The Lonely Polygamist. There is no relief from the maelstrom that is the family Richards and I gobbled up the small pieces of joy that sparsely feature. It made me angry with polygamist families and the named religion they follow, but in the end there was only pity for so many unhappy people. Especially because they were unhappy by my standards (never share a man, don’t put yourself in second place, be loved unconditionally).

I fully recommend this book, if you read books to experience thoughts and feelings outside your own spectrum. Don’t read it for a laugh or a How To on polygamy.  It’s a very human story, of humans and their (self-)inflicted boundaries.

The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall, Cape 2010