Smoke

‘Thomas, Thomas! Wake up!’

Well, Dan Vyleta got the Victorian-feel of it down pat. Several times I paged back to the front to check the year of first publication.

This could be viewed as a compliment, but as I expected something else going in, it took me a long time to adapt. Smoke is as straight-edged as its characters, afraid of anything that could be viewed as sin or a wrong emotion, any form of entertainment that could ‘evoke’ something.

This element makes the novel dystopian, a strict society in which something or someone will give sooner than later. Not just that, but on top of the societal mystery, there’s a mysterious group that’s kind of powerful, but not powerful enough to have a clear enough message. Or maybe the smoke just got in between.

Even when adventure is added, the feeling doesn’t get very urgent. Power hungry people want to keep things the way they are, maybe some light sins aren’t that horrible, okay, okay. It could have been a short novel, a foundation for a television series, but as a hefty book there’s just not enough spark.

Smoke, Dan Vyleta, Weidenfeld&Nicholson 2016

The Camel Book Mobile

The child, wide-legged on the ground, licked dust off his fist and tried to pretend he was tasting camel milk.

American librarian becomes part of a project to bring – by camel – books to Kenyan tribes. Some of the tribes-people like the act of reading and the new worlds that are opened to them, while others worry that tribe values will be replaced by written, fictional ones.

When two books aren’t returned to the book mobile (breaking one of the many rules surrounding the project), therefore risking the future of the book mobile – it’s clear that everyone, pro- and against, are influenced by what the book mobile brought and changed in their little village.

Masha Hamilton shows the small village as normal and the nearest big city as alien. It’s all in the eye of the beholder and what he or she is used to, after all. The main character realizes she is far from home, but doesn’t turn the strange into the wrong. All this comes together to create a fairy tale that is quite close to what any human experiences on a daily basis.

The Camel Book Mobile, Masha Hamilton, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2007

Sharp Objects

My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was a small big success. People who already were familiar with her work, told me pretty unanimously that Sharp Objects was (even) better. Once again my library provided and I could get into Camille Preaker’s world.

Preaker is a news paper reporter. When in her small home town a girl gets missing and found dead, her boss sees it as the perfect opportunity for a scoop. She’s pretty much an inside source, after all. Camille really doesn’t want to go back there. She left for a reason, her family isn’t her family and she knows how a small town can turn on an outsider. Yet she goes where her boss tells her to go.

Things go from dodgy to bad and worse: more young girls are missing, Camille’s half sister gets under her skin while her mother’s passive aggressiveness exhausts her. The town sees her as a traitor, the police as a nuisance. Camille tries to cope, but her paranoia and insecurity drips from the pages. It’s unsettling without being loud, small horror in which the humans are the monsters.

I wouldn’t say that Sharp Objects was better than Gone Girl. But I would recommend it sooner.

 

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2006

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Dear Dr Jones
We have been referred to you by Peter Sullivan at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (Directorate for Middle East and North Africa).

This book managed to offer a pretty absurd idea and make you unironically support it full-heartedly. The main characters aren’t heroes, the setting isn’t world-shattering (written down in gorgeous detail though). Salmon Fishing in the Yemen shows that an absurd story doesn’t need fanfare and fireworks to leave an impression behind.

A civil servant with a life story that would make anyone fall asleep ends up in a project that needs to allow the people of the Yemen to salmon fish. The PR from the Prime Minister (it starts in England) thinks this is a great opportunity for some good, innocent publicity concerning the Middle East. The Sheik funding the project is the Islamic version of Buddha, full of smiles, calm and motivational speaking and of course there is a (sort of) love interest.

The government probably shouldn’t have gotten involved. Not to share too much of the story, but getting salmons to survive in a dessert is somehow not even the absurdest part of the entire story. Media gets involved, big egos get involved, damage-control fails and the salmon? Even the salmon are a problem.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a delight.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Paul Torday, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2007