A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night – Deborah Harkness

I purchased A Discovery of Witches for the Kindle last summer on the strength of a recommendation from a friend, and started the book while in hospital having labour induced at the end of August. I read around half before we were allowed home (mostly while waiting for the pills to take effect). Once we got home I had other things to read and since I hadn’t been entirely enthused I forgot all about A Discovery of Witches. Until about a month ago, when something brought it to mind and I decided I might as well finish the thing. So I did, and immediately purchased Shadow of Night and read that, too and then cursed because the final installment of the trilogy is not out yet. You could say I got more caught up in it now that I was then.

So why did I not care too much for it in August? Well, in a word: Vampires. I’ve never been a big fan, and the whole Twilight thing with sparkly vampires and abusive or at least unhealthy relationships has ruined what little interest I might once have shown. Not that I’ve read (or seen) Twilight, it just feels like I have because of the barrage of information about it from both fans and critics. Anyway, Matthew is, if not exactly sparkly, a little too shiny in the first half of the first book. Besides, the ‘tall, dark and handsome with a troubling past but a heart of gold’ thing is really not very inventive.

However, Diana, her untried and unpredictable powers and her penchant for history eventually hooked me, despite rather than because of the relationship with Matthew. Besides, the novel is teeming with interesting ‘supporting actors’. And yes, of course I am curious to see how it all ties together at the end – I sure hope it does.

Shadow of Night is the more interesting book if you’re into history, as Diana and Matthew go back to Elisabethan London. Harkness obviously knows her stuff, though she wreaks havoc with several real historical characters’ reputations (and that’s part of the fun). Having Kit Marlowe as a deamon makes perfect sense, for example. The tiny little historical details are the best, though, and I vastly enjoyed that part of the story.

However, and there is a big However – or more accurately: Several of them.

I still don’t feel engaged in the love story. I’m engaged in Diana’s happiness, so have to accept that Matthew may be part of that, but it’s a bit like seeing you best friend fall for a douchebag: A big part of me wants her to snap out of it (though I realise that’s an unlikely outcome considering the rest of the plot). That’s one big However.

The other, which is less of a narrative problem and more of a ‘perhaps this is too close to Twilight after all’ sort of social issue is that there really are some major skeletons in Matthew’s and the de Claremonts’ closets. Really major. There’s more than a bit of ‘I used to be a bad boy but you changed me’ meme going on. I don’t like it. It may be elegantly resolved in the third book, so I will suspend judgement.

So will I buy the third book the moment it is out? Probably. And then I’ll get back to you. In the meantime: If you like vampires that are almost sparkly, you might want to check this out, if not, this is probably not the book for you. I’m not sure it’s the book for me.

Ps. Bøkene gis ut på norsk av Pax, oversatt av Elisabet W. og Marius Middelthon. De to første har fått titlene Alle sjelers natt og Nattens skygge.

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals – Wendy Jones

wilfredI’m pretty sure I got The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals from my friend Tone, I can see from Goodreads that she really liked it.

Me, on the other hand? Well, I’m torn.

From the Goodreads synopsis: «Wilfred Price, overcome with emotion on a sunny spring day, proposes to a girl he barely knows at a picnic. The girl, Grace, joyfully accepts and rushes to tell her family of Wilfred’s intentions. But by this time Wilfred has realised his mistake. He does not love Grace.»

Extricating himself, however, proves to be more difficult than he had expected. And so the story deepens and expands.

I didn’t not like it. I certainly read it quickly enough. I root for Wilfred, and for Grace. I care for their fate, as I care for several of the other characters. But something seemed to me to be lacking while I read it. Well, for one, one of the major plotlines is left a little too wide open for my taste. That’s one problem I have. The other is less tangible. Because while, as I said, I root for Wilfred and Grace, I somehow fail to be touched very deeply. Several of the events should have been bringing tears to my eyes, but I was left dry-eyed throughout (and that is quite a feat these days, I’m a big sop). I find it hard to pinpoint, but for some reason it felt more as if I was reading a (wordy) plot synopsis rather than an actual novel. Does that make sense?

Maybe it’s just me. Anyway, middling to good, I’d say, not brilliant.

Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann – Jonas Jonasson

jonassonSå har jeg altså endelig også lest om hundreåringen som ‘klev ut genom fönstret och försvann’. Siden boka nærmest er blitt geniforklart i enkelte kretser er jeg ganske fornøyd med at jeg klarte å lese den med relativt åpent sinn. Som regel gjør slik hype at jeg enten ikke klarer å få begynt på ei bok i det hele tatt eller at jeg tror på hypen og blir skuffet fordi boka ikke lever opp.

Hundraåringen er blitt omtalt som en ‘humrebok’, og humre gjorde jeg. Jeg lo til og med høyt minst en gang. Persongalleriet er (stort sett) sympatisk, det gjelder ikke minst Allan Karlsson – hundreåringen selv – som etter et mer enn gjennomsnittlig begivenhetsrikt liv havner  på gamlehjem i en alder av 99 og bestemmer seg for at det nå kan være nok, nå vil han dø. Men det å dø sånn uten videre er ikke så lett, så etter noen måneder, på sin egen hundreårsdag, faktisk, klatrer han altså ut vinduet og begir seg ut på et nytt eventyr.

Halvveis forsøkte jeg å sammenfatte boka for min bedre halvdel, og endte med å karakterisere den som en blanding av en Arto Paasilinna-bok og Forest Gump. Det høres kanskje litt merkelig ut, men det fungerer aldeles utmerket som underholding.

Å andra sidan låg ju Spanien i utlandet, precis som alla länder gjorde, Sverige undantaget, och efter att ha läst om utlandet i hela sitt liv vore det inte så dumt att få uppleva det på riktigt någon gång.

(Side 76) Og der ligger kanskje kjernen i min omtale av boka: Dette er lett underholdning. Visst humrer man, visst finnes det spark til øvrigheta og til A4-livet og visst kan man sikkert dra ut en og annen (om enn ganske banal) livsvisdom av det hele. Men jeg føler liksom ikke at jeg sitter igjen med noe særlig etter endt lesing.

Det er da heller ikke noe krav, så ikke la deg skremme av det. Boka anbefales absolutt som f.eks. ferielektyre, eller som et feelgood avbrekk i hverdagen om du vil.

Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee

coetzee

(I guess it would be appropriate to start this with a trigger warning for rape.)

Disgrace was our February read in the bookcircle, which is probably just as well because I don’t think I’d ever have read it (and certainly not finished it) of my own accord.

David Lurie is an ageing professor at a university in Cape Town, teaching Communications since his orginial subject – literature – has been deemed too old-fashioned and the department shut down. He falls in lust with one of his students and has an affair of sorts with her, but is subsequently accused of harassment (rightly so, I should say). He refuses to apologise and therefore loses his job. To get away from it all he goes to visit his daughter Lucy, who lives «the simple life» in the Eastern Cape. She has help on the farm from Petrus, who is also developing the land next-door. David and his daughter do not have an easy relationship, it is clear that while he loves her, he does not approve of the way she choses to live her life. He does, however, get involved in her daily routine. That routine is broken when a gang of three attack the farm, stealing anything of value, setting fire to David and – David believes and we with him – gang-raping Lucy. After the attack, the differences between father and daughter increase, he wants her to get out of there while she wants to stay.

To start with I was pleasantly surprised. I liked David more than I had expected to, and although I did not approve of his relationship to Melanie (parts of which were dangerously close to rape), I rather liked his refusal to «issue an apology» – regardless of whether he meant it or not – in order to save the university’s face and keep his position. Most of all I liked his way with words, and up until half-way through the novel I have marked several quoteworthy passages.

His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set. The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.

After that, though… At some point «liking» David becomes impossible. As far as trying to understand his daughter, well, he says he’s trying, but he is not, really. However, I don’t really like Lucy, either. I found her somewhat, well «boring» is not quite the correct word, but certainly not terribly interesting. All honour to her for chosing the simple life and being happy with it, but for one I felt her resignation to Petrus’ encroachment had started long before the attack, and I also to a large extent disapprove of her handling of the attack just as much as her father does (though with an understanding that it would not have been my business to approve or disapprove, had this been real life, which he lacks).

And I do need someone to root for when I read, and there really isn’t anyone once I lose all respect for David. Which is one problem.

The other problem is that I really don’t understand what Coetzee wants with this book. What is he trying to say? I do realise this may say as much about me as about Disgrace, but still, it’s my blog, so I will say it: The whole thing seems somewhat pointless to me. And it leaves a sour taste, too, as I feel that Lucy – much as I fail to really like her I do not wish her harm – is sacrificed in order to make a point about David’s relationship to his daughter specifically and humanity in general. The attack is used to turn the spotlight on David’s feelings and actions, rather than as the highligth of a plotline in itself. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t approve of rape as a literary device, especially one that just showcases the emotional angst of middle-aged white males.

Still, there is meat here, and I can sort of see why the novel is so celebrated. For me, though, it’s a thumbs down.

London – Edward Rutherfurd

london_edward_rutherfurdI’m finally done! And the reason it took so long is really none of Rutherfurd’s fault (well, except in writing such a thick book, though I’ve read worse), but simply because life, really.

Anyway, I liked it. I felt I learned quite a bit, which is nice, though I must admit my head is not made for remembering dates, so I got confused several times and had to search backwards to a page with a date on it. Several people on Goodreads have complained that since it spans such a lot of time and events there is no time to get to know the characters, but I found that to be a minor problem – and I do tend to dislike being rushed on to a new set of characters just when I’ve gotten interested in the present set. This is why I’m not a major fan of short-stories. But Rutherfurd’s trick is to stick to a few families, and to give them somewhat hereditary traits – not just physical, but also of temperament – so that one the whole you can tell from the name of a character whether he/she will be a «hero», a «villain» or someone bumbling but generally well-meaning for example. Well, towards the end the families intermarry and intermingle and it all gets somewhat complicated, but by then I was hooked anyway, and there was still a sense of «I will root for you since your grandfather was so nice» or perhaps «I will root for you since your father was so shitty».

I had one small, but niggling quarrel with the book, though. I may have mentioned that I’ve learnt pretty much all the history I know from novels, which makes this a perfect fit. And more than anything, I love the little daily-life details. The «how a Roman forged coins», for example. Interesting stuff, I tell you. But I need to trust the author, I need to believe he (or she) knows what he (or she) is talking about. And therefore passages such as this one throws me:

But Dame Barnikel was happiest of all when she was brewing ale, and sometimes she would let young Ducket watch her. Having bought the malt – «it’s dried barley,» she explained – from the quays, she would mill it up in the little brewhouse loft. The crushed malt would fall into a great vat which she topped up with water from a huge copper kettle. After germinating, this brew was cooled in throughs, before being poured into another vat.

(Page 524) Except barley (or any grain) won’t germinate after it’s been milled. In fact, «malt» isn’t dried barley, it’s barley that has germinated and is then dried, and there is a crucial difference. «Dried barley» is just a grain whereas the germination means the «malt» is bursting with sugars which is what the yeast later feeds on in the process that actually makes alchohol. What happens after you mill is quite rightly that you add hot water to the «coarse flour» (called «grist»), but that water is meant to extract the sugars (and partly set off enzymes that convert even more of the starches into sugars to be extracted, if you want to get really technical) in a process called mashing.

And I know it’s a very, very small detail and not at all important to the story, but it grates, and it makes me wonder where else he’s tripped up and which details I now think I’ve learnt turn out to be less than accurate.

But let’s return to happier thoughts, because I really did like the book, and end with a quote which is really a much better representation of Rutherfurd’s skill:

And so with confidence he could give his children these two important lessons: «Be loyal to the king.» And perhaps profounder still: «It seems that God has chosen us. Be humble.»

By which, of course, he really meant: be proud.

(Page 787)

Go Tell it on the Mountain – James Baldwin

Phew. Done. Now, perhaps I can stop humming that bl**dy song every waking hour.

Well.

Go Tell it on the Mountain was picked as this month’s read for our bookclub by the simple expedient of pointing randomly into the shelves at Krambua* which are furnished with second-hand books. Not a bad result, really, it could probably have been much, much worse (I wasn’t at that meeting, so I don’t know what else is on those shelves, but I’ll check next time).

It’s James Baldwin’s first novel, and a good read. The quotes on my copy says he knows the Harlem language, which I have no reason to doubt. It’s almost always easier to point out what I don’t like about a book than what I do, so excuse me if this is a bit lopsided, but here goes: For one thing, I had a hard time keeping apart the events happening in Harlem and the events happening in «the south». The first setting is immensly urban, the second, as far as I can tell, is supposed to be rural. The pictures in my head, though, were mostly a sort of mix-up with a bit of spagetti western clap-board towns thrown in for good measure. The latter I take full responsibility for, but I feel Baldwin has to shoulder some of the blame for not making the settings distinct enough. Though it could be argued that he was doing it on purpose to show that nothing really changes and you can take the boy out of x, but never the x out of the boy or something. That would not sit well with the blurb on my copy claiming Baldwin deals with the old generation versus the new generation and the change in values, however Balwin can’t be blamed for the blurb, and I think the blurb-writer was a bit off in any case, it seems to me the old generation and the new have a lot in common and it’s down to individuals to make change. So there is that. The second quarrel I had is that I felt the novel ended somewhat prematurely. Perhaps I just didn’t understand it, but, well, I sort of wanted a bit MORE to happen. Like some of this change, which is in the air the whole way through, but which doesn’t really materialise.

Still and all, I gave it four out of five stars on Goodreads.

And I’m ticking off all sorts of things: A new to me author makes it the first book in my Boktolva, and surely, surely it can be called a classic? Well, it’s a 1001 book, so I call it a classic. And I guess I’m a bit early for black history month, but it seems a fitting read to celebrate the second inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama (who I have great hopes for now that he doesn’t need to worry about reelection).

The Night Before Christmas – Scarlett Bailey

baileyI felt like a light read around the holidays, preferably one with a little holiday cheer thrown in, and when I read about Scarlett Bailey’s The Night Before Christmas on some blog or other (I really need to get better at noting down WHERE I find these tips) it seemed like the perfect sort of thing.

And it would have been too, except for my «I don’t really read chiclit anymore» hang-up.

Because it is chicklit. Not that there is anything wrong with that, per se, but well, I don’t know.

However, this is a perfectly charming book, as these things go. The Christmas cheer is present and correct, the tangled love-life of Lydia, our heroine, just as complicated as it needs to be to fill a couple of hundred pages, and the plot is not utterly predictable. So I did read it all the way through, and rather enjoyed it, too.

Though next year I think I’ll just reread Comfort and Joy. Which is probably chicklit, too, but it has that little something extra that makes it worth reading and rereading.

The Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling

rowling_casualSo I’ve read it. And what did I think? Well, to start with the obvious: It’s not Harry Potter. And while it is not Harry Potter in all the obvious ways, it is also not Harry Potter in a more fundamental, affecting-how-I-feel-about-it way. Let me try to explain:

The Casual Vacancy, as most people will have gathered, is a realistic novel. It is set in Pagford, a smallish town somewhere in England. The novel stars off with a member of the local council unexpectedly dying, which sets off a series of events mostly related to his now vacant seat on the council and the question of local politics. However, though certain aspects of local politics are very central to the story, it is not a book about politics as such, it is more about fairly ordinary people, the lives they actually live and the fronts they try to keep up – the lies they tell themselves or others to maintain the facade.

I had gathered before I started to read that there were a lot of characters to keep track of. Being terrible at names I was bracing myself to make an effort in order to make any sense of it all. However, once I did start reading I found it was not at all hard to keep track. Firstly, the number of characters to keep track of is not that high. Ok, there are rather a lot more «main» characters than in Harry Potter (where there is basically ONE), but when I got to the point where it was obvious everyone important had now been introduced, I thought: «Huh. Well, that wasn’t so bad.» Secondly, everyone is sufficiently unique, and concisely described, characterised and placed in the imaginary landscape to make it quite easy to tell everyone apart without any effort at all, as far as I was concerned. And where I give up with novels like these, with a plurality of characters, is when I start mixing them up so that the plot loses its sense. Rowling, it seems, is much too good at her craft to let this happen.

However, this overabundance of characters had certain other effects: It took me longer than usual to get caught up in the story. I think I spent over two weeks on the first two hundred pages, and I even read a couple of other books in between. However, once I got to page two hundred or so, I was hooked, and the remaining three hundred pages were consumed in a matter of days. And here we touch on why The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter in a more fundamental way than the obvious «not about whitches and wizards and magic and all». The Casual Vacancy does not have a clear main character. Even if, after a few hundred pages, you, as a reader, start rooting more for certain characters than for others, no one or even two or three main characters ever receive more attention than others. And so you, as a reader, do not get as emotionally involved with the fate of one person, simply because the author doesn’t let you.

But it works. And it works quite well. And you really should read it. If you love Harry Potter you should read it because Rowling really does know her stuff. And if you never read Harry Potter or you read it and hated it (what’s wrong with you anyway?) you should also read it because it really isn’t Harry Potter or anything remotely like, and it is really very good in all sorts of ways having nothing to do with magic and saving the world from evil.

(Though that last part is not entirely true, I suppose it does, actually, concern itself partly with saving the world from evil.)

And I will keep on reading Rowlings books. Because I hope there will be more.

Ghost Light – Joseph O’Connor

ghost_lightThis is not a review, so much as an explanation of why I (probably) will not finish Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. The book was a present from my father for Christmas, a continuation of his very pleasant habit of buying us all a paperback – quite frequently he buys something he wants to read himself rather than something he has read, which is possibly riskier, but also more fun. In this case, I was quite pleased, as I’ve been wanting to read Joseph O’Connor. Then the book drowned in some pile or another and resurfaced recently, so I started it. And, well, I think I still want to read some Joseph O’Connor, but not this book.

The synopsis from Adlibris reads: «Dublin, 1907. A young actress begins an affair with a damaged older man, the leading playwright at the theatre where she works. Many years later, Molly, now a poverty-stricken old woman, makes her way through London’s bomb-scarred city streets, alone but for a snowdrift of memories.»

Which is all well and good. I have two main objections, though:

Firstly: We’re talking real people here. The playwright in question is E. J. M. Synge, the actress Molly Allgood, stage name Maire O’Neill. And I’m not a big fan of fictionalization of real people’s lives on the whole. Sometimes it works well, of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but in general I’d rather read a straight-forward biography (though, frequently, they are largely fictionalized, too, which also annoys me…) or a purely fictional novel. Let your novel be inspired by real events, by all means, but don’t as a narrator puport to know what a real person was thinking and feeling, even if you acknowledge in the fore- or afterword that of course, you have no idea. Or, rather, do, but don’t expect me to read the book. I know a lot of people love this sort of thing. To each his own.

Secondly, and more importantly: Most of the book so far (page 35) is written in the second person narrative (and I’ve glanced at later pages and this seems to go on for most of the remaining 205 pages as well). There is a very good reason why this form of narrative is very seldom used and that is that it VERY seldom works. And it doesn’t. Not for me, anyway. I feel alienated, not included. Sorry. I just can’t with it.

So, no.

On the other hand, my copy has 18 glowing quotes from various reviews on the first couple of pages, so I guess O’Connor is doing alright even if I give up.

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

kafkaAs I was contemplating what to say about this book, Julie’s blog entry about it somehow showed up in my rss-feed (even though it’s published in October). She says pretty much exactly what I thought, and it also echoes the opinion of most of the members of the reading circle I discussed it with: I like it, but I have no idea why.

Pros: A main character who loves books. A few other severely attractive characters.

Cons: Mystical happenings, souls (or something) living their own lives outside the body, dreams being «real» and so on.

Normally those cons would put me off completely. And to some extent, they do. That part of the story didn’t appeal to me at all, and only worked insofar as it was neccessary to drive the plot. What did work for me was the wealth of appealing characters and the flashes of pure brilliance in the way they are described.

Her long hair is loosely tied back, her face very refined and intelligent-looking, with beautiful eyes and a shadowy smile playing over her lips, a smile whose sense of completeness is indescribable. It reminds me of a small, sunny spot, the special patch of sunlight you find only in some remote, secluded place. My house in Tokyo has one just like it in the garden, and ever since I was very young I loved that bright little place. (p. 49)

Though that is a description of Miss Saeki, one of the few characters I never really warmed to. Perhaps because so much of her wasn’t there.

On the other hand, I liked Kafka, whose buildungsroman this is. I liked Nakata, I liked Oshima and I really, really liked Hoshino. I find him fascinating, the way he is so down to earth but at the same time takes all Nakatas rather wild statements at face value.

On the whole, I found Kafka on the Shore very hard to put down once I started, and I am not at all sorry to have several more Murakamis in my to-be-read pile.